Quick! Read This: The Never Never Sisters by L. Alison Heller

The Never Never Sisters by L. Alison HellerSometimes you want…you need…to escape your own mundane life and get caught up in someone else’s family drama. This has to be true otherwise reality television shows wouldn’t exist. Today, my husband has escaped into his Man Cave to watch the World Cup matches and my e-reader has teleported me to New York’s Upper East, the setting of L. Alison Heller’s The Never Never Sisters.

In The Never Never Sisters, protagonist Paige Reinhardt is feeling smug and secure in her life. She’s rented a summer cottage in the Hamptons, has a close relationship with her wealthy parents and makes a decent living helping couples save their marriages. Paige’s plans for a relaxing summer start to unravel when her husband, a successful corporate law partner, shows up at home and says he’s been suspended from his job pending an investigation. While her husband holes up in his home office, Paige learns that her estranged older sister is planning a visit to New York City. Sloane’s timing and motives are questionable; she has a long history of drug addiction and hasn’t been part of the family in at least twenty years. Unsure whom she can trust, Paige begins investigating her family’s past and her husband’s present business dealings.

Author L. Alison Heller grew up in Connecticut and earned her law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She practices family law in New York, which means she knows a lot about the lawyers and marriage counseling she writes of in the book. USA Today recently declared The Never Never Sisters a “must-read romance.” To learn more about the book and its author, visit Alison Heller’s website or follow @LAlisonHeller on Twitter.

Publisher's Description of The Never Never Sisters by L. Alison Heller
Marriage counselor Paige Reinhardt is counting down the days to summer, eager to reconnect with her workaholic husband at their cozy rental cottage in the Hamptons. But soon a mysterious crisis at Dave’s work ruins their getaway plans. Paige is still figuring out how to handle the unexplained chill in her marriage when her troubled sister suddenly returns after a two-decade silence. Now, instead of enjoying the lazy summer days along the ocean, Paige is navigating the rocky waters of a forgotten bond with her sister in the sweltering city heat. As she attempts to dig deeper into Dave’s work troubles and some long-held family secrets, Paige is shocked to discover how little she knows about the people closest to her. This summer, the self-proclaimed relationship expert will grapple with her biggest challenge yet: Is it worth risking your most precious relationships in order to find yourself?
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Quick! Read This: The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

icecreamqueenorchardstreetI met my first bubbie when in my early 20s and living in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Baltimore. My boss’s wife invited me to a family gathering and explained that “bubbie” was the Jewish term for grandmother. Her bubbie, a bored matriarch in a beige sweater set, advised me that I needed to get married if I was going to continue working for her granddaughter’s husband. Only grandmothers and mobsters can deliver such straightforward counsel–half compliment and half threat–without raising eyebrows. I pictured that wise and direct bubbie when reading the first-person account of Lillian Dunkle, better known as The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street.

Dunkle is the sweet, chilly concoction of author Susan Jane GilmanThe Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is Gilman’s first novel. Lillian Dunkle begins by telling us that she is in legal trouble and wants to set the record straight. She then proceeds to tell her epic life story–from poor Russian immigrant living in a tenement house on Orchard Street to ice cream and media empress dubbed the “Ice Cream Queen of America” by President Eisenhower. Lillian interrupts her reveries only to update her “darlings” on current events or to call famous people or detractors names in Yiddish.

This is a funny book with serious heart. Gilman is a journalist and humorist whose three previous books are nonfiction. She dedicates The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street to Frank McCourt, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning immigrant memoir Angela’s Ashes. McCourt was Gilman’s English teacher and mentor at Stuyvesant High School in New York. You can learn more about Gilman at her author website, susanjanegilman.com.

Publisher's Description of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman
In 1913, little Malka Treynovsky flees Russia with her family. Bedazzled by tales of gold and movie stardom, she tricks them into buying tickets for America. Yet no sooner do they land on the squalid Lower East Side of Manhattan, than Malka is crippled and abandoned in the street. Taken in by a tough-loving Italian ices peddler, she manages to survive through cunning and inventiveness. As she learns the secrets of his trade, she begins to shape her own destiny. She falls in love with a gorgeous, illiterate radical named Albert, and they set off across America in an ice cream truck. Slowly, she transforms herself into Lillian Dunkle, “The Ice Cream Queen” — doyenne of an empire of ice cream franchises and a celebrated television personality. Lillian’s rise to fame and fortune spans seventy years and is inextricably linked to the course of American history itself, from Prohibition to the disco days of Studio 54. Yet Lillian Dunkle is nothing like the whimsical motherly persona she crafts for herself in the media. Conniving, profane, and irreverent, she is a supremely complex woman who prefers a good stiff drink to an ice cream cone. And when her past begins to catch up with her, everything she has spent her life building is at stake.
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Quick! Read This: The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Books by Tom Rachman

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the latest novel from author Tom Rachman. His first novel was The Imperfectionists. Learn more about the author at tomrachman.com.

