Monday, December 31, 2012

316 (2012 #61). A Hundred Flowers

by Gail Tsukiyama

Sheng, a young father, is a victim of  "The Hundred Flowers Campaign,"

a period of debate in China 1956–57, when, under the slogan “Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” citizens were invited to voice their opinions of the communist regime. It was forcibly ended after social unrest and fierce criticism of the government, with those who had voiced their opinions being prosecuted. (Oxford Dictionary, online)
It's first mentioned on page 59 of the book, so unless the reader is savvy about Chinese history, it might not be very clear what is happening in this book at first.  The story covers just five months, July through November, 1958.

Five different third-person narrators, who share what was once a fine home in Guangzhou, add to the confusion.    Kai Ying, Sheng’s wife, is also an herbal healer.  Tao is their seven-year-old son, and he falls from the kapok tree in the yard to begin the tale. Wei is Sheng’s father, a former scholar and teacher. Song is a widow and Wei's sister-in-law. Suyin is a pregnant homeless teenage girl who Kai Yung takes in.

Furthermore, there are some factual errors in the book.  On page 27, when Tao is taken to the hospital after his fall from the tree, the author refers to him as "swallowed up by all the tubes and a machine attached to him that monitored his heart rate with a beeping sound that filled the room."  Trouble is - heart rate monitors did not exist in 1958 in Communist China!  In reading reviews since the book was published, I found this error was not corrected in final copies of the book - very disappointing for historical fiction.

Furthermore, the family seems to have a higher standard of living than one would expect at that time, particularly with a family member in a reeducation camp.  Sheng's being allowed to write any letters and have a visitor seem suspect to me as well.  Finally, the choppiness of the text due to the multiple narrators kept me from becoming invested in any of the characters - I just didn't care what happened to any of them.

This is the first novel I've read by Tsukiyama, and it wasn't bad enough to make me unwilling to read another of her books. I just wasn't very impressed with this one - especially compared with Dreams of Joy by Lisa See, set during the same time period - and I can't recommend it.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[I received a free copy of an advance reader edition of this book from a fellow member of an online book discussion group, for a group of us to read and discuss together.  The book will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

315 (2012 #60). A Single Shard

by Linda Sue Park,
read by Graeme Malcolm

This 2002 Newbery Medal winner is set in Korea in the 12th century.  Orphan Tree-ear lives under a bridge with another beggar, an older cripple called Crane-man.  Tree-ear admires the work of the famous local potter, Min, and when he accidentally damages some of his pottery, he must go to work for him.  Tree-ear volunteers to take a sample of Min's work to be considered for a royal commission, a long and arduous journey by foot.

This seemingly-simple story is full of lovely imagery and characters to care about.  Here's an example of the former:

Once...he had watched the potter place a plum branch in a finished vase to judge the effect.

The gentle curves of the vase, its mysterious green color. The sharp angle of the plum twigs, their blackness stark amid the airy white blossoms. The work of a human, the work of nature; clay from the earth, a branch from the sky. (p. 52)

There's even a discussion of intellectual property rights:
Tree-ear spoke slowly. "It is a question about stealing." He paused, starting to speak, stopped again. Finally, "Is it stealing to take from another something that cannot be held in your hands?"

"Ah! Not a mere question but a riddle-question, at that. What is this thing that cannot be held?"

"A - an idea. A way of doing something."

"A better way than others now use."

"Yes. A new way, one that could lead to great honor."

Crane-man lay back down again. He was silent for so long that Tree-ear thought that he had fallen asleep. Tree-ear sighed and lay down himself, thinking, thinking....

...And therein lived the question-demon: If Tree-ear were to tell Min what he had seen, would that be stealing Kang's idea?

Crane-man's voice startled Tree-ear.

"If a man is keeping an idea to himself, and that idea is taken by stealth or trickery - I say it is stealing. But once a man has revealed his idea to others, it is no longer his alone. It belongs to the world. (p. 62, 64).
(Although I have to admit, I felt some sympathy for poor Kang.)


In an interview in a teacher's edition of this book, Park said "three ideas - the pottery, family, and journey - are the basic threads of the story."  Research on Korea for her earlier books showed "that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Korea had produced the finest pottery in the world, better than even China's, and I decided to set my third novel in that time period," according to her Newbery acceptance speech.*

According to the interview, "the idea of family...is crucial to Korean society:  I made Tree-ear an orphan because I wanted to explore what family means to someone who has no blood relations....

I also wanted to write an adventure story because I loved reading them when I was young, and still do! I love traveling...So I knew right at the start that I wanted Tree-ear to go on an exciting journey." 
 [And, according to her Newbery speech, her son, an admirer of Newbery Honor Book Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, "wanted me to write an adventure story, a road book."]

In her author’s note at the end of the book, Linda Sue Park writes, “Every piece described in the book actually exists in a museum or private collection somewhere in the world.”  Her website has some photos of celadon work and other items and locations that are mentioned in the book (spoiler alert), including the Thousand Cranes Vase (pictured below left). More on Goryeo dynasty (918–1392) celadon can be found on the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's website.

I thought it was interesting that in her Newbery acceptance speech, Park, who is of Korean heritage but only visited the country as a child, thanks Simon Winchester, author of the bestseller The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, for his descriptions in his earlier book Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles, as his 1987 walk went on the route from Puyo almost all the way to Songdo.

She also credits 1966 Newbery Medalist I, Juan de Pareja, by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino.  "In that book, the orphaned black slave Juan de Pareja becomes an assistant to the painter Velazquez and is eventually freed by his master, which enables him to pursue his own painting career. The ending speculates on how a certain Velazquez work came to be painted, just as [A Single] Shard speculates about that [Thousand Cranes] vase."

This is a quiet book that might take more than one reading to be fully appreciated (it did for me).  Kids probably won't pick it up on their own (the cover pictured above or at right don't help; a newer cover pictured below right is at least more attractive).  However, it would be a good addition to a study of Korea or Asia or pottery.

Graeme Malcolm is alright as the audiobook narrator, but I found his British accent - especially his pronunciation of "ate" as "et" - distracting.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  I also referred to a teacher edition print copy I own. 

*Park, Linda, "Newbery Medal Acceptance," Horn Book Magazine, July/August 2002, Vol. 78, Issue 4, pages 377-384.]
Thousand Cranes Vase  / CC BY-SA 3.0
Latest cover of A Single Shard

Sunday, December 30, 2012

314 (2012 #59). Island of the Blue Dolphins

by Scott O'Dell,
read by Tantoo Cardinal


This 1961 Newbery Medal winner is a survival and adventure story.  The tribe of twelve-year-old Karana is moved off its "Island of the Blue Dolphins" (the most remote of the Channel Islands off California, San Nicolas).  Karana leaps off the ship to get her younger brother, who has been left behind.  He dies soon after, and she spends 18 years alone on the island.   Karana makes weapons and hunts, builds a shelter of whale bones and a canoe, fights wild dogs, and explores the island.  There's also a lot of information about the animals of the island and surrounding ocean, such as sea elephants and otter.

