31 August 2020

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  Lois Lenski: Storycatcher, Bobbie Malone
Malone would have had hard work to capture the life and emotions of Lois Lenski; an intensely private person, Lenski jotted down few private thoughts, even in her correspondence, mainly things concerning her work. So this book is more an examination of her work and her work habits, and little personal information is gleaned. Even Lenski's own Journey Into Childhood delves little into the personal side of her later life, as she waxed enthusiastic about her childhood: she is very circumspect, especially in what seemed like a very formal marriage to Arthur Covey. However, we do know of the difficulties she faced finding time for her artwork when society dictated she be a good wife and mother.

Malone addresses each of the phases of Lenski's career: her illustrations for others' books, her historical novels, her regional and "roundabout" books, the "Mr. Small" books she wrote for her son, and the "Davy" books she wrote for her grandson, each tailored for the job it was to do. ("Mr. Small" and "Davy" were both published as small books, alá Beatrix Potter's "little books," so that they could be held by small hands.) Some of the book reviews are subjective, and I don't agree with all of them. (But it made me surely wish once again I could read her early autobiographical books Skipping Village and A Little Girl of Nineteen Hundred!) I would certainly rate her historical novels much higher! I was amused to discover that Lenski was so enamored of her research for Phebe Fairchild Her Book that her publisher had to remind her that the story was about Phebe and not all about the historical facts she was placing in the story.

Her most well-known books are the regional stories inspired by a trip Lenski and her family took to Louisiana. She became fascinated by the lives of the Cajun people and wrote Bayou Suzette. Her next regional, Strawberry Girl, won her a Newbery Medal. There were eventually seventeen regionals, as well as her "Roundabout America" series for younger children. They not only touched on how people lived in different regions of the United States, but portrayed a class of children frequently missing from the two-parent-middle-class-family-businessman-father-homemaker-mother common in juvenile fiction of the 1940s to the 1960s: middle- and lower-class kids, often rural or with no home of their own. These, of all her works, were the most unique.

An enjoyable overview of Lenski and her body of work, even if I didn't agree with all the author's assessments.

book icon  Addressed to Kill, Jean Flowers
I noticed there doesn't seem to be any further books in this series, which is probably for the best. The plot in this third and final of the "postmistress" mysteries is a mess. It takes place in the small Massachusetts town of North Ashcot around the Valentine's Day holiday, where Cassie Miller is enjoying the tunes of a local group doing their practice sessions at the social hall attached to the town post office. But when one of the musicians, a college professor, is found dead at his home, Cassie wonders if it's linked to robberies in the neighborhood, or something more sinister.

All that post office trivia Cassie used to impart in the first two books seemed like padding in this one, and the story of her giving the presentation to the college class seems to go on almost as long as the mystery. Sunni Smargon, the chief of the North Ashcot police, seems to think of Cassie as a deputy now, enough for her to ask Cassie to do some very questionable sleuthing, and Cassie seems to be able to take time off from her post office job (replaced by the old postmaster, Ben Gentry) any time she wants (sure glad my taxes aren't paying her salary!). During her investigation, Cassie swipes something from the murder victim's study!

Something nice happens to Cassie at the end and is about the only positive thing about this story.

book icon  A Furious Sky, Eric Jay Dolin
As a child I was enthralled by my mom's story about the Hurricane of 1938, so I have several books about that disaster, and also one on the 1935 Key West tragedy, so when I saw this, a book about the history of American hurricanes going all the way back to the first European explorers, I was intrigued. And then to find that it was written by the same author who wrote Brilliant Beacons, one of my favorite books read in 2017? Perfect.

I can't say I was quite as enthralled by this one as much as Brilliant Beacons, but it was nearly as good, although I had hoped Dolin would be able to garner more nuggets about the colonial hurricanes, since I have read more about the modern ones (since 1900). Yet I did garner a little more information about the great Revolutionary War hurricane (and how it affected the outcome), the Great Gale of 1815, and early storms during the age of exploration, as well as the history of weather prediction in general and of how hurricanes form and grow in particular, especially of the two theories of how hurricanes "work": one from merchant and amateur scientist William Redfield and the other by James Espy. (In the end, it turned out they were both partially correct.) Alas, another insightful hurricane theorist was pretty much ignored because he was both Spanish and Catholic: Father Benita Viñes of Cuba. (Had the newly formed and xenophobic US Weather Bureau consulted with the Cubans, more people in Galveston might have been saved.) Dolin even brings us along on the newest of hurricane trackers: the airplanes and their crews known as "hurricane hunters."

Should please anyone interested in weather history, hurricane history, and how hurricanes have changed history. Need to check into Dolin's books about the American/China trade and the American fur trade!

book icon  The Children's Blizzard, Melanie Benjamin
I didn't read the description carefully on this book when I got it from Netgalley; I thought it was a new nonfiction study of the 1888 Midwest tragedy known as "the children's blizzard" rather than a novel. However, I did enjoy what I read.

Based on true accounts, Benjamin weaves a fictional story around two sisters, Raina (the younger, shyer girl) and Gerda Olsen (the older, more assured one), both who have become schoolteachers at one-room prairie schools; newspaperman Gavin Woodson, who wrote promotional literature for immigrants who came to settle the prairies; and Anette Pederson, an abused girl whose mother sold her into servitude who has been "allowed" by her "adoptive mother" to come to Raina's school. When the balmy day of January 12 in the Dakota territories abruptly turns stormy and cold, prairie teachers must make an agonizing decision: keep the kids at the schools, which were badly built and rarely had extra fuel, or allow them to go home. Raina chooses, with the help of her eldest student, to help the children get to the nearest house; Gerda, having let her children go early so she could sleigh ride with a suitor, tries to save two of them; Anette, having left Raina's classroom early, must try to survive with the help of a classmate. Once the blizzard is over, temperatures hit a deep freeze.

The hardships faced by Scandinavian immigrants to the Dakota territory, especially in winter, and especially by women—at least one of the men in this story is a real jerk—are brought to life, although I thought Gerda was a little too hard on herself. I wish Benjamin had gone more into the story of "Ol' Lieutenant" (Ollie Tennant), a black man who runs a saloon, and who discovers how his children are being treated by a white teacher, and less into Gerda's self-loathing after the blizzard is over.

book icon  Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders, Tessa Arlen
Britain has been at war for almost three years, and Poppy Redfern, an orphan who has been raised by her grandparents in the village of Little Buffenden in the Chilterns, has just finished her air-raid warden training in London after a succession of hair-raising raids has proven her capable. She takes up her warden duties back in her home town only to immediately run afoul of one of the American airmen who have taken over the family home, Lt. Griff O'Neal. Opinion is rife in Little Buffenden on whether the Americans are good neighbors or bad news—when a local girl who favors the servicemen from "across the pond" is murdered and evidence points to the airman she was dating. Poppy must now do her warden duties guarded by young Sid Ritchie, a sickly young man who nevertheless serves in the home guard, and everyone is on edge; Poppy's grandparents eventually organize weekly dinners to introduce the American officers to the suspicious townsfolk.

I enjoyed this well enough that I will probably get the next book in the series, and it's a good enough look at the resentments that many British had for the American servicemen who were, in their words, "over paid, over sexed, and over here." I liked Poppy and her grandparents, but much preferred it when Poppy worked in London (and it looks like I'll get my wish in the next book). But still things niggled at me. Like Poppy's grandparents' dog, Bess. It's obviously a Welsh corgi, but no one ever refers to her as one. Poppy calls her "a Welsh herding dog." The corgi was already well associated with the royal family; why did no one seem to know what it was? Were they not called "corgi" back then? Also, Poppy and her family seem to drink a lot of coffee. I was under the impression from other books written during the period (by British authors) that, although the British do drink coffee, the war was rather "run on tea," that it was not rationed where coffee was, and people drank copious amounts of it. And my other complaint is: can we quit having mystery stories with a female protagonist where she immediately meets the hot/handsome guy who falls in love with her? I'm really, really tired of having my mysteries interrupted with love stories. At least have the romance take a few books to develop!

book icon  The Story of America, Reader's Digest Association
This is one of those big Digest compilation books like I love to buy when I see them at book sales. This one is from 1975. It is both the history of the United States told in words, photographs, artwork, maps, newspapers, waybills, etc., and specific looks at American culture (the arts, exploration, industries, education, natural wonders, man-made wonders, music, the sciences, sports, space travel, etc.).

Those of you who look at the copyright date must think the book is full of outdated sexual and racial mores, but it might surprise you to know that the text is rife with accounts of the injustices suffered by people of color and by women. The matter of slavery and later treatment of African-Americans is addressed with the severity it deserves, and chapters also cover the women's movement and how so many inequalities need to be addressed. The fact that this is a nearly a 50-year old book will actually make you uncomfortable about how many of these issues that they are addressing are still problems today! The only thing missing are commentaries on LGBTQ rights, but these were pretty much still not spoken of in the '70s.

To be honest, reading this book makes me feel that some things have actually regressed, and that is a sad commentary on 21st century life.

book icon  Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution, Todd S. Purdum
Today, with hits like Hamilton breaking new ground on Broadway, most fans of musicals tend to think of Rodgers and Hammerstein as "old hat" or "treacly," and not at all groundbreaking. But back in their day, they were exactly that: creating the first musical theatre that wasn't simply a string of songs hung together on the most threadbare of plots (usually a backstage love triangle). Rodgers and Hammerstein together not only put together the most memorable songs, but produced shows that addressed prejudice, spousal abuse, young and old culture clashes, integrity vs. profit, submission to philosophies you know are wrong, etc. rather than carrying on with more "froth." Their characters, from Maria von Trapp to Bloody Mary, Julie Jordan to Anna Leonowens to "poor Jud" are memorable characters who have entered the cultural lexicon.

Richard Rodgers was a musical prodigy who, early in his career was partnered with the troubled Lorenz Hart; Oscar Hammerstein II was the grandson of a New York Theatre empresario. Hammerstein worked hard to get his lyrics just so; Rodgers, on the other hand, seemingly could pull a song out of thin air when presented with the correct lyrics. Never close friends, but good working partners, they made their way through hits—South Pacific, Carousel, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music—as well as some real stinkers (Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream, Allegro).

I've heard several reviews of this book complain that it isn't as good as Rodgers' autobiography, but having not read that yet, I found this entertaining and quick-moving, giving enough details but not bogging down in minutiae, especially when the author is talking about how Hammerstein worked to get the lyrics "just right" and Rodgers' tweaking of even a few notes to make the song "go up" or "come down" as it should to set the correct mood. I enjoyed it a bunch as an overview of their career together.

book icon  Late Checkout, Carol J. Perry
In the ninth book of the Witch City series, Lee Barrett (neè Maralee Kowalski, journalism graduate, young widow of a race car driver, and now back living upstairs at the home of the librarian aunt Isobel [Ibby], who raised her) is determined not to let her temporary demotion get the better of her. Since she's been asked to share her field reporter/investigative reporter duties with WICH-TV's owner's nephew Howard Templeton, she has less work to do, so she volunteers at the Salem, MA, main library where Aunt Ibby works. Her first volunteer task is shelving books—and she's shocked (but not so shocked that she doesn't call WICH-TV reporting the news!) to discover a dead body in the spooky stacks. The body is identified as "Wee Willie" Wallace, once a promising baseball player and then a racetrack worker whose gambling ruined his life and sent him to jail. Lee's given permission to investigate Wallace's life and finds out he has ties to WICH-TV as well as to the station's former sports reporter, Larry Laraby, who was, oddly enough, found dead in his personal library, also surrounded by scattered books.

