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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 May 2017

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  America 1933, Michael Golay
Lorena Hickok was one of the best freelance journalists of the 1930s when she befriended Eleanor Roosevelt after doing a story on the President and his family. She and Eleanor became fast friends and conjecture has it that they became lovers, physically as well as emotionally. Having been betrayed by both her father and her husband, Eleanor had many close female friends and she wrote them warm letters that sounded like love letters between heterosexual couples. Whether or not that is true—you can read some of ER's letters in this book and make up your own mind—this isn't the real meat of this book. The focus is the 18-month trip Hickok took to every corner of the United States at the request of Harry Hopkins, to see firsthand the effects of the Depression on the ordinary American.

This book may make you weep as Hickok reports from coal country, the Appalachians, California, the Dust Bowl, and many other locations and sees the desperate straits people are in: single women barely eating, families overwhelmed by poverty, children who can't go to school for lack of warm coats and shoes, mine workers surviving on a pittance with foul streams of mine rubble running through their neighborhoods, people living in cardboard boxes, anti-union thugs beating up men who just want a living wage, black people constantly in fear of lynching and thuggery if they try to better themselves. As ER admonishes her to take care of herself, Hickok is indignant and enraged by relief efforts constantly hung up on red tape until they're too late to combat starvation and cold. The excerpts from her letters show you the real Depression, not the optimistic "heads up, we'll weather the blast" propaganda handed out by the government.

About Hickok and the First Lady, you can make up your own mind, but better read for Hickok's observations and revelations.

book icon  Re-read: Midnight Riot, Ben Aaronovitch
Peter Grant has finally made it into London's metropolitan police force with ambitions of going far. He and fellow neophyte Leslie May are called in to help when a headless body is found in front of St. Paul's, and Peter's just minding his own business while Leslie goes to get them something hot to drink when a ghost calling himself Nicholas Moneypenny tells him he witnessed the murder. Still digesting this information—since Peter's never been much of a believer in ghosts—he finds himself assigned to a mundane pencil-pushing police project while Leslie goes to the Murder Squad. But that's all changed when he's recruited by Inspector Thomas Nightingale, London's last practicing wizard, who takes odd cases too strange for the Met and who heard about Peter's ghostly encounter. Peter, it seems, has a talent for sensing vestigia (magical leftovers) and soon he finds himself ensconced at Nightingale's home with an odd housekeeper, learning magic.

While this all sounds delightfully daffy, it's actually the opening act to a super urban fantasy series. Peter, the biracial child of an African mother who has supported them as a housecleaner and an estranged jazz musician father, is a good-natured, earnest guy who is immediately likeable. We follow his progress learning magic as more bizarre murders take place around London, with people's faces being bizarrely affected by whatever madness has infected the city. He also makes the acquaintance of the gods and goddesses of London's river system, including Mother Thames, who keeps watch over the city while Father Thames guards its source in the country, and ends up with a dog who can trail ghosts. Endlessly inventive and with a twist that would make Arthur Bryant of Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May mysteries sit up and take notice. If you're looking for a novel urban fantasy series, this may be your cup of tea.

book icon  Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, Kory Stamper
What's so hard about editing a dictionary? You just write down what the word means, right?

As Kory Stamper can tell you, it's nothing that simple. The smallest words can be the most difficult to define, word meanings change, and social definitions that were once simple now must encompass more sensitive and extensive racial and ethnic boundaries.

Stamper, who grew up a bookworm and felt taking a job at Merriam-Webster was a "throw me in the briar patch, B'rer Fox" moment, describes her often extensive co-workers, the problems with English grammar and spelling, the histories of English dictionaries and Webster's specifically (for a long time, anyone could publish a "Webster's" dictionary), about the specifics of defining a word in as precise terms as possible (how would you define the word "surfboard"? it's more difficult than it looks!), on words that people think shouldn't be in the dictionary (like "dirty words" and "ain't"), and of tracking down etymologies. It's a delightful collection of essays that make you think as well as laugh. A must have for anyone who loves words.

book icon  Ex Libris, edited by Paula Guran
Library aficionados should love this collection of library fantasy and science fiction stories as much as I did. It's an interesting assortment of tales from the warm and whimsical opener "In the House of the Seven Librarians," about an abandoned infant raised in a classic old library that has been abandoned by a town and Ray Bradbury's nostalgic "Exchange," to post-apocalyptic stories like "The Books" (about the children of traveling show people trying to find new things to read) and "What Books Survive" and its teenage protagonist trying to outwit invaders just long enough to get to the library, to fantasy like "Death and the Librarian," where the librarian in question duels with the Grim Reaper, to otherworldly libraries. As the pages turn, a young man discovers his girlfriend can hide in fiction (literally), wizardry students must survive a deadly library to complete an assignment, an elusive library hides amazing works, and a few library tales step over that shivery abyss into horror (but just enough to make your skin tingle). The writing styles range from delightfully warm to grimly somber, from straightforward narrative to unexpected twist.

