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Books, books, books!
Is there anything better than losing yourself in a good book,
whether fluffy novel or scholarly tome?
This blog is for long and short reviews of books read,
essays about book series, memories of books,
quotations, and anything else with a literary bent.

31 May 2015

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  At Home, Bill Bryson
I originally read this book in 2010, and this was my commentary:

Think of this of "a short history of nearly everything having to do with the home." Bryson takes us from attic to cellar in the old vicarage he calls home in England to tell the story of private life. After examining the pivotal year of 1851, the Crystal Palace and the Great Expedition, and the land surrounding his home, Bryson starts with the basic structure of all human shelters, the one-room living space that became the medieval hall, and then visits each individual room to chronicle a different aspect of society: the bathroom to examine sanitation; the kitchen to talk about food (of course); the scullery to discuss servants, etc. The home becomes a springboard of discussion to architecture, social customs, furnishings, plants...even sexuality, and all in Bryson's engaging fashion.

The true test of this book: it kept me absorbed in [the] 3 1/2 hour [DragonCon] ticket line in over 70 degree heat. Now that's interesting writing!

In 2013, Doubleday brought this out in an illustrated edition, with vintage artwork, maps, schemata, drawings, photographs, portraits, etc. on glossy paper. I drooled the moment I saw it, until I got to the price. Finding it on remainder was much more satisfactory (it was the price of a trade paperback by then). And, by golly, I fell in love all over again, Adam fireplaces, Palladian homes, wonky WC fixtures, and all. Worth getting if you are into home histories or Bill Bryson.

book icon  Before Tomorrowland, Brad Bird, Jonathan Case, Jeff Jensen, Damon Lindelof
This is sort of a book written by committee, and it shows.

On the other hand, it's a nifty prequel to the Disney 2015 summer film Tomorrowland, which shows you what happened before the film begins. It opens initially in 1926 when 10-year-old Henry Stevens visits an exhibit about the future with his father, but the action chiefly takes place the first few days of July in 1939, as we follow Clara Brackett and her teenage son Lee as they attend the very first World Science Fiction Convention. A comic book is being given away at the convention, and it appears to hold the key to a secret that Lee and Clara become privy to by following clues contained within. But there are darker forces at work: the Nazi scientist Rotwang and the spy he employs.

There are certain neat situations in this book, including making Amelia Earhardt one of the heroes, but for me it tries too hard to recreate the campy adventure novels and serials from the 1930s. A pity, too, because the Plus Ultra organization, its founders, and what they have discovered are intriguing. Lee and Clara are appealing characters, however, and it was worth following them through their adventures to the end.

book icon  The Lighter Side of Sherlock Holmes, Glenn Schatell
If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, you will probably love this collection of cartoons by Norman Schatell (Glenn's father), who for many years drew cartoons and illustrations that appeared in "The Baker Street Journal," "The Sherlock Holmes Journal," and other publications devoted to the Great Detective. The book's cover sets the stage admirably: it's the doorway of 221B, with a doormat that boldly proclaims "Do Not Clean Your Boots."

My only complaint about this book is that I thought too many cartoons were repeated; one would, for instance, appear at the beginning of the book and then near the middle or the end there will be the original sketch for the same cartoon. Otherwise it's delightful for any Holmes fan or one on your Christmas list.

book icon  Dead Wake, Erik Larson
Several books have come out about the Lusitania in this, the 100th anniversary of her sinking, and this treatment, by the author of Isaac's Storm and Devil in the White City turns the story into a tale of suspense, juxtaposing information about the passengers going aboard the ship and about the ship itself against the story of the U-20, the submarine which sank her. We meet the experienced captain of the ship, William Turner, and some of her famous passengers, including bookseller Charles Lauriat, Englishwoman Margaret Mackworth, producr Charles Frohman, Alfred Vanderbilt (yes, of those Vanderbilts), and Theodate Pope, a rarity in that era, a woman architect, plus the captain and crew of the U-boat.

I particularly enjoyed how Larson fitted in the details of the time into the tale of the danger Lusitania was sailing into and the politics and hostilities that prompted the attack. Even the smallest details are enjoyable, such as how a heat wave struck New York days before "Lucy's" departure, while men still wore winter-weight hats (fashion dictated no lighter straw hats until May 1). While it is not the most exhaustive study of the life and death of the Lusitania, the tense narrative and the historical details make this tremendously readable and memorable.

book icon  Love Thy Neighbor: The Tory Diary of Prudence Emerson, Ann Turner
It's 1774 and the Emerson family lives in Great Marsh, Massachusetts, where Prudence's mother is the town midwife, and they live a comfortable life. But the Revolutionary War is upon them, and one by one their neighbors turn against them, for they are loyal to King George III. Prudence's best friend Abigail slowly is turned away from her as even the school is segregated along Tory and Patriot lines, the miller will not grind her father's grain. A fellow Tory and neighbor even has his horse stolen and painted with the words "Tory Nag."

Most children's books of long ago treated Tories as undesirables and painted them as rich snobs who cared little for their American home. But the Loyalists came from all economic groups and even different races and ethnic groups. Turner makes the point that the Tories were only traitors to those who had a Patriot viewpoint; otherwise they were just like anyone else, trying to make a living and abide by the laws, and that loyalties even crossed family lines as they would later do in the Civil War (you are never quite sure where Prudence's brother's feelings lie). It's also an interesting look at the work of a midwife and what herbs they used to help their patients.

book icon  The Penderwicks in Spring, Jeanne Birdsall
I admit, I was a little taken aback by some of the reviews for this book. People were very upset that Birdsall had moved up the Penderwick family timeline, and then included a very strong, troubling plotline halfway through the story. But as I settled into the book, I found that the time progression had not spoilt the storytelling nor the characters.

Batty, the youngest "original Penderwick sister," is now ten years old. Oldest sister Rosalind is in college, and Jane and Skye are both involved in their education and their own lives, so Batty preoccupies herself with her stepbrother Ben and two-year-old Lydia, her new half-sister. She is still deeply in mourning for her beloved Hound, the family dog, who died a few months before. Then she discovers she has a new talent, and, to further it, she starts her own business, walking neighbors' dogs. But along the way a secret will be revealed that will shatter Batty to her very soul.

The storyline presents a very important lesson about what we say to children and how they interpret what they overhear. Batty's emotions are very real and very raw, and the chapters concerning her reaction might be upsetting to sensitive children. But the story is also incredibly realistic, painful, and touching, and I read through it with a lump in my throat, especially when Batty is working through her feelings at the death of Hound. So many parents don't understand how deep children's feelings go in regards to pets, and how they may hide those feeling so not to be considered "silly."

A different type of Penderwick book, but rewarding on its own merits.

book icon  Re-Read: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
I decided it was about time I bought a nice hardback copy of one of my favorite books, especially so it will match the new book, Go Set a Watchman. There is a book that will have big shoes to fill, but still, I am curious about it and will buy it.

Unless you've been living under a rock for years, everyone knows the story of Mockingbird: three formative years in the lives of two children growing up with their attorney father in the segregated South of the 1930s.  Along with a neighbor's visiting nephew, the children explore life, including the legend of a young man infamous in their small town for having been confined in his own home for years. But a shadow is approaching them: their father has taken upon himself to take up what he knows is a lost cause, the defense of an innocent African-American man accused of raping a white young woman, because it is the right thing to do.

You may think: I've seen the film and know what a great story this is, but the book is so much more: characters and situations that add to the story of Jean Louise Finch, known as "Scout," her brother Jem, and their friend Dill Harris. You meet Atticus' sister Alexandra and brother Jack, read about Scout's difficulties in school, her relationship with Miss Maudie, find out so much more about Calpurnia, and discover the importance of the encounter the two children have with Mrs. DuBose, the difficult elderly woman who is only an afterthought in the movie. Scout's narration is unforgettable, as is her story.

book icon  Shady Characters, Keith Houston
Punctuation as we know it has been in development for long years. While the spacing of words was early used for better understanding, use of marks to separate statements and ideas came later in the form of pilcrows (otherwise known as the paragraph sign ¶ ) and section signs (§). Houston discusses all these and more, including the useful interrobang which never caught on, the octothorpe (#, a.k.a. the "pound" sign or "number" sign) with its new life on Twitter, the @ sign which has become indispensable in e-mail, and even the manicule (☚), a symbol older than you think (it's not a Victorian invention).

Aside from the fact that Houston refers back to previous chapters more frequently than I would like, this is a fascinating romp into history that shows changes in punctuation over the years, plus it's liberally illustrated with old manuscripts so you can see the physical changes. Houston also has a blog about punctuation under the same name.

book icon  Independence Slay, Shelley Freydont
In the third of the Celebration Bay mysteries, Liv Montgomery is coordinating the annual Independence Day festival, which includes the re-enactment of a historically questionable event in the town's history. Each year the descendant of a war hero kicks off the festivities—except on this year, when a dead body is found on the parapets of the family mansion and a frightened young man with learning disabilities is found next to it. Plus our local hero is nowhere to be found, bad boy newspaper editor Chaz has vanished, and it looks as if the mansion will be sold, which means Celebration Bay would have no place to hold its battle re-enactment.

Many threads going here as Liv, Ted, and eventually Chaz try to clear the young man, Leo, of a murder charge as well as solve the mystery of Henry Gallantine's disappearance, and there's a dandy sequence with a secret passage, not to mention the Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper who keeps impeding the investigation. Liv learns more of Chaz's secrets and it seems this relationship, too, shall progress, but Ted still remains a mystery—I wonder if a future mystery will involve his past. An entertaining cozy in a town where you might like to live.

book icon  Everyday Life in Early America, David Freeman Hawke
I'd already had the post-Revolution and Victorian books in the "Everyday Life" series, and just bought the Westward Expansion/Civil War volume, so decided to buy the other two books in the series. This, the first, is, sadly, a bit tedious, and that's a shame, because there are facts here I'd never read anywhere else, such as that the Pilgrims had little experience in farming; or how the amount of land a colonist had in different parts of the country determined what type of fence you would build (incidentally, "good fences make good neighbors" was a truism: if you did not have your crops properly fenced in and cattle ate them, it was your fault, not the owner of the cattle). There is a continual emphasis on the colonists' use of wood from the plentiful forests, England having nearly been deforested by that time by the regular need for wood. One of the interesting points of discussion is how the traditions of English life changed, for instance, that in England farmers lived in the village and walked to their fields every day; once in the United States they moved their homes to their fields. It's a good summary of colonial life, but rather dry. I'm glad to have it to complete the set, though.

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30 April 2015

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  Bluegrass Champion (Harlequin Hullabaloo), Dorothy Lyons
This is a charming 1949 teen horse story about a girl named Judy and her American Saddlebred horse Harley (Harlequin Hullabaloo) whose only "sin" is that he was born a pinto in a solid-color horse world. Judy's sure Harley can bring some glory back to run-down Bluefield Farm, which was ruined by a neglectful cousin after she and her sister Gail's parents died, but even though he has fine natural gaits, including the slow gait and the rack that Saddlebreds are famous for, no judge seems to look beyond his calico coat. But she persists in putting him in training. In the meantime Gail is training her own horse, too, and holding off the man who wants to be her husband until she can make a name for the farm again.

Okay, the heroines are both attractive blondes and all the major characters are white and fairly well-off and the one black character is of course the man who really keeps Bluefield Farms together and one of his lines is in genuine literary "darky" language (oh, geez), but it's so refreshing to see a teen drama that's not about totalitarian dystopia, suicide or depression, fantasy countries, and abusive or bigoted parents that I nearly cried. The African-American characters, even while kept in the background, are treated with the respect they deserve (both Judy and Gail know they could never keep Bluefield without the help of Sam and Nellie), and the girls, instead of being simpering clothing fiends or "mean girls" or in the popular set at school, are smart, ambitious, and, even though they have boys interested in them, are not interested in just being wives and having babies. Judy is willing to work long hard hours to bring Harley's talents to the fore, even if one of her schemes backfires badly. I really enjoyed this, and if you like traditional horse books, you might, too.

book icon  The Christie Curse, Victoria Abbott
Jordan Bingham is back in her hometown of Harrison Falls, New York, desperate to pay bills left on her by a prolifigate ex and grad school. She answers a classified ad for a research assistant to Vera Van Alst, the reclusive, wealthy heir to the Van Alst shoe fortune. She finds Vera a bitter recluse in a crumbling mansion, fond of nothing but collecting rare books and manuscripts, constantly babied and bullied by her cook, Senora Panetone, who lends some humor to the grim Van Alst household. (Jordan's descriptions of Panetone's meals will leave you drooling.) Vera tasks her to find a purported play written by Agatha Christie during her missing eleven days in which she claimed to have amnesia. But once Jordan starts investigating, people start to get hurt (and this after Vera's former assistant died trying to hunt down that same manuscript).

This is an interesting-enough first book in a cozy series involving rare books and manuscripts. Jordan is an average, if streetwise and cop-wary protagonist with a quirky family of con-men uncles (who help her with her investigation). While there's nothing really extraordinary about the story, the mystery was moderately intriguing and I wouldn't be adverse to purchasing the next books in the series. But, yeah, I guessed the secret about the cat pretty quickly!

book icon  Elementary: The Ghost Line, Adam Christopher
In Hell's Kitchen, an Irish immigrant is killed inexpertly with a high-powered firearm. When Sherlock Holmes and his partner, Joan Watson, investigate the man's apartment, they find tickets to an invitation-only art exhibition in the victim's possession and an old pumping station under his residence. While Sherlock and Detective Bell, and later his AA partner Alfredo, investigate the tunnels below New York with the help of tunnel aficionado "Judge D," Joan attends the event with Captain Gregson and find something odd going on at the museum antiquities exhibit.

Although I read a few complaints that the book concentrates too much on the villains of the piece, I found this a worthy Elementary story with a nice scope. Gregson and Watson get some interaction together, and, even better, Sherlock and Alfredo team up for part of the investigation, where Alfredo gets to see Sherlock put his talents to the test, rather than being a tutor as he tends to be in the television episodes. The only iffy spot is a sequence between Watson and the villains of the piece; she gets away too easily in the encounter—you'll know it when you get to it.

The author is obviously fannish, not just of Elementary: there's a Doctor Who reference that will make you laugh, and very late in the book, a reference to the Batman universe. For all I know, I missed a bunch more. I hope Christopher gets to write other Elementary novels, because I really enjoyed this one.

book icon  Jewel of the Thames, Angela Misri
It is a somber time for 19-year-old Portia Adams. Abandoned (except when he needs money) by her abusive stepfather and now orphaned by the death of her mother, Portia realizes she will have to abandon her dreams of higher education and go to work. Then she discovers, when her mother's will is read, that she has inherited property in London and also acquired a guardian, the glamorous but distant Mrs. Jones. After she and Mrs. Jones depart Portia's hometown of Toronto and arrive in England, Portia is further astonished to find out that the property is none other than 221B Baker Street, once the home of her grandfather Dr. John Watson!

Portia's immediate destination is Somerville College, where she studies law, but her fine observational skills involve her in three different mysteries in this first book of a projected five young-adult series. As she sharpens her deductive skills, she befriends the young neophyte policeman downstairs, and increasingly wonders about the mysterious Mrs. Jones, who provides a big piece in the solution of the mystery of Portia's grandparents. She's a great character, at once intelligent but still human, strong but sympathetic. I love the fact that she goes to Somerville, the alma mater of Dorothy L. Sayers and Vera Brittain, and that she's an introvert who loves books. A big plus is the cover of the book, which has a retro-Nancy Drew type feel to it combined with a modern, dreamy sensibility done in silhouette. Can't wait for the rest!

book icon  Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers, Kristen Miller
I kept waiting for this to come out in paperback, which it never did, but had to find out what became of Kiki Strike, who, at the end of the previous book, was revealed as the lost Princess Katarina of Pokrovia. Kiki and her guardian are on their way to Pokrovia to claim the throne and then renounce it so that the small country will remain a republic. But she's waylaid by her evil aunt and cousin, who want more than anything to rule Pokrovia again, and held captive in Paris.

Back in New York, Ananka Fishbein and the rest of Kiki's offbeat gang of Irregulars are concerned when their friend doesn't check in. Eventually the shyest member of the team, Betty Bent, is sent to France on the track of Kiki, while Ananka and her friend Molly Donovan wage war on an elite New York school that turns out "Stepford students" and Oona Wong's identical sister makes her life miserable.

This is a wild ride involving sinister conspiracies, the ossuaries and catacombs of Paris, an underground group called the Darkness Dwellers that go back to the second World War, a disgraced spy, Ananka's headmistress, the headstrong Molly Donovan, another of DeeDee's crazy inventions, and even Ananka's mother. But the best part about the story is how Betty comes into her own. A great conclusion to the Kiki Strike trilogy. 

book icon  Gone With the Woof, Laurien Berenson
Melanie Travis Driver is back! For the past eighteen months, she's been a stay-at-home mom to toddler Kevin and nine-year-old Davey, her poodles are "finished" in the dog show world, and life has been extremely pleasant, but dull. Her energetic Aunt Peg, who involved Melanie with her first show poodle (and her first murder mystery) says she is getting boring, so Melanie jumps at the chance to help a famous show judge write his memoirs. But instead of being about dogs, it appears the book will be a tell-all about the man's sexual conquests, and after his son complains to Melanie, he's killed by a hit-and-run driver.

It's great to see all the familiar characters back; not just Melanie and her family, but supporting characters like Aunt Peg, Alice Brickman, Bertie Kennedy, and Terry Denunzio, and I'll be reading this series as long as Berenson cares to continue it. Sadly, the victim is such an ass that you don't really care that he's been murdered, and his father isn't much better. For me, besides Melanie's dogged (pun not intended) investigation, I am enjoying the Driver family mechanics. Sam is every kid's dream of a stepfather!

book icon  Huck Finn's America, Andrew Levy
One hundred years ago, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was being banned from libraries—but not for the reasons it is today. Instead, due to concern about undisciplined youth, especially boys, running wild, and even being involved in murders, the book was reviled for being about a disobedient boy who was bored by church and school, who smoked and stole, and who consorted with the so-called dregs of society, in this case persons of color. Today, while fighting criticism that the book is too racist to be read in schools—ironically when Twain was attacking the racism of Huck's society—there are some who view the book as an idealized children's adventure, romanticizing Huck and Jim's freedom on the raft while ignoring the murders, dishonesty, and bigotry of the society that supports them.

I found most interesting the author's commentary about Twain's fondness for the minstrel show; not the tame minstrel shows of the turn of the 20th century, a common entertainment for Gilded Age Americans, but for the earliest minstrel shows, in which black performers in the traditional blackface, lampooned and made subtle points about the black man's place in a white society and what they thought of their shabby treatment. I mainly know minstrel shows as comic affairs that featured white men in blackface who portrayed blacks as shuffling idiots. He points out that the concluding chapters of the book, which are usually considered inferior by critics, are minstrel-like parodies of the much-valued educated boy who likes to read (Tom Sawyer) who has really been fed a pack of romantic fantasies by his books while the uneducated Huck Finn is the person who has knowledge of real life and the pain and unfairness of living.

(I also thought it was interesting that many people will not read Finn because they refuse to read a book where a character is called "N—r Jim." Although that despicable term is used in the book because it was in common use at the time it took place, at no time is Jim ever called by this slur by Twain or Huck. It is reviewers and other writers referring to the character who have labeled him such. Twain, in fact, shames Huck for certain mischievous and shabby tricks he plays on Jim.)

This is very readable but different look at an American classic. Fans of Huckleberry Finn should enjoy.

book icon  A Brief Guide to The Sound of Music, Paul Simpson
It's been a bumper year for Sound of Music books, since it's the 50th anniversary of the film. This is one of the smaller volumes, but it has a lot of good things about it.

