Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Secret Life of Josephine

by Carolly Erickson

The Secret Life of Josephine was a delightful read. Carolly Erickson takes the life of Josephine Bonaparte and enlivens it with some very colorful characters and situations to make a wonderful story. This is not a biography, it is a very fictionalized view of Josephine's life. Erickson herself calls this an historical entertainment, not historical fiction. But, do not let that distract you from the fact that is it well written and a interesting story.

Josephine was born on the French colonial island of Martinque. She makes her way to France to marry her first husband, an aristocrat, who had no desire to marry, but must in order to receive his inheritance from his father. He basically ignores Josephine, except to impregnate her with two children who Josephine adores and their father basically ignores. Josephine eventually is legally separated from her husband and here her adventure begins.

To earn money, Josephine tells fortunes for money at several of the best salons in Paris. She takes many lovers and becomes involved with several men of promenience in France, several of whom end up supporting her and her children. At the time of the Revolution she even spends time in prison because she is an aristocrat. She is jailed with her ex-husband who eventually is put to death by guillotine. Josephine is saved by a kind doctor and finally released from prison.

The portion of the book portraying her relationship with Napoleon shows an unstable man infatuated both with Josephine and his own rising power. I did find Erickson's portrayal of Napoleon to be historically accurate based on many biographies I have read of him. He was truly heartbroken about putting Josephine aside to marry an Austrian princess. If Josephine had been of royal birth or have been able to give him a son, I believe he would have stayed married to her. On his exile island of St. Helena at his death, it was Josephine, long dead, that he called out for.

Probably the most captivating story lines in the book take place on Martinique. Although there is little historical background for it, Erickson has Josephine return to the island several times where she is involved in a slave rebellion and meets Donovan, a mysterious man who plays a long lasting role in Josephine's fictional life. In an historical study of the French Revolution, the French colonies are often overlooked with their all important trade and entrenched system of slavery.

I enjoyed this novel as much as I did Erickson's The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette several years ago. It was a quick read and fun.

I read this book as part of the Historical Fiction Challenge.

Rating - B

The Sunday Salon - January 31, 2010

It has been a long itme since I have participated in the Sunday Salon. My Sundays are less about reading and more about getting ready for the week ahead. I decided this year to at least write a Salon post on the last Sunday of the month as a way of recapping my reading and reviewing.

January Review Edition

Books I Read This Month (linked to reviews)-
Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
The Secret Life of Josephine by Carolly Erickson
Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Neslund
The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs
Knit Two by Kate Jacobs
Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

Our book club meets today to pick books for the next 6 months. I am suggesting the following -
19th Wife by David Ebershoff
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

We shall see what we pick! This is always one of my favorite meetings, everyone brings great books to share and even if we don't choose them to read for Book Club, I always add 2 or 3 to my personal TBR stack.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette

by Sena Jeter Naslund

I picked this bookup from the bargain table at Barnes and Noble at least 2 years ago. As my AP European History class began studying the French Revolution, I picked it up, looking for some insight into the woman that some historians believe launched the French Revolution.

The book begins with Marie's birth as a Frenchwoman, where on an island in the Rhine River between France and Austria, she sheds everthing she owns that is Austrian, even her name, and becomes French. Marie embraces her new country and awaits with great anticipation her first meeting with King Louis XV and his grandson Louis Auguste, the man destined to become her husband.

Over and over again throughout her life, Marie is confronted by disappointments -- lack of a sexual relationship with her husband, inability to conceive an heir to the throne, coldness from the women at court, the deaths of two of her children, the criticism of her mother, the negative propaganda surrounding her court activities and finally the loss of the only life she understood. The novel goes far in explaining the woman behind the famous Queen. It takes fact and fiction and creates a Marie Antoinette that falls somewhere in between. The author is sympathetic to Marie, but offers no excuses for her behavior.

