REVIEWING

City of Veils

by Zoë Ferraris


Little, Brown and Company | August 2010 | 389 pages | $24.99

Reviewed by Jill Noel Shreve


zoe ferraris photo

“There was no ringing in his ears, but the brutality of the scene made his skin prickle.” In her second novel, City of Veils, the sequel to her first, Finding Nouf, Zoë Ferraris introduces Detective Inspector Osama Ibrahim against this backdrop of a female’s mutilated, murdered, beached body. Ibrahim stands on the shore alongside the coroner. Both wonder how this woman’s body washed up and how she died.

Set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Ferraris invites the audience to step into this world of Ibrahim’s and journey with him on a quest to find the murdered woman’s identity and killer. Up front, Ibrahim seems hopeless. “Osama began to feel the dread of having to deal with Missing Persons. The reports were almost all of women—housemaids…” He doesn’t believe their team stands a chance in solving this case, especially in a sea of second-class, covered faces.

But then a lab technician, Katya, a woman in the coroner’s office, enters the picture. Because of her tenacity and perseverance, along with the help of her friend Nayir, Katya discovers the murdered woman’s identity, Leila Nawar. And Leila Nawar isn’t a housemaid at all, like Ibrahim suspected. Katya discovers Leila is a filmmaker and not just any filmmaker; Leila has filmed controversial things like “abused housemaids, sex slaves, and men who married twenty wives,” among other things. And it looks like Leila made a lot of enemies throughout her career.

It’s a perfect incentive for a murder, but an investigative team’s nightmare.

Ibrahim, Katya and Nayir aren’t the only ones involved in the aftermath of Leila Nawar’s death. Early on in the novel, Ferraris also weaves in a second narrative involving an American couple, the Walkers. Sitting on a plane, Miriam Walker seems less than thrilled to be flying from New York back to Jeddah, where she and her husband, Eric Walker, have made a home. And while on the plane, Miriam encounters Apollo Mabus, an erudite academic who, from his debut, seems villainous. With a cast and a plot like this, Ferraris ignites fervor in her audience, a fervor that keeps them turning pages to find out who killed Leila.

But the charm of City of Veils isn’t just that it’s a whodunit-story. Ferraris offers her audience a literary experience. With texture and fullness, she illustrates the desert with its ridiculous temperatures and jaw-dropping sandstorms. She shows the people and their devotion to religion with strict prayer times and recitations. She illustrates the culture of Jeddah including the aromas of food and familial structures, and all of these contribute to the depth of this piece of literature. But the thing Ferraris hones in on and exploits best is the treatment of women in this culture.

Rather than slapping her audience with an agenda, or opinion, she presents the treatment of women in Jeddah as an undertone. She shows how religious texts, dogmatic expressions, and tradition have permeated the culture, causing a radical and atrocious handling and she shows how none of the characters can escape the certainty of it. The best summary of this comes on Miriam’s plane ride back to Jeddah. She already feels anxious about returning to this altogether different world than she’s accustomed to, and then Apollo, the gentleman sitting next to her on the plane, turns to Miriam and says, “They hate women…They fear them and they hate them, and do you know why? Because women are smarter, more biologically gifted, and have always had power over man.” Apollo’s assessment of women rumbles through the entire book, like a tremor after an earthquake and Ferraris reveals how none of the characters can escape it. Each one must face the reality and make a choice about how he/she will relate to and treat women.

With a plot this thick, one wouldn’t want to be lost, and Ferraris made sure her audience wouldn’t be. Even though City of Veils is the sequel to Finding Nouf, Ferraris authors City of Veils in a way that eliminates any need of reading the first novel. When she references something from the earlier text, Ferraris fully explains any requisite back-story. I never felt confused or felt as if I should have read the first novel to understand this one. I only had to turn the page to read what happens next.

Ferraris has geared this novel toward a broad audience. The characters range in age from adolescence to mid-sixties. They also range in ethnicity and in occupation. As a twenty-seven year-old American, I related and resonated with all the characters because Ferraris sculpted each one with care. I loved some of them and hated others, but I could empathize with all of them. I felt sad as the book ended. I didn’t want to leave them, as Ferraris makes her characters so palpable and believable.

Along with crafting the characters with precision and control, Ferraris also provides a well-developed, complex plot. I found myself engrossed with the storyline, and thinking about the book, even while not reading it. She does an exemplary job of leading her audience through a terrain of mystery. Because of her skill and artistry, she invents a seamless plot that drew me in, causing me to second-guess my assessments over and over again. And in a mystery novel, that can be tricky to do. I highly recommend this book to everyone. You won’t be disappointed.



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REVIEWING

Savage Lands

by Clare Clark


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 393 pp. | $25.00

Reviewed by Jan Alexander


Dismal Ghosts Along the Bayou


clare clark photo

Now that the reality show Who Do you Think You Are? has introduced the concept of ancestor worship to Americans – and even infused it with a Hallmark- sort of coolness – perhaps there is a ready market for tales of those who came here when doing so meant negotiating terms of settlement with the indigenous tribes. The title Savage Lands refers to just that – a vast territory that was home to people the new French arrivals called savages – and Clare Clark, a British historian who specializes in novels about dark lives in distant centuries, has done a meticulous and credible job of dredging up the complexities of the 18th century French colonists who homesteaded – or invaded, depending on your point of view - the swampy Gulf shores of present day Alabama and Louisiana, all part of the vast territory named for King Louis XIV.

This is sub-altern history as a mini-series might depict it, delving into the records that exist and creating a cast of characters loosely based on real people whose fortunes, or lack thereof, were the direct offshoots of the policies of Governor-General Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville. A financial bubble, driven by the rise and fall in value of the great trading company known as the Mississippi Company, which claimed in its circa 1700 marketing materials that the land beyond the Atlantic Ocean was awash with precious stones and welcoming natives.

As Clark explains in an author’s note at the end of the novel, the men who went searching for New World riches also wanted brides, so the French government arranged for a couple of ships to carry young girls of marriageable age. The King bestowed upon each of them a trousseau trunk that looked much like a coffin. Hence the girls became known as the “casket girls,” for too many of them a foreshadowing of what was in store.

In the author’s note and accompanying publicity notes, Clark also explains an historical score she wanted to settle in the book. In visiting New Orleans, she says, “I discovered that almost all of those who have sought to trace their Louisiana ancestry back several hundred years claim these casket girls as their forebears.”

The lineage, Clark says, seems improbable. D’Iberville asked for 100 girls, but only 22 agreed to go; it wasn’t easy to convince well-bred girls of the advantages of life in Louisiana, nor those who lacked family fortunes, and had dim prospects in France. Of those 22, a few died en route, and their infant mortality rate in the New World was so high that some observers claimed the climate made women sterile. Then, when the stream of voluntary colonists dwindled, Clark writes, “prisons were emptied; gangs of bandoliers scoured the country for beggars and vagabonds…Louisiana became a dumping ground for undesirables, smugglers, criminals and prostitutes. Given the unsavory and immoral nature of the women that followed, it’s not surprising that most would prefer to believe they are scions of respectable European families, and not the cast-off dregs of France’s orphanages, prisons and whorehouses.”

All of this holds plenty of promise for an historical novel, with two caveats. One, I’m not wholly convinced that we put much stake in glorifying the social standing of our ancestors in America. True, I once met a descendant of a 19th century U.S. President who said he thought Pocahontas was also an ancestor. Aha, I thought, claiming native lineage is an acceptable practice now among our country’s nearly-100-percent blue-bloods – as long as it’s a celebrity native American.

And anyone can go to www.nbc.com/who-do-you-think-you-are and see, as one of the various melodramatic examples of what goes on there, Sarah Jessica Parker getting all choked up as she sifts through a library record. “I find this really physically upsetting,” she says over the revelation that one of her ancestors was a woman accused of witchcraft in colonial days, and perhaps sentenced to death, though she is relieved to learn that her ancestor was the accused instead of an accuser.

Still, it can’t be just my family that accepts – indeed, relishes – the miscreants in our tree. After my Uncle James retired and took up genealogical research, we all hooted over the tale of our ante-bellum great-great-great aunt who appears to have poisoned her first husband with arsenic in his syllabub, gotten away with it thanks to the chivalry of the gentlemen of the jury, then gone on to poison two more husbands before she was hanged in Minnesota. We might joke to spouses, “be nice, or I’ll feed you an old family recipe,” but we figure this is America, we have psychotherapists and life coaches and divorce courts to help us get over things, we’ve reinvented ourselves a bazillion times since the Old South, and anyway, a gruesome story is far, far better than no story at all.

