Friday, August 15, 2014

Classic Fiction: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary is one of those books that I bought forever ago, and like the good literature major that I am I've had every intention of reading it as it is considered a classic, although it took me six years to finally do so. I think I put it off for so long because I have already read other books like it with similar story lines, and I knew there was a great chance that I would grow tired of it really quickly and drag my feet in finishing it, and there was an almost non-existent chance I would actually find it compelling and want to recommend it to people. One thing that was a guarantee (after reading the first page) was that I would most certainly find it to be extremely tedious.

The Situation: Emma has married the widow Charles Bovary and has left her life on her father's farm. While she is pleased to finally be a wife and have her own home to run, she finds herself increasingly bored by her simple and repetitive everyday existence. Her life with Charles does not give her the joy and passion and excitement that she dreamed it would. It's the kind of life she read about in books and is disappointed to find that her actual existence looks nothing like what she found on the page. So like many people who feel bored and unfulfilled, Emma begins buying things she does not need and cannot afford. And when she begins to display the symptoms of a serious illness, Charles goes so far as to have them moved to another town where he can still be a doctor and earn a living. Eventually the change in scenery and the material things leave Emma feeling unsatisfied again, so she begins having affairs.

The Problem: Quite naturally, there are many risks that come with having an affair and trying to keep it not only from your husband, but also your entire household of servants, your neighbors, friends, family, and anyone else who might know you socially. And since this is early 19th century France, Emma can't simply leave her house whenever she wants without offering some sort of explanation as to where she is going. She does not have a job, and has very little she needs to do outside of the house to merit her leaving. But she finds a way, and is able to get some satisfaction with a new lover. But soon (spoiler alert!), her lover grows tired of her, just as he has all of the other women he has been with, and abandons her, once again leaving her bored and unfulfilled. And while Charles suspects nothing, he continues to love her and dote on her, but she just cannot bring herself to see in him what he sees in her. Meanwhile, debts are piling up as a businessman Charles lent money from manipulates Emma into boring more and more money until it looks as if, while Emma's second affair may not ruin her, her spending and borrowing habits certainly might.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a classic fiction novel set in 19th century France. At it's absolute simplest it is a story about a common housewife who is repulsed by her doting husband as she sees in him everything that is dull, boring, and painfully everyday. So in order to get some excitement in her life, the same excitement she reads about in her novels and feels when she goes out to balls and parties, she goes shopping and has affairs. But beyond this, Flaubert also has brief moments where medical procedures and advancements of the time are explored as Charles is a doctor, and another prominent character, Monsieur Homais, is the local pharmacist who practices medicine without a license. Monsieur Homais is also anti-religion and enjoys arguing with the local clergy, even at less than opportune times (like a funeral). Even with these brief forays into science and religion, the main focus remains to be Madame Bovary. As for the "obscenity" that this book is known for, and the reason Flaubert was put on trial for it, it really isn't much compared to today's standards. The problem was really with the fact that the narrator doesn't seem to condemn Emma's affairs, leading some to believe Flaubert condoned adultery. Personally, I would think that Emma's behavior throughout the book, as well as the ending, would satisfy people on that score, but maybe that is just me.

My Verdict: Sure, it is a classic, but it is still incredibly tedious. And there are other classics similar to it that are much better and more enjoyable to read. The only reason I gave it more than one star on Goodreads is because I don't necessarily regret reading it, and it did eventually start to get good. Granted, it was close to the end (like 30 pages out), but still, that does count for something. It is also one of the books that suffers from what I like to refer to as the Frankenstein effect. Much like Mary Shelley's classic, it isn't really that long of a book, but it takes forever to read. Something about the language makes you feel like you're trying to run through wet sand. In other words, I would get tired of the book extremely quickly after having made little progress. It was beyond frustrating. Maybe other readers will be more like many of my lit professors and recognize this novel as the great classic it is often held up to be. But for me, I am mostly just glad it's over.

