Monday, December 26, 2011

255 (2011 #60). In the Garden of Beasts

by Erik Larson,
read by Stephen Hoye

This is Larson's most recent book, subtitled "Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin."  The American family is that of University of Chicago history professor William Edward Dodd, ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937 as the Nazis came to power.

Larson typically has two storylines going on in his books, and this one follows that pattern by covering this time period from the viewpoints of both Dodd and his daughter, Martha Eccles Dodd, who was 24 when she arrived in Germany with her parents and brother.

Martha in particular was an interesting character.  Previously married and with affairs with Carl Sandburg and Thomas Wolfe behind her, she was prepared to have a good time in Germany.  She had relationships with German officers and French and Russian diplomats. Initially impressed with the Nazis, she grew disillusioned with them, but was later considered to be a Communist sympathizer.

Dodd was not President Roosevelt's first choice for ambassador.  Dodd's lack of wealth and insistence on living within his salary, combined with his focus on time to work on his Old South history, resulted in his concerns about the Nazis being ignored back in the United States.

Larson's narrative nonfiction is based on Ambassador Dodd's Diary, edited by Martha and her brother Bill, and Martha's memoir, Through Embassy Eyes. According to Larson's afterword, "Neither work is wholly trustworthy; both must be treated with care and used only in conjunction with other, corroborative sources.  Martha's memoir...contains interesting omissions....However, documents among Martha's papers in the Library of Congress...include her detailed and never-published accounts...and correspondence" (page 370).

Similarly, there are questions whether Dodd's diary "is truly a diary as conventionally understood or rather a compendium of his writings pieced together in diary form by Martha and Bill....In my research at the Library of Congress, I found one leather-bound diary full of entries for the year 1932....[and] oblique references to a more comprehensive and confidential diary....after having read Martha's memoir, her Udet novel [Sowing the Wind, 1945], and her papers, and after reading thousands of pages of Ambassador Dodd's correspondence, telegrams, and reports, I can offer one of those intangible observations that comes only after long exposure to a given body of material, and that is that Dodd's published diary sounds like Dodd, feels authentic, and expresses sentiments that are in perfect accord with his letters to [President] Roosevelt, [then Secretary of State Cordell] Hull, and others" (page 371).

Stephen Hoye's reading is adequate.  I borrowed a print copy of the book from public library to see photos of Dodd and his family (there were a few).  The endpapers had maps in the back and front respectively of 1933 Berlin, and an enlargement of the Tiergarten (German for "animal garden" - or "garden of beasts") area,  which were quite helpful.  There was also a large (about 80 pages) "Sources and Acknowledgements" section that was not in the audiobook, including seven pages of commentary by Larson (part of which should have been in the audiobook), plus extensive notes, bibliography, and an index.

I liked this book least of the four Larson books I have read, but I would still recommend it, particularly to those interested in the rise of Nazism.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

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

Sunday, December 25, 2011

254 (2011 #59). Thunderstruck

by Erik Larson,
read by Bob Balaban

Similar to Larson's The Devil in the White City, this book tells two stories (however, the time periods are not always parallel) that are connected, although in this case the connection doesn't occur until near the end.

Part of the book focuses on Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor who shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics for his "contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy," despite a lack of formal training in science.  Marconi is not especially likable, but one must admire his persistence (his experimentation method is primarily trial and error) and his business acumen - he sure knew how to take advantage of his competition!

The other part of the book is the true-crime narrative of Hawley Harvey Crippen, an American homeopathic doctor accused of killing his overbearing, unfaithful American wife, aspiring actress Corrinne "Cora" Turner, born Kunigunde Mackamotski, stage name "Belle Elmore," in London in 1910.  Crippen fled the country with his young British secretary and lover, Ethel Le Neve.  How they were caught is where the two stories intersect.

There's still some controversy today (much of it arising after the book was published in 2006) on whether or not Crippen was guilty - and just how innocent Le Neve really was.  I also found it remarkable that a technology being developed just a little over 100 years ago - wireless telegraphy - is virtually obsolete today.

Actor Bob Balaban has a nice voice, but his reading is flat and somewhat halting, with pauses in unusual places.  The hardbound book includes (as usual for Larson), extensive end notes and bibliography, an index, a few photographs (not enough in my opinion), and endpaper maps of 1902 London and the north Atlantic area, showing the locations of Marconi's early telegraphy stations.

This was an interesting book - not quite as good as The Devil in the White City, or even (in my opinion, since I was particularly interested in the subject) Isaac's Storm, but still worth a read.  Larson has a penchant for including every detail he uncovers in his research in his books, even putting them in his end notes "for no better reason than that I could not bear to expel them" (page 399) when they had to be cut from the narrative.  So be forewarned.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[ The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my public library.  I also purchased a print copy of the book.]

Friday, December 23, 2011

253 (2011 #58). The Night Circus


by Erin Morgenstern

This debut novel is part fantasy, part romance.  Two narratives occurring over different time periods eventually intersect at the end.  The setting is the mysterious Night Circus (Le Cirque des Reves, the Circus of Dreams), with black-and-white striped tents that appear suddenly and are gone the same way, and is only open at nighttime.  Everything inside the circus is done in black and white and silver and shades of gray, with a few spots of red provided by the reveurs, the circus fans who follow it from town to town and wear that color as a badge.

In one storyline, which begins in 1873, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair are trained from youth as illusionists/magicians by their mentors, respectively, Celia's father Hector (aka Prospero the Enchanter), and the mysterious "man in the grey suit" known only as Alexander H., who plucks Marco out of an orphanage.  Hector and Alexander are in an unspecified contest, and unknown to each other at first, Celia and Marco are the competitors.  The circus is designed to be their venue, with Celia working from within as a performing illusionist, and Marco from without as the assistant to the circus' owner, the eccentric Chandresh Christophe Lefevre.  Other unusual characters are involved with the circus' development, and they all benefit (and suffer) from the circus' seeming ability to prolong their lives.

Celia and Marco eventually learn they are opponents and fall in love.  This was not surprising to me; I can see how one would be attracted to the competitor in such an intellectual contest..  Many of the fantastic attractions of the circus - the Ice Garden, the Wishing Tree, the Labyrinth - are things they make for each other, or in collaboration.  Ultimately, though, this game of their mentors in which they are pawns turns sinister.

The second story begins in 1897 and involves two children born the day the circus first opens, the red-headed Murray twins (children of the lion tamer), Penelope and Winston, nicknamed Poppet and Widget, and a young circus fan named Bailey Alden Clarke.  The two stories come together in 1902, when Poppet, Widget, and Bailey are all sixteen.

Drawbacks of this book include a weak, thin plot; mysterious but flat, underdeveloped characters, and problems with the writing.  Most of the book is written in awkward third person present tense, with frequent inserts in second person present tense describing the circus.  There are also some anachronisms, the most glaring one being the nickname "Widget" - the first known use of that word was not until 1926.

The competition is never really explained and doesn't appear to have any rules or limits, other than the fact that it's a duel, and one competitor will not survive.  I found Celia interesting and likable, as well as the twins and widgets, but Marco was a boor, and most of the other characters were enigmas.

The strength of the book was the setting - the night circus - and the gorgeous, imaginative, vibrant imagery Morgenstern used to describe it.  There was something ephemeral about these descriptions that kept me going with this book even when the plot and characters couldn't carry it.

