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At a party to celebrate the birth of her first child, Jowita Bydlowska did what a lot of relieved, new mothers might do: She drank a glass of champagne, after nine long months of sobriety.

Oops. Make that three and a half years of sobriety—gone in the space of a split-second and not to return anytime soon.

Her frankly titled memoir—Drunk Mom (Viking Penguin, $16)—doesn’t begin on that day, but during a much later one, an evening when she’s at a museum and finds a baggie of coke in the women’s restroom. This baggie is perched on top of the toilet paper container, no less. Bydlowska sets the tone for her story that will underlie nearly every decision:

“So what do I do?” she asks, then answers: “I pour the powder down the toilet.” Pause. “No, no I don’t.” She gets out her makeup mirror, cuts “a slug of a line,” snorts it, and returns to a party. Immediately, she’s overcome by an appetite for more, “no ordinary wanting.”

This wanting is more like a giant baby, “a wet hungry baby that no one is picking up to soothe.” Like the one she left at home, with her sister babysitting him: her few-months-old baby, whose appetites will now compete with her own throughout a book that reads like Augusten Burroughs’ Dry, but with a baby in it.

Out of respect, I thought I’d wait until well after Mother’s Day to talk about Drunk Mom, which is appalling, irreverent, irresistible, and crushingly honest—with good reason. As Bydlowska has said, part of getting over an addiction is admitting it. And she does. For 320 pages.

Although some might disagree, the woman we meet in her memoir is a careful mother, if a relapsing, crazed and risk-taking addict. After her cocaine spree, she Googles cocaine + breast milk, to find out how long the drug will stay in her system. She doesn’t want to hurt her baby. She just wants to use his stroller to hide her empties in.

For the next eleven months, the book boldly goes where few moms have gone before, as Bydlowska documents in raw, unhurried detail her lethal downward spiral, one that includes waking up repeatedly in places she doesn’t remember going to sleep, unsure of what happened, sometimes injured and bloody. She hides her bottles, she hides her drugs, she pretends to her boyfriend that everything is fine.

In between the lying, cover-ups, carefully considered trips to the liquor store, and drug scores from strangers, are moments in which Bydlowska reminds us that the story of her addiction is also one about an inexperienced young mother.

“He starts to cry as soon as I lie down in the bathtub. He has the worst sense of timing. He cries as soon as I sit down to a meal, when I need to shit, do my makeup, have sex, when the doorbell rings, when I take baths. He stays silent and content when I surf the Net in boredom, does nothing when hours stretch into megahours.”

Everything takes place in the present, placing us smack in the midst of Bydlowska’s unending dilemma of how to stop drinking and at the same time, not ever really have to stop.

When she admits to her sister and boyfriend that she’s had a relapse, the three of them agree she should see her family doctor. How often do you drink? the woman asks her. Bydlowski immediately hedges: “I don’t drink every day,” she says to herself. “Every other day. Well, no more than six days a week. I lie: Maybe once a week.” How many drinks, the doctor asks. “Maybe two,” she lies again. As she draws the doctor in with half truths, she has a revelation: “My problem is barely my problem now—there are more and more people getting involved and we’re all going to make me stop drinking.” Before leaving the doctor’s office, she is already plotting the location, in her head, of the two closest liquor stores.

Born in Warsaw, Bydlowska emigrated from Poland as a teenager and now lives in Toronto. Reactions to and against this book began a year ago when it came out in Canada and ended up a bestseller. Bydlowka has been accused of over-sharing, among other things, and reviewers have expressed concern about what will happen when her son is old enough to read about what she did.

Sarah Hampson, of Canada’s Globe and Mail, said that “Bydlowska is very honest in her writing. Let me be as well then. There’s self-harm in choosing to publish this memoir. It’s just like alcoholism: the recklessness of it; the abandonment of responsibility to her partner, to their relationship, to her child, now almost 4, and also, most painfully, to herself. And because of that, I feel both protective of her and annoyed by her…”

Julie Rak, professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, countered Hampson’s article in “Memoir, Ethics, and Shame: the reaction to Drunk Mom,” advising “what happens when a memoir is seen to go TOO far in telling truths about the memoirist’s life.” The problem, Rak says, is that Bydlowska has refused “to create a moral from her story which makes everything alright.”

