Saturday, June 28, 2008

36. Miracles on Maple Hill

by Virginia Eggertsen Sorensen, audiobook performed by Full Cast Audio

I wanted to read this book simply because it won the Newbery Award the year I was born. I purchase audiobooks for my university’s collection, and have been trying to obtain (unabridged) versions of Newbery winners we did not already have. I was pleased to see this edition published in November 2007 by Full Cast Audio, a company founded by children’s author Bruce Coville to “create unabridged, full cast recordings of great books for young readers.”

In that regard, this four hour 40 minute audiobook is a resounding success. A talented cast provides appropriate voices for the characters (with the exception of one minor character, Margie, who sounds too young for age 10). Guitar interludes mark new chapters as well as the beginning and end of each disc, and the cast sings the folksong “The Fox” at the end of the production.

Miracles on Maple Hill is a family story set in the early 1950s. The father, Dale, is a former POW (World War II or Korean War is not clear and doesn’t really matter), suffering from what would probably be described as post-traumatic stress disorder today. The family moves from Pittsburg to Maple Hill, to the former home of the grandmother of Lee, the mother. They first arrive in March during maple sugaring season, where Lee, son Joe (12) and daughter Marly (10) spend the weekend while Dale stays during the following weeks to fix up the home. They come back on later weekends and stay the entire summer, and decide to live there full-time in the fall. The book ends with a neighbor’s crisis during the following sugaring season. There is much description of the seasons and simple country life, and Dale’s mood and health improve.

Author Virginia Eggertsen Sorensen stated in her Newbery acceptance speech that she based Maple Hill on Edinboro, Pennsylvania (south of Erie – Sorensen and her then- husband, an English professor, lived in a series of college towns). Some of the characters are based on real people: Mr. Chris and his wife Chrissy were Pennsylvania Dutch Mr. and Mrs. Kreitz (and he actually did have a heart attack while sugaring); the red-haired bookmobile lady was Marian Kelly, the real bookmobile lady from Erie County,; and “Annie-Get-Your-Gun” was what the truant officer/school nurse was really called!

I think this story has a timeless quality to it and is still relevant today. Many American children still grow up in small towns and on farms (my little town, 30 miles outside a rather large city, just completed a new ag barn and has students who are very active in FFA, 4-H, and rodeos). Marly, the main character, doesn’t let her older brother’s (still) typical (today) attitude of “you’re just a girl” stop her from doing and trying things.

I found an interesting article that referenced this book in the Spring 2007 Curriculum Connections edition of School Library Journal. In “No Place Like Home,” India-born Mitali Perkins, who lived in four other countries before moving to California in the seventh grade, wrote:
I'm delighted that so many books exist these days about kids growing up between cultures, but I'm certain that immigrant readers don't want to read only about that experience. When librarians and teachers ask about the best titles for these children, they're sometimes taken aback by my answer: "Stock your shelves with the best contemporary multicultural reads by all means, but kids who no longer live in the land of their roots also need books that create a strong sense of place, and it doesn't really matter where the book is set."

Displaced youngsters want to know what it feels like to have roots. Surprisingly, a few classic books from your parents' childhood might be one way to satisfy this desire. The best writers from the past were masters when it came to creating a sense of place. If you serve immigrant, internationally adopted, or bicultural young people, you may already have noticed their affinity for traditional, old-fashioned tales. One reason is because such fiction provides a historical and cultural understanding of North America, the land they call home now. Another is that the values reflected in these stories might better match the conservative values in their own families.

She notes that such books “combine three techniques to create an enduring literary home for the displaced child. They evoke the use of more than two senses when describing a place, they use details about place to illuminate plot and character, and they create a setting that reflects and echoes the broader theme of the story.”

She gives Miracles on Maple Hill as an example of the second technique:
The family's journey in winter parallels this bleak emotional landscape, and when their car wheels spin uselessly on a snowy hill, we intuit how stuck the family has been feeling. Eventually, the flowing of the sap and the excitement of sugaring brings spring to the land and healing to Marly's family. Sorenson's descriptions of spring, summer, fall, and winter always mirror the gradual changes taking place inside her characters.

Perkins concludes the article with the statement, “The mistaken buzz in the marketplace is that today's techno-stimulated kids no longer have the patience to read long descriptions of setting. But place in literature, when created artfully, still has the power to satisfy some of the heart's hunger for home. Hospitable stories that offer a connection to a place, whether real or imaginary, are the ones young readers will return to again and again-especially if they've been uprooted from their own places of origin.” I think this applies to most kids nowadays, which is why some of the Newbery classics are still appropriate today.

