Talk About America, Alistair Cooke
Before Alistair Cooke passed, during his elder journalist years between his series America and during Masterpiece Theatre, he had several books published that examined mostly serious subjects (Six Men, The Americans,
World War II-era America, etc.) that talked about significant events in
the American scene. All of these books were taken from his weekly
report on the BBC, "Letter from America." Earlier this year I wrote about finding a collection of earlier essays in One Man's America.
This is yet another volume of selections from "Letters from America," and once again there are some significant historical pieces, most prominently Cooke's witnessing the assassination of Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He also has a trilogy of essays about being black in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, a profile of Lyndon Johnson, an account of John Glenn's flight, a visit to a submarine, the story of General George Marshall, and more. But I found the most interesting essays were the ones about little things: an account of a good old fashioned town meeting in a small town in New Hampshire, where the locals debate next year's budget and whether to repair or tear down a bridge; about a now almost defunct act: the closing down of your city home or apartment for the summer while you went somewhere cooler in those pre-air conditioning days; about another institution now gone: the iceman; about the history of Thanksgiving and cranberry obsession; an amusing few pages on American dress; attending the Kentucky Derby and visiting Alcatraz; etc.
Once again, I discovered some pieces here that were later mined for his classic America series: "The Father," about George Washington; "HLM: RIP," about H.L. Mencken. For a second time enjoyed the variety of subjects and Cooke's occasional sharp line of humor. Well worth hunting up to see a former Brit's eye view of his adopted country.
Death Without Company, Craig Johnson
In this second of the Walt Longmire books, Walt is summoned to the Durant Home for Assisted Living, where his mentor Lucian Connally is now living. A woman of Basque descent, Mari Baroja, has died and Lucian claims there was foul play. He also tells Longmire something astounding: Mari was his wife, for all of a few days, until her brothers caught up with him, beating him up and taking Mari away with them, to be married off to someone more suitable. Walt at first starts investigating to humor his old boss, but slowly starts coming up with troubling stuff, like Mari's terrible marriage to Charlie Nurburn, who regularly abused her, and to a flourishing methane mining concern on land that was once Mari's, land her daughters will inherit.
I'm usually a cozy mystery fan except for odd things like Sherlock Holmes, and wasn't sure I would like a more gritty mystery series. But I like this one: Walt Longmire is a "regular guy" with real faults, but an appealing personality and a need to see justice done. He has blood family in his daughter Cady, a close friendship with Henry Standing Bear (a finally realistic Native American character), and a law enforcement family with his co-workers: Ruby the dispatcher, "the Ferg" a part time deputy, his second-in-command Victoria Moretti (originally of New York), and newest officer Santiago Saizarbitoria, who comports himself well in this mystery. Walt also meets a promising woman who's in town to investigate abandoned safe deposit boxes, but everything, as always in Longmire land, takes second place to his job.
Walt will face a maze of family secrets, marital tragedy, and reservation secrets before he discovers all the truths Mari Baroja's death will reveal. As always, a delight to read.
Shake Well Before Using, edited by Bennett Cerf
I've been hooked on these collections of humorous anecdotes since my mother bought me a copy of Laugh Day in the late 1960s. I read that book until pages started to fall out of it. Lots of puns, a Cerf favorite, most of the stories are still funny (there are some longer pieces in this book instead of just short quick jokes), but some would be considered very incorrect today, especially some "battle of the sexes" anecdotes. Also, the names of celebrities instantly known in 1948 are more obscure today. You can use the book as a history lesson as well!
A Casualty of War, Charles Todd
In the latest Bess Crawford mystery, the Great War is almost finished. Bess, a nurse at the front lines, is having a brief respite of rest when she chats with a Captain Alan Travis. Back at the front, she meets Captain Travis again; a bullet has narrowly missed his head and he claims the shot was deliberate, by a man in his ranks. Recovered and sent back to the front, he returns to Bess' station once more, this time shot in the back, and again he claims this was deliberate.
Bess loses track of the man after the Armistice is declared, but on her leave tracks him down and is dismayed to find him in a mental hospital, being driven mad by cheerless walls. The higher-ups have determined he has brain damage, especially since he has been insisting that not only was he shot at deliberately twice, but that the shots were fired by a man that looked like his cousin, who he met for the first time at the front. Horrified by the way he's being treated, Bess is determined to track down what is going on and travels to the cousin's hometown, finding out that the man's reputation is without reproach, but his mother resents the thought of Alan Travis, the scion of the family black sheep, taking over the estate. Bess still thinks Alan Travis is on the level, and Simon helps her track down what's going on.
