Island Beneath the Sea (Isabel Allende)

 Zerite was born a slave on the French island colony Saint-Domingue, a place we now know to be Haiti. She dreamed of a life beyond being someone's property, yet nothing life sent her way enabled her to escape. The paths of Toulouse Valmorain (her master) and Violette Boisier (prostitute and Zerite's friend) intertwine tragically and beautifully with Zerite's life in appalling ways, revealing a great deal about slavery and plantations on colonial Saint-Domingue and beyond. In fact, this story of Zerite's life is set in the late 1770s and spans historical events that occurred everywhere from Saint Domingue all the way to New Orleans.

Zerite is born into an inferior position in a tumultuous time, and she is a beautiful soul who lives an immensely difficult life. Throughout her story, I continued to hope against all hope that somehow things would work out for Zerite...that somehow she could ease through one loophole or another and find her happiness. Be forearned: rarely did this happen for Zerite; unfortunately, hers was a very realistic tale.

A work of historical fictionIsland Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende provides a holistic understanding of slavery in the Caribbean and gulf societies. Among the many stories colliding in this book is the fascinating history of the very factual uprising among slaves in Saint-Domingue

Slavery in America is a commonly explored topic in literature, although far from a fully exhausted one. Books such as this present the uncomfortable opportunity to digest slavery, one of the most unpalatable periods in history. 

The Help (Kathryn Stockett)

Of all the books I read, there are precious few that grab hold of my heart the way this one has. I have not fallen so deeply in love with a book like this since To Kill a Mockingbird. The hubs was privy to many of the hilarious occurrences buried in these twenty or so odd chapters, and I love him for always listening when I started out with "You are not gonna believe what Minny Jackson has done to Miss Hilly Holbrook now!"

Set in the tumultuous 1960's in the even more volatile city of Jackson, Mississippi, this is the tale of a blossoming novelist and her desire to write about the precarious relationship between white ladies and their black maids. "The help" finally get their chance to tell their side of the story, but it is not without consequence for these truly brave women of Jackson.

Like all great novels, The Help is wondrously complex, with its side stories twisting and turning all over one another in one red hot mess. Skeeter is a new graduate with no prospects for a husband and, much to her momma's chagrin, is itching to put her shiny new English degree to use. While writing for the town paper, Skeeter's eyes become opened to the injustice of the way black people are treated. She begins to question the lines that have always been so clearly assumed between the white family and the help. Aibileen is one of the first maids willing to share her stories, and is soon followed by several others, all with the strictest condition of anonymity. They all have much to lose if they are discovered.

There are some truly lovable women in this book. Minny, Aibileen, and Skeeter are just the kinds of characters you love to love. Hilly, Stuart, and Elizabeth are simply the ones you love to hate. Regardless of which side they are on, every character is distinctively complicated. Their natures and their situations would easily give way to endless discussions in a book club or high school lit class.

I'm definitely filing this one under "Favorites." :)

For more about the author: http://www.kathrynstockett.com/ 

I also just discovered that The Help is coming to a theater near you in August! :)

The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)


Thousands of years ago life was obviously much different than modern existence. One rule of nature that has not changed, however, is the waning and waxing of the moon's monthly cycle...and the way women marked their own monthly cycles by the moon. The Red Tent is a book about so many things and biblical characters, but centers on the way women took their place in the red tent of the family during their monthly bleeding. I have had this on my list for a long time and always thought the women were SENT to the red tent, and that they had to go in order to separate their uncleanness from society. Po thangs. Yeah, only, Diamant paints a much different picture. There was quite a par-tay going on up in that red tent. Or there was in her telling of it, anyhow. 

So Dinah is our narrator, and she just so happens to be the only surviving daughter of Leah. For some biblical background, Leah was the first wife of Jacob (Isaac's son and Abraham's grandson) and sister to Rachel. Jacob ended up taking 4 wives total, all sisters. It seems as though Dinah truly was the only surviving daughter of Jacob and his wives, even with a whole fleet of brothers.

We learn, along with Dinah, that every month, the appearance of the new moon was a signal for the women of Dinah's family to retreat to their red tent. This is where the women would go and have their "time" away from the rest of the men. They also birthed their babies and recovered from delivery in the red tent. They sang songs together, rubbed one another's feet feet with oil, told family stories and legends, ate sweet cakes drizzled with honey, and massaged one another's shoulders. This was 3 days of pure girl time that gave them the opportunity to rest and relax before another month of the grueling service of everyday life. 

It's also important to note that included in Dinah's tale is the (fictionalized) version of the events surrounding the biblical Old Testament Jacob (who cheated his twin Esau out of a birth right); his wives Leah, Rachel, and their sisters; his pack of sons who ranged from precious and gentle to hateful and greedy; Dinah's marriage and the tragedy that resulted at the hand of her brothers; and the sale of Joseph into slavery, along with his rise to power in Egypt. All of these are embellished with Diamant's imagination and characteristics of people of this time that could have occurred, though there is no biblical record. 

