Tuesday, March 29, 2011

215 (2011 #20). The Falls

by Joyce Carol Oates,
read by Anna Fields

This book was much better than I thought it was going to be.   It's set in Niagara Falls, New York, in the 1950s and early 1960s, with the story of Ariah Littrell Erskine and Dirk Burnaby, then jumps ahead 15 years to the late 1970s and continues the story of Ariah and her three children.

It starts a little oddly.  Ariah is on her honeymoon in June 1950 at the Falls, but her husband Gilbert leaps to his death in the falls after their first night.  It's hinted that this future minister is a closet homosexual, but Ariah doesn't know that and keeps vigil for a week until his body surfaces.  Accompanying her is local lawyer and playboy Burnaby, who inexplicably falls in love with this strange music teacher.

They are soon married, and the second part of the book covers the next 12 years, through the birth of three children, even bringing the in-laws on both sides into the story.  Then Burnaby takes on the legal case that is a mythical precursor to the real Love Canal case of the late 1970s.  Burnaby angers a lot of the local ruling class with his pro-bono work, and is run off the road and over the falls to his death (again, the reader knows this, but not his wife and children).

I thought the third part of the book was most interesting.  Set in 1977 and 1978, we read what happens to Ariah and her children Chandler, Royall, and Juliet.  Ariah never speaks of Dirk, feeling he betrayed her by taking the Love Canal case (and, she thinks, perhaps with Nina Olshaker, the "woman in black" who asked him to take it on).  The children, though, gradually learn the truth about their father.

I felt the character development of Ariah, Dirk, Chandler, Royall, and Juliet was especially good.  At the beginning of the book I felt sympathy for Ariah and suspicion of Dirk; by the end I was exasperated with Ariah and sympathetic with Dirk, and found all three children interesting.  Anna Fields' reading for the audiobook only added to the character development, as she was able to create a unique "voice" for each character, major and minor, and was equally good with men as with women.  I felt the book was well-written, the only off-note being son Royall's unrealistic encounter with the "woman in black" in 1977.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

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

Saturday, March 26, 2011

214 (2011 #19). A Chance to Make History

by Wendy Kopp,
with Steven Farr,
read by Kate Mulligan

Wendy Kopp is the founder of Teach for America, a non-profit that "aims to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting the nation's most promising future leaders to teach for two or more years in low-income communities." This book was written in the organization's 20th anniversary year and she talks a lot about "transformational education" (page 9) to "change children's academic and life trajectories" (page 10) from the path that might normally be predicted from their socioeconomic status.

Kopp and Farr, Teach for America's chief knowledge officer, provide numerous examples of successful teachers and schools as well as of some school districts (particularly New Orleans and Washington, DC) that are improving. I particularly liked the fourth chapter on "silver bullets and silver scapegoats" that, respectively, are often seen as panaceas, or blamed if outcomes are not good (the subtitle of the book is "what works and what doesn't in providing an excellent education for all." ). They conclude with chapters on increasing the pace of this transformational change, and how Teach for America is making that happen.  The book definitely made me want to learn more about Teach for America.

Kate Mulligan does a fine job reading the audiobook. However, the nature of the material makes it difficult to listen while trying to do something else, like driving. I found I often had to replay sections to comprehend them, which I don't need to do with fiction or nonfiction with a strong narrative line (biography and history). Furthermore, the hardbound copy includes ten pages of endnotes with links to various research studies and other data, not available in the audiobook

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[I received the audiobook from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and borrowed and returned a hardbound copy of the book from my university library.  The audiobook will also be donated to this library.]

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

213 (2011 #18). The Dissemblers

by Liza Campbell

Young artist Ivy Wilkes admires famous artist Georgia O'Keeffe and "was born on the day she died," (March 6, 1986), so Ivy is in her early twenties and just out of art school when the events in this book take place.  Young and stupid. 

Ivy moves to Santa Fe to be nearer her muse, even getting a job in the gift shop of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.  Unfortunately, all she's inspired to do in her art is imitate O'Keeffe's works - which she does quite well.  Her "friends," upstairs neighbors Maya and Jake, and Jake's cousin Omar, notice.  Maya convinces Ivy to let her sell her O'Keeffe imitations as originals - forgeries.  This sets off a chain of lies and deceit among all the characters, with expected - and unexpected - consequences.

