Thursday, December 17, 2009

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill (2007)

This book was a gift to me from Mary, my sister’s mother-in-law – I had recently given her one of the Penguin Great Journey series which told the true story of Olaudah Equiano, a man born in Africa and taken as a slave to the Americas in the late 1700’s. Coincidentally, Mary’s reading group was reading “Someone Knows My Name” this fall, which not only tells the story of Aminata, a young girl trapped as a slave and also taken to the Americas, but also mentions Equiano in the later parts of the book. There are many similarities between the life journeys of Aminata and Equiano, a major difference being that Aminata is a fictional character and Equiano a real person of flesh and blood, who published his own autobiography in London in 1789.

This does not at all diminish the power of Aminata’s story or the feelings you have as a reader accompanying her on her brutal journeys. Told in the first person, based on the actual history of that time and sparing no details, we first see Aminata in her near idyllic life in Africa, a beloved only child of her Muslim father and midwife mother. She learns much from both her parents, important things which will serve her well: the basics of the Koran and the desire to read and write, and gynecology and obstetrics skills paired with a knowledge of herbal medicine.

She is ripped from her family in the most brutal way imaginable and is forced to make the harsh journey to the Americas, first on foot and later by ship. It is a miracle that she arrives in the Carolinas still alive, just barely hanging on to her humanity and her physical health. She ends up being sold to an indigo plantation where the second phase of her life takes place, but always in the back of her mind the desire to return home to Africa one day.

Through Aminata, we are privy to many aspects of the slave’s experience: daily life and tremendous hardships, the different relationships between fellow slaves as well as slaves and owners, the possibilities and limitations to a person who was held as a slave, the historical context and the role of black slaves and freemen in the Revolutionary War, and what happened to them after the defeat of the British. We are also a witness to the creation of the “Book of Negroes”, a real genealogical document created to register all the free black persons who emigrated to Nova Scotia after the war. Aminata was one of these who regained her freedom through service to the British, but heartbreak and hardship continued in her life, in spite of her new situation in Canada.

Her greatest wish remained: to return to Africa. After years of struggle she finally gets her wish, through the colonization of Freetown by black people from Nova Scotia. But all is not what it seems and the Africa of her youth is difficult to find, so towards the end of her life, the abolitionists convince her to join their struggle as a witness for the British parliament, and she travels to London, where she finally finds a kind of peace.

This is an incredibly moving tale, at times impossible to get out of your mind, or to put down. Also when you consider the conditions that she traveled and lived in, and still managed to survive, it is truly mind boggling. I can’t even imagine as a young teenager, having to go through the indignities and suffering that she bore. How lucky I am for the place and time I was born. But finally the most important aspect of all – at our very heart we are all the same, and want the same things – to be with our parents and family, to live in a safe community, to be able to provide for our children and see them grow up, to learn and to be free to come and go where we will. Today still there are so many of us in this world who do not possess these basic rights, and Aminata’s story is a witness to the tragedy of slavery, the dark side of the human condition, and the beauty and strength of the human spirit. A moving story, a well-written book, and a powerful reminder of things we must never forget.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)

I think I have already mentioned that I have a thing for first novels - I am already impressed before even opening the book at the tenacity and talent it takes to get a first book published! I bought this because it was included in a special Penguin collection of important books put out in 2007 called “Penguin Celebrations” – all the books had a cool retro cover and they were really cute. I bought a few of them, and this was one that appealed to me.

The novel is about a young American writer who travels to Ukraine to search for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazi’s. He is assisted by two Ukrainians: a young man who is a translator and his “blind” grandfather, who serves as their driver. The book is unusual in that half the chapters are actually written by the young Ukrainian translator – and let’s just say his English isn’t that great! It sounds as though the author spent a lot of time listening to Ukrainians speak English because once you get used to reading it, you can really hear Sasha speaking.

The story alternates between the three men’s journey as described by Sasha, letters from Sasha to the American discussing the writing of story and his own life, and then the novel itself, which starts with the history of the village they are searching for and the writer’s great-great-great-great-grandmother and builds up slowly to the grandfather.

Some parts of this novel made me laugh out loud – especially the scene where the American tries to tell the two Ukrainians he is a vegetarian and that this means no meat, “not even sausage” – it was so funny I read it out loud to my husband and then to my one of my kids. But much of the novel is heart wrenchingly sad and deals with extreme cruelty, intolerance, hatred and tragedy.

An excellent, creative and courageous book. One of my favorite lines in the book:

...once you hear something, you can never return to the time before you
heard it.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)

This was a birthday gift from my friend Joy, who said it is one of her favorites. I had heard of it, knew it had been made into a film, but had never read it and didn’t really know what it was about. But I knew it would be good if Joy liked it! I was intrigued when I saw that it was a first novel, I am always impressed by first novels because I know how tough it must be to get that first one turned out and published.

This is a very unique and unusual love story about Henry and Clare. Henry has a genetic disorder that causes him to involuntarily time travel, which turns out to be rather dangerous as he can never predict when or where he will show up – and he is always naked when he arrives. He meets Clare on his time travels to the past when she is a young girl and they become friends as he continues to appear in her time. Later they meet when they are both adults, and in the same present, fall in love, and marry. But Henry’s time travelling begins to cause more and more problems…

I truly admire the author’s imagination and ingenuity in describing Henry’s disorder, it is amazing how well thought out the details are, all the little practical implications have been carefully puzzled into the story so that it becomes completely plausible.

I also found the family relationships described in the book were finely drawn, especially Henry’s grief for his mother, his skewed relationship with his father, Clare’s family dynamics and her mother’s mental illness, Henry and Clare’s friends and their issues, Henry’s work colleagues at the library, Henry’s Korean surrogate mom …by the end of the book they all were a real cast of characters to me, not just extras.

The other thing I loved about this book was the silent main character: the city of Chicago! Having lived in the Chicago area as a child and teen, I was very familiar with a lot of the places the author describes, like the Art Institute, the Natural History Museum, and felt like I was there again. Obviously the author knows the city very well and has spent a lot of time in its many neighborhoods. This could easily be one of those books that inspire tours of the city (like Barcelona and “The Shadow of the Wind”), taking fans to all the spots mentioned in the book, because they are all real places. I loved that the author included an actual real bookstore and record shop in the story!

Ultimately this novel is about loyalty, sacrifice and love, and the last couple of chapters had me staying up late and getting all choked up. A great read. So glad I didn’t see the movie before I got a chance to read it. I don’t even know who the actors were and don’t care – Clare and Henry are so clear in my mind.

Thanks, Joy!