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Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Unquiet Dead: Bosnian Atrocities Are At The Heart Of A Canadian Mystery

I read the second book in Ausma Zehanat Kahn's mystery series first.   There is a mystery group on Goodreads where I am known as an Unrepentant Out of Order Reader (UOOOR).  This doesn't mean that I always read out of order, but I allow myself to exercise that option when I feel more drawn to a later book in a series.   I am unrepentant because this almost never causes problems for me in reading a series.  On the rare occasions when I do experience difficulties, I feel that the author has been inadequate.  I believe that books should stand on their own.  If there is information that I need to understand events or characters in a book, it should have been included in that book.  I am happy to say that The Language of Secrets, the first book I read by Khan, did stand on its own.  I found it to be a very interesting and somewhat unusual mystery/thriller dealing with terrorism.

I decided to read this book because I noticed that Khan has continued to write about the legacy of atrocities in Bosnia in A Death in Sarajevo and Among the Ruins.  What happened in Bosnia in the 20th century evidently had significant impact on protagonist Esa Khattak.  The Unquiet Dead is also going to be discussed at the March meeting of the F2F mystery group that I attend.  This gave me additional impetus to find out more about Khattak's background.


Let me say that sometimes I feel that the horrors of  20th century genocide are too much for me.  It also has much more subjective immediacy when it's happened within my lifetime.  Perhaps that's why I've avoided reading about what was done to the Muslims of Bosnia even though I knew it was important for me to know about what happened there.  I also feel a certain amount of shame that I feel the need to protect myself from fourth hand exposure to traumatic events.  After all, I am not a survivor of such experiences, I am not a witness to them, nor am I the author of this book who had to live with the suffering of Bosnian Moslems the entire time that she was researching and writing it.  She cites testimony from the International Criminal Court and other witness accounts in her endnotes.  Ausma Zehanat Khan has far more inner strength than I do.

A museum commemorating Moorish Spain plays a role in The Unquiet Dead.   My uncle kept a collection of "Little Blue Books" which were independently published by freethinking press E. Haldeman-Julius and written by de-frocked priest Joseph McCabe.  It was from one of these pamphlets that I first learned about Moorish Spain when I was a pre-teen.  I was entranced by what I read. McCabe portrayed it as a utopian community where people from three different faiths got along. Some current historians such as Maria Menocal (author of The Ornament of the World) also portray Moorish Spain as utopian.  I have since learned that there was some dis-satisfaction in Moorish Spain, and it wasn't exactly a perfect society.   There's a reason why the title of Samuel Butler's utopia was Erehwon which is nowhere backwards. There are characters in The Unquiet Dead who revere both Moorish Spain and their memories of a multi-ethnic Bosnia that was free of strife.  I tend to suspect that Bosnia was also never a utopia.  Yet the strong likelihood that neither Spain under Islamic rule nor Bosnia were ever perfect doesn't justify the Spanish Inquisition or the genocidal activities of the Serbian militia groups in 20th century Bosnia.

I consider The Unquiet Dead a compelling novel dealing with history that shouldn't be forgotten.   I've read criticisms of the characterization in reviews. I admit that there were female characters who were stereotypical or not well-developed, but there are few first novels that have blown me away with their power as this one has.    I will be thinking about The Unquiet Dead for some time to come.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Terrible Virtue--A Novel About Margaret Sanger

I first learned about birth control advocate Margaret Sanger from a TV movie starring Bonnie Franklin, Portrait of a Rebel  which aired in 1980.  She became one of my feminist idols.  I read about various aspects of her life and legacy.  There is no doubt that she is an important figure and that women owe her a great deal.   Yet she is also controversial for a number of reasons.

 I found out that there was a new biographical novel dealing with Margaret Sanger from my co-blogger Tara on Flying High Reviews.  She reviewed Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman here.   I wanted to find out how Feldman approached Margaret Sanger.  I also thought that a book about her presents an opportunity to discuss some difficult issues in my review.


Sources that I've previously encountered dealing with Margaret Sanger didn't emphasize her Socialist Party membership and involvement in the Socialist community.   I thought this aspect of Terrible Virtue was particularly significant especially given charges that she was right wing due to her support for eugenics later in her life.  There was one scene at a meeting in which Socialist leader Big Bill Haywood said that in a socialist society women would stay home and take care of the children.  I found that scene emblematic because it reminded me of second wave feminist Robin Morgan's complaints about the New Left. This lack of support in male dominated organizations for women's freedom to choose is what caused feminists like Margaret Sanger and Robin Morgan to realize that women needed their own movement.

