31 March 2021

Books Completed Since March 1

book icon  The Wheel of Things: A Biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery, Mollie Gillen
There are newer biographies of Maud, as she preferred to be known, which go into many of the psychological difficulties she had due to her upbringing (not to mention the fact that it has recently come to light that she probably committed suicide), but I found this at a library sale and it's notable in that it seems to be the first Canadian-published adult biography of Montgomery (I could be wrong) and that it was published in 1975, long before Kevin Sullivan's production of Anne of Green Gables with Megan Follows and Colleen Dewhurst got the publicity machines rolling again and made Anne and Avonlea go from a cottage industry on Prince Edward Island to a global phenomenon.

Maud's mother died when she was not yet two years old and she was left to be raised by her maternal grandparents in Cavendish, PEI, while her father, Hugh, sought employment elsewhere. Her life is a lot like Emily Starr, including her imaginings (Maud always felt closer to Emily than Anne, and many times regretted creating the latter, as her publishers asked for endless Anne sequels—she wrote the last in 1938!), creative things which shocked her conservative grandparents. Like Anne Shirley, she found a friend in a reflection in a china cabinet, "Katie Maurice." She only lived with her father briefly when she was older, finding out to chagrin that her new stepmother, whom she hoped would love her, only wanted her as a child minder and housekeeper. Later she became a newspaper reporter, and in her thirties married a dour minister who suffered from depression. Nevertheless she took delight in life and especially in nature.

I haven't read the other bios of Montgomery, but this was enjoyable, especially considering it was pre-Sullivan, so to speak.
 
book icon  Re-read: The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables, Catherine Reid
I'd already read this as an e-book and electrons didn't do it justice; I was just waiting for an affordable copy! If you loved Marta McDowell's Gardening Life of Beatrix Potter or The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, you will love Reid's book featuring beautiful glossy color photographs of the settings of Anne of Green Gables as well as pictures of the historic sites relating to L.M. Montgomery and photographs taken by Montgomery herself (some of them hand-colored by Montgomery). Reid not only tells us the stories of the settings, but how they gave solace to Montgomery, who had a sad childhood being cared for by indifferent grandparents and then returned to a stepmother who basically turned her into a baby-minder and servant; while her writing was a success, she also had a troubled adulthood, plagued by publishers' problems, a mentally unstable husband, and her own depression.. We are shown the original Green Gables and a recreation of the town of Cavendish, which was inspiration for Anne Shirley's Avonlea, and also her relatives' home Silver Bush, which contained some of the inspirational landscapes for the Anne books and also the two Pat books. Of interest are several photos of Montgomery's scrapbooks, which were always full of floral and botanical images, and excerpts from her journals. Anyone who has read Anne, Emily, Pat, or any of Montgomery books set on PEI who has wondered "what did it look like?" will love this beautiful volume!
 
book icon  Death of an American Beauty, Mariah Fredericks
Jane Prescott is supposed to be on vacation, but when she's asked to help out with a pageant celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation being put on by the wife of wealthy department store owner George Rutherford, she finds herself drawn in to helping with the costumes. She still hopes to enjoy part of her vacation—until one of the "fallen women" that her minister uncle assists, teaching them new skills so they can quit prostitution, is murdered in front of the refuge. Her uncle's establishment has caused gossip for years, but now there are two groups saying the reverend is really running a whorehouse, and that he murdered Sadie Ellis. Sadie's gruesome death makes Jane recall a day years ago when a woman with a slashed face—a "negro" woman—was not turned away from her uncle's refuge because of her color, and she made the acquaintance of the truly exceptional Otelia Brooks.
 
I am in awe of how Fredericks captures the era without repeated use of the ethnic/racial/sexual slurs that would have been in common use at the time but still manages to capture the overwhelming venom of that society toward minorities and women. I love Jane because she is not a twenty-first century woman dressed up in early 20th century clothes, but even she is overshadowed in this mystery by Otelia. From her presence in this book you will know fear and sorrow, but also courage and determination.

With a supporting cast including Jane's employer Louise Tyler, the overwhelming Dolly Rutherford, Jane's old friend reporter Michael Behan, loveable pianist Leo Hirschfeld, Jane's best friend and anarchist Anna, and the ladies of her uncle's refuge, this is another winner in Fredericks' Jane Prescott series.
 
book icon  Death of a Showman, Mariah Fredericks
Louise and William Tyler have returned from Europe (to Louise's relief) after her sister's wedding, and lady's maid Jane Prescott is relieved to get back to normal life. But the first thing she learns upon returning is that songwriter Leo Hirschfeld, who she'd come to love during the previous summer, but who told her he'd never be married, has wed a chorus girl. But she'll have to see Leo a lot more than she planned, since he convinces Louise to be a "Broadway angel" for his new musical, produced by the great empresario Sidney Warburton. Warburton is certainly no angel, and both Jane and Louise get an education as they negotiate rehearsals where there's cast in-fighting, personality conflicts, multiple script changes, and arguments galore.

And then Warburton is shot, and there's no end of suspects, including Leo, the older actress whose lover Warburton barred from the set, the aging dance couple, and even drunken Roland Harney, the dipsomaniac performer with the little dog (you may see in Harney echoes of W.C. Fields). In the meantime, history goes on behind the scenes: Archduke Francis Ferdinand has been assassinated, and the bloody Ludlow massacre in Colorado has Jane's best friend, anarchist and activist Anna, enraged.

The main plot of the book reminds me of a similar Perry Mason episode about a discontented acting troupe, except it takes place in Jane Prescott's universe at the time when ragtime was capturing the America's imagination. It's a glimpse into early 20th century life backstage, in which people who didn't quite fit into regular society found a home in theater society—but also the story of how some of these people were exploited. While I didn't find some aspects of the plot as compelling as in the previous three books, the theatre setting was intriguing and seeing Leo again was a treat, even, alas, if he wasn't fated to end up with Jane.
 
book icon  Where the Girls Are, Susan J. Douglas
This is a fun study of the way the media portrayed girls and women during the baby boom era and how it tried to brainwash us into being the perfect woman: maternal, smart (but not too smart), clever (but not cleverer than the guys, of course), with a perfect figure, skin, clothes, makeup, and smiling, optimistic attitude. Well, it's fun at least  until the later chapters when the author gets into politics and turns it deathly boring, or when she seems honor-bound to dis any guy who comes along unless he's totally in favor of feminism. The sociological bits are fascinating. I never thought of Samantha Stephens as a feminist (Endora, yes, but not Samantha), because if that idiot Darrin told me I had to do housework by hand when I could wiggle my nose and do it, I'd have told him what he could with the broomstick! The chapter about the Shirelles and other girl groups was great. Also some good stuff about the rape storylines that suddenly proliferated on television drama in the 1970s that were just used for shock effect rather than to elicit any change in society, and the effect of negative ethnic stereotypes on children.

I guess politics had to enter into the mix, but I wish it hadn't.
 
book icon  Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After (Volume III, 1939-1962), Blanche Wiesen Cook
Volume one in Cook's biography came out in 1993, the second in 2000...and then nothing. I was quite despairing of ever seeing the rest when this was released, then I had to wait to afford it. This third volume carries Eleanor from the beginning of World War II in Europe to her death.
 
Or rather it carries, in depth, Eleanor from 1939 until Franklin dies in 1945 All that is great. We read of the punishing schedule she sets for herself during the war: her columns, her visits to the troops, her efforts to rescue Jewish Europeans from the Nazis, her work with the NAACP and other groups pushing for fair rights for those of African descent, hosting Crown Princess Marthe and her children after Norway is invaded by the Nazis, juggling her relationships with her children and her best friend Lorena Hickok and her male friends Earl Miller and Joseph Lash, the death of her brother and her mother-in-law, and the disillusion of the end of her friendship with Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook. Like Eleanor, Cook handles this juggling act with aplomb.
 
Eleanor's life after 1945 is basically summed up in 28 pages. Those years when she came into her own as an independent woman not tied to her husband's reputation. When she worked for the United Nations. When she ceaselessly championed human rights, especially those of African-Americans. When she was seriously considered as a candidate, if not for President, but at least for Vice President (an alternate history novel Eleanor Vs. Ike came from this fact). Blanche, what happened? Did you get sick, or someone in the family got sick, and you just had to stop? I don't understand. I'd so looked forward to reading the rest!
 
book icon  The Vanished Bride, Bella Ellis
Would you believe I have never read a novel by any of the Brontё sisters? Jane's relatives in the first chapter of Jane Eyre were so dreadful I couldn't keep reading, and that was the only one I tried.

However, a mystery as solved by the Brontё sisters, especially after watching the film To Walk Invisible was yet another thing altogether. Wealthy Elizabeth Chester vanishes from her bedroom at a Yorkshire estate, and the room is found doused in blood. Matilda French, an old friend of the Brontё sisters and nursemaid at the estate, is overcome with horror. The sisters, some years before taking on their aliases and writing Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Tenant of Wildfell Hall, take an interest in becoming "lady detectors" and finding out who did such a horrible thing.
 
