Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

One-sentence plot
A recounting of John Brown’s abolitionist activities, as seen over the years through the dispassionate eyes of a fictional young slave he freed.

20140224-213513.jpg

The review
I cannot remember a more fascinating book discussion than when I sat down to discuss The Good Lord Bird at my book club last week and found out I hadn’t understood it at all. I like book clubs because they introduce me to literature I never would have come across otherwise, and force me to persist when I’m not keen on something. I think it expands my mind as a reader. And I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen The Good Lord Bird of my own volition. But I read it. I enjoyed the story of young Henry/ Henrietta, a boy who is ‘freed’ from his slave owner by John Brown, mistaken for a girl, and absorbed into John Brown’s band of renegade abolitionists as they storm around Kansas haplessly getting into battles, and eventually attempt a grand raid. I read it. I found the story reasonably interesting. I thought the characters a little bland, the story a little slow, the writing quite good. I enjoyed it but wouldn’t have rushed to recommend it. Then I got to book club and someone’s first comment was that it was a hilarious and edgy satire. And I was completely dumbfounded.

Now according to the Americans in my book club, all the Americans reading this blog are probably very familiar with this story and its protagonists. And so, when reading it, they would find this bold, irreverent new depiction of John Brown, Frederick Douglas et al, very funny and almost scandalous. As someone without more than a basic grounding in American history (and honestly, I’d never heard of John Brown or the others), all of this side of the book went right over my head (and the heads of other non-Americans in the group). Rarely have I been so oblivious to the intention of the author. I had to entirely recast my opinion of the book, as it was clearly a lot more clever and complex than I had given it credit for. As my fellow book clubbers explained the context, and American feeling and standard depictions of these beloved historical characters and events, I started to get it. And yes, it does indeed seem to be a clever and witty, almost risqué piece of work. Even though I personally didn’t laugh once and had no idea of its controversial approach.

I wonder – can a book like this be considered generally excellent, even if its main intention only stands up in the context of readers familiar with the details of American history and its cultural depictions, and is lost on more general readers? Or is it marred by provincial conceit? I don’t know. It’s interesting that I was going to give the book 4/5 before I found out about the satire element. That says something about the book’s ability to stand alone without the history. So the 4/5 rating shall stand, with the caveat that I didn’t really get it – but even so, it was engaging and largely well written. If you don’t know your American abolitionist history though, you might want to think twice about this one…

The verdict: 4/5

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

One sentence plot
In early 19th century Charleston, Sarah Grimke is given a slave for her 11th birthday and along with her sister, becomes one of America’s first and most renowned female abolitionists.

20140221-123353.jpg

The review
I was inspired to read this book after hearing Sue Monk Kidd speak at an author event recently. Sometimes author events focusing on books I haven’t read can make me feel disconnected and frustrated, but Sue Monk Kidd was a fantastic speaker. I loved that she had come across the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimke in a museum, looked into the story of these incendiary South Carolina-born abolitionist sisters, and got inspired to write The Invention of Wings. I love that she took a small historical detail (Sarah had apparently been punished for teaching her slave to read) and turned that slave into an imagined, fully fledged character, Hetty/Handful, who provides a second strong narrative voice. Together they depict different perspectives of both slave ownership in the South, and a woman’s place in America in the 19th century.

The book follows these two compelling and quite charming women from age 11 into adulthood, along with a lovely cast of supporting characters painting a very vivid, claustrophobic world of societal pressures, expectations and norms. The key quote that I think sums up the angle taken in this book is from the slave Hetty/Handful: “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round”. That’s stayed with me ever since.

I’ve read and watched a lot of slavery-themed stories recently (The Good Lord Bird, 12 Years A Slave), and this one is very much my favorite. In some ways it has more impact because it is more subtle, more everyday, and more nuanced. I’ve also not read much previously on the links between the abolition movement and feminism: fascinating. The story skips along, and the horrors and sorrows of slavery are well depicted and very memorable, yet the book is also deft, funny and uplifting. The two voices are excellent. The message is that there are different kinds of bondage – and courage and morality and a willingness to act are needed to create and deliver hope. I loved the people in this book. I loved the narration. I loved the messages. And I love that Sarah Grimke really existed. An important read, and also a treat.

The verdict: 5/5

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

One sentence plot
The Queen happens upon a mobile library and becomes an avid reader, much to the consternation of her family, staff, and the public.

20140204-073411.jpg

The review
I can’t believe I have only just read this delight of a novella which has been around since 2007 and lurking unassumingly in a quiet corner of my Kindle for literally months. This book is a happy combination of so many excellent features. It is a charming fantasy tale in the tradition of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. It has a strong, dispassionate, chronological reporting-style narrative voice in the manner of John Wyndham. It has a sparkling female character at its centre. It offers an insight (albeit speculative) into a closed and quite fascinating world. It is a bit subversive. It is technically speculative fiction. It is clever. It is witty. And above all, it is a love letter to books, a fond embrace of libraries, a glorious celebration of the transformative power of literature.

The Uncommon Reader is a story of the present-day Queen who, in a walk around the Buckingham Palace grounds with her corgis one Wednesday afternoon, stumbles upon a mobile library in the Palace grounds and, wanting to be polite, borrows a book. In doing so, she slowly but vigorously becomes a joyful, prolific reader, preferring reading over her other activities, much to the consternation of her household and advisors who want her to return to enacting her age-old duties and do nothing more, want nothing more, think nothing more, be nothing more… But literature changes the Queen, and possibly changes history. This book pokes fun at a lot of institutions. It depicts her family and advisors in a believable way. It captures the Queen’s tone, background and motivations delightfully. It draws a life that made me feel sympathy for the Queen. And it gets subversive in all sorts of ways that a few hundred years ago would surely have left the author executed for treason.

For all these weighty qualities, the book is light and fun, with characters that dance off the page and make their reader chuckle. It’s very well done. It is truly a little treat of a book. My best read of the year so far.

The verdict: 5/5 shoes