A Few Short Reviews

I’ve been busy readin’ books and writin’ reviews for the next issue of the Historical Novels Review, so I haven’t had much chance to blog lately. So here are my reviews that have already appeared in the February 2007 issue. They are from areas outside of my usual preoccupations, as you can tell. Perhaps some of you might want to pick them up.

Mozart’s Sister
Nancy Moser, Bethany House, 2006, $12.99, pb, 336pp, 0764201239

Nannerl Mozart, a talented musician in her own right, is used to being overshadowed by her brother, Wolfgang. Nonetheless, she struggles with envy and frustration—particularly when as a young girl, she realizes that her gender, rather than her musical gifts, will shape her destiny.

As the story of a woman cheated of the opportunities enjoyed by her brother, Mozart’s Sister, narrated by Nannerl, could have made for depressing reading. Instead, it’s a moving story of a woman who must cope with often difficult circumstances while doing her best to build a satisfactory life for herself.

The novel did feel a bit unbalanced to me—there’s a great deal about Nannerl’s childhood and years as a single woman, while comparatively little of the book is given over to her married life. This made an epiphany Nannerl experiences feel somewhat forced and abrupt; it was also odd, in light of the dramatic opening scene, not to see more of the emotional impact Mozart’s death had on his sister. These minor flaws, however, are countered by the novel’s strengths: its characterizations, especially that of Leopold Mozart, who turns out to be more complex and sympathetic than the stage parent he appears to be at the beginning; Moser’s deftness at portraying the shifting relationships within the Mozart family; and Nannerl herself, a good but realistically flawed woman born in the wrong time.

Mama Fela’s Girls
Ana Baca, University of New Mexico Press, 2006, $24.95, hb, 318pp, 0826340237

Mama Fela’s Girls is a multi-generational tale in a fresh setting: Santa Lucίa, a small town in New Mexico in 1934. The generations of the Romero family are Mama Fela, an aging seamstress; her daughter, Cita, who longs to pursue a career as an artist; her daughter-in-law, Graciela, a schoolteacher who is also her family’s main breadwinner; and her granddaughter, little Cipriana, who loves Shirley Temple movies. Their good points and flaws are all well rendered, and their dialogue is convincing and natural, even down to the Spanish phrases these Mexican-American characters use on occasion.

The male characters are somewhat less successful than the female ones; with a couple of exceptions, most seemed unsatisfactory in some way, being either absent, undependable, or worse. Given the novel’s title, I wasn’t surprised that the female characters overshadowed the men, but I would have liked to have seen some more strong male characters alongside the many strong female ones. That, however, is purely a personal preference.

Though the settings are completely different and the plots and writing styles have little in common, Mama Fela’s Girls kept reminding me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, another novel about a family dominated by strong females. Perhaps that’s because what is at the heart of both novels is family life, with its attendant frustrations and joys. Indeed, much of the action of Mama Fela’s Girls involves characters who must choose between staying in the family circle and leaving it. In this debut novel, Baca excels at presenting both the conflict and the tightly knit family that gives rise to it.

The Green Glass Sea
Ellen Klages, Viking, 2006, $16.99/C$22.50, hb, 324pp, 0670061344

In 1943, Dewey Kerrigan, nearly eleven, finds herself on a train headed toward New Mexico to join her father, a mathematician who has been working on what Dewey can describe only as “secret stuff.” Dewey is bound for a place called “the Hill”—Los Alamos—that is populated by scientists and mathematicians and their families, all working on a mysterious project known only as the gadget, one that everyone hopes will end the war.

The Green Glass Sea (the reason for the title becomes clear only in the last chapter) has many strands running through it. In part, it’s about the budding friendship between two outsiders: Dewey, who reads The Boy Mechanic and who is building her own radio, and her belligerent, artistic classmate Suze Gordon. In part, it’s a tale of how Dewey copes with loss. In part, it’s a celebration of intelligence and nonconformity. In part, it’s a story of the World War II home front (the scene where Dewey hears of the death of FDR is particularly moving). And in part, it’s a story of how the adults of Los Alamos put in long hours and make sacrifices to create their gadget—with a success that exhilarates some and terrifies others.

Crisply and compassionately written, with period details (like Mrs. Gordon’s chain-smoking) that light up the story without overwhelming it, this is an excellent novel that adults might want to borrow from their children. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization
W. Hodding Carter, Atria Books, 2006, $24.00/C$33.00, hb, 241pp, 0743474082

If you have some disposable income, Flushed, Hodding Carter’s tribute to the “humble plumber,” is a fun, yet informative, way to spend it. And you won’t feel that your money has gone to waste—except, of course, that it has, in a sense.

Flushed begins and ends with Carter’s tribute to the Toto Washlet S300, an electronic toilet seat that serves as a bidet. In between, we learn about the marvels of Roman plumbing, take a tour of the London sewer, skip across the pond to a waste treatment facility at Boston Harbor, read Rabelais on wiping methods (the finicky may want to choose another book for mealtime reading), study the evolution of the modern toilet, meet some plumbers, and go to a plumbing trade show. You have to like a book where Robert the Bruce, Thomas Jefferson, William Butler Yeats, and Tobias Smollett all get a mention, along with a Japanese children’s book called Everyone Poops.

Convenient to hold while seated, entertaining, and easy to digest, Flushed makes for fine bathroom reading.

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