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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 July 2013

Books Finished Since July 1

book icon  Mrs. Daffodil, Gladys Taber
I'd love to own this book, but the best price I've seen it for online has been $125.00 (it cost $3.75 when released in 1957; Gladys would be amazed). So I take it out of the library every so often and worry about what I'll do if they ever discard it.

This is Taber's fictionalized account of her life at Stillmeadow, her Connecticut farmhouse made famous in her nonfiction and her monthly magazine column; like Taber, Mrs. Daffodil shares a Colonial-era country house with her best friend Kay, a widow; writes a magazine column called "Butternut Wisdom" along with short stories; raises cocker spaniels and one unruly Irish setter and is owned by a Siamese cat; constantly wavers between dieting and including recipes in her publications that involve fresh foods raised on her property or on neighboring farms. Too, she has a dreamy, romantic daughter in college.

I think Taber wrote this volume because there were things she didn't want to address in her nonfiction: life was always so pleasant in her Stillmeadow columns, with only a few hard times intruding, that her frustrations are all vented in this piece of fiction: her constant struggles with her weight, her uncomfortable encounters speaking or appearing in interviews; and, a constant theme through the book, fans of her books and columns who show up unannounced at all hours of the day, expecting to be shown through the house and often inviting themselves to dinner. Too, she talks about neglected neighbors, country politics, and the comedy after comedy that recurs as she and Kay try to find someone to help them with the housekeeping. Her greatest criticisms, however, are directed at herself: abortive efforts raising fruits or tapping maple trees, sentimental outbursts, and her inability to manage a checkbook. It's sweet, usually humorous but occasionally sad, and if you are any kind of Stillmeadow fan, beat it to your local library and search for this one via interlibrary loan. You won't be sorry.

book icon  Paris to the Past, Ina Caro
I think I've been an Anglophile since I watched Richard Greene's Robin Hood and the syndicated Adventures of Sir Lancelot when I was a kid. I'm not a Francophobe, but I've never had much interest in France. However, a friend in another book blog talked about a book reading challenge called "Paris in July," and, although I didn't want to take part, I thought: in July why not read some of the books I have in the growing to-be-read piles that concerned France?

I picked this dandy volume for my first sortie and was not disappointed. Caro and her husband, after traveling around France for years, settled in Paris, so content in their life there that they didn't want to leave it for long periods of time, even to explore the historical sites Caro so loved. So she devised trips to historical sites that were short rides on express trains from Paris, places you could explore in a day and then come home. Paris to the Past is the story of those day trips, arranged in chronological order so that Caro and her husband, and the reader, could trace French history through its landmarks, including the development of castles from defensive fortresses to opulent palaces, and the different architectural styles of cathedrals. You meet the Abbot Suger, who built the first Gothic cathedral; the formidable Diane de Portiers and Blanche of Castile; Joan of Arc (of course); and other personalities from the 12th century to the 19th. Caro explores tourist attractions and those off the beaten track. Detailed without being dry, filled with bits of historical trivia rubbing elbows with gastronomic treats, this was a very enjoyable read.

book icon  The President is a Sick Man, Matthew Algeo
In 1893, President Grover Cleveland received shattering news: he has a cancerous growth in his mouth. Remembering ex-President Grant's painful death from throat cancer, but at the same time not wanting to rattle a country already suffering from financial difficulties and "the silver question" (not to mention weakening confidence in his leadership), Cleveland does something extraordinary: he announces he will be spending a week or two on a friend's yacht to relax after weeks of late nights and hard work. But in reality he gathers a group of surgeons to remove the growth in his mouth and then care for him until he is well enough to travel back to Washington, DC.

