Sunday, May 03, 2015

Shatter Me and Unravel Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Butterfly and the Violin by Kristy Cambron and the Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg, plus Book Conservation in Japan, and Happy Birthday to bookseller Ann Combs

The Japanese people have a long history of taking broken and discarded items and bringing them back to life through craftsmanship that is a form of meditative artistry. I find this fascinating, and one day I hope to visit Japan with my family and visit such artisans.

Portrait of a Book Conservationist

more than three decades in Japan, Okano Nobuo "has been repairing
and reconstituting them to look brand new" using "very basic tools like
a wooden press, chisel, water and glue," Colossal reported, featuring a
video in which the craftsman breathes new life into an old
Japanese-English dictionary by approaching it "like an art
conservationist repairing a painting."

Despite his gift for book conservation, Okano said, "It's not their
shape or form but what's inside them that attracts us to books."
Colossal noted that for a man "who makes it his job to repair the shape
and form of books it's an incredibly humbling statement and is a
testament to the value we still hold in physical books."

I would love to visit Bainbridge Island's Eagle Harbor Bookstore, and I would be overjoyed to talk to this fascinating woman. People from the "Greatest Generation" are slowly becoming extinct, and too many people miss out on hearing their stories, which are living history.

Happy Birthday, Ann Combs!

The folks at Eagle Harbor Book Company celebrated a very special
birthday when bookseller Ann Combs (center front) turned 80 this week.
Ann, whose CV includes author, newspaper columnist, grammarian and
keeper of bawdy jokes, has worked at Eagle Harbor for 17 years. She not
only knows a good story when she sees one (she is one of the store's
best handsellers), but tells a good story, too, given the interesting
trajectory of her life. The young daughter of an Episcopalian missionary
during World War II, she was part of a group of civilians held captive
by the Japanese in the Philippines for several years.  She attended
Smith College, taking the train from Seattle to Massachusetts each year.
And Ann rode a horse as Lady Godiva in the Scotch Broom Parade on
Bainbridge Island as a young woman. In addition to a children's book,
How Old Is Old?, Ann wrote three humorous memoirs about her life as a
military wife and the mother of six boisterous offspring. Her most
popular, Helter Shelter, was reissued in 2012 as Once Upon a Two by
Four, and remains a brisk seller at Eagle Harbor. Happy Birthday, Ann!

This is a gorgeous little video, and I had to put this book on my wish list after seeing it.
Full: How I Learned to Satisfy My Insatiable Hunger and Feed My Soul

Shatter Me and the sequel, Unravel Me by Tahereh Mafi are both books in a dystopian YA series meant to cash in, no doubt, on the success of books like The Hunger Games and The Mortal Instruments. Blurbs:
No one knows why Juliette's touch is fatal, but The Reestablishment has plans for her. Plans to use her as a weapon. But Juliette has plans of her own. After a lifetime without freedom, she's finally discovering a strength to fight back for the very first time—and to find a future with the one boy she thought she'd lost forever.

In this electrifying debut, Tahereh Mafi presents a riveting dystopian world, a thrilling superhero story, and an unforgettable heroine. One window; four walls; sixteen square feet of space. For exactly 264 days, Juliette has been imprisoned in a small room because she touched someone and that person died. Outside, plague and famine have reduced the world to a ruined, violent place ruled by the despotic Reestablishment. Then, after those 264 days, those 6,336 hours of enforced solitude, the cursed 17-year-old has been selected to kill dissidents. Only time will tell if she and her gorgeous young male companion will survive—or die trying. Will they be weapons or warriors? A dystopian novel with a romantic hook.
The prose in these two novels is  poetic and hyperbolic, which is charming at first, and then becomes headache-inducing, much like the books protagonist, Juliette. Though Juilette's a 16 year old girl, and therefore almost obligated to be melodramatic and obsessed with boys, I was hoping that the author would move beyond those well-worn tropes and create a heroine who inspires and delights with her non-traditional, forward-thinking selflessness. This was not to be, unfortunately, and in the first book, Juliette throws herself a lengthy pity party, all while writing about her horrible childhood and terrible parents who, unable to deal with her "gift" of being able to leech life from people with a touch of her skin, abandoned her to a mental asylum/jail, where she was eventually scooped up by a psychopath named Warner, the violent son of the evil dictator who heads up the "Reestablishment."  Warner, though incredibly handsome (all the young men in these books are gorgeously handsome, unless they are too young or too old to be attracted to Juliette, who is, of course, devastatingly beautiful but completely unaware of her good looks) is a twisted killer who is obsessed with Juliette because he believes that they are alike in their ability to kill without conscience, and he wants to not only possess her physically, he wants to use her as a weapon to kill members of the resistance. Inevitably, there is a guard named Adam who is also in love with Juliette, and shocking, is able to touch her without dying. So the two plot an escape, and with the help of the devastatingly handsome Kenji, who has a 'gift' for creating a kind of invisability cloak around himself and anyone he touches, Adam and his younger brother and Juliette escape Warner and make their way to the Resistance headquarters. Kenji, who serves as comic relief, also becomes the voice of reason toward the end of book one by telling the whining, cowardly Juliette to get over herself already. He makes the very valid point that most of the youth in this dystopian world have grown up without parents or with abuse and neglect and not enough food, and that while they're being forced into "reeducation" work camps and beaten/starved or worse, she was fed and clothed and allowed to whine in a journal for years. Then she was treated like a queen by Warner, and she fell in love with Adam, who can touch her, so she doesn't have it nearly as bad as the average kid or teenager out there in the world, and it would behoove her to start thinking of someone other than herself. While Juliette realizes that Kenji is right, and vows to be different, all it takes is the revelations of "Unravel Me" for her to go back to being a whiny, cowardly bitch.  
Unravel Me finds our heroine, such as she is, being healed and treated with kindness by Castle, the gifted head of the Resistance in their underground lair. Castle wants Juliette to learn to control her gift, as many of the other members of the resistance have, and he is hoping she will use her power to help the Resistance defeat Anderson, Warner's evil father, leader of the Reestablishment. While Adam and Castle are trying to find out why and how Adam can touch Juliette and not be killed, Juliette gets a special suit that covers her and enables her to interact with others. Still, she doesn't trust herself to make friends, and she is somehow too weak and stupid to try and tame her powers, which now include punching through walls and moving through concrete, as well as nearly destroying the Resistance compound in a fit of pique. It is discovered that Adam has the power to dampen others powers, but at a great cost to himself, and that Warner, who is captured, can touch her without any consequences. It's also discovered that Adam and Warner share a father, and therefore Juliette becomes helplessly enamored of Warner as well, because there must be good in him! He's so handsome and in love with her! After a rather one-sided battle (the Reestablishment has more weapons and better intel) and Juliette is captured, Anderson shoots her, and Warner and the healers save her life, we are left with Juliette vowing to save her fellow gifted and non gifted resistance fighters and kill Anderson, all while continuing a relationship with both Warner and Adam (how can she decide between these two gorgeous guys in love with her?!). While I appreciate that Mafi is trying to be poetic, her long-winded descriptions of every single feeling and touch that Juliette experiences at the hands of Adam or Warner borders on the ridiculous. The prose becomes overblown and cliche'd in the way that romance novel detractors nearly always use to justify their contempt of the romance genre. It also stops the plot in its tracks. I will read the third of this series only to see what happens, but then I plan to abandon it altogether, because I can only handle so much immature whining and egotism from a protagonist before I declare her too stupid to live. Decent storytelling earns this series a B+, but I would recommend it to those who like YA dystopias only if they're willing to read a lot of "blistering romantic" scenes without laughing.
Oh, and one more thing, the self-conscious crossing out of words or phrases that delineate what the character really means vs what they want the reader/world to hear is only cute when it is used sparingly. It's not used sparingly here, so it makes the protagonist seem even more of a coward for not being able to face her own truth.

The Butterfly and the Violin by Kristy Cambron is, at first glance, a novel that takes place in current times with frequent flashbacks to WWII concentration camps and the life and fate of a talented young Austrian violinist Adele. Here's the blurb:
Manhattan art dealer Sera James watched her world crumble at the altar two years ago, and her heart is still fragile. Her desire for distraction reignites a passion for a mysterious portrait she first saw as a young girl—a painting of a young violinist with piercing blue eyes.

In her search for the painting, Sera crosses paths with
William Hanover—the grandson of a wealthy California real estate mogul—who may be the key to uncovering the hidden masterpiece. Together Sera and William slowly unravel the story behind the painting’s subject: Austrian violinist Adele Von Bron.

A darling of the Austrian aristocracy of 1942, talented violinist, and daughter to a high-ranking member of the Third Reich, Adele risks everything when she begins smuggling Jews out of Vienna. In a heartbeat, her life of prosperity and privilege dissolves into a world of starvation and barbed wire.

As Sera untangles the secrets behind the painting, she finds beauty in the most unlikely of places: the grim camps of Auschwitz and the inner recesses of her own troubled heart.

"In her historical series debut, Cambron expertly weaves together multiple plotlines, time lines, and perspectives to produce a poignant tale of the power of love and faith in difficult circumstances. Those interested in stories of survival and the Holocaust, such as Eli Wiesel’s Night,
will want to read." —Library Journal, starred review
 The story behind the painting was painful and beautifully wrought in crystal clear prose, and though Sera seems a bit wimpy as a protagonist, her perseverance wins out in the end, and the inevitable HEA with William isn't quite as boring as I'd imagined it would be. I found Adele's story fascinating, particularly her playing in the orchestra at Auschwitz and the ability to keep her love of Vladimir alive, though she didn't know if he had died in the gas chambers or been shot as a member of the resistance. My only real problem with the book was the Christian prostelytizing that the author wove throughout both Sera and Adele's story. It is one thing to have faith, which I am sure was necessary as oxygen for those dying in concentration camps. But to somehow intuit that everything that was happening there was some part of Gods plan is a bit much, in my opinion. Especially as the majority of inmates in the camps were Jewish, not Christian.  And Sera only seems to accept William when she discovers that he reads a tattered Bible every day. How convenient. It's for that reason that I'm giving this book a B, and recommending it only to those who aren't put off by pushy religious stuff.

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg is something of a departure for this author. Most of her novels are literary chick-lit, and many involve nurses or those in the medical profession, as Berg herself worked as a nurse. Dream Lover has nothing to do with nursing or health care, however, and is instead a historical fiction novel that re-imagines the life of Aurore Dupin, a classic novelist whose pen name was George Sand. Sand was known for being a bisexual rebel during the 19th century, dressing in men's clothing and taking lovers who were often great artists of the day, like Chopin the famed music composer. 
Normally, this subject matter would interest me as a reader and a writer, but Berg, for some reason beyond my comprehension, decided to write this novel using the driest, dullest prose imaginable, in a plot that wanders around like the village drunk. Dupin/Sand seems to be a petulant, crude and immature woman who can't stand any sort of criticism and makes stupid decisions regarding her love life and her family. Here's the blurb:
At the beginning of this powerful novel, we meet Aurore Dupin as she is leaving her estranged husband, a loveless marriage, and her family’s estate in the French countryside to start a new life in Paris. There, she gives herself a new name—George Sand—and pursues her dream of becoming a writer, embracing an unconventional and even scandalous lifestyle.
Paris in the nineteenth century comes vividly alive, illuminated by the story of the loves, passions, and fierce struggles of a woman who defied the confines of society. Sand’s many lovers and friends include Frédéric Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Eugène Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Marie Dorval, and Alfred de Musset. As Sand welcomes fame and friendship, she fights to overcome heartbreak and prejudice, failure and loss. Though considered the most gifted genius of her time, she works to reconcile the pain of her childhood, of disturbing relationships with her mother and daughter, and of her intimacies with women and men. Will the life she longs for always be just out of reach—a dream? Brilliantly written in luminous prose, and with remarkable insights into the heart and mind of a literary force, The Dream Lover tells the unforgettable story of a courageous, irresistible woman.

 I struggled to stay awake during the first 150 pages, because they were so boring, and the protagonist such a whiner and her life so uninteresting as to be a cure for insomnia. Things picked up a bit after page 150, but then began to slump after another 75 pages, until the book wound to it's anticlimactic death scene. Sand was not courageous or irresistible as portrayed in this book, but was always complaining and never satisfied with anything in her life. I was honestly sorry that I'd spent $20 on the book, which I can't even pass along to my mother, a Berg fan, because she has enjoyed Bergs previous novels for their nurse protagonists and realistic settings. I doubt she'd want anything to do with cross-dressing Sand. I'd give this book a C, and recommend it to big fans of George Sand's books or those who are interested in 19th century authors.

No comments: