Sunday, August 20, 2017

754 (2017 #52). Enemy Women


by Paulette Jiles

This historical fiction by Paulette Jiles is set in the Missouri Ozarks near the end of the Civil War.  As a border state, Missouri was overrun with lawlessness, with groups on both sides of the war raiding, murdering, and plundering.  The heroine, 18-year-old Adair Colley, is the oldest of three daughters of a local justice.  A band of Union soldiers beats him and arrests him as a Confederate sympathizer, and sets their house on fire.  Adair and her sisters set off to find their father, but she is denounced by a horse-thieving family they meet on the road as a spy and sent to a prison in St. Louis for "enemy women."  The lawyer-soldier assigned to defend her, William Neumann, falls in love with her and, when he receives orders to go to Mobile, Alabama, aids in her escape, vowing to find her again later.

At this point, the book alternates between the tales of Adair and William.  His experiences in battle seem pretty realistic; her adventures trying to make her way back home are unbelievable at times, particularly for a young woman apparently suffering from tuberculosis.

This was Jiles' first novel, after publishing poetry and a memoir.  That memoir, Cousins, likely inspired this book, as Jiles, born in the Missouri Ozarks, was searching for distant cousins to learn more about her father.  Family stories helped form the plot.  In an interview, she said,

We have no records — journals, letters or anything else — that survived the Civil War in my family on the Jiles side. All I have are their names from the census of 1860 and local records showing my great great grandfather Marquis Giles (at that time, his last name was spelled with a "G") who was a school teacher and a justice of the peace.  I did use the family's first names — Marquis, Savannah, Little Mary, John Lee [the latter three are Adair's siblings]. But Adair's name came from my husband's family.

What I really liked about this book was its depiction of aspects of the Civil War I knew little about.  Jiles opens each chapter with quotations from letters, journals, newspapers, and official reports from the period, relevant to the action in that chapter.  Jiles spent seven years researching for this book, and it shows.  I learned a lot.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I borrowed and returned this e-book from my university library.]

Saturday, August 19, 2017

753 (2017 #51). American Eclipse



by David Baron,
read by Jonathan Yen

So timely to listen to this book just before the "Great Eclipse" of 2017!  It's about a total solar eclipse on July 29, 1878, visible in Wyoming and Colorado (among some other states - I would have been able to see it from my backyard in Texas!).  It focuses on three notable scientists who were there to view it:  Thomas Edison, Maria Mitchell, and James Craig Watson (the latter completely new to me).  Other astronomers of the day, such as Cleveland AbbeSimon Newcomb, Samuel Langley, and Henry Draper, are also featured.

Author David Baron recounts activities and preparations for the observation of the event, and details the minutes of the eclipse as well.  He also follows up with what happened to his principals - and their inventions and theories - afterward.  Edison invented something called a tasimeter to measure the heat produced by the sun, and Watson was searching for a planet between Mercury and the sun called Vulcan.  I wondered why I had never heard of either of these before - the book provides the explanations.  I found the whole book to be fascinating.

Baron, who used to be a science correspondent for NPR, writes beautifully.  Here is a quote from near the end of the book:

A total eclipse is a primal, transcendent experience. The shutting off of the sun does not bring utter darkness; it is more like falling through a trapdoor into a dimly lit, unrecognizable reality. The sky is not the sky of the earth—neither the star-filled dome of night nor the immersive blue of daylight, but an ashen ceiling of slate. A few bright stars and planets shine familiarly, like memories from a distant childhood, but the most prominent object is thoroughly foreign. You may know, intellectually, that it is both the sun and moon, yet it looks like neither. It is an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris. It is the eye of the cosmos. [page 183]

Jonathan Yen reads the audiobook - and while he's not great, he's ok.  He has a voice very similar to that of 1970s-80s radio personality Casey Kasem (rather sing-song-y), and that's not quite the right tone for this book.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this audiobook from the publisher via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be donated to either my university or my local public library.]