Favorite Moment: Pretty much any moment that I pick out as one that I enjoyed is a moment when Emma is shown to be either slightly ridiculous or slightly mad. I also enjoyed when her plans came back to bite her. Suffice it to say she will not be named below as my favorite character.

Favorite Character: While he may be dull and somewhat vanilla in his personality, I choose Charles as my favorite character. He is blind, naive, and a little slow as far as seeing people for who they really are, but ultimately he is a decent human being. He wants to make his wife happy and does what he can. And if he weren't so easily swayed by other's opinions, especially those who wish to ruin him, then he could have been a pretty good doctor.

Recommended Reading: As I said, there are other classics with elements that are contained within Madame Bovary that, in my opinion, are much more enjoyable to read. If you want to read more about married women who decide to have an affair, then I recommend Leo Tolstoy's Ana Karenina. If you want to read more about a married woman who wants more out of life with her doctor husband and begins spending outside of her means, I recommend  George Eliot's Middlemarch, which will also come with bonus discussions on science, religion, and politics. And finally, if you want to read about an unmarried woman spending beyond her means in order to get ahead in life and ultimately coming to ruin, I recommend Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.      

Friday, August 8, 2014

Young Adult Fiction: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars is the first book I have ever read by E. Lockhart, who has also written four books about Ruby Oliver (The Boyfriend List, The Boy Book, The Treasure Map of Boys, and Real Live Boyfriends), and the National Book Award finalist The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau-Banks. I picked up We Were Liars because of the cryptic description on the inside of the book jacket, and because of the idea of something tragic happening to a family that essentially lives in a bubble every summer on their own private island.

The Situation: Cadence Sinclair Eastman lives with her mom and their three dogs in Burlington, Vermont. But they spend every summer on Beechwood Island in Massachusetts. It is essentially the Sinclair's own private island, owned by Cady's grandfather. Each of the three daughter's have their own house, where they each bring their own families and Cady's cousins. There are the older set consisting of Cady, Johnny, and Mirren, all the same age and born very close together. And then there are the littles, Will, Taft, Bonnie, and Liberty. All of them are blonde, all of them are beautiful, and all of them are rich and stand to inherit a great chunk of money from their grandparents. It isn't until the summer that the older set turns eight years old that they begin to be called the Liars. That is the summer that Gat showed up on the island. Gat is the nephew of the Indian man that Johnny's mother has begun dating. He isn't blonde, and he isn't rich, but after that initial summer, Gat is welcomed back to the island along with the rest of the family. Harris and Tipper, Cady's grandparents, don't really approve of Gat, but he is allowed on the island anyway, and everything seems fine.

The Problem: Something happened the summer the Liars turned 15. Something worse than the constant squabbling going on between Cady's mom and her sisters over the houses and their inheritance, with grandfather only fueling the fire, searching for who is the most loyal and loves him most. Something worse than Harris' subtle disapproval of Gat and his relationship with his eldest granddaughter. Cady has a terrible accident, but all she can remember is being found in the water, and sustaining a head injury. She has asked her mother many times over what happened, and her mother keeps telling her. Eventually, the doctor recommends that Cady try to remember on her own, as being reminded of the tragedy only to forget about it isn't helping. After skipping a summer, Cady returns to Beechwood, where a lot has changed. The main house where her grandfather still stays has been completely renovated, and one of her aunts has vacated the house she stayed in and has opted to stay with the grandfather, leaving one whole house for the Liars to occupy in their own. Because of her still fragile health and frequent debilitating migraines, Cady still stays with her mother, trying her best to piece together what really happened the summer the Liars were 15. Cady realizes that if the accident two years ago didn't kill her, and the migraines don't, then the truth just might. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel about one family that seems so perfect and happy on the outside, but is slowly deteriorating from the inside due to selfishness, greed, and the desire to always look the part. All of the Sinclair's are blonde, beautiful, and incredibly rich. The entire family gathers at their private island every summer to enjoy an idyllic season of family fun in the sun. But all of the money in the world cannot keep the marriages of the three Sinclair daughters from falling apart. It also can't keep the eldest grandchild from dating someone from another race...someone who isn't blonde with creamy white skin. As Cady gets older, even she begins to realize that her family isn't what it pretends to be: happy. Her grandfather's homespun wisdom of "never take no for an answer" is eventually revealed to be his justification for manipulating those around him and taking whatever he wants, no matter who it hurts. And it makes her sick to see him pit his own daughters against each other for his own ego. He also can't hide his true feelings towards Gat, despite the fact that he never addresses the issue directly. None of them address issues directly. And after Cady has her accident, directness is what she craves as she tries to piece together what happened. She feels like everyone, even the other Liars, are constantly hiding something from her, and no one will simply tell her what happened, insisting she remember on her own. We Were Liars takes a family full of first-world problems and has them deal with them in the worst way possible, and eventually, they end up with a very real tragedy. 