[This post also appears on The Newbery Project.]

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

35. Time Bandit

by Andy and Johnathan Hillstrand, with Malcolm MacPherson

Subtitled Two Brothers, the Bering Sea, and One of the World's Deadliest Jobs, this book is about brothers Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand, who captain the Alaskan fishing boat "Time Bandit" featured in the Discovery Channel series The Deadliest Catch. I watched a few episodes of this show before reading the book to get a feel for what it's like.

I think the book was written to take advantage of the show's popularity. The stories Andy and Johnathan tell about their modern-day adventures are realistic, interesting and exciting. I learned a lot about Alaskan fishing (perhaps more than I wanted to know; the section on federal regulations was a rather tedious but important part of the story).

However, the book itself is very poorly written. I received an advance copy from Ballantine Books/Random House through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, but the book did not arrive until well after the April 8 publication date. I have not seen a copy of the book as published, so perhaps some of the problems I've noted were addressed in the final book.

The narrative is told from the first-person viewpoints of both Andy and Johnathan. Trouble is, the book does not indicate who is narrating each passage - you have to figure it out (if you can) from the context.

The book also jumps around in time. The book is loosely held together with a "real-time" predicament of Johnathan's (he's adrift alone in a small fishing boat with no radio), but that is interspersed with stories from the past, and at times it can be difficult to tell them apart.

Despite the presence of a co-writer (MacPherson has written more than a dozen books and was a former correspondent for Time and Newsweek), paragraphs are often long and jump from topic to topic. The book would have benefited from more editing.

I think I was probably chosen by Early Reviewers to receive this book because I had read and reviewed The Ship and The Storm in my LibraryThing account. Breathless read both these books as well, and he really enjoyed Time Bandit.

Monday, June 23, 2008

34. East of the Mountains

by David Guterson, read by Don Hastings

I listened to this audiobook as it was the selection for my former, now long-distance/out-of-town book club. It's the story of a retired Seattle heart surgeon now suffering from colon cancer, who takes a hunting trip to Eastern Washington (east of the mountains), where he grew up, to stage a suicide.

The audiobook was read by Don Hastings, who has played Dr. Bob Hughes on the soap "As The World Turns" since 1960. I used to watch this TV show a lot in my son's first year, when he took an afternoon nap! Hastings' voice (besides bringing back this memory) was perfect for this narration, controlled yet emotional.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the book - the descriptions of the Snoqualmie Pass area and eastern Washington (Wenatchee, Vantage, etc.) brought back some good memories from my own trips to those areas during 21 years living in the Seattle area. I also checked out a print copy of the book and was glad I did so for the maps on the end papers of the areas described in the story.

The only parts that were tough for me to handle were some of the medical descriptions (sewing up the dog, the heart massage during WWII, the woman giving birth. etc.). Maybe it was something about it being read aloud that it was hard to skip over - I don't handle that kind of stuff very well!

I liked Ben's flashbacks to his youth and WWII, and thought it was interesting that smoking marijuana brought up those memories (perhaps reducing the pain from the colon cancer enough so Ben could have good dreams instead of bad?). It was nice to see that those memories and the other experiences and people Ben encountered during his road trip brought him around to what I think was the right decision about his life. Recommended.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

33. The Zookeeper's Wife

by Diane Ackerman

I read this book for the local book club discussion this month. It's the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the keepers of Warsaw's zoo before and during World War II. Jan was active in the Polish Underground, and the two of them managed to save over 300 Jews (many from the Warsaw Ghetto) and Resistance activists by hiding them in the zoo and its villa. Ackerman's nonfiction narrative (with some "details" notes, bibliography and index) is based primarily on Antonina's memoirs, which Ackerman had translated.

I'm glad to have read this book. It had a little-known but important story to tell of the Polish fight against Nazism. But it could have been so much better. Ackerman is a naturalist and poet, and it shows in her extensive descriptions of animals and nature. I would have liked to have seen more of Antonina's memoirs (which had their own evocative descriptions) and less of Ackerman's flowery prose and choppy construction. I felt I never got a good idea of what the zoo was like before the war, nor of what happened to it afterward, let alone to the Zabinskis. There's not a lot of information out there about the real people and history in this book, and it seems a missed opportunity to have Ackerman focus less on them and more on the natural world.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

32. The Boleyn Inheritance

by Philippa Gregory
audiobook narrated by Davina Porter, Bianca Amato, and Charlotte Parry


This excellent Tudor historical fiction was made even better by outstanding narration on the audiobook. Gregory's book focuses on Henry VIII's fourth and fifth wives, Anne of Cleves and Katharine Howard. Tying their stories together is Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, wive of George who was executed along with his sister Anne Boleyn, thanks in part to Jane's testimony. Jane serves as a lady-in-waiting to both Anne and Katharine.