As poor harvests, harsh weather, huge debts and poverty oppress the French people, they turn on thier most favored Queen and blame Marie, the Austrian Whore, for their problems. While Marie did not create these problems, she did nothing to prevent or attempt to solve them. She didn't even acknowledge the suffering existed, and in reality an arguement can be made that Marie herself did not know of the troubles of the people until it was too late.

What we find in the novel is a very humanized Marie Antoinette. She struggles with her marriage, especially when Louis chooses his favorite hobby, hunting over her and an attempt to produce an heir. She faces the same struggles of all mothers when it comes to her children. She is heartbroken when she is not allowed to care for her first son, the Dauphin, herself and she is devastated by the deaths of Louis Phillipe and her daughter Sophie. She even feels inadequate under the criticism of her mother via long letters from Austria, fed by court spies. It is this very vulnerable portrayal of Marie in the novel that makes you almost feel sorry for her.....almost.

I did like Marie Antoinette more after reading this very well researched and well written novel. The history is impeccable and being told from Marie's point of view it has a very authentic tone, and their are no excuses for the behavior of either Marie or Louis -- just a matter of fact, this is how it is view of the most life of one ofthe most famous women in European History.

This book was part of the Historical Fiction Challenge.

Rating - A

The Time Is Snowed on Puerto Rico

by Sarah McCoy

The Time it Snowed in Puerto Rico is a coming of age novel and I am not a big fan of this type of book. I think too many years of teaching them in middle school has just made me very jaded in regards to this genre. That being said, I rather enjoyed this one. Not only is Verdita, a young Puerto Rican girl struggleing with growing up, Puerto Rico itself is also experiencing growing pains. Taking place during the early 1060s, the Puerto Rican independence movement is just finding its voice.

At times enamoured by all things American, yet still tied so strongly to her Puerto Rican heritage, Verdita is not sure where she fits in. She convinces herself that if she just changes her hair she will be beautiful, like the American women she sees in magazines. She convinces her aunt to cut her beautiful black hair and dye it blonde, so she can be more American -- it is a disaster -- kind of like the summer before 9th grade when I used bottle after bottle of Sun-In trying to be Barbie blonde and ended up with Lucille Ball orange hair!

Having been to Puerto Rico many times, I felt myself immersed in local culture while reading. From the sights and sounds of San Juan to the foliage and quiet forests of the forests, you could hear the coqui frogs and see the crowds of the city. I was given this book by the publisher at the National Council for Social Studies Convention. Their goal being that I would choose to use this book in my class. While it does not meet the needs of my advanced students, were I still teaching middle school, I would certainly consider it as it has more cultural meat to it than most other coming of age novels.

Rating - B

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cleopatra's Daughter

by Michelle Moran

I think I am the last historical fiction buff to read a Michelle Moran book. My wonderful husband chose to "surprise" me with Cleopatra's Daughter for Christmas and I since I have been sick for the past 8 days, I found some time to read it. Wow, can she tell a story!

Cleopatra's Daughter tells the tale of twins Selene and Alexander --Marc Antony and Cleopatra's children -- as they are taken from Alexandria to Rome upon the deaths of their parents and the take over of Egypt by Octavian. Taken as prisoners, the children are welcomed into the home of Octavia, Octavian's sister and divorced wife of Marc Antony. They are raised with Octavian's own children as well as a handful of half brothers and sisters. Imagine those living arrangements! Told through the first person account of Selene, the reader discovers a stong bond between the twins and a commraderie among all the children as they attend school and partake in the pleasures of ancient Rome, from visiting the temples of the gods, shopping at the Forum to the chariot races at the Circus Maximus. The intrique that surrounds the household of Caesar is enough to give anyone an ulcer and Selene and Alexander live under constant fear that at any moment Octavian could choose to make them slaves or worse. In order to make herself useful to Caesar, Selene apprentices herself to the brilliant architect Vitruvius and helps design and eventually build many of the beautiful buildings of Octavian's Rome. Surrounded by the likes of Homer, Ovid, Agrippa and Juba we the reader, get a fascinating look at the daily life of ancient Rome, including its ugly side. Woven amongst the history are the love stories. The love triangle of Marcellus, Caesar's heir apparent, Julia and Selene as well as the forbidden love of Gallia, the Gaul slave princess and the chidren's tutor Verrius.

