Wednesday, December 31, 2008

75. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I received this title in the Grinch Exchange of books at my local book club’s holiday party. This is an epistolary (letters/telegrams/notes written back and forth) historical fiction novel set in 1946 in London and Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France. Lead author Mary Ann Shaffer, a librarian, visited Guernsey in 1976. She became ill before the book was finished (passing away in February 2008, before its publication), and her niece, children’s author Annie Barrows, saw it through.

The protagonist is Juliet Ashton, a 30-something successful author looking for her next book subject. Out of the blue, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey who wound up with one of her secondhand books. He piques her curiosity when he mentions the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and it sparks a series of correspondence between Juliet, Dawsey, and other residents of Guernsey, as well as with her editor Sidney and his sister, Sophia, and others.

Juliet learns that the Society was formed while the Nazis occupied Guernsey during World War II. The literary part was the quick thinking of Elizabeth McKenna, who invents it when a group of islanders are caught out after curfew. It then becomes real, with a typical refreshment becoming part of the group’s name:

Since there was scant butter, less flour, and no sugar to spare on Guernsey then, Will concocted a potato peel pie: mashed potatoes for filling, strained beets for sweetness, and potato peelings for crust. . .this one became a favorite. (p. 51)

Juliet learns (as does the reader) about the hardships the islanders (and Todt forced laborers) faced during the war. She also learns about their courage and heroism, particularly that of Elizabeth, who has not yet come home from Nazi imprisonment when the book begins.

This book was a perfect read for the holiday season. Not quite fluff, but not great literary fiction either. There are over 20 characters corresponding, and it is hard to keep track of and distinguish between them all, especially the minor characters, particularly since some of them are stereotypes.

I also had some minor concerns with the book. It was hard to believe that letters (not telegrams) could be delivered so quickly post-war between the island of Guernsey and bombed-out London – sometimes in as little as two days. The romance also didn’t ring true (spoiler alert - highlight to read: on page 131, Juliet stalls one suitor by saying, “I’ve known you two months. It’s not long enough for me to be certain that we should spend the rest of our lives together,” yet she accepts another suitor after only a little longer.).

Some of the problems with the book are due to the letter format. It works well in the first half of the book, when Juliet is writing to the people on Guernsey, but once she actually goes there for a visit and the correspondence is mainly from her back to Sidney and Sophia and others outside Guernsey, the islanders lose much of their voice. In addition, when the islanders are writing, they all sound as though they were written by the same person.

Nevertheless, this is still an enjoyable read. The descriptions of Guernsey make me want to go there. A lover of classics will enjoy their mentions in the letters, and history buffs will enjoy learning a little more about the interesting wartime history of the Channel Islands. It was also nice to read a book that subtly promotes the art of letter writing (lost and replaced by abbreviated and often artificial email and text messages).

Some of my favorite lines in the book are in Juliet’s first letter to Dawsey: "I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers," as well as “That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive - all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.” (pp. 11-12) I also love it when Isola Pribby writes to Juliet, “Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books." (p. 53)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

74. Isaac's Torah

by Angel Wagenstein

Wagenstein, who spent time in a concentration camp, originally wrote this book in Bulgarian in 2000, and it was translated into English by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova and published in 2008. Subtitled, “Concerning the Life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld Through Two World Wars, Three Concentration Camps, and Five Motherlands,” that’s exactly what it is. Isaac is born in 1900 and grows up in Kolodetz by Drogobych, which was originally part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but later belongs to Poland, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and then the Soviets again (and is now part of the Ukraine). Each of the five “books” in Isaac’s “Torah” correspond to one of these “motherlands.”

Isaac is drafted into military service by each of the first three countries. When the Nazis invade at the end of the third book, Isaac pretends to be Polish and is sent to a Nazi labor camp, where he serves as a translator and is treated fairly well. Inadvertently revealing himself as a Jew (which saves him from a death as a Polish hostage), he winds up in a Nazi concentration camp. He is liberated by the Americans and moves to Vienna. The Soviets later exile him to Siberia for supposedly being a Nazi collaborator while pretending to be Polish! Throughout it all, Isaac manages to survive, partly by being the underestimated dupe. Isaac’s best friend and brother-in-law, Rabbi Shmeul Ben-David, winds up in most (but not all) of the places Isaac does, imparting wisdom.

The narrative is interlaced with Jewish jokes, and I think if I were Jewish I would appreciate them more. Wagenstein thanks in his Acknowledgements, “…creators, collectors, collators, and publishers of Jewish jokes and anecdotes, through which my people have turned laughter into a defensive shield, and a source of courage and self-esteem through the most tragic moments of their existence!” (p. 301) There is also humor in metaphors, such as this from the Third Book: “This pale professor-ophthalmologist turned out to be to an equal degree a decent and noble anti-communist, with a barely perceptible Polish streak of anti-Semitism – something like a good aged wine with a bitter aftertaste.” (p. 161)

I had expected a harrowing Holocaust novel, but as Isaac says about midway through the Fourth Book:
And now, please, save me from the memory . . . and allow me not to describe to you the hell in which we ended up! Many people before me have done it, and truly much better, too, than I would do it. . . . In short, save me, please, because of the requirement for the completeness of plot . . . from repeating to you things that are already painfully familiar to you . . ..(p. 204-5).

Nevertheless, there is tragedy in the book, but the humor uplifts it, making the story a tribute to the strength and courage of Eastern European Jews and all those who suffered through two World Wars and their repercussions. Not to mention, this is once again a book that makes me want to learn more about the historical period(s) it is set in. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 29, 2008

73. Rally Round the Flag, Boys!

by Max Shulman

This is the last of the Max Shulman books my university library has that I borrowed for Breathless. This one is not as good as Shulman’s Potatoes Are Cheaper or The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, but it's better than The Tender Trap.

This was Max Shulman's first "adult" comedy (in that two characters have an affair). It's a warped, intricate plot full of the most specious coincidences. When the military decides to build a Nike missile base near a chic Connecticut commuter town, passions flare, in and out of the bedroom, and then all hell breaks loose!

The book laughs at the 50's: the teenagers imitating Brando/ Dean/Elvis, their martini-guzzling parents, the army, suburban families with commuting husbands and volunteering wives, Little League, sex education, television, long-time residents of small towns (aka the Yankees), and a Nashville star/singer in the military. Shulman was a genius at satirizing his own time, but much of the humor is still appropriate today.

A movie was made in 1958, (very) loosely based on the book, starring Paul Newman as Harry Bannerman (one of the main characters), real wife Joanne Woodward as Harry’s wife Grace, and Joan Collins as local temptress Angela Hoffa. I haven’t seen it, but based on a synopsis, a lot of characters from the book are left out and the plot has major changes. Read the book instead (there’s an excerpt in this post).

Sunday, December 28, 2008

72. The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis

by Max Shulman

Another one I borrowed because Breathless wanted to read Potatoes Are Cheaper. This book, published in 1951 and subtitled “Eleven Campus Stories,” is a collection of short stories written by Max Shulman from 1945 through 1951 and previously published in such magazines as Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, and The Saturday Evening Post. In his opening note, Shulman notes that they “are, therefore, clean and wholesome narratives” (this was definitely the early days of Cosmopolitan!). All of the stories have college student Dobie Gillis as the main character, but his age and major vary from story to story, as do the girls he is chasing.

The book was the basis for the 1953 movie The Affairs of Dobie Gillis as well as the 1959-1963 CBS TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, with Dwayne Hickman and Bob ("Gilligan") Denver. I haven’t seen either, but from reading the description of the movie plot, it seems to be based on the book’s story called “She Shall Have Music,” with a little bit of “Love of Two Chemists” (a chemistry lab explosion) and “The Unlucky Winner” (a plagiarized English essay). Dobie is in high school when the TV series starts, and later briefly in the Army and then in junior college. Money-hungry Thalia Menninger from “The Sugar Bowl” is often Dobie’s dream girl, and the stories “You Think You Got Trouble?” and “Everybody Loves My Baby” form the basis of episodes in the series.