My Verdict: I think what impressed me the most about this book was that it is an incredibly easy and quick read, but it isn't necessarily light material. In fact, it deals with some incredibly dark stuff without getting too heavy-handed. And I think Lockhart handled the issue of Cady's spotty memory very well. Sometimes, having the narrative jump between the different summers as Cady tries to remember was a bit confusing, but ultimately it works out and it becomes clear as to what happened when. And although the book is fairly short (clocking in at a little over 200 pages), the story doesn't feel rushed, and nothing feels left out. Lockhart said what she needed to say and then left it at that. Also, the storyline is somewhat complex, not only because of the switching timelines, but also because of the many characters. But the plot never felt messy or all over the place. Instead, it was like being in the head of someone trying to remember something but just isn't able to grasp the main details. It is a well-done story, and definitely worth picking up. 

Favorite Moment: When the Liars begin to stand up for themselves and refuse to get involved in fighting over the inheritance that takes place between the aunts.

Favorite Character: This is one of those books where every character gives the reader a reason not to like them, but I pick Cady anyway. It isn't so much what she does or says to others, but it is more about her voice and the way she tells her story. She is dry, witty, clever, sarcastic, and even funny sometimes, even though what she is revealing is incredibly serious.

Recommended Reading: As a follow-up to this book, I recommend John Green's Looking for Alaska. It is also a YA book that deals with tragedy and loss, and how different people deal with losing someone close to them. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Historical Fiction: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi



I need more minority writers in my life, so I picked up Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi after it popped up in my recommendations on Goodreads. I was also interested in a storyline that includes elements from the story of Snow White that many of us are so familiar with, but reimagined for 1950s-1960s America.

The Situation: Boy Novak has managed to escape her abusive father Frank in New York City, and has made a modest life for herself in the small community of Flax Hill. She has friends in the boarding house where she is staying, a job at a local bookstore, and she even garnered the interest of a local widow who already has a daughter of his own named Snow. After a slightly awkward meeting with her fiance's mother and sister, as well as the mother of his late wife, Boy and Arturo get married and are soon expecting a child of their own.

