Thursday, February 28, 2013


Sometimes it’s really disheartening and hard to understand how in the 21st century, under the weight of thick layers of ancient traditions and wrong beliefs, several cultures around the world still fear social reforms and stubbornly resist change. But having faith that some day these cultures will embrace the change and keep working toward that goal is more than ever necessary: the defense of women’s and children’s human rights everywhere in the world is the cornerstone of an healthy and thriving society. In the African continent, so often considered the "womb" of the human race, cultural prejudices and gender discrimination have set insurmountable  barriers on the way to freedom and social justice, for far too long. Knowing that people like Rev. Karen Baldwin are relentlessly advocating and working to raise awareness for this cause is for me a very heartwarming thought: earlier this year I had the great pleasure to review (read here) her memoires Ruby’s World: My Journey With Zulu, and today she is here on Mina's Bookshelf to share the incredible journey of her life.

Q. Welcome to Mina's Bookshelf, Karen. Such a pleasure to have you here. From civil engineer, to interfaith minister, writer, and ultimately human rights advocate and inspirational speaker...quite a transformation. What inspired you to turn your life around in such a radical way?

A. I knew from a very young age that my life belonged to God. I planned to be a nun when I grew up!

But life happened: I fell in love, married, developed a successful career in engineering, had a beautiful son, and became a single mom. I was happy with my secular life for a long time. Then, shortly after my son left home for college, I had a heart attack. During my ambulance ride (the opening chapter of Ruby’s World) I realized that avoiding my passion for ministry was literally breaking my heart. I could either pursue the life I was meant for – or die.

Three years later, a few months into my seminary training, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was terrified, angry that I had begun the transformation and still might die without fulfilling my purpose. Thankfully, my treatment was successful … but cancer had upped the ante. I had cheated death twice (heart attack and breast cancer are the two biggest killers of women) and felt compelled to make my life count.

While I was recovering from my final surgery, I had a series of dreams that sealed my destiny. My second book, Unlocking the Dream, tells the story of the mysterious dreams that changed my life forever by sending me alone to Africa.

The transformation continues to surprise and thrill me. I wouldn’t give back even one minute of the adventure!

Q. After your amazing experience as the first white western teacher among the rural Zulus, you have collected your memoires in a though-provoking and pulse-pounding autobiography. What prompted you to record those events in a book?

A. Honestly, I never intended to write a book. But again, I had a dream in which I was told to “stop talking about Africa and write the damn book!” It seemed ludicrous since I’d never written anything longer than a term paper or sermon. But it wouldn’t leave me alone. So I put on my big girl panties and wrote the book. And I’m glad I did. The story of Ruby and the Zulus turned out to be much bigger than me. Ruby’s World has touched people in ways I never imagined.

Q.  One of my favorite quotes from Ruby's World is, "My hope of making a big difference may have been naive. Not trying would have been worse." But was there ever a moment during your permanence in Zinti when you thought that dangers and resistance to social reforms were just too overwhelming for you?

A. There were plenty of times I was overwhelmed by circumstances I couldn’t understand: the witch doctors control over the AIDS epidemic, the school computers that stayed locked in the closet, Mhambi treating me so differently than he treated Ruby, the radio talk-show host who openly encouraged the caller to beat his wife, Ruby’s struggle over whether or not to seek medical care for her niece who was bleeding to death. The list goes on and on.

But I didn’t recognize the danger that surrounded me until the incident at the coffin party. Being treated as Mr. Bekwa’s property – having no control over my own movement – terrified me. That, combined with the cameramen’s statement that if I made them mad they’d just as soon “kill me as look at me” stripped away every last shred of my naïveté.

Q. As a guest in the South African village, you committed to being an observer, not a critic of their culture and traditions. How difficult was it to remain silent in front of abominable social practices: infant scarification, use of black magic to cure serious illnesses, gender discrimination, just to mention a few?

A. Holding my tongue was a huge challenge. There were times I wanted to rally the women into a “Norma Rae” revolt. But I did a pretty good job of maintaining observer status … until Ruby and the school principal began starving the children. It broke my heart and my self-control crumbled. I couldn’t just stand by and watch. It was the only time I intentionally interfered in their culture, and I’m pretty sure giving the apple to the little girl contributed to Ruby turning on me.

