Book Review

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Happy New Year! If you have made a resolution to “watch less, read more,” I have a few suggestions to get you started.

Aren’t those bookstore gift certificates burning a hole in your pocket?

Sue Monk Kidd, bestselling author of The Secret Life of Bees, has a new book out this month. The Invention of Wings is a historical novel based on the life of Sarah Grimke and her slave, Hetty “Handful” Grimke. Sarah was born in South Carolina in 1792 to a wealthy family. She was given Hetty as a handmaid on her 10th birthday and immediately tried to free her. Handful was a bright girl who loathed the restrictions of slavery; Sarah was an intelligent girl who questioned the morality of slavery and loathed the restrictions of being female in the ante-bellum South. Linked together by the mistress-slave bond, not exactly friends, Sarah and Handful formed an alliance of sorts, in which Sarah secretly taught Handful to read and promised to free her as soon as she could. Kidd follows both women from childhood through middle-age, their separate attempts at achieving independence and the injustices perpetrated on them by owners, by men, by the church and by family. This is a great way to learn about one of America’s founding feminists; Sarah and her sister, Angelina, were the first to propose women’s equality along with abolition of slavery. Their courage in speaking out in public and publishing their opinions inspired the later, better known suffrage workers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony. Scenes of slave life in Charleston are vivid and disturbing, but Handful manages to keep her dignity and stay focused on escaping from slavery. A great read and a superb book club choice!

Another terrific historical novel out this month is Dominion, by C. J. Sansom. Sansom made his name with a series of historical mysteries featuring a lawyer in Tudor England. Dominion is also set in England, but in an alternative timeline in which Churchill was defeated by the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany in May, 1940. By 1952, when the story starts, Great Britain has been under the Nazi yoke for 12 years. All media is censored by the government, and Britain’s Jews are slowly being forced out of society. The British Fascist party is working hand in hand with the Nazis to quell rebellion—but the Resistance, under Churchill’s leadership, is still fighting the good fight. David Fitzgerald is a Resistance spy, ordered to rescue scientist Frank Muncaster from an insane asylum and get him to an American submarine off the coast. Gunther Hoth, Gestapo agent, is trying to get to Frank first, and he is willing to drag David’s wife Sarah into the conflict if it means success for his mission. Fans of spy thrillers, World War 2 fiction, and well-written alternative history will love this book. Fans of Jo Walton and Connie Willis, take note!

Gary Shteyngart has written three novels, but his newest book is a memoir entitled Little Failure. It is not a linear memoir; Shteyngart doesn’t start with his forebears, move onto his parents, then his birth; rather he mentions an incident, then circles around it with tangential (and entertaining) information, then heads back to the original anecdote. His ancestors, his parents, his extended family, his schoolmates—all flit in and out of the narrative in a kind of organized chaos. He was born in Leningrad, USSR (now St. Petersburg, Russia) in 1973 and emigrated with his parents to the United States in 1979. They lived in Queens, he got an education and published three novels.

He currently teaches creative writing and writes in New York City. That is the bare bones story, but the author’s Soviet-Jewish sensibility, underdog status and sharp wit make this a masterpiece of the art of memoir.

Susan Taylor has been in the book business since 1982.
 

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