There were a couple of stories, as usual with any collection of this kind, that just didn't wow me, like "The King of the Big Night Hours," and while "Magic for Beginners" (featuring an elusive television series called The Library) was intriguing, I didn't quite get it in the end. Any false steps, however, have been completely overwhelmed by the stories I have mentioned and the collection as a whole, which I found inventive and entertaining.

book icon  A Curious Beginning, Deanna Raybourn
Veronica Speedwell is a definitely unconventional Victorian woman. Now that her last aunt has died, Veronica, a talented and adventurous lepidopterist, plans to sell her cottage and continue the foreign adventures she enjoyed before coming back to nurse her aunt (and the decidedly unconventional romances she enjoyed along with them) collecting butterflies and moths to sell to natural scientists. But as she finishes packing up her aunt's cottage, someone tries to kidnap her. Bewildered, she accepts the escort of a German baron who accompanies her to London and leaves her in the care of a bad-tempered taxidermist named Stoker. When the baron is murdered, Stoker and Veronica become the prime suspects; they flee, taking refuge in a colorful traveling circus, posing as a knife thrower and his wife, all the while maintaining an adversarial relationship with each other while trying to determine who killed Baron von Stauffenbach. And did he really know Veronica's mother, as he told her? And why does this fact matter to so many people?

Unconventional Victorian heroine? Should have been a sure bet, but I simply found Veronica unlikeable—not because she was strong and self-sufficient, but despite it. She really isn't all that likeable, and has a smug way about her that's not very attractive. And, of course, Stoker is fabulously well built and, after he shaves, devastatingly handsome, and they strike sparks off each other while secretly lusting over each other. Oh, that again. You may have seen one of the versions of a plot point in this book in a Sherlock Holmes film called Murder by Decree. She simply didn't capture my interest like Raybourn's original Victorian lead, Lady Julia Grey, or even the leads in her early 20th century novels.

I won't be continuing this series.

book icon  The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard
Great big dictionary-like listing of mostly British children's books and authors, but touching on all famous book characters from Anne Shirley to Huckleberry Finn and short essays about children's literature in countries other than Britain. Liberally scattered with book illustrations and covers and children's magazine covers. Anyone who loves children's literature, especially of a British stripe, should check out this volume to enjoy old favorites and discover new ones.

book icon  Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch
In the second Peter Grant mystery/fantasy, Peter and his mentor Inspector Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, are called to view the corpse of a part time jazz musician. Using his previously unknown esoteric talent, Peter can hear a jazz tune coming from the deceased, which tells him that the death was somehow caused by magic. Peter's familiar with jazz after growing up as the son of Richard "Lord" Grant, a well-known jazz musician who's recently begun to play again (on a different instrument) and get off the drugs that ruined his life. When similar deaths in London's Soho district occur, Peter is further perplexed, but gains an unexpected bonus: a sexy jazz fan named Simone who is crazy about him. Tossed into the mix: a shadowy magician who is running his own version of The Island of Dr. Moreau.

I didn't think this story was as strong as the first, but we learn much more about Peter's early life as well as making the acquaintance of his parents. We also learn of the progress of the truce between the rivers (where Peter almost makes a fatal mistake that would have affected his friend Beverley Brook) and Peter's co-worker Leslie's recovery from the nearly deadly magical machinations worked upon her in the previous book. Peter is someone you'd love to know, a good friend, a wizard slowly growing in power, and a police officer learning his profession, and the story moves briskly—sometimes at a racing pace!—as more bodies appear in Soho and police work and wizardry tangle in a delightful combination.

If you like your urban fantasy with a good dollop of humor and a likeable lead, this is the series for you!

book icon  The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Marta McDowell
The moment I saw the author of this book, I wanted to read it. I sat down one grey and gloomy day to read McDowell's Gardening Life of Beatrix Potter and was completely immersed in summer, flowers, and the heady scent of the English countryside and the sheep-dotted slopes of the Lake District.

