What I’m Reading

Three Daughters of Eve.
Elif Shafak, N.Y. Bloomsbury 2016

Three Daughters of Eve [1] is among the rare novels with the power to shake me deeply, as it will every daughter who has wrestled with the prospect of becoming like her mother.

Photo courtesy of Leslie Nelson

So often, as young women, we strike out in the opposite direction, vowing never to be like the woman whose demeanour and attitudes we have clearly outgrown. With a jaundiced eye, we flicker between scorn, pity, and other emotional extremes as we tote up her failures. We track every compromise that she has made, vowing to live our life more courageously. We note her limitations, and we promise ourselves that we will be different.

Daring to be different without becoming a social outcast remains a major undertaking, especially for women. Here’s how Peri (Shafak’s heroine) experiences it:

As she grew up, she learned to suppress her oddities, one by one. All her anomalies were pulverized by family, school and society into a dull powder of ordinariness. But she always knew that she was different. A strangeness she must do her best to hide; a scar that would remain forever etched on her skin. She put so much effort into being normal that often she had no energy left to be anything else, leaving her with feelings of worthlessness. [2]

Peri’s feelings of worthlessness are rooted in the religious fervour that is her mother’s only source of consolation. Married to a man who scorns her essence, her mother Selma would retreat as soon as she had placed the food on the table, quietly sighing and moaning of headaches that would confine her to bed  until midday or later. Selma joins “a religious circle led by a preacher famous for the eloquence of his sermons and the rigidity of his views.” p.19  Selma soon becomes ever more devoted to the imams – to the men who are  clones of the priests, ministers, rabbis, and gurus of every stripe who are absolutist  in their literal interpretation of the Word of God. Every mishap morphs into God’s vengeance for her evil ways and grows into a source of sin and guilt.

Peri takes these feelings of worthlessness with her, all the way to Oxford.  To her professor, she explains it thus:

But you have to know that there are many in this world, like my mother, whose sense of security comes from their faith. They’re convinced that there is only one interpretation of God: their own. These people already have enough to deal with, and you want to take away their only protection: their certainty. My mother I mean sometimes I look at her and I see so much sorrow, I can sense she would’ve gone crazy without her faith to hold on to. [3]

Photo courtesy of Leslie Nelson

Eventually, Peri marries, and in large part, she rejects the religion that held her mother in its sway. Peri views herself as a new woman, intelligent, modern, and aware. Thus, she is astounded to see scorn in the eyes of her adolescent daughter.

“Darling, I shouldn’t have.,” Peri mutters apologetically. “What was I thinking?” With her good hand, she touched her daughter, ever so lightly, as though the girl were fragile, her anger made of glass. They used to be so close. That sweet child had disappeared, leaving this stranger in her place. The transformation – for she had no other word – had caught Peri unprepared. She had always been determined to have a far better relationship with her daughter than the one she’d had with her mother.  [4]

So often, what we think is a step in the right direction  turns out to be just a cheap copy of the ugly past. Despite our best efforts, sometimes disfunctionality gives rise to more of the same.

In the end, wasn’t that the only real aspiration to be fulfilled in life: to do a better job than our parents, so our children might be better parents than we were? But what we often discover instead is how we unwittingly repeat the same mistakes as the previous generation. [5]

Photo courtesy of Leslie Nelson

Still, family is family, and Peri struggles to maintain her balance with both generations:

There was a shuffling sound, and Peri knew her mother had moved the telephone to her left ear so she could hear better. She had visibly aged since her husband passed away. Oddly enough, after all those years of hostility, Selma’s world had fallen apart the day Mensur died, as though it had been the fight she put up against her husband that kept her fully alive. [6]

Peri also has two brothers. The younger brother Hakan drops out of university…and flounders. Here’s how Shafaq describes it:

Overnight, to the chagrin of his parents he ended his student days, his mind sealed before it had been opened. They could see in his eyes how much he abhorred his life and those  whom he held responsible for its misery.

Many days a month, Hakan would come home solely to fill his stomach, change his clothes, and catch some sleep. As directionless as a balloon in the wind, he tried his hand at several jobs without success – until he found a cause through a set of friends he called Brothers. Mates who had big opinions about America, Israel, Russia, the Middle East, and saw conspiracy theories and secret societies everywhere. With the help of the Brothers he landed a position at an ultra-nationalist newspaper. Every week, he revealed the traitors of the nation- the rotten apples that, if not taken care of, could putrefy the entire basket: Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, Alevis, there wasn’t a single ethnic group that a Turk could trust, other than another Turk. Nationalism assured him that he had been born into a superior nation, a worthier race, and was destined to do great things, not for himself but for his people. Clad with this identity, he felt strong,            principled, invincible. [7]

History repeating itself. That is the Germany that my parents and I fled when the Nazis posted their list of who was putrefying the nation. A list different in detail if not in concept from much that has become acceptable thinking both in Europe and in America today.

