Saturday, December 31, 2011

THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann ✰✰✰✰


Percy Fawcett is often considered the last of the great Victorian explorers.  In an age when the news was dominated by the races to the North and South Poles, he burned some journalistic ink of his own with his exploration of the Amazon region.  David Grann brings this eccentric man to life in this nonfiction look at not only Fawcett’s life, but also his obsession: to find the lost city that would prove once and for all that a great civilization, perhaps even the legendary City of Gold, had once dominated life in the Amazon River region of Brazil.
The book started off strong, but was uneven and dragging in parts.  About half-way through it really lost momentum for me, but I am very glad that I hung in there, as it picked up considerably in the last one hundred pages.  Despite the unevenness, the book has many strong points, which bumped it from three to four stars.  Author Grann paints a vivid picture of trekking through the Amazon (the perfect place to armchair travel, in my wimpy opinion) and of the implacable character of Percy Fawcett.  He also gives a brief nod to Percy’s years serving on the Western Front during World War I; this might be primarily the story of Fawcett and the Amazon region, but it does give a brief outline of other events in his life, making it a complete biography.  In addition, the ending was excellent; many threads which I thought were going to remain unanswered were pulled together, and even items for which there is no absolutely definitive solution were filled in with the latest thoughts and research.
So, is there truly evidence to support the existence of a Lost City in the Amazon basin?  If the subject fascinates you, you will get an answer in this book.  Grann provides a very thorough bibliography, making it very easy to choose further reading if you would like to learn more; one work he used as a frequent source is Thomas Mann’s excellent 1491.  He also used many, many journals and letters of explorers and their families, skillfully weaving them into a smoothly flowing narrative.
This is a wonderful read if, like me, you are fascinated by the region and one of its greatest explorers, but have zero desire to endure the multitude of privations implicit with actually going there.  I also highly recommend it for students of ancient American anthropology and archaeology.  If you have read and enjoyed Mark Adams’ marvelous Turn Right at Machu Picchu, about Hiram Bingham’s explorations, you might enjoy this book as well, although I do not think this one was quite as well done.  Grann’s book on Fawcett is a three and a half star book rounded up to four; Adams’ book on Bingham is a four and a half star book rounded down to four.  If the subject of South American explorers is of great interest to you, I think you would very much enjoy both of these.  If you would like to pick one, I would go with Adams’ Turn Right at Machu Picchu.

THE GREATEST KNIGHT by Elizabeth Chadwick ✰✰✰✰


Eleanor of Aquitaine is without a doubt one of my favorite women from history, so this story, in which she plays a supporting role, was made for my enjoyment.  The story centers around the life of William Marshall, who was in turns a knight in the service of Eleanor’s husband, King Henry II of England, her son Young King Henry, and her son Richard.
From an historical standpoint, I could find no fault with this tale.  The lengthy author’s note at the end of the book lays out exactly where she took liberties and where she stayed in line with known fact; I love a good author’s note in a work of historical fiction.  I found her portrayal of Richard the Lionheart very intriguing; where he is usually portrayed as a jovial, well-loved man, Chadwick’s Richard is a much more arrogant, harsh individual.  A bit unsettling, it took me a while to accept her portrait and move forward-I am not sure I buy into her portrayal of him, and I look forward to reading more books in the series and seeing how his character develops.
The writing, on the other hand, was not as good as I had hoped for.  I felt that the dialog was a bit stilted at times, but my biggest complaint was the repetitive use of certain descriptive phases: William frequently felt “prickles” down his spine and “heavy” boots due to fatigue, for a couple of examples.  On the positive side, the story moved at a brisk pace, was easy to follow despite shifting alliances of its many characters, and was pure enjoyment to read.
While the writing does not even approach that of say, Sharon Kay Penman, this is good story telling, and I highly recommend it for any historical fiction readers interested in the time and place.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand ✰✰✰✰✰


For those of you who have not yet read this new work from the author of the marvelous Seabiscuit, perhaps because you think, as I did, that over-hyped books never live up to their expectation, believe me when I say that you do not want to miss this one.  
Unlike the horse, Seabiscuit, Louis Zamperini, the hero of this tale, did not begin as an underdog.  He was an Olympic runner favored to come back four years later and win gold.  Instead, the world went to war and he went right along with it.  In her copiously researched work author Laura Hillenbrand gives a brief sketch of Louis’ early years, but the bulk of the book centers around Louis’ life as part of a bomber crew during the Pacific campaign of World War II.
Just in case there are still readers out there who do not know any of the details, let me just say that Louis Zamperini’s war experience was nothing short of extraordinary.  Even after the events of the war Hillenbrand still keeps her reader guessing: would Louis run in the next Olympic games? Would he adjust to life back home?  Would he marry a sweetheart and live, as he dreamed, happily ever after?
In addition to Louis’ story, the reader comes to feel as if they know and care about many of the people who shared his life and experiences.  One pilot in particular, Russell Alan Phillips, know as “Phil” to his buddies and Alan to his family, is covered very thoroughly, and by the end of the tale, never mind Louis’ love life, I wanted Phil to get to go home to his girl, Cecy.
Hillenbrand has a wonderful ability to take a ghastly subject, such as the war in the Pacific, and in particular the treatment of Allied prisoners of war in Japanese internment camps, and portray all of its horror without resorting to gore.  It renders this book one which you can make it to the end of without walking away from the story, and yet you still grasp the outrageous depth of possibility in man’s inhumanity.  Because of this excellent crafting of the tale this is a book which I feel most teens and adults can read for information and growth.  This would make an excellent book club book, as issues such as grief and revenge play a prominent role and would provide great discussion points.