Monday, July 31, 2017

752 (2017 #50). The Loyal Son


by Daniel Mark Epstein

This dual biography has a very interesting primary subject:  William Franklin, the son of the famous Benjamin Franklin.  I had no idea Ben Franklin's only son remained loyal to the English throne during the Revolutionary War, nor that William Franklin (born out of wedlock in England to an unnamed mother) was also a colonial governor of New Jersey.  Nor that William Franklin had an illegitimate son named Temple, who had an illegitimate daughter.

I was also surprised to learn just how much time Ben Franklin spent (in relative comfort) in London (before the war) and Paris (during the war), and just how much (unnecessary) violence occurred in America during the Revolutionary period.  I was rather appalled by the family dynamics, with Ben spending most of her life away from his wife Deborah.

Despite this, it took me nearly a month to finish this book.  I suppose it was because there was a little too much detail.  It felt as though author Daniel Mark Epstein wanted to be sure to use all his sources, which included a number of unpublished letters, papers, and a dissertation about William.

Unfortunately, Epstein's citation format is poor, with no use of superscripts for the endnotes, but instead short quotes from the text with no page numbers for reference.  VERY frustrating to use, even though there are 24 pages of them.

I have to wonder about Epstein's motivations - in his acknowledgements, he said this book was the one "among several projects I proposed in 2011" that his agent preferred and that he "approached with reservations."


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

751 (2017 #49). Hold Still


by Sally Mann

I'd never heard of the somewhat-controversial photographer Sally Mann before reading this memoir, but I wish I had.  Besides her remarkable photographs, this woman can write - her command of the English language and vocabulary is impressive!  I can see why it was a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction in 2015.

Not a straight chronological narrative, the book is divided into four parts.  The first,  "Family Ties: The Importance of Place," talks about her early years, her marriage and a little about her husband's (odd) family, the importance of her family's farm, and the controversial photos she took of her young children for her book, Immediate Family - in which the children*, living on a river in Virginia and without air-conditioning, are often naked.

This is followed by parts on her mother, her family's black nanny/maid, and her father.  The sections on her parents delve into her (unusual) family history, which I of course found fascinating.  The part on "Gee-Gee," the maid, delves into (as it's subtitled) "The Matter of Race."  It's very thought-provoking.

There's also quite a bit about death and dying.  Her in-laws were a murder-suicide, and her doctor-father was obsessed with death, killing himself with an overdose of a barbiturate when suffering from brain cancer.  Mann too is obsessed, and one of the most interesting chapters deals with her visit to an anthropological "body farm" to photograph decomposing corpses.

Sadly, after the book's publication, Mann's oldest son, Emmett, committed suicide in June 2016 as a result of schizophrenia, at age 36.  In the book, Mann talks about a terrifying accident where Emmett was hit by a car.  He seemed OK then, but it may have caused a brain injury compounded by two later accidents.

Mann doesn't talk that much about her photographic techniques, but as someone who's worked with film and even large-format cameras, I can appreciate the tedious wet-collodian process and the use of glass negatives.  I'm not sure younger readers who've only worked with digital cameras can truly understand all that is involved in these techniques.

Mann has some other interesting things to say about photography.  In the prologue on page xiii, she describes the "treachery of photography" as "the malignant twin to imperfect memory."  She goes on to say that

...once photographed, whatever you had "really seen" would never be seen by the eye of memory again.  It would forever be cut from the continuum of being,...Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superinmpositions, but I think that is a fallacy:  photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories.  As I held my childhood pictures in my hands, in the tenderness of my "remembering," I also knew that with each photograph I was forgetting.

How true.

The audiobook, read by Mann, is quite enjoyable - she is a good narrator.  She frequently refers to the many photographs and other illustrations in the book as being "on the PDF."  There is a PDF file with the illustrations, but as I borrowed the electronic audiobook from a library, I could only view this PDF through Adobe Digital Editions.  Unfortunately, with the poor quality of the reproductions (many of them were pixallated when enlarged enough for me to really see them), combined with the fact that I listen to audiobooks while commuting and thus can't immediately refer to said PDF - I cannot recommend the audiobook.  Maybe the PDF is of better quality if you actually purchase the audiobook and are able to download it to your computer., but it's pretty poor in the Adobe Digital Editions used when downloading an e-audiobook through Overdrive (the PDF will automatically disappear from Adobe Digital Editions when my loan period expires).

