‘Daring to Drive’: One Woman Changes a Kingdom

  • Daring to Drive by Manal Al-Sharif (Simon & Schuster); June 2017; in collaboration with Lyric Winik
  • In 40 words or less: From childhood, Manal Al-Sharif was unwilling to settle for the roles assigned by teachers and religious authorities. Necessity pushed her to defy convention and drive. Her story provides insight into the harshness of life for less-privileged Saudis.
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Locale: Saudi Arabia
  • Time: 1980’s – 2012
  • As a part of telling her personal story, Manal schools the reader on the history and customs of Saudi life, particularly since 9/11. The critical role Aramco (the state-operated oil company established by John D. Rockefeller) plays in offering women wider opportunities, somewhat outside of the constraints of the broader society, is a catalyst for Manal’s activism.

If you doubt for a moment that one person can bring about major change, Daring to Drive and this week’s dramatic announcement that women will be permitted to drive on the streets of Saudi Arabia prove it. Manal Al-Sharif was not born into an activist family. Her upbringing was in a harsh home, governed by strict Islamic rules and the unbending strictures of an education system determined to minimize girls’ opportunities and ambitions.

Manal always went her own way. She simultaneously questioned the authority of her teachers while exploring very fundamentalist religious teachings, putting her at odds with many including her siblings. 9/11 was a turning point for her, causing her to reassess her belief in the strictest religious teachings and the true nature of the factions calling for the demise of the West.

It is information technology that finally brought Manal to national and world attention. While she wanted to be an engineer, this was not a profession open in any way to women. The limited higher education options included a single path to information technology. Her tenacity and good fortune brought her to Aramco,  giving her a taste of some of the freedoms and opportunities open to women elsewhere in the world. As she learned of the Arab Spring through her laptop, another rarity, she realized that Twitter could provide the platform to bring together Saudi women across the country willing to drive!

This is far more than one woman’s quest. To tell Manal Al-Sharif’s story demanded looks into working-class family life, the juxtaposition of civil law and religious authority, the differential information available to the privileged and ordinary citizens. Decades of Saudi history and custom are woven into the telling. Not surprisingly, Daring to Drive has been received with acclaim in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom, with its large expat Saudi community and many wealthy Saudi visitors. The book has not been available within Saudi Arabia.

Manal was interviewed exhaustively in the development of this book. To bring her story to the page required the failed collaborative efforts of four skilled writers. It took hours of additional Skype conversations and extensive research for Lyric Winik, the final collaborator, to successfully convey the extraordinary personal journey Manal has taken from frightened small child to international activist.

It pays to have friends. My good fortune is to know Jenna and Gadi Ben-Yehuda. Knowing my love of books and authors, they introduced me to Lyric Winik as the book was being released in June. Lyric and I made plans to have her meet with a book group I facilitate on September 26. At 4:00 that afternoon the news bulletins and emails started pouring in – the Saudi Arabian government announced that beginning in June 2018 women would be allowed to drive in public in the kingdom.

Book club meeting, Tuesday, September 26, 2017, discussing ‘Daring to Drive’.

Meeting with a writer is a wonderful experience for a book group. It provides insights beyond the written page – how the narrative was constructed, what research was required, and the challenges of bringing the story to the public. We had many questions for Lyric, and we asked them all. And then we rejoiced for Manal and all the women of Saudi Arabia who have endured so much for so long in silence.

 

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All My Puny Sorrows

  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (McSweeney’s, US publication), 2015
  • In 43 words or less: Sisters Elfrieda and Yolandi are closer than close. Now adults, Elf is a renowned pianist and Yoli a struggling mother and writer. Their Mennonite family and Elf’s mental illness overtake their lives. Funny and heartbreaking, this well-written novel isn’t for everyone.
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Locale: Canada
  • Time: Contemporary
  • Toews gives a glimpse into a less-than-traditional Mennonite family and the forces that shape it. Warning: Themes related to mental illness, living with a loved one with mental illness.

