Friday, May 18, 2018

808 (2018 #31). Villa America

by Liza Klaussmann,
read by Jennifer Woodward

Liza Klaussmann's novel is about the real owners of the real Villa America in Antibes, a resort town between Cannes and Nice on the French Riviera (Côte d’Azur).  Gerald and Sara Wiborg Murphy were fabulously wealthy expatriates who hosted such well-knowns as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter and Pablo Picasso at the home they built there, Villa America (which sadly, no longer seems to exist), in the 1920s.

Gerald had a brief career as a painter (I rather like his stuff), and apparently had bisexual tendencies.  Klaussmann explores this with the one entirely fictional character in the book, another American ex-pat, a pilot she calls Owen Chambers.  According to the author's note at the end, a (real) champagne-and-caviar party at Villa America in Hemingway's honor required that the caviar be flown in from the Caspian Sea - and that was the inspiration for Owen.

Ultimately, none of the characters in the book are particularly sympathetic - it's hard to feel sorry for people so well-off, even when they hit some hard times from 1929 on.  The last part of the book zips through the years 1930 through 1937 almost entirely with letters between characters, as the dream world of Villa America is virtually gone.

However, it was nice to learn a little more about this couple who have appeared in other novels I've read in the past few years (such as The Paris Wife and Mrs. Hemingway).  Actress Jennifer Woodward gives a very precise reading as the audiobook narrator.

© Amanda Pape - 2018

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

Thursday, May 10, 2018

807 (2018 #30). The Surrendered

by Chang-Rae Lee

I received an advance reader edition of this book way back in 2010, and finally got around to reading it.  I think the title, the cover, and the length (467 pages) intimidated me.  I'm sorry I waited so long.  The Surrendered was quite good.

The book takes place mostly in 1986 and 1953.  In 1986, June, a Korean-American, is trying to find Hector, the father of her son Nicholas.  She in turn wants him to help her find Nicholas in Europe, as June is dying of cancer.  In 1953, June is fourteen and an orphan at the Korean orphanage where Hector, an American Korean War vet, works.  The orphanage is run by a pastor named Ames Tanner and his wife Sylvie, a daughter of slain missionaries with a tragic past.  The story revolves around June, Hector, and Sylvie, with flashbacks to 1950 and 1934 to give their back stories.

Perhaps because of the post-Korean War setting, this book kept my interest and kept me engaged.  June left her home at age 11 when the Communists invaded Korea, losing her parents, brothers, and sisters along the way.  Hector grew up a brawler and served in the graves unit (collecting the dead) in the war, sticking around afterwards working odd jobs in the orphanage.  They both idolize Sylvie, who witnessed the brutal death of her parents in Manchuria and has not been quite the same since.

The story is bleak and depressing, but intriguing enough to keep my interest until the end.  The book was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

© Amanda Pape - 2018

[This advance reader edition will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Sunday, April 29, 2018

806 (2018 #29). Hidden City

by Sarah Grace Tuttle,
illustrated by Amy Schimler-Safford

Hidden City: Poems of Urban Wildlife, is a collection of 28 short free-verse poems for children with gorgeous illustrations.  Each poem - many of which are spare like haiku or shaped like concrete poems - describes one animal or plant that lives in an urban area. 

The author, Sarah Grace Tuttle, has degrees in environmental studies and English as well as a master's in writing for children.  The vibrant artwork of Amy Schimler-Safford has a collage-like feel to it, but was all created digitally.

The book ends with brief fun facts about each of the poem's subjects, and a short reading list.  I had no idea dandelions make more flowers and healthier seeds when there is more carbon dioxide in the air, or that sunflowers remove toxic metals and radiation from the soil!

© Amanda Pape - 2018

[This hardbound book was received from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program and will be added to my university library's collection.]

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

805 (2018 #28). Travel as a Political Act

by Rick Steves

Travel guru Rick Steves - who I've actually met (his offspring went to school with my offspring) - gave a keynote speech recently at the 2018 Texas Library Association conference in Dallas.  I wasn't able to attend the conference, but I saw some clips of his speech and read numerous tweets about it, so I decided to check out a book he referred to in that speech.

