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Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia · NYJB Review

of-women-and-salt-gabriela-garcia-book-review-jeanne-blasbergOf Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

This review was originally posted on the New York Journal of Books.

Of Women and Salt is a tale of family legacy that juxtaposes the story of four generations of matrilineal descendants in a Cuban family spanning 150 years with the experiences of a lone Salvadoran mother and daughter caught up in the bureaucracy and dehumanization of modern-day US deportation. From a 19th century Cuban cigar factory to present day Miami on the one hand, to a border detention center and an arbitrary landing place in Mexico on the other, the novel’s chapters read like a series of interrelated short stories told from a variety of female perspectives.

Jeanette’s life is the most common thread throughout the book. She lives in a Miami neighborhood where everyone minds their own business. A recovering addict, Jeannette is doing temp work from home when Ana, the daughter of a single mother living next door, is dropped off by the babysitter to an empty home. A moment of connection follows as the young girl knocks on Jeannette’s door: “The girl scans her surroundings, and her eyes stop at Jeanette’s kitchen window. They stare at each other.”

This book is an achievement, with short-story-like chapters that nevertheless follow a satisfying arc.

Earlier in the day, Jeanette had seen ICE agents raid the home and take the little girl’s mother away. Still, Jeanette’s decision to open her door is not easy. After eventually letting the girl in, she feeds her and puts her to bed, then closes the door to her bedroom and Googles “What happens to children if their parents are deported?”

The next day, Jeanette is visited by her mother Carmen, a woman Jeanette describes as “Pearls, slacks, wrinkle cream, a box of blank thank-you notes. Always put together. Always carrying a whiff of her own success and composure like a cardigan at the shoulders. You look at her and just know: here is a woman with answers. So often Jeanette has wondered how she came from such a woman.”

When Carmen discovers her daughter’s desire to take care of Ana, she is incensed, saying, “Jeanette. This is not a game. You’re on probation. You really want to mess everything up again?” The irony is that Carmen, a Cuban immigrant herself, has no compassion for the little girl’s plight. Jeanette asks her, “You’re an immigrant. . . . Do you ever think about how Cubans get all this special treatment . . . Don’t you think it’s your responsibility to give a shit about other people?”

Of Woman and Salt proves that no matter how much one wishes to disassociate with the past, our lives are inextricably wound up with the actions of those who came before us.

And so, the intrigue begins, why did Carmen leave Cuba so many years ago if it wasn’t for political reasons? After hosting Thanksgiving dinner, Carmen shares her perspective on her homeland in relation to her new country: “Cuba this, Cuba that. Cuba Cuba Cuba. Why anyone left a place only to reminisce, to carry its streets into every conversation, to see every moment through the eyes of some imagined loss, was beyond her. Miami existed as such a hollow receptacle of memory, a shadow city, full of people who needed a place to put their past into perspective. Not her. She lived in the present.”

Or she tries to. Of Woman and Salt proves that no matter how much one wishes to disassociate with the past, our lives are inextricably wound up with the actions of those who came before us.

Carmen’s line goes back to Maria Isabel in Camagüey, Cuba, in the year 1866 rolling cigars while her future husband reads aloud from Victor Hugo. Violence abounds for the family and much is kept secret. When Jeanette travels to Cuba in search of answers about her mother, her past, even something of herself, she is hosted by Maydelis, a cousin of her own generation.

Here, the novel offers back-to-back chapters from both women’s points of view, a terrific contrast of worldview. Maydelis’ first reaction to this cousin from America is that she is nothing more than a tourist, blind to her family’s struggle. Maydelis observes, “Jeanette offers to pay but she’s carrying only divisa, not moneda nacional. Constantly she complains about the unfairness of the double-currency system, about how mad she feels paying a commission to exchange dollars into CUCs. There seem so many other easy injustices to point to; I’m frequently amused by what catches her fancy.”

