Monday, November 28, 2011

Book review: Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks

My review of Caleb's Crossing was published in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper on August 6th.  For some reason it was never posted online, so I have no link to the original, but this is the version as it appeared in print. (The headline was their choice, and I like it.)

Moving Heathen and Earth in New England

The title of Caleb's Crossing refers to two related happenings: a young Wampanoag man's journey to the Massachusetts mainland from his home on Martha's Vineyard, and his gradual assumption of English ways. His story is filtered through the narration of Bethia Mayfield, a minister's daughter.

The two meet by chance when she is 12. Her friendship with the youth she calls Caleb blossoms as they talk about their daily lives and religious beliefs - all of which Bethia hides from her father and brother.

Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks (March, in 2005) situates her riveting tale of cross-cultural exploration in Puritan America on a few slim facts. In 1665, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. His letter to his English benefactors, reproduced on the novel's endpapers, is especially remarkable; it was written in Latin.

"Listening, not speaking, has been my way," writes Bethia, a perceptive and careful chronicler of their lives, an intellectual in a society that believes women are capable of domestic duty and not much else. She also has a shameful secret. She finds Caleb's heathen faith too appealing for her own good. Although she repents, she is Puritan enough to think she's damned, having caused her mother's death with her desire for "forbidden fruit."

When Bethia's father discovers the extent of Caleb's knowledge, he decides to instruct him further in the Gospel and the classics, as any good Calvinist missionary would. Caleb sees a way of improving his people's lot and comes to live with the Mayfields, which leads to a spiritual battle of sorts between Mayfield and Caleb's uncle, the pawaaw (religious leader) of the Wampanoag.

Caleb's and Bethia's paths take them from Martha's Vineyard to Cambridge. Both sets of surroundings are superbly evoked through Bethia's admittedly biased viewpoint. The island is an isolated haven of sun-dappled beaches and swirling mists, a paradise on Earth despite the tenuousness of life there. In contrast, she finds Cambridge an "unlovely town" that reeks of animals and too many people, and whose closely constructed houses don't let her spirit breathe. What is the purpose of progress, she wonders, if you have to leave your true self behind?

Bethia's account has an early American formality, with just enough period syntax to feel authentic (and enough old-fashioned usage of "loose," instead of "lose," to drive a copy editor mad). Terms like "friggling" and "cackhanded" aren't exactly everyday lingo, but the prose falls on the ear in a natural way.

As always, Brooks treads the dividing line between literary and popular fiction with confidence. Her work is strongly plotted, full of twists and surprises: life-changing disappointments, sudden opportunities, unexpected crossroads. The language is as fresh and crisp as the salt-tinged air, and her characters are, for the most part, ripened to their fullest potential. The one exception is Caleb himself. We get to know his personality and mettle, but he is kept at a distance. There are times - fortunately rare - when he reads more as symbol than flesh and blood.

In fact, the novel is much more Bethia's than his. She is one of Brooks's most rounded creations; her character, unlike Caleb's, is completely fictional. Bethia is no feisty anachronism but a woman of her era, and her yearning to achieve more than society grants her is achingly real.

Higher education has changed over time; students aren't expected to converse in Latin, and they can't pay for their tuition with sacks of grain. Still, the intellectual craving expressed by these 17th-century characters comes through clearly to our modern mindsets. This is a brilliantly composed novel full of wit, spiritual contemplation and the deep love of learning. At the same time, Caleb's Crossing makes us feel the full impact of what these people went through to bring their dreams to fruition.


Caleb's Crossing was published by Viking in May at $26.95 in the US, or $31.00 in Canada (hardcover, 301pp).

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Harem winners

A quick note to announce that the winners of Colin Falconer's Harem are Sarah Other Librarian and Meg at A Bookish Affair.  Congratulations - I'll be in touch with you via email!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

An interview with Ann Chamberlin, author of The Woman at the Well - plus giveaway

I'm so pleased to bring you this interview with internationally bestselling author Ann Chamberlin.  Ann's historical novels span a wide range of settings, from ancient Israel to medieval France to the harems of the 16th- and 17th-century Ottoman Empire.  Her latest book, The Woman at the Well, is an epic literary work that will introduce most readers to a new and unfamiliar place: 7th-century Arabia during the first years of Islam and the time slightly before.

