The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd, who wrote The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, has a new book out. I loved her other books so was happy to get hold of this one too.

Set in the early 1800’s, the book is told from two perspectives, Sarah, who comes from a slave owning family in Charleston, South Carolina, and Handful, one of her slaves. Each girl has alternating chapters so the reader gets both views on the events that are happening.

Sarah is given Handful as a gift on her 11th birthday. Even though Sarah has been raised in this atmosphere of slavery, she is appalled that she could “own” someone. Sarah tries to free Handful but is stopped by her parents as well as the laws of the day which makes it difficult to emancipate a slave. The two girls become friends. They try to help each other as they deal with slavery and the submissive role of women in the world. Sarah struggles with the ideas of a woman’s role. She wants a career but is stymied at every turn. Her one salvation is her younger sister, Angelina, who she practically raises as her own. She teaches her to hate the slavery that supports their family.

Handful and her mother Charlotte have their own struggle. They are secretly working to earn money in order to buy their freedom. When caught out in an infraction, the punishments are severe. Handful gets caught up in plans for a slave uprising. Charlotte falls in love but the hardships of a black couple staying together can be insurmountable.

The book takes us through the roles of slave and master in the South, and into the North where the slave question is fought with many different ideas for a solution. Sarah and Angelina also get caught up in the struggle for women’s rights.

I enjoyed the book very much even if the stories of slave punishment were a bit hard to take. What really took me back was when I finished and read the author notes. This story is based on real people. Sarah and Angelina Grimké were actual abolitionists and among the most famous (or infamous) speakers of their day. Their writings on women’s rights were inspiration of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others. The story of Handful, while not based on an actual person, realistically depicts the life of slaves at that time.

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The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

dog stars picI guess I’m kind of a Peter Heller fan. I first read The Dog Stars and loved it. Recently I read The Painter, and enjoyed that book as well. The Dog Stars is about a post-apocalyptic society created out of the remnants of those who survived flu and blood disease pandemics. The book is written in a way that does not transmit total doom, but conveys what the human spirit needs to go on.

If I think about the writing style of Peter Heller, I would have to say it’s unique, and takes a few chapters to get accustom to the rhythm. He writes conversationally, which makes it very personal and easy to get yourself immersed in his story. I wanted to read The Painter because, to be honest, I didn’t want The Dog Stars to end.

I hope Peter Heller will continue the Dog Stars story with another book…or possibly a prequel? The story is one that gets under your skin, and I believe it has everything to do with the writing and storytelling style of Peter Heller. I recommend it to anyone who loves great characterization wrapped in a unique point of view.

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Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

Lisette and her husband Andre move from Paris to Provence just before WWII to take care of Andre’s aging grandfather, Pascal. There they discover that Pascal owns seven masterpiece paintings. Nazi Germany has a reputation of either confiscating or destroying artwork, so Andre hides the pieces to protect them. Lisette, all alone now with Andre killed during the war and Pascal having died right before the war started, must find the missing art.

Dealing with her grief, loneliness, and the hardships of war is difficult for Lisette. But thinking about the artwork of Cezanne, Pisarro, and Picasso helps her to learn more about herself and the Provence countryside she is in which she is exiled. She also meets the artist Marc Chagall and learns more about the world of art that she yearns for.

After the war, Lisette looks for the missing paintings. Discovering where they are hidden also helps her to discover more about friendship and eventually, love.

Reading this book was like looking into an impressionist painting and discovering for oneself what the artist was trying to say. A painting can speak to each person in a different way. In like fashion, a book can speak to the reader in different ways. That’s what makes book discussion groups so much fun! We learn of different relationships between author and reader and maybe see things is a new light.

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The Razor’s Edge by M. Somerset Maugham

This book is a character study of how people deal with life’s trials, and how they live their lives. Larry was a fighter pilot in World War I. When he comes back from the war, he gets back with his girlfriend Isabel. Isabel comes from money. Her father was an ambassador, so the family had been used to being in the social scene with powerful and rich people. Isabel lives with her mother, Louisa Bradley, and the father has passed away. Then there is Elliot Templeton who is Louisa’s brother, and he is very rich and is very social conscious. He looks after Isabel and wants her to have the best and marry well so that she will be able to continue her lifestyle.
Larry and Isabel become engaged, but Larry doesn’t want to just get a job and make money. He was almost killed in the war. Larry’s friend saved his life, so he was traumatized by the event. He wants to search for the meaning of life. He wants to marry Isabel, but he tells her that he wants to go to France for a couple of years. After two years Isabel has to decide if she wants to marry Larry, join him on his quest for meaning and live off a meager inheritance of Larry’s, or let him go and find somebody else. At first I didn’t like the book, but as I read it I thought that it gave the reader important things to think about.