The Problem: Although Boy was always slightly wary of her step-daughter Snow from the beginning, her feelings darken incredibly after the birth of her own daughter, Bird. Snow never actually does anything wrong, and seems to love and and adore Bird and treats her like her little sister. But apart from Arturo and Boy, she is the only one who seems to welcome Bird into the family. When Bird is born, it is obvious she is black. Boy is white, and had thought she had married a white man. Turns out Arturo and his family had been "passing" (when light-skinned black people successfully pretend to be white) for years. Also, his wife Julia was black, but she and her mother Agnes were also able to pass, and did so, which is why Arturo's family loved her so much, and also doted endlessly on Snow, who was not only able to pass like the rest of her family, but was also just incredibly beautiful. Boy is encouraged to send Bird away to Arturo's other sister Clara, who was not able to pass and therefore grew up separated from the rest of her family. But instead of sending Bird away, Boy sends Snow away, and finds herself becoming the evil stepmother she never thought she would be. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction book that has elements of a fairy tale, pulling mostly from the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Snow's last name is even Whitman). It is set in 1950s-1960s America, so Oyeyemi uses the country's racially tense history as the backdrop for a story involving an evil stepmother, and a little girl whose beauty is obvious to everyone so she receives incredible amounts of attention because of it. Oyeyemi also gives the use and idea of mirrors a prominent place in the story. Boy can't seem to get enough of her own reflection, which troubles her slightly, while Bird's reflection sometimes doesn't show up at all. But while Oyeyemi has the characters deal with physical mirrors, her characters also become mirrors themselves as they feel and believe certain things when they look, and sometimes refuse to look, at each other. Something about Snow makes Boy uncomfortable, so she sends her away. And Arturo's family is troubled by Bird's appearance, so a few of his family member's try to ignore her completely. Ultimately, the way people feel when looking at someone else says something about the observer, not the object. And in a racially tense country these reflections can be very telling indeed.

My Verdict: There is quite a bit going on in this book, and the description makes it sound incredibly interesting, which is why I picked it up. Not only does it deal with the subject of "passing," but it is formed like a fairy tale and has parts where suspension of disbelief is necessary. Unfortunately, the description of the book makes it sound much more interesting and compelling than it actually is. The parts of the book that dealt with passing, and the parts that were narrated by Bird were well done and engaging. But everything else was pretty disappointing. And while there are elements of the fairy tale in it, the theme isn't quite followed all of the way through, and often felt forced. And this was another one of those endings where it seemed like the author had painted herself into a corner and just needed a way out. What is even worse is that the way out that she chose felt like Oyeyemi was pandering to her audience, while trying to weakly hang on to the fairy tale theme. Ultimately, there were parts of this book that I enjoyed, but overall it left me disappointed.

Favorite Moment: When Bird is able to mimic the voice of her Gee-Ma Julia and gain vital information out of her Grandma Olivia.

Favorite Character: Bird is easily my favorite character. She is a young girl attempting to learn more about her racially confused and unsettled family. And even though the adults attempt to put her off and avoid the topic, she manages to find answers in her own way.

Favorite Quote: "School is one long illness with symptoms that switch every five minutes so you think it's getting better or worse. But really it's the same thing for years and years." - Bird on middle school and high school. 

Recommended Reading: If you want to read a historical fiction book set in 20th century America, I recommend The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore. The book follows three black woman and chronicles their long friendship together from their teen years into adulthood.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

I went in blind when I chose to cover Dinaw Mengestu's All Our Names for this blog. It was on a list of recommendations provided by Goodreads, and I was able to find it at the library. Add the fact that it was a recent publication, and I figured why not take a chance on it. Sometimes fantastic new (to me) authors are discovered that way.

The Situation: Isaac has recently arrived in the small Midwestern city of Laurel from Africa. All he has in his possession is his Kenyan passport, the suit he is wearing, and very little in the one suitcase he is carrying. Assigned to help him from the Lutheran Relief Services is Helen, a woman who has been slightly burnt out by the many hospital visits and funeral attendances for her clients because of her job. Sensing this, her boss assigned her to Isaac's case, allowing her to stay away from hospitals and funeral parlors until Isaac has been taken care of. Despite this being 1970s America, and segregation is part of the not-so-distant past, Helen and Isaac quickly fall for each other, having to sneak around and keep their relationship fairly hidden. Middle America is not quite ready for a white woman and a black man to be romantically involved.

