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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 March 2012

Books Finished Since March 1

book icon  Names on the Land, George R. Stewart
I can't say I never found anything good on the shelves of Barnes & Noble: this is a dandy volume from their scant nonfiction section, a reprint of the 1957 update of a 1944 book chronicling the history of United States place names, from "discovery" by European explorers through settlement. Early English and Spanish place names were variable and changed many times; Native American names were misunderstood and mistranslated. And some names came from jokes! Other naming conventions, in both English and Native Languages, were based on landmarks, historical events and figures, animals, and weather.

If you are a name junkie like myself, you will love this book. Did you know Dayton, OH, was named for an up-and-comer who had the unfortunate fate to back Aaron Burr? What's the mystery: was Rhode Island named after the island of Rhodes? or the Dutch word for the color red? How many cities are named after Biblical places? It's a brook in New England, but a stream in the South—what's the difference? (Nothing!) Wheeling, WV, probably has nothing to do with those objects that go around, but is a Native word for "place-of-the-head." (Someone was beheaded there.)

The writing style is slightly old-fashioned, but author Stewart brightens the text with wry humor. Linguistics fans and history buffs should love it.

book icon  Mr. Churchill's Secretary, Susan Elia MacNeal
Margaret "Maggie" Hope was born in England, but raised in the US by her aunt after the death of her parents. She is gifted in mathematics and planning to attend graduate school when her grandmother dies. Her aunt refuses to return to England, so Maggie is sent to London alone to supervise the disposition of her grandmother's estate, to which she is named heir. But the house proves difficult to sell, and Maggie lives in it instead, surrounding herself with three roommates: her American friend Paige, ballerina Sarah, and outspoken "Chuck," who is dating an RAF pilot. Maggie herself falls in love with living in London, and the plucky grit of the British, as the Phoney War ends and the Blitz begins. She hopes to find a job to challenge her mathematical abilities, but ends up accepting a position as typist in Winston Churchill's War Room instead, despite the protests of the officious office manager, who has a low opinion of women in the workplace.

The description for this book states "for lovers of Jacqueline Winspear...and Anne Perry," but you will find little of Winspear's/Perry's introspection in this novel. Once Maggie begins work for Churchill (replacing a young woman who died in a brutal attack), the plot proceeds at a fine clip, mixing an evocative portrait of wartime London with terrorist activities (not all of them German), Maggie's adjustment to working with Churchill and her efforts to be more than a secretary, her aunt's continual urging of her to come home, the presence of spies and codes, and hinted from the beginning, a hidden secret from Maggie's past.

This novel is enjoyable for the most part if you don't expect the social commentary present in Winspear's and Perry's World War I novels and can ignore several historical gaffes which are touched on in other reviews. I liked the characters for the most part and felt the inaccuracies could be skimmed over, but the story eventually gets a "boy's own adventure" feel to it as the spy/Maggie's secret/terrorist/mystery elements come together in later chapters. I am, however, interested enough in Maggie's new life in England to check out the next entry in the series.

book icon  Damsel in Distress, Carola Dunn
In this fifth in the Daisy Dalrymple series, Daisy's childhood friend Phillip Petrie has met his true love: the vivacious Gloria Arbuckle, daughter of a wealthy American businessman. Vivacious Gloria is equally smitten, and her father even likes him. But when Phillip stops to help the Arbuckles after a motor breakdown, he is kidnapped along with Gloria, then released instead of being disposed of. He finds himself at Daisy's ancestral home, now owned by her cousin, and claims to have been in a car accident. When Arbuckle contacts him, begging to keep the event silent in fear of Gloria's life, Phillip calls Daisy instead. She and her friends arrive at the estate to help Phillip search for his beloved.

This is very much an amateur crimefighting effort, as Daisy and her friends conduct awkward searches in the countryside looking for Cockney-speaking strangers. They make a good go of it, but it eventually starts feeling like a "boys' own adventure" with a bit of Trixie Belden tossed in. There are some truly exciting moments involving Daisy's adventure in a deserted cottage and the climax involving Daisy's beau Alec Fletcher, but there are incredulous moments as well. Still, enjoyable characters as always.

book icon  Origins of the Specious, Patricia T. O'Conner
Well, everyone knows you should never end a sentence in a preposition! And a double negative makes it a positive! And you can't split an infinitive! And...

Well, not quite. This book is subtitled "Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language," and with humor O'Connor goes on to bust most of those ubiquitous language myths and addresses mondegreens, spoonerisms, vowel shift, idioms, word origins that everyone knows and that aren't accurate, those "dirty words," and all the other wonderful spelling and grammar details that we word geeks revel in. If you like your English language trivia served tongue-in-cheek, this is the book for you!

book icon  The Girl is Murder, Kathryn Miller Haines
Ah, the 1940s teenager: pretty, neatly-dressed bobbysoxers having their books carried home by handsome young men with neatly parted hair, and pitching in collecting scrap, knitting for the soldiers, and saving fat during wartime!

This isn't that tale. Instead, it's the story of fifteen-year-old Iris Anderson, former private school student, now boarding in someone else's home with her grim father, who lost a leg at Pearl Harbor, in New York's Lower East Side, still stunned by her mother's suicide, the loss of her best friend Grace, and her introduction to a rough public school environment. Iris knows her father is having trouble keeping up with his cases because of the loss of his leg, and desperately wants to help him, and when a boy from her school disappears, this seems to be her chance.

This is the flip side of all those MGM Technicolor movies about 1940s teens: Iris faces a tense home life, less than friendly classmates, her own demons about her mother's death, and the less sunny-side of a teen's life during the war years is shown: zoot suit hatred, V-girls, teenage drinking and drug use, sneaking out to dance clubs, gang conflict. Haines enlivens the text with 40s slang and dress, and none of her characters is a Perfect Polly or Paul. Iris can be annoying and occasionally hard-headed, not a plaster saint from a homefront movie. If you want a nostalgic mystery, find an old Nancy Drew or Dana Girls; if you're looking for something with more rough edges, this may be your sip from the hip flask.

book icon  Under the Vale, edited by Mercedes Lackey
Er...why does the Companion on the cover have brown eyes? Companions have blue eyes. (All right, now that I look at it again, it's more a brownish-purple. But it's definitely not blue.)

More tales from Valdemar: my favorite story was "Fog of War," the war story taking place during the Tedrel War in the battle where King Sendar was killed. It was very down-to-earth about the everyday responsibilities of a soldier Herald. The first story, about the gigolo, was fun, and I also enjoyed the story about the motley group which includes a drunken Herald who refuses to acknowledge his Companion. Some of the stories, like "A Leash of Greyhounds," are more about aspects of Velgarth society rather than Herald/Companion stories; they aren't bad, but nothing special. "Discordance" is an unusual story about Bardic power that has not been addressed in other stories.

For fans of Jem and Ree, there are two stories involving the pair; a pleasant tale about Herald Jors and his companion Gervais; and another installment in the Dann family chronicles.

book icon  Sorry, I'm British!, Ben Crystal and Adam Russ
Tongue-in-cheek and thoroughly amusing book book about the vagaries of the British psyche and society, with hilarious cartoons, of which my personal favorite is the subway car full of adults reading Harry Potter books while the one child in their midst is reading Proust. I might have hoped for more entries and fewer cartoons, but for Anglophiles, this is a fun read.

book icon  Nancy Drew and Her Sister Sleuths, Michael G. Cornelius and Melanie F. Gregg
This is a dandy series of essays about...well, just as the title says. Intro and first five essays are about Nancy, the rest about Linda Carlton, a "girl aviator"; the odd "Melody Lane" books; Cherry Ames; family as portrayed in the Trixie Belden books; modern girl sleuths like Veronica Mars; Hermione Granger and how she fulfills the sleuth role; and a final occasional stream-of-consciousness essay about the effect of Nancy Drew on her readers.

Probably my favorite essay in this book is the comparison between the original books and the French translations, in which Nancy is "Alice Roy," she is of French heritage but hails from Missouri, her sense of honor and integrity is constantly played up, George Fayne is pushed to the background due to her boyish mannerisms (or given more feminine attributes!), and Bess Marvin is emphasized due to her femininity. It's an eye-opener in how the characters were tweaked to fit French sensibilities; I would have loved more essays about the different translations alone! One essay chronicles the history of the Stratemeyer syndicate and of the Nancy Drew books, another addresses the authorship question, a third touches on the race question in the original series, while the fourth illustrates how Nancy has remained naive about scientific subjects, perhaps still reflecting the attitude even today that girls do not make good scientists or researchers.

Of the remainder of the essays, the most interesting is an examination of the Lillian Garis "Melody Lane" series. Melody Lane was not a girl, but a place where the girl detective lived. These are odd "girl sleuth" books, with the girl being a reluctant sleuth in at least two of them, with contrary characters and sometimes inexplicable plots. The Hermione Granger piece is excellent; I would have preferred another essay about classic girl sleuths (Judy Bolton, perhaps, or the Dana Girls) rather than the piece about modern girl sleuths. All in all, however, a very satisfactory volume!

book icon  The Solitary House, Lynn Shepherd
This is an intriguing mystery based in part on characters created by Charles Dickens in Bleak House, with several characters from Willkie Collins' The Woman in White also mentioned. Protagonist Charles Maddox is an ex-police officer now operating as a private detective, still taking advice from his aging, ex-thief-taker uncle, whose mind is being destroyed by encroaching dementia. A powerful attorney asks the younger Maddox to find the man who sent a member of the aristocracy threatening letters. The investigation not only takes Maddox to the seamier side of London, but reveals an even more horrifying secret being kept by members of the aristocracy.

I have to admit that I have never found novels narrated in the third person omniscient to be appealing, plus occasionally the narrative itself got a bit "precious" (a few times the language almost wandered into the diction of the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter); however, having now familiarized myself briefly with the basic plot and structure of Bleak House, I understand why the author structured her novel in this way. Her portrait of the squalor of the slums of London is vivid and often as repulsive as the real thing, she paints evocative portraits of the streets, atmosphere, and personas, and the epistolatory segments by Hester are appropriate to the language style of the day. The relationship between Charles and his aging uncle are also well done and often affecting as the brilliant former thief-taker descends into the twilight world of Alzheimer's disease. However, I didn't warm up to Charles as much as I would have liked, and, although the narrative describes him as being quite intelligent, he makes several elementary mistakes and most of his good clues come from his uncle in his more lucid moments or occasionally from dumb luck.

I suppose I might have gotten a bit more from the book had I been familiar with Bleak House or the Collins book, especially as both the attorney and Inspector Bucket are major characters in the Dickens novel. Since I haven't read either book, I have no way of knowing if these characters were portrayed faithfully, so I cannot comment on that. In summary, I enjoyed the sensual portrait of the London slums and countryside of that era and did find the mystery compelling; however, I found the lead character a bit lacking in personality except in exchanges with his uncle, and not quite as intelligent as the narrative implied.

book icon  Clara's Kitchen, Clara Cannucciari
This is a slim little book of mostly recipes by Cannucciari, who became a media sensation after the real-estate bust in a series of YouTube videos in which she cooked frugal meals from the Depression that helped her family survive. The main charm in this book is reading Clara's memories which accompany each recipe. No prim, perfect little girl, feisty Clara relates school antics, family gatherings, and everyday life, as she and her family faced the Depression with fortitude and fun. If you are amazed that people made it through hard times without iPhones, television, and designer clothes, this is the book for you.

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29 March 2012

The Author of Eden's Outcasts Speaks at Orchard House

John Matteson

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23 March 2012

Spring Book Sale Tally

Having intended to get to the book sale when it opened, but was delayed by a sinus headache. After breakfast, on the way, realized as I was driving to Jim Miller Park that I didn't have cash. Only cash or checks are taken. So I detoured to Publix, but this isn't one with my bank. I bought two Lindt chocolate bunnies for Easter and got cash that way.

