Monday, April 25, 2011

220 (2011 #25). Finding Family

by Tonya Bolden

Recently, at the Texas Library Association conference in Austin, I met award-winning children's and young adult author Tonya Bolden.  Her publisher, Bloomsbury, had hardcover copies of her latest book, Finding Family, for sale for $5, and the price and the beautiful cover caught my eye.  Now I have a signed copy of the book for my library as well.

Set in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1905, Finding Family is the story of twelve-year-old orphan Delana Hannibal, who lives with her well-off grandfather and his widowed sister, Aunt Tilley.  Tilley props photos of family members around the room and tells Delana stories about them.

The problem is, the stories aren't always true, as Delana learns after Tilley's death, when an exiled cousin appears in Delana's room and begins to tell Delana about the parents she's never known.

I'm interested in genealogy, family history, and old photographs and postcards, and this book incorporates all of them into historical fiction (which I also love).  Bolden built the story around 30 images from her collection of antique photographs and postcards, dating from the 1870s to the early 1900s.  Bolden imagined stories for each person in the photographs, making each a member of Delana's family tree (which is charted in the back of the book).   Bolden also worked a real 1881 lithograph and a real 1891 local event into the story, as well as various figures from African-American history.  It was also interesting to read about the lives of upper/middle class African-Americans in West Virginia at the time.

The book is recommended for ages 8-12, grades 3-6.  Accelerated Reader puts the reading level at grade 4.3, so this seems appropriate.  There's an excellent teacher's guide at the publisher's website, that incorporates English language arts, social studies, the arts, photography, and genealogy.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This book has been donated to my university library.]

Sunday, April 24, 2011

219 (2011 #24). The Wave

by Susan Casey,
read by Kirsten Potter

The description on the back of the audiobook was misleading.  It gives the impression that the book will give equal weight to the science of big waves and the surfers of big waves, but that was not how it actually worked out in the book. The subtitle, "In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean" IS pretty accurate, though.  Author Susan Casey, now editor in chief of O: The Oprah Magazine, is talking about the surfers, not the waves!

In particular, there's a lot of focus on legendary extreme surfer Laird Hamilton.  It turns out that Casey paid the big wave celebrity to put her "in the middle of his dangerously and logistically complex undertaking,” according to a May 2007 New York Times article.

Casey writes wells and I loved her evocative language, but I got tired of the endless emphasis on and worship of the surfers.

Here's an example of the great imagery in her writing, from page 287, describing area where a jagged lava formation created a dramatic surf break, spray geysering into the air....A wave would sweep beneath the Jet Ski with the silky power of a baseball pitcher's perfect slider; when it connected with these rocks, all of its energy was blasted skyward. Sun glinted through the fifty-foot curtain of water, casting a scrim of tiny diamonds. At the edges, circular rainbows called glories shimmered like haloes.
The lovely writing, and the silky voice of actress Kirsten Potter, the narrator, kept me listening.  I was fascinated by the experiences of the seafarers and of scientists on research ships, as well as by the surfers--at the beginning.  By the end of the book, though, I had to question the sanity of pursuing such a dangerous sport that appears to have little redeeming value. When one considers that climate change and bigger waves mean more storms, floods, destruction, and death, celebrating "the big ones" makes little sense to me.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

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

Saturday, April 23, 2011

218 (2011 #23). Half Broke Horses

written and read by Jeannette Walls

This is a prequel of sorts to Walls' memoir, The Glass Castle.  Half Broke Horses is the story of Walls' grandmother, Lily Casey Smith (1901-1967), who in Glass Castle is perhaps the only source of stability in young Jeannette's life.

In an author's note at the end of the book, Walls reveals that she'd originally intended to write about her [eccentric] mother's childhood, but her mother convinced her to write about Lily instead.  Walls resisted, as her grandmother died when she was eight and "most of what I knew about her came secondhand" (page 271).  She could confirm much of what her mother and others told her (including in books about two ancestors),   Walls says she wrote the book "in the first person because I wanted to capture Lily's distinctive voice, which I clearly recall" (page 272).  However, in a Publishers Weekly interview, Walls said,

she didn't feel honest calling the book nonfiction. "Once you start assuming or plugging up holes, jumping to conclusions, it's no longer pure. Once it's no longer completely nonfiction, then it becomes fiction.” So Half Broke Horses' subtitle is A True-Life Novel. Walls' hope for the book is that it inspires readers to examine their own family histories.
The rollicking tale begins with Lily saving her two younger siblings from a flash flood on the Salt Draw near Toyah, Texas, where Lily was born in a dugout in 1901.  Lily lives an exciting life in some of the most remote parts of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona - but also in the big city of Chicago in the Roaring 20s.  She helps her father train horses, teaches in remote schools, works as a maid and marries a bigamist, sells moonshine during Prohibition, learns to fly a plane, and manages a huge ranch with her Mormon-raised second husband, Jim Smith 

Lily's life is fascinating, and the descriptions of the places she lives in and goes to are detailed.  Along the way, daughter Rosemary is born and grows up (the book ends with Rosemary's marriage to Rex Walls and the birth of Jeannette in 1960), and the reader gets some clues as to why Rosemary turns out the way she does in The Glass Castle.