The Problem: While being an interracial couple is certainly one issue Helen and Isaac must deal with, there is also a whole other story as to how Isaac even came to be where he is, and who he is. His passport may be Kenyan, but he is actually from Ethiopia, where he was involved in the country's civil war. At first him and his friend simply showed up at the local university where other protesters would show up and sometimes just hang out. Eventually, the police got involved and put a stop to this, but Isaac continued to grow more and more bold in his own demonstrations, seemingly unafraid to be beaten up and abused by both civilians and the police. And when his boldness gains the attention of a powerful man with the means to start a real war, Isaac's idealism and dreams of a revolution become all too real, with real dangers and real consequences. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that I could have easily labeled as historical fiction, as it deals with the real events that occurred in Ethiopia in the early 1970s. The country had recently gained its independence, but was now dealing with the withdrawal of support from the British. Violence would soon break out between the government and those seeking a revolution, and the body count would be high. In Mengestu's story, Isaac would gain the favor of one man, named Joseph, who had enough money and influence to start a war of his own, one in which the soldiers under him would call themselves "liberators" as well as "revolutionaries." Eventually, Isaac would end up in America, even though the fighting continues in his home country. In American he meets Helen, and then must attempt a different type of survival. The chapters switch back and forth between Helen telling the story of her relationship with Isaac, Isaac telling the story of his time in Africa. In this way, the reader somewhat knows the ending on one story by the beginning of the new one. It's a story that isn't just about the brutality and messiness of war and revolution, although there is plenty of that, but also about how the fight doesn't necessarily end just because you switch locations. Also, identity plays an important part in both stories within this book. The Isaac in Africa is incredibly different from the Isaac in America, and in both countries, "Isaac" is really just a name. Identity is something that is played with and the reader never really knows for sure who Isaac is and what he is capable of.

My Verdict: This is an incredibly powerful book that doesn't contain brutal scenes just because it can. Mengestu handles the realities of war and revolution honestly, but not in a way that seems unnecessary or over-the-top. There were scenes where I felt my self turning away from the book, as if I were watching it on TV or in a movie theater, but then I remembered I was reading, and me turning away from the page meant that story stopped and would still be there waiting for me when I turned back. That was how vivid and real everything seemed that Mengestu had written down. With that said, there were times when I felt that Helen's story dragged and I wished to just get back to Isaac's story of when he was still in Africa, but Helen's story isn't without its moments of poignancy either.  I think those who enjoy reading about the conflicts that go on in other countries, especially those in fairly recent history, would enjoy this book a great deal. It is also a story that explores how quickly the ideal of a revolution can become a dangerous reality.

Favorite Moment: When Helen learns more of who Isaac really is and his past, shattering her own idealistic vision of what is going on between them.

Favorite Character: In this book, identity is a weird and tricky thing, so to pick a favorite character doesn't quite feel right, but I suppose I'll try anyway. I'll say that my favorite character was Isaac, but that really isn't clarifying much. So I pick the Isaac that went to the university in Ethiopia, before coming to America, and pretended to be a student, although his clothes and the way he walked immediately told anyone with the least bit of observation skills that he was too poor to be a student. He just wanted a better life for himself than what was available to him at home, and to be accepted by the protesters on the school's lawn. This was before revolution would show him things he could never unsee and force him from the country he would probably never return to.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland, as it contains many of the same themes, except it takes place India, as well as America, and follows two brothers as opposed to two friends. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

I certainly arrived late to the Christopher Moore party as the first book I ever read by him was Sacre Bleu, which was published only two years before his latest book that I am writing about today, The Serpent of Venice. More devoted fans will recognize some of the characters in The Serpent of Venice as they also appeared in Fool, which was published in 2009, and now is a must read for me as I would love to know how Pocket's adventures first started.

The Situation: Brabantio, Iago, and Antonio have decided to murder the fool Fortunato, also known as Pocket. They have already murdered his love and Queen, Cordelia, and now proceed to chain him up and wall him in, much like what is done in Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado. But just as Pocket has resigned himself to death, he is saved by a horrifying, although incredibly helpful, serpent-like creature he has decided to name Vivian, or Viv for short. Now, Pocket, who was already bent on revenge for the death of his beloved Cordelia, must find those who have wronged him and sought to end his life, while simultaneously hiding the fact that their plan didn't succeed.

