Tuesday, May 20, 2008

29. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

by Patrick Suskind

This was the May choice for my local book club; otherwise, I probably would not have chosen to read it. Nevertheless, it made a good book for discussion. The book was originally published in German in 1985. Set in France in the 1700s, it’s the story of a man born without any odor himself but with an incredible sense of smell.

He becomes an apprentice and eventually a journeyman perfumer, and the best part of the book are the descriptions of techniques of fragrance extractionn of that era, such as distillation, maceration, and enfluerage.

His quest to create the perfect scent (one that can influence human emotion) leads to murders and peculiar adventures (seven years spent alone in a cave, time as the subject of an odd scientist with strange theories). The ending of the book is very bizarre and rather gross.

I can’t really recommend this one, except possibly as a choice for a book club looking for unusual titles to discuss.

Monday, May 19, 2008

28. The Queen's Fool

by Philippa Gregory,
audibook read by Bianca Amato

This is another historical fiction/romance by Gregory set in the Tudor era. Unlike the other two of hers I’ve read so far, the main character in this one is not based on a real person. Gregory chose to tell the story of Henry VIII’s oldest daughter Mary through fictional Hannah Green (nee Verde), age 14 in 1553, a Spanish Jew who earlier escaped the Inquisition with her father after her mother is burned at the stake.

Hannah dresses as a boy and serves as apprentice to her printer father in London, and they pretend to be Christians. Real historical characters Robert Dudley and John Dee visit the shop and Hannah has a vision of an angel. They recognize her as having “the Sight” and take her to King Edward VI to serve as a “holy fool.” On her website, Gregory says she got the idea for Hannah from a real female fool, Thomasina, who served both Queens Mary and Elizabeth. To date, I can find little information about Thomasina (except that she was a dwarf or midget), nor much on “holy fools,” other than the definition “One who subverts convention or orthodoxy or varies from social conformity in order to reveal spiritual or moral truth,” which was Hannah’s purpose in court due to having “the Sight.”

Hannah goes on to serve Edward’s successor, his half-sister Mary, and is sometimes sent by her to serve/spy on her half-sister, Elizabeth. Meanwhile, Hannah still considers herself a servant of Dudley (on whom she has a huge crush) and spies for him on Mary, and practices scrying for his friend Dee, trying to “see” the future for all these people.

There are really two stories within this book. Besides the court intrigue, it’s a coming-of-age story for Hannah who is 19 by the end of the book. She is betrothed to another Jew-in-hiding, Daniel Carpenter (whose family changed their name from Disraeli, which immediately made me think of late-1800s British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who was also of Jewish origin). Hannah has a major scare while at court and decides to leave England with her father and Daniel, and they go to Calais to escape possible persecution. They are there when the French retake Calais in January 1558, but Hannah manages to escape back to England on Dudley’s ship.

I found Hannah’s story of being a Jew in the Renaissance to be more interesting than that of the Tudor court characters (Mary, Elizabeth, and Dudley), the best part being her time in Calais, away from the court. The other story was less believable. Gregory does a wonderful job in making Queen Mary into a sympathetic character – separation from her mother, loss of prestige, and near-exile as a youth; a cheating husband; phantom pregnancies. Yet it’s hard to believe a young Jewish girl whose mother was burned in the Spanish Inquisition could be so admiring and forgiving of the “Bloody Mary” who also burned Protestants and Jews (and I’m Catholic!). I realize Hannah’s position and gift of “Sight” were a plot device to enable her to move so easily among the three Tudor characters, but her also being a young Jewish woman made this rather implausible.

Nevertheless, the story (unabridged on 17 discs, over 500 pages in print) sucked me in. British actress Amato does a fine job with the different voices and characters on the audiobook. Despite (or perhaps because of) their flaws (Mary is zealous and obsessive, Elizabeth is coy with men and conniving, Dudley is a traitor and a rake, and Hannah is truly foolish at times, but also matures), the characters are likeable, and I learned more about Tudor history. Recommended.

ETA: Contrasted with The Virgin’s Lover, I found some characters the same and some were different in this book. Dudley is the same in both. Elizabeth comes across as more weak and foolish (especially at first) once she’s on the throne than when she is scheming to get on it. The biggest contrast was with Dudley’s wife Amy. In The Virgin’s Lover, she is a sympathetic character, the cheated-on, neglected wife who may also be physically ill. In The Queen’s Fool, she is haughty, cold, hysterical, and any illness is more mental than physical. Quite a contrast! I guess it’s all point of view. The Virgin’s Lover is told partly from Amy’s view, while in The Queen’s Fool, we only see Amy though Hannah’s rather biased eyes (since she still admires Dudley).

