Sunday, December 1, 2013

What I Read This Weekend

What I Read This Weekend . . .

Aleutian Sparrow by Karen Hesse, read by Sarah Jones, and with Harriet Hope -- Young Adult Historical Fiction

Told in Karen Hesse's trademark blank verse, this story is the collective story of the Aleutian people who were "evacuated" from their homes in the Aleutian Islands during World War II "for their own good." In the beginning of the story Vera leaves her home in Unalaska village with Alexei and Fekla, the elderly couple she helps to visit her mother and friends in Kashega, a smaller village southwest of Unalaska. Vera's mother has forgotten the old ways but Vera loves spending time with her mother at Solmon's store. Vera runs with her friends Pari and Alfred as they enjoy the long summer nights. Then our government comes and informs them the Japanese have invaded the Aleutians and the Aleut people must be sent away. The Aleut people are taken away from everything they've ever known - away from the fish and the seals, away from their homes and into a damp, dark forest that breeds sickness along with mold. Vera is strong and determined to survive against all odds. This shocking story is one I've never heard before and it was quite surprising. I didn't know anything about the Aleut people so I really enjoyed the details of their daily lives and culture. I liked the contrast between the two villages and was a bit surprised to discover how modern their homes were (more than many lower 48 homes at that time and even some today). The story was difficult to get through but I had to know what happened to the characters. I had a hard time really connecting to the characters because of the poetic style. I think straight prose would have worked better. As it is, Vera tells the collective story and not much about herself. There isn't much character development except for what we're told is happening and what people are feeling. Though this story is heartbreaking, the will of the people to survive is incredible. I can't even imagine how horrific the situation was and how confused the Aleuts must have been. The mark of a good historical fiction novel for me is when I learn something new and this story accomplished that. I especially enjoyed the oral history interview with Harriet Hope at the end. Though she was only five years old at the time, her memories are sharp and clear. She has been told stories by her older siblings and her mother. Her father, being non-native, was allowed to remain. This makes the evacuation even more shocking. The interview was almost more interesting than the novel. I liked Sarah Jones, the narrator. She sounds like a young girl and when she quotes the elders, she puts on an elderly voice. She didn't have a lot to do except read the text but her voice is pleasing and makes the story flow smoothly. I  highly recommend this book to everyone in 7th grade up through adults. It's a story that needs to be told.

"When Did You See Her Last?" (All the Wrong Questions) by Lemony Snicket and Seth -- Middle Grades Fiction

Young Lemony Snicket is alone in trying to solve the mystery of the missing Ellington Feint, Hangfire and the Bombinating Beast. His chaperone S. Theodora Markson wants to solve the mystery of another missing girl, a Miss Cleo Knight who is a brilliant scientist. Lemony picks up on the fact that her parents seem oddly unconcerned and only the maids are worried about Cleo. Lemony reconnects with Moxie to attempt to solve the mystery of the missing Miss Knight when he stumbles across clues that lead him into a terrifying adventure. This books is much better than the first in the series. I couldn't put it down and I want more NOW! It astounds me how clever Mr. Snicket is. The plot had more twists that I'm sure I can pick up on. There may be references to other things that happened in his future during the ASOUE events. There's also references to his siblings Kit and Jacques. Kit has a subplot featured in this novel. Snicket's trademark vocabulary-building is amazing as usual. I'm very well educated and had no idea what half the words here meant. I also loved the literary references. As for characters I liked seeing Moxie again but she's only in it briefly. She's named Moxie for a reason and it shows in this book. Ellington's character is developed a bit more. She's very complex and I like that. What I don't like are the adults in the story. The kids don't have anyone they can trust because all the adults are really clueless. I know the story is written for kids and I guess kids who feel like they can't trust adults but the evil in this story is too great for children to fight alone. The action sequence at the end is terrifying. The art is different from Bret Helquist's style but it suits the book quite well. It's sort of a film noir throwback. I loved this entry in the series. Fans of ASOUE will too. 

Books identified in the text:
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Wolfe
Harriet the Spy, The Long Secret and Nobody's Family is Going to Change by Louise Fitzhugh
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Iliad by Homer
others I'm not familiar with

Special bonus: photos of Lemony Snicket's associate Daniel Handler at a recent local appearance. He's quite a character and it was worth the two hour wait to meet him. 
Mr. Snicket was supposed to appear but ...

He sent his "associate" Daniel Handler instead

Mr. Handler is quite the character

Mr. Handler is authorized to sign his name to Mr. Snicket's books

Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey by The Countess of Carnarvon -- Biography

Catherine Wendell grew up in New York and Maine as part of Gilded Age high society. Upon the sudden, tragic loss of their family finances, her father attempted a second career but tragically died before he could recover their fortune. Left on the fringes of respectable society, Catherine's mother took the family off to live with her sister in England. Catherine met Lord Porchester, son of the Earl of Carnarvon in London during her season. She found him charming and irresistible. He found her innocence and freshness delightful. They married and went off with Porchey's regiment to India. Before they had a chance to really be properly married, the Earl of Carnarvon died and the young couple had to return to England to take over Highclere. Catherine took delight in her two children that followed and enjoyed socializing with the Duke of Kent and other close friends. Her husband increasingly turned to the pleasures of London in the Roaring Twenties ignoring his young wife. Catherine, feeling lonely and isolated, because increasingly unhappy. The story that follows is not a happy one. It involved infidelity, divorce, depression, and the drama of war. Keep in mind this is NOT a novel and the story is supposed to share a bit of information about the beautiful American-born Countess as a parallel to the TV series. I liked the first few chapters that dealt with Catherine's childhood and early married years. As time went on, the narrative became bogged down with way too many historical figures, most of whom I didn't know and had nothing to do with Catherine's story. The narrative also got dragged down by way too much description of World War II. If I wanted to read about the war, I'd read a book about WWII. There really wasn't enough material on Catherine to fill a whole book. I cared about her and felt sorry about her but got the impression that she wasn't entirely a victim as she appears here. I was more interested in her personal life than the external drama that was happening around her. The Epilogue tells us what happened following World War II and briefly mentions Catherine's death. That should have been a larger part of the story.  My advice is to skim this book or read the beginning and the end. 

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