Books Completed Since March 1
This is a series of essays about...well, as the title says. Especially on the early films, the complaints of racism and sexism are spot on, since they were made in a time when portrayals of this type were common. But many of these essays are about Disney's later animated films (apparently "Disney films" are only animated), and it's surprising that issues are still ongoing; one would think all that nonsense was finished.
There are things I still find puzzling. For instance, there is an essay about Si and Am the cats in Lady and the Tramp, who are said to be a negative stereotype of Asians. This is something I would have never thought of. I have never associated the fact that the cats were nasty with them being Asian; they were nasty because they were cats who hated dogs. I figured the cats were drawn as Siamese because Siamese cats were very fashionable in the era in which the story was set. There is also an essay about Dopey, LeFou (Gaston's sidekick in Beauty and the Beast), and Gus the mouse from Cinderella being negative stereotypes for intellectual disabilities. I hadn't even given a thought to these characters ever being associated with people, especially people affected intellectually like someone with Down syndrome. They are cartoon characters; they have no association with people (and LeFou isn't a bad person because he's stupid; he's bad because he's a toady for Gaston). This was combined with an essay about The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which horrified me because there was a story of a child with scoliosis being treated badly by other children after seeing this movie; all I could think of was "what are their parents teaching them?" This latter article also puzzled me. The author objects to the fact that Quasimodo sees himself as "an animal" and "damaged," when, of course, that's the whole point, that Frollo has made him think of himself that way, no wonder he thinks of himself that way Very strange.
Other essays are spot on: the fact that Tito in Oliver and Company is such a Mexican cliche, the sexualized view of women in the two "South American" features made during the Forties, the fact that most of Disney's powerful women are also wicked and mean, while the "princesses" mostly let things happen to them and succeed only because they are good (and look pretty in a gorgeous gown). I also particularly appreciated the essay about Return to Oz, because I feel it's been sitting too long in the shadow of the "great and powerful" MGM movie and its fans who expected a sequel to be happily Technicolor and musical.
The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy, Sam Maggs
I picked this up because I've been a fangirl since age 10 when I was writing stories about Max and 99 of Get Smart...and then came Star Trek and all sorts of other wonderful goodness. With the internet not around it was tough being a Doctor Who fan in 1974, when most of the responses to your questions about it were literally "Doctor...who?" I was filled in about science fiction conventions by TV Guide and a great book called Star Trek Lives! and once I jumped in I didn't want to ever come back.
This book is at the level of the younger fangirl, but author Maggs never talks down to her. She occasionally gets a little bit too girly for my taste (YMMV), especially at the end of the book when fashion websites get listed, but then clothes and shoes have always bored the life out of me), and the fanfic references seem to be canted heavily toward relationship fic, but the other stuff is there, and it's so great to see someone urging girls to go out and live their dreams instead of being a Disney princess (ewwwwwww) who's just eye-candy for guys. The book is divided into sections about conventions, fanfic, costuming, and other subjects and the emphasis is about being yourself and not who others want you to be. (God knows when you get to be working age you'll be stuck conforming to all sorts of things you hate, so go out and have some fun!)
One point off for sticking the girl on the cover in stereotypical pink!
The Smuggler's Secrets: A Caroline Mystery, Kathleen Ernst
Caroline is back at her cousin's farm in the country, homesick for Sacketts Harbor, to help out as her aunt and uncle get on their feet after having to flee their prosperous farm in Canada during the War of 1812. Traitors to the American cause are selling supplies to the British and Caroline soon fears that her uncle Aaron is one of them. But as they get acquainted with the neighbors, it seems that several of them could be the culprits, too.
My main complaint with this book is that Caroline and Lydia are supposed to be keeping house and doing farm chores while Aunt Martha is nursing a sick neighbor. "Keeping house" in those days was an intensive job which involved day-to-day drudgery. Where the dickens did they get the time to keep an eye on the potash still and walk miles and miles from neighbor to neighbor to "borrow" things while asking questions? The little clues help you solve the mystery pretty well, nevertheless.
I need to complain about this newest sequence of mysteries, though. For one thing, I hate the dreadful "Beforever" theme that they're now smacking on all the books. "Beforever" what? It's stupid. Plus the cover drawings of each of the girls is pretty vacuous; Kit is perhaps the worst. All the girls look alike except for hair and eye color, and Caroline is shown wandering around the woods in what looks like a good dress and her hair all in curls. Really? Really? These books are supposed to show how girls of the past could be brave and resourceful, not how they can crawl around in the woods and still look pristine. Sheesh.
