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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

World Book Night: The Second Batch

I am all sorts of behind on my World Book Night reading this year. I fear Victoria may have jinxed me by sharing my progress with our mailing list along with the words “will she finish in time?”

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman is definitely one of those cases of the truth being even more riveting than fiction. Ackerman writes the story of Antonina Zabinski the wife of a Polish zookeeper during World War II. The Zabinskis spent the war years hiding Jews in their villa and helping the underground in Warsaw. The book is often devastating and the sheer absurdity of the war and the actions of the Nazis are laid bare, but what triumphs over all of that is the survivor spirit of the Zabinskis and the Poles described throughout the book. Ackerman writes of interviews given by Jan Zabinski wherein he expresses that he and his wife were not heroes. They merely "did it because it was the right thing to do." Jan said "I only did my duty." To know both such courage and conviction...I can only imagine.

I was so looking forward to Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters. I love books about readers, and a book about three sisters raised by a Shakespearian scholar seemed right in my wheelhouse. Alas, it was not meant to be. I grew weary of this book because the sisters were so frustrating. Each of them is unhappy in a life of their own making and while the book is about them finding their way back to each other and to happiness I just sort of lost patience with them. However, the first person plural narration was a stoke of genius on Brown's part and truly gets to the root of what siblings are.

My favorite book on the list so far must be Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. I did not really expect too much from this book; I don't typically go in for comic novels. But Semple has written this truly funny work of satire that just blew me away. I remember the hype machine working really hard for this book when it was initially released and I am so sorry I ignored it for so long. Not only is this book wildly entertaining, but Maria Semple has an understanding of depression and failed promise that very few people do. I highly recommend this book!

Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale is said to be a book that defined a generation, so I was excited to read it and get a glimpse into a life that is different from my own. This book is unflinchingly honest; for all of the internet ink that goes into dissecting Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls here is McMillan's Waiting to Exhale, written 22 years ago and just as uncompromising and often unlikeable as this so-called trailblazing show. The biggest thing I took away from this novel was the reality McMillan described - these are four fully formed women. They are weak, they are strong, they are endlessly frustrating, they are lovable, but mostly they are real. The fact that I wanted to punch both Robin and Bernadine in the face is a testament to just how invested I was in their lives.

I have somehow made it to my advanced age having never read a mystery by Agatha Christie. So, thank you World Book Night for filling yet another glaring omission in my reading life. After the Funeral is the 29th Hercule Poirot mystery and it's a great whodunnit - each time I felt like I had decided which of the characters was the murderer Christie and her master detective spun my ideas on their head and had me pointing the finger at another possible perp. In the end, I was surprised and excited to hear Poirot explain just how he solved the case. The classist ideology and xenophobia were a bit hard to swallow at times, but such is as it is in classic novels.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Michelle Reviews: Madam by Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin

All of the most famous cities in the world have a personality. We are drawn to them in the same way we are drawn to each other. New Orleans is alluring. It bristles with life, music, culture, and most importantly history.

The most fascinating period within the history of New Orleans has to be the sex-crazed, gin-soaked, debauched Storyville era at the turn of the century. Unfortunately, many records of Storyville have been destroyed, and the history of this famous red-light district has always been somewhat underground. Luckily for us though, authors Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin have seen to filling some of that void. Lynn and Martin have written Madam: A Novel of New Orleans. The book is a captivating romp through Storyville’s rise beginning in 1897.

Madam tells the story of Mary Deubler, the woman who would become the famous Miss Josie Arlington. Mary’s life lacked the auspicious beginning a figure of such and enduring legacy typically enjoys. We are told that she was born the child of a prostitute thus practically ensuring a life along the same path for the young girl. Mary moves through life existing and subsisting but never really living. She is so beaten down by her uncle (who has functioned as her pimp since the age of fourteen), her johns (who use and degrade her), and her position (outside of Venus Alley “whores” like Mary are viewed as practically subhuman) that she sees no way out even with her intelligence and beauty intact.

Only when her brother’s wife becomes pregnant does Mary begin to look for a way out. She cannot suffer another generation of her family to be debased in the way that she and her mother before her had been. Lynn and Martin do a great job describing the anxiety that permeates this section of the novel. Mary’s place in the world is so tenuous, her position so unsure, that each new experience could prove disastrous, and the authors are at their best when describing this fear. However, Mary is very intelligent and while wise enough not to be fearless she is very brave in stepping out to better her situation. With the help of Tom Anderson, the unofficial mayor of Storyville, Mary does rise from the dregs of society into wealth and infamy to become Josie Arlington, one of the most powerful and feared madams of the district. 

We hear very little of Mary’s life once she becomes Josie, though the authors do posit that it is not a happy one. We do however hear from Mary’s niece, and everything Mary hoped for her seems to have come true. She is affluent and well educated; the world is open to her. The novel ends with Mary’s niece Anna working through her own history and trying to accept the truth of her Aunt Mary’s life as a prostitute and madam.

Madam succeeds at what I love best about historical fiction – it leaves the reader wanting more. The authors note in their preface that they have maintained “as accurate a sense of history as possible” and their attention to the facts and meticulous research show. Upon finishing the book, I found myself seeking out books and articles about Storyville…separating the truth of Madam from the flushed out fiction. While reading through historical documents and especially Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans I was impressed by just how much of the time the authors were able to fit into the novel. From famous quotes to tongue-in-check cameos; it’s all there from the birth of jazz to the rise of the railroads. Madam is great read, and one I would definitely recommend to fans of historical fiction in general and southern history in particular.

I would be remiss to leave this post without also noting another recent release. One of the historical documents featured in Madam is the Blue Book; a pamphlet used to advertise the ladies, houses, and entertainments offered within Storyville. The Blue Book is a rare historical document for many reasons: not only was much of Storyville’s history burned but the Blue Book was meant to be used as a guide and then discarded. Luckily, a few copies do still survive and even more serendipitous one copy ended up in the hands of Judith Lafitte, owner of Octavia Books in New Orleans. Judith oversaw the reproduction and publication of her copy of the Blue Book, which is now available in print. The reproduction is an exact replica of the pamphlet and it is a thrill to look through. There are, of course, things to shake your head at while being happy about how far we have come, but on the whole this historical document charms me with just how little our basest natures have or ever will change.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Reading Group Selections - March 2014

The best books for reading groups are the ones that foster discussions - whether your book club members are boisterous or more subdued, talking about books is what those meetings are all about! Picking just the right book is always a thrill; love it or hate it - book club books are the ones that stand out.
Here are a few recent releases that would lead to great discussions in any book club!

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a striking slice of contemporary life at a time of crushing upheaval. Romantic without being sentimental, political without being didactic, and spiritual without being religious, it brings an unflinching gaze to the violence and hope it depicts. And it creates two unforgettable characters who find moments of transcendent intimacy in the midst of shattering change.
In We Are All Completely beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler weaves her most accomplished work to date—a tale of loving but fallible people whose well-intentioned actions lead to heartbreaking consequences.
 And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran 
The thoroughly luminous autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran, a blind man who discovered the gift of inner sight and then put his gift to use in the struggle against Nazism.
Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter
In a quest to find meaning in his life, Henry travels to Afghanistan as an army-affiliated contractor, where he becomes embedded in the regiment with which his friends are serving.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Victoria Reviews: Half Bad by Sally Green

Sally Green's Half Bad is the kind of book you stay up all night to finish.  The book follows Nathan, the son of a White witch and the world's most powerful Black witch, in a world where only White witches are truly accepted.  Trapped and regulated by the council of White witches, Nathan is persecuted and mistreated in the name of White witch safety and well-being.  On every witch's seventeenth birthday, they must receive three gifts from a blood relation in order to come into their full power.  Nathan, as a potential threat to White witches, is forbidden from receiving his gifts without council approval, even though legend says that without three gifts, a Black witch will die.  Nathan must therefore escape the council's control, find the elusive father who abandoned him, and convince his father to perform the Giving ceremony, all before his seventeenth birthday.

Nathan is a great character.  He feels real; his motivations and thoughts are easily understood.  That's what makes the actions of the White witch council so hard to bear; the reader knows that Nathan is a good guy who is just trying to figure out where he belongs in life, but the council cannot see him as anything more than the son of a Black witch.  We are forced to watch this unjust persecution of an innocent, and Green really makes you feel for Nathan.

The witch society in Half Bad is well-crafted and interesting.  The corruption and bias are evident throughout the story, and though you know the council is wrong in what they are doing, it only makes them more threatening.  Prejudice against Black witches and against Nathan in particular is found outside of the council as well.  Nathan must deal with both child and adult White witch bullies whose word will always be trusted over his own.  Even in his own home, Nathan sometimes has to deal with White witch prejudice and cruelty at the hands of his sister.  It's a fate that many can relate to.

Green surrounds Nathan with a wonderful cast of characters, from his loveable half brother to his indomitable yet strangely kind jailer.  Nathan is a naturally trusting person, but due to his circumstances, he must deal with certain trust issues and the idea that trusting the wrong person could lead to his death.  He is forced into constant vigilance and suspicion, which leaves him lonely and isolated.  Green beautifully shows how this isolation affects Nathan, who, after all, is only seventeen years old.  Having no one to turn to in hard times takes it toll on anyone, and Nathan is no exception.

Overall, the story is engaging and wonderfully told.  The book his hard to put down, and you'll find yourself rooting for Nathan from the start.  It really makes you think about how our preconceived notions of people inform the way we look at their words and actions.  Nathan is shoved into a stereotype for Black witches, and no matter what he does to change this impression, he cannot change it.  The council judges him based on their perceptions of his intentions rather than what his intentions actually are, and it reminds us that sometimes we have to examine our own biases and give people the benefit of the doubt.  I'd recommend it to fans of Divergent, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, or similar series, as it contains similar action and storylines, but with a sprinkling of magic thrown in.   
Half Bad is newly released on Tuesday, March 4th!


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