The Problem: For Pocket, keeping his identity a secret while carrying out revenge is difficult enough. But it doesn't help that Iago is attempting to be rid of Othello, a friend of Pocket's, and also be rid of Cassio, Othello's second in command. Also, Antonio and Iago both have come up with a scheme to have Antonio's young friend Bassanio win Portia's hand in marriage, therefore giving him a seat on the council that would have been given to Othello if the plot to have him out of the way works out. And in order to even attempt such a thing, Bassanio would need to have Antonio borrow money from the Jew, Shylock, whose own daughter, Jessica is intent on running away with Lorenzo, another of Antonio's friends. Somehow, Pocket has got to foil all of his enemies' plans while also keeping himself alive and getting revenge for the wrongs done to him, plus find his giant idiot accomplice, Drool, and the monkey, Jeff. It also doesn't help that the serpent-like Viv enjoys showing up and killing off men in an incredibly gruesome manner. Pocket is certain Viv won't harm him, but he doesn't know that for sure, and can't quite figure out how he has gained such an ally.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a humorous fiction novel set in late 13th century Venice. It borrows heavily both the characters and events from William Shakespeare's Othello and The Merchant of Venice. It also borrows from the already mentioned The Cask of Amontillado. In order to use the elements from the two Shakespeare plays, Moore had to move their timelines up by a few hundred years, as both were set in the early 17th century. Some geographical changes were made as well, but ultimately, both plays were set in Venice, which is why Moore chose them for the book. He has Iago and Brabantio from Othello join forces with Antonio from Merchant, therefore making Antonio an antagonist instead of a hero. Moore has also made Othello's Desdemona the older sister to Portia from Merchant, allowing Brabantio to be the father of both. While The Merchant of Venice has elements of anti semitism, Othello has elements of racism, and both certainly play a part in Moore's book. But Serpent also has elements of hypocrisy, greed, revenge, courage, and adventure.

My Verdict: To me, this book was like a How It Should Have Ended for both Othello and The Merchant of Venice. These two plays are some of my least favorite that I have read of Shakespeare's. Othello is just a little too tragic, and Merchant I don't actually think to be that funny. But Moore certainly changes that and has some fun creating his own ending. As I mentioned in the introduction, reading this book has also made me want to find a copy of Moore's Fool so that I can read how Pocket's adventures first began. The book is incredibly funny, and certainly makes for a fantastic introduction into some of Shakespeare's characters for those who may not be all that familiar with the Bard's plays. 

Favorite Moment: When Pocket is able to find and rescue his giant if slow-witted friend Drool. He is certainly a gentle giant, and while he may be stupid, he is still useful with specific skills of his own apart from his enormous size and strength.

Favorite Character: There are certainly many great characters in this book, and while I am tempted to pick Drool, or even Viv, the serpent, I think instead I will go with Jessica. She may a bit blind when it comes to love, and has no problem abandoning her own father, but ultimately she makes a great companion to Pocket while he attempts to carry out his ridiculous schemes.

Recommended Reading: I would most likely recommend Fool had I actually read it, so instead I recommend Moore's previous novel Sacre Bleu. The book focuses on post-impressionist painters and has them as its main characters. Like Moore's other works, it is funny, vulgar, irreverent, and has fun with history. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Historical Fiction: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I decided to read The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd after it popped up on Goodreads as a "mover & shaker." I of course had heard of The Secret Life of Bees, and The Mermaid Chair, but this book would end up being my first by Kidd, although probably not my last.

The Situation: At eleven years old, Sarah Grimke would be given her very own slave. It is 1803 in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sarah lives with her plantation owning family and their many slaves. The one assigned to her is named Hetty, but prefers to be called Handful, the name her mother Charlotte gave her at birth. Up until the day she was given to Sarah, Handful had always slept by her mother's side, but now she sleeps outside of Sarah's bedroom door, in the cold of the hallway, should Sarah need anything in the middle of the night. Even at only eleven years old, Sarah abhors the "peculiar institution" and sets her mind to setting Handful free. But after a failed attempt to do so, Sarah believes that perhaps becoming a lawyer, something that women back then just did not do, will be her way to be able to change the laws and be rid of slavery altogether. Meanwhile, Handful and her mother commit their own small acts of rebellion, attempting to be free in any way they can, if not physically.

