Monday, June 30, 2014

409 (2014 #37). The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

by Jacqueline Kelly,
read by Natalie Ross

It's 1899, and almost-12-year-old Calpurnia Virginia ("Callie Vee") Tate is growing up as the middle of seven children (and only daughter) of a wealthy cotton and pecan farmer and gin owner in Fentress, Texas.  She's a bit of a tomboy, and would rather accompany her retired grandfather on his expeditions to study plants and wildlife than learn to play the piano, cook, or sew, all expected of a girl of that age and time.  She even helps her grandfather in his experiments to make an alcoholic beverage with pecans, and in identifying what they hope is a new species of vetch, a common plant in Texas.

The book starts in the summer of 1899 and ends as 1900 begins.  The reader experiences everyday life with Callie's large and active family, as well as special occasions such as holidays, the county fair and a trip into town for a photograph.  These feel authentic to the time period.

This book was a Newbery Honor Book in 2010 (for the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,") and I can see why.  I loved it!  The developing relationship with her previously-remote grandfather is wonderful.  I found it amusing that five of Callie's six brothers are named for early Texas heroes--Sam Houston, (Mirabeau) Lamar, (William B.) Travis, Sul Ross, and Jim Bowie--and she has interesting (and funny!) interactions with most of them, particularly her oldest brother Harry (named for a rich bachelor great uncle).  Even her exasperated mother and the overworked family cook, Viola, are rendered vividly.

I also liked the emphasis on the scientific method (particularly recording your observations), and the way debut author Jacqueline Kelly worked new inventions into the story - the telephone, the automobile, and even an early motorized fan (much appreciated in the Texas heat!).  I felt she did a fine job with the Texas setting.  Born in New Zealand, growing up in the rain forest of western Canada, moving to El Paso, Texas, in high school, and later living in Galveston, Austin, and Fentress, she seems to have a true appreciation for my home state, and got a lot of details right, adding to the story.  In a 2009 interview on Cynsations, Kelly said,

The book was inspired by my huge 140-year-old Victorian farm house in Fentress, a tiny community on the San Marcos River. I bought the house some years ago and promptly ran out of money to fix it up. The house is grand but falling down around my ears. One summer, I was lying on the daybed in the living room under the ancient air conditioner, which was barely cooling the room, and I thought to myself, how did people stand it in the heat a hundred years ago, especially the women, who had to wear corsets and all those layers of clothing? And with that thought, Calpurnia and her whole family sprang to life to answer the question for me.
Sadly, "the house was struck by lightning and burned to the ground" in 2010, according to Kelly in a later interview, which could have something to do with why a planned sequel hasn't materialized.

The language in this book is beautiful.  The descriptions of the natural world are detailed and evocative.  In the Cynsations interview, Kelly (who has both medical--which may explain those descriptions--and law degrees) said,

A friend of mine, a very successful trial attorney, once said, "Every lawyer I know has got a novel hidden away in his laptop somewhere." I think it's because we all love language, and using it to convey precise ideas. Or maybe it's because so many lawyers were English majors who couldn't then figure out what to do with their degrees.

Kelly begins each chapter with a quote from Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, which Calpurnia's grandfather gives to her to read early in the story (hence the title of the book). The cover art is a lovely and intricate silhouette cut by Beth White.  The narrator of the audiobook is Natalie Ross, a native Texan, who makes a perfect adult Calpurnia looking back at that half-year and telling her own story.  This will definitely be a book I'll re-read.  I think it will also appeal to avid young female readers ages 11 and up.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Monday, June 23, 2014

408 (2014 #36). China Dolls

by Lisa See

Three Asian-American women bind - more from necessity than friendship - in 1938 in San Francisco's Chinatown. In a novel that spans the next ten years, with an epilogue 40 years later, 17-year-old Grace Lee, 19-year-old Ruby Tom, and 20-year-old Helen Fong tell their interweaving stories in alternate chapters.  The girls move from performing at the Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island to the new Forbidden City nightclub near Chinatown, often competing with each other for spots on the stage, as well as in romance.  Each of the girls has secrets - some known to all (including the reader) from the beginning, others revealed (rather abruptly in some cases) as the story progresses.

