30 September 2013

Books Finished Since September 1

book icon  Falling Upwards, Richard Holmes
My total knowledge of the history of ballooning comes from reading about the Montgolfier brothers, displays at the Smithsonian and at other air museums, The Wizard of Oz, a Disney film about Thaddeus Lowe called High Flying Spy, and the five-part Lassie adventure called "The Journey," in which Timmy and Lassie are trapped in a carnival vendor's runaway balloon, so I was glad to pick up a copy of this book and go adventuring with the late 18th century and 19th century balloonists. The book covers the varied uses of balloons through 1900, from balloons used as entertainment displays to balloonists who used their craft for spying purposes (like Lowe's observations of Confederate camps) to exploration balloons at high altitudes and over the Arctic.

I particularly enjoyed the several chapters of this book that talked about the following: Sophie Blanchard and other female balloonists, who did acrobatic tricks in the air, rather like the wingwalkers of a later era, facing death or severe injury; how balloons and carrier pigeons kept the lines of communication open during the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War; the legendary "Silk Dress Balloon" supposedly composed of ladies' skirts of the Confederacy; how balloons were portrayed in the fantastic fiction of the time, influencing everyone from Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens to the master of the balloon fantasy, Jules Verne (there's an interesting tale here about the book Verne did not get printed because his publisher preferred his imperial flight of fancy, 5 Semaines en Ballon [Five Weeks in a Balloon]); and the heartbreaking reconstruction of a balloon voyage to the North Pole.

The volume is a bit wordy, but I found most of it enthralling. If you are looking for a history of ballooning between that first flight and the modern era, this one should suit just fine.

book icon  Hollow Earth, John Barrowman, Carole Barrowman
Let's say I couldn't resist this after hearing the Barrowmans talking about it at Dragoncon.

Matt and Emily are twins who live with their mother Sandie in London. From childhood they have amused themselves with their unique talent of being able to draw a picture and then go inside it. Unfortunately one afternoon, bored with waiting for their mother, they pull the trick in the middle of the British Museum. This is all it takes to reveal the twins' powers to those who have been, unbeknownst to them, seeking them to exploit them. With no recourse, Sandie flees with them back to Scotland and her father's home, where they can be protected. But they soon discover there are people they can't trust—and miss the fact that there are others just as treacherous.

In general I enjoyed this book. The siblings said they tried to make the kids not perfect beings, and they sure managed: Matt is intensely annoying at times. There's some klunky expository dialog, and you can tell the character John Barrowman wants to play if the book ever gets opted as a movie. However, I love the idea of a couple of kids who actually like classic artwork and have such a neat talent. They argue like real siblings, and their dealings with a friend come off as pretty true-to-life, and the thought of being a kid free to wander on such a wild Scottish island is very appealing. Once you're into the fantasy, it's a real page-turner. Note: this is an intense fantasy and is probably not meant for overly-sensitive younger children. There are deaths in the book and a couple of betrayals that are wrenching.

book icon  The Men Who United the States, Simon Winchester
I couldn’t resist this book when it was offered; a history book? About “America’s explorers, inventors, eccentrics, and mavericks”? How could it miss?

And indeed, it hits more than it misses. Winchester tells lively stories about the Corps of Discovery, the geologists like John Wesley Powell, William McClure, David Owen, and Clarence King and mapmaker Gouverneur Warren, the minds that mapped the rivers and built the canals, the men who built the transportation networks from steamships to railroads to superhighways to airports, and finally those who set up the lines of communication, starting with the telegraph, telephone, electricity (including the rural electrification program), radio, television, and finally the internet.

On the other hand, some of the tales are oft told, like that of Sacajawea. I was a bit puzzled why he felt he had to use the framework of "the five ancient elements" (wood, metal, fire, earth, and water) as the setup for how he organized his material, besides being a touching tribute to his mother-in-law, as sometimes the allusions go a little far afield. Sadly, his politics also come across insistently in his text, including a rather amazing rant in favor of NPR over commercial radio, which I found disconcerting, even though I'm not a modern commercial radio fan and do like NPR. When reading a history book, I'd rather not know about the author's politics.

For me the individual stories trumped the drawbacks just noted, and as a whole I enjoyed the book, but the modern political overtones could have been omitted.

book icon  Trixie Belden and the Mystery of the Velvet Gown, Kathryn Kenny
Well, this is more like it—the stain of The Sasquatch Mystery may be gone at last. It's the beginning of a new year and the kids are excited about a production of Romeo and Juliet being performed at school, especially as Di Lynch is up for the role of Juliet. But the kids aren't quite sure what to make of their drama teacher: she seems so nice but is often in bad moods—and the Beldens are particularly conflicted about her after Reddy runs in front of her car and breaks his leg; one minute she seems upset and sorry, and then she doesn't seem to care.

There's a nice solid mystery lurking here with play tryouts and Bobby mourning Reddy's injury, which involves the titular red velvet gown and some other costumes, all mixed in with the tale of the teacher's familial problems, and an interesting new wrinkle is addressed: we never have heard previously how the other kids at school feel about Trixie and Honey's sleuthing proclivities. In this book we learn there are classmates who think Trixie's detection work is overrated and self-seeking, and she must learn to cope with the fact that everyone doesn't think her talent is special. An interesting aspect indeed. And Di doesn't scream—a plus!

book icon  Re-read: A Wind to Shake the World, Everett Allen
Since it was the 75th anniversary of the Great Hurricane of 1938, a storm I found endlessly fascinating from my mother's stories and "the hurricane book" up in the attic of my childhood, I decided to re-read my two books on the event.