When we talk about great-great Aunt Ann, we expect the lights to flicker and the air conditioning vents to sigh. The deeper down south you go, the more the stifling summer air seems thick with the ghosts of a million troubled souls. And that brings me to the second caveat: when you write fiction set in the South, the bar is very, very high. The early 18th century characters of Savage Lands are based on people who could have been the ancestors of the real-life prototypes for Blanche DuBois, the Snopes clan, and even Rhett Butler. To dig up these ancestors and do them justice would require speaking a language as yeasty as sour mash, as fertile as August heat, in prose that winds like kudzu for miles, only to circle back to a story that has grown as lush as magnolia blossoms in its travels.

Clark’s voice is way too brisk for that world.

Her previous two novels benefit from a uniquely British sense of cruelty – shades of a dark and stormy night. Reviewers have pointed out parallels to Dickens in her first novel, The Great Stink, a tale of a sewer worker, a sewer scavenger, and a murder in Victorian London; and her second, The Nature of Monsters, about a pregnant teenaged servant girl in 18th century London whose master makes her unborn child the subject of a nasty scientific experiment. The mood is pitch-perfect in her London stories, but even so, they lack the kind of macabre humor that might make these novels destined to live through the ages.

Savage Lands begins in 1704, with a ship called the Pelican, about to sail out of France. On board amongst the marriageable French women is Elisabeth Savaret. Elisabeth is educated, but an orphan with few options except to become a spinster selling sewing notions in her aunt’s Paris shop – or take the king up on his offer to sail to the New World. The way Clark builds her up, Elisabeth, who has read The Odyssey and is carrying three volumes of Montaigne in her casket-trunk, might become a remarkable woman in America, or she might grow bitter and unfulfilled. Either way, it seems like something profound is supposed to happen under the heading of character development. Not that Elisabeth is a woman of high hopes or anything much beyond a ferocious wistfulness. She is thinking as she crosses the Atlantic, “It was miserable to be a grown woman, more miserable still to be a grown woman with neither the funds or the affections a grown woman must have at her disposal if she was to contrive her own future.” She looks down on the other girls, “the chickens”, she calls them for their prattling and cackling. The chickens will be her neighbors for the rest of her life.

Ironically, of all the girls, when they settle in the village of Mobile. Elisabeth turns out to be the one most wrapped up in her husband. He is a French-Canadian ensign named Jean-Claude Babelon, and it is telling, though more of an emotionally distant authorial voice than of anything else, that we first meet Jean-Claude not in person, but in Elisabeth’s thoughts as she carries on her housewifely duties, sounding suspiciously infatuated for a girl who fancies herself so much more sensible than her peers.

The fact that he is away much of the time might foreshadow what is ahead in their marriage – he travels often on military and trading missions, camps with tribes and spends nights in tents not his own – but the effect is to paint all of the characters in lonely little boxes, a curious state of existence in a newly settled territory where community had to mean the difference between survival and death.

Clark has a nice handle on what is clearly young lust and a marriage doomed to grow stale: “These days (Elisabeth) had to struggle to recall the girl she was before him, when her self was all in her head … passing appetites satisfied by a warm cloak or an apricot tart….She did not talk to him of poetry or philosophy, of science or astronomy. When they talked, they spoke of themselves. Sometimes, late in the liquid darkness, he told her of his dreams. For now, he was merely an ensign, the lowest rank of commissioned infantry officers, but he meant to be rich….With him, in this strange land, where the swamp whispered and the vast fruits rotted and swelled, she was flesh, all flesh.”

But lovely though her prose can be, it never quite dredges up what the swamp might have whispered, largely because it is more studied competence than real emotional investment.

Clark is academically adept in making this fictionalized history, creating characters that are of their time but never passing contemporary judgment on the way they view their world; they use the word “savage” throughout, and never question the practice of buying slaves. Nor are the natives and slaves depicted as noble savages, but as people who come up with their own ways to survive.

