Foreword Reviews

Book of the Day Roundup: March 22-26, 2021

The Woman Who Raised the Buddha

The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati

Book Cover
Wendy Garling
Shambhala Publications
Softcover $18.95 (272pp)
978-1-61180-669-4
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Wendy Garling’s The Woman Who Raised the Buddha fills a gap in historical accounts of the origins of Buddhism, which, like most major religions, has erased or devalued the contributions of women.

When her sister, Maya, died seven days after having given birth to Siddhartha, Mahaprajapati, queen of the Sakyas, took the infant Boddhisattva to her breast, adopted him as her son, and raised him until he left home at the age of twenty-nine to fulfill his life’s purpose. Part of that purpose was to establish an egalitarian fourfold religious community of nuns and monks, laywomen and laymen.

But with patriarchy and misogyny rampant in the ancient world, Garling reveals, men among the monastics took control of the Buddha’s legacy upon his death around 400 BCE. Women’s contributions, as well as the Buddha’s intent for equality in access to the dharma, were diminished or erased from Buddhism’s narrative and practice. While Mahaprajapati’s pivotal role in forming the order of Buddhist nuns is known, accounts of her life were fragmentary and rare.

Garling’s book helps restore balance to the Buddhist narrative, relying on early women’s stories translated from Buddhism’s first written languages (Sanskrit and Pali), translations from writings of other Asian cultures, and a surprising cache of women’s literature sequestered within the Pali canon. It illuminates the turbulent life and times of Mahaprajapati, a woman who not only loved and nurtured her adopted son as her own, but had the courage and spirit of adventure needed to confront entrenched men’s dominance.

The Woman Who Raised the Buddha not only reveals how Buddhism, after more than 2,500 years, is still marked by patriarchy and misogyny, but brings to light the courage and human love that lie at its root.

KRISTINE MORRIS (February 27, 2021)

Eat the Mouth That Feeds You

Book Cover
Carribean Fragoza
City Lights Publishers
Softcover $14.95 (144pp)
978-0-87286-833-5
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Blending the ancestral and the modern, the religious and the secular, the stories of Eat the Mouth That Feeds You come together to create something transcendent.

Women and women’s bodies are centered throughout the collection. “Lumberjack Mom” finds siblings fascinated with the fierceness with which their mother gardens in the wake of their father’s absence. Her hands become rough and her arms strong, externalizing a change that surely must be solidifying within. In the surreal “Me Muero,” a young woman drops dead at a family gathering; she must dispense with her own innards before finding peace.

The title story sees a toddler take bites out of her mother and eat letters, photographs, and other ephemera from her grandmother and great grandmother. The body feeds her in more ways than one. In taking the nourishing relationship between a mother and child further than suckling at the breast, the story makes the passage of thoughts, emotions, and knowledge through generations a visceral, loving process.

There is a hidden sense of flow among the pieces. Following “Eat the Mouth That Feeds You” is “Mysterious Bodies,” in which a woman attempts an at-home medical abortion with psychedelic results. “Ini y Fati,” the story of a young girl saved from death via lightning strike by a child saint who questions the existence of God, is followed by “New Fire Songs,” a story outside of time, in which a tribe of people living within a walnut grove, protected from the farmers who would hunt them, draw on their multiethnic ancestral roots for strength.

The collection revels in the unapologetic strength of the feminine, giving it a transformative quality. It reshapes the idea of Chicanx womanhood as either meek or strong-willed, and shows that women are both and more. Fierce and feminist, Eat the Mouth That Feeds You is a soul-quaking literary force.

DONTANá MCPHERSON-JOSEPH (February 27, 2021)

Libertie

Book Cover
Kaitlyn Greenidge
Algonquin Books
Hardcover $26.95 (336pp)
978-1-61620-701-4
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

In Kaitlyn Greenidge’s powerful coming-of-age novel Libertie, a freeborn Black girl’s hunger to define her own boundaries carries her across an ocean and back.

The darker daughter of a light-skinned, widowed homeopath, Libertie witnesses her mother saving runaways in New York. But then a man with a broken spirit dies, and her faith in her future in medicine wavers. The rift between she and her mother widens after the Civil War: Libertie’s mother makes concessions for white patients, and Libertie bristles. Sent to Ohio for medical school while she’s still angry, Libertie feels adrift.

