Sunday, July 27, 2014

412 (2014 #4). The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

by Susan Jane Gilman

It's 1983, and ice-cream magnate Lillian Dunkle is looking back on the past 70 years of her life while awaiting the outcome of tax evasion charges and a personal lawsuit.

In 1913, 5-6-year-old Malka Treynovsky, loud and curious, immigrates with her Jewish parents - who'd originally planned to go to Cape Town - and three older sisters from Russia to New York City.  Just three months after arriving at their Orchard Street tenement, her father having abandoned the family, Malka is run over by a horse and is crippled for life.  Malka's mother is overwhelmed and leaves her at the hospital.  Salvatore Dinello, the immigrant Italian ices peddler whose horse ran over Malka, feels compelled to take her home.

The Dinellos expect Malka to earn her keep, and every day she helps make the ices - and later, the ice cream the family sells.  Malka ingratiates herself with the family (although not always in the best way), eventually being baptized as Lillian Maria Dinello.

Lillian is not especially pretty, but she's very smart, and the Dinellos send her to college.  She tutors privately on the side, and meets illiterate, stuttering Albert Dunkle - another Jewish immigrant who is a whiz with machines.  They eventually marry, and between Bert's invention of the soft-serve machine and Lillian's marketing magic (and a bit of luck), they grow an ice cream franchising empire.  Yet Lillian continues to be haunted with feelings of abandonment and insecurity, which makes her vulnerable in some situations and abrasive in others.

Lillian isn't the most likable of characters, but her story is a great one.  Susan Jane Gilman did extensive research on both immigrant life in the tenements of New York in the 1910s and 1920s, as well as on ice cream.  The Carvel Ice Cream Company was her inspiration, and she even worked there for a while to get a feel for the industry.

I love the cover; the dropped and melting ice cream cone looks like an unhappy clown.  Unlike the cone, this book is hard to drop - you will be tempted - as you must do with ice cream - to finish it all in one sitting.  I think my book club might like this book too.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[I received a hardbound final copy from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  I plan to hang on to the book for a while for a future re-read.]

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

411 (2014 #39). Manger

poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Helen Cann

This picture book is a collection of 15 poems by selector Lee Bennett Hopkins and some other well-known poets and writers, such as X. J. Kennedy, Marilyn Nelson, Jane Yolen, Alma Flor Ada, Ann Whitford Paul, and Alice Schertle, as well as a few newer authors unknown to me, and one traditional verse.  The theme tying the poems together is what different animals might say or do or think if present at the manger for the birth of Jesus.  Helen Cann's vibrant illustrations, rendered in watercolor, collage, and mixed media, tie everything together.

The poems are written for ages 4-8.  This would be a great read-aloud during the holiday season, and the poems are easy enough for beginning readers too.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This unbound galley proof was sent to me in exchange for an unbiased review by the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.]

Sunday, July 20, 2014

410 (2014 #38). The Master Butchers Singing Club

written and read by Louise Erdrich

Although a bit quirky, I loved this book.  The Master Butcher is Fidelis Valdvogel, who fights for Germany in World War I, marries Eva, the pregnant fiancee of his best friend who was killed in action.  Fidelis comes to America in 1922 and sells sausages to try to get to Seattle - but can only get as far as Argus, North Dakota.  So he sets up a butcher shop there and brings Eva and her son over, and they have three more sons.

Meanwhile, Delphine Watzka has returned to Argus and her ever-drunk father Roy with her vaudeville balancing act performing companion, the French-Ojibwe Cyprian Lazarre.

Thus begins a novel with unusual happenings - a butchers' rivalry involving a dog and the formation of the singing group, the discovery of three sets of human bones in Roy's cellar, a rescue from a collapsing mound of dirt, and a murder, among others.

What makes it all work for me are the colorful characters.  Delphine is really the protagonist of the book, but nearly all of those she encounters - Cyprian, Roy, Fidelis, Eva, their sons Franz and Marcus, Franz' girlfriend Mazarine, Fidelis' sister Tante, the town's Sheriff Hock, Delphine's friend Clarisse, the town's undertaker, even Step-and-a-Half, the town's bag lady - have intriguing stories.

