Writing in an Age of Silence
by Sara Paretsky

Verso, 2007. ISBN 978-1-84467-122-9.
Reviewed by Mary Tinkler
Posted on 09/27/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir

Readers of Sara Paretsky's mystery novels have long applauded the urban avenger spirit, and seemingly accidental feminist (and feminine) qualities of the books' protagonist V.I. Warshawsky. Now we are witness to the author's real life social participation and valor, and her very current courage.

In Paretsky's memoir Writing in an Age of Silence we learn the history and leavening factors that threaten America and propelled Paretsky to the point when she has braved (or bypassed) the censors and published this quietly compelling call to awaken from our complacency and/or face and fight our fears. She wants us to see our constricting world and notice the freedoms we're losing. And we are losing them to the most insidious of legal and corporate mechanisms, which Paretsky frames in personal experiences and observations and often references in factually-detailed footnotes.

Writing in an Age of Silence is a memoir and more. It's the abbreviated story of her road to writing and the family and cultural atmospheres and events that brought her to an advanced form of feminism that rails not so much against the glass ceiling, but finds the historical factors behind women's second place standing in the world and takes what actions it can to free women from the quagmire of inequity—or at least to help lighten the load.

She speaks of her personal experiences growing up isolated in the Midwest in a dysfunctional family, in an era where "girls" interests, wants, needs, and ambitions were inconsequential when set next to those of their brothers' dreams and expectations. She tells us, not without a bit of cynical humor, about her early observations of women in literature, both writers and characters, who helped shape the personalities and content within her popular novels. She examines the styles and nuances of classic mystery and detective novels and authors. She talks about the crappy jobs and the sexism she endured, and the deflating compromises she had to make in order to pay the bills while forging forward with her first love....writing.

But this memoir is also punctuated with historical references and citations of fact that in Paretsky's view have lead us to the modern-day erosion of American civil and constitutional rights, particularly freedom of speech and the abhorrent type of censorship stemming from corporate takeovers of formerly independent publishing houses and more recently, the loosely legislated carte-blanche laws and rulings at executive and federal level that can secretly and silently wipe freedom of speech and the right to dissent—and any who try to exercise those rights (or are suspected of having done so)—off the playing field of their own lives. She tells of her early-onset activism and her political awareness and involvement with the civil rights and feminist movements. She examines the puritanical roots of the religious right and explains where she sees their re-emergence in our culture and government today.

I was impressed with the ease which Paretsky references and distills American history—cultural, religious, legislative and commercial—and weaves it pertinently through her own fascinating personal tale. Like Sara Paretsky, I too feel a "fierce nostalgia" and hunger for the fire-in-the-belly camaraderie of the sixties and early seventies. Something important to humanity has been lost. We are now impelled to fight our battles on less passionate avenues, click by lonely click. But Paretsky has an established and respected voice, and she is using it to speak out against the erosion of our constitutional rights.

Paretsky's memoir was published by London-based, independent Verso Books (which began in 1970 as New Left Books, an offshoot of the U.K's New Left Review, a journal of left wing theory). The Sunday Times cites Verso as a "rigorously intelligent publisher," and Verso's North American sales make up 65% of the company's world-wide sales.

I am recommending Writing in an Age of Silence to all my thoughtful friends. It is an absolute must for all writers (and would-be writers), and certainly for all librarians. And for anyone with a social conscience and a concern for America's future.

Credited with transforming the mystery novel through the creation of her female private eye, V I Warshawski, Paretsky's books are international best sellers, appearing in almost thirty languages. The winner of many awards including the Cartier Diamond Dagger award for lifetime achievement from the British Crime Writer's Association, she ives in Chicago. A long time supporter of women in writing and an activist for civil rights, especially women's rights, Paretsky has spoken out against various threats to Americans' constitutional rights, focusing on free speech and the right to dissent. Visit her website.

(See another review of this book, here)

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