Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best of 2014

I read a lot this year. Although the year got off to a somewhat slow start due to a crushingly huge work project and eye surgery that left my eyes too tired to read when I finally finished work for the day, work eventually slowed down (not an entirely good thing for someone who makes their living consulting) and reading picked up. I think I'm at 144 books for the year, including quite a few mysteries or other cruddy books that I didn't bother to write up on the blog, which leads me to another reflection. In reading Nick Hornby's Ten Years in the Tub, I was surprised to learn that the journal for which he reviews books, The Believer, does not publish negative reviews, instead focusing on "writers and books we like." Later in the year, I read Anne LaMott's Bird by Bird, in which she describes the ways in which negative reviews have affected her. I certainly do not want to crush anyone's spirit (I'm perhaps overstating here), so I have thought about only including books I liked on this blog. On the other hand, a word to the wise from someone whose taste is similar to your own can save a reader time and money. For that reason, I'm still reviewing both both books I like and those I don't, but I'd be interested in input if anyone cares to weigh in.

So that was a long introduction to this list, which definitely includes only books I like!

Best Novel 
Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill. This novel about marriage and a woman's undoing is unlike any other novel I have read.  Presented in a series of brief reflections, quotations, and anecdotes, the book is both harrowing and affirming. It's not for everyone, but it is wonderful.

Honorable Mention:  Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian; Amy Falls Down, by Jincy Willett; A Death in the Family, by James Agee; The Snow Queen, by Michael Cunningham

Best Short Stories
Nothing with Strings, by Bailey White. I just finished this collection by Southern writer Bailey White. While firmly set in the Southern story-telling tradition, the stories explore universal themes of aging and loss in humorous yet moving fashion.

Honorable Mention: Dirty Love, by Andre Dubus III

Best Nonfiction (Two Choices!)
The Warm of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson uses three cases studies to make this history of the later decades of the Great Migration as readable as any novel.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. I'm not sure how Chast manages to be funny while talking about some of the most grueling and difficult moments of life, but she does. You may be laughing and crying at the same time, but you'll definitely respond to this amazing book.

Honorable Mention: Ten Years in the Tub, by Nick Hornby; Sous Chef, by Michael Gibney

Best Mystery
Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty. I'm not sure the author would call Big Little Lies a mystery, but there are a suspicious death and an investigation; the reader doesn't know what happened; and it's a bitingly funny satire . . . so I say it deserves this "win."

Best Poetry
The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart, by Norma Gay Prewett. Prewett is a friend whose poetry captures beautifully the poignancy of motherhood, of growing up financially poor but rich in love and noise, of aging, of life. Her poems are moving without being sentimental.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson was born in 1951 and raised in Des Moines, Iowa. I was born in 1950 and raised on farms in northern Illinois. Thus, many of the observations about growing up in the 1950s that he makes in this humorous memoir of childhood ring true. I must admit, however, that I was better-behaved than Bryson not, for example, having ever missed school double-digit numbers of days because I simply didn't like to get up in the morning and my mother wasn't inclined to make me do so, discovered that peeing on Lincoln Logs bleached them white (yes, any number of his stories are somewhat gross), or indulged in epic tomfoolery at movie matinees.

While Bryson portrays himself as being chronically in trouble and hated by teachers, his father (a sports writer) as monumentally tight-fisted and obsessed with isometrics, and his mother (also a journalist) as incredibly ditzy, his childhood was happy, in part due to the simplicity of the 1950s. Often, when he reflects on what made the era a good time to grow up and what made his own childhood happy, he seems to resort to listing--data on what made life in the United States enviable in terms of its ease, words heard in the 50s but not used now, predictions about the technological future, foods they didn't eat in their family, nonfood items he had tasted. While at first I found the lists kind of endearing, I eventually grew tired of them. Luckily, their frequency did decline as the book progressed.

Although the book does present a loving portrayal of life in the 1950s, Bryson is not foolishly romantic and, to demonstrate that fact, he includes sections in which he analyzes some of the shortcomings of the decade, including McCarthyism, the arms race, and racism. He also bemoans the rise of consumerism and the homogenization of American towns and cities.

