30 December 2007

An Extraordinary Woman

• Maisie Dobbs
• Birds of a Feather
• Pardonable Lies
• Messengers of Truth

by Jacqueline Winspear

I owe my first purchase of a Maisie Dobbs book to a book blog; I know not which one, although I believe it is Dani Torres'. Whomever it was, I owe them thanks. I wasn't forty pages into it when I said, "I have got to buy the rest of these." Once a day, with precious 30 percent off coupons at Borders, I bought each of the rest, and when I reached the halfway point in the fourth book, I came to the sad realization that I was almost finished with Maisie's saga so far and I didn't want to let her go.

Maisie, the thirteen year old daughter of a costermonger, is stricken with another blow after her beloved mother dies: her father cannot afford to continue her schooling. The intelligent girl instead goes into service in the home of Lady Rowan, who is in favor of progressive education. Finding Maisie studying in her library early in the morning before her chores commence, Lady Rowan arranges Maisie to be tutored by Maurice Blanche, who teaches her using the Socratic method. Maisie eventually qualifies for Cambridge, where she studies until World War I breaks out; she then becomes a nurse and, on the battlefront, falls in love with one of the doctors. But disaster strikes, and a postwar Maisie is at loose ends—until she opens an investigative agency. For an assistant, she hires working class Billy Beale, originally the caretaker of the building in which she leases office space.

Each of the Maisie Dobbs stories involves some repercussion from World War I in postwar England and each are absorbing character studies as well as mysteries; they slightly remind me of Dorothy Sayers in the detail of everyday life in 1920s London and environs, and there is also an echo of Anne Perry's Reavley family mysteries (No Graves as Yet) that take place during the war.

The biggest problem with Maisie? The next book isn't out until February! It is one I will be purchasing in hardback.

29 November 2007

On Main Street

The lives of ten year old Flora Northrup and her eight year old sister Ruby change abruptly one night in January when they go out with their parents for ice cream: a car accident robs them of their parents. Their kindly grandmother Min lives with them for the remainder of the year, then sells their home and packs them up, bag, baggage and their beloved cat King Comma to the little Massachusetts town of Camden Falls, where Min and her partner Mrs. Walter own "Needle and Thread," a sewing/stitchery store on Camden Falls' main street.

Soon Flora and Ruby are ensconced at Min's home, one of the historic Row Houses a block away from Needle and Thread. Through summer visits, they are already friends with Mrs. Walter's granddaughter, Olivia, a budding naturalist who skipped a grade and who is in Flora's class. In the course of the first book, they also make friends with Nikki Sherman, a generally shunned girl who wears old clothing and sometimes cannot bathe everyday. Nikki tries her best, but her father is an alcoholic and a "mean drunk" at that, who terrorizes her, her mother, older brother, and younger sister, and her mom, as a way to cope, also drinks.

This is the premise of the "Main Street" books by Ann M. Martin, who is well-know for the "Babysitters Club" book series. While I never had any interest in the latter, the first three books in the "Main Street" series sounded appealing as a counterpart to the almost idealized Callahan Cousins books. Both feature brisk grandmother characters, but Min—who loses her temper and occasionally is cross—is much more realistic than Grandmother Gee, and the novels are a little less fairy-tale: the girls have to do chores, help out at the store, and there is no fairy-tale ending for Nikki, whose alcoholic father is simply a fact of life (although one wonders if there is no children's protective agency in Camden Falls). The stories are simple enough for tween kids, but the neighbor characters are intriguing even for those older: a Downs Syndrome teenager who is about to graduate from his special school and take his place in the working world, an older gentleman who realizes his memory is beginning to fail and who takes Olivia into his confidence, and an elderly couple who face separation when the wife develops Alzheimer's disease. Quiet Flora's struggles with grief for her mother and father contrast sharply with outgoing Ruby's seeming acceptance of the event (which Ruby carefully compartmentalizes). These are people you might meet: neighbors, co-workers, even relatives.

The books so far are:
• Welcome to Camden Falls
• Needle and Thread
• Tis the Season
and a fourth to be published in April:
• Best Friends

You may enjoy a visit to this Main Street. I certainly did.

14 November 2007

Books Read Since October 22

• Re-read: Harvest at Stillmeadow, Gladys Taber
More sketchily written than Taber's later Stillmeadow books, this covers two years of life at Taber's Connecticut home. Her children are young in this first book, so interspersed with the dog stories are amusing boy and girl stories as well.

• It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: The Making of a Television Classic, Lee Mendelson, with Bill Melendez
Similar to the "making of" volume about A Charlie Brown Christmas, including the conception of the plot and a chapter on Vince Guaraldi's memorable score. Includes the entire script for the classic television special.

• Best Friends: The True Story of the World's Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary, Samantha Glen
I love real-life stories about veterinarians and animal rescue, so I was prepared to enjoy this. I did and I didn't. There were some great animal stories in it, but most of the stories were about the people building this sanctuary with lots of offbeat religious commentary. The author also occasionally tries to be too clever with her words, such as this cutesy-poo line from a chapter about a Hollywood fund-raiser: "Timothy Leary dazed onto the lawn." This was followed by a couple of other descriptions of this flavor. Pity, because the animals are so memorable.

• Doctor Who: The Legend Continues, Justin Richards
Coffee table book chronicling all the television adventures through the ninth Doctor and introducing the tenth. There are better episode guides but this has beautiful photos and interesting sidebars about the various reworkings of the theme, various alien species, conceptions for each new Doctor, etc.

• Re-read: National Velvet, Enid Bagnold
The ordinary Browns—well, except for Mrs. Brown—find their lives changed when their plain but horse-worshiping youngest daughter Velvet inherits five horses from a dying landowner and then wins a high-jumping piebald horse in a lottery and determines to train the undisciplined animal for England's greatest steeplechase, the Grand National. If you've only seen the Elizabeth Taylor movie, you'll find a grittier tale, with more horses (the Pi of the movie seems a combination of Sir Pericles and the Piebald), one more sister (Merry is the canary-fancier in the book and Mally the snippy one), a different past for Mi. Donald, unfortunately, is still annoying. :-) Written in unsentimental language; a glimpse of a long-gone way of life in a 1920s English village.

• Gaits of Heaven, Susan Conant
Is it me, or is Conant getting cranky? Holly Winter is apparently happily married, yet she's kvetching about her late mother. Having taken in a young woman who's overweight to rescue her from the poisonous atmosphere at home, instead of just providing shelter, food, and a shoulder to cry on, she goes on and on about the girl's obesity. (Has Conant got something against overweight people? She harps on and on, not just about it not being good for the girl's health, but more about how ugly it makes her.) Psychologists also take a beating in this book; you mean people really put up with this analyst crap as Conant portrays it? Oh, yeah, and she goes on for three pages justifying keeping her cat locked in her office because it's so unfriendly but at least she's giving it a home. Also, the asides written as "imaginings" to portray events happening away from Holly's view are really...annoying. But the dogs are still great.

• The Original Boy's Handy Book (Daniel Carter Beard) and The Original Girl's Handy Book (Lina and Adelia Belle Beard)
Both these books were written in 1887 as The American Boy's Handy Book and The American Girl's Handy Book and some time ago were reprinted in trade paper format, but I found the price then prohibitive. They have been reprinted yet again in hardback format at a better price. The boys' book, of course, covers more manly subjects like hunting and fishing, while the girls' book has the usual china painting and flower pressing, but there are surprisingly useful items in the girls' book about building items for use in the home and for public occasions. The two together are a fascinating portrait of the projects and amusements for young people of over one hundred years ago (and of the once-common items that you can't get any longer!).

• The Daring Book for Girls, Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz
This is a companion book to the infamous Dangerous Book for Boys. I find both interesting, but the girls' book has too many sports entries to be satisfying. Why not more about reading or pets? The math tricks chapter is fascinating as well as useful, though.

03 November 2007

"I'd Like to Drink Color..."

Fall always reminds me of these passages from Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm:

It was a rustly day, a scarlet and buff, yellow and carmine, bronze and crimson day. There were still many leaves on the oaks and maples, making a goodly show of red and brown and gold. The air was like sparkling cider, and every field had its heaps of yellow and russet good things to eat, all ready for the barns, the mills, and the markets...A gorgeous leaf blew into the wagon.

"Does color make you sort of dizzy?" asked Rebecca.

"No," answered Emma Jane after a long pause; "no, it don't; not a

"Perhaps dizzy isn't just the right word, but it's nearest. I'd like to eat color, and drink it, and sleep in it. If you could be a tree, which one would you choose...I'd choose to be that scarlet maple just on the edge of the pond there...I could look at all the rest of the woods, see my scarlet dress in my beautiful looking-glass, and watch all the yellow and brown trees growing upside down in the water..."