For me, the best story in the book (which is also the title and basis for one of the TV series episodes)is “Love is a Fallacy.” Apparently it’s often used in beginning logic classes as a humorous way to introduce types of fallacies. Despite the importance of a raccoon coat to the plot, this story and the others are so humorous that such dated references can be easily overlooked.

Monday, December 22, 2008

71. The Other Queen

by Philippa Gregory

Gregory’s latest Tudor historical fiction focuses on (and is narrated, diary style, by) Mary, Queen of Scots during her years of confinement in England (1568-1587), and her jailer/hosts, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife, the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick.

I learned a lot I didn’t know about these people, as well as more about Elizabeth I and her trusted advisor, William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley. Gregory paints the latter as a scheming upstart. She is sympathetic to Mary, but does acknowledge her weaknesses, particularly in her relationships with men. George is also portrayed as weak and hopelessly in love with Mary.

Bess is shown to be a tough woman, ahead of her time in independence and accumulation of wealth. Some readers might find her to be a pennypincher, but I could sympathize with her background and motives (despite her being a greedy anti-Catholic!). I found both Bess and Mary to be fascinating and I want to read more about them, and visit Bess’ homes at Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall.

I found some of Gregory’s statements through Bess to be quite interesting:
We Protestants have a God who rewards us directly, richly, and at once. It is by our wealth, our success, and our power that we know we are the chosen. (p. 76)
[Bess asks,] “Does not God Himself command us to use our talents? Does not our own success show that God has blessed us?”
She [Mary] smiles and shakes her head. “My God sends trials to those He loves, not wealth, but I see that your God thinks like a merchant.” (p. 85)
I am a Protestant. I will live and die a Protestant. My enemies will think that is because it has been a religion to profit me; cynics will point to my gold candlesticks and my lead mines and my coal mines and my stone quarries, and even to these stolen painted saints in my gallery. But what the cynics don’t understand is that these are the goods that God has given to me as a reward for the purity of my faith. (p. 294)

As well as this one through George:
”The reward for the English Protestants is power and wealth; that is all they care for. They think that God so loves them that their wealth is evidence that they are doing the right thing, beloved by God…My confessor would have called them pagans…My mother would have called them heretics…I cannot believe, as Bess does, as Cecil does, that we have a private insight into the mind of God….That we know everything, all by ourselves, and that the proof if this is the blessing of our own greed.” (p. 273)

I know Gregory was contrasting Protestants and Catholics in the Tudor era, but these descriptions make me think of the televangelists and megachurch leaders of today!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

70. The Tender Trap

by Max Shulman and Robert Paul Smith

I checked out a number of works by Max Shulman when Breathless wanted to read his semi-autobiographical Potatoes Are Cheaper. The Tender Trap is the script for a short romantic comedy set in New York City in the early 1950’s. It was performed on Broadway and later made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds.

Charlie, the main character, is living the ideal bachelor life, or so it seems to Joe, an old married friend of his from Indianapolis. Charlie has a fine apartment in New York, a good job, and lots of girls -- all eager to bring him food and clean up his apartment, all good-looking ladies. Joe, who is in New York because he thinks he has found the cure to the common cold, finds himself becoming interested in Sylvia, the nicest and most mature of Charlie's girls. Meanwhile, Charlie finds himself falling for Julie, a girl fresh out of college who is determined to have a man on her own terms. Charlie juggles his girls until one frantic night when he finds himself engaged to both Julie and Sylvia. The ending is not quite what I expected, and was a bit disappointing.

It’s fun to read a piece like this that was contemporary at the time it was first performed, but has now become a bit dated. Many of the characters smoke (though these lines and actions could easily be deleted from a performance), and the women are typical of the era, interested mostly in marriage. Page 3 of this 1956 edition of the script indicates that it was first performed October 13, 1954, and the cast included Robert Preston (The Music Man) as Joe and Kim Hunter (The Planet of the Apes) as Sylvia (Sinatra plays Charlie and Reynolds Julie in the movie). It’s interesting too that a poster for the movie from the era says it’s “not suitable for children” (possibly because of married Joe flirting with Sylvia), when by today’s standards the play is quite clean.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

69. Heart-Shaped Box

by Joe Hill
read by Stephen Lang


I listened to this audiobook during my commute (30+ miles on a mostly two-lane state highway through the country and a couple very small towns, and often in the dark), and that might not have been such a good idea -- the creepiness added to my stress level! I can see why this audiobook won an Audie Award for 2008 Best Thriller! My only complaint with the reader, actor Stephen Lang, is that he makes all the women in the story sound the same.

The main character, aging rocker Judas “Jude” Coyne (aka Justin Cowzynski), has his assistant purchase online a dead man’s suit (in a heart-shaped box), and its accompanying ghost, as an addition to his personal museum of the macabre. Turns out the purchase was a set-up by Jessica Price, the sister of Jude’s former girlfriend Florida (aka Anna), who committed suicide shortly after they broke up. The ghost is that of Craddock McDermott, her stepfather, and he is out for retribution. Jude and anyone who helps him, including his current girlfriend Georgia (aka Marybeth), are the targets.

The combination of the ghosts and the mind control by Craddock was frightening, as was Georgia/Marybeth’s communication with Florida/Anna using an Ouija board. I love the way Jude’s dogs, Bon and Angus, were worked into the supernatural aspects of the story.

I thought both the characters grew, and that was an unexpected plus. Jude became a decent guy who took responsibility for his actions. I especially liked Georgia/Marybeth. Even though she was considerably younger than Jude, she had the ability to see who he really was and what he could be. She was tough but at the same time vulnerable. I liked her spunk. The characters were very vividly portrayed. I began to suspect early on the true nature of Craddock, but his final depravity was still a surprise. For a horror book, it had a quite pleasant ending, with all the ends neatly tied up.

Horror is not my genre of choice, but I might read some Joe Hill again. He made me feel the story could really happen. I've never read anything by his father, Stephen King, although I watched the scary It miniseries years ago (the one with Richard Thomas, John Ritter, and Tim Curry), as well as The Green Mile with Tom Hanks. Maybe I’ll listen to Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts, which won the 2008 Audie for Best Short Stories/Collection, next Halloween!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

68. They Called Them Angels

by Kathi Jackson

Disclaimer up front: the author is a friend of mine. I originally read her book when it was published in hardcover in 2000. Subtitled "American Military Nurses of World War II," it came out in paperback in 2006. I re-read it recently because Kathi adapted it for a performance by the Hill Country Community Theater in Marble Falls, Texas, and we went to see the play on December 7.

This is an incredibly-researched book about an often-neglected topic from World War II - the military nurses who served in it. Kathi discusses their recruitment and training, then goes on to write about the experiences of the nurses in the various theaters of the war, including in the air and on board ship. The book concludes with stories of fun and friendship (and romance), as well as what happened to the nurses at the end of the war.

Thoroughly documented with endnotes for each chapter, appendices and index, and an extensive bibliography, the book is appropriate for scholarly use. Kathi used many primary source materials, mainly interviews with and letters and other writings of the nurses who served. The use of excerpts from these firsthand accounts humanizes the book and makes what could have been a dry subject come alive. There are also 20 black-and-white photographs in the center of the book.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

67. The Time Traveler's Wife

by Audrey Niffenegger
read by William Hope and Laurel Lefkow


I would describe this book as romantic fantasy or a sci-fi love story. The hero, Henry DeTamble, can time travel (although he has little or no control over it), the heroine, Clare Abshire DeTamble, cannot. They first meet when she is 6 and he is 36; they first meet in real time when she is 20 and he is 28.

The time-traveling acts as a marvelous metaphor for love, how it changes, how it's always affected by the past and the future. The book won the 2005 Arthur C. Clarke Award (the United Kingdom’s top prize for science fiction).

I will admit up front I am a sucker for time travel stories (not otherwise being much of a fan of sci fi). I think this one is especially interesting because it explores lots of aspects of time traveling - not revealing the future to those in the past, predestination paradoxes, determinism versus chaos, free will versus God’s purpose, etc. - and has the characters discussing them. I also find it interesting that the author portrays Henry’s time-traveling as a genetic disorder that might be curable or controlled at some point – this impacts the storyline.