I generally enjoyed the book and occasionally laughed out loud. One section that troubled me covered Bryson's move from an all-white elementary school to a racially mixed junior high. In a five-paragraph section intended, I am  sure, to be funny, he describes white kids realizing they would never be on a sports team again and tiny black kids so tough they could beat up larger white bullies. He follows this with a paragraph and a half about how there was really very little difference between black and white kids and everybody got along. Somehow the five paragraphs intended to be funny were not, and the subsequent paragraph and a half on racial harmony were unconvincing.

On the other hand, I did like the brief excerpts from Des Moines newspaper stories and historic photos that began every chapter. They were funny and suggestive of the tenor of the times.

Favorite passage:
We didn't call it the kitchen in our house. We called it the Burns Unit.

. . . I knew more things in the first ten years of my life than I believe I have known at any time since. . .. I knew what the world looked like when viewed through a Jell-O lens. . . . I knew pain the way you know it when it is fresh and interesting--the pain, for example, of a toasted marshmallow in your mouth when its interior is roughly the temperature and consistency of magma. I knew exactly how clouds drifted on a July afternoon, what rain tasted like, how ladybugs preened and caterpillars rippled, what it felt like to sit inside a bush.

Nothing with Strings, by Bailey White

Thanksgiving is not usually a day on which I'm listening to the radio, so I was unaware that Bailey White stories have been a mainstay on All Things Considered's Thanksgiving broadcast. In fact, I knew little about Bailey White, other than that she is a Southern writer. So when I downloaded this audio book containing 13 of her Thanksgiving-day stories, I had no idea what to expect.

The stories certainly have a Southern flavor--eccentric characters, Southern expressions, and references to Southern cuisine, traditions, foliage, etc. pepper the stories. But they have little to do with Thanksgiving and tend to end with unexpected twists that are not necessarily of the "sweet down-home" variety (both of these facts apparently irked a number of readers who reviewed the collection on Amazon). Some also have a development that might be supernatural--but might not be; readers/listeners have to decide for themselves. An example: In the first story, "Meals-on-Wheels," morning glories have gotten into Ida's house and are growing across the walls. The Meals-on-Wheels "girl" urges them to cut them down at the window where they have entered the house. But Ida is less concerned about the morning glories than about the fact that she sometimes finds Richard Nixon in the kitchen cooking eggs when she gets up in the morning; she realizes this is unusual enough that she shouldn't tell anyone else about it for fear of ending up in the Shady Rest Nursing Home. Then a new Meals-on-Wheels girl starts delivering her food, and she changes Ida's life. She loves the morning glories, replaces the jello in the meals with home-baked cake, and takes Ida on a picnic. Finally, the old Meals-on-Wheels girl returns and tells Ida there was no new girl who replaced her. So who was the girl? Was it a supernatural visitor, a figment of Ida's slightly addled mind, or a real person unknown to the old Meals-on-Wheels girl? We have to decide for ourselves.

Like "Meals-on-Wheels," a number of the stories have to do with aging and dementia. Others have to do with loss in different forms--loss of a mother, of the free-wheeling lifestyle of one's youth, of the small-town traditions that disappear when "development" comes to a community. These themes are universal, and I found White's treatment of them well worth the time I invested in listening. Note that the audio version of the book is narrated by Lorna Raver rather than by White herself, another fact that annoyed some Amazon reviewers. While Raver's Southern accent seemed slightly exaggerated, I didn't mind her narration.

Recommended, with awareness that these are not feel-good holiday stories.

Favorite passage:
The Meals-on-Wheels girl said, "You couldn't pay me to eat an egg cooked by Richard Nixon." [Okay, it's not a particularly graceful sentence or beautiful sentiment, but it matches my feelings about Richard Nixon exactly.]

Behind them Lily sat on the porch floor, playing with the reflection of the Chautauqua building in her mind. When the breeze died down and the reflection in the lake grew clear and distinct, she could squint her eyes and make herself believe that the reflection was the building itself. This seemed to make anything possible, and she went on to imagine ladies in white lawn and gentlemen in bowler hats strolling in the lake yard, a drunken monkey on a red leash, a blue mule, and a mysterious stranger with a black mustache. Then a little breeze would stir up the ripples, the reflection would slur, and everything would shift back to real. her mind would clamp down again, and there would be the banjo player on that cold, cold night, nudging her down the walkway and saying, "How could have you have thought it was that important?"  [This, I think, gives a real sense of White's writing and attitude.]