22 October 2007

Books Read Since September 12

• Mark Twain, Ron Powers
An enjoyable biography of Sam Clemens, with some facts I did not know, including the tragic, violent death of his younger brother. Powers profiles Clemens as the first media superstar and a much more complicated person than folklore portrays him.

• California Demon, Julie Kenner
• Demons are Forever, Julie Kenner
Books two and three in Julie Kenner's fantasy/mystery series about Kate Connor, former demon hunter for an organization operating out of the Vatican. Kate, whose daily adult routine had her caring for attorney/rising politician husband Stuart, teenage daughter Allie from her first marriage, and her baby son with Stuart, Timmy, has now been plunged into new demon hunting duties without Stuart's knowledge. These are fun, light reading, even with the complication of an old relationship coming to the fore in the third book.

• Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City, Kirsten Miller
Improbable, but amusing girls' adventure book about social misfit Ananka Fishbein, whose tenure at an exclusive private school with snobbish classmates takes an unusual turn when she notices a strange girl climbing down into a mysterious sinkhole. Ananka discovers not only a mysterious underground city, but an amazing girl named Kiki Strike who's hiding an astonishing secret, and, via Kiki, becomes part of an all-girl "strike group" consisting of other misfits.

• Shadows at the Spring Show, Lea Wait
This was a $1 acquisition from the Borders Books bargain table, a mystery involving antique print dealer and history professor Maggie Summer. Maggie is helping with a charity antique show being held to benefit an adoption group and is mystified as the next person when threatening notes demanding the show be canceled start arriving. Then one of the adoptive mothers is shot and one of her children disappears, becoming the chief suspect. I enjoyed this book, but found it nothing special. YMMV.

• If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name, Heather Lende
Offbeat book about life in a small Alaska town; since the author is in charge of the obituary column in the local newspaper, there are several chapters about life and death in the Northlands. The book is considerably more sober than the cute cover of a moose on a city street would have you believe.

• Sheetrock and Shellac, David Owen
Another "book for a buck," the story of Owen's adventures in DIY, starting with a renovation in a New York City apartment and then growing to a major kitchen renovation in the rural colonial home he and his wife purchased, culminating in the building of a weekend cabin at a nearby lake. Owen's narration is friendly and holds the interest, even about things as mundane as concrete and the titular sheetrock and shellac. His weekend cabin sounds like a dream come true.

• Re-read: Flicka's Friend, Mary O'Hara
I grew up near two small and ultimately mediocre libraries; fortunately my junior high school library was a goldmine of discovered classics. One of these was Mary O'Hara's Wyoming Summer, a diary of her life on the ranch that she brought to fictional life in My Friend Flicka. On the other hand, I did not know about this autobiography of O'Hara until I stumbled upon it in a used book store twenty years later. Ms. O'Hara led many lives more than the woman who brought modern ranch living to life: a pampered wealthy childhood in Pennsylvania, marriage to an arrogant politician-to-be, mother of two children, "photoplay" writer in silent movies, musician. Fascinating from beginning to end.

• In Like Flynn and Oh Danny Boy, Rhys Bowen
Fourth and fifth in Bowen's series about Molly Murphy, an Irish lass who came over to "Gaslight" New York City to escape a murder charge, who becomes, without totally meaning to, a private investigator and the apple of the eye of Daniel Sullivan, NYPD captain. I actually read Oh Danny Boy first, having forgotten to pick up a copy of Flynn. In the latter, Molly investigates two spiritualists preying on the grieving wife of a local politician and finds out her flight from Ireland was premature. In the fifth book, Molly tries to clear Daniel Sullivan of bribery charges, once again involving herself with New York gangs, the seamy side of Coney Island, and corruption in old-time New York. Sometimes the language is a bit anachronistic for the time, but Molly is so feisty and determined that it's forgivable.

• Re-read: Flambards, K.M. Peyton
I'm a big fan of the miniseries adaptation of Peyton's first three Flambards novels, but the books are jolly good reads as well. In this, the first, orphaned Christina is sent to live at her Uncle Russell's gloomy estate Flambards. Russell was crippled in a hunting accident and lives vicariously through his older son Mark, who is a fearless rider, and loathes his younger son William, who hates horses and is involved in the new science of aviation. Peyton paints a memorable portrait of Edwardian England and the changes that come during the era with lively characters.

• The World of the Golden Compass, ed. Scott Westerfield
A series of essays about Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, examining the nature of "Dust" and Demons, heroine Lyra, and the dark adults that inhabit her world. Made me eager to go back and re-read the entire trilogy, of which the first, The Golden Compass (known as Northern Lights in Great Britain), is the best.

12 September 2007

Books Read Since August 6

• Good Morning, Heartache, Peter Duchin/John Morgan Wilson
The sequel to Blue Moon, which I also discovered in the spinner rack at Dollar General. Like his protagonist Philip Damon, a bandleader, author Peter Duchin is the son of well-known Big Band leader Eddy Duchin. This time Phil and his band are at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Bobby Kennedy would later be gunned down, where Phil and his band, including former black police detective Hercules Platt, are involved in the murder of their substitute trumpeter Buddy Bixby. As in the previous book, much name-dropping and run-ins with celebrities, fun if you enjoy that sort of thing. I found it easier to take this time round.

• Chow Down, Laurien Berenson
The next in Berenson's Melanie Travis mysteries finds Melanie and Sam settled into married life in their new home, and settled Melanie wants to stay, but her young son Davey secretly enters her and standard Poodle Faith in a competition to become "Spokesdog" for a new dog food. Melanie can't pull out of the competition, so she goes along with the contest, only to be embroiled when one of the contestants dies after a fall down the stairs. Enjoyable as always if you like dog-oriented cozies.

• Through Time, Andrew Cartmel
Which is subtitled "An Unauthorised and Unofficial History of Doctor Who," but should be subtitled "Andrew Cartmel's List of Episodes He Considers Notable and Why." Objective this ain't, but I found it generally amusing to read. Really, really obvious who his favorite Doctor is. :-)

• Speedbumps, Teri Garr with Henriette Mantel
A breezy, mostly easy read about actress Teri Garr's life and her growing battle with multiple sclerosis.

• Death Dines In, edited by Claudia Bishop and Dean James
Another acquisition from the $1 spinner rack at Dollar General. These compilations vary in quality; this one, mystery short stories revolving around food, wasn't half bad. There were several stories I liked more than others, including Anne Perry's "Sing a Song of Sixpence" involving Lady Vespasia, and the Alice Roosevelt story, "Alice and the Agent of the Hun." The one about the Mafia wife was pretty gross, though.

• The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, Paul Malmont
I've read several reviews of this book that complain that the plot of this pulp-novel homage doesn't really start until halfway through the book. My opinion: who cares? The pulp era and the personalities within it—Lester Dent, the creator of Doc Savage; William Gibson, alias Maxwell Grant, the "father" of The Shadow, and a young pulp writer named Ron Hubbard (as in L. Ron Hubbard before he became "God"), not to mention E.E. "Doc" Smith, a dying H.P. Lovecraft, and a fellow calling himself Otis Driftwood (really an ex-Navy officer from Missouri invalided out of the service by tuberculosis who thinks he may go into writing)—are so much fun to read about that I was enthralled from one end to the next.

And Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs' books, which were so good they must have a section of their own, not to mention a pile of fall-themed magazines and all the "Owly" graphic novels.

06 September 2007

I Was Off By A Decade

I had a feeling that with the passage of years American Girl's next book series would be about someone more modern: I guessed a 1964 book, but it seems they've gone post-Vietnam instead. The new American Girl is Julie, who's moving away from her Dad and her best friend Ivy after her parents' divorce to live over her Mom's San Francisco clothing store.

Meet Julie (American Girls Collection)

I was just graduating high school and then starting college in 1974, so for this to be "historical" really makes me feel old. :-)

I was really hoping the next series would be around 1914 (perhaps an immigrant girl with ties to one of the countries involved in World War I) or 1874 or 1884 with perhaps a Jewish character in the city.

(Update 09/08: Having now seen the Julie books, I must admit #5 looks interesting: she goes cross-country in a wagon train to celebrate the Bicentennial. I remember telling my father we had to go somewhere historical for vacation that year; he wouldn't go near Philadelphia, so we visited Williamsburg/Yorktown/Jamestown instead. However, having seen the covers up close, Julie looks too old to me; Molly, Kit and the others clearly look like 9-year-olds but to me Julie almost looks about thirteen. At least they have her in the correct grade, fourth, although—fourth graders had basketball teams in 1974? We didn't even have basketball in elementary school gym class in 1968, nor did the school have it after I left. Maybe California schools were different?

And having looked over the companion Ivy book, I wish she'd been the American Girl instead.)