Davina Porter narrates Jane, and her voice is perfect for the bitter widow who refuses to acknowledge her part in her own husband's demise. Gregory's portrait of the Germanic Anne of Cleves, voiced by Bianca Amato, is that of a not-unattractive, intelligent woman hampered by her sheltered upbringing, unfashionable style, and poor English. Gregory contrives a plausible incident for Henry taking an immediate dislike to Anne.

The highlight of this novel was Charlotte Parry's rendition of Tudor teenager Katharine Howard - at times overly excitable, at times sulky, always a bubbly airhead. Gregory started most of Katharine's narrations with "now, let me see...what do I have now?", an accounting of the materialistic girl's rising, then declining wealth. I loved the way Gregory had Katharine use the French "voila!" when realization dawned on the naive girl, and Parry did a marvelous job depicting Katharine's flirtations and growing passion for the king's aide, Thomas Culpeper.

Gregory's books have made me want to read more about these real people, including the ambitious and cruel Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard, kin to Jane and Katherine, who used them both.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

31. American Gods

by Neil Gaiman

I'm not much for fantasy, but the premise of this book sounded interesting - the gods of the old countries have been brought over to America years ago, but worship of them has declined, and there is about to be war with the "new" gods of the Internet, television, credit cards, etc. Unfortunately the execution was disappointing.

I thought I knew a lot about mythology - and I do of Greek and Roman. The gods in this book are of all other origins (Norse, African, Egyptian, Hindu, etc.) and they are all in disguise. While I was able to figure out who a few of them were on my own (sometimes due to their aliases), it was frustrating to miss some of the subtleties of the novel due to my lack of knowledge. So, those of you with extensive knowledge or interest in other mythologies may really enjoy this book.

The illustration of a highway at night on the cover is telling, as much of this story takes place on the road (albeit by air at times), criss-crossing America. One fan has mapped it out and it totals nearly 23,000 miles. At times, though, it seemed that travel was the only thing happening in the novel, and I found much of the other action to be confusing.

If I hadn't been reading it for an online book discussion, I doubt I would have finished the book. Indeed, like most genre novels, it hasn't generated much discussion as yet, although the rest of the group is only three-quarters through it, yet a number of participants have given up on the book altogether.

This was my second foray into fantasy for book discussions, and I think it's my last.

Monday, June 02, 2008

30. The Echo Maker

by Richard Powers

I had high hopes for this 2006 National Book Award winner (and 2007 Pulitzer nominee) for fiction. My long-distance book club had originally planned to read this book, then the rest of them changed their minds at the last minute. I think I can see why.

The book is full of outstanding metaphors and lyrical language. The setting is intriguing - in and around Kearney, Nebraska, the point on the Platte River where sandhill cranes (one Native American term for them was "echo makers") rest for a while in late winter during their long migration.

The book covers a period of a little over a year, beginning in late February 2002, and there are references to 9/11 and subsequent events. A young man runs off the road near the cranes and his head injury leads to Capgras syndrome, where he believes his only living relative, his sister, is an imposter. The brain disorders and case studies described by the third major character, a pop neurologist, are fascinating.

However, the plot is rather far-fetched, the ending was a letdown, and I found I didn't care about any of the characters. The sister, Karin, is the complete opposite of Carrie Bell in Ann Packer's The Dive from Clausen's Pier, in that Karin stays rather than leaves after a debilitating accident to a loved one. Karin gives up her own life to help her brother, despite his frustrating syndrome, and she becomes whiny and annoying. I slogged through the book as it was one being discussed by my online book club; otherwise, I probably would not have finished it.

Google "Echo Maker" and you'll find lots of interesting reviews and discussions of this book from the likes of Margaret Atwood (who draws parallels with The Wizard of Oz). It's certainly a worthwhile addition to my university's collection and would make great fodder for study in a modern American literature class. Perhaps if the book had grabbed me more, I'd be more interested in following some of these discussions.