Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Gone Girl

Gone GirlGone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
This thriller novel was nothing like I expected it to be. I thought it would be more of a kidnapping type of scenario, I suppose. Right from the beginning, it's clear that's not what this is.

Usually I am not crazy about books that have no likable characters, but this one was different. These characters are extremely unlikable, but they are interesting. Amy is married to Nick, and the book starts out with Amy going missing. The book alternates between each spouse's viewpoint, and our narrators are not reliable. They're both also spoiled brats in their own ways.

It's beautifully crafted, and I couldn't put it down. But I also understand the perspective of people who didn't like this book.

It doesn't exactly give you hope in the future of humanity, and it makes me wonder how on earth people could want to stay married to each other when they clearly despise each other so much.
Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder

Location of  Burundi  (dark green)in Africa  (grey)  –  [Legend]Before I read this book, I knew very little about Burundi. After reading this memorable narrative nonfiction, I feel more educated about this part of the world. Landlocked in the middle of Africa, Burundi is in the middle of Africa. It is one of the five poorest countries in the world with one of the lowest per capita gross domestic products. Germany and Belgium occupied Burundi and its neighbor Rwanda at the beginning of the 20th century, and the colonists contributed greatly to the divide and hatred among both countries' native Twa, Hutu, and Tutsi peoples. Burundi has had two mass genocides--one in 1972 (killings of Hutus by the Tutsi-dominated army) and one in 1993 (killings of Tutsis by the Hutus), resulting in around 250,000 deaths. The war-torn country is also the hungriest country in the world.

As a third-year medical school intern, Deogratias (Deo) Niyizonkiza fled the genocide in 1994. He arrived in New York City with $200 to his name and no English, and ended up sleeping in Central Park and eking out an existence by delivering groceries to rich New Yorkers for a few dollars a day. He spent any spare time he had trying to learn English by hanging out in bookstores (until he got kicked out). When someone first took him to a library, he was overjoyed!

Helped by a few kind people, he eventually enrolled at Columbia University, where he received a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and philosophy. Then he attended the Harvard School of Public Health, where he met Dr. Paul Farmer and began working at Partners in Health.

Deo helping an impovered child in Burundi
Tracy Kidder tells Deo's extraordinary story with vivid detail. I found myself entranced with Deo's tale of his early New York days and how he transformed himself through the help of others. He was haunted by his can you see so many people murdered by hand, with machetes, including children, and ever have a normal life? He felt great ambivalence when he received so much financial help from others, but without it he would have been back on the street.

In the last part of the book, Tracy Kidder writes about traveling back to Burundi and Rwanda with Deo, as he was establishing Village Health Works, a community-driven health center. (This last part of the book was a bit hard to follow at times.) In the first four years of operation, the center saw more than 50,000 patients, installed solar panels to power the facility, established an Internet system for electronic medical records, and built a 14,000-gallon water collection cistern to provide potable water to the center and surrounding communities. Amazing!

Deo now frequently lectures on global health and has received numerous awards. Most people do not return to Burundi after they leave, but Deo has dedicated his life to helping the poor in his native land. His life and story are astonishing.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

My Notorious Life

My Notorious Life, by Kate Manning
I LOVED this book, but it's probably not for everyone. Kate Manning was inspired to write this book when she saw this photo and learned that 30,000 homeless children lived on the streets of New York in the nineteenth century.

Introduced as a lost diary, the book opens with a suicide. We don't know who died, but we learn that the main character fakes her own death with this dead body of another. We know she's married, and her husband helps cover it up. The authorities are after her, and we know she is famous because her carriage would be recognized in the street.

Then we go back to her childhood, Axie Muldoon, who is a poor Irish immigrant child, wandering the streets of New York with her sister Dutch and brother Joe. Her father--an alcoholic--has died, and her mother has lost her arm in an industrial accident. Soon they are discovered by a famous do-gooder, who gets medical care for Axie's mother but arranges for the children to go to the Children's Aid Society. Soon the children are off to the midwest on the Orphan Train. (This is the second novel I've read this year about the Orphan Train--the first was The Chaperone.) Axie--a spunky, independent, and bright child--ends up returning to New York City after a few months, but her siblings have been ensconced in new families and appear to not mind their separation.

