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December 08 - January 09 Book Reviews

The Sister, The Way They Saw It: The Changing Face of Bronzeville, Chocolate: The Sweet History, Greyhounds and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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The Sister By Poppy Adams. (Knopf, $23.95). Safely ensconced in a crumbling English mansion for decades, 71-year-old Ginny Stone reluctantly awaits the visit of her younger sister Vivi for the first time in 50 years. The two, once inseparable, have drifted apart and led very different lives. Ginny chose to stay at home with her lepidopterist father and helped him as a research assistant amid the increasing chaos caused by their alcoholic mother, while Vivi abandoned the family as a teen and chose the excitement of London. The reader soon learns, however, that Ginny’s version of family history may not be entirely accurate. In fact, Ginny may be mentally unstable. The death of her mother, the expulsion of the two girls from boarding school and a childhood accident involving Vivi remain mysteries throughout most of the book. Like the moths she studies, Ginny prefers the cocoon of her home. Only when the arrival of Vivi threatens Ginny’s fragile grasp of reality does violence rear its ugly head once again. Like A.S. Byatts’ Angels and Insects, this novel includes sordid family sexual secrets and a fascination with the natural world. While this is a debut novel, the author is a master at capturing the vision of someone slowly losing touch with reality.—Susan E. Zinner

The Way They Saw It: The Changing Face of Bronzeville by Theodoric Manley Jr. (Dorrance Publishing, $23). Whoever said that a picture is worth a thousand words could well be referring to this excellent book. Bronzeville is located in Chicago, south of the downtown. Rezoning is taking place and affecting the lives of hundreds of African-American residents. Manley, a DePaul University professor, wrote a book that’s an accumulation of “photos, student reflections and interviews with the inhabitants” of Bronzeville (the Black Metropolis). The book, hard to put down, is a labor of love. Underscoring the stories of the residents are dozens of riveting pictures of buildings and monuments. Manley covers the African-American experience starting with the Great Migration from the South to Chicago. The public housing in Bronzeville was the largest in the country and included, among others, the Ida B. Wells Homes and the Robert Taylor Homes. Many of these “developments are being demolished to make way for mixed-income housing.” Translated, this means that most of the residents will lose their home. The majority of these people are the working poor. One of the students, Arneta Rogers, comments that “a wedge has been driven in between middle class and poor blacks in this new wave of redevelopment.” Manley has written an important book that’s a real challenge to all who decry second-class citizenship for any American.—Emily McCormack

Chocolate: The Sweet History by Beth Kimmerle. (Collectors Press, $39.95). This book is a sure winner for a holiday gift. From the Mayan civilization to the nostalgic history of Frango Mints in Chicago, this book is a sweet walk through memory lane, complete with tantalizing recipes, including Sag Harbor Double Chocolate Cheesecake!—K. Rice

Greyhounds by Barbara Karant, Alice Sebold, Alan Lightman, Yvonne Zipter and Neko Case. (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $24.95). This gorgeous book of photography showcases both the power of the art form and the beauty of one of the most ancient dog breeds, the greyhound. Photographed against a stark white background, the dogs leap, play, sit, sprawl, peek, gaze and lean, displaying their unique mix of quiet grace, pure athleticism and goofy personality. All of the models are rescued hounds, enjoying their post-racetrack “retirement” with human companions in the Chicago area. If you love greyhounds, this book is a must. Same thing if you love dogs. But even cat people—yes, it’s true—will appreciate the beauty of Karant’s photography and the thoughtful, imaginative essays. A portion of all book sales benefits greyhound rescue.—Amy VanStee

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. (Riverhead, $24.95). "The changes we don’t want change us the most," says Yunior, the narrator of Junot Diaz’ multi-dimensional novel set in the Dominican Republic and Washington Heights, New Jersey. Wisecracking humor and street wisdom wrap around the travails of the title character, an “unlikely Dominican” (an overweight, bookish, fanatical trekkie) as he reaches for adulthood between two scarred cultures. Historical, earthy footnotes provide a textured, layered schooling in Spanish language colloquialisms, American popular culture, the DR’s corrupt government and violent occupation, along with a crash course in fuku, a far-reaching curse brought to the DR’s shores by the misery of African slaves. A novel with vivid footnotes and wry asides might sound distracting or indulgent, yet the central stories never veer from their course. For nerdy Oscar, his wild sister Lola and their near-abusive mother Beli, forces moving outside their control shape their lives as much as the longing and determination for their value to be seen in the world. —Valerie M. Wallace

Published: December 08, 2008
Issue: Winter 2008 - Annual Philanthropy Guide