Friday, August 08, 2014

415 (2014 #43). Sea Glass

by Anita Shreve,
read by Kyra Sedgwick

Sea Glass begins in June 1929, when 20-year-old Honora Willard Beecher and her new husband, 24-year-old traveling salesman Sexton.  They are moving into an old dilapidated house on the New Hampshire coast just outside a mill town, fixing it up in lieu of rent.  When the house is put up for sale, Sexton finagles a way to buy it.  Then October comes, and the stock market crashes.

The reader learns more about the five main characters in chapters told from their points of view.  Honora has had a rough life, losing her father and her youngest brother in the Halifax explosion.  Sexton is an amazingly good salesman - maybe too good.  McDermott is a 20-year-old Irish immigrant working in the mills, losing his hearing from the noise, helping to support his orphaned siblings, and meeting with other men considering forming a union.  He befriends 11-year-old Francis (named Alphonse in some editions), a French immigrant also working in the mills and contributing to his family's income.  Vivian is a 28-year-old wealthy, bored, decadent socialite who comes to the coast for the summers.

In the early chapters, these people's lives start to intersect subtly, building to the chapters where they (and a few more minor characters) all come together to provide support for an upcoming strike at the mill.  There's both romance and tragedy in the story.  It was interesting to learn more about the labor movement in this period of American history, particularly as it affected the workers who went on strike, and the violence sometimes associated with it.

The title of the novel comes from the sea glass that Honora collects.  Sea glass has its sharp edges smoothed by the action of the waves and sand, and that serves as a metaphor for what happens in the book.

Actress Kyra Sedgwick does an awesome job reading this audiobook, with just that right emotion and nuances at all the right times.

I picked up this audiobook at my local public library because it was historical fiction and because it was short - I can listen to one audiobook CD a day during my commute and I had five days available before the start of my vacation.  I did not look that closely at the cover and was surprised to discover afterwards that it was an abridgment.  The abridgment (not by the author) was well done in that the novel flowed well, but it makes me wonder what I might have missed (apparently something about the house being a former convent, for one thing). I'm tempted to read the print book now!

I was also pleasantly surprised to learn, in the introduction by Anita Shreve, that this was her third book set in a certain old New England beach house (modeled after a real one), just in a different era.  I'm familiar with The Pilot's Wife, set in contemporary times, but I'm very curious to read Fortune's Rocks, set in 1899.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Sunday, August 03, 2014

414 (2014 #42). In Search of the Little Prince

written and illustrated by Bimba Landmann

Subtitled "The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry," this is a picture book biography about the author of the French classic The Little Prince.

The book was originally published in Italian, as Italy is the home of the author/illustrator, Bimba Landmann.  Her soft illustrations are fanciful yet serious.  There are a number of actual photographs of and quotations from Saint-Exupéry in the book.  The amount of text on each page makes this book more appropriate for grades 3-5.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Friday, August 01, 2014

413 (2014 #41). Mrs. Poe

written by Lynn Cullen,
read by Eliza Foss

Mrs. Poe really isn't about the wife of poet and author Edgar Allen Poe.  Instead, the main character and narrator of the story is Frances Sargent Osgood, a poet herself, who may or may not have had a relationship with Poe that went beyond the flirtatious exchange of poems printed in the journal Poe edited.

The story begins in the winter of 1845, when Poe is at the height of his fame with the publication of "The Raven" (printed in full to start the book), and concludes two years later.  Osgood's philandering artist husband has left her alone to support herself and their two daughters, and Poe's attention ultimately helps her career.

Interestingly, in an interview, author Lynn Cullen says she was in similar circumstances just before writing this book, as her husband was temporarily debilitated from a bout with encephalitis (a possible cause of Poe's mysterious death) and she was worried about how she would support her family.

Lynn Cullen did a very good job researching her setting - New York City in the mid-1840s - and that aspect of the book is excellent.  What appears to be a lot of name-dropping cameo appearances of other authors and famous people of the day may seem annoying, but it's very likely that Osgood, Poe, and his wife Virginia (a cousin whom he married when he was 26 and she 13, who suffered from tuberculosis) did meet these people in the literary circles in the city.

The author's note at the end was helpful in telling the reader what happened to many of the major characters AFTER the story ended.  However, I would have like a little more clarification on what happened IN the book - what was true, what was not.  For example, according to Lynn Cullen's website, Frances Osgood did live with Eliza and John Russell Bartlett for a while, but I would have liked to have seen that fact in the author's note, as well as more detail on the sources she used in her writing.  The lack of such information means a lot of readers will assume that the events in the story are all true, when they are not.

Actress Eliza Foss "was featured in Audiofile magazine as one of 'audio's hottest romance narrators,'" and she certainly provides a dramatic reading of this book.  She gives Poe a slight Southern accent, fitting in that he grew up in Virginia.

I'm not fond of the romance genre, nor of Gothic horror/mystery, and this book has a little too much of both for my liking.  It is historical fiction, and that redeemed it for me.  Any time a work of historical fiction gets me to want to research the people and places it's about, it's a success.  Just keep in mind as you read it that is IS fiction and not fact.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Sunday, July 27, 2014

412 (2014 #40). 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.]