As a whole I enjoyed this, especially the sisterly bickering, and the sisters' despair over clever brother Branwell, who seems determined to drink and fornicate himself to death. Ellis tries very hard to write in the manner of a 19th century author without getting too bogged down in the verbosity of the time period, and most of the time it works well. You can see the bleakness of the Haworth area where the sisters and brother grew up, the constrictions of the time (to inquire into the missing woman, the sisters must construct an inquiry agency made up of men before anyone will take them seriously, not to mention the excuses they keep having to make to poor papa Patrick Brontё to leave the house at all!), the deterioration of the dissolute Branwell. The feminist theme is front and center, but some traditionalists may not like the message involved in the mystery's solution. And in the telling of the tale you see the germ of ideas that later would be part of a Brontё sisters' novel: gypsies, bad-tempered masters of the estate, fearful governesses...

Looking forward to the next one.
 
book icon  Re-read: The Horsemasters, Don Stanford
I found this book somewhere on a remainder pile long before the 1980s (and before discovering Disney made an inferior film of it). It's the story of Dinah Wilcox, a seventeen-year-old girl whose dream is to go to Wells, a small, expensive college, with her lifelong best friend, Bee-Bye Simms. But Dinah's parents are not well-to-do and it seems she will have to settle for the local state college—unless she can pass the intensive 15-week Horsemaster course at the Owen-Allerford Riding School on the English coast to get herself certified as a riding instructor so she can work her way through Wells. Funded by a bequest from her grandmother and with hope in her heart (since she's as green a horseback rider as can be), she joins three young men and ten young women for a summer not only of learning to ride well enough to do dressage, jumping, and cross-country, but how to care properly for a horse's health, knowing how to treat illness and feed the animal appropriate food.

I say this is the perfect book to give to a horse-loving child with stars in their eyes thinking owning a horse means galloping it forever on some candy-covered plain like in a Rainbow Brite cartoon without considering the care horses need. Written in an engaging style that teaches you the hard-work realities of owning and riding (there's a stirrup-less jumping exercise in something called "the Grid" that sounds gruesome), including treating illnesses like thrush, lampas, and lameness, with a cast of teens/twenties who each have their own personalities and weaknesses. We know Adrienne, the wealthy Swiss girl, is unused to hard work; Enzo, the Italian boy, is gallant and complimentary; Jill, the Scottish girl, likes to eat; Sally is practical; Bee Bye is proud, as is David; and Dinah is just doing her darnest to keep up with classmates who were either brought up on farms or with horses. In addition, although this book was written in 1957 and when the girls dress up they're all in dresses, and they're called "Miss" by the riding instructors, there's no other midcentury sexism lurking in the wings. The girls are expected to be able to do the same work as the boys (getting dirty in stable work is an equal-opportunity event!); there are no intimations that they are any less experienced riders because they are female, nor are they expected not to live up to the same standards because they are women. The author even addresses the individual personalities of the horses the young people are assigned, and how each horse is not a carbon copy of the next, and for any kids given this book, the adults are just as interesting as the Horsemasters: tough Major Brooke and meticulous Captain Pinski, the riding instructors; Mr. Ffolliott, the vet instructor; Jock Woods, the Scots stud groom at the nearby Vale School; and especially Mercy Hale, the hated head girl at Owen-Allerford, who makes the Horsemasters work hard for every achievement.

A grand, grand book in which everyone triumphs not due to how much money they have or their social status or how pretty they are, but due to effort and teamwork.
 
book icon  An Irish Hostage, Charles Todd
In 1916, nurse Bess Crawford saved fellow nurse Eileen Flynn's life when the ship they were on, transporting injured soldiers from the front lines of the Great War, was torpedoed. Now it's 1919, the war is over, and Eileen has asked Bess to be her maid of honor in her wedding to Michael Sullivan. But there are still terrible frictions between England and Ireland, and Bess' parents and her father's assistant Simon Brandon, are fearful of her traveling across Ireland by train. Instead, to assuage them all, Bess arranges to be flown to Eileen's home by Captain Arthur Jackson, an American still stationed in England. When Bess arrives at Eileen's house, she discovers Michael is missing, most probably kidnapped by Irish nationalists, possibly because, like Eileen, he "took the king's shilling" and worked on the side of the enemy. Are Bess and Michael's best man, another Englishman, Major Ellis Dawson, also in danger?
 
Historically it's easy to forget that 100 years ago the Irish were nearly rooting for the Germans, so terrible had been the English stewardship of Ireland, with its domineering landlords who sent thousands of starving Irish fleeing to the United States during the potato famine of 1849, the remaining population treated not much better than slaves. Three years after the bloody Easter Rising, the Irish nationalists still want revenge for the murder of the men who stood their ground at the Dublin post office, and you can understand their passions.

On the other hand, this really wasn't what I wanted in another Bess Crawford book. I know the war is over, and I know Bess will have a great lifestyle change now that her nursing duties appear to be complete. But I think I'd rather have her solving mysteries related to the Great War than making a detour into Irish politics. The ending of the story seems to come out of another book completely, like an espionage thriller. So—enjoyed and kept my interest, but like the WWI-set plots better.

And for those who keep asking: yes, there's the tiniest bit of progress with the Bess/Simon UST.
 
book icon  Rescue, Jennifer Nielsen
Meg Kenyon was born in France, daughter of an English father and French mother. All her life, she and her father have played with secret codes which he taught her about from the time she could read. Two years ago, when war was declared, Meg's dad marched off to fight, and she hasn't seen him since. She only has a jar of codes he left her to remember him by, and she's solved all but one. Meg and her mother now live with her maternal grandmother and life is hard due to food and material shortages brought about by German occupation, but they've managed to dodge Nazi wrath until Meg finds a wounded English pilot in the barn. Not only could helping him bring death upon the family, but the Germans have also discovered Meg's book of codes. Meg's mother must get her out of the area, so, even though she is only twelve, she's deputized to take the place of the wounded pilot in helping to get a family (father, mother, and son) of Jews to safety, using a series of clues in code from her father. Although the family is supposed to go to Spain, Meg realizes it would be safer for them to head to Switzerland.
 
While I must admit this is a page-turner of a story with a mystery embedded in it, it still sort of niggled upon me that Meg is so young to be doing this job. Yes, I know the youngest known resistance fighter in France was a sixteen year old girl who handled a machine gun, but I'm thinking as an adult from the point of view of the two adults Meg is guiding: really, who's going to listen to her, especially when she changes their destination in mid-odyssey? It seems a bit improbable. I'm also not a person who's into codes, but supposedly Meg and her dad played code games for years, so it seems impossible to me that she misinterpreted the message he left for her in the long string of verse, since even a dim bulb like me made it out! It also seems to me that they sometimes seem to go great distances in a very short time!

Otherwise, this is a neat WWII adventure story for kids, with a good lesson on the hardships—hunger, cold, loneliness, fear of being killed or sent to a concentration camp—faced by those in occupied France and how they coped and survived, and the sheer grit required just to get through each day. The text is very fair to Germans, making it clear that not all of them were Nazis, and some risked their lives to help others, and that there were also French who collaborated with their foes to gain favor or power. Meg is a great protagonist: inventive, stubborn, and resolute despite her fears.
 
book icon  The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, Mary S. Lovell
Except for the mention of a famed British book called Love in a Cold Climate, I'd never heard of the Mitford family until I saw Jessica Fellowes "Mitford Murders" mystery series. Author Lovell, who wrote the book in 2000, says most people under the age of 50 (which I was in 2000) wouldn't recognize the name, but older people probably would. Not sure about that, but they certainly were a strange and fascinating mob.
 
David Mitford, who became the 2nd Baron Redesdale, and his wife Sydney raised six daughters and a son, all of them with different passions and convictions. Nancy, the eldest and most sharp-tongued, became a noted author; Pamela was the most ordinary one, she was happy on her farm; Tom, the only son, became a lawyer; Diana, already married, fell in love with the leader of the British Facist Party, Oswald Mosley, and spent most of World War II in jail; Unity, the really strange one, had a crush on Adolf Hitler and like a fangirl, followed his appearances and became his friend—when England and Germany went to war in 1939 she tried to commit suicide; Jessica became a Communist and moved to the U.S.; and Deborah married the love of her life, Andrew Cavendish, and ended up as the Duchess of Devonshire. At one time or the other at least half of the family met Hitler early in his career and didn't think he was a bad fellow until after the war began and truths came to light. They gave each other odd nicknames: Jessica was "Decca," Unity was "Boud," their nursemaid was "Nanny Blor," David was "Farve." Jessica hated Diana for her political beliefs for the rest of her life. Nancy scandalized society by making her family the main characters in her novels (disguised and renamed, of course, but still identifiable). Even though David was "titled" the family had very little money and had to keep moving to smaller and smaller homes so the girls' "debuts" could be afforded. At one time one or the other of them was always in the British newspapers, and not always for good reasons.