School has disappeared me again. I’m studying how to teach Chaucer to grade school and college students this term. Did you know that Terry Jones, one of the members of Monty Python, is a Chaucer scholar? After learning that factoid, I attempted again to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail on DVD. I’ve seen chunks of Monty Python films and TV episodes before, but I just don’t “get” their brand of humor. My husband is a fan and we both enjoyed seeing the musical Spamalot when it came to Atlanta’s. However, my newly-acquired Chaucer knowledge didn’t loosen up my funny bone during the Holy Grail viewing. I am finding Jones’s book Chaucer’s Knight a most useful text for school.

I believe that author Tom Rachman would understand the above literary rambling. When I arrived at pages 162-163 of the advanced reader copy of Rachman’s second novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, I cried with laughter because I recognized myself and some of the literary scholars and students I’ve encountered in grad school. Rachman satirically fillets a literary studies student–a character named Emerson no less–on these two pages. But Emerson is only one of the many robust and intricate characters found in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. Since this is a “Quick! Read This” post, I’ll share a better description of the book from Random House:

Publisher's Description of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
Tooly Zylberberg, the American owner of an isolated bookshop in the Welsh countryside, conducts a life full of reading, but with few human beings. Books are safer than people, who might ask awkward questions about her life. She prefers never to mention the strange events of her youth, which mystify and worry her still. Taken from home as a girl, Tooly found herself spirited away by a group of seductive outsiders, implicated in capers from Asia to Europe to the United States. But who were her abductors? Why did they take her? What did they really want? There was Humphrey, the curmudgeonly Russian with a passion for reading; there was the charming but tempestuous Sarah, who sowed chaos in her wake; and there was Venn, the charismatic leader whose worldview transformed Tooly forever. Until, quite suddenly, he disappeared. Years later, Tooly believes she will never understand the true story of her own life. Then startling news arrives from a long-lost boyfriend in New York, raising old mysteries and propelling her on a quest around the world in search of answers. Tom Rachman—an author celebrated for humanity, humor, and wonderful characters—has produced a stunning novel that reveals the tale not just of one woman but of the past quarter-century as well, from the end of the Cold War to the dominance of American empire to the digital revolution of today. Leaping between decades, and from Bangkok to Brooklyn, this is a breathtaking novel about long-buried secrets and how we must choose to make our own place in the world. It will confirm Rachman’s reputation as one of the most exciting young writers we have.

A big fan of Rachman’s first novel, The Imperfectionists, I thoroughly enjoyed this follow-up. Rachman may one day find himself the focus of the literary scholarship he pokes fun at in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. To learn more about the author, visit his website at tomrachman.com.

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Fiction for Him Friday: The Martian by Andy Weir

Zach Law writes about Fiction for Him

Zach Law writes about “Fiction for Him”

A note from the editor: literature, like any other art form, is subjective. I realize that not everyone shares my taste in books, especially the person who reads next to me in bed every night. While my husband Zach and I don’t necessarily enjoy the same books, we both love reading and writing. You may remember that I asked Zach to share his review of Kent Wascom’s The Blood of Heaven last year. Now I’ve asked him to write a regular guest post that I’m tentatively calling “Fiction for Him Friday.” As you’ll learn, Zach reads a lot of sports and nonfiction, too. I hope Zach will introduce us to new genres, titles and writers, although I’m the one who put today’s book, The Martian by Andy Weir, into his hands. That’s what you do for people you love, right? Recommend books? Besides, nepotism and fresh content rock. – Alison

The Martian by Andy WeirI have written manuscripts. None of them have advanced to the “sold” stage, and maybe it’s because I haven’t come up with the right opening line. The Martian by Andy Weir has such an opening line, and forgive the language.

“I’m pretty much fucked.”

Such is the beginning for Mark Whatley, an astronaut stranded on Mars after an unfortunate impaling that leaves him dead but not quite. A bad sandstorm causes Mark’s team to abandon him on Mars and the botanist/engineer has to MacGyver his way through emergency after emergency to stay alive on a planet hostile to life.

