Saturday, June 30, 2012

286 (2012 #31). The Dry Grass of August

by Anna Jean Mayhew

This debut novel is a coming-of-age story set in August 1954.  June "Jubie" Watts, her mother, Paula, two sisters, baby brother, and their black maid, Mary Luther, drive from Charlotte, North Carolina to Florida for a vacation visiting Jubie's maternal uncle.

Jubie's father Bill stays home, and it soon becomes clear that life with him is not idyllic for Jubie (or Paula).  Jubie is close to Mary, though.

Eventually, racial tension in the area leads to tragedy, and 13-year-old Jubie must grow up quickly, challenging her parents and herself.

If you liked Kathryn Stockett's The Help or Sue Monk Kidds's The Secret Life of Bees, you will probably like this book.  Part of it is somewhat predictable; I found the dynamics of Jubie's family to be more interesting.

I'm also amazed at author Anna Jean Mayhew's tenacity - it took 18 years for her to write it, and it was published when she was 71.  I guess there is still hope for my childhood dreams of being an author!

© Amanda Pape - 2012

 [This book was borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]

Thursday, June 28, 2012

285 (2012 #30). Cutting for Stone

by Abraham Verghese,
read by Sunil Malhotra

This was a great pick for book club!  Abraham Verghese has created fascinating characters, and made me care about them.  The plot moves along against a setting of political turmoil in Ethiopia, with the backdrop of  practice of medicine there and with immigrant doctors-in-training in New York City.

The book begins with the birth of twins Marion and Shiva Stone in September, 1954.  Their mother is an Indian nun nurse, Sister Mary Joseph Praise; their father, Englishman Thomas Stone, works with her as the surgeon at Missing* Hospital (*the local mispronunciation of Mission).

Verghese tells Sister's and Thomas' stories in flashbacks throughout the book, as well as the backgrounds of the other two major characters, fellow Missing Indian physicians Hema (a female ob/gyn) and Ghosh (a male internist, later surgeon).  There's a wonderful storyline about the creating and meaning of family, even if it's a bit unconventional.

There are definite parallels between the story and Verghese's own life, and, with his medical background, his descriptions of conditions and procedures are detailed and graphic.  I enjoyed these, though, as well as I did learning more about Ethiopia and Eritrea.  Although there is a lot of tragedy in the book, there's also quite a bit of humor, particularly in Verghese's descriptions of life for foreign medical students doing inner-city residencies at "Ellis Island hospitals," as the character B.C. Gandhi calls them.  Gandhi and Marion also participate in this funny (because it's so true) exchange on this topic (page 401-402):

B.C. sat back in his chair.  "Whatever America needs, the world will supply.  Cocaine? Columbia steps to the plate. Shortage of farmworkers, corn detasselers? Thank God for Mexico.  Baseball players?  Viva Dominica.  Need more interns?  India, Philippines zindabad!"

I [Marion] felt stupid for not having seen this before. "So the hospitals where I was going to interview," I said. "In Coney Island, Queens --"

"All Ellis Island hospitals.  Just like us.  All the house staff are foreigners and so are many of the attending physicians.  Some are all Indian.  Some have more of a Persian flavor.  Others are all Pakistani or all Filipino.  That's the power of word of mouth.  You bring your cousin who brings his classmate and so on.  And when we finish training here, where do we go, Marion?"

I shook my head.  I didn't know.

"Anywhere.  That's the answer.  We go to the small towns that need us.  Like Toejam, Texas, or Armpit, Alaska.  The kinds of places American doctors won't go and practice."

"Why not?"

"Because, salah, in those villages there's no symphony!  No culture!  No pro-ball team!  How is an American doctor supposed to live there?"

"Is that where you will go, B.C.? To a small town?" I said.

"Are you kidding?  You expect me to live without a symphony?  Without the Mets or the Yankees?  No sir.  Gandhi is staying in New York.  I am Bombay born and Bombay bred, and what is New York but Mumbai Light?  I'll have my office on Park Avenue.  You see, there is a crisis in health care on Park Avenue.   The citizens are suffering because their breasts are too small or their nose is too big, or they have a roll around the belly.  Who will be there for them?'

I'm trying not to give away too much of the plot - suffice to say I found the whole book fascinating and well worth reading.  The only part of the book that I had trouble swallowing was Marion's long-held torch for Genet, the daughter of a family servant that the twins grew up with - and what he does (or, more accurately, didn't do, given that he is a doctor).  It just didn't make sense, particularly after her teenage betrayal.

I listened to the audiobook, which was masterfully read by actor Sunil Malhotra, who created diverse voices for over 70 different characters spanning four continents.  I would highly recommend the audiobook, but if you don't like that format, go with the print or e-book - just read it.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

Monday, June 25, 2012

284 (2012 #29). The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)

by Barbara Kerley,
illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

The Susy of the title of this wonderful picture book fictionalized biography is Olivia Susan "Susy" Clemens (1872-1896), the oldest daughter of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain.  When she was 13, Susy started writing a biography of her father, because she was "annoyed" that "so few people know Papa, I mean really know him....They think of Mark Twain as a humorist, joking at everything."

Susy's mother later found the biography and shared it with her husband, who expressed "deep pleasure" at her "frequently desperate" spelling and the way she didn't "cover up one's deficiencies, but gave them an equal showing with one's handsomer qualities."  And that's just what Kerley and Fotheringham do in the 19 double-page spreads of the narrative.

