Friday, April 4, 2014

Reading by Ear

There's an upside and a downside to the phenomenon of audio books.  The upside is easy: when I'm under the spell of a good audio book, I find myself wanting to walk further, work out longer, so that I can find out what happens next. The downside, though, is the frustration of not being able to mark a wonderful passage to savor later and share.  And this is the situation I found myself in with not one, but two, terrific books that crossed through my sound barrier recently.

The first is Joshilyn Jackson's A Grown Up Kind of Pretty.  I got this book from the library on a nifty MP3 player (which both the librarian and my friend Wendi had to show me how to use).   I read Jackson's Someone Else's Love Story last year, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I'm happy to say that she's two for two.

I fell into this book from whatever the equivalent is of the opening page.  Jackson herself is the reader, and her easy Southern accent lends an authenticity to her family of characters: Big/Ginny, Little/Liza, and Mosey.  As the story begins, we are in a "trouble year."  When Big was 15, she had a baby girl.   Liza, that baby, gave birth to her own little girl when she was 15.  Now, Mosey, the third generation of the family, is having her 15th birthday, leaving them all to wonder what trouble the year will hold.

I don't want to spoil the story, but I will tell you that Mosey is good as gold, and does not make the family three for three on the teen-age pregnancy front.  There is indeed trouble for the family, though, and as we begin the book, Big is about to head into a conference room filled with lawyers and a long-time enemy.  When we return to this room at the end of the story, Jackson says of the impending encounter, "It's like high stakes poker, and my opponent's got a pair of lawyers in her hand."  This is just one example of her turns of phrase that made me long for a copy of the book and my little flags.

I loved A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty from start to finish.  Sure, there were some things that weren't wholly believable, but I didn't care.  Her characters are richly drawn, and I could envision each of the three women clearly.  Their stories are told through chapters alternating among the three women's voices.  Each is ultimately struggling with the same issue, but from her own unique perspective.  And that's all I'm going to say, except that you should put this book on your "to read" list.

Next up was Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings.  When I started listening to this book, I thought that Kidd would be at the Author Dinner for the Southwest Florida Reading Festival that I recently attended.  She didn't make the event, which was the cause of much disappointment for readers there, several of whom had brought copies of the book in hopes of getting her signature. Now that I've finished the book, I can understand why having a signed copy would be a coveted possession.  I also understand why this book was one of Oprah's picks for her 2.0 book club.

Like Secret Life of Bees, The Invention of Wings deals with race relations, strong women, and their complicated relationships.  And like A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, the story is told through the alternating voices of her protagonists:  Sarah and Handful.  Two different narrators play the women, an oddity in audio books, but one that I greatly appreciated.

The Invention of Wings takes us through nearly 35 years of these women's lives, beginning more or less with Sarah being "given" Handful as her waiting maid on the occasion of her 11th birthday.  Even at that tender age, Sarah was appalled at the idea of owning another human being.   As the story progresses, we learn through Handful's eyes what life is like as a slave.  And we learn through Sarah's eyes what it is like for a privileged girl/woman with a deep social conscience to live in those times.

The story is gripping, and I don't want to reveal any more of its details as this is a book you will want to read for yourself.   One thing I will tell you, though, is that Kidd included an author's note at the end of the book in which she tells readers where her novel diverged from fact into fiction.  (Kidd narrates this portion herself on the audio book, and it was powerful to hear her talk about the story in her own voice.)

Kidd got the idea for her novel on a visit to see Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  ("The Dinner Party" is an "icon of feminist art" that deserves more than a passing nod here.  If you haven't seen this installation piece, it is worth a trip to New York to take in.)   One component of "The Dinner Party" is a heritage floor on which the names of 999 women -- both historical and mythical -- are written.  Kidd noticed the names of two sisters -- Sarah and Angelina Grimke.  She was intrigued, and became even more so when she learned that the sisters came from Charleston, South Carolina, where Kidd herself had lived for ten years.  The true story of their work as abolitionists and women's rights advocates provided the basis for The Invention of Wings.

I'm heading off soon on a 1700 mile road trip to, of all things, a bridge tournament in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  (Don't worry -- I won't regale you here with stories of the ways in which I misplayed my cards or share tales that only bridge players would think even mildly interesting or funny.)  Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is coming with me, 32 hours of story that I'm hoping will make the miles fly by.  I'll let you know.  If you have any great books that you'd like to share, please pipe in with a comment to this post!

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