Meanwhile, Jeanette notes of Maydelis, “All she wants to talk about is the United States, what it’s like over there . . . she lists kinds of people that exist in Cuba—freakies, emos, Mickeys, repas. She lists what they wear and what music they listen to and where they hang out and I realize every country is different but the same. Every country has its own lunch tables.”

Of Women and Salt is a beautifully written novel that turns like a kaleidoscope in the light, illuminating the blurry delineation of who is an insider and who an outsider.

And then there is the plight of Gloria and Ana, mother and daughter torn apart by an ICE raid and reunited in a border detention center for families many months after Jeanette discovers Ana at her front door. In a chapter told from Gloria’s point of view, she shares a memory of a Christian missionary who told her as a child, “Despite having so little. . . you are so happy. You could teach the children in my country so much about what’s really important in life.”

Gloria explains that she had never thought of herself as having little. She says of the missionary, “I wondered what she had expected: sad poor people being sad and poor at every sad, poor moment of their lives? She mistook happiness for what it was—how we survive and build lives out of the strings that we hold.” The women in Of Woman and Salt do just that—they build lives out of the strings they hold.

Gloria’s assessment of an outsider judging what she couldn’t possibly understand underscores a recurring theme in this book, aided by the narrative technique of multiple points of view. Examples of racism and the stratification to which human beings are subject fill Gabriela Garcia’s novel. When Jeanette is in Cuba she observes her grandmother’s blatant racism toward a neighbor who is Black, but she notes, “it isn’t as though Black Cubans fare better in Miami, where racism is polite, quiet. This is the fact: In Miami, Cuban is synonymous with white. In Miami, Cubans will scoff when you call them Latino. ‘I’m not Latino, I’m Cuban,’ they will say. By which I mean, I am white, another kind of white you don’t know about, outsider.”

Of Women and Salt is a beautifully written novel that turns like a kaleidoscope in the light, illuminating the blurry delineation of who is an insider and who an outsider. The chapters build upon each other, offering the reader cumulative insight and a sense of dramatic irony. But even while the reader understands much more than any given character ever does, the author also allows precious white space where the reader can come to her own conclusions. This book is an achievement, with short-story-like chapters that nevertheless follow a satisfying arc. Even better, they culminate in a redeeming and emotional ending.

 

Read more of Jeannie’s Reviews on her blog, on Goodreads, or on the New York Journal of Books.

Caul Baby by Morgan Jerkins · NYJB Review

caul-baby-morgan-jerkins-jeanne-blasberg-book-reviewCaul Baby by Morgan Jerkins

This review was originally published by the New York Journal of Books.

Caul Baby is an ambitious and unique novel set in a Harlem neighborhood where a powerful Creole family, the Melancons, conduct a secretive trade from their bodega storefront. They are caul-bearers, born with the birth membrane still intact. A phenomenon that occurs in about 1 in 80,000 births, caul-bearing has long been considered auspicious in many cultures.

The author evokes literary tradition and sets the mysterious tone around cauls in the opening epigraph with a quote from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, “I was born with a caul, which was advertised for sale. . . . The caul was won, I recollect, by an old lady with a hand-basket. . . . It is a fact which will be long remembered as remarkable down there, that she was never drowned, but died triumphantly in bed, at ninety-two.”

The Melancons sell pieces of caul as protective amulets to well-off white families. Women from outside the neighborhood are desperate for magical healing and not as disdainful of the family as their neighbors in Harlem. The Melancons, bearing a name that connotes the French for melancholy, are shrouded in rumors of magic and healing.

The matriarch is Maman who brought their tradition from Louisiana to Harlem after their practices came under scrutiny there. Maman is careful to maintain isolation in Harlem and business thrives, allowing this family of women economic autonomy. The price for this independence, however, is that they’ve turned their bodies, and the bodies of their offspring, into commodities. The novel questions how far one might go to maintain self-sufficiency, to avoid the patriarchy, to bypass an altogether unwelcoming capitalist system.

The plot begins with pregnant Harlem native Laila. After having suffered multiple miscarriages, Laila seeks help from Josephine Melancon to keep her most recent pregnancy viable. But when the deal with the Melancon’s falls through, Laila’s child is stillborn. Around the same time, Laila’s college-aged niece, Amara, becomes pregnant. Amara decides to place her newborn daughter, Hallow, in a private adoption, arranged by a Wall Street trader who also moonlights as the Melancons’ agent. Unbeknownst to Amara, her daughter is born a caul-bearer and placed with the Melancons. She is raised as Josephine Melancon’s own in hopes of her carrying on the family tradition.

Mother-child relationships form an important thematic thread in this novel, from Laila’s awful loss to Hallow’s search for her mother. Each mother-child relationship portrayed in the novel suffers from fissures and misunderstanding. Josephine Melancon accuses Maman of showing Hallow off “like a pet monkey.” Maman often burns the girl’s hand in public so spectators can watch her body quickly heal itself, all in the name of marketing.

Maman reminds her daughter, “We help people. Never forget that. Everything here was maintained by us. By our bodies, so that we don’t have to answer to anyone or anything.” She explains further, “[Children] weren’t just born just to be born but to continue a lineage. We have been given a gift, Josephine, can’t you see it? The reason we’ve been able to stay here is not because there’s ample opportunity for Black women to get ahead in traditional jobs, nor is it because of a benevolent landlord, but because of this . . .” Maman says this while running her fingers along the caul of Josephine’s leg.

Ultimately the plot leads to a point in which Amara has graduated from college and earned a law degree. She has done “everything she is supposed to get ahead.” Positioning herself for a run at District Attorney, she pursues an indictment of the Melancon family for “organ trafficking. And if the caul is traveling across state lines, that could be federal racketeering.” She is seeking justice for what happened to Laila long before and hoping for a legal win that will put her in the media spotlight. Despite doing her research, she doesn’t realize the daughter she surrendered for adoption is part of the Melancon clan.

Caul Baby explores the female body’s various roles, what is taken from a woman, and what she chooses to give away. This is most obvious with a caul, a membrane of skin, but depicted through childbirth as well. Beyond the Melancon inner circle, the novel includes practicing doulas who reveal anecdotes of difficult pregnancies and infertility in the neighborhood, adding an additional backdrop of neglect. Josephine’s sister, Iris Melancon, has a body no longer valued by the family. She is therefore relegated to the basement where she is visited by spirits. She lives “between worlds as old folks say,” inhabiting the gap between myth and reality, much like the story as a whole straddles both surrealism with its allusions to black magic and the reality of systemic racism around prenatal care that puts Black women at higher risk for miscarriage and death during childbirth.

Jerkins adeptly delivers a timely message as well as a novel replete with symbolism and metaphor. The Melancon brownstone is a character in and of itself. With jazz crooning in the background, cannabis smoke often in the air, and Iris and her spirit companions living in the basement, it is a home that moans with history and sadness.

Cracks in the walls and ceiling grow and expand over time in a ghostly scrawl. The house ultimately falls down around the women and burns to the ground. Standing in a neighborhood increasingly threatened by gentrification, the home becomes a prison to Hallow. She is sheltered and homeschooled her entire life in order to protect the caul. She needs to be on hand so that her skin may be harvested whenever customers arrive. Her innocence, confusion and despair during this most unusual girlhood presents a heartbreaking element to the story. She wonders “what [can] be called hers in this precious brownstone.” Just as her mother, Josephine, will later lament, “without Landon or Hallow or the persistent bullying from Maman. . . . she didn’t feel like a caulbearer or an ordinary. She felt incorporeal, and perhaps this dissolution was the ultimate sacrifice to this brownstone.”

Through Maman’s character, the novel holds a light to the trope of the Black mother and all she is meant to be, a church-going woman holding her family and community together. Maman is none of those things and all of those things. She is larger than life, an embodiment of contradictions alternately playing the roles of heroine, family savior, and villain. Her character is refreshing in its honesty and frankness, if not maddening in its reticence to comfort and coddle.

