Category Archives: Books to read again and again

Book Review: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

9780670024780HThe Invention of Wings 

by Sue Monk Kidd
ISBN 9780670024780
Viking, Penguin Canada, 2014

I almost didn’t read this book. I wouldn’t have, but a friend whose opinion I trust encouraged me to do so. I am grateful to that friend, for this is a worthy read.

The Invention of Wings is Sue Monk Kidd’s fictional version of the real lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two daughters of a wealthy landowner in 19th Century Charleston.

As young children they rebelled against the cruelty of slavery and the restrictions of their church. As adults they lead an infamous charge to abolish slavery, strive for racial equality and promote women’s rights.

The Invention of Wings is also the story of Handful “Hetty” Grimké, a fictional African-American slave “gifted” to Sarah Grimké on her eleventh birthday.

Monk Kidd alternates between the first-person accounts of Sarah and Handful, and these two perspectives allow the reader a broad view of Charleston life at that time. The two girls inhabit the same world but in two very different ways, and both women are trapped but in different ways. Sarah is trapped in her restricted female role by inflexible societal norms; Handful is trapped in her slave role by poverty, cruelty and oppression. From an early age Handful senses the intractable barrier between her and her white mistress, but the privileged Sarah takes longer to perceive their great divide. Later in life, Handful tells Sarah: “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”

One of Monk Kidd’s most intriguing characters is Handful’s mother, Charlotte. She lives with the cruelty of slavery that breeds what Monk Kidd calls the “cold fire of hate.” Even though her name is in the landowner’s inventory book as part of the “goods and chattel,”—“right after the water trough, the wheelbarrow, the claw hammer and the bushel of flint corn,” Charlotte tells her daughter: “Ain’t nobody can write down in a book what you worth.” Her strength plants the seed of resilience in Handful, who grows up believing that her body might be “goods and chattel,” but not her mind. “I have one mind for the master to see. I have another mind for what I know is me,” she says.

Monk Kidd navigates all the complexities of the world at that time; nothing is straightforward, and nothing is easy in the face of overwhelming societal and economic pressures. Sarah vows to “put feet to her words” and take action to abolish slavery, but in so doing, she sacrifices family connections, friendships and love. Sarah rejects slavery and moves north to join the Quaker movement to abolish slavery. She then discovers that the Quakers might want to abolish slavery, but they still want racial segregation. Even the abolutionists she and Angelina work with urge her to ease off on her feminist cause. She tells them, “Now sirs, kindly take your feet off our necks.”

I almost didn’t read this book because Sue Monk Kidd’s previous two books, while beautifully written, did not stir my soul. I wouldn’t have read this book, but a friend whose opinion I trust encouraged me to do so.

I am grateful to that friend, for this is a worthy read.

 

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Book Review: 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

9780143125419H12 Years a Slave

by Solomon Northup
ISBN 9780143125419
Penguin Books, 2013

You won’t find this story anywhere else: a story about African-American slavery written by a man who was both free and a slave; a story of slave owners, both kind-hearted and cruel; and a story about how depravity as a societal norm affects the generations.

You won’t find this story anywhere else, so read this book.

Solomon Northup was born a free man. Educated and hard-working, he thrived, married and had children in the free state of New York. In 1841, two men lured him to Washington, D.C., drugged him and psychologically terrorized him with beatings, and sold him into slavery.

The beatings the men inflicted on Northup worked. Terrified of revealing his true identity and his status as a free man, he spent twelve years in Louisiana as a slave on cotton plantations. Driven to find a way to return home but with few options or resources available to him, he laboured, endured punishments, inflicted punishments, and bore witness to the trap that is slavery.

Northup published his account of life in slavery to inform 19th Century Americans about all aspects of the practice. He emphasized several themes:

  • He discouraged anyone from believing that slaves didn’t understand or desire freedom. Too many people at the time said that slaves had food and a roof over their head, so they neither needed nor desired anything else. Northup made it clear that this was not so. “They do not fail to observe the difference between their own condition and the meanest of white man’s, and to realize the injustice of the laws which place it in his power . . .”
  • He wrote about the de-humanizing impact of the cruelty of slave-owners. The repeated beatings and whippings caused men to behave more “like savages than civilized and enlightened beings.” “The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature.” Immune to the suffering of others, the violence begat more violence in a horrific cycle.
  • He described his helpless feeling when forced to play his own part in the brutality. Slaves beating slaves was part of the psychological torment.
  • Northup observed sadly the passing on of prejudice from one generation to the next. Sons, daughters, and wives learned how to treat their slaves cruelly by observing the owners and overseers. The slave owners not only taught family members to beat and whip slaves, they encouraged such behaviour. “The effect of these exhibitions of brutality on the household of the slave-holder, is apparent. Epps’ [a slave owner] oldest son is an intelligent lad of ten or twelve years of age. It is pitiable, sometimes, to see him chastising, for instance, the venerable Uncle Abram. He will call the old man to account, and if in his childish judgment it is necessary, sentence him to a certain number of lashes, which he proceeds to inflict . . . he often rides into the field with his whip playing the overseer, much to his father’s delight.”

