Friday, January 31, 2014

The Invention of Wings

Sue Monk Kidd's latest novel, "The Invention of Wings," languished on my bedside table for months. I avoided it because I feared, especially after Oprah's imprimatur, that it was just another rehash of "The Help," another tale of a white woman riding in to save black women from themselves. Apologies to Ms. Kidd are in order.

"The Invention of Wings" is a great example of a novel that combines detailed historical research with soaring imaginative flourish. I tend to begin a book at the back, just one of my many little quirks, so I read the author's notes before beginning the book. That's how I discovered the astonishing fact that the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, are two flesh and blood women who lived in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1800's. Ms. Kidd tells us that she drove by their former home daily yet had never heard of them. (note to women's studies programs)

Two daughters in a huge slave-holding family, Sarah and Angelina, for whatever reason, understood from very young ages that slavery was a vile, despicable means to an economic end for southern plantation owners. Sarah was only eleven years old when her parents "gave" her an extraordinary birthday gift, another human being. Handful, an enslaved child, daughter of Charlotte, the house seamstress, shows up at Sarah's bedroom door with a lavender bow around her neck and her thin, rush pallet under her arm.

Despite what you might read in the advertising campaign for this novel, it is not a fairytale about a friendship between an enslaved child and her mistress. The relationship between Sarah and Handful is much deeper and more complicated than that. Yes, Sarah does teach Handful to read, a skill that  empowers Handful to enact her own salvation, but this is actually the story of the birth of the abolitionist movement in America.

Through alternating chapters of first-person narration, Sarah and Handful speak of their lives over a thirty-five year span. At first the stilted language may be a bit off-putting, at least it was for me, but I soon worked through it as I became embroiled in the lives of these fascinating characters.

Sarah eventually moves to Philadelphia, studying to become a Quaker minister, meeting feminist and abolitionist Lucretia Mott, and honing her writing skills. Angelina follows and the two women travel throughout New England decrying slavery and drawing huge crowds with their message. Handful, through a series of brave-hearted acts of her own, meets Denmark Vesey, a real-life free black man who actually organized a slave rebellion in Charleston around 1822.

Sue Monk Kidd's first best-selling novel, "The Secret Life of Bees," displayed her interest in race and feminism early on. "The Invention of Wings" takes those themes to an entirely new level. After you read this book I know you'll want to learn more about the Grimke family, Mr. Denmark Vesey, and the historic use of quilts by African women who burned to tell their stories.

 Those of you fortunate enough to live in southwest Florida will have the opportunity to meet and talk with Ms. Kidd in March at the free Southwest Florida Reading Festival. Early-bird discounts are now available for An Evening with the Authors event where you can get up close and personal with your favorite writers. Check it out at

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Winter of our Lives?

There's a point near the end of novelist Paul Auster's quiet memoir, "Winter Journal," where he beautifully describes waking up in the morning and taking those first tentative steps, placing bare feet on cool, hardwood floors, taking in the joy, the sensuality of the feeling and wondering how many more times a sixty-five year old man will realistically get to savor this experience.

 He does not lament but simply admits that he suspects he is in the winter of his life. As a woman who celebrated sixty-five years herself yesterday, I would like to assure Mr. Auster that statistics say we likely have another twenty years!

In interviews he has said that he is running out of ideas for fiction writing. It's no wonder. The man is probably one of the most prolific, most lauded of our twentieth century American writers who is not a household name. I think that speaks to us as readers and not to his work. I had the pleasure of reviewing his 2010 novel "Sunset Park" for "Library Journal" and had this to say at the time:

 "Auster deftly balances minute details that evoke New York City, post-financial meltdown, with marvelously drawn characters bruised but unbowed by life's vicissitudes. He has an impressive array of literary nominations to his credit, but this should be the novel that brings him a broader readership."
—Sally Bissell, Library Journal, (Starred Review)

I admit that I just love author memoirs so I was predisposed to enjoy "Winter Journal." I listened to the audio version read by the author, something I don't normally recommend. Ironically, writers are not always adept at reading their own books. In this case, Mr. Auster's voice is low and rather monotone, and I found myself often having to turn up the volume. Nevertheless, his reading of such personal material, added to its authenticity.