Monday, December 19, 2011

CHE GUEVARA: A REVOLUTIONARY LIFE by Jon Lee Anderson ✰✰✰


There is surprisingly little out there in English on the life of the legendary leftist guerilla Che Guevara, aside from his own writings and a couple of very poorly written biographies.  To say that Jon Lee Anderson’s work is the definitive tale would be an accurate statement.  Anderson went so far as to move his entire family to Cuba for five years while writing this hefty tome.  Che’s family also gave the author tremendous support and access to many of his unpublished written materials.
For those unfamiliar with who he was, Che Guevara was an Argentinian from an upstanding family and a credentialed doctor.  Initially, he had ideas to use his training to help those less fortune, but as he began to read the works of Karl Marx and others (Che, we learn, was a voracious reader), his ideas became gradually more leftist until he eventually became an avowed Communist.  Anderson very clearly defines Che’s ideological journey, making it a definite strength of the book.  Che gained lasting fame as one of Fidel Castro’s right hand men, second only, and sometimes even surpassing, Fidel’s brother Raoul.  One of the big surprises for me was that Fidel was not initially a Communist, and Che can certainly be credited with indoctrinating him and instilling Communism as the dominant force in Cuba.  Therein lies his renown.
My biggest complaint was actually the painstaking detail in this account.  A voluminous 814 pages, this one could easily have had 200 pages edited out.  Truly, does anyone care to know exactly what was packed in Che’s jeep for a inconsequential ride through the jungle?  Or need a virtually hour by hour play-by-play of guerilla movements?  Che’s lifelong battle with asthma is also reiterated to excess, although that health issue does at least have relevance to the tale.  In my opinion, these elements slowed down what is, in essence, a very engaging story.
There were also many things I loved about this book.  Excellent coverage is given to Che’s family, not only his two wives and children, but also his parents and siblings.  Che Guevara was a lifelong diarist and a talented, published writer in his own right, and Anderson makes extensive use of Che’s own writings through frequent use of direct quotes.  This added a tremendous character to the book, as Che’s caustic humor shines through his diary entries.  By the end of the book I felt as if I knew the man, not just the ideologue.  Once past the Cuban Revolution, events in Che’s life were covered in a fast paced accounting.  Ironically, I enjoyed the back quarter of the book much more than the preceding pages about the most pivotal era of his life, largely because the narrative was tightened up, less in need of a good editor.  I also appreciated the wrap-up in which the author lets the reader know what became of many of the key players in Che’s life.
Whatever your personal political leanings and feelings regarding armed insurgency, this is a fairly unbiased, well-researched work which takes a very straight course in documenting not only the life of this complex man, but also the political temperament of many South and Central American countries during the 1950s and 1960s.  Many events which exploded in the region during the late 1970s through the 1990s have their genesis in events depicted in this accounting, making it good background for further reading on the area.  It is, however, regrettably bogged down in places, so I recommend it only to those with a large enough measure of interest in the topic to press through those sections.  For someone with a particular interest in the subject matter this would no doubt be a five star book.  For one with a casual interest, I would give it three and a half stars, which I rounded down to three, chiefly for lack of better editing.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

THE SILMARILLION by J.R.R. Tolkien ✰✰✰✰


One of my favorite aspects of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books is the completeness of the world that he created.  I never cease to be amazed by the history and lore that infuse those books, such that the reader feels that they must surely be a true history of some people, somewhere.  Thus, The Silmarillion came as no surprise to me.  For most of his life, Tolkien kept hundreds of notebooks full of his imagined backstory about the inhabitants of Middle Earth, for his own fun and reference while writing, and on the assumption that someday he would pull them into publishable form.  After his death, his son, Christopher took on the task.

