Book Reviews

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An American Bride in Kabul
Phyllis Chesler

“An American Bride in Kabul” tells the tale of Phyllis Chesler, a American who fell in love with (and married) Abul-Kareem, an Afghani man, while they were at college together in New York City in the late 1950s. Phyllis had broken away from her Orthodox Jewish upbringing and was embracing many of the progressive attitudes she found in college, surrounding herself with like minded artists, poets, and free thinkers. By all appearances Abul-Kareem was very similar, leaving his country to attend college in the United States, soaking up liberalism he found there before bringing these attitudes back to Afghanistan in hopes of being a force of modernity in his traditional country. Phyllis and Abul-Kareem fell in love over late night conversations, cinema, and art. The love story is a familiar one, that is, until Abul-Kareem bring Phyllis back to his home country. When they embark on the journey to Afghanistan Phyllis has no idea what is waiting for her in the Middle East, Abul-Kareem does not attempt to prepare her for what she will find there, and the reader soon finds out why. Upon arriving at the airport in Kabul Phyllis’ American passport is immediately taken, an ominous sign of what is to come. Phyllis refers to Abul-Kareem’s father’s home as a “harem” in the traditional sense of the word, not a brothel, but a place where his multiple wives, daughters, daughters-in-law and grandchildren live out their lives away from the male relatives. Phyllis is thrust into this female only environment without any knowledge of the culture or expectations, and begins to have second thoughts. Abul-Kareem basically abandons his wife to his female relatives while he tries to make a career for himself. The first section of the book recounts her experience living with Abul-Kareem’s family, at best feeling inconsequential and ignored, at worst, a prisoner. Chesler’s account of her time in Kabul is heart wrenching, and provides a view into the traditional private culture of Afgan women in the 1960s that is astounding to readers living in a modern world. This section of the memoir pulled the reader in with it’s descriptions, imagery and characters. When Phyllis is finally released Abul-Kareem’s home and flown back to the United States the book shifts gears, giving the reader political, socio-economic and cultural context for the period that Chesler spent in Afghanistan while she reflects on her experience. While this information is useful for a fuller understanding of her story, this section of the book is often dry. I wish the author had combined the two sections, giving us helpful context while we were engaged in her story. Even with the unnecessary division of the work, I enjoyed this book. It served as a window into a culture I know almost nothing about, and Chesler’s research of other American women brought back to Middle Eastern countries as unsuspecting wives enriched the story of her experience. A good read for anyone interested in women’s rights, unusual memoirs or Middle Eastern cultures viewed through an American lens.

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My Notorious Life
Kate Manning

A historical fiction novel based on a real life character once known as “the most wicked woman in New York”, “My Notorious Life” follows the life of Axie Muldoon, famous midwife. Born in the 1860’s to poor immigrant parents, Axie is separated from her family by a well meaning adoption agency and given to an older doctor couple to serve as their housemaid. While in their care Axie learns the trade of midwifery, which becomes her life’s work. Axie begins her career selling herbal contraception mixtures from a cart on the street and graduates to having her own clinic where she delivers babies as well as helping women “in trouble”. As Axie’s reputation as a doctor grows, so does her pocketbook, moving her into the upper crust of society and into the judgmental view of Anthony Comstock, head of the “Society for the Suppression of Vice”. During a time where women were thought of as the “weaker sex”, unable to make intelligent decisions about their own bodies, Axie Muldoon refuses to give up her practice, continuing to create a safe place for women to seek medical help. Kate Manning’s story is engaging and well written, chronicling a period when child birth and women’s health was moving from the home to the hospital, often under the care of doctors who dehumanized women and made life altering decisions for them, without their input. The reader finds themselves rooting for Axie as she continues to offer services to women from all walks of life without judgement, even as her reputation, family and business are ripped apart by men who think they are morally superior. A vivid, gripping tale, “My Notorious Life” is a great read.

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Driving Mr. Albert: a trip across America with Einstein’s brain
Michael Paterniti

Here’s a unique read, it is part travelogue, part memoir, part history and part biography and it all has to do with Albert Einstein and most importantly – his brain! Upon the great man’s death he was taken to the Princeton hospital where an autopsy was performed by Dr. Thomas Stoltz Harvey. As Dr. Harvey was standing over the greatest brain that has ever lived (at least in our modern era) he was seized with the overwhelming desire to own it. So, once he removed Einstien’s brain from the brain cavity he stored it in a Tupperware container! It remained in that container for more than 40 years albeit in different places throughout New Jersey. This story only gets more bizarre; the author, Michael Paterniti heard about the plight of Einstein’s brain from a college friend at a party and becomes obsessed with meeting the infamous Dr. Harvey. After much effort Paterniti meets the elderly doctor who at this point of his life needs a driver to bring Einstien’s brain to the only Einstein still alive, his granddaughter Evelyn. These two travelers share a truly strange journey that includes several visits to unique places throughout our glorious country and an unexpected visit with the notorious Beat leader Williams Borough (the book is worth reading just for that chapter alone). Give this book a try, it is very entertaining!
-Erica, October 2013

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The Secret Keeper
Beverly Lewis

One of my secret reading pleasures is Amish fiction. I’m not sure if it’s the old fashioned lifestyles, the hearty, down to earth characters, or just the view into another community so different from my own, but I devour these books like a good piece of cheese. I love anything by Beverly Lewis, perhaps the most prolific author of Amish fiction, and “The Secret Keeper” is just a good as the rest of her books. The book’s main character is Jennifer Burns, a “fancy” English woman who has spent her whole life yearning for a more simple lifestyle. This book is different from Lewis’ previous works in that this novel features a modern character who wants to become Amish, while most of her other books focus on characters in the Amish community, usually debating whether to stay “Plain” or leave their community for the modern world. It’s fascinating to watch Jennifer Burns navigate the Amish world that is so foreign to her, and the reader finds themselves cheering for Jenny as she succeeds and rallying behind her when she makes mistakes. An easy, enjoyable read, Beverly Lewis’ “The Secret Keeper” is captivating as her other works.
– Meg Sher, October 2013