The Invention of Wings

Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings is the latest novel by Sue Monk Kidd. It is a selection of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 (and also my book club!). Kidd has taken  the real life Grimke sisters and turned their story into an engrossing novel.

In the early 19th Century, the Grimke’s were a leading family in Charleston, South Carolina. Although they lived in the city, the family owned a cotton plantation and, of course, their fortune was built on the backs of slave labor. On her 11th birthday, Sarah is given Hetty as a gift. Hetty is a ten year old slave in the household, the daughter of Charlotte, the family’s skilled seamstress. Already an abolitionist at heart, Sarah attempts to free Hetty (whose mother has named her Handful). When Sarah wakes, she finds the manumission document she has signed torn in two and left at her bedroom door.

This narrative interweaves the stories of Sarah and Handful.  Sarah sees them as friends, but Handful knows that she can never be Sarah’s friend, as they are not equal. It is Handful’s life-long desire for freedom. Although it is Sarah’s desire to free Handful, it takes her many years before she is able to help make that happen.

As a woman, Sarah is expected to marry well. She is intelligent, but plain, and the eligible suitors are not clamoring for her. She is constantly at odds with her stern mother, whom the household slaves also fear and despise. Sarah’s only joy is caring for her youngest sister, Angelina.

Eventually, Sarah find her way out of the stultifying Charleston life, and makes her mark on the world as a renowned abolitionist and feminist.

This book is complex and very, very good. It is not fun or quick, but it tells an important story.

 

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Viking-2014

Tribeca Film Festival

We were able to get to see three movies this year at the Tribeca Film Festival. Fortunately, we also got to meet some of the people involved in making the films, which is the best part of a film festival.

The first movie we saw was a semi-documentary called The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq. This is a French movie, with English subtitles. This film was categorized in the Festival’s “narrative feature” category. It is, however, based on the actual 2011 disappearance of the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, who stars as himself in the film. So clearly we know that the kidnapping, if there was one, ended well. Oddly  enough, this ominously titled film is a comedy. The kidnappers keep Houellebecq in a remote farmhouse. A number of fun characters come and go. It is as if Houellebecq is being held at a country house weekend (albeit not a very posh country house). They shares meals, smoke cigarettes, and have discussions on a wide range of topics. You are unlikely to catch this film at your local multi-plex but if you happen to see it somewhere, it’s worthwhile and, yes, funny.

Going in a completely different direction was Gabriel, starring Rory Culkin as a young man struggling with mental illness. As the movie opens, Gabriel’s brother is waiting for him to get off a bus and take him home. Gabriel is on a leave from the hospital where he has been institutionalized, and is supposed to be heading home to his family. Instead, he takes a detour to the college where Alice, a young woman he know, attends. The last address he has for her is out of date. When he finds her new address, her roommate tells Gabriel she is away on break. Gabriel is convinced that if he can reunite with Alice, he will be well and happy. Gabriel’s finally makes his way back to his family, but it only a temporary stop on his quest to find Alice. This is a sad story of a loving family and a sad young man.

The final movie we saw was the best of the three. Sister is funny, moving, and likely to be both a commercial and critical success.  The principal cast of Barbara Hershey, Reid Scott, and Grace Kaufman as 11 year old Niki (the “sister” of the title) is outstanding. Susan (Barbara Hershey)  is struggling with mental illness (a recurring theme at this year’s TFF?) and becomes suddenly widowed. Niki has been expelled from yet another boarding school, and Susan must enter a hospital for long term treatment, and is unable to care for her. Responsibility for Niki passes to her much older brother, BillyScott), who barely knows her. When Niki arrives in California, she upends Billy’s existence. He enrolls her in public school, and fights the school-and John Heard in particular as the school psychiatrist-to wean Niki off the massive doses of drugs she has been on for hers that control her behavior. It is heart-warming to see Billy and Niki’s attachment to each other grow. Grace Kaufman is an amazing actress. At the post-film talk she was sunny, bright and articulate-the opposite of Niki. Reid Scott is normally so funny, but he also delivered a serious and seriously good performance. This is a must-see movie!

