Monday, January 28, 2013

Audiobook: The Greater Journey by David McCullough

Listening to the stories of dozens of ambitious and creative Americans in Paris from 1830 to the early 1900s was like listening to your grandpa tell stories of generations past. It was entertaining, enlightening, and rather inspirational to learn about all the artists, writers, architects, and medical students, among others, who went to Paris for the experience of nurturing their creativity.
About the book: As David McCullough writes, “Not all pioneers went west.” In The Greater Journey, he tells the enthralling, inspiring—and until now, untold—story of the adventurous American artists, writers, doctors, politicians, and others who set off for Paris in the years between 1830 and 1900, hungry to learn and to excel in their work. What they achieved would profoundly alter American history. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America, was one of this intrepid band. Another was Charles Sumner, whose encounters with black students at the Sorbonne inspired him to become the most powerful voice for abolition in the U.S. Senate. Friends James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel F. B. Morse worked unrelentingly every day in Paris, Morse not only painting what would be his masterpiece, but also bringing home his momentous idea for the telegraph. Harriet Beecher Stowe traveled to Paris to escape the controversy generated by her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Three of the greatest American artists ever—sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, painters Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent—flourished in Paris, inspired by French masters. Almost forgotten today, the heroic American ambassador Elihu Washburne bravely remained at his post through the Franco-Prussian War, the long Siege of Paris, and the nightmare of the Commune. His vivid diary account of the starvation and suffering endured by the people of Paris is published here for the first time. Telling their stories with power and intimacy, McCullough brings us into the lives of remarkable men and women who, in Saint-Gaudens’ phrase, longed “to soar into the blue.”
David McCullough reads only the introduction and then Edward Herrmann takes over. Much of each person's story in this book relies on direct quotes and information found in personal letters. This gave the narrative an atmosphere of intimacy. I wasn't always interested in each person under review, but when McCullough's focus was on a person of interest or a story that was more engaging than the rest, time with this audio flew. Even those sections or people in which I wasn't very interested were never  "boring." There were always interesting bits added about the time period and changes underway.

I especially enjoyed the parts that focused on writers: much time is spent with James Fenimore Cooper. Shorter episodes touch on the Parisian experience of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Fuller, and Henry James.

Of great interest was the experiences of Elihu Washburne, the American Ambassador to France, who toughed out the Franco-Prussian War, the siege of Paris, and horror of the Commune. All of the other foreign diplomats skipped town, but Washburne was there to help fellow Americans and other residents of Paris through the war, starvation, and madness. And Charles Sumner's experience of attending medical school with fellow students that were black changed not only his mind about slavery, but helped change the course of American history.

The listening time for this book was just over 16 hours. There is an abridged audio version, but why bother? Yes, I'm a snob about abridged books.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris
David McCullough
Read by Edward Herrmann
16 Discs: 16 hours, 56 minutes (unabridged)
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2011
Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommend: to folks interested in a broad overview of American & French creative culture, technological innovation, and medicine of the 19th century (as seen through the eyes of financially well-off Americas from the time period).

