Sunday, February 26, 2012


Last year at this time Lit in the Last Frontier was a brand new blog with only a handful of followers, but I decided to institute an Alaska reading tradition, the IditaRead, and we had fun with it!  Every year the famous sled dog race, the Iditarod, is run through the wilds of Alaska, and Alaskan readers at home challenge themselves to keep up with their favorite racers (called "mushers") by reading one page for each mile their team goes.  Our children take part in IditaRead programs throughout the state in their public and home school programs.  Libraries also offer IditaRead programs.  I hope that you will decide to join us this year in this uniquely Alaskan tradition!  The rules are super easy, you can jump right in, even in the middle of a book, and the whole family can do it!  And there are some uniquely Alaskan prizes to be won!

IditaRead 2012

Here are the rules!  It is really very simple:

  • You may read anything.  Whatever book you are currently reading or planning to read will count.
  • The challenge is open to everyone, irregardless of age.  If you are doing this with a child, just make sure the books are on their reading level.  Books they read to younger siblings count, including picture books.  If you read a picture book to a younger child, every three pages counts as one page for the adult reader.  If you read a chapter book aloud to your children, it counts for both of you!  Let's promote family reading!
  • Begin counting pages at 10am Alaska Standard Time on Saturday March 3rd.  AST is one hour behind Pacific time.  If you are a little late getting this message, make an honest guess.
  • You may begin counting in the middle of a book; in your first check in, just say, "I read pages 169-253", or whatever the case may be. 
  • You may check in as often as you like, but the easiest way is to check in each time you hit the next check point.  Below is the official route and checkpoint listing.  As an example, say you post to tell me you have read 115 pages.  I will let you know that you are past the Yentna checkpoint, and that your next checkpoint is 8 pages from now, when I will mark you as passing through Skwentna Station.
  • You do not have to check in that often.  You can check in after 500 pages (or whatever), and I will tell you that you that you blew through Cripple and are 65 pages from Ruby.
  • You can also just look at the middle column of numbers below and tell me when you reach each checkpoint.
  • You need to report: book title, author, number of pages, one sentence about what you are reading at the time.  If you want to take the time, a quick star ranking at the end of each book is nice.  
  • This is obviously run purely on the honor system.  I try to offer good prizes for three finishers to encourage honesty.
  • The actual Iditarod race is won in about a week, but this challenge will go for as long as readers are posting their pages read.  Iditarod mushers have a never quit attitude-I hope IditaRead readers feel the same way!

    What can you win?  Cold Hands Warm Heart is my winner's book this year!  It is an oldie but goodie by long time Iditarod favorite and four time champion Jeff King.  He is a hero in our home and we look forward to sending his excellent book into some of yours.
    • First Place: Jeff King's Cold Hands Warm Heart (book) and an official 2012 Iditarod t-shirt
    • Second Place: Jeff King's Cold Hands Warm Heart (book) and an official 2012 Iditarod mug
    • Third Place: Jeff King's Cold Hands Warm Heart (book)

    I have listed all the checkpoints consecutively on the "Checkpoints 2012" page, as this page was getting too long.  If we fill up that one as well, I will start a second checkpoints page.  As you reach each one I will enter your name.  The only time it can be crucial to check in is toward the very end, if we have a couple of close runners, in which case I will go by the time you posted your message to determine the winner.

    A fun added element is to choose an actual musher and try to keep up, reading as many pages as they travel in miles.  If your musher has to scratch you can do one of two things-carry on in their name, or switch to a musher still in the running.  My two favorite sites for following the race are:

    The northern route is run in even years, and the southern route is run is odd years. To read more about the Iditarod Trail and checkpoints, go here.
    CheckpointTerrain between
    Distance between
    Distance from
    Distance to
    Total Distance975
    AnchorageAnchorage to Campbell Airstrip1111964
    Campbell AirstripCampbell Airstrip to Willow_________
    WillowWillow to Yentna Station4253922
    Yentna StationYentna Station to Skwentna3083892
    SkwentnaSkwentna to Finger Lake40123852
    Finger LakeFinger Lake to Rainy Pass30153822
    Rainy PassRainy Pass to Rohn35188787
    RohnRohn to Nikolai75263712
    NikolaiNikolai to McGrath48311664
    McGrathMcGrath to Takotna18329646
    TakotnaTakotna to Ophir23352623
    OphirOphir to Cripple73425550
    CrippleCripple to Ruby70495480
    RubyRuby to Galena50545430
    GalenaGalena to Nulato37582393
    NulatoNulato to Kaltag47629346
    KaltagKaltag to Unalakleet85714261
    UnalakleetUnalakleet to Shaktoolik40754221
    ShaktoolikShaktoolik to Koyuk50804171
    KoyukKoyuk to Elim48852123
    ElimElim to Golovin2888095
    GolovinGolovin to White Mountain1889877
    White MountainWhite Mountain to Safety5595322
    SafetySafety to Nome229750