But Bydlowska’s refusal to glamorize her addiction or to feel sorry for herself is exactly what won me over—an addict who doesn’t bullshit their audience is a rare thing. So is an alcoholic who doesn’t make excuses.

Alcoholism, maintains Bydlowska, “is not a disease. Disease implies you can maybe cure it. In my opinion, it’s closer to a condition or, perhaps, a habit you can’t unlearn completely once you stop it.” People confuse it with drinking, she says, promising to slow down, cut back. That isn’t possible, she explains, because alcoholism is “not drinking, just like hemophilia is not bleeding.”

In a chapter called Archaeology, Bydlowska lists the reasons she drank, one by one: “Because I’m a first child,” she says, who cried a lot, fell off a table and hit her head, bit other children, was ashamed of being sickly, compensated by identifying with Jim Morrison, “wanted to be tragic,” lost her way when her family moved to the U.S., and, in one spectacularly casual reference, “because I got raped.”

The reasons add up to a toxic rage that she admits to eventually turning on herself, “because I couldn’t handle all the love” she felt for her son when he was born. And also for her partner and sister. It’s the most critical element of her survival, this awareness that love and happiness overwhelmed her back to addiction: “Happiness puts you at too much risk—what if you were to lose it?” When she finally understood how to breast-feed her baby, for instance, Bydlowska finally re-established her connection with her son, “the most intimate, sacred relationship I’ve ever had,” one during which she, an agnostic, says she heard angels singing. “So I went ahead and I destroyed that connection.”

At times, I studied the way Bydlowska uses her adopted language and how much this bears on the candor of her writing. Her determination to get it right is especially poignant in a flashback to high school in which she gets drunk in her new country in order to communicate with a boy. But it’s “drunk talk,” the kind that “made it seem as if I had the language tamed and manipulated to serve me.” It made her brave, though she couldn’t understand what was said to her, “as if I were underwater and he was above it, on the safe surface. The sudden realization that I couldn’t understand him and that I wasn’t really talking either. It was nonsense falling out of my mouth as I tried to put my mouth on his to make myself shut up.” So much of Drunk Mom, of Bydlowska’s recovery, is an effort to end that habit of slurring her reality.

There is what could be called a happy, or happier, ending, in which Bydlowska gets her shit together and stops drinking. She hopes her baby has not been unduly affected by this negative, destructive cycle; she and partner Russell Smith do not split up. She urges readers not to confuse this with “the part where I talk about how difficult but wonderful things became after I got sober.”

She admits that she’s not sure what wonderful even is, that although she’d like to say she found “true happiness,” she’s not sure what that feels like, because she only knew it when she was high. “This is no self-help book,” she adds. Keenly self-aware, always one jump ahead of herself, even as she sits with her baby in an ER awaiting treatment for a broken toe, Bydlowska scans herself for BS, the kind she’s used to shoveling, as she imagines a life as a single mom, perhaps stripping to support herself and the baby.

Just kidding. “I don’t take myself so seriously that I completely believe myself,” she notes. “I am so used to me. But this is the state of an addict’s mind. It’s a fantasyland.” It’s that state that Drunk Mom attempts to relay, to sustain for as long as it takes to tell the tale.

Bydloska has been sober now for three years.

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In an article that ran last year on The Fix, “Mommy Drunkest,” Bydlowska talks at length about looking over the edge, asking for help, and luck. For more information about her book and life, see her website. Read an excerpt from Drunk Mom here.

 

If my parents were alive today, my dad would turn an astonishing 103 at the end of May, and my mom would be closing in on 92 (July). I am sure they’d have needed help from their three kids long before now. And as I see my friends grappling with their aging parents’ needs, I often wonder if I could have been as patient, as committed to their care, as loving, and as self-sacrificing.

Would I have been able to juggle my parents’ oddball personalities, which would have inevitably intensified as they grew more helpless? My dad, a lifelong commuter to NYC, possessed a wanderlust that stayed just barely controlled in our then-quaint university town. Would he have begun to disappear at intervals, turning up on the highway like Bruce Dern in Nebraska? My mom, who painted and tended to brood over the faintest slight, blamed her parents for sabotaging her artistic potential. Could I have learned, finally, to keep my cool, to withstand her avalanche of recriminations and listen (without arguing) to her rants about how her parents ruined her life?