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things is the story of Alma Whittaker, a woman born in 1800 into a wealthy Philadelphia family. Her father Henry rose from poverty in England to prominence in the United States by figuring out how to make money through trade in exotic plants. The family home has gardens and greenhouses rivaling those of long-established European botanical gardens.

Alma, whose homeliness and large size Gilbert emphasizes repeatedly, is exceptionally bright and begins gathering botanical knowledge and developing her skills with a microscope at an early age. But when her beautiful but distant adopted sister Prudence marries an abolitionist schoolteacher and the man Alma loved married her mentally unstable friend Retta, Alma retreats to decades of intensive study of moss (and masturbation in a closet). When her mother dies, she adds management of her father's business affairs to her tasks.

Then she encounters an exceptional botanical artist, Ambrose Pike, and the two instantly become close friends, but things do not work out as either had hoped. Following the death of her father, Alma embarks on a journey to Tahiti. She develops "Theory of Competitive Alteration" to explain how species evolve. When she makes her way to Europe, her uncle, the head of a Dutch botanical garden, urges her to publish her paper explicating the theory, but she does not, worried that it does not explain altruism in humans, as exemplified by Prudence. When Darwin publishes The Origin of the Species, she takes it as validation of her work.

The Signature of All Things made many "best of 2013" lists, and there is much to admire in Gilbert's work. One can only imagine the extent of the research required to write knowledgeably about a range of botanical and broader scientific topics. Gilbert captures the tone of the 19th century in her writing style and conveys well the numerous challenges that a woman who wished to be a scientist faced in that era. Alma Whittaker, while fictional, must represent untold numbers of women who toiled unacknowledged in the scientific world. All of this notwithstanding, I found the book somewhat tedious--it's much too long and, at least for this reader, packed with too much botanical detail. While plant life and the scientific domain are well described (perhaps too well), the individual peoplein the story often act in inexplicable ways. Perhaps their motivations arise from a spiritual domain that I do not appreciate, but I found many decisions made by Alma and others unrealistic. Overall, I would recommend the book for people interested in botany or female scientists, but not for more casual readers. And I recognize most reviewers saw the book much more positively.

Favorite passages:
There is a level of grief so deep that it stops resembling grief at all. The pain become so severe that the body can no longer feel it. The grief cauterizes itself, scars over, prevents inflated feeling. Such numbness is a kind of mercy.

All I ever wanted was to know this world. I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived. Moreover, my little bit of knowledge had been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history--added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Roz Chast is best known as a cartoonist and illustrator. With Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? she establishes herself as a gifted memoirist. She employs her characteristic cartooning style, handwritten text, photographs, and drawings to convey the pain and absurdity of the years preceding her parents' deaths.

Her parents were well into their 90s and still living in their apartment in Brooklyn when her mother Elizabeth fell off a ladder and was hospitalized for two weeks. Although Chast knew her father was suffering from dementia, the separation from his wife made the extent of the problem even more clear. Still, however, her parents refused to consider moving until her mother suffered another fall and her father got lost in the building while looking for help.

Chast moved her parents to an assisted living facility--The Place--near her home. She suffered the challenges of cleaning out their apartment and helping them settle into the new setting--and then watched first her father and then her mother die. Chast is incredibly forthright about the range of emotions she experienced during this process--forthrightness that can only help others going through similar experiences that they are not alone, nor are they crazy or evil!

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a remarkable book about the end of life as seen through the eyes of the caretaking child of the dying. Chast can make you laugh and cry simultaneously while stunning you with her painful and admirable honesty. Highly recommended.

Favorite passage:
I wish that, at the end of life, when things were truly "done," there was something to look forward to. Something more pleasure-oriented. Perhaps opium, or heroin. So you become addicted. So what? All-you-can-eat ice cream parlors for the extremely aged. Big art picture books and music. Extreme palliative care, for when you've had it with everything else.

After my father died, I noticed that all the things that had driven me bats about him--his chronic worrying, his incessant chitchat, his almost suspect inability to deal with anything mechanical--now seemed trivial. The only emotion that remained was one of deep affection and gratitude that he was my dad.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

This voluminous book was a surprise bestseller when it was published in 2011. A 500-page story ostensibly about baseball set in academia hardly seemed likely to become so popular. In fact, when Novel Conversations chose the book, I was not excited--and the first couple of times I tried to start The Art of Fielding, I just couldn't get into it. But some months later, I finally managed to get past the first chapter and am glad I did.