Set against Salem's legendary Hallowe'en celebrations and the 50th anniversary events going on at WICH-TV, Lee is embroiled with not only Willie's mystery but with nostalgia as she talks to television personalities she recalls from her childhood, including Katie the Clown and her favorite, Professor Mercury, who had a circus-themed science show. Her scrying ability is downplayed in this story, but she does a good job interpreting a Tarot card drawn by her friend River North on her television show as somehow being appropro to her current situation. The ending was rather unusual for this series, delving into Lee's childhood fears and memories.

I like these books; they seem to me a cut above some of the other cozy mysteries revolving around magic and/or witchcraft. Also enjoyed that a character from a previous mystery returned, and that Perry did not use the opportunity to make Howard a bad guy. Light, enjoyable entertainment and likable characters make this a plus.

book icon  Murder is in the Air, Frances Brody
This newest Kate Shackleton mystery, taking place in 1920s Great Britain, has Kate, a private inquiry agent, and her partner, Jim Sykes, hired to look in at the Barleycorn Brewery in Yorkshire, owned by William Lofthouse. Lofthouse, newly married to a young wife, and, wishing to turn more of the running of the company over to his nephew James, hopes Kate and Sykes will spot some little problems that he thinks are keeping the company from running at top efficiency. In the meantime, the brewery is drumming up favorable publicity by promoting a local girl, Ruth Parnaby, who's a whiz in the personnel department, as "brewery queen," a twist on a beauty queen—if Ruth's efforts aren't sabotaged by her drunken father, who's already driven his wife away with both Ruth and young George longing to follow her.

Two plots are running here concurrently: the mystery of who might be sabotaging things at the brewery (a recent new beer was fouled with dirt and rubbish) and also a mystery surrounding one of the workers. It's possible they are both linked, but when two different murders happen, Kate and Sykes discover there are no simple answers in this one.

Brody addresses PTSD (Ruth's dad was not a brute before his war service) and spousal and child abuse against the colorful traditional goings-on in the Great Britain of that era of crowning a pretty young girl "queen" of a certain industry (cloth mills, railways, coal mines) to perk up tough times in industrial towns. Brody reverses the usual "the mysteries are connected" plot in this story, so there are several different endings to several different crimes, leading to several different cliffhangers, and once again Kate's niece Harriet and landlady Mrs. Sugden prove themselves equal to being part of the solution. The local characters (Ruth, George, Annie, Parnaby, Joe Finch, Miss Crawford, William and Eleanor Lofthouse, Miss Boland the music teacher) are all interesting characters in their own right, and several of them will have your sympathy before the story is concluded.

book icon  The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski
For over 30 years, Oxford compatriots J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams got together at least once a week at a pub, more often at Lewis' Oxford rooms, to chat, debate, laugh, play pranks, discuss, and, most importantly, to read their current writing projects to each other. Joined most times by Lewis' brother Warren ("Warnie") and at various times by Hugo Dyson, Gervase Mathew, Alan Griffiths, Nevill Coghill, and (in later years) Christopher Tolkien, and others, they were known as "the Inklings" and the group itself was almost as famed as its parts. The story begins with Tolkien's mother, inspiration for his imaginary journeys, and ends with the death of Owen Barfield, who attained his fame after the Inklings' meetings had ended, and intertwines the lives of the four primaries and their satellites, and even their correspondents, which, despite the "all boys' club" of the meetings, included women such as Dorothy Sayers and Sister Penelope Lawson.

The works of the four, their lives, and a liberal dose of philosophy, Roman Catholic and Anglican doctrines, and psychology mix in this thick volume which skips from one writer to the next, with the University of Oxford almost as its own character holding the protagonists together. At time the analysis of the works of the Inklings gets a bit deep, other times the narrative is brisk and lively, and, of all the works I have read about Lewis, this book gives you the most insight into his brother Warnie, who was a noted writer himself and might have gained more attention if not being the older brother to the noted Lewis. Tolkien fascinated me the most in these pages: I have not read any of the "Middle-Earth" works he is noted for and was surprised not only at his total devotion to world building and language, but did not know he was also a competent artist.

If one is interested in just one or two of the group, a straight biography of them may be more your cup of tea; however, if you are curious about how they interacted, argued, forgave, inspired, annoyed, and endured, be prepared for much philosophical thought and plunge right in.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery in Skyscraper City, Jerry West
In the 17th volume of Hollister adventures, the eldest boy Pete finds a book about tunnels under New York City at the school's annual book sale (a kid after my own heart!). Inside the volume he finds a note written in Chinese with one English word: HELP. He's no sooner bought it than an Asian man offers him five dollars for it, but Pete refuses. Later the kids (12-year-old Pete; 10-year-old Pam; Ricky, age 7; Holly, age 6; and Sue, who's four) get the message translated with the help of Sue's school friend Norma Chen; it seems to indicate that a man named Yuen Foo has hidden a treasure somewhere in New York City. Concurrently, Mr. Hollister and his friend Mr. Davis are interested in marketing a new space toy at a New York toy exhibition, but the electronics aren't quite right yet. Mr. Hollister, and the rest of the family, accompany Davis to "skyscraper city" while they work on the toy—and of course the children can try to find Mr. Foo and perhaps discover the treasure. Sadly, Mr. Foo has died, but they track down his son Paul and his grandchildren in solving the puzzle. And coincidentally Paul Foo is an electronics whiz who can help with the space toy! But the mysterious Asian man who tried to buy the book has followed them and makes trouble at every turn.

The Hollisters mix sightseeing facts (the Empire State Building, a gold reserve, and the Statue of Liberty) liberally with the mystery in this one. The Chinese part of the mystery take place at the Chinatown areas I remember seeing as a child, where the elder adults still worked with abacuses, Chinese restaurants used traditional styling, and quaint little gift shops run by Chinese people selling all sorts of memorabilia abounded. There is a sequence where the Hollisters visit a Chinese school where Chinese children, after their regular day at public school, go to learn to speak and write Chinese to preserve their heritage. I recall a Chinese boy I went to elementary school with who went to Chinese school after our weekday classes.

This is a nonstop adventure as the kids and their new Chinese friends Jim and Kathy Foo chase down clues as the mysterious Hong Yee dogs their every step. There is no one talking like Charlie Chan in the tale although the term "oriental" is still used, a word that designated "eastern" back then. Also, Pete says "Honest Injun" once; at least in that case, the pejorative is used positively. In addition, the girls don't get stuck back at the hotel making sandwiches, but follow in all stages of the investigation and it's Sue that figures out an important clue because she's so small! All the kids get to try out the new space toy, which probably would be considered a "boy's toy" back then.

31 July 2020

Books Completed Since July 1

book icon  Re-read: Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
I remember wanting to order this from the Doubleday Bargain Book Club as a teen, but my mom nixed it when she saw it was "an underground classic." Later I bought a paperback copy. It's the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a young human born on Mars and brought up from infancy by Martians. When he is returned to Earth by a later exploratory team, he must learn to be human...but his strange upbringing has left him with strange abilities and a unique outlook on life. But political machinations are going on behind the scenes, and a nurse who befriends "Michael" takes the bold step to bring him to the estate of an eccentric attorney/writer.

This book has been controversial from the start—the free love and communal living themes scandalized conservatives when it was published. More recently it's been scorned because all its female characters seem to love having sex and getting pregnant (alas, as Heinlein got older his fiction seemed to revolve around activities that he was probably no longer fit for). Many people hate Jubal Harshaw because he's an opinionated old coot spouting all of Heinlein's pet theories. (Me, that's why I like Jubal: as an introvert, I admire his opinionated outbursts, whether I agree with them or not, because I can't vocalize what I think.)

I read this early enough in my life that none of this really matters. These folks are like old friends. I roll my eyes now at the sex-and-pregnancy stuff, but you have to note one thing: none of the women in the story are at any time forced into these activities. They go into it because they want to, not because some man is bullying them into it. (And a few of them are physically capable of taking out any guy who does try to bully them.) In some cases, for good or for bad, it's women like Agnes Douglas who are the real power in the world. Mike views all the craziness of human life as a stranger to the human condition in which each of us grows up—the social, political, religious, societal, behavioral mores that we are taught from babyhood—and attempts to explain how strange all these mores appear when approached from a total alien viewpoint. The book is full of memorable characters, like the opinionated Jubal, the imperious Agnes Douglas who runs her household and her husband's career with equal shrewdness, Dr. Mahmoud reconciling his devout Muslim beliefs with new ideas, Mike himself, Patty Paiwanski the "tattooed lady" and snake lover, and even minor characters like Jubal's mechanic Duke, Captain Von Tromp and Dawn Ardent.

At times rambling—we have the uncut edition that was released several years back—and annoying, but sometimes cannily on the mark. YMMV.

book icon  Re-read: Johnny Tremain, Esther Forbes

book icon  Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg: John's Story, 1775, Joan Lowery Nixon
This is the sixth and final book in Nixon's series taking place in Williamsburg during its heyday as colonial capitol of Virginia, centering on 11-year-old John, next to youngest child of Robert Carter Nicholas, member of the House of Burgesses, and opens with Governor Dunmore's capture of the store of gunpowder held in Williamsburg's Magazine. To Mr. Nicholas, this is just another in a long list of injustices toward the Virginia colony that he hopes can be resolved with debate and negotiation, but to 20-year-old George Nicholas, this is it. To him there is no expectation that Britain and the American colonies can find common ground. It is time to fight for freedom. John, who respects his father but hero-worships George, he can see that both men make valid points—but his brother's acts, to an 11-year-old, are more exciting, and soon he and his best friend Robert are attending militia drills.

One of the things I appreciate most is that Nixon doesn't try to make a 21st century "woke" boy out of John. When Governor Dunmore threatens to arm the slaves if the colonists don't behave properly, John is genuinely confused. The Nicholases treat their slaves humanely. His mother feeds, clothes, and nurses them. Why on earth would they take up arms and fight against their family? It's only after he hears the family slaves talking about taking up arms and after a few events convince him how important freedom is, that he understands that freedom isn't something just reserved for white people, that all deserve freedom.

The gem in this series of six books is still the volume about Caesar, the enslaved boy coping with both growing up and finding his place in a world where decisions have been taken away from him, but all the books are worth reading.

book icon  Our Boston: Writers Celebrate the City They Love, edited by Andrew Blaunder
This is a compilation volume of essays written after the Boston Marathon bombing about what each author loves about his favorite city: essays by George Plimpton, Dennis Lehane, Susan Orlean, Pico Iyer, John Updike, and more. Some of the best essays are the ones that actually talk about the bombing, the shock and indignation, the people who raced toward the carnage rather than away to help the wounded. There are stories about Dorchester Avenue, about Cambridge, the Boston accent, Filene's Basement, a girl who appeared on the PBS series Zoom, Boston marriages, and more. My favorite essay was Scott Stossel's "Reading Around Boston," about the Boston bookstores I came to love in the 1980s and which are mostly gone now and which I ache for intensely.

I enjoyed most of the book, but there are too many essays about sports. There are so many wonderful historical places, great places to see like the Museum of Science and the Rose Kennedy Greenway or the aquarium or the museums, quirky television stations like WSBK, and all everyone talks about are the Red Sox (and the Bruins and the Patriots). I expected some mention of them, as you can't mention Boston without mentioning the Sox, but it seemed sports turned up in every other essay.

book icon  Bryant & May: The Lonely Hour, Christopher Fowler
Every time I read a Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery, I wonder to myself how Fowler is possibly going to top the last one. And, just as always, I finished this newest volume thinking "Wow!" Especially at the end of the penultimate chapter.

