Friday, January 23, 2015

☊ An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (✮✮✮✮)

What a lovely little novel!  This tale of Japan, set just after the Second World War and with flashbacks to the pre-war period, gives its reader a peek into the culture of the time and carries a message relevant to the plot of the book and even modern lives.

The story follows Ono, an artist of some repute, and slowly unfolds a tale of how the past bleeds into the present and can have far-reaching effects on those we love.  Centered around the marriage negotiations for his daughter, which brings the reader quite nicely into the sphere of Japanese culture at the time, the novel has a much deeper theme.  In a subtle unfolding of choices made and how they are perceived by Ono and others, and thus reaching forward through time to affect the characters, the reader glimpses life in post-warJapan.  However, the message is such that it is one easily grasped by and relevant to a modern, western reader.

Narrated by David Case, this brief audio clocks in at a mere six and a half hours.  While I would not call the narration outstanding, Case does a creditable job of voicing each of the characters distinctly.  I would probably recommend reading this one in print, as there were several parts where I backed up the audio in order to hear again passages which I found especially engaging.

If you are a reader who enjoys a gradually unfolding plot and a message that takes an infinitesimal turn just as you think you have grasped the heart of the moral, this tale, gentle on the surface but roiling beneath, will give you a contemplative few hours.

☊ A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR by Mark Helprin (✮✮✮✮)

Certainly, this tome by Helprin is not for the faint of heart: the book is just shy of eight hundred pages and the audio clocks in at thirty-one hours.  Until the end of the book, I was not thinking it would earn more than three stars from me.  In the end, I had to acknowledge that despite its weaknesses, the book deserved more regard.

Helprin gives as our narrator a man in his seventies, who, having missed a bus, ends up taking a walk of some great distance through the countryside with a young man.  Along the way he shares wisdom, philosophical musings, and the biggest story of his life.  

Loving as I do great characterization, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Alessandro Giuliani and all the people from his very full life that his narration brought alive.  In light of his conversations, we come to know what life was like in Italy before, during, and after the First World War.  We learn how people thought, what they dreamed of, and what their struggles were.  Helprin’s marvelous gifts of description and depth of thought shine through Alessandro as the teller of his tale. 

However, at times the descriptive language goes, in my opinion, a bit overboard.  The author writes very expressively and has command of the subtle use of metaphor.  Unfortunately, he is also far too fond of similies, and they often jump glaringly out of the prose.  That is not to say that all of them are over-written (although I still groan at the description of a lady’s chin being likened to an opera house balcony—seriously?); some are lovely and apt, but the bad outweigh the good and there are just far too many.

The timeline of the book is crisp, and the format of beginning and ending the book when Alessandro and the young man are on the road walking makes for a smooth narrative.  Unfortunately, not all the intermediary transitions were as easy.  For instance, at one point Alessandro is seemingly at death’s door from a fever, and then, rather jarringly, he is suddenly in a museum admiring a painting.  At first I thought he must be in a fever induced delirium and flashing back, but no, the narrative really did make that leap.

I would be absolutely remiss if I did not give a lot of the credit for how much I enjoyed this novel to the outstanding narration of David Colacci.  His reading infused every character with distinct personality, respected the author’s intent, and effectively carried me through both the active and more passive parts of the novel.

Weighing the good and the bad, I debated between three and a half and four stars and finally decided that the general fluidity of the writing and how arresting and contemplative it was deserved the higher rating.  While parts of the plot sped along, others dragged quite mightily, and to enjoy this novel you must be a reader of patience who enjoys a lot of introspection and observation in between the action.

Monday, January 5, 2015

☊ THE SUPREMES AT EARL'S ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT by Edward Kelsey Moore (✮ ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮)

Nothing beats starting a new year with a five-star read!  Last year I only had two the entire year, so they are pretty rare for me.  But Ladies of PBT, what were you thinking?  I ask for suggestions for relationship books that will not put me over the edge at the moment and more than one of you came up with this one?  My word!  Everyone dies in this book!  (Or so it seemed to my over-sensitized perception.)  However, for some odd reason, the book was okay for me; I cried, but I laughed, too—a lot.  So I thank you for your suggestion. 

Leading off an extensive cast are the Supremes, three vibrant women from the small town of Plainview, Indiana, who bond as girls, support each other through all of life’s less stellar moments, and remind each other of the humor in existence (and not always in a mortal body).  Through these women the reader comes to know their neighbors and parents, who run the gamut from comfortingly normal to out-and-out bizarre.

This is one of those novels where one would be hard-pressed to explain a plot.  It is more a meander through lives shaped by a small town and circumstance, which might sound less than scintillating but in Moore’s hands becomes a journey of worth.

And the journey doesn’t end with death.  I think that is why this book was more of a comfort for me than an instrument of depression in the wake of my daughter’s passing.  Picturing our Winter up in Heaven, or even shadowing us all—with Eleanor Roosevelt in tow—couldn’t do other than make me smile.

Helping me interpret the story were narrators Adenrele Ojo and Pamella D’Pella.  I appreciated the humor, which came shining through in both of their performances and think they both did a good job giving individuality to the characters.  However, the narration was very slow (I sped up to 1.5) and there seemed little point in having two narrators alternating chapters.