Eleven of those spreads feature a small four-page "Journal" glued in by its left side on the right-hand page near the gutter, as pictured below, making small books within the book::
These "journals" contain actual quotations, misspellings and all, from Susy's biography.

Author Barbara Kerley, in an I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) group blog post, said "I knew when I stumbled across Susy’s diary that it would be a rich counterpart to Twain’s own ‘polished up’ version of his life’s story."

Later, Twain quoted extensively from Susy's biography (retaining the misspellings) in his own Chapters from My Autobiography series for the North American Review, describing Susy as "a frank biographer and an honest one; she uses no sandpaper on me," who was "loyal to the responsibilities of her position as historian."

This is all the more poignant when you read, in the author's note at the end of the book, that Susy died at age 24 of spinal meningitis.  The end of the book also includes a selected timeline of Twain's life and detail on the sources used for each spread of the book.  Kerley also includes an excellent tip sheet on writing a biography appropriate for students, which is also available on the author's web site.

As you can see, the digital media illustrations are marvelous.  The people are (appropriately) cartoon-like, to fit Twain's humor, or shown in silhouette, in color schemes fitting the period.  Edwin Fotheringham even works in an 1890 photograph of Twain and Susy near the end of the book.

I can't recommend this book enough, and I'll be looking for more by Kerley and Fotheringham.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

Saturday, June 09, 2012

283 (2012 #28). Chapters from My Autobiography

by Mark Twain,
read by Bronson Pinchot

Twain began dictating (most) of his autobiography in 1906, but stipulated that it not be published until 100 years after his death in April, 1910.  Indeed, the first volume of that massive publication has recently come out.

However, Twain did select 25 extracts from his dictations and other papers to be published in the North American Review from September 1906 through December 1907.  That is what is included in this audiobook.

Twain doesn't tell his story chronologically.  Rather (from the introduction), he uses

a form and method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face, resulting in contrasts which newly fire up the interest all along, like contact of flint with steel. Moreover, this autobiography of mine does not select from my life its showy episodes, but deals mainly in the common experiences which go to make up the life of the average human being, because these episodes are of a sort which he is familiar with in his own life, and in which he sees his own life reflected and set down in print. The usual, conventional autobiographer seems to particularly hunt out those occasions in his career when he came into contact with celebrated persons, whereas his contacts with the uncelebrated were just as interesting to him, and would be to his reader, and were vastly more numerous than his collisions with the famous.

This, according to Twain (in "The Latest Attempt," one of the prefaces written to introduce the final form of the autobiography), is "the right way to do an Autobiography":

start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.

Indeed, this audiobook only touches on Twain's life, but mostly focuses on amusing anecdotes, and his family.  Most interesting (and emotive) are the sections on the death of his daughter Susy at age 24 in 1896, and Twain's inclusion of excerpts Susy wrote about her father in a biography she attempted at age 14.

Actor Bronson Pinchot is the perfect narrator for this audiobook - he applies an accent that makes you think Twain might be the one speaking.  The audiobook comes with a bonus disc containing a (190-page) PDF e-book of the contents, as well as a reading of Twain's The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

Friday, June 08, 2012

282 (2012 #27). Between Shades of Gray

by Ruta Sepetys

I REALLY wanted to like this book.  The story is one that needs to be told - many people don't know it.  More than 130,000 Lithuanians (at least 70 percent of them women and children) were sent to Siberia, the Arctic Circle or central Asia by the Soviets under Stalin. By the time the deportations ended with Stalin's death in 1953, some 30,000 Lithuanians had died, and another 50,000 never returned to their homeland.  Indeed, Lithuania did not reappear as a country for 50 years, in 1991.

My maternal great-grandparents were Lithuanian immigrants (although they arrived in this country in 1900 and earlier, and had both passed away before these deportations began), and I've recently made contact with a Lithuanian relative, so I was particularly interested in this book.  Author Ruta Sepetys is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, and made trips to the homeland as part of her research.  The book was a finalist for the William C. Morris Young Adult Debut Award this year, won the 2012 Golden Kite Award for Fiction, and was on a number of other recommended reading lists and award shortlists.

So why didn't I like this book?  It's Sepetys' first novel, and it shows.  The reader is plunged right into the action, with so little back story, that it is hard to care about the characters.  The narrator is fifteen-year-old Lina (thus the young adult classification).  Her father is a university administrator and her mother is a well-educated woman who can speak Russian.  Lina and her younger brother Jonas are deported one evening along with their mother, separated from their father (who they briefly encounter on another train, but do not see again).

The book is written in such a detached manner that I found it hard to feel the cold or the hunger the characters were experiencing.  The time spent on the train and the great distances traveled (6,500 miles!) feel short.  Minor characters come and go (and die), but are developed so little that it is difficult to feel much emotion about them.  The story slogged; it did not compel me to finish it (but I did).  Dialogue is in short, choppy sentences, and unmoving.  Lina mostly comes across as immature.

The book is interspersed with flashbacks to Lina's memories (that do help the reader), and numerous references to her artwork.  Indeed, the artwork is hinted at as a major plot point, but that doesn't seem to come to pass.  If the artwork was so important, it would have been nice to have a few illustrations of it in the book.

The story ends abruptly and unsatisfactorily. You learn a little about what happened to Lina and one major character (at least in 1954), but no one else. If this book wasn't about such an important, rarely-discussed topic, I don't think it would have garnered the attention (and awards) it's received.  It's not THAT good - which is too bad. 

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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