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Plant Teacher Paperback – January 7, 2012
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About the Author
Ellen Lee Alderton, using the pen name Caroline Alethia, is a professional writer who has worked for the United Nations, Hispanic Radio Network and the Peace Corps, among other gigs. Alderton studied at Wellesley College and Johns Hopkins University. She lived in Bolivia and was a witness to many of the events described in Plant Teacher.
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Read it today.
However, I always finish a book, once started, but definitely would not recommend to friends.
I was captured by the first sentence of this novel and never did find a place where the narrative lagged for me. The storyline takes us from California, across the Pacific, throughout Bolivia, up the East Coast of the United States, and back to Bolivia again. Throughout most of this journey, the main character, a recent college graduate named Martin, must cope with a bizarre and tantalizing problem which I won't give away in this review. Other characters alternatively try to help him or blame him for his foolishness in bringing his problem upon himself.
Will or won't Martin solve "theproblem," as he calls it in an Excel file on his desktop? The answer to that question isn't resolved until the end of the book, and in the meantime Alethia does a lot of things right along the way. The pacing of Plant Teacher couldn't be better. Most passages are page turners, and if you aren't turning the page it's because you're enjoying lingering over her very often very beautiful prose. Each character is richly evolved and whether likeable or not, all of the characters prove to be deeply interesting. Dialogues smack of realism and are, again, thoroughly enjoyable - so much so that at times it's easy to imagine this first-rate work of fiction converted to a play.
Open your mind to the idea that life can be strange, and set aside a weekend for a great read.
Plant Teacher follows their lives as they become entangled with each other. And it also weaves in a score of other characters, including a host of Bolivianos -- from street urchins and vendors, a waitress and a cleaning lady, to professionals and retirees and miscellaneous folk who crop up, then disappear into a rich tapestry of Bolivian life. Bolivia is both a backdrop to and yet another character in the story.
I read Plant Teacher as a judge for the 2012 Global Ebook Awards, multicultural literature; I was looking for writing as well as story. Both are equally rewarding.
Mainly, it's third person, an omniscient narrator, but it's studded with other writing that gives it breadth and variation: e-mails between Martin and his older sister in the U.S.; letters from Martin's mother; snippets from Martin's deceased father's diary; Skype conversations between Cheryl and her U.S. boyfriend; poetry written by Martin and by Cheryl.
Though primarily a tale of Americans in Bolivia, we get snippets of Bolivianos' thoughts, and a welter of multicultural insight from the American characters themselves: Martin as the son of a Bolivian cum-American father; Martin's mother, a Puerto Rican; Cheryl's mother, an Austrian from Vienna; and Merci, Cheryl's boss in La Paz, whose mother was Argentinian and father, Canadian.
The dialog is sharp, to the point, and laden with insight into each speaker's thoughts. All the main characters are searching for something, but none pontificate on their thoughts . They convey just enough to move the story forward and keep it interesting. Best of all, the dialog sounds real.
The author conveys vivid images in a few words. No pages-long descriptions of the Bolivian setting here - only precise, vivid, provocative splashes of well-chosen words that make the society and the setting come alive. No long physical descriptions of each character as we meet them - just a few sharp details that give us an image. And wonderful flights of imagination - Martin's hallucinations, Bolivia as character, a mystic syringe that works its way from LA in the opening chapter to Bolivia 35 years later.
In sum, Plant Teacher is a delight. Read for story and place, but take time to savor the language, to reread a sentence or paragraph or poem, to fully experience a fascinating tale well told.
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