This is definitely a book that I recommend, but if you are someone who needs a faster paced novel, it might not be your thing.  I love good character novels, so it was perfect for me.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

☊ WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? by Maria Semple (✮ ✮ ✮ ✮⭐︎)

Originally, I got a print copy of this book from the library, but a few days later it popped up on my Overdrive window while I was searching for a new audio, so I decided to give that a try.

Written in epistolary format, I wasn’t sure how this novel would work as an audio.  The story line is woven among the first person narration of Bee, the fourteen year old protagonist, and correspondence of various types, from emails to receipts for services rendered.  Not a format I favor in print, let alone audio, but oddly enough, it worked.

This was a book that caught my attention for the humor theme Play Book Tag was reading for the month of December.  Initially, the novel seems very funny, but as you progress through the tale of this bright girl’s eighth grade year, the humor becomes progressively more muted, darker.  Through Bee’s storytelling and the “first person” bits and pieces from the lives of the adults surrounding her, a novel of far greater consequence emerges.  As you learn more about the characters, you become, in turn, more empathetic with each and every one, no matter how buffoonish and unlikeable they seemed at the outset.  In the end, I felt that Play Book Tag’s January theme of relationships far better reflected the novel. 

It is Bee’s relationship with her mother, Bernadette that anchors the story.  When Bernadette mysteriously disappears from a life spinning out of control in some pretty far-fetched ways, Bee begins compiling written records of all kinds from everyone who might be able to shed some light on the situations leading up to her disappearance.  While the plot stretches credulity to the snapping point, it lends to creating the frenetic energy that powers the emotional connectivity between the characters.

The frenetic tone of the novel is very well conveyed through the narration of Kathleen Wilhoite.  I almost gave up on the audio a few minutes into the book, as the frenzied tenor of the reading grated on me.  Luckily for me, it was the middle of the night and I couldn’t be bothered to search for another book, so I persevered.  In the end, I am so glad that I did.  Wilhoite was the perfect narrator for this tale, matching the character of the novel to a tee and imbuing every participant with their own distinct personality.  It wouldn’t surprise me if this ends up being my best audio winner for 2015.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


Although I didn't do a very good job keeping up my blog this year, there were many stellar books that stand clearly in my mind as the year's reading highlights. The first two titles were my only five star reads this year, the second three I gave four and a half stars, and the last five were four star reads.:

The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk Kidd (novel)
Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe - Nancy Goldstone (history)
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats - Jan-Philipp Sendker (novel)
Moonwalking with Einstein - Joshua Foer (science)
Savage Harvest - Carl Hoffman (history)
Blood Diamonds - Greg Campbell (history)
A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon - Anthony Marra (novel)
Empire of Blue Water - Stephan Talty (history)
Salt: A World History - Mark Kurlansky (history)
Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (novel)

Best Audio of the Year: The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk Kidd

What made these outstanding (Titles I reviewed show up maroon--click on the title to be connected to my thoughts.):

The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk Kidd: Hetty and Sarah will live inside my head for a very long time.  Their story was powerfully told through the excellent narration of Adepero Oduye and Jenna Lamia.

Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe - Nancy Goldstone:  A wonderful story of four sisters who’s lives paint a vivid picture of life in thirteenth-century Europe.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats - Jan-Philipp Sendker: We all have things we are seeking in our lives.  Sometimes what we learn along the way is more important than arriving at our destination.

Moonwalking with Einstein - Joshua Foer:  What a fascinating look inside the art and science of memory.  Engagingly written and full of useful information to go along with the story that frames the book.

Savage Harvest - Carl Hoffman: I couldn’t care less about primitive art or the Rockefellers, but this quasi-mystery was just plain great story-telling.

Blood Diamonds - Greg Campbell: You will never, ever look at your engagement ring quite the same way again.  An important story that needed telling.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon - Anthony Marra: A story of our times about how people in the worst situations can connect and touch each other’s lives for good or evil.

Empire of Blue Water - Stephan Talty:  A rollicking good yarn about Henry Morgan, the great age of pirates, and how the Spanish lost their grip on the New World.

Salt: A World History - Mark Kurlansky:  You really can tell the history of the world through salt (who’d a thunk it?) and turn it into a genuinely fascinating tale.

Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes: Raw and unflinching, full of characters you cannot evict from your head.  Not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, but vital reading for anyone who wants to try to understand Vietnam.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

☊ SAVAGE HARVEST by Carl Hoffman (❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎1/2)

I was barely active this year in the online reading groups that I so enjoy, and as a result I missed out on hearing about many of the year’s best books.  Thankfully I checked in to peruse the “Best of” lists that people take the time to post in Play Book Tag on Shelfari from various news and web sources. Savage Harvest was one of those books, appearing on many a list.  Amazingly, the audio was available through our library’s Overdrive account, so I snatched it up (the waiting list on the dead tree book and ebook was insane).  The narration by Joe Barrett, played at 1.25 speed, was excellent—I highly recommend the audio for this one.

