Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963 – 1965 by Taylor Branch

Pillar of Fire1998. ebook. 796 pages.

Review:

“Stokes raised both hands toward [LAPD officer] Weese, who shot him through the heart from about eight feet.”

This sentence depicts the fatal escalation of the April 27, 1962 conflict between the LAPD and members of the Nation of Islam temple no. 27. The chaotic sequence of events that led to the killing of Ronald X Stokes started with this: outside temple no. 27, Monroe X Jones asked Fred X Jingles to inspect some suits in the trunk of his car to help determine of they had resale value. Two white police officers driving by saw the two men at Jones’ car, and decided to stop and conduct a “burglary sweep.”

The full account of this conflict, where seven unarmed Nation of Islam members were shot by the LAPD, is the starting point for Pillar of Fire, the second of Taylor Branch’s trilogy about the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I read and reviewed the first book, Parting the Waters, last year.

This account of the events of April 27, 1962 is one example of how reading history helps us understand how we got to where we are today. Pillar of Fire is full of moments of recognition, where the reader sees the DNA of today’s news in past events.

Pillar of Fire covers events from 1963 to 1965. It is impossible to recount everything that struck me while reading this book. I was highlighting passages in my Kindle edition like mad. What follows is an attempt to highlight some of the prominent narrative threads and themes I noted.

There’s a reason that the recent movie Selma begins with the September 15, 1963 killing of four young girls in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist in Birmingham. It is an event that reverberated throughout the civil rights movement, even though it didn’t quite shame the nation into repentance.

[A] white lawyer made himself a lifetime pariah from Birmingham by blaming every citizen who took discreet comfort in segregation, saying, “We all did it,” but Mayor Albert Boutwell stoutly insisted, “We are all victims.”

Upon hearing the news in North Carolina, James Bevel and Diane Nash, civil rights leaders and champions of nonviolent activism, briefly contemplated vigilantism. In the end, they hatched an idea for a mass nonviolent protest centered around Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, an idea that found form later in the Selma to Montgomery march. (Pillar of Fire‘s chronological coverage extends almost to the point of this march.)

The lack of justice for the 16th Street Baptist bombings is a shadow throughout the book. (No one was convicted for the crime until 1977.) This injustice is joined by the lack of justice for NAACP leader Medgar Ever’s 1963 assassination (no conviction until 1994); the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner (those few of the lynching mob who are convicted in 1967 do not serve more than six years in prison). In an epilogue, Branch also describes the 1966 Klan killing of Mississippi voting rights activist Vernon Dahmer, and how three of the four convicted were pardoned after only four years in prison by the state governor. The KKK leader, Sam Bowers, who ordered the murder was tried for the crime, but deadlocked juries kept him from conviction. In 1998, the case was reopened and Bowers was finally convicted of Dahmer’s murder.

While mulling over this systemic denial of court justice, consider the segregationist congressman who decried the 1964 Civil Rights Bill as a “monstrous instrument of oppression upon all of the American people.” Or the time when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is told by a fellow plane passenger that the new civil rights law would “just carry on the trend toward federal dictatorship.” (Newsweek polls find that 74% of whites believe that the pace of integration is “moving too fast.”)

The skillful framing of desegregation as a big government imposition was propogated by several politicians of the era. During his presidential campaign, former Alabaman governor George Wallace talked often of “states’ rights” and “sweeping federal encroachment.” Such dog-whistle rhetoric was picked up by the chosen Republican presidential candidate Goldwater. Of Goldwater, King stated, “While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist.”

The galling fact is that if anyone was suppressed by big government intrusion, it was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is well-known now that Dr. King was under almost constant FBI surveillance. The loathsome and powerful FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover directed this surveillance and also authorized releases of scurrilous information about King to the press (false accusations of Communistic ties, true accusations of infidelity). Hoover tried to prevent King’s meeting with the Pope and in a press interview, Hoover called King “the most notorious liar” in the United States. Again, the FBI’s surveillance of King is no longer a secret, but I was still surprised and horrified by the persistence, extent, and petty exploitation of it.

The in-depth nature of Pillar of Fire also alerted me to historical events I’d never heard of. I had no idea about the integrationist movement in St. Augustine, Florida, for instance, which called out the fact that the oldest city in the United States remained segregated. I also did not know about the jailing of voting rights activists from Greenwood and Itta Bena, Mississippi (for “disturbing the peace”). Some of these activists were imprisoned in the notorious Parchman Penitentiary, where they were sometimes kept in hotboxes, and also hung by their hands in their cells. I didn’t know about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation that sought seats at the Democratic National Convention, and were denied their place in the political process. And though I knew of Malcolm X, I didn’t know many details about what he did and said.

As I said about the first book, I feel like Pillar of Fire has helped me understand my country better. Not to sound hyperbolic about it, but in some not-fully-realized way, I feel like these books have changed my life.

Excerpts from Goodreads reviews:

Clif – “This book could not be more exciting while at the same time educating the reader about the history of the United States; the subtitle is perfect: America in the King Years. You’ll close it with a deep acquaintance with the leading personalities of that time (not all famous by any means) and a profound appreciation of the courage shown by so many people who risked their lives and their livelihoods to try for a dream.”

Patrick – “The volumes are not perfect–sometimes the panoramic view comes at the expense of narrative momentum. Sentence-level clunkers show up just enough to make you wish that they had spent a little more time polishing the prose. But, those minor flaws aside, it’s an incredible history.”

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A Day in the Life

So this post is definitely inspired by a blogger event hosted recently by Trish at Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity. The basic gist is that bloggers would capture notes about a regular day in their lives as a way of connecting more in the blogger community. I was out of the loop and missed participating in the event, but thought I’d record a day anyway. (Partly, this is stalling as I’m currently reading a very long book and don’t have any other books to review.) The day I picked to record was yesterday, Thursday, April 2nd.

6:45am – After spending a while listening to news on the radio (which is what I wake up to), I finally get out of bed. I take a quick shower (not a hair-washing day), iron my dress pants, open the blinds for my plants, among other routine tasks. As I move about the apartment, my cat Bean sits and stares at me, as if in judgment. This is a normal part of my mornings.

IMG_0592I go to pack my lunch, and realize I’m out of bread. Fortunately, I have a cold smoked mozzarella pasta salad I treated myself to from Whole Foods, and so I put some of that into a smaller container to take with me. I also add tortilla chips and one of those individual snack-size guacamole tubs to my lunch bag, which doesn’t pair especially well with the pasta salad, taste-wise, but that’s what I’ve got.

7:19am – Leave apartment much earlier than normal mornings because I need to go get my blood drawn at a lab as the second part of my routine physical. I had eaten something the actual morning of my physical two weeks ago, and so couldn’t get the blood drawn then as it requires a preceding fast of twelve hours.

7:24am – Arrive at lab. Two vials of blood drawn expertly (the woman who performed it cheerily said afterward “you’ve been served!”).

7:33am – Leave lab. Realize on drive to work that the commute is uncommonly good because it is spring break for the county school system.

8:00am – Arrive at my desk at work. Normal arrival time is usually 8:30 to 9:00 so I feel really good. Pregnant co-worker stops by to share the latest work news, looking fabulous in a black maternity dress. I tell her so. Co-worker: Yeah, this is pretty much what I’ll be wearing all summer. Other, more heavily pregnant co-worker is pulled into the conversation, and they both discuss the weird pregnancy dreams they have been having.

9:50am – Go to use the bathroom only to find that it is closed and it appears that it is being taken apart – dispensers are all on the floor, etc. I keep walking and run into a coworker who tells me that our bathroom may be closed the rest of the day. I go up a floor but that bathroom is also closed, and I wander down the hall on that floor and finally find a open bathroom. Feel sorry for pregnant co-workers.

On return to my desk, I briefly check my personal email and see that my church’s secretary replied to a hasty email I had sent the night before. She lets me know that my emailed submission of the handbell choir’s song title wasn’t too late to make it into the Easter Sunday bulletin. I get back to work.

11:08am – A weekly meeting that I thought had been canceled turns out to be back on. I summon my work-twin (we have the same position and are sometimes treated as the same person. We accept this.) and we go into the conference room. We are there to discuss issues related to the new system we started using a few months ago. We haven’t properly had this meeting for a couple of weeks and have been saving up. Meeting doesn’t end until 12:22pm.

12:40pm – Eat lunch while doing some data quality work.

1:10pm – Work-twin and I go for a walk outside. It is sunny, not cold, but very windy. Among other topics, we lament the despairingly high cost of houses in the D.C. metro area.

1:40pm – Return from walk. Go on to have a very productive afternoon, which continues what has been a very productive week, which may or may not be related to the fact that there have barely been any meetings. I make a lot of strides on projects that had been regrettably on the back-burner up until now.

4:05pm – Leave work.

4:30ish – Arrive home. After I’ve parked and turned off the car, my cat jumps to the windowsill and offers more looks of judgment and meowing that I cannot hear. I suspect she does this for anyone who pulls up to the apartment building, but I like to pretend she knows it’s me.

 

IMG_0601After compulsory rounds of email, Facebook and blogs, I engage in minor tidying-up tasks: putting away dishes, washing others; attacking the paper detritus on the table. Sorting through the detritus reveals several mailed requests for donations. I do write out a check for one of them: my local volunteer fire department. I feel particularly moved to do so as they responded to my apartment several weeks ago when some wires burned in the electrical closet.

As I do these things, I listen to Reading the End’s bookcast (with Gin Jenny and Whiskey Jenny), episode 36. Also, because my feet are cold, I wear my T-Rex/Godzilla slippers.

IMG_0603

6:05pm – Finish off the last of a large salad I had made a couple of days ago. It’s still pretty good, though it is clear it wasn’t going to hold up much longer. I also steam some store-brand potstickers in the microwave for the rest of my dinner.

6:40pm – Leave to go to church for Maundy Thursday service.

6:55pm – Arrive at church. The service is thoughtfully led, but I can’t seem to get quiet inside, and feel distracted.

8:00pm – Service ends. I stay after for a late choir rehearsal. Before we start, a card is passed around for a choir member who recently had a baby (his second). We are rehearsing our piece for Easter, which is the first movement of Vivaldi’s Gloria. Everyone seems a little tired.

IMG_06139:05pm – Leave church. Listen to the Stars’ “Lights Changing Colours”. (Now realize that the lyrics kind of work for Maundy Thursday.)

9:30pm – Arrive home. Last rounds with email, social media, etc.

10:04pm – Turn off computer. Get ready for bed.

10:34pm – In bed. Read a chapter of Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire.

11:00pm – Lights out.

**This was one version of a typical day for me. My other version, when I don’t have anything going on in the evening, involves a lot more internet and Roku.

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The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon and how it might have looked as a Buzzfeed post

Pillow Book1002. ebook. Penguin. Paperback pages: 416 (including introductory matter, footnotes and appendices).

Translated by Meredith McKinney.

Recommendation from: several comments on Shelf Love Jenny’s review of The Tale of Genji

Review:

Sei Shonagon was a gentlewoman who served the young empress Teishi. The Pillow Book is a collection of short vignettes about court life as well as thematic lists. The world and events Shonagon depicts are at once distant from my own world and strikingly universal. For instance, while I may not identify with the particulars of watching an imperial procession from within an enclosed carriage, when Shonagon remarks on “the great melee caused by the carriages of the High Priestess’s attendants and the rest all setting off for home,” it reminds me of the parking lot traffic jams after an outdoor concert at Wolf Trap.

Many of the anecdotes included in the Pillow Book involve the frequent practice of exchanging poetic messages between the gentlewomen and their male friends / admirers / lovers. The poetic message usually operated as a challenge, as the recipient sought to compose the perfect reply, based on allusions to Japanese and Chinese poetry, good taste, and quick wit. Shonagon is, unsurprisingly, often triumphant in these battles of wit. Shonagon also has a keen eye for style and clothes and often plays fashion police in her descriptions of fellow court denizens.

After a while, these anecdotes and sections became repetitive for me, especially as it’s hard to truly “get” some of them without the aid of footnotes to explain the puns and allusions that make the stories funny or clever.

It is Shonagon’s many lists that I think mark her work as a classic that transcends time, lists that run along themes such as:

Infuriating things – “you’ve just settled sleepily into bed when a mosquito announces itself with that thin little wail . . .And I hate people who don’t close a door that they’ve opened to go in or out”

Things that create the appearance of deep emotion – “The sound of your voice when you’re constantly blowing your runny nose as you talk. Plucking your eyebrows.”

People who are smug and cocky – “Present-day three-year-olds.”

As others have noted, Shonagon’s lists are kind of like the literary ancestors of internet listicles. Some items on her lists could easily be transplanted to a site like Buzzfeed:

3 Startling and Disconcerting Things

1. “Someone bluntly saying things that are embarrassing and unpleasant for the other person.”

Ann parks and rec

2. “Someone with a letter that’s to be delivered elsewhere shows it to a person who shouldn’t see it.”

Carly bachelor

3. “Someone pins you down and commences laying down the law about something that means absolutely nothing to you, without your being able to get a word in edgeways.”

Leslie Parks and RecIn addition to these more snarky lists, Shonagon also conjures palpable atmosphere in passages such as this:

Another delightful moment is in winter, on a fiercely cold night when you are lying there listening, snuggled far down under the bedclothes, and the sound of a temple bell comes to you, with such a deep and distant reverberation that it seems to be emerging from somewhere buried.

It’s also lovely, on a dark moonless night, to catch the smell of smoke from the pine torch being carried up ahead, that penetrates the whole carriage.

And a sentiment that has probably been experienced by most readers in some variation:

Things that give you pleasure – You’ve read the first volume of a tale you hadn’t come across before, and are longing to go on with it – then you find the other volume. The rest of it can sometimes turn out to be disappointing, however.

All in all, while some of the book became repetitious, even skim-worthy, for me, The Pillow Book was a “thing that gave me pleasure” while I was reading it. Shonagon’s writing provides much to delight.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

A Striped Armchair – “What I’m trying to say is, you shouldn’t be afraid of The Pillow Book! I think every blogger who reads it compares it to a blog, and I’m no exception. The entries had a mix of short and long, random lists, detailed stories, and little anecdotes that make blogs so much fun to read. And Shonagon’s personality, witty, snobby, hilarious, shines through in each of them. She’s acutely aware of how a cultured life should be lived.”

Rebecca Reads – “Because Shonagon lived more than 1000 years ago, her work is also an historical and cultural piece . . . I loved learning about life in a palace that wasn’t what I was used to hearing about (my only palace exposure previously has been Western, via fairy tales and Arthurian legends).”

Tony’s Reading List – “The Pillow Book is great fun, but it’s a work to dip into, not to plough through – it’s definitely best taken in small doses. There are some great stories and excellent scenes of court life, showing Shōnagon as the entertainer she was.”

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A visit to Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store

Last week, I visited Denver to attend a conference. In my free time, I briefly went inside the Capitol building and then spent a couple of hours in the Denver Art Museum. I particularly liked the William Matthews exhibit. And of course, I found a local bookstore to patronize, the Tattered Cover, which has a location off 16th street in the LoDo neighborhood.

Tattered Cover books

The Tattered Cover appeared to sell mostly new books with some gently used books interfiled among them. With independent bookstores, I sometimes take the route of buying books based off of the staff recommendations that many such stores place throughout the shelves. I also usually like to check out what they have in the way of travel memoirs. In this case, there were no staff recommendations in the travel memoir section, but I did find two used books there of interest: Freya Stark’s The Valley of the Assassins and other Persian Travels (originally published 1934) and a 1942 memoir of Paris written by two young women, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, called Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.

Like many other independent bookstores, The Tattered Cover had copies of the “Indie Next List” newsletter from IndieBound.org, and one title intrigued me: Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. It’s a memoir of the author’s visit to Japan after the 2011 tsunami, and seems to touch on her personal grief as well, as her grandfather passed away shortly before the tsunami and her father had also died recently.

