Monday, September 30, 2013

357 (2013 #41). Cleopatra: A Life

An acquaintance gave my husband this book about three years ago after we'd observed him reading it over a number of weeks, and I finally got around to reading it myself.  I've always wanted to know more about this famous woman, beyond Shakespeare's play and Liz Taylor's portrayal in the movies. 

Cleopatra: A Life, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Schiff, is a nonfiction biography, despite the (beautiful) cover's implication that it might be historical fiction or a fictionalized biography.

On the other hand, since so little was written about Cleopatra during and just after her lifetime (and what WAS written has to be taken with a grain of salt, given that her enemies were the historians), Schiff has to speculate and make assumptions quite often throughout this book.  I felt Schiff was fair and did her best to present both sides on Cleopatra, pro and con.  Forty-one pages of end notes show that Ms. Schiff certainly did the research to back her conclusions.

The book sustained my interest, probably mostly because I was very intrigued by the subject.  Schiff's writing style did not always help.  There were times when her phrasing was awkward, or she used dozens of words when half that amount would do.  I have to wonder if the fact that she'd won the Pulitzer made editors less likely to suggest changes in her prose.

I'm also not too crazy about the cover, despite its beauty.  It reminds me of the fictionalized accounts of other queens and historical women by Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir.  I would have rather seen a more early-Egyptian cover design - although it is true that Cleopatra wore pearls woven into her hair.

I'm glad I read the book as I learned a lot about Cleopatra (she was a clever and powerful leader), and especially about the Egypt and Alexandria of her day.  It's definitely not a light read, but I would recommend it to anyone wanting a serious biography about this fascinating woman.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[My husband received this book as a gift.  After he reads it, it will be donated to my university library.]

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

356 (2013 #40). The One and Only Ivan

by Katherine Applegate,
read by Adam Grupper

What a fabulous book, and most deserving of the 2013 Newbery Medal!  I was both laughing and crying by its end.

"The One and Only Ivan," as the billboard on the interstate calls him, is a silverback lowland gorilla who's been living in a cage (he calls it his "domain") at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade for 9,855 days (as recorded by Ivan - 27 years).  His best friends are Stella, an aging elephant, and Bob, a stray dog who shares his cage at night.   He also interacts with Mack, his (and the mall's) owner; George the janitor; and George's daughter Julia.  He is an artist, drawing with crayons and paper Julia shoves through a hole in his cage, and later with markers and fingerpaints.

One day, though, a new baby elephant, Ruby, arrives, and everything changes...

Ivan narrates this touching story in very short chapters and sentences.  The print book is easy to read as a result, and is scattered with charming black-and-white illustrations by Patricia Castelao.  Actor Adam Grupper is marvelous on the audiobook as Ivan, with his rich, deep voice, but also creates unique voices for the other characters.

Katherine Applegate, probably best-known for the Animorphs series so popular with kids when my son was young (1990s), based Ivan on a real animal - the infamous "Ivan the Shopping Mall Gorilla," who spent 27 years alone in a small cage in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington.  I was living in the Seattle area when Ivan was in the news, with a public outcry for a better home for him.  He eventually wound up in Zoo Atlanta and died in August 2012, just a few months after this book was published, at the age of 50 from a chest tumor.  The real Ivan did in fact fingerpaint.

This book was an excellent choice for the 2013 Newbery Medal.  The audiobook is recommended for ages 8-13, grades 3-7.  That's probably about the right age range, as some of the themes of the book might be difficult for younger children to handle.  The short chapters would make it work well for a read-aloud, and yet should not frustrate struggling readers.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

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

Friday, September 20, 2013

355 (2013 #39). The Tilted World

by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

The Tilted World is a historical fiction / thriller set in 1927, during Prohibition and the great Mississippi River flood of that year.   Twenty-two year old Dixie Clay Holliver is a bootlegger, taking over making moonshine for her philandering husband Jesse after their baby boy dies.  Ted Ingersoll is a revenuer, a federal agent who, with his partner Ham Johnson, has been sent into the Hobnob Landing area on the river, both to find out who murdered two other revenuers as well as locate the local still.

Ingersoll and Ham (why they are referred to this way, instead of Ted and Ham, or Ingersoll and Johnson, is not clear), stumble on a robbery gone bad and a newly-orphaned infant.  Ingersoll is an orphan himself, and, rather than place the baby in an orphanage, he takes it to Dixie Clay (always referred to this way, and not just as Dixie) when he learns from a local storekeeper about her lost baby.  Predictably (but unrealistically), they fall in love.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi River is rising, higher than it's ever been before, and Hobnob worries about a breach in the levee protecting the town - either accidental or intentional.  Hobnob was offered money by New Orleans investors intent on saving their town from floodwaters to let its levees be destroyed, and sabotage is still a possibility.

