Charlotte’s Best Books for November 2019

Here are my five best books for November 2019, including a behind-the-scenes romp with C-3PO, the follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale and a wickedly funny takedown of misogyny, prejudice and privilege.

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World History

You probably think of history as all the stuff that’s happened up until now, right?

OK, listen up. The word history has its root in the Greek word historein meaning to find out by enquiry, the same root that gives us the word story.

History, then, is the enquiry into the story of the human race. So it’s not a coma-inducing list of dates and events. It’s about people, especially the influencers, and the roles they played in key events that have shaped us since we walked upright.

And that, my friends, it what makes World History: From the Ancient World to the Information Age (DK Publishing, 2019) such a rich and engrossing read.

The opening chapter, What is History, introduces us to the first historians. Herodotus, for example, a Greek scholar known as the Father of History, who set out to discover the why behind the what of events. And Sima Qian, a scholar in the Han court of China, who documented Imperial history through a series of mini-biographies of the VIPs.

What follows is a look at history according to human kind from the beginning – homo sapiens, our ancestors who, by the way, arrived around the globe out of Africa – to the 21st century including globalization, climate change, biotechnology and world conflicts.

Gorgeous photographs, maps, paintings and artefacts add a third dimension, placing each event in a wider social and historical context. And quotes from an influencer at the time breathe life into the past.

One of my faves that speaks to World History’s take on history: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” Thanks L.P. Hartley, British novelist and short story writer.

If you’re thinking Christmas shopping, put World History: From the Ancient World to the Information Age on your gift list. It comes in a beautiful box so all you need to do it add is a bow.

World History is the perfect gift for the traveller on your holiday hit list.
World History is the perfect gift for the traveller on your holiday hit list.

I Am C-3PO

Pop quiz. Who spoke the first words in the first Star Wars movie. Nope. Not Han. Or Luke. Or Princess L.

C-3PO. “Did you hear that? They’ve shut down the main reactor! We’ll be destroyed for sure. This is madness.” You know the good intentioned, kinda wary and always fretting golden droid.

But I expect you know pretty much nothing about Anthony Daniels, the man who inhabited Threepio’s body and brought the droid to life.

Daniels trained as a stage actor, but it’s his 40-year career as Threepio, in every Star Wars film and the countless spin offs, for which he is known. Or should be known.

Because as I Am C-3PO (DK Publishing, 2019) makes clear, Daniels spent most of those decades as an unknown. In fact, during the media frenzy following the release of the first of the original trilogy, Daniels was never out of costume. Never introduced, or for that matter quoted, by his actual name.

Daniels recalls the Golden Anniversary Academy Awards night. Threepio was invited to be a presenter. Later, out of costume and without his ID badge, Daniels was almost arrested as an after-party interloper. Because no one knew who he was.

It was hard work, he tells us. The costume was hot and heavy and restricted his ability to move. And he was often resentful; even the cast seemed to think Threepio was simply a sophisticated wind up toy. At a cast party Daniels distributed shiny black matchbooks printed with gold lettering reading 3PO IS HUMAN. “They were snatched up,” he says. “But nothing changed.”

In time, though, Daniels comes to love the droid, I suspect in part because there is a little alter ego happening. And he realizes his work as Threepio was/is a remarkable adventure that has shaped pop culture for decades.

I Am C-3PO is an engrossing look behind the scenes from how Threepio was created to challenges filming the first movie to working with legendary Sir Alec Guinness, taciturn George Lucas and superstars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher.

The memoir is illustrated by awesome photos – most from Daniels’ personal collection and rarely seen before – offering a peek at production, droid fitting and intimate conversations between the cast. My favourite is opposite page 129, Daniels bottom half as Threepio, his top half as Daniels. I dunno – he looks pretty content.

And you don’t have to be a Star Wars fanatic to enjoy the magic. I’m betting it will be one of the best autobiographies of 2019!

I Am C-3PO is the perfect gift for Star Wars fans.
I Am C-3PO is the perfect gift for Star Wars fans.

The Testaments

You’ve watched all three seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale, and you’re counting sleeps till the fourth season lands mid-2020. Am I right?

So you know the plot. I mean of the novel, which was published in 1985, to much acclaim and a bunch of awards. Season one was pretty faithful to the book; subsequent seasons BTW were just made up.