Author Scott O'Dell's note at the end of the book states that Karana is based on a real person, the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, later baptized Juana Maria, who lived alone on the island from 1835 to 1853.   According to his website, O'Dell came across her story while researching his 1957 adult book, Country of the Sun: Southern California, An Informal Guide.   More information about the Lone Woman was uncovered in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in 2012, a Navy archaeologist found a cave on San Nicolas that may have been hers

O'Dell, obviously, wrote his book before much of this information became available, and it was likely based on the prevailing legends of the time.  A number of these stories were published in popular magazines in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The Lone Woman was unable to communicate with anyone, so no one really knows how she ended up on the island alone, especially since she died of dysentery only a few weeks after her rescue.

In 1976, O'Dell wrote a sequel, Zia, about Karana's 14-year-old niece by that name, who believes her aunt is still alive, and helps bring about her rescue by George Nidever.

Island of the Blue Dolphins has come under some criticism over the years, for stereotyping of Native Americans.  On the other hand, it's also been praised for having a female minority protagonist (at a time, 1960, when that was not common), and for its environmentalist message.  "Island of the Blue Dolphins," O'Dell wrote, "began in anger, anger at the hunters who invade the mountains where I live and who slaughter everything that creeps or walks or flies."

Native American actress Tantoo Cardinal's reading of the audiobook is lovely.  However, this is a book that might be better "read" in print, to appreciate its beautiful metaphors and imagery.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

313 (2012 #58). A Wrinkle in Time

written and read by Madeleine L'Engle

Although it won the Newbery Medal in 1963, I never read this book as a child.  Even then, I wasn't too interested in science fiction or fantasy.  However, this is one of the more popular Newbery winners out there.  It seems to appeal to the same folks who are big Harry Potter fans.

There's adventure:  misfit high school freshman Meg Murry, her odd genius little brother Charles Wallace (named for L'Engle's father and father-in-law), and their new friend, high-schooler Calvin O'Keefe, take a journey through a "tesseract" (a "wrinkle" in time - there's the science fiction, time travel) to rescue Meg's and Charles Wallace's scientist father.  There's magic, in the form of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which.  There's dystopia at the planet Camazotz, and a battle with the evil IT.  What's not there for a kid to love?

Believe it or not, this book actually begins, "It was a dark and stormy night."   This book has also been challenged over the years for a number of reasons, including references to the occult, depictions of mysticism, characters possessing supernatural powers, and undermining religious beliefs.

L'Engle narrated this particular version of the audiobook, and that was a mistake.  Her voice is rough and she has a bit of a lisp, and her reading is uneven, with strange emphases and an odd rhythm.  Since L'Engle's death, a new audio version (with actress Hope Davis) has been produced - I wish I had waited to purchase that one for our library.  It was painful to listen to this book, which detracted from my appreciation of it.  I first listened to it in 2009, but cannot bring myself to listen to L'Engle's reading again.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

Saturday, December 29, 2012

312 (2012 #57). The Kitchen House

by Kathleen Grissom

This was one of those books we normally don't read in my local book club - one that a member heard was good, but actually hasn't read herself.  Because it had come up as a possibility (over two years ago), I grabbed a used (former library) copy of it (for fifty cents) at my local Friends of the Library book sale.  We finally read and discussed it last month.

The premise of the book is intriguing.  Lavinia is six years old in 1791, when her parents die on the passage from Ireland to America.  The ship's captain brings her home to his tobacco plantation in Virginia as an indentured servant.  She is placed in "the kitchen house" with Belle, the Captain's illegitimate daughter, hated by the unknowing opium-addict wife of the Captain, who thinks Belle is his mistress.

The story covers the next 19 years, and just about everything awful that could happen does:  rape, incest, murder, pedophilia, spousal abuse, adultery.  Very melodramatic and depressing, and at times it felt like I was reading a gothic bodice-ripper.  Moreover, this debut author tells us what is happening, rather than showing us through action or dialogue. 

The story is told by two narrators, Lavinia and Belle.  The teenage and young adult Lavinia is so clueless that it got to the point where I didn't care what happened to her.  Belle's viewpoint is a little more interesting, if only because she isn't as stupid as Lavinia.

Based on her end note and interviews, the author apparently did some research on the era, but I'm not expert enough to vouch for its authenticity.  She did read two books of slave narratives that helped her develop the dialect used by the slaves in the book (which she toned down to make it more readable).

Grissom says she was inspired by an old map she found while renovating a plantation tavern, and envisioned the prologue to a book.  I'm a little leery of authors who, when asked about souls and "residents of the past," say, "Not only do I feel I was guided but also that I was gifted with their trust."

Some reviews have compared the book to The Help or Gone With the Wind.  Trust me, it's neither.  This is not a book I am likely to re-read.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[My copy of this book was purchased and it will be donated.]

311 (2012 #56). The Witch of Blackbird Pond

by Elizabeth George Speare,
read by Mary Beth Hurt

Sixteen-year-old Katherine "Kit" Tyler, an orphan since age two, must leave her beloved Barbados when her grandfather dies.  She surprises her aunt (her mother's sister) and uncle and their two daughters, her only living relatives, in the town of Wethersfield in the Connecticut Colony.  The year is 1687.

From the very beginning, Kit can't seem to do anything right.  She jumps in the river to save a child's doll (this comes back to haunt her later), her clothes are too flamboyant,  her spirits too high.  She doesn't fit in with the strict, dour Puritans of Wethersfeld--but manages to attract the most eligible (and wealthy) young man in town, who everyone expected her cousin to marry.  This causes strife with her family members, who are frustrated with her lack of useful skills.

Kit ultimately becomes friends with another outcast, Hannah Tupper, a Quaker expelled from Massachusetts who lives near Blackbird Pond.  When an epidemic hits the town, the trouble begins.  The ending is a little predicatable, but Elizabeth George Speare makes excellent points about bigotry, tolerance, and the nature of love.

In her 1959 Newbery Medal acceptance paper*, Speare said she developed the characters first, then "was compelled to find a home for them."  She goes on:

I chose Wethersfield, the town in which my husband and I have lived for twenty years, because it is one of the oldest towns in New England, one of the first of the Connecticut settlements, because it was once a bustling river port with all the romance and color of the old sailing ships, and because the girl I could now see quite clearly [Kit] seemed ...to be at home in the quiet and lovely Wethersfield meadows that still lie for undisturbed stretches along the Connecticut River.  I chose the year 1687, arbitrarily because the story of the Connecticut Charter was irresistible, a perfect little vignette, revealing in miniature all the powerful forces which, nearly one hundred years before the Revolution, were moving America irrevocably toward independence. (pages 73-74)

Speare did a marvelous job incorporating details of life in this era, as well as the historical context, into her novel.  For example, there really were a Goody Johnson and Goody Harrison (page 182 in the text), both tried for witchcraft in Wethersfield.  I love the way Speare describes her historical research:  "I should hesitate to dignify by such a scholarly term the haphazard, indiscriminate, greedy forage in which I indulged.  History, geography, town records, genealogies, novels set in the same period - I gulped all these down with, at first, little thought of anything but my own enjoyment.  There were fascinating bypaths from which I had to drag myself back - Quakerism for one, and the early development of education in New England." The latter was another topic addressed in the novel, as Kit and Mercy run a school for a while.