While some of the plot (and the love story) is rather predictable, I enjoyed this book, as it's the first I've read about this great flood, of which I knew very little.  Most people don't know much about it - its major effects were on poor Southerners, "white trash" and black sharecroppers, so most of the country didn't care.

Also interesting is the fact that the book was written by a husband-and-wife team.  Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly had written a collaborative short story, which their agent suggested expanding into a novel they'd co-write.  Franklin has the thriller/fiction experience, while Fennelly specializes in poetry and nonfiction.  Some of the descriptive language, while quite lovely, was a little *too* purple for me, but they are spot on with experiences with a new baby (they'd just had their third while writing this book), and, as residents of Mississippi, are familiar with the setting and history of the area.  Like all good historical fiction, this book makes me want to learn more - this time, about the 1927 Mississippi flood.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[I won this advance reader edition in a contest by the publisher, William Morrow, with no expectation of anything in exchange.  The Tilted World will be published on October 1, 2013.  After that, I will pass my copy on for someone else to enjoy.]

Thursday, September 12, 2013

354 (2013 #38). Mindless Eating

by Brian Wansink

This is NOT a diet book, and the advice it gives really isn't anything new.  What is fascinating about this book is reading about all the scientific studies author Brian Wansink and his Cornell University Food and Brand Lab have done on the psychology of our eating habits (and how marketing affects them).

For example:  they did a “bottomless soup bowl” test. When a bowl was secretly refilled with tomato soup — using a tube hidden beneath a table — people ate far more of the soup than usual. That is because people use the amount left in the bowl as a measure of how much they have already eaten.

In another experiment, they found that office workers sitting near clear (see-through) dishes filled with Hershey’s Kisses ate 71 percent — or 77 calories — more a day than those sitting near white (opaque) dishes of the candy. Over a year, that would be more than five pounds of extra weight. Also, they found people ate less from dishes located even as little as six feet away as opposed to candy dishes on or in their desks.

In the first nine chapters of the book, Wasnick concludes summaries of his research with a number of related "reengineering" strategies to help eating move from mindless to mindful.  For example, simply using smaller plates - 9.5 to 10 inches in diameter, rather than 12 inches - results in less overserving and consumption of food.  Even the color of the dishes can make a difference - higher contrast between the plate and the food results in you noticing the size of the serving more.

The tenth and final chapter has Wasnick's plan for mindful eating.  Most diets don't work (in the long rung) because the body recognizes ti's being deprived when you drop your daily intake down to 1500 calories or less.  But, a daily reduction of 100 to 200 calories isn't noticed by the metabolism, and the weight will come off, albeit very slowly.  He calls this 100-200 calories the "mindless margin."

Next, he says to focus on reengineering small behaviors that will move you from mindless overeating to mindless better eating. Common "diet danger zones" include
  • Meal Stuffing (eat fast, cleaning the plate, second helpings) 
  • Snack Grazing (eat whatever’s available, often out of nervous habit)
  • Party Binging (easy to lose track)
  • Restaurant Indulging (ditto)
  • Desk/Dashboard Dining (convenience, eat fast, multi-tasking)

Food trade-offs ("I can eat X if I do/don’t do/eat/don’t eat Y") and food policies, like many of those described at the ends of the previous chapters, can help you eat some of what you want without a belabored decision. 

Finally, he recommends picking just three behavioral changes to start with (for example, drink at least 64 ounces of water daily, chew gum when you want to snack, eat fruit when you want something sweet) and track them on a simple calendar, as it typically takes about 28 days to develop a habit.

Wasnick concludes the book with the statement, "The best diet is the one you don't know you're on," and that's certainly true.  I will be trying some of the recommendations in this book!

© Amanda Pape - 2013

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

Friday, September 06, 2013

353 (2013 #37). Pinning Your Family History

by Thomas MacEntee

Genealogy guru Thomas MacEntee has written a helpful guide to using Pinterest and other image and map based websites in family history research. Thomas provides some ideas on Pinterest boards you can create, as well as advice on copyright and terms of service issues. While I am already an avid user of Google Maps, one of the other sites he recommends, and am familiar with Historypin, I appreciated learning about other sites I was unfamiliar with, like What Was There (love the slider through time!) and uencounter.me. There's also a link to a free webinar on genealogy pinning at the end of the e-book. Thomas practices what he preaches, providing visibility for many family history blogs by pinning blog posts -- many on boards visible at his GeneaBloggers website. I will be trying some of his suggestions on my own Pinterest boards, and on the other sites he recommends.

Click here to download the book and remember, you don’t need a Kindle to read it! Check out the Free Kindle Reading Apps that let you read Kindle books on your computer, tablet or smartphone.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[Disclaimer:  I received this e-book for free during a promotion.  Currently the cost is $2.99.]