As is usual with Lisa See's novels, this one is rich from research.  See incorporated some real people into the story:  Forbidden City owner Charlie Low, choreographer Walton Biggerstaff, vaudevillians Ming and Ling (actually Filipinos), dancer Dorothy Toy (a Japanese passing as Chinese), and Ed Sullivan.  She interviewed many surviving Asian-American performers, and used their stories and those of others to create her characters.  Ruby's fan- and bubble-dance act, for example, was inspired by that of Noel Toy, the "Chinese Sally Rand."  Other inspiration came from Mai Tai Sing, Mary Tom,  Dorothy Sun and Mary Mammon.  See shares a lot of her research in a special section of her website.

Moreover, I think See portrays the complexities of female friendship - the betrayals and dishonesty along with the love and support - realistically.  I loved this book, and I look forward to See's next one, which is supposed to be about tea.

ETA April 22, 2015 - I just listened to the audiobook read by actress and screenwriter Jodi Long, and it is fabulous!  Jodi is the daughter of tap-dancing vaudevillian Lawrence Leung (an immigrant from Australia of Chinese-Scottish descent) and Japanese-American showgirl Kimiye (Trudy) Tsunemitsu (who did spend some time in a World War II internment camp).  Many of their experiences are reflected in the book, and Jodi brings a special life to this reading.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Saturday, June 21, 2014

407 (2014 #35). Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

by Helen Simonson

British military widower meets Pakistani shopkeeper widow and romance blooms, despite their meddling relatives and small-town neighbors.  That's the gist of this story, a lovely and funny tale set in an unspecified, more-or-less modern time that's a great easy summer read.

What caught my eye with this book (which I bought at a used book sale) was the cover.  It's actually the cover art from the March 27, 1924 issue of Life magazine - the April Fool issue, rather fitting for both the story and artwork where what appears to be a man and woman embracing are actually coats and hats on a clothes tree.  You can't make out the signature in this image, but the artwork is by J. Grenard.

This was the first novel for Helen Simonson, who was born and brought up in England, but has lived the past two decades in the USA.  The novel is probably a rather nostalgic view of England, but it works in context.  The author also portrays the effects of change, both on the 68-year-old Major, who is rather set in his ways, and the English village he lives in.  It's also a very humorous book, especially the scenes set in the British golf club with all its snobbery and pettiness.

This book made me laugh and smile and think.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

Monday, June 16, 2014

406 (2014 #34). Orphan Train

by Christina Baker Kline

It's 2011 in the fictional town of Spruce Harbor, Maine, when this book begins.  Molly Ayer, a 17-year-old Native American foster child, is given community service when she tries to steal a library book.*

Her community service project is to help 91-year-old Vivian Daly to clean out her attic.  Naturally, every item being stored up there is a reminder for Vivian of the hard life she has lived - and her story is told in flashback.

Vivian, an Irish immigrant originally named Niamh Power, loses her parents, brothers, and sister in a tenement fire in New York City in 1929.  She is taken in by the Children's Aid Society and put on an orphan train heading out west.  She winds up in Minnesota, where she has a couple of really bad placements before ending up in a good place, and goes through a couple name changes.  Molly sees a lot of parallels between her life and Vivian's, and the two develop a heart-warming relationship.

This is an upbeat story with a little bit of a surprise near the end.  I enjoyed this novel, which is based on a real episode in American history.  The orphan trains ran from 1853 to 1929, and moved about a quarter of a million children (many of them not orphaned) to another (sometimes better) life.  Christina Baker Kline did a lot of research on orphan trains, and her familiarity with both Maine and Minnesota is evident in her descriptions.  I'd like to read some nonfiction too, with true stories of the train riders.

*A  note to the author and readers - most libraries don't punish kids for taking old, beat-up library copies of books.  The public library I used to work for even gave mass-market paperbacks generic bar codes - in other words, they didn't really track them, and you could walk out of the library with them if you really wanted to.  I really resented this stereotype of the mean old librarian.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[I won 10 paperback copies of this book for my book club from the Book Report Network.  My copy will be donated to my university library.]