Aside from shopping, I also found a nice spot to spend time with the book I was currently reading on my Kindle: Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire, which is the second book in his America in the King Years trilogy, and covers civil rights history from 1963 to 1965.

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Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Cry the Beloved1948. Scribner. Paperback. 316 pages.

In a nutshell:

Cry, The Beloved Country is the story of an elderly minister, Rev. Stephen Kumalo, who travels from his drought-stricken Zulu village to Johannesburg, the city that has swallowed up his sister, his son and most of the young people of the country villages. It is also the story of racial oppression in all its complex layers, described through the lens of Kumalo’s quest.

Review:

I’ve known of Paton’s novel since I was in high school, but never had much interest in reading it, because I had this suspicion that it was a classic solely because it was “important” at the time of its publication. I’m so glad, then, that my cousin gave it to me for my birthday last year, so I could realize that it is a classic not for being a time capsule, but because much of it is timeless.

Cry, The Beloved Country starts off with a somewhat flowery, poetic introduction that made me wary, but once Rev. Kumalo reaches Johannesburg, the story really picks up and the poetic sections felt more organic. Each character that Kumalo meets along his search for his family illuminates an aspect of the unjust situation in South Africa. But this isn’t a polemic screed. Through his characters, Paton captures a discussion, rather than a monologue, of how to understand, even improve, the state of South Africa.

It is amazing that so much of what Paton writes is still relevant to today’s discussion of racial injustice.

She put the paper down on the table, and showed the other women the headlines. ANOTHER MURDER TRAGEDY IN CITY. EUROPEAN HOUSEHOLDER SHOT DEAD BY NATIVE HOUSEBREAKER.

They were shocked. These were the headlines that men feared in these days. Householders feared them, and their wives feared them. All those who worked for South Africa feared them. All law-abiding black men feared them. Some people were urging the newspapers to drop the word native from their headlines, others found it hard to know what the hiding of the painful truth would do.

Aren’t we still having this moment? Where an act of crime is used to harden, even justify, existing lines of prejudice? Where we grow impatient with the media’s tendency to simplistically characterize the news with its choice of labels?

Paton not only has a keen eye for the nuances of racial oppression, but he also takes on economic injustice, mainly in the form of the South African mines, but written in such a way to apply to many arenas of economic exploitation.

As insightful as the novel is in racial matters, the book was clumsier with the status of women. Kumalo is harsh to a young teenaged girl because she has had many “boyfriends”. He soon repents of his harshness, but the book struck me as a little blind to systemic sexual and economic oppression of women. It’s a blindness I have seen before in otherwise progressive mid-century writing.

Overall, I greatly valued the resonance of the novel’s themes of injustice, but in saying that, I don’t want to downplay the characters and the story. In Stephen Kumalo, Paton has created a good man, but not a saintly one, and he is the heart of the novel. Even while he is on a road of suffering, he still finds new friendships and new family in Johannesburg.

It’s ultimately a story that reaches toward the hope of reconciliation for a small set of characters, even while acknowledging their pain, even while acknowledging the majority of South Africa is not reconciled. It is scary that Paton saw the situation so clearly, and that the book was so popular, but that apartheid didn’t end in South Africa until the 1990’s.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

BookLust – “Paton is one of those rare people who can write a story populated by flawed characters without passing judgment; rather, he makes the reader see just how much suffering a person goes through, and just how much impact a small kindness can have.”

Vulpes Libres – “The line that has been running through my mind from these writings has been ‘We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under’. And, despite this book being written in 1948, for me, this resonates with modern ‘developed’ society.”

Worthwhile Books – “Cry, the Beloved Country is a book that comes close to describing this mysterious relationship between suffering and grace in our world.”

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Honeymoon in Tehran by Azadeh Moaveni

Honeymoon in TehranHoneymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran

2009. Random House. ebook. 370 pages.

In a nutshell:

In this memoir, Azadeh Moaveni, journalist for Time magazine and author of the book Lipstick Jihad, describes life in Tehran from 2005 to 2007. The daughter of Iranian immigrants, Moaveni was raised in California, but had more or less been living in Beirut since 2003, taking a number of trips to Iran during that time. But for the events covered in this book – both personal and political – she calls Tehran home.