Q.  What started as a humanitarian dream ended up in a nightmare, abruptly and at the hands of the very people who warmly welcomed you and hosted you. Was Ruby's betrayal the most heart-wrenching aspect of your ordeal? Or leaving behind that unforgettable group of kids without having the chance to explain the reason for your sudden departure?

A. Without a doubt, Ruby’s betrayal stung – I didn’t see it coming. But through the process of being on tour with Ruby’s World, I’ve spoken with many South Africans and have a better understanding now of Ruby’s behavior. It was awful in the moment, but doesn’t haunt me any more.

Leaving the kids without saying good-bye was by far the most painful aspect of being run out. It still hurts. I hate that they might think I abandoned them. Even worse, I suspect that Ruby and the principal may have told the kids that it was their fault that I left. I’d give anything to see these kids again and reassure them of my love and concern for them.

Mhambi’s treatment of me the morning I left also feels unresolved in my heart. I’d like to have a chance to talk with him and hear his side of the story. I always felt like he respected me and I believe if we could talk, he’d tell me the truth.

Q. Karen, your dream of improving the life condition of a group of kids from a rural village remained unfulfilled. But your experience, although brief, proved to be a life changing one for you. Can you tell us how your journey in the heart of traditional Africa put your life, your beliefs, your values in perspective? How did you steer your life on a new and more meaningful course?

A. I certainly didn’t make a difference in these kids’ lives the way I expected. But the South Africans I’ve met on tour are quick to assure me that my presence made an impact. Every one of them tells me the same two things: I am lucky to be alive, and I single-handedly upset the status quo between the races. Not the difference I envisioned, but powerful nonetheless.

My forty-five days on the ground in Africa changed my life forever. My story came full circle last year when the Rural Women’s Movement of South Africa appointed me as their American Ambassador. I now have the opportunity to work for the betterment of the very women I lived with – a stunning turn of events.

My commitment to living life on purpose is stronger than ever. And I’m convinced that improving the lot of women and children is the key to healing the world. I recently became affiliated with the UN Women and look forward to collaborating with my new colleagues.

I love my ministry as an advocate for women and children!

Q. As the American Ambassador for the Rural Women's Movement of South Africa you have been invited to share your concerns in matter of violation of human rights at the 57th Annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Can you tell us how the organization you represent operates and which particular issues you will bring to the attention of the UN Commission?

A. I’m very excited about representing rural Zulu women at the UN CSW. The Rural Women’s Movement of South Africa was founded by Sizani Ngubane in 2000. They are a grassroots organization that strives to empower women through economic development and advocating for their legal rights. You can learn more about them here .

This year’s agenda for the UN CSW is the elimination of violence against women. You can watch the program unfold here.

I’ll be addressing several key issues that the rural women face: being sold into brutal “marriages,” AIDS, starvation, and the effort to bring the rural women out of harsh tribal law and into the justice system created by the post-Apartheid constitution.

These are exciting times of opportunity and change … I hope your readers will share my journey by following the news on my website .

Q. One last question, Karen. Social reform and justice for women in South Africa: utopia or achievable goal?

A. Achievable! Definitely! But at their pace, not mine.

That’s one of the biggest lessons I learned: as an outsider, it’s impossible to drive social reform and justice. There are plenty of rural women in South Africa who want the same progress that I want for them. My job is not to lead their movement, but to offer the help that they request.

It’s easy to become frustrated by their setbacks and inconsistencies. It’s important to remember though that women in our country were also slow to achieve equality. The Zulu women are less than 20 years into their freedom from Apartheid … patience and persistence are key!


Photo Credit: Bonnie Adams

Karen, thank you so much for answering my questions. Your testimony is so invigorating and inspiring. Ruby’s World: My Journey With The Zulu is available on Amazon. Rev. Baldwin would also love to hear from Mina's Bookshelf’s readers and share your thoughts about gender equality and  social justice for women.  Please visit her website, Facebook and Twitter pages.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

THREE GOOD THINGS by Wendy Francis

Paperback, 256 pages
Published January 1st 2013 by Simon & Schuster 
Genre: women's fiction, chick lit, contemporary novel, romance
Rating: 4 stars

Middle aged and recent divorcee Ellen McClarety decides to open a kringle bakery in Amelia, small town Wisconsin: the rhythmic routine of running a shop and the heartwarming smell of handmade goodness help Ellen to ease her mind and her worries. The simple repetition of the rituals involved in the craft of the delicious Danish pastry becomes for the former university secretary a creative outlet and a healing mantra to escape the bitterness of her failed marriage and divorce. 

