Review: Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a SlaveTwelve Years a Slave
By Solomon Northup
(Graymalkin Media, Paperback, 9781631680021, February 2014, 248pp.)

The Short of It:

A true account of a free black man, kidnapped and forced into slavery.

The Rest of It:

While in Washington, D.C. on a business trip in the mid-1800’s, Solomon Northup was kidnapped and forced to be a slave for what became twelve long years. His story, as told to David Wilson, is shared here in this memoir.

Many of you may have seen the movie, which received several Oscar nods but as with most books made into movies, I am always interested in reading the book first, whenever possible so I have yet to see the movie myself. The book, although short, gives you just enough of the horrors of what he went through as a slave and it will make you angry. His relationships with the other slaves is the one saving grace. But the frustration over his situation is felt throughout his story and the worry and fear about his family is very compelling.

In one sense, it’s hard to believe that such a thing could happen and for so long, but his twelve years as a slave is riddled with pain, worry and fear over what will become of him. He encounters many slave owners during this time and although most of them are easy to anger and will stop at nothing when it comes to a delivering a good beating, there are others who treat their slaves as people, with the respect and dignity of an owner who appreciates hard work.

The story itself is very compelling and yes, unbelievable at times but the delivery of the story seemed a little formal to me. The language used to tell the story is very formal and dare I say it, somewhat cold and clinical. It’s as if this story was told to me at arm’s length, in a detached sort of way which of course took me out of the narrative many times. It’s very short, yet felt much longer than it should have. Perhaps the formality of it all added to this.

This was the September selection for my book club, chosen by me and of course that is the one meeting I had to miss due to back to school night, so I really don’t know what the others felt or how it compared to the movie. Will I see the movie? I had planned to prior to reading the book but now, I am not so sure.

Have you read the book or seen the movie? What did you think?

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

Review: I Am Malala

I Am MalalaI Am Malala
By Malala Yousafzai
(Little, Brown and Co., Hardcover, 9780316322409, October 2013, 352pp.)

The Short of It:

Malala Yousafzai was just a young girl on a field trip for school when she was shot point-blank in the face. This book is about that day, the events leading up to it and the role it played in her struggle for education equality.

The Rest of It:

My book club selected this book back in January to be read in October. That was before Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize and before her gunman had been identified, so imagine our surprise when she was back in the news by the time we met to discuss the book. Timing, it’s everything.

I didn’t know much about Malala prior to reading this book. I do recall the shooting in 2012 and some of the details behind it, but other than that, not much. In case you’re like me, I’ll give you a little info. As a young girl, Malala lived in the Swat Valley, a province in Pakistan. Her father ran a school for both boys and girls but as you can imagine, most girls in that region were kept home to help around the house or married young to start their own families. Education was not a priority for young girls and Malala took it upon herself to make sure that young girls got the same education that boys did.

This presented a problem for her father. Threatened and told to close his doors, he began to worry about making ends meet. Without female students, he would not be able to keep his doors open. Knowing this, Malala did what she could to support education for all children and this angered many in their town, including the Taliban which eventually led to the attempt on her life. Amazingly, the gunshot wound to her head, did not cause permanent brain damage but called for quite a bit of physical therapy. This required her to be moved to a London hospital and after much discussion, a decision was made to move the rest of the family there as well.

Instead of being fearful of what could happen to her in the future, she used the events of that day to her advantage and became even more vocal, knowing that at some point the Taliban could succeed in taking her life. However, this mattered little to her. What mattered more, is that education be accessible to ALL who wanted it. Through her efforts, she’s been awarded numerous prizes for her humanitarian efforts. An impressive list but especially so given her young age.

I was surprised at how readable the book is. With every page, you are reminded of Malala’s youth. She’s a young girl like any young girl, watching popular TV shows and wanting to wear make-up and try new hairstyles. She’s very likable and the book is written simply, without a lot of historical background. This is a plus as well as a minus. A plus because almost anyone can read the book but a minus because if you are looking to learn more about that region of Pakistan or the Taliban itself, you won’t find it here.

Since this is not a book I would have normally picked up on my own, I was hoping to get a little more insight into that part of the country but even though I did not find it, I still enjoyed reading about this remarkable young woman.

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

Review: Never Fall Down

Never Fall Down
Never Fall Down
By Patricia McCormick
(Balzer + Bray, Hardcover, 9780061730931, May 2012, 224pp.)

The Short of It:

McCormick delivers a heartbreaking account of survival.

The Rest of It:

Never Fall Down is about Arn Chorn-Pond and how he survived the Cambodian Genocide under the Khmer Rouge. I know many of you have read about the Cambodian Genocide before. There are lots of books on the subject, but what struck me about this one is that it’s tied to music and it’s told in novel form, but based on true events.

Arn and his family are forced to leave their home with thousands of others, to march along the road with just a few possessions and very little food. Their journey goes on for a very long time. Their only order is to keep walking. As the people around them die of dehydration and lack of food, Arn, eleven at the time, is forced to witness the countless killings of those too weak to continue. When Arn is chosen by the Khmer Rouge to play an instrument, he feels as if his life depends on it, and it does. He learns to play the khim, a rather difficult instrument to pick up, and as a result, falls in favor with some of the Khmer soldiers.

