Thursday, May 29, 2014

402 (2014 #30). The Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt,
read by David Pittu

This book was on at least one list as a favorite book club read for 2013, and then it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, so when I saw the audiobook was available at my local public library, I had to listen.

The size of the book is a bit daunting.  There are 26 discs in the CD version (and for me, that meant 26 days of listening, as I can get through a disc a day on my commute), and the print version is almost 800 pages.  That along might discourage some discussion groups (including my two).  The length is due to extensive descriptions by Tartt.  Some of it is excessive and could have been cut, but I feel much of it contributes to the atmosphere of the setting and the richness of the characters.

Despite the length, I am glad I read this book - or rather, listened to it, as the narrator, actor David Pittu, is outstanding.   I'm not surprised that his performance earned the 2014 Audie Awards for Literary Fiction and Male Solo Performance.  He made what could have been a tedious book more bearable.

The book starts out at Christmas in Amsterdam, and Theo Decker is feeling desperate.  The story soon moves back fourteen years to New York City, when Theo is the thirteen-year-old son of the divorced Audrey Decker. Theo gets in trouble at his private school, and he and his mother are on the way to a conference with the principal, when a sudden rainstorm sends them into a museum.  They briefly separate, and then there is an explosion, and Audrey is killed.  Theo is unhurt, but dazed and confused.  He speaks with an old man named Welty who is badly injured and dying.  Welty gives him a ring and an address, and points to a painting on the wall.  Theo thinks Welty wants him to take it, perhaps to protect it, so he does.

The painting is The Goldfinch (1654, pictured at left), a real painting by Carel Fabritius (1622–1654), a Dutch artist.  The masterpiece has never really been stolen, but its small size (13 inches by 9 inches) makes it easy to imagine it stolen.

From this point, Theo (and the painting) go on quite an adventure, going from New York to Las Vegas and back to New York, and ultimately back to the "present" in Amsterdam where the story's climax is reached.

Donna Tartt's wordsmithing (and Pittu's delivery) kept me going through this book, even when it slowed or bogged down with too much detail.  The characters are memorable, especially Theo's Las Vegas childhood friend Boris, a Russian/Ukrainian who, like Theo, is also growing up mostly alone, with an absentee father.

For me, what was most compelling about this book was Theo's grief and guilt at the loss of his mother.  He felt he was somehow to blame for her death, and that colors much of the rest of his life, and the often poor decisions he made.  I had to keep listening to this book just to find out what happened to him.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

401 (2014 #29). The Other Story

by Tatiana de Rosnay

I requested this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program because its blurb sounded interesting, and because I had previously read Tatiana de Rosnay's blockbuster Sarah's Key.  I thought that book was okay but over-hyped.  Unfortunately, I think The Other Story is pretty awful.

Nicolas Kolt, aka Nicolas Duhamel, is a hit debut author who has gone to an exclusive resort on a Tuscan island with his current girlfriend for a three-day retreat to - supposedly - work on his next book.  Kolt turned his quest to uncover a family secret about his parentage into his bestselling novel, and his life has not been the same.  He's become an insufferable jerk, obsessed with Twitter and his Facebook page, shunned by the woman he really loves as well as his old best friend and many others who say he's changed, and not for the better.

The story about his parentage and early years is told in flashbacks, and that portion - like Sarah's Vel' d'Hiv Roundup story in Sarah's Key - is somewhat interesting, although without the compelling aspects of truth and good historical research.  Once again, though, as she did with the Julia character in Sarah's Key, de Rosnay spends too much time on the current-day plot of Nicolas and his "troubles" - which include (completely unnecessary) pornographic  "sexting" with a married female fan.

The book wraps up with an unconvincing "redemption" (and an idea for a new book) for Nicolas involving an incident similar to the Costa Concordia disaster.  Too little, too late, for Nicolas, and for this reader, who by that time really didn't care what happened to the irritating protagonist.

There were also numerous errors (in grammar and punctuation) in this advance reader's edition, although (hopefully) that was not an issue in the published edition.  I didn't like this book enough to check, though, and I can't recommend it to others.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[An advance reader edition of this book was sent to me from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review. The book will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Monday, May 19, 2014

400 (2014 #28). Songs of Willow Frost

by Jamie Ford

Chinese-American Jamie Ford has written another novel set in Seattle's Chinatown, this time in 1934, in the heart of the Depression, with flashbacks to the period from 1921-1926.

Twelve-year-old William Eng is a Chinese-American boy living in the Sacred Heart Orphanage in 1934.  Like many children in orphanages during that time period, he's not really an orphan - he knows his mother is still alive.  On an outing at the movies, he sees the Chinese-American actress Willow Frost on the screen - and knows immediately she is his mother.  When he learns she is going to be in town, he sets out to meet her.

We learn Willow Frost's story through a series of flashbacks to the period from 1921 to 1926.  The daughter of immigrants who were stars in the Chinese opera, the American-born Liu Song (which apparently means "willow" in English) loses her father in the flu epidemic, and her mother remarries to a crass Chinese laundryman.  After her mother dies, Liu Song is abused by her stepfather, but finally manages to escape him, scraping by singing songs for a player piano salesman by day, and as dance girl in the Wah Mee Club by night.  Through a series of tragic events and (often cultural) misunderstandings, she loses her five-year-old son William to the orphanage.

This is a sad story, much more so than Ford's first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.  I found most of the characters to be believable, with the exception of William's blind friend Charlotte. The Seattle setting redeemed the book for me - the Sacred Heart Orphanage was a real place, now Villa Academy, founded by a saint, Mother Frances[ca] Xavier Cabrini.  The Bush Hotel and the once-tallest-in-Seattle Smith Tower (which really has a Chinese Room with a Wishing Chair) were just a few blocks from where I used to work downtown.  Some of the old theaters mentioned in the book still stand today.  The map at the beginning is appreciated, although I think the locations for some sites may be about a block off.

I thought it was especially interesting that Charlotte was blinded by a too-strong solution of silver nitrate put in her eyes after birth.  Apparently, a miracle attributed to St. Frances Cabrini involved a baby blinded by over-concentrated silver nitrate.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

399 (2014 #27). The Spymistress

by Jennifer Chiaverini

This is the third in Jennifer Chiaverini's historical fiction / biographical novels featuring lesser-known women of the Civil War era.  This time it's Elizabeth Van Lew, who was apparently the leader of a ring of Union spies in the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia, during the war.  The 43-year-old spinster Van Lew and her widowed mother were against slavery and secession.  Van Lew got her start as a spy by tending to Union soldiers held prisoner, bringing them bread and books - and smuggling out messages.  By 1864, she - and others in her network - was helping prisoners escape, and sending dispatches to Union generals written in code in an "invisible ink" that darkened with mild acid and heat.

Chiaverini chooses to call her "Lizzie" in the novel, perhaps to clearly distinguish her from her mother and niece, both called Eliza.  Unfortunately, despite her exciting adventures, I found Lizzie to be a rather flat character, at least the way Chiaverini portrays her.  More interesting to me was her former slave, Mary Elizabeth Bowser (Mary Jane in the book, perhaps to avoid even more confusion in names).  Bowser agreed to pretend to be a slave again and serve in the household of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, in order to spy on him.

I did learn about two historical figures I knew nothing about, and am inspired to read more about them. Chiaverini lists her sources in the acknowledgments at the end of the book, and they include Van Lew's published Civil War diaries.  I'll also be reading Chiaverini's next book set in this era, about Ulysses Grant's wife Julia.  I liked this book more than Chiaverini's Mrs. Lincoln's Rival, but not as much as her Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker.

A final comment: too many book covers for historical fiction with lead female characters look alike nowadays; the full-length image of a woman in period dress with only the lower half of her face (often in profile) visible.  It's getting boring.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Thursday, May 08, 2014

395-398 (2014 #23-26). 2014 Sibert Award Winner and Honor Books

The 2014 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Awards for the most distinguished informational books for children were announced back in January, but I finally got around to reading most of them today.

The winner for 2014 was Parrots over Puerto Rico, written by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, and illustrated by Roth.  This book is also an Orbis Pictus Honor Book for 2014.  The NCTE Orbis Pictus Award  was established in 1989 by the National Council for the Teachers of English for promoting and recognizing excellence in the writing of nonfiction for children.  The book tells the story of the beautiful Puerto Rican parrot and its near extinction.  

Susan Roth’s incredibly detailed paper and fabric collages are gorgeous! Once you open the book, you need to rotate it 90 degrees, as this orientation (portrait rather than landscape) best takes advantage of the view towards the treetops and sky from the ground, and makes the reader feel like s/he is right there in the story.  The book includes pronunciation guides for some unfamiliar words, a four-page afterword with photographs and more facts, a timeline (the last two written at a higher reading level), and a list of the authors' sources.

Four Honor Books were named.  One is Locomotive, written and illustrated by Brian Floca (which also won the Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children, and is also an Orbis Pictus Honor Book).  I reviewed this book earlier in the year.
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, also won the Schneider Family Book Award for books for ages up to 10 that "embody an artistic expression of the disability experience," and was the Orbis Pictus winner this year.  This picture book biography (definitely appropriate for ages 6-10) is about African-American self-taught artist Horace Pippin (1888-1946), who painted despite a severe injury to his right arm suffered in World War I.

Bryant and Sweet teamed up on A River of Words, a picture book biography of William Carlos Williams, which was a Caldecott Honor Book in 2009. Bryant was inspired to write about Pippin while researching for another book.  Sweet also wrote and illustrated Balloons Over Broadway, which won the Sibert AND the Orbis Pictus in 2012.  Sweet used watercolor, gouache, and mixed media (including fabric and wood carvings) in her illustrations for A Splash of Red.   She also lettered in many quotes from him among the illustrations.  The book also includes a page of resources (further reading, web sites, etc.), and there is a map on the back end pages showing places you can see Pippin's art, as well as some actual examples of his work.

The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius, written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, is also an Orbis Pictus Recommended Book this year.  George Ohr was a ceramics artist ahead of his time.

This 45-page biography is illustrated with period photographs of Ohr, his family, and Biloxi, Mississippi (where he lived), as well as brilliant color images of some of his (very) unusual works.  Various text fonts are also used for some quotes and captions to add further interest.

Due to the length and complexity of the text, the book is more appropriate for grades 4-8.  There is information at the end about the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum in Biloxi, how to evaluate and to make your own pots, and an extensive bibliography, end notes, and photo credits.

Greenberg and Jordan also teamed up on Ballet for Martha, which won the 2011 Orbis Pictus Award and was a Sibert Honor Book that year.

Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard, was written and illustrated by Annette LeBlanc Cate.   Her ink and watercolor illustrations are done in a cartoon style, with the birds making humorous wisecracks in speech bubbles.  The 51-page book is packed with information, though, on where to look for birds and what to look for on them.  Cate also provides advice on drawing birds, as well as a bibliography and an index for each bird type mentioned in the book.  The comic-book-like style and the book's complexity makes it more appropriate for third grade and up, and less appropriate as a read-aloud.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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