The novel opens at the house of the turpentine sellers in Tadmor, Syria, in the year 643 AD.  A blue-eyed orphan named Rayah studies her Koran while simultaneously feeling the first glimmerings of the power she inherited from her female ancestors, strong women who worshipped the goddess of the evening star, Al-Uzza, and led their tribes through the Arabian desert.

This is also the story of Rayah's mother, Sitt Sameh, who has hidden her true identity for too long; her grandmother, Bint Zura, a young woman who finds a sacred camel; and her great-grandmother, Umm Taghlib, who is cast out of her tribe for being a kahinah, or witch.  Many of the era's women bear the names of their male relations, though they also have hidden names of their own.  The male viewpoint is introduced via the tale of Khalid ibn al-Walid, the Prophet Muhammad's most famous general, who reveals his past history to a eunuch scribe and searches for a connection to his long-lost daughter, Sitt Sameh.

The Woman at the Well is a deep and involving multi-generational novel about a fascinating land in the midst of religious and cultural transformation.  From the Kirkus review:  "Chamberlin beautifully captures the depth of Rayah's awakening to her heritage, emotionally and spiritually... impeccable research and haunting, poetic language create a lush tale to be lingered over and savored."

The Woman at the Well was published in July by Epigraph Press at $27.00 in hardcover, $16.95 in trade paperback, or $9.99 as an e-book (378pp).  Please read to the end for a giveaway opportunity, too.

You write that you spent thirty years working on The Woman at the Well. Why did you feel this was a story that needed to be told? How did the novel deepen or transform over this time?

Thirty years ago, no one had heard of Salman Rushdie. Kamran Pasha and Sherry Jones had not written their books about the women of early Islam. In fact, no one seemed to have Islam, the religion of close to a quarter of the world's population, on their radar screen. I have a rejection note (a yellow Post-It) I keep pinned above my computer that says, "Dear Ann, Why Islam? Thanks but no thanks." I did not think this ignorance was a good thing. I still don't.

After 9/11, my son got me to take Arabic classes with him at a local Muslim school. This is how I deal with crisis, with ignorance. I educate myself through my stories, and I wanted my question answered, "What were people thinking at the time of the Prophet Muhammad?" Not that I'm suggesting they were simple-minded people or anything. I never think people in the past were stupider than we are. Usually I think the opposite, when I get to know them. It's just that, such world-changing events cannot help but have affected people at that time to their very core. Like events to do with Islam have done in our time.

Recent events have deepened my story. So has the suggestion someone gave me "to tell the women's stories." Hard as it may be to believe, first drafts only had Khalid's version of the tale. I guess I thought there wasn't enough of women in the history even to reconstruct a tale. My astute critiquer was right, especially since that has been the course of my writing, to tell women's stories that are usually ignored. And there's plenty to work with, for a novelist.

If it's true that winners write the history, as Sitt Sameh tells Rayah (with gentle sarcasm, I felt) in the novel, how were you able to look beyond long-held traditions to learn the hidden stories of people from pre-Islamic Arabia?

There's quite a lot of interest in pre-Islamic Arabia among Arab historians, even though many would call it the Time of Ignorance and dismiss it. Like some young Americans would dismiss time before the computer as irrelevant. Victorians Brits who were trying to rule the place also had an interest. Especially since the publication in the 1970's of Patricia Crone and Michael Cook's radical rewriting called Hagarism, there's been a resurgence of interest in the West. Where did Muhammad come from, this time called Ignorance? All these historians were trying to answer that.

I had a very powerful experience during ten days I camped with the Bedouin in the Sinai (also during the 70s). I fell in love with these people and the way they deal with one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. When what we know of pre-Islamic history failed me, I fell back on the anthropology of the Bedouin.

I should also mention that the University of Utah Dr. Aziz Atiya Middle East Library, where I work part time, is one of the most important collections in the world, especially of early Islamic papyrus. I get to rub shoulders with scholars in this field every day, and I am indebted to them.

In the opening scene, Rayah discovers her power when she brings her young cousin back to life. This isn't your first instance of crossing historical fiction with elements of the fantastic. Why was it important for you to start the book this way? What can fantasy bring to historical fiction?

Rayah's arc is a struggle to decide what to do with her own power which goes back to her mothers in a world where the new religion is trying to supplant everything that went before, where Muhammad was the Seal of the Prophets and his successors are trying to pull an ever-increasing empire in by the hearts and minds. This has always been a pivotal question for me having grown up in a Mormon world where the words haunting a young woman's mind were condemned as evil if they countered the words of a living prophet.