With a novelist's eye for detail Auster makes his world come alive. Many times I found myself saying, "I remember that!" His boy scout uniform or the scent of the spring air in southern France, driving in a blizzard in Minnesota or the accident with a rental car in Brooklyn, the feel of his wife's skin under the covers in the morning, all of these disparate pleasures and disasters he shares with us as if we are old friends just hanging out.

He transforms the quotidian into events of interest and importance. The nastiness at a family funeral becomes a lesson in self-control. A pick-up softball game with the neighborhood kids becomes an opportunity for his mom to shine. Reading "Winter Journal" made me want to revisit my own languishing memoir with new vigor.

So please, Mr. Auster, don't stop sharing your talent with the world. I plan to go back and read your work from the beginning. Why not? I should have another twenty years in which to do it!

Paul Auster

Friday, January 24, 2014

What's Up for January?

The pressure is on! Since my editor at Library Journal chose to honor me as her reviewer of the year for literary fiction I've been swimming in accolades from friends and colleagues. But how on earth do I follow up? My blog address was prominently displayed in the article so I'm hoping to garner new readers. I'll need to be vigilant in updating the blog more often yet I find myself slipping back to the once a week format. Why, you might ask, don't I have time to read as much?

Well, here's what I've been up to. Auditing a class in Florida Gulf Coast University's journalism department has only reinforced all that I don't know! I've written for publication for twenty years now so I smugly took the first quiz on AP style usage expecting to ace it. Ha! Who knew that "native American" is no longer preferred over "American Indian?"

We are learning about branding, how to make a good first impression through our use of social media. This involves our webpage (I did manage to buy my domain name for future use), Facebook and Twitter accounts. In fact yesterday I spent hours trying to organize my twitter feeds on TweetDeck. Have you ever heard of this?

 I've been reading the textbooks recommended by our teacher, Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark and On Writing Well by William Zinsser, in hopes of improving my technique without losing my voice. As each day now flies by with what seems like little or no accomplishment, I ask myself how on earth I ever worked full time while attending graduate school.

I've been working on two novels for Library Journal but am unable to share my impressions until after the reviews are published. I'm listening to author Paul Auster's rambling, melodic memoir Winter Journal in my car but of course this takes time as I don't drive very far these days. John Grisham's Sycamore Row is keeping me company on my morning walks but I've yet to see what all the fuss is about. I'm six discs in, and though it's certainly entertaining, it doesn't veer far from the typical David vs. Goliath formula of Mr. Grisham's other legal thrillers.

I tried the much-touted Longbourn, the downstairs look at Jane Austen's upstairs world, and had to cut it loose. I'm part of the way through Oprah's pick, The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd who will be speaking at the incredibly successful, long-running Southwest Florida Reading Festival in March.

Any suggestions for a knockout novel that you've read and enjoyed would be greatly appreciated. I'm feeling the need to sink into one of those lovely big fat historicals that captures the imagination and won't let go.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Wiley Cash Does it Again!

You've only got a couple more weeks to wait for the release of the much-anticipated sophomore novel by Wiley Cash, the young man who knocked our socks off with his debut,  A Land More Kind Than Home. I was stunned by its beauty and wrote about it here in 2012.

Cash has perfected the child's voice as narrator. In this case it's twelve-year-old Easter whose intelligence and wry wit remind me of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. She's a girl who's had to grow up quickly. Her dad disappeared when little sister Ruby was born and her mom died of an overdose while the girls were at school one day. Mr. Cash looks like such an optimistic, sunny young man but his writing comes from another, darker place.

Home right now for Ruby and Easter is a foster care facility, sure, not as bad as some of the ones we've seen exposes on but not a perfect situation either. So when their father tracks them down claiming that he was tricked into giving up his parental rights they desperately want to believe him. Why then, did he have to break into their room and kidnap them rather than go through the proper procedures?

