Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Posts Tagged ‘Geraldine Brooks’

Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over

Posted by nliakos on November 11, 2017

by Geraldine Brooks (Doubleday Anchor Books 1998)

I’ve loved Geraldine Brooks’ fiction (Caleb’s Crossing, Year of Wonders, People of the Book, and The Secret Chord, and March) and have been looking forward to sampling her non-fiction. Brooks, a former journalist, wrote Nine Parts of Desire (which I haven’t read yet) in 1994, Foreign Correspondence four years later. In it, she describes her Australian childhood. Growing up in a downscale suburb of Sydney, she longed to escape and see the world. Her correspondence with four pen pals–the first one a resident of a more upscale part of Sydney, and an American, a French girl, an Israeli Jew, and an Israeli Arab–was her escape route. As an adult, she manages to track down and meet all but one of her correspondents, and discovers that her childhood impressions did not reflect their reality. The happiest one, she realizes, is the one who has never left her home village to explore the greater world, as Brooks herself yearned to do when she was a child, and she succeeded.

In addition to the pen pals, Brooks writes about her parents, her sister, her neighbors and friends, her school, her obsession with Star Trek, her marriage and conversion to Judaism, her work as a foreign correspondent, and especially what her bit of Australia was like to grow up in.  It’s not a long book, just over 200 pages, and it all makes for very interesting reading.

Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Secret Chord

Posted by nliakos on May 30, 2016

by Geraldine Brooks (Viking 2015; ISBN 978-0-670-02577-0)

If only Geraldine Brooks could write her historical novels as fast as I read them! I have now run out of Brooks’ novels (but am looking forward to sampling her nonfiction, especially Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women and Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over, which was recently recommended by a librarian at my local library).

The Secret Chord is the story of David–of David & Goliath fame, yes, King David, the writer of psalms–narrated by Natan (Nathan),  who has divine visions of what will be (and sometimes what is or what has already been) and serves as an advisor and confidant to David. An aging David has authorized Natan to interview people from his past about his life and to record the story; Natan, having finished this task, refers to the securing of the manuscript in “the high, dry caves where [he] played as a child”–perhaps a reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the possibility that such a manuscript might someday be unearthed.

Brooks/Natan portray David as a gifted musician and poet, a charismatic leader, and  a military and political strategist, whose abundance of love for his sons leads him to spoil them outrageously, thus sowing the seeds of his downfall. His seduction (or rape?) of Batsheva, wife of the faithful general Uriah, ends in tragedy for all, but eventually Batsheva (now a favorite wife) will bear the child who will become David’s successor–Shlomo (Solomon).

It makes me want reread the story of David in the Bible, because I am curious as to how much Brooks fabricated and from what actual references. (I did the same after reading The Red Tent.) I also guess that the songs and poems quoted in the novel are actual psalms, although I did not recognize any of them.

Posted in Fiction, History | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »


Posted by nliakos on May 21, 2016

by Geraldine Brooks (Viking 2005; ISBN 0-670-03335-9)

I guess most American women have read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women at some point; I know I did, but it wasn’t a favorite that I reread over and over, and my memory of it is quite vague, despite having seen the 1994 movie based on it. Basically, I remembered that the main character was named Jo, and that was about it.

Jo had three sisters (Meg, Beth, and Amy), a mother named Marmee (which I took to be an odd spelling of Mommy, but according to this, it was her nickname), and a father who wasn’t there. It was set in Massachusetts during the Civil War, and he had gone away to minister to the Union troops fighting to end slavery. Master storyteller Geraldine Brooks tells Mr. March’s side of the story in this amazing historical novel.

In the fascinating afterword, Brooks explains that she based her Mr. March’s character on Alcott’s own father, Amos Bronson Alcott, who, like Mr. March and his wife, was a fervent abolitionist. Alcott was a teacher; Mr. March is a minister (albeit an unconventional one) who becomes a teacher to runaway slaves (so-called “contraband”) on a northern-run cotton plantation in Virginia while the war rages on in other parts. (One of his pupils will use the literacy skills he taught her to save his life later).

March is a strict vegan (again, Brooks based this trait on Alcott’s father, who founded a commune whose members eschewed not only meat but also wool, and who refused to fertilize their fields with animal manure or to kill agricultural pests that were ruining their crops) and very dedicated to pacifism and abolition. The horrors of the war sorely test his values, and during a horrific attack on the plantation by a rebel militia, his survival instinct will not allow him to sacrifice his life for his friends, leaving him a changed man, one who is overcome with guilt and self-hatred. March feels doubly guilty because the war has brought him back into the presence of Grace Clement, whom he had encountered as a young man when she was a slave on her father’s plantation, and with whom he had a dalliance.

Several chapters told from Marmee’s point of view, when March is hospitalized in Washington, DC and physically unable to write his own story, explore the shock and pain experienced by the wife as she realizes that her husband has not been completely faithful to her.

Like all of Brooks’ novels, this one pulls the reader into the hearts and minds of the characters and teaches about the period and the events they are living through in a fascinating way. (I feel inspired to reread Little Women.)


Posted in Fiction, History | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Caleb’s Crossing

Posted by nliakos on December 29, 2015

by Geraldine Brooks (Viking 2011; ISBN 978-0-670-02104-8)

Geraldine Brooks is a master of historical fiction of the kind that zeroes in on someone or something you’ve never heard of and proceeds to make you care about him/her/it. I have already blogged about People of the Book and Year of Wonders. They were marvelous, but no more so than this novel based on the little that is known about Caleb Cheeshateaumauk, a Wampanoag (Wôpanâak) Indian who graduated from Harvard College in 1665, the first Native American to do so. Very little is known about him; Brooks summarizes it in two pages of an Afterword. What disposed him, the son of a chief, to learn English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, to study the Bible in its original form, to leave his home on Martha’s Vineyard and travel to Cambridge (not a nice place at the time) to attend a sort of prep school and then Harvard? Brooks’ fictional Bethia Mayfield narrates her own and Caleb’s stories and thus imagines some answers to these questions.

Bethia is insatiably curious and smart. More than anything, she wants the education her brother is given but cannot appreciate. She is a born feminist living in a culture that scorns women’s intellect. As a girl of fourteen and fifteen, she wanders away from her home on the island for a breath of privacy and meets Caleb, surprising him with her rudimentary knowledge of his language, which she has overheard her father trying to teach her slow-witted brother. They become secret friends. Eventually, Caleb decides that he can best help his people by learning the ways of the English, and he comes to live with Bethia’s family (her father is the preacher/missionary in their small community). Later, when Caleb and her brother Makepeace travel to Cambridge to continue their studies, Bethia accompanies them, as an indentured scullery maid for the preparatory school where they are enrolled. When they move to Harvard, so does she, lured by the possibility of listening in on the lectures she is forbidden to attend openly. The narrative then jumps to 1715, with Bethia now an old woman. She takes up the tale where she left off and tells how Caleb and his Wampanoag classmate Joel Iacoomis (also a real person) died young, soon after successfully completing their bachelor’s degrees at Harvard, and how she came to return to Martha’s Vineyard to live out her days.

Bethia is a wonderful character who believes in the fundamentalist teachings she was brought up with but cannot quite bring herself to accept her lot as a woman in that society without pushing the boundaries as much as possible. She and Caleb discuss theology and culture, and each has an effect on the other’s beliefs. After he shares the Wampanoag creation story with her, she writes, “Of course, I thought it all outlandish. But as I rode home that afternoon, it came to me that our story of a burning bush and a parted sea might also seem fabulous, to one not raised up knowing it was true.” (p. 35) Bethia even finds herself drawn to aspects of Caleb’s beliefs, and her guilt over this causes her to blame herself for her mother’s death, one of several tragedies in her life. Despite the title, I felt that the novel was more about Bethia than it was about Caleb, because the reader is treated to her inner thoughts and feelings, whereas we must guess as to his, much as Bethia herself must; Caleb does not openly share his emotions.

Brooks/Bethia has great sympathy for the Native characters in the book and Native Americans. She describes the hypocrisy of the English Christians who would convert the “salvages” but never fully accept them, who preached the gospel to them while stealing from and slaughtering them. The character of Tequamuck, Caleb’s uncle and the shaman of the tribe, predicts a future that the reader knows to be the truth: “his people reduced, no longer hunters but hunted. . . the dead stacked up like cordwood, and long lines of people. . . driven off from their familiar places.” He asks Bethia, “How should I worship your God, no matter how powerful, when I know what he will allow to befall us? Who would follow such a cruel god?” Who, indeed?

This is an absolutely wonderful book! I couldn’t put it down.

Posted in Fiction, History | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »