BOOK REVIEW: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues by Esi EdugyanHalf Blood Blues
By Esi Edugyan
Completed April 26, 2012

I always say in my book reviews: When a book can teach me something new about history, then I am a fan. In her highly acclaimed Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan taught me a different perspective of World War II – one that incorporates American and German jazz musicians who shared a common love of music.

The book is told from the viewpoint of Sid Griffiths, the bass player for an up-and-coming jazz band, The Hot-Time Swingers, who were playing in jazz clubs throughout Berlin. Jazz was hot in pre-World War II Germany, but when Hitler came to power, he considered the music to be “degenerate.” This left Sid and his band mates, namely his boyhood friend, Chip, and a black German horn player, Hiero, out of work. The 1939 sections of the story center around the band mates’ escape from Germany and their brief time together in Paris.

Fast forward more than 50 years, and the story focuses on elder Sid and Chip, who are returning to Germany for a jazz festival in Hiero’s honor.  Sid watched Hiero get arrested in Paris, and he assumed Hiero died, but Chip has information that will test Sid’s belief. Once they arrive in Berlin, they decide to travel to Poland to learn what happened to Hiero.

Many reviewers found Half Blood Blues to be slow-paced. However, I felt the complete opposite: I was completely riveted by the story, turning pages late into the night. This may be the result of my insatiable curiosity about World War II history, but I have to think that Edugyan’s superb writing style also played a part. Another common complaint was the jargon used throughout the dialogues: it was a blend of black vernacular mixed in with 1940’s slang. Germans were “boots,” women were “janes.” It did not bother me too much, but I understand where these critiques are coming from.

For me, Half Blood Blues was the complete package: gripping, humanistic, real. I am pleased that Edugyan has been short listed for the 2012 Orange Prize, and I hope lovers of literary and historical fiction will find their way to this book. ( )

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BOOK REVIEW: Great Short Stories by American Women, edited by Candace Ward

Great Short Stories by American WomenGreat Short Stories by American Women
Edited by Candace Ward
Completed April 20, 2012

I received Great Short Stories by American Women as a Christmas gift several years ago, and it’s been languishing on my shelves for a long time. After completing this slim anthology, I wonder why I waited so long.

This anthology contains stories by many renowned female American writers:

Each story was steeped in realism and exposed many civil themes of the late 18th or early 19th century. Themes of racism, sexism, marriage and class differences permeated most of these stories. Each writer was gifted in how she could draw her readers in from the first sentence – and not let go until the last. I believe writing short stories can be harder than writing novels because you only have so many pages to tell your story. These women make it look effortless.

I could never pick a favorite from any of these stories, but one story, “A Jury of her Peers,” still lingers in my mind. Two women –  a sheriff’s wife and a farmer’s wife – are summoned to a neighbor’s home. Their neighbor, Minnie Wright, was accused of killing her husband. As the women collect thing Minnie will need while incarcerated, they piece together what happened to Minnie and her marriage – just by finding small details in the house: a broken bird cage, a badly sewn quilt block, a well worn black shirt. Minnie never appeared in the story, but by the last paragraph, you know so much about her life. It was a gripping story and a realistic look at marriage, domesticity and women’s lives.

The best part about reading this anthology is how it whetted my appetite for more works by these gifted writers. It was my first foray into many of these writers’ works, and I look forward to reading more by these talented, influential female American writers. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House by Kathleen GrissomThe Kitchen House
By Kathleen Grissom
Completed September 7, 2011

When we hear about the “labor force” of the antebellum South, we often hear about enslaved Africans, forced to work the land in an unimaginably oppressive life. Kathleen Grissom, in her debut novel, The Kitchen House, depicts another type of forced labor – the indentured servant – in her novel about family, slavery and plantation life.

Set in the early 1800’s, the story opens when Lavinia arrives at Tall Oaks, a plantation in Virginia, as a young girl fresh off a ship from Ireland. Lavinia is an indentured servant – left without any family – and is placed in the care of Belle, a young slave woman who works in the kitchen house. At first, Lavinia is sickly and withdrawn, but as the months progress, she becomes stronger and more dependent on her new family, led by slave Mama Mae, her husband George and their children.

The Kitchen House is Lavinia’s tale of growing up on the plantation and her struggles of being a white girl raised in a black family. The story, though, is divided between Lavinia and Belle, whose narrative offers candid views of slave life. Lavinia’s narrative is equally candid – showing everything from drug abuse to pedophilia. A lot of bad things happen to the characters in this book; it’s amazing anyone could see a light at the end of the tunnel.

I found the first half of the book to drag on, the middle to be gripping, and the ending to be rushed. Lavinia’s story, though, interested me enough to urge me forward. I question the historical accuracy of many aspects of this novel, especially how things fell together at the end, but all in all, The Great House was a good read. Fans of historical fiction should consider this book, especially if they enjoy tales about the Old South. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

Scottsboro by Ellen FeldmanScottsboro
By Ellen Feldman
Completed July 21, 2011

The Scottsboro case was one of many ugly marks in American history. During the 1930’s, nine young black males were arrested for raping two white women in Alabama. Despite weak evidence and a wavering testimony by one of the women, each man was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The case was an international outrage and was the most tried case in American legal history. And it provided the background for Ellen Feldman’s Orange Prize-nominated book, Scottsboro.

In the book, a young journalist, Alice Whittier, became fascinated with the Scottsboro case, and she convinced her editor to assign her to the trial. Alice was a feature writer at heart and didn’t waste time trying to get a human angle. She met each of the nine accused and talked to the two alleged rape victims. Alice could tell that one of the women, Ruby Bates, was lying about what happened. She took personal interest in Ruby, trying to convince her to do the right thing. For Ruby, though, doing the right thing was not an easy thing to do.

The book followed the case and its first appeal, when hot shot attorney, Samuel Liebowitz, agreed to defend the men. Feldman painted a picture of racism, anti-Semitism and sexism that permeated the entire trial. It was downright nasty. As I read the testimonies and court exhibits, I hung on to every word and move by the attorneys, judges and spectators. It was court drama at its best.

I can’t rave about Scottsboro enough. The Southern setting, social lessons and moving drama kept me at the edge of my seat. This is my first book by Feldman – but not my last. I highly recommend Scottsboro to anyone who likes to be riveted and moved by a great story. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Personal History of Rachel DuPree

The Personal History of Rachel DuPreeThe Personal History of Rachel DuPree
By Ann Weisgarber
Completed July 18, 2011

Rachel Reeves was a strong-willed, hard-working woman from Chicago who wanted a better life for herself, including marrying a man with “ambition.” When her boss’s son, Isaac DuPree, came home on leave from the Army, Rachel knew she met the man she wanted to marry. Isaac was determined to improve his lot in life by planning to move to South Dakota to become a rancher. Rachel, seeing her ticket out, approached Isaac about marrying her to help him claim more land – an offer he couldn’t refuse. It was then that she became Rachel DuPree – and  her personal history as a black wife of a South Dakota rancher came alive on the page.

Rachel’s story about living in the harsh conditions of South Dakota was mesmorizing. At the time of the story, her ranch was experiencing a severe drought, and she worried about food and water for her family (which included four children and one on the way). As conditions worsened, Rachel began to yearn for life back in Chicago. For Isaac, though, returning home meant failure – he wouldn’t even consider it. Rachel began to ponder her choices, deeply torn between her children and her marriage.

A deep undertone to The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was racism. As a black family, the DuPrees experienced racism in South Dakota, but what was more pronounced was the racism toward Native Americans. Additionally, there was racism among the African Americans, where Northern blacks discriminated against blacks from the South. This book was an eye-opening look at the various forms of racism that plagued the U.S. in the early 20th century.

With its strong characters and themes, A Personal History of Rachel DuPree is a worthwhile read for anyone who likes stories that examine social issues. It was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2010 and shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers. It’s definitely worthy of its accolades, and I look forward to more fiction by Ann Weisgarber. ( )

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