I think the time traveling in this book is especially interesting. Usually, time travelers don't seek themselves out in other time periods to interact with themselves. I think it's very interesting that the adult Henry is the one who trains his small self how to survive the time jumps. Clare learns from Henry growing up and then teaches him how to accept himself as worthy of affection after they meet in real time. Henry considers Clare to be the stabilizing force in his life.

Clare has "known" Henry for 14 years by the time they actually meet in real time, but it's the opposite for Henry. There is something very appealing about someone who seems to understand you completely and is very comfortable around you.

I could relate to the characters and the setting. I was born in Evanston, a Chicago suburb, and still have a lot of family in the Chicago area. I remember visiting the Field Museum in 1970, just a couple years after Henry's first visit. Like Clare, I went to Catholic school for grades 1-12. I thought Clare as a Catholic schoolgirl was pretty realistic!

However, I could have done with less of the music details in the book - all the names of the punk and other groups that Clare and Henry liked to listen to. I feel that will date the book further down the line. Conversely, it might have been interesting to hear a little more about Clare's paper art.

The book also has a lot of unique metaphors: Henry reflecting on his double self that's five years older ... "I envy him......whatever pleasures are to be had, he's had them; for me they wait like a box of unpoked chocolates." (p. 152)

When Henry doesn't recognize the little gifts he's given Clare over the years when he's visited the Meadow .... "all the little tokens and souvenirs in this museum of our past are as love letters to an illiterate." (p. 170)

From the letter Henry left for Clare (p. 519): "Our love has been the thread through the labyrinth, the net under the high-wire walker, the only real thing in this strange life of mine that I could ever trust."

This was a difficult read for me the first time around (in 2004), but it was easier the second time. I learned the hard way the first time I read this that you really have to pay attention to the dates and ages at the beginning of the various sections. It all comes together more by the end of the book. I found a blog where the author has constructed timelines for the book. BE FOREWARNED - there are spoilers in the timelines - but they might help by the time you finish the book: http://youknowjack.fivewells.com/archives/2006/01/time_travelers.html.

The author had two timelines (perhaps Henry’s and Clare’s?) to help her stay organized while writing the book. Niffenegger, a writer, artist, and professor in the Center for Book & Paper Arts of the Interdisciplinary Arts Master of Fine Arts program at the Columbia College Chicago, says the story was inspired by the love between her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather died young, and her grandmother, who lived another three decades, never remarried. "I wanted to write about a perfect marriage that is tested by something outside the control of the couple."

I think this book is one of those ones you either love or don't. I personally love it; I've always been fascinated by time travel stories and the whole structure of this book is so unique. I guess its aspects of timeless love mesh so well with my own life that I can relate a lot to its themes. When two people meet at a young age and have a relationship that lasts through the years (at least for Clare), consciously or not they would influence each other's development, so if they had not met, they would surely be different people.

I originally met the love of my life when I was 22 and he was 37; we dated for 4+ years but did not marry for various reasons. We re-met at 48 and 64. We'd only seen each other once between ages 27-48 (me) and 43-64 (him), and there were only some Christmas cards/phone calls/e-mail messages otherwise, as we both ended up marrying (and divorcing) other people in between. We thought/dreamed about each other a lot though.

In a way, after we re-met, it was kind of like time-traveling back to our past - all the passion was still there. I know I would have been a very different person if we had not met the first time, and he says the same.

A little oddity that caught my interest (being a librarian) - when Henry has his "foot dreams," he describes a box in the Newberry Library in Chicago that contain his feet, with a call number of CASE WING f ZX 983.D 453.

There are no Dewey or LC call numbers that correspond to even parts of this, but I did see that the real Newberry Library Special Collections includes a section on printing, book arts, and the history of the book funded by the John M. Wing foundation: http://www.newberry.org/collections/wing.html

I did find 8 items with both "CASE WING" and "ZX 983" in the call number, but nothing with this exact number. I’m not an expert, but it sounds like an archival cataloging system. The "D 453" might refer to DeTamble.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook version for this reread. William Hope (as Henry) and Laurel Lefkow (as Clare) are fantastic! It's very easy to keep track of the viewpoints with the audiobook. At first I didn't care for Hope's slightly cynical and strident voice, but I have grown to feel it is appropriate. Lefkow is absolutely marvelous, makes Clare sound like a little girl and a teen as needed. I would definitely recommend this audiobook to others!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

66. Moloka'i

by Alan Brennert

This is fascinating historical fiction set in Hawaii from 1891, when Rachel, the main character, is five, until her death in 1970. At age seven, Hawaiian native Rachel is diagnosed with leprosy and ultimately sent to Kalaupapa, the leper's colony on the island of Moloka'i, the one made famous by future saint Father Damien.

Brennert has done extensive research on leprosy, Kalaupapa, and Hawaiian history, and has even incorporated real places and people from the era, such as Mother Marianne Cope and politician Lawrence Judd, into the story. It has motivated me to read more about these subjects. Even better, Brennert has made Rachel and her friends and family into real people that the reader will really care about.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

65. The NTH Reader: Neglected Texas History

by Charles Chupp

This is a collection of humorous essays more or less about Texas history that my father enjoyed and gave me to read. There are 63 in all, some rather flippant ones about well-known Texas incidents (the Alamo), politicians (Ma Ferguson) and other famous people (Sam Houston). The better stories were those that are less commonly known, such as "Woe in Waco," a fascinating story about early lawlessness in this Bible Belt buckle town. The book is peppered with a number of black-and-white illustrations, many of them rather good drawings by Chipp. A fun read, probably best for those who already know their Texas history pretty well, who will get the in-jokes and can tell when Chupp is being tongue-in-cheek.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

64. Maniac Magee

by Jerry Spinelli
read by S. Epatha Merkerson


Jeffrey “Maniac” Magee is an 11-year-old homeless orphan whose athletic feats are the stuff of legend. He winds up in a town geographically divided by race, and moves between the black and white sides, looking for an address and a home, encountering bullies, the prejudiced and good people of both colors. The characters, setting, and descriptions are especially strong (particularly the frequent references to Philadelphia-area delicacy butterscotch Krimpets), and in my opinion that makes up for any incredulity in the plot.

"Childhood recollected takes on a quality that is practically indistinguishable from what we think of as myth," author Jerry Spinelli said in an interview with Jennifer M. Brown for Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2000. In his acceptance speech for the 1990 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction, Spinelli said, “I thought about the world that children inhabit. I don't know about you, but it's a world that, in many ways, I find indistinguishable from myth and legend.”

The book has been described by many critics as part realistic fiction, part tall tale. Spinelli intentionally wrote the book this way because he believes children have trouble distinguishing between fable and realistic fiction. For me the most unrealistic part of the story was the way Maniac was able to coerce the young McNab brothers to go to school, when Maniac did not go himself.

Nevertheless, I think this book was deserving of the 1991 Newbery Medal and is one that children, especially boys, would enjoy (particularly the fantastic portions). Written at a fourth- to fifth-grade reading level, it could spark all sorts of discussions about homelessness and social class distinctions for that age group. In Maniac Magee, we see that bullies and discrimination are not limited by color, and racial prejudice is not exclusive to one community. More importantly, though, we see the possibility of a world where children can exist who, like Maniac, do not understand what racial barriers are.

I listened to the audiobook read by actress S. Epatha Merkerson (of Law and Order fame). She did a marvelous job creating different voices for each character, especially the children. Indeed, her characterizations (and Spinelli’s writing) were such that I often couldn’t remember if the Beales, the Pickwells, Grayson, and the McNabs were black or white – and isn’t that the whole remarkable point of the book?

[A variation of this post appears on The Newbery Project.]

Saturday, November 15, 2008

63. The Gathering

by Anne Enright

This is not a book I would have read if my local book club was not discussing it. I have to wonder if the member who suggested it actually read it before, or recommended it simply because it won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2007 (the British Commonwealth equivalent to the National Book Award for fiction).

