Monday, January 28, 2013

322 (2013 #6). Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

by Jennifer Chiaverini

Best known for her Elm Creek Quilts series (of which I've read nearly all), this is Jennifer Chiaverini's first foray into the genre of biographical novels.

I read this book shortly after seeing the movie Lincoln, in which mixed-race former slave Elizabeth Keckley is more than a minor character.  Keckley was more than Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker, she also became a friend and a confidante, due to her role preparing Mrs. Lincoln for official functions (dress, hair, etc.).

I could see why Mrs. Lincoln and Keckley became friends.  Each of them was caught between two worlds.  Mrs. Lincoln was married to the leader of the Union, but had family members fighting for the Confederacy. Keckley, due to her position in the White House and her status as a free black woman, was caught between the white world and the black.

This book starts in Washington, D.C., in November 1860, when Lincoln is elected to his first term.  Keckley at that time was the dressmaker for the wives of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, as well as other Washington elite.  At this point, Keckley was already 42, and Chiaverini weaves in some details from Keckley's past - her purchase of her freedom, her rape by a white man and subsequent son, George, and her separation from and death of her husband.

In many respects, the book is more about the Civil War and its effects on those living in Washington, D.C. at the time (well-researched by Chiaverini), and about Abraham and especially Mary Todd Lincoln, than it is about Keckley. Mrs. Lincoln dies on page 334, and the story ends 16 pages later, even though Keckley outlived Mrs. Lincoln by 25 years.  I think I will need to read Keckley's memoir, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868), on which this book was based, particularly to learn more about Keckley's early life.

Not surprisingly for the author of a series of books tied to quilt-making, this book also found its inspiration in a quilt.  This one is attibuted to Keckley, and is supposedly made mostly from scraps of fabric of dresses she made for Mary Todd Lincoln.  According to an interview, Chiaverini came across a photograph of it while researching Civil War era quilts for the fourth book in her Elm Creek Quilts Series, The Runaway Quilt.  Later, while researching for another Civil War-era book in the series, The Union Quilters, she "realized that many of my secondary sources cited the same work," Keckley's memoir.

Chiaverini said, "I longed to delve more deeply into Elizabeth Keckley’s history, to learn about the woman she was beyond her friendship with Mary Lincoln, to discover what had happened after the closing passages of her memoir, and to uncover the details of everyday life in wartime Washington she had omitted."  What comes across most strongly, though, is a more balanced portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln by someone (Keckley) more sympathetic to her than most of her contemporaries.

A good fictional complement to this book is An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, by Ann Rinaldi, which delves more deeply into the early years of these two women, before they meet.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

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

Monday, January 21, 2013

321 (2013 #5). Home Front

by Kristin Hannah

Jolene is a helicopter pilot in the Army Reserves and the mother of two daughters.  Her 12-year marriage to attorney Michael is on rocky ground, and then she's called up and sent to Iraq.  A life-changing event there has a profound effect on her as well as all of her family and friends.

I won enough copies of this book to distribute to my book club, and we discussed it last week.   This isn't the type of book our group typically chooses - we tend to gravitate towards literary fiction, historical fiction and narrative nonfiction.  However, members felt that even though it "looks like a romance," it was "good to read" and "very informative" about life for a military family, especially during deployment.

Some of us, though, were "surprised at her relationship with her husband," and felt the portrayal of Michael was not realistic.  We found it hard to believe that someone with anti-war sentiments would even date a member of the Reserves, let alone marry her.  We were also surprised by how unprepared he seem to be for her deployment.

Reservists spend a weekend a month and two weeks each year away from their families.  On top of that, according to her interview with Chief Warrant Officer 5 Teresa Burgess, a female helicopter pilot who was author Kristin Hannah's advisor, "Pilots have extra requirements for duty to keep proficient at their flying duties."

Surely Michael would have had some practice and be able to take care of a 12-year-old and a 4-year-old on his own?   He was luckier than most, having the help of his mother, Mila.  We were amused with the scene about sanitary napkins, although that was foreshadowed earlier in the story.

Another member, though, said that "before Iraq, a lot of people were in the National Guard thinking they'd never be deployed."  However, this same member "didn't see him as patriotic" and felt Michael's change at the end of the book "was too quick."

Some of us thought the 12-year-old, Betsy, was incredibly bratty, but others thought her "behavior was realistic" - "girls about that age are monsters."  Some of us thought the 4-year-old, Lulu, was too babyish.  Others thought the big age gap between the girls contributed to that, and that perhaps Jolene "wanted to keep the little one a baby."

One member who couldn't attend our discussion wrote:

...I did read the book.  Enjoyed it too.  As a prior military wife, I felt that it was very accurate with the exception of one tiny detail.  When the husband went through the gate of the military base, the book said that he showed his driver's license.  As a military family member, the husband should have been issued a military ID card that is normally shown to the sentry at the base gate.  In addition the military family is issued a base sticker that is affixed to the windshield of all family vehicles.  If the driver happens to be using a non-family vehicle, such as a rental car, the military ID card would suffice.  I've never seen the sentry ask for a driver's license.

On a personal note, I enjoyed the side story about Michael's Keller case, the veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Having lived in the Seattle area for 21 years, I also liked the little details that brought that area, especially Poulsbo, to life.

We all agreed that, despite its inaccuracies or unrealistic scenarios, the book was eye-opening with its focus on the effects of deployment and PTSD on the military and their families.  We enjoyed the opportunity to read a genre we might not normally choose, and thank for the chance to do so!

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[Would you like to get free copies of Home Front for your book club to discuss?  I have a number I can send one lucky group, if you and members of your group will agree to post comments or feedback about the book and/or their discussion on one or more of the following:
You also need to agree to pass the books on to others for free, or donate them to a library or other charitable group.