While there have been many books in the last couple of decades written about Laura Ingalls Wilder, this is the only one that addresses not simply events in Laura's life, but the landscapes her family lived in, the wildlife she saw, the plants that grew in the diverse areas in which she lived. Each chapter corresponds with a milestone in the life of a plant, from seed as Laura is born and spends her early years in the Big Woods of Wisconsin (and Almanzo grows up in the cold north of New York), to late harvest as she and husband Almanzo grow old at Rocky Ridge Farm in Missouri. It is also more generally a history of westward expansion and the flora and fauna found by the settlers when they arrived.

This is a beautiful book, liberally illustrated with color and black-and-white photos of the Ingalls family, illustrations from both Helen Sewell and Garth Williams from the Little House books, botanical prints, maps, and clippings from newspapers, brochures, magazines, etc. that tell the story of the European settling of the Midwest. McDowell's words bring to mind winter chill, summer warmth, birdsong, the sheer awe of the tall prairie grass (don't compare prairie grass to what grows on your front lawn; these are mammoth blades of grass which were higher than a man's head and gave to the bison all the nourishment needed), the scent and sight of fields of wildflowers, the blue sky arching above. For anyone who loves nature, or who wishes to know as closely as possible what Laura experienced in the Wisconsin woods, on the Kansas prairie, in the Iowa groves, and in the hills of Mansfield, Missouri, this is a keeper for certain.

Perfect for a quiet day with cocoa and soft music playing in the background.

book icon  In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson
Now this is what I expect from Bill Bryson, not the continuous whine, whine, whine of The Lost Continent (although in his epilog about the Sydney Olympics he managed to whine, whine, whine about the Atlanta Olympics). It's the story of Bill's explorations in Australia, done mostly by car on his own, but also riding on Indian Pacific Railway, and riding to Alice Springs with a friend, going from one corner to the other and then the other way. He visits the well-known coastal cities of Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Perth, the less well known cities of Cairns and Darwin, and natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef, Shark Bay where living fossils exist, a forest of beautiful karri and jarrah trees (known as Australian's Redwoods), and, of course the famous desert town of Alice Springs.

This is a fun, whimsical travelogue in which Bryson touches on the character of the Australians, its always unforgiving countryside (it "harbors many things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways," as the jacket promo promises) full of lush flora, its odd wildlife (and the intrusive wildlife introduced by outsiders), and just the sheer area of the small continent which is also an island and a country. Although his train ride seems like a dream, it sounds like most of his reposes were taken at poor motels masquerading under pretty names, although he was met with hospitality at most places. (Again, he ticks off on tourists, although he's not the best traveler on earth.) Throughout the book Bryson touches on the plight (no other term for it) of the Aborigine, whom he observes has never fit in and always seems an outsider (one hopes things have improved in the past 18 years).

It's a fun introduction to Australia and Bryson kept the carping to a minimum, so I'm happy.

book icon  Murder Most Malicious: A Lady and Lady's Maid Mystery, Alyssa Maxwell
It's Christmas at Foxwood Manor, the first after the Great War, and the Renshaw family is hosting guests to help them celebrate the holidays, including Lord Allerton, soon to be engaged to the eldest of the Renshaw daughters, Julia. But on Christmas night, Phoebe, the progressive and curious middle daughter, comes downstairs to find Henry, Lord Allerton, and her sister Julia arguing, each apparently knowing a terrible secret about the other. Next morning, Lord Allerton doesn't show up for breakfast, but no one except his mother seems very alarmed—until Boxing Day gifts sent to the servants' families contain unpleasant gifts relating to the young lord. Phoebe is determined to find out what's happened, as is one of the lady's maids in the household, Eva Huntford.

This belongs to the breed of modern country house mystery stories in which much or all of the family is kind to the servants, and a degree of progressiveism in class relations is portrayed, sort of Downton Abbey Lite with a mystery attached. Sometimes the PC is maddening, as when Phoebe describes the forbidden-by-Grandma American novel her grandfather is secretly reading as "the one about the boy...and his African friend." As if a Brit in that day and age wouldn't have used what is now a more offensive term as a commonplace thing; it seems so evidently stuck in there to show the family (or at least Phoebe) is progressive. The only Renshaw son is snarky in a manner that I think no British boy would allowed to be back then, and there are continued references to him going to "Eaton," as if he's shopping in a Canadian department store rather than going to one of the most famous boys' public schools in England, Eton.

