Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: a Life by Jane Sherron De Hart

My Aunt Diane and I have a tradition of exchanging books as holiday gifts. This year I was delighted to receive the new biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Jane Sherron De Hart. When RBG joined the Supreme Court as the second female justice, I was one of few women studying Political Science at M.I.T. In the new Millenium, M.I.T. has worked to correct its gender bias and the Supreme Court has increased female representation, however Roe v. Wade is under direct attack. Why now? The answer can be found in De Hart's biography of the person who has devoted her life to gender equality.

Ruth was born to impoverished Jewish immigrants and needed a scholarship to get to college. Even though Ruth graduated first at Columbia Law School (tying with a man), she faced double discrimination as a Jew and as a working mother. No corporate law firm would offer her a job. A judge only agreed to hire her as his clerk when a Columbia Law professor promised that a male classmate would take Ruth's place if she failed.

Ruth found a more welcoming work environment in academia and at the ACLU. To promote equality as a gender-neutral concept, Ruth often argued cases representing men in traditional female roles such as dependent widowed caregivers in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld. In winning this Supreme Court case unanimously in 1975, she created legal precedent to protect women from discrimination as well. The goal of feminism is gender equality, which is no more radical than civil rights. Although Ruth was a successful lawyer, she realized that she would be more effective on the other side of the bench. Having a like-minded husband, who was willing to help with childcare and do all the cooking, allowed her to pursue her dream.

Photo via Wikipedia
In 1993 Ruth Bader Ginsburg was considered a moderate judge when President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court, but now she is considered a liberal. De Hart makes a convincing argument that RBG's legal views have remained consistent while the Court has shifted conservative, contrary to the more liberal population. Her biography was published before the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh and the avalanche of state laws banning abortion, but the author predicted this attack on women's rights. As the Court swings, RBG remains the steady voice of reason. Her genius was in building consensus and reframing legal questions to get more progressive rulings. May she keep ruling!

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: a Life is not a fast read, unless you are my mother, who devoured my gift in under a week while recovering from back surgery. At 723 pages (150 of those are endnotes) it was too heavy to hold for long or to carry in a handbag. For months, I read a section every night before bed. Although written for the general reader, the style is more academic than commercial, but RBG's personal story humanized the text. I related to her struggles as a working mom and as a Jew, but sometimes De Hart's prose became a bit too flowery when recounting personal details as if the author was more comfortable with summarizing legal briefs. RBG is a few years older than my mother, and reading this biography brought home how much the world has changed in their lifetime and how grateful I am for their generation (my mom was at Smith College with Gloria Steinem) who fought for the rights that are now under threat once again. Read this New York Times bestseller book and be inspired to keep fighting for gender equality.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

Several friends recommended The Hare with the Amber Eyes to me, given my interest in both Japanese art and Jewish history. This nonfiction paperback from 2010 reads like a mystery. When artist Edmund de Waal inherited a collection of 264 Japanese carvings, he decided to trace these netsuke through five generations of his family's tumultuous history.

The Ephrussis were once influential bankers and art patrons, like the Rothchilds, but after two world wars, little remained of their vast collections beyond the netsuke. De Waal travelled from his home in England to Paris, to Vienna, to Japan and to Odessa, collecting photos and documents, and interviewing survivors. Like a detective, he pieced together the clues to learn about his collection, the collectors, and how the Nazis nearly obliterated his Jewish family. Old photos illustrate his narrative, taking us back in history. His book was well written and very original.

While reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, I had the opportunity to visit the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, which has netsuke on display. The tiny figurines were designed as toggles for purses hanging off traditional Japanese garments since kimonos didn't have pockets. Carved of wood or ivory, the netsuke are small enough to hold in hand but are exquisitely detailed. Their often grotesque humor reminded me of gargoyles. The netsuke were invented in the 17th century and were popular until 1868, when Japan was opened to the West. I loved the story of how the Ephrussi collection returned to Japan, and how these small artifacts survived so much history. I wish the museum would let visitors hold their netsuke in hand.

While in California visiting my son at UC Berkeley, I took the train 15 hours south to meet Barrie Summy in San Diego. Although we've been crit partners for years, this was our first time meeting in real life. We talked enough for all that missed time. It was so much fun! I'm so grateful to Barrie for hosting this wonderful book review club for more than a decade and for connecting all of us through our shared passion for books and blogging. Thanks, Barrie!

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Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper

Popham Beach in Phippsburg, Maine

Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper is a lyrical ode to family and to small towns. Although this 2018 novel takes place in Canada, the coastal town, the quirky characters, their economic hardships, and the bitter cold reminded me of Maine. It was the perfect winter read.