I certainly didn't know what to make of these folks. For titled, rich people they certainly weren't dull. Sounded like it would be fun to talk to several of them, like Nancy or Debo, at a party, but certainly no one I'd want to be friends with. If this is "how the upper class lives," they can have it, thanks.
 
book icon  Alibis & Angels, Olivia Matthews
The third, and presumably last, of the Sister Lou mysteries. As Lent approaches, Mayor Heather Stanley (who we've come to learn to hate in previous volumes) finds herself threatened by someone who doesn't want her to run for re-election. After she loans a co-worker her car and her coat to get to a meeting, the co-worker is found dead in the parking lot after the meeting, having broken her neck in a fall down the stairs. The two (terminally stupid) Briar Coast police officers Fran and Ted think it was an accident. So Mayor Stanley turns to Sister Louise LaSalle for help, telling her she doesn't want to inform the police of the threats. Of course Shari Henson, reporter for the local paper, and nephew Chris LaSalle become involved, as does Shari's editor, Diego DeVarona, who knew Heather back when she worked in El Paso. If having to work on this mystery doesn't make Sister Lou uneasy enough, especially when it looks like the culprit is one of the mayor's "loyal staff," Shari's gradual relaxation into her role as reporter is thrown a curve by Harold Beckett, who Shari sees as "normal" and more deserving of a newspaper job than a former despised foster kid like herself, so her once-lessening inferiority complex roars back with a vengeance.

I like all the characters in these books (well, for the possible exception of Fran and Ted, who are really too stupid to be police officers) and I like that the situation revolves around a Catholic college and a group of sisters. Sister Lou is a saint, especially with people like Sister Marianna as compatriots. The mysteries are moderately interesting. But the author's way of describing things drives me crazy. In the opening of the book it states "Sharelle 'Shari' Henson gaped at Christian 'Chris' LaSalle." Who describes their characters and their nicknames so clumsily? Later it's "Sister Louise 'Lou' LaSalle" and "Harold 'Don't Call Me Hal' Beckett." Clothes, shoes, accessories, and furniture are described endlessly by brand name and color. If I heard one more time about Chris' and Sister Lou's "onyx eyes" I was going to scream. And what is with Sister Barbara, the prioress? Why does she allow Sister Marianna to ask questions that she has been requested not to ask, and badger Sister Lou? Just because you are a member of a religious order doesn't mean you can't be punished for being rude!
 
Plus you can tell these books are not proofread by a human. In one paragraph, the grounds of Sister Lou's college is being described and the text states "a ring of Burberry bushes surrounded a white plaster statue." Burberry is a brand of upscale British garments (several people in the story wear Burberry products). Perhaps they meant "barberry bushes"? Also, "plaster" statue? Outside? Stone, maybe, or concrete? Marble? Even resin, but...plaster? Out in the rain and snow? In another bit of description, a character uses a descriptive phrase used by denizens of that game where people hit little white balls along a fairway with a metal club. This is described as the character "using a gulfing term." My head hurts.
 
book icon  Philomena, Kate Seredy
This was the very last of the Seredy books I had never read (thankfully I found Gypsy and Tenement Tree online), and it was reprinted a few years ago in a trade paperback format with cover art by another artist. Philomena lives in a small Bohemian town with her grandmother, Baboushka, who brought her up after her parents died. In her town, girls her age (twelve) journey to Prague and go "into service" for four years learning to be good workers before coming home at age sixteen to be married. Every woman in the small community has done so, except for Philomena's aunt, who wrote home saying she was marrying a wealthy man and not returning. So when it's time for Philomena to do the same, Baboushka bids her to go to Prague to find her aunt and work for her.

Alas, Philomena can't find her aunt, but she has many adventures with different employers before her journey comes to an end, and also makes many friends. Throughout her journey, although homesick, she works hard, remains friendly and optimistic, and is always ready to comfort the sad and rescue the abused. Sometimes her escapades are amusing, other times sad, and the text is illustrated by Seredy's lovely pre-World War I views of Prague and the traditional clothing of the time.

A sweet tale of faith, determination, and courage, although today's parents may find it horrifying that a twelve-year-old was allowed to go to a big city alone.
 
book icon  Re-read: The Good Master, Kate Seredy
This was Seredy's first book, based on her childhood memories of growing up in Hungary, and Kate Nagy is one of the most delightful female protagonists in children's fiction ever. Spoiled by her widowed father and recovering from a bad case of the measles, Kate is sent to live in the country with her Uncle Marton (the titular "good master"), his wife, and their ten-year-old son Jancsi, who imagines Kate to be some sort of sweet invalid whom he can protect from fantastic dangers. Instead he discovers she's a headstrong, mischievous little girl with a stubborn streak a mile wide, full of pluck and admirable talents.
 
How Kate is "tamed" by Uncle Marton's wisdom, yet remains irrepressibly Kate and independent is the focus of this delightful story, in which she learns to ride horseback, garden, and take on some of the responsibilities on a big Hungarian farm in 1912. There's a big county fair, a horse stampede, and a river adventure. The only problematic chapter for a modern audience is one about the Romany (gypsies) in which they are portrayed as untrustworthy; this can be a good "teaching moment" about past perceptions of certain ethnic groups, and that there are good and bad in every group. Otherwise this is a wonderful portrayal of traditional Hungarian culture pre-World War I, with the colorful native costumes, ways of farming and raising animals, celebrations, and foods.
 
book icon  Women Rowing North, Mary Pipher
I picked this up because the subtitle was "Navigating Life's Currents and Flourishing as We Age." Well, I'm aging, and I'd like to flourish.
 
I think I've received better advice from Gretchen Rubin's podcast and her book The Happiness Project. Although Pipher talks to many women during the course of the book, she focuses much of the text on four composite women. Two have ill spouses, one must take care of her careless daughter's children, one has built a wall around herself due to childhood abuse. All four women learn to take care of their needs while facing futures they had not seen for themselves. Self-care is emphasized in the text, as is not to allow changes in your planned future to bring you down. It is simply, the author says, a matter of adjusting to a new normal. These are subjects I've already read about in other books and in magazines like "Breathe."

Having already experienced a few of the situations portrayed in this book, I have to admit I learned nothing new. Being older is just like living life when you're younger: you must be ready to adapt to situations you didn't anticipate—there are just more geriatric medical issues. The woman who had looked forward to retirement is now raising her grandchildren, the woman who loved to work now finds her life wrapped around her husband's illness. Only in one case does the person actually find her life improved by the change in her life's path.

Pipher's text covers a very narrow group of women. While she says she talked with all races/ethnic groups in all walks of life, her subjects seem to be solidly white and middle class. There's very little about lower-income women coping with aging.

I wasn't bored, but it didn't do much for me, either. Best part of the book were the Eleanor Roosevelt quotations.
 
book icon  Re-read: Stillmeadow Sampler, Gladys Taber
It's always good to end a month with a Stillmeadow book. This is the sixth in Taber's memoirs, this time divided into seasons beginning with spring.
 
Although she has always occasionally mentioned her eccentric father and nurturing mother in previous texts, this Stillmeadow outing provides more memories of Gladys' childhood, when, finally settled in one house in Wisconsin, her mother hosted all her school friends and only her father traveled, sometimes vanishing for months at time (he was a geologist) and once being held hostage in Mexico. She also devotes a few more paragraphs to the late 1950s fears of nuclear war. Otherwise it's the same wonderful stories of life in an old farmhouse, a place of the joys of nature and of owning dogs, to the sheer hard work of keeping up such a place, and of gardening, although the rewards of the latter are rich. Planting is followed by growth, then by harvest, then by eating of the fruits of their labor. One dog is called home and another receives an honor. Visitors come and go, including friend Barbara and her illustrator husband Ed Shenton, and Faith Baldwin, and even a visit from actress Shirley Booth.

Every season smiles over Stillmeadow, and there is much to smile at: buds, flowers, trees, grass, leaves, the Quiet Garden, the bumper crop of veg, snow, the turning of the year, bounding cocker spaniels and the always irrepressible Irish setter. Read slowly and savor: mindfulness began at Stillmeadow.
 
book icon  Re-read: Wyoming Summer, Mary O'Hara
I can't remember ever not loving this book, which is a bit impossible since I didn't read it until I was twelve years old when I found it in the Hugh B. Bain library. It's not a children's book, so I'm a bit flummoxed what it was doing in a junior high school library (but then neither was Especially Dogs, Especially at Stillmeadow). But, like all the books I fell in love with there, it's now an intimate part of my life, of my heart. When I found a copy, despite the water-damaged dustcover, at a local booksale several years later, my heart was full.
 
