Thursday, 25 July 2013

Three great women. Three good books

I have just read three books about three great women.


"Helga's Diary - a Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp" (Norton 2013, Helen Weiss).

It's a powerful account by a Czech woman of Jewish heritage -  Helga Weiss (1929- )  and of her transportation from Prague to the Terezin (Theresienstadt)  camp with her mother and father, of the presumed extermination of her father, and of the trials of Helga and her mother from Terezin to Auschwitz , then  to Birkenau and finally to freedom back n Prague. (Where within a few years they would experience Soviet Empire anti-semitism.)

Helga is a noble women who has suffered so much but has allowed her sufferings to be transformed into a creative and noble life.

* (15,00 children entered Terezin. 100 survived.

* (Theresienstadt was the "model" German Concentration Camp which the Nazis  "tarted up"  in order to persuade a Red Cross delegation that Jews were being well treated).

The Nazis won. The Red Cross was fooled. 



"Strong Medicine" Speaks: A Native American Elder Has Her Say" (Altria Books 2008)

This is an oral history compiled by Amy Hill Hearth all about   Marion “Strong Medicine” Gould, a wise woman Elder of the New Jersey Lenni-Lenape tribe.

Here is what the "Publisher's  Weekly had to say 

March 31, 2008
"Hearth, best known for her oral history of the Delany sisters, HAVING OUR SAY, captures the voice of 83-year-old tribe matriarch Marion “Strong Medicine” Gould as she looks back on her life as a Lenni-Lenape Indian. A once-powerful tribe ranging across New Jersey and parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware, the arrival of Europeans would eventually turn the Lenape into “a hidden people”: says Gould, “We kept quiet in order to survive.” With great care, Gould describes the challenges of 20th and 21st century Native Americans and her significant role in her southern New Jersey tribe’s transforming way of life. In many ways, Native Americans’ modern struggle is for a public identity, especially apparent during the civil rights movement: “[A]ll of a sudden, we aren’t dark enough…. Indian was not black. We were totally left out in the cold.” Gould locates the source of her strength and the tribe’s—the Indian way—in the extended family, and suggests that many people’s problems today stem from a lack of “kinfolk to lean on.” Poignant moments of love and loss bookend the tale, and in between Hearth works almost invisibly to craft a graceful, sustained look into the quiet struggles of contemporary Native Americans."



"With Billie"  Julia Blackburn, Pantheon Books 2005

This is a terrific account of the fabulous and tragic Billie Holiday:   "Lady Day".

The book "moved my heart " towards Billie, and reminded me more and more of the racist world in which she strived.  

Here is what the "Guardian" had t0 say:

And this (I believe) is from the Washington Post.

And here are some people who shouldn't read "With Billie" because they might get upset:
Those who are put off by descriptions of sex, strong language, drug use and drinking. Those who are too tenderhearted to read about rank injustice and awful poverty, even if it is intermittently laced with glamour and triumph.

There's quite a story behind the writing of "With Billie." Back in 1972, a woman named Linda Kuehl got it into her head to write a biography of the singer. She conducted more than 150 interviews and evidently decided to use the results in a conventional way, with the interviews as source material. But she couldn't make the book work and, perhaps at least partially because of that, seemingly committed suicide. The papers went to a private collector.

About 30 years later, Julia Blackburn also decided to write a biography of Holiday. She purchased the papers: tapes, transcripts, medical reports, private letters. Blackburn, who's written both novels and nonfiction books, tried again to bring order to all this chaos, and once again it didn't work. "That was when I decided," she writes, "this book must be a documentary in which people are free to tell their own stories about Billie and it doesn't matter if the stories don't fit together, or even if sometimes they seem to be talking about a completely different woman."

And with this tack, Blackburn did it; she pulled off a miracle of organization and editing, then transformed the whole thing by the magical (if occasional) addition of her own outrageous, melodious voice. How, for instance, does she establish the "street cred" to write about Billie, who besides being one of the great American vocalists of the 20th century, was also a sometime prostitute, regularly beaten by a string of dubious husbands and pimps -- a woman who did time in reform school and jail and had a daunting string of drug arrests? 


I cannot think about the fabulous "Lady Day" without recalling her most dangerous and subversive song (lyrics by Abel Meeropol)  

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.


Listen here:

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