Miriam Toews is an acclaimed writer in Canada and less known south of the border. For more than two decades she has been amassing honors for her writing which includes six novels, the latest being All My Puny Sorrows. It either won or was shortlisted for most of the major Canadian fiction prizes upon its publication.

All My Puny Sorrows draws upon Toews’ family life as a child of an unconventional Mennonite family in Manitoba. Being unfamiliar with this community, her descriptions of communal norms and the choices her family made that set them apart were particularly interesting. The relationship of Elfrieda and Yolandi brought to mind the Helen Reddy song “You and Me Against the World.” Elf is a brilliant concert pianist who feels music, poetry and all aspects of life deeply and darkly. Yolandi, the younger sister, is her foil and protector, dropping everything to cushion Elf from harm.

Yoli hasn’t attended to her own needs as carefully. Her romantic relationships have failed, though her two children seem surprisingly well adjusted. A writer, she earns a meager living writing children’s novels she dislikes and is regularly a step away from financial ruin. Fortunate to have a friend who steps in when she can, Yoli’s first priority remains Elf and keeping her safe.

I regularly encourage people to visit independent bookstores when traveling and to buy local authors as a way to bring the trip back home.  A kind friend gave me All My Puny Sorrows after a visit to Toronto. While the book is beautifully written, the realism Miriam Toews brings to Yoli and Elf is so personal and painful I read it in small bites. Despite the darkness, there is a lot of humor and the story is filled with familial love across three generations. Even though there is little difference between American and Canadian English, there is something distinctly Canadian beyond the locations that are periodically mentioned.

Miriam Toews is a survivor of familial suicide and has written a nonfiction book about her father and his suicide. Her experiences clearly have informed her fiction. For this reason, prospective readers may want to avoid this book if it hits too close to home or is otherwise too disturbing.

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Not All ‘Enchanted Islands’ Are Paradise

  • Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend (Doubleday), 2016
  • In 40 words or less: Loosely based on a woman who lived with her husband on the Galapagos Islands prior to WWII,  a novel of a woman striving to overcome the poverty of an immigrant home, using her skills and life-long secretiveness to become a US spy.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Duluth, Chicago, San Francisco, Galapagos Islands
  • Time: 1890-1964
  • Readers who enjoy exotic settings will find the descriptions of life on the islands fascinating. The lives of the fictional Frances and Ainslie Conway are far more complicated than just their intelligence mission and likely than their real lives.

Allison Amend had taken a lovely nugget, two memoirs of Frances Conway’s experience in the Galapagos Islands, and used it as a springboard for this novel of hardship, transformation, and love. Amend imagined Frances as one of seven children born to Polish-Jewish immigrants to Duluth in the 1880s. The early portions of the novel contrast her family life with that of her friend Rosalie, the only child of educated German immigrants. Despite the relative comforts of Rosalie’s home, dark secrets propel the two to leave for Chicago at fifteen.Woven into the plot are historical details about the roles young women on their own could take at the turn of the 20th century. Franny and Rosalie sought out the Jewish community to provide a lifeline as they first arrived in Chicago but had no interest in assimilating into that life. In the course of her secretarial work, Franny also becomes involved in the surreptitious publication of early Zionist newsletters, not out of interest but rather through happenstance.

Franny and Rosalie take differing paths to securing their futures. After a blow-up with Rosalie, Frances heads west, initially to live on a farm, later to California as a secretary in military intelligence.  These experiences become the qualifications she needs to enter into an arranged marriage with an intelligence officer who is to be posted to the Galapagos Islands to keep an eye on the German residents suspected of providing information to the growing Reich. Before leaving San Francisco, Franny and Rosalie reunite. Rosalie is now a wealthy society matron, involved in the civic and Jewish community, living a life she’d like to share with Franny, her oldest and only true friend.

