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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 November 2016

Books Completed Since November 1

book icon  The 10¢ War, edited by Trischa Goonow and James J. Kimble
While I am not much of a comics reader, I am a World War II homefront buff (and my Dad, uncles and cousins fought in that war) and was fascinated by the subject of this book. I have read "teen era" children's series online from sources like Project Gutenberg and once  1917 rolled around, ALL of the books had youngsters and teens trying to help the war effort--amazing reading! This practice continued during World War II and the literature used to rally the children now included comic books.

I was particularly interested in the chapters about portrayals of women in the war, and Chapter 1 admirably covers this topic. While some comics portrayed women as treacherous spies or objects to be rescued, others featured women like Yankee Girl, Blond Bomber, Black Cat, and Flyin' Jenny who were contributing to the war effort by fighting the enemy. Predictably for the era, they faced razzing from men and often needed rescuing, yet their presence in the war effort was novel for the time. Another chapter addresses the liberties given to Wonder Woman, who, in a time when good guys did not resort to torture, was allowed to use her Lasso of Truth on enemy soldiers in a way that violated their rights.

Some modern adults might be appalled at the ideas espoused by the 1940s "Captain America" comics, in which young teen Bucky Barnes and his multi-ethnic gang of friends help "Cap" battle Nazis, but Chapter 3's review of some of their exploits provides a much-imitated template that goes back to those 1917-era series books.. (Sadly, Bucky's gang includes a stereotypical "colored" boy named "Whitewash"--stereotypes are also addressed in a chapter about the Flying Tigers and their brave but quaint Chinese sidekicks, and also about the stereotyping of the Nazis and especially the Japanese, who were portrayed as little more than monkeys with buck teeth.)

Two of my favorite chapters address two different brands of comics that I had never heard of. "True Comics" tried to explain the ideology of the Nazi party and debunking ideas of certain races being superior and others being inferior, and discussing the concept of the scapegoat and paralleling that to the treatment of Jews. "Novelty Press" eschewed superheroes and showed "regular kids" contributing to the war effort: buying war bonds with money won from a bond drive rather than spending the funds on candy or fripperies, going without new toys or clothes, contributing to scrap drives--and if occasionally they thwarted a Nazi spy ring, well, that was okay, too.

If you have ever been curious about children during World War II, their reading materials, and their war efforts, you may enjoy this examination of the message of comics during the era. Please note, however, that this is a scholarly book and the essays reflect this.

book icon  Martians Abroad, Carrie Vaughn
I liked this book better when it was called Podkayne of Mars, a juvenile adventure story by Robert A. Heinlein.

It's a pretty similar setup at first: Polly Newton and her "twin" brother Charles have been born and raised on Mars. Charles is quiet and smart; he can hack into any computer system made (he's not the sociopath Podkayne's brother Clark is, although he'd like people to think so). Polly is independent and also smart; she can figure out guidance trajectories and wants to be a space pilot. Their mother, a big muckety-muck on the Mars colony, derails Polly's plan to intern at the Mars spaceport and sends them both to Earth to go to an elite school called the Galileo Institute, where all the kids "from the finest families" go. Of course, as with all boarding school stories, there is conflict between the Newton kids and several other teens sent to the school from other places rather than Earth and the Earth kids themselves, who think the off-Earth kids are all "colonial rabble," kind of like the reaction to Indian-bred British children sent to English boarding schools. Clark—I mean Charles—advises Poddy—I mean Polly—to keep her head down and just try to fit in, but Polly feels trapped at school and is used to being more independent. She just manages to make one Earth friend when the whole class is sent on a "team-building exercise" (a term that can even make adults shudder) to Yosemite. The kids will be under surveillance at all time and nothing can go wrong--or can it? When something frightening happens, it puts Charles and then Polly on guard.