It should be noted that I am reviewing the first (2009) edition of Travel as a Political Act.  A revised edition came out in February 2018, and it's clear from its introduction (available on the Kindle preview on Amazon) that the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA inspired the update.  The chapter headings are the same in both books, with the exception that 2018 adds a chapter called "The Holy Land:  Israelis and Palestinians Today."

The first chapter discusses "How to Travel as a Political Act."  Tips include choose to travel on purpose, connect with people, take history seriously - don't be dumbed down, overcome fear, get beyond your comfort zone - choose to be challenged, and see the rich/poor gap for yourself.  All good advice to truly experience another country and culture.

The other chapters focus on the results of civil war in the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro), successes and struggles of the formation of the European Union, the aftermath in war-torn El Salvador, economic aspects of Denmark, sampling Islam in moderate Turkey and Moracco, drug policy in the Netherlands and Switzerland, and Iran.  The book winds up with a chapter on what one might do with new knowledge gained from travel after coming home.

Steves inserts his political views throughout the book, but is upfront about doing so.  I mostly agree with him, although not on everything, and I feel this is a worthwhile book to read regardless.  But then, I'm the kind of traveler that likes learn something about the people, history, and culture of places I visit.  I wouldn't take a cruise, for example, and just stay on the ship, or only go shopping in the port area.  I will note though that there is also value to traveling to various parts of our own country - there's a variety of people, history, culture, and viewpoints within the USA.

© Amanda Pape - 2018

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

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

804 (2018 #27). Flat Broke With Two Goats


I'm not even going to put a picture of it here, it was so bad.  As a librarian, I am embarrassed that OverDrive named Jennifer McGaha's memoir Flat Broke with Two Goats the 2018 "Big Library Read."  I'm disgusted that my library bought this drivel and contributed to the author's apparently continuing overspending by providing her with more income with which to do so.

I made it partly though chapter 3 when I decided my irritation with the author's antics was too great to continue.  Life is too short and there are far better books to read out there.

So why I am fed up with Jennifer McGaha?  She's clueless and entitled.  She's irresponsible and whiny.  She's completely out of touch with reality - and she expects the reader to sympathize with her.  She blames others for her stupidity.

Jennifer and her husband overspend and wind up owing over $100,000 to the IRS - because they just didn't pay their taxes.  And her husband is an accountant, for heaven's sake!  Jennifer tries to put all the blame on him, but she willfully ignores the signals that all is not well with their finances (flickering lights and outages?  repo man comes to take your car multiple times? HELL-O!).  Furthermore, she doesn't do anything to try to help, sticking to her 10K a year college adjunct job, not even applying for a second job at a local department store because she likes to dress funky.  AND they continue to send their kids to a distant private school (requiring a lengthy twice-a-day drive) even after the home they bought from friends (who provided them private financing for it) is foreclosed on.  And Jennifer wonders why said friends locked them out and don't want to be friends any more?  HELL-O again!

When I stopped listening to the audiobook (a wasted effort by an excellent reader, Pam Ward), I started reading reviews, and I was glad I quit reading this book.  Apparently Jennifer goes on to do stupid things like:

- move into a (three-story!) "cabin" (with a dishwasher!) on 50+ wooded acres -- but they BUY the wood to heat the place;

-  irresponsibly continues to own her FIVE dogs and eat out at restaurants, and drink merlot wine and craft beer;

- buys fancy chickens and goats, feeds them organic yogurt and sunflower seeds and goats milk (!) and hopes to someday use her goats' milk to make cream caramels and fancy soap (!);

- gets reconstructive bladder surgery for an impotent designer goat and wastes hours waiting for a female goat to give birth;

- apparently starts adding recipes, of all things, at the ends of later chapters (like people really struggling to pay their bills have time for fancy cooking???);

- leaves her husband for a a temporary academic job in another state (yes, more pay, but twice the expenses) and a new male friend, but then goes back to her husband, apparently not learning anything; and

- takes out thousands of dollars of student loans to get an MFA - before paying off the IRS;

What's worse, by the end, the author is still acting the same.  She has not learned ANYTHING from her situation.

