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BOOK REVIEWS | fall 2005

Reviewed in this issue:

Between Two Worlds: Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam by Zainab Salbi and Laurie Becklund
Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion
The Solitude of Self: Thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Vivian Gornick
Saving Fish from Drowning
by Amy Tan


Between Two Worlds: Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam
By Zainab Salbi and Laurie Becklund

In Zainab Salbi's memoir, freedom is a key casualty in the lives of women, including her own. And it is precisely freedom—to make decisions over things as straightforward as household finances and sexual partners—that she continues to see undermined for women in countries devastated by war.

Between Two Worlds starts with Salbi’s Iraqi childhood in the ’70s, a carefree period of petrodollars and pool parties that was ultimately disrupted by Saddam Hussein. To a certain extent, the book is a study of the dictator and his abuses against Iraq’s many populations, particularly women. As the daughter of his personal pilot, Salbi has direct personal knowledge of Hussein that is both insightful and disturbing. She describes him as a Nero, an unpredictable man of cruel appetites who admired the verve of Stalin and Hitler.

She is quick to point out that her family did not suffer to the degree others did. During the Iran-Iraq war they were able to use their connection to prevent her mother’s deportation for being “of Iranian origin.” Yet their suffering was no less real for taking place in a gilded cage. As Salbi’s mother wrote in a notebook: "His friendship was not an easy one, the games he played between friends to spread fear and suspicion among all of us, the nightly visits, his flirting with the wives, the inability to refuse him any request for it may cost one’s life..." Although Salbi’s parents attempted to distance themselves from Hussein, aloofness carried risks. Hussein openly spoke of strangling his mistress and her mother in front of the mistress’s 3-year-old child. When Salbi’s mother sensed his attention turning toward Zainab, she decided, at all costs, to send her daughter out of the country.

The cost was high. Unaware of her mother’s anxiety, Salbi agreed to an arranged marriage in America, subsequently discovering that she had “escaped prison in Iraq only to wind up in solitary confinement in Chicago.” She faced a mother-in-law who insisted it was her duty to satisfy her husband’s sexual needs at any time and a husband who raped her. She summoned the strength to leave him, but spent years tormented by questions. Why had her parents stayed in Iraq? Why had her freedom-loving mother pushed her into a situation in which freedom would be nearly impossible to attain?

Salbi had not yet worked out definitive answers when she read a Time magazine report on mass rapes in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993. The violence perpetrated by Serb soldiers against Muslim and Croatian women, she writes, “triggered a pain so deep inside me and so sudden that I just started weeping.” Unable to find an organization that was tackling the crisis, she and her second husband started their own nonprofit, Women for Women in Bosnia.

Their approach was straightforward: A woman in America (or any other country) could sponsor a Bosnian woman. While the monthly donations were not enough to support any one woman entirely, they were a reliable resource for those who had been expelled from their homes by ethnic cleansing, often with what they could carry in a single bag. For many, the money and accompanying letters from sponsors represented a constant in otherwise fragmented existences. In Croatia, however, members of women’s groups counseled Salbi not to single certain women out for aid.

And so Salbi arranged donations for a diverse group that included all experiences, ages and backgrounds. The women were never told what to do with the money. They could buy medicine, food, toiletries or whatever they wished. She writes: “I felt very strongly that this cash should go directly to the women because it represented freedom to make a choice again in their lives, even if it was a small one.”

Salbi’s organization has, to date, given direct aid to 33,000 female victims of war. Now called Women for Women International, it provides vocational and business training and micro credit loans, affording autonomy to women who least possess it.

Between Two Worlds interweaves Salbi’s own story with her mother’s and includes entries from the diary her mother kept in America, where the older woman was safe from Hussein but dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is in these passages that the reader senses the full enormity of the Salbis’ predicament in Hussein’s Iraq. There are secrets her mother never reveals, but Salbi recognizes the importance of letting her mother’s generation decide how much of their own stories they are willing to tell. And it is to her credit that she does not allow her readers to judge decisions made in circumstances so vastly different from our own.


Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books

In 1998, political essayist and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich spent three months subsisting on minimum wage as a cleaning woman, waitress, nursing-home aide and Wal-Mart clerk. The result of her toil was Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a groundbreaking report on America’s working poor that sold well over 1 million copies and is required reading at colleges nationwide. This new book on white-collar job-seekers is her response to a complaint posed by a female colleague: “Try investigating people like me who didn’t have babies in high school, who made good grades, who work hard and… regress to working for $7 an hour, having their student loans in perpetual deferment, living at home with their parents...”

Once again Ehrenreich goes undercover, posing as an unemployed public relations worker in search of a steady paycheck, benefits and a foothold in corporate America. She jumps through the hoops of career coaches and job fairs, networking her way through a maze of employment-industry pyramid schemes that involve, no kidding, the Wizard of Oz, a plastic Elvis, the Enneagram and God. Along the way she meets people who have done everything right and have little to show for it, like Donna, 48, an African American single mother of two.

Moving to Georgia in the wake of a divorce, Donna discovered that her teaching credential was useless; for eight years she drove a truck for Georgia Power, sorted mail for UPS, worked in a copy shop, laid tile and hardwood floors. When Ehrenreich followed up months later, she found Donna working as a substitute teacher for $90 a day and dressmaking on the side. “I’ve got children to feed,” she said. “I’ll do whatever I have to to live.”

The voices in Ehrenreich’s new book echo the pink- and blue-collar characters who peopled her last, only now they are white-collar strivers vying to be dutiful pawns in the corporate scheme. They recall Bob Dylan singing the Subterranean Homesick Blues: “Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift.” One of the two jobs Ehrenreich lands after almost a year on the road and $6,000 in costs is with Mary Kay Cosmetics—though before she can make money, she needs a start-up investment of another 1,900. The other is with an insurance company: She’s offered a position, on commission, to hire sales reps who will also work on commission.

Ehrenreich has become a human firewall between the bought media and Americans who truly want to know how our country works. Last year she won the Puffin/Nation Prize, granted to an American who has challenged the status quo. It’s difficult to get the news in these dark times, but her books are evidence that there is some world-class journalism going on.


The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion
Alfred A. Knopf

On December 30, 2003, several hours after Joan Didion and her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, visited their hospitalized daughter Quintana, he suffered a fatal heart attack at the dinner table. Later that night, a social worker at the hospital where Dunne was taken would describe the stunned Didion as “a pretty cool customer.”

No surprise. In both her classic reportage-based essays and novels, she and her fictional stand-ins are the coolest of heroines. And in this latest work of nonfiction, Didion chronicles the months following Dunne’s death in bluntedged, incantatory prose. Having learned early in life to turn to facts when faced with disaster, Didion draws on research, medical reports and fragments from the culture as a way to make sense of her dislocation.

Horrified by self-pity, she cuts from the intensely personal to, say, Stephen Hawking on black holes or Sherwin Nuland, author of How We Die, on the dilated pupils of the dead. She recounts the double-whammy of Dunne’s death and Quintana’s ongoing illness, subsequent brain surgery and ultimate recovery, then clues us into how she’s feeling by describing the mourning etiquette found in a 1922 edition of Emily Post. “Information was control,” she says of her way of coping. Haunted by how things look, by phrases etched in her brain, she holds up these artifacts like an archaeologist sifting through small bones for clues.

One attribute of magical thinking—a nonrational state of mind attributed to children, madmen and what used to be called “primitives”—is repetition. Didion returns repeatedly not only to “the night it happened” but to shifting talismanic images. Writing on the subjects of autopsy and the giving away of Dunne’s clothes, she asks, “How could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?” Her particular brilliance is her ability to convey patterns underneath a swarm of details. Quotes from a doctor on Dunne’s deteriorated heart (“We call it the widowmaker, pal”), from a medieval ballad about the mythic knight Sir Gawain (“I tell you that I shall not live two days”) and from Dunne himself (“When something happens to me…”) return at the end of the book as a symphonic finale.

After a couple of disappointing recent works, Didion is back with her comedian’s timing and perfect pitch, telegrammatic sentences and breathtaking leaps from one paragraph to the next, movingly taking the temperature of her inner and outer worlds. This is as much an investigation of the mind-states of sudden loss, mourning and grief, and of the way writing is a meaning-making tool, as it is about her beloved husband and child. Still, even as she describes this most awful of years, one can’t help noticing the privilege she inhabits: While Quintana is in intensive care, Didion stays—for weeks—at a topflight Beverly Hills hotel. You see, too, the emotional privilege she has enjoyed: Dunne waited for her at the dentist, held her hand during every airplane take-off and, for 39 years, intensely scrutinized every last bit of her work. How will she survive the loss of her glued-to-the-hip spouse?

Didion does survive. Most moving of all is her coming to see what she could not and did not see—that, magical thinking or not, Dunne would not return from the dead.


The Solitude of Self: Thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton
By Vivian Gornick
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Vivian Gornick comes to this work with impeccable feminist credentials and a passion for 19th-century suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her perspective—that of a longtime activist viewing one of feminism’s foremothers—yields elegant insights into the nature of social change.