Parts of the beginning of the book read like the “begats” from the Old Testament of the Bible, listing a mind-blowing profusion of characters and their roles.  I would likely have tossed the book aside had it not been the monthly read for the high school club I supervise.  Then it would settle into a marvelous tale reminiscent of Nordic myth.  Only to stop again with a geographical study of such yawn-inducing detail that you could follow step by step on the kindly included map.  Only for my students did I persevere.  
After throwing so many names and places at you, and you should be so lucky as to only have to learn one name for each character and local-they all have at least two or three (Elves, Dwarves, and humans all give a single entity their own monikers in their own languages-for that matter, even those three races are given numerous names), Tolkien does bring it round to useful purpose in the end.  Keep in mind that there are maps, genealogical charts, and a complete list of characters in the back of the book, and press forward without worrying if you can not keep it all straight, because once past those sections, you are in for an adventure through the depths of Tolkien’s imagination.
The narrative hits its stride about a hundred pages in and carries the reader willingly along through the trials and triumphs of the various races and individuals. Christopher Tolkien did a masterful job of organizing his father’s writings; superb editing is apparent because the motivations and shifting allegiances are clearly delineated-despite the massive cast and histories of various peoples, I never felt lost in the shuffle.  
As you read The Silmarillion another side of Tolkien also takes shape in your mind.  In addition to the creator of fantastical worlds and tense plot lines, the theological and philosophical sides of the man become readily apparent within the souls of his characters.  I loved seeing the moral and ethical dilemmas into which he plunged his characters and watching how he resolved them, as it spoke volumes about the author’s personal thought processes.
As difficult as the first third of the book was to get through, I would definitely call it worth it for fans of The Lord of the Rings.  I look forward to revisiting those books with a new found knowledge of the “history” of the characters, as many things which are alluded to in The Ring are explained in The Silmarillion.  Fans of the trilogy will begin to recognize many familiar names and places as they near the end of The Silmarillion.  And the last two thirds of the book was sheer, epic adventure as only Tolkien can deliver.  The writing style was very interesting as well, very much in the style of Scandinavian myth and lore, and quite different from the style in which his other books were written.  
This is really not a book for those who disliked The Lord of the Rings, but a fun read for fans, or a great starting point for those who have yet to read the other books and would like to begin with a little back story.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak ✰✰✰✰✰ and a ♥


I am so profoundly affected by this book that finding the words to describe how it moves me is proving quite the challenge.  Knowing that the subject matter is a street (ironically named “Heaven”) in Germany during World War II, and the families that lived there, I was not all that eager to pick it up.  It seemed such worn out subject matter; I have read so many such books.  I am thankful for my Pick a Year Challenge-The Book Thief was published in the author’s native Australia in 2005, my challenge year-otherwise this gem would have languished on my list for a very long time.
One central element gives the book its primary punch, and that is the inspired choice of the narrator-Death.  In my minds eye he is not simply Death, but The Angel of Death, as he comes for the souls of those who have died.  Through Death’s eyes the reader follows the other characters, in particular Liesel, a girl entering her teens as the war commences.  The characters are rich and varied and clearly evolve as the ugliness of war comes to inhabit Himmel Street.
Zusak’s style reminds me a good deal of Cormac McCarthy’s.  McCarthy uses short, sparse sentences to create the feeling of emptiness-destroyed physical desolation in the case of The Road and wide open spaces in the case of his Border Trilogy.  Markus Zusak uses the same kind of minimalistic prose to capture the emotional desolation of his time and place, and the effect is stunning.  I read one review where the writer stated that the prose felt overly simple, and therefore juvenile, and then she realized that this was a young adult book.  My reaction is just the opposite.  This writing style is perfect for creating the tone of the novel, and I feel regret that the book is not marketed as an adult book, expanding its audience.
As a teacher, I will be adding this book to our curriculum.  In addition to the various themes: survivor guilt, good even among the evil, and love, there is also some interesting symbolism stemming from books and an accordion.  The elements are easy for high schoolers to clearly see yet woven deftly enough to make this a powerful, mature read for adults young and old.  My one warning would be that some might find the language a bit on the strong side.
I would be absolutely remiss in ending this review without high praise for the narrator of the audio version.  Allan Corduner’s performance as the narrator, Death, is marvelous.  Each character is infused with their own distinct personality, and his German accent is excellent.  My one, very slight, complaint might be that Liesel’s voice is a tad bit sappy.  This would be a good book to listen to with a print copy in your hand.  You won’t want to miss the narration, but you will want to be able to read with a pencil in hand to mark the many memorable phrases.
This book will definitely be among my top three fiction titles read this year and might very well snag the top spot.  Very highly recommended!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

MOON SHOT by Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, and Jay Barbree ✰✰✰


