Friday, December 31, 2010

195 (2010 #60). Daughter of Fortune

by Isabel Allende
read by Blair Brown

This was a re-read of my Washington book club's selection from 2001-2002.  This time I listened to the audiobook, read by actress Blair Brown (who narrates all of Allende's audiobooks quite well).  Eliza Sommers, the main character, is left as an infant on the doorstep of the wealthy English Sommers family, spinster Rose and her unmarried brother Jeremy, in Valparaiso, Chile, in 1832.  She later falls in love with Joaquin Andieta, a clerk in Jeremy's business, and follows him after he leaves Chile for the California Gold Rush in 1849.

She stows away on a ship whose Chinese cook is Tao Chi'en, who also happens to be a doctor who saves her life and becomes her best friend.  When they reach California, Joaquin doesn't know Eliza was coming, of course, so in the rest of the book she's trying to catch up with him.  She disguises herself as a boy and pretends to be Joaquin's brother, Elias.  In her quest she meets many interesting characters, even spending some time with a traveling brothel. 

The book moves rather slowly at first, as Allende develops her characters, and ends rather abruptly.  Portrait in Sepia is a sort of sequel that answers some of the questions this ending leaves us.  I thought it was interesting that Allende implies that Andieta might have become the infamous Joaquin Murieta - who inspired the character of Zorro.  Allende later gave her interpretation of the Zorro legend in her 2005 fictional biography Zorro.

Allende is Chilean by birth and now lives in California, and uses her knowledge of the history of both places to advantage here. The character development is excellent; I really cared about Eliza and especially Tao Chi'en (and missed him when he wasn't with Eliza).  While many don't think this book is as good as some of Allende's others, such as The House of the Spirits, I enjoyed it enough to read it twice.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

194 (2010 #59). The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

by Alexander McCall Smith,
read by Lisette Lecat

I listened to this book back in June for an online book discussion.  I'd heard a lot about this series, but I have to say, I have mixed feelings about this book.

In Botswana in south Africa, Mma (pronounced "mah" and meaning mother or Mrs. in Setswana, the language of Botswana) Precious Ramotswe decides she wants to be a detective.  She mostly takes on smaller cases, such as ones involving a con man pretending to be a long-lost father, twin doctors (one degreed, one not), cheating husbands, and a stolen Mercedes, solving them with hunches, intuition, creativity, and common sense.  The cases are realistic and could be boring, but the author uses humor to carry the plot along.  The vignette structure and slow, easy-going pace of the novel made it easy to pick up and put down the book as needed.

I liked Mma Ramotswe and could relate to her.  She's described as "traditionally built," she suffered from an awful first husband and was reluctant to try again, she's resourceful both in her private life and in her business, she tries to help others but stands up for herself.  She is fiercely independent and practical.  She is also very honest but believes lies are sometimes justified. She doesn't like people who are bullies or otherwise abuse their positions and/or power. She is also quite fearless--except when it comes to snakes.  The tension she has with traditional African society is very believable, maybe one of the most believable elements of the book. (You don't have to love, or even approve of, everything in your society in order to love the society as a whole.)  I liked her independence, and her values. She has a unique voice which carried the novel well.

The one "big" case that provides the overall tension in the book concerns a boy kidnapped by a witch doctor.  However, I found this story to be the weakest and least believable in the book.  Also jarring was a personal decision Precious makes at the end of the book, that seems out of character for her.  I didn't like this book well enough to be compelled to read the rest of the series, yet I would choose another Precious book over many other series books if I needed a quick, easy read.

Alexander McCall Smith is a white Scotsman who is a professor of medical law at Edinburgh University.  He was born in what is now Zimbabwe, taught law at the University of Botswana, and written a book on criminal law in Botswana. Narrator Lisette Lecat is a native of South Africa, who lived in Spain, France, and England where she worked as an actress, voiceover artist, journalist and translator.  She now lives in the USA, narrates audiobooks and writes plays.  She is especially good at characterization and accents in this book, and gave me a good feel for the south African setting.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

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

193 (2010 #58). Ignatius Rising

by Rene Pol Nevils & Deborah George Hardy

Subtitled "The Life of John Kennedy Toole," I read this book to learn more about the author of A Confederacy of Dunces. The authors have produced a thorough biography of John Kennedy Toole, with 24 photographs and reproductions of a cartoon by Toole and numerous letters to or from him or his narcissistic mother, Thelma, as well as correspondence by others.

One can see some parallels between Toole and Ignatius J. Reilly, the main character of his book.  It's rathereerie how Toole became more like Ignatius, after writing the book in the early 60s, before his suicide in 1969 at age 32.  The authors speculate that Toole may have been a closet homosexual, and imply this, plus financial difficulties, plus the rejection of his book, may have led to mental illness.  His overbearing mother (whose perseverance in getting his book published posthumously was both annoying and admirable) and weak father probably didn't help.

The most fascinating part of the book are the letters between Toole and Robert Gottlieb of Simon and Schuster, the first (and only) publisher where Toole submitted his manuscript.  In a long letter to Gottlieb after the latter's initial rejection (with encouragement) of the book, Toole says (on page 138),   "The book is not autobiography; neither is it altogether invention. . . . I am not in the book; I've never pretended to be. But I am writing about things that I know, and in recounting these, it's difficult not to feel them."  

Based on the seven pages of  "Notes on Sources" at the end of their book, it appears Nevils and Hardy did a lot of research.  The numerous interviews they did as well as the photographs and correspondence included in the book help bring Toole to life.  I would have liked to see a somewhat more scholarly approach, with footnotes/endnotes (to better see where and how the authors draw some of their conclusions), a bibliography, an index, and a table of contents.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

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

192 (2010 #57). A Confederacy of Dunces

by John Kennedy Toole,
read by Barrett Whitener

I chose this audiobook because my book club back in Washington was reading and discussing the book.  I'd heard the backstory - the book was rejected by publishers, the author committed suicide in 1939 at age 32, and his mother pushed relentlessly to get the book published, which happened in 1980, and it then won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.

Set in New Orleans in an undefined time period (probably the early 1960s, when Toole wrote the book), the story revolves around the amusing adventures of 30-year-old Ignatius Jacques Reilly, who is overeducated and underemployed, as he tries to find (and keep) a job (but work as little as possible). One gets a feel for what Ignatius is like from the first two paragraph in the book:

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs.  In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly's supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.  Several of the outfits, Ignatius noted, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency.  Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person's lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one's soul.

Ignatius himself was dressed comfortably and sensibly.  The hunting cap prevented head colds.  The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion.  Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed Ignatius.  The plaid flannel shirt made a jacket unnecessary while the muffler guarded exposed Reilly skin between earflap and collar.  The outfit was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life.