There's a fairly complicated plot going, and poor Alan Travis, harried at all sides by convention and bureaucracy, is a sympathetic victim, but could he be pulling the wool over everyone's eyes, including Bess? There is at least one character in the story whom you will suspect immediately. Also, the Armistice has now been signed. Will there be more adventures for Bess? And will something ever come of the relationship between Bess and Simon, or is she wrong that they are only platonic friends? Stay tuned...
The Planets, Dorling-Kindersley and Smithsonian
In a fit of nostalgia, I had remembered the coloring book/activity book my mom had bought for me so long ago about the planets. I had this book for years, even after I'd colored in all the pictures and done all the activities. So I went hunting at the library for a book on the solar system and found this, a big coffee-table book with correspondingly large color photos and diagrams about each of the planets as was known when the book was published (after Pluto got demoted). Recent flybys by space exploration vehicles have netted some gorgeous photographs of Mars and even Pluto, and artists' extrapolations of the different surfaces of planets and asteroids give it a wow factor. Included are all the scientific facts and figures. I was fascinated by the section on the asteroids, as only a few were mentioned in my coloring book. People may be surprised that they are not all spherical in shape. At least one looks like a dumbbell.
Journey to the Ice Age: Mammoths and Other Animals of the Wild Hardcover, Rien Poortvliet
I was only planning to get the planet book from the library, but I saw this in passing and was fascinated by it. Poortvliet is a Dutch artist who is most famous for his whimsical art book about garden gnomes, but he has done several volumes of nature and animal art. This is a gorgeous art book in which Poortvliet begins with his own observations of the countryside around him, then goes back to the medieval era, where he describes the lifestyles of the wealthy and the poor. The final last third of the book makes a fantastic leap back to the stone age and drawings of mammoth, dire wolves, wild horses, and other fauna, and also early man.
This is an unspeakably gorgeous volume if you love drawings of nature and wildlife. Each oversize page is filled with gorgeous artwork of wolves, elk (what we call moose), red and roe deer, dogs, game birds, falcons, and other animals, and woods, farms, homey farmsteads, beautiful medieval lords and ladies, humbler working people, farm animals, etc. His narrative that goes with these pieces of art are beautifully calligraphed on the pages (not by himself).
If you love art or nature or want to peek into medieval life and prehistoric life through the eyes of an artist, this is a beautiful, breathtaking book. Every page is a treasure.
When the Stars Went to War: Hollywood and World War II, Roy Hoopes
A lively, if gossipy, book about the roles of actors and actresses played during World War II, starting in 1937 and a brief mention of the Spanish Civil War, and seguing into 1939 and the Golden Year of Hollywood film. "The war came earlier to Hollywood than it did to most of the country," the author states, due to the sizeable British colony in the movie capitol. When the war broke out many of the Englishmen went home; others remained in Hollywood and made films praising the efforts of the French, British, and Belgians. Once the attack on Pearl Harbor was accomplished, Hollywood became fully mobilized. Walt Disney's studio, indeed, was taken over by the military. Some actors rushed to join the service, others were refused, including John Wayne, who won battles only in his films.
The book follows all aspects of the Hollywood contributions to the war: films that supported the war effort and made heroes of the common men serving in the Army, Navy, and Marines; the USO tours where performers lived rough and under the threat of bombs and battle; the famous Hollywood Canteen started by Bette Davis, which supplied food and fun to servicemen on leave; and the actors who went to war like Clark Gable, James Stewart, Wayne Morris, and more. Hoopes also talks about some individual stars: the rumors (which he pooh-poohs) about Errol Flynn being a Nazi or a spy,;the offhand attitude of George Sanders, who had been an admirer of Hitler; and Lew Ayres, a vegetarian and conscientious objector who lost and then refound his audience despite refusing to serve in the Army (he became a medic and was decorated for his service).
There's also a lot of who's-sleeping-with-who included in the book, and how some actors looked forward to going on War Bond and USO tours so they could canoodle with the young actresses they accompanied, but mostly it's an interesting chronicle of how Hollywood performers raised morale, funds, and sympathies during the Second World War.