Those women were on to something! Retreating to the red tent for sweet cakes, pedicures, hand massages, singing, and storytelling...they had the world's best-kept secret because no man would dare try to enter their tent and disturb them during this time! Why in the world aren't we permitting ourself a trip to the red tent?!  

For all that I loved about their red tent, I also considered it a dangerous foothold. The women had no religion other than the worship of the household and fertility idols passed down in their family, and the idols were quite prevalent in all the women's dealings, to say the least. In this book the only exposure Jacob gave of his worship to the one true God was that he did so himself, failing to teach his wives about the Lord as well. This can be a danger for every believer, and I pray that I will not be selfish with what I know and learn about my God. 

The idolatry was bothersome, and there were also some other troublesome details about everyday life, including the suggestion of bestiality among the shepherds, the physical use of an idol to "unlock" a girl's  womb, and Dinah's version of eternity...to name a few. 

I don't take all the details in Diamant's book as truth, but I do enjoy having my mind opened to what daily life might truly have been like for Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, Zilphah, Joseph, and our dear sweet Dinah. Interestingly enough, I always sort of felt sorry for Joseph. You know, favorite son, target, odd man out, sensitive, visions and the like; however, this book paints him as a real prick. And the more I consider it, the more likely that seems to have been. The Bible indeed does give clear indication that he had quite a bit of pride to reckon with. 

So although I really raised my eyebrows at some of its contents, I really enjoy and value any book that gives me pause to consider the blanks left in the biblical account. 

*Find The Truth about Dinah and her peeps in Genesis 29-38. 

The Watsons Go to Birmingham (Christopher Paul Curtis)

The self-proclaimed “Weird Watsons” are Kenny, Byron, and Joetta, along with their mom and dad. They are all just busy living life in Flint, Michigan in the 1960s. They have school issues, work issues, and behavior issues just like any other family. When Byron, the oldest brother, begins to make some seriously bad choices, their parents decide it is time for him to spend a few months with their grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama. Unfortunately during that time, a church is bombed by racist segregationists, which deeply affects the Watson family and changes their lives and view of the world forever. 
Christopher Paul Curtis takes a very dark and sad time in our nation’s history and presents it on a palatable 5th grade level. He concludes the story with a summary of facts about the civil rights movement and the heroes who gave their lives during this time. Winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and a Newbery Honor Book, it is very easy to see why this book is such an important and effective piece of literature. This tight-knit family experiences small doses of racism in Michigan, and Curtis thoroughly communicates the differences in Northern and Southern culture during this time. 
One of my favorite quotes (by whom, I wish I knew) is that a good writer notices things that other people don’t notice. Curtis brings to light several characteristics of daily life by black Americans during this tumultuous time period. One was that the Watsons had to plan out every single rest and refueling stop for the journey from Michigan to Alabama. They knew they would have to take great care in where they stopped and tried to rent motel rooms or purchase food, because many Southern cities simply refused service to African Americans. We travel a bit, and I can’t imagine setting out for a far away destination without the knowledge that we can stop anywhere we want to for gas or supplies. Another was the way Curtis pointed out that black people and white people could be pretty much just as ignorant about one another during this time, simply because they did not associate with anyone of the opposite race. Byron and Kenny were terrified during one rest stop because they were afraid the rednecks would catch them, hang them, and eat them for dinner. There were some very ugly things that happened in Southern states during the civil rights movement, but it would be unfair to say that all white southerners were hostile.
My only criticism of this work is that it was too brief, too light, with coverage too superficial for such atrocities in American history. I would love for Curtis to have delved more deeply into the issues of this time and how the Watsons were affected by them. But then again, that wouldn’t be a children’s book, now would it?  

The Big Wave (Pearl S. Buck)

This is a short one, easily swallowed in 1 sitting. It is the story of a Japanese village blended with fishing and farming agriculture. Kino's father is a farmer, and they live high on the mountain near a volcano. Jiya's father is a fisherman, meaning they live on the beach, safe from the volcano but dangerously close to the tsunami-prone sea.

One day, the big wave comes. It decimates the village, and Jiya barely escapes with his life. He becomes part of Kino's family, nurtured back to health by Kino's wise father. It seems that everything the man says is a note-worthy nugget of cultural wisdom. For example:
pg. 12- "Enjoy life and do not fear death-that is the way of a good Japanese."
pg. 24- "for life is always stronger than death."
pg. 26-"Ah, no one knows who makes evil storms. We only know that they come. When they come we must live through them as barely as we can, and after they are gone, we must feel again how wonderful is life."

and on and on

It is easy to infer that Kino's father has had experience with a big wave and losing his family before.

Not my favorite Buck book, but it's good for connecting literature and empathy to science.