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.