405 (2014 #33). Finding Me

by Michelle Knight,
with Michelle Burford;
read by Maria Cabezas

I should preface this review with the caveat that I don't typically read or listen to this type of book (true-crime memoir).  There weren't many books on the Early Reviewers list that month (May 2014) that interested me; I selected this one simply because it was an audiobook, and I have a long commute.  I was pleased in that regard; narrator Maria Cabezas did not disappoint.  An audiobook narrator for four-plus years, she is also Manager of Literacy Program for BookPALS (Performing Artists for Literacy in the Schools) at the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, and a Theatre Teaching Artist at the Lincoln Center Institute.  Her voice is very youthful, and, based on television interviews with Michelle Knight that I listened to, reflects that of the author quite well.

Michelle Knight was one of the three women kidnapped by Ariel Castro in Cleveland and was held captive the longest - nearly 11 years.  During that time she was raped constantly, and became pregnant five times, with Castro starving and beating her each time so that she lost the baby.  Even more heartbreaking though is the story of her life before (and since) the kidnapping, as a member of a family that apparently didn't care for her, with a "house guest" who raped her repeatedly from an early age.  Despite this, and some dubious decisions in her life (probably a result of childhood neglect and lack of education), she makes one amazingly mature decision for which I admire her greatly.

Knight's ghostwriter Michelle Burford has a lot of experience with celebrity memoirs, and I think she did a good job keeping the story sounding like Knight's own.  The book could have been a bit shorter - including so much of her rather poor attempts at poetry in her journal entries was unnecessary.  An e-book edition has some photographs (which I'm sure can be found online), but I think hearing the book read aloud by an outstanding narrator adds more to the story.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[I received this audiobook from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be donated to my local public library.]

Saturday, June 07, 2014

404 (2014 #32). All Our Names

by Dinaw Mengestu,
read by Saskia Maarleveld and Korey Jackson

I had a tough time with this book because I couldn't connect with either main character.  "Isaac" is an African refugee and Helen is his social worker in America.  The story - and the audiobook narration - alternates between the two's first-person viewpoints.

I found Helen in particular to be very shallow and unrealistic.  It seemed that her one-sided "romance" with Isaac was an effort on her part to create a thrill, both sexually and by (weakly) challenging the barely-hidden segregationist attitudes of her early-1970s Midwestern small town.  I never felt that Isaac loved Helen either; he was using her as much as she was using him.

"Isaac" is not his real name - we don't ever learn what that is.  It is, however, the name of  the best friend of Isaac.  They are both village boys who have gone to the city of Kampala supposedly to attend the university there.  Instead, they get caught up in a Ugandan revolution.  I don't have enough of a background on the history of this area for this part of the book to be meaningful to me.  However, there is a valuable message about how revolutionaries often end up behaving just the same as the despots they are trying to overthrow.

I would not have made it through this book if it had not been for the audiobook narrators.  You certainly can't tell that Saskia Maarleveld, who voiced Helen, grew up in New Zealand and France.  When she speaks for Isaac in the parts of the book narrated by Helen, she sounds almost like Korey Jackson, the voice of Isaac.  He does a great job with the cadence and pronunciation of English as spoken by many Africans.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This audiobook was sent to me by the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review. It will be donated to my university library.]

Monday, June 02, 2014

403 (2014 #31). The Legend of Saint Nicholas

by Anselm Grün,
illustrated by Giulano Ferri,
translated by Laura Watkinson

Little is known about the "real" Saint Nicholas.  The only historically certain fact is that he was Bishop of Myra (part of Turkey today) in the fourth century AD.  He died sometime between 343 and 352 AD.  Therefore, "legend" is an appropriate title, as there is not enough known about him for a true biography.

This book shares some of the folklore about Saint Nicholas, patron saint of sailors (among other groups).  While the book mentions Saint Nicholas Day (December 6) and the associated gift-giving traditions in some countries (Germany, the Netherlands), there is no mention of Santa Claus - for which I am thankful.  However, I would have liked to see a short note at the beginning or end with a simple sentence explaining where the places (Patara and Myra) mentioned in the book are, and the time period in which Nicholas lived.

Anselm Grün is a Benedictine monk who lives in Germany and writes in German.  His around-300 books have been translated into 30 languages.  Giuliano Ferri is an Italian illustrator whose work can also be found in other traditional tales such as Caspar and the Star, Ant and Grasshopper, and Little Stone Buddha.  His soft paintings are double-page spreads that are warm and inviting.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This unbound galley proof was sent to me in exchange for an unbiased review by the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.]