Friday, April 18, 2014

390 (2014 #18). The Medici Boy

by John L'Heureux

This novel is set in the 15th-century, in the early Italian Renaissance, and takes the reader to the side of the great sculptor Donatello in his bottegas (workshops) in Florence and Padua, as well as evoking what life was like in that era.

The story is told through the eyes of the fictional Luca di Matteo, who suffers a rough early life.  Illegitimate, he is raised by greedy adoptive parents who are wool dyers.  He is too lustful to be a monk and not talented enough to be a painter, and nearly dies of the plague.  At age twenty, he becomes an apprentice/assistant to Donatello.

Luca's life is pretty pleasant until his adoptive parents' youngest natural son, Agnolo Mattei, shows up.  He's pretty useless around the bottega, but Donatello is besotted by him.

Eventually Agnolo becomes the model for a bronze statue of the biblical David commissioned by the powerful Cosimo de' Medici.  Reading about the processes involved in sculpting the statue and pouring the bronze was fascinating!

The author, John L'Heureux, is a former English professor who saw Donatello's statue on his first visit to Florence. According to his author's note, it "seemed to me personal, erotic, a testament to the sculptor's sexual obsession for the teenage boy he had created.  Someone, I thought, should write a novel about it."  He later received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant to spend time in Italy doing research for what ultimately became The Medici Boy.

As with all good historical fiction, by the end of this book, I was eager to know who was real and who was not, and to learn more about Donatello and his works.  In an afterword, the author provides brief biographical sketches about the "real" characters in the book, as well as a two-plus-page bibliography.  Little detail is known about the real Donatello and many of the other real personages in the book, giving the author a lot of leeway for accuracy in his novel.  Publisher Astor + Blue also has an excellent reader's guide for individuals and book clubs.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review with links to them, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.  The book will be donated to my university library.]

Monday, March 31, 2014

389 (2014 #17). The Bankhead Highway in Texas

The author of this book, retired meteorologist Dr. Dan L. Smith, will be on the program for a Friends of the Library event for my university library this upcoming weekend.  The book's colorful cover and intriguing subject matter caught my eye (I love Texas history and I love travel), so I decided to read the book.

The Bankhead Highway was an automobile route from Washington, D.C. to San Diego, mainly through southern states.  It was the second national cross-country highway and the first that could be used year-round. It was named for Alabama senator John Hollis Bankhead, a leader in the early national road building ("Good Roads") movement.  Work on the route began in 1916, and its about-850 miles across Texas run from Texarkana to Dallas, and then west more or less near the routes of Interstates 20 and 10 today.

Part 1 of the book is a 76-page, well-researched history of the "Good Roads" movement, promoter John Asa Rountree and his Bankhead Highway Association, determining the Bankhead's transcontinental route, and the heyday of the highway.  This part ends with an index and a list of some references and sources.

The most interesting chapter in this part was a detailed description of the 1920 "Second U.S. Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy," which really illustrated just how difficult travel was by car in those days over poor roads (the Bankhead Highway route had been designated but much of it was unpaved), with sticky mud, flooding, and washed-out bridges in the South, and impassable sand in Arizona.  The convoy was in Texas from August 7 through September 10 and had to make many detours on the way.  Smith includes maps that show the route the convoy took and how it varied from the official Bankhead route, and indicated which dates the convoy overnighted in or near towns along the way.

Part 2 of the book was even more interesting.  Smith took the 1921 Authentic Roadmap and Tourist Guide of the Bankhead Highway  by Thomas A. Dunn and marked its routing on 1936 county maps of Texas.  Those maps show roads that may no longer exist today, but even by 1936, a few parts of the 1921 Bankhead Highway no longer existed - or could not be definitively identified.  And of course, today the interstates and other highways have obliterated parts of the Bankhead.

Part 2 consists of  32 double-page spreads, each with a segment of the route through Texas.  For example, here are the pages from the double-page spread for the section on western Tarrant County, which includes the route through Fort Worth and Benbrook (click on the images to enlarge them).  I've crossed or driven on the modern roads in these locations a number of times:

The map pages show the route matching to the Dunn guidebook, as well as other likely early routes.  A well-known modern road (such as the Interstates) is often shown on the map for orienting purposes.  The detail page opposite the map is full of all sorts of interesting information - a picture from the Dunn guidebook showing the mileage and turns for the segment; old photos, ads, and postcard images of bridges, signage, hotels, tourist courts, service stations, and other businesses along the routes, and recent photos of remnants of the road, buildings, landmarks, and other features that remain today.  (More images are available in a Bankhead Highway in Texas group on Flickr started by the Texas Historical Commission as part of its Bankhead Highway Project).

I've presented these pages with the map first and then the detail page about that segment of the route, because that makes the most sense to me, but actually they are presented in the opposite order in the book, probably because Dunn's guide runs from east (typically on the right in maps) to west.

The book is spiral-bound, which facilitates displaying the maps if you are trying to follow the route.  However, our library may end up having the book hard bound at some point, because spiral-bound books don't have a very long shelf life.  This book is interesting enough that I think it may get checked out a lot - so we might end up having to bind it sooner rather than later!

After reading this book, I want to go out and explore some of its still-existing old segments for myself, and see more images from along the old route.  And that, in my mind, makes this book a success.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Saturday, March 29, 2014

388 (2014 #16). Vienna Nocturne

by Vivien Shotwell

The main character of Vienna Nocturne is a real opera soprano of the late 1700s, Anna Storace of England, who was an inspiration for Mozart, particularly for the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro.  She was a bit of a child prodigy, and at age 15 went to Italy with her family for more training and to obtain the respect and experience she needed to be a prima donna (the leading female singer) in opera buffa (Italian comedic opera).

In 1783, she was invited to join Austrian Emperor Joseph II's new opera company in Vienna.  There she meets Mozart.  Although there's no historical evidence for it, the book assumes a romance between the two based on music Mozart wrote for her.  In particular, there was a cantata ("For the Recovery of Ophelia," now lost to history) celebrating her return to singing after she lost her voice for five months (page 163: "her throat as taught [sic] and painful as a bound whip."). There was also a farewell aria (Ch’io mi scordi di te) that was a duet for a soprano (Storace) and pianist (most likely Mozart).

In a historical note at the end of the book, debut author Vivien Shotwell lets us know most of the named characters are real, the main exception being Anna's maid and companion Lidia.  She says she "stayed as close as I could to an accurate timeline," and "many of the scenes...are based on real events."  However, for most of the real characters in the book, there's very little in the historical record, so the author had a lot of freedom to create Anna (in particular) and others, like her composer brother Stephen.  Mozart is a rather peripheral character in this book.

This book didn't grab me the way A Good American did, another historical fiction novel with music (opera, jazz and barbershop) as a major theme.  Although I got some insights into the life of an opera company in this era, the singers themselves did not stand out.  Anna came across as immature, and the other characters, including Lidia, were not well developed.  The settings (England, Naples, Milan, Venice, Vienna) had few descriptions, and therefore were more or less irrelevant to the story.

Shotwell is a classically-trained singer and a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop.  She obviously knows the world of music well. I just wish she'd shared a little more of that knowledge of music and opera terms with those of us not so musically-inclined, perhaps through a glossary at the end of the book.  There is a good list of resources in her historical note. 

Perhaps I'm just not the right audience. Readers with a great appreciation for music might like this book more.  While reading it, I suggest watching and listening to the video playlist Shotwell put together.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[A hardbound copy of this book was sent to me from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.  The book will be donated to my university library.]

Thursday, March 27, 2014

387 (2014 #15). The Good Braider

by Terry Farish, 
read by Cherise Boothe

This is the story of Viola, a young female refugee from the war-torn South Sudan in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and how she adapts to her first year in America.

The book begins with a quote from The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski:  "The spirit of Africa...always appears in the guise of an elephant."  The elephant motif appears throughout the book, including in the names of its three parts.

Part One is Elephant Bones, covering Viola's life and escape from Juba, Sudan, to Cairo, Egypt, from 1999 to 2002.  This part of the book is the longest at 79 pages, but I found it the least compelling.  I would have liked more detail on just what the family went through in their escape.  I didn't really get a feel for life in the Sudan either.  Perhaps this is because the author, Terry Farish, has not been there.  Before listening to the audiobook, I thought perhaps Farish might be a Sudanese refugee, but it turns out she is a white woman who has only gotten as close as Kenya, so perhaps that is why this portion of the book is not as strong.

The book gets much better, though, in the last two parts.  Viola and her mother are refugees in Portland, Maine, and Farish used to work with Sudanese refugees in Portland, so she is writing about what she knows. Part Two is called Elephant Footsteps, and Part Three is Elephant Songs. The division between this and the previous part is the incident foreshadowed in a short segment just before Part One.  It's also a significant turning point in the story, one that I won't spoil here, except to say that it's a good illustration of the difficulties many refugees have in adapting, especially parents used to having more control of their children in their home countries.

Hair-braiding also symbolic in this book. Viola used to braid hair in the Sudan, but stops doing so or even caring for her own hair as she escapes that country.  In an interview, Farish said Viola "has suffered great loss, the strands of her life, and the braiding to her is like the strands she can no longer bring together. In Cairo, her friend tells her, 'You will braid when your are ready. Braiding is from our culture.' I wanted braiding to be a metaphor for Viola's evolving skill in leaning to live in a new culture. Braiding also represents her deep bond with her mother."

The book reflects reality with Viola being raped by a soldier in Sudan.  The scene is not graphic, but I think that (and the incident referred to earlier) make this book better suited for high school age and up, rather than the age 13 and up advertised on the audiobook.  I would definitely recommend it for the older students as well as adults, and it could be the basis of a great multidisciplinary study unit.  The author provides both an educator's guide and a discussion guide as well as other great resources on her website devoted to this book.  A historical note at the end of the book provides some context for the novel in the region's recent history.

I was surprised to learn this book was written in free verse.  That isn't obvious in an audiobook, especially now that very short chapters, often with names (as a poem would have), have become quite common in so much fiction.  Actress Cherise Boothe is an excellent narrator - she uses just enough of an accent to make it clear Viola and her mother have not been in America long, while making Viola's cousin Jackie, for example, sound very Americanized.  Recorded Books as usual does its excellent quality audiobook production.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This audiobook was sent to me by the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.  It will be donated to my university library.]

386 (2014 #14). Killing Lincoln

by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard

My dad read this book and enjoyed it and gave it to me to read when I asked him about it.  Let me be clear up front that I am neither a fan nor a foe of Bill O'Reilly, so my opinion of the book is not colored by politics.  It does bother me, however, when a book gets a lot of extra attention simply because an author is famous mostly in arenas other than authorship, or expertise in a particular subject.

Like another so-called nonfiction book I read recently that's been read more frequently since a movie loosely based on it became popular (Philomena), my gripe with this book is that it's marketed as nonfiction, when once again the author(s) speculate about the characters' thoughts and motivations, yet have no cited sources backing them up.

The book has a number of (mostly minor) inaccuracies, which again would be more forgivable if the book wasn't marketed as nonfiction.  It IS possible to write good, enthralling narrative nonfiction grounded in facts that are detailed in end notes - Erik Larson is a master.

That being said - the book was a quick, easy read.  I actually preferred Part One of the book (called "Total War"), which in 83 pages describes, in an understandable form, the last few maneuverings and skirmishes by Generals Grant and Lee in the first nine days of April, 1865, just before Lee's surrender.

O'Reilly himself says in an author's note at the beginning that "this book is written as a thriller."  Had it been marketed the same way, it would perhaps be less controversial.  A desired outcome of reading this book would be using it as a starting point to learn more facts about Lincoln's assassination and its aftermath.  That's what good historical fiction often inspires one to do.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Saturday, March 22, 2014

385 (2014 #13). Me Before You

by JoJo Moyes, 
read by Susan Lyons, Anna Bentink, Steven Crossley, Alex Tregear, Andrew Wincott, and Owen Lindsay

I listened to this audiobook because the title was #5 on a list of favorite book group reads for 2013 at the Reading Group Guides website, my public library had the audiobook, and I was looking for something to listen to on my commute the day I checked it out.

Twenty-six-year-old Louisa "Lou" Clark is an average British girl - not especially bright, still living at home in a small tourist town with her parents, still dating the same boring guy after seven years.  She loses her long-time waitress job when a local cafe closes, and has to find new employment, as her family (which includes her elderly grandfather and younger-and-supposedly-smarter sister Treena and her out-of-wedlock son Thomas) counts on her income.

Will Traynor is a thirty-something wealthy quadraplegic whose father Steven runs the castle, the local tourist attraction, and whose mother Camilla is a magistrate.  Before being hit by a motorcyclist while on foot, Will was a highly successful businessman who traveled the world and participated in extreme sports.

Lou is hired by Camilla as a companion and caregiver for Will.  Not so much for the medical stuff - handled by the competent Aussie Nathan - but more to keep an eye on him.  Lou learns (accidentally) that Will tried to commit suicide just before she was hired, and promised his family not to do so again for six months - if they would agree at the end of that time to take him to a Swiss clinic for assisted suicide.  Lou makes it her mission to change Will's mind in that six-month period.

I don't want to spoil the story, so I'll stop there.  I had mixed feelings about this book.  Parts of it dragged and were somewhat predicable.  Other parts were interesting and apparently well-researched - I learned a lot about medical issues facing quadraplegics.  The book definitely provokes some moral and philosophical questions, and I can see it generating a good book club discusssion (with the right group).  I had to wonder if I'd feel like often-sarcastic Will if I were rendered virtually helpless in an accident in the prime of life.  I had a bit harder time relating to quirky but goo-hearted Lou, both because of her background and because of her sometimes grating stupidity.  I did find I cared about these two characters as their story continued.

Most of the story is told in first-person by Lou, but there are single chapters voiced by Camilla, Nathan, Steven, and Treena, as well as a third-person prologue and a final chapter (before Lou's epilogue) from yet another viewpoint.  Thus the six voices reading the audiobook.  None of these or the other supporting characters are particularly well-developed, and a few are a bit stereotypical.

Australian actress Susan Lyons does a marvelous job as Lou in the audiobook, and sounds appropriately British.  The rest of the readers are fine, with the exception of Alex Treager.  Her voice is too soft - not what I imagined for Lou's sister Treena, and I had to turn the volume way up to hear and understand her.  It probably didn't help that I already had a low opinion of Treena (and her bratty five-year-old son) even before Treager's narration.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

384 (2014 #12). Philomena

by Martin Sixsmith

This book should have been called "Michael" instead of Philomena.  Or perhaps it should have stuck to its original title, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, since the book is more about the child, Michael Hess, than his mother Philomena.  I read that the original book didn't sell that well, and was resurrected with the title change to tie-in with the movie starring Judi Dench in an Academy Award-nominated performance.

I haven't seen the movie (and have no intention of doing so now that I've read the book).  I want to be clear that this is a review of the book and NOT the movie.

Besides the misleading title, the book is marketed as being a "true story." While reading it, I had to question that, given that the author attributes a lot of actions, conversations, and feelings to Michael Hess, when he did not even interview Michael (who had died in 1995, 14 years before the book was written).  I felt the author had an adoption rights agenda to promote - that Michael's "troubles" were a result of his being adopted and being unable to find out who his real mother was.  I felt a lot of Michael's supposed behaviors were sensationalized to promote this agenda.

It turns out some of those "troubles" were in fact highly exaggerated or even invented.  There's an excellent review of this book on Amazon by a friend of Michael's who was interviewed for the book and appears as a character in it (under another name).  This reviewer rightly points out that "this book should be categorized as fiction."  I strongly suggest that you read this review as it gives examples of numerous inaccuracies.

The review also refers to an interview at of Michael's partner (called Pete in the book):

Steve Dahllof, Hess’s partner for the last 15 years of his life, said in a telephone interview that the book was “about a three out of 10, in terms of accuracy” ... He said the book had “portrayed Michael as this very dark, brooding type of person that he was not,” though he acknowledged that Hess “didn’t let very many people in.” Still, Dahllof said, all of Hess’s bosses and colleagues in the [Republican] party knew he was gay and had a partner. “It didn’t need to be part of the conversation,” recalled Dahllof... “Now it’s more relaxed. Society has moved on. He was never tormented by his sexuality. He was a Republican, more a fiscal Republican than a social Republican. We really didn’t talk politics that much.” In fact, if Hess was consumed by anything, it was his search for his biological mother. “Was Michael tortured?” Dahllof asked. “No, he wasn’t tortured. But he had this deep desire to find his biological mother, to understand her"....
Sixsmith’s book portrays Hess as carousing in biker bars, but Dahllof said the reality was much tamer. ...   Dahllof, [Robert] Higdon [one of Hess’s closest friends and the former executive director of the Prince of Wales Foundation in Washington], and Hess’s other friends and co-workers all resist tendencies in the book and movie to caricature or pigeonhole him as a gay man, or a Republican, or anything else. He was, above all, they say, a whole person.
Even Mike's hometown newspaper, the Rockford [Illinois] Register Star, pointed out inaccuracies:

Lynn Cuppini McConville, Boylan Class of 1967 who is now director of advancement at Boylan, said Hess was involved in many school activities, including debate and stage productions. Some information in the book is incorrect, including Hess' role in the play, "Mame," the last name of a girl he appeared with and their relationship, McConville said.

I only read this book because it was my book club's selection for the month.  I'm glad I didn't purchase it, and I can't recommend it to anyone else.  No stars for this book.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This book was borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]