Danger in Paris: A Samantha Mystery, Sarah Masters Buckey
This story barely makes "best" in this new American Girl mystery selection. Samantha and Nellie are taking a trip to Paris with the Admiral and his new bride, Samantha's grandmother, "Grandmary." It's a bit of a working vacation for the Admiral, since before he can partake of sightseeing with the rest of the family he must deliver an important letter to the British ambassador. After a trip to the newly-built Eiffel Tower, they tour the Paris catacombs; if they aren't spooky enough for the two girls, the Admiral is injured after a fall in the tunnels. Was it just an accident, they wonder, or did someone push him?
The travelogue parts of this are almost the most interesting. Samantha still speaks too familiarly with the servants (and they right back). And why in the heck didn't Grandmary take Nellie to a doctor first thing when she started coughing; this is a constant fear through the whole book for Nellie and only in the final chapter is addressed. Sheesh.
The Jazzman's Trumpet: A Kit Mystery, Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
Well, I'm disappointed. Usually the Kit mystery is always the best of the three new mysteries that American Girl issues every year. This one was remarkably simplistic—while the Caroline and Samantha mysteries puzzled me for awhile, it was almost immediately obvious about the identity of one character and who the "bad guy" of the piece was (and that person was a pretty disappointing villain, too). Story: a famous swing band is coming to Cincinnati and Kit is lucky enough to win tickets to the concert. (Kit and her dad are big jazz/swing fans.) She has the chance to interview "Swingin' Slim Simpson"—and Mr. Gibson even says, if it's good enough, he may publish Kit's story in the main paper rather than the children's section. (The one real fantasy aspect of this continuing storyline.) But someone is trying to sabotage the Simpson band performance!
The plot "hook" here, promoted in the description, the theft of Slim' special trumpet, happens so quickly and is resolved so quickly that it's barely interesting. Instead the story goes for schmaltz.
And where in the dickens was Ruthie? Kit's best friend and she's not even mentioned. Kit deserves better.
The Sound of Music FAQ: All That's Left to Know About Maria, the Von Trapps, and Our Favorite Things, Barry Monush
What, you say, could possibly be left to say about the film? Well, actually, this book touches on many of them, and most of them are good: chapters about the stars before they appeared in the film and then after their appearance (including Christopher Plummer's turnaround from snide comments to admirer), an interesting chapter that takes Maria's original The Story of the Trapp Family Singers and summarizes each chapter to note what made it into the stage play and into the film, the history of the film on home video and of its showings on television. One chapter talks about the two German films about the Trapp family that were made in the 1950s. A helpful chapter chronicles the changes between the stage play and the film (which should have been required reading before NBC presented their live version of The Sound of Music stage play so that so many people wouldn't have whined about how "the story was out of order")
Sadly, there's an interminable sixty-four pages of listing each and every theater that The Sound of Music appeared in during its roadshow appearances in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, plus a couple of other countries, down to how long the movie theater itself stayed open! Surely this could have been summarized in less than ten pages by hitting the highlights (for instance, a list of the cities where it ran the longest—in some cities it played for 118 weeks at the same theatre! [yes, that's over two years, and this was before the invention of multiplexes]—and a few unusual facts about the theatergoers, such as a British woman who saw Sound of Music 960 times during its roadshow years). Thirty four pages are devoted to the original stars of the stage play—and then every single one of their replacements and each of the cast members of the revivals! A moderately interesting chapter is about the soundtrack albums, but it goes into el cheapo knockoffs as well. Another long chapter which is moderately interesting but really should have used some trimming is about Sound of Music references in everything from movies to television shows, including multiple instances on The Simpsons and Family Guy; if it was an elaborate parody or an extended scene, this would have been worth it, but some of these cites are one line and seem like mere padding—there's 69 pages of this!
If you're a Sound of Music completest, by all means buy, but I'd look for the cheapest deal or wait until you can find a sale copy.
Spellcast, Barbara Ashford
Maggie Graham's been laid off from her job and is afraid to tell her overprotective mother. And her apartment is falling apart. With that in mind she decides a short vacation to Vermont is in order before she heads out job-hunting again, and finds herself in a picture-perfect country town in front of a barn that looks eerily familiar. The next thing she knows, she's in company with a varied complement of people, including an elderly widower and his granddaughter, a "biker chick," and a man whose wife walked out on him, joining a summer stock theatre company presenting three musicals, including her least favorite story in the world, Carousel. Immediately she's puzzled by the close camaraderie of the theatre management, especially the enigmatic writer and director Rowan Mackenzie.
