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.]

Monday, May 30, 2011

227 (2011 #32). Leaving Van Gogh

by Carol Wallace

Fascinating historical fiction about the last two months of the life of Vincent Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, from the viewpoint of the intriguing physician keeping an eye on him at the time, Paul Gachet.  Author Carol Wallace paints a portrait of Gachet as almost as tormented as his patient, implying that Gachet felt he did not do enough to alleviate the suffering of his wife Blanche before her death - and did not want to make the same mistake with Vincent.

Wallace was inspired to write the novel from research she did for her master's thesis in art history on another artist (French printmaker Charles Meryon) who was also treated by Gachet, a doctor interested in both art (he was an amateur painter and friend to many Impressionists) and mental illness (he did serve at an asylum in 1855 and wrote his thesis on melancholy).

I had to borrow a book from my university library with Van Gogh's paintings, as Wallace's beautifully written and detailed descriptions made me want to see their inspirations for myself.  I'm also planning to read two books I've long owned, Irving Stone's Van Gogh biographical novel Lust for Life, as well as Dear Theo, his compilation of Vincent's letters to his brother (which are now available online along with other letters to, from, and about Van Gogh).

Those letters provided most of the source material for the Van Goghs in Wallace's book.  Her afterword  indicates that "Dr. Gachet left a much less distinct trail.  His son, Paul, is his principal historian, and Paul's reliability is often questioned....His goal at all times is to promote the importance of his father to Van Gogh, Cezanne, and the other painters he knew." (pages 262-263)

The lovely cover features self-portrait sketches done by Van Gogh as well as a background from his 1890 Branch of an Almond Tree in Blossom.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This hardbound copy received through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program will be donated to my university library.]

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

226 (2011 #31). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot,
read by Cassandra Campbell with Bahni Turpin

In 1951, cancer cells were biopsied from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman undergoing treatment at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.  While Henrietta died from the cancer later that year, her cells live on today, are known as HeLa, and are used in scientific research.

Author Rebecca Skloot spent ten years researching and writing this book.  She used a "braided narrative"* structure where she interwove three main narratives, moving back and forth in time:
  1. Henrietta's background, life and death;
  2. the history of the HeLa cell line in science, cell culture, and research, leading to  medical breakthroughs while also raising ethical questions; and
  3. the story of Henrietta's survivors and descendants, especially her daughter Deborah, and how they came to grips with what happened to their mother's cells, which they did not learn about for two decades.
It's easy to follow because each chapter includes in its title the range of years it covers.

There are also a couple other storylines, too:
  • the author's own journey in the writing of the book (in the seven-page prologue and beyond, as Skloot ended up becoming a character in the Lacks' family's story as she tried to earn their trust), and
  • issues of biomedical ethics as related to human tissues (primarily raised in a 14-page afterword).
Skloot used primary sources and numerous interviews to tell Henrietta's story.  There's not a lot to it, because she died so young (age 31).  She also did a good job with the story of HeLa (making it understandable to laypersons), her own story (as much as it was necessary to the family storyline), and the ethics afterword.  She presents the stories fairly, allowing the reader to draw one's own conclusions.

Even without the afterword, 21 pages of end notes, and an eleven-page index, the book comes in at 300+ pages.  The braided narrative ends with chapter 28, but there are ten more chapters with nearly 100 pages after that, all about Henrietta's relatives, mostly about Deborah, with whom Skloot bonded.  The Lacks family does not come off well, in my opinion, even with  (or perhaps because of) Skloot's objectivity.  It's kind of like watching a train wreck.  This was the least interesting part of the book for me.

Some of the most interesting aspects of this book are how Skloot wrote it.  In an interview with Goodreads in November 2010, Skloot gave some examples of other braided narratives:

When I was working on this book, I knew I wanted a braided structure, to twine three narratives together, so I spent a lot of time reading fiction—not nonfiction!—that had this kind of build. A Home at the End of the World, The Hours [both by Michael Cunningham], and Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich—but actually, the most influential to my own story was one that you might find a bit surprising: Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe. I also watched movies that were set up like this, like Hurricane with Denzel Washington. The important thing to any of the books or movies I looked at was that they jump around quickly in time. That was the most important thing, I finally realized—because if Henrietta's story is told in a purely linear manner, the reader is completely lost as to why modern events relate back to what happened to her by the end. 
She also used a system of color-coded index cards to help her organize and interweave her three main narratives.

Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin (who reads some first-person passages by Deborah) do an excellent job voicing this book, just as they did in The Help

© Amanda Pape - 2011

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

Sunday, May 15, 2011

225 (2011 #30). Ma's in the Kitchen: You'll Know When It's Done!

by Carl Randall McQueary & May Nelson Paulissen, Ph. D.

I picked up this book at my university library to see if it had a copy of the photo I used in a post on my family history blog*. Subtitled "The Recipes and History of Governor Miriam A. Ferguson, First Woman Governor of Texas," it's essentially a cookbook.