Read by professional audiobook narrator and public speaking instructor Barrett Whitener, it comes to life with the distinct voices he creates for each of the memorable characters.  Among them are Ignatius' sort-of girlfriend Myrna "the minx" Minkoff; his widowed mother Irene, her friend Santa Battaglia and the latter's nephew Patrolman Mancuso (who tries to arrest Ignatius at the beginning of the book), and her suiter Claude Robicheaux; Gus Levy, his wife, and the employees of Levy Pants, the elderly Miss Trixie and Gonzalez the office manager (Miss Trixie always calls him Gomez); and the employees of the Night of Joy nightclub, the evil owner Lana Lee, Darlene the stripper, and most especially, Burma Jones, the black janitor. Whitener is especially outstanding with Jones' jive vernacular and Ignatius' bass bellowing.

The book is full of funny subplots that all tie together at the end in an unexpected way. Recommended.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook and a hardbound copy for reference were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

191 (2010 #56). Amos Fortune: Free Man

by Elizabeth Yates,
read by Ray Childs

This book won the Newbery Medal in 1951.  Mistakenly classified as nonfiction, it is really a biographical novel or, more accurately, historical fiction.  Amos Fortune (c. 1710 - 1801) was a real person, but very little is known of his life.

Indeed, in an interview in The Writer in March 1998, author Elizabeth Yates said she was inspired "when I was standing by the stone that marked the grave of Amos Fortune in the old cemetery in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Reading the eloquent though brief words about a man whose life spanned from Africa in 1715 to America in 1801, I wanted to know more, to find the story within those lines."

About all that was available was Fortune's homestead (now private property), a beaker purchased by the local church with a bequest from his will, and some documents at the Jaffrey Public Library, such as his will (written and signed in 1801), some receipts (for loans, medical services, and purchases, including those that bought the freedom of two wives), two letters of apprenticeship of young men to Amos the tanner, and an unsigned letter of manumission for Amos, written by Ichabod Richardson in 1763.  Yates adds another owner and another wife for Amos, as well as a king father and lame sister in Africa, but there is no evidence for any of these.

This book wasn't thrilling, but it wasn't boring either.  It provided insights into life in colonial New England.  Descriptions of the processes of bark tanning and the vendue of the poor were particularly interesting - the latter was something I'd never heard of before.  The audiobook narrator Ray Childs' bass was perfect for Amos Fortune, but not so good for the female voices.

This book has received a lot of criticism, particularly since the early 1970s, for being racist and/or white-supremacist, primarily because Amos is so accepting of his situation. You can read more about this in my post on the book at the Newbery Project.  I agree with critics who feel that books with other viewpoints about slavery should be presented along with this book.  Suggestions include Paula Fox's The Slave Dancer, (a Newbery winner in 1974), The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Christopher Paul Curtis' Elijah of Buxton (a Newbery Honor Book in 2008),  and Julius Lester's To Be A Slave  (a Newbery Honor Book in 1969).

In the same 1998 interview mentioned above, Yates tells of a question from a group of fourth-graders:
"Have you ever regretted anything you've written?" came the next question. Again, I sent my mind back over the years and their books. The answer was at hand, and it was No, for I have had a rule with myself that nothing ever leaves my desk unless it is the best I can do at the time with the material I have. Then I go back to Amos Fortune as an example.
The idea that took hold of me as I stood by that stone in the old churchyard and that became the book Amos Fortune, Free Man was written in 1949 and published a year later. All the pertinent, reliable material that I could find went into the book and became the story. It could not be a biography but an account of a man's life, with facts assured and some imaginative forays based on the temper of the times. The research, the writing, was done long before the Civil Rights upheavals of the 60's. I might today write a very different story, but that was then.

It would be quite interesting to read a different version of Amos Fortune's story, one that might address some of the concerns of the critics.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook and a hardbound copy for reference were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

190 (2010 #55). A Cup of Friendship

by Deborah Rodriguez

This is Rodriguez' second book, her first of fiction and the first without a co-writer.  I listened to her memoir, Kabul Beauty School, about three years ago, and found A Cup of Friendship to be very similar.

As with the memoir, I wasn't terribly impressed with this book.  In the acknowledgments, Rodriguez describes herself as "a storyteller first, a writer only later."  I'm not sure that she's truly made that transition yet.  While the stories in this book are chick-lit/gossip-girl/soap-opera interesting, the character development is weak, the plot is thin and somewhat predictable, and switching narrating viewpoints frequently doesn't help.  The characters are stereotypes and the dialogue in particular feels forced.  While the setting descriptions are good and one gets a feeling for the culture of Kabul and Afghanistan, it still felt very much like the superficial view of an outsider.

The main character is Sunny, an American ex-pat in Kabul who has opened a coffee shop (just as Rodriguez did).  She has various friends and employees, American, British, and Afghan, most with their own stories.  The women are all strong and unconventional, with behavior that does not always seem appropriate for a country in as much turmoil as Afghanistan.  Particularly annoying was Candace, the rich American who leaves her diplomat husband for an affair with a (predictably terrorist) Afghan. She throws money and sweet talk around to get her way, but is too clueless to figure out what is going on with her lover.

I felt the title was contrived, perhaps even to draw recognition from the success of Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea (which I also wasn't too crazy about).  The book was a light, easy read, but even with the attempts to shed light on the problems of Afghan women today, great literature it's not.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[I won this advance reader edition from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, with the expectation that I would write a review which is also published on their site. The book will be passed on to someone else to read and hopefully review.]

189 (2010 #54). The Lady in the Tower

by Alison Weir,
read by Judith Boyd

I picked up this book at the local public library because I've enjoyed Alison Weir's other forays into fiction.  It turns out this book had been misclassified by the library as fiction - it's really a partial biography - but I found it pretty easy to follow even in audiobook format.

Subtitled "The Fall of Anne Boleyn,"  the book concentrates on that four-month period at the end of her life in 1536.  In her preface, Weir states that the book "is based largely on original sources, and that the conclusions in it are my own, sometimes reached objectively after reading the various theories" of what led to Anne's fall.  Weir notes that she "questioned all my preconceptions and assumptions, and sometimes had to revise them, which of course exposes errors in my own previous books," (two on Henry VIII that discussed Anne at length).

British actress Judith Boyd does a wonderful job making Weir's well-written nonfiction prose even more lively and interesting.  Nevertheless, I'd recommend a print copy of the book in addition to or instead of the audiobook, to have access to Weir's preface, the many illustrations (most color plates), genealogical tables, and her notes on (and evaluations of) some of her sources, as well as a select bibliography, complete end notes and references, and the index.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook and hardbound copy were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

188 (2010 #53). The Great Migration: Journey to the North

by Eloise Greenfield;
illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist

This picture book of poetry is about the movement of African Americans out of the South between 1915 and 1929.  Author and poet Eloise Greenfield, who experienced the Great Migration as a baby in 1929, tells the story in five parts of free-verse poems ranging from few lines to a few pages each.  Jan Spivey Gilchrist uses mixed media collages to illustrate the poems, incorporating historic newspaper clippings and old photographs into her original drawings and paintings.

The jacket describes the book as being for ages 3-8.  However, I feel the book is more appropriate for a slightly older age group, perhaps 5-10, particularly as free verse as well as some of the illustrations are rather complex.  A short bibliography at the end of the book extends its range to even older students.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This hardbound book was received from the publisher (Amistad, a division of HarperCollins) for review as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be donated to the Curriculum Collection at the Dick Smith Library of Tarleton State University.]

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

187 (2010 #52). Remarkable Creatures

by Tracy Chevalier,
read by Charlotte Parry and Susan Lyons

I think I've discovered a new historical fiction novelist that I'm going to love.  I read Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring some time ago (must re-read that), so when I saw this audiobook on the shelf at the local public library, I had to give it a try.

Chevalier has built a novel around the unlikely friendship of two real people, Mary Anning (1799-1847) and Elizabeth Philpot (1779-1857), both fossil hunters at Lyme Regis in England at the turn of the 19th century.  I'd heard of Anning, thanks to a children's book, but not of Philpot.  These fascinating women, particularly Anning, discovered many of the fossils that other scientists took credit for.  It was interesting to read how their contributions to science were discounted simply because of their sex.  There are also insights into the growing controversy between science and religion that fossil discoveries set off.

Charlotte Parry reads Mary with a Cockney accent, reflecting Anning's lower class origins, while Lyons is the proper and cultured Elizabeth.  The print version of the book ends with some historical notes, as does the audiobook, but also adds acknowledgments and suggested further reading,

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook and hardbound copy were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Monday, December 13, 2010

186 (2010 #51). The Runaway Quilt


by Jennifer Chiaverini,
read by Christina Moore


Yet another book in the Elm Creek Quilts series, this one was rather interesting, as it explored the fascinating question of whether or not stationmasters of the Underground Railroad used quilts to signal to fugitive slaves.  In an author's note at the end of the book, Chiaverini says,

The debate about the role of quilts as signals on the Underground Railroad is ongoing [the book was published in 2002], with the oral tradition often at odds with documented historical fact.  In this novel, I have tried to remain faithful to the historical record while also presenting a plausible explanation for the evolution of the legend.

Since Chiaverini's book, it appears the argument has tilted more towards the side of legend than truth; nevertheless, it makes a good basis for the story, and the narrative is compelling enough.  Sylvia Bergstrom Compson finds three quilts and a memoir written by her great grandfather's spinster sister, Gerda Bergstrom, in the attic of Elm Creek Manor.  The memoir tells of the founding of the farm in 1856 and how Gerda, brother Hans, and his wife Anneke eventually become involved in the Underground Railroad movement, taking in a pregnant runaway slave, Joanna, before the Civil War.

The story was exciting and kept me turning the pages.  Of course Sylvia couldn't read Gerda's memoir straight through in one sitting and get all the answers, as that would have destroyed the novel, although reading it straight through at once is certainly what I would have done.

This book also poses some questions for genealogists about how you might react to surprising and perhaps unwelcome information about your ancestors.

Chiaverini has since written two books with characters from this novel.  The Lost Quilter takes up the story of Joanna, while The Union Quilters (to be published in February 2011) continues the tale of the Bergstrom ancestors and others in their Pennsylvania community during the Civil War.  More for me to listen to or read sometime.

Christina Moore, as usual, does a great job with the narration, providing recognizable variations in voice for different characters.  Recommended as an easy but intriguing "read."

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook and hardbound copy were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Monday, November 29, 2010

185 (2010 #50). On Agate Hill

by Lee Smith,
read by Danielle Ferland, Kate Forbes, Katie Firth, Linda Stephens, Ed Sala, and Tom Stechschulte

This book was the November selection for my local book club.  It's historical fiction, set in the South, covering a post-Civil War period running from May 1872 to July 1927.  The book centers on Molly Petree, an orphan who is thirteen years old when the book begins.  Much of the story is told from Molly's viewpoint, in the form of her diary and letters she writes to a childhood friend, Mary White.  Other narrators of Molly's story include a favorite teacher, Agnes Rutherford; Agnes' sister, the mean schoolmistress Mariah Snow; B.J. Jarvis, Molly's husband's cousin; and Simon Black, Molly's benefactor.  Most of these also speak through letters and journal entries, but B.J.'s tale is told in court testimony.

Tying these narrators together is a 2006 ditzy student named Tuscany Miller, who has supposedly found these documents at Agate Hill plantation, which her (weird) family has purchased to turn into a bed-and-breakfast.  Tuscany is hoping that turning in all the stuff she finds will satisfy her "documentary studies program" thesis requirements.  As if.  This stupid storyline is thankfully brief and completely unnecessary.

Molly's story is interesting for the glimpses it gives into life in the South in the mid-1870s on a struggling plantation in North Carolina and at an all-girls school in Virginia, as well as in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in the years following, and ultimately back to the ruined plantation in the early 1900s. Smith's acknowledgments at the end of the book list an impressive bibliography and other readings.

Unfortunately, I did not find Molly or most of the people around her to be particularly likable characters (the exception being Agnes).  There was too much unnecessary detail about her childhood (and not enough about the events of that time that really mattered), and I found the premise of a thirteen-year-old recording such detail in a diary to be unrealistic.  I had a hard time getting through this first third of the book.

The book gets a little better after that, although Mariah's actions are puzzling, and Molly makes a number of poor choices and is beset with tragedy.  If I'd had to read the book in print, I'm not sure I would have been able to finish it.  The audiobook made it much easier, with six voices:  Danielle Ferland (Tuscany Miller), Kate Forbes (Molly Petree), Katie Firth (Agnes Rutherford), Linda Stephens (Mariah Snow), Ed Sala (BJ Jarvis), and Tom Stechschulte (Simon Black).  Forbes, Firth, and Stephens are particularly good, with the first two having just the right amount of Southern accent, and Stephens effectively conveying the instability of Mariah.  Ferland is perfect at the ditzy Tuscany.

Each of the 15 discs begins and ends with folk music by Alice Gerrard, whose song "Agate Hill" inspired Lee Smith to write the novel. Smith wrote the words to the ballad "Molly and the Traveling Man," which Gerrard set to music.  While I liked the instrumentals, I did not particularly care for Gerrard's singing voice.

All in all, I'm glad I read this book, but I'm not sure I'd want to read any more of Lee Smith's works.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook and a print copy of the book were borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]

Saturday, November 27, 2010

184 (2010 #49). The Red Queen

by Philippa Gregory,
read by Bianca Amato and Graeme Malcolm

This is the second book in the Cousins War series, and is about Margaret Beaufort, from spring 1453, when Margaret is ten, to August 1485, when her son Henry VII won the Battle of  Bosworth Field to become King of England.  Margaret is the heiress of the House of Lancaster, whose emblem was the red rose; thus the title.  The book is about Margaret's efforts to put her son on the throne and become Queen Mother at least.

Gregory paints a picture of a zealously pious woman who is not above sin when it is to her or her son's advantage--and who manages to justify whatever she does as "God's will."  The book opens with an amusing scene of Margaret dreaming she is Joan of Arc, and there are many references to that saint throughout the book.  She also looks forward to signing her name as "Margaret R.," Margaret Regina, regina being the Latin word for queen.

Margaret often refers (usually with disdain) to commoner Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV of the House of York (the white roses).  It's interesting to compare Margaret's perception of Elizabeth with the presentation of the latter in The White Queen, and vice versa - see how Margaret is presented in this book as compared to Elizabeth's perception of her in the other book.

Most of the story is told in first-person by Margaret, voiced by South African actress and audiobook veteran Bianca Amato, who gives Margaret the right air of haughtiness.  Scottish actor Graeme Malcolm reads the third-person accounts of battle scenes.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook and hardbound copy were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Friday, November 26, 2010

183 (2010 #48). Sarah's Key

by Tatiana de Rosnay

I decided to read this book because it made the Top Ten Discussion Books list of Reading Group Guides, and it was the only book on the list I hadn't read.  I think it's over-hyped.

The title character is Sarah Starzynski, who is ten years old in 1942.  Her Jewish family is living in Paris, and they are arrested along with many others in the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup.  This sorry piece of little-known French history is researched by Julia Jarmond Tézac in 2002, for the 60th anniversary of the Roundup.  Julia is an American living in Paris, writing for an English language magazine there, and married to a Frenchman.  Her magazine assigns her to write about the Roundup.  In the process, she learns about a connection between Sarah and her French family.

The first half of the book alternates between 1942 and the horrors of Sarah's story, and Julia in 2002 learning about the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup and its aftermath .  This part of the book is riveting.  But then, halfway through the book, Sarah mostly disappears, and the story becomes almost all Julia.  The parts where she is researching what happened to Sarah are fine, but the rest of Julia's life is a soap opera, and it detracts from Sarah's story.  The ending is a little trite.

I would still recommend the book, because once again, I've learned through historical fiction more about an incident in history that I knew little (in this case, nothing) about.  However, I wish the author had continued to intertwine Sarah's and Julia's stories, showing rather than telling us what happened to Sarah after 1942, and left out the "chick lit" parts of Julia's life.  The paperback copy of the book I read had an excellent section with historical perspective and other recommended reading.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

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

Monday, November 01, 2010

182 (2010 #47). To Account for Murder

by William C. Whitbeck

This bound galley was sent to me by the publisher, Permanent Press. The author is, as of this writing, a judge on the Michigan State Court of Appeals, who, according to Ron Dzwonkowski of the January 10, 2010, Detroit Free Press, "asked that publication of his novel be delayed until mid-November because he's up for re-election this year and didn't want it to be a factor in his campaign.  He said there will be just minimal promotion of the book, standard for a new, unknown author in tight economic times."

The book is based on a true story, that of Michigan State Senator Warren Hooper, who was shot in January 1945 shortly before he was going to implicate others with a grand jury.  While two members of the infamous Purple Gang were convicted of conspiring to kill Hooper, no one was ever convicted for pulling the trigger.

Whitbeck has fictionalized this story and come up with a murderer.  The main character is Charlie Cahill, a lawyer who lost an arm in World War II, telling the story to his child Frankie in 1996, looking back 50+ years to late 1945 and early 1946, highlighting the corruption of the criminals, lawyers, judges, and elected officials alike.  I'm not much for true crime or murder mysteries, but this book held my interest.  The only problem I had was keeping track of all the characters, many of who had last names beginning with the letter S.  One of those is Hubbell Street, the murder prosecutor, modeled on the real-life Michigan corruption special prosecutor and later-governor Kim Sigler

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This advanced reader edition was sent to me by the publisher and will be passed on to someone else.]

Saturday, October 30, 2010

181 (2010 #46). Peony in Love

by Lisa See,
read by  Jodi Long

I've had the paperback copy of this book sitting on my bookshelves for over two years, but it wasn't until I needed a short (it's abridged) audiobook to listen to between two month's book club selections that I decided to pick this one up.

Turned out to be a good selection for October, too.  An online group in whose discussions I often participate usually tries to pick something appropriate (horror or supernatural or both) for this month, and this book would have fit the bill, for the title character spends more than half of it as a "hungry ghost."

Set in 17th century China, almost-sixteen Peony is obsessed with The Peony Pavilion, an opera where the female protagonist, a lovesick girl, dies but is brought back to life by her lover.  Soon Peony finds her life paralleling that of the opera.  What makes this book really interesting is the way Lisa See incorporates the true story of "The Three Wives Commentary" on the opera (the first books written and published by women anywhere in the world) as the framework for her narrative.  An author's note provides the details.

Besides the fascinating research behind it, this historical fantasy also has a lot to say about love - romantic love and mother love- and contains some beautiful poetry:
In spring, moved to passion; in autumn, only regret.
The trees are bare.
In the distance, the honks of mourning geese.
If only my tears of blood could dye red the blossoms of the plum tree.
But I will never make it to spring.
My heart is empty and my life has no value anymore.
Each moment a thousand tears.

The audiobook was an author-approved abridged version read by Asian-American actress Jodi Long.  A very slight lisp became endearing in the voice of Peony, and her renditions of other, particularly older, Chinese women were quite amusing.  I'm looking forward to "re-reading" my paperback copy sometime for all the little details the abridgment left out.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.  My paperback copy of the book was sent to me by the Random House Readers' Circle after registering my book club with them.]

Saturday, October 23, 2010

180 (2010 #45). The Story of Our Club

by Felix B. Streyckmans

After posting a photo in my family history blog of my dad and his two older siblings at Dairymen's Country Club in Wisconsin, I decided to learn a little more about this place that has such good memories for my dad, his siblings, and some of my cousins.

I found this book via WorldCat and requested it through interlibrary loan. Subtitled "An Interpretive History of Dairymen's Country Club, Boulder Junction, Wisconsin,"  the 79-page book is just that.  The history covers the purchase of the original acreage in December 1925, to 1968. It also addresses the club's efforts to preserve trees, fish, and other wildlife. It includes some black-and-white photographs, which brought back many memories for my father, as well as some good maps.  You can read more about what I learned here.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This book was borrowed from and returned to another library via interlibrary loan.] 

Friday, October 22, 2010

179 (2010 #44). The Girls with the Grandmother Faces

by Frances Weaver

Subtitled "A Celebration of Life's Potential for Those over 55,"  this book was the selection for my local book club this month.  I had a little trouble relating to the book, because, unlike the author, I'm (a) not over 55, (b) not widowed or single, and (c) not as well off (the author was the widow of a surgeon and is able to maintain two homes in different parts of the country, and travel extensively).  In fact, the book was self-published, which tells you something right there.

Nevertheless, this book engendered a good discussion among the members of the club (12 present at the last meeting) who had read the book.  At 53, I was the youngest there, so I mostly kept quiet and listened.  Many of our members found inspiration in Frances Weaver's advice or confirmation for their own choices to live life to its fullest.  We all agreed that we liked the two photographs (on the cover of the edition pictured and others, on the frontispiece in other editions) of the author and her three sisters as little girls and in the same pose as mature women.

I do agree with the author that "boredom is ninety-nine percent self-inflicted," and results from being "too tired or too lonely to get out of the house."  I wish I could get that message across to my partner, age 69 and retired for almost 18 years now.  Hmmm....if the book wasn't an interlibrary loan, I'd give it to him to read!

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This book was borrowed from and returned to another library via interlibrary loan.]

Saturday, October 16, 2010

178 (2010 #43). The White Queen

by Philippa Gregory,
read by Susan Lyons

Prolific historical fiction writer Gregory has started a new series called "The Cousins' War," about the Plantagenets and set during the Wars of the Roses.  The White Queen here is commoner Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV of the House of York (the white roses).  Elizabeth is supposedly a descendant of water goddess Melusina through her mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg/Burgundy, and the two of them do a little cursing and conjuring throughout the book to fulfill the accusations of witchcraft.  The story covers the period from when Elizabeth first meets and marries Edward in spring 1464, to April 1485, two years after his death.

As is the case with all of Gregory's historical fiction (I read all six books set in the Tudor era), the book is based mostly in fact, with Gregory speculating where the historical record is missing or unclear.  She comes up with an interesting theory concerning the Princes in the Tower (Elizabeth and Edward's two sons held prisoner by Edward's brother Richard III).  I did not know a lot about this era in English history, so once again Gregory's books have had the positive effect of interesting me enough to read other sources (many are listed in the bibliography in the print version) to learn more.

However, the book does suffer from wordiness - it could be shorter by about 100 of its 408 pages with the elimination of unnecessary repetitions.  Gregory is also plagued by the overuse of certain words - it seemed like every chapter was full of "She nods." "He shrugs."  This repetition is especially annoying in the audiobook, although Australian actress Susan Lyons does an excellent job as Elizabeth, who narrates most of the story.  The audiobook includes Gregory's afterword explaining what is real and what is fiction, but lacks the bibliography, map, and pedigree chart in the print version.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook and hardbound copy were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Books I Could Not Finish

With less than three months left in this year, here are three books I started in 2010 and did/will not finish:

The Wishing Trees by John Shors - I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  Ian takes his ten-year-old daughter Mattie on a trip to various Asian countries to honor the wish of his dead wife, Kate. I gave this book a good 100+ pages but just could not go on.  Too sad and sappy and repetitive (visit country, meet some unfortunates, help them, deal with grief).  Ian's Australian accent got to be annoying.

 How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu - I was sent this book from the publisher.  I'm more than halfway through it (read 184 pages), but it just does not grab me.  The four main characters are Jonas, his Ethiopian immigrant parents Mariam and Yosef, and Jonas' wife Angela.  There are also four intertwined stories:  Jonas' and Angela's rocky relationship, Yosef's exodus to America; Yosef's and Mariam's road trip through the Midwest; and Jonas' present-day retracing of that trip.  I found them hard to follow, especially with Jonas' frequent stretching of the truth.  It got to the point where I did not want to try any more.

 Into the Path of Gods by Kathleen Cunningham Guler - I obtained this book directly from the author in a LibraryThing Member Giveaway.  She had 150 copies to give away of this older book, which should have told me something right there.  The description, "a blend of Dark Age Britain’s history, its Celtic roots and the Arthurian legend," led me to believe it might interest me.  I've picked it up and read a bit numerous times since receiving it last December, and have read well over half the book, but it has long stretches where nothing happens.  The book is also full of spelling and grammar errors, and words that are invented or used improperly, as well as historical inaccuracies.  The premise of the book (almost a prequel to Arthurian legends) is good, and I like the inclusion of a pronunciation guide and map at the beginning, but it wasn't enough to make up for the poor writing and plodding plot.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[The Wishing Trees and Into the Path of Gods have been given to the local Friends of the Library for their book sale.  How to Read the Air, as it is an advance copy, will be passed on to someone else.]

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

177 (2010 #42). The Aloha Quilt

by Jennifer Chiaverini,
read by Christina Moore

This is book number 16 in the Elm Creek Quilts series, many of which I've read (and a few I've reviewed).  This one, obviously, is set in Hawaii. Bonnie, one of the founders of Elm Creek Quilt Camp, has been invited by her best friend Claire to come to Hawaii to help set up a quilt camp there.  Bonnie, having recently experienced the failure of both her quilt store and her marriage in Pennsylvania, agrees to come for six months as a consultant to help Claire get the quilt camp going.

There is some fascinating information about Hawaiian-style quilting, and the quilt made by Hawaiian Queen Lili‘uokalani during her imprisonment at 'Iolani Palace in Honolulu.  Most of the story takes place on Maui, particularly in Lahaina, so some of the sights in and around there are woven into the narrative.  I appreciate this after going to Hawaii in May and visiting some of the places mentioned in the story.

Sometimes Bonnie is rather intolerant in the story, particularly when it comes to Claire's mistakes.  However, I had a LOT of empathy for Bonnie when it came to her soon-to-be-ex-husband Craig.  His behavior reminded me of my own ex-husband, and one phone conversation the two of them had left me shaking and angry; it was SO real for me.  I wanted to keep listening the audiobook, beyond the 45-minute stretches of my commute, just to find out what happens in that situation.  There are also a couple of unresolved scenarios by the end of this book that I'm sure will be addressed in future books in this series.

So far I've enjoyed all of the Elm Creek Quilts novels I've read or listened to - Christina Moore does an outstanding job giving each character a little different nuance with her voice.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

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

Monday, September 20, 2010

176 (2010 #41). The Swan Thieves

by Elizabeth Kostova,
read by Treat Williams, Anne Heche, Erin Cottrell, Sarah Zimmerman and John Lee

I picked up this audiobook for the library's collection because it got a lot of good press, due to Kostova's breakout hit The Historian (which is sitting on my TBR pile, languishing due to its size and subject matter of vampires).  As an audiobook, The Swan Thieves is quite good--as a story, only so-so.

A famous painter named Robert Oliver lunges with a knife at a painting of Leda by the (fictional) Gilbert Thomas at a museum, and is institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital staffed by Andrew Marlow (voiced by Williams), who paints for pleasure.  Oliver won't speak, so Marlow resorts to some rather unconventional measures to figure out what is going on - including talking with Robert's ex-wife (Kate, voiced by Heche) and ex-mistress (Mary, voiced by Cottrell), both painters, and traveling to Paris. Robert is obsessed by a woman who turns out to be a (fictional) French Impressionist painter named Beatrice (voiced by Zimmerman) who worked briefly in the 1890s, mentored by her uncle-by-marriage Olivier (voiced by Lee).  The modern story (set around 2000) is interspersed with letters exchanged by Beatrice and Olivier and the events in their lives a hundred-plus years earlier.

This book was odd but fascinating.  Marlow doesn't behave like any psychiatrist I know (don't want to give away too many spoilers here).  The detail about the techniques of art and painting and Impressionism are very interesting, but drag the story down, slowing the plot and adding way more detail than is necessary.  Kate talks for a while about her life with Robert and is quite compelling, but then disappears from the story.  Mary gives us a little too much information about her life.  In many ways, Beatrice and Olivier were the most alluring characters, despite the fake-French accents used by their readers that are rather grating after a while.

I'm not sure if I would have been able to finish this book if I'd been reading the 564-page print version.  The audio version, with its variety of voices, kept my interest up through 17 discs.  Part of the mystery at the heart of the story was easy to guess, but part of it surprised me, and a medical reason for Robert's becoming obsessed was never made clear.  The book begins and ends with a puzzling reference to another painter who is apparently Alfred Sisley, but the canvas he's creating, although similar to one of his works, is also fictional.  All in all, this was a good read, but not one I could recommend highly.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Friday, August 27, 2010

175 (2010 #40). Near Occasion of Sin


by Judy Delton

This was another book that caught my eye while manually going through all the PZ7s (fiction) at my university library, looking for picture books and award-winning chapter books I had not already added to our LibraryThing account. I liked the old photo album feel of this wrap-around dust jacket, and the title--a phrase from the Catholic Act of Contrition in use when I was a child--hit home.

This was the only young adult novel by children's author Judy Delton, and I suspect it is somewhat autobiographical, at least for her childhood and youth. Delton was born in 1931, like the main character of this book, Tess, who attends Catholic school (including an all-girls high school and college, as did Delton) and later teaches at one - as did Delton.

Having been brought up Catholic myself, I could relate to some of this book--learning the catechism, First Communion and fasting, going to Confession every week (my least favorite part of Catholicism) and having to make up sins to tell the priest. However, when Tess marries a pen pal she barely knows to avoid being an old maid and "the near occasion of sin" (i.e. the temptation to give in to his pushing for sex), I could not relate. Her husband, Duane, is a mentally-abusive alcoholic (and sexaholic) who has trouble holding down a job and makes obscene phone calls to Tess' friends. I cheered when the pregnant Tess (and of course, according to Duane, being pregnant is Tess' fault) leaves Duane near the end of book and moves back in with her parents. The book ends abruptly with the birth of her daughter and no resolution on what happens to them or to Duane. Makes me wonder if Delton was planning a sequel, but poor sales of this book (published in 1984) squashed those plans.

In an interview with Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Delton said, "In the seventies, there was a lot of popular interest in tracing people's origins, so I decided to write about growing up Catholic in the forties....Because my characters are mostly me, emotionally, they usually go through what I do." (Delton wrote a lot of series books, including her humorous Kitty series on a girl growing up Catholic in the 30s and 40s). A note on the back inside of this book jacket says that in "1971...she found herself the sole support of her four children," implying that her own marriage ended in widowhood or divorce (I do hope her husband was not as awful as Duane).

Tess is more of a contemporary of my mother, as all the action takes place before 1952, and I grew up Catholic mostly post-Vatican II. Despite 12 years of Catholic schooling, I'm a somewhat-lapsed Catholic now, and I had difficulty relating to Tess' obsession with sin. Even with a proliferation of abstinent single young Christians today (who are marrying at what are, to me, appallingly young ages), I don't think this book would be of interest to most young adults nowadays.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

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

174 (2010 #39). Search for the Shadowman

by Joan Lowery Nixon

I've been working on a project at my university where I am slowly but surely adding books in our children's collection to a LibraryThing database (which makes my job helping 120+ students in the children's literature class this fall that much easier). I came across this one a couple days ago and it caught my eye.

Four-time Edgar Award winner and "half-Texan" Nixon set this mystery for 8-12 year-olds in Texas, and incorporates a historical event and genealogy to boot. Seventh-grader Andy Thomas has to do a family history project for school. His family and that of his best friend J.J. have lived in the (real) town of Hermosa, Texas, for generations, and Andy discovers a black sheep among his ancestors. Talking about this Cole Joseph Bonner upsets and embarrasses Andy's great aunt, particularly around J.J's great-grandmother, but Andy persists in trying to find out just what happened with "Coley Joe."

I loved how Andy uses a box of memorabilia in his great aunt's attic (including a family bible, an old photograph, and an heirloom), e-mail and genealogy bulletin boards (the book was published in 1996), library research (including asking the librarian for help--hooray!), and visits to the local cemetery to help solve the mystery. The Salt War is the real event that provides a setting for part of the story.

I can totally see this book being used for interdisciplinary studies in a 4th to 7th grade classroom, particularly for Texas history required in those two grades. It could also be used by a parent to spark a child's interest in genealogy and/or family history (there's a Bonner family tree at the beginning of the book) and ways to research them. There are also some nice lessons about friendship and respect for elders in the book as well.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

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

Monday, August 23, 2010

173 (2010 #38). The Gendarme


by Mark T. Mustian

I had to show the wrap-around cover of this book, because it's so gorgeous, and it illustrates something about one of the main characters (look at her eyes). This was an advanced reader edition received from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, so I'm not sure if the hardbound edition to be published September 2 will look the same.

This book is set in both 1990 and 1915. The main character and narrator, Turkish-American Emmett Conn (formerly Ahmet Khan), was born in 1898, and in the latter-day setting, is suffering from a brain tumor. This may explain the vivid dreams he has about 1915 and his time as a guard (a gendarme) during the deportation by forced marches of Armenians from Turkey. His eye is caught by a beautiful deportee who herself has unusual eyes, one dark, one light. He pulls her away from another guard about to rape her one night and is going to rape her himself, but instead ends up becoming her protector. Her name is Araxie.

The story moves back and forth from 1915 to 1990, with Emmett dealing with his family and his medical issues in the later year, while periodically flashing back to 1915, remembering things that he apparently has repressed about Araxie and the events of the time. His narration also provides some fill-in on his life between those two periods.

This book sheds light on the Armenian Genocide, a holocaust that to this day is illegal to speak of in Turkey, and something that many people know nothing about. Out of the 2000 deportees Conn/Kahn is escorting, only 65 actually make it to their destination in Aleppo, Syria. The author retraced one deportation route as part of his research. Mustian also does a fine job illuminating what happens in a state mental hospital, where Emmett is confined after he chokes one of his caregivers, thinking he is someone from his past.