The Art of Fielding gets its title from a book by the legendary Cardinals shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, full of numbered bits of wisdom applicable to baseball and life. Examples: 3. There are three stages. Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.  and 33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone; the return to thoughtless being by a very few. Henry Skrimshander is obsessed with baseball and The Art of Fielding. Playing in a summer baseball tournament in Peoria, Henry is discovered by Mike Schwartz, a two-sport athlete (and unofficial athletic director) at Westish College. Mike recruits Henry to Westish; Henry is assigned to room with Owen Dunne, a fine student who also happens to be gay and a baseball player.

Late in Mike's senior year (Owen and Henry's junior year), all three suffer crises. Despite being an outstanding student, Mike has applied to five of the nation's top law schools and been rejected by all of them. He realizes he has spent the past three years developing Henry's baseball career and neglected his own future. He falls for Pella Affenlight, daughter of the college president, who has just gotten out of a bad marriage; that relationship, too, is fraught. Henry, who has not made an error in years and is getting calls from scouts and agents, makes a throwing error that injures Owen (who sits in the dugout reading during games) and triggers a crisis of confident. Owen, meanwhile, enters a relationship with college president Guert Affenlight, a circumstance that is more treacherous for Guert than for Owen but perhaps not well-considered for either.

The events of the spring semester are told from the perspectives of Mike, Henry, Pella, and Guert. Interestingly, Chad Harbach has described Owen as feeling like "the author of the book, or the presiding consciousness"--but, perhaps because he doesn't write from Owen's perspective, I didn't get that feeling. For me, Mike and Henry are the heart of the story--they both have worked hard but are in situations where they feel they have lost control of what is happening to them. The same might also be said of Guert and Pella, although Guert is certainly aware that getting involved with a student is a bad idea.

Certainly, the book could have been edited down a bit. For me, the descriptions of baseball plays and games got a bit tedious (and I'm a sports fan). For other readers, the many references to literature, reading, and literary analysis might seem a bit much (Affenlight is a Melville scholar, Mike is writing his senior thesis on Marcus Aurelius's Meditations). Nonetheless, the book has a strong core about how our lives are shaped by our own decisions, happenstance, relationships, and what and how we think about our lives and our art (whether baseball or writing). Despite wishing it were a little shorter, I recommend The Art of Fielding.

Favorite passages:
It was easy enough to write a sentence, but if you were going to create a work of art, the way Melville had, each sentence needed to fit perfectly with the one that preceded it, and the unwritten one that would follow. And each of those sentences needed to square with the ones on either side, so that three became five and five became seven, seven became nine, and whichever sentence he was writing became the slender fulcrum on which the whole precarious edifice depended.

For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we're alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.

Literature could turn you into an asshole; he'd learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Beautiful and Damned, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

. I don't think I've ever read such a devastating depiction of a social class to which the author belonged as The Beautiful and Damned. Fitzgerald's book features two characters similar to himself and his wife Zelda. Anthony Patch is a Harvard man who fancies himself a writer (though he seldom does much writing). Living in New York just prior to World War I, he meets the lovely Gloria from Kansas City, a woman apparently interested in little other than her own beauty. They marry and proceed to live a life of leisure, partying, arguing, and drinking while they wait for Anthony's grandfather to die and leave them his millions. When he dies, however, they learn they have been disinherited. As they wait for their lawsuit challenging the will to be resolved, Anthony and Gloria descend into alcoholism and near-poverty.

Anthony and Gloria are utterly worthless people, and their friends, while more successful, are hardly less despicable.  The leisured upper classes at the dawn of the Jazz Age are generally portrayed as glamorous and carefree, but Fitzgerald--who should certainly know--depicts them much differently. The result is a depressing novel only partially redeemed by Fitzgerald's talent.

Favorite passage:
I learned a little of beauty-- enough to know that it had nothing to do with truth. . .

. . . desire just cheats you. It's like a sunbeam skipping here and there about a room. It stops and gilds some inconsequential object, and we poor fools try to grasp it - but when we do the sunbeam moves on to something else, and you've got the inconsequential part, but the glitter that made you want it is gone.

