06 March 2010

January and February Book Reports

Well, now that I am back to a Monday through Friday job where, if I read on my own, it's only for an hour at lunchtime, I'm not reading so many books a month like I was when I was a tour guide. Add to that the fact that I'm only now getting myself refocused on things - including reading - and I have only five books to talk about for a two-month period. This is fine with me, since I read for my own self, not as a contest, but it did make me decide at the end of January to just combine my reads for that month with whatever I finished in February. So here you go.

The Legend of Chicago May, by Nuala O'Faolain.  I have been wanting to read this book for a long time, as I am a fan of O'Faolain's writing, and I also find the lives of infamous people fascinating - where did they come from, how did they end up doing whatever it is that made them famous, etc. This book was a nice combination of the two. In addition to that, it was my first choice for the "What's in a Name" reading challenge, serving as a book with a place name in the title.

The story begins as May Duignan, 19 years old, is running away from her family home in Edenmore, County Longford, Ireland. Edenmore was a small town and many of its inhabitants, including May's family, were barely eaking out an existence. She has sixty sovereigns in her pocket, and a desire to "get out of town." The year is 1890.

By the time May arrives in America, she has already had to make do and be quick-witted; when she is asked who will be responsible for her here, she names an uncle that she doesn't really remember, but that she knows emigrated to America years ago, and is living in Nebraska. O'Faolain's research showed no one with May's family name living in Nebraska at the time - however, throughout her life, she gave different names at different times, depending on the situation, so there is the chance that she didn't use her real name upon entry to the country.

May makes her way to Nebraska, and there her life as part of the criminal element begins. She falls in love with a man named Dal Churchill, who is a known thief, highway robber, etc., in the rough and tumble area which was then thought of as the American West. From here to the end of the book, we follow May to several cities in several countries as she does what it takes to survive. O'Faolain theorizes that, because she has no formal education or skills, her choices are limited. She looks around, and realizes that being a con artist, or a prostitute, or simply a petty thief is more financially lucrative than many of the jobs open to the Irish during that time period. She does have a brief period of marriage and respectable domesticity, but the lure of her other life wins out in the end.

This book was a fascinating read. O'Faolain manages to make May a real person, though not necessarily a likable one. You feel for her, but at a certain point you also realize that she is making decisions for herself, and realizes what the consequences are of being caught. The people who surround her are interesting in and of themselves, and their place in her story and her orbit add to the sense of dangerous adventure that is May's story.

In addition, I enjoyed the aspect of the book which talked about the law enforcement practices of the time, as well as society's changing attitudes towards criminals. There is plenty of corruption to go around, as well as attempts to reform the criminal justice system. There are stories of various members of a family who work for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. There is a description of the "job" in Paris at the American Express Building, which was one of the biggest heists of its time. Basically, there's a little something for everyone here, if social history interests you.

O'Faolain's journey up to the time she writes the book, and once it is written, is also of interest. Her fascination with May Duignan sends her on not just a physical journey from place to place, but a personal one as she comes to grips with some of her own demons related to her late younger brother.