The end of the first chapter summarizes Mark’s plight perfectly:

I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

Naturally, Mark’s not as screwed as he thinks, otherwise this would be a short, depressing novel. Astronauts in the Ares program have multiple specialties, which explains Mark’s botanist/engineer bona fides. The latter is good for things like taking hydrogen out of water to make fuel. The former is important because Mark has to survive long enough to be rescued by the following Mars crew, and that’s hundreds of days in the future. Mark finds a stash of potatoes, brought on the trip for a Thanksgiving Day feast, and discovers a way to get enough water to saturate the dry Martian soil and become the first farmer of Mars.

Mark eventually finds a way to communicate with NASA, who has to solve a problem about a hundred more times complicated than Apollo 13 to get Mark back home, or at least resupplied with enough food to survive. The rest of the book is non-stop problem solving. Mark seems like a bit of a movie hero for a while, solving all of his problems with brain or brawn. He does make the occasional error or two, because otherwise the tension would evaporate. He needs the help of people “billions and billions” of miles away to continue his modest goal of not dying.

Andy Weir, author of The Martian

Andy Weir, author of The Martian

While the book doesn’t make me want to sign up on the next interplanetary mission (the book doesn’t specify when this happens, and I’ll assume the answer to that is “not in my lifetime”), it does move the blood. Mark doesn’t accept defeat, despite some major setbacks. He chafes at times to the ultra-conservative ways of NASA. Let’s face it, the world was somewhat bored with traveling to the moon by the time Apollo 13 had its struggles. The human side of space travel is what makes kids want to become astronauts when they grow up.

I’d like to bring up one point: Andy Weir self-published this book first–the so-called kiss of death if you want to be considered a “serious” author. Three years after self-publishing The Martian, Weir has a publisher (Crown) and guys like multiple-Hugo winner Larry Niven blurbing the novel. The last 150 pages of The Martian are a rush you really can’t slow down. This is the “hard” sci-fi book of your dreams, with no space opera or green alien queens to tide you over. Andy Weir is the real deal. To learn more about the author, visit his website at andyweirauthor.com.

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Two Wildly Different Books About Sisters: The Moon Sisters and The Lost Sisterhood

While behind in my blogging here at Southern Spines, I’m surpassing my goal of finishing at least one book a week for my Goodreads 2014 Reading Challenge. I like the site because it’s a way to track what I’ve been reading, bookmark what I’d like to read and discover new information about books from other users. Do you use Goodreads? If so, let’s be friends.

The Moon Sisters by Therese WalshIn March, I enjoyed two new releases dealing with the complex relationship between sisters. The Moon Sisters is the second novel from Therese Walsh, co-founder of one of my favorite websites about writing, Writer Unboxed.

The Moon Sisters are Jazz and Olivia, who take turns narrating the book. Each has unanswered questions about the sudden death of their mother and takes a different approach to grieving her loss. Jazz, the quintessential older sister, resents always having to care for her family and plans her escape from home by taking a new job. Olivia has a rare neurological condition called synesthesia, which causes more than one sense to be stimulated at the same time; she smells sights or tastes words. For example, Olivia associates the smell of sunshine with her mother and eventually blinds herself after staring into the sun for too long in a vain attempt to reconnect.

Readers learn more about the mother’s life through a series of her unsent letters, which are interspersed among the book’s chapters. Beth Moon shared details of her life with the father who disowned her for getting pregnant with Jazz at an early age. Beth also spent most of her life writing a fairy tale about the bogs and ghost lights of the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, but she never completed the book nor saw the ghost lights. Olivia sets out to finish her mother’s story at Monongahela, obliging Jazz to “be led around by the nose through the forest over bat-crazy bullshittery.” Walsh’s bittersweet and honest depiction of sisterhood will stay with you long after the ghost lights flicker and fade. Learn more about Therese Walsh at her website: theresewalsh.com.

The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier

Sisterhood has a few different definitions in Anne Fortier’s The Lost Sisterhood. At the heart of the story is one woman’s quest to prove that the Amazons of ancient folklore really existed and that their sisterhood survives to this day. Diana Morgan, a philologist (written records and language expert), became obsessed with the Amazons as a child when her grandmother claimed to be one. Before disappearing, Diana’s grandmother left behind clues to the Amazons’ existence, including a notebook containing their language. When the letters appear in an excavated temple in North Africa, Diana sees an opportunity to prove her theories by deciphering the inscription. A scholarly excursion quickly turns into a multinational expedition and womanhunt, as Diana becomes entangled with wealthy and powerful entities that are equally invested in exposing or hiding the Amazons.