    More than anything else I hate to see a truly gifted writer fail to achieve potential.  To succeed in crafting wonderful prose, creating an enveloping atmosphere, only then to fail when history itself has given you the very plot and characters you need spin out your tale in a stunning coup de grace!
    Eva Stachniak chose an interesting, completely fictional narrator, which does allow her interesting roving viewpoints throughout the palace.  Her narrator is the orphaned daughter of the bookbinder to the Empress Elizabeth I of Russia, whom he begged to care for the girl in the event of his death.  Upon that event she ends up in various lowly positions in the court, is made a mistress and spy of the Chancellor of Russia and begins her rise to fame.  The author uses her considerable talents to create an ambience of espionage, sumptuous feasts, decadent clothing, and furtive love affairs, all of which the Russian courts of the age were well known for. 
    There is no “author’s note” attached to the book, other than one which states that this is a work of fiction.  So why attach the subtitle “A novel of Catherine the Great” to the book?  To serious readers of historical fiction such a note is a tag denoting a work which is seriously researched and essentially a work “biographical fiction”.  Catherine is not even the major character in the book-Elizabeth is.  Catherine comes to Elizabeth’s court as a young bride to Elizabeth’s heir, her nephew, Peter, and she and the narrator, Varvara, form an uneasy friendship, but Elizabeth remains that dominante force in the novel.
    Some historical elements of the novel, such as Elizabeth’s relationships with Peter and Catherine’s children (and their paternity), the access that Elizabeth allowed Catherine to her children, and Peter’s character were fairly well portrayed.  However, I felt that she grossly missed the mark in her portrayals of Elizabeth and Catherine.  Elizabeth is portrayed as a completely debauched woman.  There is no doubt that she loved parties and beautiful things, but she ruled Russia for twenty years and was very much the daughter of Peter the Great, continuing many of the positive things which he began, none of which comes across in this novel at all.  Due to it’s subtitle, you feel like you are supposed to be focusing your attentions on Catherine, but so much attention is paid to Elizabeth that I couldn’t help but feel dissatisfied that her character was not fully developed and that it was so one-sided and unfairly portrayed.  She was a woman of many talents who made many contributions to Russia during her reign.  This novel ends shortly after the death of Elizabeth and Catherine’s seizure of power.  Eva Stachniak is working on a sequel, continuing the reign of Catherine, as she becomes Catherine the Great.  I sure hope she focuses on something other than the twenty something lovers that Catherine cycled through her bed in her lifetime.  This could have been a wonderful book about two very strong empresses and a narrator who fought her way up from nothing.  Instead it felt like two debauched empresses and an abused orphan-made-whore swimming through the mire that was imperial Russia.  
    This one barely merits three stars from me, and that only because Eva Stachniak writes some lovely atmospheric prose, and while she often fails to develop her characters, she does perfectly capture their personae: sultry, snide, catty, bored, swaggering, imperious-you name it, each in turn.  I hope she learns from this one and makes Catherine more dimensional in her next book.  There is a legion of serious historical fiction readers out there that is hers, either to win or lose.


    This book plays so fully to David McCullough’s strengths that I could not but love every minute of it!  He is at heart a story teller, and a gifted, lyrical one at that.  I have read many of his full length works of biography and historical events and appreciated his copious research, but no other book has made me appreciate how much he loves people and telling the tales of their lives.

    McCullough takes as his subject the tide of Americans who chose, during the 19th century, to journey to Paris, France, to study in various disciplines.  There is no way possible to summarize them all, but I will hit upon a few highlights.  Elizabeth Blackwell traveled to Paris to study medicine, becoming the first American woman to receive a formal medical decree, something unavailable to her in the United States; she returned to New York and opened a hospital run entirely by women.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., father of the great Supreme Court justice, was one of many young American men to study medicine in Paris, where he said he could gain as much knowledge in two years as he would in ten under the apprenticeship system in America.  Originally traveling to Paris to study painting, Samuel Morse became fired with the spirit of invention and returned to America with the seeds of the idea for the telegraph beginning to take root in his mind.  Perhaps the most numerous students abroad were those who were there to study painting, many of whom gained lasting renown.  Some, such as Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent became famous for using techniques learned in France to paint distinctly American subject matter, while others painted a more European choice of subjects.  Of special interest was Mary Cassatt, who became the only American (and one of only two women) to be invited to join the Impressionists.  Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was another example of an American who studied in Paris, but whose greatest works, such as his Sherman and his Farragut, were American to their core.  Stanford White, an architect, became especially noteworthy due to his close working relationship with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, collaborating with him on the pedestal for his statue of Farragut.  Musicians are also featured, although to a lesser extent.  My favorite story is that of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a pianist lauded by Chopin himself as the greatest of the age.  Many American writers, such as James Fenimore Cooper and Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote about American issues despite their Paris address; Cooper wrote a couple of the Natty Bumppo novels there-I can’t imagine writing about the American frontier in cosmopolitan Paris!  Various periods during which Charles Sumner spent in Paris are covered, from his experience as a young student at the Sorbonne in 1838, realizing that black students are treated with absolute equality, to his time when, as a U.S. Senator in 1856, Sumner was violently attacked after giving a powerful abolitionist speech in the Senate and spent time in Paris recovering.  Diplomats, especially Elihu Washburne, who gained great respect for being the only foreign representative to remain in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, are covered, as are a number of philanthropists, thinkers, and social luminaries of the time.
    This was the era of the Civil War in the United States, the Franco-Prussian War, Paris’ Commune, and Paris’ Universal Exposition of 1900, among other events, so in addition to all the humanities covered, there is a good deal of history here as well.  McCullough states that you can never learn about a people if you do not understand their arts, and he certainly shows an interesting side of America and how it was influenced by France in this era.  The stress of the narrative is not only on the art forms and the social lives of the artists, but on the ideas that they were absorbing, both artistic and social.  These ideas influenced these individuals and changed the way they viewed their own country, its prejudices, its medical system, its governance, its class structure.  They saw how mediums, not only writing, but painting and sculpture, could change social bias.  Medicine was recognized as something for the masses and a science far more advanced than Americans had taken it.  In wrapping up his book David McCullough tells you how these young people went home to America and used the things that they had learned during their time in Paris to enrich the American experience.
    Initially, I struggled with this book and felt like it was wandering all over the place, as I was listening to the audio and did not understand that the book is a collection of vignettes.  I looked at a print copy of the book and familiarized myself with its structure, after which I had no further issues.  In the end, I feel that audio is the perfect way to experience this book, as it has the feel of being a collection of stories, read in part by the author, and you very much get the sense that you and he are spending time together, and he is sharing all his favorite tidbits of history with you about this chosen time and place.  You must have an interest in art, Paris, and European history during the 19th century to enjoy this book, however.  It is very detail rich with regards to specific works of art and artistic endeavors, and to a lesser extent medical practices, and those uninterested in those topics will likely find it slow going.