Many of the stories Gornick tells are found in Stanton’s autobiography: her striving to take the place of her dead brother in the eyes of her father, only to learn that academic excellence would never overcome the fact of her femaleness; her childish wish to cut from her attorney father’s law books the laws that denied personhood and property to women; her near nervous breakdown caused by an evangelist’s hellfire-and-damnation preaching.

But Gornick tells them well, then ties them to the adult Stanton’s work to reform marriage laws and to the aging Stanton’s attacks on the church as the foundation of woman’s oppression. Gornick is at her lyrical best describing her own moment of “blinding, and then illuminating” light upon discovering— as had Stanton a century before—that the world defined her as less than a man. Worse yet, she had accepted the definition. Gornick realized “how repeatedly, throughout modern history, this stunned awakening had taken place among women.” Given the freedom promised and then denied in America, she says, the uprising of women in the 1850s and 1960s were inevitable, as were the backlashes that followed.

Gornick portrays a visionary thinker, gifted with a compelling stage presence and able to carry the message that “every woman exercise governance over her own inviolable self.” When crossed, however, the philosopher could turn into an elitist, autocratic racist. Gornick acknowledges the headstrong, insensitive and hot-tempered side of Stanton and helps us understand the character flaws that led Stanton to accept support from a notorious racist and declare that only the educated should be able to vote. She also makes a convincing argument that radical feminism first emerged in the battle over the 15th Amendment, when liberal feminists abandoned universal suffrage in favor of the vote for African American men while Stanton refused to put women second.

This is “not a work of scholarship,” Gornick warns, yet her historical inaccuracies disappoint: Some are minor while others are critical, such as missing the significance of the 14th Amendment, which introduced the word “male” into the Constitution. Still, historians will find rich, new description, longtime activists can reacquaint themselves with a wise kindred spirit and new readers will enjoy spending time with the major force behind America’s first women’s-rights convention.


Saving Fish from Drowning
By Amy Tan
G.P. Putnam’s Sons

The unsolved death of a Chinese American art dealer; the intimacies of a tour group gone amok; machinations of the despotic Myanmar regime; cultural chaos at the Grotto of Female Genitalia; assorted trysts and dalliances—here is but a sampling of what awaits in Saving Fish from Drowning.

This is not the Amy Tan whom fans may think they know. Don’t expect the labyrinthine mother and daughter revelations of her previous novels, a motif that began with The Joy Luck Club in 1989. Four years have passed since A Bonesetter’s Daughter was published; as Tan detailed in her book of essays, The Opposite of Fate, a bout with Lyme disease left her unable to write. Now she has resumed, and her new novel is well worth the wait: a spellbinding, rollicking adventure/morality tale with 12 American tourists traversing multiple dimensions of the historical and cultural, physical and metaphysical as they careen through the less-traveled foothills of southern China and the Burma Road. More familiar to Tan readers is the presence of ghosts and demons, but even these take on a new twist: One offers lessons on the difference between the “notthinking, not-moving, not-eating anything living” Zen Buddhism practiced by many Americans versus the “bad karma” Buddhism better known in China; ancient Burmese spirits may be responsible when 11 of the American tourists disappear while boating on a pristine lake high in the rainforest.

Tan weaves fact, fiction and fantasy so seamlessly that readers will find themselves searching the Internet for the names, events and explanations presented here as truth. Never mind that the narrator is the hovering ghost of would-be tour leader Bibi Chen, a San Francisco socialite who dies mysteriously just before the group’s departure. Or that Bibi’s spirit has acquired the Buddhist “Mind of Others”—the power to hear the thoughts of everyone she encounters. Their various obsessions and misperceptions are captured to perfection and the result is often hilarious.

The book’s title refers to the parable of a pious man who says it is evil to take lives and noble to save them.

He scoops fish from the lake to keep them from drowning, but they die anyway. Since waste is also evil, he then sells the fish and uses the money to buy more nets so that he can rescue more fish. The tourists hear this tale and debate the virtues of saving people for their own good, “Like Vietnam, Bosnia,” one says. Or, indeed, Iraq. Yet they, too, ignore the consequences of their well-meaning intentions.

Amy Tan has created a meta-fable of Orwellian stature, where Americans abroad think they know best, yet follow others blindly; where illusions and assumptions meet self-righteousness and arrogance. Saving Fish from Drowning is a masterful, seductive story that comes together neatly at the end, since, after all, it is Tan’s fable, her marvelous sleight-of-hand, her magic.