This was an interesting book.  Debut author and New Mexico native Liza Campbell is quite good at describing the landscape and climate and climate of her home state, as well as the details of O'Keeffe's works.  The latter made me want to learn more about O'Keeffe and her oeuvre.

The story itself, though, did not grab me.  I couldn't care about any of the characters, even Ivy, the narrator.  I guess I have no sympathy for people who know they are doing something wrong, yet try to rationalize it.  I would be willing to read another book by Campbell, though, because she writes quite well.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

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

Saturday, March 19, 2011

212 (2011 #17). The Art of Mending

by Elizabeth Berg

I read this book for an online book discussion - I'm not sure if I would have selected it to read otherwise.  It's kind of an odd book; it did leave me feeling wanting.

Laura, the narrator, heads to the annual reunion of her family of origin with her husband and kids.  While there, her younger sister Caroline wants to talk with her and their brother Steve about abuse "of a very specific kind" (not sexual) that she remembers experiencing growing up.   More family drama ensues. As Laura remembers things about their childhood, it becomes clear that Caroline was mistreated by their mother, but what's not clear is why (and the ultimate explanation is not very plausible, in my opinion).

I had a tough time with this book. I found it rather depressing and a little boring. I couldn't develop much sympathy or empathy for any of the characters. Even the author seems to feel that way.  In an interview at the end of my paperback edition, she acknowledges various weaknesses in the book and says,

One of the problems with this book is that because the abuse didn't happen to me, I had to circle around and imagine what someone who had endured that would feel like.  If you look at the reader reviews on Amazon.com, a lot of people had a problem with this book.  I think this book got a short shrift.  I don't think it's my best book by any means, but I think there's more there than some people want to or were able to see....

If you're going to create an unsympathetic narrator, you're going to get into trouble.  I guess it was important for me to write this story, having created other characters that people really did like.  I don't know why this character emerged the way that she did.  The narrator is hard to like - but then, everybody in the novel is.  I guess, in the end, it represents reality.  One of the things that make this novel so complicated is that none of the characters are innocent.  To make them unlikeable drives home that point.  Or maybe since I've not experienced abuse, there was a necessary distance between me and the characters that made them seem unsympathetic....But whether you like the characters or not, I believe the novel makes you think about a lot of things.

Indeed, in our discussion, some in the group could identify with the dysfunction in Laura's family, and a couple were interested in a sequel.

In the interview, Berg goes on the say that this book, her thirteenth novel, was not easy for her to write, and when asked about the fourteenth, she says, "There is some sort of shift occurring in me creatively, and I don't know what it is yet.  I have a contract to fulfill, and I think I will never do that again because there is too much of the good-girl, Catholic fourth-grader in me.  I need my playfulness back."  Sounds like Ms. Berg may be a victim of her own success.

I did enjoy Berg's expressive writing, especially Laura's descriptions of quilting (she's a professional) and of the "art of mending" (page 14):

As for mending, I think it's good to take the time to fix something rather than throw it away. It's an antidote to wastefulness and to the need for immediate gratification. You get to see a whole process through, beginning to end, nothing abstract about it. You'll always notice the fabric scar, of course, but there's an art to mending: If you're careful, the repair can actually add to the beauty of the thing, because it is testimony to its worth.

That of course also expresses the theme of the book - family relationships are worth repairing.  The back of the book had a preview to Berg's A Year of Pleasures, which I found much more interesting than this book.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

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

Sunday, March 13, 2011

211 (2011 #16). Hotel on the the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

by Jamie Ford,
read by Feodor Chin

This was a wonderful love story, read first by my old book club back in the Seattle area, and last month by my local book club.  It's set in Seattle, in 1942 and 1986. 

Henry Lee is a 56-year-old recent widower in the latter year, when the story begins, passing by the Panama Hotel in Seattle when the hotel's new owner displays items found in the basement.  One of them is a colorful Japanese bamboo parasol that triggers memories for Henry.

In 1942, first-generation Chinese-American Henry is the only non-white at (fictional) Rainier Elementary in Seattle, forced to work in the kitchen at lunch and clean after school.  He is soon joined by second-generation Japanese-American Keiko Okabe, and they become fast friends, despite Henry's inability to introduce her to or even tell his parents, staunch Chinese nationalists, about her.  Henry's father makes him wear an "I Am Chinese" button everywhere he goes, so he won't be confused with the enemy Japanese.

