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 fiancĂ©e’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.]

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

290 (2012 #35). The Language of Flowers

by Vanessa Diffenbaugh,
read by Tara Sands

Victoria Jones is a ward of the state who's just turned 18 and aged out of the foster care system.  After a number of unsuccessful placements, she's spent the previous eight years in a succession of group homes.  Abandoned as an infant, she is uncertain even of her birth date. Suffering from attachment disorder, she is mistrustful, aloof, at times irresponsible, and hates to be touched.  Her case worker, Meredith, describes her this way: "Detached.  Quick-tempered. Tight-lipped.  Unrepentant." (page 13)

Victoria moves into a halfway house in San Francisco, and has three months rent-free to find a job.  Instead, Victoria spends that time cultivating a garden in her room and transplanting it to a public park, where she lives a while when she is homeless after being evicted.

The only way Victoria is able to truly communicate is through flowers.  She's a natural arranging them, and manages to land a job with a local florist.  Soon, customers seek her out, because she understands the old Victorian “language of flowers,” and can devise bouquets and centerpieces that convey a message.

Victoria learned this language from Elizabeth, the only foster mother she had that seemed to understand her.  Elizabeth is a single woman who owns a vineyard and is estranged from her sister, who owns the flower farm next door.  Elizabeth and Victoria build a relationship – then something goes terribly wrong.

The adult Victoria finds a young man at the flower market who also understands the language of flowers, and, through their burgeoning relationship, she must confront the secrets in her past.

Diffenbaugh alternates chapters narrated by the present-day Victoria with ones narrated by her nine-to-ten-year-old self, living with Elizabeth.  This technique heightens suspense and builds the reader’s understanding of Victoria’s flawed character. 

Readers will find themselves rooting for Victoria and the supportive people in her life (all well-developed too).  I couldn't help but like Renata, the florist who gives Victoria a job; and Renata's sister Natalya (Victoria's landlord) and mother Ruby (a midwife), as well as Marlena (Victoria's assistant).  And I'd love to read more about Elizabeth.  Elizabeth's nephew, Grant, was the only character who seemed a little too good to be real.

Debut author Vanessa Diffenbaugh draws on her experiences as a foster mother for this story.  In an interview, she says, "One young woman in particular...was fiery and focused and distrusting and unpredictable in a manner similar to Victoria.  Her history was intense: a number on her birth certificate where a name should have been; more foster homes than she could count.  Still, she was resilient, beautiful, smart, and funny.  We loved her completely, and she did her best to sabotage it, over and over again.  To this day my husband and I regret that we couldn’t find a way to connect with her and become the stable parents she deserved."  (I think this is the "Megan" Diffenbaugh refers to in her acknowledgements at the end of the print book.)   Diffenbaugh has founded the nonprofit Camellia Network to support youth aging out of foster care. 

A bonus is an eight-page dictionary of flower meanings at the end of the print copy of the book. Like Victoria, Diffenbaugh constructed her dictionary by resolving the often-conflicting meanings in multiple dictionaries, including the 1884 Kate Greenaway's Language of Flowers.

A tale of heartbreak, forgiveness, and reconciliation, this book will be excellent for discussion groups and anyone with an interest in gardening or flowers.  I look forward to my group's upcoming discussion, and plan to bring some flowers to give messages to my fellow group members (probably freesias - they mean "lasting friendship," and they have a marvelous scent!).

I listened to the audio version of this book during my daily commute (40 minutes one-way), and it was all I could do to stay disciplined and not grab the print edition I'd also borrowed and read ahead.  I was so entranced with the story and eager to know what would happen next.  Actress Tara Sands does an outstanding job as the narrator.  She is youthful enough to be a realistic Victoria (both at ages 18-19 and 9-10), and she creates unique voices for the other characters.  She added much to my enjoyment of this book.

The Language of Flowers is a keeper - highly recommended

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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