There are some events in the history of mankind which can never be duplicated.  Only one person could be the first to orbit the earth in a spacecraft, or drift outside its confines, or walk on the face of our moon.  The 1950s through the 1970s were a special time in the great, epic story of our race.  A few dozen men with skill, nerve, and willingness to put their lives on the line to experience the impossible, for themselves and their fellow human beings, stepped up for perhaps the greatest endeavor in earth’s history.  To land a man on the face of the moon and return him safely home.  Aided by the sharpest minds in rocket science, aerospace engineering, and computer and communications systems, these men of courage expanded our frontier, some at the expense of their lives.
The four hundred pages of this book flew by for me.  Beginning with the choice, in the waning days of World War II, of a group of German rocket scientists, led by Wernher von Braun, to surrender to the Americans, which became the genesis of the United States’ rocket program, the initial printing of this book ended with the Apollo-Soyuz mission (a joining, in 1975, of a U.S. and a Soviet spacecraft while they orbited the earth).  Both astronauts involved in the writing, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, have passed away since the original printing in 1994.  Journalist Jay Barbree wrote an update for the latter version, which I read, which has been rereleased in 2011 for the 50th anniversary of the advent of the space program.  His update felt rushed and gave very little specific information about the space program since the last Apollo flight; I would have appreciated a less political stance and one which gave more concrete information.
If you are looking for a fast ride through the history of the U.S., and to a very minimal extent, the Soviet, race to the moon, this is a solid place to start.  It is also a good book to read if you want to believe that there was very little tension and competition among the astronauts themselves and the various engineers-something that other writings lead me to know is patently untrue.  While I can appreciate the desire of the authors to produce an account free from mudslinging, the book does have a “nicey-nice” ring to it that got a bit too saccharine at times.  However, the passion of those involved in the early space programs, the spirit of the unknown that drove them, and their sheer love of what they were doing, comes through clearly in the exciting flow of the narrative.  This book made me laugh, cry, and cheer, despite prose that verged on melodramatic at times.
Moon Shot focuses on the United States’ side of the space race, but if you are interested in a balanced account which includes the parallel history of the Soviet side (albeit with much less information from the U.S. viewpoint than Moon Shot), I would like to suggest Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race.  This book was written by U.S. astronaut David Scott-Apollo 15 commander, and Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov-the first man to walk in space, and tells their simultaneous stories from opposing sides of the Iron Curtain.  These two men also worked together on joint U.S. and Soviet projects later in their careers.  As someone who grew up during the Cold War, I found this collaboration absolutely engrossing, although, like Moon Shot, it is not the most well-written of books.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

THE PRAGUE CEMETERY by Umberto Eco ✰✰✰


In general I am a huge fan of Umberto Eco, and as such I was eagerly awaiting the release of the English translation of The Prague Cemetery.  I am sad to say that all of those elements that I love about Eco’s writing-the intelligent plotting, the dense prose, the belief in his reader’s ability to follow where he leads-have been carried to excess with this one.
The story is narrated by three voices, two of which are one person with a split personality, and the third is an unreliable voice of no discernible provenance.  I must give a warning here about the main character.  Eco has stated that he attempted to create the most despicable of all literary characters.  The book begins with a rant that, had I not agreed to review the novel, would have had me tossing this one aside.  If you are Jewish, German, French, Italian, or female and are sensitive to vitriol, the opening pages might offend you greatly.  In point of fact I must admit that as the pages roll on the reader can see that stereotypes of prejudices are being played upon, and the reader begins to perceive the shape of a truly reprehensible character and ceases for the most part to be offended personally.  The one thing which continued to cause me a fair measure of unease as I read is the virulent anti-semitism.  I know that distrust and dislike of the Jewish people has been rampant throughout European history, and I realize that the plot of this novel centers around events purportedly reactionary to those anti-semitic feelings.  However, the hatred is so much at the forefront of this book, that it almost made me the reader feel complicit by continuing to read.  The foreknowledge that that is the author’s intent does not make me feel any less uncomfortable.
The device of a split personality is interesting, and works with the conspiracy theory nature of the plot.  As for the plot, the reader is told up front that the book is created from real historical figures (only the main character and a few very minor ones are not drawn from actual people), and the plot structure is based on factual events with many conspiracy theories interwoven.  The time frame in question is the later half of the nineteenth century, the setting is Italy, and the characters include Garibaldi and his Redshirts.  Conspiracy theory is a fascination of mine, and I trusted Eco to write it well.  This is the point where I must admit that I only made it to page 153 of 467.  I went to the library last night and browsed through the Italian history books related to this era, hoping to demystify the plot somewhat by familiarizing myself with the players and events.  Then I curled up again with the book, hoping my further education would make the book more accessible.  After a couple of hours I put the book down and came to a decision-I must read a complete nonfiction work about the time, place, and people in question in order to fully understand and enjoy the conspiracy theories which Eco weaves through them.  Too much is assumed by the author with regards to this reader’s knowledge of Italian history.  I wonder perhaps, given that Eco writes in Italian for Italians, if this knowledge is basic to their curriculum, and it only becomes an issue in translation for foreigners.
At the moment I have given the book three stars, for I simply can not give a master of the pen like Eco any less.  My plan is to read, in the next few months, The Making of Italy, 1815-1870 by Edgar Holt, a readable, concise work covering the events of Eco’s book, and then re-read this book by Eco.  If you do not mind feeling a little lost in your history/conspiracy theories, or if you know a sufficient amount of the time and place in question, and if you love deep, dark novels, this will likely be your kind of read.  Otherwise, I would approach this one with caution and preparation.

Friday, November 4, 2011

THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern ✰✰✰✰


Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel is, for me, full of strengths but not without a few faults as well.  Set in a non-traditional circus-you won’t find a single clown or elephant here-the novel interweaves elements of the late nineteenth century fascination with the showman magician; immersive, theatrical creations; and a love story.
The plot and setting are fairly simple to describe.  Two rival magicians rear and train two younger practitioners from childhood, one his daughter and the other an orphan, with the sole goal of their competing against one another in a battle of magical prowess.  One of the greatest producers of theatrical spectacles in their day is led by the elder magicians to create the incomparable Night Circus, which will act as the stage for the showdown.  Erin Morgenstern has a background in theater and dimensional art and it radiates through her circus.  Each tent, created in turn by the rival magicians, is an enchanted world unto itself and the circus goers aren’t the only ones eager to enter the black and white canvas doors.  The reader can not help but be left breathless in awe at the intricate imagination of this talented writer.  Ms. Morgenstern creates an alternate reality of charm, elegance, and illusion, in turns coloring her black and white setting in tones of spellbinding beauty and somber foreboding.
Two chronological threads are written into the novel.  In an interview, author Morgenstern states that she used this device to give a sense of mobility within the story, similar to the mobility of the circus itself.  I personally find it a bit confusing to keep straight, but as the two threads begin to converge it is easy to see why she used the structure: the reader feels tension building as you begin to wonder if the plot lines are heading for an ethereal commingling or a collision of catastrophic proportion.
Short allegorical sections scattered between chapters provide a point of convergence between the circus theme and the story.  Once the reader realizes that these sections are glimpses at impending events, their significance becomes magnified in their role of foreshadowing.  In addition, these sections are used to lend a dreamy, sensory mood to the novel.
There is romance here as well, and it enfolds itself quite naturally within the evolution of the tale.  At times fraught with tension and at others spun with delicacy, the passion between the two central characters is written with restraint and manages to feel wholly believable in a venue of suspended credulity.
Despite all these strong points, I can not give this novel five stars for two reasons.  First, there is excessive use of tired metaphors and descriptive passages that bring to mind contrived examples from a grammar book.  Overwrought might be a good choice of adjective.  Yet in select passages Morgenstern’s writing seems pitch perfect, such as this quote, which drew me in on page four:
The circus looks abandoned and empty.  But you think perhaps you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves.  A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold.
Does that line not awaken your senses and make them tingle?  Overall it is my opinion that the originality and imaginative power of the novel more than compensate for the over-written sections.
The second, and primary, reason that I can not give the book five stars is the ending.  All the loose ends are neatly tied up with a bow, which I appreciate, so that is not my issue.  My issue is that the ending is passed off to a character who I judge unnecessary to make the conclusion work.  I understand the role this character plays in the plot, and indeed in the structure, of the novel, but the large role the character is given at the book’s climax seems contrived to me.  It almost has the sense of a movie part which was originally written fairly small, but the big name star that is being wooed to play the role says that their name will only go on the dotted line if they get to star in the pivotal moment.  There are other players, in my opinion, who could have filled the role more believably.  I am not trying to say that this is one of those books where the ending is so disenchanting that the book is ruined.  Far from it.  There are a couple of clever twists, and the structure itself is good; I simply don’t care for who Ms. Morgenstern chose to place center stage.
This novel is recommended for all mature readers.  There is one sex scene and several instances of innuendo, but they are fairly restrained and I would not hesitate to allow my high schooler to read this work, despite being a rather conservative parent.
I laud Erin Morgenstern’s strong freshman effort, and though magical realism is not always my cup of cocoa, I will be on the lookout to snatch up a galley of her next novel.  This one I borrowed from the library, but it is going on my purchase wish list, as I foresee it becoming a personal “comfort book” and one I loan to friends in need of an escape.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

TIGRESS OF FORLI by Elizabeth Lev ✰✰✰✰


What better match-up could one hope for than author/art historian Elizabeth Lev and the  venerable Renaissance countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de Medici?  Under Lev’s artistic eye, the countess herself and the age in which she lived, late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Italy, pulse with life.


Caterina is, without any doubt, one of history’s most amazing women.  In a time and place where alliance with the ruling party of the moment was a matter not just of prosperity, but of survival, and the pyramid of power held all the stability of an edifice built on quicksand, Caterina thrived.  As a woman, her task was much more difficult; time and again she was subjected to the poor decisions of the men in her life.  Other times she took the reins in her own hands and rode for the battlements.  Literally.  Widowed Renaissance women were recycled by their fathers or brothers into further marriage alliances, often marrying several times under these circumstances.  Not Caterina-she made one such marriage and then married twice for love, once into a very advantageous joining with the de Medici clan.  Born a Sforza, with all the warrior spirit of her father, Caterina was forced to watch in powerless frustration as her children and those given guardianship over them exhibited their spineless Riario tendencies in the face of she who burned to fight.


