19 May 2007

Books Read Since May 15

• Autumn, Susan Branch
I adore Branch's wonderful whimsical watercolor handwritten books, but they can be pricy, which is why I scooped up this from the remainder table with glee. Poetry, recipes, minute illustrations, quotations, memories, all about the fall of the year, Thanksgiving, and Hallowe'en.

• Re-read: Up the Down Staircase, Bel Kaufman
I picked up my original copy of this book from the metal racks at Nayco, the Woolworth's knockoff that occupies the old Woolworth's on Rolfe Street in Cranston, RI (or at least it still did as late as two years ago). I had heard of the book and the movie, but thought it was a dull narrative about a schoolteacher in the inner city until I saw the clever way the tale was told, with letters, school bulletins, memos, minutes, notebooks, and the frank student suggestion box entries from the teachers and students at the fictional but all-too-real "Calvin Coolidge High School." The memorable characters are by now family: idealistic new teacher Sylvia Barrett, the wise Bea Schacter, the flippant Paul Barringer, the kids including Alice Blake, Carole Blanca, Jose Rodriguez, and of course the "Adm. Ass." himself, J.J. McHabe and troublemaker Joe Ferone.

• Take Big Bites, Linda Ellerbee
A gourmet meal and the best dessert ever, all in one book. I have Ellerbee's previous two books and this is just as delightfully written. This time it's Ellerbee's adventures around the world and within herself, whether it's befriending people in Italy or Greece or England or taking on river rapids and hiking along the Thames. She lives with gusto and it spills out in a joyous celebration in this delightful set of tales (with some soul-searching along the way). Go on, take big bites.

• Murder in Little Italy, Victoria Thompson
The next (in paperback, anyway) in Thompson's series of mysteries about Sarah Brandt, widowed midwife in the poverty-stricken areas of Victorian New York City. This time she's mixed up in a murder that develops after a supposedly premature baby is born looking full-term to an Irish girl who married into a contentious Italian family, sparking off not only a police investigation but a gang war between the Irish and the Italians. Sarah's growing romance with Frank Malloy continues to move at a glacial pace as he grows no closer looking into the death of her husband, Dr. Tom Brandt, who she married despite the disapproval of her wealthy parents. Another good look at the sad, desperate lives of the poor in the 19th century along with a perplexing mystery.

• Treasury of Easter Celebrations
An Ideals gift-book size publication with lovely photos, poetry.

• The Flight of the Silver Turtle, John Fardell
Fardell's sequel to his cracking tale, 7 Professors of the Far North, isn't quite up to its predecessor, but it's great for nonstop action in the vein of those great old kids' series like Danny Dunn, with a touch of John Verney's Callendar family stories to boot, which takes off almost immediately. Each of the kids—Sam, Zara, Ben, Marcia, and Adam—get to use his or her own particular talent to again help the adults out of a jam, which involves the mystery of a hidden secret from World War II. The novel transportation feature the children use in the first book is just so memorable that the ones featured in the sequel pale slightly in comparison. Also, the villains of this novel seem more like conventional Doctor Who-type meglomaniacs as opposed to the sinister machinations in the original, which reminded me of the sinister menace in Pullman's The Golden Compass (Northern Lights). Best of all, the children are smart but not smartass, and the adults are not stooges for the kids.

• A Time to Remember, Ideals
Nostalgic poetry and essays, with the usual lovely Ideals photography.

• The Merry Christmas Book, Ideals
As always with their annual releases, contained are lovely winter photos, filler drawings, and nostalgic or thoughtful poetry or essays. These books are meant for curling up with a fleece throw on a sofa on a chilly day, to read and sip a hot beverage.

• The New Guideposts Christmas Treasury
A Guideposts collection of inspirational, thoughtful, and often amusing stories about families discovering the Christmas spirit. As far as I'm concerned, there can't be too many books that remind folks that Christmas isn't about getting big-box gifts and becoming a glutton. Even if you're not a churchgoer, these gentle stories, interspersed with poetry, recall close times with those you love.

• The Old Iron Road, David Haward Bain
In 1999, David Bain published Empire Express, a history of the building of the United States' first transcontinental railroad. He then took his wife and two children on a 7,000 mile automobile odyssey, following the route of the railroad (with several detours in Nevada) and the old Lincoln Highway, from Kansas City to San Francisco. This is the engaging detail-crammed story of that trip. Bain mixes history, trivia, Old West personalities, pioneer tales, landscapes, fellow history buffs, railroading—not to mention the story of the family trip—in marvelous detail. Along the way they visit museums, ghost towns, old railroad cuts, scenes of triumph and scenes of disaster: Promontory Point, Donner Lake, the track of the Humboldt (which Alistair Cooke so movingly described in one sequence of America) and more. Maybe a bit of my fondness for this narrative is due to the two cross-country trips I took with my parents in the 1970s (although we stuck to the interstate and didn't visit any of the fascinating places Bain talks about) as I recall those majestic or forbidding landscapes we traversed in our own car.