Franny’s marriage to Ainslie Conway is a creation of spycraft. Neither had been married or expected to. The cover story for “going native” was to remove Ainslie from the temptations of alcohol, apparently one of the facts this story hangs on. As the narrator, Franny’s vulnerability and desire for all levels of intimacy are revealed. Reading with 21st-century sensibilities, the challenges to their marriage are clear.

Amend does a wonderful job of describing the daily challenges that the rough terrain, limited supplies, and communications cause during their time in the Galapagos. On an island with less than a dozen residents, most of whom were German,  privacy was highly valued and there was little cushion between basic survival and potential disaster.  Medical care and any other services from more populated areas were days, if not weeks, away. Given the intelligence operations, using the hidden military radio was limited to specific purposes. As the war approached, US naval vessels periodically approached the island for reconnaissance purposes.

As is clear from the start, Franny and Rosalie are destined to reconnect again and the story comes full circle. Amend has an ambitious agenda with Enchanted Islands. She takes on the Jewish immigrant experience, the exploitation of young women, early feminism, spycraft and life in an exotic locale. Throughout it all, loyalty and friendship are key. While there is a lot to learn about life just before the war in the Galapagos, don’t expect to meet the real Frances, Ainslie or Rosalie.  Knowing this up front is good enough for me.

 

 

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Emma Donoghue has a thing for mothers

  • The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown and Company, September 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A nurse trained by Florence Nightingale travels to rural Ireland to confirm/refute that a young girl is surviving on faith and water alone.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Rural Ireland
  • Time: 19th century
  • In both her earlier novel, Room, and here, Emma Donaghue creates women characters desperate to protect children in their care. The Wonder juxtaposes faith and science, the authority of men versus women, and the power and damage of keeping secrets.

Many readers shied away from Donoghue’s Room. Most of that story took place out of sight, in a bunker where a young boy was raised by his mother, both captive to her rapist. In The Wonder, Lib, a Nightingale-trained nurse travels from London to the Irish countryside to observe a phenomenon -a young girl, Anna, seemingly surviving for months without consuming any food. Visitors have been flocking in search of blessings. The church and local leaders are concerned about the spectacle and the possibility of a hoax.

Lib and a Sister nurse are charged with observing Anna round the clock, documenting her physiological status and any possibility of food being provided. The nurses are charged to observe and record, not consult. Any judgments are to be left to the community leaders.

Lib is a fish out of water. A Londoner through and through, it is unclear why she would take this position. She has little good to say about the community or its people. And there is no evidence of contact with family or friends, seemingly both physically and emotionally alone. Only with the arrival of a journalist does she appear to have a connection in the community, though with risk.

In many ways, this is a novel of silence and secrets. The question of Anna’s family’s honesty is at the crux of the plot. The family had recently experienced the death of Anna’s brother, to whom she was devoted but it is barely noted. As the narrator and a main figure in the novel, it might be expected to learn about Lib but she is a closed book in public and in private. It is only by coming to grips with their secrets that each can be saved.

Emma Donoghue is very skilled in building tension in her stories. In Lib she has created a watchful and intelligent protector who sees her responsibility as much to Anna as to those who hired her. Anna is at the same time angelic and strong as steel, unwavering and faith-filled. Neither friends nor adversaries, each holds her own as the novel unfolds.

The Wonder was chosen by many critics as a top book of 2016. It is impossible to separate the essence of spirituality from the plot of the narrative.  As a reader, one’s individual connection with the spiritual likely will have an impact on the appreciation for the book.

 

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Sharing books with Mom

Regardless of where you sit on the family tree, there is likely a mother (daughter, sister,  in-law, or you) in your life that is deserving of recognition. Just as I’ve shared suggestions of books for Dad in the past, mothers should have equal time.

For Mother’s Day, you want to give (or get) just the right thing.  One thing likely has not changed from the days when a handmade macaroni necklace was perfect – it’s the thought you put into it that counts. There are more pluses to giving books than the obvious reasons.

