Baking Cakes in Kigali

Parkin, Gaile. Baking Cakes in Kigali. New York: Delacorte Press, 2009.

Reason read: the Rwanda genocide happened on April 6th, 1994. Read in memory of that event.

Respected as a skilled baker in her new Rwandan community, Angel Tungaraza also acts as a voice of reason and likes to solve her customer’s problems whether they ask for her help or not (think of a bartender or hair dresser; someone who can listen to one’s woes and offer advice for the sheer sake of chitchat). Drawing from her life in Tanzania, she manages to help her friends and neighbors in unique ways. Angel isn’t without her faults, though. She protects her reputation fiercely and can come across as snobbish when she doesn’t approve of the cake someone else has baked or designed. If the customer chooses colors and styles that are “boring” in Angel’s opinion she secretly scoffs at them. She also carries a secret shame; one that she cannot even admit to herself.
Throughout Baking Cakes in Kigali I was comparing Angela to Angela Lansbury in “Murder, She Wrote.” Only instead of murders, Angel Tungaraza muddles her way through issues such as adultery, ritual cutting, equal rights for women, and racial prejudices; tackling the aftershocks of societal catastrophes such as AIDS and the Rwandan genocide.

Author fact: Parkin also wrote When Hoopoes Go to Heaven which is not on my Challenge list.

Book trivia: Many, many people compared Baking Cakes in Kigali to Alexander McCall Smith’s series.

Nancy said: Pearl called Baking Cakes in Kigali “charming.”

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Africa: the Greenest Continent” (p 8).


Nervous Conditions

Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Oxford: Ayebia Clarke Publishing, 2004.

Reason read: March is African Writers Month.

Line I liked a lot, “She began to prepare me for disappointment long before I would have been forced to face up to it” (p 20).

As an adult recalling her childhood, Tambudzai remembers spending most of her formative years constantly questioning the right action to take, not only as a representative of her Rhodesian culture, but as a woman in a male dominated society. It is the 1960s and her missionary uncle has given her the opportunity to attend his school. He is the provider, the all-powerful headmaster, capable of shaping Tambu’s future or tearing it down on a whim. She recalls enduring endless lectures from him, nagging reminders of how lucky she was to be given the opportunity for mental emancipation. She wouldn’t have gotten the chance had his first choice, her brother, not died. Indeed, as soon as Tambu entered his household Tambu began to learn new things: how to hold a fork, the proper way to use a toilet, take a bath, or shut out a light. She endures a love-hate relationship with her cousin, a girl with the same restless desires to break free of societal trappings.
Favorite line, “Her seriousness changed from sweet, soft dove into something more like a wasp” (p 101).

Author fact: Dangarembga has written a great deal, but I am only reading Nervous Conditions for the Challenge. This is her first novel.

Book trivia: Nervous Conditions was Dangarembga’s first novel.

Nancy said: after Pearl wrote Book Lust people started to ask her about titles she had omitted. Nervous Conditions was one such title. Pearl called the opening line to Nervous Conditions “provocative.”

BookLust Twist: This is a popular one: from Book Lust in the chapter “African Literature in English” (p 16). Also in More Book Lust in two places, the introduction (p xi), and again in the chapter called “Lines that Linger, Sentences that Stick” (p 140).


Two Old Women

Wallis, Velma. Two Old Women: An Alaskan Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival. New York: Perennial, 1993.

Reason read: Seward Day is in March.

Two old women do not know each other very well before being abandoned by their People. Surviving the wilds of Arctic Circle Alaska is serious business, especially when you are elderly. Winter is closing in, food is scarce, and it is time for the tribe to be moving on. The Athabaskan Chief and his Council make the tough decision to leave their weakest behind in order to survive the harsh elements. This means seventy-five year old Sa’ and eighty year old Ch’idzigyaak are left to fend for themselves: finding food, making clothes, securing shelter, and staving off loneliness. These women are tough and resourceful, which makes for great perseverance.
Spoiler alert. This has a happy ending so you know the women survive. That wasn’t the plot twist for me. What I didn’t expect was the women’s fear of their tribe “finding” them again. They were suspicious of potential malevolent behavior (including cannibalism) if they were discovered to have survived. Even when they are reunited with their People, it takes time to trust them again. Who can blame them?

In my modern day society, I thought could not imagine a society where a community leaves its elderly behind, knowing full well they will probably will die. But then again, oh wait. I do. Italy, March 2020. They had to make the hard decision to not offer ventilators to anyone over the age of 80. Survival of the fittest.

Quote I liked best, “The body needs food but the mind needs people” (p 65).

Author fact: Wallis was born in the Alaskan interior. Two Old Women is her first novel.

Book trivia: Two Old Women was illustrated by James Grant.

Nancy said: Pearl actually didn’t chose Two Old Women. She asked author Dana Stabenow to select some Alaskan titles. Stabenow said Two Old Women is very controversial in Alaska.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “All Set For Alaska” (p 15).


More Than Petticoats

Kennedy, Kate. More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Maine Women. Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2005.

Reason read: to satisfy a Portland Public Reading Challenge category: Maine history.


More Than Petticoats is a series of biographies focusing on historically significant women by location. I believe every state in the country has a book and some states, like California, have a second volume. For the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge, I read More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Maine Women. Thirteen biographies of some women you might know and others you may not recognize: Marguerite-Blanche Thibodeau Cyr, Kate Furbish, Abbie Burgess Grant, Lillian M.N. Stevens, Sarah Orne Jewett, Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby, Lillian “La Nordica” Norton, Josephine Diebitsch Peary, Florence Nicolar Shay, Marguerite Thompson Zorach, Florence Eastman Williams, Sister R. Mildred Barker, and Margaret Chase Smith. From 1738 – 1995. I love Maine’s rich history. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sarah Orne Jewett, Franklin Pierce. I could go on and on.

As an aside, my sister takes pictures of a water fountain close to her library. I now know the history of the girl: the Women’s Christian Temperance Union dedicated the fountain to Lillian M.N. Stevens. Very cool.

Confessional: I want to visit Abbie Burgess Grant’s grave. According to Kennedy, Grant is buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery in South Thomaston. Her final resting place should be easy to find. Her headstone is the one with the lighthouse.
I also want to visit Sarah Orne Jewett’s house in South Brunswick. I hear it’s open to the public. I should just go on a Maine Women vacation.


Maisie Dobbs

Winspear, Jacqueline. Maisie Dobbs. Narrated by Rita Barrington. Hampton, NH: BBC Audiobooks America, 2005.

Reason read: March is International Women’s Month. I am also reading this for the Portland Public Library 2020 Reading Challenge. The category is “a cozy mystery.” I took “cozy” to mean a mystery without violence; no bombs exploding or crazy gun fights. Nothing fast paced; no cars screaming around corners on two wheels. Maybe “cozy” includes a sleeping cat or a steaming cup of tea.

Nancy Pearl should have included Maisie Dobbs in her list of characters she would like to befriend because I would like to hang out with Ms Dobbs myself. Maisie is one of those can’t-do-wrong girls that everyone, men and women alike, fall in love with. She is smart, pretty, loyal, and keenly perceptive.
We first meet Maisie Dobbs in 1910. After her mother dies, Maisie, at the age of thirteen, takes a job as a maid for Lady Rowan Compton. Living in the Compton mansion is a far cry from her father’s humble costermonger home and inquisitive Maisie can’t help but explore every richly decorated room, especially the well stocked library. Night after night she is drawn to sneaking down the stairs and taking advantage of the massive collection. When discovered, Lady Rowan does not seek punishment. Rather, recognizing a talent for learning, rewards Maisie with extensive tutoring from family friend, Maurice Blanche. Blanche is a private investigator who uses psychology and acute observation to solve mysteries. Maisie becomes his apprentice and subsequently takes over the business after Blanche’s retirement. One case takes Maisie back to her days as a volunteer nurse during the Great War. The plot takes a turn down memory lane as Maisie’s wartime ghosts are revealed. A second mystery concerning the love of Maisie’s life emerges.
War is a constant character throughout Maisie Dobbs, whether the reader is looking back to Maisie’s volunteer work as a nurse in France, or looking ahead to the mysterious retreat for disfigured veterans. The psychology of war is ever present.

