This installment: Chasidic women in Brooklyn (f); a clinic in Afghanistan (f); a powerful New Orleans memoir (nf); dairy farming in Vermont (f); Telgemeier’s latest (J- gn); and a thoughtful Scandinavian exploration of a moral tangle (f).
On Division by Goldie Goldbloom
The title refers to an actual street in Brooklyn, but also to the gulf between the Chasidic and the secular worlds. How could Surie have gotten pregnant at 57? She already has 10 children plus many grandchildren and even a great-grandchild in the works. She’s heavy set enough to keep it a secret, especially from her husband. Is it the prospect of shame? She manages her domestic tasks and also works at a local clinic and even studies (heaven forfend!) to be a midwife. Meanwhile she mourns the death of one son, Lipa, who hanged himself in SF and currently haunts her; he was gay. Fascinating glimpse into a closed culture, sprinkled with Yiddish and Hebrew.
A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman
Parveen, a SF girl with Afghan parents, wants a focus for her college studies. She’s entranced by a memoir by an American who opened a clinic in a tiny Afghanistan town and decides to offer her services there, whatever they might be. What a series of disillusioning experiences. Yes, there is a grand building, but it’s unused except by the female doctor who comes from the city to volunteer once a week. The road is rough and treacherous. An American, Colonel Trotter, decides to win hearts and minds by “improving” the road which (of course) ends up wreaking havoc. And Parveen also discovers the disconnection between what is said and what the translator comes up with, which uncovers the true and sordid story behind the best-seller and the flood of donations it produced. A whopper of a story, beautifully done.
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
A powerful look at New Orleans through the lens of a girl growing up in the east side in the eponymous building Ivory Mae, her young, widowed mother, managed to buy. (Though of course she couldn’t hold title back in ’61 and the family periodically lived in fear it would be repossessed.) When Sarah came along, the 13th child, it was an unusual household. Her father, disabled, lived downstairs. Then they divorced, Ivory Mae remarried, but the yellow house was used by various family members until Katrina arrived. An amazing recounting of family, race, and coming of age by a marvelous writer.
On Brassard’s Farm by Daniel Hecht
Ann got a small behest and used it to buy 40 acres. She thought she’d use it for a getaway cabin but when a bad investment wiped out what would have been her final payment, out of desperation she offered to work it off. And the farm certainly needed help; dairy farming in Vermont is dicey and the farm was losing money. It was very challenging, often very discouraging, but she hung in there, learned a lot, and as it turned out, the farm became her destiny. I love stories like this, and this one really worked.
Guts by Raina Telgemeier
A double-edged title: the author of this graphic novel for kids grew up with an unhappy digestive system that she overcame with bravery and therapy. All sorts of tensions would set it off and the results were debilitating and embarrassing. Telgemeier gets right down with what puking feels like (waves of green) and the inherent meanness of kids. Which she also deals with through dawning empathy. Another winner by this brilliant author whose last book, Ghosts, was also on a tricky subject.
A Nearly Normal Family by M.T. Edvardss
With a father as a pastor and mother as a lawyer, it seems especially bizarre that their daughter, Stella, is accused of murder. We hear from each of them in turn and it’s fascinating to witness their struggles with protection vs truth. The victim turns out to have been a sleazy, scary guy but his family is well-connected. I love books that lay out moral tangles and this one, in upper-middle class Sweden, does a nuanced and suspenseful job of it.
Back next week.