Monday, February 25, 2013

327 (2013 #11). The Secret Life of Bees

by Sue Monk Kidd,
read by Jenna Lamia

I first read this book in 2004, with my book club in Washington state.  I remembered loving the book back then, so when I realized my university library had the audiobook, I had to listen to it.

What a joy that was!  Jenna Lamia has the perfect voice for fourteen-year-old Lily Melissa Owens, the narrator and protagonist.  I was not surprised when I realized Lamia also voiced Skeeter in the excellent The Help audiobook.  Lamia's got circa-1960s Southern girls down pat!

The action in the book takes place entirely in July and August, 1964, and entirely in South Carolina.  Lily blames her four-year-old self for her mother Deborah's death, an accidental shooting while her parents were arguing.  Her father, whom she calls T. Ray, is cruel, neglectful, and aloof.  The only person who seems to care about lonely Lily is the family's black maid, Rosaleen.

While they are heading into town from T. Ray's peach orchard, Rosaleen "disrespects" some white men, and she and Lily are arrested.  T. Ray gets Lily out of jail, but Rosaleen is beaten by her "victims" while she is there.  Lily decides to run away from home, and spirits Rosaleen out of the hospital where she's been taken for treatment of her beating injuries.  They hitch a ride to (fictional) Tiburon, South Carolina, because that's what's written on the back of a picture of a Black Madonna that, along with a photograph and a pair of white cotton gloves, are the only things Lily has left that were her mother's.

Eventually Lily and Rosaleen track down the source of the Black Madonna picture - a trio of beekeeping sisters who make honey with that image on the label:  August, June, and May Boatwright, who take Lily and Rosaleen in.

Two major parts of the story are the details on beekeeping and honey making (author Sue Monk Kidd obviously did her research, and quotes from many of her printed sources as the beginning of each chapter), and the veneration of Mary, the Mother of God.  The Boatwright sisters have an old ship's figurehead that has been worshiped by past generations as "Our Lady of Chains," and a group of local women called the "Daughters of Mary" have religious services centering on her.

Black Madonna of Czestochowa - Work found at
CC BY-SA 3.0
There is no "Black Madonna of Breznichar in Bohemia" as referred to in the story (page 139), but there is an Our Lady of Czestochowa, Poland, whose image looks nearly identical to the label on the honey on the audiobook cover.

I loved the references in the story that evoked my own memories of 1964 (and a few years later):  besides the white cotton gloves mentioned above, there was going to charm school, the dyed biddies (baby chicks) for sale before Easter at the grocery stores, the smell of cold cream, bomb drills and fallout shelters at school, President Johnson and Lady BirdWalter Cronkite and Ozzie and Harriet on TV, holy cards, bottling plant locations printed on the bottoms of Coke bottles, and the eternal flame at JFK's grave.

There's a lot of humor in the book.  Lily thinks about a not-so-Christian preacher, "Pious people have always gotten on my nerves." (page 44).  And, when dessert in one meal is cold Cokes and salted peanuts (you're supposed to put the peanuts into the Coke),

"I wanted to make a cobbler, " Rosaleen told June, "but August said it was gonna be Cokes and peanuts."  She said "Cokes and peanuts" the way you might say "snot and boogers." (page 217)

I think Kidd gave Lily and her mother their names for a reason.  In chapter 11, there is a reference (on page 234) to a drawing of the Annunciation in the (fictional) "Mary Through the Ages" book in August's bedroom, where the Angel Gabriel gives Mary a lily.  "Melissa" means "honey bee" in Greek, while "Deborah" means "bee" in Hebrew.  Although these latter two meanings are never referred to in the book, I can't help but think Kidd was intentional in her naming.

There's also a lot of symbolism in the bees and beehives (discussed a lot on page 206).  I didn't know, for example, that bees are a sign of resurrection and eternal life.

I 'd like to write more about how this story affected me, but I don't want to give too much of the story away.  A good summary (that hints at some of the feelings this book evokes in me) is in the introduction to the Penguin Reader's Guide for this book:

...a powerful story of coming-of-age, of the ability of love to transform our lives, and the often unacknowledged longing for the universal feminine divine. Addressing the wounds of loss, betrayal, and the scarcity of love, Kidd demonstrates the power of women coming together to heal those wounds, to mother each other and themselves, and to create a sanctuary of true family and home.