In 1853, Northup regained his freedom (with the help of a Canadian, I’m proud to say), and more than a century and a half later, Northup’s concerns still need addressing. The passing on of racist attitudes from generation to generation means that African-Americans still face discrimination today. Slavery isn’t an accepted part of the economic order in North American anymore, but slavery and human trafficking still exist. The perpetrators still behave “more like savages than enlightened human beings.” Sadly, Northup’s book is just as necessary today as it was in 1853.

Read it, not because it’s timeless, authentic and eloquent, but because its narrator will charm you, his objective fairness will impress you, and his truths still need to be told.

Book Review: Open by Andre Agassi

One more summer break recycled review before I write about what I’ve been reading this summer.

I just love this book.

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Open

by Andre Agassi
ISBN 978-0-307-26819-8
Alfred A. Knopf, 2009

“I’m seven years old, talking to myself, because I’m scared, and because I’m the only person who listens to me.”  —Andre Agassi

So begins the story of Andre Agassi. The opening line summarizes the rising action in the story arc of Agassi’s life—a struggle to be heard. Really heard. Not just noticed because he wears the wrong colours at Wimbledon. Not just singled out because of his long hair and rowdy lifestyle. But really heard. Over and over again in his life, he tells people, “I hate tennis.” They brush it off with nervous laughter. They don’t really hear it. They don’t want to really hear it. This book chronicles the life of Andre Agassi as he breaks free from that prison, crests the story arc and coasts down to love, community involvement, and balance.

Andre, people are listening now.

The opening chapters of this book take us on a riveting roller coaster ride of shock and heartbreak. On page one we meet “the dragon”— a ball machine modified by Agassi’s “fire-belching father.” “The dragon has a brain, a will, a black heart—and a horrifying voice. Sucking another ball into its belly, the dragon makes a series of sickening sounds. . . . when the dragon takes dead aim at me and fires a ball 110 miles an hour, the sound it makes is a bloodcurdling roar. I flinch every time.” The dragon develops Andre Agassi into the best ball returner in the game of tennis in his time, but the dragon sears flesh in the process.

Agassi soon leaves the dragon behind to go to the Bollettieri Academy, a place he describes as “Lord of the Flies with forehands.” His time there improves his tennis ranking, but damages his education.

Agassi writes candidly about his time on the pro circuit, both the good times (and things got very good) and the bad (and things got very bad). He gives insights into the world of professional tennis and the players, referees, and trainers behind the scenes. He works through the relationships with his family and his father. He writes with respect about his first marriage to Brooke Shields.

And then, he meets Steffi Graf—or, should I say, Stefanie. He tells her he hates tennis, and she says, “Of course. Doesn’t everybody?”

Heard, at last.

Open is Agassi’s beautifully written exploration of self. With co-writer J.R. Moehringer, he works through the painful memories of grueling training, separation from family, and relentless pressure to find his way to gratitude for all the gifts that tennis brought to him, like his wife, his family, money, and the power to do good. Agassi is one of the few tennis players to win all four Grand Slam tennis tournaments, a sign that he is a player who excels on any surface. The grueling training, separation from family and relentless pressure shaped Agassi into an élite, well-rounded tennis player. In the end, it also shaped him into an élite, well-rounded human being.

Agassi’s disrupted high school education affected him deeply. He didn’t have a quality education, so the ninth-grade dropout is doing his best to make sure that others do. The Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy provides opportunities to underserved communities. He and his wife, Steffi Graf, support many organizations that promote excellence, discipline and respect. And occasionally they play a little tennis, just for fun.

Open does just what the title suggests. It opens Andre Agassi up to us, so we (and he) can understand why he made the choices he did. It opens up the world of professional tennis. It opens up discussions about how children train to become élite athletes, and at what cost.

And once you open it, you won’t want to put it down.

Book Review: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

I first reviewed this book last November. It’s a fun summer read.
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The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

By Jonas Jonasson
Translated from the original Swedish by Rod Bradbury
ISBN 978-1-44341-910-9
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2012

I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun reading a book.

You want suspense? This book has it. You never know what’s going to happen: “Well, now you can see how sensible it is not to start your day by guessing what might happen . . .. After all, how long would I have had to go on guessing before I guessed this?”

You want humour? This book has it. The story is rich in irony and understatement: “Even if you’re well bundled up, it is bold to cross the Himalayas with only the help of a homemade map of the world and a compass.”

