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Book Reviews

By Anne Downey '95G

Book cover photos by Mark Corliss
(Book titles are linked to online booksellers. Also check Dimond Library's online card catalog for these titles)
Reviewed in this issue:
    The Vision of Emma Blau
    Weaving Work and Motherhood
    Sanctuary: Gardening for the Soul
Book cover

The Vision of Emma Blau

by Ursula Hegi '78, '79G
Simon and Schuster, 2000

Ursula Hegi's new novel begins and ends in an apartment building on Lake Winnipesaukee, a building made of the sweat and dreams of German immigrant Stefan Blau. At age 19, Stefan visits the New Hampshire lake because he is told by his Hungarian boss that it will remind him of Germany. Rowing across it, he has a vision of his past -- the farm where he grew up -- and of his future. He sees a grand lakeside apartment house that he will one day build. Many years later, he will tell his granddaughter, Emma, "Getting what you want . . . has to do with holding it in your mind so strongly that you keep returning to it -- without thinking -- so that you are always linked to it. That's how I built this house. That's how I came to America."

Hegi's fans will recognize Stefan Blau and many other characters as members of the community of Burgdorf, the German town that is the setting for her immensely popular novel Stones from the River (1994). The visions that pervade the lives of her most compelling characters will also be familiar from that book. But in this novel, Hegi explores what it means to be an immigrant, split between two cultures -- a tear that never quite mends itself. The book follows four generations of the Blau family and spans most of the 20th century, dramatizing the dreams, triumphs and disappointments of the German immigrants. Stefan's magnificent house, the Wasserburg, becomes both the symbol and the curse of his family, a monument not only to Stefan's achievements, but also to his failings.

Visions may inspire Hegi's characters, but it is their ties to the past that sustain them. Helene Montag, Stefan's childhood friend and third wife, reflects on the German food she insists on making for her family: "Helene found that German food did much more than feed her and her family: it connected her to Burgdorf and to her memories, so that when she shredded potatoes for Reibekuchen, she could see Frau Blau making them, see herself and Margret eating them, brown-crisp, as quickly as they came from the pan. . . ."

Hegi's enormous talent for detail makes visionaries of her readers. The settings that she creates become as real as your own neighborhood, and after finishing one of her novels, you feel as if you have learned something very profound about memory, the power of place, about life itself.

Book cover

Weaving Work and Motherhood

by Anita Ilta Garey
Temple University Press, 1999

Anita Garey is an assistant professor of sociology at UNH, and this book began as her doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley. In her first chapter, she observes that the popular conception of life in the 1950s -- the Leave It to Beaver land of dads at work and moms at home baking brownies -- did not match her own experience. In her 1950s childhood, all the women she knew worked outside the home -- as cafeteria workers, secretaries, nurses and teachers at her school, as bank tellers, salesclerks and beauticians.

As she began her professional life, Garey realized that those professions were largely ignored in discussions of working women. She writes, "I had not yet learned that what counts as real work is full-time (40 hours or more), day-shift, year-round employment in a defined occupation. I had not yet learned how not to see the employment of large numbers of women, many of them mothers. This disjuncture between my experience of women and employment and what I read about the 1950s family sensitized me to the missing stories in generalizations about families, mothers and employment."

The popular image of working mothers isn't much more accurate now than it was in the 1950s, Garey argues. "For women in the U.S., employment and family have been portrayed dichotomously -- and women are described as being either 'work-oriented' or 'family-oriented.'" In addition, although a very small percentage of working mothers are in managerial or professional positions, those are the ones usually depicted in popular culture.

"The majority of employed mothers are missing from cultural images and social analyses of working mothers," Garey writes. "In the 1990s, as in the 1950s, critical disjunctures still exist between the experiences of employed women with children and the representations of working mothers in both popular culture and scholarly literature."

Garey argues that women's lives are more integrated and more complex than traditional sociological models will allow. Analyzing women's lives according to an either/or formula -- work-oriented or family-oriented -- ignores the fact that most women have managed to weave together their identities as mothers and as workers.

Garey's book focuses on women in the kinds of jobs that most American women actually hold. Interviewing a racially and ethnically mixed group of women hospital workers -- secretaries and clerks, janitorial workers, nurses and nurses aides -- she investigates what it means to be a working mother, at home and on the job. In doing so, she replaces notions of how women "balance" work and family with a better understanding of how they integrate their identities as both workers and mothers.

Book cover

Sanctuary: Gardening for the Soul

photography by Dency Kane '68
text by Lauri Brunton and Erin Fournier
Friedman/Fairfax Publishers, 1999

If it has ever occurred to you that work in the garden is spiritual, that gardening might even be a kind of religion, you'll appreciate this book.

The authors define a sanctuary as a place that offers comfort, protection and hope, and they suggest ways to turn your garden into such a space. The five chapters each focus on a particular spiritual quality: peace, change, passion, mystery and contemplation. As they show how nature reflects these qualities, the authors inspire you to use your memory and creativity to capture them.

In the chapter on change, for example, the authors note that "plant textures and patterns . . . shift constantly, like a tapestry woven across the seasons. Every species and genus handles the stages of its own metamorphosis differently. Just as humans balance change and pressure in an endless variety of ways, plants lace together a myriad of forms and designs across the garden as time goes by. Some add bright-colored berries. Others bring vivid washes of flowers or seedheads that move with the wind. . . . To realize our greatest potential, we must embrace change without hesitation. Learn from the garden, which puts forth buds when offered only the suggestion of warmth, then, with courage, moves forward to flower."

Your garden can be a celebration of the changes you have experienced in your life. You could plant flowers that your grandmother loved, or those that made up your wedding bouquet. You might add a new tree for each of your children, or plant the vine that curled around the porch of your first home. The text invites you to think differently -- perhaps more deeply -- about the garden you create.

But the photographs are the heart of this book, and they are stunning. In "A Note from the Photographer," which concludes the book, Dency Kane '68 remembers the nursery and greenhouses that her parents owned when she was a child. "The intense focus upon the small things in nature shaped a large part of my childhood," she writes. And how important those small things become as you see them through her eyes: the bright orange veins of a chard plant, the skeleton of a withering zinnia, the symmetry of an artichoke juxtaposed against the shifting color of a bougainvillea. ~

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