The book also has a gorgeous cover and design.  The black background on the cover is shiny, the tents and hand are embossed, and the scroll work around the tents is holographic.The end papers are striped like the circus tents.

The book has received a lot of hype, and I'm not quite sure why.  The author is young and describes herself as an artist.  I think the publishers were seduced by the thought of someone of the Harry Potter generation writing a fantasy involving magic, and the book was published with very little editing.  I enjoyed the book, but it's not one that I would re-read.  But then, I also didn't re-read any of the Potter books and only saw the first movie, so perhaps I'm not the right audience for this book.

While I only give it three stars (and that only because I loved the descriptions of the circus), other readers would give it five of five, and still others (those who strongly need their books to be plot- and/or character-driven) would not even give it one star.  For all those reasons, I'd recommend borrowing this book from the library (as I did) rather than buying it.  If you like it enough to re-read it, then buy a copy.


text © Amanda Pape - 2011

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.  Photos are from the author's website.]

Saturday, November 26, 2011

252 (2011 #57). The Heretic's Daughter

by Kathleen Kent,
read by Mare Winningham

Dallas resident Kathleen Kent grew up hearing many legends about her maternal grandmother back nine generations, Martha Allen Carrier - one of the nineteen people hung during the famous Salem witch trials of 1692.  Kent spent five years researching the trials and writing this book  In it, she takes the point of view of Martha's daughter Sarah, writing to her own granddaughter in 1752.

The story begins in December 1690, when Sarah is nine, with her family moving from Billerica, Massachusetts, to nearby Andover, to live with Martha's mother.  The family has a troubled past, and brings smallpox with them, which doesn't endear them to their new neighbors.  Sarah and her younger sister Hannah are sent to live with her mother's sister's family, Roger and Mary Toothaker, back in Billerica.  At first, life with the Toothakers and her cousin Margaret seems idyllic to Sarah, especially after she returns home after the epidemic.  In time though, Sarah grows to appreciate her parents more, particularly as she learns the not-so-nice truth about her uncle Roger.

In May 1692, Roger and Martha are among those arrested for witchcraft, and Margaret and Mary are arrested to break Roger.  Sarah's father, Thomas Carrier, probably would have been arrested too, if everyone wasn't afraid of him - he is seven feet tall and rumored to be the executioner of Charles I back in England.  Having some warning before she is arrested, Martha tells Sarah that she and her siblings should tell the judges what they want to hear in order to save themselves, but that "someone must speak for the truth of things" (page 178) - and that will be Martha.  She also makes Sarah promise to protect a red book where Martha has written the family's history, which they bury in a field.

Ultimately Sarah and her brothers are arrested, but even those who "confess" are thrown into prison.  The harsh realities of prison life are contrasted with the difficulties of everyday living in colonial Massachusetts before the trials.  Kent does an excellent job depicting this dreariness and despair, as well as Sarah's growing realization of the love and strength of her parents.

Kent's novel gives weight to some theories (also discussed in Marc Aronson's Witch-Hunt) that the accusations of witchcraft were often made due to disputes over land and other property.  For example, the Toothaker's son Allen thinks he should have inherited his grandmother's property, and so testifies against Martha.  Kent incorporates the transcripts of the testimonies of Martha's accusers, who are characters in the novel with whom Martha (and sometimes Sarah) clashed.

This was an outstanding book that I highly recommend, especially to any one interested in the Salem witch trials. Actress Mare Winningham is a good choice as the audiobook reader, accurately reflecting Sarah's changing emotions as she matures and undergoes experiences no 11-year-old should have.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  A paperback copy of the book for reference was borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

249-251 (2011 #s 54-56). Three Kid/Teen Books About The Salem Witch Trials

After reading the fictional The Heretic's Daughter for my local book club, I felt I needed some more background information on the Salem witch trials before our discussion. I forgot to check my university library for books before leaving for the weekend, so I checked my local public library instead. I found three books on the topic, one in the juvenile section, and the other two in the young adult section.

The Devil in Salem Village, by Laurel Van Der Linde, is a short (72 pages) overview of the trials aimed at grades 4 to 6.  Early chapters on witchcraft and life in Salem provide background for the trials. The straightforward narrative makes few interpretations and conclusions, and is enhanced by quotations from transcripts of the trials as well as interesting illustrations.  A chronology, suggested further reading, bibliography, and index wind up the book.

Figures of the Salem Witch Trials, by Stuart A. Kallen, is a collective biography of key figures from this event, aimed at middle school and high school students.  After a foreword and introduction, there are five chapters, each 14 to 17 pages long, about accused witches Tituba and Rebecca Nurse, accusing pastors Samuel Parris and Cotton Mather, and Judge Samuel Sewell.  Many illustrations, including maps and photographs, highlight the text.  Endnotes, a chronology, two annotated bibliographies, and an index complete the 112-page book.

Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials, by Sibert Award winner Marc Aronson, is definitely aimed at teens. Aronson presents many different interpretations of the events, drawing on a variety of sources, which he details in extensive endnotes with comments. There's also an epilogue comparing many of these sources, along with an appendix focusing on Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible. A timeline, bibliography, and index round out this well researched 272-page book, and Aronson provides a 44-page study guide on his website.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

Monday, November 14, 2011

248 (2011 #53). Sleeping Better Together

by Gerhard Klosch

Despite its title, this book isn't about sex!  Rather, it's a summary of sleep research, particularly as it pertains to sharing a bed with someone else.  There's even a chapter about children and pets in the bed.

I found lots of interesting facts about sleep in this book.  The second chapter, on the cultural history of sleep, was fascinating!  Other chapters address sleep in general (the first, introductory chapter), individual sleep patterns and problems, sleep behavior and ritual (also intriguing), and problems that stem from couples sleeping together.  Each of these chapters ends with a summary section called "What Does This Mean in Terms of Sleeping Better Together?" which includes tips or suggestions for improving your sleep situation.

In the conclusion of the book, the authors address the "taboo" subject of separate beds (or bedrooms) for couples.  It was interesting to learn that a 2003 British survey of more than 1,000 couples showed 28% of those over age 60 slept in separate beds and/or rooms, while nearly half of couples over 70 did so.  This trend is seen in other countries, too, including the United States.  It seems that eventually the need for a good night's sleep outweighs social norms.

This book has an extensive bibliography, a resource list, and index.  This slim volume (178 pages) was originally published in 2008 in German.  The English translation is good, but I do have to wonder about new research in this area between the 2008 and 2011 publication dates.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This book was obtained through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to learn from and enjoy.]

Saturday, November 12, 2011

247 (2011 #52). Madame Tussaud

by Michelle Moran

This is historical fiction about the woman behind the famous wax museums in London and throughout the world.  I did not remember that she had been around during the French Revolution, and made wax models of many of the important people from before and during that time.

The heroine doesn't become Madame Tussaud until nearly the end of the book.  She was born Anna Maria Grosholtz to a Swiss mother, but was called Marie in France.  She's 27 when the book begins in 1788 in Paris, assisting her "uncle" (her mother's lover, according to this book), the Swiss doctor and wax modeler Philippe Curtius, in creating and exhibiting wax figures of famous people of the time.  

In many respects, the book is more about its subtitle, "A Novel of the French Revolution," than about Tussaud.  There's really not a lot of primary source material available about the latter:  "Tussaud's 1838 autobiography" (PW Annex Reviews, August 21, 2006), and "a handful of legal documents, a few letters circa 1802–1804, contemporary publicity material and newspaper clippings" (Kathleen Byrne in Globe and Mail, November 18, 2006, page D9), according to reviews of Kate Berridge's Madame Tussaud: A Life in Wax (which I plan to read), one of Michelle Moran's sources for her novel.  Pamela Pilbeam, author of Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxwork (another book I'd like to read), said Tussaud's "ghosted 'memoirs' claimed that she spent eighteen years at the royal court in Versailles before 1789 and also that in 1794 she was in the same prison as Josephine, Napoleon's future wife. There is not a shred of evidence for either claim" (History Today, September 2006, page 63).

Moran clearly shows Marie's business bent, so I would question any claims the show-woman makes in her own autobiography.  Nevertheless, those claims make a great story and a wonderful basis for this novel.  I appreciated the map of 1789 Paris and the list of the cast of characters at the beginning of the book,as well as the glossary of French terms at the end. The "After the Revolution" section at the end tells what happened to many of the characters. However, some - such as Marie's love interest, Henri Charles, supposed brother of the scientist and balloonist Jacques Charles - are fictional, and it would have been nice if Moran's historical notes at the end had made that clear.

I enjoyed seeing the French Revolution from yet another viewpoint, having read Sena Jeter Naslund's fictionalized biography of Marie Antoinette, Abundance, and Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey (on which Naslund’s book is based).  Moran certainly brings out all the grisly details of the Reign of Terror.

The style of this book, with chapters headed by a date (or dates), reminded me of one of my favorite books, Désirée, by Annemarie Selinko (which begins in France at the same time this book ends, following Napoleon's rise and fall from power).  It was an easy read, and I look forward to reading Moran's historical fiction set in ancient Egypt:  Nefertiti, The Heretic Queen, and Cleopatra's Daughter.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

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

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

246 (2011 #51). The Coldest Winter

by David Halberstam

I bought this book (subtitled America and the Korean War) as a gift for my father - he is a Korean War veteran (Air Force) and wanted to read it.  He passed it on to me when he was finished.

The Coldest Winter focuses on what led up to the Korean War and how it began (in late June, 1950), and the terrible winter of 1950-51, when the arrogant General Douglas MacArthur insists on a drive all the way to the north Korean border with China, with devastating results. MacArthur, along with his toady underling Ned Almond, and a few other officers, come off very badly in this book (as does Chairman Mao).

Halberstam, a journalist in Saigon during the Vietnam War, is best known for his book on that conflict, The Best and the Brightest.  Some of his more liberal leanings are obvious in this book.  However, its strength is in the innumerable interviews he did for this book, mostly of the men who did the actual fighting, and not just the generals and politicians trying to run the show.  This made the narrative, despite its 657 pages, quite readable.

One passage (on page 533) really stood out for me:
That was one of the great mysteries of combat, the process of going from green, scared soldiers to tough, grizzled, combat-ready (but still scared) veterans.  Some men, a small percentage, never made it...They were incapable of or unwilling to bread out of their civilian selves.  Most men, however, whether they liked it or not, went through that transformation.  They might regret it when they came home, and it might be a part of their lives they never wanted to revisit, but they did it.  This had become their universe, and it was a small and brutal one, cut off from all the things they had been taught growing up.  Most important of all, it was a universe without choice.  No one entirely understood the odd process--perhaps the most primal on earth--that turned ordinary, peace-loving, law-abiding civilians into very good fighting men; or one of its great sub-mysteries--how quickly it could take place.
If you are looking for a history with lots of details on all of the battles in the Korean War, this is not the book for you.  As already mentioned, it focuses on the period from June 1950 to April 1951, and virtually ignores the last two years of the war.  There are many maps in the book, most with military symbols explained by Halberstam at the beginning of the book (along with a glossary of military terms). I appreciated these even if I did not always understand them. There was plenty of battle description in the book for me, enough to make me further ponder the wisdom of war. Halberstam used more abbreviations in the book than I would like, although those who read a lot of military history probably don't need explanations.

I know very little about the Korean War before reading this book.  I definitely understand a lot more about how it began, and how its ending led to the Vietnam War (and later conflicts in Third World countries).  I would like to read another book about the Korean War, particularly one that focuses on the contributions of the Air Force to the effort.  Halberstam provides an extensive bibliography, so I imagine I can find a suitable source.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[I borrowed the book from and will be returning it to my father, a Korean War veteran.]

Friday, October 28, 2011

245 (2011 #50). Snakewoman of Little Egypt

by Robert Hellenga,
read by Coleen Marlo

The intriguing title of this book caught my eye, as well as the blurb describing it.  Anthropology professor Jackson is going through a midlife crisis while recovering from Lyme disease, trying to decide if he should go back to his African fieldwork site with the Mbuti tribe (and try to find the pygmy woman he impregnated and the daughter they had); or get married and stay in his comfortable academic life at the (fictional) private central Illinois Thomas Ford University.   That life includes an affair with another former girlfriend, creative writing professor Claire, now married to an Episcopal minister. His chapters are told in the third person.

Jackson lives a pretty cushy life, thanks to inheriting land with a home from his anthropologist mentor Claude, and renting the garage apartment to university custodian Warren in exchange for the latter serving as handyman.  When Warren dies, he gets Jackson to promise to look out for his niece Willa Fern when she gets out of the nearby prison.  She's been serving six years for shooting her preacher husband Earl when he forces her to put her hand in a box of rattlesnakes as a test of her fidelity.  Jackson and Claire pick up Willa Fern when she is released, and she announces her name is now Sunny.  She moves into the garage apartment and offers to take over the caretaking job.  Sunny tells her story in first person.

Sunny got the "Snakewoman" nickname is prison when she captured a rattler in the dining area.  She's from the Little Egypt part of southern Illinois. She married Earl, pastor of the snake-handling Pentecostal Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following, at age 16.  Now 35, she had a lot of time to think in prison and decides she wants to remake herself.  Warren left her $80,000 and his truck, and got her into the university.  She throws herself into her new life of learning with gusto, and it IS fun to share her excitement about her studies, although there is a little too much detail about her courses (French, biology, fiction writing, Great Books) and various interests (herpetological research (naturally), French cooking, and playing the timpani).  Hellenga is a professor at Knox College in central Illinois (the model for Thomas Ford?), and the descriptions of the campus, classes, and student life feel very real.

Not surprisingly, Jackson and Sunny become lovers.  Earl tracks Sunny down, and Jackson convinces Earl to agree to the divorce Sunny wants (with a clever bit of religion), and then decides that Earl's church will be his next anthropological study.  Jackson has a reputation for "going native," and that eventually leads to trouble...

I don't want to give the whole story away, so I'll leave it at that.  Part of the ending was unexpected, yet satisfying and realistic when you thought back to the beginning of the book.  I did find some of the characters' behaviors and motivations (or lack thereof) puzzling.  I really liked the character of  Sunny, and could identify with her desire for a fresh start and her self-proclaimed joie de vivre (which she amusingly mispronounces as "joey de viver" at first).  However, she said she didn't want or need a man, yet one of the first things she does is snoop through Jackson's house looking for evidence of another woman.  Claire steps away from her affair with Jackson, and she and Sunny become very good friends, which surprised me.  Earl is oddly friendly to Jackson, but is crazy and menacing too.  Jackson is the strangest of all.  WHY he would continue to have contact with the threatening ex-husband (Earl's beliefs won't permit him to marry again) of the woman Jackson supposedly loves is beyond me.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book.