However, this brief respite (if you can even call it that) does not shield him from the horrors of war. Every day, someone is killed. Kids he’s come to know, or music teachers or other educated people. His slow starvation and the effects of malnutrition begin to take their toll. But through it all, Arn remains positive, hopeful even. When given a tiny bit of food, he opts to give it to those who need it more. But when forced to take up arms and fight alongside the Khmer Rouge, he becomes what he calls “a tiger” which is something he regrets and probably one of the hardest things he has to work through once he makes it to the States.

Arn’s story is truly amazing. His strong-willed personality and his love of music is what sets him apart. This was a tough read because of the subject matter, but McCormick’s decision to tell it in novel form gives the reader the distance he/she needs to experience the horrors but from a few paces back. Also, this isn’t a one-sided retelling of what we’ve all read before. This book touches on members of the Khmer Rouge and one soldier in particular that helps Arn survive his horrible ordeal.

The other thing to point out, is that this book was initially geared towards younger readers. Because of this, the material is very easy to read but at the same time, gives you a lot to consider and discuss. My book club discussed the book last night and we had the opportunity to do a teleconference with a survivor, which really added to the discussion. The book gives you a very realistic account of what went on during that time. There is also some humor and a lot of heartbreak. I listened to a portion on audio and it was a very emotional experience. I highly recommend the book and audio. It was a National Book Award finalist in 2012.

If you are interested in Arn’s story, I suggest you check out this video to get a good sense of the author’s purpose as well as Arn’s message to “never fall down” to always rise up.

 

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

Review: The Goldfinch


The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch
By Donna Tartt
(Little, Brown and Company, Hardcover, 9780316055437,  October 2013, 784pp.)

The Short of It:

Memory, in and of itself, has the ability to restore and destroy.

The Rest of It:

While visiting a New York art museum, Theodore Decker, thirteen, is separated from his mother in an explosion that leaves him dazed and confused. In the immediate moments after the blast, Theo sees, and takes, a valuable painting for safekeeping. Not fully understanding what has happened or why, he stumbles out of the rubble but his life is forever frozen in time. When he realizes he has lost his dear mother, he finds himself floating through life, encountering many obstacles along the way and revisiting those final moments in the museum over and over again.

This is one hell of a book.

It’s long and I know some readers who won’t even touch it because of its length but they are really doing themselves a disservice because it is really a fine piece of work. I had planned to read it “someday” but when it was chosen for book club, I was pushed encouraged to read it a little bit sooner than I had planned and then it was awarded the Pulitzer which piqued my interest even more.

The Goldfinch  is an adventure. It meanders, there is action but not that much of it and it’s repetitive when it comes to behaviors like the excessive drinking and drug use that riddle its pages. But even with all of this going on, it’s incredibly heartbreaking and yes, beautiful. At first glance, Theo seems to be handling his loss quite well, but with each page, his pain and devastation become more real, more tangible and he becomes more reliant on the actions of others to save him. Not to mention the painting and the significance behind him taking it in the first place. Its purpose, so it seems, is to remind him of that fateful day but as it certainly does just that, it’s also a constant reminder of what he needs to do to keep it safe.

This is a book with some memorable characters too. Boris, the Ukrainian kid Theo hooks up with, is part hoodlum, part philosopher but more than anything, Theo’s best friend. Think “The Artful Dodger”. Popper, a mutt that Theo takes pity on, ends up being a loyal companion to Theo and one cannot forget Hobie, the lovable furniture maker who takes Theo in when he has nowhere else to go. These unlikely characters come together to essentially save Theo from himself, but it’s not always evident that that is what is happening. There are lots of pitfalls along the way and the journey can be tedious, but in the end, I found myself loving the story, wishing I had taken more time with the last few pages. It’s about love and trust and redemption and what’s not to like with its art world setting?

Talking about it here, I realize just how much I miss the characters. So, even though it’s long and intimidating to some, I urge you to pick it up because it’s really a book to experience first-hand.

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall


The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
By Anne Bronte
(Oxford University Press, USA, Paperback, 9780199207558, May 2008, 441pp.)

The Short of It:

A scandalous novel for its time.

The Rest of It:

Published in 1848, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of Helen Graham, a woman whose unfortunate marriage forces her to make some difficult decisions for herself and her son.

This book has a little bit of everything to make a reader happy. There’s the scandalous story of Helen and her husband Author Huntingdon. Probably one of the most self-indulgent men you could ever meet. His love of drink and fine things leads them to financial ruin and Helen has no choice but to  leave him, which of course is frowned upon greatly by society at large. She ends up at Wildfell Hall and introduces herself as a widow.  She quickly becomes the infatuation of Gilbert, who lives across the way. A new, interesting woman that he can talk to. So unlike the frivolous girls he comes across daily. But when another man enters the picture, Gilbert questions her and in return, is handed her diary which tells her sordid tale.

