In Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, Rivka Galchen uses the story of Johannes Kepler’s mother, whom her neighbors accused of being a witch, to explore how easily people will bow to societal pressures. Katharina is a woman like many in the early 1600s: unable to read or write, but knowledgeable of the natural world. She is also a widow in possession of property. That combination makes her an ideal target for her accusers. Galchen also creates a seemingly innocent bystander—Katharina’s neighbor Simon, who serves as her guardian in the absence of her children—to take down her testimony. The reader watches the world through Simon’s eyes, as well as Katharina’s account of her experiences, and the reader also watches Simon react to the pressures the townspeople put on him. Through Simon, Galchen raises the question of who is willing to stand beside the accused even to their own detriment, as well as exploring what it feels like to be the accused. In her recreation of a time that seems so different from our own, Galchen reminds readers we will all have such moments—both of bearing witness and of standing up for ourselves—turning a time-bound tale into one that is terribly relevant.
Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite or kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.
Chelsea Manning’s astonishing new book README.txt: A Memoir reads like a spy novel of the highest order. Imagine John Le Carre or Graham Greene at their best, and you will get a sense of how good the memoir is.
As Ernest Hemingway writes, “A writer’s job is to tell the truth.” Manning seems to follow this credo throughout her gripping memoir. Rich in detail, Manning examines her life through multiple lenses: from the lens of a lost trans kid in Oklahoma, from the lens of a talented Army operative analyzing war, and from the lens of a person entirely disenchanted with the horrors she witnesses firsthand on the ground in Iraq.
As her story as an intelligence analyst unfolds, Manning decides to leak documents showing episodes in which the military kills innocent civilians in the Iraq war. Not only do the soldiers kill them; they celebrate it. This is the turning point, the denouement, of her life. It is her truthfulness and her inability to turn a blind eye to this inhumanity that leads to her undoing.
The documents she leaks expose the hideous underbelly of war and cast the U.S. government in a negative light. As a consequence, she endures the hell of a court martial and a lengthy imprisonment. She comes through it bruised but not broken. Though she says she is still unable to tell us many of the details of her experience, she tells us enough to paint a vivid picture of a whistleblower’s life, and the consequences of telling the truth. Her ultimate conclusion: “The U.S. intelligence community is in a very poor position to be trusted with protecting civil liberties while engaging in intelligence work.”
Manning’s book is a watershed and a gripping read.