New Historical Novels

Looking for a new read featuring characters from history? Here are a few recently received historical novels about women.

The Other Alcott – Louisa May Alcott’s younger sister May, perhaps the inspiration behind Little Women‘s Amy, is the protagonist of this novel.
All That Makes Life Bright – Follow the life of Harriet Beecher as she meets her future husband and builds her life as a writer.

I, Eliza Hamilton  – Alexander Hamilton is all the rage right now, so if you’d like to learn more about that period grab this novel that has his wife Eliza as the strong-willed main character.

Caroline: Little House, Revisited  – This tale is told from the point of view of Laura Ingall Wilder’s mother Caroline, as she sets out west while pregnant.

“Extraordinary things are always hiding in places people never think to look.”

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The Brown Baggers book group met on Thursday, August 17 to discuss My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.

Published in 2004, the story centers around a teenager, Kate, who suffers from leukemia and her younger sister, Anna, who was conceived as a perfect genetic match to Kate. Having been required by her parents to participate in ever more serious medical treatments to save her sister, Anna finally sues her parents for medical emancipation when she is told she next must donate a kidney.

Most readers thought Anna was a very realistic and well developed character. They noted how her struggle to win her freedom from medical procedures she did not agree to was constantly at odds with her hesitation to harm her sister by doing refusing. This constant vacillation was very indicative of her young age, readers felt, and contributed to her authenticity.

Readers felt other characters in the book were not as well developed. While they understood the mother’s struggle, and thought her single-minded-ness and need to fix everything seemed accurate, she came off as a bit of a martyr. There were mixed feelings about the brother. While readers all agreed his behaviors were believable in response to being more or less overlooked during the medical and legal drama of the sisters they debated whether or not he would have reformed so quickly and completely. The father was a more unrealistic character, readers felt, since you don’t see his struggles the same way as the rest of the family. This may have been due to his tendency to avoid confrontation but it made him seem flat. The Campbell and Julia story line was deemed entirely unnecessary by readers.

The story has several narrators. This led a few readers to speculate about the ending before it was revealed due to who had a voice and who didn’t. While they didn’t object to multiple narrators, some readers felt the styling of the text was unnecessarily flowery (italics, different fonts, poorly tied in quotes). Mostly, though, readers felt Picoult handled the reveal at the end very well.

Readers complained that Picoult had some factual inaccuracies which made them disbelieve or struggle to get into the rest of the book. The inclusion of vast amounts of medical terminology related to Kate’s condition made it hard to enjoy the story for some readers. They also did not appreciate the perfectly tied up in a bow ending.

Reactions to the book were mixed – some readers enjoyed the ethical quandaries that were posed and others thought there were too many story lines and that the writing was a little formulaic. Overall, readers agreed that while the book is over-plotted and maybe not as substantial as they’d like, it is definitely worth reading.

Similar reads:
Family Life by Akhil Sharma (featuring a medically overshadowed sibling)
Corridors of the Night by Anne Perry (featuring a medical mystery and court case)
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott (featuring a family focused on one child, an elite gymnast)

More information:
New York Times Magazine article about Jodi Picoult
Bio of the author
Other books by Picoult
Article about a similar situation involving the Ayala Sisters that may have provided inspiration

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, September 21 at noon to discuss 1984 by George Orwell.

“Some Men Are Attracted To That”

51k4tgddlulBooks on Tap read Silver Sparrow  by Tayari Jones at  Champion Brewery on March 1 as part of the NEA Big Read. Due to a high turnout and a crowded room (both good problems to have), we divided into three groups for discussion so that we could hear each other. Most of us agreed that Jones told a good story with moments of beautiful writing, but that we wouldn’t have read this book if not for the NEA Big Read.

I can’t improve on this synopsis from the NEA Big Read website:

Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta during the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s families—the public one and the secret one. When Witherspoon’s daughters from each family meet, they form a friendship, but only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich and flawed characters, she also reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to each other’s lives.

Dana, the “secret” sister, knows far more about the situation than Chaurisse, the “legitimate” sister who has been kept in the dark. Without a shared history, can they truly call themselves sisters? People in the group with experience thought they could have developed a relationship as adults, but that’s not how the novel unspools. The favoritism that each felt the other received from the adults in their lives (and the examples they set) proved insurmountable.  Ironically, it seems Dana, whose fate was determined by Chaurisse’s casts-offs, was made stronger by her father’s cruel insistence on independence and the web of her relationships instead of reliance on a nuclear family. Interestingly, many of us thought the portions of the book that Dana narrated were more compelling than those in Chaurisse’s voice.

Their shared father James impregnated Laverne, his first wife, when she was 14 and he was approximately 19. He and his foster brother Raleigh were left to raise themselves. Laverne moves in and the trio reach adulthood as a tight unit. James decides to become a chauffeur, taking money from both of them, thus ending Raleigh’s dreams of becoming a photographer and Laverne’s formal education. This selfishness crops up again and again (both mothers and daughters wait on him hand and foot), although it could be defended as a reflection of the seriousness with which James takes his responsibility to all the members of his families. It also protects James’ self-image.

James, Raleigh and Laverne are all abandoned by parents. James, Laverne and Chaurisse are the first nuclear family in generations. Their jump to middle-class Atlanta, with access to education and security, is something to be defended fiercely, regardless of James and Laverne’s feelings about each other personally (frankly, James is not a physically attractive specimen).  However, no one can escape him, and perhaps the male influence on these largely matrilineal families. Gwen and Raleigh’s abandonments stand out. Raleigh looks so white that he scares black people – including his own mother. Gwen is disowned by her father after leaving her first husband, proving that she can  leave a relationship.

The secret cracks when Gwen and Dana visit Laverne’s beauty shop. We discussed why they would have done this and if Dana ever made a conscious decision to befriend Chaurisse. Did they want to change the unfair dynamic and thought this was they way they could do it with the power available to them?

Jones portrays her hometown of Atlanta, the City Too Busy to Hate,  almost entirely peopled by African Americans. James and Laverne’s customers, the girls friends, Gwen’s neighbors depict the diversity of experience that is often ignored in outsiders’ depictions. The Civil Rights movement is obliquely referenced, which seems fitting for a novel that focuses so tightly on one extended family’s experience over a short amount of time.

More Information:
Learn more about the NEA Big Read and JMRL’s programs
About the author
Other works
Secret children in the news: Strom Thurmond, Charles Kuralt, John Edwards

Books on Tap Information:

We will be choosing titles for the summer at the April 6 meeting. Add suggestions you have to this list.

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