Favorite line, “Dawn is a home when soft veils are draped across reality, creating illusion and cheating truth” (p 249).

Author fact: Winspear wrote a ton of books but I am only reading Maisie Dobbs for the Book Lust Challenge.

Book trivia: Maisie Dobbs is Winspear’s first novel and won an Edgar Award.

Nancy said: Pearl said Winspear does a outstanding job of conveying post-World War I English society. I would also add Winspear does an outstanding job of conveying post traumatic stress and other debilitating effects of war.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the obvious chapter called “Ms. Mystery” (p 169).


A Long Way From Home

Briscoe, Connie. A Long Way From Home. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.

Reason read: Briscoe’s birth month is Devember. Read in her honor.

Clara starts off as a nearly eleven year old slave, owned by former president James Madison. As she grows up, she struggles to conform to the polite, obedient, and subservient ways of her mother and aunts, all house slaves in the Montpelier mansion. The inevitable and imminent death of President Madison means unclear futures for all of his slaves, field and house. Whispered questions like, ‘when he finally died would they be freed?’ ‘Could they stay on the plantation, especially if it is all they ever knew?’ scatter through hallways like runaway marbles on a tile floor. Would Madison’s slaves even have a choice? What no one saw coming was Madison’s awful stepson, Todd, taking over as Massa of Montpelier. His attraction to Clara sets off a terrible chain of events and life changes for everyone involved.
This is supposed to be the story of three generations of house slaves: Susie, Clara, and Susan. Susie is barely in the story, but Clara passes on her feisty nature to her daughter Susan. When Susan is sold away to satisfy a debt, readers follow her coming of age, growth into womanhood, and emerging sense of independence.
Aside from a great character story, A Long Way From Home is a fantastic historical fiction. Events of the Civil War described in detail color the fate of the south and give the story an interesting perspective.

Telling quotes, “These days, no one wearing a skirt at Montpelier ever slept alone when Mass Todd and his buddies were around” (p 70).

Author fact: According the back flap of A Long Way From Home Briscoe is a descendant of the slaves on the Madison family plantation. This story is her story.

Book trivia: I could see this made into a movie. It has an important story to tell so why isn’t it a movie?

Nancy said: Pearl said to consider A Long Way From Home for the reading list when considering African American fiction written by women.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “African American Fiction: She Says” (p 16).


Antonia Saw the Oryx First

Thomas, Maria. Antonia Saw the Oryx First. New York: Soho, 1987.

Reason read: August is Friendship Month.

Antonia Redmond and Esther Moro have an interesting relationship as they couldn’t be anymore different from one another. Antonia, an educated white woman, was born to American parents but has lived in Dar es Salaam, Africa nearly all of her life. As a doctor, she has been schooled in traditional modern medicine. Meanwhile, Esther Moro is on the other end of the spectrum as a woman who sells her body to make ends meet. “She knows only men” as the band The Horseflies would say. After a particularly violent encounter with a Greek fisherman Esther and Antonia meet as patient and doctor. At first Esther wants Antonia to teach her the rules of modern medicine, but soon discovers she has the power to heal within her already. Esther listens to her culture’s whisperings of witchcraft, ancient legends, and curses.

Author fact: Maria Thomas was a pen name for Roberta Worrick. She died in a plane crash was she was only 47 years old.

Book trivia: Two pieces of trivia, actually. Antonia Saw the Oryx First was Thomas’s first novel. She also wrote African Visas which is on my Challenge list for May 2031.

Nancy said: Pearl doesn’t say anything specific about the book or the author; just describes the plot a little.

BookLust Twist: Twice from Book Lust. Once in the chapter called “African Colonialism: Fiction” (p 14) and also in the Book Lust chapter “Women’s Friendships” (p 247).