A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son Investigates His Trailblazing Mother’s Young Suicide by Jeremy Gavron

The legacy of a mother and her suicide reveals the story of both a woman and a social movement.

woman on the edge

Jeremy Gavron grew up with the faintest of impressions of his mother, who died when he was four years old, in 1965. He didn’t know that her death was a suicide until he was 16, and only decades later did he embark upon an exploration of her life and reasons for ending it. A Woman on the Edge of Time is a record of his examination and tentative conclusions.

Gavron’s mother, Hannah, is a tantalizing character. A talented, magnetic youth, she excelled in acting, equestrian sports and poetry; had an affair with the headmaster of her boarding school; married at 18; earned a doctorate in sociology while raising two young sons; and wrote a feminist text that would be published shortly after her death. In an echo of Sylvia Plath’s suicide two years earlier, she gassed herself in a flat just one street over from Plath’s. And, like Ted Hughes, Gavron’s father all but erased her presence from the lives of her two children.

In chasing this shadowy figure, Gavron corresponds and visits with Hannah’s friends, colleagues and family, and studies letters, diaries and photographs left behind. Along the way, the reader is exposed to English cultural history, particularly in Gavron’s investigations of Hannah’s book The Captive Wife, a qualitative study of young homebound mothers. As he concludes, there can be no thorough comprehension of a suicide or of a mother he doesn’t remember. A Woman on the Edge of Time ends with Gavron’s attempted “narrative verdict,” which though incomplete does offer him some closure.


This review originally ran in the September 23, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 gurns.

The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution by Bryan Shih and Yohuru Williams

Photos, essays and interviews with rank-and-file Black Panthers “complicate the Panther story in a good way.”

black panthers

With The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution, photojournalist Bryan Shih and historian Yohuru Williams seek to tell a nuanced story of the Black Panther Party, one different from the popular conception of gun-wielding “thugs,” chiefly male, in black leather jackets and Afros with the leadership–Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver–centered in Oakland, Calif.

In pursuit of the rank-and-file perspective, Shih photographs and interviews Panthers or former Panthers, male and female, whose narratives express pride, humility, trauma, frustration and hope. Accompanied by essays solicited from scholars, this collection tells a more complex and sympathetic story. While not uncritical, the authors do champion an interpretation that emphasizes love and service over violence, featuring, for example, party programs like Breakfast for Schoolchildren (in more cities than just Oakland), free busing and ambulance services, free health care clinics and more. Shih’s photographs are striking and expressive, capturing the “humanizing details” he sought.

The Black Panthers is not the complete story: for instance, the “deep misogyny and sexism within the rank and file and leadership” is mentioned but not really addressed. Perhaps there is no complete story–as proven here, the party was made up of diverse members, with varied goals and motivations. Shih and Williams’s objective to expose this multiplicity, and inspire a second look at an energetic but ill-fated cause, is achieved with this intelligent, unapologetic book.


This review originally ran in the September 16, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 humanizing details.

two-wheeled thoughts: Carl Sagan

We were hunter folk, and we saw hunters and dogs, bears and young women, all manner of things of interest to us. When seventeenth-century European sailors first saw the southern skies they put objects of seventeenth century interest in the heavens – toucans and peacocks, telescopes and microscopes, compasses and the sterns of ships. If the constellations had been named in the twentieth century, I suppose we would see bicycles and refrigerators in the sky, rock-and-roll “stars” and perhaps even mushroom clouds – a new set of human hopes and fears placed among the stars.

–Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Teaser Tuesdays: A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura by Eileen Markey

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

“The 1980 murder of four American women – three of them Catholic nuns – by the US-trained El Savadorian military shocked the American public and set off a decade of debate over Cold War policy in Latin America. The women themselves became symbols and martyrs, short of context and background.” (From the back of the book.) A Radical Faith undertakes the story of one of those four women in particular.

radical-faith

Here are a few lines from the book itself to whet your appetite:

Maura was shocked by the discrepancy between the wealth of the mining company and the poverty of her students. But questioning La Luz wasn’t her job or the job of the priests and nuns. They were in Siuna to instill faith, to cultivate a love of God and obedience to the precepts of the church. And anyway, they would remind themselves, the company provided electricity…

(At this point she is working in Nicaragua, not yet El Salvador.) I chose this teaser because it feels like a turning point for the character of Sister Maura. I’m less than 100 pages in, but I feel like what is coming is an important realization she’s about to have: that it is in fact her job to seek justice on earth for the people she’s traveled south to help. We’ll see if I’m right.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Penalty Area by Alain Gillot, trans. by Howard Curtis

When a grumpy soccer coach takes in his 13-year-old nephew, they’re both forced to grow, on and off the field.

penalty area

Quirky and heartwarming, Alain Gillot’s The Penalty Area introduces an eccentric soccer coach who finds unexpected happiness in the oddest places. Vincent Barteau retired from playing professionally after an injury, settling instead for coaching as a way to stay in the game. Coaching children was never the plan, but this job pays well enough. He is a loner, frustrated with the mediocre talent he has to work with. When his estranged sister shows up to deposit her 13-year-old son with him, Vincent is understandably annoyed–until he puts his nephew Léonard on the field and everything changes.