For 11 years, Mary O'Hara Alsop and her second husband, Helge Sture-Vasa, lived at Remount Ranch in Wyoming, 30 miles from Cheyenne, where they first raised sheep, then horses, and ran a boys' camp in the summer. A diarist from childhood, Mary's entries about the ranch, Wyoming, the horses, the boys, her husband, her study of music, the ranch hands, neighbors, and other animals found their way into her 1942 best-seller My Friend Flicka and its two sequels, as well as into a musical called The Catch Colt. Mary had tried to sell an adaptation of her diaries before Flicka, but her publisher suggested a novel instead, and it was only in the early 1960s that the manuscript that became Wyoming Summer saw the light again.
 
Early in the book Mary talks about certain combinations of musical notes sending her into a magical dream world she called Shinar. This book is my Shinar. Once I have passed the first sentence "I have walked down to the pasture to look at the bull" I am no longer in my chair with a book, I am with Mary in Wyoming, riding a horse along the continental divide, experiencing wild thunderstorms, studying counterpoint and thematic development, talking about the personalities of the horses, dogs, cats, and cows that populate the ranch (as well as the ranch hands and their rancher neighbors), counseling the teen boys who come to the ranch each summer to learn to ride and be independent, enjoying the majesty of the rolling grassland of Eastern Wyoming. I am with her as she copes with her husband's strong emotions, recalls her childhood, faces mercurial weather, trains a fearful setter, bakes bread, faces unreliable ranch hands, sleeps under the stars, and goes about the daily routine of a ranch without electricity and what the British would call "mod coms." To this day, two of her phrases have been with me: talking about memorable events which pass so quickly: "How fast the earth spins—" And the one that reminds me every day to be mindful, for we know not what comes: "Yes—happiness hangs by a hair–"
 
It is always a comfort to disappear into this beautifully-written book. Sometimes I am almost tempted to go back to page one and start all over again. Shinar calls.

28 February 2021

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  Paper Son, S.J. Rozan
Lydia Chin is stunned when her mother calls her to help a family member, and to bring her partner Bill Smith, whom Mrs. Chin hates, along. She's more astonished to discover she has family in the Mississippi Delta. Because the U.S. government once set restrictions on Chinese immigrants, her great-grandfather's brother had come over as a "paper son," with fake papers saying he was another man's son so he could gain entry, and he ended up founding a grocery store in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Now a descendant of this brother, Jefferson Tam, has been arrested for killing his father. Anyone, Lydia's mother believes, who is related to her husband's family, cannot be guilty. Therefore, Lydia (and Bill) must head to Clarksdale to clear his name and find the real culprit.
 
Bill, who's from the South, fares much better than streetwise Lydia when they arrive. She's surprised to find that there are (or were at one time) many Chinese grocery stores in Mississippi because they were the only ones who would serve black customers. As the investigation deepens, Lydia discovers that what's going on is all about family...including some long-held secrets.

Besides being a great mystery in an unusual place for our protagonists, there's a lot to think about concerning racism in the past that still affects people today and how a single choice in the past can set up tragedy in the future. Plus it's great to see Lydia, with her urban upbringing, trying to understand what makes a small Mississippi town tick.
 
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Cuckoo Clock Mystery, Jerry West
In entry 24 in the series, Joey Brill the brat actually does something wrong that has a good result: his throwing rocks at the windows of the Trading Post damages some imported cuckoo clocks, leading the children (Pete, age 12, Pam, 10, seven-year-old Ricky, and Holly, age 6, plus 4-year-old Sue) and their parents on a trip to the Black Forest of Germany, following the rhyme on a piece of paper they find in one of the broken clocks. It turns out a priceless golden cuckoo clock vanished from a German museum, and the verse just may lead them to it!
 
It's funny reading these now seeing how casually Mr. and Mrs. Hollister can just pick up tickets and take the kids off to Europe. The neighbors are always happy to take care of the Hollister pets, and Mr. Hollister can always count on his assistants at the store to keep everything running smoothly. And once again it's kind of part mystery, part Rick Steves tour of the Black Forest, though not so intense as the books about Denmark and the other about the Netherlands.
 
Stuff that makes you know this was written in the past: Pete gets really excited because the car Mr. Hollister rents is a Mercedes-Benz! Now those cars are all over the road.
 
The question never answered: Did anyone punish Joey for the cuckoo clock damage? Really, that kid belongs in reform school or in therapy.
 
book icon  Death With a Double Edge, Anne Perry
This is Perry's fourth book in her series about Daniel Pitt, son of Special Branch head Sir Thomas Pitt and his wife Charlotte, who were the protagonists of Perry's first mystery series, and so far the best, possibly because both elder Pitts are involved. It begins slowly, when Daniel is called to identify a body he believes, due to the coat the person was wearing, is his fellow solicitor, Toby Kitteridge. To his relief, but also to his consternation, the body is instead that of Jonah Drake, one of the elder partners at fforde-Croft and Gibson, and he has been savaged by someone wielding a large knife or sword. Daniel and Kitteridge, as well as their superior Marcus fforde-Croft, begin investigating as they know it will reflect badly on their law office, and soon they are fairly sure the murder has something to do with one of Drake's prior cases, one that was still unsolved although Drake was able to get the court to acquit the accused, Evan Faber, the son of famed shipbuilder Erasmus Faber, the latter who's using his special skill to demand favors from the government.

As I said, starts off slowly and then the plot speeds up as more deaths occur and Daniel, Kitteridge, and even Pitt and Charlotte attempt to put clues together. The last eight or nine chapters pull into high gear as we get a glimpse into the crime and what the criminals are willing to do to keep their secrets hidden. While I had a feeling an introduced character was significant to the story, I had no idea of the plot twist that would make this character be more significant than it appeared at first!

Miriam fforde-Croft, who has been Daniel's sleuthing companion in the previous three books, is in Europe studying for a medical degree which she cannot get in England (the Dutch being more enlightened in women's education in 1911), and only appears near the end, but Daniel's work with Kitteridge, and in a small part with Roman Blackwell and his mother, and especially with his own parents more than makes up for her absence. If you read the series, and have read the Charlotte/Pitt books (mention is made to several of the books, chiefly to the first, The Cater Street Hangman), you will surely love this one.
 
book icon  Re-read: Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy L. Sayers
It was only a step from extracting a quotation from this book to wanting to re-read it. The television production, starring Ian Carmichael, which showed on Masterpiece Theater back when I was in college, was my first exposure to Sayers and Lord Peter Wimsey. I bought the book—not just the book, but the whole series of books, having been besotted at once, and this one is still my favorite.

An advertising copywriter at Pym's Publicity, an ad agency, is killed in a supposed accidental fall down a staircase in the office. A suspicious letter having shown up in the man's desk leads Mr. Pym to find someone who can do a discreet investigation. Enter Lord Peter, posing as wide-eyed, polite but nosy Mr. Death Bredon (Peter's two middle names) who soon comes to believe the death was no accident. He also found out the copywriter was hanging out with a group of Bright Young Things, the wild British youth of the years between the wars, who were into thrills, fast cars, alcohol and lots of drugs, and soon insinuates himself in that crowd. At the same time, Wimsey's brother-in-law, Chief Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard, is trying desperately to figure out where all the dope is coming from.
 
Sayers, who worked for an advertising agency for nine years, not only creates a topping mystery, but nicely skewers the advertising business as she does so, creating a collection of memorable characters at Pym's, including "Miss Meteyard of Somerville," who appears to be an avatar of Sayers herself.

You don't need to have read the earlier books in the series, but they're all excellent as well (well, Five Red Herrings is a tad dull) and you'll find out more about Peter's family (including his delightful mother the Dowager Duchess), his impeccable manservant Bunter (who seems to be on holiday in this volume), and his other adventures. (Oh, and if you've only seen the Ian Carmichael TV version, do read the book—characters had to be concatenated for television, and scenes excised, so there are more situations, and a climactic cricket game that finally puts Wimsey on to the murderer.)

book icon  Spying on the South, Tony Horwitz
Having read Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange and having a copy of Blue Latitudes and Confederates in the Attic, I was tempted to buy this book when I saw it at Costco just after Horwitz's sudden death a few days after it was published. If you're like me, when you hear the name "Frederick Law Olmstead," you think of his wonderful landscaping milestones in North American history: Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City, Mount Royal Park in Montreal, the "Emerald Necklace" of parks in Boston, and Biltmore Estates in Asheville, North Carolina, just to name a few. But before Olmstead became a full time designer of parks, he was a correspondent for the then-new "New-York Times." As the factors that led to the U.S. Civil War grew and became uglier, Olmstead, under the pen name "Yeoman," made two tours of the South in the 1850s. he wished, he indicated in his first piece for the "Times," to publish a a series that was as close to unprejudiced as possible about the Southern side of the fast-emerging conflict, and intended to interview, rationally, slave owners. After all, slavery had been a common human practice since time immemorial. Were the stories of the brutality of its practice being exaggerated? But once he made the actual trips, he not only found out things were worse than Northern readers imagined, but that he couldn't keep his feelings out of the way slaves were treated in the supposedly "civilized" places he visited.