You want a fun romp through history? Boy, does this book have it. The lovable 100-year-old protagonist journeys through the major news events of the 20th Century. Along the way he solves some rather large problems, but creates some doozies, too: “It is better not to have two murder organizations on your heels.”

Allan Emmanuel Karlsson teaches us that if you want to give your life a new direction, sometimes you have to climb out the window. On the morning of his 100th birthday, he decides that a nursing home is no place for an explosives expert with a fondness for vodka and an aversion to politics. He escapes the clutches of Director Alice and climbs out his window. Wearing a suit and his bedroom slippers, he embarks on a grand adventure.

In a way that is entirely charming and soul-stirringly inspirational, Allan doesn’t try to direct his life, but let’s life happen to him. He marvels with childlike curiosity at each new twist and turn. “. . . it was what it was, and that thereafter whatever will be will be.”

And he never meets a hurdle he cannot overcome: “He considered the matter so intently that the stone wall in front of his eyes seemed to shrink. And when it was at its very lowest, Allan crept over it, age and knees be damned.”

This book is entertaining, literary and suspenseful. Great fun.

Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer

9780143120537HMoonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

by Joshua Foer
ISBN 978-0-14-312053-7
Penguin Books, 2011

You know the scenario:

You stand in the grocery store. You stopped in to pick up five simple items, and four of them sit in your basket. What was that fifth item again? You search your memory, but the last item on the list is . . . gone. Argh. You grit your teeth. You ask yourself, “Am I losing it?”

Joshua Foer offers solutions to the problem. And if you’re interested in memorizing 10,000 digits of Pi, he helps with that, too. (Somehow, I think the line-up will be shorter for that one.)

Moonwalking with Einstein reminds us how to remember. Since the first written word, since the printing press, since the digital age, the number of circumstances requiring us to memorize dwindles. Memory techniques used in the past to ensure survival and to maintain a vibrant  historical oral tradition no longer get passed from generation to generation. Like spinning wool, speaking Latin, and building log homes, extreme remembering has become a quaint relic of the past practised by a small, eccentric portion of the population. The rest of us consult electronic calendars, deposit our phone numbers into contact lists, and trust search engines to tell us anything we need to know.

So, with electronic calendars, contact lists and Google, why should we remember to remember? Because we have those moments in the grocery store. Because we’re living longer and Alzheimer’s worries us. Because the keys to remembering are mindfulness, creativity and new experiences, and they all make life so much more fun.

This book describes Foer’s journey from ordinary man to United States Memory Champion. (Yeah, I know. Who knew there was such a thing?) His point: Anyone can do this. No need for a genius-level IQ or post-secondary education. Learn a few techniques, practise, and you, too, can rhyme of Pi without a hitch. I won’t describe the techniques, because you should read this book for its pure entertainment value. Foer tells his story and educates, too. I learned about the roots of punctuation (thank you, Aristophanes of Byzantium) and how to get past the “OK plateau” in my tennis game.

You can take as much or as little from this book as you want. It might inspire you to memorize decks of cards or all the winners of the World Series. Or it might just help you with the names of all your wife’s relatives. I won’t memorize even 10 digits of Pi, and I won’t wear ear muffs and spray-painted goggles, but I will remember my grocery list from now on.

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Watch Joshua Foer talk about his memory techniques on his website: http://joshuafoer.com/

Book Review: Mary Coin by Marisa Silver

9780399160707HMary Coin

by Marisa Silver
ISBN 978-0-399-16070-7
blue rider press, Penguin Group, 2013

“What are the real lives of people surrounding the big facts of history?” —Marisa Silver

In the middle of the Great Depression, photographer Dorothea Lange worked for the United States government documenting the circumstances of migrant workers. In Mary Coin, Marisa Silver tells a fictionalized story based on the real lives of people in this famous Lange photograph: Migrant Mother  http://www.bbc.co.uk/photography/genius/gallery/lange.shtml

Silver’s version of the story spans a century and intersects the lives of three main characters: Mary Coin, a mixed-race mother who must raise her children in hard times; Vera Dare, a photographer who captures fleeting moments and turns them into history; and Walker Dodge, a professor whose passion for the minutia of the past leads to an intriguing discovery. Mary Coin’s mother, Doris, is another influential character, and her actions as a mother lay the groundwork for an important decision Mary makes later in the book.

Mary Coin touches on big life themes: motherhood, loss, sex, economic disparity, and the law of unintended consequences. Silver handles weighty subjects with a subtle touch, so the story doesn’t feel oppressive. She handles the light moments with strong writing, so messages don’t pass unnoticed.

I’m a fan of historical fiction and stories that grow out of a seed of truth, so the “realness” of this fictional book appealed to me. Silver’s skill as a storyteller made it compelling reading.

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Watch Marisa Silver talk about her novel:

http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780399160707,00.html?Mary_Coin_Marisa_Silver

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