The contemporary adventure alternates with the ancient backstory of Myrina, the first queen of the Amazons. Myrina crosses the Mediterranean to rescue her biological sister Lilli and their Amazonian sisters, who were captured by Greek marauders. Along the way, Myrina meets the heir to the Trojan throne and her mission intersects with the long-simmering feud between Greece and Troy. Fortier does an excellent job of weaving Myrina’s story into the ancient legend of the Trojan War. If you enjoy international adventure narratives, mysteries replete with myriad historical details and strong female characters, you’ll appreciate this repurposing of the Amazon myth. Anne Fortier’s author website is annefortier.com.


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Overcoming Oppression and Abuse through Love: Ruby by Cynthia Bond

FEBRUARY 2015 UPDATE: I’ve been telling people since last spring about Ruby. This week, Oprah Winfrey announced that Cynthia Bond’s debut novel is her fourth pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. I’m delighted that Ruby will gain so many new eyeballs and spark so many water cooler conversations, difficult as those conversations may be.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

I have been trying to write about Ruby by Cynthia Bond for weeks now without any luck. You see, I want everyone to read this book. I think it is one of the most moving and well-crafted novels I’ve read in a very long time. However, I also feel like I have to offer some kind of disclaimer. One that reads: “This book will upend you.”

I first heard about Ruby from an indie bookseller who was halfway through an advanced reader copy and said it was blowing him away. Thank goodness for indie booksellers. One only has to read the first few sentences of Ruby to understand what my bookseller friend was referencing. Bond’s writing is arresting:

Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high. The people of Liberty Township wove her into cautionary tales of the wages of sin and travel. They called her buck-crazy. Howling, half-naked mad. The fact that she had come back from New York City made this somewhat understandable to the town.

In 1963, just two days after the March on Washington, the book’s eponymous protagonist reappears in Liberty Township, Texas. Ruby had been living in New York City with no plans to return to her all-black hometown, but news of a close family member’s death summons her. In Liberty, Ruby confronts the evils inherent in being a mulatto girl raised in a patriarchal small town where doctrine and social class mask a deep well of hatred. Ruby becomes a vessel for all that is ugly in the world, driving her to madness. Only one man in Liberty, Ephram Jennings, remembers the girl from their shared childhood and sees a human being worth salvaging.

I’ve sampled online reviews to see how others have described the book. Gina Webb, book reviewer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, calls Ruby “Bond’s harrowing and powerful debut” when listing it among her handpicked southern titles for the summer. Still other critics are comparing Cynthia Bond to Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston.

Ruby does remind me of an old African-American saying that appears in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston’s protagonist, Janie Crawford says…

“De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”

Cynthia Bond, author of Ruby

Cynthia Bond, author of Ruby

From birth, Ruby is an object of oppression and abuse. Bond reveals in explicit detail the horrific things that Ruby has experienced. As a reader, you yearn to uncover the root of the town’s problems, of which Ruby has become an emblem. However, the descriptions of physical violence and sexual exploitation of women and children–while necessary to tell the tale–are often hard to endure.

In this interview, Cynthia Bond says that Ruby is “a love story of the heart.” The love story and the fresh prose will deliver you through some of the tougher scenes. Since finishing the book at the end of April, I’ve returned to it many times, to re-read the sentences and passages that I have highlighted, a sea of pastel yellow in my e-reader. To learn more about Cynthia Bond and her debut novel Ruby, visit her website at cynthiabond.com.

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The Maymonster Guards the Light at the End of the Tunnel

timeeyeballsbooksIf there is a light at the end of the graduate school tunnel, then its entrance is guarded by a mythical creature I’ve begun calling the “Maymonster.” It’s a bastardization of another creative term that my school uses–the “Maymester.” Maymester is where one crams sixteen weeks’ worth of classes and study into three and a half weeks in the month of May. As someone who operates better–or perhaps, only–with a deadline, I couldn’t resist the notion of getting one class closer to graduation in a very finite period of time. However, as someone who enjoys sleeping and working and having a life, I probably should have reconsidered.