Experience is not worth the getting. It's not a thing that happens pleasantly to a passive you--it's a wall that an active you runs up against.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dear Life, by Alice Munro

Even before she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Alice Munro was generally regarded as a master of the short story form. I have enjoyed several collections from earlier in her career. In fact, I enjoyed Dear Life while listening to it--but a couple of weeks have passed since I finished it, and I don't remember a lot about the 20 stories and four somewhat autobiographical pieces, other than their general sense of psychological and geographic isolation.

Two stories did stay with me. In "Amundsen," young Vivien travels to a rural area to teach children confined to a TB sanitarium. She is good at her job, engaging students in learning in a way not always sanctioned by the authorities. Then she becomes involved with Doctor Fox, a man with little charm but the ability to elevate her social standing. They become engaged but suffice it to say that things do not turn out well.

"Train" opens with Jackson, a veteran, returning from World War II. A short distance from his hometown, he jumps off the train and walks in the opposite direction. He comes upon a dilapidated farm run by a woman named Belle. He settles down there, living with Belle as brother and sister. Years later, when Belle becomes ill, he takes her to the city for treatment; in the process, she reveals secrets from her past that prompt Jackson to once again set off to reconstruct his life. Does the cycle repeat again? I leave that for you to find out.

As these brief synopses of two of the ten stories indicate, the stories have a melancholy tinge. Another common thread (to me at least) is how difficult it is to fathom the motivations of the characters--perhaps rereading would help resolve that difficulty, but I don't feel drawn enough to the stories to make the effort. Critics have noted that these later stories are not as long or as detailed and richly textured as Munro's earlier work, being more impressionistic. I think this may be a factor in my response.

Favorite passage:
Then there was silence, the air like ice. Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some kind of small untidy evergreens rolled up like sleepy bears. The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Us, by David Nicholls

Douglas Petersen, the protagonist of Us, is a scientist who is a bit of a know-it-all and prig, with a tin ear for relationships. He has been married for more than 20 years to Connie, a former artist;  as the book opens, Connie has announced that she wants to end their marriage now that "their work"--raising son Albie--is "done." Douglas is stunned by her announcement and by the fact that she thinks they should go forward with their plan to take their son on a continental tour before he heads off to college.

As one might expect, the trip does not go well. Albie and Connie's extremely close relationship often excludes Douglas, who only makes matters worse with his anal devotion to scheduling and willingness to be embarrassed by his son's behavior. As they travel, Douglas is also mentally reliving his and Connie's meeting, courtship, and early years of marriage, including their first child's death in her first few hours of life. When Albie runs off and Connie decides to return home to the London suburbs, Douglas resolves to find Albie, bring him home, and win Connie back.

While this process does seem to provide Douglas with some new self-awareness, his behavior remains irritatingly unchanged. In fact, I found little to empathize with in any of the three main characters and, while some of Douglas's adventures were amusing, generally didn't care greatly for the book.

Favorite passage:
The percentage varies but some of the things I say make no sense to me at all.

Anyone who has attempted to clean away large quantities of spilt glitter will know it is a pernicious and vile substance, a kind of festive asbestos . . .

100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write, by Sara Ruhl

The title of this book and its subtitle, On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parade and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater (as well as a brief write-up I'd seen about the book), led me to believe this was going to be a humorous collection of short essays on lighthearted domestic topics. While the essays are short, humor is present, and one section does address some domestic topics, overall the book is a rather serious examination of writing, the theater, acting, and art. An example: One essay is titled "Don't send your characters to reform school," which sounds rather light--but the first sentence is "Sometimes I think that American dramaturgy is based not on Aristotle's Poetics but instead on The Pilgrim's Progress . . . that is to say, what has your character learned, how has she changed, what is her journey?" The essay is only four paragraphs but it examines a serious question about the relationship of the morality play to realism.

Among the other questions Ruhl (a playwright and MacArthur "genius" award winner--she's a smart one, no doubt!) explores in her brief essays are the importance of small powerful words, how the current obsession with subtext has robbed writers of the drama of the sentence, color-blind casting, whether play-writing is teachable (one of the longest essays in the book), and non-adverbial acting (an intriguing concept). She does write about her family but even these pieces are meant not merely to entertain but to elucidate. Even when she ruminates for only a paragraph, about, for example, her son's remarking that ballet is beautiful but he doesn't like it, the reader is challenged to think more deeply.