Perhaps the divorce would be the catalyst she needed to begin the life she was meant to live.”

Ellen becomes romantically involved with one of her customers, shy widower Henry Moon. Maybe the intensity of her feelings for him doesn’t match the sweeping romance she experienced with her more adventurous and unreliable ex-husband, but she will find in the quiet man an unsuspected connection and, in the serendipity of their relationship, the key to put the past behind her back once and for all.

Meanwhile her younger sister, Lanie Taylor, juggles motherhood and a demanding career as a divorce lawyer, not without doubts and concerns of her own: under the pressure of their jobs and parenthood, Lanie and her husband Rob encounter a rough patch in their marriage and they both start wondering when they will ever give themselves free license to live their lives fully. Both Ellen and Lanie long for their deceased mother’s guidance, but through twists of fate and the intervention of serendipity,  they’ll find out that the biggest piece of life advice their mother left for them is locked in the very recipe to bake perfect kringles:

It’s all about balance, […]. Just like in a good kringle, no one ingredient should overwhelm another.” 

In this ‘slow burn’ novel by Wendy Francis, the traditional Danish pastry becomes the metaphor of a perfect life and, as it usually happens when the setting of a novel is a quaint little town, the small community with its charming environment is a character in itself.  In Three Good Things events unfold at a very languid pace and now and then the narration shifts its focus between Lanie’s and Ellen’s story threads, offering a very placid portrait of two women at a turning point in their lives.  I wouldn’t classify Francis’ debut novel as fluffy chick lit, for the saving grace of this slow-paced and sometimes contrived storyline is in the final plot twist. Overall, this delicate confection was a satisfactory read.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

WAIT FOR ME by Elisabeth Naughton

Paperback, 266 pages
Published December 22nd 2011 by Elisabeth Naughton
Genre: contemporary romance novel, romantic suspense, pharmaceutical thriller, women's fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars

Kate Alexander is affected by retrograde amnesia. A car accident had landed her in a coma eighteen months before: when she woke up in a Dallas hospital, she had no memory whatsoever of the moment when her Mercedes was reduced to a lump of twisted metal.  What is worse, the head trauma has damaged her long-term memory, so she doesn’t recollect anything about her seven year marriage to doctor Jake Alexander or about their four year old son. In the months following that accident she had to rely on her husband to fill in the huge gaps of her memory loss. When Jake dies in a plane crash, Kate finds evidence (among some of his papers locked in a drawer) that he had lied to her about her identity. Not only her coma had lasted three years instead of a few weeks, she also had been treated in a nursing home in San Francisco (not in Dallas), and apparently she has a family in California, a nine year old daughter and a pharmaceutical tycoon husband. Reconstructive surgery has slightly modified the look of her face and her name is different, but when she moves to San Francisco to conduct some researches on her past, she uncovers a truth that is more confusing that comforting: she is Annie Harrison, beloved wife of Ryan Harrison, ruthless CEO of a pharmaceutical biotech giant. According to the records, she tragically died in a plane crash five years earlier. Her body had never been retrieved, almost certainly incinerated by the fire, but boarding records and personal belongings had been the proof of her presence on the airplane at the moment of the crash. Surviving the grief for the loss of her wife had been particularly difficult for Ryan, the more so because she happened to be pregnant when tragedy struck.
Despite the emotional connection and physical attraction she experiences when she lays eyes on Ryan, Kate can hardly accept the idea of being married to a cutthroat, money-hungry businessman with the reputation of a heartless womanizer. The truth is that, since the alleged death of his wife, the pharmaceutical tycoon has tried to dull the pain of his tragic loss investing every ounce of energy in his job and shielding his heart with countless, no-strings-attached and meaningless flirts. The memory of his deceased wife and their daughter are the only things that keep him grounded, so when he finds out that his wife actually survived the plane crash he is overwhelmed with joy but also devastated by Annie’s amnesia: seeing her alive after five years of believing her dead and not being recognized hurts like loosing her again. Her particular kind of amnesia has modified her personality and behavior: Kate is different from the woman Annie Harrison used to be. For this reason, she also lacks confidence in reconnecting with her past and her husband. She is afraid that Ryan’s love for a woman who doesn’t exist anymore won’t be revived. Despite her fears, Ryan falls in love with his wife all over again, not with a shadow of the past but with the new woman Kate has blossomed into after the coma. 