There are so many other parallels to the Heinlein story that I don't know where to begin: Polly and Charles' mother is another self-absorbed executive who I guess loves her kids but who doesn't spend much time with them (Podkayne and Clark's mom is a scientist), so the theme is once again the tiresome trope of children versus parents. They are twins because Mom had her ova frozen and decided to have them thawed and born at the same time (just like Podkayne's little triplet siblings Grace, Duncan, and Elspeth). The Genesis Institute reminds me a little of the Martian boarding school in another Heinlein juvenile, Red Planet, with the adults suspected of being up to something sinister behind the kids' backs. Several sinister things happen to the Newton kids, culminating with a dangerous situation.

(Incidentally, the names of the kids really threw me at first: is the author a Madeleine L'Engle fan? Because Polly and Charles are the eldest children of Calvin and Meg Murry O'Keefe.)

This book is at its best when Polly talks about her feelings about being on Earth--things that we raised on Earth, of course, take for granted: seeing the open sky, encountering breathable air, rain, going in and out of buildings without having to dust off, seeing birds, encountering mosquitoes for the first time. Used to living in pressurized tunnels, Polly, Charles, and the other off-Earth kids get agoraphobic the first time they see "outdoors." On a field trip to New York City—which is apparently now a working museum—and walking through endless galleries of ancient art, Polly has only one wish: to see a real live horse as portrayed in the paintings. Also, the author mentions how the physiology of the children would be different since they were born in places with different gravity: the off-Earth kids are lean and tall, and they have to take supplements and do additional exercises to make them strong enough to endure Earth's gravity.

The conclusion of the book—after the dangerous situation mentioned—is a real letdown. Despite the fact that Podkayne is a teen's book, the stakes which arise in the novel are played for real. The strange events in Martians Abroad happen for the stupidest reason at the instigation of an adult. And what is it with this boarding school? Will places like this still exist in the future, with elitist rich students versus intelligent middle class students? Why does the Board of Directors still allow this to exist in a future where there are colonies on the Moon, Mars, Jupiter's moons, and space stations with families? And why on earth don't the school personnel realize that the off-Earth kids might need time to adjust to Earth conditions and might like to see what the planet has to offer on a regular basis, rather than keeping them so sequestered? At one point Ms. Stanton, the chief "baddie" at the school, tells Polly that Genesis is a school, not a prison. Gee, you could have fooled ME.

Despite the fact that "the glass ceiling" shows up for Podkayne, something that does not occur for Polly, I'd recommend reading that book rather than this. There's a lot more suspense, science, and real consequences, rather than a lame ending. Certainly had I read Martians Abroad at the same time I read Podkayne of Mars (late teens), I would have picked Poddy for the win. Polly's an interesting protagonist, as is her brother, but Martians Abroad is okay, nothing more.

book icon  Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, Max Hastings
This is a thick, meaty book about the "Great War" just in the period from its inception to December 1914. Hastings first discusses the brewing rivalries underneath the veneer of genteel Edwardian charm, then the trigger event itself, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, and then the realities vs. the expectations—men confidently marching away to a "glorious battle" that would be "over by Christmas" by December already astounded by casualties and the descent into the first of the trenches, where the British and French found squalid digs as opposed to their opposite number.

Hastings uses actual manuscripts and records from the time to try to bring his personalities alive, from the mighty to the small, but the case of characters is quite large. This is not an easy read but not an oblique one, either. A welcome inclusion is a focus on the Eastern front as well as the usually covered Western front.

The book includes a photograph section and also battle maps, but one probably needs to be familiar with the structure of battle maps before interpreting them. I found them small and a bit confusing. As always for me, the book dragged a bit when chronicling the political machinations, as I am more interested in the day-to-day life of the everyday person caught up in the maelstrom. Your mileage may vary!

book icon  Murder on Amsterdam Avenue, Victoria Thompson
Frank Molloy and Sarah Brandt are finally to be married, if the remodeling of the house that Frank has purchased will ever be finished (an issue with malingering contractors which is still felt today that becomes a mild running gag in the story). In the meantime, Sarah accompanies her mother to pay a condolence call on the Oakes family, whose adult son Charles has tragically died. The family is little called on because Charles' mother is felt to be a standoffish Southerner whom Mr. Oakes married when he served during the Civil War. The Oakes are not only heartbroken at his death, but puzzled at why Charles' temperament changed drastically in the past few months. Then it turns out that something was indeed wrong: Charles had been poisoned with arsenic.