Léonard is a chess prodigy and all-around odd boy. He dislikes soccer for being “too simplistic.” It is only in deciphering plays, percentages and tactics that his exceptional intellect is engaged. Caring for Léonard exposes Vincent to new people and scenarios; the man dislikes change as much as the boy does, but in the new world that opens before them, possibilities abound. Léonard discovers soccer. Vincent discovers family and hope.

The Penalty Area handles material that could easily overindulge in sentiment, but Vincent’s awkward, exasperated approach to life and human flaws admits no foolishness. Howard Curtis translates from the French in occasionally stiff prose, which nonetheless suits the equally stiff narrator. Vincent’s voice offers the novel a disarming vulnerability; Léonard and Vincent’s exploration of new challenges feels fresh and endearing, even humorous. No love of sport is required to feel the genuine emotion pulsing from this story about making connections.


This review originally ran in the September 13, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 shots on goal.

personal update: on the road again

This post is a bit belated, I suppose: today is the day that Husband and I hit the road for another cross-country move! It’s been just a hair under two years since we moved from Houston to Bellingham, Washington, and now we are en route to a new home in the sweet little town of New Braunfels, Texas. Two people, two dogs and two bikes (and a big precious sculpture and a tent and sleeping bags and lots of books, etc.) in a truck, southbound.

this is two years ago in a U-Haul. but we probably look something like this. Husband says: "Truck-driving Mama and Dog as her copilot."

this is two years ago in a U-Haul. but we probably look something like this. Husband says: “Truck-driving Mama and Dog as her copilot.”

The great adventure continues, y’all.

More big news: in January I will be entering the low-residency Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at West Virginia Wesleyan College. (Read more about that program here.) This will bring big changes in my life, and is bound to bring some changes here at pagesofjulia. For one thing, I will be cutting my work for Shelf Awareness back drastically, until I get a grasp of what the school workload looks like. It saddens me to loosen ties with the Shelf, who I adore: this is far and away my favorite job I’ve ever had (although I think of the cancer hospital library fondly). It will be important to me to keep doing what work I can for them; but we’ll just have to see what that looks like.

I will almost certainly have to cut back on posting to this blog, too. I don’t yet know what that will look like. Maybe one book review a week would be a safe goal? I can continue with the occasional teaser and book beginning; but I don’t think the 5-day-a-week format will be realistic. I haven’t worked this out yet. If you have thoughts or feelings, I’d love to know them.

In the meantime, you can picture my little family visiting friends in Bend, Oregon; family in Durango, Colorado; doing some mountain biking; visiting some national parks; and moving into a rental home with a big backyard for the dogs. I will breathe deeply, and keep reading.

Posts will continue while I’m on the road, of course, and I’ll see your comments in a timely manner as ever.

Thanks for your support, friends.

The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult by Jerald Walker

This vivid, immersive memoir describes an innocent childhood in a terrifying religion.

world in flames

The Worldwide Church of God taught that the Great Tribulation would begin in 1972 and end three years later in a river of fire from which only the Chosen Ones would be saved. Jerald Walker grew up with these teachings looming over his head. In 1975, at the predicted end of the world, he would be 11 years old. In The World in Flames, Walker relates his unusual upbringing in Chicago as the sixth child of blind African American parents, in the black wing of a church that preached segregation as well as fire and brimstone.

Except for a brief prologue and epilogue offering a glimpse of the adult Walker, the whole of this fantastical true story is told from a child’s disarming perspective. Jerry is six when his memoir opens in 1970, and his days are filled with fear. Preoccupied with the coming events and concern for a friend who is not Chosen, he struggles to navigate family secrets, severe corporal punishment and a religion based on threats. As narrator, Jerry is matter-of-fact and innocent about the improbability of his home life. This narrative voice renders an incredible story accessible. Perhaps the most heartbreaking detail is Jerry’s guileless devotion to his church.

Walker (Street Shadows) recounts his growth from wide-eyed child to hapless teen, and finally to skeptic, with immediacy and feeling and without offering judgments. His personal history verges on the absurd, but his telling of it is earnest and unadorned, never sensational. The World in Flames is a difficult story simply and gracefully told.


This review originally ran in the September 9, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 lines of scripture recited.
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