Water for Elephants begins with a quote from Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant…An elephant’s faithful...moreWater for Elephants begins with a quote from Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant…An elephant’s faithful—one hundred percent!”
Sarah Gruen’s novel covers much more than elephants drinking water; she throws in a full-fledged circus, the Great Depression, and a poignant love story along the way. Jacob Jankowski narrates the tale providing readers with accounts of his life–alternating between detailing his current existence in the nursing home and flashbacks to his time in the circus. Including the older Jacob’s voice enriches the story about the younger Jacob’s adventures with the circus by adding the voice of experience and reflection to the occurrences.
As Jacob nears graduation from veterinary school, he experiences tragedy for the first time when his parents are suddenly killed in an accident. Tragedy doggedly pursues Jacob as he foregos completing veterinarian school and jumps on a train–only to wind up as the caretaker for a traveling circus menagerie. The bright spots in his life are Marlena and Rosie–the beautiful young star of the equestrian act and the elephant, respectively. August, the controlling, mentally unstable animal trainer has both of Jacob’s loves under his cruel control. August is married to Marlena and he is Rosie’s trainer. Jacob must find a way to save both his loves. Water for Elephants tells a tale of faithfulness, loyalty, and love overcoming all odds in a time of American history when the odds were weighted against poor itinerants attaining happiness and leading rich, full lives.(less)
Rhett Butler’s People, the fully authorized prequel/sequel, to Gone with the Wind gives us the story from Rhett Butler’s perspective. McCaig invents t...moreRhett Butler’s People, the fully authorized prequel/sequel, to Gone with the Wind gives us the story from Rhett Butler’s perspective. McCaig invents the backstory that shapes Rhett–the family black sheep and Southern “almost-but-not-quite” gentleman. Readers get the inside look at how and why Rhett starts, stops, and starts giving a damn. The story also provides justifications for the details that mar Rhett’s character in the original (for example, Rhett’s purported illegitimate son, his arrest for killing a black man, his Klan involvement).
Rhett Butler’s People narrates not just the story of Rhett and Scarlet but also the stories of others whose lives are connected with Rhett’s life. His beloved sister Rosemary, his illegitimate son in New Orleans Tazewell Watling, his free black friend Tunis Bonneau, his schoolmate turned rogue and war hero Andrew Ravanel, and others get expanded space to tell their own stories in McCaig’s novel.
Rhett Butler’s People also covers a wider time frame than Gone With the Wind. We are privy to Rhett’s childhood on a rice plantation before the war begins, his experiences as a blockade runner and soldier during the war, and his life in the Reconstruction Era after the war. All this leads up to choices that he and Scarlett are faced with regarding helping to reconstruct not only their beloved South and also with whether or not to bother reconstructing their relationship.
Overall, reading Rhett Butler’s People provides an entertaining and informative look into the Civil War Era, although, compared with Gone with the Wind, it does give short shrift to the Rhett and Scarlett saga. Still, those who enjoy US historical fiction may find it well worth taking a second look at a long ago damned love story with its added look into the war.
For other modern works that have taken alternative looks at old classics try March by Geraldine Brooks (Little Women) and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Jane Eyre). For another alternative look at Gone with the Wind, try The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall.(less)
Elijah of Buxton is a fortunate child–fortunate to have been the first child born into the town of Buxton, Canada, a community of free blacks and esca...moreElijah of Buxton is a fortunate child–fortunate to have been the first child born into the town of Buxton, Canada, a community of free blacks and escaped slaves founded by Presbyterian minister Reverend William King. He’s fortunate, but he’s also fragile and prone to gullibility and mischief. Elijah of Buxton relates Elijah life as he catches fish, throws rocks, plays tricks, learns a trade, and makes mistakes and rectifies them as best he can.
Along with these episodic adventures, Curtis includes a culminating adventure in which an unethical “Preacher” steals money from Mr. Leroy, a man whom Elijah works for and respects. Mr. Leroy has been saving to buy his family out of captivity in the South, and the Preacher’s theft drives him to desperate measures–measures which entail taking Elijah to America to catch the Preacher and to recapture the money. It is this final adventure that makes slavery real for Elijah such that he recognizes its horrors and comes to truly appreciate his freedom. “Fragile” Elijah grows up–recognizing that he can be sensitive and empathetic while also remaining courageous, steadfast, and true.
In Elijah of Buxton, Christopher Paul Curtis has once again brought history to life by creating a winning protagonist and a compelling story (see The Watsons Go to Birmingham or Bud, not Buddy for more of his historical fiction). He portrays the injustices and cruelties of the period in sensitive and age-appropriate ways. For example, he uses Elijah’s narration to show such scenarios as how escaped slaves who are used to fleeing and hiding must be cautiously approached and how one escaped slave was caught and tortured to death in his attempt to join his family in Buxton. Curtis also realistically portrays the grief experienced by the family and community upon hearing the news of the death.