The narrative alternates between fisherman Aidin and net-maker Martha as teens falling in love, and decades later when they have kids of their own and the fish have mysteriously disappeared. Their 11-year-old son, Finn, hopes to entice the fish back, but his big sister wants to escape their dying town. Meanwhile Aidan and Martha struggle to support their family as neighbors abandon their homes and close local shops. Although all four family members share the narration, young Finn's voice was the most engaging. The story is based on true events in the late 20th century, but it's told like an old folktale.

Our Homesick Songs is a quiet book that will warm your heart. The multi-generation characters would appeal to readers of all ages. You could read it aloud by the fire or listen to the audiobook on a long car ride. I enjoyed hearing the folk songs and regional accents in the audiobook but now wish I owned a hard copy to reference the gorgeous prose. I bought the book for my mother's birthday, and she loved it too. The 326 page hardcover makes a good gift.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Transcription by Kate Atkinson (2018) is a feminist remix of John le Carré with a touch of P.G. Wodehouse. In 1940, eighteen-year-old Juliet Armstrong is recruited to spy on Nazi sympathizers in London. Her cohorts try to take advantage of her naivety, but clever Juliet has an agenda of her own. A decade later Juliet is working for the BBC on children's radio programming when her murky past catches up with her. The narrative flips back and forth between the two time periods, building tension.

I read Transcription whilst visiting family in England over the holidays, and it was the perfect travel book. On the train I listened to the audiobook so I could watch the matched view and then switched to the hardcover on the plane home. The page-turner plot made the journey fly. Period details grounded the story in history without slowing the pace.

Kate Atkinson is very good at portraying the subtle nuances of social class differences and how that shapes character and motives. The focus on female spies in the British homefront felt fresh and true to the gender-limits of that time. This novel wasn't as original as Life After Life, Atkinson's time-bending masterpiece, but it was so much fun to read.

I enjoyed Atkinson's descriptions of radio programming as much as the espionage. My British husband, who is writing an academic book on the BBC, found those scenes well portrayed. Who knew there was a revolving door between MI5 and the BBC?

Transcription would appeal to readers of all ages. Juliet's witty narration laced with sarcasm often made me laugh. Given the age of the protagonist, the story would cross over well to teen readers. It reminded me of my favorite historical young adult novel, Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity, but even though Transcription was written for adults, it was not as dark.

I would strongly recommend Transcription (and Code Name Verity) to anyone who enjoys unreliable narrators, historical fiction, or British spy novels. I love the cover art on the American edition too. The photo is of my nephew and my daughter after thrift shopping in the medieval town of Wallingford. They reminded me of characters from the book.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami spoke to me as both an artist and a writer. His latest novel has the usual mix of morally ambiguous characters, a fathomless pit, and World War II atrocities. The only missing element was a talking cat, but painted characters sprung to life off the canvas and double metaphors become a tangible threat. This cerebral book is quite meta. Murakami is a master of magical realism and one of my favorite authors. His originality inspired me to write fiction.

Murakami's new novel is set in recent times, but the 36-year-old protagonist eschews technology to focus on abstract art after his wife leaves him. On a remote Japanese mountain, the unnamed protagonist encounters a charismatic older man whose generous patronage might be a blessing or a curse. He also befriends a 13-year-old neighbor, who reminds him of his deceased sister. Murakami's female characters are strong and complex, leaving the nurturing, supportive role to the reluctant hero. The narrative is mostly realistic with surreal detours. The plot is hard to summarize but was easy to follow.

I have never read a better depiction of an artist's inner process. The focus on inspiration and technique was somewhat like a modern version of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring. As a professional artist myself, I related to his struggle over painting freely versus creating commercial art for clients. I loved how the book showed the tortuous but satisfying journey of oil painting and the wide range of artistic expression. However, the ending could have done more with the protagonist's personal evolution as an artist.

"What I was teaching them was less how to draw than a way to view the world."

Killing Commendatore wasn't as perfectly crafted as A Wind Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore, but I found it more compelling than his later novels. Although it wasn't as long as IQ84, 681 pages was still too heavy to hold in hand comfortably and too big to fit in my handbag so I read slowly. I enjoyed escaping into his imaginative world for nearly two months. I'd recommend Killing Commendatore to his fans and to anyone interested in art or Japan. With Chip Kidd's cool cover design (merging an eyeball with the moon), it would make a good gift.

The top photo of a remote temple village is from my sabbatical in Japan, where I was researching my work-in-progress, a noir mystery about a missing manga artist and gap year in Japan. I'll be offline until the weekend finishing a draft for teens and cultural sensitivity readers to read over vacation. Enjoy the holidays!

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@Barrie Summy