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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.
 

30 September 2016

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris
I can't believe how long it took for me to get through this book, even though I practically galloped through The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; once again this is because once the book begins to discuss politics and its machinations, I find it tough going. And of course politics is the meat of this volume because it is about Roosevelt's presidency and there can be no ignoring the subject. I enjoy more the discussions of the man himself, his passions and his hates, his family dynamics and his adventurous side.

Nevertheless, I learned much during the political portions of the text: for instance, I did not know that the United States almost went to war with Venezuela in the early 1900s. Nor was I knowledgeable about Roosevelt's role in arranging peace between Russia and Japan after the Russo-Japanese War, especially with tensions growing in Europe that would lead to the first World War. We tend to see Roosevelt as a loved proponent of the Progressive movement without remembering how many political enemies he had, nor what unpopular decisions and actions he carried out, especially inviting Frederick Douglass to the White House (his mother's Southern ancestors, the Dixie newspapers cried, would have been appalled—and that was the kindest of the criticisms!) and mediating and finally shutting down a massive strike among the coal miners.

This is a dense, but quite absorbing book—pardon my political narrative prejudices!—which should please both Roosevelt fans and foes alike.

book icon  Star Trek Legacies, Book 1: Captain to Captain, Greg Cox
In this first of three books (written by different authors), the story goes back to Star Trek roots. While serving on the original crew of the Enterprise, Una (her real name is very long), otherwise known as "Number One" in the original pilot episode, is serving under Captain Robert April, the first captain of the legendary starship. Investigating new, unsavory developments on a technologically primitive planet, Una and her landing party run into a ruthless race from another universe determined to enslave ours.

This story is told in flashback as now Captain Una visits the Enterprise, ostensibly on a friendly reunion, but in reality on a mission to retrieve a hidden object in Captain Kirk's cabin, an artifact which has been hidden and passed down from April to Christopher Pike to Kirk.

Number One has been rather a forgotten crewmember in the Trek annals, and she gets good exposure in this novel by Cox—though occasionally she  does seem a bit more superheroic than may be possible. We saw her so briefly sketched in "The Cage" that it's nice to find a fully fleshed person in there, with strong commitments to her work and loyal friendships to her crewmates, including the man she considered her best friend. It's also great to see an appearance by Robert April and his wife Sarah, the ship's medical officer, first introduced in the animated Star Trek episode "The Counter-Clock Incident," working partners as well as lovers. The aliens, who are basically sentient snails, come off as a bit Doctor Who, chiefly all paranoid militants except for one scientist figure, but they ooze [sorry...] evil and are genuinely menacing in most of the text.

Yes, the appearance of a new supporting character is as obvious as you think it is, so it isn't much of a surprise when the end of the first volume is reached, but I enjoyed Una's adventure enough to see how it comes out in the concluding books.

book icon  The Annotated Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, Simon Barker-Benfield
Um, wait, didn't you say you hated Treasure Island? Um, yes, I did. I was dragged, summarily bored, through this book in seventh grade and haven't read it since. I simply don't "get" what people see in pirates. They are dirty thieves on ships. I know lots of people have romantic notions about them—how they are "free souls" who wander the seas—but, really, only a tiny subset of pirates (if any) lived like this. Otherwise they were on par with the Mafia.

And, specifically to Squire Trelawney, I always wanted to belt the guy, even at twelve years old. He let Long John Silver hoodwink him so easily!

However, here was this annotated edition really cheap in the bargain bin. Maybe I'd enjoy it more if I knew the background and history beyond the story and could figure out all those nautical terms? Well—no. Certainly the annotations made fascinating reading, and now I even know who Admiral Benbow was. I still don't like Squire Trelawney any better, but he was a good fighter during the siege on the island. However, even I have to appreciate what timeless and memorable characters these are. I remembered them all, even Mr. Arrow, too fond of the drink, and the fearful Israel Hands, and the creepy blind beggar Pew, and Stevenson sure could write a rousing adventure yarn. If you're a fan of Treasure Island, I certainly recommend this book!

book icon  Return to the Secret Garden, Holly Webb
Emmeline Hatton has known nothing but an orphanage all her life. The matrons are kind, but they can’t make up for having a place to really belong, and Emmie seems to be always in trouble. Her secret place, an old fire escape, is her only refuge, and it is there she befriends a small stray cat she names Lucy, something finally her own. But this is England, on the eve of the second World War, and when the children are evacuated from the Craven Home for Orphaned Children, Emmie is not permitted to take Lucy with her. Unhappy and resentful, she slowly begins to take an interest in things at her new “home,” Misselthwaite Manor, especially after she meets an inquisitive robin and finds a girl’s old diaries in her room.

This is lively, absorbing, and plausible sequel to the Burnett classic, which, unlike the sequel to A Little Princess which made excuses for all the bad characters as their just being unhappy, manages to capture a good deal of the appeal of its source. While the more modern vocabulary is not quite as rich as Burnett’s prose, the narrative does well describing the physical settings, and author does not shy away from realities, and the uncertainty of the evacuated children, the effect of the war on those at Misselthwaite, the atmosphere of a country at war (such as when a character talks to Emmie about the fate of animals in evacuated London), and best of all, creates plausible "futures” for the protagonists of the original novel, and creates parallels between this sequel and the original. There are also some wonderful, emotional scenes: a character’s belated reaction to bad news, Emmie’s realization upon meeting this person later that in her quest to find someplace to belong that she has made no allowances for the pain of others, a child hiding emotional pain behind a sarcastic front. If I have any complaint, it is that I would have loved more descriptions of the actual people: we know Emmie is thin and thinks herself “ugly,” that a certain character resembles their parent, that one character is short, that another wears a knitted cap and a little girl has a teddy bear. I would have liked to know more how these characters looked: the coloring, height, build of Arthur, Joey, and Ruby, for instance, and the matrons Miss Dearlove and Miss Rose. I scarcely know whether Emmie herself is brunette or blond. Burnett did such a good job of describing all her characters in a few succinct passages that I can see them clearly in my mind; I find I can’t do that with many of the characters in the sequel.

As an adult reading this book—the children reading it probably won’t care—I wish Ms. Webb had dipped into a few books of old British slang or even a couple of Enid Blyton novels to completely capture the speech and vocabulary of the era. There are some good strong references (“fish paste” sandwiches, candles as nightlights, blackout curtains, bread and butter for snacks), but at various times a modernism pops up that I find jarring: one character calls another “weird,” which is not a word a British child would have used in 1939, and another piece of dialog refers to someone having a “panic attack”; surely there were British slang words for that condition that would have been understandable to a modern child. (In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox uses “hysterics,” which would have been fine.) Also, people are always listening to “the radio” when the word at that time would have been “the wireless,” another word that could have been explained in short order.

Although the protagonist of this story is a girl and the book is a sequel to what many define as a “girl’s book” (I disagree) despite the fact that there are two strong male characters in it, Return to the Secret Garden should be enjoyable to all children, especially as a read-aloud book. with its combination of both girl and boy characters and no frilly “princess” nonsense. It could lead to discussions about the feelings of children who have parents in the armed forces, and also is a historical introduction to World War II and the children evacuated from London. Other children’s fiction to read on this subject include Carrie’s War, The War That Saved My Life, and Back Home.

book icon  In Such Good Company, Carol Burnett
Imagine that you are flying to Los Angeles to New York, and for weather reasons, your flight is delayed several hours. To your surprise, at the airport you find yourself sitting next to Carol Burnett. You introduce yourself politely and tell her how much you loved her classic variety show. To your utter delight, Carol not only acknowledges your compliment with a smile, but she wants to continue the conversation! And you forget about the flight delay as Carol regales you with stories about behind the scenes at The Carol Burnett Show.

This is the feeling you get from reading this book, as if you and Carol are sitting together having a cup of tea and she’s reminiscing. It’s written in a friendly, conversational style that anyone from 8 to 80 can enjoy. Along the way you find out a little of Carol’s background and her time on The Garry Moore Show, about the early careers of her regular cast, and them fun stories about the gestation of some of the most memorable skits, from the recurring—“Mr. Tudball and Mrs. ‘Hwiggins’”—to the memorable—“Went With the Wind” and other hilarious movie parodies. There’s also a chapter about the unique costume requirements of the series—yes, including the curtain dress! She devotes a whole chapter to the development and life of the “Mama” skits, including a sobering tale about reading one of them straight instead of playing it for laughs. Plus there are riotous stories chronicling Tim Conway’s eternal mission to break up Harvey Korman—they used to wager on the set just how long it would take Conway to make Korman laugh—and the story behind the skit that has become an internet favorite, the “elephant story.”

If you were one of the thousands who waited for Saturday night just to spend an hour with Carol, Vicki, Lyle, Harvey, Dick, Tim, and the other members of the company, this is the book for you. It can be read at any time, but is a perfect bedtime book, to conclude your day with a smile!

In addition, the book includes an index of all episodes and the guest stars.

book icon  A Mile of Make-Believe: A History of the Eaton's Santa Claus Parade, Steve Penfold
Today on Thanksgiving everyone tunes into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC with scant glance toward whatever is running on the other channels, but I remember Thanksgiving Day in the 1960s, when CBS broadcast something called “The Thanksgiving Day Parade Jubilee,” featuring four parades, including Macy’s, Gimbels parade from Philadelphia, J.L. Hudson’s from Detroit, and a fourth parade from Toronto, Canada, the Eaton’s [department store] Santa Claus Parade. As I grew a little older, I realized Eaton’s parade wasn’t really broadcast on Thanksgiving—Canada’s Thanksgiving is in October; CBS announcers always did tell you that it was “pre-recorded”—and it was an “odd duck” compared to the others, with floats devoted to fairy tales, including the always wonderful “Mother Goose” float which opened the parade, a woman dressed in old-fashioned garb riding the back of a huge, beautiful white goose. Even the fairy tales were a little different—perhaps British or French, I thought when I saw stories that I did not recognize.

This is a scholarly book about the history of the Eaton’s parade, from its simple beginnings when Santa Claus came to town riding on the back of a truck in the early years of the 20th century, through its golden years in which Eaton’s held other Santa Claus parades in Montreal and Winnipeg (among others), and finally of its fading years to the year a failing Eaton’s finally gave up sponsorship of the parade (1982; the parade still continues under the aegis of the City of Toronto). It’s the story of how a shopping promotion quickly became “a tradition” which generations of children and parents observed, how nationalistic tendencies changed the parade in various cities (the Montreal parade always had more French associations than its Toronto cousin and there were often protests that French heritage was not acknowledged enough; in addition, shifting attitudes to people of color and First Nations people changed how these elements were portrayed in the parade), how the management of Eaton’s once insisted that commercial endeavors (like Disney or television characters) stay out of the parade—although that was eventually rescinded, and how the parades affected city traffic, people’s memories of Christmas, and what was seen as the increasing “commercializing” of the holiday.

Once television enters the picture, there is also discussion of how television coverage changed the route of the parade, and how attendance fell when people thought they could have a better view of the parade—especially children who had to peer over the shoulders of rude adults who blocked them—at home on their color television than braving traffic, crowds, and often freezing and inclement weather. (There is actually brief discussion of the CBS broadcast and puzzlement from Canadian viewers on “what a Santa Claus parade had to do with Thanksgiving.”)

If you were an American CBS watcher, like me, who fondly remembers the Santa Claus parade from its Thanksgiving Day heyday, you may enjoy this peek behind the scenes history.

The text is liberally illustrated with vintage black-and-white photographs of the parade.

book icon  Brute Strength, Susan Conant
After All Shots was released in 2007, I didn't see one of Conant's "Dog Lover's Mysteries" again. I thought she had finally given them up to co-author a set of cooking mysteries with her daughter. Which is why I was flabbergasted when I was looking up one of Laurien Berenson's mystery books (also involving dogs) and found not one, but two newer books that I had never seen in any bookstore or found on Amazon (but then I had quit looking after a couple of  years). The moment I had more Amazon points, I sent for both. (I noticed she had a new publisher, which might solve the mystery of why I hadn't seen them.)

Dog trainer and writer Holly Winter is busy making enemies (she works for Malemute rescue and often has to turn down applicants, who don't like her very much for doing so) and refereeing a quarrel between her best friend and her newest boyfriend as the story opens, so she happily makes a new friend on one of her walks, a woman named Vanessa who owns an attractive female Malemute and who loves Jane Austen. Holly no sooner meets Vanessa's family, including golden boy son Hatch, colorless daughter Avery, and hypochondriac father Tom, than Vanessa's future daughter-in-law Fiona dies in a car crash. Unfortunately, that's not the end of the strange events happening within Holly's circle of friends and family.

As soon as I started reading, I was home again: Holly, husband Steve, Rowdy and Kimi and all the other dogs of the pack, best friend Rita, neighbor Kevin and his mother, Holly's eccentric father Buck and her ever-patient stepmother Gabrielle. To be frank, I suspected a certain character from the first, but didn't care because I wanted to know why the person was acting this way. It's a lively mixture of Holly's usual dog-centric commentary, mystery, suspense (involving obscene phone calls being made to Malemute rescue), and the delightful Cambridge neighborhood in which it all takes place. Conant even finally addressed one of my sore points in the last few books: Holly's cat Tracker, who has to stay confined to her office, explaining that the cat's temperament makes her unadoptable and reclusive.

And the best part is that I still have another one to read!

book icon  Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, Lois Lowry
Lowry, most well known for her award-winning book The Giver, takes a turn at a "Dear America" entry with the story of the Pierce children, Lydia, just turned eleven, and rebellious Daniel, fourteen, who live a quiet middle-class life in Portland, Maine in the closing months of World War I—until the Spanish influenza sweeps through the city, taking their parents and baby sister. Sent to live with an uncle and aunt already overcrowded with six children, they are finally given over to the Shakers, the simple-living industrious Christians who live at Sabbathday Lake. Lydia comes to love her guardian, Sister Jennie, and her "sisters" (the girls she lives with), but Daniel soon runs away.

This is a very sweet book about a girl early coping with loss and being taken in by the pacifist, celibate Shakers (who, despite their simple lifestyle, Lydia discovers are not without humor and allow the children to play as well as work), but nothing really happens during the story except Lydia's worry over her brother and talk about her chores and new friends. It's not a boring book, but to me it seems more like an adult's book, and that mostly only quiet, retrospective children would have the patience to read it all the way through. For my part, I found it more compelling than the San Francisco earthquake story, with its artificial mystery element and sinister villains.

Most of the Shaker adults in the story were real people and I enjoyed the way Lowry brought them to life.

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