Tuesday, October 07, 2014

425 (2014 #53). The Romanov Bride

by Robert Alexander,
read by Gabrielle de Cuir and Stefan Rudnicki

The title of this book is a little misleading.  It implies that the book is only about the Grand Duchess Elizavyeta Feodorovna (Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, 1864-1918), granddaugher of Queen Victoria of Great Britain and older sister to Tsaritsa Alexandra, wife of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II.

"Ella," as she was known within her family (Nicholas and Alexandra were "Nicky" and "Alicky"), alternates chapters with a fictional character named Pavel.  He is a peasant who has come to Saint Petersburg with his bride in 1904.  She is killed in a originally-peaceful protest, and Pavel, wanting revenge, becomes a revolutionary.

In this way the reader sees both sides of this 1904-1918 period of unrest in Russia.  Pavel moves to Moscow and is involved in the assassination of Ella's husband, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, in 1905.  In 1908, the childless Ella sells off much of her wealth, becomes a Russian Orthodox nun, and founds the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent in Moscow.  They do good works caring for the sick and poor, but eventually Ella is arrested and eventually killed.  Pavel, having witnessed some of her good works, requests to be one of her guards, and is involved in her death.  The story is framed with Pavel imprisoned in Siberia in 1936, awaiting his own death, and telling his story to an imprisoned priest.

It was quite interesting to learn in author Robert Alexander's afterword that Ella was canonized as New Martyr Saint Elizabeth by the Russian Orthodox church in 1981 and 1992.  I had not heard of the Grand Duchess before reading this book, which uses the facts of her life as its base.

I'd be interested in reading Alexander's (real name Robert D. Zimmerman) other two books in his House of Romanov trilogy - or even better, listening to the audiobooks.  Polish-born Stefan Rudnicki has a wonderful deep, gravelly voice that was perfect for the peasant Pavel, while veteran narrator and director Gabrielle de Cuir brings her personal distinction and flare for languages to the voice of Ella (who could speak English, German, French, and Russian).

The beautiful image on the cover of the audiobook (at the top of this post) is a painting of the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna by Friedrich August von Kaulbach.  The hardbound book cover (pictured above) features a photograph of her from the Russian State Archive, which was probably taken at the same time as other photographs dated July 1887.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

424 (2014 #52). The Matchmaker

by Elin Hilderbrand,
read by Erin Bennett

Chick-lit beach-read romance about a married woman who meets up with the love of her life (and the father of her daughter) 27 years after he leaves Nantucket Island to pursue a career in journalism.  Dabney Kimball Beech is now married to a Harvard economist, John Boxmiller "Box" Beech, who commutes to the island for weekends because Dabney won't leave it.  Her mother abandoned her in a New York City hotel when she was 10, and, except for her years at Harvard and necessary medical appointments, she stays put in Nantucket. Not surprisingly, she becomes the island's biggest cheerleader as executive director of the chamber of commerce.

Then Pulitzer prizewinner Clendenin "Clen" Hughes returns to Nantucket, after losing one arm while pursuing a story.  He immediately pursues Dabney, and it doesn't take her long to succumb.

I found both Dabney and Clen to be unlikable characters.  Box, who marries her and adopts and raises her daughter Agnes, is indirectly blamed for Dabney's affair with Clen because he isn't attentive enough.  Oh please.  The man is forced by Dabney's reluctance to leave the island to be a commuter husband, yet he resists the temptation of an attractive co-worker and (I assume) numerous Harvard co-eds.  Agnes is the most interesting character, as she finds she's better off without her control-freak fiance and becomes friends with someone far more appropriate.

Actress Erin Bennett is a good audiobook reader, but this story moved very slowly.  Dabney also has a reputation as a successful matchmaker, with 40-something couples to her credit.  The stories of a few of those intersperse chapters told from the viewpoints of the four main characters, which slows the narrative down.

Author Elin Hilderbrand writes romances set on Nantucket, where she lives.  This book doesn't particularly inspire me to read any more of them.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

423 (2014 #51). The Lost Wife

by Alyson Richman

Beautiful book about a couple separated by the Nazi occupation of Prague.  A young Josef and Lenka marry just before he and his family of origin escape.  They are able to get exit papers for Lenka, but not for her parents and sister, so Lenka refuses to go, deciding to wait until Josef can send for them all.