Although the initial premise is a little hard to believe (Ahmet was in a supervisory position over other gendarmes at the age of 17?), and the ending is somewhat vague, I would still recommend this book. The story is compelling.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[I won this advance reader edition from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, with the expectation that I would write a review which is also published on their site. The book will be passed on to someone else to read and hopefully review.]

Friday, August 20, 2010

172 (2010 #37). Shanghai Girls

by Lisa See

Historical fiction set in Shanghai, China, and California from 1937 to 1957; Lisa See has brought this story of Chinese-American immigrants to life. The narrator, Pearl, age 21, and her younger sister May are "beautiful girls" in Shanghai, "the Paris of Asia," in the 1930s, living a relatively modern life dressing in gorgeous clothes and posing for photographs and paintings used in calendars and other advertisements. The girls live the good life, each thinking that their parents favor the other, as their father has become wealthy in the rickshaw business. Unfortunately, he gambles it all away and sells the girls as brides to Chinese emigrants now in America.

The girls spend one night with their new husbands and are supposed to travel to Hong Kong to meet them later. They deliberately miss their boat and become trapped when the Japanese invade Shanghai. They undergo hardships getting out of China, at Angel Island dealing with the repercussions of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and living in Los Angeles' Chinatown over the next 20 years, into the Second Red Scare.

See has woven these and numerous other historical events and situations (such as paper sons), real places (like China City) and people into the novel, and the research is the novel's strength. So too is the portrayal of sisterhood and the loyalties and jealousies it generates. May gives birth to a daughter (not by her husband) while interred at Angel Island, and Pearl (who did consummate her marriage) agrees to pretend Joy is hers. The book's weakness is its ending - it obviously signals a sequel to come.

I think this book would be a great one for a discussion. I'd expect different opinions on which sister is "better" (my vote is for Pearl, perhaps because I'm also the older sister). The American history and experiences of Chinese immigrants described in the book would also generate a lot of interest.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[I purchased this hardbound copy for $5 at the Hood County, Texas, Friends of the Library book sale, and will be donating it to my university's collection.]

Monday, August 16, 2010

171 (2010 #36). The Angel's Game

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I was excited to receive this book from a friend, because I had so enjoyed Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. Zafon says when he started working on the latter,
I started toying around with the idea of creating a fictional universe that would be articulated through four interconnected stories in which we would meet some of the same characters at different times in their lives, and see them from different perspectives where many plots and subplots would tie around in knots for the reader to untie. It sounds somewhat pretentious, but my idea was to add a twist to the story and provide the reader with what I hoped would be a stimulating and playful reading experience. Since these books were, in part, about the world of literature, books, reading and language, I thought it would be interesting to use the different novels to explore those themes through different angles and to add new layers to the meaning of the stories.

At first I thought this could be done in one book, but soon I realized it would make Shadow of the Wind a monster novel, and in many ways, destroy the structure I was trying to design for it. I realized I would have to write four different novels. They would be stand-alone stories that could be read in any order. I saw them as a Chinese box of stories with four doors of entry, a labyrinth of fictions that could be explored in many directions, entirely or in parts, and that could provide the reader with an additional layer of enjoyment and play. These novels would have a central axis, the idea of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, set against the backdrop of a highly stylized, gothic and mysterious Barcelona. Since each novel was going to be complex and difficult to write, I decided to take one at a time and see how the experiment evolved on its own in an organic way.

It all sounds very complicated, but it is not. At the end of the day, these are just stories that share a universe, a tone and some central themes and characters. ...One of the fun things about this process was it allowed me to give each book a different personality. Thus, if Shadow of the Wind is the nice, good girl in the family, The Angel’s Game would be the wicked gothic stepsister. [emphasis mine]

That's kind of my feeling in a nutshell. While I found Shadow of the Wind sad but ultimately uplifting, The Angel's Game was confusing and relentlessly dark. The Angel's Game has the earlier setting, just after the first World War. Shadow's protagonist Daniel Sempere's parents are characters in this book, and some other Shadow people make an appearance here. Unfortunately, Fermin or someone equally funny to provide some levity is not among them.

David Martin is the main character here, a writer who sees his former idol get credit for Martin's novel and then wind up with the girl of his dreams as well. Martin is then hired by the mysterious Andreas Corelli to write a book to "create a religion." What follows though is danger and a number of murders, most pointing to Martin. Has he made a deal with the devil?

I didn't really like this book, except for Zafon's descriptions of Barcelona. But, for that alone, I'll be willing to give the next book in this series a try.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[Image of the book's cover under the book jacket is used under a Creative Commons license AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by ai.dan]

[I received this book as a gift with no obligation to read or review it.]

Thursday, August 12, 2010

170 (2010 #35). Into the Wild

by Jon Krakauer

This is the (mostly) true story of Christopher McCandless, who spent 100+ days trying to live off the land in a remote part of Alaska and ended up dying of starvation in August 1992 at age 24. I say mostly true because Krakauer does do some speculating on exactly what caused McCandless' death.

Krakauer starts his book with the hitchhiking Chris being let off at the Stampede Trail near Denali National Park at the end of April 1992. He next writes about the discovery of Chris' body a little over four months later in an old bus that was hauled down the trail in 1961 to serve as housing for road construction workers. He then looks at Chris' early life, and his cross-country travels after graduating from college in 1990 (and some of the interesting people he met along the way). Krakauer uses Chris' own journal entries to detail his days in Alaska, with little more than a rifle, knife, and ten pounds of rice to survive on. He also talks about the effect of Chris' death on his family, friends and acquaintances.

In addition, Krakauer compares McCandless to others who challenged the wilderness, such as Everett Reuss, who went missing in the Utah desert in 1934 at age 20, and the author himself on a rather risky solo climb. He tries to show that the urge to challenge oneself against nature is fairly common.

Krakauer presents arguments that McCandless took unnecessary and even foolish risks, but also postulates that he died from mistakenly eating poisonous or moldy seeds. Krakauer states, on page 194, that "If true, it means that McCandless wasn't quite as reckless or incompetent as he has been made out to be." There's a lot of controversy about this theory. Many feel Krakauer is an apologist for McCandless, while others admire what Chris was trying to do. In any case, Krakauer's book is well-written and engaging, and I'd love to read more by him.

I read this for my local book club's meeting this month, which unfortunately I'm going to have to miss. I think this book will make for a good discussion. In general, I feel Chris lacked common sense and made foolish mistakes, especially going into the wilderness so unprepared. On the other hand, I have a son who is the same age as Chris (and can be just as arrogant at times), and looking back at myself at age 22-24, I also engaged in a lot of risky behaviors. Thinking about that, I have a lot more sympathy for McCandless.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This book was borrowed from my university library and has been returned.]

Saturday, August 07, 2010

169 (2010 #34). The Women

by T. Coraghessan Boyle,
read by Grover Gardner

I listened to this audiobook because I've become fascinated with architect Frank Lloyd Wright after reading Loving Frank about a year ago. This book, also historical fiction/fictionalized biography, purportedly deals with all four of the main women in Wright's life, his three wives and his infamous mistress.

The book is narrated by a fictional Japanese apprentice named Tadashi Sato, who introduces each of the three parts of the book with a long narrative of his experiences with Wright in the 1930s and 1940s. I'm not quite sure why Boyle decided to do this (especially since Sato's words are supposedly translated by his Irish-American grandson-in-law, futher muddying the waters). It may be because Wright admired all things Japanese, being an avid collector of Japanese prints and other artwork (to the detriment of paying other bills). It may be because Boyle liked referring to Wright as "Wrieto-san." I thought that term was a little far-fetched, until I saw in Wright's autobiography that many Japanese apparently referred to him that way.

The three parts of the book deal with Wright's women in reverse chronological order. Part I concerns Olgivanna, the Montenegrin dancer 30 years his junior who was his third wife. Part II is about Miriam, the morphine-addicted Southern belle who was his second wife. Part III centers on Mamah, Wright's mistress and soulmate, after first touching on Kitty, his first wife of 20 years and mother of six of his children. It's likely Boyle organized his book this way so it could end with the climatic events of Mamah's murder.

That event, and Mamah herself, are covered better in Loving Frank, the publication of which resulted in the release of Boyle's book being held back, although it was completed in 2007. Between part I and Tadashi's introductions (all set during the time Wright was married to her), the reader learns a lot about Olgivanna. I felt Kitty was shorted in the book; I was left wanting to know more about her and her relationship with Wright.

Miriam dominates the book, appearing in all three parts (significantly, only at the very end of part III--which is also the end of the book). She's so over-the-top that it's easy to understand why Boyle lets her reign. I'd heard little of this woman before so it was a treat to read about her.

At first, award-winning narrator Grover Gardner didn't seem to be the right voice for this audiobook, particularly as it concerns so many women and a Japanese protagonist as well. However, I grew to like his "sandpaper and velvet" voice for the old-time radio-announcer feel it gave to this novel that is mostly set in the early 20th century. Boyle's flowery prose and frequent use of footnotes at times make the story hard to follow, particularly in audio format. But Wright and his women were so interesting that I had no trouble making it though this 15-disc set.

A couple interesting facts: Boyle lives in a 1909 Montecito, California, home designed by Wright for George C. Stewart, that is also known as "Butterfly Woods," and readily admits its influence. Also, Wright's son John Lloyd Wright, also an architect, was the inventor of Lincoln Logs in 1918. There's also a really cool trailer for this book on the author's website.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook was borrowed from my university library and has been returned.]

Monday, August 02, 2010

168 (2010 #33). How To Survive A Natural Disaster

by Margaret Hawkins

This 199-page novel is a good character study of a dysfunctional family and their odd neighbor. The story is told through the voices of six of them: May, an adoptee who chooses not to speak until age seven (and therefore everyone thinks she is developmentally disabled); her spoiled and self-centered older half-sister, April; her worrywart mother, Roxane; her philandering artist father, Craig; their three-legged dog, Mr. Cosmo (yes, a dog); and agoraphobic next-door-neighbor Phoebe.

The chapters alternate between these different narrators. A few are quite short - only one sentence each. Others are much longer and often have the narrator self-analyzing and sharing secrets. A surprise climax leads to a not-completely-believable happy ending. Despite the seriousness of the "natural disaster," I found this book to be rather droll. I'd recommend this book for those who like dark humor.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This advance reader edition was sent to me by The Permanent Press and will be passed on to someone else to read and hopefully review.]

Sunday, August 01, 2010

167 (2010 #32). How to Be an American Housewife

by Margaret Dilloway

"Write what you know" is common advice to author-wanna-bes, and first-time novelist Margaret Dilloway has taken this advice to heart. Like Shoko Morgan, one of two narrators in How to Be an American Housewife, Dilloway's mother is Japanese and grew up in World War II-era Japan. Shoko and Dilloway's mother both married American servicemen and moved to the United States, both had daughters in their early 40s, and both had an enlarged heart. Dilloway's mother died when Dilloway was 20, and the book is dedicated to her. Dilloway incorporated some of the stories her mother told about her youth into this book.

The first part of the book is narrated by Shoko. She reminisces about her youth (and secrets) in occupied Japan, meeting and marrying her husband Charlie, her subsequent estrangement from her brother Taro, as well as the challenges she faces fitting into American culture, being a military wife, and raising her two children. Shoko longs to go to Japan to see her brother, but impending heart surgery prevents that.

Shoko's daughter, Suiko or Sue, is the narrator in the second part of book. She is divorced after an early marriage, has a 12-year-old daughter, Helena, and is spinning her wheels in a boring job. When Shoko asks her to go to Japan in her place, Sue agrees. Sue and Helena meet their Japanese family, including the at-first-reluctant Taro, and see part of the country. The third part of the book, and the epilogue, have some predictable episodes, but also a life-changing decision by Sue for herself and Helena.

At the beginning of each chapter is an excerpt from a make-believe book-within-the-book, How to Be an American Housewife, with tips for the Japanese wife to fit into American society. Dilloway made up this book, but based it on the real The American Way of Housekeeping, which her father had purchased for her mother, not realizing it was intended for Japanese maids of American servicemen. The excerpts are funny yet poignant.

Dilloway has done a masterful job portraying what life was and is like for Japanese immigrants in mixed marriages, and their biracial children. There are similarities to Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, with its portrayal of mother-daughter relationships, but this book is far easier to read.

I think this book will appeal to many (the beautiful cover is eye-catching) and be popular with book clubs. I'm certainly going to recommend it to mine. It will be published on August 5, 2010.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[I won this advance reader edition from ReadingGroupGuides.com. It will be passed on to someone else to read and hopefully review.]

Saturday, July 31, 2010

166 (2010 #31). The Last Estate

by Conor Bowman

This slim, 168-page story begins in 1920 in Gigondas, in the Rhone Valley of France. World War I has ended and the protagonist, 16-year-old Christian Aragon, can't measure up in his father's eyes to his older brother who died in the war. Nevertheless, his cruel father insists that Christian take over the family vineyard. But Christian has other ideas.

He is attracted to his geography teacher, Vivienne Pleyben, who is eight years his senior. She encourages him to enter a contest which he wins, the prize being a trip to Avignon. She and a male teacher are to accompany him, but the male teacher instead goes to Paris to visit his mistress. In Avignon, Christian finds that Vivienne desires him too. Eventually, their forbidden love leads to murder.

This is a somewhat implausible tale with a surprise ending. The main characters are not all that likable. The author is an Irish lawyer who spends many summers in France, including one as a teenager in the real Gigondas. The trial scenes did feel authentic and kept me reading. However, I would have liked to have more description of the setting and more development of the characters. Oh, and more sex would have been OK too.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This advance reader edition was sent to me by The Permanent Press and will be passed on to someone else to read and hopefully review.]