Yes, you've guessed it, at its heart it's a romance story, one with paranormal underpinnings and a theatrical setting. However, I quite enjoyed the entire combination, especially the use of the theatre to have Maggie, as well as the other characters, look into themselves via the characters they play in the musicals in which they're appearing. The supporting cast of characters is also quite appealing, from the gentle elderly woman who runs the hotel to the seeming martinet of a casting director and his Chinese-American wife who acts as dance coach, and the setting makes you want to flee to Vermont to find the magic hiding among the trees.
YMMV, but as soon as I finished the last page, I clicked through Amazon to order the sequel.
The Secret Language of Color, Joann and Arielle Eckstutt
This is a colorful confection of a coffee table book with brilliant color photographs and diagrams talking about...surprise!...color, from the scientific explanations to the way colors make us feel and what they are symbolic of (red is for danger...and Coca-Cola, green is for ecology...and spoiled food, etc.). Interim chapters between those devoted to individual colors focus on colors in nature, from the vastness of the universe to the smaller worlds of earth, animals, plants, and humans. Colors in art and the hues of the universe rub shoulders with bird feathers, cochineal dyes, orange-spotted guppies, the varying colors of soil, the chemistry of fireworks, autumn leaves, poisonous greens, melanin, gemstones, and eye color.
Yes, it's expensive, but color junkies like me will enjoy. Or find a used copy.
Re-read: Blue Ridge Billy, Lois Lenski
I first read this back in junior high school and, truth be told, it wasn't one of my favorite Lenski books, which is why I never bought it when it was out in paperback. I find it has aged well and I enjoyed the story more than I had back then. It's the story of 10-year-old Billy Honeycutt, who lives on the Blue Ridge in the very northwest corner of North Carolina. His father farms, logs, and hunts for a living and expects his family to work as hard as he does; he has nothing but scorn for his wife's brother, who is a famous fiddler. When Billy shows a hankering for music, he comes down hard on the little boy, who was counting on the sale of homemade baskets to buy himself a banjo. In the meantime Billy enjoys the company of Granny Trivett and her granddaughter Sairy Sue, who collect herbs for a living.
Children reading this today might find it hard to believe that people still lived as the Honeycutts and the Trivetts did at the time the book was written in 1946, but some still kept their way of life long after that. Billy works hard to please his stern father. I'm glad I found another copy so not to lose my knowledge of the mountain way of life.
Hell and Good Company, Richard Rhodes
As the 100th anniversary of World War I approached, some historians noted how little was written about that war as opposed to the second, just has they had for the War of 1812, which disappeared under its predecessor. The Spanish Civil War also disappears into the carnage of the second World War. It was brought back to my own mind after watching Casablanca, in which it was peripherally mentioned that Rick Blaine had fought in the Spanish Civil War, and reading the newest Maisie Dobbs mystery, which is also connected with the Spanish conflict.
This isn't a book about the dry facts and political ideologies of the war, but about those who came from other countries to throw their lot against the Fascists along with the Spanish Republicans: Ernest Hemingway, who came for adventure and got it in spades; journalist Martha Gellhorn who became his mistress; Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro, both working on murals that would represent the carnage going on within their country; the volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln and George Washington Brigades who arrived untrained only knowing they wanted to defend Spain; the doctors and nurses who operated under horrific conditions to save the wounded, and the ambulance drivers who went through hell to transport their patients. Those you've heard of: George Orwell. John Dos Passos. Those you haven't: Patience Darton, the British nurse; Robert Merriman of the Lincoln Battalion; Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor who delivered blood to the field hospitals. This is the type of book I enjoy, sometimes deeply personal, about the people who gave their time—and for some of them their lives—in what became a prelude to World War II. Highly readable and engrossing throughout.
The Very Best From Hallmark: Greeting Cards Through the Years, Ellen Stern
This is a delightful coffee-table book that chronicles the history of the Hallmark greeting card from 1924—a card for a bachelor—to the late 1980s, with chapters devoted to cards for men and for women, cards with flowers and cards with animals, baby cards, get well cards, ending, of course, with Christmas cards. It's a treat to look at the evolving style of the cards, from line drawings with elaborate fonts to the red-white-and-blue cards of the World War II era to the bright pinks and reds of the 1960s to the golden cards of the 1980s. There are even sections about "the poor working girl" (with adorable line drawings from the 1940s), beatniks, and snappy comeback to the Depression. The cards are rather small to fit more of them in the book, so a sheet magnifying glass might be useful if you want to see the tiniest detail, but otherwise it's a grand journey over tastes in two decades.