Most of the story is told through diary entries. At first, I didn’t mind this but it went on for quite a long time and I began to lose interest in the story itself, but the real discussion is the history of the book itself. My book club picked this book for June and there was plenty to say about it. For one, Anne Bronte based many of the characters on people she knew, she wrote it under a pen name and it was originally published in three volumes, and when she passed away, her sister Charlotte refused its republication.  It wasn’t until Charlotte’s death that it was published in one volume. Charlotte felt the book was “course” and not fit for publication.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an important book for many reasons. It deals with some very heavy themes for the time, gender relations, motherhood, alcoholism and  abuse in marriage. Even though it was written in 1848, it has a very contemporary feel to it, probably because many of the issues Bronte includes are issues that we still deal with today.

The one criticism we all shared, was that the ending seemed rushed. Perhaps Bronte’s illness forced her to finish the book quickly or perhaps the book in its republication was cut down when made into one volume? What fascinated me the most was the Bronte family. Such talent and yet, so much tragedy. The three sisters all died from consumption and the brother became an alcoholic.

Overall, I am beginning to believe that I am more of a Bronte gal, than an Austen gal. Last year, I began Jane Eyre and have been reading it slowly (and loving it) and I must say The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a refreshing surprise.

Source: Borrowed
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Review: And the Mountains Echoed


And the Mountains Echoed
And the Mountains Echoed
By Khaled Hosseini
(Riverhead Hardcover, Hardcover, 9781594631764, May 2013, 416pp.)

The Short of It:

A multi-generational saga that begins with a difficult decision, a decision that manages to echo repeatedly throughout the lives of this family.

The Rest of It:

I can’t say that I’ve read Hosseini before this book. I was supposed to. The Kite Runner was a book club pick many years ago but I could not get into the writing so I gave up on it. However, this was not the case with And the Mountains Echoed. In fact, I was immediately pulled into the story and kept with it no matter how many families appeared or what happened to them, but I must be honest, I lost interest during the second half of the novel. For me, there seemed to be too much going on and too many characters to keep track of.

But, that is why it’s good to read these types of books with a book club. You get to discuss the hell out of it and then after all of the discussion, you typically have a new-found appreciation for the writing and that is very much the case here.

The story begins in an Afghan village. Abdullah is ten-years-old and his baby sister Pari,  is only three. They live with their father and step-mother but have struggled with money all of their lives. After losing a baby to the cold the previous winter, Abdullah’s father, Saboor, takes Pari to a wealthy family, where she will live out her remaining years. Abdullah is devastated by this decision. The two of them were very close and losing his sister causes him great pain. Saboor, also greatly affected, has to believe that he’s made the right decision. With so little food and the harsh winter ahead of her, he doesn’t see how keeping her would be in her best interest.

The story then bounces back and forth between Afghanistan and the West as we follow the families involved. All in all, I lost interest in the other generations. Their stories didn’t resonate with me as much as Pari’s or Abdullah’s for that matter, but I can’t deny the fact that Hosseini knows how to tell a story. He does.

As a book club pick, there was actually plenty to discuss. I worried that the conversation would fall flat but everyone had lots to say and most enjoyed reading it. What weighed heavily on me was Saboor’s decision to sell his daughter to the wealthy family. As harsh as the decision was, was it the best thing for her at the time? Most agreed that yes, it was. I wasn’t so sure. Surely, money and position do play a role in a girl’s survival, but was it a better life? I am still pondering the alternative and I finished the book a few weeks ago so that just goes to show you how the book manages to stay with you.

Have you read it? I can’t say it was a favorite but it made for some excellent discussion.

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

Review: Life After Life

Life After Life
Life After Life
By Kate Atkinson
(Reagan Arthur Books, Hardcover, 9780316176484, April 2013, 544pp.)

The Short of It:

Interesting premise and at times, fluid, beautifully written passages but overall, one of the most frustrating reads I’ve read in years.

The Rest of It:

The story begins in 1930. Ursula Todd assassinates Hitler while he is sitting in a cafe in Munich and she dies in the process. Next, the story takes us back to 1910, the night of Ursula’s birth. Due to bad weather, the doctor is unable to attend her birth and the poor girl dies with the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around her neck. As Atkinson takes us back and forth through time, we see Ursula in various stages of life. Sometimes, she’s a child and ends up drowning in the ocean, other times…she’s older and as readers, we get to spend a little time with her family before tragedy strikes.

But tragedy does strike and over and over again, at that.

I really had a hard time with this one. The writing itself wasn’t bad. In fact, much of it is beautifully written but I didn’t care for Ursula all that much so seeing her die and come back so many times was a bit much for me. Oh, and it was long, which of course felt even longer with all of the back and forth going on.

The one thing that kept me reading is the idea that one small change can affect your life. That aspect of it was interesting to explore but it was ultimately lost within the structure of the novel itself.

My book club is discussing this book later this week. I’m interested in how the discussion will go because I feel as if I’ve spent so much time with it, that I don’t want to spend more time discussing it.

Have you read this one? What did you think of it?

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

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