There are ways I think that this book could have been better. There are parts that drag, at least as far as I am concerned. But I found it to be a good read, and a fascinating look at a life that was not necessarily atypical for its time and place.
Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich.  This is my first Louise Erdrich book. I am aware that she is a prolific writer, and well-respected, but I just never got around to reading any of her other books.
Shadow Tag is the story of Gil and Irene America and their family, who are of Native American heritage and living in Minnesota. Gil is an established artist of the Indian experience, and his most famous paintings feature Irene as the model.
The story is told largely through diary entries, one being Irene's "real" diary, and the other being the one that she "hides," knowing that when she is out of the house, Gil reads it. He is certain that she is having an affair, and wants to find confirmation in the diary entries.
Gil and Irene have been married for years when we first meet them, and when the book opens, are engaged in a psychological tug-of-war. Gil is convinced that Irene is unfaithful, and wants to catch her so that his suspicions can be proven true. In the meantime, his paintings of her become more and more dangerous and violent in their themes.
Irene is tired of being married to Gil, and wants a divorce, which he will neither consider or even discuss with her. She spends most of the book trying to deal with her conflicted feelings about her husband, the father of her children.
The three children are also confused, conflicted, and afraid by the behavior of their parents towards each other.
In addition, there is the undercurrent of life as an Indian in modern American society, and what that means to individuals as well as to the various tribes. The topic of just how "Indian" someone is if they came from a mixed marriage comes into the story in the person of Gil, who is famous for paintings that depict that very life.
I really liked this book at the beginning. The way of telling the story was interesting, and made you want to keep reading. The characters were well-developed, even if neither of them was particularly appealing (at least to me). But I found that about three-quarters of the way through the book, I just wanted it to get moving and find out the eventual resolution. Instead, it dragged on to an ending that seemed melodramatic, and also left me feeling annoyed because it just seemed to be tacked on without reason. If you have read any of my other reviews, you know that I have an issue with the endings of a lot of books I read, so as is the case with everything else in life, you may find the ending to be just right. For me, it made the whole book seem like a waste of time.
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.  I've been wanting to read this book for a while. When I first saw reviews of it, I thought it sounded interesting, and about a year ago I saw Greg Mortenson on TV, and was further intrigued.
In a very small nutshell, the book is about Mortenson's life-changing experience that started when he had to give up on a climb of one of the highest moutains in the world. Making his way back down the mountain, he got lost, and was fortunately discovered by one of the local people who assisted with mountaineering expeditions. Over the course of his time spent there before heading home, he learns of the extreme poverty of the Pakistani villages, and the lack of education, particularly for girls.
What starts as a one-man with hope operation grows to become a legitimate organization, the Central Asia Institute. The book details Mortenson's life and his attempts to get started raising money to build one school in Pakistan, and by the end of the book, his experiences moving into Afghanistan to build schools for girls, who lost so many educational opportunities during the reign of the Taliban.
The story is really interesting, though very involved, and it is interesting to see how Mortenson changes over time. I wanted to like the book more than I did, though, and I think the writing just frustrated me. The person who co-wrote it, David Oliver Relin, is an award-winning journalist according to the blurb in the book. But the style was too clunky, and sometimes seemed bogged down in details that, though important overall, made no real impact on Mortenson's story. Details are fine, but I think part of the problem was trying to straddle the fence between memoir and non-fiction-factual, take-it-seriously style.
I do think it's worth a read, though, as it is a story of a life refashioned, and proves that one person with diligence and single-minded dedication can make a world of difference.
The Last Queen, by C.W. Gortner.  Last summer, I tried to start reading this book. But for whatever reason, it didn't hold my interest. I put it back on the shelf to try again, because I *wanted* to like it ...
Then I signed up for the "What's in a Name" reading challenge, and put this book on my list, to read as in the category of a book with a "title" (i.e., Mr., Dr.) in the title.
On the second try, I kept reading. This is the story of Juana of Castile, the last queen of Spain. We first meet Juana when her parents, Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand of Spain have just successfully seen the fall of Granada, allowing their kingdom to be united. They are also in the position of ruling a country with additional riches as a result of the discoveries of Christopher Columbus in the New World. Juana is the third child, curious, headstrong, and loyal to her family. At the age of sixteen, she is sent to marry the archduke of Flanders, Philip. This is of course an arranged marriage, to strengthen Spain's position in the world.
Juana and Philip seem well matched at the beginning, and enjoy a true love and passion. They have their differences, but are able to work things out and become partners and helpmates to one another. When a series of tragedies occur, and Juana inherits the crown in Spain, things begin to change. Philip and his advisers become obsessed with him becoming the king of Spain, usurping Juana's power and her role altogether. What follows is a long list of intrigues, power plays, and heartless decisions. Juana's world is suddenly one where no one can be trusted, and her every move is watched. The hope is that she can be made to appear to be mad, and Philip can take control until their son is of age.
The story is a fascinating one. Though much of it has been fictionalized to read more easily, the events described are true enough, and the roles of the principals' families and friends change as their fortunes (personal and political) shift.
I learned a lot about Spain and its history by reading this book. I also learned (thoug to a lesser degree) quite a bit about Flanders during the time period. Many of the characters are ones that I know from my history classes in school, but it's always interesting when they are presented as real people. I also had a "duh" moment further along in the book, when I realized that Juana's younger sister Catalina, who was sent to England to marry the king, was the person I knew as Catherine of Aragon.
I liked this book, though as I said, I had a hard time getting into it at first. I would suggest that if you decide to read it, you choose a time when you are concentrating mainly on this particular book - there are so many different characters, and fortunes change so quickly, that I can imagine it would be hard to catch up again if you put it down for a week or so and then picked it up again to read.
Overall, a good read, and an illuminating look at a time period that I knew little about.
The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake.  This book was a complete surprise to me. I had never heard of it, or even had any idea it was ready to be published, when my husband brought home an Advance Readers' Edition. But the blurbs made it sound interesting, so I figured I'd give it a try.
An excellent read. It is set in during World War II, right before the US has decided to send troops to Europe. It is the story of three people, and how their lives intersect when it seems unlikely that they would. There is Frankie Bard, a radio correspondent, who is working with Edward R. Murrow, trying to make a place for women radio journalists, and covering the London Blitz. Two women in Franklin, Massachusetts (at the end of Cape Cod) are truly effected by her reports: Iris James, the postmistress, and Emma Fitch, the young new wife of the town doctor.
The story weaves in and out of the characters' lives in a way that I found very effective. The author does an excellent job of evoking London during the Blitz, as well as the US at the point when people truly believed that we would never be involved. For the most part, the writing is intelligent and interesting. Occasionally, I'll admit that I was annoyed with some of the characters, but in a way I would be annoyed with anyone.
Some of the twists and turns leading to the end were not what I expected, but reading the book, I became very involved in the lives of these people, their time in history, and those around them.
An excellent read, especially if you enjoy fiction about America around the time of the Great War.
Right now, I have The Legend of Chicago May and Three Cups of Tea ... to give away (the others may be available later - The Tim wants to try them).  If you are interested, let me know in the comments by midnight on Friday, March 12.  If more than one person is interested, I'll do a "drawing" - but otherwise if you are the only one interested, the book is yours!
Enjoy the rest of your weekend!


SissySees said...

I have to confess to not enjoying 3 Cups so much either. Nice story, but I had to push myself to finish it. I believe one of the news shows (60 minutes type?) featured the same story, and I think most people would find that quite pleasant...

Carol said...

Ah, I read a book about Catherine of Aragon and thought what an interesting family she came from...
Thanks for the recs -- and now I've been bookstalking you on Goodreads.

Brigitte said...

I'd love to read "The Legend of Chicago May", if it's still up for grabs!

日日夜夜 said...

Better say nothing than nothing to the purpose. ........................................

mary said...

I was very interested to read your review of Shadow Tag. As an Upper-Midwesterner, I often pick up the impression that I should automatically love reading Louise Erdrich. Truth be told, I've never made it through to the end of any of her books. I've been trying to finish The Plague Of Doves for about a year now and this week, when I went to add another audible book to my iPod and ran out of room, I deleted it. So much for The Plague Of Doves.

craftivore said...

I'm probably the only person who hasn't read Three Cups of Tea yet and would like to, The Legend of Chicago May sounds fun too. Just finished Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCan, I'm always a bit loath to start a new book after a great read.

Bookfool said...

Oh, darn about Three Cups of Tea being clunky. It's a story I'd like to read someday. The Last Queen - loved it, except there was an awful lot of fiddling with the codpiece in a hurry. That got on my nerves, after a while. I'm glad you loved The Postmistress. I gave up on that one on a first attempt, but I'll give it a second try.