Christmas celebrations have ended and once again the Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in when a man of Indian descent is found hanging upside down from a tree, surrounded by occult items. His time of death is estimated at 4 a.m. Senior detectives Bryant (the eccentric, outside-the-box theorist) and May (the erudite one) and their team are puzzling whether it's some sort of bizarre cult event (of course Arthur Bryant immediately contacts his friend Maggie, a practicing witch), bored punks, or more sinister forces when another  4 a.m. death occurs, a suicide this time—or was it? Unknown to them, a chubby young woman named Sparrow who was out watching bats with a conservation group has befriended the killer, and also knows both of the victims who died. In the meantime one of the PCU is not really who they seem, and John May has a secret which may endanger the group.

London folklore,  Bryant's daffy investigative style, tensions simmering in the PCU, Sparrow's unwitting friendship, and the real story behind the crimes are deftly woven into another Fowler page-turner. I love these books. I can't wait for the next one to see how the resolution to aforementioned Chapter 49 comes out.

book icon  Produce & Conserve, Share & Play Square: The Grocer and the Consumer on the Home-Front Battlefield During World War II, edited by Barbara McLean Ward
I am embarrassed that it took me so long to finish this book. I bought it ten years ago at Strawbery Banke, having fallen in love particularly with the little grocery "The Little Corner Store" which is 1940s themed and reminded me so much of the "spas" and superettes of my childhood. I remember wanting it so badly, but because of its size was afraid it was too expensive, until we went into the gift shop and I found out it was only $10. Then it got shuffled to the bottom of a to-be-read pile and passed over.

Basically it tells the story of World War II home-front life and food rationing as told through Bertha Abbott's Little Corner Store, which opened in 1919 and closed in 1950. There's a general article about the American home front: war bonds, food rationing, propaganda, and another on ration stamps, as well as follow-on articles that concentrate on New Hampshire's war effort and the history of small groceries.

The second half of the book chronicles the reconstruction of the war-era look of Bertha Abbott's corner store. Especially fascinating is how they reproduced the 1940s-era packaging by copying existing remaining boxes from the era and then printing new ones.

book icon  Howloween Murder, Laurien Berenson
This is a novella in Berenson's Melanie Travis mystery series in which a murder comes too close to work: the accused is Harriet Bloom, the super-efficient secretary to the head of Howard Academy, where Melanie works as a special ed teacher. The police think she poisoned Ralph Pender, an elderly neighbor who has dementia, with one of her famous Hallowe'en treats, marshmallow puffs she typically gives away to the neighbors. The headmaster of Howard Academy knows Melanie has rooted out other criminals before; he's hoping she can discreetly suss out this one before the academy gets a bad rep. And Melanie truly believes Harriet could never poison anyone.

There's only one problem with this mystery that is set happily in October in New England, and all the sights and sounds and smells and excitement—autumn leaves, crisp air, Hallowe'en prep, luscious fall foods—that come at that time of the year. Melanie meets some new people, some unfriendly, most of them quirky and nice, she forms a stronger bond with Harriet than she has in years, there's nice bits about Kevin selecting a costume, Aunt Peg manages to not overrun the story for once...but once the actual murderer is introduced, you'll know the person immediately. Yes, you'll have to learn why the crime took place, but you won't need to guess who; trust your first instincts.

Still, I loved every bit of this for the reasons enumerated in the previous paragraph—and one more thing: the subplot involving Melanie and one of the young students at Howard Academy. In the end, that's the element that's the most magical about the whole story.

book icon  Travels, Michael Crichton
I have wanted this book for years after seeing a used copy for sale at the Cobb County main library, but I didn't have cash. At the book sale last fall I finally found a copy. And I guess I enjoyed it.

It's not just a book about travel to specific places, but about Crichton's travel through his life, starting at medical school, which he finished, but discovered he didn't like practicing medicine all that much. Back in medical school he had started writing paperback thrillers and he discovered he liked writing much more than being a doctor.

So over the years he had traveled many places—climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, visited New Guinea, Bangkok, Jamaica, gone swimming with sharks, encountered gorillas—and also investigated many things like psychics, meditation, spoon bending, auras, etc. with an open mind. Some of the travel chapters were quite creepy, like where he tried diving without tanks or went swimming close to sharks. The "woo-woo" chapters were fairly interesting; some of it he found good, some he still didn't believe in when he finished—his point was that he went into them with an open mind. Frankly, the chapter where he talked about having a conversation with a cactus still seemed a bit dumb. And the portion of the book where he talks about a friend taking him to a "child whorehouse" was revolting.

I kind of came out of this book not liking Crichton as much as I had before I started it, even though most of the chapters were interesting. 

book icon  A History of the World in 12 Maps, Jerry Brotton
As a kid, I found maps endlessly fascinating. When I found out there was something called a "cartographer," it joined my "what I want to be when I grow up" list. I even created maps for the locations of the stories I wrote. So it was a cinch I would buy this book.

And I did like it, although it's not a light book and it took me several tries (and years) to get through. The twelve maps are not only ones I were familiar with—the one I understood was the oldest: Ptolemy's, Google Earth, and of course Mercator's map which makes Greenland look larger than continents—plus those I didn't know anything of, including the first map to mention "America," the Hereford "Mappamundi" (which is painted on leather), a French map which is the first drawn from land that was surveyed using modern methods, and more. Maps aren't a story of only drawings, but of societies and how they see the world: the earliest Christian maps had Jerusalem as their center. And of course "north" has always been "up" (which in modern times sorely tries the Australians). The Mercator story, for instance, involved the mapmaker's persecution because of his being a heretic (he was Protestant in a then aggressively Catholic society). And since everyone who loves maps knows the Mercator map so exaggerates the world, there's a chapter about finding the best possible way to portray a round earth on a flat surface.

Don't be misled by my inability to make it through this book for years. It really is absorbing if you are at all a "maphead." 

book icon  When Television Was Young, Ed McMahon, with David Fisher
When I bought this book I didn't even notice that the author was Ed McMahon, let alone the Ed McMahon. With Fisher, who also co-wrote McMahon's memoir, Johnny Carson's long-time announcer (and long-time spokesman for Budweiser) tells the rollicking story of early television, when an announcer had to be quick on his feet and with his mouth. McMahon started on local television in Philadelphia, then went on to New York, where he finally paired with a young host named Carson and the rest was history.

But this just isn't McMahon's story: he begins with the history of television broadcasting as well as some of the famous shows of the day: Today, Your Show of Shows, Toast of the Town, The Tonight Show (of course). He talks of live shows where things went badly and bloopers brought laughs to grim dramas; now-famous actors who cut their teeth on live television; classic scripted shows like Naked City, Amos'n'Andy, Space Patrol; television personalities such as Bob Keeshan, Dave Garroway, Dick Clark, Dennis James, Arlene Francis. And of course there's a sizeable chapter on "Mr. Television" himself, Milton Berle.

It's a fun romp, but McMahon and/or Fisher takes the Milton Berle gag wayyyyy too far. Once the Berle chapter is finished, they resort to a silly gag of "Milton" interrupting every subsequent chapter with a joke. Once or twice might have been cute. The Berle gag runs through half the book and becomes annoying as hell. If you can tolerate it, you'll enjoy the rest of the book.

book icon  Greetings from the Lincoln Highway (Centennial Edition), Brian Butko
People tend to think that Route 66 was the first transcontinental highway, but the Lincoln Highway, started in 1913 and ending in the mid-1920s, came before that highway where you could "get your kicks." "The Lincoln," later US30 and then superseded by Interstate 80, began at 46th Street in New York City and ended in San Francisco in Lincoln Park, following old trails like the Lancaster Turnpike in Pennsylvania, the Mormon Trail, the Sauk Trail, and the road to the Donner Pass, plus existing roads and new roads connecting cities. Increasing motor traffic in those days required paved roads, as the "gumbo mud" of the existing roads had been a thorn in the side of horse-drawn carriages for years.

This, the Centennial edition, is a definitive one. It maps how you can follow the original Lincoln and its later "generations" which followed more suitable routes, town by town and state by state from Atlantic to Pacific, and scattered through almost 300 pages of text are wonderful and evocative pieces of memorabilia from the teens to the 1950s: documents, letters, postcards, advertising, photos of tourist camps and motels, napkins, menus, brochures, maps, diaries, newspaper reproductions, essays, cartoons, road signs, monuments, mile markers...in short, anything and everything to capture the essence of the Lincoln Highway. After a while the road directions in the text may get a little tiresome, but every single illustration will bring a smile to anyone who loves history, especially early 20th century transportation and travel.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of the Totem Faces, Jerry West
Oh, dear. Of all the Happy Hollisters books I have read so far, this one seems to have aged the worst. The action begins when little Sue reports that Joey Brill and his running buddy Will have stolen a totem pole from someone's yard. (Really, how do Joey and Will get away with the crap they pull? They remove something from a neighbor's property and no punishment is meted out? Their parents must know someone in the city government!) The five kids (12-year-old Pete; 10-year-old Pam; Ricky, age 7; Holly, age 6; and Sue, who's four) and their visiting cousins Teddy and Jean rescue the totem pole, which is a reproduction that an old Alaskan "sourdough" has made for one of their neighbors. The man tells them a story about a tribe of Alaska natives who lost an identical totem, which legend says holds a secret. Since Teddy and Jean's dad, a famous comic artist, has run out of ideas for his stories, the next thing both families know, they're headed for Alaska, where the Hollisters of course wish to search for the lost totem so they can return the treasure to the native tribe. In the process, they meet two Alaska native children who have had their boat stolen, so they can't enter a salmon derby. Of course the generous kids want to help them as well!

The story does well describing life in Alaska in the early 1960s, and the two Native children and their family are portrayed respectfully of their culture and their amusements. But by today's standards the treatment of the totem, which is a Native American cultural symbol, is not very respectful: the sourdough shouldn't be building one as a decoration for someone's home. It is at least treated as something special.

The troubling portion of this story is a chapter where the Hollisters visit a hospital. They have befriended a nurse who tells the kids most of her patients are Eskimo children. (We'll skip over the fact that most Americans don't realize that "Eskimo" may come from a pejorative term and you shouldn't use it.) The kids are wild to meet Eskimos and go to the hospital to meet the kids and have a good time playing with them, but some of the language make it sound like they are going to a zoo to meet some exotic animals. (No, the children are not compared to animals. But the language just isn't right, either.)

This is such a good-natured series and most of the Alaskan scenes are handled very well, but I would read the Eskimo chapters first and decide what you might want to say to a child about them.

book icon  A Country Practice, Douglas Whynott
Chuck Shaw operates a mixed practice, small and large animals, in rural New Hampshire with his partner Roger Osinchuk, who does a large part of the horse work. The practice has more work than two veterinarians can handle, so Chuck hired Erika Bruner, a newly qualified vet who wishes to work with cattle. Whynott's story follows the varied cases that happen in a rural animal practice, from palpating cows to see if they're ovulating to dog and cat injuries to the horse practice Roger loves.

Anyone looking for the poetry of James Herriot will be disappointed, however, this is an interesting look into what makes a modern rural veterinary practice tick. Chuck is largely overworked, but can't bear to let down any of his patients, and he would like to take more time off. Roger loves the horse work, and we follow his own personal odyssey with raising a beautiful stud horse named Shawne. Erika throws herself into dairy cow work with gusto, determined to become an expert in detecting pregnancies in cows. Yet she finds there's something missing.

Good reading if you are a fan of the veterinary shows on National Geographic Wild and want to see the ins and outs of the business. Rather troubling when you hear about people putting perfectly healthy animals to sleep for no reason. Liked that Chuck Shaw tried to find them homes so the practice didn't have to do that.

book icon  Re-Read: The Crystal Cave/The Hollow Hills/The Last Enchantment, Mary Stewart
We lived very simply when I was a kid: one car, one television, one phone (fastened on the wall), one radio. We didn't take a real vacation (a.k.a. not going to a relative's house) until my mom went back to work. It wasn't of much consequence, except for me there were never enough books. They were a precious commodity with Dad's limited salary, so most of what I had was the cheap Whitman books that cost less than a dollar, some of them "authorized editions" of television shows, or classics like Beautiful Joe, a few girls' books like the Donna Parker series. Later I'd squirrel away my quarter allowance for three weeks to buy a new Get Smart paperback novel.

Mom finally joined the Doubleday Bargain Book Club, in part to get me some decent reference books. I still have my chunky Thorndike-Barnhart dictionary, the Roget's Thesaurus, my first atlas, all bought with the six-books-for-99-cents option you got for joining. Mom got a sewing book, too, and a calorie-counting book, and something else (I think it was religious). Then for a year we were required to buy a book a month, either the selected offering or an alternative. It's how I first read Leon Uris' QBVII, Gone With the Wind (which was intended for my mom, but which I read in four days), and got copies of six favorite animal novels, including Lassie Come-Home and Misty of Chincoteague.

The Crystal Cave was an odd choice. I'd never been much for lords-and-ladies "thees-and-thous" medieval films like Robin Hood and Camelot. I'd seen Disney's Sword in the Stone and didn't much care about it. But that was the most interesting choice that particular month, and I knew Mary Stewart from her novel The Moon-Spinners.

I fell into her Arthurian world and never came out, just as I knew this time around if I plucked the book off the shelf (I have the one-volume trilogy edition, not the individual books I got from Doubleday) I would have to read through all three books without stopping. I simply fell in love with her Merlin and his world, and since then even when I try other versions of literary Merlin (Barron's, Lawhead's) and video Merlin (I love Nicol Williamson, but the snake-loving weird Merlin of Excalibur was repulsive, and Sam Neill, who could have done a wonderful job with Stewart's Merlin, got instead stuck with a cross-eyed Helena Bonham Carter and a jokey Martin Short in a titular miniseries) they always fall short in some way.

It's hard to explain why I do love it so, because most critics of the books say that Merlin is commonplace, or there's not enough magic. Maybe that's why I do love it so much: it's not a fantasy, it's a historical narrative with a protagonist who just happens to have otherworldly powers. Most of what Merlin achieves is through his intelligence, his education, his quick thinking, his ability to negotiate, and sometimes just his talent for bluffing. He's a man who I wouldn't be awed in meeting, but is very down-to-earth. I also love the portrayals of the other characters in Merlin's orbit: his mother who has never betrayed his father's identity, his father himself, his uncle Uther who eventually becomes king, Uther's Queen Ygraine, the young Arthur and his best friend Bedwyr, and especially Merlin's servants, from Cerdic and Cadal to Ralf and Ulfin, and their relationships with each other. They all seem like real people to me. A plus in this re-reading, from a stay-at-home perspective, are Stewart's beautiful descriptions of a British countryside that was: the lush valleys, the harsh hills, the winter starkness, the spring beauty, and the ruins of old forts and shrines, and the description of fifth-century villages (some of them not always pretty), and how people at each level of society lived, from simple shepherds to innkeepers to blacksmiths all the way to the royal houses Merlin associates with. The final volume of the trilogy may refer to "last enchantment," but for me it's been one that never ends.

book icon  Phebe Fairchild Her Book, Lois Lenski
After two books based on her childhood experiences, Lenski wrote the first of her historical books in 1936. Phebe Fairchild, age 10, is sent to live with her family in the country when her father, a sea captain, takes her mother home to England for a visit and then goes on a voyage to the Mediterranean.  Her grandmother, aunts, and cousins are all welcoming and nice, but they are also strictly religious; warned by her father, Phebe doesn't dare show them her frivolous Mother Goose book, nor the jewelry her mother entrusted her with.

Lenski basically wrote this story as a "slice of life" tale of, as she explains, "child life and country life in 1828 Connecticut," when the United States was on the cusp of becoming an industrial nation. Phebe is one of the witnesses to the expansion of canals to carry goods rather than "freighters" and machine-made goods instead of homespun. Phebe herself is a rather bland little girl, except for one incident of rampant disobedience with a visitor's clothing, so the main charms of this story are noting the upbringing of children in the early 19th century, the sheer hard work of country life, but also of the pleasures and the feasts, of typical plays and pranks of the era, the changes industrialization were already bringing and the resistance of elders to it, and of the unceasing labor of women. She also doesn't stress enough the importance of the Mother Goose book, which was the first published book for children in the US which was not intended to impart a Christian lesson, like the hornbooks and chapbooks that came before, but was simply for a child's amusement—to tell children that it was okay to have fun.

In later historical books, Lenski would add some danger or mystery into the story (the pirate character in Ocean Born Mary, the pioneer journey in A'Going to the Westward, etc.) rather than having a simple series of incidents in a child's life. Still worth reading for Lenski's research and the glimpse into 1820s American rural life.

30 June 2020

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson
I don't think I've read an Eric Larson book I didn't like, even if Devil in the White City was supremely creepy and I don't believe I'll be reading it again. This is one of those books I dived into and didn't come up until I was finished. It begins in May 1940, when King George VI requested Winston Churchill to start a new government and ends with the United States' entry into World War II, since Churchill realized early that Great Britain could not stand against the juggernaut German war machine and if the Nazis decided to invade, they would indeed "fight them on the beachheads, etc." but in the end would lose.

It's also a splendid portrait of Winston Churchill, warts and all, at his most resolute, and his family (including his disappointingly drunken and dissolute son Randolph, who was even disliked by his mother), and of a Britain mobilized into its now-classic "Keep Calm and Carry On" response. We're taken into 10 Downing Street, Chartwell (Churchill's "weekend home" in Aylesbury that became a second planning center), the bombed London streets, the crowded and dirty Tube shelters, Lord Beaverbrook's fruitless attempts to resign, and even into the plans of Rudolf Hess involving a trip over the English Channel.

As always Larson intertwines events, personalities, and places with absorbing ease. Loved this book—can't you tell? (This would be a good book to read along with the new Agents of Influence, about William Stephenson and the pro-British propaganda movement in the 1930s United States.)

book icon  The National Review Treasury of Classic Children's Literature, Volume 2, selected by William F. Buckley
This is the second of two volumes where the short stories were chiefly taken from "St. Nicholas" Magazine, and, seeing that I have this "St. Nicholas" fixation, it had to become part of the household. (Three stories exactly are from other magazines, including Ellis Parker Butler's hilarious "Pigs is Pigs," and the complete Tom Sawyer, Detective, which, unlike Tom Sawyer Abroad, at least as a beginning, a middle, and an end.)

Like in the first volume, Buckley seems a bit too fond of the fairy tales (sorry, not a fan of Burnett's "Queen Crosspatch"), but there's a fine assortment of other tales, including two selections from The Jungle Book/The Second Jungle Book, "Another Chance" about a girl given a chance to go to a toney school who almost ruins herself by getting in with a wealthy crowd, the medieval adventure The Boy and the Baron, Jack London's "Cruise of the Dazzler," and, probably my favorite in the volume, L. Frank Baum's "Aunt Phroney's Boy," about a wealthy young man whose automobile is stranded outside a country farm where an elderly woman waits for her husband to come home from the local fair (her thrifty husband explaining to her that it's "too expensive" for her to go). It's heartwarming and funny all at once. 

book icon  Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding, Rhys Bowen
It's finally going to happen: Lady Georgiana Rannoch now has no obstacles in her way to marry dashing spy Darcy O'Mara, but as always with Georgie, there are problems to overcome. Her wedding's been turned into a larger affair, she's having problems communicating her ideas for a wedding dress to her best friend Belinda, and, worst of all, when Georgie and Darcy go residence-hunting, their meager incomes mean they'll be living in one-room walkups with insect infestations and mold. Plus Georgie's worried that her mother's intended German spouse is getting too pally with the Nazis.

Luckily Georgie's godfather (and first stepfather) Sir Hubert Anstruther comes to the rescue. Since Anstruther, an avid explorer, uses his estate Eynsleigh so little, he's willed it to Georgie, and wants her to set up housekeeping there; he only asks she leave him a few rooms in one wing to live in when he occasionally visits home. Georgie is delighted and heads to Eynsleigh to start prepping the house for her married life, only to discover the familiar butler and old staff are gone, to be replaced by a lazy, sullen butler, a chef who can't cook, a snooty maid, and two lazy gardeners. Plus, Plunkett the butler tells her Sir Hubert's elderly mother lives in one of the wings and is quite mad. Not able to contact with her godfather, who's on one of his exploring treks, Georgie tries her best to cope with the lazy servants, and soon realizes something is "really wrong in the state of Denmark."

Enjoyable as always, although Georgie seemed slightly naive about the servants. Would love to see Sir Hubert in another book, and glad Georgie's mother has taken a new tack.

book icon  Re-read: The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...okay, not that far. It's 1971. There's a new film at Garden City Cinema for Memorial Day: a scientific thriller called The Andromeda Strain. My best friend and I see this together. And boy, do we fall. Hard. We go see it again, although both our practical fathers are aghast at the idea of paying to see a film for a second time! A month or so later, I manage to see it a third time when I inveigle my parents with "But you haven't seen it!" When it played on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies some years later, I audiotaped it. And, of course, the moment we got out of the theatre the first time, I bought the book.

In The Andromeda Strain, a space satellite lands in an obscure corner of Arizona and kills all but two people in a tiny town: an elderly man and a small baby. These two survivors are brought to an underground lab in Nevada where scientists prepared for a biological crisis try not only to categorize and explain this new, deadly germ, but try to figure out what it was about the man and the baby that kept them alive.

Crichton fooled many a reader by almost making them think this (or a version of this) had really happened by citing scientific papers, referring to sober-sounding Government projects and teams, using known or realistic technology in the diagnosis—in short, making this like a memoir instead of like a standard thriller. There's no real fancy technology, explosions, or gore, just a realistic narrative about the relentless repetition of tests enable scientists to solve the mystery of a deadly disease. Action fans will certainly find it dull; I still find it absorbing and utterly realistic, if not terrifying. Still one of Crichton's best, despite the dating, since it's firmly grounded in its era and "could have happened."

book icon  The Andromeda Evolution, Daniel N. Wilson
One of the differences between The Andromeda Strain the film and Andromeda Strain the book was in the film they actually kill the virus at the end; in the book it mutates into a non-infectious form and they let it be. That decision comes back to bite them in the butt in this recent sequel to the classic novel: something dark and sinister is starting to grow in the midst of the Amazon rain forest. And nothing seems to stop its progress. Luckily Project Eternal Vigilance has never forgotten Andromeda, and when word comes, a new Project Wildfire team is assembled to investigate the Amazon growth: an Indian doctor, an African scientist, a Chinese pathologist, an American astronaut/scientist monitoring the situation from the International Space Station, and a last minute replacement, the son of one of the original Project Wildfire scientists, James Stone, son of Jeremy Stone.

The original novel was a taut, quiet thriller taking place in a laboratory. This story is what happens when you take the original story and graft on a half-dozen other Crichton ideas, including Sphere and Jurassic Park, add duplicitous military men, an Amazon native tribe, a "space elevator," and a woman who has a genius mind but whose physical problems really should have a deterrent to her being assigned to the Space Station in the first place. Elements of horror films creep in everywhere, whether in the jungle, in the installation in the midst of said jungle, and up on the space station. People get swallowed up, native Amazonians get massacred, and the space station sequences have elements of Alien and Doctor Who's "The Ark in Space." The result is a mess, and the only reason I kept reading was because I wanted to see what happened to James Stone. The most interesting thing in the story is the one other link it has to the original novel, which made did make me smile.

book icon  Game of Dog Bones, Laurien Berenson
Margaret Turnbull, Melanie Travis' renown and often annoying aunt, had been awarded the dog world's ultimate accolade: she's been chosen as a group judge at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Melanie accompanies Aunt Peg to New York City as assistant and companion, and must literally fend off an old "frenemy" of Peg's on the way to the hotel: Victor Durbin, whose questionable breeding methods and involvement in a dog café venue for adoptions have made him persona non grata with many people, but especially Aunt Peg, so when he turns up murdered Peg is the prime suspect. Naturally, Melanie throws herself into the investigation.

The mystery itself involves something in the news a lot these days and is suitably complicated for a cozy. The real strength with this book, the 25th in a series, is in the details: behind the scenes at august Westminster, Melanie's teaming with her sister-in-law Bertie, and the approaching wedding of flamboyant Terry and conservative Crawford (something happens at the wedding that made me cry). Davey continues with showing his poodle Augie, and of course there's kindergartener Kevin for comic relief.

By the way, I agree with another reviewer that we'd love to see Sam involved in a mystery!

book icon  A Question of Betrayal, Anne Perry
This is the second in Perry's newest series set in pre-World War II England and Germany, featuring Elena Standish, talented photographer and daughter of a former ambassador to Germany. In the first volume of the series, Elena discovered her beloved grandfather was the former head of MI.6, Great Britain's international spy network, and she had successfully completed an errand that sent her to Berlin and put her in great danger. In this outing, Elena has an even more difficult mission: extricate her former love Aiden Strother, a man who revealed himself as a traitor to the country and got her fired from her job at the British Embassy, from Italy, since it turns out he was a double agent all along. The man who customarily passed Aiden's reports to England has not been heard from in weeks and it may be that Strother, too, is in danger. Can Elena get him out of Italy while putting aside her personal feelings?

In a subplot, Elena's older sister Margot goes to Berlin to attend the wedding of a dear childhood friend, who she realizes is marrying a heartless member of the Gestapo. Margot wonders: is her friend just too besotted with love to understand the hate within the man, or is there something more sinister going on?

I probably would have been better off reading the previous book first so I would know the particulars about her grandfather and how losing her job affected her and her family, but this can be read pretty much stand-alone if you don't mind being missing some background information. There's the distinct Perry touch of two capable women surviving in hostile environments, detailed descriptions of the ladies' fashions at the time, and welcome detail to 1930s life, and there's a tense plot right until the very end. The buried sinister machinations under German bonhomie is especially well done, making for uneasiness in many chapters. However, I don't find I like Elena or Margot as well as her two other leads, Charlotte Ellison Pitt and Hester Latterly Monk; the sisters don't seem to have the depth that either of Perry's Victorian protagonists have.

book icon  How Did It Begin?: The Origins of Our Curious Customs and Superstitions, Dr. R. & L. Brasch
This is an Australian-published (since much of it is Anglo-Australian in focus) book of trivia that I picked up ages ago on a remainder table and have read in a desultory fashion for literally years now. Interesting facts about customs surrounding death, birth, courtship, drinking customs, homes, sports and other pastimes, religion, time, etc..Basically this is what I call "a bathroom book," something kept in the john to read during, as Frank Gilbreth called it, "unavoidable delay." Not true how much of these facts are true, as some of the word etymologies are iffy, but some trivia for your entertainment.

book icon  Tunnel in the Sky, Robert A. Heinlein
This is a Heinlein juvenile I had never read, and when a friend said she was reading it, I decided to try it as well. I have heard it described as Lord of the Flies-like, but it really isn't.

Rod Walker lives on a future Earth threatened with overpopulation and starvation. Luckily a scientist has invented a device that can teleport humans—the titular "tunnel in the sky"—to other planets to colonize. Rod dreams of being one of these colonists, and, in his final year of high school, he takes an elective "survival course," the final exam which is being teleported to an uninhabited planet to survive for a week before being retrieved; the choice of survival equipment taken is the student's. His older sister Helen gives him good advice on what to take, and he is able to survive the anticipated test period, even after most of his gear is stolen. But retrieval back to Earth doesn't come, and Rod finally partners with a friend from school and another student from a different school. When they become resigned to the fact that retrieval may never come, Rod and his friends find other students, both good and bad, and start building their own civilization.

It's a fascinating portrait of how villages begin and how teamwork provides survival, and also how the lazy or callous can erode the group's safety. The story works because Rod isn't a model teen—he doesn't want to play politics, but leaves that to another young man, only to find that costs and causes problems—and that things can go wrong simply from underestimating the local flora and fauna. It is very anti-Lord of the Flies because, despite problems from a few students who refuse to cooperate, the students do manage to found a thriving community instead of descending into barbarity.

When Heinlein wrote this book, he refused to use stereotypes to delineate his characters, and intended that his protagonist be a person of color. Although other POC are featured in the story, most notably Caroline, who is of Zulu heritage, his publishers in the 1950s were extremely reluctant to have a lead character who was black. Since then publishers have portrayed Rod as white (and even blond) on covers over the years. However, this book is notable for a 1950s book in that its lead character is black, and refreshingly non-stereotyped compared to most 1950s efforts. Old-fashioned (the colonists usually go to new planets in covered wagons drawn by horses or oxen, or riding horses), but food for thought.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters at Lizard Cove, Jerry West
A shipment of pineapples and the tiny iguana that stows away in it send the Hollister kids (12-year-old Pete; 10-year-old Pam; Ricky, age 7; Holly, age 6; and 4-year-old Sue) and their parents on not only a wonderful vacation but an interesting mystery in this entry in the series. Mrs. Hollister discovers the sender of the pineapples is an old school chum who married a doctor in Puerto Rico, and that she is in town with her two children, Carlos and Maya. The Villamils persuade the Hollisters to spend the week at their home at Lizard Cove, where the kids return "Lucky" the iguana to his native land, play in the surf, and explore. They discover an old stone with carving on it, and discover it may lead to a stolen Spanish relic. In the course of the story, they also help a boy named Manuel, who attends the local school for the blind, recover his stolen guitar, a memento from his grandfather. Would you be surprised to know that the stolen guitar and the two men trying to steal the stone the kids find are connected? Probably not, because this is a Happy Hollisters mystery after all.

This is part mystery and part travelogue, as the kids learn some Spanish and visit historical sites, plus learn what an infanta is (it's the 1950s, so Columbus is still treated in a positive way—time for a learning moment). Joey Brill, of course, mutters about "foreigners" when Carlos and Maya visit the Hollister kids' school, and gets set straight about them being Americans by one of their classmates, so apparently 1950s kids knew what a lot of modern adults don't understand. Contains a few 1950s gender-role stereotypes, but, again, all the kids go on the hunt for the thieves, not just the boys, and the girls are just as clever as the boys at picking up on clues.

book icon  Mousse and Murder, Elizabeth Logan
I tend to pick up my cozies by location—I admit, I favor New England-set ones, and ones not in warm places—and when I saw this was set in Alaska, I thought I might get a softer, gentler Sue Henry-like mystery story. Alas, not to be. Our heroine is Charlie (short for Charlotte) Cooke, who switched from law school to culinary school in San Francisco, and has been running the town diner The Bear Claw, since Mom retired to travel with her father, who teaches international seminars. So, protagonist now back in small town (Elkview, Alaska, near Denali National Park) after fiancee ran off with co-worker. Check. How about the rest of the stock cozy conventions? Cute pet? Check, an orange tabby cat named Eggs Benedict, Benny for short. Romance with cute guy? Check, newspaper reporter. (At least the romance is not with the town police officer, as in so many of these.) Best friend who runs local business? Check, Annie, who runs local, family-founded inn. Things that designate the location? Lots of snow, cold weather gear, tourists, and moose, alive and in the stew and meatloaf served at the diner.

Anyway, Bear Claw head chef, temperamental Oliver Whitestone, has an argument with Charlie over trying something new on the menu, and walks out in a tiff. Next thing they know, he's dead, and it's murder. In a little bit of a twist, since Elkview has a tiny police presence (one state trooper, his wife, and his deputy), newspaperman Chris and Charlie are actually deputized to help with the murder investigation (usually the characters investigate on their own). No dangerous stuff, just research and interviewing some family and friends. What time Charlie doesn't spend running the diner and going off sleuthing with Chris (who loves her car with the heated steering wheel), she spends using the "Bennycam" she has in her house to interact with the cat. (If all the Bennycam stuff was deleted, the book would be about twenty pages shorter.)

There's an iffy character from day one, once a clue shows up about halfway through the book you know who the bad guy is, Chris and Charlie actually go in Oliver's house and remove stuff without a warrant figuring it's okay because they're deputies, everyone else in the diner loves working there and will take over at a moment's notice when Charlie goes off sleuthing, and, goodness, she's obsessed with that cat. As far as I can tell, no Native Alaskans live in Elkview or go to Charlie's diner (unless assistant chef Victor and his sister are natives; they are described as dark haired).

book icon  Re-read: Life is a Banquet, Rosalind Russell, with Chris Chase
My mom picked this out of the book club back when it was published; at that point I had only seen Rosalind Russell in The Trouble With Angels, and knew only that she was a classic film star. But the first pages of the book looked so interesting I was drawn into it. Now it's one of my comfort reads; after you watch a few Russell films (for me, I cannot resist stopping and watching Auntie Mame any time I see it running, and love His Girl Friday and The Women) you can hear "Roz" talking to you as you read this book, starting with her active life with her siblings and parents in Waterbury, Connecticut, and the wonderful adventures she had with her Mame-like sister nicknamed "the Duchess." It is the greatest charm of the book, that it feels like she is sitting there telling you her life story. She covers her career and her personal life in a delightful, honest style, admitting when she made downright boners like acting snooty about parts or turning down lucrative ones, and she downplays a lot of her own personal tragedies, like having a nervous breakdown and the illnesses she contracted later in life (she became a spokesperson for people with arthritis and pretty much ruined the rest of her career because no one wanted to hire a women with arthritis). She talks about meeting the famous, but also wonderful stories about people she thought were courageous, like Colonel Hans Adamson and Sister Kenny (Russell played this Australian nurse who challenged the standard treatment of polio patients in a film). She talks so lovingly about her husband (they were married for thirty-five years) and her only son that I wish I could have met all of them, and you get some different views of celebrities like Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.

book icon  The Annotated Black Beauty, Anna Sewell, introductions/annotations by Ellen B. Wells and Anne Grimshaw
I love annotated books. Some friends of mine were thinning out their library on New Year's Eve (boy, if I known then what I know now...) and this is the book I found to take home with me. I have loved it since I was young and had the Whitman edition.

