Thursday, April 24, 2014

392 (2014 #20). Quiet

by Susan Cain,
read by Kathe Mazur

Before I read this book, I thought I was more extroverted than introverted - but now I definitely think I'm a closet introvert.  In the introduction to Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, author Susan Cain has 20 true-false statements (pages 13-14), such as "I often prefer to express myself in writing," "I often let calls go through to voice mail," and "I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or two close friends or family members." I answered true to 17 of them, meaning I am probably more introverted than extroverted.  I certainly don't consider myself to be quiet, though.

This nonfiction book is an exploration of introversion and extroversion.  The introduction makes it clear that introversion is not synonymous with shyness, an assumption a lot of people make that also, I believe, causes mis-identification.  I'm certainly not shy, so people (including myself) often assume I am an extrovert.

Part One talks about the rise of the "extrovert ideal," the ways society tends to favor extroverts, and how this came about.  For me, the most valuable part of this section was the chapter called "When Collaboration Kills Creativity," which talks about how group projects and brainstorming, working in "teams,", and open-office plans can actually hurt productivity, especially for those who are more introverted.

Part Two reviews some of the research on the biological basis for introversion and extroversion, and the nature-versus-nurture question.  It also explores the role of free will (which explains why some introverts, like me, are okay with public speaking).  Studies have shown that "high-reactive" babies often grow up to be introverts (page 10), and that "introverts are more sensitive than extroverts to various kinds of stimulation...and that introverts and extroverts often need very different levels of stimulation to function at their best" (page 123-4). I thought the experiment described just after this was very interesting - apparently, introverts will salivate more when lemon juice is placed on their tongues.  I'll have to try this!

Part Three, was, in my opinion, the weakest part of the book.  Its single chapter discusses cultures (mostly Asian) that don't emphasize the extrovert ideal.  I felt the quietness discussed here was not truly introversion and extroversion, and the areas where Asians experience more (in school) and less (in business) success in America had more to do with their cultural norms and traditions.

Part Four is the "advice for introverts" section, suggesting times they should act more extroverted than they really are, how introverts and extroverts can best communicate with each other (particularly in a marriage), and how to best raise quiet kids, with ideas for both teachers and parents.

Her conclusion pretty much sums up the points in her book in just two-plus pages.  However, I was disappointed with the stereotype on page 265: "Quit your job as a TV anchor and get a degree in library science." I'm a librarian who interacts with people all day long at a reference desk, multitasking, and I give presentations frequently.

Actress Kathe Mazur has the perfect soft voice for a book with this title, but an audiobook is not ideal if you want to study this book in depth.  For one thing, Cain's extensive end notes (47 pages that reference her sources) and the nine-page index are not available in the audio.  On the other hand, listening to the audiobook is a good introduction to the subject - but I'd recommend having a print copy available for reference too, as well as for re-reading.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Saturday, April 19, 2014

391 (2014 #19). The Husband's Secret

by Liane Moriarty,
read by Caroline Lee

This book was just published in July 2013 and isn't out in paperback yet, so technically, it didn't meet the requirements for our book club meeting this past Tuesday.  My public library's copy was checked out, the audio edition in their digital collection would not work on my device, and I was unable to get the book through interlibrary loan before our book club meeting.  Since I had a big road trip coming up (12+ hours on the road in one week, the week before book club), I finally signed up for a free 30-day Audible.com trial membership and downloaded this book to listen to during my travels.  Therefore, I'll be reviewing both my experience with Audible.com as well as this book.

What would you do if you found a letter secreted by your still-living spouse and marked "to be opened only in the event of my death"?  That's the question that confronts superwoman Cecilia Fitzpatrick at the beginning of this contemporary realistic fiction novel.  Married to the handsome John-Paul and with three daughters ages 6-12, 40-something Cecilia has a successful Tupperware business and is recognized as a leader in the parent organization of her daughters' Catholic school, St. Angela's, in Sydney, Australia.

Meanwhile, over in Melbourne, thirty-something Tess O'Leary's husband Will has a secret too - he's fallen in love with Tess' formerly-fat first cousin Felicity.  Tess decides to take their six-year-old son Liam with her to Sydney to help her mom Lucy, who's broken her ankle, while she decides what to do next.  She enrolls Liam in St. Angela's and runs into its P.E. teacher - an old flame of hers, Connor Whitby.

The school secretary at St. Angela's is sixty-something Rachel Crowley, who still mourns the murder of her teenage daughter Janie 28 years earlier.  Rachel is convinced that Rachel's boyfriend at the time, Connor Whitby, is the one who did it.  Rachel is also dealing with the proposed move of her son Rob and his career-driven wife to New York - taking Rachel's only adored grandson Jacob with them.

You might have a hint now of what the big secret in the letter is, but I won't spoil it.  Suffice to say there's a shocking twist near the end of the book, and an even more surprising epilogue.  The chapters in the book alternate viewpoints between Cecilia, Tess, and Rachel (but in third person, past tense), with occasional interspersion of chapters dated April 6, 1984, chronicling the last day of Janie Crowley's life.  Other than those flashbacks (and others involving the Berlin Wall, with which Cecilia's daughter Esther is currently obsessed), all the events in the book take place in the week leading up to and including Easter Sunday.   (It's also kind of neat to realize Easter falls in the autumn in Australia.)

I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would.  While parts of the plot strained credulity, the choices made by Cecilia, Tess, and Rachel can generate excellent discussions in a book club.  The characterizations of these three women were excellent.  I could really relate to each of them, and Tess in particular.  While I might not agree with all of their choices, I could at least understand why they made them.  I also like the way author Liane Moriarty worked in the myth of Pandora.  Ethics and morals, betrayal and forgiveness, and grief and guilt are major and thought-provoking themes in this book.  I would definitely read another book by this author.

I'd also gladly listen to another audiobook narrated by acrtress and writer Caroline Lee.  Her Australian accent was delightful, and perfect for a story set in that country.  Although she didn't attempt to create unique "voices" for each character, little nuances in her presentation helped flesh out Cecilia, Tess, and Rachel more fully, at least for me.

As for Audible.com - since it's an Amazon company, this audiobook worked great on my Kindle.  I did have to use an earphone on one ear as the volume of the Kindle speakers was not loud enough to be heard over road noise.

One of the features I really liked with Audible.com was the ability to change the speed at which the audiobook played.  I was a little concerned about whether or not I'd be able to finish this normally-13.75-hour audiobook in time for my book club meeting.  So I increased the speed to 1.5 times the normal rate. This worked fine with Caroline Lee's voice, maybe even made the book a little better, but it might not work for all narrators.  I also liked the feature that allowed me to "rewind" 30 seconds (multiple times if need be) to catch a part I missed or wanted to listen to again.

Still - the kind of audiobooks I like to listen to are still readily available on CD at libraries, so at $14.95 a month, I'm not likely to keep my Audible membership.  I would pick it up again though if I needed to listen to a particular book by a deadline and couldn't get the audio any other way.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[The audiobook was obtained during a 30-day trial from Audible.com.  A print copy for review was borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]

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.]