You'll find out as you follow Wade, Easter and Ruby on a harrowing road trip throughout the Carolinas and points west. You see, Wade, always the slippery fast-talker, has a secret, one that his clever daughter Easter figures out early on. How much will she be willing to forgive in order to have a normal life with at least one parent? How much longer will she be able to protect Ruby from the truth about their dad and the men who are on their trail for various reasons.

Wiley Cash's young characters are placed in positions no young person should have to face. Moral decisions that would give an older person pause face Easter every day. We reviewers are always using terms like "the resilience of the human spirit," or "the resilience of children," to describe the ways in which kids seem to rise above their circumstances. I sometimes wonder if we aren't being overly optimistic in these assumptions. After all, someone is filling all those psychologists' offices. Someone is taking that gun to school and blowing his friends away.

Though not the stunning tour-de-force of his first book, This Dark Road to Mercy is still a novel that book groups will be clamoring to discuss and a worthy addition to Mr. Cash's repertoire.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A School Kid Again

We're told that life is cyclical so it must be true, right? I've always been happiest in a classroom and it seems that every twenty years or so I'm drawn back to school. In the late '60's I entered my freshman year at college with such exuberance that no one could have put me down. I was bursting with confidence, felt a kinship with my new friends, and raved about every professor who took the time to impart his - yes, mostly men - knowledge upon this tabula rasa.

In the late '80's I had fallen to the lowest point in my life. Newly divorced, relying on friends for meals, and working three jobs to keep my home, I made a huge leap of faith and entered the master's degree program for future librarians at the University of South Florida. It was an inspired act. Cashing in my IRA to cover the costs, I appeared on campus for my first class, brand new shiny texts clutched in sweaty hands, plastic smile plastered to my face.

Forty-five students were in the room and my stomach clenched when the teacher asked us to introduce ourselves and tell a bit about our background. Forty-four of them were already working in public or school libraries. I stammered out that I was a real estate broker and the teacher, who shall forever remain nameless, barked out a laugh. Please, God, I begged the being I'm not even sure is there, let the floor just open up and swallow me now. She continued, "You'd better work with a good group."

Hmmmm-sometimes that's all it takes. When the gauntlet is thrown down, some of us slink away and some of us snap it up. I worked with wonderful people and worked on my own. I landed a job in the library system and moved up the ladder. Three years later this same professor handed me my diploma and never even knew that she had nearly undone me.

So here I am again, twenty years further on and back in school.  What a difference! The Florida Gulf Coast University campus is a most welcoming place. Of course, it's no longer a matter of life or death for me. Now I'm there to have fun, to broaden my horizons, to observe and absorb without the pressure of shooting for all A's. The trepidation I felt upon arriving at the class melted away the minute I began talking with the journalism students.

Bright, vibrant, and open, they interacted with the professor with confidence and ease. The teacher, too, is warm and inviting, fair and kind. Did I learn all this in one evening? Of course not. But one gets a feeling and goes with it. If I'm not writing as much as usual over the next few months it's because I'm diligently doing my homework so that I can learn to communicate with you in a more forthright and distinct way.  But don't worry, dear readers. I know that you're all brainiacs. Even though we're admonished to write on a 6th-grade level, I'll still treat you like the brilliant readers I know you are.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Zadie Smith

I fell in love with British author Zadie Smith after reading her first novel, White Teeth, which she partially wrote and actually received a contract for, while still a student at Cambridge University. That should give you an inkling of the kind of talent we're talking about here. Another book, On Beauty, knocked me out as well. So why, you might ask, did it take me so long to pick up her 2012 NW?
If it was because the reviews weren't raving, I don't remember that. I'm sure it was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award. However, even though I'd like to introduce you to her writing if you haven't read her, I might not suggest beginning with this one, even though I enjoyed it, the non-traditional format may be off-putting for some.
Ms. Smith, of Jamaican and English heritage, writes knowledgeably about the difficulty of assimilation and the cultural confusion inherent in the immigrant experience, whether in her home town of London, or in the states, where she also lives and teaches. This theme runs through much of her work but seems to take a darker turn in NW, a section of northern London, home to a mixed bag of Irish and Afro-Caribbean families, where the shops and homes are a tad run down, drugs and street thugs are a problem, and educated young people want nothing more than to move up and out.
The central characters Leah and Keisha have been friends since they were five years old and have tried desperately to hang onto their connection even though their lives have gone in very diverse directions. As adults, Leah has followed her white guilt to its logical conclusion, working for a non-profit that tries to identify and raise up those who need help in the community, and marrying Michel, an African hairdresser.
Keisha, on the other hand, changes her name to the less African sounding Natalie, leaving her family behind for a wealthy Italian man whose family is willing to bankroll her education, resulting in the law degree that her husband Frank could not obtain. Within both of these couples there seems to be an uncomfortable imbalance which comes to the fore whenever they get together socially, causing a frisson of friction that Smith describes in deliciously snarky language.
Smith reminds me of a social anthropologist, dissecting a world that she has observed well and long. Friends who begin life on an equal footing drift away from each other as some prefer the languor of the drug life over the tension of fighting to rise up. Others are mired in the ways of their families, getting pregnant before getting educated and finding themselves trapped. The randomness of life in a volatile neighborhood is exemplified by the lovable character Felix who puts the thug life behind to spread the word of God and then finds himself, shockingly, on the wrong end of a knife for all the wrong reasons.
I tried an experiment with NW, checking both the print copy and the audio cd's out from the library. While some chapters flow along in the usual narrative manner, others are confusing and difficult to follow until you adjust to Smith's innovative styling. Often a chapter is only one sentence and you may need to read it several times to be sure who's talking. At other times, a long chapter will consist of two characters' stream of consciousness ramblings, delineated by typeface and or bold type.
I'll admit that I got into it pretty quickly, wondering all the time, how did she DO this? When I got in my car I would find the track on the disc where I had left off in the book and pick it up with no trouble, enjoying the lilting cadence of the readers, the male and female voices.
Zadie Smith has had her work shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and has been acknowledged as a young British writer to watch. Take my word for it, she can put a sentence together like nobodies' business. If a novel seems to be too much, why not take a look at her collection of essays called, I love it, Changing My Mind.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Thoughts on Transitioning to a New Year

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," a famous scribbler once said and that about sums up my thoughts on 2013. I've been going through a little psychological crisis as I face 2014, my first full year of retirement and the year that I feel immensely pressured into deciding how I'd like to proceed with the rest of my life. After all, one can only work out, walk, and play tennis for so long. There comes a time when a person who's always contributed to society in her own small way feels the tug to do so once again. It turns out that sitting down and reading for hours at a time is NOT for sissies!

2013 was a mixed bag of blessings and strains. Retiring in the middle of the year and embarking on a whirlwind series of trips and moves gave me the false sense that I was only on vacation. Always in the background as I celebrated retirement was the worry for my brother who entered the new year with a serious illness to confront.

Now, as we enter 2014, it appears that the worst may miraculously be behind him and that I'll need to buckle down and write with more purpose than ever before. The problem is that I seem to have lost my ability to latch onto the bon mot, the perfect word or phrase that captures the essence of the novel, film or play that I want to tout. I've been so wrapped up in numbers - can I read 110 books this year? 144? - that I've failed to give some of them the attention that they deserve. I hate that my vocabulary and passion seem to be deserting me now when I need them the most.

My friend Don has gone out of his way to try to reignite the flame. For Christmas he surprised me with a sophisticated recording system in hopes that I would try making a podcast or a YouTube video to excite my book-loving audience. What do you think? Have I got what it takes? Can I become the next Nancy Pearl? I'll let you know how that works out.

Right now? Back to the porch and the first book of the new year, The Echo from Dealey Plaza by Abraham Bolden, a memoir from the first African American to serve on the White House detail during the Kennedy administration. It's an appalling story of corruption in the Secret Service and one wonders, after Obama's detail had to be disciplined during their time in South America, if the government had come anywhere near to fixing the blatant problems that seem to continue unabated in this supposedly elite group.