I can only write and joke about the Maymonster now because I’ve defeated him. I’m on the other side of attending class five days a week, reading a novel a day, and completing two papers and two oral presentations. I’m on a short break now before I begin a more leisurely eight-week summer school course on Chaucer. That’s why I’m finally able to update Southern Spines.

The upside to my Maymonster class was that I really enjoyed the topic, texts, professor and my fellow classmates. The class was an introduction to the history of African American religion and its place in literature. Since my post about the books for my feminist literary theory class was so popular, I thought I’d include another gallery with the books from my African American religion class. I admit to not reading every single one of these books in great detail; I had to skim a few in order to prepare for classroom discussion. I’m eager to revisit some of the books later when I have more time. Right now, I’m powering through my classes and working toward a goal of completing my degree in December. Gulp.

  • Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
  • Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
  • In My Father’s House by Ernest J. Gaines
  • Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
  • Quicksand by Nella Larsen
  • Sarah Phillips by Andrea Lee
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • Paradise by Toni Morrison
  • Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans by Albert J. Raboteau
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • By the Light of My Father’s Smile by Alice Walker
  • Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson
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April She Reads Book Club Selection: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle ZevinLess than two weeks of the spring semester remain for me, which is why I haven’t been writing much here at Southern Spines. I have one large research paper and a big essay-only final both happening next week, so I’m trying to sequester myself from social media and the Interwebs as much as possible. It’s a shame because I have so much great content to share with you!

Before I cloak myself in virtual obscurity, I must tell you about the April She Reads Book Club selection, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. I have to read a lot of books–for work, for school, for the Southern Spines blog. Books litter my office; you’ll find them on shelves, in boxes and in plastic bins on the floor. My iPad overflows with ebooks and audiobooks that await my attention. Hardbacks from two different libraries fill my backpack.

Reading on deadline can suck just a smidgeon of fun from the act of reading. The phrase “Required Reading” sounds more like a punishment than a privilege. But reading The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry brought me nothing but pleasure. I loved everything about this book.

The main character, A. J. Fikry, is the owner of Island Books, a widower and an unapologetic book snob. A. J. starts shutting down and drinking too much after his wife’s death, but chance forces him to reconnect with life and the people in his community. As a reader, you will become so engrossed in the stories of the people of Alice Island, you will forget that a mystery lies at the center of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. When someone leaves a strange basket at the bookstore, A. J. enlists the help of the town’s police chief to investigate the circumstances behind the abandoned package.

Gabrielle Zevin, author of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Gabrielle Zevin, author of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Gabrielle Zevin plays to an audience of zealous book lovers. She precedes each section of the book with the equivalent of a “Staff Recommendation” from A. J. and sprinkles literary allusions throughout the pages. We learn much of what we know about A. J., the chief, and the other characters by what they read. Because, as the book says, “You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question: ‘What is your favorite book?’” 

To learn more about Gabrielle Zevin, visit the author’s website at gabriellezevin.com. To read what my fellow She Reads bloggers are saying about The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, check out this post on the She Reads website.

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Death to Deceptive PR Tactics in the Digital Age: Spin Sucks by Gini Dietrich

Spin Sucks by Gini DietrichAs a marketing and public relations professional, nothing makes me cringe more than the word “spin.” I’ve been in meetings with good-intentioned souls who have used the word’s verb function: “Alison, you’ll know how to spin this.” **Shudder** Or, as a noun: “Let’s put a nice spin on this story.” **Tremble** Most recently, I heard the term “spin doctor” used on a BBC television drama where a married politician was trying to cover up his affair with a staffer; the spin doctor’s job was to dazzle and distract the unwitting reporters who were pursuing the story.

Maybe the word “spin” bothers me because I worked in television news for seven years before coming over to the “dark side” of public relations. More likely, it’s because I am a warm-blooded human being who equates “spin” with other negative words like lying, deception and fraud. And that’s just not what marketing and public relations professionals do. When you tell someone that you think they’re good at “spinning” something, you’re saying that you think they are liars. Even more offensive, you think your audience, your customers or your clients are dumb enough to be deceived.

Gini Dietrich, author of Spin Sucks

Gini Dietrich, author of Spin Sucks. Photo courtesy of Arment Dietrich.

Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communication firm, has made it her mission to challenge the concept of spin. Recently, she borrowed the title from her wildly successful marketing and PR blog, Spin Sucks, and attached it to a new book.

Gini says she wrote Spin Sucks: Communication and Reputation Management in the Digital Age for business leaders who need to understand how public relations and marketing really work in today’s digital environment. She writes that part of the reason so many people think of communication professionals as spin doctors is because there’s no universal definition of “public relations” and no governing body to police the industry. Anyone can call herself a public relations consultant today and horror stories predominate many conversations about the PR profession. Gini shares a few of these negative stories in her book, but devotes many more pages to positive examples of communication done right.

Much more than an aspirational mantra, Spin Sucks is an antidote to the unflattering view of public relations as a mystical and deceitful practice. Gini offers fresh and relevant case studies for ethical and effective communication campaigns that profit from today’s technology. She devotes an entire chapter to search engine optimization and the ever-changing Google algorithm. Spin Sucks also demonstrates through well-researched narratives how companies are managing crisis communications in a world where one negative comment can spread like wildfire in minutes through social media. Executives or leaders whose responsibilities include hiring communication professionals–whether those professionals work inside or outside the organization–will benefit from the hiring criteria that Spin Sucks offers. Public relations, marketing and communication practitioners will find inspiration and strategy that will help them better serve their clients and their profession.

To learn more about Spin Sucks–the book and the blog–visit SpinSucks.com. I received an advance galley copy of the book from Gini Dietrich in exchange for an honest review. I applied to be a part of the Spin Sucks brand ambassador program, which was a smart approach that Gini used to promote the launch of her new book. As someone who is keenly interested in promoting worthy authors and their books, I have been studying the brand ambassador campaign and hope to report its results and lessons learned in a future blog post.

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Exploring Invisible Evils and Real-Life Heroines: Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings

Tomorrow morning on her Super Soul Sunday show, Oprah Winfrey will interview author Sue Monk Kidd. In December, Winfrey chose Kidd’s most recent novel, The Invention of Wingsas her Oprah Book Club 2.0 pick. The book has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list since its release in January. The following video is a preview of tomorrow’s show.

I received my own sneak peek this month when Sue Monk Kidd spoke before a group in Atlanta. She read from and signed copies of The Invention of Wings. What did I learn from her speech?

Kidd went to college and became a nurse. Eight years after graduation, Kidd pursued her lifelong desire to write for a living.

Kidd said one of her “weird idiosyncrasies” is that she must have a title before she can start writing a book. Before writing The Invention of WingsKidd completed six months of research and began writing down titles. She took a walk on the beach where she picked up an angel wing seashell. The shell prompted her to think of slaves in the 19th century as having their wings clipped. From this find on the beach, Kidd had her title–The Invention of Wingsand later her first few sentences:

There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, “Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk KiddThe “when” is November 1803. The “here” is Charleston, South Carolina. And the narrator is Hetty “Handful” Grimke, a ten-year-old slave. The story alternates between the first-person narration of Handful and her mistress, Sarah Grimke. Sarah is just a year older than Handful and receives the waiting maid as an eleventh birthday present. Sarah does not think it is right to own another person and aspires to be the first lawyer in the United States, so she copies a manumission document from one of her father’s law books. This first act of rebellion begins Sarah and Handful’s friendship and sets them both on a turbulent course of resistance.

I did not know that The Invention of Wings was historical fiction based on the lives of Sarah Grimke and her sister, Angelina, before I read my advance copy at the end of last year. As much as I savored Kidd’s prose and wanted to believe that a privileged white girl in the antebellum south would befriend a slave, I was deeply conflicted about such an impossible story. When I read the author’s note at the end of the book, I learned that Sarah Grimke did receive a slave for her eleventh birthday and later devoted her life to the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. While Handful lived only in the imagination of Sue Monk Kidd, many of the other characters and events in The Invention of Wings are based on real happenings in the 45 years that the book covers.

In her speech, Kidd said that writing the book meant delving into the parts of history that we flinch from. She said that she considers slavery the “ground zero of American racism” and believes that we, as citizens and human beings, must “go into the wound” of America’s slave-owning past before we can effectively deal with the racism that still exists today. When writing The Invention of Wings, Kidd says she was most interested in asking, “How does evil gather when nobody’s looking?” and “What is it in a human being that allows these invisible evils to go unnoticed?” Her fictionalized account of Sarah Grimke’s life explores the circumstances that led Sarah to notice and challenge the otherwise invisible evils of slavery and women’s oppression. Oprah Winfrey was right when she said, “It is impossible to read this book and not come away thinking differently about our status as women and about all the unsung heroines who played a role in getting us to where we are.” I look forward to her conversation with Sue Monk Kidd tomorrow on OWN.

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