The Catch

"The Catch", the upcoming novel by Taylor Stevens

“The Catch”, the upcoming novel by Taylor Stevens

I first read about author Taylor Stevens in an interview in Vogue magazine. I was thoroughly intrigued and anxiously awaited the publication of her first book, The Informationist. I was not disappointed. Stevens’ protagonist, Vanessa Michael Munroe, is a true modern day hero. Despite her own difficult background, she stays true to her own moral code and, for the most part, concentrates her skills on helping the helpless.

So-to date I have purchased and read all of the published novels by Taylor Stevens. I was thrilled when LibraryThingEarly Reviewers chose me to receive a copy of The Catch. Taking a break from her past, Munroe is living and working in Djibouti. Here, she is “Michael”, a young man working as a fixer for a company which provides armed security for cargo ships. Her true skills remain hidden from her employer and the other workers.

The freighter Favorita is highjacked by Somali pirates on its way from Djibouti to Mombasa. Munroe is able to escape with the ship’s captain, who has been injured in the fight to take the ship. Although there are illegal arms hidden on the ship, Michael soon relaizes that the captain was the true target of the raid.

Making her way to Kenya with the captain, Michael must discover who is responsible for the hijacking. And then she must devise a way to re-capture the ship and its crew.

Among Michael’s many gifts are her intelligence, her fluency in many languages, her chameleon-like ability to blend in with her environment and, last but not least, her skill with knives. She uses all of these in her efforts.

The Catch is a fun addition to the series. It is not my favorite of the four books, but I definitely recommend it highly.

 

In USA:

Hardcover edition-To be published-Crown Publishers-July 2014

The Catch: A Novel

The Golem and the Jinni

Author Helene Wecker

Author Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni is the first novel by author Helene Wecker. It takes place, mostly,  among the immigrant population of New York’s Lower East Side at the end of the 19th Century.  It begins, however, in the Prussian city of Danzig. Before emigrating to America, a merchant visits a Jewish mystic and pays him to create a golem, who will be his bride. In Jewish mystic tradition, a golem is a creature created from earth who is then bound to a master. Rotfeld wakens his golem on board ship, shortly before perishing from acute appendicitis. This leaves the golem in New York City with no master, and with no understanding of the culture.

Meanwhile, in Little Syria, a woman brings a worn copper flask to a tinsmith. She asks him to repair the dents and restore the polish. The flask had been handed down to Maryam Faddoul from her mother. As Arbeely begins the repair work a naked man, a jinni, pops out of the flask. The jinni has been imprisoned in the flask for over 1000 years, and he has no recollection of how he got there. Arbeely takes the jinni in and teaches him the tinsmithing trade.

The golem, meanwhile, falls under the protection of an elderly Rabbi, who realizes what type of creature she is.

Eventually, these two otherworldly creatures meet. They begin roaming the city together at night, as neither of them has the need for sleep. Their involvement with humans leads to trouble. When the golem’s creator comes to New York to look for her, things get really difficult.

Although this book is about two mythical, mystical creatures, it has a ring of reality. The Lower East Side at the turn of the century is crowded with immigrants. Most of the inhabitants are poor, and many speak no English. The clash of cultures, the teeming tenements, the often deplorable working conditions; all are depicted realistically here.

This is a very well-written engaging story. It was a fun, quick read. I recommend this highly!

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Harper-2013
Softcover edition-harper Perennial-2013

The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel (P.S.)

Kill Fee

Author Owen Laukkanen

Author Owen Laukkanen

Kill Fee is the soon-to-be-released crime novel from Owen Laukkanen. It is a fast paced account of the search for a the head of a murder for hire organization named “Killswitch”. Yes, this is a computer term, and the name of the organization refers to the fact that this is an internet based operation.

The brains behind Killswitch runs an encrypted program on his work and home computers. The money paid for the hits is transferred by wire to a foreign account that is hidden behind various shell corporations. The assassins that Killswitch employs, known as the “assets”, are young war veterans suffering from PTSD. Killswitch brainwashes the assets into following his commands.