The book also provides some insight into what life was like in small-town North Dakota in that era - 1922 to 1954.   Prohibition, the Great Depression, and World War II all play a part in the book. I don't think author Louise Erdrich (who is of German, French, and Ojibwe descent) intended it to be historical fiction, though, she was just telling a good story.  She does say in her acknowledgments at the end of the book that

The picture of the young butcher on the cover of this book is of my grandfather Ludwig Erdrich.  He fought in the trenches on the German side in World War I.  His sons served on the American side in World War II.  This book is fiction except for snout salad [page 83], the bull's pizzle [pages 143-144], and my grandmother's short stint as a human table in a vaudeville act.

Erdrich reads this audiobook.  Although she is not a professional audiobook narrator, and her reading is therefore not polished, she is effective.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my local public library and my university library respectively.]

Monday, June 30, 2014

409 (2014 #37). The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

by Jacqueline Kelly,
read by Natalie Ross

It's 1899, and almost-12-year-old Calpurnia Virginia ("Callie Vee") Tate is growing up as the middle of seven children (and only daughter) of a wealthy cotton and pecan farmer and gin owner in Fentress, Texas.  She's a bit of a tomboy, and would rather accompany her retired grandfather on his expeditions to study plants and wildlife than learn to play the piano, cook, or sew, all expected of a girl of that age and time.  She even helps her grandfather in his experiments to make an alcoholic beverage with pecans, and in identifying what they hope is a new species of vetch, a common plant in Texas.

The book starts in the summer of 1899 and ends as 1900 begins.  The reader experiences everyday life with Callie's large and active family, as well as special occasions such as holidays, the county fair and a trip into town for a photograph.  These feel authentic to the time period.

This book was a Newbery Honor Book in 2010 (for the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,") and I can see why.  I loved it!  The developing relationship with her previously-remote grandfather is wonderful.  I found it amusing that five of Callie's six brothers are named for early Texas heroes--Sam Houston, (Mirabeau) Lamar, (William B.) Travis, Sul Ross, and Jim Bowie--and she has interesting (and funny!) interactions with most of them, particularly her oldest brother Harry (named for a rich bachelor great uncle).  Even her exasperated mother and the overworked family cook, Viola, are rendered vividly.

I also liked the emphasis on the scientific method (particularly recording your observations), and the way debut author Jacqueline Kelly worked new inventions into the story - the telephone, the automobile, and even an early motorized fan (much appreciated in the Texas heat!).  I felt she did a fine job with the Texas setting.  Born in New Zealand, growing up in the rain forest of western Canada, moving to El Paso, Texas, in high school, and later living in Galveston, Austin, and Fentress, she seems to have a true appreciation for my home state, and got a lot of details right, adding to the story.  In a 2009 interview on Cynsations, Kelly said,

The book was inspired by my huge 140-year-old Victorian farm house in Fentress, a tiny community on the San Marcos River. I bought the house some years ago and promptly ran out of money to fix it up. The house is grand but falling down around my ears. One summer, I was lying on the daybed in the living room under the ancient air conditioner, which was barely cooling the room, and I thought to myself, how did people stand it in the heat a hundred years ago, especially the women, who had to wear corsets and all those layers of clothing? And with that thought, Calpurnia and her whole family sprang to life to answer the question for me.
Sadly, "the house was struck by lightning and burned to the ground" in 2010, according to Kelly in a later interview, which could have something to do with why a planned sequel hasn't materialized.

The language in this book is beautiful.  The descriptions of the natural world are detailed and evocative.  In the Cynsations interview, Kelly (who has both medical--which may explain those descriptions--and law degrees) said,

A friend of mine, a very successful trial attorney, once said, "Every lawyer I know has got a novel hidden away in his laptop somewhere." I think it's because we all love language, and using it to convey precise ideas. Or maybe it's because so many lawyers were English majors who couldn't then figure out what to do with their degrees.

Kelly begins each chapter with a quote from Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, which Calpurnia's grandfather gives to her to read early in the story (hence the title of the book). The cover art is a lovely and intricate silhouette cut by Beth White.  The narrator of the audiobook is Natalie Ross, a native Texan, who makes a perfect adult Calpurnia looking back at that half-year and telling her own story.  This will definitely be a book I'll re-read.  I think it will also appeal to avid young female readers ages 11 and up.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and my local public library respectively.]

