The month of June was purely for pleasure reading. I wanted to revisit the summers of my youth in which I would go to the library weekly and return with an armful of books to devour. I decided to go to the Waterloo Public Library and activate a library card so that I could once again rekindle the joy of reading for pleasure. The books I read were distinctly different, but equally enjoyable. Listed are the books, reviews that I captured from other sources, and my thoughts on why I found them engaging.
A Mercy - Toni Morrison (2008) Knopf Publishers
A powerful tragedy distilled into a jewel of a masterpiece by the Nobel Prize–winning author of Beloved and, almost like a prelude to that story, set two centuries earlier. In the 1680s the slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class divisions, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing the fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were planted and took root. Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, “with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady.” Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved. There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who’s spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Florens’ mother. These are all men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness. A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and of a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment. Acts of mercy may have unforeseen consequences. (Amazon.com)
My Review – Toni Morrison is one of my favorite authors and now I have read all of the fiction she has written. This volume captures the primitive and solemn lives of 17th century as they interact across the brutal landscape peppered with slavery, American Indian displacement, and religious piety. As always, Morrison spins a bewitching yarn that is magical, mysterious, and prophetic. Each character is explored in his or her singularity, but are masterfully woven into a coherent tail of resiliency, passion, and lost.
The Sugar Queen – Sarah Addison Allen (2008) Bantam Books
Twenty-seven-year-old Josey Cirrini is sure of three things: winter in her North Carolina hometown is her favorite season, she’s a sorry excuse for a Southern belle, and sweets are best eaten in the privacy of her hidden closet. For while Josey has settled into an uneventful life in her mother’s house, her one consolation is the stockpile of sugary treats and paperback romances she escapes to each night. Until she finds it harboring none other than local waitress Della Lee Baker, a tough-talking, tenderhearted woman who is one part nemesis—and two parts fairy godmother. Fleeing a life of bad luck and big mistakes, Della Lee has decided Josey’s clandestine closet is the safest place to crash. In return she’s going to change Josey’s life—because, clearly, it is not the closet of a happy woman. With Della Lee’s tough love, Josey is soon forgoing pecan rolls and caramels, tapping into her startlingly keen feminine instincts, and finding her narrow existence quickly expanding. (Amazon.com)
My Review – I had several books on reserve and I wanted something quick to read as I waited for my books to be ready. I picked up a copy of this book in paperback because it was featured as one of the librarian’s books of the week. I always loved paperbacks because they reminded me of lounging on the Carolina beaches during the summers when I taught. Some teacher friends of mine would rent a beach house and our objective was simply to read and enjoy. This book would have definitely been in our basket. Somehow I equate paperbacks as the guiltiest of pleasurable reading.
In the Sugar Queen, the story takes North Carolina ski resort town at the onset of winter. The images of first snow were vivid and you can feel the chill in the air as your read. The author tells the story in a bold unfolding that is a surprise at every turn. Although Josey is the main character who sublimates herself with sweets and finds Dela to be her salvation, I was drawn to Chloe, Dela’s friend, who runs a sandwich shop. Chloe has the mysterious power to conjure books that inexplicably appear whenever she needs them. If she is facing some personal dilemma a book will show up that has a title that might solve her problem. Sometimes the books are intrusive as they reappear in odd places and demand with their presence that she takes their advice. The author’s inclusion of this bit of uncanniness is a portent for the peculiar which you ready yourself for as you turn each page. The author intertwines the characters’ lives into a blend of the subtle and the sublime.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – Seth Grahame-Smith (2010) Grand Central Publishing
Indiana, 1818. Moonlight falls through the dense woods that surround a one-room cabin, where a nine-year-old Abraham Lincoln kneels at his suffering mother's bedside. She's been stricken with something the old-timers call "Milk Sickness." "My baby boy..." she whispers before dying. Only later will the grieving Abe learn that his mother's fatal affliction was actually the work of a vampire. When the truth becomes known to young Lincoln, he writes in his journal, "henceforth my life shall be one of rigorous study and devotion. I shall become a master of mind and body. And this mastery shall have but one purpose..." Gifted with his legendary height, strength, and skill with an ax, Abe sets out on a path of vengeance that will lead him all the way to the White House. While Abraham Lincoln is widely lauded for saving a Union and freeing millions of slaves, his valiant fight against the forces of the undead has remained in the shadows for hundreds of years. That is, until Seth Grahame-Smith stumbled upon The Secret Journal of Abraham Lincoln, and became the first living person to lay eyes on it in more than 140 years. Using the journal as his guide and writing in the grand biographical style of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough, Grahame-Smith has reconstructed the true life story of our greatest president for the first time-all while revealing the hidden history behind the Civil War and uncovering the role vampires played in the birth, growth, and near-death of our nation. (Hachette Digital, Inc.)
My Review – If you are a history buff then you would enjoy this interpretation of Lincoln’s life. Every historical point is so accurate and believable, you will wonder about the lies your teachers told you and be confused about what is real and what is revisionist. I truly enjoy a good vampire tale and this one is so fantastical that you may begin to believe.
In One Person – John Irving (2012) Simon & Schuster
A compelling novel of desire, secrecy, and sexual identity, In One Person is a story of unfulfilled love—tormented, funny, and affecting—and an impassioned embrace of our sexual differences. Billy, the bisexual narrator and main character of In One Person, tells the tragicomic story (lasting more than half a century) of his life as a “sexual suspect,” a phrase first used by John Irving in 1978 in his landmark novel of “terminal cases,” The World According to Garp.
His most political novel since The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving’s In One Person is a poignant tribute to Billy’s friends and lovers—a theatrical cast of characters who defy category and convention. Not least, In One Person is an intimate and unforgettable portrait of the solitariness of a bisexual man who is dedicated to making himself “worthwhile” (Amazon.com).
My Review – I absolutely loved this novel due to the first person narrative style in which Billy tells his story from being a teenager in the 50’s attending an all-boys’ school in Vermont to his senior life as a school teacher in his boyhood school. “My dear boy, don’t put a label on me – don’t make me a category before you get to know me.” This line epitomizes the expressiveness of the characters in this novel. The sexual variability is coupled with much confidence an assuredness. It really makes you think about your own internal variability and how you balance all of your attributes in one person.
Colleagues as you enjoy your summer, please take time to read for pleasure. I encourage you to put aside the latest research article or the stack of informational texts that you have to review as you revise your syllabi. Instead, pick up an enjoyable book that you can devour quickly and hopefully guiltlessly.