    Thursday, February 23, 2012

    KHAN: EMPIRE OF SILVER by Conn Iggulden ✰✰✰✰

    Khan: Empire of Silver is book four of Conn Iggulden’s outstanding series about the founder of the Mongul Empire, Genghis Khan, and his sons and grandsons.  While it is not absolutely necessary to read the other books in order to read this one, I would highly recommend it, and if you would like to read the others you really do want to read them in order.
    Similar to the previous novel, this one travels to the far reaches of the empire, from China to Hungary to Afghanistan, which adds a good deal of cultural interest as you begin to see some of the Mongul culture of the steppes fade and the learning and refinement of the vanquished peoples sink into the conquering warriors.  In the course of this novel the last of Genghis’ brothers and sons die and the khanate passes into the hands of his grandson, with the continued guidance of Genghis’ venerable general Tsubodai.  
    As usual for all these novels, women’s roles are significant-an element of the book supported as factual by the extensive author’s note-making what might be a rather testosterone laden read very engaging for the ladies as well.  It is often difficult to find historical fiction written in a way that appeals to both men and women.  With his combination of Mongul warriors and strong female characters it struck me that this would be the perfect audio for a couple on a road trip together (although I can not speak for the audio, as I have read all four in print).
    The only element that kept this from being a five star read for me was that there was not a lot of suspense to it.  There were a couple of events towards the end that were unexpected (one, I will admit, was exceedingly so!), but overall, things flowed along a predictable course.  Exciting and fast paced, but predictable.
    This is a fantastic series about a seldom touched topic, and I highly recommend it for all readers, both male and female, who want to expand their knowledge of the Middle Ages beyond the borders of Europe (this novel takes place in the early thirteenth century).  The clash of the well-known battle tactics of Knights Templar against those of the Golden Horde makes for some pretty exciting reading.  The fifth and final novel in the series, Conqueror, was released in the United States in December of 2011.  It focuses primarily on Kublai Khan and the eastern half of the Mongul Empire, but also wraps up the story of his cousins and the western half, or Golden Horde.  Stay tuned, as I will certainly be reviewing that one in the near future.

    26 February: As an update, I was at the library with my kids the other day and was able to pick up the audio version of Conqueror!  I was very excited for two reasons-first, to finish up this excellent series, and second, to be able to finally experience one of these books on audio.  Most likely, I will begin listening to it today and should finish it sometime in the next week or so, after which I look forward to sharing my thoughts with all of you.

    Monday, February 13, 2012


    This novel is a tossed salad of ingredients that I like very much and those that leave me wanting something more.  After reading a number of reviews of Amy Tan novels I felt that I should choose which one I wanted to read with some care, as it sounded as if the themes were very similar from one novel to the next.
    Perhaps my favorite element is the relationship between the daughter, Ruth, and her mother, LuLing.  It becomes apparent within only a few pages that LuLing is a very opinionated, domineering woman, and anyone who has a mother (aunt, sister, neighbor, etc.) of similar makeup can not help but identify with Ruth.  However, as the story progresses Ruth, and the reader, begin to see that LuLing is suffering from Alzheimers.  
    As Ruth faces an apex in her life of her various relationships and her career, she also, by means of a memoir written by her mother some years before, comes to see beyond the domineering yet failing woman she has always known.
    After a rather slow beginning, the novel finally gains steam as we travel back in time to the China of LuLing’s youth.  Aside from the plot, which I enjoyed immensely, I loved how I was forced to completely reassess my picture of LuLing.  I gained a new respect for her and was reminded that elderly people often have fascinating pasts that their frail exteriors fail to divulge.  Day to day life in early 20th century China was very well depicted and the story of the Peking Man was nicely woven into the story, lending a fun historical element which was also tied in with the theme of Chinese medicine.
    Things which I would have liked to have seen fleshed out a bit more included the history of China in the time in which LuLing grew up, and Ruth’s experience as an Asian-American.  She seemed to have a normal American upbringing-I didn’t feel any culture clash at all, which seemed odd to me.  There were a number of relationships which seemed very cliched to me, such as that of Ruth with her very stereotypical step-daughters and Ruth’s relationship with her agent.
    Overall, the strong points definitely outweighed the bad, and I thoroughly enjoyed this read.  I am a little hesitant to pick up another book of Ms. Tan’s, as I have been warned that they are all fairly similar, but I would certainly recommend her work to anyone who has not read one of her novels and who has an interest in Chinese culture and Chinese Americans. 

    Monday, February 6, 2012

    NIGHT by Elie Wiesel ✰✰✰✰✰

    This is not a book that a reader can “critique” or even, for that matter, “review”.  To take an experience so personal and traumatic and attempt to filter it through the completely inadequate lens of a reader who has experienced nothing of similar magnitude would be arrogance of the grossest sort.
    For any of my readers who might not have heard of Elie Wiesel or Night, this book is a memoir of the purest sort.  It is a first person account of one traumatic year in Mr. Wiesel’s life, the final year of World War II in Europe, the year in which his idyllic life in a small town in Transylvania came to an end and the nightmare that was Auschwitz and Buchenwald began.
    The words which continually surface in my mind as I have pondered this book are: raw, naked, honest, vivid.  As a member of the community of mankind, I like to live under the perhaps naive notion that during the darkest hours in our history human beings have risen to display the best that is in them.  When I use the words naked and raw I am not just referring to the sheer emotional drain that is contained within the covers of this book.  I am referring to the fact that Elie Wiesel does not try to make humanity look noble.  He does not try to make himself look noble.  Man’s innate selfish quest for personal survival is not shied away from.  Indeed, when editors insisted on removing the most raw section with regards to Elie’s response to the final hours of his father’s life, Elie wrote it into his introduction to the book.
    As with most books dealing with the Holocaust, the central theme of this one is man’s inhumanity to man.  The unalloyed emotional candor of this book sets it apart from other Holocaust writings; it carved out a piece of my soul.  It saddens me to think that in the aftermath of the war Mr. Wiesel could not find a publisher for his work.  But for the tireless work of French Catholic Nobel Laureate writer François Mauriac, this powerful work might have been lost to mankind.  
    There are two books which I would recommend as tandem reads for Night, one a work of nonfiction and one a novel.  The first is Alex Kershaw’s biography of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s time in Hungary during the waning years of the war, The Envoy.  I also highly recommend Julie Orringer’s novel, loosely based upon the experiences of her Hungarian Jewish grandparents, The Invisible Bridge.  Orringer’s work of historical fiction was my top novel of 2010.
    The book itself is a scant 120 pages.  Even if you read both introductions, by Elie Wiesel and François Mauriac, which I strongly recommend, you can finish the 135 pages of the book in under four hours.  That four hours will change the way that you view not only the Holocaust, but the way that you view humanity.  It is simply a must read.

    Friday, February 3, 2012

    WE TWO by Gillian Gill ✰✰✰✰

    She was heir presumptive to the throne of Great Britain, and he was a second son of the German house of Saxe-Coburg.  One had been groomed since birth for the possibility of a throne and the other to be her consort.  Together they shared power, love, family, and built a dynasty that spread to virtually every nation in Europe.  Queen Victoria and Prince Albert provide marvelous material and Gillian Gill tells their story with humor and verve threading through her copious research.
    This does not try to be a comprehensive biography of Victoria and Albert; although a good deal of material is included about their formative years, it is geared specifically toward enlightening the reader on those things which they need to know to understand the marriage and rule of the royal couple.  The vast majority of the text deals specifically with their time spent governing, their relationship with each other, their parenting of their nine offspring, and the dynastic ambitions that they hoped to realize through those children.  Very little information is given after the death of Albert, either with regards to Victoria or the children.  This is a look at their married years only, with a small amount of ink given to the beginning of the adult years of their two eldest progeny (the years until their father’s death).  Because the couple was related to many of the ruling monarchs of the time and aspired to marry their children into numerous other royal houses, the reader catches glimpses of the politics and alliances of other countries as well as Great Britain.  
    Gillian Gill seems to have had a strict goal of staying rigidly on task to write a portrait of a marriage, with a small increment of time given to backstory.  Quite amazingly, the book, including notes, is a scant 440 pages-a feat given the amount of material available on the subjects.  Poor editing is definitely not a fault here!  However, the above mentioned notes cost this book a solid half star in my opinion.  The notes are completely unannotated within the text; if the reader is not in the habit of perusing the book before beginning it they might not even notice they are there.  Unfortunately, my complaint with the notes doesn’t end there.  The notes are very, very extensive-for 387 pages of text there are 51 pages of notes in a font size a scant half that of the text print.  There are at least a couple notes for every page in the text, and because there are no footnote markings the reader is forced to constantly flip from the text to the notes in the back of the book, with only page numbers as a guide.  The information contained in them is well worth the reader’s time, and thus I am very glad that Ms. Gill included it, but a good deal of it could have easily been inserted into the main text, as it is very relevant to the story.  It would have greatly increased the flow of the narrative had some of the flipping been eradicated and had I not had to struggle to read the itty-bitty print.  
    I find the layout of the book a little disconcerting, as it does not always flow chronologically, but rather according to events or themes.  However, the information does fit nicely into sections, so I can see why the author (or editor?) chose the format.
    The book is very aptly titled, and Gillian Gill achieves her obvious intentions admirably.  Despite my obvious annoyance with the notes, this is a book I very highly recommend.  If you are interested in British royalty, Victoria and Albert specifically, or you simply would like to learn a little bit about this fascinating couple, this is an engagingly written work to pick up.  Many biographies of royals can be dry and twice the length of this one, making We Two a great choice for the casual reader.