As this novel opens, an elderly billionaire is murdered in Saint Paul, Minnesota. A state investigator, Kirk Stevens. and his occasional partner, FBI special agent Carla Windermere, witness the murder and give chase to the shooter. It takes a few more murders before they are able to connect the dots and realize that these seemingly unrelated murders were all committed by the same person.

Stevens and Windermere criss cross the country following clues and looking for the killer.

The concept of this book is interesting. It is well written and a quick read. I will say, though that I liked it, but didn’t love it. I think for me the issue is that I wish the main characters had more depth to them. It was difficult to understand their motivation. This novel would likely make a good movie, though. There is plenty of action and violence for today’s audience.

Many thanks, once again, to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program for sending me this novel.

In USA:

To be published in hardcover-G.P. Putnam’s Sons-March 20, 2014

Kill Fee (A Stevens and Windermere Novel)

Bellman & Black

Unknown

After reading and raving about Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, I was excited to get a chance to read her latest novel, Bellman & Black.

In the English countryside during the reign of Queen Victoria, a ten year old boy, trying to impress his friends, kills a rook with a slingshot. Although William Bellman feels remorse, he soon forgets this incident. But rooks, apparently, never forget. As Bellman grows, his life seems charmed. He goes to work for his uncle, who owns a mill. William becomes the manager, and the mill grows more and more successful. He spends his evenings at the local pub, and is popular with all.

When William’s mother Dora dies, he notices a mysterious stranger at the funeral. Thereafter, he encounters this man at every funeral he attends. William marries and eventually has four children. When his uncle dies, William takes over the mill and the business grows and strengthens. When a devastating disease spreads through the town, Bellman’s wife and three youngest children (as well as many villagers) die. His eldest, Dora, is dying. At the churchyard, Bellman sees the mysterious stranger. Bellman comes to an agreement with him. Dora is spared, but not unscarred. Bellman goes on to open a successful London emporium, which he names Bellman & Black. This macabre store caters to all things funerary. Mourning clothes in shades of black; coffins; stationery.

Bellman sees “Mr. Black” the night before the store opening. Although he sets aside a generous portion of the profits from the store for him, Bellman does not see Mr. Black for many years.

This is quite a bizarre story. It is interspersed with facts and lore about rooks. William Bellman is as strange a character as the mysterious Mr. Black. He works relentlessly, rarely sparing time for his beloved family. In London, he owns several homes, but lives at the store. And for such an intelligent man, it just takes him too long to realize who Mr. Black actually is.

So-did I like this book? Yes, but I didn’t love it. The concept is bizarre, and the plot is nowhere near as interesting as The Thirteenth Tale. But I would definitely look forward to reading anything that Diane Setterfied writes, as her style is so elegant and precise.

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Atria/Emily Bestler Books (Simon & Schuster)-2013
Softcover edition-to be published-Atria/Emily Bestler Books- September 2014

Bellman & Black: A Novel

O, Africa

I received this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. I have had it for awhile. I have made numerous attempts to start it, but I just can’t get past the first 30 pages. I apologize to author Andrew Lewis Conn who I can see has made a sincere effort to write about the early days of movie making.

I love New York, I love movies, but I don’t love this novel.

In USA:

To be published in hardcover-Random House-June 2014

O, Africa!: A Novel

9780804138284

Saving Mr. Banks

Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers with Walt Disney at the movie premiere

Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers with Walt Disney at the movie premiere

Two thumbs up! Two hankies! What a movie. This (fictionalized) account of the meetings between Mary Poppins author P.L.  Travers and Walt Disney and his minions at Disney Studios is among the best movies I’ve seen this past year.

It helps that I am a huge fan of the Disney movie Mary Poppins, Even if you’re not-and if you’re not why?-it’s still a profoundly affecting movie. Travers (a pen name) was raised in Australia, and this movie toggles back and forth between her childhood and the early 60’s in Los Angeles. Walt Disney had, apparently, been trying for 20 years to obtain the rights to the Mary Poppins books from Travers. When she arrived in L.A. she had still not signed away the rights. She was afraid that the “Disney treatment” would turn her beloved creation into a caricature. She spent weeks working with Disney’s team before signing over the rights to the books.

