Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Ambassador's Daughter by Pam Jenoff

The Ambassador's Daughter is much less of a romance novel than it seems to be judging by the cover.  Set in 1919, during the aftermath of WWI, it is about love, but also about politics, women's liberation, familial relationships, and spies.  Yes, this book has spies.  Margot is a beautiful young woman who is torn between not only two men, but more than two lives which she might lead.  Does she want to stay with Stefan, her childhood love who shares her Jewish faith?  Does Margo want to be with Georg, the exciting military officer? Or can she remain alone, a free woman?

This is a romantic book, but not an erotic book.  Although the cover looks steamy, there is no explicit sex in The Ambassador's Daughter.  The historical references are slightly heavy handed in places, but Jenoff paid a lot of attention to historical accuracy.  The romantic parts of the novel were less interesting than Margot's struggle with what sort of woman she wanted to be in  her adult life. History buffs would enjoy this book, but romantics may not.  

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Sinking of the Eastland by Jay Bonansinga

The Sinking of the Eastland by Jay Bonansinga is aptly subtitled “America’s forgotten tragedy.” In 1915, as it sat in port on the Chicago River, the steamship Eastland turned on its side, killing 844 people. Despite a loss of life more than twice that of the Great Chicago Fire, this tragedy is not well known today. I grew up in a Chicago suburb and do not remember hearing about the Eastland.

Bonansinga’s book is not intended to be a summation of the facts surrounding the tragedy. Instead, he introduces us to some of the people who survived the capsizing and who worked behind the scenes. He endeavors to “create portraits” based on public records and the memories of descendants.
The people onboard the Eastland that day were employees of Western Electric and their families, out for a company picnic dressed in their finest. The heavy, layered fashions of the day for women contributed to the loss of life, as it was hard to stay afloat once the layers became soaked in the river.
The city ran out of caskets to hold the dead, who were lined up in rows in the armory building. (Today, the building houses Oprah Winfrey’s massive media production center.) Across Lake Michigan, an advance party of workers at the lakeside park where the picnic was to occur waited for crowds that never arrived. The young woman voted “prettiest girl” at the Hawthorne plant who was to serve as queen of the festivities lay dead in one of the sunken berths of the Eastland. On one bench at the Western Electric Hawthorne factory where twenty-two women had worked, only two survived.
I found the book engrossing. It is almost unbelievable that so many people could drown off the dock in the middle of the day. Some of the family stories are heartbreaking. The photos in the book are poignant and eerie.  But there are also uplifting passages of heroism and survival.
Bonansinga speculates as to why this incident is largely forgotten and wants his book to serve as a tribute to the victims. At the conclusion of the book’s epilogue, in which the author fills in facts about some of the key players in the years after the sinking, Bonansinga writes, “Their stories – as well as the stories of those who have passed away – live on. They must live on.”
If you enjoy nonfiction narratives about real life tragedies that help you stand in the shoes of the people who were there that day, I recommend The Sinking of the Eastland.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler

Aaron Hartzler is a classic "preacher's kid" -- his dad teaches at a local Bible college, Aaron and his siblings (all of whom have similarly Biblical names) go to Christian schools, and their home is free of worldly temptations like television, movies, and secular music.  Aaron is raised to believe that the Rapture -- Jesus' return to Earth -- could happen at any moment, and that he should conduct himself at all times as if Jesus were about to appear.  When Aaron's parents transfer him to an uber-conservative high school on account of a small transgression (buying a secular CD as a gift for his girlfriend and then lying about it), he begins to question how much of his belief system is his own and how much has been forced upon him.

Rapture Practice is a YA memoir, and the author's first book.  It was a quick read, and overall I enjoyed it.  Teens who are struggling with their own religious identities will likely find Aaron to be a sympathetic and relatable narrator. There were some great moments of humor, like when Aaron's mom discovers Aaron secretly listening to secular radio and asks "My precious son, who are your feet running after?" Aaron's mental response? "The answer is simple: Peter Cetera."  The book's main weakness was somewhat uneven writing, particularly the dialogue passages, which came across as canned and unrealistic.  Also, some truly jarring instances of borderline abusive behavior from Aaron's dad, depicted in flashbacks toward the end of the book, were thrown in and then sort of left there with little fanfare or processing.  But I was impressed with the author's ability to convey his genuine affection for his family even in the face of some pretty overwhelming personal conflict.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

What is there to say about The Great Gatsby that hasn’t already been said? I first read it over 30 years ago and loved it from the first reading. I’ve read it every few years ever since. If I could write like anyone, it would be F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The whole package doesn’t quite come together in Fitzgerald’s other novels, but this book is close to perfect. The language is lovely and lyrical. The ideas are thought-provoking. As I get older, each time I reread it different passages speak to me. The characters are well drawn. The narrator is authentic. This is one of the greatest American novels ever written. It tells an unavoidable melancholy truth.

This time I listened to the excellent audio version read by Frank Muller.

On a side note:  The Galesburg Public Library Movie Club will probably meet to see the new movie the evening of May 21, 2013 at the AMC Showplace, then head to Perkins Restaurant afterwards for discussion. Join us! I loved The Great Gatsby movie starring Robert Redford when it came out in 1974. It started my continuing admiration for Sam Waterston. I am reserving judgment about the new version. Whether you see the movie or not, whether you see the movie and like it or dislike it, read the book.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Kate and her twin sister Vi were born with what they refer to as "senses," psychic abilities that allow them to foretell future events and see people's secrets. Kate, the more reserved of the twins, finds her gift problematic and tries to repress it, while Vi embraces hers and ultimately turns it into a career.  Now, as adults, Vi is working as a medium while Kate is a stay-at-home mom of 2.  Not many people in Kate's life know about her senses... that is, until Vi goes on national television and predicts that a devastating earthquake is about to destroy the city of St. Louis.

I loved this book.  The attention to detail, the complicated family dynamics, the humor, the good people making terrible decisions, all of it. I couldn't wait to pick it up every evening. Like Sittenfeld's other novels (which I also loved), Sisterland is, above all else, a character study.  My only complaint is that I wish I had been able to get to know Vi as intimately as I now feel I know Kate. But overall, I would recommend this to any readers of contemporary, relationship-driven fiction.

Sisterland will be available in June.

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth Silver

Noa P. Singleton is on death row, waiting to be executed for the murder of a young woman and her unborn child. After spending ten years in prison awaiting her punishment, Noa is visited by Oliver Stansted, an attorney from a nonprofit that represents death row inmates, and the woman who hired him -- Marlene Dixon, the mother of the woman Noa is in prison for murdering.  Marlene has changed her tune on the death penalty; she no longer supports it as a punishment and she would like to commute Noa's sentence to life in prison.  In exchange, however, she wants Noa to reveal her motives for murdering her daughter.  Noa has been completely tight-lipped about her motives, never saying a word in her own defense throughout her trial or afterwards.  Will she share them now?

This book has been getting rave review after rave review, but for me it just didn't work. Maybe it's because I'm not a big reader of mysteries or crime procedurals. It felt like I was watching a really long episode of Law and Order. Yes, there were some twists and turns and surprises, but I found the characters so unsympathetic that I hardly cared.  I do think that, given the buzz surrounding it, this book will find a big audience, particularly among fans of crime-centered fiction who like a slow, drawn-out reveal.

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton will be available in June.