Though thousands think of this as "a children's book," it was definitely not written for children, but as a tract by the Quaker Anna Sewell, who loved all animals, but horses most of all; lame most of her life, she depended on them to get around to have any sort of life outside the home, and was cruelly grieved when she saw them mistreated. So she wrote the story of Black Beauty, the finely-bred colt brought up on a gentle farm and at first owned by the kind Gordon family, where he makes friends with the other horses, including the formerly mistreated Ginger and the pony Merrylegs. Alas, Mrs. Gordon takes ill, and there Black Beauty's perfect life goes astray, as the mistress of his new household believes in the cruel "bearing rein." As his fortunes ebb and flow, going from high-stepping carriage horse to livery horse to cab horse, Sewell talks about the sometimes brutal life horses lead.

The annotated edition adds so much information to the story; besides explaining now archaic terms and horse-care facts that would have been normal back then, the book is full of illustrations from just some of the numerous editions of the book, and indeed the illustrations of the terrible "bearing rein" (here in the U.S. called a "checkrein") make it horrifyingly obvious what horses rigged out in this cruel item suffered.

book icon  A Christmas Resolution, Anne Perry
Celia Darwin, who lost her cousin Kate to murder in the William Monk mystery Dark Tide, has married John Hooper, Monk's current assistant at the Thames River Police. Celia is looking forward to their first Christmas together until she finds out her closest friend Clementine Appleby is marrying Seth Marlowe, a new member of her church and the Reverend Arthur Roberson's former brother-in-law. Roberson is a shy, retiring man who preaches forgiveness while his brother-in-law is an unyielding, judgmental being who still has not forgiven Celia for perjuring herself at the murder trial, even though the court gave her clemency for her decision, and forbids Celia to speak to Clementine except for "matters of housekeeping and motherhood." Clementine believes her gentle love will change him, but Celia finds out Marlowe's wife, "a strumpet," he called her, committed suicide and his daughter ran away from home. Was it true? Were Marlowe's wife and child so deceitful that it's understandable that he's bitter? Or must further investigation be done so that Clementine does not suffer the same fate?

A thoughtful story and within the theme of Christmas about forgiveness—but about how with forgiveness must come acceptance that truths must be faced and corrected. This isn't my favorite of the Christmas mysteries—that's A Christmas Promise with Gracie Phipps—but Celia and John are fine characters I'd love to know and I appreciate the love Celia has for her friend that she dares Marlowe's wrath to assure Clementine is happy.

book icon  Tea & Treachery, Vicki Delany
Another advanced reader copy here, from NetGalley, the first in Delaney's Tea by the Sea mysteries set on Cape Cod. Lily Roberts is happy working in her new tea shop set on the shores of the Cape, in a converted gatehouse next to the Victorian bed and breakfast run by her grandmother Rose, a transplanted Englishwoman with an independent streak a mile wide. Lily helps make breakfasts at grandma's B&B in the mornings and then runs the tea shop in the afternoon, a stretch of kitchen work that makes me faint just to think about it. Next to Rose's property is another Victorian seaside home and property, this one crumbling and overgrown, and a local land developer wants to buy the property to set up a humongous hotel/golf course/resort that will, of course, destroy the tranquility of both the tea shop and the B&B.

And then the land developer meets his death falling off the sea wall near Rose's property. And of course the stupid chief of police suspects that this feisty, but 80+ year-old woman is the main suspect, although his new assistant from Boston doesn't.

I admit, I picked this to read because takes place "just up the road apiece" from my old home town. And yep, this one hits all the cozy cliches: talented protagonist who moved back home from the big city because her boyfriend was a louse; her quirky best friend Bernadette (call her "Bernie") who's a writer in search of a subject (and cute guys), a tea shop and a B&B with cute names, the standard stupid police officer who couldn't find a black cat on a snow field, a cute pet with a cute name (this one's a labradoodle named "Eclair"), the by-now requisite cute guy (the gardener, who—amazing!—also has baking experience so he can help Lily). And then there's Grandma Rose. I liked her the first few chapters and then finished the book being totally annoyed by her selfish, self-serving ways. It's not bad enough Lily works like a dog cooking breakfast and then making teas—Rose is "do this, check out that, make sure of this..." How annoying can you get?

The mystery was adequate, but Grandma Rose got on my nerves.

book icon  Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, Jared Cohen
Eight men stepped from Vice President of the United States to the office of Presidency upon the death of their predecessor: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson. These are their succession stories.

This is a dense book, but the author does well in keeping the pace going even if the political machinations do get a bit deep at times. We discover that when John Tyler took over after William Henry Harrison's brief one-month tenure, there was not even a vehicle in place should the President be unable to serve. Much of Congress, who hated Tyler, thought the succession should go to the Speaker of the House or to someone in the Cabinet. Andrew Johnson, who was a Southerner who did not believe in slavery, changed his tune completely under power and completely sealed his fate. "Silent Cal" was so silent he was a "sea change" from Warren Harding; Theodore Roosevelt was, alternatively, so well known for being a maverick that Congress viewed with horror "that cowboy" becoming President. Chester Arthur was a product of machine politics, the complete opposite from the almost saintly James Garfield. Harry Truman was at the time of his succession so obscure no one knew what to expect, and he turned out to be a powerhouse. Lyndon Johnson, crude and bombastic, spent his presidency juggling the Vietnam war and the leftover remnants of the Kennedy White House. He lost such prestige over Vietnam that he really did not get to further work on what should have been the standout of his career: the Civil Rights Act. And really, how many books actually talk about Millard Fillmore? (Really, there should be a book out about "the unremembered Presidents" like Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Martin Van Buren, and Rutherford Hayes.)

The final chapter talks about Gerald Ford and things that didn't come to pass, either because the miscreant was caught (an attempt on George W. Bush) or because modern medicine saved the day, i.e. Ronald Reagan.

I enjoyed this volume about a little-known subject.

book icon  Life Among the Savages/Raising Demons, Shirley Jackson
One of the short stories I remember from my school readers over the years was the tale of "Charles," the story of a small boy named Laurie who goes to kindergarten and comes home with hair-raising stories about a schoolmate named Charles who does everything against the rules. This story is taken from Jackson's wry domestic columns in "Women's Day" and other magazines about raising four children in a rambling old house in Vermont while carrying on with her writing (including the disturbing The Haunting of Hill House and the startling short story "The Lottery," which "The New Yorker" reports was the feature that garnered the venerable magazine the most letters). Childish obsessions, frozen car radiators, missing boots, overflowing books, and the antics of Laurie, Jannie, Sally, and Barry fill the pages with eye-rolling exasperation and shaken-head laughter as Jackson juggles kids, home, professor husband, and her own errands against rain, snow, and neighbors who are either helpful or think them strange. (Jackson once said "The Lottery" was written as a small revenge at certain narrow-minded townspeople.) In the second book baby Barry comes into his own and they move to another home with a crooked gatepost, which obsesses almost everyone.

Amusing commentary on keeping house, working as a writer, and raising a high-energy brood in the 1950s.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Scarecrow Mystery, Jerry West
In this fourteenth book in the series, when John Hollister's store "The Trading Post" is robbed, he's afraid the thieves have made off with his new creation, a lightweight collapsible canoe, but axes and geiger counters were stolen instead. When another businessman wishes to invest in the canoe, he suggests Mr. Hollister test out the canoe at Fox Lake, and camp on his lakeside property. In fact, Fox Lake has been in the news because there are rumors that uranium has been found there.

You've got this now, right? Yep, John and Elaine Hollister and the kids, 12-year-old Pete; 10-year-old Pam; Ricky, age 7; Holly, age 6; and 4-year-old Sue, plus Zip the collie dog, are off to camp, swim, and canoe—and are warned off the moment they arrive by a tricked-up "talking" scarecrow. Nevertheless, they persevere, and good thing they brought along Zip, because they are further threatened with notes, have their tires and camping gear and supplies stolen, and even approached by a frightened boy who pleads with them to get out of there. Plus there's wildlife, swimming, and lots of lessons in hiking survival, like blazing trails. (At one point Pam gets praised for not doing something that will later help corral a bad guy.) Does it surprise you that geiger counters are involved? Not me.

Ah, well, in this one the guys are the ones to test out the canoe in the rapids (although Pete and Pam do it together on the lake first) while all the girls do is do a clambake with beans, taught to them by the untidy older man who asks them to call him "Scarecrow." However, Pam does get the first few outings in the canoe, adorable Sue does discover two clues to the mystery, and Holly, already an expert swimmer at six, discovers where the bad guys have hidden the Hollister tires.

There's never a dull moment in this one!

31 May 2020

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  Star Trek FAQ 2.0: Everything Left to Know About the Next Generation, the Movies and Beyond, Mark Clark
For the Star Trek fan in all of us: Clark, author of Star Trek FAQ, is back with this volume covering the six classic Trek films and the concurrent Star Trek: the Next Generation, and also the Next Generation films, chronicling the development of the films and the then parallel development of the new series—the very idea of which the original series fans appeared to hate—along with the casting of a new crew who would carry on the ideals of Star Trek without its characters being carbon-copies of the original Enterprise crew. TNG eventually surprised everyone, especially the die-hard fans of the original series, despite the bumps of the first season, in becoming a new fan favorite, with the quiet, cerebral Captain Picard garnering a big fan following along with the android Data, who had been originally scoffed at.

Clark also investigates "Treks not taken," like the "Starfleet Academy" idea, and also how Gene Roddenberry, who began suggesting plotlines that others knew were unworkable or repetitious, was gently eased out of the series he created. Chapters cover each season of Next Generation, plus there are offerings on Star Trek foods, guest stars, crossovers, Data's most memorable episodes, notable episodes, Worf and the conversion of Klingons into allies, new enemies like the Ferengi and the Cardassians, amateur Trek productions, Next Generation novels, and even profiles of series producers and directors. A big treat for classic series/Next Gen fans. One wishes for a book like this about the other Star Trek series, especially Deep Space 9.

book icon  The Doggie in the Window, Rory Kress
After seeing a Wheaten terrier for the first time, Rory Kress knew she wanted one of her own. Not wanting to support puppy mills, she did copious research and then adopted a puppy from a store which had papers stating "Izzie" was born at the home of a reputable breeder who was certified by the USDA. Of course as a puppy Izzie had quirks, but they were just that, Rory thought, quirks, like people have, like being afraid of loud noises. But some years later Rory decided to investigate just what a USDA certification entailed—and it let her on a shocking trail.

I thought this book was a bit repetitive once the point was made, which is that a USDA certification doesn't mean squat. Of course they have rules about how animals have to be homed, fed, watered, and enriched, and basically they are bare minimum. Factory farms, where cows and pigs are kept in manure-caked pens all their lives and chickens are crowded into living spaces so small they have to have their beaks clipped so they don't peck each other to death, are also USDA certified. On her journey Rory visits pet shops and laboratories that work with animals; talks to puppy mill investigators, supposed "hoarders" giving up animals who are really puppy mill breeders in disguise, dog psychologists, and even actual responsible breeders; and, finally finds the place where Izzie came from: not the worst of puppy mills, but one nonetheless, despite that "USDA certification."

To be read by anyone who wants to buy a purebred or even one of these silly "designer breeds" (did you know the man who originally bred the "goldendoodle" now regrets doing it, because so many of the dogs are being bred irresponsibly?) to understand the conditions so many of these dogs are produced under.

book icon  Another Man's Moccasins, Craig Johnson
In Absaroka County, Wyoming, Walt Longmire is called in when the body of a dead Vietnamese girl is found. Even more curiously, she has Walt's name among her effects. While investigating the site, Walt turns up Virgil White Buffalo, a member of the Crow nation who has just been released from prison and is living in a cave nearby. Walt soon doesn't believe Virgil has anything to do with the crime, but wants to help him as he works on the puzzle of the young woman, who triggers flashbacks of his time in Vietnam as a Marine investigator, and his friendship with a young prostitute at a run-down bar and gambling joint. Once a Vietnamese man shows up in Absaroka County, searching for a lost granddaughter that he states is the dead woman, it seems part of the mystery might be solved...or does it just make the story more complicated?

Fascinating, but very tough, entry in this already excellent series, touching on past crimes and well as present, and filling in more of Walt Longmire's past. His Vietnam flashbacks are very real: the smells, the heat, the clamor, the squalor, the fear, the innocence destroyed. I grew up during the Vietnam era and watched dead and wounded men nightly on news reports, but Walt's up-front and personal experience have brought that even further to life. The story of Virgil White Buffalo is also well done and a little sad. 

book icon  America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, Gail Collins
Even though today we are hearing more about the contributions of women to world history, we still seem to hear about the same women: the famous (or the kept-from-being-famous, like Caroline Herschel and Dorothy Wordsworth) and the wealthy. In this overflowing summary, Collins tackles 400 years of the lives of mostly ordinary women: indentured servants, slaves, widows who inherited their husbands' businesses, pioneer wives, colonial midwives, Civil War women forced to manage after a husband or brother's death, the first pioneering "working women," war workers from both world wars, and the Milltown-slugging 50s housewives, starting with Eleanor Dare, who gave birth to the historic Virginia before both disappeared from history, to the teen girls of the late 1990s, fixated on their bodies.

I just loved this book, although in 400 pages to cover 400 years naturally nothing really gets studied in depth. You just can't do it. What this book is is a springboard: to finding a period of history or a career type that most interests you and then doing even more reading: women spies in the Revolutionary era? women of color becoming entrepreneurs? pioneer women coping with loneliness and overwork? 1920s flappers? wives of Tories? women of the 1890s hospitalized for nervous complaints? Whatever interested you in this book is out there in more detail, so enjoy the text and then hunt up whatever intrigued you most!

book icon  St. Nicholas, Volume XXV, May - October 1898, Century Publishing Company
This poor volume. It's in the worst shape of all my bound issues, the back completely falling apart. Had I the money, I'd get it rebound, or at least resewn. I ended up reading about half of it via digital copy on Google Books.

The serials are mostly a disappointment: we have "Two Biddicut Boys," begun in a previous volume, about two Connecticut lads duped into paying ten dollars for a trick dog that has one further trick: going back to its owner. They determine to make chase to get the dog or their ten dollars back, but it's a plodding narrative. "The Lakerim Athletic Club" (also joined in progress) is the seemingly endless saga of a dozen sports-obsessed boys who want to build a clubhouse. In the process each of the boys makes good at one sport, detailed in that particular entry, including, in the last part, a very funny entry where the club bookworm bests a professional golf player. The one cute serial (well, tolerable if you like tales about little girls and their ponies) is "Denise and Ned Toodles," the latter who is a clever Welsh pony. A nonfiction serial about pirates is also included.

"In Old Florence," little Japanese children, and weathervanes in Nantucket are covered in just some of the travel articles. "The Bumble Bee," "Tim: a Parrot Story," "Birds of Paradise," and modern diving methods highlight nature and science entries. Benjamin Franklin, Viking ships, the escape of privateer Miguel Pedro, photography landmarks, the at-the-time new queen of Holland, Wilhemina, and the amazing first-person "A Boy's Recollection of the Great Chicago Fire" are just some of the notable historical profiles.

"The Kingdom of Yvetot" tells a unique story about a family in France who have a tiny kingdom bequeathed to them due to an event in 1066. In "A Stamp-Collector's Experience," a man who finds a set of rare stamps and compares them with another set is promptly accused of theft. An etymological article traces the history of flower names, another language offering lists words that came from odd sources. "On Deck," from Carolyn Wells, contains the names of over 90 Shakespeare characters. "Uncle Sam's 'Farm' in Canada" talks about the tiny portion of the U.S. that thrusts up past the Canadian border at "Lake of the Woods." Since this was the time of the Spanish-American war, the July, August, and September issues have numerous articles about the ocean, from seafaring adventures to photos of the latest of US Navy ships to explanations of how storms form on the water. And "O-U-G-H, or the Cross Farmer" notes that the spelling and pronunciation of English words isn't just a modern conundrum!

book icon  The Wonderful Year, Nancy Barnes
The Martin family is moving to an orchard in Colorado!

The doctor says Mr. Martin, an attorney, has overworked himself, and must go do something else out in fresh air for a year or two. So the whole family—Dad, adventurous mother Jo, 12-year-old Ellen, the family horse Billy, the family terrier Bobby, the canaries and the goldfish, and all their furniture—hop a train to Mesa, Colorado, to try their hand at raising fruit for a couple of years. It's the early part of the 20th century (it's after 1912 because Ellen learns to play two currently popular songs on the piano: "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" and "Melancholy Baby") and Ellen eventually overcomes her reluctance to leave home and friends, especially after she befriends fifteen-year-old Ronnie Ferrington on the next farm, for to her surprise he treats her like an equal and doesn't tease like the boys she used to know. When her parents finally buy her a bicycle, Ellen's happiness is complete.

There are some scary adventures when Ellen encounters a snake and gets lost exploring the countryside on her own, but otherwise it's a year of happy discovery, and, as hinted at in the final few chapters, also a year of approaching adulthood.

Very ambling, sweet, slow-moving story about growing up, with a very unconventional mother character and an adventurous girl who's not invulnerable to crushes but who is definitely her own person and not tied to gender expectations of the pre-First World War years. Also, illustrated by Kate Seredy in the sketchy style in which she was known for then.


book icon  Becoming Mrs. Lewis, Patti Callahan
I knew of Joy Davidman Lewis from the film Shadowlands and from the books The Narnian and C.S. Lewis and Narnia for Dummies along with online bios of C.S. "Jack" Lewis, so I was interested in reading this novel of her friendship and then love for Lewis. I mostly enjoyed it, as it clearly illustrated how the pair intellectually stimulated each other through their letters and later through their personal relationship. You really got a feeling for Joy's increasing dismay into her disintegrating marriage (her husband, Bill Gresham, was an alcoholic and adulterer), her love of her two sons, and her admiration, first intellectually and then emotionally, for Lewis. Her descriptions of Oxford make me want to pull up stakes and move there. And the sad discovery of her real cause of chronic illness and its terrible repercussions are all too vivid.

However, it pretty much asks us to admire Joy as an independent woman who chose to make a change in her life when we would have criticized a man for exhibiting the same behavior. She pretty much walks out on her husband and kids, leaving them with her (as described by Joy) much more attractive cousin (and then seems surprised of nowhere that hubby and cousin get cozy together!) while she's enjoying herself in England with Jack Lewis, his brother Warnie, and Jack's friends. Then she does reclaim her sons and brings them to England, but the book glosses over the fact that while the younger, Douglas, loved Jack Lewis, England, and the whole arrangement, the older boy David disliked Lewis and the whole situation, and even today refuses to speak about it. Lewis, despite his eccentricities, seems almost too idealized as well.

book icon  The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy, Jacopo Della Quergia
This has to be the strangest alternative history/steampunk fantasy I've ever read. A couple of times I considered giving up on it, because some of the characters were just so strange, but on the other hand I wanted to know how it came out. Oddly enough, I'm not sure how it did!

Following real historic events, which are footnoted, the story follows President William Howard Taft, his opinionated and intelligent wife Nellie, his Secret Service guard Willkie, his personal friend and assistant Archibald Butt, and Robert Todd Lincoln (plus a supporting cast both historical and fictional) try to solve the riddle of an impossibly-manufactured pocket watch Robert inherited from his father (and which inadvertently may have caused his assassination), mysterious lights from an equally hush-hush mine in Alaska, and an attempt on the life of Nikola Tesla—and that's just for starters.

The book starts out with a crazy bang with the President in London participating in a wrestling match against five opponents, and winning. Then he has to race home because the automaton (a maligned unit created by Thomas Edison) that impersonates him when he's secretly off on Airship One, his state-of-the-art zeppelin, is malfunctioning and wrecking the White House. All this goes on before the mystery of the pocket watch ever starts, and then comes a mysterious Russian, a standoff at a secret lab at Yale, and finally the maiden voyage of the Titanic (with all this other stuff going on, you had to figure Titanic came into it somehow).

I like alternative history stories and historical stories, but this one was just too weird for me

book icon  The Joy of Being Disorganized, Pam Young
I'm disappointed.

So long ago, in the 1990s when one of those temporary overstock book sales lasted for over a year in an old clothing store near my office, I found the first of the organizing books by "the Sidetracked Sisters" Pam Young and Peggy Jones. Pam and Peggy were two untidy sisters, who, to the dismay of their clean-as-a-pin mother, were as kids and grew up to be slobs whose husbands were always late to work (despite working like crazy to help clean up the mess), their kids late to school, and they were late to everything and missed appointments and meetings because they never learned to corral their stuff properly and take charge of their time—until they formed an easily-followed index card-driven system to bring order and calm to their lives.

The two organizing books, a cookbook, and, my favorite, The Sidetracked Sisters' Happiness File (which anticipated Gretchen Rubin by thirty years) written by Pam and Peggy in a lively style were all great. This, written only by Pam (Peggy having retired due to bad health) is...not good. Basically it's a big long pep talk with a motherly narration, tedious folksy stories, and a big dollop of Christianity. The book itself looks self-published and distressingly cheap, with big fat type, wide margins, and widely spaced paragraphs. It's, frankly, dull, and I'm really glad I bought a cheap used copy instead of ordering a new one off Amazon.

book icon  Drop Dead Healthy, A.J. Jacobs
Have I mentioned lately that Julie Jacobs is a saint? (Not to mention their two patient sons!)

Yes, husband and dad A.J.'s on a new quest: to be as perfectly healthy as he can. And he's going to do it from top to toe. He begins with healthy eating, but covers everything from eyes and ears to hands and feet to glands and organs. Of course along the way he hits every health fad, from cleanses to vegetarianism to acupuncture to alternative medicines to that oldie-but-goodie, thoroughly chewing your food, and talks to some very sensible doctors, scientists, and other knowledgeable folks and a few really weird ones.

As I started this book I mused that this might not be as good as the first two books, but A.J. was sneaky: he paralleled his quest for good health with the failing health of his grandfather, a humorous, loveable guy whose deterioration with age as the narrative continues is painful to read. So this entry in A.J.'s experimental adventures is a bittersweet one, and, considering the conflicting health advice he gets from experts, an intriguing tale as well.

book icon  Star Trek: The Vulcan Academy Murders, Jean Lorrah
This was one of the first (#20) of the Pocket Books line of Star Trek novels, and written by Jean Lorrah, a beloved member of the original Trek fan community, author of one of the most well-known of the early fanzines, "Night of the Twin Moons," the first to concentrate on the relationship of Spock's parents. Lorrah later went on to write non-Trek fiction. I picked it up for a dime at a book sale. I think I was overcharged.