Horwitz retraces Olmstead's path on his second trip in 1853-1854 from Baltimore around the edge of the slave states all the way down to Texas, with side trips to Lexington, Nashville, New Orleans, and even to Mexico, and reports on the working-class people he meets along the route: barge workers in Ohio, old plantations, Cajuns, African-American churches, "mudders" who race trucks, landmarks like the Alamo, and finally on a mule-back trail ride with a muleskinner who does his best to make Horwitz give up.

In general I enjoyed this book because of the different people he met, but as someone who's lived in Georgia since 1984, I find it a bit hard to believe that it was so difficult for him to meet normal people on his route. Or did he and just not include them in his book because the people who had boat races and ate alligator meat and believed weird theories were just more interesting to write about? I've met everyone down here from good ol' boy elderly men who think women only work for "pin money" to groups who do their damnest to help everyone, and it seems the majority of people he talked to were offbeat and ate weird food.

By the way, I was amused that I picked this up to read after enjoying Rozan's Paper Son. He did actually go down to Mississippi and found out about the Chinese stores in small Mississippi towns.
 
book icon  Anything for a Laugh, Bennett Cerf
When Cerf published two collections of jokes and tall tales, he thought that was that, and it was why, in the introduction to this second collection (with a third collection coming out soon), he declared that the third "will be the last books of this sort that will bear my name for a long time to come."
 
Oh, Bennett, had you only known in 1946 what you realized in the 1970s! For I wore out my paperback copy of Laugh Day until it literally fell apart, and bought The Sound of Laughter, and many other older Cerf collections up until this very day, and never got over my amusement for them. Naturally, this book was published a few generations ago, and a lot of the familiar celebrity names in 1946, which I know but anyone born after, say 1980, probably have never heard of, and so these stories won't be as funny. Several more rely on humor we try to eschew today. But I have to say I enjoyed Anything for a Laugh just as much as I enjoyed Laugh Day as a teen (even if I didn't know who the heck Toots Shor was back then), and I'll probably keep collecting Cerf humor collections until they or I are no more. Here's to you, Bennett!
 
book icon  The Mitford Murders, Jessica Fellowes
I picked this up the day poor James had to go to Urgent Care with his infected foot (and shipped off to the hospital a day later), and didn't resume reading it until February was a few days old. It's the story of Louisa Cannon, who lives in a poor part of London with her mother, a washerwoman, and her sponging layabout uncle, who taught her how to pickpocket and now, that she's outgrown her childish figure, seems to want to sell her body as well. She escapes by literally fleeing his clutches off a train, helped by a friendly police detective Guy Sullivan, and gets back heading to a job interview as a nanny's assistant for the Mitford family. Sullivan has been brought to Hastings by a death on the train; the very obvious murder of Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter of the nurse hero of the Crimea and a nurse herself. When Nancy Mitford, almost of age, and eldest of the children that Louisa will be tending, discovers that Louisa was on the same train as Shore, her curiosity leads her to encourage Louisa to "help her" look into the crime. Headstrong Nancy gets her way, and soon they are embroiled in the crime far more than they should be.

Aside from the fact that I'd really never heard of the "infamous Mitford sisters" (except knowing the title of the book Nancy later wrote, Love in a Cold Climate—they were an eccentric bunch as children as well as adults: Deborah married the Duke of Devonshire, one became a communist, another was so enamored of Hitler that she shot herself (unsuccessfully) when Britain declared war on Germany, and a fourth married British Fascist Oswald Mosely), I enjoyed this 1920s-set tale written by Fellowes, who also wrote for Downton Abbey. It has the feel of a book written at the time without the casual racism and the worst of the classism, one of those stories where the background is as enjoyable as the story. I guessed the identity of the murder right off from what I thought was a very obvious clue, but Fellowes provided so many red herrings that I doubted my guess for much of the book. Louisa and Guy are both enjoyable characters, and while Nancy gets the lion's share of the attention in this volume, Fellowes tries to distinguish each younger sister as well. The three (so far) sequels focus on Louisa and the next three eldest daughters as they "enter society."

The one thing that bothered me is that this is based on a real murder case and Fellowes uses the actual names of the people involved in the case (not just the victim but her friends). Her choice of the murderer, then, was a little bit uncomfortable, since the actual case was never solved.
 
book icon  Re-read: Stillmeadow and Sugarbridge, Gladys Taber and Barbara Webster
This fourth collection of Taber's Stillmeadow books forms a change of pace from chapters comprised from her magazine articles along with new, bridging narrative; instead these are letters exchanged between Gladys and her friend Barbara, also an author and the wife of Stillmeadow book illustrator Edward Shenton, during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Gladys has Stillmeadow, her 17th century Connecticut farmhouse in which she and her best friend garden, cook, and raise cocker spaniels along with the occasional Irish setter and a cat or two. Barbara and Ed live in Chester county, Pennsylvania, in an 18th century farmhouse, Sugarbridge, with a Great Dane named Duke and Barbara's horse, Chief. Gladys and Barbara are kindred spirits who, in their correspondence, address their various household happenings along with the events of the world (Gladys already worried about the affect nuclear bombs will have on the world) and the beauty of their respective countrysides. Gladys chats about the wise farmer next door, George, who has helped her and Jill so many times; Barbara reports on the elderly couple who live nearby who occasionally bring her treasures and how she wishes she could do something just as nice for them. Through both women's eyes we see the blooming spring, the busy summer, the contemplative autumn, and the frigid but festive winter, the funny actions of Gladys' spaniels, and the offbeat personality of Barbara's Dane. Beautifully written, with a sweet coda by Ed Shenton.
 
Sugarbridge was for sale in 2014; here are some photos of the house. I notice it is located on "Shenton Road"!
 
book icon  Re-read: The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin
I read a lot of reviews of this book that started with "Huh! What has she got to be unhappy about? She has a great husband with a good job, two cute kids, a nice apartment in Manhattan, no money worries!" Indeed, Rubin comments about this herself. On a bus one morning, she wondered if she was "wasting" her life. "But too often I sniped at my husband or the cable guy...I lost my temper easily, I suffered bouts of melancholy, insecurity, listlessness...I had everything I could possibly want—yet I was failing to appreciate it... [M]y life wasn't going to change unless I made it change."

This book is the story of her year's project to make herself happier. This included rejecting impossible goals (like "I can be happy if..." followed by some magical target), setting goals she could reach, trying to improve her mood by being nice and/or helpful to others, looking deeply into herself to figure out what was making her unhappy, and realizing she had to change; she could not change anyone else. She set basic commandments, listed her own personal "secrets of adulthood," and each month concentrated on something she wanted to improve: health, relationships, spending, parenting values, etc.

But, you say, what if I don't want to improve some of the things she did? Well, that's fine. Each project should be tailored to you. One of her commandments is "Be Gretchen." The person reading the book has to be themself. You have to realize what you want to improve...in a year, or maybe only in six months, or perhaps you'll take more than a year. It must fit you. And if something doesn't work, you didn't fail. It just didn't work. There's no wrong way to do it.

Helpful even if it's just to get some prompts into how to look into yourself.
 
book icon  Creating Sherlock Holmes, Charlotte Montague
This is one of those gift books that you frequently see on the remainder table, but it had vintage photos in it, and it wasn't expensive, so I couldn't resist. I have at least one of these for Sherlock Holmes, but this one is the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (filled out, of course, with summaries of all the Holmes stories). Usually the books are about Holmes with brief biographical data on Conan Doyle, so this was a novelty. It talks about his family, his other books, his service during the Boer War, his relationships with both his first wife Louise and his second wife Jean, his involvement with real crimes, and his involvement with spiritualism. In addition, the legacy of Holmes is considered, from adaptations of the stories for film and later television.
 
book icon  The Four Tendencies, Gretchen Rubin
Gretchen Rubin didn't train as a psychologist; she was a law student who went as far as passing the bar and clerking for Sandra Day O'Connor before she realized what she really wanted to do was write. She had a good life, but noted that she was still often unhappy, which spurred her first book on self-improvement, The Happiness Project. Along the way, she noted that people could be classified as having four different tendencies: Upholder, Obliger (the one most people are), Questioners, and Rebels. She discussed them in her book about habits, Better Than Before, but this is a "deep dive" into the four tendencies. Each chapter addresses what defines the particular tendency, how this tendency will react when asked or told to do activities, and how to deal with reluctance, especially with Questioners and Rebels, including with children, and how a person with one tendency, who can't understand those with other tendencies, can learn to accept that others may not be able to think, act, or react like they do.

