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A Modern Memoir, Ancient Mythology, the Cosmos and a Whodunit

Always Another Country, A Memoir of Exile and Home by Sisonke Msimang 
World Editions 4 September 2018
non-fiction feminist literature

An individual’s memoir always includes other people, families, and communities. Context matters. In Always Another Country, generations of the author’s family embark upon a nomadic sojourn from South Africa to Russia, Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya, Canada, and Ethiopia, then back to Zambia in an overlapping circuitous route across continents and decades that ultimately returns them to South Africa with excursions into the United States soon after the election of Nelson Mandela as president of S.A. The integrity of their family connections between each other and their nation or origin gets challenged and changed by their experiences in each temporary homestead.

While “Families are nothing without the stories they tell,” is proclaimed on page 111, this idea of personal history as collaborative narration is visually established with a personal photo at the beginning of each chapter. Small square images with fuzzy edges (probably with the date they were developed rubber-stamped on the back) evolve into larger rectangular pics with sharper images reflective of the passage of time for the subjects, their settings, and the technology used to capture them. There is a familiar universality to the composition of each image that mirrors collections in family photo albums around the world, and the universal themes of sexism, xenophobia, elitism, racism, government bureaucracy, shifting political alliances, and tyranny running beneath the superficial differences of skin color, geographical location, culture, and language eventually reveal themselves in every destination.

Different countries with essentially identical rules of engagement according to an entrenched human hierarchy are acknowledged throughout Always Another Country, most succinctly in the following three passages:

I was in another country, but somehow things were the same. [pg. 62]

Their children in Nairobi whose particular corners of misery might as well have been another country. [pg. 64]

We followed her every command because the immigrant child knows that outside is one thing but home is another country. [pg. 83]

With a delicate touch, Sisonke Msimang’s lyrical prose conveys a stalwart pragmatism to her revelatory confessions of obliviousness, arrogance, and naïveté sourced from her life of privilege. The exploration of her claimed and competing identities versus what’s projected onto her by others based on gender, age, and skin color supports the recurring variations on riffs about developing a thick skin, sloughing off dead skin, and skin as a beacon that can simultaneously draw unwanted attention and indicate shared membership in a group. Emotionally, Always Another Country shares a textural affinity with Ellis Cose’s The Rage of a Privileged Class.

Entrenched and contradictory expectations about women’s sexual virtue, men’s entitlement, and sexual predation run throughout this compelling personal narrative that deconstructs the luxuries of innocence, youth, exile, and hindsight when the privileged people are female, black, brown, refugees or in any way labeled as outsiders by those who wield significant power and authority over others.

Sisonke Msimang’s distinctive voice spans a range of octaves to compose this dramatic opera about the international and internal and perpetual battle between the haves and the have-nots. My preceding remarks only hint at the depth and complexity with which Always Another Country offers in its micro to macro study of the human condition.  

Mortals and Immortals of Greek Mythology by Francoise Rachmuhl and Charlotte Gastaut
Lion Forge 18 September 2018
children’s literature

Mortals and Immortals of Greek Mythology works as an updated, abridged version of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology modified for middle schoolers.* Incest and infidelities, murder and mayhem are glossed over or described in sanitized terms. For example, Zeus’s extramarital affairs and sexual assaults are labeled as “adventures” in the summary of his personal life. Hmm. Greek mythology is inherently not kid-friendly content, which makes the designation of this book as being for children ages 9 to 12 years old or in the 4th through 6th grades seem problematic. “Greek tragedy” is a common phrase for legitimate reasons. Parents and guardians will enjoy reading the text and savoring the evocative artwork as they evaluate its appropriateness for their children.  

Each section features a headliner with information about secondary personalities and conflicts interwoven into the details of their origin stories. Characters and key elements are rendered in layered images with mortal and immortal figures in white silhouette. Most facial features are elongated to a humanoid appearance. Graduated color saturation in a mix of pastels and primary colors from translucent to opaque form backgrounds that highlight sharp edges and soft curves. Some sepia-toned ink drawings and woodcuts fall among a variety of artistic techniques in these gorgeous illustrations.

One element that captured my attention at first glance of the two figures on the cover is their stark whiteness. Now if this were a collection of condensed bios about characters in Norse mythology the white-default wouldn’t seem incongruous. Greece is located in the Mediterranean. Greek people aren’t typically pale. Ancient Greeks were probably very brown during the generations before the invention of sunscreen. A browse of the projects link on Charlotte Gastaut’s website shows that this stark white silhouette is a signature element of her work and her other projects include a smattering of brown faces. In Mortals and Immortals of Greek Mythology Poseidon is shown in shades of blue. Plus, a few brown figures may be included among the pages that would not load for me in the e-ARC.