Saying that, I didn't find it as terrible as some reviewers did. I did appreciate the effort Lorrah made to further extrapolate the lives of Vulcans and the geography of the planet, not to mention discussing the non-Vulcans who lived and worked on the planet, including physician Daniel Corrigan and instructor Elenya Miller, who have to interact with the stoic (not emotionless) Vulcans every day.

Unfortunately, the book's mystery isn't very mysterious. The assailant is introduced early on, and there are blatant (at least to me) clues that led me to think "This person could be the killer" and then reject the very idea because this person, by their attitude, was absolutely too obvious and just couldn't be the one. Wrong. Then Captain Kirk basically deputizes himself to find the murderer. Jim Kirk is one hell of a captain. He's a terrible detective. He makes lists of suspects. Then lets his suspects see them. Seriously?

I'm also unsure if Lorrah herself put in all the breathless moments and the exclamation points. I've read other Lorrah; she never seemed this ...emotional. The text is sprinkled with !!!!!!!s everywhere. I'm thinking some "helpful" editorial assistant added them later to "add excitement," and all it does is make the story look like Amateur Hour.

Readable as a curiosity. Just don't pay too much!

book icon  St. Nicholas, Volume LVII, May through October 1930, Century Publishing Company, Scholastic Publishing Company
Well, this was it. With the May issue, "St. Nicholas" stepped out of one publishing company (The Century Company was killed by the Depression) and into another. The format of the magazine continued for two more issues, and then the boom really struck: only one serial, fewer stories, "The Watch Tower" and "Keeping Up With Science" halved in pages.

The stories about "boys and girls" were mostly about older teens, and mostly sporting older teens: tales had to do with golf, tennis, football, even a girl training a hound for foxhunting; there was also a teen sister cooking dinner for an uncle, another teen girl entering an art contest. Tommy Dane, the American boy living and working in Mexico, had a couple of outings, one with frantic gunplay; Felix, an older teen working at his first factory job, endures jibes for being slow, but he also has something an quicker employee does not; Hsiao Fu, a teen boy in China, has a return engagement in which he shows that helping others is not bad luck; and the serial is an interesting entry from Hildegarde Hawthorne (a frequent "Nick" contributor who was the granddaughter of Nathaniel), "The Navajo Cañon [note spelling!] Mystery" in which the Native characters are treated with relative respect, for all that they speak in some sort of weird patois where they mix up their "L" and "R" pronunciations, the protagonists two older teens who have driven a jalopy of their own construction across country. There's also "Kin to the Woods: A Story of the Tennessee Cumberlands," whose ecological theme is still current today. The Great War is still a subject in "How Shorty Got the Iron Cross" as well as in "Keewah," the story of a range horse who finds himself on the battlefield.

The nonfiction devotes a good deal of time to aircraft and flying, at least one article in each issue, including one in which both boys and girls are encouraged to get into piloting gliders (oh, I can see helicopter parents blanching about this now; one of the girls they feature is only thirteen!). Another article talks about the fun both sexes can have with a small outboard motor. Several of the nonfiction pieces are nature stories about an animal told from their point of view, including one about a trout named Flash. Richard Byrd is still being lauded for his flight over Antarctica.

Sadly, an excellent article about training your hunting dog is marred at the beginning with a joke about lazy dogs told by "two darkies." Not to mention there's a "Rastus" joke in the "Just for Fun" column in the October issue, showing that "St. Nicholas" unfortunately was not free of the adult bigotry that ran rampant at that time. It's always jarring when these instances come up, because the magazine is otherwise written at such a high level of intelligence.

book icon  World War II Rhode Island, Christian McBurney, Brian L. Wallis, Patrick T. Conley, John W. Kennedy
This is a slim but dense volume of different essays about World War II in the Ocean State (or "Little Rhody," as it was nicknamed back then). Opening and closing pieces address how the citizens of the state received the news of Pearl Harbor and of VJ Day, but the rest talk about war events specific to the state. Most obviously, there is the story of the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point that later gave its name to the utilitarian metal building known in the US as a "Quonset hut," plus the torpedo station and Naval college in Newport. Davisville, near Quonset, was the home of the "Seabees," the Naval engineers. There are also articles on women war workers, plus the daycare workers who watched over their children, and the Liberty Ship shipyards, but the most intriguing pieces are about the prisoner-of-war camps in the state, one which was just a POW camp, the other which was an indoctrination camp which prepared Germans for postwar life: teaching them that Hitler was wrong in his bigotry against Jews, that countries other than Germany were not "decadent" and barbaric (this was particularly necessary for the young soldiers who were brainwashed early as part of the Hitler Youth). Interesting reading for all Rhode Islanders!

book icon  The National Review Treasury of Children's Literature, edited by William F. Buckley
I first came upon this, and its companion volume via a reference to "St. Nicholas." And indeed, all but two of the stories in this volume are from that magazine. So, since I have all these magazines, why would I order the same stories in these volumes?

Alas, because I am a "St. Nicholas" purist, it  had to be. Luckily I found excellent secondhand copies at low prices. And once again I was seduced by the content: two of Alcott's "Spinning Wheel" stories, one with a plucky girl heroine Tabby Turnbull; two Jack London offerings; several of Palmer Cox's Brownie poems and adorable illustrations (also Carolyn Wells' "Happychaps," which appear to be little insects); a good collection of fairy stories, including a selection from Lewis Carroll's Sylvia and Bruno; two Native American legends; fables like "Noll and Antoonje"; two stories from The Jungle Book (which Rudyard Kipling was encouraged to write by the editors of "St. Nicholas"); even novella-length treats like Tom Sawyer Abroad (which still reads to me like Mark Twain got bored after ten chapters and just abruptly ended it) and Sir Marrok, about Arthurian-era Sherwood Forest.

The one real curiosity here is Buckley's attempt to write a "St. Nicholas"-like story about a boy who learns a lesson, "The Temptation of Wilfred Malachey." It's set modern-day with computers, but has young Wilfred (the son of an impoverished writer nevertheless determined Wilfred get a good education) going to boarding school and, finding he has no funds to treat his fellow wealthy classmates, beginning to steal from them. Then he finds gold: one of the teachers appears to have a computer that grants wishes! One reads it wondering just what Buckley was trying to get at.

book icon  Re-read: Have His Carcase, Dorothy L. Sayers
Two years after her trial for murder, Harriet Vane is still unsettled by what happened to her and stuck with a fine case of writer's block. To relax she takes a walking tour of the southwest coast of England, only to find a man with his throat cut by a straight razor on a rock near the surf. By the time she reaches the nearest town, Wilvercombe, the body has been washed away by the tide, but Harriet dutifully reports the crime to the police. The news makes the papers and Lord Peter Wimsey arrives to see if he can be of help solving the crime, something Harriet is both interested and repelled at doing, especially after sad, fortyish widow Mrs. Weldon, staying at the same posh hotel the murdered man worked at, confesses to the mystery writer that the dead man was her young Russian fiance who had escaped the Soviet Union and she feels his death was caused by Bolsheviks.

Lord Peter and Harriet's sleuthing (ably aided by Wimsey's manservant and best friend Mervyn Bunter, the local Inspector Umpelty, Peter's old friend reporter Salcombe Hardy, and even London Inspector Charles Parker) is delightful, with them sharing a repartee along the lines of Nick and Nora Charles, save that Harriet is still firm about refusing Peter's marriage proposals. The evidence is complicated by a hiker, a camper driving a three-wheeled Morris, a woman in a red motorcar with a funny license plate, a drunken itinerant hairdresser (we would call him a barber), a couple of seagoing locals who are acting mysteriously, the other dancers at the hotel, Mrs. Weldon's exasperated farmer son, and even an escaped horse. Tide tables and a secret code make this a suitably complex murder mystery, even if it doesn't advance Lord Peter's "case" much.

book icon  Lord Darcy: Murder and Magic, Too Many Magicians, Lord Darcy Investigates, Randall Garrett
A friend has been recommending these to me for years, so when this omnibus copy showed up for a buck at the book sale, why not? It's the mid-1960s on an alternate Earth where (a) magic works and science is viewed with skeptical amusement and (b) Richard the Lionheart never died from the wound sustained in the Crusades, so England and France never parted ways and a Plantagenet still sits on the combined throne of the Anglo-French Empire. Lord Darcy (his first name unknown) is an investigator for Prince Richard, the brother of John IV, the King. Darcy, who vaguely resembles Sherlock Holmes (and perhaps Heathcliff), partners with an overweight red-haired master magician, Sean O Lochlainn, to investigate crimes. The volume presents eight of the ten Lord Darcy short stories (more like novellas) and the one Darcy novel.

I love the world-building in these stories up to a point. The result of the Plantagenet line continuation through Prince Arthur seems very real. Also the "magic" having definite rules rather than just appearing (forgive the pun) "like magic" makes the situation much more believable. The mysteries themselves are excellent; Garrett loves locked room tales and it shows in his complicated plots (although one seems borrowed from Dorothy Sayers and another from Agatha Christie—but with a twist in the latter).

Darcy is...interesting, but I never get a sense of him as a real person. To me he compares less favorably to someone like Lord Peter Wimsey, who became more fully rounded as each novel was released. Darcy seems more an idealized (handsome, athletic, intelligent yet intuitive) character, very two-dimensional. Master Sean, who operates as his forensic assistant rather than a "Watson," is more interesting, but if Garrett had called him "the tubby Irish sorcerer" one more time I was going to scream. I preferred the short stories to Too Many Magicians, which I felt was overlong, although it does introduce Mary, Dowager Duchess of Cumberland, who seems rather sweet on Darcy and who I enjoyed. Magicians, unfortunately, also introduces a fascinating character, Lord John Quetzal, who's a magician from this universe's version of Mexico, and who disappears halfway through the book, as if Garrett had changed the end and not made accommodation for him. (Also, if the Marquis of London and Lord Bontriumphe are based on Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, I'll guarantee you I'll never read a Wolfe novel. Two more annoying characters I've never read.)

Something else bothered me: I understand that the magic of the Darcy world has basically retarded the development of technology, but they developed some technology—steam trains, a version of the telephone, telegraphs, even a primitive magic-battery-powered flashlight—and then quit. Somehow I can't see 1966 still having horses, carriages, gaslight, etc. Seems odd to reach a level of technology and then just quit

Still, recommended if you like fantasy elements in your mysteries.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters at Pony Hill Farm, Jerry West
A wooden horse leads to a real one in this complicated (well, for a kids' book) entry in the Hollister series. The kids—12-year-old Pete, 10-year-old Pam, Ricky (age 7), Holly (age 6), and 4-year-old Sue—wish to buy an Appaloosa (not capitalized in the story) rocking horse at an auction of a recently-deceased Shoreham resident. At the auction they meet Chuck, the dead man's nephew, who never knew his uncle and was hoping to find out something more about him. The kids later find a clue in the rocking horse of a possible inheritance for Chuck, but by then the boy has left town. Soon they're preoccupied with an invitation to visit a place called Pony Hill Farm—where, presto, a lost Appaloosa filly shows up. Could she have something to do with the rocking horse the kids bought?

If you say "no," you haven't read enough Happy Hollisters books!

How you react to this one depends on your tolerances for one whopping coincidence. It's nonstop action (and Joey Brill gets his at least once, praise the Lord!) in which the girls shine, especially Holly, who handles a big quarter horse and some trick riding with ease. If you've read a couple of the few stories where only the boys go on ahead to track the bad guys and the girls stay back where it's "safe," this one has a great rib-tickling high-five of a denouement!