Yes, I am deliberately spoiling the book, because I don't think anyone should waste their time or money on this one.  Although I have never been flat broke, a diminished income post-divorce led to my children qualifying for free breakfast and lunch at school, and free clothing from the school district's clothing bank.  I worked three jobs at one time to make ends meet and get out of this hole. At least I did something - unlike the author.

I will save my sympathy for people in a financial bind for reasons truly out of their control - those devasted by illnesses or a natural disaster, for example.  Not whining idiots like this author.  This book is insulting to the truly poor.

© Amanda Pape - 2018

This e-audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

803 (2018 #26). The Second Empress

by Michelle Moran,
read by Adam Alexi-Malle, Emma Bering, and Tanya Franks

I'm classifying Michelle Moran's The Second Empress as a historical romance because it strays so far from the historical record as to be almost a fantasy.  This book is set during the latter years of Napoleon's reign, from late 1809, when he divorced Josephine, to his exile to Elba in 1814.  The second empress is Marie Louise of Austria, who is one of the three narrators of this tale.  The other two are Napoleon's rakish sister Pauline Bonaparte, and Paul Moreau, the (fictional) Haitian mulatto servant and chamberlain Pauline brings back from Saint-Domingue after her first husband LeClerc dies there.

All of the audiobook readers use heavy accents (German for Marie, French for Paul and Pauline) in their reading, which makes them difficult to understand at times.  The actress who reads Pauline additionally gives her a languid attitude, perhaps fitting to the character, but I felt it made her even more difficult to comprehend.

I think the fact that this book is mostly fiction is another reason I nearly forgot about it after listening to it.  One example early on that really bothered me was Pauline complaining that she and her sisters were "sent to be maids in the grand Clary house" in Marseille and used for "sexual favors."  There's no proof for this whatsoever, in fact, Julie Clary, daughter of a silk merchant (not a nobleman) married Napoleon's brother Joseph.  Marie Louise's supposed love affair with Neipperg before marrying Napoleon also raised red flags for me - that would NEVER have happened with an archduchess in Catholic Austria!

This book *is* a novel, so it's okay if the story is not the whole truth, but to misrepresent history in the author's note at the end and imply truth where it does not exist is definitely *not* okay.  Moran states that she used primary sources; she did not.  Another reviewer did an excellent job outlining all the problems with this book, so I won't go into them here.  Suffice to say I really can't recommend this book.

© Amanda Pape - 2018

[This e-audiobook was borrowed from and returned to a public library.]

Sunday, April 15, 2018

802 (2018 #25). The Swans of Fifth Avenue

by Melanie Benjamin,
read by Cassandra Campbell and Paul Boehmer

The Swans of Fifth Avenue is about author and gadfly Truman Capote and his "swans," the wealthy socialites he surrounded himself with, in the 1950s and 1960s.  It starts with the aftermath of a short story he writes about some of them, then flashes back to when they originally meet.  None of the characters are particularly likeable.  Truman is self-centered and a gossip; the swans for the most part are shallow and superficial.  Their fascination with Capote is puzzling to me; perhaps he felt the insincerity of many of them, leading to his shocking short story.

And yet - I kept listening to this book, intrigued by them all, even looking everyone up, as I'd only heard of a few of them before and knew very little of those.  Melanie Benjamin's writing drew me in, as did the settings.  And while my attitude towards Truman and most of the women did not change, I did grow to like Barbara "Babe" Paley, the main female character, by the end - I found her to be surprisingly vulnerable.

This audiobook has multiple narrators - veteran Cassandra Campbell reads the female ones and Paul Boehmer reads the males.  Both give Capote a lisp (which he actually had) and an effeminate voice.

© Amanda Pape - 2018

[This e-audiobook was borrowed from and returned to a public library.]