With the help of Sarah and Gino Donatelli, an old comrade from the police force, Frank has to sort through the puzzle that is Charles' death: where did the poison come from? Why the personality change? Why did he stop sleeping with his spoiled, complaining wife, whom he suddenly refused to take to Newport for "the season"? Has the appearance of Jenny Oakes' former servant from her Southern days something to do with Charles' death?

I guessed what had happened about two-thirds of the way through, but kept reading to see just "whodunit." In the meantime, the secret to getting the home remodeling finished is dealt with in a trice. And finally Sarah and Frank are married!

book icon  Righting the Mother Tongue, David Wolman
I have a bumper sticker on my car that states the following: "English doesn't borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and rummages through their pockets for loose grammar." Wolman, who admits he's had spelling problems for years, evidently agrees with this sentiment in this short, often humorous survey of English spelling.

Once upon a time, he tells us, English speaking people weren't hung up on proper spelling. Shakespeare himself spelled his own name several different ways. But then the bugaboo of "proper language" invaded the old country, care of several scholars including Jonathan Swift, and the race for proper spelling was on. When the inhabitants of the United States broke off from Great Britain, Noah Webster roamed wholesale through vocabulary, removing the useless "u's" in colour and favour, and even Presidents of the United States like Theodore Roosevelt pushed for simplified spelling: "good" to be "gud," for example.

If you've ever wondered why those silent letters were in words (like the "h" in "ghost," for one), or what a Great Vowel Shift was, or which writers threw their hats in the Simplified Spelling ring, this book will prove a treat.

book icon  Christmas 1914, John Hudson

book icon  Away in a Manger, Rhys Bowen

book icon  There I Go Again, William Daniels
I pounced on this book the moment it was offered in NetGalley; I’ve been a William Daniels fan since St. Elsewhere and watch 1776 each Independence Day. I was not disappointed: I fell in love with this book from the first paragraphs of the Acknowledgements, where Daniels states “I wrote this manuscript in longhand on yellow legal pads, so I have to first thank Rachael Lobermann, who spent many hours typing it all up. I have excellent handwriting, but I don’t know a damn thing about computers.

“Laurie Horowitz took the typed pages and made them resemble something that looked like a book, with paragraphs and everything.”

If you are a Daniels fan, the narrative of this book will draw you right in--it sounds exactly as you would expect it to sound: matter-of-fact, brisk, and often acerbic and, sadly, sometimes a little bitter. The bitter comes in during the story of his early life, which began in Brooklyn, where he suffered from having a stage mother who would put Mama Rose in Gypsy to shame. By the time he was ten, both he and his sister had been treading the boards for years and appeared in two different radio shows, while his education was neglected and his childhood lost. Even when he was fearful or sick, Mama Irene taught him the show—and he—must go on.

The book opens with the story of Daniels’ brilliant years as the blustery, sarcastic and selfish Dr. Mark Craig on St. Elsewhere, a part, he admits, was partially based on the surgeon he shadowed to give his performance an authentic touch, and partially on his own personality. He’s up-front about himself the whole way, as he chronicles his life as a performing artist forced into appearances by his ambitious mother to his first role on Broadway as an understudy in Life With Father and then to independence after his service in the Army, plus his marriage to fellow actor Bonnie Bartlett, which nearly gave his mother apoplexy.

The subsequent chapters discuss everything you would expect: his noted roles of John Adams in 1776 and Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World, and how he did Knight Rider for years without ever performing with David Hasselhoff. (People still ask him about being the voice of the “intelligent vehicle”; one man at an autograph session even asked him where they had him stashed in the car!) He talks about working with Broadway legends like Jerome Robbins, Sandy Dennis, Barbara Harris, and Jason Robards (where the one important thing was not to allow Robards to wander off and get drunk). He even chronicles his two-year stint as President of the Screen Actors Guild. The book is rounded off with photographs from Daniels’ collection, from himself as a child through all of his most memorable roles. I particularly loved the photo where he is posing as John Adams next to a painting of the man.

As a bonus, the Appendix is a reprint of New York City Center’s interview with Daniels chatting with Lin-Manuel Miranda of the hit musical Hamilton!, discussing the similarities between this new play and 1776 and Miranda’s appreciation of the John Adams and Mr. Feeny roles. A must for William Daniels fans or perhaps even for someone who wants to see the behind the scenes machinations of setting up and producing plays.

book icon  The New England Image,Samuel Chamberlain
I found this 1962 photoessay book at a book sale for a dollar, but it's worth so much more. Not only did author and photographer Chamberlain take all of these photos from 1935 to the publishing date of the book, but he took them with what I call a "real" camera, the kind that you have to duck under a dark cloth to frame your image, which is is captured on glass plates! Plus these photos preserve a New England destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938, Hurricane Carol, and the most virulent hurricane of all, urban renewal, a place of Cape Cod homes and fishing shacks, clapboard churches and Colonial frontages, ivy-covered colleges and rocky seashores. I remember some of the buildings which survived into the 1960s only to be bulldozed down for malls and strip shopping centers. Made me sad, but happy all at once.

book icon  Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience, Melanie Kirkpatrick

book icon  And three more Thanksgiving books!

book icon  Broadcast Hysteria, A. Brad Schwartz
Even non-radio buffs have heard about the infamous 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds: Orson Welles changed all the names to American places, broke ground by doing the story as a series of news bulletins, and hundreds of thousands of people panicked thinking Martians were invading.

Well, not really...even though the later Welles talked as if he were the hands-on writer of the play, the book reveals he had little or no input into the story (he was mounting a Broadway play at the time) except to tell scriptwriter Howard Koch that it was dull and he needed to spice it up a little and make it sound more real. It wasn't the first radio fiction story done in a series of news bulletins. And only a few hundred people panicked, and most of them didn't think we were being invaded by Martians—they were antsy due to rumblings of war in Europe and thought any invaders were from Europe.

Schwartz covers the whole story of the "hoax" broadcast from the early days of enfant terrible Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre of the Air (named after H.L. Mencken's popular literary magazine "The American Mercury") through its performance and then the aftermath via the mail that was received on the subject by CBS, Congress, and individual radio stations. He makes a great parallel to the "how stupid could people be" view of this event to hoaxes which are passed along the Internet every day. Really enjoyed hearing about the conception and performance of the play (and Welles' slow downfall afterwards) and the comparisons to today.

book icon  The Shattered Tree, Charles Todd
The book opens with a terrified man making his way to the shelter of a bomb-damaged tree, half dead with cold, exhaustion, and exposure. He is brought to the aid station where Bess Crawford is one of the nurses, and while Bess is on wards, he speaks in German although he was wearing a French uniform. Bess reports the incident but is told the officer is probably from Alsace-Lorraine, one of the contested areas between France and Germany. Still, even after she is wounded by sniper fire and sent to the hospital with a fear of infection, she keeps thinking about this man—and, since he was held in the same hospital as she was, decides to investigate further, a move that introduces her to a nun with a secret and a priest who knows something more than he's telling, not to mention a family that was shattered by a murder years earlier.

Although the mystery is pretty convoluted, Bess spends a lot of her time driving back and forth between places during her recovery (and in the process retards it a bit; as a nurse she should know better!) in the company of an indulgent captain and eventually kept under surveillance. The plot is very slow moving until the end, but I was interested enough in the mystery of the missing man, and I like Bess, even if her usual supporting cast (Simon and her dad and mom) appear only briefly. I'm also wondering if the series will be continuing as the end of the book took place in November of 1918. Granted, even after the Armistice the mopping-up still needs to be done; allied troops were in Europe until 1919.

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