Elizabeth Lev’s portrayal of Caterina is very balanced.  It is clear that she greatly admires her subject, but she realizes that there were times in her life when Caterina made some serious errors in judgement and when she let her passionate nature, both for love and vengeance, get the better of her.  Due to the author’s background, extensive coverage is given to the art, architecture and fashion of the times.  It is a marvelous eye to have cast on the era-I especially love the descriptions of the extravagant gowns worn by the countess.


Overall, this is a well-written, easily digested biography.  There were a couple of things which kept it from being a five star book, but by a very narrow margin (I would give the book four and a half stars if I could).  First, the cast of players is huge and many of the characters are interrelated by marriage and blood.  A list of characters and some genealogical charts would have been most appreciated, as there were many instances where I lost the thread of things.  As mine was a review copy, this issue might very well be resolved in the final printing.  My copy only had a very basic map of the Italian states, which was not near as useful as these other aids would have been.  Do not let this one element deter you from picking up this page-turner of a narrative history, however.  Caterina was an incredible woman, and Elizabeth Lev is an author I hope to see more from in the future. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

MAIN STREET PUBLIC LIBRARY by Wayne A. Wiegand ✰✰✰


I enjoyed this little tome.  Author Wayne Wiegand spotlights four libraries in the rural mid-west, giving a brief history of each, from about the 1870s through the 1950s.  He then discusses the books which did or did not make it into the collections of these libraries.
The first section of the book can get a bit tedious at times, as it lists by name every founding board member and their political and religious affiliation.  In addition, each and every librarian is discussed.  However, in the later sections of the book, this information does become relevant as the driving forces behind collection choices are discussed.  Despite the rather dry subject litany, Mr. Wiegand portrays a marvelous picture of how libraries were founded and run in rural America in the late 19th and early 20th century, and in the end I enjoyed the section more often than not.
The role of the library as a place within the communities of rural America is also given a fair amount of ink.  Interestingly enough, many activities which still take place today in my local library system had their roots in these first fledgling, small town libraries. 
Collection building is given an interesting perusal.  Wayne Wiegand built a data base to cross reference the collections of the four libraries he profiles, plus one additional library of the era.  He then gives a prose comparison of all the libraries and compares their collections with publications such as Booklist, which were put out by national and state library organizations, to see how the libraries followed the collection building trends recommended by their professional organizations.
I would have happily read twice the given information pertaining to how each of the libraries dealt with the major social issues of their era.  This period in American history saw many pivotal issues, such as the rise of labor unions and socialism, women’s suffrage, and prohibition.  The efforts of various national and local groups to suppress certain specific works of literature and the ongoing battle against fiction in favor of non-fiction is discussed in interesting detail, with special emphasis given to how each of the profiled libraries handled the issues.  This section was definitely the strongest of the book.
There were may titles which I discovered for the first time as I learned about library holdings of this era and which I look forward to reading.  In addition, the book sparked a desire to learn more about Andrew Carnegie, who provided funding to erect the buildings in which three of the profiled libraries were housed.  At about 250 pages, this book is a quick look at a seldom discussed element of American history, which I, as a bibliophile and lover of small, local libraries, found well worth my while.

REMARKABLE CREATURES by Tracy Chevalier ✰✰✰✰✰


This wonderful work of historical fiction held me enthralled from beginning to end!  The novel presents at its center the factual personage of Mary Anning, who became, in the early 1800s, a fossil hunter of great repute.  Mary’s story, as the discoverer of the first ichthyosaur and plesiosaur fossils, among others, would be fascinating enough in its own right, but when you combine it with her station in life and the social issues that swirled through the scientific community of her day, the novel becomes a true tour de force.
It seems as if every factor was working to Mary’s detriment-she was poor, a member of the wrong faith, a member of a disrespected family, and more than anything else, she was a woman.  Men tried to take credit for her discoveries and denied her membership in scientific societies.  Yet when it came to the religious turmoil that her remarkable creatures excited, they were more than willing to let her bear the censure.
As a woman, I was drawn in by Ms. Chevalier’s warm and intelligent portrait of this most grounded of women.  Mary Anning never tried to be more than what she was, a beach comber of incredible instinct who could see in the stone things other people missed.  She wanted credit for her abilities and chafed at the attempts of those better educated and more renowned to claim her findings as their own or attempt to deny the veracity of her creatures.

In addition to Mary’s own story, a good deal of information regarding many famous men of the time, such as the geologist William Buckland, with whom she developed a special friendship, is shared.  Also prominently featured in the novel is Elizabeth Philpot, a local spinster who was frequently known to be in Mary’s company as she hunted along the coast of Lyme Regis, and was herself a competent hunter and collector.  The biographies of these people are solidly placed in the historical context of rapidly evolving scientific thought and discovery and the ensuing upheaval within the religious community as long-held doctrines began to be brought into question.
I listened to the audio, and while the audio was not at all bad, I really wish that I had read this one in print form, so as to fully experience the lovely descriptions of the English coastal area in which it is set.  Whether you choose the audio or the print version you will not be disappointed-this is sure to be one of my top fiction books of the year.

PARROT AND OLIVIER IN AMERICA by Peter Carey ✰✰✰✰✰


Using dual narrators, Peter Carey deftly portrays America, and to a lesser extent France and England, in the time frame following the French Revolution.
Our first narrator, is Olivier de Garmont, who by necessity engendered from his standing as a French aristocrat, must vacate France.  To avoid political censure and create a face-saving reason for running away, it is decided that he will travel to America and write a book, supposedly for the French government, on the prison system in the New World.  Olivier’s character is loosely based on Alexis de Tocqueville and his writing of Democracy in America.
Through various machinations of plot our other narrator, John “Parrot” Larrit, a poor Englishman of humble beginnings, finds himself thrown into the position of servant to Olivier and on his way to America as well.
By turns humorous, enlightening, touching, and gripping, Mr. Carey’s novel is an intricately complex page-turner of the very best sort.  A portrait of the social culture of the America of the age is gently unfolded as the pampered, old world aristocrat and the down-trodden servant begin to equalize in matters of intellect, patriotism, cunning, respect, love and friendship. 
The audio, put out by Blackstone and narrated by Humphrey Bower, will without a doubt be my number one audio for 2011.  Given that this year I have listened to far more books than I have read in print, that is quite high praise.  Mr. Bower so perfectly captures the accent and persona of both characters that I was surprised to realize that the book, which uses the format of alternating chapters being narrated from the viewpoint of each character in turn, did not use two different actors, one for each voice.
I absolutely loved this novel.  It has everything a reader could wish for in a good work of historical fiction in terms of research smoothly intertwined within the plot, compelling characters (both from history and Mr. Carey’s imagination), and vivid prose that drew me in whether the topic was of a personal or societal nature.  Whether you choose to listen to Humphrey Bower’s masterful performance or let Peter Carey’s words speak for themselves, this is an absolute must read.

Friday, September 30, 2011

ROMOLA by George Eliot ✰✰✰


Wow!  Where to start...
Let me first say that there is much to love here.  Truly!  The first fifty or so pages felt interminable, but once past that point the book becomes a veritable page turner.
Eliot crafts a fascinating, first-rate historical fiction plot based in Florence, Italy, from the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici (in 1492), through the time of Savonarola’s influence, and culminating in an epilogue placed in 1509.  In the midst of this tumultuous social situation is placed our heroine, Romola.  The daughter of a scholar, Romola herself is very well educated for a woman of her time.  This novel follows Romola through six complex post-de’Medici years of Florentine politics, further inflamed by the preachings of Savonarola, a Dominican friar.  As the plot swells in complexity, the gentle woman transitions from being her father’s daughter, to her husband’s wife, to a woman meeting life head on with a dignity of her own merit.  Possessed of a fast moving, labyrinthine plot, this novel, despite its length of just over 600 pages, keeps up a taut pace until the very end.
As might be expected in a novel named after a character, this one, despite the enticing plot, is very rooted in its performers.  Romola is a central figure, but by no means the only one.  Eliot pulls some of her players direct from the history books and some from her imagination, but each and every one of them feels so genuine that it is difficult to know which really lived and breathed and which only ever lived within her pages.  This is the type of book that has you googling purely imaginative personages-because they are portrayed with such authenticity.
Florence of the late fifteenth century is very well depicted: the pageantry of her holidays (including a fantastic description of Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities); the dress, habits, and occupations of her various classes; and the architectural details of her stone edifices.  As you wander the streets with the novel’s inhabitants you are drawn into her neighborhoods, with their chaos, aromas, and idiosyncrasies.
So why a relatively low three star rating?   Because the prose is so dense that it left me wallowing somewhere between philosophy text and nineteenth century history tome.  For some reason, I had to work exceptionally hard to remain focused on reading the words themselves and concentrate with that little bit of extra grey matter to wrap my mind around what exactly was being expressed.  Was it worth it?  Well, yes, as my clear admiration for the book’s merits shows; however, I can not say that I “really liked” (four stars) or “loved” (five stars) a book which required so much effort.  So, three stars, a simple “liked” verdict, it is for this work.  This is definitely not a book for someone unused to literature of the Victorian era, as, in my opinion, this novel is some of the least accessible writing from that time frame.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

INTO THIN AIR by Jon Krakauer ✰✰✰✰


May 11, 1996 has come to be given the title of the “1996 Mt. Everest Disaster”, because on this day eight people lost their lives in a single afternoon on the world’s tallest peak.  Author Jon Krakauer was attempting the summit that day, and this memoir, written very shortly after his climb, is a riveting account of the lengths to which people will go in order to stand on the apex of the planet.
This book is part history, part culture of climbing, and part adventure journal, but beyond all else it is a tale of the fragility of mankind when measured against the force of a mountain.  Mr. Krakauer bares his soul, opening the door to a world to which only a select few can truly relate and a day that brought nightmares and survivor guilt to those who made it off the mountain.