I've been trying to experience most of these Newbery Medalists as audiobooks - this one (pictured above) was released in 2002.  Actress Mary Beth Hurt does a fine job as narrator.  Unique voices are created for all the major characters.  Kit's voice is a little more British (for lack of a better term) than the others, reflecting her recent arrival from the Barbados.

I can't believe I didn't read this book when I was a child.  I loved the character of Kit and really identified with her.  The book has something to say about fitting in; how one needs to adapt yet also stay true to oneself.  I think my 9-year-old self would have loved this book, especially since it has a little (but not too much) romance.  I think it would also be excellent as supplemental reading in social studies or history.  Highly recommended

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[*Elizabeth George Speare, "Newbery Award Acceptance," in Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1956-1965, edited by Lee Kingman, The Horn Book, Inc, Boston, 1965, pages 72-77.   The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Friday, December 28, 2012

310 (2012 # 55). Room

by Emma Donoghue

What if the only home you ever knew consisted of an 11x11 foot room with only a skylight, shared with your mother?  That's the world for five-year-old Jack, the narrator of Room.   Ma has created a structured environment for Jack, with regular times for routine activities, and he thinks his life is normal.  For Ma, however, Room is a prison.  She has been a captive of Old Nick, her frequent nighttime visitor, for seven years.  Not too long after Jack's fifth birthday, she decides it's time to escape.

Author Emma Donoghue does an excellent job conveying Jack's unusual development, the life his mother has contrived for him in the Room, and his perceptions of everything outside of it, especially once they are there.

By telling this story (based somewhat on the real Fritzl case, according to the author) through the eyes of an innocent child, the reader is removed somewhat from  the horror of the situation.  This is a riveting story; highly recommended.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[I received this book as a gift.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

309 (2012 #54). Up a Road Slowly

by Irene Hunt,
read by Jaselyn Blanchard

This 1967 Newbery Medalist is a coming-of-age story, narrated by the protagonist.  Julie Trelling is seven when the story begins with her mother's death.  She is sent to live with her mother's older sister, her spinster schoolteacher Aunt Cordelia, out in the country.  The story covers the next ten years in Julie's life, until her high school graduation at 17.

It's hard to pinpoint the setting for this quiet tale, especially temporally.  There are references to sweeping dresses, gloves, no central heat in Cordelia's home, a one-room schoolhouse with a coal stove, the idea that girls wearing pants is less acceptable, stationery, later rural consolidation of schools, telegrams, and a time when a long-distance phone call was "still considered an extravagance" (page 174).  I was ten years old when this book won the Newbery, and I can remember most of these things. so I think the book was probably set in the 1950s or early 1960s.  It seems to be post-World War II and definitely pre-Vietnam, but could be as early as the 1920s or 1930s (author Irene Hunt was born in 1907).  In a way, the book has rather a timeless feel to it.  Ditto the physical setting - it could be most anywhere, but is probably the Midwest.

There's no thrilling plot, but the book touches on a number of issues unusual for children's books of the time period.  Julie has a classmate who is mentally retarded, dirty and smelly.  Her uncle is an alcoholic liar.  A neighbor's wife is insane. Julie learns some life lessons from her encounters with these characters.  Julie also has to deal with the marriage of her beloved older sister and her father's remarriage, as well as a bad boyfriend who nearly leads her astray, and a friend's teenage pregnancy.  All of these are handled without being preachy.

In her Newbery acceptance speech, entitled "Books and the Learning Process" (Horn Book, August 1967, pp. 424-429), Hunt noted (page 425),

Teachers are beginning to realize that children are not created fully equipped with such values as courage, compassion, integrity, and insights into the motives and needs of themselves and of others.  These attributes...are often learned from the behavior of the characters who people the books they read.  We adults may preach the values we wish to instill, and the children will turn away from our sermons; but a book, a fine book that mirrors life accurately and honestly - there is the effective substitute for our ineffective sermons.

Often children are troubled and in a state of guilt.  One can say to them, "You are not unique."...It is in books that an identification can be made...Julie, in Up a Road Slowly, is not set apart by virtue of her high-mindedness or moral values.  But for a watchful family she might well have stepped into the same trouble in which some of her young readers may find themselves.  (page 426)

Some of Irene Hunt's inspiration may have come from her own life.  She was seven when her father died, and she and her mother moved to the nearby farm home of her grandparents.

The book is well-written and full of wonderful vocabulary - scintillating, impeccable, pedestrian, propitiated, and hackneyed were just some of the words I wrote down.  Julie aspires to be a writer, and is telling her story looking back at her past, so this is very fitting.  Julie also quotes Shakespeare and poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sara Teasdale.

Actress Jaselyn Blanchard was excellent as narrator Julie.  Her youthful voice often trembles and quavers with emotion, at just the right time.

I think this book would still appeal to a quiet, thoughtful young lady, and I highly recommend it.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

Thursday, December 27, 2012

308 (212 #53). The Aviator's Wife

by Melanie Benjamin

I read Melanie Benjamin's Alice I Have Been, historical fiction about Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, back when it was an advance reader edition, and loved it, so I was excited to get Benjamin's third novel through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program (I haven't read her Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb yet, but I'm going to!).

The Aviator's Wife is a fictionalized account of the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author and wife of the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, from their meeting shortly after his record-setting flight to Paris in 1927, to his death in 1974.

Anne narrates her story, starting just before Charles' death in 1974 and flashing back from there, returning to 1974 periodically.  I didn't know much about Anne Morrow Lindbergh before reading this novel.  I knew about Charles' Paris flight and his Nazi sympathies, their baby being kidnapped, and that she was an author, and that was about it.  Like all good historical fiction, this book makes me want to read more about her (and his) life (and read some of her own writings).

Just as Alice I Have Been taught me some things I didn't (necessarily want to) know about Lewis Carroll, I also learned some surprising things about the Lindberghs.  She had (apparently at least two) affairs and was a pilot in her own right; he had three additional families with seven illegitimate children in Germany, and was a control freak.  They were perhaps the first celebrity couple, hounded by the press and paparazzi, and Benjamin hints that might have been the cause of some of their troubles.