But where Clark particularly stops short is in inhabiting the mind of Elisabeth. More fully drawn are the two men who become the center of her life – the seductive and ambitious Jean-Claude and Auguste Guichard, a young French boy who trying his luck in the New World, left by a commandant to live with the Ouma natives. Auguste is a character based on several real young colonists who were charged with the job of learning tribal languages and custom in order to form alliances so that the French might have indigenous allies against the English.

Of course, the men get to travel while the women wait for them. Even so, we learn more about Elisabeth’s appeal from Jean-Claude than from the author. “She is strong, self-reliant. Bloody-minded, some might say,” Jean-Claude tells Auguste. Elisabeth is, indeed, bloody-minded. She can keep house for years, keep getting pregnant and miscarrying (in a way that any contemporary reader will suspect has much to do with her state of mind), live with a native slave girl who becomes pregnant with Jean-Claude’s child – and then, when the opportunity strikes, she will betray her husband.

In an opera, this would be the final aria, and the word “justice” would factor into the crescendo. But here the main action occurs in flashbacks and gossip amongst the aging chickens, leaving a sour and static quality to both the plot twist and Elisabeth’s character.

And never once, throughout an adult lifetime, does Elisabeth laugh. True, her life is nasty and brutish, but this is Louisiana at the dawn of those multi-layers of European and African cultures that left a mindset of laissez les bon temps rouler even in the face of plagues, wars, hurricanes and oil spills, and the omission feels tone-deaf. As the years wore on and the French prostitutes and thieves arrived, I couldn’t help but suspect the lowlife class was having much more fun than our heroine – and leaving more entertaining TV scripts for any present-day celebrities who happen to have Louisiana roots.

Jan Alexander is a writer and magazine editor living in New York City





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REVIEWING

Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde


by Thomas Wright

Henry Holt & Co. | 2009 | 370 pp. | $27.00

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong


thomas wright

Biography is a difficult literary form to execute today because of our sensitivity to the myriad emotional, social, and cultural layers that compose each individual’s life. Difficult as it is to unpack the experiences of a contemporary, the challenges increase tenfold when the subject lived in an era that demanded the concealment of many of these layers. Such a subject is Oscar Wilde, and such a daunting task is undertaken by Thomas Wright in Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde.

The broad outlines of Wilde’s life are well known: Born to the Irish landed gentry, he received the best education of the day at Oxford, where he took a first-class degree in classics. Although he married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and fathered two children with her, his real desire seems to have lain with men, and his greatest passion was for Alfred Douglas, an English lord and author of “Two Loves,” the poem that includes the celebrated line, “I am the Love that dare not speak its name.”

After rising to a position of intellectual and social prominence, as the result of the critical and popular success of his plays (The Importance of Being Earnest being the best known today), Wilde’s star fell spectacularly after Douglas’ father brought charges against him for sodomy and “gross indecency.” His trial was perhaps the most notorious of the century, and Wilde was ultimately convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor, from which he never recovered. Broken in body and mind, he lived only three years following his release.

The story is so familiar among lovers of English literature, that Wright’s first necessity was to justify a fresh contribution to the already dense field of scholarship on Oscar Wilde. He clears this hurdle by adopting an entirely different approach to biography: he selects one layer that has long been seen as key to an understanding of Wilde—literature and, by extension, language—and reconstructs the author’s life by locating this layer as both its foundation and driving force.

It is an intriguing approach to full-scale biography that rests on the assumption that the internal world of the mind—both its perceptions and its desires—wields equal influence in directing an individual’s life as does the external world of other people, places, and events. As Wright explains in his concluding chapter, he intended to write “an entirely new kind of literary biography—an attempt to tell the story of an author’s life and to illuminate it, exclusively through the books that he had read.”

Built of Books is essentially an intellectual biography, but one that does more than examine an author’s artistic growth by tracking what he read and then uncovering its influence on the literature that he subsequently produced. Rather, this biography examines the effect of the author’s intellectual intake on the shape and direction of his life. In this vein, Wright explains his basic thesis as:

“Wilde did not so much discover as create himself through his reading: he was a man who built himself out of books. He poured scorn on the notion that each of us has a fixed ‘inner’ self that represents an essential ‘nature’—that self was, he believed, a fiction invented by the political, economic and cultural powers that be.”