This audio was riveting.  Usually, the quickest way to have me re-shelving an audiobook is to see that the author does the narrating.  In my experience, authors should stick to writing.  But the intensely personal nature of this particular memoir gave me the feeling that no one could tell this tale quite like Jon Krakauer himself.  I highly recommend listening to this story in the voice of the man who lived through it.

MOTHER TERESA, CEO by Ruma Bose and Lou Faust ✰✰✰


Being neither Catholic nor an executive of any level, this might seem an odd book for me to pick up, but I am glad that I had the simple pleasure and gentle learning experience this book afforded me.
As a young Hindi woman, during a time of aimless confusion in her life, Ruma Bose spent an extended period of time volunteering with Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Charity in India.  Ruma has subsequently gone on to become a successful business woman.  A dinner party conversation during which she sketched out the leadership style of Mother Teresa was the genesis of this book, on which Ms. Bose asked her mentor, Lou Faust to collaborate.
The book’s structure is very simple.  It is divided into eight chapters, each of which correlate with one of eight principles found by Ruma Bose to define the leadership philosophy of Mother Teresa.  These principles are:
Dream it Simple, Say it Strong 
Dealing with the Devil to get to the Angels 
Wait! Then pick your moment 
Embrace the power of doubt 
Discover the joy of discipline 
Communicate in a language people understand 
Pay attention to the janitor 
Use the power of silence 
At the beginning of each chapter Ruma recounts an anecdote from her time with the gentle woman who began and grew one of the world’s largest charity organizations.  These brief snippets let the reader see various sides of Mother Teresa from a CEO standpoint.  Lou Faust and Ruma then draw parallels to real world business situations.
The book left me with mixed feelings.  It is useful in that I do not think you need to be a CEO to apply these principles to your life, and this broadens the scope of those for whom this will be an enjoyable read.  However, the book, at a scant 144 pages, does not provide any concrete suggestions for implementation, neither on a personal nor a business level.  For me, the book was primarily an informative look at Mother Teresa through an alternative lens.  If you are fascinated by this special woman the book is well worth your time.

THEODORA: ACTRESS, EMPRESS, WHORE: A NOVEL by Stella Duffy ✰✰✰


In choosing Theodora of Byzantium for her subject, Stella Duffy picked a definite case of truth trumping fiction.  Duffy fills her novel with richly depictive discourse, transporting the reader into a world of political intrigue and religious turmoil, a world where the worth and potential of an individual was most often pre-determined by birth. 
Born into poverty in a time (mid sixth century) and place (Byzantium) in which women had very few options, Theodora, daughter of a deceased bear trainer, followed a path considered fortunate for one in her situation.  She gained renown on stage as an actress, which sounds innocuous enough to our modern sentiments, but in her day actresses, along with singers and dancers, became prostitutes to their audiences after their onstage work was concluded.  Ms. Duffy uses this early portion of the novel to display for us the strength of Theodora’s resolve to rise above her current status, the culture and chaos of Constantinople, and the squalor from which our heroine succeeds in rising.  To understand why Theodora is such an anomaly, and thus why she is to be so greatly admired, one must understand the situation from whence she came.  
Disclosing too much of the plot would, I feel, rob readers of some of the narrative pull with which the amazing sequence of events of Theodora’s life endows this novel.  Once immersed in her tale, it is a difficult book to put down.  The story concludes with Theodora’s marriage to the emperor Justinian I and her coronation as empress of Byzantium.  Initially I was very annoyed by the ending.  In order to fully appreciate the transformative nature of this woman and understand the complete measure of her intelligence you must explore her role as Justinian’s consort.  I am happy to report that Stella Duffy announces on the book’s Penguin page that she is working on a sequel, to be titled The Purple Shroud.
There is one single element that kept this from being a five star book for me.  The book made liberal use of the “F word”.  It made me approach the first sex scene with some trepidation, as it seemed to indicate that Ms. Duffy’s writing in that area might be a bit raunchy for my taste.  That ended up being not at all the case.  Which left me wondering: who is the intended audience for this book?  It lacks the explicit sex which the more profane reader might expect, and its copious research would lead one to believe it is aimed at serious readers of historical fiction, who generally, in my experience, appreciate better verb selection.  Yes, some might argue that the word is used to show a certain degeneracy of Theodora’s character.  I feel it degraded Stella Duffy’s literary gifts.  Through wonderful, descriptive prose Ms. Duffy makes clear to the reader the gritty nature of Theodora and her unfortunate origins.  If an author does such an admirable job of “showing”, why stoop to the baseness of not only “telling” but doing so with the crassest of four letter words?
Overall, I enjoyed this look at one of history’s oft ignored women of substance.  If the one element mentioned above is not one to put you off, I think that lovers of historical fiction, as well as those who enjoy tales of personal transformation and triumph will find this a satisfying read.