I love this book, and I can't recommend it enough.  Definitely worth a re-read every few years.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  I picked up a paperback copy of the book at a Friends of the Library book sale, because this is one of those books I want in my collection, to read again.]

Monday, February 18, 2013

326 (2013 #10). A Good American

by Alex George

A Good American is historical fiction written in memoir style.  The fictional memoir is by James Meisenheimer, and he's telling his family's story.  His grandparents, Frederick and Jette, immigrated from Hanover, Germany, in 1904, and due to a series of mishaps, wound up in (fictional) Beatrice, Missouri, on the Missouri River.  They settle down there, have a family, run a bar.  But life - and historical events - intervene.

James is one of four sons of Frederick's and Jette's oldest child, Joseph, and his wife Cora.  James also has a spinster aunt, Rosa, Joseph's sister.  Author Alex George does an outstanding job developing these characters, as well as a host of interesting (and sometimes quirky) supporting characters that move in and out of the main characters' lives.

One of the things I really liked about this book was how the author tied in events in American history - Prohibition, World War I, the Great Depression, the Kennedy assasination, etc. - and showed their effect on the characters (not to mention their effects on the plot).  He may not like to do research (according to an interview), but he does a good job of it.

A memorable scene for me was when Joseph planned to serenade Cora with "Nessun Dorma." That is probably my favorite opera piece EVER.  Music is an important part of this novel.  While I like some opera and jazz, my favorite in this book would have to be the barbershop quartet singing. Not necessarily those types of songs, but the way four voices can harmonize, especially when not accompanied.  (Must be why I'm a closet fan of groups like NSync and the Backstreet Boys.)  George has even provided a link on his website to a playlist of songs mentioned in the book.

I was very eager to read this book.* Most of my ancestors were German immigrants, some from Hanover. They (great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents) had passed away before I was born, but I've been able to piece together much of their stories from other descendants and from the records they left behind.  (*I received an advance reader edition about a year ago, but it was missing pages 121-150, and I was not able to get a copy to read again until recently.)

Alex George is an immigrant himself, from England, who became a U.S. citizen about the time this book was published.  He has a real feel for the immigrant experience, noting in an interview:

I decided to tell an immigration tale soon after I moved to the United States myself. Writers are often told, "Write what you know.” It struck me that the experience of packing up my life and moving to another country, with no expectation that I would ever return home, was something worth writing about. And almost all people in America have a story similar to this one somewhere in their past. ...Frederick adores his new country immediately, and embraces it wholeheartedly. Jette, on the other hand, is constantly longing for home....This is the paradox of the immigrant existence: one wants to adapt to one’s new home without forgetting where one came from.

Read the rest of the aforementioned interview - Alex George has interesting comments about the concept of home and about family secrets, both of which I can relate to.  Oh, and read A Good American, too - you won't be disappointed.  I look forward to Alex George's next book.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

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

Monday, February 11, 2013

325 (2013 #9). All This Talk of Love

by Christopher Castellani

It's the autumn of 1999, and Prima Grasso Buckley and her husband Tom surprise their four sons, her parents, Antonio and Maddelena, and her brother Frankie with tickets to visit Santa Cecilia, the Italian village from which her parents emigrated (50 years before), in August of the following year.  Maddelena and Frankie immediately announce that they don't want to go.

Prima, Antonio, Frankie, and Maddelena are the narrators of this story, and the reader learns about their lives and secrets.  Prima is rather obsessive about her family and overprotective of (and lenient with) her children.  Antonio still manages the Italian restaurant in Wilmington he founded, but is worried about its future after he's gone.  Frankie is much younger than his sister and is working on an endless dissertation in Boston and having an affair with his married advisor.  All of them, but especially Maddalena, mourn Tony, the son who committed suicide at age fourteen, thirty years before, whose death had such a profound impact on them all.  The following spring, a couple of health crises further affect the family.