For years most people never knew this surgery happened; it was reported back then, by a newspaper reporter named Edwards, who was called a liar and worse. It was only 20 years later that the truth came out to an incredulous public. This is the story of that deception, of the precarious political situation of the time, of the persons involved, and of the extraordinary will of Grover Cleveland, who was much more ill after the surgery than he let anyone suspect. It's not the best history book I've ever read, but it is to the point, sums up the era well, and presents an interesting portrait of Cleveland, his young wife Frances Folsom (whose courtship some modern folks may find a bit creepy, but it was quite common for older men to marry young women in those days), his surgical team, and reporter E.J. Edwards and his newspaper rivals in a concise manner. If you're not a history buff, you may find it dull. Interesting note: this was the first of several non-fiction books now out about Cleveland, the "forgotten Republican."

book icon  Trixie Belden and the Sasquatch Mystery, Kathryn Kenny
This has to be the most boring Trixie Belden book ever. I know in the last few I've been complaining about Trixie not acting like herself, or Bobby being in danger, but this one is numbing.

Plot in brief: The Bob-Whites (minus Dan, of course), with Miss Trask as chaperone, are spending August camping in Idaho with the Belden cousins: Hallie (see Mystery of the Uninvited Guest) and her older brothers Knut (a dependable hunk) and Cap (a teenage Grizzly Adams). Trixie wakes up one night to see Cap facing down what looks like a sasquatch at their campfire. The sasquatch keeps turning up. Tourists scared by the sasquatch flee. Others come to hunt him down. Meanwhile the kids hike up to see an old friend of the Idaho Beldens, an elderly miner with a pet skunk and a yumpin yiminy accent. Rocks are tossed at them. Their food is stolen. Their truck smells like skunk. And every time one turns around, Di is screaming. Oy.

The bad guys are telegraphed from their introduction. The kids spend a lot of time tramping back and forth through the forest. Trixie falls down a log chute. Jim is almost a non-entity in the book and seems unconcerned that his "special girl" is (a) hurt and (b) hanging a lot around with her hunky cousin. And Di keeps screaming. For heaven's sake, girl, shut up! Really, maybe I can understand why girls started reading the Babysitter's Club books instead. 

book icon  Thieftaker, D.B. Jackson
I was at an Alternative History panel at DragonCon last year where Jackson talked about his new "tricorn punk" (as opposed to "steampunk") novel, and couldn't resist buying a copy when it came out in paperback recently.

Ethan Kaille is a "thieftaker" (an early version of private detective) in Colonial Boston. After he spent fourteen years as a prisoner on a sugar plantation for his part in a ship's mutiny, he now ekes out a small living bringing criminals to justice, small crimes that are too minor for Boston's primary thieftaker, Sephira Price, an audacious woman with a gang of cutthroats almost as bad as the criminals they chase. Amazingly, however, Ethan is hired to look into the case of a well-born young woman found dead in the streets after a gang of rowdies destroyed a government official's home. But once he examines her, Ethan—whose talents, as many people know, include witchcraft—knows that the girl was actually killed by sorcery. But for what purpose? And why has her father hired him, instead of Sephira Price, whose reputation is so much better?

This is a satisfactory mix of historical novel crossed with fantasy elements. Colonial Boston's wealthy homes and narrow side streets are convincingly portrayed, and Jackson's magic working seems grounded in a logical manner. It isn't "wiggle your nose" magic or something that just comes out of thin air. Okay, I was getting a bit tired of Ethan always getting outclassed by Sephira's thugs by the time the novel ended, but that's because I quickly became fond of the character and his struggles to make a life for himself and find some sort of happiness in a life that has been filled with hardship and deception. I thought it interesting that Jackson originally set the novel in an imaginary setting and then re-wrote it as a historical fantasy; it works so well as the latter it's hard to envision it any other way.

book icon  Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik
For my second foray into French life, I picked Gopnik's book of essays chronicling his family's life in France. From 1995 through 2000, Gopnik, his wife Martha, and their young son Luke lived in Paris, where Gopnik and Luke spent lyrical days playing in the park and riding the charming, antique carousel, and he and his wife experienced the day-to-day differences of life in France and lived quite differently from their former hectic existence in New York City. Gopnik gets involved in a movement to save a favorite restaurant, observes the quirks of French life, participates in a sweet "romance" between his little boy and a girl his own age during swimming excursions, and, in a charming sequence, makes up a baseball story about a child prodigy that becomes his son's favorite bedtime tale. If this lyrically-written memoir stalls at all, it's when Gopnik talks about French politics, which, predictably, are as boring as their American counterparts. (Gopnik's use of language is one of the treats of this volume. One of my favorite passages comes when he describes a depressing visit to the Bibliothèque Nationale, which includes this piece of description, "A stray piece of foliage peeks out forlornly from some of the enclosures, like Hans's fingers from the witch's cage.") Otherwise, Paris becomes tangible from his descriptions of cafes and food, walks in the park and visits to gardens, the gentleness of life, and even the absence of one annoying purple dinosaur in French toddler society. For those who love Paris or dream of going there.

book icon  Trixie Belden and the Mystery of the Headless Horseman, Kathryn Kenny
I had to read another one right away to get the bad Sasquatch taste out of my mouth. Thankfully, this outing is much better!

The Bob-Whites are all involved in a UNICEF charity bazaar to be held on the Lynch property, and are aghast when the Lynches' butler, Harrison, who was to have coordinated the event while Di's parents were away, disappears. According to the Lynches' cook, he rode off on a bicycle and never returned. Bicycle tracks lead them to a little house in Sleepyside Hollow, where Trixie and Honey find Harrison locked in the cellar! How did he get locked in there? And why won't he tell the girls why he was there?

But, even more spookily, why is there a "headless horseman" riding around the house when Trixie and Honey go back to the property to free a trapped cat?

There's also a very funny subplot where Mart decides to teach the Beldens' scatterbrained Irish setter Reddy to obey orders that actually works out well for the kids. Wordplay will help you solve the mystery within the mystery. Just one question: you mean to tell me that Trixie, Honey, etc. have been riding all over for...well, at least a year book time and they never found the way to Sleepyside Hollow?Ah, inconsistency, thy name is ghostwriter.

book icon  Yes, I Could Care Less, Bill Walsh
What can I say about this book? If you're looking for a grammar lesson, this isn't the volume for you. On the other hand, if you're the type of person, like me, who winces at grammar and spelling errors online, and, even worse, in books, you'll probably enjoy this grumpy, tongue-very-in-cheek commentary about the English language, and when and if it's permissible to indulge in bad grammar and when you can just let it go. Walsh's plays-on-words and never-ending streams of jokes do go on a bit long; I recommend a chapter a night even for the most dedicated fan of English. But I did get quite a few laughs out of his commentary, especially the collection of tweets on every odd-numbered page, and quite enjoyed "The Curmudgeon's Stylebook" at the end. Plus, there are usage tips as you wind your way around the puns.

book icon  Die Laughing, Carola Dunn
How does Daisy do it—even in pain she finds a mystery!

Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher has a toothache, and she finally conquers her fear of the dentist to go to a highly-recommended doctor, the handsome Mr. Talmadge. However, when Daisy arrives for surgery hours, the office is still closed, and when she finally gains entry along with Talmadge's nurse, he's dead, having taken too much nitrous oxide without benefit of oxygen. At first everyone thinks the dentist, who "indulged" in laughing gas the way others have a nip or two of liquor, died by accident, but Daisy notes things that point to only one conclusion: murder. And the prime suspect seems to be hysterical Mrs. Talmadge, whose love affair hasn't been as circumspect as she hoped. But was the dentist himself all that innocent?; rumors keep flying about his own affairs.

This is a nice solid entry in the Daisy Dalrymple mystery series, although there's something one of the characters says near the last third of the book that will twig you to the murderer, if only you will notice it.Once again, I love the 1920s world that surrounds Daisy, AleC, and their family and friends: the slang, the foods and manners. And there's always the inevitable question: will Daisy's mother ever accept Alec? Or his mother ever accept Daisy? Only time will tell.

book icon  Eiffel's Tower, Jill Jonnes
For the third and last of my French books, I plucked this one from the stacks as I had just heard the author speak on a 2009 "Travels With Rick Steves" podcast, and was immediately immersed in the world of the construction of the Eiffel Tower as part of the 1889 Paris Exposition.

The Eiffel Tower is so much a symbol of Paris today that it is hard to believe that when it was being built it was considered a monstrosity. Art patrons, newspapers, and citizens of Paris alike complained about the ugly iron edifice growing foot by foot between the river Seine and the Champ de Mars. Eiffel had to guarantee payment to several building owners near the site of the tower, since they were afraid the lofty structure would collapse and destroy their property. Eiffel himself had a running feud with the Otis Elevator engineers who would install the elevators in the tower's legs because they were not finished in time for the fair's opening—because Eiffel kept changing the structure of the legs. You are there as each platform is built, and finally ascend to the top level, where Eiffel had a lavish apartment and rooms full of scientific equipment.

It's also the story of the personalities who came to the Exposition and visited the tower: "Buffalo Bill" Cody and his Wild West show (including sharpshooter Annie Oakley and more than four dozen Sioux), unknowns in France before the Exposition opening and darlings of the country by the time it closed; James McNeill Whistler, the flamboyant expatriate American painter who wanted his art exhibited "just so";  James Gordon Bennett, the erratic editor of the Paris edition of the New York Herald; Rosa Bonheur, the acclaimed elderly painter who had special permission to wear pants instead of traditional skirts; and Thomas Edison, who had come to the Exhibition to promote his new improved phonograph and whose exhibit of inventions far surpassed the other American exhibits, not to mention a conclave of French art lovers determined to keep more French art from ending up in American hands.

This is a wonderfully-written book that made me feel that I was at the Paris Exposition experiencing the building of the tower and becoming intimate acquaintances with people like Eiffel, Edison, Cody, Whistler, and the rest. I'll never forget this "summer at the fair."

book icon  One Summer: America 1927, Bill Bryson
What a trip! I went from 1889 Paris to the United States in the summer of 1927, as brought to life by the inimitable Bill Bryson. Chronicling the events beginning in May when several teams of aviators prepare to compete for a $25,000 prize offered by Raymond Orteig for a nonstop New York-to-Paris (or vice-versa) flight (among the bigger names participating is a Minnesota unknown named Lindbergh, who will be flying a tiny aircraft) and ending in September, Bryson paints "the Roaring Twenties" in big, colorful brushstrokes, a decade—and a summer—when the United States and not Europe began to make news.

In a sprawling narrative joined by the thread of Lindbergh's flight and subsequent fame (which appalled the reserved airman) celebrated by a tour of the United States, Bryson introduces us to the colorful characters of the era: "Big Bill" Thompson, the mayor of Chicago, who wasn't big on intelligence, but who had a loyal political following; Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, whose murder of Snyder's husband was as big as the OJ trial; Herbert Hoover, the superlative organizer and engineer whom no one had ever seen laugh; Al Capone; hard living and hard playing Babe Ruth; the quiet powerhouse Lou Gehrig; taciturn Calvin Coolidge, who kept his nose out of other people's business—including the thousands displaced by Mississippi River flooding; Henry Ford; the big fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney (broadcast over radio by a mellifluous newcomer named Graham MacNamee); and Sacco and Vanzetti—to name just a few. We are taken from Prohibition Chicago to the sky over the Atlantic to Mount Rushmore; from ballparks to hotels to the top of a flagpole where "Shipwreck Kelly" holds court. We also meet the unhappy realities of the time: the racists especially embodied by the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the eugenicists who believe "the unfit" should be sterilized, the criminals brought to fame by Prohibition, even the United States government poisoning their own citizens with alcohol additives to curb drinking.

This is like a delightful set of snapshots of a bygone era; don't expect much depth, but that's not what the book is all about. My only caveat is that I found at least one very obvious historical era, and, not knowing all the details of that era, expect that there could be more. No matter—pick your favorite aspect of this book and research it more thoroughly, but in the meantime enjoy this breezy portrait of 1927 America.

book icon  What's the Number for 911?, Leland H. Gregory III
A perfect book to keep in the bathroom for those "unavoidable delays," as Frank Gilbreth called them, short, mostly one-page tales about the crazy calls made to 911 emergency centers. Embarrassingly enough, the book ends with a local blooper from 1996: the frantic efforts of the 991 operators in Atlanta to put in a report of a bomb threat at the then brand-new Centennial Olympic Park because the automated 911 system required a street address, which they didn't know. Before they were able to get it into the system, the bomb went off.

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