Back home, Emmanuel—a passionate American Black man who lived in Haiti, and who studied under Libertie’s mother—proposes to Libertie. She accepts out of a sense of rebellion. In Haiti, she discovers that marrying into a family full of secrets is more complicated than she anticipated.

Throughout, love reveals itself as fraught with expectations. Libertie and her mother exchange sometimes overlapping letters, writing between the lines to reveal the misunderstandings and potent wishes that mark their bond. Libertie’s doubts about the roles that people want her to inhabit mix with her restlessness. Finally, motherhood empowers her to be at home within herself.

As she addresses rejecting her mother’s dreams, fleeing, and finding purpose, Libertie’s narration is thorough, tactile, and sharp. Her strong-willed temperament is a double-edged sword, both a hindrance and gift; her passion is clear and evolving. She employs intricate water and botanical images and music, while themes of colorism, identity, communities among women, and wrestling over life decisions result in an engaging portrait of growing up.

In the memorable historical novel Libertie, a young woman struggles with her mother and questions what freedom means to her.

KAREN RIGBY (February 27, 2021)

The Secrets of Star Whales

Book Cover
Rebecca Thorne
Jolly Fish Press
Softcover $11.99 (240pp)
978-1-63163-441-3
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

With a mesmerizing vision of life among the stars, wherein space’s endless horizon only seems limited by the expectations of a small, blue-collar community, Rebecca Thorne’s middle grade novel The Secrets of Star Whales is deft in addressing big dichotomies: engineering versus art, home versus the larger world, and following in your parents’ footsteps versus forging your own way.

Stella cetacea, also known as star whales, are the only creatures thought to live in the vacuum of space, but they’re elusive and perhaps mythical, having been sought by scientists and poachers alike for nearly 300 years without success. In the 5th star system, right outside the Kialoa Nebula, in the remote mining station of Azura, twelve-year-old Max wonders if such creatures are possible, much less accessible to someone like him. Then, a ship comes smoking into his station, bringing Mr. Hames, a substitute teacher who threatens to change it all.

This novel nails the nebulous and shifting group dynamics of classmates who’ve grown up together and are testing new configurations and social alignments as they take their first tentative steps toward independence, self-discovery, and the people they could become in adulthood. Friendships stop being based solely on shared proximity, and Max fears being left behind, both literally and figuratively. As life becomes a trajectory of individuation and change, his anxieties about friends embracing different futures and roles than the ones Max wants are portrayed with unique perception.

Here, growing up requires honesty, vulnerability, and accountability to others. The Secrets of Star Whales is a rollicking middle grade adventure with a subtle message about processing and expressing emotions, and the traps that await those who allow their sadness to masquerade as anger.

LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (February 27, 2021)

Flash Forward

An Illustrated Guide to Possible (and Not So Possible) Tomorrows

Book Cover
Rose Eveleth
Matt Lubchansky, contributor
Sophie Goldstein, contributor
Abrams ComicArts
Hardcover $24.99 (272pp)
978-1-4197-4547-8
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Flash Forward comprises a dozen thought-provoking glimpses into the future, from a variety of creators.

Inspired by the Flash Forward podcast, the book’s twenty-page graphic stories illustrate current ideas, practices, and trends as extrapolated into a hazardous, but not quite dystopian near future. While there are some elements of Twilight Zone-style “getting too much of what you asked for” justice, there’s also a healthy balance of good and bad; these characters are more products of their environments than they are victims of their own bad karma, and several stories showcase their chosen subjects in a positive or neutral way.

The most memorable plots center on the unchecked progression of technologies once perceived as boons, now advanced to a level where the costs of those benefits must be reconsidered. Pirates who liberate expensive therapeutic drugs; people who alter themselves to function with little or no sleep; and deepfake videos are included, all grounded in current science and society. Here, they function as both entertainment and lessons.

Each section is followed by a few pages of text analyzing subjects in greater detail, with references to experts in related fields and science fiction precedents. The full-color art changes styles with each story, helping to establish a visual sense of separate futures, each with their own problems.

Casting a wide net to cover machine-created art, the legalities of space crime, and a world of flexible gender identity, Flash Forward is a fascinating map to imagining the future and all it might deliver.

PETER DABBENE (February 27, 2021)

Barbara Hodge

Load Next Article