Caul Baby is like nothing I’ve read before. It has historical references but is overwhelmingly a book of our time. It delivers a story that weaves the nuance of Black womanhood with intergenerational struggles and triumphs and the heartache of contemporary racial injustice.

 

Read more of Jeannie’s Reviews on her blog, on Goodreads, or on the New York Journal of Books.

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Mt. Moriah’s Wake by Melissa Norton Carro

listening-path-mt-moriahs-wake-melissa-carro-jeanne-blasberg-book-reviewMt. Moriah’s Wake by Melissa Norton Carro

Melissa Carro has written a stunning debut about trauma and loss and persevering love. She has created a compelling protagonist in JoAnna Wilson, haunted by ghosts of her past, terribly flawed, yet ever so sympathetic. The story of Mt Moriah’s Wake unfolds masterfully, alternating timelines in a way that had me eagerly reading on to the final, most satisfying plot twist. I love the way Carro rendered heartache, misunderstanding, love, and the all-around messiness of human relationships. This is a beautiful novel about returning home and the power of place to both repel and attract. It offered an inspiring message of hope and healing that I won’t soon forget.

 

This official blurb was provided at the request of the author.

 

Check out the other books Jeannie has blurbed.

 

About Mt Moriah’s Wake

Orphaned at age eight, JoAnna Wilson was raised by her eccentric aunt in the bucolic southern community of Mt. Moriah. Now a twenty-six-year old would-be writer, JoAnna faces several crossroads: in her marriage, in her career, and in her faith. She left home for Chicago in 1997 immediately following the murder of her best friend, Grace. Now she comes back to Mt. Moriah for the first time in four years to attend her aunt’s funeral―and realizes that she must confront both the profound sorrow she feels over Grace’s death and the mysterious guilt she carries. She must finally grieve.

A hauntingly sweet story of love and loss that alternates between JoAnna’s childhood in Mt. Moriah, her life in Chicago and her present encounters upon returning home, Mt. Moriah’s Wake ponders deep questions: When we experience unspeakable tragedy, do we see ourselves as victim or survivor? Is it possible to regain happiness in the face of such? And how do we find our faith again, once it is lost?

As her past and present worlds collide, JoAnna grapples with these questions―and her journey moves toward an unexpected conclusion.

Mt Moriah’s Wake hits shelves July 27, 2021. Add it on Goodreads and preorder through Bookshop to support your local independent bookstore.

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Leaving Coy’s Hill by Katherine A. Sherbrooke

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Leaving Coy’s Hill by Katherine A. Sherbrooke

With incredible elegance and insight, Leaving Coy’s Hill strikes a perfect balance between historical setting and a rendering of the inner woman. I delighted in Lucy’s character, her quirks, ambition, loves, as well as her friendships and connectedness to important figures of the time.  While the novel illuminates the timeless female struggle for equality, tight roping career and motherhood, and achieving financial independence, its crowning achievement is an authentic, poetic voice. Sherbrooke’s language set the clocks back a hundred and fifty years with its soothing, measured cadence. Clear your calendar for this one, it’s an impossible-to-put-down, must read. 

 

This official blurb was provided at the request of the author.

 

Read more reviews from Jeannie.

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Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

plain_bad_heroines_emily_danforth_book_review_jeanne_blasbergPlain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Okay, so a haunted girls boarding school set in Little Compton, Rhode Island… Plain Bad Heroines had me at hello. Emily Danforth has such a punchy and quick-witted use of language that there were always several layers of entertainment going on for me, and I was taken by her unabashedly addressing the reader throughout.