I doubt it. Not if they both ended up living with me.

I’m afraid I would be more like New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, whose new graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? describes the complicated mix of feelings, responsibilities and downright disasters that arise when we have to switch roles with our parents.

George and Elizabeth Chast and daughter Roz

In their 40s when she was born, Chast’s mother and father lived into their 90s, and resisted her attempts to plan for their future until they had no choice, and even then, refused to go gentle into that good night.

He was a French and Spanish teacher at Lafayette High School, she an assistant principal at different public grade schools in Brooklyn. In one of several photographs, smiling as sweetly and happily as any young couple, they look more like grandparents than parents.

But their ages left Roz without a real childhood. They were overprotective, anxious, and fearful about their daughter, and considered other children to be bad influences. In a photo of Roz, age 11, she looks like a miniature version of her mother: kerchiefed, overcoated, wearing cat glasses, and already worried.

Moreover, their unusual closeness—her parents believed each other to be “soul mates,” and were unapologetically co-dependent—left little room for anyone else.

When the book opens, Roz is married and has a three-year-old child; her parents, George and Elizabeth, are 78. Roz, living in Connecticut, far from their Brooklyn apartment, has no desire to go back to visit. Ever. But, one day, out of the blue—it’s Sept. 9  2001—she felt “an intense need” to go see them.

If there were ever any doubt that a graphic memoir, and one by a cartoonist known chiefly for her wry, even goofy style, could be an effective vehicle for a biographical story about one’s aging parents, Chast’s trembling outlines, fairytale interiors and dazed, bewildered looking characters in Can’t We Talk…? puts it to rest. (And the mystery is solved of why so many of her cartoon living-room sofas and chairs are dotted with doilies: the apartment her parents lived in was the one Chast grew up in, unchanged since they’d moved there in 1959.)

Although the cartoon panels themselves, are, of course, wonderfully expressive, so is Chast’s writing: “This was DEEP Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of people who have been left behind by everything and everyone. The Brooklyn of smelly hallways and neighbors having screaming fights and where no one went into Manhattan—“the city”—unless it was for their job at Drudgery, Inc.”

She finds her formerly spry parents on the decline. “I could see that they were slowly leaving the sphere of TV commercial old age—spry! totally independent!! Just like a normal adult but with SILVER HAIR!!!”—and moving into the part of old age that was scarier, harder to talk about, and not a part of this culture.”

They decline her help but submit to regular visits; in these sections, we get to know them as people, not just cartoon characters. Bossy, temperamental Elizabeth and her cowering, sweet-natured husband, had no desire to face their uncertain future.

“It was against my parents’ principles to talk about death,” Chast explains, adding that they considered most “spiritual” questions just another form of navel-gazing. However, their married life began with exactly that sort of life-altering event: the death of their first child, in 1940, when Elizabeth was seven and a half months pregnant. It’s one of several reveals that Roz shares in the memoir that gives it an unexpected gravitas.

Another is her relationship with her mother, the woman who once told her, “I’m not your friend. I’m your mother.”

But after Elizabeth falls and has to be hospitalized, Roz finds out that her father’s dementia has progressed much further than she knew. She takes him home to Connecticut, where his uniquely fretful personality makes for the some of the funniest panels in the book. He’s the opposite of handy—“he had a tendency to break things in ways you did not know they could be broken”—and a stupendously picky eater.

The book departs from its normal cartoon style after Chast moves her parents into an assisted living facility and returns to clean out their apartment, a task she describes as “the massive, deeply weird, and heartbreaking job of going through my parents’ possessions: almost fifty years worth, crammed into four rooms.”Chast apartment stuff

For this Herculean labor, cartoons aren’t enough. Photos of her parents’ collections—eye glasses, “old Schick shavers,” “staplers from my childhood,” drawer after drawer filled with pencils, pens and rubber bands—suggest the poignant pack-ratting that was their lifestyle. Even more moving are the daily letters she finds: “hundreds and hundreds” her father wrote to her mother when he was in the Navy. “He wrote every day, and sometimes he wrote twice a day.” Along with ones her mother wrote him back, this is “the best find,” and she adds them to a take-home pile. Her unsentimental approach to the rest is instructive.