Feldman portrays Sanger as latching on to eugenics because of its popularity.  I don't think that this is a persuasive defense of  Sanger. While researching for this review,  I read an article that Sanger wrote on this subject which originally appeared in 1921 in The Birth Control Review here . It seems to me that if you don't want people to interpret your words as racist, you shouldn't use phrases like "improving the race".  So if she intended her association with eugenics as a pragmatic decision to make her cause more politically viable as Feldman has her claim, she was being shortsighted.   There is really no way to incorporate eugenics in an approach to birth control without being offensive.  When eugenics isn't perceived as racist, it's seen as an attack on the disabled or people with variant sexuality.  It was inevitable that the eugenics paradigm would discredit Sanger and her movement.  She should have seen its implications and stayed far away from it.   I believe that birth control should be framed as an individual choice based on individual life circumstances.   "Improving the race" pollutes the discourse on this issue.   Regardless of her intention, Sanger was allying herself with fascists.

On the personal front, I was at first impressed by Sanger's feelings about her daughter.   Yet eventually I realized that she had these deep feelings about having  a daughter before she had one, and she gave her daughter her own name.  Sanger also called her by her own nickname, Peggy, and she imagined her as an adult joining Sanger in the birth control struggle.  In other words, Peggy wasn't an individual to her.  She was an extension of herself.   Many parents think of their children that way, but I thought it was sad that Feldman was presenting Sanger as a woman whose strongest personal connection was essentially narcissistic.  

I knew before I read this novel that my feminist idol had feet of clay.  Feet of clay can crumble and cause the idol to topple from the pedestal.   I no longer put Margaret Sanger on a pedestal.   Feldman's biographical novel reminds me that she was a flawed human being who made mistakes in her life.  Yet we mustn't forget her accomplishments.  Sanger was still a great feminist fore-mother.  Women's options would have remained constricted without birth control. We must continue to fight to preserve that freedom.



Saturday, February 11, 2017

Martha Gellhorn Proved That Women Can Be War Correspondents

It was reading Martha Gellhorn's WWII novel, Point of No Return, which I reviewed here  that led me to search for a biographical account of her life.  I was impressed with the authenticity and grittiness of her portrayal of war.   When I learned that she'd been a war correspondent in WWII and in other wars throughout her life, I wanted to know more.  I suspected that she must have encountered difficulties with being accepted in this very dangerous profession.  It wasn't considered a job for a woman.

There were several biographies of Martha Gellhorn for me to choose from.   I selected Nothing Ever Happens To The Brave.  That title is a quote from her second husband, Ernest Hemingway.  I wanted to know why author Carl Rollyson chose it, and how it applied to Martha Gellhorn's life.


Rollyson's book begins with Gellhorn's childhood in Saint Louis, Missouri.  I was delighted to learn that her mother, Edna Fischel Gellhorn, had been a women's suffrage activist and that she brought British suffragist, Sylvia Pankhurst to address the students at her daughter's elementary school.   This reference caused me to remember that I need to read a biography of Sylvia Pankhurst.

 Gellhorn's  mother was also a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt who was the wife of New York's governor when Gellhorn began her journalistic career at The Albany Times-Union.   Later her mother's connection with ER meant that Gellhorn was welcome at the White House.   This means that while FDR was in the White House, Gellhorn was able to take some formidable risks and get bailed out.   So Gellhorn may have been courageous, but she was also privileged by her political connections.
I admired Gellhorn's determination to succeed and achieve her goals, but she could be very unlikeable.  Rollyson portrays her as unable to commit to a relationship for more than a few years.  After that, she would feel trapped in it and need to move on.  This was especially troubling when she adopted an orphan.   Rollyson apparently believes that the only relationship in her life with any permanence was the one with her mother.  It seemed to me that abstract causes and principles meant more to her than individuals.

Hemingway also doesn't come off very well in this biography.   He became extremely vindictive when Gellhorn didn't give up her career.   He called Collier's, the magazine that had hired her to report on WWII, and got her assignment.  This meant that Gellhorn didn't have credentials, but she got to the front by acting as a nurse, and sweet-talked military personnel to get to the locations where she needed to be in order to obtain the interviews for the stories that she wanted to write.  Hemingway obviously felt that he and Gellhorn were in competition.  Rollyson writes that Gellhorn was a better war correspondent than Hemingway.  I thought that she was certainly more dedicated to covering war as her profession.  Hemingway prioritized writing novels.

