Tuesday, April 29, 2014

394 (2014 #22). Mrs. Lincoln's Rival

by Jennifer Chiaverini

This historical fiction / biographical novel is about Kate Chase Sprague, the "Belle of Washington" or "Belle of the North" during the Civil War.  She was the daughter of Salmon P. Chase, an Ohio governor and senator, who was Lincoln's first Secretary of the Treasury, and who was later appointed by Lincoln as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Kate was very pretty and very bright, and served as her thrice-widowed father's official hostess and political advisor and confidante (Chase had aspirations to be President).  While the two women apparently did not have a high opinion of each other in real life, Kate's "rivalry" with First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln is not a major part of the book (and somewhat misleading as a title - although I have to wonder if the book was so named to dovetail with Chiaverini's other book with the same setting, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, which I liked better).

Much of the book focuses on the courtship and marriage of Kate and Rhode Island governor William Sprague, a wealthy businessman who later became a senator from that state.  Sadly, their marriage was an unhappy one.  I did not find Kate to be a particularly likable character, but I did feel sorry for her in this marriage.

The book covers the period from March 1858, when Kate is 18, through the period just after Lincoln's assassination.  The Civil War comes up often as news of the battles reaches Washington, D.C. (often by incorporating quotes from real newspaper articles of the era), and the social life there is described in detail (dresses, food, etc.). Maybe too much detail for both, as the book felt a bit long.  An author's note at the end tells what happened to Kate and her family afterwards, and the acknowledgments section lists an impressive number of sources.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Saturday, April 26, 2014

393 (2014 #21). The Monuments Men

by Robert N. Edsel
with Bret Witter

I was stuck in the hospital for six extra hours a few weeks ago after an unexpected (but minor) complication in my husband's medical procedure.  I hadn't expected to be there that long and had not brought anything to read, but I did have my Kindle with me.  So I quickly borrowed this e-book from my local public library's e-book collection, as I'd heard another friend talk about wanting to read the book.

The Monuments Men tells an important story about a group of men (and women), many of whom were art experts, assigned to the Allies' multinational Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program during World War II.  Their job was to try to protect historic and cultural sites from war damage, and later, as the war ended, to find and return works of art and cultural artifacts that had been hidden for their protection or stolen by the Nazis.

This book focuses on eight of those men (most American, but some British), the director of the French National Museum, and a remarkable French woman named Rose Valland, who risked her life with the Nazis to keep track of the art they were stealing.  The action all takes place in the nine months between D-Day and V-E Day, in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Austria.  The book incorporates actual journal entries and letters home written by the Monuments Men (which I really liked), as well as a number of period photographs, and some maps (although the latter were very hard to see in the e-book).

According to an interview in the Wall Street Journal, multimillionaire author Robert Edsel moved to Florence, Italy, in 1997, after selling his oil and gas business, "with no grand plan except to find a grand passion. 'I'd always been interested in art and architecture....So if the continent was in shambles, how did all these works of art survive?'" He spent years learning about and researching the Monuments Men, interviewing those still surviving and the descendants of others.

Edsel "had thousands of pages of material: he just needed help turning it into a book," according to his co-writer, Bret Witter, a self-described "professional co-author" who specializes in nonfiction.  Witter's website has a frank discussion of his involvement with this book. "This was not an easy book to write. Even with a sharp focus, the story was complex and sprawling. ... I wish my execution at point had been a bit better: the third person narration is sometimes too close, and the prose too purple. With this many storylines, the structure needed to be as simple as possible, and sometimes it isn’t. Robert didn’t want to write a traditional history, where you sit back observing from a distance. He wanted readers to feel what it was like to be there. We had the source material to pull it off, and I think we created a unique—and uniquely compelling—book, but occasionally, I fear, I took it too far."

That helps explain some of my feelings about this book.  The story is fascinating, it just could have been told so much better.  Some of the chapters are extremely short (only a couple of pages) and jump from one character's story to another, which, with ten main characters, made the plot hard to follow at times.

Edsel has definitely found his passion.  He'd done enough research to write another book about the work of the Monuments Men, Saving Italy, about their work in that country.  His website includes resources for educators, and he also started the Monuments Men Foundation to honor the work of the MFAA, and to continue to search for still-missing treasures from the war years.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Thursday, April 24, 2014

392 (2014 #20). Quiet

by Susan Cain,
read by Kathe Mazur

Before I read this book, I thought I was more extroverted than introverted - but now I definitely think I'm a closet introvert.  In the introduction to Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, author Susan Cain has 20 true-false statements (pages 13-14), such as "I often prefer to express myself in writing," "I often let calls go through to voice mail," and "I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or two close friends or family members." I answered true to 17 of them, meaning I am probably more introverted than extroverted.  I certainly don't consider myself to be quiet, though.

This nonfiction book is an exploration of introversion and extroversion.  The introduction makes it clear that introversion is not synonymous with shyness, an assumption a lot of people make that also, I believe, causes mis-identification.  I'm certainly not shy, so people (including myself) often assume I am an extrovert.

Part One talks about the rise of the "extrovert ideal," the ways society tends to favor extroverts, and how this came about.  For me, the most valuable part of this section was the chapter called "When Collaboration Kills Creativity," which talks about how group projects and brainstorming, working in "teams,", and open-office plans can actually hurt productivity, especially for those who are more introverted.

Part Two reviews some of the research on the biological basis for introversion and extroversion, and the nature-versus-nurture question.  It also explores the role of free will (which explains why some introverts, like me, are okay with public speaking).  Studies have shown that "high-reactive" babies often grow up to be introverts (page 10), and that "introverts are more sensitive than extroverts to various kinds of stimulation...and that introverts and extroverts often need very different levels of stimulation to function at their best" (page 123-4). I thought the experiment described just after this was very interesting - apparently, introverts will salivate more when lemon juice is placed on their tongues.  I'll have to try this!

Part Three, was, in my opinion, the weakest part of the book.  Its single chapter discusses cultures (mostly Asian) that don't emphasize the extrovert ideal.  I felt the quietness discussed here was not truly introversion and extroversion, and the areas where Asians experience more (in school) and less (in business) success in America had more to do with their cultural norms and traditions.

Part Four is the "advice for introverts" section, suggesting times they should act more extroverted than they really are, how introverts and extroverts can best communicate with each other (particularly in a marriage), and how to best raise quiet kids, with ideas for both teachers and parents.

Her conclusion pretty much sums up the points in her book in just two-plus pages.  However, I was disappointed with the stereotype on page 265: "Quit your job as a TV anchor and get a degree in library science." I'm a librarian who interacts with people all day long at a reference desk, multitasking, and I give presentations frequently.

Actress Kathe Mazur has the perfect soft voice for a book with this title, but an audiobook is not ideal if you want to study this book in depth.  For one thing, Cain's extensive end notes (47 pages that reference her sources) and the nine-page index are not available in the audio.  On the other hand, listening to the audiobook is a good introduction to the subject - but I'd recommend having a print copy available for reference too, as well as for re-reading.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Saturday, April 19, 2014

391 (2014 #19). The Husband's Secret

by Liane Moriarty,
read by Caroline Lee

This book was just published in July 2013 and isn't out in paperback yet, so technically, it didn't meet the requirements for our book club meeting this past Tuesday.  My public library's copy was checked out, the audio edition in their digital collection would not work on my device, and I was unable to get the book through interlibrary loan before our book club meeting.  Since I had a big road trip coming up (12+ hours on the road in one week, the week before book club), I finally signed up for a free 30-day Audible.com trial membership and downloaded this book to listen to during my travels.  Therefore, I'll be reviewing both my experience with Audible.com as well as this book.

What would you do if you found a letter secreted by your still-living spouse and marked "to be opened only in the event of my death"?  That's the question that confronts superwoman Cecilia Fitzpatrick at the beginning of this contemporary realistic fiction novel.  Married to the handsome John-Paul and with three daughters ages 6-12, 40-something Cecilia has a successful Tupperware business and is recognized as a leader in the parent organization of her daughters' Catholic school, St. Angela's, in Sydney, Australia.

Meanwhile, over in Melbourne, thirty-something Tess O'Leary's husband Will has a secret too - he's fallen in love with Tess' formerly-fat first cousin Felicity.  Tess decides to take their six-year-old son Liam with her to Sydney to help her mom Lucy, who's broken her ankle, while she decides what to do next.  She enrolls Liam in St. Angela's and runs into its P.E. teacher - an old flame of hers, Connor Whitby.

The school secretary at St. Angela's is sixty-something Rachel Crowley, who still mourns the murder of her teenage daughter Janie 28 years earlier.  Rachel is convinced that Rachel's boyfriend at the time, Connor Whitby, is the one who did it.  Rachel is also dealing with the proposed move of her son Rob and his career-driven wife to New York - taking Rachel's only adored grandson Jacob with them.

You might have a hint now of what the big secret in the letter is, but I won't spoil it.  Suffice to say there's a shocking twist near the end of the book, and an even more surprising epilogue.  The chapters in the book alternate viewpoints between Cecilia, Tess, and Rachel (but in third person, past tense), with occasional interspersion of chapters dated April 6, 1984, chronicling the last day of Janie Crowley's life.  Other than those flashbacks (and others involving the Berlin Wall, with which Cecilia's daughter Esther is currently obsessed), all the events in the book take place in the week leading up to and including Easter Sunday.   (It's also kind of neat to realize Easter falls in the autumn in Australia.)

I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would.  While parts of the plot strained credulity, the choices made by Cecilia, Tess, and Rachel can generate excellent discussions in a book club.  The characterizations of these three women were excellent.  I could really relate to each of them, and Tess in particular.  While I might not agree with all of their choices, I could at least understand why they made them.  I also like the way author Liane Moriarty worked in the myth of Pandora.  Ethics and morals, betrayal and forgiveness, and grief and guilt are major and thought-provoking themes in this book.  I would definitely read another book by this author.

I'd also gladly listen to another audiobook narrated by acrtress and writer Caroline Lee.  Her Australian accent was delightful, and perfect for a story set in that country.  Although she didn't attempt to create unique "voices" for each character, little nuances in her presentation helped flesh out Cecilia, Tess, and Rachel more fully, at least for me.

As for Audible.com - since it's an Amazon company, this audiobook worked great on my Kindle.  I did have to use an earphone on one ear as the volume of the Kindle speakers was not loud enough to be heard over road noise.

One of the features I really liked with Audible.com was the ability to change the speed at which the audiobook played.  I was a little concerned about whether or not I'd be able to finish this normally-13.75-hour audiobook in time for my book club meeting.  So I increased the speed to 1.5 times the normal rate. This worked fine with Caroline Lee's voice, maybe even made the book a little better, but it might not work for all narrators.  I also liked the feature that allowed me to "rewind" 30 seconds (multiple times if need be) to catch a part I missed or wanted to listen to again.

Still - the kind of audiobooks I like to listen to are still readily available on CD at libraries, so at $14.95 a month, I'm not likely to keep my Audible membership.  I would pick it up again though if I needed to listen to a particular book by a deadline and couldn't get the audio any other way.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[The audiobook was obtained during a 30-day trial from Audible.com.  A print copy for review was borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]

Friday, April 18, 2014

390 (2014 #18). The Medici Boy

by John L'Heureux

This novel is set in the 15th-century, in the early Italian Renaissance, and takes the reader to the side of the great sculptor Donatello in his bottegas (workshops) in Florence and Padua, as well as evoking what life was like in that era.

The story is told through the eyes of the fictional Luca di Matteo, who suffers a rough early life.  Illegitimate, he is raised by greedy adoptive parents who are wool dyers.  He is too lustful to be a monk and not talented enough to be a painter, and nearly dies of the plague.  At age twenty, he becomes an apprentice/assistant to Donatello.

Luca's life is pretty pleasant until his adoptive parents' youngest natural son, Agnolo Mattei, shows up.  He's pretty useless around the bottega, but Donatello is besotted by him.

Eventually Agnolo becomes the model for a bronze statue of the biblical David commissioned by the powerful Cosimo de' Medici.  Reading about the processes involved in sculpting the statue and pouring the bronze was fascinating!

The author, John L'Heureux, is a former English professor who saw Donatello's statue on his first visit to Florence. According to his author's note, it "seemed to me personal, erotic, a testament to the sculptor's sexual obsession for the teenage boy he had created.  Someone, I thought, should write a novel about it."  He later received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant to spend time in Italy doing research for what ultimately became The Medici Boy.

As with all good historical fiction, by the end of this book, I was eager to know who was real and who was not, and to learn more about Donatello and his works.  In an afterword, the author provides brief biographical sketches about the "real" characters in the book, as well as a two-plus-page bibliography.  Little detail is known about the real Donatello and many of the other real personages in the book, giving the author a lot of leeway for accuracy in his novel.  Publisher Astor + Blue also has an excellent reader's guide for individuals and book clubs.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review with links to them, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.  The book will be donated to my university library. ETA:  Here is a link to a review in The Washington Post.]