Monday, June 23, 2014

408 (2014 #36). China Dolls

by Lisa See

Three Asian-American women bind - more from necessity than friendship - in 1938 in San Francisco's Chinatown. In a novel that spans the next ten years, with an epilogue 40 years later, 17-year-old Grace Lee, 19-year-old Helen Fong, and 20-year-old Ruby Tom tell their interweaving stories in alternate chapters.  The girls move from performing at the Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island to the new Forbidden City nightclub near Chinatown, often competing with each other for spots on the stage, as well as in romance.  Each of the girls has secrets - some known to all (including the reader) from the beginning, others revealed (rather abruptly in some cases) as the story progresses.

As is usual with Lisa See's novels, this one is rich from research.  See incorporated some real people into the story:  Forbidden City owner Charlie Low, choreographer Walton Biggerstaff, vaudevillians Ming and Ling (actually Filipinos), dancer Dorothy Toy (a Japanese passing as Chinese), and Ed Sullivan.  She interviewed many surviving Asian-American performers, and used their stories and those of others to create her characters.  Ruby's fan- and bubble-dance act, for example, was inspired by that of Noel Toy, the "Chinese Sally Rand."  Other inspiration came from Mai Tai Sing, Mary Tom,  Dorothy Sun and Mary Mammon.  See shares a lot of her research in a special section of her website.

Moreover, I think See portrays the complexities of female friendship - the betrayals and dishonesty along with the love and support - realistically.  I loved this book, and I look forward to See's next one, which is supposed to be about tea.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Saturday, June 21, 2014

407 (2014 #35). Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

by Helen Simonson

British military widower meets Pakistani shopkeeper widow and romance blooms, despite their meddling relatives and small-town neighbors.  That's the gist of this story, a lovely and funny tale set in an unspecified, more-or-less modern time that's a great easy summer read.

What caught my eye with this book (which I bought at a used book sale) was the cover.  It's actually the cover art from the March 27, 1924 issue of Life magazine - the April Fool issue, rather fitting for both the story and artwork where what appears to be a man and woman embracing are actually coats and hats on a clothes tree.  You can't make out the signature in this image, but the artwork is by J. Grenard.

This was the first novel for Helen Simonson, who was born and brought up in England, but has lived the past two decades in the USA.  The novel is probably a rather nostalgic view of England, but it works in context.  The author also portrays the effects of change, both on the 68-year-old Major, who is rather set in his ways, and the English village he lives in.  It's also a very humorous book, especially the scenes set in the British golf club with all its snobbery and pettiness.

This book made me laugh and smile and think.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

Monday, June 16, 2014

406 (2014 #34). Orphan Train

by Christina Baker Kline

It's 2011 in the fictional town of Spruce Harbor, Maine, when this book begins.  Molly Ayer, a 17-year-old Native American foster child, is given community service when she tries to steal a library book.*

Her community service project is to help 91-year-old Vivian Daly to clean out her attic.  Naturally, every item being stored up there is a reminder for Vivian of the hard life she has lived - and her story is told in flashback.

Vivian, an Irish immigrant originally named Niamh Power, loses her parents, brothers, and sister in a tenement fire in New York City in 1929.  She is taken in by the Children's Aid Society and put on an orphan train heading out west.  She winds up in Minnesota, where she has a couple of really bad placements before ending up in a good place, and goes through a couple name changes.  Molly sees a lot of parallels between her life and Vivian's, and the two develop a heart-warming relationship.

This is an upbeat story with a little bit of a surprise near the end.  I enjoyed this novel, which is based on a real episode in American history.  The orphan trains ran from 1853 to 1929, and moved about a quarter of a million children (many of them not orphaned) to another (sometimes better) life.  Christina Baker Kline did a lot of research on orphan trains, and her familiarity with both Maine and Minnesota is evident in her descriptions.  I'd like to read some nonfiction too, with true stories of the train riders.

*A  note to the author and readers - most libraries don't punish kids for taking old, beat-up library copies of books.  The public library I used to work for even gave mass-market paperbacks generic bar codes - in other words, they didn't really track them, and you could walk out of the library with them if you really wanted to.  I really resented this stereotype of the mean old librarian.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[I won 10 paperback copies of this book for my book club from the Book Report Network.  My copy will be donated to my university library.]