23 August 2007

On the Callendar With John Verney

(Please note that this contains some character spoilers a few paragraphs on.)
"Daddy says that nowadays any schoolgirl of thirteen who writes a book is hailed as a genius. Well, I'm a schoolgirl and I'm nearly thirteen and though I don't think I am quite genius, I certainly wouldn't mind being hailed as one. Anyway, I've always wanted to write a book. The trouble before was that I had nothing really exciting to write one about—just school, and Friday (who is a year older) and my youngest sisters and my pony Gorse and my guinea pigs and what a nuisance grown-ups are. But of course those are what all the other geniuses of my age write about and I wanted mine to be a proper adventure story."
So begins John Verney's 1959 novel Friday's Tunnel, which introduces the Callendar family: father Gus (Augustus), a newspaper columnist, who is married to Jan (January), an expatriot American who was once an art student in Paris. As February narrates, they decided "to carry on this calendar joke with their children," naming the eldest boy Friday for the day he was born on. February was born on a Sunday, so they named her after the month instead, and for subsequent children, tiring of the calendar, Gus and Jan named them in alphabetical order (Abigail, known as Gail; Beryllium, known as Berry; Chrysogon, "Chrys," and Desdemona, "Des").

It's hard not to love February after that introduction, and she is a most ingenious child: horse-mad as many girls of that age, a middling scholar, and continually amused by her brother's interests. At the time Friday's Tunnel takes place, he has become greatly absorbed in tunnels and is attempting to dig one through the chalk cliff at the rear of their property, Marsh Manor, a smallholding with a converted farmhouse, barn and outbuildings, just north of Chichester. Little does guess that Friday's building project will somehow intersect with a new mineral found on a small Mediterranean island called Capria (where, coincidentally, Gus was stationed during World War II), the officious Lord Sprockett and his madcap wife, a cottage called Deans, and the holiday tutor Gus has engaged for the summer to Friday's and February's dismay, a young college student named Robin Fawcett.

Friday's Tunnel is such a cracking great adventure story, mixing politics at the time with technological secrets and untrustworthy officials, that the first sequel is just slightly a letdown: February's Road involves the family with a lesser crisis that will prove more personal: a new trunk road, partially spurred by Gus's scathing newspaper columns about the need for good highways in Britain, will clip off half of the paddock and bring traffic past Marsh Manor and ruin some of the most beautiful stretches of the South Downs. February is accused of sabotaging the bulldozers about to start the clearing process and the whole family, including new little brother Hildebrand, plus Dr. Henry and his children Adam and Sasha, who were introduced in the previous book, become involved in the convoluted land deals that follow.

The first two books are narrated by February; however, in the third a chummy third-person narration serves as the story follows both February and Gail as they become involved in a youth movement called "ismo," which gives the name to the third book of the series. The Callendars are moving to Florence, Italy, for a year in connection with Gus' job and the special tutor that is engaged to teach Italian to both February and Gail, as well as two other students at her co-ed boarding school, embroils them all—including some surprising adults!—in the "ismo" movement, which seeks to keep peace in the world. Unfortunately "ismo" has been infiltrated by unscrupulous sorts who want to use it to make money—and the combination of art rackets, idealistic students, and an uninspired narrative method makes this the dullest of the books.

And alas, poor February. Becoming involved with "ismo," however good her intentions, marked the "beginning of the end" for her intelligent, delightful character. By the time Seven Sunflower Seeds rolls around, she is now infected by know-it-all teen disease and considers all adults stupid or untrustworthy, and those younger than her but old enough to disagree with her as appropriate targets for scorn. Sasha Henry, the "brainy" girl who helps February solve the mystery in February's Road has become a miniskirt-wearing, sarcastic "dolly bird" who plays "ismo's" idealism like a game. Together they unceasingly criticize the narrator of Seven Sunflower Seeds, Berry, who is now the age of February in the first novel.

Caprium rears its head again in this fourth book, intertwined with the mystery of a retired racehorse boarding at Marsh Manor (the Callendars are back from Italy), editor John Gubbins' boffin-in-training nephew Rupert, the machinations of "ismo" (now being used for bad ends) and, once again, Lord Sprockett, not to mention a new breakfast cereal, the poems of Edward Lear, and Gus Callendar's "Mame"-like aunt Sophie and the Callendars' less-than-helpful au pair, known to the family as "Mamzel." Aunt Sophie is a delightful character, but much of the novel is given over to poor Berry trying to figure out if her little brother's illness was caused by poison in the form of caprium and being proved wrong and right and wrong again.

The final book in the series finds the Callendars having sold Marsh Manor and living in the town of Querbury, where Berry gets involved in a movement to save the town's old maltings (a real-life project of John Verney). Rupert Gubbins reappears, as do several characters from February's Road, in particular Mike Spillergun, who now hosts an offbeat television series, and Peter Blow. The maltings was founded by the Samson family, and wayfaring Samuel Samson is rumored to have a treasure, the "Hoard" of the title, fabulous Incan artifacts, hidden somewhere on his property, once the home the Callendars have purchased. In addition, Gus is running for the town council, and Verney gets some sharp jabs in about small-town politics, not to mention small-town boys made good...or did they?

Something I found interesting about this last entry in the Callendar saga is that the eldest three might as well not exist any longer: February (who was engaged to Robin Fawcett at the end of Seeds), is mentioned only as "your eldest sister," Friday is mentioned only as having once been Peter Blow's friend, and Gail might have dropped from the face of the earth! It's as if now that they're grown Verney no longer has a use for them. Dr. Henry and his family are not mentioned, either, even though Berry is sick with glandular fever during a portion of the book—she's attended by another physician altogether.

The first two books are notable for containing Verney's delightful Edward Ardizzone-like illustrations in the text (Ismo only has chapter headers and the final books only cover illustrations). Here's a few:

The family at dinner after Christmas in February's Road:

The Callendar family at table

Feb in bed after her accident in Friday's Tunnel:

February writing in her speedy scrawl

And this delightful illo of Feb with a cold from February's Road:

February sneezing

Taken as a whole they are delightful portraits of middle-class English childhood forty years ago, but Friday's Tunnel is undoubtedly the best.

I'm at present reading John Verney's World War II memoirs, which are quite offbeat compared to the more serious experiences I've been reading about (Halsey's Typhoon, etc.). It's considered a classic British war memoir.

Here's a Telegraph article commenting on Friday's Tunnel.

John Verney supported the Farnham Trust and created something called "The Dodo Pad."

06 August 2007

Books Read Since June 26

(not counting the library books...)

• Dark Tide, Stephen Puleo
In January of 1919, a huge tank of molasses in the North End of Boston burst. Although when you mention "the great molasses disaster" to people, the first reaction is amusement because it sounds so absurd, the accident killed dozens who were killed by drowning, concussion, and the force of the flow of thousands of gallons of viscous fluid. Puleo's narrative follows the lives of the families who lived and worked in the area and the repercussions of the event—and the results of the determination: was the company who owned the tank to blame? Did they ignore obvious leaks and even cover them up?

• Eric Sloane's America (comprised of American Barns & Covered Bridges, Our Vanishing Landscape, and American Yesterday)
In the 1950s Sloane did numerous books about the vanishing heritage of America: homemade tools, handmade homes and barns and bridges, and a way of life. Lovingly illustrated, wonderfully informative, and always wistful.

• Halsey's Typhoon, Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
James bought this book about a typhoon that struck Admiral Halsey's Task Force 38 in the Pacific during December of 1944. Three destroyers sank, almost 800 men were killed, and the rest of the ships survived unbelievable damage. The writing was so vivid that I was seasick halfway through the book. An amazing story of heroic efforts to stay afloat, of rescue, and of survival. The chapters about the Tabberer and her captain's efforts to keep her afloat are almost a book of their own. (One of the survivors of the storm? A young officer by the name of Gerald Ford.)

• Design for Victory: World War II on the American Home Front, William L. Bird Jr and Harry R. Rubenstein
This is the last of the books I bought in Washington, DC, last November, an overview of the posters and advertisements that were part of American life through the war years. Heavily illustrated in color.

• Another Path, Gladys Taber
Fans of Taber's Stillmeadow books will remember Taber's friend Jill who shared the farmhouse with Taber, her daughter, and Jill's children. After Jill passed away in the early 1960s, Taber wrote this short book about her efforts to come to terms with her grief. I enjoyed it, but it may be for Stillmeadow fans only.

• Re-Read: The Way It Was—1876, Suzanne Hilton
I found this book years ago, probably about 1977, for a dollar in a drugstore. It was written for young adults and told the story of life in the United States during the year of the Centennial. Hilton draws her information from diaries and news reports of the time; the book is lively and engrossing while talking about schooling, sickness, farm life and city life, and especially the excitement of the year: the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

03 August 2007

Library Books

• Angels in the Gloom, Anne Perry
Third in her World War I series.

followed by

• Some Disputed Barricade and We Shall Not Sleep, the end of the series.

I gave the first book in this series a unfavorable review, but then gave the second book a chance and found it easier to swallow, with the main characters becoming more well-rounded. I actually enjoyed the last few and was of course interested to know who turned out to be "the Peacemaker."

• In Love With Norma Loquendi, William Safire
Another collection from Safire's On Language column. Didn't enjoy this one as much as the others; not sure why.

So I brought back two books to the library, looked around—and came home with six (granted, this was because this is a library that is not close to our house and I would not go there often, so I figured I'd better get them while I was there).

• Aliens in the Backyard: Plant and Animal Imports into America, John Leland
Absolutely fascinating book about...well, title tells all. There are the obvious ones, going back before the development of the US (horses, pigs, smallpox) and afterwards (kudzu, starlings, sparrows), but also things like armadillos, bermuda grass, the potato bug, etc. Very readable and not stodgy as one might expect.

• Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, Jack Santino
Essays about Hallowe'en and celebrations of that ilk and time of year. Very interesting essay on Bonfire Night in Newfoundland and also an examination of placing Hallowe'en decor on children's graves; several essays on pranking in "the good old days" (outhouses tipped, buggies put on roofs, etc.) One particular essay brought back forgotten memories: Hallowe'en noisemakers! I remember the sale of these in Woolworths and Kresges back in the early 1960s, then they vanished. It was common for the older kids who were too old for trick or treat to go out in costume with noisemakers to make a racket as well as frighten the younger children.

• Lusitania, Diane Preston
Preston does an admirable job of recreating the era, the shipboard experiences, the harrowing experiences and the aftermath of the sinking of the luxury liner by German U-boats. The bravery of the survivors who floated for hours in the cold water of the North Atlantic is particularly memorable.

The final two were interlibrary loans:

• Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online, Rhiannon Bury
Bury examines two internet fandoms—the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade and fans of Ray Kowalski (and his relationship with Benton Fraser) from Due South—with special emphasis on community and communication (and the inevitable fandom fallouts) online.

• The Democratic Genre: Fanfiction in a Literary Context, Sheenagh Pugh
Pugh takes a different tack on the subject of fan fiction, that of its literary worth. She makes excellent points in regarding well-written, well-thought out fanfiction as of the same caliber as professional sequels to classic books and television tie-in novels. (Frankly, having read both, I can tell you that there is much fanfiction better than some of these published efforts. I've tossed several Star Trek novels against the wall.) She examines five fanfiction communities revolving around Jane Austen's fiction, a British police procedural The Bill, the Horatio Hornblower films, Blake's 7, and Lord of the Rings (both novels and film), but touches on other fandoms briefly as well.

01 July 2007

"...good books are the rock and refuge. For every book is a world in itself, and if I enter into it I must share that world. Books are the daily bread of the imagination, as the sky is of the eyes. And when I enter a book I am not alone."

. . . . . Gladys Taber

25 June 2007

Books Read Since June 12

• America Celebrates, Ideals
This hardback compilation covers all holidays. The photography and essays are especially nice.

• Shamus in the Green Room, Susan Kandel
The third Cece Caruso mystery finds our heroine conducting a crash-course in the life and personality of mystery great Dashiell Hammett with a popular actor who will play "Dash" in a film. Cece is with the actor when he identifies a dead body of that of his ex-lover and of course then gets embroiled in "whodunit." More of Cece's odd friends, her growing relationship with the police detective, and an interesting mystery, but nothing truly outstanding.

• The Essential Dave Allen, Graham McCann
This isn't a biography, but some biographical data interspersed with a collection of Dave Allen's best stories. Allen's voice is very clear in this almagam taken from "Dave Allen...On Life" and his sessions on the stool from Dave Allen at Large, and, despite knowing his spoofs of the Catholic church, a surprising amount of hostility to his religious upbringing. Dave, we hardly knew ye.

• The Best Years of Our Lives, Good Old Days
Postwar memories, from returning soldiers to the baby boom. Another oversize hardback, this from the publisher of Good Old Days magazine. Many stories of doing-without-but-still-happy postwar marriages.

• Re-Read: Misty of Chincoteague, Marguerite Henry
This is still a lovely, haunting book about two children willing to work to earn the horse of their dreams, the Phantom, a wily mare who has escaped the annual "Pony Penning" event on Chincoteague Island off the coast of Virginia for the past two years. This edition includes Wesley Dennis' memorable illustrations—not just of the horses, but the ones that capture the essense of the characters: Paul and Maureen on the beach, Grandma hanging the laundry, the children and the "pully bone," plus the breathtaking sketches of wild Assateague Island.

• The Pawprints of History, Stanley Coren
Did dogs influence the course of history? Stanley Coren's book contains different episodes in history in which dogs played a part in either a good—the origial tale of Gelert; Freud's use of the original "therapy dogs"—and bad—the Spanish use of huge mastiffs to subjugate the Native population of the Americas. There are fascinating chapters about Napoleon's battles with Josephine's spoilt dogs, the development of the Pekinese as a royal Chinese symbol and how the breed survived a final massacre, Washington's hounds, Lincoln's dog Fido and more.

• Curse of the Narrows, Laura M. MacDonald
During World War I, the once moribund port of Halifax became a boom town again shipping war supplies. Just before Christmas in 1917, two ships, one carrying highly flammable explosives, collided in the harbor directly before the city. The volatile cargo exploded near a wharf, laying waste to the city and causing death and horrible injuries, plus a shock-wave engendered tsunami that destroyed and killed hundreds more. Medical crews and Red Cross representatives from Boston and other points south raced to the city, hampered by a blizzard that arose the evening of the explosion. Absolutely riveting account of the events and aftermath of this now little-known episode in North American history.

• First Friend, Katharine M. Rogers
This book can be a companion to Pawprints [above], also the history of the dog, from his shadowy domestication to the development of breeds, to his use in literature and art, and from working animal to family pet. Several of the events Rogers talks about are expanded in chapters in the Coren book, such as development of the Pekinese.

• Remembering Walt, Amy Boothe Green and Howard E. Green
If you are looking for a bio of Walt Disney, try Gabler or the others; this is mainly a photo memory book of Walt Disney, with comments by the people who knew him, from his wife and brother to the actors and animators who worked with him. The photos, some from private collections, are a delight; most I had never seen before.

18 June 2007

Book (sellers) in Review

The first wonderful thing I found out about the internet was that is was a marvelous place to buy books. I started out by finding a nearly pristine copy of Kate Seredy's The Open Gate, as well as other books I'd loved in the past, like The Green Poodles and the Windy Foot and Anne H. White novels. E-Bay was the source of most of my bound issues of St. Nicholas magazine, and I have also partaken freely of that most evil of sites, bookfinder.com and Amazon marketplace. I've bought old favorites, Christmas and other holiday books, even biographies and classics.

Today two of the three books I ordered from Amazon Marketplace last Wednesday (the other, according to an e-mail from the seller, was put into the mail today) arrived. Both of these were hardback, one in pristine condition and one with a minor amount of dustjacket wear. The two of them cost me less than $10 with the postage (in both cases the postage was more than the price of the book). The one coming in the mail is another hardback, not sure of the condition, for only 99 cents (minus the postage).

It's a funny thing about used books in that most cases suddenly the hardbacks cost less than the trade paperback or paperback published later. For instance, the 99 cent book is Puleo's Dark Tide, about the Boston molasses disaster, which I have been wanting for ages. I've been fascinated with this event since an article about its 50th anniversary appeared in the Providence Journal. [The story here.] I have checked out Marketplace copies of this book for a while. Since I want a cheap price for a good book from a seller with a good rating (I try not to buy from anyone with a rating under 98 percent), finding a good combination takes time. This time I found the paperback version for no less than $4.95. However, the cheapest hardback was at fifty cents; I opted for the one that cost a little more with a better-rated seller.

Of the two books I got today, First Friend, Katharine Rogers' book about the history of man's association with the dog, was one I have wanted since it was published, but $25 seemed a bit much. It's now out of print and did not look as if it were heading for a trade paper version, hence the Marketplace buy. The other book is called The Curse of the Narrows, another fascinating nonfiction book, this time about the 1917 disaster in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where munitions headed overseas for use in "the Great War" exploded in the harbor, killing an appalling number of people. I saw this as a special on the History Channel some time ago and figured that for $1.25, I could "read all about it."

I have to say that I wish people would do better reviews on both Amazon Marketplace and on e-Bay. "As described" and "ok" tell me nothing. I always try to give as much detail as possible and praise to the seller if really good.

The reviews that annoy me the most are the ones that give the seller a bad rating because they didn't like what was sold to them! I have seen so many of these that it's actually pathetic. It's not the seller's fault if the story on the DVD turned out to be stupid or you didn't like the book! Review their service, not the product!!! (Conversely, I also find it irritating when people review books, etc. on Amazon.com by telling everyone how fast the service was and how they would order from Amazon again. Sometimes I am unfamiliar with a product and want to read reviews of it, not reviews of Amazon's service. I guess they can't tell the difference.)

19 May 2007

Books Read Since May 15

• Autumn, Susan Branch
I adore Branch's wonderful whimsical watercolor handwritten books, but they can be pricy, which is why I scooped up this from the remainder table with glee. Poetry, recipes, minute illustrations, quotations, memories, all about the fall of the year, Thanksgiving, and Hallowe'en.

• Re-read: Up the Down Staircase, Bel Kaufman
I picked up my original copy of this book from the metal racks at Nayco, the Woolworth's knockoff that occupies the old Woolworth's on Rolfe Street in Cranston, RI (or at least it still did as late as two years ago). I had heard of the book and the movie, but thought it was a dull narrative about a schoolteacher in the inner city until I saw the clever way the tale was told, with letters, school bulletins, memos, minutes, notebooks, and the frank student suggestion box entries from the teachers and students at the fictional but all-too-real "Calvin Coolidge High School." The memorable characters are by now family: idealistic new teacher Sylvia Barrett, the wise Bea Schacter, the flippant Paul Barringer, the kids including Alice Blake, Carole Blanca, Jose Rodriguez, and of course the "Adm. Ass." himself, J.J. McHabe and troublemaker Joe Ferone.

• Take Big Bites, Linda Ellerbee
A gourmet meal and the best dessert ever, all in one book. I have Ellerbee's previous two books and this is just as delightfully written. This time it's Ellerbee's adventures around the world and within herself, whether it's befriending people in Italy or Greece or England or taking on river rapids and hiking along the Thames. She lives with gusto and it spills out in a joyous celebration in this delightful set of tales (with some soul-searching along the way). Go on, take big bites.

• Murder in Little Italy, Victoria Thompson
The next (in paperback, anyway) in Thompson's series of mysteries about Sarah Brandt, widowed midwife in the poverty-stricken areas of Victorian New York City. This time she's mixed up in a murder that develops after a supposedly premature baby is born looking full-term to an Irish girl who married into a contentious Italian family, sparking off not only a police investigation but a gang war between the Irish and the Italians. Sarah's growing romance with Frank Malloy continues to move at a glacial pace as he grows no closer looking into the death of her husband, Dr. Tom Brandt, who she married despite the disapproval of her wealthy parents. Another good look at the sad, desperate lives of the poor in the 19th century along with a perplexing mystery.

• Treasury of Easter Celebrations
An Ideals gift-book size publication with lovely photos, poetry.

• The Flight of the Silver Turtle, John Fardell
Fardell's sequel to his cracking tale, 7 Professors of the Far North, isn't quite up to its predecessor, but it's great for nonstop action in the vein of those great old kids' series like Danny Dunn, with a touch of John Verney's Callendar family stories to boot, which takes off almost immediately. Each of the kids—Sam, Zara, Ben, Marcia, and Adam—get to use his or her own particular talent to again help the adults out of a jam, which involves the mystery of a hidden secret from World War II. The novel transportation feature the children use in the first book is just so memorable that the ones featured in the sequel pale slightly in comparison. Also, the villains of this novel seem more like conventional Doctor Who-type meglomaniacs as opposed to the sinister machinations in the original, which reminded me of the sinister menace in Pullman's The Golden Compass (Northern Lights). Best of all, the children are smart but not smartass, and the adults are not stooges for the kids.

• A Time to Remember, Ideals
Nostalgic poetry and essays, with the usual lovely Ideals photography.

• The Merry Christmas Book, Ideals
As always with their annual releases, contained are lovely winter photos, filler drawings, and nostalgic or thoughtful poetry or essays. These books are meant for curling up with a fleece throw on a sofa on a chilly day, to read and sip a hot beverage.

• The New Guideposts Christmas Treasury
A Guideposts collection of inspirational, thoughtful, and often amusing stories about families discovering the Christmas spirit. As far as I'm concerned, there can't be too many books that remind folks that Christmas isn't about getting big-box gifts and becoming a glutton. Even if you're not a churchgoer, these gentle stories, interspersed with poetry, recall close times with those you love.

• The Old Iron Road, David Haward Bain
In 1999, David Bain published Empire Express, a history of the building of the United States' first transcontinental railroad. He then took his wife and two children on a 7,000 mile automobile odyssey, following the route of the railroad (with several detours in Nevada) and the old Lincoln Highway, from Kansas City to San Francisco. This is the engaging detail-crammed story of that trip. Bain mixes history, trivia, Old West personalities, pioneer tales, landscapes, fellow history buffs, railroading—not to mention the story of the family trip—in marvelous detail. Along the way they visit museums, ghost towns, old railroad cuts, scenes of triumph and scenes of disaster: Promontory Point, Donner Lake, the track of the Humboldt (which Alistair Cooke so movingly described in one sequence of America) and more. Maybe a bit of my fondness for this narrative is due to the two cross-country trips I took with my parents in the 1970s (although we stuck to the interstate and didn't visit any of the fascinating places Bain talks about) as I recall those majestic or forbidding landscapes we traversed in our own car.

15 May 2007

Books Read Since April 23

• Re-read: Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

I used to belong to the Doubleday Bargain Book Club and once tried to order this; even though I was in my teens Mom put the kibosh on it when she read the description of it being "an underground classic." In high school I bought the paperback copy. Heinlein is always readable, even if the text turns organized religions on their head. I've read criticisms of Jubal Harshaw, and he does pontificate a bit much, but I've always had a sneaking fondness for the old coot.

• Rebel Angels, Libba Bray

I have to admit, I liked A Great and Terrible Beauty with enough interest to go out and get this next book in the series. If nothing else, I want to see what happens to Ann, the charity pupil whose rich relatives are sending her to school just to train her as a governess for their children. What a horrible prospect! The fangirl commentary about heroine Gemma and her relationship with the exotic Indian boy who is supposed to be defeating her gets a bit thick at times, though.

• Watch Your Language, Robert Gorrell

This was an okay book about English grammar and linguistics I bought at the library sale. The most interesting part was the intriguing cover illustrating idioms, including a carrot-man eating a carrot ("you are what you eat") which has "cauliflower ears."

• Penny From Heaven, Jennifer Holm

I simply loved this book. It's the story of Barbara Ann Falucci, nicknamed "Penny," a fatherless girl growing up torn between her WASP mother's world (she and her mother live with her mother's parents) and the world of her father's large, complicated but loving Italian family in 1953. Since both my sets of grandparents came from Italy, I'm usually wary of books that contain Italian families; they are either ga-ga over the Mafia or do not seem authentic. I was in love with Penny's wonderful paternal family immediately; I knew all these people from my own experience. My dad's mother even did her cooking at a gas-converted coal stove in the basement because it was cooler in summer and she didn't want to "mess up" the nice kitchen upstairs! The food (sfogliatelles!), the homes, the loving uncles, the men torn between pleasing their mothers or their wives, the one male cousin who's always in trouble, Grandma dressed in black making homemade macaroni and homemade gravy (not "pasta" and "sauce," which are "Med-i-gone" terms!)...wow, it took me all back. Holm has the early 50s atmosphere down pat...I wished I could open a door and go back to meet all her characters, visit the Sweet Shoppe and the family butcher shop, and listen to "Dem Bums" on the radio. I also was drawn into the growing mystery about Penny's father, which exposes a chapter in history that most people have never heard of. I'm glad I decided to purchase this book; if you are Italian, this is a must have.

• Re-read: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Absolutely one of my favorite books in the world, although the business with Tom Sawyer at the end makes me want to shake the foreign-romance-obsessed Tom. Huck's growing realization that Jim is not "property" but a man is as absorbing on the 20th read as on the first. I read Finn on my own at age twelve and was quite annoyed when we didn't read it again in ninth grade; later in college I did an essay about my favorite character in the book, the poor deceased Emmaline Grangerford, so warped by her family's feud with the Shepherdson clan that she continually obsessed over funerary art and poetry.

• Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Headaches?, Mike O'Connor

Bird information and trivia written with a light hand by a Cape Cod newspaper columnist and wild bird store owner. My favorite: O'Connor's response to a man who wants to buy "a bird bath for my wife": he asks how large the wife is. :-)

• Re-read: The Sidetracked Sisters' Happiness File, Pam Young and Peggy Jones

Back when our office was still in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, a remainder book sale opened in an abandoned store and continued for at least a year. I'd walk to the store at least once a week and accumulated quite a collection at bargain prices. I had over a dozen books about babies and children preparatory to the time when I might get pregnant; when it didn't work out I packed them away and eventually gave them to Goodwill. I bought Cantor's wonderful Where the Old Roads Go, about traveling the state highways of New England, Pullman's Ruby in the Smoke and Shadow in the North, a "bathroom book" about the unusual subjects people do newsletters about, a book on organizing, and divers others.

One of the others was Pam Young and Peggy Jones' "Sidetracked Sisters" books about their efforts to conquer disorganization in their homes by using a system of 3x5 reminder cards. Their amusing texts covered the home, and then the kitchen, but this book, the Happiness File is my favorite of them, about achieving personal goals using the same methods. Pam and Peggy are like old friends.

• The Complete Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds, Juliette Cunliffe

I suppose we needed yet another book about dog breeds like I need the proverbial hole in my head; however, this was published in Britain, with the UK dog classifications, and half the book is not about breeds, but about dogs in general (carriage dogs, turnspit dogs, how Crufts started, dogs in history, dogs in art, etc.) and rare breeds are also featured.

• And, of course, preparing for the Big Event in July, have re-read: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince.

I am presently reading the great The Old Iron Road, about a family who follows the trail of the pioneers from Missouri to California, mostly traveling along the old Lincoln Highway, and about the history (the Transcontinental Railroad, the Indian Wars), personalities (Willa Cather, John C. Frémont), and other points of interest observed. Great stuff, and haven't even left Nebraska yet.

08 May 2007

A Sad Return

Incidentally, blackmask.com is now back, under the moniker of "Munsey's" (a classic Canadian magazine) with unfinished sections of the main page and a server so glacial that molasses in January would be quicker. But the e-books are still there.

23 April 2007

Stories for "Wide Awake" Youngsters

Many children's magazines flourished in the 19th century. While several were published by religious groups and featured highly-moral stories, others were secular, although milder moral stories were the rule, and disobedient children or those urchins who smoked or used slang were reformed (except in the weekly Youth's Companion, where even mention of tobacco or "drink" was forbidden).

While St. Nicholas was the most remembered of these publications and had the second-longest run, others were quite well-known during their time: Merry's Museum (edited for some time by Louisa May Alcott), Our Young Folks (whose merge with St. Nicholas upon the latter magazine's 1873 debut was unknown to editor J.T. Trowbridge until it was a fait accompli), and Wide Awake, published by Daniel Lothrop starting in 1875; he later married Harriet Mulford Stone, better known as "Margaret Sidney," whom he met when she submitted the first of the "Five Little Peppers" stories to the magazine. Wide Awake was also later bought out by St. Nicholas (in 1893).

Having finished my St. Nicholas collection, I thought I would add one or two other titles of the same time period, but so far I've only obtained some bound volumes of Wide Awake. My first was the June-November 1889 volume, "CC," my oldest, "R" from 1884 arrived today (but I won't be reading it for a while as it needs major repairs as did the "CC" volume). The oldest I have read at this point is "Z" from 1888.

In format, the Wide Awake volumes closely resemble St. Nicholas as well as other adult magazines of the time: two column 10-point type, with engravings as illustrations. It has a couple of regular features: "Men and Things," short anecdotes about discoveries, people, or even cute stories about the things small children say, and "Tangles," a short puzzle page.

I'm probably biased by my St. Nicholas collection, but the stories in Wide Awake seem a bit more didactic than those of its competitor. All the fiction, even the continuing adventures of the Pepper clan, seem to emphasize ideals and lessons learned; these qualities are also present in St. Nicholas despite Mary Mapes Dodge insistence that the magazine not be too didactic, but of a lesser emphasis. For instance, one continuing "serial" of Volumes BB and CC is a series of letters from "Daisy," a newly-married middle class young lady in Boston, to her friend "Pattie," in which Daisy usually works some instruction in good manners, for instance, how hurt she felt when a young woman she knew snubbed her due to the part of town she lived in and how snubbing is wrong, or how some of her old friends visit and show poor manners.

However, the Wide Awake volumes also have some articles about traveling in the 1800s that are fascinating and absorbing to read. Olive Risley Seward, for instance, has a series of travel narratives called "Around the World Stories" in which she talks about the dangers, hardships, and joys of two young women traveling the world, including trips to China and Java. Jessie Benton Frémont, wife of pioneer John C. Frémont, has a remarkable series of articles about Western pioneer life.

There are also numerous articles about life in foreign countries and stories about royalty, the latter which seemed to fascinate Americans in the late 19th century. Of course, as with all articles dealing with foreigners in those days, some customs are described as "queer" or "savage" or "barbaric," with American customs generally regarded as superior ("pretty" customs like Japanese flower arranging and other things of that nature are usually conceded as being a good thing, however, and often something that might be emulated in American homes).

There are even some articles in Wide Awake that seem more suited to adults of the time, and were probably written for older children, what we today would call high school/college age teenagers. "The Republican Court," for instance, is a long article about Martha Washington, Dolley Madison, and their contemporaries in "society" in early U.S. politics. A later series, "Children of the Presidents," discuss the offspring of George Washington through James Madison (at least of the issues I have) during both their childhood and adulthood.

The most unique portion of the magazine is the C.Y.F.R.U., the Chautauqua Young Folks' Reading Union. The Chautauqua movement began in 1874, "an adult education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chautauqua assemblies expanded and spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s. The Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers, and specialists of the day." Today we pop on the television or surf the internet and watch/read about these subjects and cannot really imagine how isolated communities, especially rural communities, were in the 1800s. Both men and women, and even children, flocked to Chautauqua meetings and classies that brought them knowledge of the outside world.

Wide Awake's Chautauqua sessions-in-articles include "Cooking in the Public Schools," which include lessons on how to make a proper fire in a cookstove and about basic cooking of bread and meat. There is a long series about famous gems and another about geologic and wilderness habitats. One series called "Our Asiatic Cousins," covering the "Hindoos" and other Asiatic peoples, was written by Mrs. A.H. Leonowens, the "Anna" of Anna and the King of Siam/The King and I.

Each C.Y.F.R.U. is concluded with "Search Questions" in various sections of history.

The format of Wide Awake, however, apparently changed between 1889 and 1891, the latter the most recent volume I have received. Perhaps the publisher, due to failing sales, decided to aim the publication more at younger children, because the majority of the articles in the 1891 volume are in larger type over one page instead of in columns, with a simpler vocabulary, and only twenty or so pages near the end of the issue revert to the two-column format with more adult themes (including Margaret Sidney's Five Little Peppers Grown Up).

It will be interesting to investigate this further.

19 April 2007

Books Read Since March 29

• A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray

I was caught up enough in this book about Victorian girls at a posh boarding school who become involved with magic to buy the sequel, although I do agree with the reviewers that all the characters are self-centered. However, most girls of that age are, and wealthy girls were brought up to be self-centered. I can't say the leading character is altogether likable, but she is absorbing to follow.

• Trouble in Spades, Heather Webber

I don't usually read second books in a series first, but I found this on the $1 spinner at Dollar General. It's about a woman who does landscaping who has recently been divorced, her prima-donna sister, and assorted other crazies. I found this cute but nothing special. I usually don't have problems with a multiple cast of characters, but all the players in this one made my head spin. Also it seems there were too many weird neighbors to go along with the weird relatives.

• Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin

I've seen this in paperback at the store, but this particular volume I found in hardback at the Smithsonian on discount. I was fascinated, not just due to the examination of how animals percieve the world differently, but also by the fact that the author is autistic, but has learned to cope with the chaotic (to her) world of the non-autistic. I have a friend with an autistic child, but his condition is more serious than the author's and it gave me an insight into his world.

• I started reading the Civil War mystery A Grave at Glorietta (another $1 spinner acquisition, since I'm not much of a Civil War buff), but I ended up forgetting it at the bank on Saturday morning and it wasn't worth going back for.

• The Rocking Chair Reader: Coming Home

This is a feel-good anthology of Chicken Soup for the Soul-like stories about people's memories of growing up and returning to the small towns where they either grew up or spent a lot of time (with grandparents or other relatives). If you have similar memories, or just want to see what it was like, these are sweet stories, but I didn't like them well enough to keep the book.

• Re-reads: Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers and Camille Bacon-Smith's Enterprising Women, both about fan fiction, although Jenkins and Bacon-Smith both discuss "songtapes" and Jenkins addresses filksongs. These are two 1992 classic texts about fandom and fan fiction. I also have Jenkins and Tulloch's study of Star Trek and Doctor Who fans, which I have not re-read lately. I would like to get some of Jenkins' (and others) books about fandom in the age of the Internet.

11 April 2007

How Can So Many Memories Fit Into One Little Book? #1

Does anyone else have books that are more than just books, because they have become part of the time and place that you first read them?

Back during college I happened to catch the Masterpiece Theatre presentation of Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Murder Must Advertise (this was before the British mysteries were spun off to Mystery). I remember Alistair Cooke's delightful commentary on the British society portrayed by Sayers, but most of all I remember Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter. Many people complain he was too old for the role and I suppose he was, but he fit the bill perfectly.

In any case, this caused me to go out and buy all the Wimsey books, and several weeks ago I dug out my copy of The Nine Tailors again and plumped happily into the affairs of little Fenchurch St. Paul and making agreeable reacquaintance of Lord Peter, the inestimable Mervyn Bunter (Wimsey's faithful gentleman's gentleman), the garrilous Reverend Venables, precocious Hilary Thorpe, the Thodays and all the working-class folks of the village—and of the eight-bell ring in the large village church: the bells John, Jericho, Jubilee, Saboath, Batty Thomas, Gaude, Dimity, and Tailor Paul. (That's all from memory!) Tailor Paul is the tenor bell, which is rung nine strokes whenever a man dies, which gives the novel its name.

I can't sniff the book print in this one without falling deep, deep into a time machine and coming out in the midst of the little Paperback Books (that's what it was called, and that's what you made the check out to) store that used to be on Weybosset Street in Providence in the 1960s and 1970s. It was across the street from Providence's signature department store, the Outlet Company.

Compared to the designer stores we have today, the paperback bookstore wasn't much on decoration. The show windows in front were always filled with books whose covers were fading from the sun. When you entered, you faced an L-shaped floor plan and the linoleum on the floor was cracked and broken. The cashier sat in a booth that was reached by a short flight of stairs, so she could overlook the store for shoplifters. Racks of books were even set up against this booth. The bookshelves were plain wood, nothing much—but they were crammed with books, books, books... The shelves reached up to about six feet, and then the remainder of the wall and then entire ceiling was covered with posters: rock bands, television favorites, even those black-light psychedelic things so favored in the late 60s. No coffee shop, no games, no overbright lighting—just filled bookshelves and the heady scent of bookprint.

The paperback bookstore had the best media book section anywhere. If a television series had a novelization based on it, or if a book was being made into a movie, it showed up on their shelves long before it hit the screen or theatre. I still have my copy of Cromwell that I bought after we had seen the Richard Harris movie as a school field trip.

The cashier there, a heavyset young woman, was also fannish. One day I was surprised to see what looked like some typeset 8 1/2 by 11 pages stapled together with a colored cardstock cover with drawings of some Star Trek characters on it. I looked at it, but it was priced more than I had. I wish I'd picked it up; it was the infamous "Night of the Twin Moons" Sarek/Amanda fanzine, the very first time I'd ever seen one. I didn't realize what it was until I read the book Star Trek Lives!

The mystery books were off in the back right corner—I can remember the whole floor plan as if it were yesterday—and the Lord Peter Wimsey books were on the right wall, a shelf or two from the bottom. They were $1.25 in those days, a vast sum, and I ended up buying two at the time from my college textbook money without telling my mother. (I bought the trade paperback, Lord Peter, with all the Wimsey short stories including the elusive "Talboys," which takes place after Peter and Harriet have three sons, and my mother had a fit when she found out I paid...ulp!...$3.95 for it!) Most of the books were published by Avon, but for some reason The Nine Tailors was owned by another publisher, Harcourt, so all my copies don't match. I swallowed them all like sweets and then read them a second time, and some, like Murder Must Advertise and The Nine Tailors, over and over again.

When I open up The Nine Tailors, I open the door to the paperback bookstore again, hear the bell, sniff the ink scent that is more compelling than any perfume...

28 March 2007

Books Read Since My Last Post

There were actually several more, but I wanted those to be separate posts.

• Carpe Demon, Julie Kenner

Amusing mystery-fantasy that is described as "Suppose Buffy the vampire slayer grew up, had a family, then hid her past?" Kate Connor was once a demon hunter, now she's a stay-at-home mom whose husband is running for public office. Demons haven't bothered her for years: now several of them are after her at once. This is just fun, especially if you were once a "Buffy" fan.

• Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood, Joseph Kett

Scholarly but absorbing history of childhood in America. for those of you who think today's American children have no childhood, this look into the past will assure you that there was once much worse fates: miniature adults in the colonial world, apprenticeships, pioneer hardships, child labor.

• Proven Guilty, Jim Butcher

The latest in paperback in Butcher's Harry Dresden series. As always, Harry is in trouble, but this time it involves a horror convention and the daughter of a close friend. When the story's over...well, let's say something has been added to Harry's life.

• PC Annoyances, Steve Bass

This is a re-read, a book I got off the remainder shelf. The links and tips are still quite useful. Thankfully it guided me through getting rid of all those wretched headers in Eudora 7.

• No Uncertain Terms, William Safire

Twelfth in the series of books taken from Safire's On Language column. I found this one at Daedalus Books in Odenton, Maryland, during vacation last year. I hadn't bought a Safire compilation in a dog's age since the price of a new volume had skyrocketed back in the 1990s. Very, very enjoyable as always, especially the "Bloopie" awards.

• Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers (A Decade-by-Decade Guide to the Vanishing Vocabulary of the Twentieth Century, Rosemarie Ostler

Another Daedalus find. An entertaining read for an linguistic aficionado, although it might bore others. I've read books on the same subject with more lively writing. Also, one chapter surprised me: after the author includes Star Trek words influencing English in the 1960s, there was no corresponding section on the number of Star Wars terms in the 1970s (except for the obvious "Star Wars" defense system). Where was "Use the Force" and other SW vocabulary that entered the language?

• Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko

Moose Flanagan and his family move to Alcatraz Island in 1935, where his father has taken a combination electrician/guard job in the hope that a nearby special school will "cure" his sister Natalie, who today would be classified as autistic. His mother clings to this hope while Moose must adjust to a new school, the machinations of the warden's daughter, and taking care of his sister. Very readable and touching story of a family coping with a "different" child in the 1930s, against the backdrop of the infamous prison.

• Grails: Quest for the Dawn (anthology)

After having been burnt by several SF or fantasy anthologies in the past few years, this was a pleasant surprise. I notice from at least one review that they were disappointed that all the stories were not about "The Holy Grail." Rather, "grail" is used in a larger sense as some ideal, whether relating to Arthurian fantasy or not. As always, some of the stories are better than others, but on a whole I enjoyed it.

03 March 2007

Library Books

• A Country Practice: Scenes from a Veterinary Life, Douglas Whynott

If you're looking for a cozy James Herriot-style vet narrative, this isn't it. However, if you want a good look at a modern American rural veterinary practice (the setting is Walpole, New Hampshire), you will probably enjoy this. Whynott's prose is lively and we hear about the farmers' and animals' lives as well as the business of the vets.

• Giving Thanks, Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver, and Plimouth Plantation

The first half is a history of Thanksgiving, and the other half is recipes, with some historical background. Not bad, but I felt they apologized too much for the old practice of not mentioning the Native American contributions to culture in Plymouth, aside from the usual history book tales of Squanto. It happened and, sadly, we can't change it. We can only do our best not to allow such insensitivity again.

• Spice: The History of a Temptation, Jack Turner

Turner examines the various reasons for the spice trade: for power, religious need, and especially garnishment of food. He pooh-poohs the theory that spice was necessary to cover "rotted" meat in the Middle Ages and supposes it was more to cover up the taste of the only means of curing meat back then: the intense salty taste of preserved meat. He also examines the sexual connotations of spice.

• A Dog's History of America, Mark Derr

Enjoyable book with reservations, and a warning to beware of children being attracted by the "pretty white dog" on the cover; the narrative is very mature, especially the appalling violence perpetrated by Columbus and later Spanish explorers on the Native population of the Americas. Derr's political views creep in occasionally, and he seems overly fond of the word "extirpation" (it's mentioned so frequently it really stands out). At one point he is discussing the Dalmatian and it is mispelled as "dalmation" at least half of the dozen times the breed name is mentioned. There are also some odd omissions: he talks about the San Francisco dogs "Bummer" and "Lazarus" at length, but not their titular owner, "Emperor" Joshua Norton, and mentions the Seeing Eye without once mentioning the famous Buddy and her handler Morris Frank.

• The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Mark Bittner

I saw this book discussed on an interview show when it came out, but had not gotten around to reading it until now. Bittner, who accepted a caretaker job at a San Francisco residence, discovered a flock of parrots (mostly cherry-headed conures, but also a couple of blue-headed conures and one mitred conure) living wild in his neighborhood. He began to feed and observe them, and the result is this delightful book about the lives of the flock members. As with any wild creatures, there are heartbreaks as well as triumphs and laughter, but when you finish you will love these birds and respect the man who let them remain themselves rather than trying to capture and tame/train them.

02 March 2007

It All Started on Epiphany

Oliver Parker is a 12-year-old American boy who has spent three quarters of his life in Paris; his parents live there because his father is a journalist. He often feels lonely amongst his French classmates and a little out of place. There's also something bothering his parents, especially his father, who is covering the story of an old classmate, an electronics whiz who is coming to Paris to install some great new invention on the Eiffel Tower.

