A Good American by Alex George

Title: A Good American
Author: Alex George
Narrator: Gibson Frazier
Series: N/A
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Release Date: 2/7/2012
Length: 11 hours, 27 minutes
Format: Unabridged Audio CDs
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary
Challenges: 2012 Audiobook Challenge
Source: Publisher (thank you!)
Purchase: Audio CD | Digital Audiobook
Rating: ★★★★★

It is 1904. When Frederick and Jette must flee her disapproving mother, where better to go than America, the land of the new? Originally set to board a boat to New York, at the last minute, they take one destined for New Orleans instead (“”What’s the difference? They’re both new””), and later find themselves, more by chance than by design, in the small town of Beatrice, Missouri. Not speaking a word of English, they embark on their new life together.

Beatrice is populated with unforgettable characters: a jazz trumpeter from the Big Easy who cooks a mean gumbo, a teenage boy trapped in the body of a giant, a pretty schoolteacher who helps the young men in town learn about a lot more than just music, a minister who believes he has witnessed the Second Coming of Christ, and a malevolent, bicycle-riding dwarf.

“A Good American” is narrated by Frederick and Jette’s grandson, James, who, in telling his ancestors’ story, comes to realize he doesn’t know his own story at all. From bare-knuckle prizefighting and Prohibition to sweet barbershop harmonies, the Kennedy assassination, and beyond, James’s family is caught up in the sweep of history. Each new generation discovers afresh what it means to be an American. And, in the process, Frederick and Jette’s progeny sometimes discover more about themselves than they had bargained for.

When I began this book, I knew I was going to like it, maybe even love it. There was just something about the way everything was presented. I loved the narrator’s voice, by which I mean the character’s voice within the book. I did also enjoy the actual audiobook narrator. I do think the cover is slightly misleading. It left me with the assumption that there would be a lot of jazz involved in the story, and there really wasn’t. It’s very pretty though.

On the surface, this book chronicles three generations of the Meisenheimer family from Friederich and Jetta’s immigration to the U.S. to the trials of their grandchild, James, as he tries to find his place among his family, his town, and in the world. While there are some pretty improbable occurances in the book, I never really questioned it. I just laughed at the ridiculous and kept listening. I found James’s dry humor about the shenanigans his family seemed to find themselves in a good addition to the story. Had the events been told in a different voice or perspective, I’m not sure they would have had the same effect. I did have a moment toward the end where I felt a little unsure of how I felt about everything after a particularly jarring twist in the plot. It took me a few days of thinking to decide that I really did like this book.

I think some of the characters felt a little mysterious. I think it’s mostly because James is telling the story and his personality is more introspective than anything. For instance, he doesn’t dig into the personalities of his younger brothers very much. They felt more like surface characters. And his older brother was just a mystery to me. I found this interesting mostly because it seemed like there was so much insight into what his granparents and parents were thinking. It felt a little inconsistent. That said, his grandparents and parents, and James himself seemed to be very well-developed.

I thought Alex George’s writing style was perfect. It really fit the story and James’s personality. It just felt like James was writing the story (which is kind of important in this book), rather than someone writing it for him. I think that feeling also speaks to the depth of his character.

Gibson Frazier did a spectacular job narrating this audiobook. He read with pefect sincerety and his voice became the voice of James’s voice. That’s something I love in audiobooks. It’s what I hope for every time I begin a new one. He didn’t really change up character voices, but I don’t think that would have been appropriate for this story since it was told from James’s point of view. He delivered with perfect, natural flow, while still enunciating. The only teensy, little thing that bothered me was the way he pronounced culinary. Like cyulinary. Have I been pronouncing that wrong my whole life? Or is it just one of those words that people say differently in different places, like pecan or something.

I think this book is definitely worth picking up. I can understand why it’s on the Indie Next List. I don’t think it particulary appeals to a certain group or anything though. I would say, if the synopsis sounds interesting to you or this review draws you to it, pick it up.

Angel by Laura Lee

Title: Angel
Author: Laura Lee
Series: N/A
Publisher: Itineris Press
Release Date: 9/27/2011
Length: 200 pages
Format: PDF Galley
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Literary
Challenges: 2012 E-book Challenge
Source: Author (thank you!)
Purchase: Paperback | Kindle | E-book
Rating: ★★★★★

Since the loss of his lively, charming wife to cancer six years ago, minister Paul Tobit has been operating on autopilot, performing his religious duties by rote. Everything changes the day he enters the church lobby and encounters a radiant, luminous being lit from behind, breathtakingly beautiful and glowing with life. An angel. For a moment Paul is so moved by his vision that he is tempted to fall on his knees and pray.

Even after he regains his focus and realizes he simply met a flesh-and-blood young man, Paul cannot shake his sense of awe and wonder. He feels an instant and overwhelming attraction for the young man, which puzzles him even as it fills his thoughts and fires his feelings. Paul has no doubt that God has spoken to him through this vision, and Paul must determine what God is calling him to do.