Although I got this book from the library, it's the kind of book that I can imagine picking up and rereading essays at random just to challenge myself to think about something not often on my mind. Definitely worth reading.

P.S. Due to a couple of busy weeks, I have gotten behind on my posting, so I'll likely be throwing up several posts tonight and tomorrow.

Favorite passages:
Small, forthright words, used in the service of condensing experience, might have an idea buried in them as large as the most expansive work that wears its intellectualism on its sleeve. The unshed tears of the deeply felt are akin to the unused large words in the service of a thought.

. . . a writer's special purview and intimate power is how a world follows a word.

Being dead is the most airtight defense of one's own aesthetic.  [Yes, she is both smart and funny.]

It [playwriting] is as teachable as any other art form, in which we are dependent on a shared history and on our teachers for a sense of form, inspiration, and example; but we are dependent on ourselves alone for our subject matter, our private discipline, our wild fancies, our dreams. The question of whether playwriting is teachable begets other questions, like: is devotion teachable? Is listening teachable? Is a love of art and a willingness to give your life over to art teachable? I believe that these things are teachable mostly by example, and in great silences.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What is Novel Conversations reading?

Here are the books Novel Conversations will be reading in the next several months:

January: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson
February: The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig
March: The Silver Star, by Jeannette Walls
April: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

May: Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings is the story of two women whose lives first became entwined when Sarah Grimke's mother "gifted" her with Hetty ("Handful") on Sarah's 12th birthday. Already able to see that slavery was wrong, Sarah, whose family was among the wealthy Charleston elite, attempted to emancipate  Hetty but was thwarted by her parents. She then decided to teach Hetty to read; those efforts, too, were cut short when another slave ratted on Hetty. Over the next 35 years, the two remained in a close relationship that resembled friendship and yet was tainted by their differing statuses.

Sarah, whose story Kidd has kept very close to the historical record of this abolitionist and women's rights activist, was not conventionally beautiful and suffered from a speech impediment. After nearly being conned into marriage by a golddigger, Sarah went North, where she found herself attracted to the Quaker faith. Although the Quakers had many forward-thinking ideas, they still believed women should spend their lives supporting the efforts of men, rather than being leaders themselves. When the Quaker widower Sarah loved proposed, she was unwilling to give up her dreams of becoming a Quaker minister in order to marry. Although she did not achieve that goal, she and her sister Angelina did travel the states to speak about slavery and women's rights, a highly unusual circumstance in the early 19th century.

Meanwhile, Hetty remained in the Grimke household in Charleston. Her mother was a gifted seamstress and taught Hetty the skills she would need to take over that job. Her mother also had a penchant for escaping from the house to rendevous with a lover, a free black man named Denmark Vesey. When Hetty's mother disappeared one day, Hetty investigated what happened and became involved first in Vesey's church and then, marginally, in his efforts to launch a slave rebellion in Charleston. But her involvement in these efforts was not without cost. She continues to dream of escaping from slavery, a dream her mother imbued in her when she was a very small child.

At the end of the story, Sarah and Hetty reunite for one last effort at freedom.

Kidd has said that writing Hetty, who is a fictional character, was much easier than writing Sarah because of the need to stick at least somewhat close to the historical record. I think I could occasionally sense that as a reader because the Sarah sections sometimes felt like Kidd was trying to convey a lot of facts, but there were also plenty of facts in Hetty's section--if not about her, then about Denmark Vesey, slave rebellions, and the treatment of slaves. In fact, I found The Invention of Wings very informative, both about the Grimke sisters, whom I had heard of but didn't have detailed knowledge of, and about urban slavery. I found the book less effective/engaging as a novel perhaps because the themes--slavery was a wretched institution, women of the era had to work extraordinarily hard and with great courage to "invent their wings"--really go without saying.

Two side notes. First, the digital version of the book includes Oprah Winfrey's notes, which were interesting as a window into Oprah but not that interesting in terms of explicating the book. Second, I was very grateful that Kidd used dialect sparingly and did not use it in representing Hetty's speech or thinking.

Favorite passages:
There's no pain on earth that doesn't crave a benevolent witness.

I never had heard this story. Listening to it was like watching myself sleep, clouds floating, mauma bent over me.

History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another's pain in the heart our own.