To my mind, a historical novelist fails to capture the period if that period believed in magic, jinn, fairies or whatever and this sort of stuff doesn't happen or couldn't happen to her characters. Passages in the Quran concerning jinn would indicate you couldn't be a good Muslim if you didn't believe in these beings of fire. Like the reader of certain passages in the Torah couldn't believe that book if he didn't believe in witches, and that they shouldn't be allowed to live.

Besides, I don't think you can sit around a campfire in a desert night or see a mirage shimmering across the horizon and not believe in powerful spirits.

Much of your fiction writing centers on the Middle East. How did your interest in this place develop?

My Mormon upbringing, again. I found I couldn't deal with our own prophets, patriarchy, polygamy and deserts. I was too close, my fiction "too bitter" as one critique said. Trying to understand my surroundings, I studied Hebrew. My first trip to the Holy Land full of pious zeal ran into those ten days in the Sinai, into Arabic and another far-from-perfect world built on idealism. So one book led to another as I stumbled into one fascinating corner after another on one trip after another.

The Woman at the Well has many memorable characters, both historical and fictional. Khalid ibn al-Walid will be the best known, yet for many Western readers, your novel may be the first introduction to him. How did you address this issue as you developed his character?

The ever-present struggle against the data dump. Clavell's Shogun remains a great example of how to introduce the modern reader to a strange worlddrop a very modern, or at least more familiar, character into your strange world. Everything has to be explained to the stranger in a strange land. Without resorting to a time machine as part of the plot, I couldn't do that. Even a 7th-century Roman would have a world too strange and in need of explanation in need of explanation to my reader. Personally, I like the first-person narrative, and I like this bit I stumbled on where Khalid tells his tale to a scribe not of his world. And then the scribe gets to tell it to Rayah and her mother and her mother Sitt Sameh gets to put her own spin on it. So there are multiple chances to sneak in explanations.

The novel has several examples of parents and children who have lost their connections with one another - it's not your usual type of family story. Why did you choose this as one of your themes?

One of my tropes is that Islamlike most new religions (early Christianity, Protestantism, Mormonism) even non-religious movements like Marxism for examplebegan first as an attempt to pry apart the existing power structurewhich meant a strong clan system. If you believe, you have a great excuse, even commandment, to leave your stifling family ties for this new community in the making. Islam went on to depend on government by trained slaves in the Mamluk and Ottoman empires, men ripped from all family. Khalid attempted this, but finds in old age his attempts are futile. He wishes for the family he neglected, and Islam in the form of his cousin Omar ibn al-Khattub the caliph and new/old strictures on women really hasn't escaped. The United States continues to have this tension between wanting a free individual, but then expecting family values unsupported by government to raise children, care for the sick and elderly, etc.

Besides, the novel is the narrative form for the individual alienated from the world, the hero on a quest away from home and family.

The scenario of a man meeting a woman at a well can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. What about this theme resonated with you?

Returning to sources of spiritual enlightenment. Every day. Like a woman has to go for water every day. And wells are few and far between in the desert. Knowledge of where they are and how to approach them is a matter of life and death.

Where did you first come across pre-Islamic poetry, and why has it captured your attention to such a degree?

Poetry still has a big place in Middle Eastern society, from Rumi on. A generally illiterate society that condemns representational art and which is so focused on the Holy Word would naturally resort to this art form. Early Muslim historians themselves took quite an interest in recording this poetry. Once they got over the beginning concerns that poets and poetry detracted from the Quran, they were interested in gleaning these snippets especially when they clarified the language of the Quran or Islam's rise. Any attempt to recreate pre-Islamic Arabia is dependent on these verses, and I found them early in my research. I want to cite several collections I depended on: AJ Arberry's Seven Odes, Charles Lyall's Translations of Ancient Arabic Poetry, and Michael Sells' Desert Tracings.

I've had people shrug and tell me, "Well, something must have been lost in translation," but to me the images evoke the world of the desert so powerfully. And the poet's usual formatwe usually have only male poets' verses, although there are some women poets recordedwas to begin by evoking a lost love.


And for your chance to win a copy... 