I found Frankie's story the most interesting, as the changes in his family's lives seemed to spark changes in his own, and got him out of the rut he was in with his dissertation and the affair.  He seems to be the most "Americanized" of the four main characters, with little awareness or concern for his roots.  The other three reflect the other common attitudes of immigrants and their first-generation offspring.  Antonio embraces his new life in America and is well integrated into it, but longs to revisit his homeland.  Maddalena uses her new life as an opportunity to forget the unpleasantness of the past and always look ahead (so what happens to her is especially heartbreaking).  I most identified with Prima, the daughter who is most definitely American born and bred, but is also interested in her Italian roots.

Author Christopher Castellani based part of the book on his own experiences with his Italian immigrant parents.   He grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, and now lives in Boston, and visited his parents' Italian village with them in 1995, so he is familiar with the settings in his book, and it shows.

After reading this book, I learned it was the third in a trilogy centered around Maddelena.  Although this book stands alone well, and I enjoyed it, I think it would have helped to have read the first two books before this one.  It might have helped me understand Maddelena better, particularly her reasons for not wanting to return to Santa Cecilia.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be donated to my local public or university library, or passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Monday, February 04, 2013

323 - 324 (2013 #7 & #8). Two More Books about Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley

I picked up these two books from the children's section of my local public library the same day I picked up my hold on Jennifer Chiaverini's latest book, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker.  These two have oddly similar titles.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: The Unlikely Friendship of Elizabeth Keckley & Mary Todd Lincoln, by Lynda Jones, is an 80-page nonfiction book published by National Geographic.  It outlines Mary's and Elizabeth's story in nine short chapters, but is richly illustrated with period photographs and drawings, albeit in black and white.  It includes an index and bibliography, as well as the sources for all quotations used in the book for dialogue.

The book's design is lovely.  As noted on the verso page,

The patterns behind the images on the chapter opening pages are from fabrics popular in the mid to late 1800s.  Each pattern was chosen to reflect the setting and economic level of the chapter's part of the narrative [which tends to alternate between Mary and Elizabeth].  For example, the pattern on page 14 is a simple homespun pattern used to introduce Elizabeth's childhood [as a slave].  The fabric patterns become more elaborate as time progresses.  Exceptions include the backgrounds on page 52, which is bunting to reflect the election theme, and on page 70, which is taken from the quilt Elizabeth made from scraps of material left over from the dresses she made for Mary Todd Lincoln [with a striking photo superimposed of Elizabeth from the 1890s].

I'd recommend this book for anyone, adult or child, wanting to learn the basics about the relationship of these two women of history.

An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, by Ann Rinaldi, is historical fiction about these two women.  It opens on April 14, 1865, with a prologue with scenes just before and after the assassination of Lincoln, relayed through third-person narration.

This is followed by a section on Mary Todd's early life in Lexington, Kentucky, beginning when she is seven and about to get a new stepmother, up to the point where she moves to Springfield, Illinois, to live with her sister, at age nineteen.  This part is told in first person.  Then, there is a short chapter, again told in third person, about "What Happened after Mary Todd Met Abraham Lincoln," which ends with Mary hiring Elizabeth Keckley as her dressmaker in Washington, D.C., in 1861.

Next, there is a section told in first person from Elizabeth's viewpoint, about her early years as a slave, beginning at age four and ending at age eighteen in 1839, with the birth of her son George, the result of an unwanted sexual relationship with a man to whom her owner hired her out.  This is followed by a final third-person chapter on Elizabeth's following years, obtaining her freedom, and establishing her business, up to the point where she meets Mary Todd Lincoln.

The epilogue is brief (nine pages), again told in third person, about their White House period, with only a couple pages of those nine on their long post-assassination lives. The book concludes with an author's note and bibliography.

Although written for ages 10 and up, I feel this book is appropriate for adults as well.  It provides insights into the early lives of these two women that can lead one to see why a friendship developed.  It's a good complement to Jennifer Chiaverini's Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, which concentrates on Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley from the White House years onward.

And, I love the note printed on the back of the dust jacket:  "WARNING:  This is a historical novel.  Read at your own risk.  The writer feels it necessary to alert you to the fact that you might enjoy it."

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[These books were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]