At least it doesn't have 64 pages telling me which movie theatres ran the roadshow edition of the film and for how long!

Instead, Simpson uses the opening chapters to recount the history of the Trapp family before the arrival of Maria Augusta Kutschera, who was to serve as a tutor for young Maria, who had been ill, and through George Von Trapp and Maria's marriage, children, and emigration to the United States. Then the first film versions of the Trapp family story are discussed, and, happily, Simpson summarizes the first German film, Die Trapp-Familie, which was later purchased by 20th Century Fox and presented as an English dub. I've heard so much about this movie and have never seen it (but apparently it's on YouTube). Next is a nice summary of the creation of the stage musical and the songs within, the optioning for a movie, and then the casting and filming (including a narrative of how the play differs from the film). Finally, in a real bonus, Simpson talks about the 40-part Japanese anime series, and how, while it strayed as far afield of the real Trapp family as the film and the play did, it almost caught the personality of the real Maria better than any other version. All the episodes are summarized, and you can clearly see the resemblance to Maria's books The Story of the Trapp Family Singers and Maria.

The book ends with a summary of the enduring popularity of the story on television and even remounted for the stage.

This is more what I was expecting from the FAQ book, so I'm certainly glad I picked it up!

book icon  Grace Against the Clock, Julie Hyzy
There's a lot going on in Grace Wheaton's life. A fundraiser to restore Emberstowne's fabulous town clock is being held at Marshfield Manor, where Grace is a curator, and the tension is as high as an elephant's eye between the two major fundraisers, a top surgeon and his estranged wife, a noted attorney. Grace's old home is being redecorated by the former "evil stepdaughter" of her employer, Bennett Marshfield (who may also be Grace's uncle). Grace herself is bedeviled by the attentions of a handsome new boyfriend, Adam, when she still has feelings for her old flame, Jake. Oh, and did we mention the hidden door in Grace's basement?

Not to mention the murder of the surgeon!

This one kept me guessing, although I did rack up our killer in my shortlist of suspects, and I was fascinated by the mystery of the hidden door; it was Nancy Drew with an adult twist. I enjoyed the historical aspects of the story, but, again, I was a little perturbed that a character had to be twisted a little out of the initial characterization so that the plot could proceed, as happened with Tom in Madelyn Alt's series. Nevertheless, I'm eager to see what happens in Grace's life.

book icon  Rune, Christopher Fowler
This apparently was Fowler's first urban horror tale that featured Arthur Bryant and John May, the heroes of his "Peculiar Crimes Unit" mysteries. They are called in when a string of gruesome deaths occur: an older man is squashed between a truck and a wall, a man steals a car and then commits suicide with it, a young woman is crushed in an escalator, etc. The main focus of the story is actually Harry Buckingham, the son of the older man, and a junior partner in his imaging business. As people Harry knows meet with horrible deaths, he and an odd young woman named Grace try to figure out what's going on.

Unlike the Bryant and May mysteries, this contains a strong thread of the supernatural as Harry—and the detectives, separately—discovers that ancient runes are being used in a most modern way, and the story does indeed get rather creepy when you realize how this could have really worked!

The detectives are an early incarnation of the characters, with Bryant still the technophobe offbeat one and May the more conventional one who keeps him in line. However, there is no "Peculiar Crimes Unit" in the story, although Janice Longbright works with them on the mystery, Oswald Finch makes a small appearance, and Colin Bimsley is mentioned in passing. Meera, Dan, Giles, and their reluctant commander Raymond Land aren't yet part of the team.

Horror isn't my usual read, but the presence of familiar faces helped me get through this one and I quite enjoyed seeing the "boys" in their early appearance.

book icon  Stories of My Life, Katherine Paterson
This is a great collection of memories from acclaimed children's writer Paterson, who in her stories about her parents (Presbyterian missionaries to China), her upbringing in China, and about her own missionary training and marriage to John Paterson, reveals the origin of many of her most famous characters and situations (Leslie Burke of Bridge to Terabithia, for instance, was based on her son's best friend; Gilly Hopkins emerged after her experience taking care of two foster children, the elementary school in Terabithia was based on a real school at which Paterson taught in the 1950s, etc.). She has some fascinating (and frightening) tales about the invasion of China by the Japanese, and an inspiring story of how her father got needed drugs to his Chinese friends under the nose of the occupying nation.