Rollyson draws attention to the contradiction of Gellhorn being  a pacifist who felt compelled to witness the events of wars.   She evidently believed strongly that she was called to record the truth about each war she reported on.  She had the distinction of being blackballed by South Vietnam for writing about war profiteering and the callousness of the rich in South Vietnam.  That's impressively honest journalism.

Since Rollyson's biography was written without Gellhorn's permission, he had no access to Gellhorn's letters.   Other reviewers have pointed out that Gellhorn's correspondence is of key importance to understanding Gellhorn and her relationships.   So I may be reading the authorized biography by Caroline Moorehead at some point in the future.  I don't regret reading this one, however.  I thought that Rollyson was insightful despite the limitations of being unauthorized.






Friday, February 3, 2017

Stolen Beauty: Two Women Associated With A Famous Klimt Painting

This is a review that I wrote for Flying High Reviews that I decided to copy here without the blog tour content.  I also added a paragraph about how I feel about  Gustav Klimt who is a major character in this novel.
 I'm interested in art history, and there was a Klimt shaped hole in my art education.   The only thing I knew about Austrian artist Gustav Klimt was that he painted The Woman in Gold.   Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese takes the perspective of two real women.  One is Adele Bloch-Bauer, a prominent art patron.   The Woman in Gold is a portrait of her, but she also had an ongoing relationship with Klimt.   The other perspective is that of her niece, Maria Altmann, who eventually sued Austria to regain her family's ownership of The Woman in Gold.  There are a number of non-fiction accounts of this well-known case, but I love the immediacy of  skilfully written historical fiction.   So I joined the Stolen Beauty blog tour and received an ARC from the publisher via Net Galley.


Although I learned a great deal about Klimt from this book, I am going to focus on the women for Flying High Reviews.  I was more interested in Adele's narrative than Maria's.  Both were courageous women, but Adele was more complex.

I noted that Adele gave up on becoming an artist as a child because she wasn't being taught to draw human beings.   She didn't realize it, but this issue had held back woman artists for centuries.   Women weren't allowed to learn human anatomy because it would empower them sexually as well as artistically.  Society was invested in keeping women ignorant of men's bodies as well as their own.

I was also interested in the fact that Adele chose to marry a man who promised her freedom.   That was her priority in the selection of a husband--not love, attractiveness or wealth.   He certainly had wealth, but her own family was wealthy.   She was accustomed to always having whatever she needed, yet her strict mother made her feel very constrained.  She couldn't go where she pleased or follow her interests.   So she married for independence, and for the most part she got it.   She met artists, musicians, writers and intellectuals.  She founded her own salon to discuss the issues of the day.  She also founded an art museum and selected its collection.  The Woman in Gold made her prominent and admired.

Adele tried to instill the importance of independence in her niece, Maria.   Maria grew to adulthood in a world that was very different from Adele's.   Adele's influence turned out to be a significant source of strength that allowed Maria to survive WWII.

Adele's family was Jewish, but religion was largely irrelevant to her.  She grew up in a completely secular home.  Adele encountered anti-semitism, but it never impacted her life very much.   Maria, on the other hand, lived to see the rise of Nazi Germany and the invasion of Austria.    Her uncle's collection of Klimts disappeared when the Nazis looted the art of Jewish families. 

This brings me to Maria's litigation with Austria.  I admit that I originally wasn't sympathetic to Maria's point of view, and I found the case that her lawyer made troubling from a feminist perspective.  Yet I eventually came around to the argument that Austria shouldn't benefit from Nazi theft.

Now here's the paragraph about Klimt that I promised to add for this blog. Gustav Klimt himself was portrayed as a highly ambivalent and complex character.  I think it's difficult to draw conclusions about what he really believed.  He seemed to like being the subject of controversy.   He was the leader of an artistic movement in Austria called the Secessionists.  I did research about them online after reading the book, and apparently the Secessionists had nothing in common with each other.  They weren't a stylistically coherent movement like the Impressionists, for example.  It seemed to me that Gustav Klimt's student Oscar Kokoschka  was an Expressionist due to his variant use of color.  Klimt himself is considered a Symbolist.   I have to say that when I looked at Klimt's work on various websites, I didn't respond to it emotionally.  I thought that a couple of his paintings were interesting, but I wasn't moved by them.

I was glad to learn about the woman behind the famous Klimt portrait.  It was also important for me to find out more about the Jews of Austria during WWII.  I found Stolen Beauty an enlightening and provocative historical novel.