Wright thus posits that Wilde’s life was a self-conscious endeavor, as much a creation as one of his literary works. This idea is provocative, particularly when applied to an individual living prior to the dissemination of Freudian theory, but the biography would have benefited from a more consistent attention to it. Wright’s work lacks direction: he cannot decide whether he wants to focus on textual parallels (between Wilde’s reading and his writing) or on the overlap between texts and the author’s lived experience. The first approach has been thoroughly mined by scholars over the years, and here, Wright’s main failing is that he falls too easily into a pattern of cataloguing the books that Wilde consumed (sometimes literally—not only was Wilde a speed reader, tearing through a book in less than an hour, but he often physically ate the corners of the pages as he turned them over).

Books, especially cheap novels, had become widely accessible by Wilde’s day, so the challenge of the biographer is not to figure out everything he read, but to determine what had the most influence on him. Wright focuses to a certain extent on the role that the classics played in shaping Wilde’s life, but he is unable to account for the author’s predilection for the popular three-volume novels of the day, which have largely been forgotten because of their lack of any literary merit. Wilde’s preference for this literature is out of line with Wright’s thesis that the author sought to pattern his life after his reading.

Where do the often physically ugly and always technically vulgar novels fit into Wilde’s meticulously constructed life and strict adherence to the Aesthetic movement? Wright’s only explanation is that the “heterogeneity” of Wilde’s reading is due to his “desire to fully explore his ancient Darwinian soul and to express all the myriad sides of his protean personality.” But little time is devoted to delving into the contradictions between this desire and his Aesthetic convictions. Nor does Wright explore Wilde’s attitude toward Darwin in any great depth—an oversight, given Wilde’s notoriously negative attitude toward science. Such contradictions are key to a literary biography of this kind, but Wright lays out so much ground to uncover that he is unable to dig deeply into any one plot.

It is Wright’s second approach to biography, that of blurring the lines between intellectual life and life in its broadest sense, that is the most interesting and revolutionary aspect of this work. Intriguing flashes of scholarship appear throughout Built of Books, particularly when addressing Wilde’s active role in the events leading to his arrest, in 1895.

“Did Wilde purposely fulfill his ‘destiny’?” Wright asks. “Replete with portents, hubris, a wailing chorus of devoted friends and the bloody intervention of destiny, Wilde’s biography might have been written by Aeschylus; or, rather, penned by Wilde himself, using the great dramatist as his model. In this way, he achieved his ambition of turning his life into a work of art.”

Inevitably, this raises important questions about the amount of control that any individual has in shaping his or her life, and is a significant approach to understanding Wilde. Certainly, if anyone were capable of achieving such a feat, it would be Wilde, given his advantages of intellect, education, wealth, and position. Most people spend their lives struggling to scrape together the resources needed to secure a degree of comfort. Wilde already possessed these resources and was free to study and arrange them to please both his brilliant mind and his conceptions of artistry. Furthermore, he had a developed and discerning eye for understanding the way in which an individual fit into his society.

It was this quality that made him so successful in constructing epigrams, and, as Wright points out, in writing such a prodigious number of book reviews. He was able to immediately cut to the heart of any work’s argument and evaluate it in that light. With these attributes, it seems possible that Wilde would have attempted to mold his life to resemble the lives of characters in his beloved books—particularly because his outsider status as a homosexual in a moralistic society forbade him from simply following his natural inclinations. But any in-depth investigation of this thesis would require the incorporation of psychological theory to understand how Wilde attempted this, and in what ways—and, of course, why. Investigating the overlap between texts and experience demands a certain delving into the psyche and attempting to uncover patterns and parallels therein.

Along the same lines, a final question that we are left with is: even for our brightest and best, is it possible to consciously shape a life, or will external, random events inevitably obstruct this goal? It is notable that despite Wilde’s best attempts, his imprisonment left a blot on his life that could not be written away. With the exception of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Wilde was unable to write after his release from prison. The horror of the experience and his lifelong disdain for realism and the ugliness of life left him wordless. The degree of control that he exerted over his life seems to have left him no room to adapt and re-grow in response to events—his only choice was to break. Wilde’s death was an unexpectedly tragic end to a life of sporadic brilliance, and it remains for the reader to decide whether, for once, he was dealt the wrong hand, or whether he himself built his own unsteady house of cards.

