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