The Problem: Sarah's ideas about abolition and equality are not welcome in the slave-holding south, not even inside of her own house. Her difficult and ill-tempered mother is not above inflicting cruel punishments on the slaves that make mistakes or misbehave. While her father isn't quite as harsh, he is less than supportive of Sarah's ambitions to become a lawyer, and does not welcome her "radical" ideas concerning freedom for what he believes to be his property. Meanwhile, as Sarah struggles between her privileged but constrained life and fighting for what she knows to be right, Handful is simply fighting to survive and not let the Grimke's enslave her mind as well as her body. Charlotte had made Sarah promise that she would do what she could to set Handful free, but while waiting on the promise to be fulfilled, she sneaks away from the Grimke property with fake passes that allow her to walk the streets of Charleston and earn money that she intends to save up in order to purchase freedom for both her daughter and herself. Handful fears her mother will one day be caught and all hope will be lost, and Sarah fears her being a woman will give her no opportunity to fulfill her promise. Over the next thirty-five years, both women will fight for similar things using what little they have available to them.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that begins in the early 19th century and extends into the beginnings of the Abolitionist Movement as well as the Women's Rights Movement. Sarah and her sister Angelina, or Nina, were real sisters who became involved in both movements, despite having grown up in a slave-holding family in Charleston. While Sarah would be known mostly for her writing, Nina was known as a great orator, and both were incredibly passionate not only about freedom for slaves, but also equality with their white counterparts. They came under heavy fire not only because of their radical views, but because they were women, something that caused much friction between those that wanted to focus only on abolishing slavery, and those that were also concerned with the rights of women. Many of the events Kidd has put into the novel are fictionalized, but there are also a great deal of them that are true, if maybe placed a few years ahead or behind when they actually happened. Sarah was even given a slave named Hetty, but little is known about her, so the half of the story that came from her is completely of Kidd's own invention. In the novel, while Sarah was a free white woman, she felt trapped because of the roles she was confined to despite her intelligence and her ambition. And because Handful was a black slave, she was physically trapped, but determined to never let them have her mind, mostly due to her mother's influence who was bent on the same. Freedom is of course a big theme, but so is greed, as this seems to be the main thing that keeps some people who believe slavery to be awful from actually freeing their slaves. Insecurity and fear also play a role in people's hesitance to push for both abolition and equality, and they seem to play a part in the public's resistance to the two outspoken Grimke sisters.

My Verdict: While I certainly see that value of this book and can see that Kidd did her research into the lives of both Sarah and Angelina Grimke, I wish that parts of it were written better. I think I was much more drawn to Handful's story than I was Sarah's. At first, I was interested in both stories equally as they are both children, one meant to be served by the other, but instead there was a strange friendship that had formed, because that is just how children are. But as the girls get older, and when Sarah eventually leaves Charleston, I am no longer as interested in her story as I am Handful's. Maybe it was because, at the end of the day, Sarah was a free white women while Handful was a black slave, and probably always would be. Both stories had moments of intensity and their fair share of trials, but Handful's story just seemed more compelling. Perhaps it was because there is more written about Sarah Grimke, and therefore more actual accounts that this fictionalized version was attempting to adhere to. Meanwhile, Handful's story is pretty much completely made up. I'm not sure what it is. But overall, it isn't a bad book, just not as interesting as I had hoped. 

Favorite Moment: When Sarah ignores her mother heads outside to help a wounded slave.

Favorite Character: While I would probably be annoyed with her if she were my sister in real life, I liked Nina, Sarah's younger and much braver sister. She grows up to believe much the same thing as Sarah does, but she doesn't hesitate to say what is on her mind and jumps right into the movement despite the consequences and doesn't understand why others wouldn't do the same.