E-mail me at chick_a_deedd at yahoo dot com and tell me the number of members in your book club.  First group to respond with the number that matches the quantity of books I have wins, and I will send the books to you for free by media mail rate.  Contest open only to residents of the USA.]

Monday, January 14, 2013

318 - 320 (2013 #2 - #4). Three Cruise Reads

On my recent eight-day cruise, I managed to finish three novels.  Gold was my prize in a book exchange game in December; The Art of Fielding was picked up in the ships' book exchange (it had been on a lot of recommendation lists for book clubs, so I wanted to read it), and The Turkish Mirror was sent by a friend in my former book club in Washington - they were reading it and had the author visit their discussion.

Gold, by Chris Cleave, continues the Olympic theme of my previous read, Olympic Affair.  This one, though, is set (mostly) in a four-day period in early April, 2012.  Zoe and Kate are friends and Olympic-level competitors in track cycling.  Kate's husband, Jack, is another competitor, and he slept with Zoe in the past.  Zoe is a three-time gold medalist from 2004 and 2008; Jack won gold in 2004.  Kate didn't qualify for the 2004 Olympics due to caring for baby Sophie, and skipped her event in 2008 due to Sophie's illness - diagnosed as leukemia - which distracted Jack enough that he missed the start of his event.  Unfortunately, a rule change for 2012 means each country can only send one competitor to each event, not two, so a showdown between Zoe and Kate is imminent.

The plot is somewhat predictable, although a twist does come about 200 pages in.  Zoe in particular is not very likable, and with the mean things Zoe has done to her, it surprises me that Kate is her friend.  However, I enjoyed learning more about sprints in cycling and all the work (training and eating regimens) to be an Olympic-level athlete in this sport.  And I do love the book's cover art.

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, continues the sports theme, as most of the main characters play baseball, and the title refers to a (mythical) book by a (mythical) professional baseball player on the "art" of playing the game.

For amazing shortstop Henry Skrimshander, it's his Bible.  Henry is a small-town high school senior discovered by (mythical) Westish (northern lakefront Wisconsin) College Harpooners baseball team captain Mike Schwartz in a summer league.  The other main characters in the book are Henry's gay mulatto college roommate and teammate, Owen; the college president, Affenlight (who falls in love with Owen); and Affenlight's daughter, Pella (who falls for Mike).  The story is told from the point of view of each of these five characters. 

 Henry's never made a fielding error in a game, but the first time a throw goes awry (on page 69), it sets in motion the events of the remaining 443 (!) pages of the book.

I thought the characters were wonderful and very well-developed - even some of the minor ones, such as the other teammates, and the college dining hall supervisor.  Yes, it is a baseball novel, but it's more a college coming-of-age story.  I thought the ending was a little weak, though, with the scene in the cemetery a bit over-the-top.  Still, I'd recommend this book, especially for book clubs with both male and female members.

I had a tough time getting into The Turkish Mirror, by Seattle-area physician Lisa Murphy, because I'm not much for fantasy.  I'm sure others will love it for that very reason.

The two main characters, Tatyana and her daughter Jie, are both artists who are trying to escape the curse of an enchanted mirror made by Hades, the god of the underworld.  The story takes place in London, Paris, and a small village in Turkey, and the author makes good use of her visits there in the details.  The characters are quite international - Russian, Chinese, Indian.

Jie is a graffiti artist in London, and uses a lot of slang that's like a foreign language for me - a glossary at the end of the book might have been helpful. While I'm not a fan of graffiti, it was interesting and educational to read about graffiti as an art form, and how Jie created her works.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[Gold is an advance reader edition, so it will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.  The other two books will be sold or donated to my university or local public library.]

Thursday, January 03, 2013

317 (2013 #1). Olympic Affair

by Terry Frei

Subtitled "A Novel of Hitler's Siren and America's Hero," this is a fascinating piece of historical fiction based on a true story - the love affair between American decathlete Glenn Morris and famous German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.  The two met during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, which is better known for Jesse Owens than this story.  I'd never heard of Morris before this book.

Although she claimed she was not a member of the Nazi party, former actress Riefenstahl had made some controversial pro-Nazi films, such as Triumph of the Will, and was definitely close to Hitler and his cohorts.  She was at the Olympics to make the documentary Olympia Morris went on to short careers in the NFL and in Hollywood. Frei implies the latter was due to Riefenstahl giving him the idea that he could be a big star. He starred in one film, Tarzan's Revenge (along with another former Olympian, 1932 backstroke gold medalist Eleanor Holm), that flopped.

Later in her life, Riefenstahl admitted the relationship, expressing sadness that they did not continue it.  Morris seemed to have grounds for more regret, given that the affair may have broken up his later marriage to his pre-Olympics sweetheart, and pretty much ruined his life.  A small-town boy from Colorado, Morris comes off as rather naive in the book, which he probably was.

Author Terry Frei is a sports columnist for the Denver Post.  The book is well-researched, and includes a bibliography and an extensive author's note at the end that tells what's true and what's not.  I thought the book was a little long, and that some of the repetitious detail about the pre-Olympic practices could have been left out.  Some of the conversations seem a little stilted, especially those with the supposed U.S. governmental agents who meet with Morris about Riefenstahl.

Nevertheless, I'd recommend this book, especially for sports fans. It was fascinating reading about how the 1936 Olympic team was chosen, its journey by ship to Berlin, (most of) the pre-competition practices and recreational activities, the competitions themselves, and the follow-up track meets across Europe.  Even reading about what happened to the oak seedlings gold medalists were given at the 1936 Games was interesting.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, in exchange for an honest review.  It will be given to either my university or my local public library.]