Elisabeth Naughton is popular among the readers of paranormal romance for her acclaimed series inspired to the Greek Argonaut myth (The Eternal Guardians), but it’s with this fine example of romantic suspense that she’s rapidly climbing up the national book charts: her contemporary novel Wait For Me is reaching the top ranks of The Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestsellers lists and the reasons of its success are evident at every turn of the page. Naughton’s riveting thriller revolves around a pharmaceutical cover-up and it is consistently intriguing and solid enough to keep you engaged from cover to cover. Its appeal is intensified by the author’s good sense of drama (barely a dull moment from page one to the mind-blowing finale), and strong focus on romantic involvement and emotional conflict of the lead couple. All in all, a very gratifying read.

Monday, February 11, 2013

THE WOLF GIFT by Anne Rice

Hardcover, 404 pages
Published February 14th 2012 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 
Genre: paranormal novel, fantasy
Rating: 5 stars

Reuben Golding, golden boy and young reporter for the San Francisco Observer, comes from  a very wealthy family: his father is a retired professor with a taste for poetry, his mother is a high-profile physician, his older brother a priest, his girlfriend a successful attorney. He got his job at the newspaper thanks to his parents’ influential connections and, although a very talented writer and new promise in the journalistic field, Reuben thinks he hasn’t achieved  anything outstanding in his life, no particular talent or gift to speak of unlike the rest of his family. He is writing an article about a huge and beautiful estate located in a remote area of Northern California: the Nideck property, a splendid mansion by the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by acres and acres of luxurious and isolated redwoods, is on the market for sale and in order to survey it Reuben meets the owner, the beautiful and worldly Marchent Nideck. The sophisticated, well-traveled Marchent  and the distractingly handsome Reuben are immediately drawn to each other . For some reason, despite the impervious location and the remoteness and seclusion of the place, Reuben falls in love also with the house and wishes to buy it for himself. He ends up inheriting it: just before being killed by her intoxicated brothers, in fact,  Marchent had made sure to contact her lawyers and have the property passed to the young reporter who had shown interest and admiration for the mansion and all the treasures it contained.
While trying to save Merchant from her brothers’ homicide fury, Reuben gets attacked and bitten by an unidentified wolfish creature. The same creature will kill Marchent’s brothers but will spare Reuben’s life. After the attack he experiences a weird hormonal surge, a growth spurt (rather strange for his 23 years of age) and emotional restlessness. That’s not all: all his senses are enhanced and he starts hearing voices coming from great distance and imploring for help. The young reporter seems to have developed special antennas and an inner radar for people in distress. And most amazingly, he can smell and track down  evil. In matter of days his new sensibility triggers a physical transformation: not the moon phases, but the pleas of innocent people in danger will cause him to transform into a werewolf and rescue them. The mutation will increase the emotional distance already existing between Reuben and his family and girlfriend. He is a new man now, fated and claimed by his new nature.

Anne Rice’s spin on the legend of the werewolf bridges her Gothic writer roots with the religious inclinations and philosophical pondering of her latest production. The novel features also a strong romantic twist when Reuben meets his mate in beautiful and sweet Laura. I have rated The Wolf Gift  five stars certainly for the plot, although quite unoriginal in its take of the ancient wolf-man myth,  but mostly for the metaphysical depths and philosophical issues it raises: 

 “Our way–the Western Way–has always been a work in progress. Questions of life and death, good and evil, justice and tragedy–these are never definitively settled, but must be addressed again and again as personal and public worlds shift and change. We hold our morals to be absolutes, but the context of our actions and decisions is forever changing.” 

In her trademark controversial, thought-provoking, and allegorical sort of way Rice shines a spotlight on what modern society labels as “monstrosity”, on those fine and shifting ethical lines our culture draws between good and evil, right and wrong, gift and curse. The metaphysical undertones and the fetching supernatural plot are a sheer pleasure to read. At the end of the book we are left on a huge cliffhanger, literally, but we are only two seasons away from the release of the anticipated sequel. The Wolves Of Midwinter: The Wolf Gift Chronicles is due on October 15, 2013.