Conte, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, collects 15 autobiographical essays by Ugandan women that question stereotypes of African femininity.
This anthology will introduce myriad new voices, some from Uganda’s women writers’ association, FEMRITE, to Western readers. All share an interest in reconciling traditional and Western practices. The opener, “My Name” by Nakisanze Segawa, uses names as cogent symbols of Christian and African values; she tells of how a hospital cashier refused to register her because she abandoned her “Christian” name in homage to Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. In another essay, Lydia Namubiru, who was raised Catholic, tells of how she feared demons ever since she witnessed an exorcism as a child: “There are no standards for balancing our imported faiths with our ancestral ones,” she notes. “Most people…straddle the fence.” The title piece by Caroline Ariba beautifully explores the gulf between educated, working women like herself and village women who bear many children, desperate for a son and heir. One of the responsibilities of ssengas, or paternal aunts, is to initiate girls into marriage and motherhood rites, and in Shifa Mwesigye’s “Ssengas and the Single Woman,” the collection’s standout, a bridal shower provides the occasion for a witty yet incisive dissection of gender roles. In it, a ssenga advocates total deference to one’s husband: kneeling, feeding him first, and washing him after sex. Although her friends laugh at this old-fashioned advice, Mwesigye recognizes that careful evaluation of traditional customs is healthier than knee-jerk rejection and that lessons on caring and service are valuable no matter their source. Two pieces on tomboy-hood seem repetitive, but most of the essays reveal fresh facets of African experience. For example, Peace Twine, in “Wife of the Enemy,” tells of enduring false arrest and months in a maximum security prison. In “No Time for Pain,” Harriet Anena artfully displaces the trauma of years in refugee camps using second-person narration, while haunting anonymous essays disclose sexual abuse and lesbian identity. “Change comes slowly,” Laura Walusimbi laments in her concluding piece on corporal punishment, later adding, “There are so many new challenges and no easy answers.”
A strong collection of memoiristic writing that illuminates African womanhood while blending diverse styles and experiences.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grapple with the harshness of church teachings in these ironic but heartfelt stories.
Townsend’s (Lying for the Lord, 2015, etc.) latest collection features mostly Mormon characters, some devout and some questioning, whose faith is tested by crises great and small. A man whose niece is missing in a great tsunami wonders why local churchgoers seem indifferent to the catastrophe; a literature student is asked by a church leader to write Amazon reviews of anti-Mormon books—without reading them; and a teacher decides that cruelty is next to godliness, for her students and everyone else. In other tales, a couple’s marriage is threatened by church regulations; a woman is appalled when the death of her family in a car crash becomes grist for church moralizing; and a Girl Scout troop endures heat, bugs, and horror stories about anti-Mormon atrocities. In still other stories, a woman finds her bishop’s condemnation of her murdered son’s homosexuality to be strangely comforting; an ex-missionary who’s abandoned the church decides to apologize to all the converts he baptized; and a teenage girl wonders why divine prophecies about her future keep changing. Townsend’s tales are steeped in religious peculiarities—his characters shape their lives around rituals and process the world through the lens of Mormon doctrine, which invests ordinary family life with cosmic significance and even the tiniest vices, such as drinking coffee, with dire sinfulness. Some motifs repeat: the experience of young missionaries scrounging for converts is a favorite, as are iconic scenes of family get-togethers. The author treats Mormon idiosyncrasies with a mixture of fond bemusement and resentment; many stories are about how empty theodicy—theories of why God permits evil—can seem to suffering people. In his great theme of the eternal clash between liberal humanism and religious strictures, the latter usually come off as petty and callous. Still, Townsend is a wonderful writer with a wry but sympathetic eye for humans’ frailties and the ways in which religious belief both exacerbate and console them.
More vibrant parables about doubts and blasphemies that hide beneath a veneer of piety.
In this novel, a Yale student investigating her roommate’s disappearance uncovers clues to a centuries-old art mystery and a shadowy group of art collectors.
Sabrina Gutierrez and Danielle Carruthers have little in common besides being Yale roommates. Sabrina was raised by her Colombian single mother who worked two jobs to support her, and Danielle comes from wealth and privilege. But the two become close friends, Sabrina being touched by Danielle’s kindness. She feels compelled to investigate when Danielle goes missing, especially since she’s certain that Whitmore Verhaast, a charismatic Yale art history professor and Danielle’s senior adviser, is involved. Sabrina has reason to think the worst of Verhaast, and as she digs for information, she discovers additional mysterious disappearances, all somehow linked to Johannes Vermeer; a convent in Belgium; and a secret, powerful cabal of art collectors with Nazi ties. And what of Hanna Deursen—a mistress and protégé of Vermeer’s fellow artist Carel Fabritius—whom Verhaast warned Danielle to stop researching? Sabrina’s investigations could bring Verhaast down and destroy some received notions of art history, but powerful forces are amassed against her. Halaban (The Last Commission, 2014, etc.) offers something rare in thriller novels: a strong female friendship and an honest-to-goodness heroine who has no extraordinary skills or weapons beyond her courage, intelligence, compassion, and determination. Bombastic egotists like Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon often inhabit thriller plots; what a pleasure it is to see his ilk skewered in the loathsome Verhaast. In contrast, Sabrina’s willingness to put pride aside if necessary and play dumb stand out as a special kind of bravery few authors would highlight in a badass-worshipping world. Similarly, Halaban’s characterization avoids clichés and is instead both deft and well-rounded. Danielle’s mother, for example, is no snobby Westport matron but a kind, thoughtful woman who treats Sabrina like family. Another nice touch is Sabrina’s growing trust in her sweet boyfriend, Josh, handled with unsentimental but moving realism. The plot moves briskly, with a growing sense of tension, toward a satisfying conclusion.
A fine thriller that’s intriguing and clever, appreciative of art’s power, and grounded in a sensitive humanity—a winner.
Child heroine Lucy Lick-Me-Not is back, and this time, she’s taking on the seasons and the lack of a white Christmas.
It’s late December, and Lucy Lick-Me-Not is not happy. It’s too warm to be Christmas! There’s nary a snowflake in sight, her mother refuses to drink eggnog, and her father decides not to light a fire in the fireplace. What’s a kid to do? One day, Lucy Lick-Me-Not hears a voice coming from a tree. She is, of course, wary—she knows some monsters would love to gobble her up—but when she opens up the door to the tree, she finds Jack Frost. He explains that he’s been trapped in the tree by the Greedy Gubbin Queen, who won’t let him start winter. The queen instead wants her Gubbins to live and prosper. Using a lesson she learned in school, Lucy Lick-Me-Not fools the green-loving Gubbins and convinces them to head to Greenland, which, ice-covered as it is, isn’t all that green. This gives Jack Frost the opportunity he needs to chill down December, and a white Christmas is indeed had by all. Carmel (Lucy Lick-Me-Not and the Day Eaters: A Birthday Story, 2014) has done it again. The second installment of the series is just as wildly imaginative and fun as the first. Carmel has her formula—a frothy fantasy with a touch of smarts—down pat. Educational lessons dot the lyrical prose, as in the beginning of the book, when Carmel explains why there are seasons to begin with: i.e., the Earth’s rotation bringing different parts of the Earth closer to the sun and all that. Elsewhere, Carmel explains that spring is for planting, fall is for harvesting, etc. Burkmar’s vivid, colorful illustrations are the cherry on top of a lovely sundae that children and adults alike will reach for time and again.