Walls reads her own book for the audio version.  While she's not a polished narrator, I found her quite believable voicing her own grandmother.  While a Dorothea Lange Depression-era photograph is used on the cover of both the hardbound and audio versions (after various iterations), the hardbound has actual photographs of Lily and her family inside.  While I love Lange's work, I don't think this particular photo fits the story - I would have rather seen some sort of collage of all the real photos of Lily and family. 

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The audiobook and a print copy were borrowed from and returned to my university library and my local public county library respectively.]

Friday, April 22, 2011

217 (2011 #22). Home Safe

by Elizabeth Berg

I can see why a preview of this book was put in copies of Berg's The Year of Pleasures.  There's a lot of similarities.  Like Betta in the latter, main character Helen Ames is a writer (though suffering from writer's block) and a widow (though for almost a year, rather than just a month or so), and is similar in age (59 rather than 55).  She's dealing with aging parents and a 27-year-old daughter, Tessa (upon whom she's too dependent), and then she learns that her late husband Dan withdrew almost all of their nest egg before his sudden death.  Now worried about money, especially with her writer's block, she reluctantly agrees to teach a writer's workshop.

Helen was overly dependent on Dan, who at their first meeting “made her laugh…it had put them on the fast track for being comfortable with each other. As they were, ever after. Always comfortable in a way that Dan described as home safe.” (page 95)  Helen works through some of her grief and dependencies in the story, and learns a lot about what makes "home safe."

The mystery about what Dan did with the money is resolved pretty quickly, but I won't spoil it here. Suffice to say it generates more suspense about what Helen is going to do with the results - which I loved!  Parts of the plot (and Helen's and Tessa's characters) were a bit unbelievable or irritating, but I found Helen's relationship with her parents, as well as the writer's workshop (as I've participated in something similar myself), to be very realistic.  In the acknowledgments, Berg says her daughter "planted the seed for this novel.  When I was complaining that I felt like I couldn't write, she said, 'Why don't you write about that?'" (page 260)

Also, I think the cover art for this book is fabulous!  That, and the treehouse (page 129)!

© Amanda Pape - 2011

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

Thursday, April 21, 2011

216 (2011 #21). The Year of Pleasures

by Elizabeth Berg

I've had a "complementary copy" (without the cover pictured) of this book sitting around for some time, and decided to read it after completing Berg's The Art of Mending for an online book discussion.  My copy of the latter had a preview of The Year of Pleasures, which sounded much more interesting than The Art of Mending was.

After children's book author Betta Nolan's beloved husband John dies of cancer when they are both age 55, she decides to continue with his plans for them and sells their home in Boston, driving west until she finds a promising town about 50 miles south of Chicago, and buys a Victorian house.  Betta and John were wrapped up in each other, and Betta is lonely after his death.  She reconnects with her old college roommates and makes friends with some of the quirky residents of her new home town.  When she tells one of her old roommates that she thinks she's entitled to a year of grief, the friend responds (pages 157-158):
"How about a year of pleasures, instead?...So many people who lose someone think that they need to behave in a prescribed way.  Of course you're hurting!  But what if you determined to find one thing every day that you...make happen...purposefully doing one thing that brings you happiness every single day, in a very conscious way.  It builds up the arsenal...And the days turn into years.  And the years turn into a lifetime."
That was the message John was trying to give her, too - perhaps still doing so with a series of cryptic notes on slips of paper he left in a wrapped cigar box a neighbor delivered after his death.  Betta puts the papers in a Chinese chest that they "had always loved best of anything we owned...Sometimes we'd hidden things in there to be found later as surprises, either to ourselves or to each other." (page 31)  Later she remembers what "green bowl" on one slip of paper means, and realizes about the other slips of paper, "Those that I had been unable to decipher, at least not then.  But here was the glory: We were not done with each other yet." (page 32)

The book starts strong with passages like these, with beautiful writing and excellent descriptions.  I could even buy into Betta's situation initially, which many reviewers found unrealistic (selling her Boston home for nearly two million and easily finding the perfect house in the perfect town, not to mention her apparently perfect marriage).  Unfortunately it fell apart for me in the last quarter of the 206-page book.  The plot becomes very unrealistic, and there are a number of minor characters who are not well-developed (especially the 20-somethings Matthew, Melanie, and especially Jovani, all of whose interactions with Betta make absolutely no sense).  Still, the book has a lot to say about dealing with grief, small pleasures, seizing the moment, and making the most of the time we are given.

Once again, this book had a preview of another of Berg's books in it, Home Safe, and the preview intrigued me enough to read that book as well.  Stay tuned.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[A complementary copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher, and it will be passed on to someone else to read and enjoy.]