Later Keiko and her family and all those living in Nihonmachi, Seattle's Japantown, are forced to leave and taken to the temporary "Camp Harmony" at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, south of Seattle.  Before they go, many families leave their belongings in the basement of the Panama Hotel, then owned by Japanese.

The cook at Rainier, Mrs. Beatty, becomes part of the staff helping to feed the internees at Camp Harmony, and she brings Henry along as her helper on Saturdays.  Not surprisingly, he's able to meet with Keiko there.  After Keiko and her family are transferred to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho, Henry and his older jazz-sax-playing black friend Sheldon travel there so Henry can visit, and Henry and Keiko agree to correspond.

As the war goes on, though, Keiko's letters stop coming.  Eventually Henry moves on with his life, going back to China to finish his schooling, and marrying a Chinese-American girl.  He never quite forgets Keiko though.

I love the plot and the ending--it's a wonderful tale with themes of lost love, hope, and reconciliation with one's past.  I love the way author Jamie Ford built in real people and places (like jazz great Oscar Holden and Bud's Jazz Records in Pioneer Square), and made me feel like I was back in Seattle (I lived there for 21 years, including 1986). 

As historical fiction, though, this book does not succeed, because of many inaccuracies.  The first of these appear on page 4 of the hardcover first edition (and are in the audiobook).  The text states that Marty, Henry's son, was "dealing with his mother's death through an online support group," and in the same paragraph, Ethel, Henry's wife, "was interred with...Bruce Lee and his own son, Brandon."  The latter is impossible as Brandon Lee did not die until 1993.  The former is improbable:  very few people had access to online support groups in 1986.

Other reviewers have pointed out problems with World War II accuracy and translation of the Japanese phrase "Oai deki te ureshii desu" that are important to the plot.  These may seem trivial, except that the publisher has developed a teacher's guide for the book.  While it appears the author has done his homework on the internment camps and aspects of Seattle life in 1942, the other inaccuracies would make me question the veracity of that research, and thus hesitant to use this book in a classroom setting - at least not without a discussion of the book's problems BEFORE the book is read.

Another problem is the age of Henry and Keiko in 1942.  Although children in that era, and particularly from those cultures, tended to be more mature than children of the same age today, I still found the thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and relationship of Henry and Keiko to be unrealistic for twelve-year-olds.  I ran readability tests on an excerpt from the book and it measured out at a seventh- to tenth-grade reading level.  However, for the reasons mentioned above (and the length of the book, 285 pages), if I were to use it in a classroom, it would be with the older end of that grade range.  Would such students find this story about twelve-year-olds enjoyable and believable?  I think Ford could have made these characters a little older (maybe 14) and still maintained their idealism and innocence (especially for 1942).

While I can't recommend the book for classroom use (unless as described above), I can recommend it as an enjoyable read, and one that will make you think and want to learn more about this sad episode in American history.  It was a good choice for both book clubs as it generated a lot of discussion about the internments as well as the historical inaccuracies.  Actor Feodor Chin does a fabulous job narrating the audiobook and handling the accents.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

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

Sunday, March 06, 2011

210 (2011 #15). Ending Elder Abuse

I requested this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program based on the following description:
Ending Elder Abuse: A Family Guide is a vital tool to increase the odds of obtaining a satisfactory long-term care facility experience for your elderly relatives who can no longer live on their own.
My parents are both 82 and while they are both presently healthy, I want to be prepared if they need a long-term care facility in the future.  This book didn't quite meet my expectations.

Only 144 pages long, the first 46 pages are about the author's personal experience with the abuse of her mother at a long-term care facility, and the aftermath, which led to her advocacy.  The next four chapters, whose titles each begin with "Attention, Please," address those advocacy issues.

It wasn't until page 75 that the book addressed "Evaluating Your Elder's Care" and outlined five steps for determining what should be done when you realize the older person may need more care.  The following chapter, on "Coping with the Dirty Dozen," addresses twelve common caregiver issues.

The final chapter gives some real-world examples of how "one person can make a difference" in elder abuse advocacy.  This is followed by ten short appendices, a resource list, recommended reading, and more about the authors.  Appendix D on "Evaluating and Choosing a Long-Term Care Facility" is probably the most useful for me.

An adequate book, but not really what I was looking for.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This book was provided by the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be donated to the local public library nonprofit Friends group for their book sale.]