Monday, January 21, 2013

An Unmarked Grave by Charles Todd

In 2012 I won all four books of Charles Todd's Bess Crawford Mystery Series from Criminal Element. I wasn't able to dive right into them and normally I'm a stickler about reading things in chronological order, but one thing I'm discovering about myself in early middle-age is that I'm much more willing to let go of old patterns and traditions that no longer suit my needs. Therefore, I've thrown caution to the wind and read the fourth and most recent Bess Crawford Mystery, An Unmarked Grave, first. Crazy, I know.
ABOUT THE BOOK: World War I nurse and amateur sleuth Bess Crawford matches wits with a devious killer in this exciting and suspenseful adventure from New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd In the spring of 1918, the Spanish flu epidemic spreads, killing millions of soldiers and civilians across the globe. Overwhelmed by the constant flow of wounded soldiers coming from the French front, battlefield nurse Bess Crawford must now contend with hundreds of influenza patients as well. However, war and disease are not the only killers to strike. Bess discovers, concealed among the dead waiting for burial, the body of an officer who has been murdered. Though she is devoted to all her patients, this soldier's death touches her deeply. Not only did the man serve in her father's former regiment, he was also a family friend. Before she can report the terrible news, Bess falls ill, the latest victim of the flu. By the time she recovers, the murdered officer has been buried, and the only other person who saw the body has hanged himself. Or did he? Working her father's connections in the military, Bess begins to piece together what little evidence she can find to unmask the elusive killer and see justice served. But she must be as vigilant as she is tenacious. With a determined killer on her heels, each move Bess makes could be her last
Diving into a series that was already fully underway was like hopping on a ride already in motion. There was no slow introduction of characters and how they've come to know one another, what their motives are, etc., which may have added to the suspense for me (is Simon a trusted friend or is he  involved in the murder?) On the other hand, stepping into this series four books in, the characters weren't described very well but it was easy enough to glean from the action what roles they must typically play within the series.

Much of the description of the war front and nursing was standard (deeply rutted roads, long lines of wounded to tend, the dread/desire to return to the front) and therefore I thought the atmosphere a bit lacking as these realities came off sounding like cliches at times. What was different was the emphasis here on people needing to show their papers/orders to move about, get transport, or use resources. It was not a feeling of "we're all in this together and you're wearing the right uniform," but rather that soliders and nurses often went wild and had to be disciplined, as well as the threat of spies being a real danger. The need for papers also heightened the dramatic tension of the plot.

And as far as the plot goes, there were some nice twists and turns that I didn't see coming. Overall, I thought the mystery was good, but that more care could have been taken to create a stronger atmosphere as well as a stronger sense of time and place.

I do plan on reading the first three books in the series that I received from Criminal Element and will keep my eye out for book five of the series.

An Unmarked Grave
Charles Todd
William Morrow, 1st published June 2012
Now out in paperback, January 2013
Source: Criminal Element
Rating: 3/5 stars
Read as part of TLC Book Tours

Other stops on the tour:
Tuesday, January 8th: JulzReads
Wednesday, January 9th: Seaside Book Corner
Monday, January 14th: Peppermint Ph.D
Tuesday, January 15th: Speaking of Books
Wednesday, January 16th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Friday, January 18th: Kritters Ramblings
Monday, January 21st: WildmooBooks
Wednesday, January 23rd: Layers of Thought
Thursday, January 24th: Reading to Know
Friday, January 29th: Queen of All She Reads
Wednesday, February 6th: Bookworm Meets Bookworm
Thursday, February 7th: Ace and Hoser Blook

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On the Rocks by Sue Hallgarth

Congratulations to 4EveryMorning and jompoi for winning the two copies of On The Rocks! I chose winners the old fashioned way: with a roll of the dice. Thanks again to everyone who entered to win.

I first learned about On The Rocks upon reading a review in Publisher's Weekly which called the book a "bland whodunit" that "is defeated by stilted dialogue and a protagonist who rarely amounts to more than a famous name." That's pretty harsh criticism and I'm sorry to say I agree with it to an extent. The mystery lost its interest for me, the writing is clunky at times, and there are "information dumps" regarding details of Cather's life.

However, the strength of the book is in Hallgarth's ability to paint a scene. Her research about Grand Manan, Cather & Lewis, and the time period are obviously top notch. I enjoyed little tidbits she added such as the hot read for tourists of that 1926 summer season being All Quiet on the Western Front or how United States federal agents "had taken to [accidentally] shooting innocent victims" in their zeal to enforce prohibition: "One man out for a Sunday drive with his family in Minnesota took twenty-six slugs from a border patrolman's shotgun." I imagine Hallgarth didn't make that up.

