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BOOK REVIEWS | summer 2006


Reviewed in this issue:

Alentejo Blue By Monica Ali
Barefootin': Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom
By Unita Blackwell with JoAnne Prichard Morris
The Potbellied Virgin
By Alicia Yánez Cossío
homegrown: engaged cultural criticism
By bell hooks and Amalia Mesa-Bains
The Dead Hour
By Denise Mina


The Village People

Alentejo Blue
By Monica Ali
Scribner

Monica Ali's debut novel, Brick Lane, won her kudos and condemnation. She earned the kudos for gracefully telling the undertold stories of Bangladeshi immigrants in London. The condemnation came from some of those very immigrants, who denounced her portrayal of their community as “insulting and shameful.”

Ali’s second book removes the Dhaka-born, British-raised writer from the spotlight—and the crosshairs—of her ethnic background. Alentejo Blue unfolds in Portuguese corktree country—nowhere near Dhaka, or its outpost on Brick Lane. And, if Ali has any literary debt to pay, it’s not to Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai or any other South Asian writing in English. Ali evokes the village of Mamarrosa the way American novelist Sherwood Anderson did the town of Winesburg, Ohio, in 1919—with spare prose, through interior monologues built on a foundation of silence.

In the quietly lyrical opening chapter, an octogenarian named Joao finds the body of his friend Rui hanging from the mossy branch of a cork tree. As he cuts down and cradles the body, the arc of their friendship and its erotic subtext emerges through flashbacks. Fishing by the riverbank one day, Rui, an agitator for workers’ rights, questions Joao about conditions at his factory. He wants to know if the barracks bring men closer. Joao, who knows what species of furtive closeness the barracks promote, does not want to talk about it. He barks, “No.”

“‘All right,’ said Rui. ‘Let’s be quiet, then. We are not afraid of silence. ’” In nine spare chapters, Ali tests that declaration. She introduces us to a series of village regulars who must cope with silences loaded with the baggage of relationships, mortality and God.

At the end of a long day, Vasco, the cartoonishly fat cafe owner, meditates on a question of great moment: Should he eat the almond pastry, or not? Memories of his life in America—and the death of his wife in childbirth—crop up in the vast pauses arount that question.

Chrissie, the mother of a family of slovenly English transplants, seems at first to have given up the fight against dirt, chaos and despair. One character describes her as a “dishcloth.” Her daughter, Ruby, is the town tramp. A writer has an affair with both women, but primarily because he is bored and in search of material. Still, the mother dutifully takes the daughter for an abortion, illegal in Portugal, and is kicked out by her alcoholic husband for the deed. In her banishment, there is nothing to do but listen to the rain and reflect, in a stream of consciousness.

In Alentejo Blue, the characters matter more in dialogue with themselves than in their interactions with each other. And, despite the dramatic details of affairs and a criminal abortion, characters matter more than the plot. If anything, Mamarrosa is the kind of place that annihilates plot. Nothing much happens, except for the schemes of the young to escape its nothingness, and the bargains made by the old, who no longer desire escape. That nothingness provides the central tension of the book, symbolized by a clock that drives Teresa, a 20-year-old longing to break free of the village, absolutely mad. It’s stuck at 20 past three, the clock hands as immobile to her as all of Mamarrosa, with its Internet café where the computers don’t work.

Gaiutra Bahadur is a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her essay about growing up immigrant in Jersey City will be published next summer in the anthology Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take On the Garden State.


Profile in Courage

Barefootin': Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom
By Unita Blackwell with JoAnne Prichard Morris
Crown Publishers

It is easy, at this distant remove, to take heroism for granted. We have seen the grainy footage, the fire hoses and police dogs. The quiet persistence and the bloodstained balcony in Memphis. Given the scale of courage and collective commitment that the civil rights movement mobilized, the acts of individuals—beyond the marquee names of King, Young and Jackson—are all but obscured. This memoir by activist, organizer, politician and sage Unita Blackwell is a valuable chronicle of one woman’s heroism in the face of the brutality that was Jim Crow-era Mississippi.

Born during the Great Depression, Blackwell grew up in a world of nearly unquestioned white dominance—a world where black sharecroppers nevertheless learned to create a sustaining community. Her early life was filled with the companionship of dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles. Her mother moved from Lula, Miss., to West Helena, Ark., to improve her daughter’s educational possibilities, and young Unita was fortunate enough to have a teacher who prodded her to make something of her life.

But for all her nostalgia, this is not an unblemished, romantic portrait of the community that reared her. In one instance, a black minister urges Blackwell and her husband, Jeremiah, to give up their attempt to become registered voters. The clergyman, she writes, spoke in the service of local whites:

“We knew that the sheriff—or some other white man—had enlisted him to convince us to leave. You always had black folks like Preacher McGee who did what the white men told them to. Some of them were scared not to. Others just wanted to pick up a dollar or two. I believe Preacher fit both of those categories.”

