Book Review: The Invention of Wings

Sue Monk Kidd The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Historical Fiction
369 pages
Published 2014

The Invention of Wings is one of my PopSugar Reading Challenge books, for the prompt “A Book from a Celebrity Book Club.” It was Oprah’s 3rd pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Oprah interviewed Sue Monk Kidd in the January 2014 issue of O Magazine.

I can definitely see why Oprah was so affected by this book; the two main characters are Sarah Grimké, an early abolitionist and women’s rights activist, and Hetty Handful, the slave gifted to her by her mother when she turned 11. In an afterword, Kidd explains that she did try to stay mostly historically accurate, and Handful was gifted to Sarah when she was 11, though she apparently died not long after. In Kidd’s book, however, Handful survives. Sarah and her younger sister, Angelina, were real people, and really did most of what is ascribed to them in the book, though Kidd passes a couple of their deeds from one sister to the other. The Grimkés were from Charleston, South Carolina, and born into an aristocratic, slave-owning family headed by a prestigious judge. Their abolitionist actions get them exiled from Charleston and from their church. Meanwhile, Hetty, her ownership having returned to Sarah’s mother, dreams of freedom and plots rebellions of her own.

I was a little wary going into this book; I’ve read a couple of Oprah’s picks before, and generally found them dry and uninteresting. This one, though, was very well written. The voices of both women came through clearly, as did some of the brutality of slavery. Kidd also wrote The Secret Life of Bees, which got a lot of attention. If it’s anything like this, I might have to finally read that as well.

(I know the author is white, but I thought, being about slavery and abolition, it would still qualify for Black History Month.)

From the cover of The Invention of Wings:

A triumphant story about the quest for freedom and empowerment, Sue Monk Kidd’s third novel presents the extraordinary journeys of two unforgettable women: Hetty “Handful” Grimké, an urban slave in early-nineteenth century Charleston, and Sarah, the Grimkés’ idealistic daughter. 

Inspired in part by the historic figure of abolitionist and suffragette Sarah Grimké, Kidd’s novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful. The Invention of Wings follows these two women over the next thirty-five years as both strive for lives of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement, and the uneasy ways of love.

 

Book Review: Turtles All The Way Down

turtlesTurtles All The Way Down
John Green
Young Adult Fiction
298 pages
Published October 2017

So what the cover description of this book doesn’t explicitly mention is that Aza, the main character, has a pretty severe anxiety disorder. That’s really the core topic of the book – her thought spirals and dealing with life while caught in them. I trust John Green to write about these because he also suffers from severe anxiety. He’s talked about it in interviews and his vlogbrothers Youtube channel. (I’m a big Green brothers fan – what’s known as a nerdfighter.) So when John Green writes a character with anxiety, I believe that it’s a realistic portrayal. I loved the integration of technology in the story – two characters don’t just text each other, the text conversation is on the page, formatted differently, so it’s obvious these are text messages. I always love books that do that.

There’s not a whole lot I can say about the book without giving things away; a lot of John Green’s characters tend to wax eloquently about philosophy and things outside themselves, and Aza doesn’t do that because she’s so trapped within her own thoughts. She can’t think of the future or existential dread because she’s too worried about the microbes in her stomach getting out of control and giving her diseases. Definitely a departure from his usual story, though it does fit his standard MO of Main character meets other character who profoundly changes main character’s life in some way. (There’s a third part that is also consistent with most of John Green’s novels but it’s a spoiler.)

I think the book is a really good book for anyone who loves someone with anxiety. Or even for those who have anxiety themselves, to see that they’re not alone.

From the cover of Turtles All The Way Down:

Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.
   
Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts. 
 
In his long-awaited return, John Green, the acclaimed, award-winning author of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, shares Aza’s story with shattering, unflinching clarity in this brilliant novel of love, resilience, and the power of lifelong friendship.

Book Review: Kindred

kindredKindred
Octavia Butler
Historical Fiction
306 pages
Published 2004

I’m not really sure where to start with this book. It’s in that category of “classics that everyone should read” and having finally read it, I agree. It’s really, really, really good. It’s a hard read at times – it takes you right into the antebellum south and the heart of slavery. It’s actually set in Maryland, which is a little jarring for me – in today’s political climate, Maryland isn’t really considered part of “the south” – it’s far more liberal than most of the south. A blue state, where those are all red. But it WAS a slave state. It is below the Mason-Dixon line, and reading the wiki, slavery was actually legal here longer than it was in the south. (Mostly because the Emancipation Proclamation only covered the Confederate States, not the slave-holding Union states of Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland. That’s screwed up. You can’t have slaves, but it’s totally cool that the people that fought for us still keep them?)

So Kindred is set mostly in pre-Civil War Maryland, with a few scenes in modern-day California. The mystery of how Dana time-travels is never explained – but it doesn’t really need to be. That’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is a modern-day black woman transplanted to the antebellum south and learning to understand slavery in a very intimate manner. Dana mentions a couple of times how easy it is to forget that she has another life – that’s she’s a free black woman from the future – because the way they keep slaves in line doesn’t give you time to think past the present. You work too hard to think of the future, and if you don’t, all you can think about is the pain from your punishment for not working hard enough.

The book is a very visceral portrayal of a somewhat pampered slave’s life – she’s not a field hand, her masters are what passes for “kind.” Dana’s fellow slaves live in fear of being sold down south to Mississippi – they know Maryland is better. As hard as some of the scenes are to read, the book explicitly says it could be harder.

The conflict Dana feels between rescuing her white, slave-owning ancestor again and again, and standing back and letting nature take its course (but dooming herself) is one of the central points of the book. It’s a moral quandary that she never really answers.

Ultimately, there’s no way to do this book justice in a review. I think it should be required high school reading. More than that, I think it should be required reading for white people. And if you haven’t read it yet, you should. I knew on an intellectual level what slaves went through – but this book doesn’t look at it from a distance. It doesn’t divorce the reader from the violence. It puts the reader right there in the dirt of the yard with the whip exploding across Dana’s back.

I think it took me so long to get around to this book because it IS a classic. And so many classics I was forced to read in school were boring and dry and hard to read. I’m starting to find that some are classics because they’re just that good. Good and necessary and written about critically important topics. Kindred is one of them.

From the cover of Kindred:

Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.

Book Review: Born a Crime

bornacrimeBorn a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Trevor Noah
Memoir
285 pages
Published 2016

I read this book, though I’d really like to listen to the audio book version. It’s narrated by Trevor Noah himself, and apparently very, very good. I totally believe that – the man is hilarious on The Daily Show. I still really enjoyed the stories Noah told, though I wish he’d gotten more into his journey as a comedian, and not just his childhood and teenage years.

Noah has an uncanny way of explaining background information that you need to know while not giving away the (actually somewhat obvious in hindsight) punchline. Even the background information is told in an extremely entertaining way – you can feel Noah’s everpresent grin through the pages. Even though the book begins (and sort of ends) on a sad note, the book itself is a happy, optimistic one. I didn’t laugh myself silly, like the next book I read (Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy), but I did have to giggle and read parts to my husband. (And he actually laughed at them, instead of looking at me like I was insane, which is what happened with Furiously Happy.)

I’ve been a fan of Trevor Noah’s since shortly after he took over The Daily Show, and this was an interesting peek at his background, and the very different culture he grew up in. I highly recommend this book.

Incidentally, I spotted someone reading Born A Crime at the Atlanta airport on the way home from Christmas vacation in my hometown, so this one knocks off the PopSugar category “book that was being read by a stranger in a public place”! This is also my first review for Black History Month.

From the cover of Born A Crime:

Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.

Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.

The stories collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother’s unconventional, unconditional love.

Black History Month

So February is Black History Month, and I thought I’d try to spotlight African-American-centered books. Most of my reviews this month will be on that topic, but I thought I’d quickly point out a couple of old reviews that are topical, as well.

Tears We Cannot Stop is an excellent place to start, written from a black person to white people.

American War follows a bisexual woman of color in a dystopia where the south has seceded again.

There’s also my Goodreads shelf on Activism and Civil Rights.

Coming up this month are reviews of Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, from Oprah’s Book Club. By the end of the month I’m also hoping to have reviews of Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, and an ARC of a new African-inspired fantasy novel, Children of Blood and Bone. Also on the list to read is The Black Rose, the story of the first female African-American millionaire in America. This Bridge Called My Back and Colonize This! are also on my shelf, but they might wind up being later this year instead of this month.

I’ve been making an effort to read more diversely, but that covers more than just African-American, so I only have these two to link here so far. Stay tuned this month for more, though! You can find other minority-driven stories under my “Minority Representation” tag.