This novel has been described as Gothic, but it harkened to early Nineteenth century novelists such as Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, and George Eliot in its third person omniscient voice. The story braids two time frames, 1902 at the Brookhants boarding school with contemporary Hollywood, and features a mostly all-female cast of characters. Both time periods include triads of young women who fall in love and suffer jealousies within their respective triangles. The initial love at Brookhants between Flo and Clara and curious Eleanor (on the outside) was inspired by the work of Mary MacLane, a shocking memoirist who in the late 1800’s scandalized readers with her bisexuality. I mention this only because it was the first of many literary and cultural references that made my experience of this book expansive, ie. a second layer of entertainment value.

As for the story itself, it was not so much a haunted tale as it was a parody of haunted tales past and present, and I am not lying reader, when I say a portion of my home was infested with yellow jackets while I was listening to the audio (you must read the book to get this.) I hear the printed version is 600+ pages, but still I would suggest picking it up if you like smart writing and courageous technique.

 

Note that I listened to the audio version courtesy of Libro.fm and the narrator was outstanding!

 

Read more reviews from Jeannie.

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White Ivy by Susie Yang · NYJB Review

This review was originally published by the New York Journal of Books.

white-ivy-susie-yang-book-review-jeanne-blasbergWhite Ivy by Susie Yang

White Ivy is a suspenseful novel with a protagonist who is intentionally portrayed as an anti-heroine. It begins “Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her.” In classic anti-heroism style, Ivy has few redeeming qualities at the beginning of the novel, and although she experiences growth and revelation, she never comes around morally. She steals, lies, prostitutes herself, and even treats her own body like a garbage dump. So the question is: How do we feel about detestable protagonists? Such a structure certainly demands tolerance from a reader and some appreciation for its departure from what we’ve been raised on—characters who transition over the course of a novel and in so doing deliver a universal message of hope or possibility.

Can we enjoy novels with protagonists we don’t like? There are plenty of male anti-heroes, the Humbert Humberts of the world, detestable protagonists we end up rooting for despite their faults. The fact is the reading public is especially hard on female characters who do not adhere to stereotype, who are not kind and thoughtful and domestic, or do not at least come around to these attributes by novel’s end. Because of this, one can hold White Ivy up as a work of art that challenges societal bias. It receives five stars on that measure, if only three stars on the whole.

On the other hand, the jacket copy describes the novel as one that offers “sharp insights into the immigrant experience.” That statement is pure marketing and potentially exploitive. Ivy Lin is a very complex individual as are the members of her family. One would hate to think that Susie Yang wrote Ivy Lin’s character or the Lin family in general to be representative of Chinese Americans. If that is the case, it paints an extremely negative and troubling picture.

In addition, for a story primarily set in Boston and fictitious towns surrounding the city, it fails to offer authentic details. In fact, there are several erroneous details, creating lapses in credibility that trip up the reader and diminish her eagerness to go along with the narrator on a journey that already demands she withhold judgement on Ivy Lin’s character. For example, bad winter weather usually comes in from the west, not the north, and not from the Atlantic; when leaving Boston one does not drive through upstate New York in order to get to New Jersey; there is no block on Beacon Hill where there are rows of identical front doors; a state senator works in Boston and not in Washington. While Yang writes well and employs fine use of metaphor, occasional poor grammar and word choice threaten to startle the reader from the fictive dream she is working hard to establish.

Ivy Lin grows up in a poor family but attends a private school in Massachusetts on account of her father working there. It is at this school that she develops a crush on Gideon Speyer. After lying to her parents in order to attend a slumber party at his home, Ivy is sent to stay with relatives in China for the summer, and the family moves to New Jersey while she is out of the country. Lin goes on to attend an unnamed women’s college outside of Boston where she reconnects with the Speyer family and drama ensues.

The early chapters of this novel are enjoyable. The relationship Ivy shares with her grandmother is great, as are her travels and the relationships she makes that summer as a young teen in China. The choices she makes to fit in and survive in her family seem plausible. If this is the description of the immigrant experience Yang is going for, then it’s laudable. The second half of the novel, however, is where plot twists enter around the superficially and simplistically wrought Speyer family and the story succumbs to a downward spiral of baseness.

