Book Review: Silverblind, by Tina Connolly

silverblind-coverSilverblind is the conclusion to the Ironskin trilogy (it works just fine as a stand-alone novel).  The first book, Ironskin, was a very loose retelling of Jane Eyre, set in an alternate version of England in which England and the fey have been at war.  I reviewed it at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  The second book, Copperhead, was about Jane’s sister, and I also reviewed it at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, here.  In Silverblind, the story revokes around Dorie, the half-fey, half-human girl who Jane was originally hired to tutor.  Dorie is grown up now, and wants to help both humans and fey survive the aftermath of the war.

Silverblind shared the strengths of the other two books – compelling characters, great world building, beautiful imagery, and complex themes of identity, gender, sexuality, and ethics.  It was fast-paced and exciting and emotionally engrossing.  I got so involved in it that I read it while walking in the mall and almost walked into a door.  Normally I never run into things while walking, but in this case I thought the door was manual but it was actually automatic and it attacked me.  Anyway, Silverblind and I made it through the mall unscathed.

Silverblind does have one fault.  It’s very rushed.  The fast pace makes for exciting reading but it also distances the reader from the emotions of the characters.  Dorie was very compelling, but other characters barely register (I’d love to see a spin-off about Jack, though).  I was disappointed by the rivalry between Dorie and Annika.  I wanted to see these two women team up, not be on opposite sides.  Near the end, I kept thinking that surely the book couldn’t be so close to being over – but whoosh, there it went.  Aspects of the end were quite convenient.  The closing pages were delightful, but I wanted a little more time to sink into the story.

Overall, I loved this book.  Thoughtful, compelling, exciting, interesting.  It completely destroyed my productivity for the day and almost caused me a concussion, which I consider to be high praise.  Maybe I was sorry to get to the end of the book because, as far as I know, this is the last Ironskin book and now I’m depressed.  Luckily I have a huge exciting pile of ARCs waiting to comfort me!

 

 

Between the Lines Book Club: The Invention of Wings and the Real Sarah Grimke

between the lines book club logoIn The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd tells a story inspired by the real life of Sarah Grimke.  At first, Kidd planned to write a historically accurate version of Sarah.  she spent four years researching and writing, but in the course of writing she realized that she was going to have to more loose in her depiction of Sarah if she wanted Sarah’s voice to come through:

I revered Sarah’s history to the point I initially became boxed-in by it. In the beginning, I had a hard time letting her venture outside factual borders. The longer she was cooped up by the facts, the quieter she got. I’d read the Grimke sisters’ diaries and essays, and while they gave me an extraordinary glimpse into their lives, their writing was rendered in nineteenth century language, wrapped in rhetoric, piety and stilted phrases. I wanted Sarah’s voice in my novel to feel authentic and carry some of the vernacular of the time, but I knew I had to bring some modern sensibility to it. I rewrote her first chapters over and over, before I felt like I’d found her voice. Finding it was all about loosening it. I realized I had to tap into Sarah’s inner life and set her free to speak from that timeless lace, as well as from the time in which she lived. I needed to let her veer off script. I had to find Sarah in my imagination, as well as in history. Doing so brought her alive for me.

The real Sarah Grimke lived from 1792 to 1873.  She was born in South Carolina and resented the superior education and greater range of opportunities her brothers had.  She had a personal slave and got in trouble for teaching her slave and the family slaves to read.  She stopped when she realized that while she would be punished, the slaves would be punished far more severely.

Sarah accompanied her dying father to Philadelphia, where she became a Quaker.  She brought her sister, Angelina, with her and the two became abolitionist activists.  Sarah discovered that one of her brothers had three children with his slave.  Sarah and Angelina worked to provide them with an education, funds, and a sense of family.

Sarah and Angelina Grimke

Sarah and Angelina Grimke

Sarah and Angelina spoke and wrote against slavery but received criticism for also speaking about women’s rights.  Angelina withdrew from public speaking sometime after marrying abolitionist Theodore Weld, who opposed the women speaking about women’s rights as he felt it was a distraction from abolition.  Sarah stopped speaking publicly following a critical letter from Weld, but she continued to write.

Although Sarah is not known to have been close friends with Lucretia Mott, they did attend the same Quaker meeting.  She also knew Sarah Mapps Douglass, but never stayed with her.  Instead of striving for historical factual accuracy, Kidd strove for an emotional accuracy.

 My greatest hope, however, is for readers to take away a felt experience of the story, of what slavery might have been like for someone or what it was like back then for a woman without rights. I want the reader to feel as if he or she has participated in the interior lives of the characters and felt something of their yearnings, sufferings, joys, and braveries. Empathy—taking another’s experience and making it one’s own—is one of the most mysterious and noble transactions a human can have. It’s the real power of fiction. While in college, I studied Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of “the common heart,” a place inside of us where we share an intrinsic unity with all humanity. The idea has remained with me all these years. As a writer, I believe in it. The hope that this story would help us find a portal into that place is the most I could hope.

If you would like to read one of Sarah Grimke’s met influential writings, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, you can find it free online at national humanities.org.

History’s Hidden Heroes: Denmark Vesey

Denmark VeseyThis month in History’s Hidden Heroes, I’m writing about Denmark Vesey.  Vesey is a character in The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd.  We are reading The Invention of Wings for Between the Lines Book Club.  The character is loosely based on  a  real person, Denmark Vesey, born Telemaque, who planned a slave uprising in 1822.

Telemaque was born a slave, with the name Telemaque, in 1767 in St. Thomas.  He was purchased by a sea captain whose last name was Vesey.  Vesey eventually brought Telemaque to South Carolina.  Telemaque won $1500 in a lottery in 1799.  He bought himself, and took on the name Denmark Vesey.  Vesey married a woman who was a slave.  He attempted to buy his wife, but her owner would not sell her.  This meant that all of Vesey’s children would be born into slavery, since by law they acquired the legal status of the mother.

Vesey started a congregation of the African Methodist Episopal Church.   When the church was closed by city authorities, Vesey began planning a rebellion.  Two slaves leaked the plot and Vesey was arrested, along with other suspects.

Vesey was hung on July 2, 1822.  Records show that he was hung publicly, but folklore tells of him being hung alone, secretly, at an oak tree, and this is the story Kidd uses in The Invention of Wings.  Kidd also perpetrates the legend that Vesey practiced polygamy although there’s little evidence to support this.  How advanced the rebellion was remains a matter of historical controversy.  However advanced Vesey’s plans were, he inarguably had a huge effect on slaveowners, slaves, and abolitionists.  He remains a controversial figure today – revered because of his commitment to freedom, and condemned by some because of his willingness to use violence towards that end.

 

 

Book Review: The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Wincester

cover of "The Professor and the Madman"This is one of those nonfiction books that pops up on my radar but that I never make room to read.  finally I sat down with it and it’s such a delight.  This book got a lot of praise when it came out in 1998 and it’s so fun for me to finally get to find out why!

The Professor and the Madman is about the professional and personal relationship between Professor James Murray and Dr. William Chester Minor.  Murray was the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) – the very first edition, the first to try to compile the definitions and examples from written language of every single word in the English  language.  The project was farmed out to hundreds of volunteers.  One of the most prolific was Dr. William Chester Minor.  He had plenty of time to research words for the dictionary because he was incarcerated at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic asylum.

This book is fascinating on several levels.  The concept behind the OED is much more vast than I had realized and reading about how it was complied is not unlike reading about a military campaign.  Intermixed with this is discussion of the history of dictionaries in general.  This first English language dictionaries in England offered only “the choicest words”, leading to this passage:

So words like adminiculationcautiontate, denunciate, and attemptate are placed in the vocabulary too, each duly cataloged in the tiny leather books of the day; yet they were words meant only for the loftiest ears”,

Goodness, is it warm in here?

Meanwhile, the story of Minor is bizarre, sometimes appalling, occasionally bloody, often tragic, and often quite touching.  While most of Minor’s life took place in two rooms, his earlier life involved war and murder, and while in Broadmoor he suffered from delusions of persecution that provide an abundance of drama.  The juxtaposition of what seems like a dry subject on the surface (the dictionary) with what appears to be the most lurid subject possible (insanity in the late Victorian Era and early Edwardian Era) means that the dictionary is given excitement and the madness is given depth and consideration.  Minor is treated by the author with great compassion, as indeed he seems to have been treated by Murray, with whom he exchanged hundreds of letters and several personal visits.

There’s some odd language in the book.  It reads like a much older book.  Early on the author describes Minor’s adolescence in the South Seas in unnecessarily lascivious terms.  Minor was troubled all his life by sexual fantasies and guilt, so there’s nothing odd about mentioning his adolescent discovery of sexual attrition, but the author dwells so much on the charms of the girls of the South Seas, as opposed to Minor’s reactions to them, that you have to wonder if the author has the same problems.  Elsewhere he uses the word “niggardly” to describe a stingy person.  It seems odd and distressing that the author of a book about words and their constantly changing meanings would use a word that has fallen justly out of favor.

On the whole, the book is warm as well as interesting.  It’s telling that the book is dedicated to man, George Merrett who Minor murdered.  This man was a stoker who was on his way to work when Minor shot him.  It was this murder that resulted in Minor being sent to the asylum.  Not much is known about Merrett, but the author of the book refuses to let him fade into the background.  The book is dedicated to Merrett, the first chapter describes Merrett’s life and death, and the end of the book returns to talk about him and the fate of his widow, who forgave Minor for the murder.  That insistence on humanity pervades the book and makes what could have been a dry topic deeply emotional.

 

Between the Lines Book Club: The Invention of Wings

between the lines book club logoRead fast, book clubbers, because this month our in-person book club is on November 16th !  We’ll be discussing The Invention of Wings at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, at 2PM.  Of course you can also leave a comment every Friday about the book right here!

The Invention of Wings tells two, intertwined stories, very loosely based on historical fact.  When Sarah Grimke was eleven years old, she was given an eleven year old slave as a birthday present.   Sarah grew up to be an ardent abolitionist and women’s rights activist.  The fate of the little girl who was gifted to her is unknown.  Sue Monk Kidd invents a powerful story for the little girl, named Handful, and uses a mix of fact and imagination to create a version of Sarah’s life.  The two girls go through life in parallel but not always together, as Sarah goes to the North and leaves Handful behind.

suemonkkidd

My favorite thing about this book is the language.  Here’s some phrases I noticed:

  • “A malicious headache”  – Sarah’s mother
  • “heart broke so bad you could hear it jangle when she walked” – Handful, describing Sarah
  • “severe and terrible mercy” – Sarah
  • “She’s been boiled down to a good, strong broth” – Handful
  • “My heart had been beat to butter” – Handful
  • “He has been shaken from the lap of Charleston like a salad napkin” – Sarah

The other thing I loved was that Handful has her own story, and it’s given as much weight and time and narrative importance as Sarah’s – in fact, I found Handful’s story much more compelling than Sarah’s.  In her first book, The Secret Language of Bees, Kidd had a white protagonist who becomes involved with a group of black women.  Their stories were told through the white protagonist’s eyes and she had the primary narrative.  It’s very common to have stories about minorities told though Caucasian eyes and that’s particularly problematic when their stories become props for the white protagonist’s story.  The Invention of Wings avoids this by having half of the book narrated by Handful, by not having the two women together all the time, and by ensuring that Handful has her own plot.

Sue Monk Kidd has a great website with tons of supplemental material, including an interview and recipes (mmmmmm recipes!).  You can find it at suemonkkidd.com.

Wednesday Videos: Ariana Grande IN SPACE!

WednesdayVideoWaa…I can’t even.  This is the most ridiculous music video possibly of all time but now that I’ve seen it I can’t stop staring at it.  There are so many questions!  How does Ariana Grande shoot a giant robot with her boobs?  Does that mean she has an endless supply of metal boobs hidden in her chest?  Can you get those at Target?  When she’s in zero gravity, why does her underwear float but her hair does not?  If I had a spaceship, would I spend so much time writing around in a corset?  Hint:  Sure, why not, although in all honesty I would not look like Ariana Grande while doing it.  And most importantly, why was I not invited to the Cantina party?  Ariana, do you have any idea how much time I had to spend watching you in Sam and Cat with my preteen?  You owe me a party!

Anyway, thanks to io9 for bringing this to my attention – they wrote about it quite hysterically so go read it.  Video is mildly NSFW due to writhing, underwear, and boob rocket guns.