I still haven't figured out what I am, although I'm assured by my husband that I am an Obliger (one with Rebel tendencies; and apparently Obligers are so overwhelmed by their obliging nature that they regularly have obliger rebellion anyway). I ask a lot of questions, and doing so often delays what decisions I make, which is why I waffle about this. But all the tendencies make sense, and I can see where friends and family fit in.
 
book icon  Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing, Maryla Szymiczkowa
This book has taken me nearly forever to read; I've had it about a year and finally left it in the bathroom so that during bouts of "unavoidable delay," as Frank Gilbreth would have called it, I would continue reading it. In 1893, in Cracow, Poland, Zofia Turbotynska leads a good—but in truth a little dull—life as the upper-class wife of a professor at the university. In looking for something to do, she decides to involve herself in a charity event for the almswomen of Helcel House, which appears to be a combination women's almshouse (poorhouse) and what we would call a retirement or nursing home for the more well-born, run by an order of Catholic sisters. As luck has it, Zofia's arrival coincides with one of the almswomen having disappeared—and a few days later Zofia is there again where the woman's body is found hidden behind some boxes in the attic. Because her death was suspicious, she is autopsied, and it turns out inoffensive Mrs. Mohr was poisoned, and Helcel House's cook is blamed. But then a second murder, much different from the first, occurs.

To me the big problem with this story is that the writers chose to compose the text in the style it would have been written in in 1893. I've read 19th century books and some of them have been easier than others. And, indeed, the old-fashioned writing really fits the situation; Zofia is a very old-fashioned woman despite her sleuthing, and the style does help capture 19th century Cracow society and several specific situations, like the night at the opera, the celebration of All Souls Day at the Cracow cemetery, and also the all-out massive funeral for the famous artist, for which nearly the entire city turns out. But you must be prepared to wade through Victorian verbiage to get to the meat of the mystery. Plus Zofia herself really isn't that likeable. She's pushy, nosy, and autocratic at times, and I do feel sorry for that second maid she keeps trying to engage; none of them are ever good enough.

Still, the mystery is convoluted enough; I certainly would not have guessed the identity of the killer or why that person committed the crime. If you like historical mysteries with a 19th century literary flavor, this could be the one for you.
 
book icon  Egg Drop Dead, Vivien Chien
Despite her early protests, Lana Lee has begun to enjoy managing the family business, the Ho-Lee Noodle House at Cleveland's Asia Village, a mall full of flourishing Asian businesses. Her romance with police detective Adam Trudeau is doing well, and she's taken her next step in expanding the business: catering. Her first catering job is for Donna Feng, whose husband's murder Lana helped solve in the first book of the series.
 
Wouldn't you know it? Donna's governess, Alice Tam, is found drowned in the swimming pool after the party—not long after Donna screamed at her for not watching her twin daughters carefully enough. Donna asks Lana specifically if she can figure out what happened, since the police think she's the prime suspect. Plus guess who shows up at the Ho-Lee Noodle House one day: Warren Matthews, the guy who broke Lana's heart several years ago. So yet again she's propelled into solving a mystery with the help of her roommate/best friend Megan and even the reluctant approval of Adam—who reminds her not to put herself in danger, and she needs to find out why Warren's suddenly trying to get back into her life.

Turns out a lot of Donna's friends were not, and Lana's going to have to work to figure out this mess. We're given a whole lot of suspects and red herrings.

I like reading these stories because Lana isn't your usual whitebread protagonist. I love reading about her blended family and the personalities at Asia Village. This one left me irritated on several fronts, though. Firstly, since your usual cozy mystery needs a dramatic climax, usually the protagonist, Lana in this case, has to go somewhere she knows she shouldn't to solve the mystery. And boy, does she do it in this one. It makes her seem stupid. Second, when on earth did Adam start calling her "babydoll"? All of a sudden he sounds like Sam Spade. If I were Lana I'd smack him one every time he did it. And finally, Chien introduces a character she created for a writing class into the story to help Lana. I really, really wish I liked this character more, but I don't. The person speaks and acts in a cliched manner; I'm glad they are not the protagonist of this series. So I didn't enjoy this one as much as I have the previous entries.

However, the epilogue, where Lana finally meets with Warren—oh, yes, I liked that a lot!
 
book icon  My Friends, The Huskies, Robert Dovers
I found this at a book sale and tugged it out to read at the first onset of warm weather; it takes place during Dovers' year of participation with a French expedition (Dovers himself is Australian) surveying emperor penguins in the Antarctic. Even if you didn't see that it was an old book, and published in 1957, you certainly wouldn't mistake it for a modern book, which would be full of soul-searching, and paeans to the beauty of nature, and of the sagacity and souls of the dogs. Instead, this is the day-to-day grimness of living in tents and huts in an inhospitable climate (even in summer) with teams of dogs who are closer in temperament to wolves reacting with each other than domesticated canines. In fact, if you've read The Call of the Wild, you'll get an idea of the personalities of these dogs: deeply competitive, always fighting, with a battle for dominance between lead dog Bjorn and his "lieutenant" Fram that eventually comes to a head. Both dogs and men live a tough life of privations as they suffer through blizzards, must transport from one survey site to another using the dogs and sledges as well as tractor-footed "weasels" over treacherous ice with crevasses and cracks that cause the weasels to tilt sideways and almost swallows dogs and sleds whole, fear being lost on the featureless icy "plains," and deal with numbing cold.

Throughout the book it's the dogs that hold our attention: strong but not very clever Bjorn, the loyal Fram who suddenly gets a taste of leadership and likes it, the sloppy and bumbling Aspirin, the clever and strong Helen (an instigator in savage fights) but is disinterested in caring for her puppies, young Roald who turns from bumbling puppy to ambitious puller, the grizzled veteran Boss for whom the year will bring about great change in his life, Yakka and her puppy, Maru the penguin-slaughterer, and the inseparable Tiki and Milk. These are true arctic working dogs, not cuddly pets, and violence between them is frequent and vividly described. This book is not for the fainthearted or for those who wish to believe all animals are the anthropomorphized Disney type who love one another and are cute and cuddly. A fascinating read about midcentury scientific exploration and the personalities of working dogs.
 
book icon  Re-read: Stillmeadow Daybook, Gladys Taber
While I'd read other non-animal stories like The Good Master, Johnny Tremain, and the Danny Dunn and Miss Pickerel books in elementary school, my reading in those years was mostly about animals: Black Beauty, Lassie Come-Home, Lad: A Dog and the other Terhunes, Beautiful Joe, the Silver Chief books, etc. So it was to my delight that I found another "dog book" in my junior high library: Especially Dogs, Especially at Stillmeadow. I knew nothing of Stillmeadow, or of Gladys Taber, who wrote for magazines my mother didn't buy. Her columns always included her dogs and cats, but were mostly about her home, her cooking, the garden she and her best friend "Jill" tended so careful, her thoughts about life and the future. Cooking and domestic pursuits bored me, and, as I tell people, the Italian gene for gardening completely passed me over; about all Taber and I had in common was writing and a love of dogs and cats. As a kid without a dog who dearly wanted one, but was stuck with allergies instead, reading about them was a small solace. Entranced by Taber's tale of "Timmie," her graduation gift, a spirited Irish setter who even won over her dog-adverse father, her other Irish setters Maeve and Holly, and the cocker spaniels she and Jill raised, including Star, Sister, Rip, and Honey, this was one of my favorite withdrawals.
 
While recalling the book and the author fondly, I didn't think of either of them again until I was married and visiting Mystic Seaport with my husband and my mother. The gift shop had reprint copies of Stillmeadow Daybook and Still Cove Journal; in a split instance, the memories flooded back: the setters, the spaniels, the farmhouse..."Oh," I exclaimed joyfully when I saw them (to hubby and Mom's confusion), "Stillmeadow books!" As an adult I was able to appreciate Gladys' quiet country living and not only purchased the reprints snatched up and held to my chest like treasure, but scoured the internet for more. It has been a love affair ever since. And so here on my Gladys Taber re-read I have come back to the Daybook.
 
Once again her volume covers one year, but this time she begins in April, as the blossoms arrive at Stillmeadow. "Early morning is like pink pearl now that April's here. The first lilacs are budding over the white picket fence in the Quiet Garden; crocus, daffodils, white and purple grape hyacinths repeat the magic of spring." And so we plunge again into housekeeping in a colonial home, the romping cocker spaniels as well as one young Irish setter named Holly, cooking special dishes, hosting special friends like Faith Baldwin and "Western star" Smiley Burnette (more people now recall him from Petticoat Junction), who built Taber a giant outdoor barbecue, the flower-filled beautiful "Quiet Garden," her recollections of her childrens' growing up and the joy of them visiting as adults, the birds at the bird feeders, the joys of each passing season and month (lilacs in May, hay wagons in September, brilliant autumn leaves in October, stiff chill and snow forming a backdrop to Christmas, and more. In this age of mindfulness and "hygge" reminders, Taber's books are a powerful reminder to just look at ordinary things for beauty, at simple things for joy, and her prose is always a delight to read, with its references to literature and her commentary on the problems of the day (this book was from 1955, so references to the atomic bomb and racial intolerance pop up often). It is always worth visiting Stillmeadow.

31 January 2021

Books Completed Since January 1

book icon  Re-read: The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, Earl Hamner Jr.

book icon  The History of the Christmas Card, George Buday

book icon  A Kent Christmas, Sutton Books

book icon  Ideals Christmas 2020, Ideals Publications

book icon  An Extravagant Death, Charles Finch
Charles Lenox is back to present day in this 14th entry in the series.

Lenox has finished his latest case successfully, but unfortunately it's made him some enemies (he put an end to a criminal scheme run out of the Metropolitan Police) and caused trouble for Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who advises Lenox to leave the country for a little while. Reluctant to leave his wife Lady Jane, their precocious daughter Sophia, and new baby Clara, and carrying the Queen’s seal, which will guarantee him passage anywhere in the United States he wishes to go, Charles heads across the Atlantic. After a few days getting to know the society “names” in New York City, Charles is traveling to Boston when he is summoned by wealthy William Schermerhorn, one of the favored “400” who attend Caroline Astor’s fabled balls, to Newport, RI, where a beautiful young woman, Lily Allingham, has died, ostensibly by suicide. He is accompanied by Theodore Blaine, the lame son of another wealthy family, who is as absorbed by detective work as much as Lenox, and who helps him as he reluctantly begins to untangle the murder, along with young Fergus O’Brian, an Irish boy Lenox hires as his personal servant. He also becomes re-acquainted with Kitty Ashbrook (the woman he almost married in the last of the three recent prequels, The Last Passenger), now a widow, who guides him through the intricacies of American society. Schermerhorn’s son is a suspect in Lily’s death, as is young Lawrence Vanderbilt, who believed Lily was going to marry him when she was previously engaged to Schermerhorn.

This was a change-of-place (literally) story for Lenox, whose adventures usually take place in England. It was interesting getting his eye-view of the upper classes of America, not as glowing as fawning newspaper society pages, not as critical as Dickens on one of his tours. He feels an immediate rapport with Teddy Blaine as he was also fascinated by detective work as a boy, and also comes to enjoy the company of O’Brian, and through his eyes we note the differences and the similarities between the American and the British upper class, feel his surprise when he first sees the Newport “cottages,” and work the mystery with him.

I had my suspicions about the culprit about halfway through, and was pleased to have figured it out,  as these are  usually very complicated. I also appreciated the ending, which chronicled a difficulty in 19th century living that we would find much different today. An excellent entry in this series, which I have been reading since the first book.

book icon  Bryant and May: Oranges and Lemons, Christopher Fowler
I would like to wander around Christopher Fowler's mind sometime, if such a thing could be managed. What fascinating nooks and crannies there must be in it, just based on this fiendish new mystery involving senior detectives Arthur Bryant and John May. The latter is still in hospital after being shot by a woman which he had a relationship with, the former has disappeared, and the Peculiar Crimes Unit is finally being broken up.
 
Until the Speaker of the House of Commons is killed in a bizarre accident involving crates of oranges, and the PCU is reassembled not to solve the crime, but to look into the man himself and his state of mind at the time of death. But Arthur Bryant, as always, sees something in the event that no one else does, and when another mysterious death takes place, he comes to believe that someone is following the old nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons," meaning more deaths will come. The reinstated PCU faces more hurdles than usual: their former headquarters is in worse shambles than it's ever been, their titular head Raymond Land is on the verge of collapse, and they've had an observer (read: "spy") foisted off on them, not to mention they've been joined by a curious young intern. And, as in all of their investigations, things tend to go wrong; this time their quarry seems to always be one step ahead of them. Certainly the culprit seems to be a master of misdirection.

Our protagonists are also on journeys of discovery in this volume, Bryant trying to overcome his inability to empathize with people, May to get over his gunshot wounds and come to terms with possibly facing charges due to a personal relationship. The addition of Sidney Hargreaves to the PCU mix adds another layer

book icon  Birder on Berry Lane: Three Acres, Twelve Months, Thousands of Birds, Robert Tougias
What a piece of nonfiction to start off the year with!
 
Tougias is a birdwatcher. He doesn't juggle and rate binoculars, fly to foreign climes to check birds off a list, and compete with other birders to have the longest list—he just watches the birds in his backyard and in open land behind his home. Month by month, season by season, bird by bird, Tougias' gentle, lyrical prose guides us through the year. This is the perfect cozy book for a winter day, or a chill-out book after a harried week, or just a joy for bird lovers. Interwoven into the story is Tougias' relationship with his daughter, who is just about to "fly the nest" on her way to college, and how his interest in birds have inspired neighbors to take an interest in the wildlife and the ecological health of the area (especially when it looks as if a housing development and shopping center will encroach on the wild area behind their homes)
 
Wonderful if you are a bird lover of any stripe, or enjoy nature, or nature writing. The text is illustrated with gorgeous sketches by Mark Szantyr.
 
book icon  The Case of Windy Lake: A Mighty Muskrats Mystery, Michael Hutchinson
Did you ever wish someone would bring back those good old fashioned kids' mysteries, like the Happy Hollisters, but with more diverse protagonists? Well, you've found your series. The Mighty Muskrats are four cousins who live on the Windy Lake Reserve in Canada: Chickadee, the only girl; Otter, an orphan raised by Chickadee's grandfather; and brothers Atim and Samuel. The local mining company has hired the required archaeologist—so that no Native artifacts or remains are disturbed—but he's disappeared, the only clue his boat found grounded on an island. The children's Uncle Levi, head of the Windy Lake police, is teaming with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to find him. The Muskrats vow to do it themselves. In a parallel plot, the kids' cousin Denice is heading up a group of activists at the mining company who say they are not following regulations and are polluting the lake. To make her point, Denice chains herself to a mooring post on the company's pier, and the angry owner wants her gone, but he is told she isn't blocking anything and she has a right to protest. The children's grandfather says she is on a vision quest and must complete it.

The story is a satisfying mix of mystery, old-fashioned kids' adventure elements like a clubhouse, and elements of the tribal culture at Windy Lake, including the method of tracking down the missing archaeologist and Denice's willingness to fight for her people's way of life and environment.

My only quibble with the book is that there are too many instances of Atim flicking his head (to keep his hair out of his eyes). It just keeps coming up in the text too many times.
 
book icon  The Women With the Silver Wings, Katherine Sharp Landdeck
Once the United States was attacked by Japan on December 7, 1941, the entire country was thrown into war not only with Japan, but in the European theatre against the Nazis. Experienced male pilots were immediately accepted into the Army Air Forces and more were trained, but all male pilots were needed for the war effort and many more needed for non-combat duty such as ferrying aircraft, towing practice targets, etc., so the recruitment of women pilots was authorized with the urging of two noted female flyers, Nancy Love and Jacqueline Cochran. This book is the story of those flyers: Cornelia Fort, who witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor while out on an early morning training flight with a customer; Teresa James, whose fiance and later husband "Dink" was also a pilot; Helen Richey, who eschewed being a teacher to become a stunt pilot; Dora Dougherty, who found out about the new service from a newspaper article; and more.
 
This is an immensely readable and absorbing story about the WASP, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, whose history was forgotten for so long. For the few years they flew, they were so noted that Walt Disney designed a mascot for them ("Fifinella"), but they were always resented by Congress, by male pilots, and, depressingly, by too many other women, some who considered them no better than prostitutes, were suspicious that they were lesbians for wanting to do such a "mannish" job, and were thought by a bunch of pilots' wives as seductresses—they didn't want the WASP serving with their husbands because the women pilots would seduce them! Plus there were so many misconceptions about women as pilots: that they would not fly if they had children, that they could not physically handle aircraft, that they shouldn't be allowed to fly if they had their periods. Plus I knew who Jackie Cochran was, but I had not idea she dragged herself up from such a dirt-poor childhood after which she became pregnant at age fourteen. The story of the WASP is also the story of the competition between Cochran and Nancy Love, both whom were ambitious and wanted to be the head of the organization (instead both operated as head of different aspects of the group). We get to know the women themselves, their aspirations, their training, and finally their effort to get the WASP officially designated as part of the armed services so the women could be eligible for benefits.
 
Very enjoyable history of a group of pilots little known except for those who remember World War II or are aviation buffs.
 
book icon  Tales from the Folly, Ben Aaronovitch
When Ben Aaronovitch's "Rivers of London" Peter Grant books began to gain fans, the books were published in hardback only in England and Australia with an additional short story published as a bonus at the end. A few of these have been published online, but this is the first time they have been collected in print form. The first six stories have Peter Grant as the protagonist, including "A Rare Book of Cunning Device" that was available as a free Audible book, and the first story which tied in with the 2012 Olympics. The former is delightful and there's also a sweet story about a ghost haunting a bookshop. The rest of the stories, including the short "moments," involve other characters in the "Rivers" universe, including a Christmas story featuring brilliant Abigail and another with Vanessa Sommer from The October Man which has an unexpected ending.

If you are a Peter Grant fan, these will please immensely.
 
book icon  Nothing Daunted, Dorothy Wickenden
In 1916, two Smith College graduates wanted more than marriage and society "flitting." So Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamund Underwood undertook a grueling journey just to go to rural Colorado and a remote village called Elkhead. While their families had all the modern conveniences like electricity and automobiles, Elkhead inhabitants lived as if they were still in the 19th century, with batten-board homes, kerosene lamps, travel by horseback, and backbreaking work. For a year, the two young women battled heat and cold, insects and lack of water, challenging teaching hurdles, and brutal winters; they also improved the lives of their students, were happily squired by men looking for brides, and experienced a whole different lifestyle from the privileged one under which they grew up.

Wickenden, the granddaughter of Dorothy Woodruff, found Woodruff's letters and memorabilia about the year, and produced this intriguing but sometimes disappointing memoir. The main story about Dorothy and Rosamund's experiences come from this source, but we read precious little about the school and the children themselves except for a few remarks about how cute they are. Those portions of the story, and how the girls lived, and the stories of the townspeople, are all very interesting. Where the storytelling bogs down is when Dorothy and Rosamund go exploring. Every time they visit somewhere, whether it's a nearby town or a mine, Wickenden gives us a complete history of the establishment, how it was set up, who ran it, etc. The first few give you a glimpse into early 20th century Western businesses; after a while they begin to read like long, tedious business prospectus publications. It looks like Wickenden ran out of personal material and needed information to make the book longer.

Still worth reading if you're into history of young society women and the limited opportunities they had, and Colorado history, the relative primitive conditions of these homestead towns.
 
book icon  Re-read: Addie Pray, Joe David Brown
I originally picked up this book when it was known as Paper Moon after the film it begat. Paper Moon is indeed a favorite of mine, and I always admired Peter Bogdonovitch's choice to make it in evocative black and white. If you've seen the film, it takes a good deal of its script from the text, but Addie is older in the book, and the book continues on after "Moze" and Addie ditch the fancy car. If you have no experience with either book or film, Addie Pray is the story of an eleven year old girl con-artist who travels around with the man who may or may not be her father (her "mama being fast and all"). Her partner in crime is Moses "Long Boy" Pray, a charming wanderer who makes a living selling "memorial Bibles" and "memorial photographs," conning greedy people with anonymous wallets stuffed with cash, and selling cotton he doesn't have. He and Addie live a charmed life, save for a few obstacles in the way, like cootchie dancer Trixie Delight, but a deal with a bootlegger might just kill them.

This is one of my very favorite books in the entire world, and I apparently have a thing for spunky girls named Addie, what with Addie Mills along with Addie Pray. While I like the movie immensely, the book is full of additionally adventures, Addie's matter-of-fact and sometimes hilarious narration (her description of Trixie includes this gem: "...I don't guess most people looked past her bosom. Oh, my, that bosom. If Grant had met up with breastworks like that, he never would have taken Vicksburg,"), and characters like Colonel Culpepper, Amelia Sass, and Mayflower Goldsborough. It's fun and in places touching, and gives a vivid portrait of the South (the movie takes place in Kansas) during the Great Depression. If you've only seen the film, try the book; it's terrific.
 
book icon  Passages: All-New Tales of Valdemar, edited by Mercedes Lackey
I really enjoyed this year's collection of Valdemar stories (and got a little of the bad taste for the truly dreadful Eye Spy out of my mouth). Some of the stories: a person Chosen by a Companion does not feel worthy for the job due to a past transgression; a Healer who is supposed to inherit a family estate, but who prefers his calling—will he deny his birthright?; a happy underling of a religious order does not look forward to being in charge of a daughter house; a talented artificer hides from the mother who wishes only marriage as a future; a snowstorm brings together a totally opposite pair; a deaf apprentice Mage faces her most dangerous trial; a Herald grieving after the loss of her Companion finds she can make a difference still.
 
Some of the stories are slight, like the one about a baker's apprentice, and at least one ("Tables Turned") leaves us not knowing the answer to a mystery occurring during the story. But we have a dandy story by Lackey herself about Kerowyn's beginnings with the Skybolts. So it pretty much balances out.

(But, please, Misty, no more dreadful stuff like Eye Spy. Villains should be subtle, not so blatant and recognizable. A depressing development in Lackey's most current stories.)
 
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Castle Rock Mystery, Jerry West
Let's see if I can keep all the plots straight in this 23rd Happy Hollisters adventure: First a Weather Bureau instrument packet lands in the Hollisters' yard. The kids (Pete, age 12, Pam, 10, seven-year-old Ricky, and Holly, age 6, plus 4-year-old Sue) intend to mail the packet back, but hope to keep the orange parachute. Unfortunately creepy Joey Brill and his best friend Will Wilson swipe it. The kids take the instrument package to Mr. Kent at the local paper, who gives them more info about it, and also tells them about mysterious lights—perhaps, the kids speculate, UFOs!—seen at Pine Lake. One of the witnesses was a jet pilot named "Jet" Hawks (yes, I'm afraid so). While Pam and Pete are helping their dad at his store, The Trading Post, by unpacking polished rocks, they take a particularly interesting one with a streak of gold in it to a local "rock hound," Mr. Kinder, who just happens to own a worked-out quarry at Castle Rock, which is, you guessed it, on the shores of Pine Lake, and find out it contains titanium. The kids talk mom Elaine into taking them to the quarry, where they are warned off by missing car keys that reappear with a threatening message attached to them, and meet a couple of fishermen who tell them stories about a "monster" in the lake.

All this happens before chapter four! The rest of the plot involves a missing scientist; a totally unplanned trip to New York City where the kids visit their friend from Skyscraper City, Hootenanny Gandy; a trip to the top of Belvedere Castle in Central Park; Ricky almost falling from a great height (twice); a flight in an airplane for Pete and Ricky that almost ends in tragedy; and a camping trip that reveals hidden caves and a hideout no one was expecting. It frankly has the most complicated Hollister plot I've ever read!

On a positive note, Pam and Holly get to be on almost all the exciting adventures (except in NYC, where they go shopping for—ugh!—dresses), and not only do Joey and Will get scared out of their wits, but Joey actually gets punished for something he does. Now that is a novelty! Much educational info included in the adventure, about weather balloons, rocks and minerals, the New York Museum of Natural History, and spelunking. Oh, and one of the culprits finishes up his sentence with "...and I think I'd have found it if these Hollisters hadn't come along." (You mean "those meddling kids," don't you? 😁 ) Also, Jet Hawks turns out to be a neat guy with a daughter named Daphne who can match Ricky pace to pace. Win!
 
book icon  Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions, Orin Hargraves
Another fun book sale find: the subtitle is "Making Sense of Transatlantic English." It's a never stodgy, but not flip, examination of the differences between American English and British English. I have several books like this, but they are arranged like a dictionary, either AmEng to BritEng or vice versa, or both. This is grouped by subject: banking, government, everyday life, food, etc. and also explains things like the difference between the American government setup and the British government setup and the different political parties. The author isn't afraid to touch on scatological terms and warn you of words you shouldn't use in each society (don't talk about "sitting on your fanny" in England!)

Hargraves' has a sharp tongue and isn't afraid to use it, especially against American silliness, although he gets in several good licks to the Brits as well. I devour books like this one as if they were peanuts—but then they are, treats for me. Enjoyable to anyone who wants to examine the variants in the language.

book icon  The Dark Heart of Florence, Tasha Alexander
I've been reading the Lady Emily mysteries since the first book and although I like the continuing characters, I still believe the author brought Emily and her husband Colin together much too quickly; I wish their relationship had taken time to ripen in a few more books before they were married.

Frankly, I found most of the book rather dull except for the descriptions of Florence. Once again Colin (and an associate) are investigating a break-in at Colin's newly discovered daughter's home in Florence while also doing some hush-hush work for the Crown. Emily and her friend Cecile also investigate and find that the puzzle may be linked to the murder of an Italian man, and also to strange graffiti found on the walls of the Florence home. The mystery turns out, as indicated by the alternate plotline about Mina Portinari, to be tied to events that happened during the Renaissance. Mina is yet another woman ahead of her time, educated by her grandfather in Latin and Greek and in classic writing, who finds herself betrayed by a man and who is looked at suspiciously due to her education, book smart but woefully ignorant of the real world and completely shocked when "he done her wrong."

The Italian history portions and portions of Emily's and Cecile's investigation were the parts of the book that held my interest the most, and even those were a struggle to get through.