 I'd like to thank Ann for taking the time to answer my questions in such depth.  We have three copies of The Woman at the Well available for giveaway.  To enter the contest, please leave a comment on this post (include your email if it's not in your profile or on your blog).  This giveaway is open to all blog readers worldwide; deadline Friday, December 2nd.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Séance in Sepia giveaway winner

... take two.  After waiting a week with no response from the initial winner, I've decided to start over and draw another name for the signed copy of Michelle Black's Séance in Sepia.  (If you enter contests, you have to give me a way to contact you, especially if you don't read this site regularly.  Just sayin'...)

But without further ado, the book will be going to Rachel Wallen!  Congratulations - I'll drop you a line to obtain your mailing address, and I hope you'll enjoy reading it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Guest post from Colin Falconer (with giveaway):
The Harem

Historical fiction writer Colin Falconer is stopping by today with a detailed essay about the historical reality behind the myth of the harem.  His novel Harem (which appeared in the US as The Sultan's Harem), a love story between Suleiman the Magnificent and his concubine Russelana, has just been re-released in Kindle format.  Please read on... there's an opportunity to win a copy of the e-version at the end of this post.

The Harem

The myth of the Harem has always loomed large in western imagination. Is it really the ultimate male fantasy? Or was reality a little less than sublime behind the Sublime Porte?

The Harem dated back to the time when the Osmanli Turks were just nomads living on the wild plains of Anatolia. The idea was borrowed from the Persians, a convenience for warriors who were away from the tribe for long months at a time.

By the time the Osmanlis gave up the open plains and created their capital at Constantinople - which they renamed Stamboul - the Harem was no longer just a tent full of sex slaves. It had become an institution in itself, a rigid hierarchy with its own protocols and government.

The girls were either captured in war - mainly Christians from the Balkans - or were recruited from within the Empire itself. They were brought to the Harem at a young age and educated in palace protocols. Their only avenue for betterment and family was through the Sultan.

The first step on the ladder was to somehow find a way into his bed - not as easy as it seemed, for many of the Sultans tended to have favourites and did not do the rounds every night picking winners like a beauty pageant. The first step was to become gözde - lucky enough to catch the Sultan's eye and invited to his bed. If they were asked back often enough they became iqbal, a favourite, and would get their own apartment and slaves.

If the girl conceived a male child she then became kadin - and there were only a maximum of four. One of these four slave girls would become the mother of the next Sultan and thus became the Valide Sultan, head of the harem and the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire.

The stakes then were high. Yes, there were beautiful and sensuous women in the harem. Yes there were opulent surroundings. But it was no male paradise. This was a snakepit.

The descriptions of the old Stambouli harem paints a grim picture of a twilight world of dark panelled rooms where the sun seldom penentrated. Ancient grime coated the dusty lanterns and baroque mirrors, and sloe-eyed women with rubies in their hair glided like ghosts through the warren of corridors.

What must life have been like for such women, left in this gilded prison, ungratified and forgotten? Is there a chance some women might become bitter or even vengeful?

History says yes.

This outstanding example; during the eighteenth century some British soldiers in India conspired to break into a mughal's harem one night on the misguided belief that there were hordes of women inside who were just panting for a man. It didn't occur to them that these women might not feel warm and fuzzy to the gender that had enslaved and imprisoned them their whole lives.

The Mughal's personal guard spent the next morning picking up pieces of British soldier left lying around the haremlik. The women had torn them apart with their bare hands.

Which leads us to the story of Suleiman the Magnificent and his favourite, Hurrem. On the face of it, it was the perfect love story. He had the most beautiful women in the empire at his disposal - yet he chose just one. The remarkable Hurrem - it means 'Laughing One' - was the first concubine to legally marry an Ottoman Sultan and move into his palace - an astonishing break with tradition. He even retired his entire harem for her! It shows a total devotion and commitment - at least on Suleiman's part.

But what about her? Was the laughing one really laughing on the inside? Perhaps not.

She later conspired to have Suleiman order the death of his best friend and chief adviser Ibrahim, as well his son Mustapha, two of the most talented men in his administration. She then engineered her own son to succeed him; 'Selim the Sot' was an alcoholic and a lecher with few redeeming qualities. Indeed some scholars have even speculated that Suleiman's bloodline was broken. How ironic if the woman to break it had been the woman he devoted his life to!