Paterson fans should love this book. I know I did!

book icon  The Best of Connie Willis, Connie Willis
After devouring The Doomsday Book, Blackout, All Clear, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and a collection of her Christmas short stories (Miracle), I thought I would sample some further short stories by Willis. This collection features "Fire Watch," which is also part of her Oxford/time-travel universe, and which I had read online, and a variety of others, including a somber future-set story where dogs are extinct and a man must face the truth about his past, a very tongue-in-cheek pseudo-thesis that postulates Emily Dickinson had met alien life, a tale of disapproving aliens who respond to nothing but certain Christmas songs, and a family coming to terms with the terrible changes that have occurred in the past year. I got a good laugh out of "At the Rialto," where scientists meeting at a Hollywood hotel find out that quantum theory and movie-colony zaniness aren't that far apart after all and was consumed by shivers by "Death on the Nile" and the three couples taking an Egyptian trip that turns into something more. I had to laugh at "Inside Job," not just because it was often humorous, but because part of the story involves newspaperman and all-around gadfly H.L. Mencken, and this book came in the same package in which I ordered Mencken's The Complete Days (which is referenced and quoted in the story). (And I quite enjoyed the story to boot!)

Heck, what am I saying, I enjoyed the whole book, even the reprints of three of Willis' award speeches at the end, which spoke to the reader in all of us. Thank you, Connie, for saying what we have all wanted to say about the books in our lives.

book icon  The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860-1876, Daniel E. Sutherland
This is the four book in a series of five starting in colonial days and ending post-World War II about everyday life in the United States. As the author admits in the introduction, it is hard to cover "everyday life" because by the Civil War, there were many different kinds of "everyday life" depending on whether you were rich or poor, city dweller or rural denizen, living in the East or the Midwest or the West, being a Northerner or a Southerner. So many aspects of "everyday life" are covered in different chapters concentrating on home life, community life, work, play, birth and death, beginning with the lives of soldiers on either side in the Civil War.

This is an immensely readable overview of a sixteen-year span in United States history. Of course, it can't give an in-depth insight into every different aspect, but it does a great job giving you a general idea. As well, the author does not shy away from the injustices shown to African-Americans, Native Americans, and ethnic minorities. A lengthy bibliography which lead you on to further reading about city crime, pioneer lives, sickness, and other details of 19th century life. The other four books in this series, Everyday Life in Early America; The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840; Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915; and Uncertainty of Everyday Life, 1915–1945 are also recommended.

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31 March 2015

Books Completed Since March 1

book icon  Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability, edited by Johnson Cheu
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.

book icon  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!

book icon  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.

book icon  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.

book icon  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.

book icon  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.

book icon  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.

book icon  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.

book icon  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.

book icon  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.

book icon  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.

book icon  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.

book icon  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.

book icon  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! 

book icon  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.)

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14 March 2015

Book Sale Redux

Went back to the book sale after hitting Kroger; I think there were more cars than people! Got only a few more things:

book icon  Greyfriars Bobby, Eleanor Atkinson (a classic that I've never read; have just seen the Disney film and the knockoff, Challenge to Lassie)

book icon  Joy Adamson: Behind the Mask, Caroline Cass

book icon  The Very Best From Hallmark: Greeting Cards Through the Years (a nice big Abrams book, with cards from the 1930s through the 1980s)

And the Christmas stuff:

book icon  Round the Christmas Tree, edited by Sara and Stephen Corrin (short stories)

book icon  The Oxford Book of Christmas Poems

book icon  A Vermont Christmas (chiefly lovely photos, but also some stories and memoirs)

Plus the World Book "Christmas Around the World" book I needed to replace because the back was broken, Christmas in the Netherlands, and also Christmas in the American Southwest.