White Ivy is entertaining insofar as it is extremely original. The conclusion left this reader without a sense of hope, depressed over an ending that rewards self-centered opportunism. The final scene is one where Ivy faces off against Gideon’s sister, Silvia Speyer, in a contest of innuendo between two equally loathsome human beings. However, maybe that was the point. The lesson for the reader might be in the irony—that if you are looking for a real hero, the most self-aware and honest character in this novel is the one you would have least expected.

 

Read more of Jeannie’s reviews.

 

Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg is an award-winning author and essayist. Her most recent book is The Nine, winner of multiple awards including a Foreword Indies Gold Award in Thriller & Suspense. She is the founder of the Westerly Writer’s Workshop as well as a board member of the Boston Book Festival.

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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

brown-girl-dreaming-jacqueline-woodson-book-review-jeanne-blasbergBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

To write a memoir in prose, to distill each experience into just the right words, to leave enough white space on the page for a reader to jump in and participate with the language, that is the work of a master. Reader, you already know you are in masterful hands with Jacqueline Woodson. I listened to an interview with Woodson on the Write-Minded podcast with Brooke Warner and Grant Faulkner where she admitted that it was possible to consume Brown Girl Dreaming in one sitting, but that it pained her to hear when readers did that. She really wished we wouldn’t. Indeed, I enjoyed this memoir slowly in bites I could savor. Keeping it on hand for quiet moments when I could sit and think and enjoy the cadence of the verse. It is a book you will want to keep close at hand, a reminder that poignant imagery transports and conveys meaning better than pages and pages and pages. This is a beauty of a book!

More reviews from Jeannie.

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Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

anxious-people-frederick-backman-book-review-jeanne-blasbergAnxious People by Fredrik Backman

With an equal measure of humor and philosophy, Backman’s latest work examines the intricacies of family and home and the anxiety we feel over getting it right. The novel’s structure engaged me from the very beginning with its omniscient voice moving two steps forward and then one step backward, telling what the novel was about in a way that was delightfully unreliable. And as the dots connected and puzzle pieces began to fit together, the experience of this novel was as much an intellectual exercise as a dive into the neuroses of its many delightful characters. I was struck by Backman’s ability to develop all eight characters in a hostage situation so masterfully. The book goes beyond story telling and is a plea for compassion in this crazy world. It will have you laughing at our foibles and universal oddities, its observations are really spot on. I listened to the audio version of Anxious People and the narrator did an incredible job of giving each speaking character a voice of their own. I highly recommend this book!

 

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The Book of V by Anna Solomon

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The Book of V by Anna Solomon

I loved this book’s ambition. Any modern retelling of a biblical character has me hooked as well. The braiding of the three point-of-view characters’ stories in The Book of V was masterful and the reveal about two-thirds of the way through around how their lives were even more tightly wound was terrific.

Having just finished reading Cassandra Speaks by Elizabeth Lesser, I am struck by how Esther and Vashti’s stories might have been interpreted entirely differently if a woman had first written them. Here was my chance to find out! Just as the Lionel and Ian in the novel malign and misconstrue Vee’s intentions, so has been the masculine lens on a woman’s life.

The Book of V grapples with such important issues around motherhood, femininity, misogyny, but with a structure that is incredibly innovative and entertaining.

 

More from Jeannie.

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The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

ten-year-nap-meg-wolitzer-book-review-jeanne-blasbergThe Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

So I’m late to the party on this one but The Ten-Year Nap belongs on the shelf of important feminist novels, addressing issues around motherhood and women spend their time. I am a big fan of Meg Wolitzer and picked this one up after really enjoying her more recent novels. THE TEN YEAR nap felt like listening in on “lessons learned” from generations of suffragists while being entertained by the travails of some marvelous characters. I was drawn in by the omniscient first sentence right away, “All around the country, the women were waking up.” Brava.

 

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