Of course, that doesn't happen.  Josef and his family head for America on the SS Athenia.  The ship is torpedoed and they are reported as dead - but Josef survives.  Shortly afterward, Lenka and her family are shipped to Terazin's "model" concentration camp.  A strength of the novel is author Alyson Richman's descriptions of life there, incorporating real people such as artist and art teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.

Finally, in November 1944, Lenka's mother is chosen to be transported east, and once again, the family decides to stick together.  They are all sent to Auschwitz.  Ultimately only Lenka survives.

Josef's letters to Lenka are returned, so each think the other is dead, and they marry other people; Lenka an American soldier.  They meet once again at the wedding of their grandchildren.  This isn't a spoiler, as it happens at the beginning of the book.  The rest of the story is told in the alternating voices of Lenka and Josef, in the past and in the present (2000).  The novel winds up at the present-day wedding.

In an afterword, author Alyson Richman said she overheard a story about a bride's grandmother and groom's grandfather meeting at a wedding and realizing they'd been married before the war.  Richman also said in an interview that she made Lenka an art student " so I could weave in my historical research about various artists who had survived Terezin and Auschwitz by using their artistic skills."

While I didn't quite buy the romance between Josef and Lenka and its long life (61 years!), I did enjoy the historical aspects of this novel, and would definitely read some of Richman's other books.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Friday, September 26, 2014

422 (2014 #50). The Bees

by Laline Paull,
performed by Orlagh Cassidy

This is an incredible book.  It anthropomorphizes bees and their life in the hive, making the bees' devotion to their queen analogous to a religion, with cult-like behavior, control by the "Hive Mind," and "Accept, Obey, and Serve" the motto of every worker.

Like a real hive, this one also has a caste system, but it's not quite so rigid.  Flora 717, born an ugly, deformed sanitation worker, somehow has the ability to communicate and to make royal jelly (called Flow in the book).  She is saved from death by a higher-caste priestess bee (a Sage of the Melissae - I loved the way the different castes were named for different types of flowers--and in this case the flower name is a wonderful pun--and knew from reading The Secret Life of Bees that Melissae means "bees" in Greek).

There are also some parallels with Catholicism.  The worker bees (all female) refer to each other as "Sister [flower/caste]," and the pheromone the queen bee uses to control fertility in the workers is described in terms of incense.  The prayer workers recite is a variation on the Catholic "Hail Mary" ("Our Mother, who art in labor, Hallowed be Thy womb; Thy marriage done, They Queendom come...").  There is a daily sacrament of Devotion (more of the queen's pherormenes), except for the queen's ladies-in-waiting, who maintain the "Stories of Scent," much like the mysteries of the Rosary.

The reader gets to explore the many different roles of worker bees, as Flora moves from being a nurse to helping to kill a wasp invader (earning some time with the queen) to foraging for food, due to a shortage of workers.  She encounters perils both natural (the Myriad:  wasps - the Vespa, their Latin genus name, as well as birds and spiders; and a carnivorous plant) and man-made (a cell-phone tower, and the effects of pesticides and human intervention in man-made hives).  She serves the drones, the useless male bees, and encounters them on a foraging flight in a congregation area.

Much, much more happens in the book, as it covers a good year of the life of a hive, but you'll just have to read it.  Flora begins to lay eggs, and "only the queen may breed."

This is Laline Paull's first novel.  She began to research bees when a young beekeeper friend died, and was fascinated by the parallels with human society.  When she learned about the unusual laying worker bee, she had the idea for the book, and rushed to write about it before anyone else did.  After reading her book, I too am inspired to learn more about bees - she even suggests some books in a recent interview.  Paull is the daughter of immigrants from India, and confirms in that same interview that the Dalits of India, the untouchables, were "one of the influences in this work" for lowest-caste sanitation worker Flora.

The audiobook case for The Bees says it is "performed by Orlagh Cassidy," and that is completely true.  The actress does a fantastic job creating believable voices for a myriad of characters, with the wasps and spiders sounding particularly evil.

I definitely recommend this book, especially to book clubs.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

421 (2014 #49). The Woman Who Would Be King

by Kara Cooney

Probably best for those with an intense interest in ancient Egypt, this book is nonetheless an interesting one, about a little-known early female ruler, Hatshepsut.  Author Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptian art and architecture, makes a lot of assumptions about the life of this woman, as there is little left about her in the historical record (and her suppositions as to why that is the case are part of this narrative, too).  My advance reader edition had 41 pages of footnotes (which were not quite complete) and an 11-page bibliography, so it is clear the book is well-researched.  This isn't a book for the merely curious, as the terminology assumes that the reader is familiar with Egyptology.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[I received an advance reading copy from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

420 (2014 #48). Spic-and-Span!

by Monica Kulling,
illustrated by David Parkins

I love the books Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel Belles on Their Toes, about industrial engineers Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and their large family in the early 1900s!  I was excited to receive this hardbound picture book biography of Lillian to review.  She was a pioneer in her field and an inventor in the area of ergonomics.  I had not realized she was responsible for the electric mixer, refrigerator compartments, and trash cans with foot pedal lid openers!  The author, Monica Kulling, has written other books in her "Great Ideas" picture book biography series that I would like to acquire for my university library's children's literature collection, used by future teachers. (This book is definitely being added.)  David Parkins' pen-and-ink with watercolor illustrations are amusing and add to the story.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[I received a hardbound final copy from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be added to my university library's collection.]

Friday, September 12, 2014

419 (2014 #47). A Long Fatal Love Chase

by Louisa May Alcott

Remember those "sensation" stories Jo March writes in Little Women?  In chapter 27, "Literary Lessons," Jo decides to enter a competition in

that class of light literature in which the passions have a holiday, and when the author's invention fails, a grand catastrophe clears the state of one-half the dramatis persona, leaving the other half to exult over their downfall....Her theatrical experience and miscellaneous reading were of service now, for they gave her some idea of dramatic effect, and supplied plot, language, and costumes.  Her story was as full of desperation and despair as her limited acquaintance with those uncomfortable emotions enabled her to make it...

Jo wins the competition (and $100), and keeps writing such thrillers to pay the family bills.  In chapter 34, "A Friend," Jo continues

writing sensation stories - for in those dark days, even all-perfect America read rubbish....Like most young scribblers, she went abroad for her characters and scenery...as thrills could not be produced except by harrowing up the souls of the readers, history and romance, land and sea, science and art, police records and lunatic asylums, had to be ransacked for the purpose....she searched newspapers for accidents, incidents, and crimes; she excited the suspicions of public librarians by asking for works on poisons; she studied faces in the street, - and characters good, bad, and indifferent, all about her; she delved in the dust of ancient times, for facts or fictions so old that they were as good as new, and introduced herself to folly, sin, and misery, as well as her limited opportunities allowed.

A Long Fatal Love Chase is the serialized "blood and thunder" story Jo March might have written.  Even more interesting, though, is the story behind the story.  After returning from a trip to Europe in 1866, where she served as a paid companion to an invalid, Louisa May Alcott sold her novella Behind the Mask (or, A Woman's Power) to editor James Elliott for the Boston weekly The Flag of Our Union for $75 in August. (It appeared in four installments in October and November of that year).  Incorporating settings from her trip, in September, Alcott's journal indicates she "finished the long tale A Modern Mephistopheles.   But Elliott would not have it, saying it was too long & too sensational!  So I put it away & fell to work on other things."

After Alcott's death in 1888, the manuscript wound up in a Harvard library archive, where it was described as "A modern Mephistopheles, or The fatal love chase. ... A completely different novel from that published as A modern Mephistopheles in the No Name series, 1877. This novel apparently unpublished. ... NOTE: This item returned to family, 1991."

According to a September 1995 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Alcott's grandnephews put the manuscript on the market to raise money for the Louisa May Alcott Foundation, which operates Orchard House, the Alcott home in Concord, Masssachusetts, where she wrote Little Women.  It languished unsold for a few years until a New Hampshire private school principal named Kent Bicknell purchased it (with the help of a financial backer) in 1994.  He restored the much-revised text to the original (as submitted in 1866), and the profits from its subsequent publication were shared with Alcott's heirs, Orchard House, and Bicknell's school respectively.  

Elliott had requested a novel of 24 chapters, with every other chapter ending with a bit of a cliffhanger, for serialization purposes.  That is what Alcott has written here. The title and the cover blurb kind of give the plot away, but it's an easy and fun (and rather dark Gothic) read nonetheless.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This paperback was purchased at a Friends of the Library book sale and will likely remain in my personal collection.]