The story of this nonfiction book takes place in Dutch New Guinea and shifts in time primarily between the 1960s era story of Michael Rockefeller and his search for art among the primitive head hunting tribes and the author’s 21st century experiences as he searches for information to help explain the mysterious circumstances of Michael’s death.

What makes this book really work is the number of disparate but still interlinked topics that Hoffman works into his narrative.  The reader’s interest never flags, whether the subject is the reasoning behind the rage for primitive art in 1960s America or the spiritual and cultural basis of cannibalism in the island cultures of the south Pacific (among many other topics).  The only reason that this book did not earn a fifth star from me is because I felt that in parts it did get a bit confusing in how it jumped from one time period to another and back again.  In fairness, sometimes that is more of an issue in a nonfiction audio than in the print version.

I have very little interest in primitive art and less in the Rockefellers; I do have a personal connection to the south Pacific region.  However, I think that anyone who would like to learn more about a culture that is still, even today, despite many decades of interaction with the modern world, little understood, will enjoy this well-written quasi-mystery, with its tight, concise editing leading to great pacing.

☊ DESERT QUEEN by Janet Wallach (❄︎❄︎❄︎)

Many years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed a book called Kingmakers: the invention of the modern Middle East by Karl Ernest Meyer.  This book is a compilation of short bios about the individuals, primarily British and American, who drew (often arbitrarily), in the wake of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the modern borders of the Middle East and put their choices of rulers in place.  One of the characters that most fascinated me was Gertrude Bell, because she was a woman who stepped out of the strictures of her time to become, as she was fond of saying, “A Person”.  One of my reading friends, who also has an interest in reading about the Middle East, read Desert Queen, a biography of Gertrude Bell, and highly recommended it to me.

I went into this book fully prepared, based on the subject matter, to love it.  There were many positive points, which made me see why my friend Fran enjoyed it so much.  Janet Wallach’s writing is lively, organized, and well-researched.  Unfortunately for me, over the course of reading this book, I developed a serious dislike of Gertrude Bell, and those feelings, put alongside Wallach’s complete inability to see her subject’s faults, caused me to become downright tetchy at times.

The author put a lot of focus on Gertrude Bell’s romantic life.  In her writing, she quotes extensively from first person letters written between the subjects involved—a definite plus.  However, Wallach seems to get completely swept away in the romance of it all and completely looses her objectivity.  She is quick to point out that Bell longed for a husband and children, but she never seems to cotton on to the fact that all three of Bell’s significant relationships, the very ones that she writes about so enthusiastically, were all with married men.  Wallach completely misses the opportunity to delve into the complex psychology of her subject, including what it was in Gertrude’s character that rendered her unable to form an attachment to a man who was actually available to fulfill her allegedly oft expressed desire for a family of her own.

The more I learned about Bell’s political wrangling, the less respect I had for her.  There is no doubt that, among her peers, male or female, she had developed the strongest ties with and the greatest understanding of the many tribes of the Mesopotamian region to which she devoted her life’s work.  However, when it came right down to it, she made the gravest of misjudgments in both her choice of boundary lines and a ruler for the newly formed Iraq.  In my opinion, the borders drawn upon her insistence were irrespective of traditional tribal lands, knowledge that she certainly possessed, and have caused unrest that still unsettles the Middle East today.  Gertrude worked tirelessly to force through her choice of ruler as well—a man who while a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammad, was not in any way familiar with the tribes of the area, because he was from Damascus, a Syrian city he pined for his whole life, never giving his loyalties to the area over which he was given dominion. 

There is no doubt that Wallach’s book lays out all of the facts, but she is so enamored of her subject that she fails, even while pointing them out to her reader, to grasp and delve into all of Gertrude Bell’s failings.  When taken in context of the time in which she lived, it is an undisputed fact that Bell was an amazing woman.  She blazed trails in global politics that very few women of her time managed.  Not only did she insert herself into what was normally deemed a “men’s domain”, she earned the respect of the men she dealt with, both western and Middle Eastern.  Many Middle Eastern leaders would only parlay with her, instead of her western male counterparts—a fact doubly impressive given the traditional role of women in this predominantly Islamic region.  I would have liked a less biased book that further explored the complexity of the woman, both on the field of Middle Eastern politics and in her personal life.

The audio version, narrated by Jean Gilpin, was painfully slow.  This is only the second book that I have sped up to 1.5 (the other was Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve).  I could not understand how a book that was only 400 pages, including all end notes and bibliography, could clock in at twenty hours on audio.  It only took a couple of minutes to figure out why.  Once sped up, the narration is very good, and I didn’t miss access to any of the end of book information (I did initially intend to read the book in print and previewed the book before deciding to listen to the audio instead).  I did look up a couple of maps online. 

Despite my dislike of Gertrude herself and the obviously biased telling, I do think that this is a book worth reading.  The reader is introduced to many pivotal players in the formation of the modern Middle East—including everyone’s favorite, Lawrence of Arabia, and the story is certainly well told in a highly readable fashion.  I think too, that most readers will find it fascinating to see how what took place almost a century ago has had lasting impact on the Middle East we deal with today.