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The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fanny Flagg

Fanny Flag, best known for her book “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Café”, is always funny and touching at the same time. I’ve never been disappointed in one of her books.

Sookie Poole of Alabama lives in the shadow of her mother, Lenore. She has never seemed to be able to live up to Lenore’s expectations. Lenore is a fun but formidable woman, outgoing, talented, and a bit overbearing to Sookie. Yet, Sookie has had a good life, a wonderful husband, and now all her children are married and out of the house. It’s time to relax. That is, until she discovers a long-kept secret about her mother’s past. As Sookie learns to deal with this new revelation, she discovers more about herself and how to live as Lenore’s daughter. Her research into the past reveals things she never knew about herself or her mother.

Without giving away too many secrets, the book goes back and forth in time, presenting the details of the life of women serving in the United States Air Force as WAVES during WWII. We focus on Fritzi, an ambitious women as the 1940’s and her family who run a gas station in the Midwest. Fritzi joins the WAVES, and her story tells of the hardships and prejudice these brave women endured. The reader learns a lot about this real group of brave women who have only recently gained the recognition they deserve.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone who likes a strong female-led story, or stories based in the South. The combination of humor, history, and mystery is something I personally can’t pass up.

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The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied LifeI was completely pulled in by this story, which is about a cranky bookseller who is not really living- as a result of his young wife dying in a car accident.  Through a series of events carefully knitted together by the author, A. J. (book store owner) comes to take care of an orphaned? toddler.  His life is never the same.  The child opens life up to A.J. in ways he could not have imagined, and soon a book saleswoman arrives on the scene to shake everything up again.

I’m sure we all gravitate to stories that resonate familiarity…but there was something so compelling about the way the story was told that made me want to just live inside the pages.  I can’t remember the last time that’s happened.

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The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp

This is the true story that the musical “The Sound of Music” was based on. The true story was not quite as dramatic as the movie. The oldest child did not have a romantic interest in young man who had joined the Hitler Youth. The Nazis were not hot on their trail, but the captain did get a commission to be in charge of a ship, and he was tempted by the prestige but did not want to join the Nazis. They decided to come to America by this time. It’s an inspiring story that they came here with nothing, and they were able to

be successful. I highly recommend it.Trapp Family

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Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen has always been one of my favorite fiction writers and here’s why,Still Life with Bread Crumbs her books all have a real life ring to them that you don’t often find without having the story go sappy and melodramatic or (as lately) dark to the point of tortuous. The story follows a period in a 60 year old woman’s life. She finds her finances to be so precarious that she sublets her Manhattan apartment and moves to a furnished mountain cabin about 2 hours away. She thinks that she may be able to save some money and reevaluate her situation at the same time. Anna Quindlen weaves the story to include a host of supporting characters that impact the story’s trajectory. We care what happens to ALL of them and as the story ends, you (the reader) are actually uplifted. This is not one of those “At Home in the Mountains” kind of book, but a slice of life that will leave you satisfied… that you took the time to read Still Life with Bread Crumbs.

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The Reason I Jump

This is a book written by an autistic Japanese child, Naoki Higashida, who used an alphabet grid to construct words and sentences. The book was translated into English by David Mitchell and his wife KA Yoshida. David Mitchell and his wife are the parents of an autistic child themselves. In their search for finding books to help them understand their son’s behavior they came upon “Reason I Jump” which KA Yoshida ordered from Japan. Noaki answers questions people ask about his behavior and that of other autistic children. His answer for why he jumps is: “When I jump it’s as if my feelings go upward to the sky.” In the introduction Mr. Mitchell helps the reader to understand how an autistic person views the world around him. It can be hard for an autistic person to know what to concentrate on because, “Your mind is a room where twenty radios all tuned to different stations are blaring music and voices.” You can imagine how hard it would be to navigate in a world like that. Some on the questions that Naoki answers are “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?.” “Why do you ignore us when we’re talking to you?,” and “Why do you answer the same questions over and over?” It’s a fascinating look at how people with autism see the world around them and why they tend to enjoy certain behaviors such as jumping or shaking their hands. There are a couple of families at my church who have children with autism, and I have wanted to ask some of those question myself.  It’s an enlightening look at how autism effects people’s lives and they behave as they do. I highly recommend it.

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The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All ThingsI read Eat, Pray, Love and loved it. (The movie ruined the experience, though).  I also enjoyed Committed, Gilbert’s second memoir.  The Signature of All Things is historical fiction, and I almost didn’t pick it up based on the fact that I usually must be coerced into this genre.  This book breaks out of classification and holds the reader in all the folds and layers of a family saga.  The book follows the historic beginning of Darwin’s theories  and discoveries and places the characters down in the middle of a time when an educated woman needed to follow social norms and bow to the male opinion- no matter how incorrect.

A few months ago our book group read Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier.  This novel has the same familiar note, but I would call it the orchestra version.

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