And the rest is history. 50 years after its release, Mary Poppins remains one of the most popular and best-loved movies of all time. It’s hard to know what is truth and what is fiction in this movie. I recommend enjoying it merely as a good story. And if you haven’t seen Mary Poppins, you should see it before seeing Saving Mr. Banks.

Mary Poppins: 50th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy)

The Valley of Amazement

Author Amy Tan

Author Amy Tan

Using a cherished family photo for inspiration, Amy Tan has produced a moving, beautifully constructed (and lengthy) novel. While researching a novel about Shanghai, Tan came across photos taken in Shanghai in the early 1900’s. Tan came across one photo that was similar to a photo of her grandmother. In it, Tan’s grandmother is dressed similarly to the early 20th century courtesans of Shanghai. While Tan had no idea if her grandmother was actually a courtesan or this was simply a photo studio costume, it led her to imagine the lives of these women, most of whom had no other options for surviving on their own.

Thus was born The Valley of Amazement. This is a complex tale of an American woman who operates a courtesan house in Shanghai in the early 20th century. Lulu Minturn is raising her daughter, Violet, in Hidden Jade Path, a first class courtesan house catering to both Chinese and westerners. Lulu is estranged from her San Francisco family. Lulu’s poor decisions lead to Violet’s becoming a Shanghai courtesan while Lulu returns to San Francisco.

Most of this novel revolves around Violet’s life. Violet struggles to survive as she becomes older, and less desirable. Also, the world is changing rapidly and the courtesans are becoming less fashionable. While Violet adapts to what she views as her mother’s abandonment, she is also searching for love and a permanent place in the world.

About 3/4 of the way through the book, the focus turns to Lulu, and how she ended up a single mother in Shanghai. We learn of her struggles with her San Francisco family. We see how her impulsive decisions led her down a difficult path.  Lulu’s relationship with Violet’s father is is troubled, and of course this complicates Violet’s emotions and her dealings with men.

Despite its length, The Valley of Amazement was a quick read. As with Amy Tan’s other novels, the compelling story and sympathetic characters made me want to keep reading.  I highly recommend this fine novel.

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Ecco-2013
Softcover edition to be published-Ecco-July 2014

The Valley of Amazement

Catching Fire

Movie still publicity photo of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Movie still publicity photo of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Yes-we ran out on the movie’s opening day to see The Hunger Games:Catching Fire. I really enjoyed this second installment in The Hunger Games trilogy.  As with any movie adaptation of a fairly long book, this movie left out many details from the book, but it really captured the essence of the novel.

Catching Fire picks up nearly one year after the unprecedented dual victory of Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in the 74th Hunger Games. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is displeased with the results of the games. The populace of Panem is chafing under the harsh rule of the Capitol. Snow visits Katniss is District 12 and orders her to act as if she and Peeta are truly in love. Since the people are rallying around Katniss and the mockingjay as a symbol of their rebellion, Snow wants to use Katniss to halt the rebellion before it really starts. He imposes harsher rule on the districts, including frequent public floggings to demonstrate his power.

To celebrate the upcoming 75th Hunger Games, the tributes are drawn not from the usual pool of young people, but from previous winners. This insures that Katniss will return as a contestant. Snow hopes that one of the other contestants will kill Katniss and solve his problems. Hah!

As the Hunger Games begin, Katniss and Peeta are allied with tributes from other districts. The obstacles they face are more treacherous than in the past, and many are really scary.

The acting and action sequences are really well done in this film. The special effects are good, and not over the top unbelievable. President Snow seems more evil than before. Of course it is distressing that The Hunger Games is only one of the many novels and movies which depict such a dystopian future for us. But that’s another issue! Now we have to wait one year the release of part one of the movie adaptation of the third book of the trilogy, Mockingjay. And then another year after that for the concluding film.

Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games)