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Around the World in Literary Ways

 

Nothing easier for a lazy traveler than to curl up on the sofa and to visit with new people and their cultures around the world through the words they've written. This clutch of books traverses the planet from the Americas, through the Philippines and Australia to India, then on to England before a last stop in Africa. So, fasten your seatbelt and come with me for the ride…

Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz: My Jewish Face & Other Stories

Aunt Lute Books (Trade Paperback), ISBN 0-933216-71-8

Book: carolyn hart, letter from home
The title of this book might lead the prospective reader to assume that she holds in her hands, the usual sort of volume of short stories. Not entirely true. Kaye/Kantrowitz presents here a number of reminiscences, tales and anecdotes mostly from the life of her protagonist Vivian, some about her friends and family. Although each stands alone as a short story in its own right, and about half of them saw publication elsewhere in anthologies and literary journals, they work with each other as a collage to create a layered portrait of one woman.

Together the stories build the picture of a young Jewish girl who grows up in Brooklyn and moves to Harlem and Manhattan to explore as much the city as her developing sexuality. They trace her experiences as the daughter of Jewish Communists, through her own activism for women's rights and against women abuse. The book concludes with a few pieces that reflect on Jewishness, both from the points of view of an American Jew safely on the far side of the Holocaust, as well as in the light of the present day conflict between Israel and Palestine.

I enjoyed very much this portrait of a lesbian activist, a woman with seemingly limitless energy. An enviable abundance, enough to spend a lifetime making a stand for the rights of marginalized people, first one group and then another and then yet another as the world changes.

Kathy-Diane Leveille: Roads Unravelling

Sumach Press (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1-894549-28-7

Book: kathy diane leveille roads unravelling
Kathy-Diane Leveille sets her little volume of stories in the northernmost reaches of the Americas, in a part of Canada where the rivers freeze over during the winter. There, the folk living alongside the riverbanks drag their unwanted jumble from the attic out onto the ice to watch it slide away with the spring thaws. Much as a knitter might unravel and start over the spoiled piece of knitting that fell accidentally into the dirt, so the eight different women in Roads Unravelling retrace the roads of their lives. Each in her own way, confronts the metaphorical junk that shadows her life and musters the courage to dump it at last, recklessly, in the nearest figurative river.

One woman sits on her long-dead grandmother's porch and recalls a betrayal by a childhood friend that stands in the way of her ability to commit to her present day marriage. Another woman discovers a secret hurt, lodged years ago in her psyche and attempts to discard it, perhaps with time enough to avoid her repeating the same mistake made by her parents. Yet another woman not only discards the excess baggage that she carries about her shoulders, but she also exacts sweet revenge against the sister who saddled her with it so many years ago.

Thoughtful stories about personal journeys and new beginnings -- just right for enjoyment on the eve of another New Year!

Merlinda Bobis: The Kissing

Aunt Lute Books (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1-879960-60-5

Book: merlinda bobis, the kissing
The title and the gorgeous red flowers that adorn the outside of this book enticed me to slip between its covers, and what a sensuous experience lies there! Merlinda Bobis, a Filipino-Australian, writes in The Kissing about both the cultures that make up her heritage. You'll find many stories that celebrate the Filipina culture, some show that of Australia, and a few tales engage with the conflict and differences between the two neighbors.

Bobis's stories blend seamlessly myth with dreams with religion with superstition. They explore the passions of men and women, mostly their loves and the loves they lose. And food. The people in these pages revel in the sensations of taste and fragrance and flavour. Lovers create rich and exotic dishes to express the loves that they cannot say in words. In one story, a meal sent back untouched presages a rape; in another, two devoted sisters each try and press the greater part of a shared treat onto the plate of the other. But some tales chronicle tragedy and loss. A huge unseen woman visits households every night to eat up all the spilled sadnesses she can find, and she never goes hungry. Indeed, in some families she feasts to the point of bursting…

An evocative glimpse into a little-known culture.

Ginu Kamani: Junglee Girl

Aunt Lute Books (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1-879960-40-0

Book: Ginu kamani, junglee girl
Can one ever escape entirely, one's cultural roots? Ginu Kamani seems to think not and in Junglee Girl she explores the claims that culture exercises over her protagonists. Sometimes their heritage allures them. At others, it demands compliance. Always it seems to manifest as some kind of a claim that refuses to relinquish its hold over them.

Many of the tales here give interesting, perhaps chilling insight into little-known facets of traditional life in India -- practices such as arranged marriages, polygamy, and the strict caste system. Some of the women in these stories travel to distant countries to escape India cultural norms, yet return years later and mourn the loss of their identification with them. Others fight to oppose the will of parents, who cannot accept that their daughters reject their cultural heritage. A few of the women submit outwardly to the life that convention imposes upon them but vent their opposition with more subtle subversions.

All of the book's protagonists, in some way or another, demand control over their bodies and their sexuality despite cultural opposition to this freedom for women. The cover of Ginu Kamani's, Junglee Girl depicts a drawing of a wonderfully sensuous young Indian woman -- fitting promise of the rebellious delights that smolder beneath the covers!

Elizabeth Berridge: Tell It To A Stranger (Stories from the 1940s)

Persephone Books Ltd (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1-903155-045

Book: elizabeth berridge, tell it to a stranger
The stories in Tell It To A Stranger give us a peek into the England of some six decades passed. War years wherein an older generation, the survivors of one devastating war, must watch their sons go off to fight another barely twenty years later, against the same enemy. Shades of current world events!

Berridge's tales shine spotlights onto individuals from many different walks of mid-20th century, class-bound English life who, each in their own way, begin to understand that life as they know it cannot survive the changes in the world around them. Some of the characters relish the realization that boundaries limiting them merely consist of lines drawn in the sand. Others fear what life will bring to them when they can no longer rely on the structures that defined their place in the world.

I found most thought-provoking and pertinent to today, the stories' wartime examinations of the enemy. One story takes a look at the enemy in the person of a young defeated prisoner-of-war, others invite the reader to consider that one might harbor deep within one's own psyche, an enemy far more dangerous than any soldier with a gun.

Read these, perhaps as sad reminder that little changes in the history of human kind, perhaps as a rallying call to ensure that the mistakes of the past do not persist into the future.

Unity Dow: Juggling Truths

Spinifex Press (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1-876756-38-1

Book: unity dow, juggling truths
Juggling Truths takes the reader into the hot dusty interior of rural Southern Africa, and who better to show you village life through the eyes of a young girl than Botswana's first female High Court judge, Unity Dow? Her first book, Far and Beyond dealt with the more unpleasant aspects of life in many African countries -- rampant HIV/AIDS, patriarchy and the sexual harassment of schoolgirls by their teachers. But this, her third novel looks nostalgically back to the rosier aspects of growing up in a Botswana village.

Monei Ntuka, who eventually qualifies as an architect, looks back in Juggling Truths to her childhood during the 1960s. One of six children, she describes life as lived in a mud hut in a village on the banks of a river from which water must be carried every day for cooking and washing. Blessed with a loving extended family, the young girl narrates it all -- from the mischiefs of her siblings to the guidance of her grandmother.

The reader gleans a unique and intimate view of life in a developing country where the children learn to read and write as their parents never could. One in which the art of storytelling carries history from generation to generation and a gathering of the uncles decides the best way to deal with a difficult family problem. I enjoyed most the African eye view of many of the actions of their European colonizers.

Moira Richards


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