This book won the 2011 Audie Award for Literary Fiction, and some other reviews out there question why.  I think it's because actress Coleen Marlo did a fabulous job creating different voices for the four main characters (Sunny, Jackson, Earl, and Claire). Sunny has just enough of a county accent to be believable; Earl's is more of a caricature, but fits his charismatic yet backward character.  Claire sounds as sophisticated as she is, while Jackson is (usually) calm and reasoned.  Marlo's reading of the book piqued my interest and made me want to continue the story, even when Hellenga bogged it down with TOO much research and details about squirrels, timpani, the Garden of Eden, deer butchering, yoga, the Mbuti, and other minutiae.  Marlo's ability to create suspense and get the listener through all the (unnecessary) details is worthy of an award.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  I also received a print copy of the book from the publisher to review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  The print copy will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Saturday, October 22, 2011

244 (2011 #49). Those Who Save Us

by Jenna Blum,
read by Suzanne Toren

This was a most excellent book!  It's about a mother, Anna, and her daughter, Trudy, and set in their birthplace of Weimar, Germany in 1939-45, and in Minnesota in 1993 and 1996-97.

Motherless 19-year-old Anna Brandt falls in love with Max Stern, a Jewish doctor, and hides him in her home.  They conceive a child (Trudy) before Anna's Nazi-toady father discovers Max and turns him in to the Gestapo.  When he discovers her pregnancy, he turns her out, too, and she becomes the apprentice to the local baker, Mathilde Staudt.  Frau Staudt is a member of the Resistance and delivers bread to the prisoners at the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp, where Max is.  Anna makes some of the deliveries and witnesses atrocities at the camps' quarry.  Mathilde is caught and shot on a delivery run, and when an SS officer comes to the bakery, Anna saves herself and Trudy by becoming his mistress.

In 1993, Anna's husband and Trudy's adoptive father, Jack Schlemmer, dies at their farmhouse in rural Minnesota.  Trudy is now a divorced, childless professor of German history at a university in the Twin Cities.  Three years later, Anna is hurt in a fire at the farmhouse, and Trudy puts her in a nursing home in her hometown.  The only thing Trudy brings from the farmhouse is a picture of Anna, the SS officer, and herself as a little girl.  Anna does not like to talk about her past and has never told Trudy who her father is - so of course Trudy assumes the worst. She's teaching a class on "Women's Roles in Nazi Germany," and starts a project to interview non-Jewish German immigrants about their activities during World War II.

The book alternates between Anna and Trudie in Germany during World War II, and Anna and Trudy in Minnesota in 1996-97.  It's a war story, a mother-daughter story, and a survival story.  Between Anna's story and the stories of people Trudy interviews (including an angry Jew), the reader/listener sees/hears the horrors experienced by both the Jews and many German non-Jews, both those who confronted the Gestapo and those too frightened to do so.

Author Jenna Blum is of Jewish (father) and German (mother) heritage, and also interviewed Jewish survivors for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Foundation in the Twin Cities in the mid-1990s.  Blum has written about the novel's backstory at her informative website.

I thought the author did a wonderful job presenting another take on the usual World War II story.  She's also written a compelling story of what shame and guilt can do to a person and to those they love.  Trudy's romance in the latter part of the book doesn't ring true to me, and some reviewers have criticized the ending as being a little too neat, but I think both were necessary for Trudy to heal and move on.  The author provides some interesting perspectives about this in a Q&A on her website (see points 7, 6, 5, 4, and 2).

Actress Suzanne Toren's reading of the book is excellent; she handle the German words and German accents beautifully. The only quibble I have was with her giving Anna the same old-woman heavily-accented-English voice of the aged 1997 Anna in 1945 when she first comes to the United States with Jack. Trudy is still a little girl with a little-girl voice; Toren could have used the same voice as she did for 1945 Anna in Germany.

Because I listened to the audio, I did not notice the lack of quotation marks around dialogue in the book, but I don't think that would have bothered me. I highly recommend this book.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The audiobook and a hardbound print copy were both borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]

Monday, October 10, 2011

243 (2011 #48). The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson,
read by Scott Brick

Subtitled "Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America," this book was fascinating!  It's the story of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (aka the World's Columbian Exposition), from its conception (in a competition in 1890) and construction, through its duration and demise (mostly, in a fire in 1894).

The White City, so called because of the stucco-coated temporary buildings spray-painted (the first such use of that technology) white, plus the first large-scale use of AC lights at night for illumination, was a magical place designed by some of the leading building and landscape architects of the day (Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmstead, Louis Sullivan, and others).  Multiple problems besieged the project, and it was interesting to read how they were overcome.  Burnham is the focal point of the story, but I also thought Olmstead was intriguing.

Competing with the memory of the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Chicago came up with its answer to the Eiffel Tower of that fair:  the Ferris Wheel.  The Chicago Fair had many other innovations as well, and despite the Panic and Depression of 1893, managed to make some money.

Intertwined with the story of the Fair is a darker story of the Devil of the title, perhaps the first serial killer in the country, Herman Webster Mudgett, aka Dr. H. H. Holmes.  Con man Holmes took advantage of the nearness of the Fair and its power to draw many single women to Chicago to set up his nearby "hotel" complete with dissection tables, gas chambers, and crematorium.  Especially interesting is the post-Fair story of the relentless work by Philadelphia detective Frank Geyer to find Holmes' victims and piece together their fate and connections.

Narrator Scott Brick's voice is rich and melodious, but his constant mispronunciation of the village of Wilmette (it's will-met, NOT will-meet) drove me CRAZY, especially since I have ancestors and relatives from that community!  It probably wasn't Brick's fault, but it made it easy to make the switch to another audiobook I needed to listen to for next month's local book club meeting, and finish reading a print copy of this book instead.

That was probably just as well, because Larson notes in a forward, "Anything between quotation marks comes from a letter, memoir, or other written document."  That distinction is not clear in an audiobook, although it is obvious this is a work of nonfiction, and Larson makes it known in his 29 pages of end notes when he is speculating.  The bibliography is five pages long, and there is also a 13-page index of proper names.  I only wish there could have been a few more photographs and maps in this 390-page story.

Perhaps because my Chicago-area ancestors were living in the city and its northern suburbs during the 1890s, I could really relate to this book - just as I could to Larson's earlier book, Isaac's Storm, about the 1900 Galveston hurricane.  I have his Thunderstruck sitting on one of my bookshelves, and it's just moved up the TBR list.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

Friday, September 30, 2011

242 (2011 #47). Keeping Faith

 by Jodi Picoult

I read this for an online book discussion.  While I have enjoyed the other three Picoult novels I have read, I did not like this one.

The Faith of the title is a seven-year-old girl whose parents divorce after she and her mother catch her father with a naked woman in the bathroom.  Not long after, Faith starts seeing God (a female who she calls her Guard), miracles happen in her presence, and she develops stigmata.

Word gets around and suddenly there's a media circus around Faith and her mother Mariah, who has custody.  A tele-atheist named Ian hears about Faith and decides to prove she's a fake.  Instead, he falls for Mariah, and she for him.

Meanwhile, Faith's father Colin decides to sue for custody and uses Mariah's previous suicide attempt (after finding him in bed with an earlier woman) and subsequent hospitalization (she was involuntarily committed by him) as the basis for a Munchausen by Proxy accusation.  When the case goes to trial, Faith is in the hospital, dying......But of course, it all ends well.