I knew absolutely nothing about this historical event, so every turn of the page enveloped me into the story. The vivid and descriptive writing painted such images in my head, not only could I see how dirty ancient Rome must have been, but I could hear the yelling and smell the smells as well. My historical interests tend to begin around 1450 with the Renaissance and I was not sure how I would like reading about the ancient world, but since the book blog buzz about Michelle Moran has been so positive I decided to give it a try and I am so glad I did. I will be looking for more books by her to add to my collection.

Read and reviewed for the Historical Fiction Challenge.

Rating - A

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Complete Peresepolis

by Marjane Satrapi

Peresepolis is the memoir of a girl growing up in revolutionary Iran. Marjane Satrapi opens her story with a childlike description of the Islamic Revolution

"In 1979 a revoltution took place. It was later called the Islamic Revolution.
Then came 1980; the year it became obligatory to wear the veil at school.
We didn't like to wear the veil, especially since we didn't understand why we had to."

and the Cultural Revoltution

"All bilingual schools must be closed down. They are symbols of capitalism
and decadence. This is called a Cultural Revolution."

From a child's perspective, this is how this time period in Iranian history looked and Satrapi's descriptions of these events set the tone for a wonderful, simple, straightforward story of one girl's experiences.

From the beginning it is obvious Marjane is a bit of a revolutionary herself, following the example set by her uncle, she makes fun of the martyrs, lashed out against authority and is expelled from several schools. Her parents are afraid her outspokenness will result in imprisonment or worse and send her to school in Austria.

In Austria, Satrapi does an excellent job of portraying the lonliness and cultural shock she experienced. I was totally drawn into how difficult this must have been for her, especially at 15 years old. She dabbles in drugs, alcohol, and experiences first hand the sexual revolution. She continues her outspoken ways and is kicked out of several boarding houses as well as school. She eventually ends up on the streets of Austria before finally returning to Iran, where once again she experiences cultural isolation and depression while figuring out just where she fits in, all the while still questioning the times and events surrounding her.

This was my first graphic novel and I enjoyed the formaltmuch more than I expected to. I loved how the stroy was interspersed wtih intimate details and grand historic events. This book while simply written was very emotional.

What I did not like was Marjane herself. I felt she was whiny and caught up in the "poor me" mentality. Her parents sacrificed to send her to good schools and to provide her with opportunites to be safe as well as grow and prosper while she indulged in self-pity and self-destrictive behavior. She did redeem herself however when she acknowledged her faults in the book.

I highly recommend this book, especially if you have not ventured into the graphic novel genre. This was so well done I was disappointed when Satrapi finished telling her story, wanting to know what happened next.

Rating - A

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Girl From Junchow

by Kate Furnivall

This is the sequel to The Russian Concubine, one of my favorite books of 2009. I bought this the day it was released in July, but put off reading it because I was afraid it would not hold up to my expectations. However, I promised it to a student after Christmas Break, so I started it right after Christmas.

The Russian Concubine ends with Lydia heading into Soviet Russia to find her father. Her companions are an unlikely group, a brother she just found out existed and a huge, uncouth Cossack who has remained loyal to her father all these years. This is where The Girl from Junchow begins. Lydia's story is full of twists and turns and of course hardships. Her brother suddenly disappears, she is penniless and has to find a way from Siberia to Moscow, and Popkov, the Cossack picks up an unlikely Soviet woman. Somehow Lydia's Communist Chinese lover, Chang An Lo appears in Moscow, the Soviet mafia makes an appearance and Lydia's father just might not be what she expected.