Nevertheless, it's all fascinating and highly recommended. The book will be published in January 15, 2013.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[An advance reader's edition was received through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  The book will be passed on to someone else to appreciate.]

Sunday, December 16, 2012

305-307 (2012 #50-#52). Three Quick Reviews

I'm so behind on my reviews that I need to make a few of them brief.

The Lincoln Conspiracy: A Novel, by Timothy O'Brien, is an interesting historical thriller with quirky characters, some of whom were real.  It tells one version of the conspiracy theory around the assassination of Lincoln.   I enjoyed the well-researched setting (time and place), but had trouble buying the far-fetched plot and dealing with all the violence.  Nevertheless, I think this book, which I received as an advance reader's edition (with a generic cover, not the one pictured), is definitely worth a re-read.
Amanda Bennett, then editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, writes movingly about her husband, Terrance Foley (an expert on Asia and agriculture) and his battle with cancer, in The Cost of Hope: A Memoir, that also takes a look at the cost of medicine.  While Amanda and Terrance's story was touching, I wish there had been a little more focus on the latter.  (Some of her conclusions are summarized in an article incorrectly titled an excerpt, at Philly.com.) It's pretty clear that the financial costs are staggering, but coupled with the emotional costs - the cost of hoping - the spending may still be worthwhile.
The title and the cover art for the realistic fiction The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving aren't attractive.  Nevertheless, I am glad I listened to this audiobook, written by Jonathan Evison, a feel-good road-trip story with a lot to say about the nature of coming to terms with adversity, death and grief.  I was able to figure out pretty quickly what had happened to main character Ben's family, but that did not detract from the plot, thanks to interesting, amusing, quirky characters.  Narrator Jeff Woodson is excellent at bringing them all to life.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[All three books were received through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  The audiobook and hardbound (Cost of Hope) will be donated to my university and local public libraries respectively.  The advance reader edition will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

304 (2012 #49). The Priest's Madonna

by Amy Hassinger,
read by Anna Fields

I selected this audiobook for my university library's collection over five years ago, first listened to it three years ago, and finally had a chance to listen to it again recently and (at last) write about it.

This historical fiction is based on the real priest Bérenger Saunière, who takes over the parish of the small town of Rennes-le-Château in France in 1885.  He becomes inexplicably wealthy while renovating the church.  Author Amy Hassinger explores the theories that he found historical treasure, but also incorporates the more mundane possibility that he got rich through simple fraud.

Saunière's story is told in first person by his housekeeper (and some say lover, nicknamed "the priest's madonna" in the village), Marie Dénarnaud.  For me, the most interesting parts of this book were the intriguing theological arguments between Marie and Bérenger - and, of course the obvious sexual tension.  (Every Catholic schoolgirl has had a Father What-a-Waste in her life.)

Intertwined with the story of Marie and Bérenger is that of Mary Magdalene and Jesus  - here referred to by their Hebrew names of Miryam and Yeshua.  The little church in Rennes-le-Château is named for the saint, and a subplot involves the town's mayor's wife, Madame Simone Laporte, a Jew who may be descended from a child of Jesus and "the Madeleine."  That plot hints that there might have been a physical relationship between the two.

The eye-catching cover artwork incorporates an 1824 painting by French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix  I imagined this to be Marie, and indeed, it looks like a photograph of her.

Sadly, the print version of this book is out-of-print and difficult to find - otherwise, I might recommend it for book clubs.  The audiobook is still sold, and it is a gem.  The late Anna Fields is outstanding as a narrator.  She pronounces the difficult French and Hebrew proper and place names with ease.  Listen & Live Audio's production includes romantic strumming guitars at the beginning of chapters narrated by Marie, and exotic woodwinds and tambourines playing at the start of the Mary Magdalene interludes.  The auhtor's explanatory note (where she highlights some of her sources) is included in the audiobook, but the acknowledgements and glossaries (Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic and French/Occitan) are not.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library. A print copy for reference was borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]

303 (2012 #48). Stiff

by Mary Roach

I read this for an online book discussion that never happened.  Subtitled "The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," that's just what this book is about.

Mary Roach uses wry humor to approach a difficult topic - the various ways human bodies are used after death.  Chapters address their use in science and medical training (anatomy classes and the practice of surgery), testing the impact of car crashes and bullets, and in determining what happened in an airplane crash.

She also discusses body snatching, medicinal cannibalism, and experiments with crucifixion and with body decay (which should help forensic science) and composting (more environmentally friendly than burial or cremation), as well as plastination (which has led to exhibitions like Body Worlds and Bodies: The Exhibition).

If that's not enough to make you squeamish, there is also a chapter entitled "How to Know If You're Dead" (subtitled "Beating heart cadavers, live burial, and the scientific search for the soul"), and one - aptly begun with an illustration of Frankenstein from the movie - called "Just A Head," about "Decapitation, reanimation, and the human head transplant."

It may all sound sensationalist, but it's not.  The book is well-researched (there's a nine-page bibliography), and Roach uses just enough humor to lighten up this serious subject.  I really appreciated her final chapter, where she wrote about what she'd like to see done with her own body, but acknowledged, "It makes little sense to try to control what happens to your remains when you are no longer around to reap the joys or benefits of that control....survivors shouldn't have to do something they're uncomfortable with or ethically opposed to."  (page 290)

Even though we didn't discuss it, I'm glad I read this book, as I learned a lot.  Because of her wry touch with difficult subjects, I'd be interested in reading Roach's other booksSpook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012

302 (2012 #47). The Giving Quilt

by Jennifer Chiaverini

This is book #20 in the Elm Creek Quilts series.   I've read most (and reviewed many) of the others, and got on the wait list for this one at my local public library once its publication date was announced.  I came up in the queue right before Thanksgiving, which was perfect timing, both for me to read it, and because it ties in with the subject of the book.

Set during the week after Thanksgiving, the Elm Creek Quilt Camp provides a free week at Elm Creek Manor, "Quiltsgiving," if the participants agree to make and donate a quilt for Project Linus, a real organization that provides homemade blankets to children in need.

Some of the old favorites from the contemporary strand of Elm Creek novels are here--Sylvia, Sarah, and Gretchen in particular--but the book is mostly the stories of five of the Quiltsgiving participants.   Linnea, a public librarian in California, is having her annual vacation with her sister Mona* at the Manor this year.  Michaela is a college student with a broken leg, doing her required community service.  Jocelyn is a teacher, a young widow and mother sent to the camp as a reward by the parents of the "Imagination Quest" team she's coached.  Pauline is a member of a prestigious quilting group, but here at Quiltsgiving rather than at her own group's retreat.  And Karen is a quilt shop clerk who had previously been a finalist for a teaching position at Elm Creek Manor - but had a disastrous interview.   Chiaverini uses the events and activities of the week at Quiltsgiving to tie together otherwise unrelated chapters on the backstories of these five women and what brought them to Quiltsgiving.

Being a librarian, I could really relate to Linnea's story of a battle to keep the local public library open, in the face of a budget deficit, book banners, and people who think we don't need libraries any more because "everything we could possibly want to read is online." (page 146)

I also enjoyed the story of teacher Jocelyn, who takes over coaching her husband's and daughters' "Imagination Quest" team after his untimely death in an accident.  "Imagination Quest" is very obviously modeled after Destination ImagiNation and/or Odyssey of the Mind, two creative problem-solving team competitions in which I and my offspring were quite involved in school.  It reads like Chiaverini has also been involved in the program with her sons, as she nails the descriptions of the programs and of some of their problems with cheating (I was a judge one year at a regional tournament).

Karen's story talks about an interesting problem, that of people who "shop" in brick-and-mortar stores, checking out products, then ordering them cheaper online.  It's also interesting to read how Karen deals with her rejection by the Elm Creek Quilters and comes to find her own place in the world.

I was intrigued by Michaela's broken leg from the beginning of the book, not explained until her story is told.  Her goal in college was to be a cheerleader - not a particularly worthy goal in my opinion.  However, her determination and focus are admirable, as is her acceptance and ability to set a new goal when her attempt to challenge a tradition at her university is thwarted by an "accident" that may have not been an accident.

The only story I didn't particularly care for was the first one told, that of Pauline, the member of the exclusive quilting group with a lot of internal squabbles.  It just wasn't especially interesting to me.

The final chapter of the book tells briefly what happened to each of these quilters after Quiltsgiving.  *Note:  For some reason, there is no story for Mona, who is a state government employee and union official dealing with attempts by the government to abolish collective bargaining rights.  Chiaverini lives in Wisconsin, which recently dealt with such issues, and perhaps this hit just a little too close to home.

This was a nice, easy read, perfect for the holidays.  I have been surprised to see some online reviews taking Chiaverini to task for (in the reviewers' opinions) expressing her "political" views.  It would not surprise me if these are the same people who don't like the historical fiction books in the series (which are my favorites), and the ones who complain when the stories aren't set at Elm Creek Manor or don't focus entirely on the original Elm Creek Quilters.  There's just no pleasing some "fans."

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

Thursday, November 15, 2012

301 (2012 #46). Strawberry Girl

by Lois Lenski,
read by Natalie Ross

Strawberry Girl was originally published in 1945 and won the 1946 Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American children's literature.   This was the second book in Lois Lenski's American Regionals series, 17 books about the lives of children in different regions of the country, published between 1943 and 1968.

This story takes place in Polk County, Florida (in the center of the state, east of Tampa), in the early 1900s (according to the author in her foreword, although that could mean the first half of the century).   It centers on two Cracker neighbor families, the Slaters, squatters who raise cattle on open range, and the Boyers, newly-arrived landowners who want to raise strawberries and oranges.  The main characters, ten-year-old Berthenia Lou "Birdie" Boyer and twelve-year-old Jefferson Davis "Shoestring" Slater, epitomize the conflicts and (sometimes) cooperation between the two families.  The conflicts include killing each others' animals, and setting a fire hoping to burn the neighbor out.

In her Newbery acceptance speech*, Lenski said, "Because these are true-to-life stories, I have included...certain incidents which...authors, perhaps following some unwritten taboos, have not often used in children's books...We have not often put drunken fathers or malicious neighbors into a book for children.  I have done this, and I would like to tell you why.  These incidents are...true and authentic.  They have happened not once but a hundred times in this particular locality, and have been experienced by the children as well as the adults.  To leave them out and to pretend that such things never happen would be to present a false picture" (page 284).

Lenski spent two winters in Lakeland, Florida, meeting the people who would become characters in her book, and experiencing their lives.  She also did extensive research, as she did with her earlier historical fiction, including Newbery Honor Books Phebe Fairchild (1937) and Indian Captive (1942).  Much like the "lightning artist" in her story, Lenski carried her sketchbook with her in Florida.  "Always a crowd of children gathered, eager to watch a drawing grow on a sheet of paper - and eager to tell me many things I wanted to know...My drawing helped, as nothing else could, to break down the barriers of suspicion.  Drawing is a universal language which everybody understands" (page 281).

Lenski used local dialects in her American Regionals books, to provide authenticity.  Some reviewers, past and present, have criticized this.  In her acceptance speech, Lenski said, "Speech is so much more than words--it is poetry, beauty, character, emotion.  To give the flavor of a region, to suggest the moods of the people, the atmosphere of the place, speech cannot be overlooked...In the simplest of words, with only a minimum of distortions in spelling, this is what I have tried to convey.  There may be some children who will find it difficult reading.  But I am willing to make that sacrifice, because of all that those who do read it will gain, in the way of understanding 'the feel' of a different people, and the 'flavor' of a life different from their own" (pages 286-287).

An audiobook is an excellent way to experience this story.  Narrator Natalie Ross was outstanding with the dialect, and even did a little singing.   In the foreword of The Life I Live, Collected Poems, dated December 1964, Lenski said, "During the writing of the early Regionals, 1943-1949, I made a special study of American folksongs, in which I had long been interested, as well as a study of local dialects, and quoted some of these songs in my books."

The audiobook has two other positive features. At the end, Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, "talks about the context in which Strawberry Girl was written, and how the problems and conflicts we see in the book relate to our world today." Also, the audiobook clearly indicates the beginning and end of each disc with banjo music, and even has some overlapping text at each end.

The dialect might be hard for younger children to handle on their own, so for most elementary students, I'd recommend this book as an audiobook or a read-aloud.  Lenski's descriptions are so good that I felt I did not need her illustrations to picture the action and setting in my mind.    

I really enjoyed this book.  I learned a lot about life in central Florida in the early twentieth century, with its underground lakes, sinkholes, and artesian wells, scrub oaks and pines, and palmettos.  Not to mention the variety of critters they eat (like cooters, a soft-shelled water turtle) and encounter (alligators on the road, grasshoppers on the flowers, robins in the strawberries). Daily life on the farm (and the range) is described, as well as life in town - I loved Miss Liddy noting (on page 61) that "the millinery business shore is lively - you got to lend money, tend babies, make wax flowers, and stop dog fights!" And "quarrels did not keep people away from frolics" (page 82) - cane grinding led to candy pulling, while a drunk Sam Slater's shooting off his chickens' heads led to a chicken pilau feast.