I disliked nearly all of the characters in this book, including Faith, and found them unbelievable.  Why would two agnostic parents (one brought up Jewish) name their daughter Faith?  It does make for a clever book title, though.  Faith is a cipher.  While she might be making up her visions of God, the stigmata are real.  I felt some sympathy for Mariah, particularly with the way the despicable Colin used her nervous breakdown against her, but also felt she was a wimp.  Ian was totally unlikeable and the romance was completely unrealistic, as was the behavior of the guardian ad litem Kenzie.  I can't recommend this disappointing book.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

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

Thursday, September 29, 2011

241 (2011 #46). Falling Together

by Marisa de los Santos

This book was...okay.  It's the story of three college friends, Pen, Cat (I found these cutesy nicknames for Penelope and Catalina annoying), and Will.  The reader learns how they meet and some of what they did in college, and also that about four years after graduation, their friendship falls apart.

Most of the story is told from the point of view of Pen, a single mother who appears to be working as a book/author promoter, with a five-year-old daughter born after an affair with a married man.  There is a peripheral story including this man and his wife that doesn't really go anywhere. Will is an author of children's books who has a bit of a temper.  Cat was an enigma, not appearing (except in flashbacks) until nearly the end of the book.  I liked Pen and Will and even (to some extent) Jason, but I found I did not like Cat.

Pen and Will get e-mails from Cat begging them to come to their ten-year college reunion.  They do, but Cat's not there.  Her husband, Jason - who treated Cat badly on their first date in college - enlists their help in finding her. The end, I thought, was rather predictable.

The book jumps around a lot in time, which made it hard to follow at times and disrupted its flow. I found this book quite easy to put down, and it took me a long time to finish reading its 358 pages.

Some of the writing in the book is quite lovely, especially about Pen's lingering grief over the death of her father. At other times, the writing is frustrating, with too many long parenthetical phrases, and too much redundancy.  This was an advance reader edition, so perhaps that will be corrected in the final version (due October 4).  It does have some worthwhile things to say about friendship and love.

Other reviews I've read indicate that the author's previous two books were rather good, so I would give her works another chance.  I don't think I would recommend starting with this one.  Pretty cover, though.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This advance reader edition was sent to me by the publisher.  It will be passed on to someone else to appreciate.]

Sunday, August 28, 2011

240 (2011 #45). A Visit From the Goon Squad

by Jennifer Egan,
read by Roxana Ortega

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year.  While the author, Jennifer Egan, describes it as a novel, it's really a series of linked short stories.  Characters in one story will pop up in one or more later stories, set earlier or later in time (even somewhere into the 2020s).  The two main characters are Sasha, a kleptomaniac, and her one-time boss, Bennie Salazar, a music company executive.

So what's the book about?  I'd have to say it's about time - how it ages and changes us, but so incrementally that sometimes you don't notice the changes until a significant amount of time has passed.  Most characters in this book appear at two or more different ages, and the effects of the passage of time are noticeable.  I particularly liked Egan's stories that were set in the future, with "handsets" that sound a lot like the smartphones already addicting so many people.  Time is the "goon" in the stories. Parts of the book are funny, parts are borderline unbelievable, and a lot of it is sad.

Actress Roxana Ortega does a nice job reading this audiobook, managing to create some uniqueness for each character.  She's especially good as the breathless starlet Kitty. But the book doesn't entirely succeed in audio format.

Alison Blake's "slide journal" Great Rock and Roll Pauses (essentially a Powerpoint) from chapter 12 is available as a PDF file on disc 7, but only in black-and-white. Ortega gives Alison a slight lisp to make her sound younger, and the "slide show" effect is created with what sounds like an old-style slide projector changing slides.  I wish the audiobook could have incorporated snippets from the music referred to in this chapter, but I supposed there were copyright issues. It all works OK, but without the music, this was one case where I would have preferred a print book. However, ALL of the graph data from the last few slides (out of 75 total!) was tedious to listen to, and would have been the same if read.

And what IS it with characters mimicking author David Foster Wallace in books today?  In this case it's Jules Jones, a celebrity journalist, in a chapter attempting to explain an attempted rape. I have to admit, it was fun, in each chapter, to recognize a character perhaps briefly mentioned in an earlier chapter, and also see a minor character from the current chapter then star in his/her own chapter later on.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

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

Saturday, August 27, 2011

239 (2011 #44). The Marriage Plot

 by Jeffrey Eugenides

A few weeks ago I viewed a free live webinar called "Book Club Buzzing" sponsored by Booklist, and the Macmillan representative on the panel offered to send advance reader's copies of Jeffrey Eugenides' new book to anyone who asked.  I read and enjoyed his Middlesex five years ago (I wasn't writing reviews back then, but I gave it five stars), so I asked for a copy.

I'm probably not the right person to review it.  Maybe an English major, or someone with a stronger literary background, would have "gotten" the numerous references to literary history and theory.  Maybe a fan of Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters would have better appreciated the underlying reference to the conventional storyline of a love triangle.

Madeleine Hanna is the single woman in the triangle, and - surprise! - she is an English major who loves Victorian novels!  The two men vying for her attention are Leonard Bankhead, the charismatic biology/philosophy double major she meets in her final-semester "semiotics" (another one I had to look up) class, and Mitchell Grammaticus, the religious studies major she met her first year.  The novel starts on the day of their graduation from Brown in 1982, but flashes back through their college years to give us the backstory. 

I found Madeleine to be boring, weak, and wishy-washy.  The two men were much more interesting.  Mitchell's pursuit of religious enlightenment is intriguing, but Leonard's battle with bipolar disorder is much more so.  I could feel the pain of both living with this diagnosis, and dealing with someone you care for having this diagnosis.  Leonard's efforts to wean himself off medication are especially heart-wrenching. 

Supposedly Leonard is modeled after David Foster Wallace, an author I'm not familiar with (so yet another allusion I didn't get), and some have said Mitchell is based on Eugenides himself.

Although set in the early 1980s, the story has a timeless quality to it and could have just as easily been set today. While I wasn't the best audience for this book, I'm sure there are others out there who will love it.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This advance reader edition will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

238 (2011 #43). The Postmistress

by Sarah Blake,
read by Orlagh Cassidy

I listened to this audiobook for my local book club's discussion this month.  I have mixed feelings about it.

The postmistress of the title (really a postmaster, even when female, according to post office regulations of the time AND the "postmistress" herself) is Iris James, a 40-year-old spinster in the fictional Cape Cod town of Franklin, Massachusetts. (In an interview, author Sarah Blake admitted that "it never occurred to her to check" to see if there was a real town of that name.  There is, and it's far from the Cape.)  The story starts in September 1940 and runs through September 1941.

The other two main characters are Emma Fitch, newly wed to Franklin's young doctor Will Fitch, who feels he is battling his father's bad reputation, and Frankie Bard, a war correspondent with CBS Radio in London during the Blitz (Edward Murrow is a minor character in this book).  Iris and Emma and Will and others in Franklin listen to Frankie's broadcasts.

The book begins awkwardly, with Iris visiting a doctor in the city to get a certificate verifying her virginity.  She has her eye set on Harry Vale, the town's mechanic, who's obsessed with the possibility of German U-boats attacking the coast.  Meanwhile, Will loses a patient in childbirth, and feels it's his fault.  Inspired by Frankie's broadcasts, he volunteers to serve as a doctor in London, leaving (unknown to them both, pregnant) Emma behind.  Before he goes, he leaves Iris a letter to be delivered to Emma in case he dies overseas.