The book starts on the eve of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as President of Iran, a change of leadership which surprised nearly all observers. It is at this time that Moaveni meets the man who she will later marry, and she also has a child during the two years covered by this memoir.

Review:

Chronology is the primary driver of Moaveni’s narrative, both through her own life’s course of events, as well as the progression of events in Iran and the world. Within this loose framework, topics range from encounters with her government minder “Mr. X”, the common past-time of making homemade wine, the prevalence of c-section births in Iran, and the elusive answer to the question of who is actually in power in Iran. In a way, Honeymoon in Tehran has the spirit of a book of essays if not the format.

Honeymoon in Tehran succeeds in providing a nuanced portrayal of Iranian life – it is not just lives dominated by fear, though there is fear especially for prominent dissenters like lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who Moaveni meets with periodically. But there is also a culture Moaveni calls “as if” – “a mode that involved behaving ‘as if’ most of the regime’s rules did not exist.” According to Moaveni, Iran is divided “between a minority of religious militants . . . and the majority of moderate Iranians, who longed for stability and prosperity.” One of my favorite stories from the book is the following:

When I first moved to Tehran in 2000, this love of irony struck me as one of the most charming aspects of Iranian life, though I knew its purpose was to ease the pain of being ruled by heartless, inept, and hypocritical mullahs. During one of my first afternoons driving in the city, I struggled to execute a three-point turn across lanes of chaotic traffic. Halfway through the turn, my veil slipped off, and I froze, uncertain whether to clear the road or adjust my covering. As a man passing by surveyed the traffic jam I had caused, he noticed me fumbling with my scarf, grinned, and yelled, “Islam is in danger!”

I appreciated how Moaveni paid due attention to economic matters. Corruption in the government stifles innovation and economic sanctions further hamstring Iranian professionals. In Tehran, young people struggle to support themselves and usually cannot afford to live on their own. This state of economics affairs is a critical piece to understanding Iran.

As for the possibility of widespread political rebellion, Moaveni writes:

That [Iranian youth] were willing to shout down a police officer or flirt during a public Islamic ritual meant mostly that they were concerned with freedom in their immediate ten-foot radius . . . many young people envisioned their futures abroad, and were unwilling to compromise those hopes for the sake of somehow changing Iran, a notion they considered chimerical, costly, and best left to a future generation.

Of course Moaveni wrote this, at the latest, in 2008, and this portrait should not be considered as necessarily accurate today, but still I found it an insightful assessment of the mood of a nation.

As for the titular “honeymoon in Tehran”, I found Moaveni and her husband’s inclusion of traditional Persian and Zoroastrian elements in their wedding to be intriguing (and so do their guests, who are surprised and pleased when the ceremonial text is read in Farsi and not in Arabic, which few understand.) In fact, throughout the book, Moaveni makes reference to Iran’s pre-Islamic Persian culture and how vestiges of it still remain, despite the government’s efforts to suppress it by writing it out of history books and forbidding certain Persian and Zoroastrian baby names. It makes me want to learn more about traditional Persian culture.

In the end, increasing restrictions and unsettling incidents – paired with Moaveni’s concern for her son’s upbringing – lead Moaveni and her husband to relocate to London. That move itself is a tricky cultural adjustment which she describes briefly in the epilogue.

I read most of Honeymoon in Tehran on a snow day, home from work. I’ve seen other reviews that found the book too slow-moving and meandering for their tastes, and I can see how that could be. I may have benefited from having an unexpected pocket of time to read much of this book nearly in one sitting. In any case, I really enjoyed this memoir and the complex picture it provides of Iranian life.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

The 3 R’s Blog – “I learned a bit about Iranian life without feeling like I was being “educated,” and I was able to relate to much of her story, even though the details of our lives are very different.”