The breadth and depth of this novel make it thought-provoking and memorable. I relate to it personally as mother/ daughter, and I relate to it in broader terms as I struggle to find my own balance amid the hatreds that seem to be pulling apart the peaceful world for which we all long.

[1] Elif Shafak, Three Daughters of Eve (N.Y., Bloomsbury, 2016.)

[2] p.324

[3] p.267

[4] p. 59

[5] Ibid

[6] p.151

[7] pp.67-8

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City. A Diary.
Translated by Philip Boehm, Holt and C., N.Y. 2005.

Why recommend this book? Because more than anything that I’ve recently read, this memoir reminds me that every coin has its flip side.

Like most Canadians of my generation, I grew up thinking of Germans in primarily negative terms. Abstractly, I knew that there had been a handful of heroic souls who had risked their own life to save a Jew or some targeted victim, but as far as the German masses were concerned, I felt little beyond disdain for their gullibility. I scorned their willingness to jump on the bandwagon of what “everyone” seemed to be doing, and to give the “Heil Hitler” salute as a means of fattening their bank account after the rigours of the depression.

“But are we not all vulnerable to such thinking?” I mused on a recent trip to N.Y. where my footsteps led past a Trump tower. It was early 2016, before Trump had been elected or even formally nominated, yet the building was surrounded by people carrying “Go Donald” signs. I paused before one group to ask why they thought he’d be a good president. “Look at this building!” they replied, pointing to its signature gold facade. “We’re all gonna be rich.”

I trembled, wondering how their thinking differed from those who believed Hitler would restore the greatness of his nation.  Of course, in my case, there is an additional reason for fearing anyone who points a finger at some minority group and lays blame for the state of the nation at their feet.

I am a Jew born in Europe, a Jew who with her parents barely escaped Auschwitz  and the concentration camps that claimed my grandparents along with the aunts, uncles and cousins I had loved. The shadow cast by Hitler’s Germany has never left my side.

And yet, something shifted when I read this autobiography of an anonymous author. She was just a bit older than me, and I saw little difference in the way that she learned to salute her flag each morning and the way that we saluted the Union Jack in my elementary school before singing “God save our gracious king.”

I pictured this anonymous woman as a terrified child, huddling night after night in a Berlin shelter. As the bombs rained down upon them, she repeatedly asked her parents why the Amis as the Americans were called, and the Brits and the French so hated the Germans. As I read her words, I recalled my own early years in Canada when anti-Semitism ran rampant, and how sadly my parents shook their head when I asked “Why do people hate the Jews?”

Eventually, the terror of that child huddled in a Berlin bomb shelter gave way to an even greater reality. The war ended, but not in joy and jubilation. For her and for countless girls and women, it brought rape. Again and again, the conquering Russians express their rage, their contempt, and perhaps even their jubilation at having earned the traditional spoils of war.

It is hard for me to imagine being raped even once, let alone twenty times a day, and again the next day, and the next.  This book and the events it chronicles brought home to me the tragedy of war in a whole new way. My horror of what the Russians had done was balanced by my awareness that many of them were 17 year old boys. Others were conscripts who had survived the Grim Reaper in German guise as he slew an estimated twenty million of their kin. The relief, the unspeakable relief. A relief in search of an outlet. A relief that must be vented.

In my sheltered Canadian life, what can I know of such matters? How can I judge, how dare I judge when I have not walked in the boots of another? This book helps me to do just that.

A sample of the writing:

Monday, June, 1945.

I marched home around six. The streets were filled with small, tiered caravans of people. Where were they coming from? Where were they going? I don’t know. Most were headed east. All the vehicles looked the same: pitiful handcarts piled high with sacks, crates and trunks. Often I saw a woman or an older child in front, harnessed to a rope, pulling the cart forward, with the smaller children or a grandpa pushing from behind. There were people perched on top too, usually very little children or elderly relatives. The old people look terrible amid all the junk, the men as well as the women – pale, dilapidated, apathetic. Half-dead sacks of bones. They say that among nomadic peoples like the Lapps or the Indians, old people used to hang themselves on a tree when they were no longer of any use or crawl off to die in the snow. Our western Christian civilization insists on dragging them along for as long as they can breathe. Many will have to be buried along the roadside.

The Weight of Ink

Photo courtesy of Leslie Nelson

For the mature woman hungry for reading material beyond the level of “true romance” escapism, for the thoughtful woman who has experienced life’s complexity  and  unpredictable whimsicality, I recommend reading The Weight of Ink  by Rachel Kadish (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.)

Although a well-intentioned and likable male character bumbles about in its pages, seeking always to be helpful, this book is about women and their struggles.  The heroine Helen is not just a beautiful face but a respected scholar struggling to hold her head high while coping with competitive colleagues who care not that she is grappling with the unexpected indignities accompanying the onset of Parkinson’s.

Counter-balancing Helen’s life is Ester, a woman in 17th century London who must hide the very fact that she can read and write lest she be considered a social pariah – or worse. Witchcraft had not yet been put completely to rest, and its flames could all too easily be fanned.  Nonetheless, this heroine assumes a male identity that allows her to write to revolutionary thinkers like Spinoza and Descartes while outwardly maintaining  the charade of  dutiful femininity.

At 567 pages, The Weight of Ink is not a quick read, yet I found myself totally engrossed in the realities of both women. More importantly, perhaps, the book led me to speculate in new ways about challenges faced by every woman who lived in the interim. Above all, it triggered thoughts of my own struggle to circumvent the three standard choices offered to women in the 50s: nurse, secretary, or teacher.  My high school principal actually laughed in my face when I asked how I might win a scholarship to university. When I did succeed in that endeavour, one of my new profs kindly counselled that my interest in existentialism was totally unsuitable for a woman. and that if I ever wanted a husband, I must first learn to play dumb.

Many of my female classmates consented to follow that path. They insisted that the primary goal of our education was to acquire an engagement ring on your finger, a goal that took precedence over participation in some stuffy graduation ceremony. For them, baking brownies was a better route to success than brown-nosing the books.

Photo courtesy of Leslie Nelson

The Weight of Ink frequently left me gasping at the intensity of the scenes it depicts.  Men groping and grasping in the pit of the theatre, their pisspots and puddles adding to the stench of foul breath and unwashed bodies as people swarmed to the “entertainment” available that swept into fashion after the restoration of the monarchy. Or along the Thames: “She watched as two apprentices squatted together beside the river, saw them shimmy their closed fists and fling forbidden dice at the bare earth beneath their kissing knees. Nearby,  three men watched, and banged together their metal mugs of posset, hob and nob, as they toasted a long list of sins soon to be restored to England with the return of the king: dicing, bowling, bear-baiting- each sin saluted by the men with a three-voice chorus of “a very rude and nasty pleasure.”

The descriptions led me to wonder whether we have progressed from the old Roman adage of “bread and circuses,” and whether the current plague of addiction that is devastating the core of so many prosperous cities is rooted in a similar search for pleasures of the flesh. So too, the descriptions of London where all cats had been killed in the belief that they spread the plague, and where terrified citizens sought to avoided  human contact whenever compelled to venture forth,  nose-cones filled with lavender.

The image catapulted me into today’s world where “social isolation” runs rampant while we erect buildings in which “every luxury is designed to pull its residents inward, away from the rest of us…. The latest and greatest condo amenities now include an “adult tree house” and a “sumac meander…..Want a drink or a meal, a swim or a game of pool at the end of a day, a yoga class or a good book? There’s no need to step outside into the city. Something to do with the kids? Don’t worry, there’s no reason for them to go outside either.” [1]

Like other great novels, The Weight of Ink often left me gasping  at the intensity of the dialogue. Building upon his conviction that mere breathing does not constitute a life, the blind elder who sees and knows what really matters startlingly states: “Do not make the error of mistaking death for life.” (p.334)  How many of us are indeed dead to much that surrounds us? How many of us willfully cut ourselves off from a life that feels to complex to handle?

Frequently, the blind elder’s words spoke to me as they must to anyone who has ever raised a child or taught a student: “It is my lot in life to share the light of learning with all who come to me, yet it has also been my fate to see the greatest gifts spilled into dust….It is not for me to determine which of the seeds I plant will blossom, and which lie fallow, or even bear ill.” (Ibid) And as I grope through life, seeking to find the path of wisdom, what better symbol could I seek than that of the blind elder who nonetheless is able to provide guidance and inspiration to others?

[1] Kevin Baker, “The Death of a Once Great City: The Fall of New York and the Urban Crisis of Affluence,” Harpers Magazine, July 2018, pp.25-47.