Everett Allen, like so many other men in 1938, was a guy looking for a job. He picked up an income here and there, including working on the New Bedford waterfront. On September 19, he was hired by the Standard Times of New Bedford as a waterfront reporter (theirs having just quit). On September 20 his boss told him to acquaint himself with the style of the newspaper, before starting his job the next day.

The next day the great hurricane of 1938 struck. She raced inland so quickly that the New York newspapers called her “the Long Island Express.” She killed 680 people, including seven youngsters on a Jamestown, Rhode Island, school bus and a church ladies’ group having an end-of-summer picnic, swamped a commuter train and swept boats far inland, caused $400 million dollars worth of damage (in 1938 money), and killed over 275 million trees, some as far north as Vermont and New Hampshire. Neighborhoods, like Napatree Road in Rhode Island, were completely wiped out. City streets were under 13 to 18 feet of water. A permanent inlet was cut into a Long Island barrier reef. The storm spared no one, not the wealthy (Katharine Hepburn’s family home, Fenwick, was swept away) or the poor (fishermen were drowned, their boats ruined, their families caught in the flood tide).

Allen’s narration comes directly from newspaper articles, in the voices of those who survived the carnage or observed the terror of rising seas and drowning friends and family. The stories will break your heart as you marvel at the courage of those who tried to save themselves and save others.

book icon  Re-read: Sudden Sea, R.A. Scotti
Where Everett Allen’s book was written by a survivor of the storm with interviews by those who were also survivors, and mostly assumes you know about the era, Scotti’s tale of the Hurricane of ‘38 is a more expansive version. Interspersed with chilling descriptive passages about the ordeals of the survivors and the fates of those who did not make it, Scotti includes a profile of the times, the source and the courses of hurricanes, and the history and the actions of the Weather Bureau, which means the detailed survivors’ stories which make up the bulk of Allen’s book are truncated. Still, the narrative is enough to chill you on a warm day, especially the tale of the Jamestown school bus. The two books together make up a vivid portrait of the event that was never forgotten by the people who lived through it, like my mother. I definitely recommend hunting up both books if you are interested in the story of the hurricane, and obtaining a copy of PBS’s American Experience episode, “The Hurricane of ‘38.”

book icon  Trixie Belden and the Mystery of the Midnight Marauder, Kathryn Kenny
If The Hudson River Mystery was “what’s up with Brian?” this entry is “what’s up with Mart?” His prodigious appetite has failed, he’s stopped talking about his journalism class, and, even odder, he’s not teasing Trixie! But it isn’t until after Reddy and Patch have disappeared that the Bob-Whites get an even bigger shock: some vandal is scrawling messages on the sides of businesses and breaking into places like the school and Wimpy’s...and Mart is one of the suspects!

It’s a pell-mell combination of missing dogs, menacing messages, Molinson’s suspicions, Mart’s melancholy and "secret life," and some classmates who feel on the outs with the rest of their peers (another interesting theme for a Trixie Belden mystery). The investigation includes Trixie’s and Honey’s hair-raising car ride with a retired department store owner–and the fact (and this is a spoiler!) that Reddy is actually the one to identify “the midnight marauder”–at last he gets to do something right! This one will keep you guessing right until a big fat clue is plopped down in front of you.

book icon  An American Celebration: The Art of Charles Wysocki, with text by Betty Ballantine
For fans of the artist, a nice coffee-table book with Wysocki’s primitive, olden-days prints in full color. The text is a bit too much “good old days” nostalgic, but it’s the art that makes this one special.

book icon  On Looking, Alexandra Horowitz
Like Dr. Watson, do we ever really see what we observe? This is Alexandra Horowitz’s jumping off point for this book, which encourages us to note the usual and the unusual the next time we are in any location, even one which is most familiar. Stewart takes a baseline, standard walk around her neighborhood, trying to note each detail, and then takes a walk with eleven experts (including her little boy) to see what she's missed. Although she’s been walking around her neighborhood for years, on a slow, rambling walk with her young son, for instance, she notices patterns made by fenceposts and building decoration that she’s never “seen” before. An insect expert awakens her to the various types of insects (besides cockroaches) that live in New York City. A pest-control expert clues her in about the tiny spaces that can allow vermin access to buildings. A medical diagnostician spots passersby with evident (to him) medical problems.

Each of the eleven walks, then, talks about a different form of observation–and not just via sight: several chapters are devoted to observing by listening and by scent and by touch; one interesting segment has a blind woman showing Horowitz how she navigates the streets via cane and observation of sound.

I enjoyed this book, but am glad I didn't pay full price for it—if you get my drift. If you ever thought you were “missing something,” you probably are. Get some tips on awakening “the Sherlock Holmes” in all of us.

book icon  Trixie Belden and the Mystery at Maypenny's, Kathryn Kenny
And so my marathon read of the Trixie series after the "original sixteen" comes to an end (unless I find volumes 32-39 at another book sale). This is a surprisingly “current” plotline for a Belden mystery. A lumber company that is operating nearby, and which has been accused of causing pollution in Sleepyside, wants to expand by purchasing a few acres of the Manor House property and a few acres of Mr. Maypenny’s land. Mr. Wheeler wants to sell, Mr. Maypenny doesn’t, setting up confrontations between Jim and his stepfather, Wheeler and Maypenny, townspeople who want more jobs in the area vs. those who want Sleepyside to remain a country town, etc. Even usually calm Brian is brought into the fray by deciding to represent the lumber company in a debate, even though he doesn’t want them to expand. The mystery itself actually comes late to the story, when some dead ducks are found on the trail, and the lumber company is accused of causing the pollution that killed them.

There are a lot of nice scenes in this one, too, including Trixie trying to explain the conflict to little Bobby. Not a bad mystery, but not much of it, and the suspect is a very obvious "type." Steer clear if you want the usual “who stole the...” or “who vandalized the...” plot.

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