Sarah Vogelsong is an editor and freelance writer living in Washington, DC.



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REVIEWING

Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reimagined the World

by Stefan Klein


Da Capo Press | Perseus Book Group | April 27, 2010 | 304 pp.

Reviewed by Ken Liebeskind

Exploring the scientific roots of Leonardo da Vinci’s genius

stefan klein

In Leonardo’s Legacy, Stefan Klein, a German science writer, reassesses the career of Leonardo. The creator of the Mona Lisa, history’s most famous painting, Leonardo was a critical scientific thinker, who understood water power, designed military weapons, flying machines, robots and a rotary device that has been called “the oldest digital computer in action.”

At the outset, Klein says Leonardo was “far more than an outstanding artist,” yet he contributes an entire chapter on his creation of the Mona Lisa indicating how his scientific mind created it. A series of chapters devoted to the individual highlights of Leonardo’s career starts with “The Gaze,” which examines how his understanding of optical laws enabled him to paint a portrait of a woman whose facial expressions are a mystery and “remain an unfathomable enigma.” The painting includes “illumination that makes Mona Lisa appear both animated and mysterious.”

He concludes that Leonardo “calculated the brightness of each and every square inch of his painting to achieve a particular effect.”

A successive chapter, “War,” details Leonardo’s design of weaponry, including crossbows and automatic rifles, and his preparations for chemical warfare, which included the use of “chalk, fine sulfuride of arsenic and powdered verdiris,” which could be fatal if ingested. Klein writes that Leonardo was a pacifist who had no interest in promoting war, but he designed weaponry in an effort to challenge the warlords he encountered. He worked for one Ludovico Sforza, who was involved in the Italian Wars. Leonard designed a wheel lock, which became the handgun’s first effective firing mechanism. He had an idea for a giant crossbow, which would have withstood cannon fire, but Klein says it was never produced. Indeed, most of Leonardo’s ideas are detailed in his drawings, but were never realized in real life.

The same can be said about the flying machines he envisioned, which are explored in the next chapter, “The Dream of Flying.” His goal was to develop a flying machine that would enable “man to imitate the incomparable elegance of the flight of birds.” Leonardo’s understanding of bird anatomy enabled him to design a machine that men could use to fly, but he ultimately realized humans were too weak to rise in the sky on their own power. But even this realization didn’t stop Leonardo, who developed another idea: a pilot floating through the air inside a sphere with a circular sail

.

Besides being a painter, Leonardo was a graphic designer who created hundreds of thousands of drawings, including detailed depictions of the human body, from the brain to the heart to the fetus in the womb.

Klein’s book portrays Leonardo’s thought processes in everything, from his paintings, to his ideas for weapons and flying machines. What the book lacks is an historical account of Leonardo’s life. He comes across as a single man who lived during the Renaissance, devoid of family and friends.

At the end of the book, a long chronology section provides useful information, from Leonardo’s birth in 1452, to his death in 1519, including information on the history of the period, from the conquest of Granada by Spanish troops (1491) to the French occupation of Naples (1495). Leonardo lived in Florence, Milan and France, painting, drawing and conceptualizing about everything from the power of water to the human body. The book also includes numerous photos that align with the text.



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REVIEWING

John Oliver Killens—A Life of Black Literary Activism

by Keith Gilyard


The University of Georgia Press | 2010 | 385 pp. | $39.95

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

keith gilyard

Only the most unenlightened, totally distracted participant at the Tenth National Black Writers’ Conference at Medgar Evers College this year missed the significance of the late John Oliver Killens (1916-1987) and his tireless dedication at the event’s very inception, in 1986. In fact, the subtitle of the bi-annual conference was And then We Heard the Thunder: Black Writers Reconstructing Memories and Lighting the Way.

Killens’ legacy was invoked at practically every panel, where his literary genius, whether as a novelist, essayist, critic, polemicist, anthologist, or political activist, was roundly praised.