At the same time, Curtis highlights the strength of spirit of both the enslaved and the free and escaped slaves. Elijah of Buxton does include a significant portion of dialect which might cause struggling readers to stumble over some of the content, but overall, Elijah’s story is an important story and an award-worthy addition to historical fiction.
Takeaway quote (and sampling of the dialect):
Mr. Leroy tells Elijah, “Fish eating’s like anything else in life, Elijah. If you go at it ’specting something bad to happen, all you gunn do is draw that bad thing to you. You caint be timid ’bout nothing you do, you got to go at it like you ’specting good things to come out of it. If I’s to worry ’bout bones choking me, it’d happen every time I et fish. Ain’t nothing further from my mind.”(less)
Suite Francaise requires slow and careful reading in order to appreciate its scope, its historical significance, and its range of human characters and...moreSuite Francaise requires slow and careful reading in order to appreciate its scope, its historical significance, and its range of human characters and emotions. Suite Française—comprising the first two parts of a planned five-part novel—succeeds as a piece of literature that probes the heights and depths of human nature.
Suite Francaise’s first part, ‘Storm in June,’ details the characters’ hasty departure from Paris in the summer of 1940. The second part, ‘Dolce,’ details life in a German occupied French village. In each of these parts, Nemirovsky weaves together multiple stories seamlessly so that readers recognize that while the experience of war does look different depending on one’s angle–whether it be victor or vanquished–war has long-lasting, deleterious effects on all who come within its inexorable reach.
Characters from Part 1 (such as the family Pericands, writer Gabriel Corte, gas-thief Charles Langelet, the bank employee Michauds) and from Part 2 (such as Lucile Angellier and her mother-in-law, their live-in German commander Bruno von Falk, and Benoît and Madeleine Sabarie) each have his or her moral fiber tested to the breaking point (and, in many cases, broken) by the war.
In both parts, Nemirovsky juxtaposes extraordinary scenic beauty and human cruelty. She shows the raw and ranging emotion experienced by all individuals touched by the war–fear and resignation, contempt and compassion, narcissism and selflessness, revenge and forgiveness, hate and love. Suite Francaise’s poignancy and tragedy is augmented by its author’s fate; in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Irene Nemirovsky died a month later at the age of thirty-nine leaving the world with only story fragments and plot outlines of the remaining three pieces of her masterpiece.
For more works by Nemirovsky, 2007 saw the publishing of Fire in the Blood a posthumously published work that also speaks to village life in France (albeit pre-war this time) as well as to the human condition.(less)
Nana said, “Learn this and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always fi...more*some spoilers follow
Nana said, “Learn this and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.”
In his first novel following the success of the The Kite Runner, Hosseini once again brings readers into Afghanistan. Whereas The Kite Runner focuses on telling the story of boys and men, A Thousand Splendid Suns portrays the lives of two Afghan women. Hosseini relates Miriam and Lila’s stories as women in Afghanistan during a time when their country devalued and disrespected women’s rights and provided them with restricted power of choice in the events of their own lives.
“Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami…Mariam did surmise, by the way Nana said the word, that it was an ugly, loathsome thing to be a harami, like an insect, like the scurrying cockroaches Nana was always cursing and sweeping out of the kolba.” Mariam’s classification as a harami positions her to be rejected by respectable members of Afghan society. Accordingly, following Nana’s death, Miriam has little choice but to accept the marriage proposal of Rasheed, a man who turns out to value his wives only for what they can give him–progeny. When it turns out that Miriam cannot, in fact, give him this desire, he turns the full force of his cruelty and abuse upon her.
The parallel story is that of Laila whose circumstances also conspire to force her into marriage with Rasheed–Laila’s parents have been killed, and she is pregnant by a man whom she loves but believes to be dead. Laila marries Rasheed, and, for a time, Laila and Mariam are the bitterest of enemies until they become the best of friends.
The story shifts back and forth between the perspectives of these two women as together they endure in their country perpetual war under different rulers with different level of tolerance of women–Soviets, the mujahideen, the Taliban. Together they endure in their home life perpetual fear, powerlessness, and abuse. Because they are together, they also help each other to hope for a better future for Laila’s children. When Taliq (Laila’s childhood love) returns, the far-off promise of hope draws near to reality.
A Thousand Splendid Suns reveals the lives of two women whose courage, resilience, and love keeps them going and makes them memorable characters; it also shows the interconnections between sacrifice and redemption, situation and choice, and power and powerlessness. For other books that are set in and around Afghanistan try:
* Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez * The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad * The Sewing Circles of Herat: A Personal Voyage Through Afghanistan by Christina Lamb * Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin * Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan by Ann Jones * Behind the Burqa: Our Life in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom by Sulima and Hala and Batya Swift Yasgur
* Measuring Time by Helon Habila * The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton * The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther * The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra * Under the Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples (young adult) (less)