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.]