The only thing I didn't like was the ending.  I've never been one for preacher-worship, and Sam's sudden conversion and swearing off drink seems too easy to be believable to me.  Nevertheless, I would like to read more of Lenski's American Regionals.  We have Cotton in My Sack and Shoo-Fly Girl in my university library, and I'd like to get a copy of Texas Tomboy, set in nearby San Angelo.  I can certainly see why Strawberry Girl won the Newbery.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[*Lois Lenski, "Seeing Others as Ourselves," in Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955, edited by Bertha Mahoney Miller and Elinor Whitney Field, The Horn Book, Inc, 1955, pages 278-287.  This book, as well as the Strawberry Girl audiobook and a print copy, were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Saturday, October 27, 2012

300 (2012 #45). The Art Forger

by B. A. Shapiro

Back in 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed of 13 works of art , some by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and Degas, that have never been found.  Author B. A. Shapiro takes this real-world incident and builds a novel around it that, substituting a fictional work by Degas for one of his (lesser-known) works actually stolen. 

Claire Roth is a struggling young painter who is a bit of a pariah in the art world.  She's been reduced to making copies of famous paintings for an online company that sells reproductions, and has become rather good at the task.  She is approached by Aidan Markel, an attractive art gallery owner, who claims to have intercepted one of the museum's stolen works.  He wants Claire to paint a reproduction that he will sell as the original, then he will return the actual original to the museum.  Claire will get $50K (a third up front), plus her own art show at his gallery.

Claire agrees - partly for reasons that become clear in a second narrative line, set three years earlier.  By page 93 (of the 355-page novel), she realizes that the "original" Degas is actually a forgery - which starts the mystery, as Claire tries to figure out where the "real" original is.  That also brings in the third narrative line - a number of fictional letters by Isabella Stewart Gardner to her fictional niece, from 1886 to 1898 - that provide clues to what really happened.  I was able to figure that part out pretty quickly.

The best part of this novel was Shapiro's descriptions of the techniques (and some real examples) of art forgery - it was fascinating!  She also did a good job with evoking the lifestyle of a struggling artist, and with her settings - especially place and weather (although I have never been to Boston, and can't vouch for their accuracy).

The book also poses some interesting moral questions.  Claire justifies what she's doing with these thoughts (from page 31):

There's no crime in copying a painting--obviously, as this is how I make the money I dutifully report to the IRS every April--the criminal part doesn't come until a copy is put up for sale as the original.  Ergo, the seller, not the painter, is the crook.

Yet it's clear she knows something is wrong.  Her previous experiences make what she does understandable, but not necessarily right.

I would recommend this as a fun read (character development and the mystery are a little weak), and possibly as a good book for a group discussion, due to the art history and the moral questions.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[I received copies of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program and as a winner in the Bookreporter.com Fall Preview contest.  The hardbound copy will be donated to a library, and the advance reader edition will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Saturday, October 20, 2012

299 (2012 #44). State of Wonder

by Ann Patchett,
read by Hope Davis

I listened to this audiobook mostly because it won the 2012 Audie Award for Literary Fiction, and a little because the book had been (hesitantly) suggested for possible discussion in my local book club.

First, the good.  The audiobook is totally deserving of the Audie Award. Actress Hope Davis gives an outstanding performance, creating voices for the main characters, Marina Singh and Annick Swenson, that reflect their personalities (mostly submissive and mostly domineering, respectively).

The artwork on the cover of the novel (and audiobook) is gorgeous.  In an interview, author Ann Patchett said, "When I first started writing this book, I came downstairs one night and found my husband listening to “Horowitz at Carnegie Hall." The album cover has a very lush filigreed border....the exact the feeling I wanted for my book--half jungle, half Baroque period. When I was finished writing the novel I sent the album to my editor, who sent it to the art department. They understood exactly what I was talking about."

Now, the bad.  In the same interview, Patchett admits to disliking the Amazon.  "I absolutely loved the Amazon for four days. It was gorgeous and unfamiliar and deeply fascinating. Unfortunately, I stayed there for ten days. There are a lot of insects in the Amazon, a lot of mud, surprisingly few vegetables, too many snakes. You can’t go anywhere by yourself, which makes sense if you don’t know the terrain, but I enjoy going places by myself. I can see how great it would be for a very short visit, and how great it would be if you lived there and had figured out what was and wasn’t going to kill you, but the interim length of time isn’t great."

And that's the heart of the problem with this book.  I felt Patchett's research was sloppy.  Everything from the premise that a pharmaceutical company would continue to pay all expenses for a rogue scientist (Swenson) who refused to stay in contact with them, to Marina's preposterous trip to the Amazon to look for the remains of her coworker (walking around the jungle in FLIP-FLOPS??) was just unbelievable.

I could go on and on with examples.  The idea that a drug company wouldn't support a malaria vaccine because there's no profit in it is crazy - the military would pay big bucks for such a vaccine.  Dr. Swenson taught at Johns Hopkins four days a week and then went to the Amazon for a long weekend to conduct research. She then took the "red eye" back to the States to teach the following Monday. Not realistic (if even possible). A well-equipped lab in the middle of the jungle, with generators to power freezers and computers?  Rather ridiculous.

In the same interview mentioned above, Patchett says her good friend Elizabeth Gilbert (author of the awful Eat Pray Love) was writing a novel set in the Amazon about the same time as she was, but Gilbert abandoned her novel.  Later they compared notes, and found they "had remarkably similar story lines, to the point of being eerie.  I thought this must be because it was an incredibly banal idea and we had both come up with a generic Amazon novel, but then you [Gilbert] told me that ideas fly around looking for homes, and when the idea hadn’t worked out with you it came to me."  If that's the case, Patchett should hope none of Gilbert's ideas ever land on her again.

I've read most of Patchett's other books - Bel Canto, Truth & Beauty, The Magician's Assistant, and The Patron Saint of Liars - I especially liked the latter.  Unfortunately, this book does not measure up to the others, and I won't be recommending it to my book club, especially with its unlikeable and unrealistic characters.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

298 (2012 #43). Winter Garden

by Kristen Hannah

I was rather disappointed in this book, which I read for an online book discussion (and probably would not have chosen otherwise).  The first part of the book feels like a lot of chick lit (not my favorite genre), with a rather dysfunctional family.  Anya, a Russian immigrant, has just lost her husband Evan, but she has always been a cold, distant mother.  Her two daughters are also stereotypes.  Meredith is the long-suffering (and insufferable) older sister who is the responsible one that married her childhood sweetheart, Jeff, and stayed home to help run her father's Central Washington apple orchard.  Nina is the globe-hopping photojournalist free-spirit (and also insufferable) younger sister, who can't seem to settle down.

After Evan's death, Anya seems to have a mental breakdown, as one day Meredith finds her tearing off the wallpaper in the house and purposely cutting her fingers.  This sets up a dispute between the sisters, as Meredith puts Anya in a nursing home, but Nina pulls her out.

Before his death, Evan tries to get Anya to tell the "rest" of the "fairy tale" she was never able to finish telling in their daughters' childhood.  Fairy tale is a misnomer - it's the story of Anya's life before coming to America, during the Siege of Leningrad.  These flashbacks to the past made for a much better tale than the contemporary storyline.