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13 March 2015

Book Worm Adventures

Crazy, I tell you. In the 70s yesterday, and Too Damn Warm at night to sleep—I haven't had a decent night's sleep since we changed the clocks, mainly due to the heat—and today the temps started at 51°F and by the time I left for the Cobb County Library book sale it was 45, with a misty rain and a stiff chilly wind. I didn't want to be encumbered by a heavy jacket, so I wore only my windbreaker and a visor on my head to keep the rain off my glasses (thankfully I discovered a light hat in my pocket). The line was very short, with crazy people in it (one woman had her baby wrapped up and was in flip-flops and short sleeves!). The place wasn't at all crowded to boot.

I did the usual course: stop at the Christmas books first, then look through the history books and the biographies. I went down to the "T" fiction in search of Gladys Taber, but only found the newest Bess Crawford mystery (brand new!) which I would have purchased during the summer. (I tried looking for the other mysteries which I will buy in paperback later in the year, but no luck on those.) Then I strolled down to the children's books; coming back I checked out the travel, reference, nature, and craft books. Finally I staggered over to the payment table.

One of the books I passed over I thought we had, and I was surprised to discover when I arrived home that we didn't have it at all. I wanted to go out again, so I went via Jim Miller Park again to fetch the stray (and three others of his brothers...LOL). Today's tally:

book icon  Food in History, Reay Tannahill

book icon  The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, edited by Patricia Craig (yes, Father Brown and Inspector Thorndyke are here, but the Dorothy Sayers story is a Montague Egg tale rather than Lord Peter Wimsey!)

book icon  The Big House: A Century in the Life of An American Summer Home, George Howe Colt

book icon  Bluegrass Champion (Harlequin Hullabaloo), Dorothy Lyons: labeled as "the story of a famous horse and the girl who trained him." With ink-and-pen illustrations by Wesley Dennis, to boot! This was a volume in the Grosset & Dunlap "Famous Horse Stories" series of books.

book icon  Honestly, Katie John!, Mary Calhoun (I'd never read these as a kid, being hopelessly addicted to animal stories; they're cute)

book icon  Life is Worth Living, Fulton J. Sheen (taken, I gather, from the scripts to Sheen's 1950s television series)

book icon  An Unwilling Accomplice, Charles Todd (the Bess Crawford book)

book icon  On Reflection, Helen Hayes

book icon  Why We Eat What We Eat, Raymond Sokolov

book icon  The Complete Book of Marvels, Richard Halliburton
I'd never heard of this guy until I read an article somewhere...the AARP magazine, maybe? or "Reader's Digest"? He was basically a 1930s Rick Steves crossed with Lowell Thomas and Scheherazade; he traveled the world, visited exotic places, and wrote expansive books that made children and adults dream of travel. The pictures are all in black and white, but the prose is simple but enjoyable.

book icon  Bottom Line Year Book 2000 (from the Bottom Line Personal folks—we used to get their newsletter until it got too expensive)

book icon  Combat!: The Counterattack, Franklin M. Davis Jr. (this is a Whitman's children's book based on the television series, which I bought for James on a whim)

book icon  Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics, Tom Rogers (thought James would enjoy this, too)

book icon  Blue Ridge Billy, Lois Lenski (another of Lenski's regional series for my collection)

book icon  Ghosts for Christmas, edited by Richard Dalby (short stories)

book icon  Preparing My Heart for Advent, Ann Marie Stewart (a spiritual book, if you hadn't gathered)

book icon  Reminisce Christmas, from the publishers of "Reminisce"

I also bought three other books, but they're pegged as Christmas gifts, so I can't mention them.

I also drove out to downtown Powder Springs and checked out a little used bookstore called "Book Worm." It's very cute, but I didn't find anything that suited me except for a couple of bookmarks for gifts. However, the woman behind the counter invited me to take something off the "free" shelf. I discovered a rather battered paperback based on the old Baa Baa Black Sheep television series. James used to like that show, so I grabbed it for him.

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