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, is set in Gilead and Toronto 15 years later. The story’s narrated by three separate characters: cunning and ruthless Aunt Lydia, the architect of the Handmaid system; Agnes Jemima, daughter of a Commander, who refuses to marry the fat and wife-murdering Commander chosen for her by the family; and Daisy, an idealistic teen living in Toronto who learns on her 16th birthday that she is not who she has always thought she was.

It’s powerful Aunt Lydia, though, who drives the narrative. Secreted away in a room only she has access to, she’s chronically the origins of Gilead – she was there from the beginning – and the lies, power-struggles, blood lust and corruption that have become the way of life.

She’s also detailing the atrocities that gave rise to the MayDay rebels, and their offshore attempts to smuggle out women and ultimately bring down the regime. She’s naming names and outing the supreme commanders. “Who to take down with me. I have made my list.” 

The Testaments is not the dystopian and disturbing The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s essentially an entertaining thriller with enough plot twists to keep you turning pages.

There are flashes of Atwood’s uber talent. The Aunts café is called Schlafly’s, a sly nod to Phyllis Schlafly, American writer and activist best known for her opposition to the women’s movement and especially the Equal Rights Amendment. And one of Aunt Lydia’s favourite authors is Canadian treasure Alice Munro.

And said, Atwood shared the prestigious Booker Prize 2019. So there you go!

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The Testaments is Margaret Atwood's sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale
The Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale

The Witches are Coming

Pop culture critic for the New York Times and author of Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (this years popular Hulu series starring Aidy Bryant), Lindy West is mad.

She calls her book The Witches are Coming as a battle cry against (mostly) men who labeled the #MeToo movement – “the thing where men get into trouble” – a witch hunt and declares in the first chapter, “We’re witches, and we’re hunting you.”

In 18 essays, West takes aim at the misogyny, prejudice, privilege and deceit that have ensured white male mediocrity’s iron grip on American politics and culture. And as far as West is concerned, we are all – men and women – diminished as a result.   

No celebrity or pop culture icon is too sacrosanct for West’s wit – she’s a comedian, after all – and sharp tongue, from Trump (he’s kinda easy though) to Adam Sandler, South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Grumpy Cat and family, and my fave, pseudo-science, lady-parts-steaming, “lifestyle” guru Gwyneth Paltrow.

As powerful men began falling to the #MeToo movement, West writes, whining could be heard around the world. It’s not my fault. It was just a misunderstanding. Boys will be boys.  It was so long ago.

Yes, well, too bad for you, she tells us.

“I understand that it’s scary to suddenly face consequences for things that used to be socially acceptable. If we believe victims unconditionally, won’t the mob eventually come for all of us? I’m sorry to say it, but you might just have to tiptoe through the minefield for a while. We’re tearing down old systems, but we haven’t built new systems yet.” Amen to that.

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Shrill's Lindy West returns with The Witches Are Coming.
Shrill’s Lindy West returns with The Witches Are Coming.

The Water Dancer

Part fantasy, part historical fiction, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ debut novel is a layered and often difficult to read exploration of race and slavery and the road to freedom.

Hiram Walker was born into slavery on Lockless, a Virginia plantation, just before the Civil War. He’s not like the other Tasked, Coates’ word for slaves: his father is Howell Walker, the plantation’s master.

Hiram has a keen mind and a photographic memory, and his dad often calls on him to entertain the Quality (rich white) folks who come to visit. He also has a supernatural gift, his mother’s legacy: Conduction, the ability to travel from one place to anther in an instant powered by memory.

Trouble is, Hiram can’t remember his mom, who was sold Natchez-way (the Deep South) when he was only nine. And he can’t harness the power of Conduction until he does.

When Hiram makes a run for freedom, he finds himself recruited by the Underground to use his remarkable gift to transport the Tasked to a new life in the North.

And he sets out on a long and difficult path to remember a past he would just as soon forget, and claim his mother’s gift.

Memory is at the heart of The Water Dancer. As Harriet Tubman, mythologized by the Tasked as Moses, says at one point, “Memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to freedom.” 

The Water Dancer is a remarkable achievement that will stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. Oh. Wait.  It’s also an Oprah’s Book Club 2019 selection.

The Water Dancer is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ debut novel.
The Water Dancer is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ debut novel.

Written by Charlotte Empey. Illustrations produced on iPad Pro with Apple Pencil by Mark Scheibmayr.

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