Was lucky to find a space at the front. In retrospect, it would have been closer to the entrance if I'd parked in the "ditch" behind the exhibit buildings. Unfortunately I got to the children's books just as all the SAHMs with the strollers arrived. Now, this was eerie...I was thinking to myself, what would I most like to find at this book sale? And my answer was "Hardback copies of The Good Master and The Singing Tree (by Kate Seredy) with the crayon portraits and the map."

And darned if I didn't...

Well, I didn't find both of them, but pretty much as soon as I looked in a few boxes I did find a nice hardback of The Good Master, along with a good hardback copy of The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden and Dobry by Monica Shannon (a Newbery winner I've never read). I also picked up a rather tatty paperback copy of Theatre Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, but I've wanted to read this one because the Fossil sisters of Ballet Shoes are mentioned in it.

The stroller/plunk your box on boxes people are trying to look through/people with crates and suitcases on wheels finally got too much for me and I went into the other building. The history aisle was choked full at first, as was biography, so I started along the wall with humor/travel/etc. until I found the section where they had put the Christmas books. Alas, I did not find another Sutton House book about Christmas in England, however, ignoring the craft and cook books, and the sentimental fiction, I scored Spirits of Christmas by David Hartwell, supernatural Christmas short stories which include Dickens' "The Haunted Man," The Guideposts Christmas Treasury from 1973 (I could tell just by the cover font when it was printed!), and A Christmas Secret by Anne Perry, which I had borrowed from the library when it was released and really liked.

By the time I got done there, the crowd at History, Biography, and Literature had cleared and I found the following: Reading for Pleasure by Bennett Cerf, a collection of short stories, including Capote's "A Christmas Memory" and Davis' "The Bar Sinister," Literary Landscapes of the British Isles, which is exactly what it states, places in Britain which have been made famous by fiction, When Trumpets Call by Patricia O'Toole (Theodore Roosevelt after the White House), America's Hidden History, which I passed on way back at Borders but which was okay for a buck, and A Choice of Days by H.L. Mencken, a chronicle of his early life.

My bag was getting a bit overloaded when I headed back toward the children's section. I didn't bother hitting the fiction books, as they run pretty hard on bestsellers and not much else, or the paperbacks, which are usually in bad shape. Well, I came upon a treasure-trove.

World Book released a set of "Christmas in..." books in several editions, and I found two different boxes of them (glad to find the second box, because the initial Christmas in Britain I found was in pretty bad shape). I had actually been looking at a sale set of them advertised by World Book about a week ago. I didn't buy all of them, but did score Christmas in...Britain/Italy/Colonial and Early America/America in the 1700s and 1800s/Scotland/Austria/Germany/Switzerland/Washington DC.

In the first box I also found a copy of the mystery Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death by M.C. Beaton, apparently just dropped there by someone.

Finally, I picked up a very nice Lady and the Tramp storybook, and something called Walt Disney's World of Nature, which I would have passed on had it not had the complete story from "Flash, the Teenage Otter" at the back.

Good thing I had brought a second bag with me. :-) This totted up to $29.00.

Horrors! It was raining outside! Now I wished I had parked in the ditch! Luckily it was light rain, and I darted (as well as you can dart with two large reusable grocery bags full of books!) from overhang to eave to tree and finally one last sprint to the car.

Now I just have to find somewhere to put them. This may be harder than carrying the bags!

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19 March 2012

Revisiting M'Lord

A friend of mine has just gotten into Lord Peter Wimsey via the audiobooks and I'm reliving the delicious memories of having discovered him back in the 1970s when I saw Murder Must Advertise on Masterpiece Theatre. I confess to raiding my college textbook funds to buy, two at a time, the Wimsey novels in paperback (from Providence's old Paperback Books on Weybosset Street, cattycorner from the Outlet). They were $1.25 at the time, and I remember Mom being wide-eyed when I spent $3.95 for the trade paperback collection of all the short stories, Lord Peter. Murder Must Advertise has always remained my favorite of the books, followed by The Nine Tailors (Dimity, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Gaude, Saboath, Tailor Paul and Batty Thomas...that's all from memory...LOL).

Sayers stopped writing the books after Busman's Honeymoon so she could give full time attention to translating Dante, but she left an unfinished manuscript (Thrones, Dominations, which was completed by Jill Paton Walsh, who later did two other Wimsey novels), and, during World War II, she publishing a series of fictional letters from the Wimsey family and friends (including Miss Climpson, the Reverend Venables, Mr. Ingleby from Advertise and others) in the British magazine "The Spectator."

If you've been curious about "what happened to" in Sayers' mind:

"The Wimsey Papers," Part 1

"The Wimsey Papers," Part 2

Good heavens, Lord Peter even has a page of tropes on TVTropes.org. (Don't worry; you have to highlight the blocks to see any spoilers.)

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16 March 2012

"Reading" History

One of the best television history shows ever. Had to order it from Great Britain because, even though it is about the United States, it was never released in Region 1 format.

For some reason, the Civil War segment, "A Firebell in the Night," is missing. It would have come after "Gone West." The final part doesn't really live up to the rest of the series. I would have preferred Cooke talking about the Cold War, civil rights, the Space Race, perhaps the rise of teen culture.

Alistair Cooke's America, Part 1: "The First Impact"

Alistair Cooke's America, Part 2: "The New-Found Land"

Alistair Cooke's America, Part 3: "Home from Home"

Alistair Cooke's America, Part 4: "Making a Revolution"

Alistair Cooke's America, Part 5: "Inventing a Nation"

Alistair Cooke's America, Part 6: "Gone West"

Alistair Cooke's America, Part 8: "Domesticating a Wilderness"

Alistair Cooke's America, Part 9: "Money on the Land"

Alistair Cooke's America, Part 10: "The Huddled Masses"

Alistair Cooke's America, Part 11: "The Promise Fulfilled and the Promise Broken"

Alistair Cooke's America, Part 12: "The Arsenal"

Alistair Cooke's America, Part 13: "The More Abundant Life"

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09 March 2012

Daddy Long-Legs: The True Story

Most musical fans know the story of Daddy Long-Legs, with Leslie Caron as a French orphan and Fred Astaire as the man who sends her to school. But that's not how the book goes, and I've always been a bit PO'd that they never made a better adaptation of the book.

However, the Japanese have done so, in anime version (although Mrs. Lippett is a lot nicer in the anime!):

Daddy Long-Legs, Part 1

Daddy Long-Legs, Part 2

Daddy Long-Legs, Part 3

Daddy Long-Legs, Part 4

Daddy Long-Legs, Part 5

Daddy Long-Legs, Part 6

I wish anime sellers in stores and at science fiction conventions who bring boxes upon boxes of DVD sets would also sell stories like this, not just the titillating girl-adventure stories like "Dirty Pair," or the sci-fi fantasy stuff, and the Transformers-type tales, but the classic book adaptations. There are so many of them that I'd like to see: A Little Princess, Heidi, Lassie Come Home, Tom Sawyer, A Dog of Flanders, Anne of Green Gables...

And speaking of Daddy Long-Legs, with the popularity of Anne of Green Gables and Christy and its sequels, why hasn't anyone made a film of Jean Webster's sequel, Dear Enemy? For God's sake, yes, get rid of the eugenics twaddle, but what a book you have left: early 20th century girl trying to get beyond the prejudices of the day relegating women to comfortable marriage and motherhood, trying to change a dreary institution into a place where, if children do not get adopted, they at least grow up knowing love and how to function in the outside world as something else besides a servant! The Allegra storyline along with the danger element later in the novel would make for a fine dramatic film, along with Sallie finding herself as an independent woman. Where's Gillian Armstrong or someone of that ilk when we need her (without, of course, Miss Armstrong's preaching; the book contains enough revelations without resorting to heavy-handed commentary)?

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