Frankly this isn't much different from a half-dozen other recreations of the past done in the last ten or twenty years, with an ingenuous young heroine (sometimes hero) ahead of her time and her egalitarian ways with those who are supposed to be her social inferiors. Phoebe and Eva are both nice young woman, but there's nothing really special about them, the mystery breaks no new ground, and everything has the polish of veneer and plastic rather than old wood and porcelain.

book icon  Rhode Island 101, Tim Lehnert
A "popcorn" book, one you can dip into at any page and find some fun tidbits about the Ocean State. Starts with a timeline of Rhode Island history, then bits of facts in sections labeled "Slang," "Cities and Towns," "Weather," "Arts and Entertainment," etc. interrupted by fun "Take 5" lists like "Top Five Rhode Island Reads," "Five Best Providence Buildings," "Top Five Movies Made in Rhode Island." Plus there are other inserts like "You Know You're From Rhode Island When...," profiles of Rhode Island personalities from Buddy Cianci to H.P. Lovecraft, pieces about ethnic groups, cities, regions, films, quotations, and more.

The political information at the end is a bit tiresome, but, all in all, a fun book for Rhode Islanders or anyone who wants to understand one.

book icon  From Holmes to Sherlock, Mattias Boström
Upon finishing this, all I can say is "wow."

That being said, I did have a bit of a difficult time reading it, not because it was an ARC, but because it was so badly formatted as an Kindle e-book that the truncated paragraphs and wrap-around short texts ruined the rhythm of the author's words, and because it covers such a varied cast of characters. If you think this is your run-of-the-mill "how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes" yarn,  you'll be in for a surprise: while the beginning of the book does follow that formula, the rest of the story follows how Holmes became a literary phenomenon even after Doyle's death, and the people who kept him alive: a boy named Kit who devours all the stories and grows up to be Christopher Morley, Doyle's sons Adrian and Denis, who hope to make a living off Holmes while keeping their father's memory alive (neither of them come off particularly well in this book—Adrian is money grubbing and Denis an alcoholic and spendthrift, with a Russian wife who's just as bad), the Baker Street Irregulars and their anti-female attitude, actors like the infamous William Gillette, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Arthur Wontner, even the 1980s Russian Holmes, women like Edith Meiser, writer for the classic American Holmes radio series, just one of Holmes' female fans who fought to break into the "old boys club" that originally was Holmes fandom, and even Eve Titus, who wrote the "Basil of Baker Street" pastiches for children, and finally ending with Robert Downey Jr, Jeremy Brett, all the way down to Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat plotting out a modern-day Sherlock on a train.

There are lots of interesting tidbits tossed your way in this book, but you must be a Holmes fan to completely appreciate it. Boström has done an enormous amount of research and it shows, but the writing (or perhaps the translation) is at times almost too cut-and-dried. Rewards abound if you stick with it.

book icon  Keeping Christmas, edited by Philip Reed Rulon

book icon  Winterbound, Margery Williams Bianco
I had never heard of this children's book, first published in 1936, and now wonder why! It's the story of the Ellis family, who are renting a small country cottage during the Depression. Their father has finally gotten a position in his field (he's an archaeologist), and mother Penny and the four children, Kay, the artistic one, aged 19; Garry (Margaret), who loves gardening and doing things, 16; Martin, the only boy, 12 and typically adventurous; and little Caroline, devotee of paper dolls and cats, try to make the best of the house, in which the only modern convenience is the telephone they just installed. Then Penny is called to help a family member, and Kay and Garry left to run the house. It's a freezing winter and they only get by with the help from the friendly farm family down the road, the Rowes.

There's nothing spectacular about this book, but it would probably make a modern child's jaw drop to imagine living that way. There is no bathroom, no central heat, not even a radio, let alone television and the internet; the children read, play outside, do chores, and go sledding to occupy themselves, and the hungry stove must be constantly appeased if they are to keep warm. But the Ellis children are up to the challenge, and Garry is a splendid character—talk about girl power! While Kay is the eldest, it's Garry that keeps the family together, and she is always moving, taking walks, working in the garden, raising seedlings, getting a part-time job to fill the family's dwindling coffers. I kept turning pages to see what was going to happen next, and, if the solution to the family's problems smack a tiny bit of coincidence, they still provide strong role models during a tough time.

Kate Seredy has provided minimal illustrations in the Dover edition which I have, and Garry, portrayed on the cover chopping wood, is a character right out of Seredy: you could see her and Kate Nagy of The Good Master becoming good friends. To me she is the only one of the characters who really comes to life, but since the book is from her POV, it seems very natural. If you're interested in a little-known 1930s children's book with a strong female character, you could certainly try this one. Worth your while just to read how tough it was making ends meet and keeping warm back then!

book icon  Back Over There, Richard Rubin
When Richard Rubin wrote The Last of the Doughboys, he interviewed all his subjects in the United States and did all his research in American locations. Yet when he came to speak about the book, readers were always interested to know if he'd been "over there" and visited the sites he wrote about. In 2009, he finally made it, with subsequent trips. This book is about those trips, what he observed, and what he felt.

I really enjoyed this book, whether Rubin was talking about the cold hard facts of battles, meeting French collectors and others interested in the history and the people involved in the Grande Guerre (the French also refer to it simply as 14-18), engaging English tourists visiting WWI sites (according to Rubin, to the French the first War is all about Verdun, to the British it is all about the Somme), surveying the landscapes forever changed by artillery fire (French farmers still plow up un-exploded ordnance from the conflict), visiting crumbling concrete structures, and coping with French country lanes. He visits both the place where the first three American casualties were killed and, in the prologue, the marker for the last man killed in the war, and brings the battlefields to life while making us see the terrible emotional and physical damage wrought by the conflict. He finds the French very willing to show him battle sites and memorabilia (this is solely, he tells us several times, because he is American; the French apparently still don't like talking to the British) and this leads to fascinating sequences where he and a friend delve into old German fortifications.

There are small maps to guide you during each portion of his trips, and also a center section with photos of the places and people mentioned. If you have any interest in the American participation in "the war to end all wars," I highly recommend this book.

book icon  The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore
This looked so intriguing that I picked it up, and am not sure I'm happy I did. This was pretty depressing at several levels. The history turns out to be that Wonder Woman was created by an brilliant egotistical psychology professor (who invented the first "lie detector" based on a person's blood pressure) who believed in women's rights, and fell in love with two different ambitious, feminist college graduates (both feminists, suffragettes, and birth control advocates), married one, and had two children by the other, two kids who always believed their father had died. In the meantime, his wife got to continue her career and his mistress lived with the family and raised the kids! (egotistical professor told his wife if she didn't allow this he would divorce her). While wife and mistress apparently were good friends and even lived together after hubby died, I don't understand why two educated, intelligent women put up with this rubbish and let this twit direct their lives. (Actually three, as another woman named Marjorie Huntley lived in the Marston home as well.)

William Marston and his ladies: wife Elizabeth Holloway and mistress Olive Byrne (whose aunt was Margaret Sanger) and Huntley raised the eventual four kids on an estate named Cherry Orchard, where Marston went from university professor to occasional consultant due to his unconventional beliefs (and at that point no one knew about their living arrangements) to pretty much being supported by his wife and the flattering articles Olive did about him for "Family Circle." His kids say he was a good father except for occasional bad temper that never strayed into physical abuse. He created Wonder Woman to be on an equal standing with men, but in her stories she was usually confined to chains she was required to break to triumph (Marston always said these were symbolic chains, yet he apparently got a great kick out of describing them).

So while Wonder Woman has always been a feminist symbol, the three women closest to their creator were pretty much held in thrall by this guy. Fascinating psychologically, but really creepy and annoying to read about. Did enjoy the historical perspective of the suffragettes, of young female college students trying to make it in a man's world, and of the birth control movement, but the people involved were not people I would have wanted to know.

book icon  Dead Man's Land, Robert Ryan
John Hamish Watson has gone to war, joining the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1914. Assigned to a field hospital, he at once is thrown into the repair of brutally battered soldiers' bodies, while keeping out of the way of the officious head nurse and defending two VADs from her scorn. Watson has arrived with a very special medical tool: blood for transfusions. But after one of his transfused patients dies in apparent agony, can the Army continue to trust his treatment?

This is a fantastic mystery that completely immerses you in the speech, sounds, smells, feelings, and sights of the First World War: badly mutilated bodies, blood, chlorine gas, unwashed bodies, rats, mud. The narrative is absorbing as it switches from one character to another: a common "Tommy" who went to war with his friends from a woolens mill, an officer who has just inherited a title, a VAD with a sketchy background and her sweet companion, the head nursing sister, and a disgraced Winston Churchill, not to mention a German sniper who is planning to infiltrate the lines to get himself a prize, and a boy named Bert who happens upon a tweedy elderly man who lives in Sussex and raises bees. Each chapter raises the stakes until you are sent racing with Watson to stop further deaths.

This is a very plausible future for Watson after losing two wives and, at the opening of the book, estranged from his good friend Sherlock Holmes after choosing to join the war effort. While he hasn't Holmes' brilliance in connecting obscure clues, his dogged pursuit logically puts the clues together to reveal a crime years in the making, and he's a very real, flawed yet noble man. (Holmes is also intriguingly portrayed.) I immediately ordered the sequel and can't wait to see what's next in Watson's rejuvenated Army career, as well as to immerse myself in a magnificent portrayal of the horrors of the Great War.

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