Frankie's storyline is far more interesting.  She spends an evening with anti-aircraft gunners manning their post, another with people in the shelter, and reports on it all to the folks back home.  She certainly made the Blitz come alive for me!  But Frankie is looking for "THE story" of the war, and asks to be sent into Germany and France to travel with (nearly all Jewish) refugees as they attempt to escape German-occupied territories.

This is the most harrowing, heartbreaking part of the book.  Frankie takes a "portable disk recorder" (which, the author admits in an end note, was not readily available until 1944) and records the voices of the people she rides with - often just their names, where they are from, and where they are going.  She sees what happens to some of them, and is left wondering what happened to many others.

The ending is very sad, parts of the plot are contrived (undelivered letters and unrealistic coincidences), and character development, beyond Frankie, is weak.  But I would still recommend the book, because the prose is lovely and well written, and Blake has a deeper message about war.  Part of the message is, "pay attention."  And part of the message is, "How do you bear (in both senses of the word) the news?"  (page 326)

As Blake elaborates in this second end note (unfortunately not on the audiobook, which is otherwise perfectly voiced by actress Orlagh Cassidy, particularly well suited to Frankie), on pages 326-326,
I wanted to write a war story that did not take place on the battlefield, but showed us around the edges of a war photograph or news report into the moments just after or just before what we read or see or hear....It's about the lies we tell others to protect them, and about the lies we tell ourselves in order not to acknowledge what we can't bear: that we are alive...while bombs are falling, and refugees are crammed into camps, and the news comes toward us every hour of the day.  And what, in the end, do we do?

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  I purchased a hardbound print copy from the Hood County Friends of the Library sale.]

Monday, August 15, 2011

237 (2011 #42). Readicide

by Kelly Gallagher

This book is required reading for the children's literature course at my university, so I decided I'd better read it.  English teacher Kelly Gallagher packs a lot into 150 pages (including a thorough index and references).

Subtitled "How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It," the book covers exactly that in five chapters.

Gallagher spends the first part of the book talking about how high-stakes, shallow testing has led to "teaching to the test" and reading programs that dull the desire to read for many students.  While there's not a lot teachers can do to end these testing programs, Gallagher does offer some good advice on ways to end "the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools." (p. 2)

Gallagher has taught high school for 23 years, so most of his strategies are aimed at that age group, although many can be adopted for all ages.  Some of his recommendations include:
  • providing time for recreational reading in the school day;
  • "augment books with authentic, real-world text" (p. 46), such as assigning an "article of the week" for students to annotate;
  • surround kids with interesting books (I would add to do this in the library as well as in the classroom);
  • assign high-interest books and/or self-selected recreational reading for summer reading;
  • for self-selected books, have students do "one-pager" reflections (templates for a number of these are in Appendix C);
  • avoid over-teaching books with too much chopping up and analysis, or emphasis on the trivial (as the Accelerated Reader program does); but
  • avoid under-teaching books by providing too little framing for complex texts (assigning classics for summer reading is a good example of this).
This was an excellent, thought-provoking book, and I'm glad it's required reading at my university for future teachers.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

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

Saturday, August 13, 2011

236 (2011 #41). Moon Over Manifest

by Clare Vanderpool,
read by Justine Eyre
with Cassandra Campbell and Kirby Heyborne

This book was most deserving of the 2011 Newbery Medal.  With dual narrative lines set in 1917-1918 and 1936, it's the story of a small town in Kansas called Manifest (modeled after the real town of Frontenac, where author Clare Vanderpool's grandparents grew up).

In her Newbery acceptance speech, Vanderpool stated, "I knew I wanted to write a story about place and about home from the perspective of a young girl who didn’t have a home." (*42)  She later added,
"I came across a quote from Moby Dick. 'It is not down in any map; true places never are.' That’s when the wheels began turning. What is a true place? What would a true place be for someone who had never lived anywhere for more than a few weeks or months at a time? What if it was a young girl during the Depression? A young girl named Abilene Tucker." (*44)

Twelve-year-old Abilene is sent in late May, 1936, to the town of Manifest by her drifter father Gideon, the closest place to a home in her father's stories.  She's supposed to stay with a preacher named Shady.  She arrives just in time for the last day of school, where she meets Ruthanne and Lettie, her playmates for the summer.  She also meets Miss Sadie, a Hungarian woman who runs a "divining parlor."

Throughout the book, Miss Sadie tells Abilene a story about Manifest in 1917-1918, that mysteriously ties in items from a cigar box Abilene found hidden in Shady's home.  The cigar box also contains letters from 1918 from Ned Gillen, a boy adopted by the local hardware store owner from the orphan train.  Ned wrote the letters back to a boy named Jinx, after he helped Ned join the army (underage) to fight in World War I.  Both Jinx and Ned (and Shady and a few other local people still alive in 1936, such as Hattie Mae and Sister Redempta) are in Miss Sadie's stories.

On the audiobook, actress Justine Eyre voices both Abilene in the first person in 1936, and the third-person 1917-1918 stories of Miss Sadie.  Besides these alternating narratives, there are also excerpts from Ned's letters (voiced by Kirby Heyborne) and from "Hattie Mae's News Auxiliary," a column in the local newspaper in both 1917-1918 and in 1936 (read by Cassandra Campbell). 

It all works together to create a novel with an intriguing plot, compelling characters, and a lot of heart and soul.  And Vanderpool does an excellent job in creating her setting, not only in time and place, but also in the details of historical events and community life.  I could feel the heat of the hot, dry summer, but I also felt the excitement of the bootlegging shenanigans, the immigrants' fear of the Klan and the mine owner, and the dread and sadness brought by Spanish influenza.

According to Vanderpool,
"Moon Over Manifest is about home and community, but in many ways it became a story about storytelling and the transformative power of story in our lives....Abilene would call this a universal—this need for story....And of all the places for her to end up in her drifting: Manifest, Kansas, the stopping point for immigrants and refugees from around the world. Displaced people just like her. People with stories of their own but whose stories become hers.... Through the people of Manifest, Abilene experiences the power in a story." (*44-45)
So does the reader. 

This book has an 800 Lexile score and measures at grade 5.3 reading level on Accelerated Reader, with an interest level of grades 4-8.  The main characters are 12 (Abilene and her girlfriends) and 13 (Jinx), at the upper end of that grade range.  With the mystery subplot and Jinx's cons, I think the story would appeal to both boys and girls.  An author's note at the end addresses what's real and what's not in the book, and suggests further reading.  There are plenty of opportunities to tie this book in with lessons on social studies, English language arts, and even science.

(*Vanderpool, Clare. "Newbery Acceptance Speech," The Horn Book Magazine, Volume 87, Issue 4, July-August 2011, pages 39-45.)

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This audiobook and a hardbound copy of the book were borrowed from and returned to the Dick Smith Library at Tarleton State University, Stephenville, Texas, where I also accessed Vanderpool's speech through the EBSCO Academic Search Complete database.]

Saturday, July 30, 2011

235 (2011 #40). The Ringer

This book has an interesting premise.  Ed O'Fallon is just a Denver cop doing his job.  In the confusion of a no-knock drug raid at the wrong address, he kills a Mexican immigrant, Salvador, estranged from his wife and family.  Ed's sons, Jesse and E. J., play on an elite baseball team.  Salvador's son Ray, using his Mexican-American mother Patricia Maestas' maiden name, is a hot pitcher on another team in the league. He ultimately winds up as a "ringer" (a person who is highly proficient at a particular skill or sport and is brought in to supplement a team or group of people) on Ed's boys' team, the city champions, in the state tournament.  Gradually all these people realize who the others are.

The story is told from the points of view of Ed and Patricia.  Ed begins to doubt himself and is frustrated by the mandatory administrative leave.  Patricia has her own feelings of guilt, wondering if the separation she wanted (that she learns may have been unwarranted) might have led to Salvador's death.  She is pressured by her mother and Latino activists to sue the city of Denver.  All these themes and storylines are skillfully woven together.

The author does a masterful job making the reader understand and care about BOTH of these people and their families.  I loved the little touches, like Ed's trying to control his normal overenthusiastic coaching style while working with his young daughter Polly's T-ball team, his wife Claire always knowing where his misplaced items are, and Patricia's daughter Mia carrying around her John Elway doll, dubbed "El Johnway."  This made the characters more ordinary yet believable.

This book was a Top 100 semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2008.  You don't have to be a baseball or sports fan (I'm not) to understand or like this book (I did).

Author Jenny Shank grew up in Denver.  In the acknowledgments, the author indicates that this book was inspired by the shooting of Ismael Mena, a real-life botched no-knock drug raid death in Denver in 1999.  She's written numerous other pieces, including this review of Half-Broke Horses, but this is her first book. Well-written and well-paced, I'd definitely read another book by her.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[I received an advance reader edition of this book from the publisher, Permanent Press, in exchange for a fair review.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Sunday, July 24, 2011

234 (2011 #39). The Whiskey Rebels

by David Liss,
read by Christopher Lane

This is historical fiction set in Philadelphia, New York City, and western Pennsylvania, mostly in early 1792, but with flashbacks to the summer of 1781.

The book has two plots that ultimately intertwine in 1792.  Ethan Saunders tells his story, all set in 1792.  He is a former Revolutionary War spy who was accused of treason and lives a wasted life after - until he is contacted by the woman he loves, Cynthia Fleet Pearson, the daughter of his former spying partner, when she is in trouble.

The other story is told by Joan Claybrook Maycott, who is a young woman in 1781, beautiful yet capable, planning to write the great American novel.  She meets and marries Andrew Maycott, who trades his then-worthless war pension for land on the frontier in western Pennsylvania.  The two of them go through all sorts of horrors on the way to and in the frontier, and Andrew ultimately becomes a talented whiskey distiller.

The historical events behind the story are the financial Panic of 1792, and the whiskey excise tax that ultimately led to the Whiskey Rebellion insurrections in 1794.  Liss has built an exciting historical thriller that invents an incident leading to the former and tied to the latter.  While Ethan and Joan are fictional, the book is full of real historical figures such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr, and lesser-known-but-no-less-real people like William Duer, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and James and Maria Reynolds.  As with all good historical fiction, I've been inspired to learn more about these real people and events.

Liss makes all his characters interesting, even minor ones (who aren't real), such as Ethan's associates Lavien and Leonidas, and Joan's ally Skye.  It was interesting that as the book went on, I found Ethan becoming more likeable, and Joan less so.  Ethan's character flaws became more understandable as I learned more about his background, and his wit was entertaining.  Joan's character flaws became more visible as the book went on, yet I could understand and somewhat sympathize with her motives, and she was a strong, intelligent female, particularly unusual for that time period.  Joan's story has an epilogue in 1804, but not Ethan's, which makes me think we could see another book featuring him.

Actor Christopher Lane reads the audiobook.  He is wonderful as Ethan, and creates a unique voice for every male character in the book.  Unfortunately, the women (not as many, fortunately) more or less sound the same.  Since the book is written in the first person from both Ethan's and Joan's viewpoints, I think Brilliance Audio should have found a female to read Joan's chapters (and provide her voice and that of other female characters throughout the book).  I think it would have made a more compelling audiobook.  In the plus column, though, Brilliance did provide music to signal the beginning and ends of discs (as well as a separate voice providing disc numbers), and repeated the last few sentences from the end of a disc at the beginning of the next.

I liked this book enough that I will seek out other works by David Liss to read.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This audiobook and a hardbound edition were borrowed through interlibrary loan.]

Saturday, July 23, 2011

233 (2011 #38). Hector and the Secrets of Love

by Francois Lelord,
read by James Clamp

This was an interesting little novel, about a psychiatrist named Hector who is hired by a big drug company to find a missing professor doing research for them.  The professor is studying the chemistry of love and creates a potion that can cause deep desire and attachment.

Hector's adventures take him to Southeast Asia (where author Francois Lelord now lives - there are other parallels between his real life and this story).  There he is torn between a waitress he meets named Vayla, and his love back home, Clara (who works for the drug company).  While jetting and scurrying around, Hector ponders and writes about the five components of heartache, as well as coming up with 27 aphorisms about love that he calls "seedlings."

While the plot was a bit unbelievable, this modern parable does have some things to say about love, and has a vague (plot-wise) yet satisfying (message-wise) conclusion.  It was especially interesting to learn some of the neurotransmitters of love and sex - particularly that dopamine is tied in with desire, while oxytocin promotes attachment.

British voice-over talent James Clamp read the French Lelord's (a psychiatrist in real life, and perhaps the model for psychiatrist Francois in the) book.  Clamp's delivery is choppy, but I understand the book is written in short chapters, so that may be fitting.  He also pronounces Vayla as "Viola," and it wasn't until I read some other reviews that I knew the latter spelling was incorrect.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[I received this audiobook through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be donated to my university library.]

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

232 (2011 #37). The Daughter of Time

by Josephine Tey,
read by Derek Jacobi

I was helping my son pack up his stuff at college about a month ago, and, lacking suitcase space, this was one of the few books he decided to keep.  He said it was good and he thought I might like it.  My university library owns the audiobook, so it seemed like a good time to listen.

Scotland Yard inspector Alan Grant is stuck in the hospital (after being injured in the previous book in the series), so he uses his free time to evaluate 500-year-old evidence in one of the most intriguing mysteries in history-- who really murdered (or had murdered) the "Princes in the Tower," the sons and heirs of Edward IV?  Was it really their uncle, Richard III, or was it their brother-in-law, Henry VII? (Or were they even murdered?) Grant gets friends, hospital staff, and acquaintances, including an American researcher at the British Museum (the "B. M.") to help him in his quest to find preferably-primary sources, and uses critical thinking, logic and reasoning to come to his conclusions.  Keep in mind, though, that Grant's conclusions aren't necessarily the truth, either--no one knows what really happened.

My son was a history major, and I believe the reason he read the book was that it illustrates the premise that history is written by the victors, and how certain versions of events come to be widely accepted as the truth, despite a lack of evidence.  The title is from a quote by Francis Bacon: "Truth is rightly named the daughter of time, not of authority."  Josephine Tey (a pen name, along with Gordon Daviot, for Scottish author Elizabeth Mackintosh) also touches on some other historical myths, such as the story of the 1910 Tonypandy Riot (I love that word Tonypandy!).

I was already familiar with the Princes in the Tower in fiction, from Philippa Gregory's The White Queen, about their mother, Elizabeth Woodville.  I love historical fiction, partly because it encourages me to read some nonfiction about the same era or event. I found that to be true of this book as well, once again borrowing Alison Weir's The Princes in the Tower to check for more facts. Although The Daughter of Time is not strictly speaking a historical mystery, it has made me interested in that subgenre.

Well-known British actor Derek Jacobi spoke a little too fast for the audiobook, and employed outlandish accents (not in the text) for many characters, particularly female ones.  Both the audiobook and a paperback version have helpful family tree charts for the major characters.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[I borrowed the audiobook from my university library and the paperback from my son.]

Monday, June 27, 2011

231 (2011 #36): Salt: A World History

by Mark Kurlansky

My former book club in the Seattle area was supposed to read and discuss this book this year, which is why it was on my list.  I'm not sure if they actually did.  I know I can't recommend it to my current book club.  I'm afraid most of them would fall asleep.

The subtitle is a misnomer.  The book is not really a history of salt, but rather a collection of historical anecdotes.  They ARE interesting, and the choppiness of the 449-page book actually made it easier to read. (There are also a 13-page bibliography and 18-page index, but no end notes.)   I did find, though, that it was a good book to read at bedtime.  The book often DID put me to sleep, and it took me over a month to read it.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[I borrowed this book from my university library.]

Friday, June 03, 2011

230 (2011 #35). The Story of Charlotte's Web

by Michael Sims

I picked up the advance reading copy of this book, scheduled to be released June 7, at the Texas Library Association meeting in Austin in April.  It's a biography of E. B. White, author of the children's classic and 1953 Newbery Honor Book, Charlotte's Web.

The first two parts (approximately the first half) of the book document White's life pre-Charlotte, from his birth in 1899 through his purchase in 1933 of the farm in Maine where he wrote his books.  Part one is called "Elwyn" (White's given first name) and takes us through his early years at his family's home in Mount Vernon (where Elwyn spent many hours caring for and observing animals in the stable), until he left for Cornell in 1917.

There, he picked up the nickname of "Andy," the title of part two. It was interesting to learn that White was one of the first writers (in 1925) of The New Yorker magazine, and that he met his wife, Katherine Sergeant Angell, there, as well as James Thurber (with whom he wrote a book).  The New Yorker was a staple in my parents' reading and my own, growing up.

Roughly the last half of the book is in part three, entitled "Charlotte."  It covers the years from 1933 on, including the publication of his first children's book, Stuart Little.  It was interesting to read how White became interested in spiders, and the immense amount of research he did to learn about them and make Charlotte realistic.  As Sims says in his introduction (pages 3-4):

So perhaps it isn't surprising to learn that, while composing his most popular book, E. B. White was obeying a cherished maxim:  Write about what you know.  He knew his characters from the barns and stables where he spent much of his childhood and adulthood....His return to a barn in adulthood ignited smoldering memories of the stable in his childhood home...By creating a fictional hybrid of the most enchanted settings from both childhood and adulthood, White..."discovered, quite by accident," he explained, "that reality and fantasy make good bedfellows."
Author Michael Sims covers the years after the publication of Charlotte's Web in October 1952 (through White's death in 1985) in a single short chapter.  (I had not really made the connection until then that he was the White of Strunk & White, published in 1959.)  Clearly, the emphasis of Sims' book is on White's masterpiece, and the life events that contributed to its creation.

Sims did extensive research (documented in 27 pages of end notes and an eight-page bibliography), including White's papers at Cornell University, White's alma mater. It's clear Sims admired his subject.  However, I feel the word "eccentric" in the subtitle, "E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic," is rather misleading.  I did not find White to be eccentric at all.  Very shy, yes; quiet, low-key, perhaps, but not really odd or strange. 

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[I received an advance reader's edition from the publisher.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Thursday, June 02, 2011

229 (2011 #34). Joy for Beginners

by Erica Bauermeister

Cancer-survivor Kate and her six best friends have gathered to celebrate her recovery.  Kate agrees to accept a challenge to go whitewater rafting (something she fears) with her daughter--IF each of her friends will accept a challenge of Kate's choosing.

So recently-divorced bookseller Caroline is assigned to clear out her ex-husband's books. Sara, a mother of twins plus one, must take a trip - alone. Single potter Daria must learn to bake bread (which puts her with Sara's brother Henry, who is a baker). Her older sister Marion, a journalist and soon to be a grandmother, has to get a tattoo - which leads to writing the fiction she's always wanted to try.  Young widow Hadley must take care of the overgrown garden that isolates her. Ava, a perfumer in Los Angeles whose memories of her own mother's fight with cancer made it hard for her to be there for Kate, has to do the breast cancer fund-raising walk.

Each woman has her own chapter (where we learn why each was assigned the particular challenge, and how they meet it), which makes this an easy read, perfect for summer (the book will be released June 9).  I especially enjoyed the evocative Seattle setting, as (resident) Bauermeister's descriptions reminded me of my home for 21 years.  I found something to relate to with nearly all of the characters' experiences.  Here's an example from Marion's chapter (page 185):

She had never felt the simple urgency of time more than in the past few years, as her ovaries creaked into silence...She had understood that something was ceasing within her and, more important, would never start again. The cold reality of it had struck her, as if, perched on the crest of a roller coaster, the rest of the ride was suddenly, irreversibly clear. On the way up, the vista had been infinite, the time to look about sometimes agonizingly long; now there was only the certain and dispassionate knowledge that there was one set of rails on which to travel, the ending immutable and about to begin. It didn't matter that the rest of the trip might take twenty, even thirty years to complete; the angle of the ride had changed.
Erica Bauermeister's writing takes advantage of all the senses, just as her characters' occupations do.  It's lovely.  I'd now like to read her other novel, The School of Essential Ingredients.  I'd definitely recommend this one.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This uncorrected proof was received through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program and will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

228 (2011 #33). Dreams of Joy

by Lisa See

This eagerly-anticipated sequel to Shanghai Girls is being released today.  It's not absolutely necessary to read the prequel before reading this book, but it's helpful, as it continues the story where Shanghai Girls left off.

Dreams of Joy begins in August 1957, when nineteen-year-old Chinese-American Joy Louie has just learned that the woman she thought was her mother (Pearl) is really her aunt, and her Aunt May is really her mother.  The man she thought was her father has just committed suicide (which Joy thinks is her fault), and her real father, Z. G. Li, is an artist in Red China.  Angry, naive, and rebellious, she decides to leave Los Angeles' Chinatown to find her father in Shanghai.  Pearl follows.  The story, covering the next three years and the Great Leap Forward, is told in alternating chapters by Pearl and Joy.  Joy's initial idealism in a rural commune followed by growing horror and disillusionment with famine and corruption contrasts well with Pearl's nostalgia in Shanghai followed by practicality and resourcefulness in saving her daughter.

Some of the things that Joy says and does and that happen to her are unrealistic (getting into China and finding her father as easily as she does, and meeting Chairman Mao, for instance).  At times I wanted to throttle her, because she made so many poor choices, but of course that was necessary for the plot.  It was riveting and I couldn't put the book down.  Joy does mature, thankfully.  The book's strengths are See's thorough research that brings this sorry period in Chinese history to life (I have to wonder if they'll let her into the country again), and her portrayal of motherhood and sisterhood. 

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[I received an advance reader's edition from the publisher.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]