It's obvious that Hannah researched the Siege, and I think if she'd stuck to the historical fiction, I would have liked this book better.  Additionally, for someone who supposedly specializes in writing about the Pacific Northwest (where I lived for 21 years), I didn't get the feel for Central Washington that I'd hoped to from this book.

I found the ending to be a bit too neat and unrealistic.   A better book for some of the issues Anya faced was Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum.  A better book about the Siege of Leningrad was The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

Monday, October 15, 2012

297 (2012 #42). Dead End in Norvelt

written and read by Jack Gantos

This is a semi- autobiographical historical fiction tale, with a little bit of mystery thrown in. It won the 2012 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction  as well as the 2012 Newbery Medal.  It’s set in the summer of 1962 in the real town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. Jack Gantos is 12 and has been grounded (partly because he’s caught between the conflicting wishes of his parents), but he’s allowed to help an elderly arthritic neighbor, Miss Volker, to write her obituaries as the original settlers of Norvelt slowly die off.

Sounds rather grim, doesn’t it? But Gantos combines fun fiction with (sometimes crazy) truths (according to the author),  such as spending part of his childhood in Norvelt, Miss Volker’s character (not her real name), his childhood tendency for frequent nosebleeds that “spray out of my nose holes like dragon flames" (page 8), and a dad who had Japanese souvenirs from World War II and won a Piper J-3 Cub airplane in a poker game. This creates a book where, as he explains in a video interview included on one of the audiobook’s CDs, "one of the prime motivations…is this notion that history, our history, is so vastly important."

Norvelt (named for Eleanor Roosevelt) is a real town with an interesting past. According to Miss Volker (page 214-215),

Jefferson believed that every American should have a house on a large enough piece of fertile property so that during hard times, when money was difficult to come by, a man and woman could always grow crops and have enough food to feed their family. Jefferson believed that the farmer was the key to America and that a well-run family farm was a model for a well-run government. Mrs. Roosevelt felt the same. And we in Norvelt keep that belief alive.

In his Newbery Medal acceptance speech (Horn Book Magazine, July/August 2012, page 45), Jack Gantos noted:

The "obit'" is a very tidy literary form and one that Dead End’s Miss Volker generously stretched to also include some meteoric moment in history that intersected with the life of the deceased in order to point out how, in life, we might feel like but a speck of dust on the planet but in truth we are all tied together in one massive hand-holding of humanity—for better or for worse. 

These obituaries, Miss Volker’s “This Day in History” feature in the local newspaper, and Jack’s fondness for Landmark history series books, combined with the comedy and humor, reinforce the message that (as Miss Volker says, page 214), “if you don't know your history you won't know the difference between the truth and wishful thinking," and (as Jack realizes near the end of the book, page 340) “the reason you remind yourself of the stupid stuff you've done in the past is so you don't do it again."

I liked the end of this book (despite its surprise), and I feel it was deserving of the Newbery.  Aimed at students from ages 10-14, grades 5-8, I think it will especially appeal to boys. I found myself wondering as I read it how my son would have reacted, 12-16 years ago.

The audiobook is fantastic! It made me laugh (and sometimes cry). Gantos is perfect as the narrator. His somewhat whiny voice fits a 12-year-old boy. In a Booklist interview, Gantos acknowledged boys’ frequent preference for male readers: “I think there is a sense that if a man is reading the book, then it is entirely cool to sit and listen to it. It’s a man-to-man relationship around a good story. Perhaps it’s like sitting around a campfire and hearing a good tale.” The audiobook makes a good alternative for younger or struggling readers who might have difficulty with its fifth-to-sixth-grade reading level.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

Sunday, September 23, 2012

296 (2012 #41). The Kingmaker's Daughter

by Philippa Gregory

This is the fourth book in Gregory's Cousins' War series, set during the Wars of the Roses.  This book is mostly about Anne Neville, whose father Richard, the Earl of Warwick, helped Edward IV (of the House of York) overthrow the  Lancastrian Henry VI in England - thus earning him the nickname "The Kingmaker."  However, the book more or less tells the same story told in the three previous books in the series - and it's getting a bit tedious, particularly when Gregory's repetitiousness results in 400-plus pages where 300 or less would do.

This book begins in May 1465, when Anne is eight and Edward and his commoner wife, Elizabeth Woodville (subject and narrator of the first book in this series, The White Queen) have just come to power.  It ends just 20 years later, in March 1485, with Anne's death shortly after the death of her son, her only child, by her husband Richard of York, Edward's brother, and now King Richard III.

I was also a bit disappointed because once again, Gregory's author's note at the end of the book is very sparse - less than two pages - and does not completely clarify what is fact in the book.  Because Anne's life was so brief, much of the book is fiction - there is little in the historical record about her.  Gregory admits in this afterword that she "put Anne at the heart of things," probably giving her more credit for taking "her life in her own hands" than she deserves.

Gregory does include a four-plus page bibliography, a map, and a family tree for Anne, although the latter, frustratingly, does not include any death dates post-1465 (which is ridiculous, since these are all historical figures and there's no "suspense" about their deaths).  Gregory does make it clear in this book that she does not think Richard III murdered his brother's sons, the infamous Princes in the Tower.

As in The Red Queen, the second book in the series, about Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII, it's interesting to contrast the different perceptions these women of the era (Anne and her sister Isabel, Margaret, Elizabeth Woodville, and Elizabeth's mother Jacquetta of Luxembourg, subject of the third book in the series, The Lady of the Rivers) have of the times and of each other.  The Red Queen and The Kingmaker's Daughter complement each other in their negative perceptions of Elizabeth and Jacquetta (the protagonists both fear they are witches), while The Lady of the Rivers and The White Queen, about mother and daughter Jacquetta and Elizabeth, complement each other.  It will be interesting to see the perceptions in the next book in the series, about Elizabeth of York, granddaughter to Jacquetta, daughter to Elizabeth Woodville, daughter-in-law to Margaret, and (supposedly) mistress of Anne's husband Richard.

© Amanda Pape - 2012
[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

295 (2012 #40). Unbroken

by Laura Hillenbrand,
read by Edward Herrmann

This is the inspiring true story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic athlete and World War II hero. This amazing man, born in New York in January 1917 of Italian immigrant parents, died in 2014 at age 97.5.

Zamperini’s family moved to California when he was young, and he became a running sensation, thanks to a hip anomaly that gave him a longer stride. He made the 1936 Olympic team, where one of his roommates in Berlin was Jesse Owens. Unfortunately, he overate on the ship heading to the Games and gained 12 pounds, finishing eighth in the 5000 meter race – but catching the attention of Hitler for his final 56-second lap.

Zamperini joined the Army Air Force and attended bombardier school in November 1941, at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas (where my dad trained about ten years later for the Korean War). He was sent to the Pacific front where he flew a number of missions, including a rescue that went awry. His search plane crashed, and only three of the eleven crew members survived. He and the pilot ultimately spent 47 days on a raft, outlasting sharks, thirst, hunger, and a strafing by the Japanese. Unfortunately, they were prisoners of war of the Japanese for over two years, enduring much worse.