Thus begins a journey that will inspire Paul’s ministry but put him at odds with his church as he is forced to examine his deeply held beliefs and assumptions about himself, his community, and the nature of love.

I’ll admit I went into this only because I found the idea of a male minister falling in love with another man intriguing. I wanted to see how the author dealt with it. I didn’t let myself worry too much about expectations or anything like that. I have to say, it worked pretty well. The whole thing was a pleasant experience. It also kind of helped that I was corresponding with Laura while I was reading the book. You’ll get to see that chat a later.

Now, in case you’re thinking “uhhh… that book looks/sounds a little provacative,” let me assure you: it’s not. Well, I guess it sort of is, but it’s not some raumchy book about guys having sex. It’s thoughtful and intellectual. It’s much more about identity and love. The messages that I took from it really spoke to me and isn’t that something you want from a book? I love fun, light-hearted reads as much as the next person, but there’s just something about a book that really speaks to me. All the fun, easy books and exciting thrillers can never really measure up to them.

In Angel, Paul is dealing with a few things. The moment he sees Ian, his life turns upside down. Everything he thought he knew about himself is suddenly shifting. He soon finds himself in a plce that he never expected, in love with another man, and a much younger one. The book not only follows their relationship through its ups and downs, but, more importantly follows Paul’s journey to finding himself. Ian’s presence in his life forces him to take a look at what he believes and values. I also thought Laura Lee did a terrific job of writing their relationship. It really displayed love in all its beautiful imperfection. It wasn’t all butterflies and sunshine and happiness and I really appreciated that. There was jealousy and insecurity and arguments. Love is messy, but wonderful and this book really demonstrated that.

I loved Paul from the beginning. His faith is true and steadfast, but not fanatical. There are several theological discussions between him and Ian, and a lot of those really made me think. I think I’ve known people my whole life that look at things the way Paul does, but I’ve never heard anyone voice it quite like he does. It was nice to read something that has Christian undertones, but doesn’t force them down the reader’s throat. I understand Ian’s initial feelings about church. It’s easy to look at fanatics and be put off by all of it, but Paul approaches faith in such a way that really brings out the message of love and understanding, rather than ostracizing people.

I found Paul’s struggles with his church community sad, but very realistic. Unfortunately, the reaction of the his church to Paul’s relationship is more likely to happen than not, especially down here in the bible belt. At first, I was truly saddened by that part of the book. Once I began thinking about it, I realized how appropriate it was. People choose churches for different reasons and not everyone who goes to the same church believe exactly the same way. It can be really difficult to please everyone.

I highly recommend this book. It was beautiful and its depth really blew me away. A little later today I’ll be posting an interview with the author. You should check that out, as well. She had some very insightful things to say.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Title: Lolita
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Narrator: Jeremy Irons
Series: N/A
Publisher: Random House Audio
Release Date: 4/26/2005
Length: 11 hours, 32 minutes
Format: Audio CDs
Genres: Fiction, Classics, Literary
Challenges: N/A
Source: Library
Purchase: Audio CD | Digital Audiobook
Rating: NO RATING

When it was published in 1955, Lolita immediately became a cause célèbre because of the freedom and sophistication with which it handled the unusual erotic predilections of its protagonist. But Vladimir Nabokov’s wise, ironic, elegant masterpiece owes its stature as one of the twentieth century’s novels of record not to the controversy its material aroused but to its author’s use of that material to tell a love story almost shocking in its beauty and tenderness. Awe and exhilaration–along with heartbreak and mordant wit–abound in this account of the aging Humbert Humbert’s obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Lolita is also the story of a hypercivilized European colliding with the cheerful barbarism of postwar America, but most of all, it is a meditation on love–love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.

I’ve wanted to read this for a while and when I saw the audiobook at the library and saw that Jeremy Irons was reading it, I had to get it. I’ve been listening for a while and I’ve had to take breaks from it. It’s kind of heavy. At this point, I’m just bored. I don’t think it has as much to do with the book itself as it has to do with the fact that I know what happens. I’ve seen the movie, and I know that’s not the same as the book. Still, I have a general idea of what’s going to happen and so I’ve become disinterested in listening to the last four discs of the audiobook. I will say that I understand why it’s such a classic. Nabokov’s writing is out of this world. I loved the opening chapter. It was so beautifully written. The rest of the book is, as well. It’s just that I’ve gotten to the point of seriously loathing Humbert Humbert (and bratty Lo, for that matter) and I’m not sure if I can stand to listen to his arrogant babbling anymore. I think I’ll just let this one go. Like I said, it’s not that it’s a bad book. I just ruined it for myself by watching the movie first.

Anyone loathe this book? Love it? Either way, did you have problems finishing it?

The Kingdom of Childhood

The Kingdom of Childhood
by Rebecca Coleman
Published 2011 by Mira
346 pages. ARC.
Rating: 5/5

The Kingdom of Childhood is the story of a boy and a woman: sixteen-year-old Zach Patterson, uprooted and struggling to reconcile his knowledge of his mother’s extramarital affair, and Judy McFarland, a kindergarten teacher watching her family unravel before her eyes. Thrown together to organize a fundraiser for their failing private school and bonded by loneliness, they begin an affair that at first thrills, then corrupts each of them. Judy sees in Zach the elements of a young man she loved as a child, but what Zach does not realize is that their relationship is, for Judy, only the latest in a lifetime of disturbing secrets.

This is one of those times that I’m glad I made myself a little checklist for reviews. Otherwise, I’d never be able to decent review. This book just affected me so much. I wanted to write a review immediately upon finishing it, but I couldn’t get my head straight so I decided to sleep on it. That was probably a better idea anyway since it was two in the morning. I still had to get my ideas out of my head this morning since I was feeling more inclined to discuss the book, rather than review it. Hopefully, now that I’ve done that, I can tell you what was good about this book and why you might want to pick it up.

The story is definitely gripping. Once I got settled into the story I devoured it in every free moment I had. I stayed up late into the night just so I could finish it. I very rarely do that with books. Usually, if I try to read late at night I just fall asleep in the middle of it. This book had me totally captivated. It was one of those books that troubled me when I wasn’t reading it. I was considering the events in the back of mind all the time. The nature of the story left me with this troubled feeling for days. I think that might be why I needed to finish it so badly. I needed to get rid of that nagging feeling it left me with.

Though the affair is engaging, I found the development of the two characters to be much more interesting. Judy is complex, and I had a hard time feeling comfortable with her. There are parts of her it’s easy to like, and parts of her that are downright terrifying. She has the potential to do some seriously twisted shit, and even acts on those impulses a couple of times. Zach, however, I felt completely at ease with. Even at his worst, I found it impossible to dislike him. I can’t decide if it’s because we’re closer in age or because I was sympathizing with the victimized, though I hardly feel that he’s being victimized. I think he makes some seriously bad judgment calls, but he knows what he’ doing. He’s completely tortured by it. He recognizes the sin, but can’t seem to find the will to stop doing it. He relishes in the power he can hold over Judy, and resents her for bringing that part of him to the surface. He never seems fooled by Judy’s attempts to manipulate him. It’s her painful desperation and twisted behavior that finally seals it for him. His development was what made the book for me.

The whole story takes place in a Waldorf community, something I’d never heard of before I read this. I’m still not quite sure I understand it, but it was interesting to learn about something new. It made for an interesting backdrop to all the drama. It’s not like anything I’ve ever read. I can see how it would be a good book club read, and there are some nice discussion questions in the back that could have me talking for hours. I do recommend it if you like controversial literary fiction. It’s haunting and disturbing, and impossible to put down.

This book contains very straightforward references to sex. There is a lot of sexual content, though none of it is detailed or explicit. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s only suitable for ages 18 and up, but it’s definitely the kind of book that requires maturity to really understand. Just an FYI.

Source: NetGalley
Author’s website: http://www.rebeccacolemanauthor.com/
Purchase this book: Book Depository | IndieBound

The Help

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett
performed by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell.
Published 2009 by Penguin Audio
18 hours, 19 minutes. Unabridged.
Rating: 5/5

Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

I could spend this whole review talking about how amazing this story is, or how much I loved the characters. And maybe I’ll say some of that, but it feels like it’s a little late for that. I would guess that most people have already read this book. I’m know I’ve joined late in the game. Still, I got there. This is the best book I’ve read all year. Definitely the best audio book I’ve listened to. I think I’ll talk a little about that.

For the review’s sake, let me just lay down a few thoughts about the story and characters. I’m really impressed with Kathryn Stockett. Just wow. What else can you say about a book this good? The story is gripping. It never let me go until the end. I was completely immersed in this story. And the characters jump off the page. Skeeter is one of my favorite women in literature. She’s got such a good spirit and a strong will. I loved that about her. She really made this book for me. I’m not trying to neglect Aibileen or Minny. They’re full of life and Minny constantly cracked me up. I fell in love with all of it.

If you’ve read the book, but haven’t listened to the audio, you should give it a listen before the movie comes out next month. It’s amazing. There are different narrators for Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny. They’re perfect. It’s so well done. I promise you’ll love it. I can’t wait for the movie. I’m really excited about Emma Stone playing Skeeter. She’ll do such a great job.

That’s all I’ve got. This book is amazing. The narration is amazing. If you haven’t gotten around to this one yet, pick it up immediately.

Source: My bookshelf!
Author’s website: http://www.kathrynstockett.com/
Purchase this book: Penguin | Book Depository | IndieBound | Audible

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    Some of the books reviewed on this blog were sent to me by the author or publisher for review. I did not receive any payment in exchange for the review nor was I obligated to write a positive one. All opinions expressed here are entirely my own and may not necessarily agree with those of the author, the book's publisher and publicist or the readers of these reviews. This disclosure is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255, Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.
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