Of course, what kept me reading and what will draw Cather enthusiasts to this book is the curiosity of how Hallgarth represents Cather and her ideas. It was refreshing to see Edith Lewis, who has been woefully neglected (or actively dismissed) in writing about Cather, take center stage. I found myself wanting to know much more about Lewis after reading this novel, but during the reading I always perked up when Cather came on the scene or when Lewis's thoughts turned to reminiscence and/or speculation about Cather and their life together.

First novels are tricky--they tend to either turn people on or turn them off. I am not put off by the quality of the writing in On The Rocks because the craft of writing--dialogue, subtly, pacing, etc--can all be improved upon with diligent practice. I'm looking forward to the second novel of this series, because even in highly successful series the first novel is often a dud or at least hard to get into. I'm thinking of Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache series, which I adore, but the first in that series, Still Life, was hard to get into for many readers, and I'm told by readers whose opinion I value to simply skip the first book in the Dresden Files whenever I'm ready to start that series.

A friend wrote to me that Willa Cather is probably rolling over in her grave over being fictionalized, but, at the risk of sounding corny, I think it's pretty neat.

On The Rocks: A Willa Cather and Edith Lewis Mystery
Sue Hallgarth
Arbor Farm Press, January 15, 2013
Visit the publisher's website to read a PDF excerpt.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Giveaway: ON THE ROCKS

WildmooBooks is thrilled to give-away two copies of Sue Hallgarth's first Willa Cather and Edith Lewis Mystery, ON THE ROCKS, courtesy of the kind folks at Arbor Farm Press.

All you have to do to enter-to-win is leave a comment in the comments section below.

The contest runs through midnight on 1/14/2013 and two winners will be randomly chosen and contacted on 1/15/2013. You'll have 48 hours to accept before a new winner is chosen. 
About the book: On the Rocks is the first title of a smart new literary mystery series by Corrales, New Mexico author Sue Hallgarth. The year is 1929 and Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Willa Cather and her partner Edith Lewis are summering on Grand Manan, an island in the Bay of Fundy. In their cottage’s sparsely-furnished attic room, Cather is at work writing Shadows on the Rock, her tenth novel. Edith is painting watercolors from the cliffs two hundred feet above the rising tides of Whale Cove. Out of the corner of her eye, Edith sees a body plunge from the edge of a cliff to the rocks below…. Solving the mystery, first-time novelist Sue Hallgarth’s intimate view of village politics and the goings-on of two women’s communities long lost to history is also a suspenseful and surprising crime novel. Hallgarth draws the reader into a unique retreat and an inside glimpse of the lives of a great American novelist and her talented life partner.
Simply leave a comment below and if you win it would be great if you'd leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, or your blog (if you have one) to help get the word out.

Good luck!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Wrap-up for the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge 2012

I'd like that thank everyone who participated in the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge 2012! Special thanks to the folks who run A Novel Challenge for listing the challenge and to The Willa Cather Foundation for promoting the challenge throughout the year.

It was great to hear from so many people here on the blog, via email, and in person. I was especially excited to hear from folks who were reading Cather for the first time, or for the first time since high school. Others who were already familiar with Cather re-read their favorite novels. A few people completely read all 12 of Cather's novels. For those who tried Cather for the first time and didn't find her to their liking, I say congratulations for being willing to explore a new author or genre!

2013 is going to be a big year for Cather fans. In January the first mystery novel featuring Cather is coming out: On The Rocks by Sue Hallgarth (stay tuned for a giveaway post!). Then in April literary history will be made with the publication of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Cather's "break-out" novel, O Pioneers! so keep an eye out for celebrations (its already been chosen as the One Book, One Nebraska read for 2013). Also, My Antonia is one of the give-away titles for the second World Book Night on April 23, 2013--why not apply to be a giver? I'll be sure to pass on any other Cather related news as I hear it and I'd love to hear any news you have to shareas well!

I wish you all a Happy & Healthy New Year filled with lots of good reading!
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