Bottom Line Year Book 2000, by the editors of Bottom Line Personal
Many, many years ago James used to get the newsletter "Bottom Line Personal" as a freebie; can't remember how or why. This was an intriguing little newsletter with tidbits taken from all sorts of magazines and other newsletters about saving money or just living better. We enjoyed it until the "free" wore off and the paid overstrained our budget. This was the latest of the compilation books that included The Big Black Book that we had down in the library.
I was less enchanted by this collection because a good deal of the pages were about investments and tax deductions. Yes, granted, they're important to people who have enough money to invest or need tax shelters, but for us normal folks it's a radical impossibility. I don't argue because they are there, but because it takes up so much of the book. More savings strategies for lower income people would have been welcome.
Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer, Jane Brocket
This is a darling little book of recipes taken out of classic children's books. No, I don't cook and bake only at Christmas, but this was so happily nostalgic that I've wanted a copy for ages, but it's out of print and I was finding horrible prices like $40-$50 online. I found this copy for $11.
Now, Brocket is British, so most of the treats covered in this book are from English children's novels, but the odd American/Canadian recipe shows up once in a while: Anne's "liniment" cake from Anne of Green Gables, Ma's pancake men and sugar on snow from the Little House books, Debby's jumbles from the Katy books, etc. But you'll find most of them come from either Enid Blyton (the British equivalent of the Stratmeyer Syndicate, except she was all one person who wrote copiously!) stories like "Famous Five" or from the Swallows and Amazons (plus a couple from the Narnia books). Interestingly, most of the treats featured have some sort of fruit in them, and things like boiled and scrambled eggs, tomato sandwiches, rice puddings, toasted goat cheese on bread, and oatmeal are included in sections on breakfast and on tea, and Brocket insists that half the charm of these treats is that they are made with farm-fresh ingredients, so the foods aren't half so fattening as they sound—since, of course, these are for children having proper adventures instead of wasting time on organized sports with hovering adults. If you love those delicious food scenes in classic children's books, you'll love this book.
How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free, Ernie J. Zelinski
It has taken me over six months to finish this wretched book! Why? Because up to page 80 (or maybe longer), all the author tells you is that's it's okay to retire because leaving your job is not the end of your life! I can't imagine being one of those people who think their job is their life. I know there are people who love their jobs, but I find it jaw-dropping that people don't want to retire because they don't feel as if they're worth anything if they leave their job! I can see worrying if you will have enough money, or if your health will last, but feeling inadequate because you're no longer employed? My God, I am waiting to retire so I can do something interesting, even if it's just crafts constrained by Michael's coupons or reading or maybe (in the winter, when the weather's decent) actually even doing something with the back yard.
The rest of the book is a little better as the author gives you a list of things you can do, from taking long walks to volunteering to working part-time to going back to school, and urges you to look after your health and not sit hour after hour watching television or sleeping in your favorite armchair. But the first half...dear God, people! If you don't want to retire because being without a job destroys your identity, you need to start a second job right now: getting a life!
Re-read: Red Sky at Morning, Richard Bradford
One of my favorites which I just bought a new copy of because it was in hardback and a dollar! I first bought the paperback edition with the movie cover back when the film came out in 1971. (It was from Richard Thomas' appearance in the movie that he was chosen to play John-Boy in The Homecoming and therefore The Waltons.) It's the coming-of-age story of 17-year-old Josh Arnold, who is moved to his family's summer home in New Mexico along with his fragile Southern mother when his father joins the Navy in 1944. While Ann Arnold succumbs to depression in what she considers an alien culture that was her husband's refuge, Josh makes strong friends—and unfortunately some strong enemies—as he attends school and befriends one of his father's oldest friends. It's also the story of his relationship with the home's caretakers, the Montoyas, and how he learns more respect for Spanish culture. It's a sometimes poignant, but often hilarious book, and be warned: these are not 1940s Norman-Rockwell-portrait teens! They swear and think about sex, but at the same time are sensitive and warm, kids you might like to know. This is the type of book I'd push at people and say "You have to read this!" (The movie, if you can find it, is fine, but the book is superb.)