I borrowed both the e-book and a print copy of the book for comparison purposes.  The images are just as bad, if not worse, on the e-book - way too small.  They are a little bigger in the print book (though still not as big as I would like), but this is the format I would recommend.  The images also appear at precisely the time she discusses them in her narrative.


© Amanda Pape - 2017


*  

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

750 (2017 #48). Victoria


by Daisy Goodwin,
read by Anna Wilson-Jones


I'd seen some bits of the PBS Masterpiece adaptation of Daisy Goodwin's novel about Great Britain's second-longest-reigning monarch as a young queen, so I was excited about listening to this audiobook.

Victoria is subtitled "A Novel of a Young Queen," and that it is.  It covers her life only from the age of 18, when she ascended to the throne, in 1837, to her engagement to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in October 1839.

In that time period, the politically inexperienced Queen Victoria came to rely quite a bit on her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne.  The book highlights rumors that Victoria wanted to marry the widower, 40 years her senior, but I doubt that was true - I think she probably saw him more as a father figure, given that her own father died when she was a baby.  It does make for an interesting story, though.

While the Masterpiece series continues Victoria's relationship with Prince Albert after their marriage, the book stops with their engagement.  I have to say that the book didn't really sell me on an instant romance between the two - but that's why it's historical fiction, not a biography.  Still a great read.

British actress Anna Wilson-Jones reads the book with great gusto.   She also played the part of Emma Portman, one of Victoria's ladies-in-waiting and a friend of Melbourne, in the miniseries.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

749 (2017 #47). Plume

by Isabelle Simler


This simple book is about feathers - and a cat named Plume who likes to collect them.  The first 18 double-page spreads features one bird (and one word, the name of the bird), along with samples of its plumage - and some portion of the black cat.  The last two double-page spreads introduce and feature the cat.

The digital illustrations by French author Isabelle Simler are exquisite.  On the front and back endpapers, there are guides to 42 more bird feathers, along with a few stray cat hairs (or cat "feathers” if you will).  I could see this book being used in a lesson about birds or feathers.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

748 (2017 #46). Fates and Traitors



by Jennifer Chiaverini

Although its subtitle is "A Novel of John Wilkes Booth," Fates and Traitors - like nearly all of Jennifer Chiaverini's books - is really about women.  In this case, four women whose lives were intricately tied to that of Lincoln's assassin:  his mother, Mary Ann Holmes Booth; his sister, Asia Booth Clarke; his supposed fiancee, Lucy Hale; and a co-conspirator, Mary Surratt.

The book opens with a prologue from Booth's viewpoint about his capture, in which he is shot and as he is slowly dying, he thinks of these four women.  Then his life's story is told through theirs in the next four chapters:  his early years (1838-1851) with his mother, who has an fascinating background; the years 1851-1864 from his older sister Asia's point of view (she later became a poet and writer); then 1864-1865 as seen by both fiancee Lucy (daughter and later wife of senators) and Mary Surratt (the first woman hung by the federal government for her part in the plot to kill Lincoln).

This is followed by a chapter in John's voice again, set in 1865, just after Lee's surrender at Appomattox.  The final chapters tell what happened to all four women in the rest of 1865, and end with Lucy in 1890.  I knew very little of any of these women, and found their stories to be the intriguing ones.  Telling the story this way, though, also adds to the mystique of Booth - because one can see how his words and actions sounded and appeared to others, yet still not be able to get fully inside his mind to fully understand his motivation to kill Lincoln.

The title comes from Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene III, the last line:

If thou read this, O Caesar, thou mayst live.
If not, the Fates with traitors do contrive.

A longer passage including this line is the epithet of the book, rather fitting for Booth, who apparently stated his favorite Shakespearean role was that of Brutus, Caesar's lead assassin.

Chiaverini provides a map at the beginning of the book marking relevant locations in Washington, D. C., and lists her sources in three pages of acknowledgements at the end of the book.  I liked this novel better than Chiaverini's other novels featuring Civil War era personages.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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