Furnivall does a beautiful job of depicting the grey, depressed, desolate landscape that was Soviet Russia. Set in 1929, the Communists under Joseph Stalin are still trying to figure out how to make communism work. The society that is supposed to make everyone equal is only succeeding in making everything less so. Factories spring up overnight and draw farmers from the countryside, leaving no one to grow food for the huge, growing population . People are rounded up and disapppear for reading books, speaking out or just looking at the wrong person. Work camps and prisons are filled with political prisoners. Churches are blown up on a daily basis. The fear that surrounded this time in Russian history is palpable throughout the book.

The story itself is really good. The plotlines are woven together with the history very well. I truly enjoyed Lydia's journey through Russia and her quest not only for her father, but to find herself as well. My one criticism with the book is how neatly and quickly the loose ends were tied up at the end. For such a complex story with many plotlines, things just came together too well. The end left me unsatisfied, feeling just a little cheated after investing so much time in the characters and their stories. Furnivall did however lay the ground work for at least 2 more books involving Lydia and her family. The backstory of Lydia's mother and father will be the focus of her next book currently titled The Jewel of St. Petersburg to be released in June 2010. I also think there just might be more to Lydia and Chang An Lo's story.

Rating - A

Saturday, January 2, 2010


By Stephenie Meyer

I made the mistake of seeing New Moon a few weekends ago. I liked the movie, close to the book, but I still have a hard time with the casting, just not who I would have picked -- guess that's why I'm not a Hollywood casting agent. But, it made me come right home and re-read Eclipse, just to remind myself what happens next.

Let me be clear, I don't read vampire books. Not at all in my realm of interest, but when you teach high school you sometimes have to make sacrifices. Several students told me I just HAD to read Twilight and so I finally did. Loved it! Then I read New Moon, and Eclipse in a 48 hour time period. I went with some students to B&N at midnight for the release of Breaking Dawn. I know, pathetic, but had a great time with some really super kids. I boycotted the Twilight movie since the kids and several adults who's opinion I trust, said it was terrible and I didn't want to mess up the perfect images I had created for myself while reading. I do however have the original movie poster hanging in my classroom -- a gift from a student who worked at the movie theater at the time. It makes me the "really cool" teacher on the hall.

I know these books have plenty of critics, especially how they portray the treatment of women. Yes, I do think it is more than a little creepy that Edward watches Bella sleep and that she turns into a virtual zombie when he leaves her, but that is what young love is like. Believe me, I see it everyday. You are not going to change to obsessiveness of first love. I can also see my own husband exhibiting some Edward-like behavior, not because he is possessive (oh, so not) but because quite honestly he adores me (and I adore him).

What I like about the books most is the return to morals and values, especially in regards to sex. Edward and Bella do not have sex until they are married and it is not just because he will hurt her in her frail human form. At the very root, is his desire (and eventually hers too) to do everything "right". This is the example that should be set for teenagers, both male and female. I see the devastation of having sex too early all the time. It is much more devastating to a yound girl than just about anything else. Her self-esteem drops, she looses her friends that have not had sex yet, her reputation is destroyed. This is the lesson I hope girls take away from the book.

Off my soapbox now... I enjoyed this one just as much the second time around and when I finished it, I of course, opened Breaking Dawn...

Rating - B

Books I Read in 2009 Linked to Reviews

The Girl from Junchow by Kate Furnivall
The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico by Sarah McCoy
The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
The Dowry Bride by Shobhan Bantwal
The Last Queen by C. W. Gornter
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Sex with Kings by Eleanor Herman
Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett
A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester
The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Can You Keep a Secret by Sophie Kinsella (Audiobook)
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall
In the Wake of the Plague by Norman Cantor
Freefall by Anna Levine
Salt - A World History by Mark Kurlansky
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Healthiest Kid in teh Neighborhood by Dr. William Sears
Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson
Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (Audiobook)
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
The Reincarnationist by M. J. Rose
My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
The Venetian Betrayal by Steve Berry
The Guernsey Literary adn Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Beyond the White House by Jimmy Carter
Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson
Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman
The Lady Elizabeth by Allison Weir
The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig
19 Minutes by Jodi Picoult
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver