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.]