The book is subtitled “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” and that’s exactly what it is. Zamperini’s post-war life is almost as interesting as his adventures, and he has much to teach us, especially about forgiveness.

Author Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote the bestseller Seabiscuit, has done extensive research for this book, yet written the nonfiction in a way that flows and compels. This amazing story pulls the reader in and makes one grateful for the sacrifices of our military. Well-known actor Edward Hermann is outstanding as the narrator for the audiobook version. The print version has maps, photographs of Louis and others in his story, extensive end notes, and an index. Recommended without reservations.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

Monday, August 27, 2012

294 (2012 #39). The Paris Wife

by Paula McLain,
read by Carrington MacDuffie

Hadley Richardson is 28 when she meets 21-year-old Ernest Hemingway in Chicago in 1920. She’s lived a rather sheltered life in St. Louis, caring for her dying mother, and is swept away by the dynamic and confident wanna-be writer. They marry and move to Paris, because one of Ernest’s mentors says it’s the place for young writers to be (as well as a relatively inexpensive to live, post-World War I).

Indeed, the couple is living off Hadley’s inheritance as Ernest struggles with his craft. Their first Paris flat is above a dance hall, and later they live next to a sawmill. But their life is mostly fun, with visits to the famous salons of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, and drinking and partying with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and other authors and artists. Hadley and Ernest seem to have the most stable marriage in a group where “open marriage” was popular. The pair – and their friends – go to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, more bullfights in Madrid, hiking and skiing in the Alps, and so much more. It’s rather amazing what a “poor” young couple could do then (especially after they have a baby)!

Hadley and Ernest are real, of course, and much of their story has been told before, by Ernest in his memoir of the Paris years, A Moveable Feast, and by Ernest’s (and Hadley’s) biographers. Author Paula McLain decided to tell the story mostly from Hadley’s first-person viewpoint, with only a few chapters written from Ernest’s view (third person).

On her website, McLain says, “There were things I simply needed to know about the choices he was making, and could only know those things from the inside out. He's terribly complex. Parts of their story aren't easy to understand—and yet I needed to understand them if I was going to fully inhabit the world that needed inventing: the interior one. ...Their emotional crisis…occupies only a few taut pages in one well-regarded biography, but is the crux of my story. I invented what I couldn't know—all of their dialogue, for instance—but knew, in a deeper way, one that can't be aided by all the biographies in the world, what lay at the heart of what I was imagining.”

Like all good biographical novels, this one makes me want to learn more about Hadley, Hemingway, and his other wives; as well as read all the rest of Hemingway’s works I haven’t read yet.

Recording artist and spoken word performer Carrington MacDuffie has just the right voice for narrator Hadley, and her performance added greatly to my enjoyment of this book.  I like the book cover; it evokes an image of an outdoor cafe in Paris.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

Thursday, August 23, 2012

293 (2012 #38). Heart of the Matter

by Emily Giffin 

Tessa Russo is a former professor, now stay-at-home mom to two young children, and the wife of a successful (and handsome) pediatric plastic surgeon, Nick. Valerie Anderson is an attorney and single mother to six-year-old Charlie, who has never known his father. Charlie is burned in an accident and Nick becomes his doctor. I think you can see where this is heading.

Author Emily Giffin tells the story in chapters that alternate between the viewpoint of Tessa (in first person) and Valerie (in third person). The reader doesn’t hear about Nick’s thoughts and his motivations are only guessed at by the other characters. However, this book is chick lit, so this is not surprising.

I really did not like either of the main characters. Tessa whines about her life but doesn’t do anything to change it. She hangs around with shallow, wealthy women. She does something at the end of the book that’s disappointing, but fits in with her character.

Valerie isn’t much better, although I could understand her efforts to pretend that what she’s doing is okay. Nick is no prize, and I honestly think both women would be better off without him. The situation is somewhat unresolved at the end of the book, but none of these characters are compelling enough to make me interested in a sequel.

So why did I read this unsatisfying book? I read it for an online book discussion. The discussion fizzled out in five days with only five posts and two participants.

This was my first Emily Giffin novel (and likely my last). Tessa is the sister of Dex, a character from one of Giffin’s other novels. I didn’t feel like Dex or his wife Rachel added much to this story. I like the simple, consistent designs of the covers of her novels – but that’s not enough to get me to read another one. Apparently her fans feel her other books were better.

 Bottom line: Not recommended.

Edited to add:  Given the way Ms. Giffin, her husband, and her assistant reacted to a mild (no personal attacks) negative review of her latest book, there is NO WAY I will ever read another one of her books.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

Monday, August 20, 2012

291 (2012 #36). The Age of Innocence
292 (2012 #37). The Innocents

I had not encountered Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence before, so I was intrigued by the opportunity to read it and a new book based on it, The Innocents by Francesca Segal, immediately after.  I was one of 20 people who received copies of each book from the Book Report Network in a contest celebrating the 150th birthday of Edith Wharton, in exchange for my commentary on both books by today.

I was a bit intimidated by the Penguin Classic edition of Wharton’s book.  The lengthy, analytical introduction and the explanatory notes at the end made me feel like I was in high school English class again.  Don’t get me wrong – I loved high school English and did well in it, well enough to place out of all my college English requirements.  However, since then, I’ve tried to keep my reading of fiction purely for pleasure, only researching historical events and people when my interest is piqued.  So, the introduction was a little challenging, and it took me a while to get into the book.

In time, though, I found myself really appreciating Wharton’s subtle humor and commentary on WASP-ish society and upper class rituals of the Gilded Age era of “Old New York.”  Social customs thwart the individual desires of both men and women in this novel.  I can see why it won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize.

(Very interesting, too, that Wharton apparently threaded the symbolism of the Victorian language of flowers in her book, since I just finished another book based on that language for a discussion tomorrow).

In The Innocents, Segal takes Wharton’s story and updates it to an upper middle class Jewish neighborhood in northwest London in the 21st century.    As the fiancée’s cousin who tempts the male protagonist, Ellie Schneider has the name most similar to her inspiration (Ellen Olenska in Wharton’s novel), but the two women differ in many key ways – which means the conclusions of the two books are not at all alike.

The customs and rituals of the Jewish families in Segal’s book were interesting, too.  Most of the time, Segal does a good job explaining them.  However, there are times when a non-Jewish reader might feel like an outsider, when Yiddish or Hebrew terms are not translated, or ceremonies are not described.

Nevertheless, I think Wharton’s fans will like Segal’s book, and I’m glad I read Wharton’s prize-winning classic.  

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[These books were won in the aforementioned contest, in exchange for an honest review.  Both books will be donated to my university library.]