In a word, this book was awful. Dark and depressing. Characters I couldn't care about. Very little plot, and the events jump all over in time and are hard to follow. The narrator, Veronica, returns to her mother's home Dublin along with seven siblings for the funeral of her brother Liam, who committed suicide. Much of the book is about her grandmother Ada, the mysterious Lambert Nugent who is in love with her, and Veronica and Liam's childhood days spent in Ada's home.

This felt like one of those books you'd be assigned to read in high school honors or college English class, supposedly full of stuff to discuss and analyze. If I hadn't had to read it for book club, I would have stopped after 51 pages - and Enright doesn't really get to the point until pages 142 and 224 (out of 261).

Don't waste your time on this one like I did.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

62. One True Thing

by Anna Quindlen

I read this book for an online book discussion. In the prologue, 24-year-old Ellen Gulden is in jail, accused of giving her dying mother an overdose of morphine. Part One of the book are the events leading up to that situation. Ellen, who is a journalist in New York City, is back for a visit at the end of the summer in the small college town where she grew up and where her father, George, is a professor. Her 46-year-old mother, Kate, is diagnosed with cancer, and George, who Ellen practically worships, insists that Ellen move back home to care for her.

This is the strongest part of the book, showing Ellen's growing respect, admiration, and love for the homemaker mother she used to dismiss and take for granted, and her correspondingly increasing disgust for her father, who continues to envelop himself with work and sexual encounters while his wife is dying. Ellen and her mother start the "Gulden Girls Book and Cook Club," reading and discussing classics, while Ellen learns cook and participates in her mother's community Christmas activities. Kate's pain and disability increase, and Part One ends with her death in February of the following year.

Part Two is the aftermath, Ellen's arrest and the appearance before the grand jury. I won't spoil the end of the book, as it really doesn't matter. The story's strength is in the mother-daughter relationship. Quindlen took time off from college to nurse her own mother through her death from ovarian cancer at age 40, when Quindlen was 19.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

61. Tears of the Desert

by Halima Bashir
with Damien Louis


Subtitled “A Memoir of Survival in Darfur,” this Darfur memoir was better than The Translator, mostly because Bashir begins with her childhood as a member of the fierce Zaghawa tribe in Sudan. Her father is the wealthiest man in the village – they have a television, two radios, and a Land Rover – but Bashir is mostly fortunate in that he has more enlightened attitudes about his daughter. He sends her to an Arab school in a nearby town, where she defies the Arab teachers and students and reaches the top of the class, ultimately qualifying for college and medical school. Bashir’s youth sounds almost idyllic, except for female circumcision at age 8 (described in horrifying detail), incomprehensively directed by her own mother and grandmother.

At age 24, Bashir becomes her tribe’s first qualified doctor. After treating rebel fighters, the government sends her to a remote village, where she treats a school full of girls raped by the dreaded Janjaweed, the “devil horsemen” Arab fighters. Bashir experiences even more horror when the Janjaweed gang-rape her and attack her home village. Not surprisingly, she ends up seeking asylum in England where she writes this book.

The book has a glossary of Arabic and Zaghawa terms at the end, but oddly enough it does not define Janjaweed, and the terms are not in alphabetical order (in this advance reader edition, courtesy of the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program). The book would also benefit from a map and from dates in the chapter headings. An author’s note at the beginning indicates that Bashir was born in 1979, but it gets tiresome trying to do the math and figure out the years events are occurring with sometimes-there sometimes-not ages of Bashir.

The book reads like a novel, probably due to co-writer Damien Lewis, a BBC reporter who has covered conflicts in Africa for many years. This book gave me a much better picture of what is going on in Darfur today.

Monday, October 27, 2008

60. Nineteen Minutes

by Jodi Picoult

I read this one for my local book club. Once again Picoult tackles an issue in the news, this time school shootings. The nineteen minutes of the title is the amount of time it takes bullied Peter Houghton to kill ten at his high school. This is the story of that event, what led up to it, and the aftermath. Picoult creates memorable characters: Peter, his midwife mother Lacy and professor father Lewis, his former best friend Josie Cormier, and her mother Alex, a judge who used to be friends with Lacy. Characters from some of Picoult's previous books (ones I haven't read) reappear: defense lawyer Jordan McAfee and investigating cop Patrick Ducharme.

Picoult's writing made me really care about and feel empathy for Peter, a loner who is bullied to extremes by everyone, including the older brother his parents idolized, who was killed by a drunken driver a year earlier. Although I could not excuse what Peter did, I could understand how he was driven to it. I was also able to sympathize with Josie, the girl on the fringe of the "in" crowd, bullied herself by her popular jock boyfriend, being cruel to her old friend Peter in order to fit in, feeling guilty about it, but worried that if she doesn't, her so-called friends will turn on her.

The character who most touched me was Lacy, Peter's mom, wondering what it was she did "wrong." I saw a mother like me who did the best she could, making some mistakes along the way, whose only real error was blindness towards the cruelty of her oldest son. I loved this passage near the end of the book:
Everyone would remember Peter for nineteen minutes of his life, but what about the other nine million? Lacy would have to be the keeper of those, because it was the only way for that part of Peter to stay alive. For every recollection of him that involved a bullet or a scream, she would have a hundred others: of a little boy splashing in a pond, or riding a bicycle for the first time, or waving from the top of a jungle gym. Of a kiss good night, or a crayoned Mother's Day card, or a voice off-key in the shower. She would string them together—the moments when her child had been just like any other people's. She would wear them, precious pearls, every day of her life; because if she lost them, then the boy she had loved and raised and known would really be gone.
.
Like the other Picoult novel I read, My Sister's Keeper, this story has a twist near the end, unlike that other book, this twist is believable. The book makes the reader consider the issues of bullying, high school peer pressure, the quest to be popular, and violent video games. Recommended.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

59. Johnny Tremain

by Esther Forbes
read by Grace Conlin


I remember my son’s fifth grade teacher reading this book aloud to his class (this would have been a little over ten years ago). I’d hear snippets when doing volunteer work in the classroom, and I’d always wanted to read the whole book. As it is available in unabridged audiobook format and is the 1944 Newbery winner, I recently purchased a copy for my library. Had to wait a while to listen to it – the first copy we received had damage to nearly all of its discs.

The replacements finally came in and I listened to it over the past couple weeks. Narrator Grace Conlin did an excellent job with pacing and voicing. And what a terrific story!

The title character ages from 14 to 16 in the book, set in Boston in 1773-1775. At the beginning, he is an orphan apprenticed to a silversmith. A life-altering accident there cripples his hand and leads to his becoming a “horse boy” and his encounters with the Sons of Liberty and various icons of the American Revolution, including Paul Revere, John Hancock, Sam and John Adams, Dr. Joseph Warren, and James Otis. Johnny participates in the Boston Tea Party and the aftermath of the battles of Lexington and Concord.

Forbes also won the 1942 Pulitzer Prize in history for her biography, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. In her Newbery acceptance speech, she said that while working on that biography, “I became interested in the life of the apprentices...of Boston.” Johnny became the real horse boy “who brought word to Paul Revere that the British intended to march out of Boston on the night of the 18th of April in ’75.” Johnny’s nemesis, Dove, becomes one of the “horse boys of the British officers” who “let slip the information that troops were being sent out that very night.” This was “the nucleus from which a story might grow. But I was still busy on Paul Revere. That was not the moment to go off on tangents...I said to myself, “Sometime...”

“Sometime” was shortly after Pearl Harbor, when Forbes saw parallels between the American Revolution and World War II, when “boys and girls are by the very fact of war closer now spiritually, psychologically, to this earlier generation....I also wanted to show that these earlier boys were conscious of what they were fighting for and that is was something which they believed was worth more than their own lives. And to show that many of the issues at stake in this war are the same as in the earlier one.”

The book is sometimes accused of being pro-war. Instead, I see balance. In her acceptance speech, Forbes speaks of the British occupation of Boston:
In the papers every day were stories of similar occupation of European cities. The boys and girls of the age I made Johnny Tremain were reading of the treatment Norwegians, Dutchmen, Poles and Frenchmen were enduring under the Nazis. But look back at the British in Boston. Where were the firing squads, the hostages, the concentration camps?...It seemed to me that too often our schools have held up the British Redcoats as ogres. From everything I could read of the period, it seemed to me that their occupation of Boston from 1774 to 1776 was as humane a military rule as any one could possibly imagine. The contrast between the way the British treated the civilian population at that time and what the Nazis are doing today is startling.

Throughout the book there are examples of Johnny recognizing the good sides of both the British soldiers and the Tory colonists. Johnny also experiences the negative aspects of war, with the deaths of his friend Rab and of Pumpkin, the British soldier Johnny tries to help to desert.

M. Sarah Smedman, in “Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain: Authentic History, Classic Fiction” (in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children’s Literature, Vol I, , 1985, pp. 89-90) says the inspiration for Johnny may have come right out of Forbes’ Pulitzer-winning biography. Revere’s father, Apollos Rivoire, was a Huguenot who escaped their persecution in France (Johnny’s father is French). He emigrated alone to Boston at age 13 and was apprenticed to a goldsmith. Johnny Tileston, the longtime master of the North Writing School in Boston and a likely classmate of Revere when a pupil there, “had a deformed hand, drawn together like a bird’s beak” (Revere, p. 28). Forbes used diaries and other primary sources of real 18th-century Boston apprentices to paint a credible picture of the lives of Johnny and other apprentices.

Hamida Bosmajian also made an interesting observation in her article, “The Cracked Crucible of Johnny Tremain” (The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 13, 1989, p. 61-62). “Johnny’s two French names are very meaningful: La-tour implies journey and circle, Tre-main suggests three-handedness – a sound hand, a scarred and twisted hand, a hand set straight.”

This coming-of-age novel is chock-full of such symbolism, as well as balanced history and characters, and great vocabulary (both 18th and 20th century). It’s rated at fifth-grade reading level and would be appropriate for that age and older, especially students studying the American Revolution. I highly recommend this book.

[A variation of this post appears on The Newbery Project]

Sunday, October 19, 2008

58. Sweetsmoke

by David Fuller

I received this advanced reading copy as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. It’s the story of a 30-year-old slave named Cassius Howard, a carpenter on the Sweetsmoke tobacco plantation in Virginia. It starts on July 1, 1862, and all of the action takes place over the next three months, ending shortly after the Civil War Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg in September of that year.

The plot centers on a mystery – Cassius is trying to figure out who killed free black Emoline Justice, who took taught Cassius to read and write. She took care of him when his master, Hoke Howard, had him whipped him severely when he tried to run away five years earlier, after his wife commits suicide when her infant son is sold away.

The strength of the novel is in the depiction of slavery during this period, as well as the description of the aforementioned battle. According to author David Fuller (a screenwriter), he did over eight years of research “on the subjects of slavery, America in the 1800s, the Civil War, particularly Antietam, and other related subjects like tobacco and the currency of the time.” It shows. Fuller has painted slaves and slaveholders not as the usual caricatures, but as real people with emotions, regrets, flaws, fears, and foibles. His descriptions of the settings and events of his story made me feel as though I was actually there.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, particularly that set in the Civil War era, or anyone who would like to learn more about that “peculiar institution.”

Sunday, October 12, 2008

57. The Bronze Bow

by Elizabeth George Speare
read by Mary Woods


Let me first say that I really liked this 1962 Newbery winner, and I wasn’t expecting I would. I’m a lazy Catholic who leans more towards Unitarian Universalist than fundamentalist/conservative Christian. Set during the time of Jesus, the main character, an 18-year-old Galilean named Daniel bar Jamin, fled his home and blacksmith master five years before and has been living on a nearby mountain with outlaws who are supposedly preparing for the day the Jews will rise up against their Roman masters. Daniel’s hatred of the Romans is especially strong, given that they crucified his father, which led to his mother’s death and younger sister Leah’s regression into fear and solitude.

As the book opens, Daniel meets a brother and sister, Joel and Malthace (also called Thacia) who become a major part of the story, as does his friend Simon the Zealot, who becomes a disciple of Jesus. Daniel eventually meets Jesus and it ultimately changes his life. It’s a wonderful coming-of-age story, with the additional message of love and peace over hate and war.

The title of the book comes from Psalm 18, verse 34 (also 2 Samuel 22:35): “He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze” (p. 87). Daniel uses a drawing of a bronze bow as a sign to Joel and Thacia that he is hiding in their house in Capernaum. The verse becomes a touchstone for Daniel and a metaphor for his own internal struggle.

Written at a fifth-to-sixth grade reading level, the content is most appropriate for those ages and up. Narrator Mary Woods does a good job creating individual characterizations by voice without resorting to caricatures or accents.

In her Newbery acceptance speech, Speare explained that she wrote the book while teaching Sunday school because she
longed to lift the personality of Jesus off the flat and lifeless pages of our textbook. I wanted to give my pupils, and others like them, a glimpse of the divided and turbulent society of Palestine, an occupied country with many parallels in our own day. And I wanted to stir in them some personal sharing of what must have been the response of boys and girls who actually saw and heard the Carpenter from Nazareth….I longed to have them see that the preacher who walked the hills of Galilee was not a mythical figure, but a compelling and dynamic leader, a hero to whom a boy in any age would gladly offer all his loyalty.


Reading this (and the rest of her speech), it’s not surprising to learn that the book has been challenged when used as part of the curriculum in public schools. While not anti-Semitic or demeaning toward Jews, critics said it glorifies Christianity while portraying Judaism and its rabbis in a negative light.

Recently, a group of parents in San Rafael, California, was able to convince their public school district to drop the book as required reading in seventh grade in a unit on ancient Rome (but had no problems with the book being in the library). After reading the many links on their website, I can understand their position. As much as I liked this book and would recommend it to others, and don’t think it should ever be removed from any library, I believe it should be optional supplemental reading rather than required in public schools.

[A variation of this post appears on The Newbery Project.]

Monday, October 06, 2008

56. The Fire

by Katherine Neville

I believe I received this advance reader’s edition of The Fire from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program because my LibraryThing library includes The Eight, Neville’s predecessor to The Fire. The Eight was originally published 20 years ago and at the time was quite unique – a sort of historical fiction/mystery/suspense/thriller interlaced with legend and was hard to classify by genre. Since then there have been similar books: The Da Vinci Code (which I hated) and the like.

I read The Eight with my book club in 2002. I don’t remember a lot of the details, and I didn’t review it, but I gave it four stars. I thought about re-reading The Eight before reading The Fire, but neither my university library nor my local county library had a copy, and there wasn’t time to do an interlibrary loan. In retrospect, I think it would have helped to re-read it. While The Fire can stand alone, there are parts that might make more sense with a fresh knowledge of The Eight. In particular, The Fire seems to assume that the reader knows all about “The Game” from The Eight and provides little explanation of it. It might also help to know more about the real game of chess—I know very little.

Structured like The Eight, the intertwining stories in The Fire take place in 1822 and 2003, approximately 22-32 years after the events in The Eight. I found the story set in the past to be weak and unbelievable. The two main characters in it are supposedly the offspring of Lord Byron and Talleyrand respectively. Other figures from history, such as Jefferson, Careme, and Ali Pasha, make improbable appearances. They and others often tell long “tales” in both the modern and historical stories that allow the author to insert a lot of her research detail, but are a poor substitute for plot action or real dialogue.

Indeed, at 435 pages, the book has way too much unnecessary detail. Besides alchemy and puzzles, in her acknowledgements, the author lists these other research topics: Albania, aviation, Aleutians, Baghdad, Basques, chess, cooking, Indians/Native Americans, Islam, Middle East, Far East, mathematics, mythology, archetypes, memory and perception, Russia, volcanoes and geysers, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Poplar Forest, the U.S. Capitol, esoteric architecture, astrology, Freemasonry, the design of Washington DC, and Dumbarton Oaks. It felt like the book was written to fit in all the research, not the other way around.

Alex, the narrator and main character of the 2003 segments, aka Xie, daughter of two of the main characters in The Eight, was passive and reactive. She can quickly solve anagrams and other puzzles, but that's about it. There are too many other characters and none of them are well-developed either. The end of the book is disappointing; we’re left hanging with many of these characters with no idea what has happened to them. I hope this does not portend yet another sequel incorporating yet more unlikely involvement of real historical personages. I doubt it would be worth another 20-year wait.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

55. The Joy Luck Club

by Amy Tan

I read this book for an online book discussion. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter a number of years ago, I was looking forward to Tan’s first book. While I can see why it is often studied on college campuses, I found it less enjoyable. I think it was the structure of the novel. The seven narrators, six of whom tell two stories each and one (June) who tells four (her dead mother’s stories and her own), were sometimes hard to follow. I think I would have preferred each mother-daughter pair’s of stories more in sequence, as it was difficult at times to tell who was who.

The mothers’ stories were more intriguing (and heartbreaking), reflecting their early lives in China in times of great upheaval in the 1940s, before emigrating around 1949. Nearly forty years later, their American-born daughters are in their late 20s and early 30s, going through career and man problems in San Francisco, the most interesting aspect of their stories being the cultural clash in their relationships with their mothers.

This collection of short stories reflects the author’s real life, for like June’s mother Suyuan, Tan’s mother also fled China leaving children from her first marriage behind. Tan’s grandmother had a son taken from her and eventually committed suicide, as An-mei Hsu’s mother did. Tan’s mother had high expectations of her (she wanted her to be a neurosurgeon by profession with the "hobby" of concert pianist), and their relationship was rocky. This last, the uneasy mother-daughter relationships but ultimate mother-daughter love, gives The Joy Luck Club its universality.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

54. Isaac's Storm

by Erik Larson
read by Richard M. Davidson or Edward Herrmann


This is a book about Isaac Cline, the chief meteorologist for the US Weather Bureau in Galveston during the devastating 1900 hurricane, as well as the storm itself, which killed at least 6,000.

I'd purchased it in abridged audiobook format (read by actor Edward Herrmann) for my workplace, and also found the print version and an unabridged audiobook (read by actor Richard M. Davidson) at the public library. I decided to listen to it after Hurricane Ike ravaged Galveston earlier this month. I thought it rather interesting that Ike is a nickname for Isaac.

I generally prefer unabridged versions so I started with that. Unfortunately, this copy was on cassette, and the 2nd and 4th cassettes were unplayable, so I listened to the abridged versions for those portions. I have to say I prefer Herrmann's reading; he's not quite as emphatic as Davidson. A bonus for the unabridged version, though, was a lengthy interview with the author (in 2000) at the end.

An abridged version might have been better anyway, because my only complaint about the book would be too much unnecessary detail (particularly about storm formation and Isaac's early life) and some repetition. It may have just been the audiobook format in this case though, for I also found the interwoven storylines of multiple characters (all real people) a bit difficult to follow at times.

The story is at its best when the worst of the storm hits Galveston, and during the city's recovery. Larson did extensive research at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston, which has a huge 1900 Storm collection with personal accounts of survivors, letters, photographs, and maps. The endnotes and bibliography take up 38 pages of the print book (the narrative is 273 pages), and at times it feels like Larson is trying to cram every bit of research into his story.

Another major source was Cline's autobiography, originally published in 1945 when Cline was 84. Self-described "historical journalist" Larson takes issue with Cline's claims in the latter book that his storm warnings saved lives, but I got the feeling that Larson was following the path of most journalists today and looking for someone to blame for a very bad storm.

There's a lot of blame too for the fledgling U.S. Weather Bureau, particularly for their apparent disregard for Cuban forecasting (which tended to predict a lot of hurricanes and thus induce panic). In my opinion, given the technology available in 1900, no one could have predicted the severity of the hurricane that demolished Galveston, and with the slower modes of transportation available in those days, an unnecessary panicked evacuation could have also been deadly (like Hurricane Rita). It's unfair to paint Cline as a villian, particularly given the personal losses (his wife and unborn child) that he endured.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

53. My Sister's Keeper

by Jodi Picoult

This book has sat in my TBR pile for a while as I had heard it was a good one, and I finally had the opportunity to read it for an online book discussion. It's the story of 13-year-old Anna who was deliberately conceived by her parents to serve as a donor for her older sister Kate, who has a rare form of leukemia. When Kate's kidneys fail and her parents expect Anna to donate one of hers, she feels enough is enough and hires a lawyer to sue for medical emancipation. The mother, Sara, is a lawyer who ends up defending herself and firefighter husband Brian. Rounding out the family is pyromaniac older brother Jesse, getting in trouble just to get a little attention in a family entirely focused on Kate.

The premise was intriguing and thus the book was a fast read. I liked the way the story was presented from all the main characters' viewpoints, and the way different typefaces were used in the book for each character.

I felt a lot of sympathy for Anna and her quest to live her own life and make her own choices. For example, Sara forces her to give up an opportunity to go to a hockey camp in another state, because "we will need Anna - her blood, her stem cells, her tissue - right here." (269)

I was very disappointed with the ending; I thought it was a cop-out. I found the romance between Campbell (Anna's lawyer) and Julia (Anna's guardian ad litem) distracting. Also, I REALLY disliked Sara and I thought she was a terrible mother - seemed like she only had one child, not three.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

52. Bud, Not Buddy


by Christopher Paul Curtis
read by James Avery


This is the wonderful story of Bud (not Buddy!), a motherless African American boy who goes looking for the father he’s never met, a famous black jazz musician, during the Depression in Michigan. The book seems to present the worst (Bud in the orphanage and a foster home) and the best (Lefty’s and Herman’s much-better lives) of the experiences of African Americans during the Depression, and probably not so much of what was more typical of the majority.

Nevertheless, I think this book would spark wonderful discussions with readers in grades 5 and up, about racism and life during the Depression. You could make a great unit on the Depression for middle-schoolers with this and other Newbery winners A Year Down Yonder, Out of the Dust, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

I love what Bud had to say about librarians and libraries:
Shucks, this is one of the bad things about talking to librarians, I asked one question and already she had us digging through three different books. (chapter 7, page 58)
”…if I remember correctly, you and your mother had quite different tastes in books. I remember your mother used to like mysteries and fairy tales, isn’t that so?”
Man, I can’t believe she remembered that! (chapter 9, page 89)
There’s another thing that’s strange about the library, it seems like time flies when you’re in one. One second I was opening the first page of the book, hearing the cracking sound the pages make,… and the next second the librarian was standing over me saying, “I am very impressed, you really devoured that book, didn’t you?...”(chapter 9, page 90)

I also appreciated Curtis’ advice in the afterword (where we learn that the author based Lefty and Herman on his own grandfathers, with whom they share many characteristics): “Go talk to Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad and other relatives and friends. Discover and remember what they have to say about what they learned growing up. By keeping their stories alive, you make them, and yourself, immortal.” Advice I should take as my own parents turn 80 this year.

Actor James Avery makes Bud sound like the upbeat, imaginative, vulnerable ten-year-old he is, and does wonderful voices for the other characters as well, especially the members of Herman’s band. Jazz music plays softly in the background in various parts of the reading, but in this case, it enhances the experience of listening to the story rather than distracting from it. The only thing I could have done without in the audiobook was Curtis, in the afterword, allowing his young daughter to actually sing the little “song” she wrote at age 5 that one of the characters in the book sings. Bud shares my opinion: ”That was about the worst song I’d ever heard.” (page 124, chapter 11)

[A variation of this post appears on The Newbery Project.]

Saturday, September 06, 2008

51. The Lady Elizabeth

by Alison Weir
read by Rosalyn Landor


Unlike historian Weir’s first novel, Innocent Traitor, The Lady Elizabeth is more historical fiction than biographical novel, told in the third-person omniscient viewpoint, rather than in the multiple first-person diary-style viewpoint of Innocent Traitor. The book covers the life of Elizabeth I of England from 1536, when three-year-old Elizabeth learns of her mother Anne Boleyn’s death (in this book, from her sister Mary), to 1558, when 25-year-old Elizabeth ascends to the throne at Mary’s death.

It’s interesting to compare Weir’s interpretation of Elizabeth in this book to that of author Philippa Gregory in The Virgin’s Lover and The Queen’s Fool. While Gregory gives us an Elizabeth who is wily and actively pursuing a romance and sexual relationship with Robert Dudley (and not discouraging the advances of Thomas Seymour), Weir is more sympathetic to Elizabeth. Although Weir postulates a different result for Elizabeth’s involvement with Seymour (trying to not reveal too much here!), she does a good job showing how the events of Elizabeth’s early life may have led to her decisions (particularly about marriage) in adulthood.

Like Gregory, Weir is sympathetic towards Mary, and paints her as someone most influenced by her desire to please her beloved husband, Philip II of Spain. Both authors, however, show Philip as also intrigued by Elizabeth and wanting to be at least a friend to her for his political advantage.

In an author’s note at the end of the book, Weir writes:
I make no apology for the fact that, for dramatic purposes, I have woven into my story a tale that goes against all my instincts as a historian! Indeed, I have argued many times in the past, in print, in lectures, and on radio and television, why I firmly believe that Elizabeth I was the Virgin Queen she claimed to be, since the historical evidence would appear to support that. Yet we can never know for certain what happens in a person’s private life. There were rumors and there were legends, and upon them I have based the highly controversial aspect of this novel...I am not, as a historian, saying that it could have happened; but as a novelist, I enjoy the heady freedom to ask: What if it had?

Weir goes on to explain other assumptions she makes in the novel. Critics would do well to remember she is writing historical fiction here and not history or biography. Weir’s website indicates she will be writing a sequel to The Lady Elizabeth.

I enjoyed British actress Rosalyn Landor’s unabridged narration of this book. She did a fine job creating different voices for the multitude of characters in the story.

Monday, September 01, 2008

50. The Tea Rose

by Jennifer Donnelly

This was a selection of one of my online book clubs, and I would classify it as a historical romance, in that the romance was the main part of the story, while period details give it the historical aspect. The book begins in 1888 in the Whitechapel area of London with one of Jack the Ripper’s murders, and ends 10 years later in the same area.

In between, main character Fiona Finnegan goes from a 17-year-old packing tea to a millionaire owner of her own tea company. Fiona is a feisty character, perhaps a bit too much so for the era, and she also benefits from some amazing coincidences and good luck. She’s in love with neighbor Joe Bristow, a produce seller. He gets drunk at a party and gets his boss’ daughter pregnant and has to marry her – meanwhile Fiona overhears her boss and his henchman discussing her union-organizing father’s death (turns out it wasn’t an accident), and she flees to New York. She meets two men, one who gets her on the boat to New York and the other the financing to reopen her drunken uncle’s shop once there, which she makes a success (along with a line of teas and tea houses). Her plan is to revenge the deaths of her father (and mother, by the Ripper, when the family must move to a sleazier part of town after her father’s accident) by buying 52% of the stocks of her former boss’ company. Meanwhile, of course, she and Joe can’t forget each other...

There were enough surprises in the book to keep me reading despite the predictability of the main romance. I enjoyed learning more about the tea and produce industries and other details of the late Victorian era in England and America. The characters were well developed (well, the good guys were – the bad guys were a bit one-dimensional) and I cared about what happened to them. I read the 544-page novel over Labor Day weekend; it had me that engaged. Recommended for a holiday/beach read.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

49. The Red Leather Diary

by Lily Koppel

Subtitled “Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal,” this book should list as co-author the diary’s writer, Florence Wolfson Howitt, who is still alive and well at age 93. Florence received a “Mile Stones Five Year Diary” for her 14th birthday on August 11, 1929, and continued to write four lines faithfully every day through August 10, 1934, the day before she turned 19. It’s a fascinating look at the life of the gifted daughter of a Yiddish doctor and a couture dressmaker in New York City.

Lily Koppel was a young New York Times reporter when the diary was found in October 2003 in a dumpster outside her apartment building, saved by the doorman from numerous unclaimed trunks in the building’s storage area. With the help of a lawyer/private investigator, Koppel tracked down the owner now living in Connecticut and Florida. Koppel combines research on New York City in that period with interviews of Howitt and others, as well as excerpts from the diary. She weaves a fascinating true tale about a precocious young woman who starts college at age 15, wants to be a writer and artist, and falls in love with both men and women. The non-fiction book is heavily illustrated with photographs, mostly from Howitt’s albums.

I loved this book! I think it’s mostly because I had a similar five-year diary at a comparable age, although I could never confine myself to just four lines per day, and thus I wrote longer journal entries at infrequent intervals, eventually continuing my diary/journal in two spiral notebooks. (I admire Howitt for managing to be so succinct yet detailed in her brief entries.) Alas, I threw them all away before my marriage to my first husband in 1983, not wanting him to read what I’d written about previous loves. That of course included Breathless, the love of my life. I’d give anything to have those journals today (especially since Breathless is so good at remembering our past and I’m so bad), but they’re not likely to be recovered from a landfill.

My only gripe with the book is that Koppel uses excerpts from the diary without any dates. I would have liked to have known exactly when particular entries were made. Also, the back-cover blurb on the hardbound edition is misleading: it includes supposed entries from September 2 and October 12, 1934, which would have been beyond the five-year period the diary covered.

For more information on the book and the diary behind it, see http://www.redleatherdiary.com/.

48. Abundance

by Sena Jeter Naslund

This book is subtitled “A Novel of Marie Antoinette,” and is a fictionalized biography narrated by Marie, covering her arrival in France in 1770 at age 14 as the intended bride for the Dauphin through her execution in 1793.

The author says, “The story of Marie Antoinette has fascinated and frightened me since I was a child. To me, it was a reverse fairy tale…” She felt “the historical treatment of Marie Antoinette has been motivated, in part, by the tendency to demonize women…I wanted to explore the complexity of a woman who has been included in the historical picture but usually misrepresented.”

Naslund succeeds in making Marie Antoinette a multifaceted character rathr than the shallow, heartless woman usually depicted by history. Unfortunately, she takes 539 pages to do so, including a lot of detail about the abundance of splendor (flowers, music, opera, theater, gardens, chateaux) in Marie’s life. In contrast, Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey (on which Naslund’s book is based) covers the same material plus Marie’s pre-France life plus a post-death epilogue in 458 pages – and it has color illustrations and extensive notes, sources, and an index in additional pages.

Both books treat Marie sympathetically, as the neglected youngest daughter and 15th child of powerful Austrian empress Maria Teresa, who was woefully unprepared to be Queen of France. Her initial popularity in France declined as it took over SEVEN years for her marriage to be consummated (neither the Dauphin nor the Dauphine really knew what they were doing) and 11+ for the birth of a son, and of course in those days these things were always blamed on the woman!

Constantly criticized in letters from her mother and mostly ignored by her husband, Marie took up extravagant habits such as gambling, buying numerous dresses, and elaborate hairstyles. Changes she tried to make in court life and her close friendships with women were misinterpreted.

Yet these books also show a Marie Antoinette who did show concern for the common people, ultimately becoming less extravagant and more generous, and she was a loving, caring mother and very brave at her death. Apparently it was easier to blame a female foreigner for the problems of the French monarchy and economic conditions that led to the French Revolution.

I found some of the secondary characters equally fascinating: Marie’s friends the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Polignac, her friend (and possibly lover), the Swedish Count Axel Von Fersen, and the artist who painted Marie many times, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun. I would be especially interested in a book (fiction or nonfiction) about the latter.