Elizabeth lasted another two years. In describing those times, Chast makes tentative stabs at assessing the cool relationship she had with her mother. Her mother loves her; she loves her mother. But “something was off.” That ambivalence and lack of closeness makes her mother’s final days all the more affecting and real.

For adult children now dealing with aging and ill parents, Chast’s book is both educational and cheering, half-awful and half-hilarious. It’s realistic about their decline, punctuated by touching examples of their fierce attempts to maintain their freedom and security, and about the terrific financial toll that caring for them took on their savings—and whatever they might have left their daughter in the way of an inheritance.

Part of what makes her memoir so effective is its honesty, its unflinching portrayal of two human beings facing the other side of 95. In hospice care, her father suffers from bedsores and morphine-induced hallucinations. Only hours after his death, her mother endures an incident of humiliating and epic proportions that is anything but funny.

GAllant and GoofusChast never portrays herself as an angel, instead picturing the many times she loses all patience with her parents, her fantasies that they will conveniently die together at the same time, and her frustration over their eccentric behaviors, which only increase with age.

In the end, “I like having my parents in my closet,” Chast says of her mother and father’s cremains—kept separate, she told the funeral director, so her father could have “a little space of his own” after being dominated by his wife for so many years. She is still working things out with her mother, trying “to make it right.”

She continues to wonder if she was adopted.

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For more about Roz Chast, see her website. The New Yorker has many more panels from her memoir here.

For an unbelievably great interview with Chast at the Comics Journal, go here.

If I had to name my favorite memoir about loss, it would be Blue Jelly: Love Lost and the Lessons of Canning, by Debby Bull. It’s not sad, and no one dies. But it has some of the best lessons about how to work through despair of any book I’ve ever read on the subject.

In it, the author mourns the end of a relationship—“I was driven to canning by the wreck of my heart”—and copes with her heartache by learning how to can jellies, jams, preserves, and chutneys.

Sound lightweight? Maybe not, if you’ve just broken up with the love of your life. Besides, despite its charming and hilarious premise, Blue Jelly offers an instructive way to overcome depression.

Through canning, Bull says, “You create an orderly little world. Unlike what has happened to you, these steps take you to what you planned on. You become a person in a world in which things turn out the way you thought they would.”

And that, on so many levels, is the answer to dealing with grief and loss: the remaking of your broken world.

If you’re like me, you’d rather write about it than can your troubles away. As a former contributing editor and writer for Rolling Stone, Bull had an advantage when it came to telling her story. But what if you’re new to the craft and not sure where to start? What if your grief runs deeper than the end of a romantic relationship? What if you’re afraid of alienating family and friends by writing about it?

That’s where Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss comes in, a comprehensive new handbook that answers all these questions and more. Author Jessica Handler has walked the walk. When she was ten years old, her eight-year-old sister Susie died of leukemia. Their sister Sarah, then only four, was diagnosed with a rare and fatal blood disorder and died when Handler was 32. In 2010, the memoir Handler wrote about them, Invisible Sisters, became her means of remembering those lost girls, of “capturing our lives and holding them for myself, our friends, family and perhaps people who never knew us …”

It also became Handler’s way of remembering herself, of understanding who she was then and how the events shaped her as a person—“who I became after grief changed me.” A good memoir, she explains, tries to share that journey. One of the first questions she suggests we ask is Why do I want to tell my story? and quotes memoirist Robin Hemley, who agrees: “The first detective act is to try to peer through the keyhole into who you really are. Figure out why you’re telling the story in the first place, and who is this person telling the story.” Continue Reading »

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (photo Ivara Esege)

In the past year, I’ve stuck pretty close to reposting reviews on this blog that have already run in the paper, but from now on I hope to include some books that fall outside my AJC niche (Southern writers and writing). I’d planned to wait and review these two titles separately, but since they’re so timely, thought I’d stick with shorter previews instead.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Americanah, has an upcoming reading/signing in town this coming Thursday (see info below); her book has just been released in paperback. Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena offers much insight into Russia’s recent posturing in Crimea, bordering Ukraine. Both novels came out last year and met with rave reviews. They more than live up to the hype. Continue Reading »

Long Man, by Amy Greene

No doubt when North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe famously warned that “you can’t go home again,” he didn’t mean “because your home town might disappear off the face of the map.”

Yet that’s exactly what happens in Amy Greene’s much anticipated second novel, Long Man (Knopf, $25.95), a story about a handful of characters facing the end of their 150-year-old way of life.

Like Ron Rash, Greene has cultivated her own corner of the universe, a place in which people have been tied to the land as far back as they can remember. She writes about an American culture on the brink of extinction—the folkways, kinship, and sense of place once common to East Tennessee, where Greene grew up.

Greene introduced this territory in her first book, the gothic, brooding Bloodroot (2010), with a tale of an Appalachian family that shared mysterious powers handed down for generations, a “touch” that could be used for good or bad. Their spirituality, based on an age-old reliance on nature and ancestral beliefs, collided with the soullessness of the outside world and in the end, survived only in memory and story.

With Long Man, Greene leaves folk magic behind in favor of a realistic, historically accurate portrait of a doomed community during the summer of 1936. At the height of the Depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority has teamed up with the local power company for a land grab of epic proportions, relocating everyone in the fictional town of Yuneetah to make way for a hydroelectric dam.

The waters of the dam’s reservoir will eventually swallow the town. “By the end of the year lagoons would be made from clefts in the mountains. Fish would swim in dens once inhabited by foxes.” But not everyone has agreed to leave. Continue Reading »

New Year, New Books

This list ran last week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was originally limited to Southern writers, but I’ve since added a couple of titles I just couldn’t resist. Here are some of the brightest stars on this year’s literary horizon — several much-anticipated novels, a killer short-story collection and memoirs galore.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings. Viking. Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) again explores themes of race and women’s rights in a well-researched, convincing historical novel inspired by real-life 19th century American abolitionist, writer and suffragist Sarah Grimke. The standout voice here belongs to the fictional Hetty “Handful” Grimke — given to Sarah as a maid when both were 11 years old — who endures the cruel face of urban slavery that will inspire Sarah’s life’s work. (Full review here.)

Wiley Cash, This Dark Road to Mercy. HarperCollins. On the heels of his acclaimed debut, A Land More Kind Than Home, Cash’s second novel unfolds against an unusual background: the 1998 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The death of their mother strands 12-year-old Easter and her younger sister in foster care until their long-vanished father, a former minor-league baseball player, reappears to rescue them. The three go on the lam, pursued by a malevolent figure from the father’s past, in a suspenseful story described as “Harper Lee by way of Elmore Leonard.” (Read about A Land More Kind Than Home here.)

Amy Greene, Long Man. Knopf. February. Greene follows her well-received debut, “Bloodroot,” with another mesmerizing, gorgeously written tale set in 1930s Appalachia. It opens with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plan to dam the Long Man River, delivering jobs and electricity but flooding the little village of Yuneetah in the name of progress. Even though her husband has found employment elsewhere, Annie Dodson resists leaving — until their little girl goes missing and she’s forced to rely for help on one of the most dangerous people in the doomed town.

Astoria to Zion: Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone‘s First Decade. Lookout Books. March. With their “insistence on the particular and the specific,” Ben Fountain says the short stories in this smart, global anthology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington offer “a corrective to the digital world’s propensity for blasting awareness into a thousand scattered fragments.” Preserving that vital sense of place are veteran and new Southern voices, including Rick Bass, Brad Watson, Ron Rash, Cary Holladay, Lauren Groff, Robert Olen Butler and Kevin Wilson.

Carol Wall, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart. Amy Einhorn/Putnam. March. Meet Carol Wall, fearful cancer survivor and garden hater. That is, until the day she notices Kenyan Giles Owita beautifying the yard next door. Owita, who works three jobs to make ends meet, is soon prettying up Wall’s eyesore of a yard, too. The heart of this disarming memoir is what took root: an unlikely but steadfast friendship between two people who had nothing — and, ultimately, everything — in common.

Kevin Young, Book of Hours: Poems. Knopf. March. In a poem from his book Dear Darkness, Young once wrote that grief was like gumbo: “you can eat & eat & still plenty left.” His eighth book of poetry is a deeply personal collection that revisits the loss of his father and also celebrates the birth of his first child. If you read no other book of poetry this year, this should be the one — it’s already been named one of 10 essential poetry titles for 2014 by Library Journal. More about Kevin Young here.

Kate Sweeney, American Afterlife: Encounters in the Custom of Mourning. University of Georgia Press. March. From WABE reporter-producer Sweeney comes a funny, edifying American road trip that bears witness to our most revealing and eccentric funerary customs. Beginning with a museum in Illinois where Victorian-era human-hair lockets keep company with a carriage hearse and a re-creation of a 1930s embalming room, she explores “the American landscape of mourning,” including Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, green burials, an obit writers conference, cremains embedded in “living reefs,” and a memorial tattoo artist.

Frances Mayes, Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir. Crown. April. Mayes, author of the best-selling Tuscany memoirs, grew up in tiny Fitzgerald, Georgia. “I left the South a million years ago,” she writes of her childhood home, confessing that, upon her return at age 22, she broke out in hives. Of her family, Mayes says, “When the plate of unhappiness is passed around … they wanted seconds, thirds.” The family maid, Willie Bell, used to advise Mayes “not to pay them any mind, they all crazy” — but, luckily, she remembers everything in this gutsy, honest portrait of the artist as a young girl.

Pearl Cleage, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons, & Love Affairs. Atria Books. April. Playwright, essayist and novelist Cleage draws from her personal journals covering 1970-1980 for this revealing memoir, which takes readers back in time for a first-hand look at how Cleage juggled marriage, motherhood and politics — back in the day when she was married to Michael Lomax and worked with Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, all the while forging her identity as a writer.

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. Scribner. May. There couldn’t be a better description of this novel than the one found on the author’s blog: “What does the title mean? It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see.” (My review of Doerr’s last book, Memory Wall.)

Tom Robbins, by Stuart Isett

Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life. Ecco. June. The man who said, “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood” returns to his Depression-era beginnings as the grandchild of Baptist preachers in Blowing Rock, N.C. Fans can expect “a true account” as improbable, magical and bizarre as his quixotic characters. The now 77-year-old author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year: “Its relation to the typical autobiography is that of Dumbo to the typical elephant. It will look like it can’t get off the ground, then it will surprise you and go aloft and circle the tents.”

Amanda Kyle Williams, Don’t Talk to Strangers. Bantam. July. I got a sneak peek at the first chapter of Williams’ third installment in her “Stranger” series, and as usual, could barely stop laughing long enough to double-check the locks in my house. Series heroine Keye Street remains a vulnerable blend of tough, funny and kickass, a recovering alcoholic with a craving for Krispy Kremes. Here’s Keye in Stranger in the Room: “My name is Keye Street. I run a little detective agency in Atlanta called Corporate Intelligence & Investigations. And when I say ‘little,’ I mean it’s just me and my red-eyed computer guy, Neil Donovan. And when I say ‘red-eyed,’ I mean he probably smoked a joint with his scrambled eggs this morning.”

Want more? Here are my favorites from 2013. Or you can try the Millions—their list of most anticipated upcoming books is one of my favorites.

Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) once again explores themes of race and women’s rights in The Invention of Wings (Viking, $27.95), a powerful story of rebellion and heroism inspired by real-life 19th-century American abolitionist, writer, and suffragist Sarah Grimké.

Set in Charleston, S.C., during the early 1800s, much of the novel is based on actual events and historical figures. Sarah, the daughter of a prominent judge, grew up in an aristocratic, slave-holding family surrounded by privilege. She and her younger sister, Angelina, would eventually break with the family to become outspoken pioneers of the abolitionist movement and early champions of women’s rights.

The novel opens on the day 11-year-old Sarah is given 10-year-old Hetty as a “waiting maid” and playmate. Sarah, who has already begun to express her lifelong hatred of slavery, tries to refuse the gift, even writing out a statement freeing the girl, which her parents ignore.

Hetty’s sass and spirit — much of it learned from her rebellious mother, the Grimkés’ prized seamstress — highjacks the story from the minute she opens her mouth. Like Sarah, Hetty refuses to tow the line at an early age, a trait expressed in the name her mother gave her at birth: Handful. Continue Reading »

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