Escape, slow down and read. . . withTHEBOOKJEANIE

The holiday season is here, time to take a deep breath and try not to get overwhelmed. Life often presents challenges and stress and it is so easy to let days go by without picking up a book. Here are a few suggestions for  those quiet moments, the special times just for yourself when you can fall into another world. And remember. . . the gift of a carefully chosen book from your favorite local bookshop can be the most meaningful one.    

The Invention of Wings. Sue Monk KiddIn Kidd's exploration of the role of Southern women, both slave and slaveowner, in the half-century leading up to the Civil War, she provides a startlingly fresh perspective on how some women rejected the boundaries of their lives and struggled to affect positive change for themselves and others. Sarah Grimke was not at all comfortable with the "gift" of the young slave Handful on her 11th birthday - she even had the temerity to inform her mother that she would not accept this offer. Although Handful does indeed remain Sarah's servant, bound together by love, guilt, and duty, this birthday marks a turning point in Sarah's life when she begins to question the unquestionable: is slavery morally acceptable? Must white women also be only suited to enslavement as wives? Sue Monk Kidd was inspired by the historic figures of the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina who eventually became not only courageous leaders of the anti-slavery campaign but also helped to shape the early feminist movement in this country. Perhaps the most powerful moments in this narrative are, however, those in the life of Handful's mother Hetty, defiant and courageous in her pursuit of freedom for herself and her daughter and consequently suffering humiliation, pain, and even torture throughout her life. Kidd reveals the thoughts and motivations of these women so clearly and thoughtfully that one can easily see how they became role models for for our own chief feminist, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel. Last year I was able to ask Lois Lowry, the author of the The Giver series, about the recent trends in dystopian literature, especially for children and young adults. The Newbery Award winner answered that she finds the violence and darkness that dominate popular titles in this genre such as The Hunger Games disturbing.  Although Mandel's novel is set in a world that has been decimated by a virulent flu, she does not sensationalize the tale she has to tell with murder, rape, and hopelessness. Instead, the characters that we come to know and care deeply about are exemplars of resilience and ingenuity: they are a group of Shakespearean actors and classical musicians, the Traveling Symphony, on a mission to preserve the arts in this fractured world ("survival is not enough") by traveling from one small community to the next in a proscribed area near the Great Lakes. Through these characters and a community of survivors stranded at a once major airport, we see what the world has become and how life has evolved. This wonderfully complex novel asks us the question: what is civilization and what is it that we need beyond mere survival?

Outside of Malaysia, little is known of the Japanese invasion and occupation from 1941-1945 of the country then known as Malaya, and of the cruelties that were suffered by the people whom the British had vowed to protect. British colonial rule began in 1874, resulting in great wealth for the empire from the establishment of tin mines, rubber and palm oil plantations, as well as a strategic military position that had begun with the founding of Singapore in 1819. Twan Eng begins his narrative with the air raid on Penang Island on Dec. 12th, 1941 that killed 600 civilians and allowed the Japanese navy to invade the virtually defenseless island after the British naval fleet had retreated weeks before when it was deemed "impossible to defend." On December 13, Japanese forces entered the northern Malayan town of Alor Star and proceeded in the next two months to sweep through Malaya from north to south, a distance of nearly 600 miles. Phillip Hutton, son of a founding British trader and a Chinese Malayan mother, lived through those horrific days and years of ocupation and now lives alone as a recluse in his family home. When a Japanese woman comes to Penang to find out about the man she had hoped to marry during the war, Phillip makes her acquaintance while walking along the waterfront below his house. It is never clear whether the meeting was accidental or intentional on the part of Michiko Murikami, but Phillip discovers that the man that she is mourning is also the man that was the pivotal figure in his early life before and during the war:  Hayato Endo, an Aikido master as well as a key player in the Japanese imperialist plan in Malaya. Phillip decides to share his story with Michiko - his struggle to maintain his loyalty to his family and his country without betraying his friend and mentor resulted in many difficult and often disasterous personal decisions that he made amidst the horror of war in Penang and peninsular Malaya. As a former resident of this country, this debut novel allowed me to revisit a magical place that had suffered in ways that I never knew; but it also evoked the beauty, the heat, the sweet pungent smell of the jungle in a way that made me want to return and experience this place once again. A beautiful, disturbing, unsettling novel that I highly recommend. P.S. The current PBS Masterpiece production, Indian Summer, was filmed entirely in Penang.

The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida. 
The premise of this book is every solo female traveller's nightmare: alone in a foreign country with little knowledge of the language and culture, an American woman's backpack with her passport and money are stolen as she checks into her hotel. The nameless woman in this story wants to disappear - but not this way. The local police in Casablanca want her to disappear as well, handing her a bag that turns up containing a passport and documents that belong to  another American woman. Still in shock and suddenly mistrusting the police as well as her hotel manager, the woman accepts the new identity and quickly slips into the city streets with a sense of fear. When she stops to take in the filming of an American movie being shot on location in front of her hotel, she is approached by casting director with a job offer to serve as the stand-in double for the well-known star of the film. Realizing that she needs a source of income, the woman reluctantly accepts the position and further entangling herself in her new persona.  Vendela Vida is a master in slowly revealing the complexities of her central character in this psychological thriller - the trauma and betrayal that have led to her disorientation and errratic decisions, and the eventual sense of freedom that comes from leaving her past behind.


Tucson has become a leading literary community hosting the annual Tucson Festival of Books on the campus of the University of Arizona. This year the event, that draws more than 100,000 people to our community during the most lovely time of the year in the Sonoran desert, will be held March 12th & 13th. Now Tucsonans are coming together in the months preceeding the festival to celebrate the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe with events being held continuously throughout the community.

Now sit back with a good book. . .happy reading!


  1. The Gift of Rain - one of my favourite books ever.


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