Wild Hares & Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village, Stephen Moss
This is Moss' leisurely examination of a year in the life of the animals, birds, insects, and plants in his small village of Mark in southwestern England. Through his eyes we see the changing seasons, the migration of the birds, the hedge and pasture life of badgers and foxes and rabbits, and the effect of a changing climate and changing land use on different species—birds once common in England, like the cuckoo, are hardly heard there any longer, while newer bird species used to warmer climates are appearing.
This is a nice book to read at bedtime, where Moss' tales of the tranquil countryside soothe. He is not a poetic writer, but the landscapes and animals are lovingly described. Each chapter, which covers a month, is illustrated by an evocative woodcut, which lends charm to the narrative.
The odd thing is that although Moss cites hares and hummingbirds in his title, there is very little written about either. Swifts, swallows, and house martins seem to be a favorite. Moss even goes mushroom hunting. A pleasant read if you want to relax with nature.
Spring Harvest, Gladys Taber
This is my first taste of Taber's fiction, and, while it's chick-lit, I mostly enjoyed it because of her characters. Julie Prescott is a teen in love for the first time with college football player Mike in the small Wisconsin college town of Westerly in 1914, but she runs afoul of her eccentric geology professor father Alden, who still thinks of her as a little girl, while her capable mother Sybil keeps everything on an even keel. (If you've read Taber's memoir about her father, it's so very clear Alden is based on her dad.) Meanwhile the president of the University, married to Carol, a cold social-climber wife who hates the small town and even her children, finds happiness in talking to the sympathetic Dean; Dr. Jim Parker, the dedicated GP, races from medical emergency to house call while his sad and embittered wife stews at home; the music professor who's found the best student in a lifetime has his dreams wiped out when she becomes pregnant; and the faithful accompanist is wondering where her next meal will come from (and how she'll take care of an invalid sister) if she is forced to retire. And before them all lies the high point in Westerly's year, Commencement.
You follow Julie in the throes of young love, Alden trying to understand his growing daughter, Mike attempting to escape the grasping aunt and uncle who raised him, Carol planning to escape her mundane life, Miss Nelson's problems with money, Dr. Jim's patience when his wife is injured, the Dean taking up the slack when a crisis hits the President's household, and through all the crises, Sybil knowing wisely what to do. It's a gentler time, where the doctor has finally traded in his horse for a car, kids stopped by the soda fountain to meet, girls sat in their daddy's laps and hornswoggled them with tears, and not a specter of sex in sight, although Mike is a gentleman and stops in one situation that might have gone too far. The worst thing that happens in Westerly is that a girl commits suicide after being blackballed by a sorority, and while it makes Julie pause, it doesn't set her on a crusade to do good as it might in a book today. There are some hard times for several people, but except for the deceased girl, things work out. A nice window into the past.
Time of Fog and Fire, Rhys Bowen
Daniel Sullivan's law enforcement career is in more danger than before: his superiors dislike him and there is still a suspicion that he got a fellow officer killed. So he takes a job from U.S. secret service operative John Wilkie, while his wife, former detective Molly Murphy, stays home with their toddler son and young ward Bridie, and goes off to Washington, DC. Or so Molly thinks: after she befriends a woman who is a widow in all but name to a perpetually traveling businessman and attends one of the newfangled silent films with her new friend, she sees Daniel in a newsreel that was filmed in San Francisco. Soon after, she gets a rather insulting letter from him that incenses her at first, until she sees the secret message hidden within. Soon Molly and Liam are on their way to San Francisco.
Do I give you a clue to part of the plot of this novel if I tell you it's 1906?
Molly runs the complete gamut of trauma in this adventure: a mysterious note from an uncommunicative husband, a startling revelation when she finally arrives in the bustling city, a friendship with a notorious woman that leads to some unsavory situations, the disappearance of Liam, an injury that nearly incapacitates her, and of course the infamous historical incident that colors the second half of the novel. She leaps breathlessly from unexpected rail trip to first encounters with the Chinese to the discovery of a secret in the basement to a murder scene at Point Lobos. A page-turner, but some of the actions seem a bit improbable, even for Molly. With welcome cameos by Sid and Gus, and some happy news at the end.
American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, Deborah Solomon
This is a thick volume which follows Rockwell's life and the growth and progression of his artwork. My first impression of the book is that Rockwell led kind of a sad life. Subsequent chapters, all the way through the end, seemed to perpetuate this feeling. Rockwell's mother was apparently a self-absorbed hypochondriac and his athletic older brother Jarvis overwhelmed shy, skinny Norman. His first two marriages left both wives frustrated as apparently Rockwell was incapable of sustaining a romantic or even affectionate relationship with them, and would often go off for months at a time creating art (and occasionally fishing) with male compatriots. His first wife just gave up, the second developed an alcohol dependency and her psychiatric sessions so absorbed Rockwell that he finally got his own and became close friends with his shrink. (His third wife, Molly, apparently demanded little intimacy from Norman and was content to help him with his business dealings.) Along the way Solomon describes Rockwell's best known paintings and illustrations, and the details that came together in them, starting with their inspirations.
She also spends some time trying to "figure him out" and pretty much all but says she thought he was actually homosexual at a time when it wasn't expected. On the other hand, he didn't seem crazy about sex of any kind; what he was was a clean freak. Almost half of his painting sessions comprised cleaning his studio or his brushes. After a while, this detective work really gets nowhere; she could have mentioned it once or twice and be done with it. She does assure us that Rockwell, the consummate artist of active and mischievous boys, never molested his models.
So, as I said, I came out of this still appreciating his art, but feeling rather melancholy about his mental state. Much of his life seemed a bit sad, and, like Tasha Tudor, he didn't really realize how much people appreciated him as an artist until someone did an exhibition for him. (Apparently he longed to get into modern art, and thank goodness he didn't.)
Some people were annoyed at this book because it did not go into the research and method of Rockwell's art as much as they wished. Apparently this was mostly Rockwell's fault; Solomon talks about interview after interview of him in which specific questions about specific paintings went unanswered, with the painter either going off on a tangent or being very brief.
If you can stand all the psychological introspection, this can be an enjoyable book. But melancholy.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
Since I had re-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn last month, I thought I would pull the preceding story out. Tom has never been that much of a favorite with me, since I'm so taken with the revelations—and, I admit, the humor—in Finn. I tried reading it as more of a prequel this time and came out enjoying it much better.
If you've been living in a television-induced coma forever, the titular Tom is a mischievous small boy—his age seems to range between nine and twelve—and his free-range childhood in 1830s Missouri. He and his half brother are being raised by an aunt, and he's the plague of her life though she loves him: he plays hooky from school, gets in fights, consorts with the town bad boy (Huck Finn), skips church, and generally acts like a small boy. In the course of the book, he falls in love with the winsome Becky Thatcher, traipses off to a graveyard with a dead cat to get rid of warts and witnesses a murder, appears as a witness in the murder trial, runs away to an island with three other boys, and gets lost in a cave—and those are just part of his adventures.
Besides Tom's adventures, Twain uses the text (as he does in Finn) to skewer early 19th century society, which leads to humorous situations in church—feckless Tom claiming to have memorized enough Bible verses to claim a Bible and an incident with a dog—and a graduation day at school that's an endless series of banal schoolgirl compositions. It's mixed with tense moments and danger in a classic book still worth reading.
Huckleberry Finn is still better, though. 😀
The Best American Travel Writing 2003, edited by Ian Frazier
Book sales are great for picking up these annual volumes (also for science and nature, essays, mysteries, short stories, sports, and mysteries), although this one was a bit daunting in the first half, as it seems so many of the essays seemed to concern sad voyages through Middle-Eastern countries after 9/11. On the other hand, there is a good variety of travel essays here, from the charms of the Polish stomping grounds of Pope John Paul II to a search for real Cuban coffee in a Cuba filled with welcoming people who are too poor to afford it to essays about fighting poachers to a not-so-breezy ride down Route 66 to a Jewish man who traces what happened to the uncle who stayed in Europe when the Nazis came. You visit the Arctic and Afghanistan, the Salton Sea and slavery in Africa, squid jigging in Washington State and a trip to a nuclear power plant in Japan, credit card companies in Delaware and the west Texas town where Ambrose Bierce vanished, and find you are not yet done with your journeys.
I even enjoyed the sad stories about the Middle East, but I couldn't figure for the life of me what the article about Puff Daddy going to Paris had to do with travel or why it was included in this volume. It's more a portrait of the rap star, and his conspicuous consumption, which I found a little off-putting.
The Clincher, Lisa Preston
I have been looking for a mystery series that was likeable without getting into thrillers or police procedurals, and didn't feature a whitebread attractive woman operating in a small town with quaint shops. This one may fill the bill. Rainy Dale is a professional farrier (horseshoer) whose early life was a mess, with a narcissist wannabe actress for a mother and a hardline conservative Texan for a father. After a series of youthful traumas which are gradually brought to light in the story, Rainy turned herself around, got her farrier's license, and settled in rural Oregon where she tracked down the horse her father gave her as a child, the one thing she has always loved. On the way she has picked up a discarded dog named Charley and acquired a landlord named Guy, who's also breaking convention by becoming a cook instead of following the path his parents wanted him to follow and who wants to be something more than Rainy's landlord. Things come to a head when, soon after Rainy does a shoeing job for trophy wife Patsy-Lynn Harper, the woman is found dead, and Rainy finds herself the prime suspect. At first Rainy just cares that she's cleared, but she genuinely liked Patsy-Lynn and really wants to find out who killed her.
At first Rainy was a little too abrasive for me, but as the story "peeled away her layers," so to speak, I understood her pain. She's smart-mouthed, unconventional, opinionated, and definitely not "whitebread." The story is full of little bits of knowledge about horses and shoeing, the rural setting and the characters seemed real, and Rainy's conversations with Guy have a humorous turn that I enjoyed. Guy is also a neat character who does not bow to convention. The descriptions of horses, the countryside, and the rural life have the ring of truth in them rather than something the author just looked up, which follows as the author writes nonfiction about training dogs and horses, and lives in a rural environment. If you're looking for a slightly grittier mystery than you might find in a traditional cozy with lots of horse talk, this is the book for you! I am looking forward to the next book.
Dim Sum of All Fears, Vivien Chien
This is the second of Chien's "Noodle House" restaurant featuring young Lana Lee, whose Taiwanese mother and American father run Ho-Lee's House of Noodles in Cleveland's Asia Village shopping center. When her parents go to Taiwan to help out her grandmother, Lana, not her older sister Anna May, who is studying for the bar, is left in charge of the restaurant, to her dismay: she was planning to interview for a job away from the restaurant. She's just gotten over the disappointment of having to turn down the interview when she and another tenant discover the bodies of Isabelle and Brandon Yeoh, of the souvenir shop next door, dead in their storeroom. Adam Trudeau, Lana's "maybe-boyfriend" and police officer, tells her not to get involved as she did in the previous mystery, but Isabelle was a new and dear friend and Lana wants to get to the bottom of who ended her life—and what was going on with her husband, who always seemed to disappear at the most inconvenient times.
Once again Lana and her intrepid best friend Megan Riley try to get to the bottom of things, and it's more bizarre than they could have imagined: like Brandon turning up with not one ex-wife, but two, plus a sister-in-law he was really in love with. And there's a dude who reminds Lana of Captain Kirk (the Shatner version) who seems to pal with Brandon a lot. Plus Brandon and Isabelle live in a fabulous designer apartment, yet can't make their business bills.
I think once you find out a fact about a certain character, you should realize whodunnit, but watching Lana juggle the restaurant, her parents, her sister, a very disapproving Adam (who actually is concerned about her investigating), free time, and on top of all that, a frigid winter, is entertaining. I really do like Lana, although like in all cozies she takes chances like people really shouldn't. But then isn't that's why we enjoy them, to live vicariously through the characters?
A Small Country Living Goes On, Jeanine McMullen
It wasn't so long ago that I picked up My Small Country Living on the way out of the book sale, started to read, and fell in love. This summer I ordered The Wind in the Ash Tree, and now with this third book I have finished McMullen's appealing trilogy about living on a Welsh smallholding and producing a radio show about country living. Indeed, the bulk of this final volume is about Jeanine's adventures in going from farmstead to farmstead and county to county—and country—looking for stories, spending some time in Ireland (still dangerous in that era of "the Troubles") finding fairy cairns, Greyhound Pigs, Moiled Cattle, and, as always, unpredictable goats.
McMullen's own goats also work into the plot, as does her big mare Doli, who finally meets the "man" of her dreams, and even her dogs provide adventure. She makes new friends in Ireland and Wales, experiences equipment failure and train waits, and tries out novelty walking sticks. There are wars against rats, a surprise with the chimney, a country Christmas, and encounters with the neighbors, but the most affecting portions of the narrative is when Jeanine's mother, the redoubtable Mrs. P, begins to suffer from illness, including an unexpected loss of memory and then weakness caused by living in such a damp climate. It's indeed an eventful year and a memorable end to McMullen's memoirs. I shall miss her very much.