Tuesday, October 13, 2015

517 (2015 #74). All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr,
read by Zach Appelman

I can see why this book won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.  It is superb.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a 12-year-old blind French girl living in Paris when the German occupation of World War II begins in 1940.  Her widowed father is a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History, which supposedly has a priceless but cursed diamond.  They flee to the walled city of Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast (it is pictured on the book cover) and the home of her great uncle Etienne, a radio enthusiast (he has eleven sets).  Marie-Laure doesn't know that her father is carrying either the diamond or one of three exact replicas, to keep it out of German hands.

Werner Pfennig is a 14-year-old German boy living with his younger sister Jutta in an orphanage in the coal-mining town of Zollverein.  He has an aptitude for science, especially radios, and when he fixes one for a German commander, he is sent to an elite (but brutal) military school where he learns to track Resistance radio broadcasts.  Werner begins to question what he's doing.

Their path cross four years later, in August 1944, during the Allied bombing of Saint-Malo.  Anthony Doerr also has interesting storylines for a number of minor characters, that reach their climaxes just before, during, and long after this period.

Listening to this book in audiobook format is especially appropriate.  Because of Marie-Laure's blindness, Doerr is very detailed in his descriptions, and I could really "see" the settings, especially Saint-Malo.  Actor Zach Appelman does an outstanding job with the reading.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

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

Sunday, October 04, 2015

516 (2015 #73). Girl Waits With Gun

by Amy Stewart 

What a romp!

Amy Stewart's first foray into fiction is a lot of fun.  Just the kind of book I like, too - one based on an actual incident and real people.

In 1914, a car driven by a silk factory owner named Henry Kaufman ran into a buggy with the three single Kopp sisters in it.  They weren't hurt, but the oldest, 35-year-old Constance, asks Kaufman to pay $50 to repair the buggy.  Henry and his band of thugs instead race away, and later harass and threaten the sisters with bricks thrown through the windows of their isolated farm, and even a fire.  The local sheriff ended up giving the women revolvers and taught them how to shoot.

Stewart ups the suspense with subplots about a secret in the sisters' past (fortunately revealed pretty quickly), and a completely fictional factory worker also being harassed by the factory owner.

According to an interview, Stewart got the idea for the book while researching for her previous one, The Drunken Botanist (self-described by Stewart as "a book about booze," which I now want to read).  She was checking old newspapers for information about a gin smuggler named Henry Kaufman, and found numerous articles about the silk manufacturer's interactions with the Kopp sisters (maybe he was the same guy?).  Constance, who was six feet tall, particularly intrigued her.

In a post for Ancestry.com's blog, Stewart said she used the site, as well as city halls, courthouses, cemeteries, historical societies, and libraries, to piece together the Kopp family and to find descendants, who provided even more information.

The book title comes from a headline of  a story that appeared in numerous newspapers of the time.  The novel is a bit long and drags in parts, and ends rather abruptly - setting up for a sequel that Stewart acknowledges she is writing.  I will definitely be reading that.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[I received this advance reader's edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  I might keep it for a while and then pass it on to someone else to enjoy.]

from The Evening Times (Pawtucket, Rhode Island),
November 23, 1914, page 13
On her website, Stewart describes this as "a classic (if not
terribly accurate) newspaper illustration from the Kaufman case."

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Hood County Library 2015 Summer Reading Challenge Book #25 - Award Winner

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Won the Pulitzer and Carnegie Prizes.

Review to come.

I DID IT!  I read 25 books in ten weeks!

© Amanda Pape - 2015

Friday, September 25, 2015

515 (2015 #72). Bug in a Vacuum

by Mélanie Watt

This is a wonderful picture book that not only has an amusing story about an insect (and a dog's toy) sucked up into a vacuum cleaner, but also a primer on the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief, as the bug (and the dog) go through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance in turn.

This book could be used with many ages to explain the stages of grief and help one going through death or another loss, disappointment, or traumatic event.  The very first page (even before the title page) sets the stage:

Bug (buhg)
  • An insect
  • An unexpected glitch

Vacuum (vak-yoom)
  • A cleaning machine
  • A void left by a loss

Each stage of grief is presented as a household item.  Denial is a can of repellent spray that “wipes out the ugly truth.” Bargaining is a box of detergent to “wash away your troubles.” Anger is a frozen dinner that is “quick and messy.” Despair is a book with "an unfair tale with an unhappy ending." Acceptance is a box of "gentle and comforting" facial tissues.  Then the reader sees the bug's reactions to each stage inside the vacuum cleaner, and the dog's reaction just outside it.