Suleiman had more power and women than the Prime Minister of Italy. Yet this is what he wrote just before his death in 1566:

"What men call empire is worldwide strife and ceaseless war. In all the world the only joy lies in a hermit's rest."

His story is one of his time for all time. Beware of wanting everything. You just might get it.


Colin Falconer has been published widely in the UK, US and Europe and his books have been translated into seventeen languages. You can find him at his blog at or his web page at

HAREM is available on Amazon US or Amazon UK.

To enter to win one of two Kindle copies of HAREM, please leave a comment on this post - and include your email address if it's not readily available in your profile or on your blog/website.  Deadline Friday Nov 18th.  This contest is open to all.  Good luck!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Women at War: A Novel Bibliography

I've been trying to pay attention to current trends in historical novels. For a long while, novels about women during World War II were out of fashion in the US, although wartime sagas have flourished overseas for some time. Male espionage thrillers and action-adventure fiction set during the war always found an audience, too, but there were considerably fewer novels about the feminine experience.

Over the last year and more, though, American readers have seen (and will see) a bumper crop of historical fiction on this subject.  Many of these books arrived in my mailbox for review, so I've been reading and learning about the war from many different angles.

The trend's benchmark titles - hugely popular bestsellers - include Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows' The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Sarah Blake's The Postmistress, Pam Jenoff's bestselling romantic thrillers, and Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française... can you think of other recent titles that fit?

The novels below all have US publication dates between April 2011 and April 2012.  These women are spies, nurses, office clerks, resistance leaders, and average citizens whose courage comes to the forefront when they're caught up in difficult times. The settings range from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain to California, Washington, DC, and the far-flung islands of the South Pacific.

Maria Dueñas, The Time In Between (Atria, Nov 2011).  In this international bestselling epic, a Spanish seamstress works undercover for the Allies during Spain's civil war and World War II.

Anna Funder, All That I Am (Harper, Feb 2012). This debut novel brings to life the heroic German women and men who took a stand against the Nazis in the 1930s; based on historical people.

Kate Furnivall, The White Pearl (Berkley, Mar 2012).  In 1941 Malaya, a bored plantation owner's wife finds her life upended when the Japanese invade.

Amanda Hodgkinson, 22 Britannia Road (Pamela Dorman, Apr 2011).  A Polish father, mother, and son struggle to reunite as a family in England following their devastating wartime experiences.

Sarah Jio, The Bungalow (Plume, Dec 2011).  A young woman in the Army Nurse Corps on Bora-Bora in 1942 begins an affair with a mysterious soldier.

Margaret Leroy, The Soldier's Wife (Hyperion, July 2011).  Fans of Shaffer/Barrows can return to Guernsey in this tale of a housewife who falls for a soldier in the occupying German army - which leads to some tough decisions.

Susan Elia MacNeal, Mr. Churchill's Secretary (Bantam, April 2012).  A debut historical mystery starring Maggie Hope, the newest typist at 10 Downing Street in 1940, who discovers that her position brings her innumerable opportunities as well as the potential for life-threatening danger. 

Kristina McMorris, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves (Kensington, Mar 2012).  The author follows up her epistolary WWII-era romantic novel, Letters from Home, with the story of a violinist who marries a Japanese man and voluntarily accompanies him when he's forced into an internment camp in 1941.

Alison Pick, Far to Go (Harper Perennial, Apr 2011).  This Booker-longlisted novel is a saga about a Jewish Czechoslovakian family who flee their country with their governess after the Nazis invade.

Alyson Richman, The Lost Wife (Berkley, Sept. 2011).  Two young lovers in pre-war Prague are separated after the Nazi invasion, and their memories of each other help them survive until they're reunited by chance many decades later.

Sarah R. Shaber, Louise's War (Severn House, Aug. 2011).  In this historical mystery, Louise, a young widow who's the newest clerk in the Office of Strategic Services in 1942 Washington, DC, sees an opportunity to help an old friend flee occupied France.

Lynn Sheene, The Last Time I Saw Paris (Berkley, May 2011).  A naive New York socialite arrives in Paris during the Occupation and gets drawn into the resistance movement.

Also, the cover art for this one isn't final yet, but Margaret Wurtele's The Golden Hour (Berkley, Feb. 2012) details the coming-of-age of a young Tuscan woman who falls in love with a Jewish member of the partisan army.