The first 81 pages are a brief biography interspersed with numerous family and other historical photographs, as well as short recipes (or references to the page numbers of longer ones) that tie in with "Ma"'s life story. This is followed by 90 pages of recipes and 20 pages of household "helpful hints" from Miriam's collection of cookbooks, which her grandson donated to the Bell County (Miriam's home) Museum in Belton, when McQueary was its initial executive director in 1991.  "Many were handwritten," he writes, "and even after thirty years, they still smelled of flour and Adams vanilla extract." [p. xvi]
Her collection spans the years from 1899, when she and Jim [also a Texas governor, 1915-1917] were married, until the time of her death in 1961....The recipes are unchanged, with the exception of some reformatting in order to make them more easily prepared by today's cooks.  The titles for the recipes are largely Mrs. Ferguson's; those not titled have been given names appropriate to the time when they were first used. [p. ix]
A lot of it is good old-fashioned comfort food, designed to make you full and happy.  Most of the recipes also have brief anecdotes about Miriam, her family, and her life as well.  The book ends with four pages of quotes (from 1925, during her first term), a two-page bibliography, and an index to the recipes.

[*The photo wasn't in this book, but was in the authors' other book on Miriam Amanda Ferguson, for whom I was named.]

© Amanda Pape - 2011

Saturday, May 14, 2011

224 (2011 #29). Anne Frank - graphic biography

by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon

A biography of the famous Holocaust diarist in graphic-novel format, this book provides additional background and context on Anne Frank's family and historical events of the time. I've read a lot of Anne Frank books and I learned a lot from this one, perhaps because the authors had access to many materials at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, which commissioned this project. The format makes this important story accessible and inviting to an audience that might not otherwise read the diary or other accounts of Frank's life.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[I received a free paperback copy of this book from the publisher.  It has been donated to the collection of my university library.]

Friday, May 13, 2011

222 & 223 (2011 #27 & #28). More Picture Books

I picked up an advance reader's edition of 2003 Caldecott Medalist Eric Rohmann's Bone Dog at the recent Texas Library Association meeting. It will be available for sale on July 19. It's the story of how a little boy's recently-deceased dog comes back to help him when he runs into some problems on Halloween night. It appears to use the same media as the Caldecott-winning My Friend Rabbit, hand-colored relief prints.

This book would be a good Halloween read-aloud IF you know your audience.  My 82-year-old dad volunteers at his local public school, reading to kindergarten, and he said he would be hesitant to read the book to the group since he didn't know how some students might react to the dog's death, and how others would react to skeletons. The teacher or the parents can make a better call.

Higher! Higher! was written and illustrated by Leslie Patricelli. It's about a little girl on a swing and what she sees in her imagination as she goes higher and higher. Hand-lettered with simple, child-like drawings.in bright acrylics; some pages have no words, others only one or two.  Nevertheless, there's a lot going on in the pictures for a child to talk about. It was a 2009 Boston Globe - Horn Book Picture Book Honor Book.  Patricelli mostly does board books featuring a bald baby, and says she got the idea for this book from pushing her own two-year-old daughter on a swing. 

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The advanced reader edition of Bone Dog will be passed on to someone else to enjoy. Higher! Higher! was borrowed from and returned to my university library.] 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

221 (2011 #26). South of Superior

by Ellen Airgood

Madeline Stone's adoptive mother passes away, and she is at loose ends in Chicago.  She's tired of waitressing but doesn't want to marry her rich fiance.  So she heads five hundred miles north, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on the south shore of Lake Superior, to care for the aging sister of her dead blood grandfather's lady friend.

Set in the mythical town of McAllaster (modeled after the author's real home of Grand Marais), the novel does an excellent job with setting and the minor characters.  I've been to some similar small towns west of Marquette (which is also on Lake Superior and aabout 100 miles west of Grand Marais), with similar scenery and stubborn, quirky, mostly Scandinavian-descended folks living a hard life.  The two sisters, Gladys and Arbutus, also seemed realistic. 

It was Madeline and her story (and that of Paul, owner of a pizza parlor in McAllaster) which did not ring true for me.  I found it a little hard to believe that Madeline would give up her old life so readily to go live with people who, initially, were strangers, not even blood kin.  Her reopening of the hotel seems far-fetched, and the epilogue rather abrupt, though somewhat predictable.

After reading about the author, I had to wonder if she modeled Madeline somewhat on herself.  Ellen Airgood fell in love with the owner of Grand Marais' local diner while on a camping trip with her sister, and married him six months later.  I wonder if that might have made a more interesting story for Madeline instead.

There's a page on the author's website with photographs that inspired the book.  The hotel and houses remind me of those I saw near Marquette.  Particularly intriguing are the postcard and old photographs that inspired her.  I read an uncorrected proof, but I hope these images can be incorporated into the published version.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[I read an advanced reader edition sent to me by the publisher.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]