In another case, after her work as a civil rights advocate became well-known, a random black man trampled her garden and picked an argument with her. He drew a gun and threatened her. She walked into her house. He later admitted that he had been paid by a white man to provoke a conflict and then kill her.

An embryonic activism was nurtured when Blackwell challenged a white bureaucrat who had threatened to cut her husband’s grandmother’s welfare payment. That unrehearsed act of defiance became a turning point. When SNCC activists arrived in Mississippi in 1964, she joined their voters’-rights efforts.

Within four years she would travel across the country to challenge the seating of the Mississippi Democratic Party at the 1964 convention, befriend and work with national political figures, be arrested for her work and subjected to obscene abuses in prison, and be hired by organizer Dorothy Height to coordinate a national housing program. In 1973, she traveled to China with Shirley MacLaine. Four years later, she ran for office and was elected as mayor of the same town that had once rejected her application to vote.

In an age where memoirs thick with falsifications top bestseller lists, it is unusual that this book’s sole shortcoming is its brevity. At 258 pages, Barefootin’ covers all the touchstones of Blackwell’s life, but one can’t help wanting more. Still, this is an important and compelling book—a testament of both a movement for social justice and a single extraordinary life intertwined with it.

William Jelani Cobb, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of history at Spelman College, specializing in post-Civil War African American history, 20th-century American politics and the history of the Cold War; he is also a critic, essayist and fiction writer.


Immaculate Conception

The Potbellied Virgin
By Alicia Yánez Cossío
University of Texas Press

In the 1960s and '70s, the so-called Latin American literary boom took off with Gabriel Garcia Marquez leading the pack. Suddenly “magical realism” became as ubiquitous as ketchup. With the exception of Mexican novelist Elena Poniatowska, though, rarely did we read Latin American women in translation.

I was a young Latina writer back then, raising my consciousness in the women’s movement and marching the streets in the Chicano movement. I sought models such as Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, who gave me permission to write in microcosm the lives of women while exposing the macrocosmic social conditions of their existence. Those pioneers provided writings that were layered, richly textured, politically astute, honest and beautiful, for they never forgot that beauty is the artery that pulses, and language the artillery that penetrates.

Now I am lucky to have The Potbellied Virgin by one of Ecuador’s foremost contemporary novelists, Alicia Yánez Cossío. In a highly readable translation by Amalia Gladhart, the novel (only the second by Cossío to appear in English) covers a time span from the turn of the 19th century to the 1960s in an unnamed town in Ecuador’s central Andes. Originally published in 1985, the novel is a satire of Ecuador’s striving for stability—a struggle against revolving presidencies, regional wars and a church that dictated the cultural and national affairs of the people. But in the hands of a highly intelligent and compassionate writer like Cossío, fiction achieves a greater emotional rendering than historical fact.

Karl Rove might learn a thing or two from Doña Carmen, president of the Sisterhood of the Bead on the Gown of the Potbellied Virgin. Her ladies of the Sisterhood care for the Potbellied Virgin, a holy icon who gets her name from documents taped to her stomach. These papers are crucial to the Pandos, a clan of Indians whose lands were robbed by the wealthy Benavides, the “white and blond” people. Under the guise of devotion to the Virgin, Doña Carmen, the Benavides matriarch, wields such power that not one priest in over 30 years could stand to stay in town because of her demands. Even the Virgin finds herself wondering why she’s being used to intimidate with intrigues and bribes.

Throw into the mix a helping of colonial racism, sexism, classism, a “War of the Mattresses,” badly spelled graffiti and fearmongering, and you have a hilarious novel reminiscent of Jose Saramago’s allegorical The Stone Raft. In the end, the Sisterhood loses all, and the Benavides patriarchy takes over as innocent blood is shed. Cossío suggests that things are going to get worse, as they do when men take control.

The Potbellied Virgin is a morality tale warning us of what might happen if Bush and Cheney continue to get their way. Cossío’s comic critique of church dominance, the gullibility of the disenfranchised and the conflation of morality and power is laugh-out-loud funny, but only until you are silenced by the reality of it all.

Helena María Viramontes is associate professor of English at Cornell University and author of the forthcoming novel Their Dogs Came With Them.


Kitchen Confidential

homegrown: engaged cultural criticism
By bell hooks and Amalia Mesa-Bains
South End Press

In this exceedingly timely book—it references the historic pro-immigration marches of this past April and May—renowned cultural critic/intellectual/art scholars bell hooks and Amalia Mesa-Bains team up to talk about where and how women fit into the “new” Latino paradigm in America, the black response, and many other things not directly related to the political topic du jour, but essential nonetheless.

I mean talk literally: The book is a dialogue between the two that they allegedly held across a kitchen table, though it often reads more like a transcript of a panel discussion at a university, something both women could probably do in their sleep at this point in their distinguished careers. But the conversation format works. Free from having to hew to a single voice or thesis, homegrown rambles with relish, though always with purpose; from its first pages it has the intimacy and urgency of a marathon phone call, making its heavy academics mostly palatable and frequently poetic.

In no particular order, the authors swap musings about family, home, history, identity politics, feminist iconography and the meaning of multiculturalism that are both politically astute and personally revealing. In one discussion of Frida Kahlo, Mesa-Bains admits that her identification with the iconic artist/activist intensified when she discovered that she, like Frida, couldn’t have children. In another discussion in a chapter called "Resistance Pedagogies"—about as dry a title as you can imagine—hooks, a native Southerner, effectively details the grief she felt as a child moving away from the reassuring environment of an all-black school to the gaping unknown of a theoretically better, predominantly white one. I know the feeling.

At times the book feels like a tennis match, with the ball idling too long in one court or another. Yet there is enough engagement in the criticism to make the game not only worthwhile but consistently watchable. You want to see how the ball lands.

There is a danger of convergence here, of the two women’s experiences and analyses bleeding at points into near indistinctness—after all, they’re both progressive, feminist, antiracist women of color rigorously educated and oriented by similar schools of thought. They use the same jargon. But this is what makes homegrown unique: having the courage to eschew the (very male) Crossfire approach to American public discourse and being unafraid to agree, because ultimately, the conversation is more important than the personalities having it. Tension and misunderstanding between blacks and Latinos is at an all-time high, and hooks and Mesa-Bains know that the two of them simply publishing a colloquy that stresses commonalities is a valuable symbol.

But homegrown happens to be valuable in deeper ways; though a book of the moment, its full-circle and full-hearted examination of how we got to where we are—black, brown, women, men—makes it one for the ages. And though it offers no solutions, it does offer something in this dark age of political and emotional detachment that’s as important: faith in better relationships ahead. Change, the writers counsel, has to begin at home.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a weekly op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a former staff writer for the L.A. Weekly.


Newsroom Noir

The Dead Hour
By Denise Mina
Little, Brown, and Co.

Scottish crime-fiction writer Denise Mina’s novel opens with Paddy Meehan, a female 20-something night-shift cub reporter for the Scottish Daily News, following a police radio report of domestic violence to a Victorian villa in Bearsden, an upper-crust suburb of Glasgow. Although Paddy momentarily locks eyes with a battered-looking high-society blond, she allows the well-dressed man answering the door to bribe her with a bloody 50-pound note. Envisioning all that she can buy her poverty-ridden mother, father and siblings—for whom she is the sole support—Paddy leaves. So much for sisterhood.

The next day, the blond, an affluent attorney named Vhari Burnett, is found dead, her head smashed in. It is Paddy’s feelings of guilt, as much as her nagging fear that her boss will sack her when he finds out about her transgression, that mobilizes her to determine Burnett’s murderer—and that should cleave mystery lovers to this sharp-but-flawed, resolutely human crime-solver. But this is the niche that Mina, over the course of six novels, has made her own.

As with Maureen O’Donnell, the alcoholic, child-incest-victim protagonist of Mina’s award-winning Garnethill Trilogy, Paddy’s personal obstacles allow Mina to weigh in on all manner of feminist politics, from issues of economic class to the way Paddy is dismissed in the testosterone- fueled newsroom because she is young, female and sloppily overweight. “Hoi, fatso!” is how Paddy is disparaged at one point, but while she’s self-conscious enough to try and fail at crazy fad diets, Mina avoids making her pitiable and never lets her heroine’s bulk keep her from attracting men and enjoying a sex life.

Like its predecessor, Field of Blood, this second installment in a planned trilogy is set in the grubby, blunt-spoken world of ’80s-era newspaper journalism, and Mina gets the particulars of beat reporting right. Her plotting skills are top-drawer, but it’s in character description where Mina combines a painter’s eye with a social worker’s keen perspective. She seems incapable of rendering characters like working-class mums without acknowledging the totality of their lot in life: years spent on their feet, stretching meager paychecks to feed their unemployed families. “Ten o’clock mass would be coming out soon,” Mina writes. “When it did, there would be a queue of women with pelvic floors ruined from carrying too many children.”

Mina, who was getting her Ph.D. in mental illness in female offenders when she became one of the U.K.’s leading crime writers, naturally has a flair for gory details. (She was recently recruited to write an installment of the dark comic book series Hellblazer.) When a cokehead party girl fends off a thug by driving the business end of a spike-heeled shoe into his eye, Mina describes the moment vividly enough that more squeamish readers may have to close the book momentarily. But Mina isn’t trying to out-grisly her genre counterparts with such passages: Violence in her books always feels like the last, worst mode of communication a tortured soul can use.

Margy Rochlin is a Los Angeles writer and frequent contributor to The New York Times.