And for those who missed the panels, there were copies of the Killens Review of Arts & Letters, edited by Fred Beauford with a brief but poignant profile of Killens by Dr. Brenda Greene, executive director of the Center for Black Literature.

Keith Gilyard, in his absolutely absorbing biography of Killens’ literary activism, wasn’t able to include his assessment of this most recent gathering, but he assiduously captures nearly every important moment of Killens’ highly productive life. In an almost diary-like manner, Gilyard painstakingly tracks Killens’ remarkable odyssey, and if he missed a meeting or conference where Killens held forth, only his family, including his son-in-law the poet Louis Reyes Rivera, would know.

Gilyard shadows Killens’ journey with deft precision and in doing so brings into sharp relief the times in which he lived, those who influenced him and the thousands he influenced.

Most literary hounds know of Killens from his novels, and none more notable than And Then We Heard the Thunder, which Gilyard, as he does with each of the author’s books, carefully and thoughtfully limns. The same meticulous concern is given to the various lectures, essays, seminars, and conferences where Killens’ insight is center stage. To accomplish this with such diligence and accuracy means Gilyard is either a determined collator or had the complete cooperation of the family and their archival supply of Killens’ papers.

Whatever the case, the book is a fantastic testament to a writer and activist who was as unstinting in his literary pursuits as he was uncompromising in his political stances. One of the most engrossing chapters in the book is Gilyard’s discussion of Killens’ position on the race/class dichotomy that created so much turmoil and dissension among black activists in the mid-seventies.

As Gilyard observes, Killens was not a Johnny-Come-Lately to political infighting, particularly between those who professed that the principal contradiction in the struggle to overthrow the oppressor was class and those who posited race as the fundamental problem. “…I insist that the Black question is both a class question and a race question,” Gilyard writes, quoting Killens. “One can be both a Pan African nationalist and at the same time be an advocate of socialism.”

Killens was able to take this middling position because he had walked and talked to the likes of Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Harry Haywood, Howard “Stretch” Johnson, and other Marxist thinkers. And he knew well the sympathies and objectives of the nationalist such as Haki Madhubuti, who early on helped Killens shape the conferences that gave his name a lasting legacy.

Killens saw the strengths and weaknesses of both proponents and chose not to side with either the “narrow nationalists” or the “mechanical Marxists.”

While much of the biography charts Killens’ life in a praiseworthy way, there are moments when Gilyard is critical of the subject’s production. He is not afraid to note some of the Killens’ shortcomings, especially in the unpublished The Minister Primarily, which he views as “overdrawn and a bit suffocating.” Even so, he adds, Killens’ humor bursts through and the manuscript is to some degree redeemed.

But if Killens had done no more than organize the Harlem Writers Guild, along with the esteemed John Henrik Clarke, his place in the pantheon of black literature would be secure. A host of writers profited from the Guild—Maya Angelou, Sarah Wright, Rosa Guy, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and countless others.

Film buffs will be interested to read Gilyard’s examination of Odds Against Tomorrow, the film starring Harry Belafonte; for many years people were under the impression that Killens had authored the screenplay. Gilyard gets to the bottom of this affair, explaining that while Killens was not the author, he played a decisive role in restructuring the film’s ending.

Gilyard does a fair job of dealing with the derogations and attacks on Killens by Harold Cruse, whom he concluded, “had read little” of Killens’ writings and “certainly none of it closely.” But to Killens, Cruse was nothing more than a “literary hatchet man,” and chose not to waste a lot of time and energy challenging his vindictiveness. He would, however, expend more than a passing nod to William Styron and his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, in which the author offers his “meditations on history.” To Killens, the book was nothing more than a “fake illusion of reality because it legitimatized all of their [white Americans] myths and prejudices about the American black man…”

In the end, Gilyard has performed an admirable service and it’s hard to believe anyone will be more definitive in capturing the wide arc that Killens cut through the literary firmament. And while the book’s length is satisfactory, with twelve pages of photos and an extensive bibliography, an index would have given it additional value.

I don’t think Gilyard will mind if we give Killens the last word: “Don’t write about the Negro,” he advised his young protégés. “But surely the American Negro is the most uniquely American of all Americans, because he was created here, in this place, physically, psychologically, sociologically, culturally, and economically. He is an American product. The Negro, in his black presence, is the barometer of the nation’s Constitution, and all its democratic traditions yet realized.” And John Oliver Killens was emblematic of this essence.



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REVIEWING

The Double Comfort Safari Club

by Alexander McCall Smith


Reviewed by Janet Garber


Cold Comfort in a Hot Climate


alexander mccall smith

This is the 11th book in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which debuted in 1998. Set in Gaborone, Botswana, the series, written by Alexander McCall Smith, showcases the talents of a memorable cast of characters: the principal, self-styled detective, Mma Precious Ramotse, her sidekick, Grace Makutsi, and Ramotse’s boyfriend and eventual husband, the mechanic, J.L.B. Matekoni.

Botswana is a land largely unknown to Western readers whose only images derive certainly from the 1980 cult classic, The Gods Must be Crazy, in which a loin-clothed native from the Kalahari desert journeys to “the end of the earth,” hoping to give the gods back a gift he and the other peace-loving Bushmen definitely do not want: namely a Coke bottle which fell from the sky.

McCall, a Scotsman born in Zimbabwe, takes us into this “primitive,” but slowly evolving African world (dirt roads, wild animals, limited horizons. . . cell phones?), struggling to hold on to its proud culture (benevolent rulers, great gentleness, pride and a general politeness of the people) while shrugging off the vestiges of lingering tribal superstitions.

Since she’s a detective, Mma Ramotse is in contact with people of all classes and privy to all sorts of nasty doings. While we can’t help seeing the otherness of Botswana, the universality of the human condition is evident: spouses cheat on each other, people run various swindles, and there’s plenty of lying going around, as well as bribery, blackmail and domestic abuse.

Each book is a little gem. Mma Romotse is approached by people in need, she investigates 3-4 cases, and ties everything up neatly with a bow by the end of 200 pages. Her special skills are the ability to read people and discern their motives, knowing who to talk to in order to get at the truth, and confronting malefactors head on, while getting them to behave. She’s a fierce believer in comeuppance and her solutions are usually very satisfying to the soul. She’s a marvel and makes it all seem so simple. While she’s solving the cases, she’s drinking buckets of bush tea, helping out her friends at the local orphanage, sitting under trees to get out of the heat, and smoothing the feathers of her super uptight Assistant Detective, Mma Makutsi.

The beauty of the series is in the characters, the character-driven plots and the basic fact that Precious Ramotse is just so darned wise, good and empathetic! She’s irresistible and charming as all get-out. Smith gives us access to her personal history and Makutsi’s and Matekoni’s to see that they, too, experience problems we thought more common to first world inhabitants.

Now to this latest book, which I’ve been putting off discussing - I am sorry to report that I found it to be a bit thin, tired, and repetitive. Where is Smith’s usually effortless lyricism? Missing, I’m afraid. He repeats stock phrases about the Batswana (the people of Botswana), the traditional importance of cattle in their society and the loveliness and calm of life in the village. We hear about Mma Ramotse’s endless drinking of bush tea, eavesdrop on the rather slow thought processes of her husband and the rather quirky ones of her assistant. (Her shoes talk to her?) There is a little more character development; the relationship between the chief detective and her assistant is evolves in an interesting fashion, but overall, my feeling is that Smith, sadly, is just “phoning it in.”

Perhaps it is time to let Mma Makutsi take over, and let Mma Precious Ramotse retire and count her cattle. Smith, an amazingly prolific writer, a musician, and Emeritus Professor at the School of Law in Edinburgh, has several other series that he works on, such as The Sunday Philosophy series featuring Isabel Dalousie, and a whole raft of children’s books. In the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, he has created indelible characters, whom have been embodied perfectly in the BBC/HBO series (directed by Anthony Minghella) that premiered in 2009. Do better choices exist than the actresses Jill Scott to play the traditionally built Precious Ramotse or Anika Noni Rose, the unforgettable scene- stealer, Makutsi? The books have enough twists and turns to provide plot lines for several seasons. Talk to your shoes, Alexander, and see if they agree with me! And HBO, get cracking with the second season already! The fans are getting restless.

Janet Garber is a freelance writer living in New York City.



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