Saturday, April 22, 2017

737 (2017 #35). The Marriage of Opposites


by Alice Hoffman,
read by Gloria Reuben, Tina Benko, and Santino Fontana

This is a fictionalized account of the life of the mother of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.  It's a little bit of a fictionalized biography of the early life of the artist as well.

Author Alice Hoffman stays true to the basic facts about the artist's family.  His mother, Rachel Manzana PomiĆ©, was born to Jewish parents of French, Spanish, and Portuguese heritage, on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas (then part of the Danish West Indies, now the U.S. Virgin Island) in 1795.  She married a widower with three children 21 years her senior, Isaac Petit, and had four children with him before his death in 1824.

Isaac's nephew, Frederic Pizzarro, seven years younger than Rachel, came to the island as his uncle's executor, and the two fell in love.  The close-knit Jewish community on the island frowned upon a marriage between a nephew and aunt by marriage, and it was not for many years (and four sons) later that their private marriage ceremony was finally recognized.

One of those sons was Jacob Abraham Camille Pizzarro (he changed the spelling later), born in 1830.  He was sent to boarding school in Paris at age 11, where he began to explore his artistic talents.  He returned to St. Thomas at 17 to work in his father's business, but continued to work on his art, and went to Venezuela at age 21 and then on to Paris at age 25, in 1855.  His parents followed shortly after, and Rachel never went back to St. Thomas, even after Frederic's death in 1865, which is about when the book ends.

Hoffman fleshed out her characters quite a bit beyond that, making Rachel in particular an intriguing woman. It's interesting to see how she tries to control her son Camille, just the way her mother tried to control her, with similar results.  Hoffman also invented the characters on St. Thomas who are the Pizzarro's employees and friends there.  There's an interesting subplot involving a family servant, Jestine, who is like a sister to Rachel.  These secondary characters are interesting and add a lot to the story.

Hoffman also researched (as noted from the titles in her bibliography) the history of St. Thomas' buildings and Jewish community, as well as birds and folktales of the West Indies.  The folktales are a major part of the story, and Hoffman's descriptions of the island of St. Thomas and the town of Charlotte Amalie make me want to visit them.

The audiobook readers make this book even better.  Actress Tina Benko narrates the chapters told in Rachel's first person viewpoint.  She has a rich, deep, throaty voice, just what I might imagine the real Rachel to have.  Actor Santino Fontana reads the chapters told in Camille's first person voice (there aren't as many).  Actress Gloria Reuben is wonderful as the narrator of all the other chapters, putting lots of emotion into her voice and adding to the magical realism of the story. Perhaps it is because, as she states, her parents are also from the Caribbean and of mixed heritage.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

736 (2017 #34). Lion, King, and Coin


by Jeong-hee Nam,
illustrated by Lucia Sforza,
edited by Joy Cowley

This is another book in publisher Eerdmans' Trade Winds series, "an educational series featuring stories set in key periods in the history of economy and culture."  Like the other book I've read in this series, the fictional story about the invention of the first coins around 600 BCE feels forced (again, perhaps a weakness of being translated from Jeong-hee Nam's original Korean).  Much better are the four pages of information about the development of coinage at the end.  In this case, the reading and interest levels for the informational part of the book are a good match to the reading and interest level of the fictional story.  Artist Lucia Sforza uses a muted pastel palette for the detailed illustrations, which seem appropriate for the setting in the ancient country of Lydia (in present-day Turkey).  However, I'm not sure this book has enough appeal to add this paperback to my university library's collection for future teachers.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be donated to a library.]

Sunday, April 16, 2017

735 (2017 #33). Ma Speaks Up

by Marianne Leone

This memoir by actress Marianne Leone is a collection of anecdotes about her mother, an Italian immigrant.  Some of the chapters have been previously published in other formats.

 Leone is particularly good with creative metaphors to capture the typical angst of teenage and young adult daughters' relationships with their mothers.  The anecdotal style can be a bit hard to follow, with jumps back and forth in time from one chapter to the next.  But the book is heartfelt, and will make the reader laugh and cry.  It did me, as I recognized some of my own at-times turbulent relationship with my own mother (still alive but now suffering from the early stages of dementia).

An insert of black-and-white photographs helps bring the characters even more to life beyond the vivid prose.  And I just love the cover, which is apparently a colorized version of a "black-and-white picture of Ma, shy but sexy, posing on a beach for my father away at war in her two-piece bathing suit, her hair a riot of black curls, arching her back just enough to thrust her breasts upward, a carnal offering to the gods of lust" (page 81).

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This hardbound book was sent to me by the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a review.  It will be donated to a library.]

Sunday, April 09, 2017

734 (2017 #32). Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise



by Oscar Hijuelos,
read by James Langton, Polly Lee, Henry Leyva, and Robert Petkoff

The real, nearly-lifelong friendship between American author Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and British explorer Henry Morton Stanley is the basis for this historical fiction novel by Oscar Hijuelos.

The two met on a Mississippi riverboat in the autumn of 1860 when Twain was about 25 and Stanley 19.  Their friendship lasted until Stanley's death in 1904.  Framing this period, at both the beginning and end of the book, is Twain's last visit to England in 1907 (to receive an honorary doctorate) where he has tea with Stanley's widow, the artist Dorothy Tennant (as he truly did).  There's also some coverage of both men's earlier lives (particularly Stanley's), and of the brief period between 1907 and Twain's death in April 1910.

Hijuelos died suddenly in 2013, before this book was published - the manuscript was found in his study after his death.  According to an afterword by his widow, author Lori Marie Carlson, Hijuelos spent more than twelve years researching and writing the book.  Amazingly, the numerous letters between the main characters, as well as diary entries and speeches they make - are ALL fiction. They sound so real, I thought some had to be from the historical record.  There's even a reference near the end of the book to a supposed footnote (with page number) in a real chapter in Stanley's real autobiography (edited by his widow) - but that footnote does not exist.

Hijuelos does a good job contrasting Twain and Stanley, highlighting what they had in common and where they differed.  As Twain is better known, Hijuelos wisely concentrated on Stanley (probably best known for supposedly saying "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" which turns out to be a later invention).  I was amazed to learn that such an intrepid explorer suffered from recurring malaria and other gastric disorders, but if you are looking for detail on his actual expeditions, you won't find it in this book.

In his introductory author's note, Hijuelos speaks of the "paradise" in the title:

For Twain it came down to his memories of his fairly happy, carefree youth, the sweet energies of which he put into his most famous book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn....Twain's "paradise" also entailed his love for a family that, as the years went by, simply vanished - two of his three daughters died, then his wife [as well as his infant son and three siblings in their youth]....What paradise remained for him came down to what he had captured so beautifully in his books and in his lingering friendships.
For Stanley, whose life began so badly - his childhood in Wales spent in a workhouse as a ward of the British state; his dangerous but successful enterprises on behalf of King Leopold in Africa eventually, perhaps unfairly, linked to the atrocities committed in that region "for rubber and ivory tusks" - this "paradise" came belatedly, in his later years [his late marriage to Tennant, their adoption of a son, and his acquisition of his country estate].

In the book, the two men also have frequent discussions about faith and religion (Stanley was mostly a believer, Twain mostly was not) and the notion of an afterlife.

Hijuelos also says that "as a writer best known for certain subjects, I also intend the book to give a glance at nineteenth-century Cuba, mainly through the journeys the men made in their lifetimes to that island.  Stanley went there in the early 1860s, during the American Civil War,...Twain journeyed there in 1902, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War."  The novel has both men making the 1860s trip together, and the descriptions of Cuba in that era are particularly good.

Apparently this book has received some criticism because it's not like Hijuelos' other books.  Not having read any of those, I am more open-minded.  I do think the book would have benefited from a little more editing, as the book dragged in a few places, but Hijuelos did not have the opportunity to do that.

What kept me going were the excellent narrators.  Henry Leyva voices Twain, and in my mind is perfect in that role, sounding the way I would imagine Samuel Clemens might have sounded in real life.  Britisher actors James Langton and Polly Lee are wonderful as Stanley and Tennant respectively, and Robert Petkoff does the overall narration and other major characters admirably.


© Amanda Pape - 2017


[The e-audiobook, and an e-book for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and a public library respectively.]

Friday, March 31, 2017

733 (2017 #31). A Soldier's Sketchbook

by John Wilson,
based on the diary and sketches of R. H. Rabjohn

Historian John Wilson hit the jackpot when he was approached by a third grade teacher after a Remembrance Day presentation on World War I at a Canadian school in 2013.  She showed him a wartime diary self-published by her grandfather's uncle that was filled with detailed sketches.  Russell Hughes Rabjohn (1898-1977) served in the war from February 1916, shortly after he turned 18, until finally getting home in March 1919 after the war's end.

Wilson worked with the Rabjohn family and the Canadian War Museum (which holds his original sketchbooks and diaries) to produce A Soldier's Sketchbook:  The Illustrated First World War Diary of R. H. Rabjohn.   This 112-page book includes selected entries and drawings from Rabjohn's diaries and sketchbooks, carefully edited, with additional material to set them in context.  He's also added maps on the end papers, a timeline of the war, an index, and suggestions for further reading.

This book is filled with excellent examples of primary sources for learning about World War I.  It's appropriate for fifth grade (when many United States schools first cover history) on up, and can be enjoyed by adults just as much as (if not more so than) children.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be added to my university library's collection.]

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

732 (2017 #30). The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

The local book club I used to belong to (until their meetings moved to daytime, when I work) read this as their last selection, I suppose because it won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016.  I thought it was historical fiction, but I'd have to classify it as a historical fantasy - and, not being a fan of fantasy, I was somewhat disappointed.

The book starts well, with the introduction of the main character, Cora, her grandmother Ajarry who was captured in Africa, and her mother Mabel, who managed to escape their Georgia plantation.  The horrors of slavery are described realistically.  Cora is a strong woman, though, and she attracts the attention of Caesar, another slave who wants to escape.  It seems he thinks Cora might be a good luck charm, since her mother managed to get away.

But here's where the fantasy comes in.  The Underground Railroad in this book is an actual, subterranean, train with tracks.  From this point on, author Colson Whitehead seems to compress many years of African-American history into the novel.  In an interview with NPR, he said,

...once I made the choice to make a literal underground railroad, you know, it freed me up to play with time a bit more. And so, in general, you know, the technology, culture and speech is from the year 1850. That was my sort of mental cutoff for technology and slang. But it allowed me to bring in things that didn't happen in 1850 - skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And it's all presented sort of matter-of-factly...

In a PBS interview, Whitehead says,

...each state she goes through is a different sort of state of American possibility.  South Carolina is a benevolent paternalistic state, where slaves are given programs for racial uplifting. North Carolina is a white supremacist state....so each stop is a sort of island in the “Gulliver’s Travels”-type sense.

I wish I'd read these interviews and some reviews before starting the novel.  While many parts were clearly unrealistic for the time period, other parts were confusing as to whether they were complete fantasy, or based on reality.  For example, the scenes in Indiana made me wonder if perhaps there was some sort of refuge for escaped slaves there.  This book is crying for a reader's guide within its pages.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

731 (2017 #29). The Boston Girl

by Anita Diamant,
read by Linda Lavin

The Boston Girl provides a picture of life in and around that city, concentrating on the years 1915 to 1931.  Addie Baum is the first-person narrator.  Born in 1900 in the United States to Jewish immigrant parents, she has two older sisters.  She tells her story to her granddaughter in 1985, looking back over the years.  Life in the immigrant tenements, the effects of World War I, and the changes it brought about in the 1920s, especially for women, are all part of the story.

Author Anita Diamant says she was inspired to write the novel by a building she passed by frequently - the real Rockport Lodge, an 1857 farmhouse on the coast that in 1906 became a vacation site for women of modest income.  Addie begins going there in 1915, and attends regularly over the years, meeting a group of girls of all backgrounds - daughters of Italian and Irish immigrants - that become lifelong friends.

I found it fascinating that the librarians and archivists at Harvard University quickly processed the Rockport Lodge papers that had been donated to them so that Diamant could use them in their research.  It's also interesting that the Lodge building, with its sign, still exists today, although it has been a private home since 2007.

The Saturday Evening Girls club in the story is also real.  The two Ediths in the story who started it, Chevalier and Green, appear to be adapted from the real life Edith Guerrier and Edith Brown.  Guerrier was a librarian who went on to a distinguished career.

Actress Linda Lavin certainly sounds like she could be an 85-year-old Bostonian telling her life story, as she narrates this book.  The accent did begin to grate on me after a while, though.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[The audiobook, and an e-book for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and a public library respectively.]