Recommended Reading: Slavery is always a hard subject to read about, fictionalized or not. So because the book I just reviewed falls under fiction, I will recommend the nonfiction Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. But be warned, it is incredibly difficult to read.      

Friday, July 4, 2014

Nonfiction: The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue by Daniel Vaughn

I thought for the 4th of July I would post about something very near and to me: Texas BBQ. I was fortunate to meet "BBQ Snob," author and editor of the blog Full Custom Gospel BBQ, and Texas Monthly editor Daniel Vaughn at the 2014 San Antonio edition of the Texas Book Festival. I then heard him talk about his book, The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue. During the question and answer portion, it was only natural that someone would ask him about the best BBQ joints in San Antonio. He then mentioned B&D Ice House, which a quick Google search on my phone told me I could walk to from my house. I had already bought the book before I had a chance to try B&D, but one bite of the brisket told me that this guy knew what he was talking about and I could trust the rest of his recommendations. But be warned, today's post is unashamedly all about Texas.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that gives fairly detailed reviews about the BBQ joints all across the great state of Texas. Vaughn traveled, along with photographer Nicholas McWhirter, across every section of the state - which is slightly bigger then the entire country of France - trying every BBQ place along the way, most of them planned, but there were quite a few that were impromptu stops. The result is a book that covers 35 days, 10,343 miles, and 186 BBQ places. Each chapter covers a specific section of the state, starting with the Panhandle and ending with Central Texas, with Vaughn often stopping at the best places more than once as he comes across them in different trips. Vaughn is actually not a Texan by birth, having been born in Ohio, but as we like to say of those who eventually find their way here, he got here as soon as he could. Throughout the book, along with the reviews of various smoked meat - the "holy trinity" of which is brisket, sausage, and ribs - there are color pictures of not only the food, but also the people and surrounding sights. And in the back of the book, Vaughn not only included a very helpful and practical index, but also profiles of pitmasters (those who have become experts in producing the best smoked meat), and a final short list of what Vaughn has decided are the places to find the BBQ in Texas. But the one page I found myself referencing more than any other throughout my reading of the book, and one that I will continue to reference as I form my own BBQ trail, was the map of Texas at the front of the book that marks out where each restaurant is located, as well as what type of wood they use in their smoker.

My Verdict: If you live in Texas and love, or even like, BBQ, this is a book for you. If you enjoy driving out to middle-of-nowhere Texas, and the state has a lot of that, and finding hidden gems with great food, then you'll find this book incredibly useful. The pitmaster profiles even include some recipes so you can attempt to replicate their flavors and creations on your own. But while this book is certainly about Texas BBQ, it is also about the joys of the road trip, and just how much the vast state of Texas has to offer someone willing to just get in the car and drive. Vaughn encounters the loneliness and desolation of the miles between San Angelo and El Paso, the tension that comes from the Texas/Mexico border, the trees and views of northeast Texas, the popular urban areas that lie along I-35, I-10, and I-45, and almost everything in between. And while I was worried that there would end up being a mind-numbing repetition as Vaughn declares this place great, and that place bad, and this other place as mediocre, I can honestly say that I was never bored with this book. There is a lot of repetition, but I was always eager to see what Vaughn's ruling was going to be on every place he visited, even if he had already been there. 

Favorite Moment: In the pitmaster profiles, it is revealed that the beautiful plate of food that makes up the cover of the book came from a place in San Antonio, Texas known as Two Bros. BBQ Market. Such a seemingly small thing makes me even more proud to call San Antonio home. I have actually never been to Two Bros, but I guarantee you it is on my list.

Recommended Reading: I'm fairly certain this is the only food-related book I have ever covered on this blog, so I suppose I'll go with another book that explores life in small-town Texas. Karen Valby's Welcome to Utopia does exactly that as she talks about the real lives and struggles of the people who make up the extremely small town of Utopia, Texas.