Abundance was an okay book, but I’m not sure I would have read it had it not been for my local book club. I would suggest reading Fraser’s biography instead.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

47. Shiloh

by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor,
read by Peter MacNicol


This boy-and-his-dog story won the Newbery Medal in 1992. Eleven-year-old Marty Preston is followed to his rural West Virginia home by a mistreated beagle he later names Shiloh. He and his father return the dog to its owner, mean Judd Travers, but the dog runs away again and back to Marty, who hides him and tries to figure out what to do.

I think this book would be perfect for reading and discussing with a class at school (as young as grades 3 for a read-aloud, up to grade 6, with a reading level of 4.4) or with one’s own children, because of the moral dilemmas it contains. Should Marty do what is legally right or what is ethically right? Is a lie of omission as bad as a lie of commission? Is it ever OK to steal or blackmail someone? Is Judd’s mistreatment of his dogs any worse than the injury Shiloh suffers as Marty tries to protect him? Since the story is told in first person present tense, the reader hears Marty struggle with these very issues:

A lie don't seem a lie anymore when it's meant to save a dog, and right and wrong's all mixed up in my head. (70)
"Jesus,” I whisper…”which you want me to do? Be one hundred percent honest and carry that dog back to Judd so that one of your creatures can be kicked and starved all over again, or keep him here and fatten him up to glorify your creation?" (57)

There are other points to discuss as well. Marty has a .22 rifle and thinks it’s OK to shoot rabbits and deer, especially for food, as long as they’re in season. Why then is he so sensitive to cruelty to a dog? Marty’s bed is the living room couch, the family doesn’t have a telephone or a working washing machine, yet they do have a TV.

As always, professional reviews of Newbery books are interesting. Before Shiloh won the award, middle school teacher Kenneth E. Kowen noted in the September 1991 School Library Journal that “Marty's father is a postman--usually one of the better paying positions in rural areas--yet the family is extremely poor. There seems to be an inconsistency here. This title is not up to Naylor's usual high quality.” After the Newbery Award, Jane Langton wrote in the May 10, 1992 New York Times Book Review, “Surely there must have been a book more important than this agreeable but slight story." Teacher Anne Hegel Clough responded in a September 13, 1992 letter to the editor:

Shiloh is a story that allows children to examine such issues as truthfulness, accountability, resourcefulness, loyalty, love, and plain old hard work. Hardly “agreeable but slight,” it is a vehicle that may be used to start grappling with some of the most difficult decisions in life. My third-grade students thrived on discussing the protagonist’s dilemmas: we stopped frequently while I was reading aloud to predict, react, and, most rewardingly, to problem-solve and talk about ethics.

…Perhaps the character of Judd Travers is too stereotyped, perhaps Ms. Naylor could have excluded religious references, and certainly things in the book tend to work out a bit more conveniently than they would in real life. Nevertheless, we now have an acclaimed story that will gain wide readership, a story that is edifying, accessible, and inspiring to our children.

In an interview by Suzanna Henshon in the January 2007 Lion & the Unicorn, Naylor said of Shiloh, “It will probably always be one of my favorites, because it has a Mark Twain theme [she stated earlier in the same interview that ‘I was probably influenced most’ by him], the voice of my father, the moral convictions of my mother, it takes place in my husband's home state, and I love that [Preston] family to pieces.”

I listened to the unabridged audio version of this book read by American actor Peter MacNicol. He does a marvelous job creating different voices for all the characters, all with a Southern drawl. Banjo, guitar, fiddle, and harmonica further add to the setting, though music played in midst of the reading is not helpful.

[This review also appears on The Newbery Project.]

Sunday, August 10, 2008

46. Chasing Windmills

by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I enjoyed this book, read for an online book discussion, more than I thought I would. It’s the story of two young people: home-schooled, isolated, 17-year-old Sebastian, whose controlling father has told him his mother is dead, and 22-year-old Maria, who lives with her abusive boyfriend and has two children by him. Maria has lost her job, but goes out every night and rides the subway during the time she’s supposed to be at work, because she is afraid to tell her boyfriend. Sebastian rides the subway instead of sleeping, in an act of rebellion against his (sleeping-pill-aided) father. The two meet on one such subway ride.

I thought some of the supporting characters were the most interesting, particularly the women. Sebastian’s neighbor and (unknown to his father) friend Delilah is a bit of an enigma - it's clear she is the mother figure Sebastian needs, but we really don't learn much about her. It was convenient (maybe a little too much so) that she was planning to move back to California about the same time Sebastian was heading there.

Maria’s older sister Stella is a strong woman who was able to escape the pattern of abuse in their childhood home. Sebastian and Maria needed Delilah and Stella respectively to help them find their way out of their abusive relationships, someone to mirror back a different reality than the ones they lived in.

Celia, Sebastian’s mother (no, she is not dead) is fascinating and by far my favorite character in the book. Having been divorced in the past from a controlling, emotionally-abusive man who brainwashed our offspring, I could VERY much understand what she did and why. I hope she and Sebastian will be able to forge a good relationship. I would have liked to hear how Sebastian's father would have explained why he did what he did - but I think I already know.

There are many references in this book to “West Side Story.” Maria is named for one of the main characters, names her daughter for Natalie Wood (who played Maria in the movie), and both take place (at least part of the time for “Chasing Windmills”) in New York City. "West Side Story" is far more similar to "Romeo and Juliet," on which it's based - a boy and a girl from warring families/factions fall in love. I think Maria's infatuation with the movie and insistence on calling Sebastian "Tony" just further emphasized her immaturity, especially about real love.

Some people don’t think this book has a happy ending, but given Maria’s and Sebastian’s pasts and present situations, I think what happens is for the best. Suffice to say, the ending is different from both “West Side Story” and “Romeo and Juliet.” This was an interesting book and while I would not necessarily recommend it, I didn’t find it terrible either.

45. The High King

by Lloyd Alexander;
read by James Langton


I vaguely remember reading this book and the four books preceding it in the Chronicles of Prydain series when I was a kid. This book was published when I was 11, so I would have been about the right age (the reading level of the book is about grade 6). However, it may feel familiar due more to the similarities to the Lord of the Rings series, which I read when the first movie in that series came out in 2001. Both series are coming-of-age/quest/rite-of-passage stories; both have wizards/enchantresses, dwarves and giants, a death lord, dragon-like birds, and a special sword.

Alexander stated in the author’s note of the first book of the series, The Book of Three, that The Chronicles of Prydain draw upon Welsh mythology, specifically the Mabinogion. During World War II, Alexander was stationed a while in Wales and was enchanted by its landscape, language, and legends.

The High King includes a journey and a number of battles, and some of the characters introduced earlier in the series die. At the end of the book, described by one reviewer as “perfectly heartbreaking and heartbreakingly perfect,” the main character, Taran, makes a difficult yet not totally surprising decision.

The lessons of the story are reflected in these two quotes, both from the last chapter:
“Evil conquered?" said Gwydion. "You have learned much, but learn this last and hardest of lessons. You have conquered only the enchantments of evil. That was the easiest of your tasks, only a beginning, not an ending. Do you believe evil itself to be so quickly overcome? Not so long as men still hate and slay each other, when greed and anger goad them. Against these even a flaming sword cannot prevail, but only that portion of good in all men's hearts whose flame can never be quenched.”

and
…[Taran] said, "Long ago I yearned to be a hero without knowing, in truth, what a hero was. Now, perhaps, I understand it a little better. A grower of turnips or a shaper of clay, a … farmer or a king — every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will be (re-?) reading the others in the series. It’s not necessary to read the other books in the Chronicles before reading “The High King,” but I would recommend that a child do so as the story and its characters will be enhanced. I would suggest the books for both girls and (especially) boys in grades 3-6, although they could be done as read-alouds for younger children and will be appreciated by adults as well. I feel this book was well-deserving of the 1969 Newbery.

British-born actor James Langton did a fine job creating unique voices for the characters (although Princess Eilonwy sounded a bit strange), and he has narrated the audiobooks for all five of the Chronicles. Interesting trivia: The second book in the series, The Black Cauldron, was a Newbery Honor Book in 1966. Alexander wrote a prequel short story collection to the series called The Foundling and Other Tales from Prydain in 1973.

[This review also appears on The Newbery Project.]