Mélanie Watt uses mixed media to create a winsome bug (and dog) against a background of old-style furnishings and equipment (like the vacuum cleaner). Children will enjoy spotting items, on the floor in the earlier pages, inside the vacuum cleaner (and used in delightful ways by the bug) as the story progresses.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

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

Monday, September 21, 2015

514 (2015 #71). Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

by Benjamin Alire Saenz

A story of coming out and coming of age in El Paso, Texas, in the late 1980s, Aristotle Mendoza and Dante Quintana are two third-generation Mexican-American boys.  Ari is quiet and upset that his parents, a teacher and a Vietnam vet postman (himself very quiet), won't tell him anything about his much-older brother who is in prison.  Dante is more outgoing, but just odd enough that he is a loner too.  He's an only child whose father is an English professor.  The two boys meet in the summer when they are fifteen, and become friends.

This book won four major awards in 2013.  It was named a Printz Honor Book as it "exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature."  It also won the Pura Belpré  Author Award for the narrative that "best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth."  Other awards included the Stonewall Book Award for "English language books that have exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered experience," and the Lambda Literary Award for best LGBT Children’s/Young Adult.

This book is considered a "high-low" book because it has a reading level (late second-grade) much lower than the average reading ability of the intended age range of its readers (high school). This book's shorter sentences and simpler vocabulary would work well for struggling or reluctant readers with an interest or need to read about the serious issues in the story.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  The Hood County Library has it on order for its young adult section.]

513 (2015 #70). The Midwife's Apprentice

by Karen Cushman

The Midwife's Apprentice won the Newbery Medal in 1996 as "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." Only 122 pages, it packs in a lot of historical detail, an engaging heroine, and a story of perseverance.

Brat is an orphan girl found on a dung heap by Jane, a medieval village midwife in England, who takes her on as a helper and calls her Beetle.

Beetle has lots of experiences that illustrate typical life in the 1300s, as well as increasing her self-confidence and her determination of what her "place in this world" should be.  Eventually she names herself Alyce, and even learns to read.

Despite its short length, the reading level (6.0) and some of the subject matter (women and animals giving birth) make this book more appropriate for middle school and up.  A number of other Newbery Medalists are set in this era and could be used in a history unit on the Middle Ages.

The copy of the book I got at the Hood County Library had the cover pictured above.  This would be the Alyce cover.  The one just below, from my university library, would be the Beetle cover.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

Saturday, September 19, 2015

512 (2015 #69). To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

I first read this book in the eighth grade, and we discussed it in my literature class.  I was even one of three students to be among the first users of our K-8 Catholic school's closed-circuit TV and tape system, recording a program about the novel, where I discussed the story from Scout Finch's point of view.

I'm not going to try to review this well-known novel.  In re-reading it 45 years after I first read it, and shortly after reading Harper Lee's recently released Go Set a Watchman, the precursor to this book, I can say that what I most noticed was the wry humor of Scout's recollections of her childhood.  Yes, there was this serious trial going on, but much of it is a story of an otherwise rather idyllic childhood. in mid-1930s Mississippi.

A couple examples of the humor:

On page 16, Scout talks about her first grade teacher:

"...I am Miss Caroline Fisher.  I am from North Alabama, from Winston County."  The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove to harbor her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region. (When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it.)  North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other people of no background.

And later, on page 18, Jem calls the "new way they're teachin' the first grade...the Dewey Decimal System."

The book begins in the summer of 1933 when Scout is six and her brother Jem is ten- there's a reference to Roosevelt's nothing "to fear but fear itself" speech on page 6, and to The Gray Ghost on page 13, published in book form about 1926. (The book is also referenced in the last two pages of To Kill a Mockingbird.)  It ends in the fall of 1935 - there are references to Hitler on pages 244-247, ending with Scout's observation about her third grade teacher:

"Miss Gates is a nice lady, ain't she?"
"Why sure," said Jem...
"She hates Hitler a lot..."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Well, she went on today about how bad it was him treatin' the Jews like that.  Jem, it's not right to persecute anybody, is it?  I mean have mean thoughts about anybody, even, is it?"
"Gracious no, Scout.  What's eatin' you?"
"Well, coming out of the courthouse that night [after Tom Robinson's trial], ... I heard her say it's time somebody taught 'em a lesson, they were gettin' way above themselves, an' the next thing they think they can do is marry us.  Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an' then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home--"

I'd also like to note that Atticus Finch wasn't really some perfect non-racist in this book.  He treats Calpurnia, the housekeeper who is practically raising his children, quite well - but not as an equal.  He's appointed to defend Tom Robinson - he doesn't volunteer.  He defends Tom because he believes in the law, and because he believes there's very good evidence Tom did not commit rape.  Heroic, yes, particularly because it was dangerous for him to do so at the time, but it doesn't make him an anti-racism god.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[I own this copy of the book.]