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.]