When you select a book you are opening a conversation. Are you giving a book you’ve enjoyed or one that reminds you of a shared experience? Is it by Mom’s favorite author or takes place in a city she loves? Whether it becomes her new favorite or not, talking books is usually interesting, often more so if you disagree about merits of a title.

Before I give some of my picks, I’d suggest you think about those titles that you’d read again, either because they entertained or informed you. They may be a perfect choice for gift giving. Please share your picks in the comments.

Here are some titles and authors my mother may see if she hasn’t already. Titles with links have my reviews:

  • Helen Simonson’s  The Summer Before the War or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Two novels of English small town life with endearing characters, the first WWI-era and the second contemporary.
  • The Girls of Atomic City is a fascinating look at the integral secret role women played in the development of the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge was created almost overnight from nothing and was at the forefront of research (and social engineering) during the latter days of WWII. By Denise Kiernan.
  • Geraldine Brooks really does have something for every Mom! My favorites are Year of Wonders, a fictional account of a real community that isolated itself during the plague, and Foreign Correspondence, her memoir of her beginnings as an Australian schoolgirl whose pen pals set the stage for her career as a journalist and author. March and People of the Book are also great choices!
  • Israeli novels in translation are a favorite of mine. Three picks are The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, a novel about the high personal price of life in the intelligence service, and The Hilltop by Assaf Gavron, a contemporary story of the complexities and absurdities of life in an Israeli settlement. Lastly, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi is a novel about life in Palestine/Israel at the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State told in the rare voices of generations of a Sephardi family. This view has made it a huge bestseller in Israel. My review will appear soon.
  • Three very different historical fiction stories of strong women are The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes (19th/21st century), The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (20th/21st century), and The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (18th century).
  • Start her on Louise Penny’s Three Pines/Inspector Gamache mysteries and she will have books to keep her busy for months. A Great Reckoning was just released in paperback, or start at the beginning with Still Life. Rich characters that deal with life’s big issues in a setting you wish you could visit. There are many reasons her fan base is so loyal.
  • Perla, Carolina deRobertis’s magical novel about seeking identity during Argentina’s “Dirty War” will send her searching for information about the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the women who demonstrated and sought out information about their children and grandchildren “disappeared” by the government.
  • For something totally unexpected, share one of these stories about the American West immediately after the Civil War. News of the World is a beautiful small book by Paulette Jiles about a newsreader and a young girl rescued from Indian captors. EpitaphMary Doria Russell’s novel about the legendary Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, has just been optioned for a movie. I’d stand in line to see either on the screen.
  • Speaking of the screen, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Smoot and The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman are wonderful nonfiction titles have been adapted recently.
  • I love Venice and I’m a sucker for detective stories. Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti keeps me coming back to explore that wondrous city. There are now 26 titles in the series. While the principals have aged some since the beginning, it is not critical to read them in order.
  • If you, or the mother in your life, enjoys short stories, travel, and mysteries, check out the Akashic Noir series of titles. There are books for cities from Baltimore to Belfast to Beirut and beyond, each with stories written by local authors.
  • Finally, some “drop everything and read” titles that are perfect for getting away. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney is a new gem, based in part on the life of the top female advertising copywriter in the first half of the 20th century. The Truth According to Us is Annie Barrow’s story of long-held family secrets wrapped up with lots of information about the National Writer’s Project which employed writers to tell the histories of small-town America during the Depression. Before Me Before You, Jojo Moyes penned The Girl You Left Behind, a novel of life in the French countryside during WWI, a painting, and questions of its ownership almost a century later.

This lengthy listing barely touches on the possibilities. I specifically avoided WWII/Holocaust historical fiction. There are many, many wonderful and well-promoted books in this genre. Cookbooks and food memoirs with rich stories would be great for foodies but they are specific to individual tastes (excuse the pun!) Short story collections are making a big comeback, as are narrative nonfiction titles. While a few biographies or memoirs have been included, an entire list could be made of this genre. Still looking for something else? There are many recommendations on the website.