Devourer of Books – “Iran is depicted in a way that is very relatable and easy to grasp for any Americans – and certainly other Westerners as well – who are willing to discover the people of Iran, not just its administration.”

Sophisticated Dorkiness – “Moaveni’s second memoir is slow to start, but once it picks up provides an optimistic and honest look at what it’s like to live inside one of the world’s most unknown countries.”

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Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

Saplings Streatfeild1945. Persephone. Softcover. 377 pages.

Recommendation from: A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore

Review:

Several years ago, Frances of Nonsuch Books gave me this book as part of a Persephone Secret Santa exchange. She actually gave it to me in-person because we lived so near each other at the time. I am remiss for not reading this book sooner – I’m often distracted from the books I own by library books.

Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings covers several wartime years in the life of one middle-class English family: perceptive father, Alex; self-centered mother, Lena; and their four children: Laurel, Tony, Kim and Tuesday. The story begins as the family is on a beach vacation, on the eve of World War II. The family will soon be separated as the children are to be evacuated out of London, and stay with their paternal grandparents in the country.

All of the characters in Saplings – particularly the children – have distinct but not simplistic personalities. Besides the parents, the children are surrounded by a constellation of adults who range from caring but constrained former governess Ruth, to the children’s aunt Lindsey, who would rather not be bothered. Streatfeild writes with psychological depth, but the prose isn’t dense with it, thanks to the author’s good sense of pace. Streatfeild is like a judicious film editor with her narrative: scenes are well-chosen and do not drag on.

It is an enjoyable book, though not generally a happy one in its trajectory. In the constant background is the war, which takes away some of the adults from the children’s lives and doesn’t always return them. Still, it is a pleasure to read a book for adults that understands children’s nature so well. Streatfeild captures how adults can unthinkingly slight a child, and how that unintentional slight can grow and grow in the child’s mind. There are a couple poignant moments in the book that near about made me cry, when an adult finally is able to intuit the source of a child’s pain and heal it. The following excerpt did not make me cry, but it is thematically of a piece with those that did. The excerpt is set on the day that the eldest girl, Laurel, is departing for boarding school. At this point in the book, Ruth is still employed as a governess by the family.

It was not by design that Ruth was alone with Laurel. They had gone to the brook to wash. Laurel, in her green tunic and crested cardigan, looked unlike herself. She made Ruth’s heart ache and gave her courage to say what in recent days she had not risked in case Laurel snubbed her, and the bloom was brushed from their friendship.

‘Oh, Laurel, my pet, I am going to miss you.’

Laurel looked up from the water. There was a moment when it seemed that a snub was on her lips. Then she was up, her arms around Ruth’s neck, sobbing.

‘It was always my bedroom – even Tony never speaks to me, he’s always playing with Albert and Ernie – Gran’s glad I’m going to school, she doesn’t pretend she isn’t – everybody’s glad I’m being sent away – Dad promised we’d have a lot of riding, we haven’t ridden once – it’s extra awful me going to school, I’m ugly and I’m not good at anything – ‘

Ruth surreptitiously looked at her watch. It would do the child good to say all that was in her mind, but she could not plant her in a railway carriage filled with strange girls with her face swollen from crying. She gave Laurel a kiss.

‘Mop your face. I can’t hand you over to your housemistress, or whoever it is, looking as if you’d got mumps.’

p. 83

I definitely recommend Saplings to anyone who likes books that depict children in credible, insightful ways, and who have soft spots for scenes where kindly grandfathers, uncles and headmistresses take the time to listen to the troubles of children.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Novel Insights – “She paints such clear characters, that a few days after finishing the book they are all still vivid in my mind. Although the book has a central story, I did feel that it was more of a sketch and I do think you need to sort of settle into it rather than being in a rush.”

Stuck in a Book – “Structure may not be [Streatfeild’s] trump card, but there is still a lot to love in the novel. Chief amongst these is the way in which she demonstrates the damage done to families and children by war.”

things mean a lot – “The Wiltshire children are sensitive, especially Laurel, and it is a mark of Noel Streatfeild’s great skill that their pains and concerns never seem silly, not even when played against the backdrop of the war.”

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