Once back in New York, Axie finds her mother again, but she has remarried Axie's layabout uncle and is pregnant again. When she goes into labor, Axie must act as 11 years old. And so begins her story of helping women in labor and childbirth.

Madame Restell being arrested
Without giving too much more of the plot away, I will say that Axie is a complex, fascinating character, as are her husband and best friend. Axie's story is based on the life and death of Ann Trow Lohman (1811-1879), also known as Madame Restell, a "notorious" midwife who was a friend to desperate women but the enemy of moral crusaders such as Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Comstock finally brought her down, she was vilified in the press and in society, and she ended her own life (although it was rumored that she had faked it). Comstock was proud of the number of suicides he prompted.

My only quibble about this book is that at times I found the Irish brogue inconsistent. I think it was written in such a way because this was Axie's true speaking style, but it comes and goes and at times I found that off-putting.

Demonized in the press
We had such interesting conversations last week at book group when we discussed this book...about feminism, history, birth control, the status of women in this era and now, midwifery, and abortion. This wonderful piece of feminist historical fiction will give you new perspectives about the status of women--then and now--and the lesser evil of abortion. I couldn't help but think about Rush Limbaugh, our modern-day Anthony Comstock, and Sandra Fluke, who in advocating for birth control was blamed for debauchery...much like Madame Restell/Axie Muldoon.

As the mother of three children, one of whom was born at 24 weeks, I am deeply grateful to have been born and become a mother when I did. I'm also grateful to have been able to plan my own family by using birth control.

I could not put his book it! It's sad and thought provoking, but redemptive. Here is author Kate Manning, talking about what led her to write this book:

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

I love novels like this, when I learn about historical figures through fictionalized accounts of their lives. The Invention of Wings is based on the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, abolitionists and feminists long before women's suffrage or the Emancipation Proclamation.

Sue Monk Kidd quotes Professor Julius Lester in her notes at the end of the novel, "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." Kidd expands beyond the facts and events to put flesh on the stories of four women.

The novel begins in the early 1800s, with Sarah Grimke turning 11 and her mother "giving" her ownership of her very own slave, Hetty, or Handful. From the beginning, Sarah is deeply uncomfortable with her family's legacy as slave owners, and she also chafes against her role as a girl and woman. All she wants in life is to study and become a lawyer and a judge, but her family throws cold water on her dreams. As a female, all she could hope to become is a wife and mother. She rebels in her own way, by teaching Handful to read and write.

The novel weaves the story of Sarah with that of Handful and her mother Charlotte. Both Handful and Charlotte are highly talented seamstresses, spunky and spirited and seeking a way out of their own lives. They are the most fascinating characters in this novel, and they are mostly made up. (Sarah's mother did "give" her a slave when she turned 11, and Sarah wanted no part of it, but that's about all that is known about the slave girl.)

While Sarah struggles to put a voice to her passionate thoughts, Handful and Charlotte have no problem expressing what's on their mind. They weave their own pains and desires in their quilts and pass on their family history through stories. They take chances for the sake of freedom, even if it might cost them their own lives.

Angelina is the sister with the gumption--probably because she'd been mostly raised by Sarah--but Sarah, too, eventually finds her own voice. I enjoyed reading about the sisters speaking out against slavery, even though their family and their own city (Charleston, South Carolina) were horrified by their actions. The schism in the early abolitionist movement between abolition and women's rights reminded me of the division in the 1960s, when women who fought for civil rights were not given their own voice in the movement.

Sarah, Angelina, Handful, and Charlotte are all trying to find their own wings and escape the prisons of their lives. Handful's and Charlotte's restraints were real, while Sarah and Angelina were bound by the cultural expectations of their time.

This novel is not an easy read--Kidd depicted the horrors of slavery without flinching. I was grateful for Kidd's notes at the end, and also for the Internet, so I could learn more about the Grimkes when I was done reading the book. Sarah and Angelina Grimke were pioneers of their time, standing up for what they believed was right, even if their voices shook.