It just seems as if in the years since #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #1000blackgirlbooks generated robust public discussion and inspired action to expand casts of characters and inclusive representation of all kinds of people in children’s books, that the white-default element of these exquisite illustrations feels outdated.

*My e-ARC wouldn’t load the last third of the content, making this review based on the first two-thirds of the work.    

Dispatches from Planet 3 by Marcia Bartusiak
Yale University Press 18 September 2018
non-fiction science 

From collegial collaborations to unacknowledged attributions and vindications delayed, Dispatches from Planet 3 uses a joyously inquisitive approach to science to tell the saga of the continuous human journey to greater enlightenment about the mechanics of existence. As a layperson’s survey of astronomy, cosmology, and physics it charts trends in attitudes toward hard sciences as embodied in the naïveté of the hysteria generated by Orson Wells’s War of the Worlds broadcast to the insatiable imaginative possibilities of Gene Roddenberry’s various “Star Trek” series and the pragmatism of Octavia Butler’s Kindred in terms of connections between time and space.

The author encourages readers to select the order of reading these thirty-two essays according to their personal preference, but reading them as numbered offers the benefit of providing an evolutionary momentum of scientific inquiries from Epicurus in the 4th century BCE to the present day. Familiar names like Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Hubble are placed in context with the significant contributions of lesser-known scientists Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Beatrice Tinsley, Cecilia Helena Payne, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Vera Rubin, Karl Jansky, Vesto Slipher, Chandra (one name says it all like Einstein and Beyoncé), Lisa Randall, and a Midwestern farm boy and a Belgian priest. (No, the last two aren’t the intro to a joke about who walks into a bar—or an observatory.)

The human path to scientific understanding has been grueling, circuitous, and often redundant or ahead of its time and available tools. “There’s no news like old news,” from page 163 is repeatedly validated in the author’s reporting about discarded theories that were verified as fact decades later. Science fiction is constantly being revised and rewritten. So are science facts.

On page 5 Bartusiak writes, “Indeed, our cosmic address is getting excruciatingly long: Planet No. 3, Solar System, Orion Spur on Sagittarius Spiral Arm, Milky Way, Local Cluster, Virgo Supercluster, Universe, Multiverse.” Each location marker zooms farther out from Earth, making it more apparent with every discovery that humans are not the center of existence.

These thirty-two essays include photos, charts, illustrations, diagrams, and an image of correspondence from the 1700s. They are divided into three categories: Celestial Neighborhood, Realm of the Galaxies, and To the Big Bang and Beyond, reflective of the author’s notable affinity for pop culture references. There are notes, a bibliography, acknowledgments, and an index.

NASA human “computer” Katherine Johnson recently celebrated her 100th birthday after having a building named for her, and witnessing the unveiling of her statue at West Virginia State University. Dispatches from Planet 3 honors scientific trailblazers of the past from around the world, examines current exploration challenges, and inspires deeper study. “Star Talk” with Neil DeGrasse Tyson is video content as bait to lure the general public into personal engagement with science. This collection of essays is “Star Writing” that does the same. 

Death in Paris by Emilia Bernhard
Thistle Publishing 9 October 2018
adult contemporary mystery fiction

 Resurrect Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance as Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz, transplant them to 21st-century Paris, France, and let the high jinx ensue. Rachel and Magda’s twenty-year friendship anchors this amusing mystery romp filled with sardonic literary references and nods to pop culture and assorted vintage fictional investigators. Women of all ages and types are featured in a setting sprinkled with elements of French Women Don’t Get Fat and the Scooby Doo cartoon. 

This passage on page 11 articulates the themes of hindsight and generational increments of change that run throughout this charming farce:

For a moment the two women reflected on the Paris of twenty years before, gymless and untouched by fat-free food.

A deep affection for a Paris with at least as many facets as arrondissements permeates the breezy narrative. Red herrings and blind alleys work with other familiar tropes and trends in commercial mystery fiction to offer readers a cozy whodunit as meta commentary about the uncertainty of modern life and the differences between crime-solving in entertainment content and in real life. Rachel and Magda debate their investigative approach on page 43:

“But I also think we can’t carry on the way we just were, all feelings and maybes, as if it were a cozy mystery novel. We need to treat this like a police inquiry.”

Ultimately, Death in Paris is a tale that focuses on the consequences of personal relationships that are appreciated, nurtured, squandered or exploited. If this is the first in a series, the author has established a solid foundation for the further adventures of Rachel, Magda, and their circle of family, friends, and associates.

There’s a glossary of French words at the end, followed by the acknowledgments, which, in order to avoid significant spoilers, should not be read prior to finishing Death in Paris.


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