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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 2013

Books Finished Since March 1

book icon  Lost States, Michael J. Trinklein
I first saw this book while wandering around Borders (::sob!::), but it was too expensive for me (even during the liquidation). So you can see why I pounced on it when it turned up on a remainder table.

Everyone knows about the fifty states—but how about the states that "almost were," or ones that died "a'borning"? Thomas Jefferson, for instance, envisioned a group of states in the northern Midwest called Sylvania, Michigania, Metropotamia, and Saratoga (among others). Utah began as territory three times as large, called "Deseret" (honeybee). Northern Californians/southern Oregonians have considered a new state called Sonoma. Did you know Cuba and Greenland were considered to become states?

These "almost" states range from the founding of the United States all the way through the 1950s. Trinklein's narrative is a little bit more tongue-in-cheek than I would have liked, but his explanations are sound and each "state" is illustrated with either an actual map of the era or handsome reproductions. If you're a geography fan like me, you'll enjoy it.

book icon  Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America's Fight Over World War II, Lynne Olson
My father fought in World War II, and my mother saw her brothers and nephews become soldiers. I grew up on my mother's stories and would beg her to "tell about what happened the day of Pearl Harbor" over and over again. World War II was as real to me as my childhood days in the 1960s. My parents, like most kids in the 1920s, were awed by Charles Lindbergh's historic flight, but during World War II they never forgave him (nor other Americans like Henry Ford) for "siding with" the Germans and the isolationist faction. When I saw this book I knew I had to read it to get more information on the isolationist movement.

Olson's absorbing book examines the tense years of 1939 through 1941, when Great Britain was hanging on by their fingertips from the Nazi onslaught and desperate for any type of help, be it equipment or munitions (but hopefully manpower), from the United States. Americans had been badly bruised by "the war to end all wars." Having marched home triumphantly after making "the world safe for democracy," they were disillusioned by the war dead and injured, the continued squabbling for territory in Europe, and the nonpayment of the Allies' massive war debt, especially after the Depression began. The isolationists had no better spokesman than the heroic Lindbergh, already an intensely private man whose subsequent fame after his 1927 flight and the following horrific kidnapping and death of his son made him even more insular. Meanwhile, Franklin Roosevelt and many of his compatriots believed that if Great Britain fell, the United States was next on Hitler's plate.

In the midst of the emotional battles between those wanting to stay away from Europe's dance of death and those who wished to fight the expanding sphere of Nazism, Olson gives us fascinating glimpses into the past: the British agency who operated covertly from Rockefeller Center to convince Americans that Great Britain was worth supporting; the Americans like Lindbergh and Ford who saw something different in German expansion; sensitive Anne Morrow, who married and loved Charles Lindbergh, but was increasingly alienated by him; the use of Hollywood films to show the effects of rising Nazism; the eugenics movement that underpinned "the final solution," the appalling weakness of the American army right up to the day of Pearl Harbor. This is a sizable book, but one with a sweeping, appealing narrative that presents all sides of the arguments (and, in the end, notes a startling footnote to the life of Charles Lindbergh). An enjoyable read for those interested in history.

book icon  Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day, Doug Mack
Doug is at a book festival waiting for  his mother when he comes upon a tattered copy of Arthur Frommer's classic Europe on $5 a Day, one of the first books that convinced ordinary Americans that "the Grand Tour" of old wasn't just a fancy of the rich. Instead of seeing the book as the joke he intended, Doug's mom is thrilled: in 1967 she traveled to Europe with a friend using the same book as a guide and had a wonderful time. So Doug Mack thought it would be interesting to take the vintage Frommer book to Europe and follow his mother's trip, to see what the landmarks and restaurants Frommer pointed out look like today.

This is a fun travel book, if a little melancholy, as Mack discovers that most of the beautiful free sights noted by Frommer are today covered with strip malls and house developments, much like the United States, and that the roles once played by natives of each country have been taken over by new immigrants. He visits the fleshpits of Amsterdam, explores the relics of a formerly divided Berlin, takes in the Oktoberfest spirit of Munich, encounters swamped sidewalks in Venice, and wall-to-wall tourists in Rome, not to mention making the obligatory visit to Mannekin-Pis (the fountain in Brussels with the little boy pee'ing—and, oh yeah, there's a little girl counterpart, too!). It's also the history of the Arthur Frommer books, from their genesis as a soldier's guide to returning to a peacetime Europe after World War II to the present.

I enjoyed reading this travelogue, although Mack's search for a romance and his dissatisfaction with not finding things as they were got a bit tiresome after a while. However, it was still worth reading for me, especially the glimpses of his mother's own trip in the 1960s.

book icon  Told Under the Stars and Stripes, Association for Childhood Education International
These "Under the Umbrella" children's short story collections were published by the Association for Childhood Education, and this particular volume printed in 1945; I picked it up at the spring library book sale. I was reading it at the mechanic's, waiting for a tire change. The stories are all about immigrant children, or children moving from one region of the country from another, and the challenges they face. What is absolutely astounding about all of them is that although this was written in 1945, there are no prejudices shown in these stories as were still in other children's books of the time. Yes, immigrant parents speak in broken English, but it's not patronizing, and, most impressive, is that the two stories about African-American children do not include, from children and adults alike, the stereotypical "Amos and Andy" type malaprop language that was common in kids' books in those days involving "Negros." No one says "what dat?" or talks about "ghosties" or makes watermelon jokes as were still in the Bobbsey Twin books in the 1940s. Even the story that takes place in Harlem contains no shuffling Stepin Fetchits. Impressed. Really, really impressed.

book icon  Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, Kristiana Gregory
The Fairchild family sets out by ship to Oregon, but halfway there disaster strikes: Mrs. Fairchild is swept overboard during a storm, leaving a grieving Doctor Fairchild and the two teenage daughters, Clara and Susannah, alone. It is also enroute that news of the gold strike in California comes, and Susannah is baffled and horrified when her father quits the Oregon plan to become a gold miner.

Soon the Fairchilds find out the truth about the work needed to find gold. They encounter treachery and theft and betrayal, but make fast new new friends and conquer the hostile environment around them. A similar element of romance as in The Great Railroad Race creeps into this story, and it's pretty obvious when it happens. A workmanlike book that imparts all the requisite historical information.

book icon  Trixie Belden and the Mystery at Mead's Mountain, Kathryn Kenny
When a friend of Mr. Wheeler buys a ski lodge, the Bob-Whites are thrilled to get an invitation to check out the slopes in Vermont. There's a rumor that there is a ghost at the lodge on Mead's Mountain, which piques the interest (naturally) of Trixie and Honey. They soon find that the lodge is beautiful and that the caretakers, Pat and Katie O'Brien, are model hosts. But things start to go wrong: they receive threatening notes from the "ghost," items are stolen out of the Bob-Whites rooms, and Trixie becomes suspicious of the new ski instructor.

Thankfully, there's no one pointing guns or knives at Bobby Belden in this outing. It's pretty much straight mystery, with many red herrings and still a bit of danger in the end. Would that they were all like this!

book icon  The Lexicon, Steve Vander Ark
One of the most popular web outgrowths of the Harry Potter books was the extensive, exhaustive "Harry Potter Lexicon," an encyclopedia of the Potterverse. Drawings, photos, cross-reference, even conjecture found its way on the site. JK Rowling enthusiastically supported it.

However when a publisher came a'calling, Rowling objected to a book being published, as she was considering her own Harry Potter encyclopedia. So The Lexicon published is a much abridged item. It's still a fun read, but, sadly, not as complete as the original. I'd save it for a bargain purchase.

book icon  The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West, Kristiana Gregory
This is the third "Dear America" book by Kristiana Gregory that I've read and I have come to the conclusion that I don't like her stories very much. She's not a dreadful writer or anything like that, but her books don't seem to have the luster others do.

Libby West's newspaperman father is determined to go west to cover the completion of the transcontinental railroad, and, since her mother will not let him go alone, the entire family, parents, Libby, and her precocious younger brother Joe travel to Utah. On the way they encounter both good people and bad (including a frightening outing to a "hell town" by Libby and a friend), are curious about the Mormons, and puzzle over why Mr. West is so patient with his grubby, smelly assistant Pete, an old friend from his Army days.

Gregory does a nice job describing the activity around the construction of the railroad and the conflicts and dangers of the day, but I just don't find her prose all that inspiring. YMMV.

book icon  Serving Victoria, Kate Hubbard
Say "lady in waiting" or "queen's equerry," and what would  you imagine? I'm sure more than a few folks would envision a glamorous position doing a few light chores while enjoying the pleasures of a magnificent palace, dressing up in lovely clothing, and meeting with all sorts of interesting political and national figures.

Being one of the royal attendants to Queen Victoria, alas, was nothing like that. Her ladies-in-waiting endured freezing environments indoors (Victoria didn't allow her homes to be any warmer than 60 degrees) and out (long open carriage rides, even in winter), close supervision of their personal lives down to the books they could read, separation from their children, and dull evenings making small talk over meals or embroidery. Her male secretaries and assistants rarely saw their wives, were driven to ulcers, and had to endure the impertinence of more favored servants (like the Highlanders from Balmoral, who were pretty much constantly drunk). Everyone was expected to wear some sort of mourning clothes for many years following the death of Prince Albert, and as the queen grew older and lost more members of her family and household, there were memorial services almost every month at which black must be worn. Yet most of Victoria's entourage were devoted to her.

Hubbard weaves an absorbing narrative of the women and men who kept Victoria happy and the monarchy running smoothly, using material taken from personal diaries and letters. Considering the queen's whims and the strain under which the servants were required to perform, I'm surprised more of them didn't go to an early grave, as many of them suffered nervous breakdowns, and, at the very least, loneliness with regards to their family and lack of sleep. There were many details of the Queen's life that I had not read in other volumes (the Princess Royal's tantrums, for example, or about her Highland and Indian servants being favored over the rest—previously I thought only John Brown alone received such exalted status) and Hubbard writes in a brisk style that imparts many details without being dull. If you are curious about "backstairs at the palace," you should enjoy this volume.

book icon  A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, Kathryn Lasky
Girls today may not be able to grasp the idea of how few rights women had in the so-called "modern world" not so long ago. Those who react indignantly to the mistreatment of women by certain religious groups today would be shocked to realize that, before 1920, women in the United States not only could not vote, but in many states were unable to own property, and that in a divorce a husband almost always received custody of the children and it was the woman who was "ruined" by the act, even if the husband was abusive. Indeed, police often did not respond to domestic violence calls because the opinion was "she had it coming."

It is this world Kathleen Bowen is growing up in. Her mother, sister, and aunt are staunch suffragettes, used to being called "unnatural" by both men and women alike, peacefully marching with protest signs (no, that wasn't just in the 1960s) and being attacked and arrested. Her aunt's husband is against women's suffrage and her aunt and cousin lead a miserable life under his thumb. Meanwhile, World War I is raging in Europe and some women are longing to help in the war effort in more ways than knitting and rolling bandages.

Lasky lends a nice flavor to this 1917-set novel, although I didn't like it as much as Christmas After All. Her chapters about the force-feeding of women prisoners are pretty chilling. I did notice one basic historical error: she talks about children trick-or-treating. This custom did not start until the 1930s and was not really popular until after World War II. Before that, children and adults had Hallowe'en parties where they played games and told fortunes.

book icon  His Majesty's Hope, Susan Elia MacNeal
MacNeal gets to a little more "meat" in this third installment of the story of Margaret "Maggie" Hope, a British-born but American-raised young woman with a talent for mathematics who is back in wartime Britain and will be going on her first undercover mission for the Allies. She is given two relatively "easy" tasks (if she can avoid being caught by the Nazis, of course) and has then been instructed to come home. But as always with Maggie, things are never easy. She discovers there is more important information she can glean by staying in Germany, even if it costs her her life—not to mention a face-to-face meeting with someone she had always been told was dead.

Those readers charmed but occasionally frustrated by Maggie's "Nancy Drew for adults" adventures will find this volume a bit more disturbing, as MacNeal addresses Hitler's original "final solution" of "humanely euthanizing the sick, the mentally ill (including homosexuals) and "deficient," and other undesirables through the eyes of a young German nurse who discovers the truth while caring for a little girl with Downs Syndrome. (Hitler's jeer that the Americans' concern about this policy makes them hypocrites due to the US theories of eugenics and treatment of people of color will truly make you wince.) If you are sensitive to this type of story, I would beware reading this book. Otherwise, Maggie's career continues apace as she discovers more family secrets and becomes toughened to the realities of war (especially to the results that her actions have to those connected with her). In addition, her homosexual friend is "outed," which bringing pain to him and his lover, and Maggie's own lover Hugh becomes embroiled in sensitive issues at Bletchley Park. MacNeal's modern references are getting fewer, but boy, do they toss you out of the story. When Maggie admires a friend's "baby bump" ("baby bump"? in 1940s Britain? seriously?), my jaw dropped. But I still raced through the pages to get to this installment's conclusion. Take that as you will.

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09 March 2013

The Spring Library Book Sale

This morning I got there late enough not to have to stand in line, but early enough. Didn't spend much time in the alphabetized fiction, but I never do as the volumes are heavily bestsellers. Heck, "P" should just be labeled "James Patterson" and "Jodi Picault." I'm always looking for Barbara Paul's Marian Larch mysteries (they have a character based on Paul Darrow's Avon character from Blake's 7), since I never saw them in bookstores. Miracles still do not occur. You also find fewer and fewer really old children's books anymore. And I did not luck out and find the companion book for my hardback of The Good Master (The Singing Tree).

I did hit the usuals: Literature, History, Biography, the Nature and Animals section, Science, Travel, even took a peek in Sociology, and then braved the Stroller Crowd at the children's books. But first I found the Christmas books on a cart right in front. They did have more of the "World Book" Christmas In... books, and, since I had wisely taken inventory of the ones I already had, I only picked up four: Spain, Brazil, Holy Land, and Russia. I also found something called The Christmas Almanack, which is a cheap paper but fat book with customs, countries, and stories and song references.

The rest of the tally:

  • Letter from New York by Helene Hanff, based on broadcasts she did for the BBC
  • Through the Children's Gate by Adam Gopnik
  • A Year in the Maine Woods (which I thought I might already have and I did; ah, well, it was only $1.50)
  • Usage and Abusage, an English usage manual by Eric Partridge
  • Blue Latitudes by Tony Horowitz (following Captain Cook's voyage; I loved his A Voyage Long and Strange)
  • Three "Dear America" books (the Gold Rush, transcontinental railroad, and the diary of a Jewish immigrant)
  • A Dictionary of First Names
  • Told Under the Stars and Stripes, tales of international children now living in the United States
  • Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street by William S. Baring-Gould, which is supposed to be a classic
And a brand-new book I can't mention because it's intended as a gift.

James got home early and had happened to read my Facebook post about having passed up two books of literary criticism of Robert Heinlein. (Also passed up a book of short stories by Alexander Wolcott, one of the Algonquin Round Table writers.) He said he would have been interested in them. I said, "Well, we could always go back."

And so we did. The place was nearly empty, and the earlier crowds had scarfed up a ton of books; books that were in boxes on the floor this morning were on the tables now. (Yes, I do notice what's on the floor.) The Heinlein books were still there, though, and he found some other cool stuff, too, including a 1945 book of classic science fiction short stories.

The second tally (yeah, second, even with the books picked over):

  • Christmas in Poland
  • An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories (lovely illos here)
  • Street Gang [the story of Sesame Street]
  • An Italian Education by Tim Parks, sequel to his Italian Neighbors, which I already have
  • A Year in Provence, because it's mentioned in every travel narrative I read
  • The Mystery of the Black Diamonds by Phyllis A. Whitney, one of her teen mysteries
  • Holiday Symbols, from all countries and religions (heck, and events; they even have the Stupid Bowl and the Indy 500)
  • And finally 1950's The Little Princesses, a memoir by Marion Crawford, the beloved governess "Crawfie" of Lilibet and Margaret, otherwise known as Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret
I was reading Told Under the Stars and Stripes at the mechanic's, waiting for my tire change. These children's short story collections were published by the Association for Childhood Education, and this particular volume printed in 1945. What is absolutely astounding about all of them is that although this was written in 1945, there are no prejudices shown in these stories as were still in other children's books of the time. Yes, immigrant parents speak in broken English, but it's not patronizing, and, most impressive, is that the two stories about African-American children do not include, from children and adults alike, the stereotypical "Amos and Andy" type malaprop language that was common in kids' books in those days involving "Negros." No one says "what dat?" or talks about "ghostes" or makes watermelon jokes as were still in the Bobbsey Twin books in the 1940s. Even the story that takes place in Harlem contains no shuffling Stepin Fetchits. Impressed. Really, really impressed.

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02 March 2013

Oh, Look: Upcoming!

Little Women: An Annotated Edition

I have the annotated Anne of Green Gables and love it! This one is already on order.

[April 16: This came today! It's lovely!]

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