Friday, May 09, 2008

27. Smoky the Cowhorse

by Will James

This 1927 Newbery winner follows the title character from his birth onward, and is primarily written from the horse’s viewpoint (but not in first person). The first two-thirds of the book are almost lyrical in the detailed descriptions of Smoky’s first few years, until he is broken in at age four by the cowboy Clint (who grows to love him), and becomes expert at ranch work. The pace picks up in the last third of the book. Smoky is stolen by a cruel “half-breed” who mistreats him, then becomes a famous bucking bronco in the rodeo, then a “livery-stable plug," and is finally nearly starved to death until he is rescued by – guess who?

Of the 1920s medal winners, Smoky is the only one set in North America. One of the criticisms of the book is its poor grammar and spelling. The author, Will[iam Roderick] James, spent much of his life as a real cowboy, rodeo performer, and stuntman in Westerns. In his 1930 autobiography, Lone Cowboy: My Life Story, James claimed to have been born in a covered wagon in Montana, his mother dying when he was a year old, and his father, a Texas cowman, killed by a steer three years later. James said he was then adopted by a French-Canadian trapper, who drowned when Will was 13.

Besides the effort to make Smoky sound authentically “cowboy” or “Western,” there may be another reason for the poor English. Will James was actually born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault in Quebec in 1892 and grew up speaking French. The truth came out in James’ will five days after his death in 1942. Dufault was fascinated by cowboys and horses, and at the age of 15, left his family and headed west to Saskatchewan. There he learned English and eventually worked his way up on ranches into a horse wrangler job. Sometime in 1910, he slipped across the border and changed his name. Besides his real jobs mentioned in the previous paragraph, he also served a year in the Nevada State Prison in 1915-16 for cattle rustling, and in the United States Army for a year in 1918-19, working with horses as a wagoner and mounted scout.

Injuries sustained in his bronco-busting days eventually turned James to making his living with art and ultimately writing. According to Jim Bramlett in Ride for the High Points: The Real Story of Will James, his third book was "...first titled...Smoky, A One Man Horse...the story ran in Scribner’s Magazine as a four-part serial from April through July, 1926. In September the title was changed to Smoky The Cowhorse and...[it] appeared in book form. With its forty-two pencil drawings and four pen-and-ink drawings the book was an overwhelming success....in 1929, [it] became one of Scribner’s Illustrated Classics featuring nine oil paintings.”

According to William Gardner Bell, this “deluxe edition…featured James’s first oil paintings and was reissued by Scribner’s as recently as 1962” (“’My Interest Lays Toward the Horse,’” American History, March/April 1996). I would love to obtain a copy of this edition. While the detailed black-and-white illustrations are relatively clear in my library’s 1954 (possibly as late as 1980) edition, it is rather shabby, and the 1997 hardcover reprint edition I recently purchased to replace it suffers from a problem noted in a May 9, 1965, New York Times article by Thomas Lask on “Repeat Performances”: “The drawings by Mr. James seem to have been printed too often from the same plates.”

Here is a copy of one of the illustrations from the 1929 edition, from the Montana Memory Project:
The cover pictured above is from a 2000 reprint by Mountain Press, and does feature one of James’ drawings.

At 245 to 310 pages (depending on the edition), even with illustrations, this is not an easy read. Accelerated Reader ranks the book at grade 6.5 reading level (and at middle grades, 4-8, interest level) and Scholastic Reading Counts at grade 6.6 reading level (interest level grades 6-8). Nevertheless, this book would probably appeal to good readers of all ages who love horse stories, and others (boys in particular) who like animal and/or action/adventure stories.

I think it’s interesting to read some of the reviews of Smoky the Cowhorse from the 1920's:

From the Independent, September 25, 1925: “A grand book; it is hard to decide which part of it is the better, the writer’s text or his illustrations.”

From “R. L.” (probably Robert Littell, one of the editors) in New Republic, November 10, 1926: “[Smoky’s] career is told in a breezy, consciously uncultured but nevertheless rather attractive, often really charming, manner. Mr. James’ easy-going knowledge of what happens inside Smoky’s head…and his lending of biped motives to his gallant quadruped brands him as a 'nature-faker,' though one of a most guiless and readable sort. If a man loves the wild earth and a wild horse sufficiently, his affection is bound to win ours in the end, no matter how flagrantly he tames the savage animal with his mind and pen. Throughout the book one finds a good-humored, simple, wide-hearted spirit—which is a thing so rare that one always looks forward to meeting it again.”

From Ross Santee in Bookman, January 1927: “Personally I’d like to have seen the pictures given more space. For here are some of the finest drawings Will James has ever made. I think it is one of the finest horse stories ever told. It’s different from any other book that was ever written. For it’s written by a cow boy who knows a cow horse as only a cow boy can. And Will James knows his riggin’.”

And finally, from “Some in Velvet Gowns” by Marjorie Thomas, Peabody Journal of Education, November 1929:
When James' first book appeared it was realized that here was a man who was giving a true picture of the country....He has owned such a horse ass Smoky, has worked with cow and horse outfits like the ones he describes, and has himself been a star participant at rodeos....The school of experience was the only one James attended....He says, "With me, my weakness lays towards the horse," and he wishes to make men remember horses in spite of automobiles and airplanes....The story is told in the vernacular of the range--not grammatically correct but decidedly artistic.

...Will James is the real artist in the realm of illustration. Smoky is an actual horse each time he is shown; perhaps he is even more alive when he is in a sketch than when he is put into words....In the Newbery Medal edition of Smoky, both black and white and color illustrations are introduced. The full page plates which show prairie, blue sky above, cowboys, and cow ponies, make one almost catch a whiff of fresh western air.

That’s how this book made me feel. The descriptions and the illustrations really brought to life this horse, and life on the range and the ranch in the early part of the last century. Recommended.

[This review is also posted at The Newbery Project.]

Sunday, May 04, 2008

26. The Quilter's Homecoming

by Jennifer Chiaverini,
audiobook read by Christina Moore

I've read or listened to most of the books in this Elm Creek Quilt series over the past few years when I've wanted escapist fare; something not too challenging as respite from some of the more "serious" stuff I read for book clubs or advance reader editions to review. This was no different.

Set mostly in 1925, with an eventually-intertwining story that begins in the late 1800's, this is the story of Elizabeth Bergstrom Nelson, the cousin of the main character, Sylvia, in the present-day Elm Creek stories. Elizabeth and her new husband leave Elm Creek for a ranch in California, but circumstances aren't quite what they seem. Elizabeth becomes involved with Rosa, a descendant of the ranch's original Mexican owners, whose story is told in flashbacks.

Christina Moore has read all the Elm Creek audiobooks I've listened to so far, and does a fine job. Her rendering of Elizabeth's husband Henry seems appropriate, as he sounds as sarcastic and gloomy as the story implies he might be.

As with Chiaverini's other books, a number of quilts and their patterns play into the story. A "Chimneys and Cornerstones" pattern (that was also mentioned in Chiaverini's The Christmas Quilt) and a Double Wedding Ring design that are wedding gifts from Bergstrom women must be sold to make ends meet. Elizabeth eventually recovers the former, but the latter appears to be lost. Wanna bet it will reappear in a future Elm Creek tale?

25. Playing with the Grown-ups

by Sophie Dahl

I obtained this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, probably because I've read books like Running with Scissors and The Glass Castle

Bleh. This book took me forever to read as it just did not hold my interest. Perhaps I was expecting too much from the granddaughter of Roald Dahl. It read like a poorly written dysfunctional-family memoir, and apparently it is autobiographical to some extent (supermodel Dahl's mother was manic depressive). The flashback structure makes it clear that Kitty, the main character, turns out OK despite her mother's drug use (which Kitty mimics) and poor choices in men. Not recommended.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

24. Potatoes Are Cheaper

by Max Shulman

I borrowed this book through interlibrary loan for Breathless. He remembered reading it when it first came out in the early 70s and though it was hilarious. I agree.

Set in the midst of the Great Depression in Minneapolis/St. Paul, the main character, Jewish 20-year-old Morris Katz, is trying to marry rich Jewish Celeste Zimmerman, when he falls in love with raised-by-nuns poetry-loving Bridget O'Flynn. The ending is pretty predictable, but the book is great fun.

ETA: The book's title comes from a lyric in the Eddie Cantor signature song that was popular during the Depression, "Now's the Time to Fall in Love."