On the evening of Epiphany, his mother purchases the usual King's Cake that is eaten on that day, and makes certain, as she always does, that Oliver receives the little key token baked into the pastry. This means Oliver gets to wear the little gold paper crown that always comes with a galette des rois. Because he's had "one of those days" at school he leaves the crown on all night, and later in the evening after he finishes his homework and is practicing shadow figures on the wall, he looks into the kitchen window—and sees a boy wearing a doublet staring back at him.

So begins The King in the Window by Adam Gopnik, an old-fashioned, intense fantasy story that has Oliver embroiled with the ongoing war between the Window Wraiths (they reflect your image in windows and generally help you to look better) and the dark spirits of the mirrors, which steal your soul. Oliver has been recruited because the Window Wraiths, having seen him in the crown, think he is the King of the Window, who will deliver the world from the spirits of the mirrors, who are planning to break through to the real world and capture the soul of every human on earth. Next thing he knows, Oliver, a totally unremarkable young man, has stolen a glass sword from the Louvre, discovered allies in often-exasperated 13-year-old Neige, daughter of the caretaker of the Parkers' residence, and the exceedingly wealthy Mrs. Pearson, not to mention the clochards, the street dwellers of Paris, and his buddy from the United States, Charlie.

This is a complex fantasy, more suited to young adults than children, and adults who enjoy a flight of fancy. Oliver is no sterling genius and readers will sympathize with him as he tries to discover how he will defeat the mirror denizens. In addition, Gopnik paints the gloom and the glory of a Paris winter in words like watercolors until the city becomes a character as much as Oliver, Neige, and the rest.

Enchanting and enthralling and even a little melancholy.

06 February 2007

Old-Time Curiosities from Books

Reading all the "Five Little Peppers" books over brings one back to a different age. Imagine being so poor that you've never received a letter or a parcel, like Mrs. Hansell in Ben Pepper. Or a wonderful game for children being "playing company," dressing up and pretending to call on your own brothers and sisters.

Some other aspects of Victorian America emerge. For instance, in the second story ever written about the Peppers, little Phronsie celebrates a great event: getting her first pair of brand-new shoes! But even then Mrs. Pepper must cut corners. She tells Polly and Ben to make sure that Mr. Beebe the shoe-store man gives them "evens" so the shoes will wear longer. If you're familiar with the history of shoes, you know that they were originally made the same for both feet. Once on, the shoes then conformed to the shape of your feet. If the shoes wore unevenly on one side—I always "turned on my heels" and rounded out the outsides of them, so my mother had the shoemaker put rubber "taps" on those corners—you could swap shoes and thus "evens" would wear longer. (As someone who has trouble with shoes, I can imagine how uncomfortable that would be!) Around 1822, American cobblers invented the first "left" and "right" side shoes made from specific lasts (molds) of each foot. Some slippers and light women's shoes continued to be made on straight lasts by the turn-shoe method until perhaps 1870. Apparently if Mrs. Pepper was still requesting "evens" in a story written in 1887, either they still made shoes like that for children, who were so hard on shoes, or Mr. Beebe was a very old-fashioned cobbler.

In several of the stories, Mrs. Pepper or another adult applies something called opodeldoc to cuts or bruises. This was a liniment made from, among other things, soap and camphor. Wikipedia tells a little more about opodeldoc, including the origin of the name. It's hard to imagine a day when a simple broken leg was a reason to panic, but blood poisoning or crippling might be the result of the injury.

There's also what sounds like a strange sounding remedy for the bruises that result when Dick Whitney falls down the stairs: brown paper is soaked in vinegar and put on the swellings that result. Again, this is a homeopathic remedy still recommended today:

Put five or six sheets of strong brown paper into a pan and cover with sage vinegar. Place a lid on the pan and steam over a very low heat for a few minutes. The time will depend on the type of paper used. It should soften and absorb some of the vinegar without breaking or disintegrating. Remove the paper and wrap it in overlapping layers around the affected part. Apply as hot as possible and build up several layers. Cover with plastic wrap and bandage in place. Leave for four hours and reapply twice a day until the swelling and bruising have subsided.

This is an effective remedy enshrined in the children's rhyme "Jack and Jill" (Jack "went to bed to mend his head with vinegar and brown paper"). It is very supportive and strengthening for bruises and swellings.

01 February 2007

Books Read Since January 17

• A Hole in Juan, Gillian Roberts, the penultimate volume in her mystery series about Amanda Pepper, Philadelphia Prep teacher who gets involved in mysteries and her boyfriend-now-husband C.K. Mackenzie. This time a tough science instructor that the kids don't like is injured in a laboratory accident. Amanda is more upset than the rest of the instructors since before his accident the teacher confided to her that he was being harrassed by the students—and certain of her students are acting odd.

I was genuinely mystified by this one, but came out of it feeling depressed—are high-school kids today really that mean and petty? Did I just manage to avoid these poisonous creatures when I did the high school circuit?

• Mr. Monk and the Blue Flu, Lee Goldberg, another original novel based on the television series. Union negotiations break down, the police walk off the job—and Monk is reinstated as a detective. First on his plate: a killer who offs women joggers and steals only their left shoe. If you think Monk is crazy, the other reinstated ex-police officers who make up his squad are even more daft: a Dirty Harry-attitude cop with "anger-management issues," an elderly man, and a paranoid woman officer who believes aliens are listening to our every word via our computers. Will Natalie survive this without going nuts?

I enjoyed reading this one because Goldberg has all the dialog down pat (well, he has written several episodes of the series, after all), especially between Stottlemeyer and Disher. I could pretty much hear the actors saying the dialog he'd written for them.

• The other four Five Little Peppers books I had never read. I got them through interlibrary loan. Most of them sell for $$$ online because the later books were not reprinted and so are rare. The Stories Polly Pepper Told occasionally shows up in bookstores inexpensively, but I've never wanted it because frankly I wasn't interested in the little fairy stories Polly told to keep the younger kids occupied. However, I realized when I finally read the book that it also had framing sequences and stories about the family itself, so if I ever see it cheap again, I'll probably grab it. There's one story where we actually hear something about the childrens' father, and another where they are snowbound.

Writers sometimes get themselves into traps when they create a popular character. They have other ideas for other characters and stories, but people clamor for more of the popular character. Louisa May Alcott finally wished that the March family would be blown up in some cataclysm so she could escape them and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of course "killed off" Sherlock Holmes, then later "resurrected" him because of the outcry.

"Margaret Sidney" (in real life Harriet Mulford Lothrop) intended to end the Pepper saga after four books, but her readers kept clamouring for more. Despite her professed affection for "the Little Brown House" folks, it must have bored her eventually to keep filling in these minute details of life with Ben, Polly, Joel, David, and Phronsie, because the later books are full of contrary timelines, character names transferred to other characters, and other signs that Mrs. Lothrop was just writing because they'd asked her to. The Adventures of Joel Pepper (which I own) and Our Davie Pepper and Five Little Peppers in the Little Brown House (which I borrowed) cram little details in between the events that take place in Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (Little Brown House does include the two original Pepper short stories written for Wide Awake!, a late 1800s children's magazine, which engendered the first book and eventually the series). Ben Pepper appears to take place between How They Grew and Midway—except that an event that happens in Midway has already taken place in Ben Pepper.

I wonder if Lothrop ever received letters from sharp-memoried fans who wondered why the Peppers' timeline was a bit warped the way people complain of inconsistencies on television series via the internet today?

Anyway, everything you ever wanted to know about the Five Little Peppers (and probably never wanted to ask) here.

17 January 2007

"A Cracking Good Tale..."

The 7 Professors of the Far North by John Fardell.

Remember those cool kids' adventures of the 1950s and 1960s? Danny Dunn? Miss Pickerel and her junior sidekicks? The Three Investigators or the Hardy Boys or Rick Brandt or Nancy Drew when she wasn't waffling on about clothes like she does in the new books? Well, bring the format to the present, take three plucky kids (a brother and sister and a boy named Sam with an always useful Swiss Army knife), and get them involved with the kidnapping of six brilliant professors by an unbalanced and meglomaniac former colleague, then mix them with nonstop action, and you have this totally brill novel that you don't have to be a kid to enjoy.

Eleven-year-old Sam Carnabie is facing a boring vacation at his Aunt Roberta's house when his parents let him stay with their old instructor Professor Alexander Ampersand and his young wards, his orphaned niece and nephew Zara and Ben, in Edinburgh. Then one of Ampersand's colleagues shows up with the urgent message "Professor Murdo has returned to Nordbergen." Within a twinkling other colleagues arrive on the scene, then are kidnapped, leaving the kids on their own to mount a rescue.

Fast-paced action takes Sam, Ben and Zara across England, into Europe and then far to the north; meanwhile a mundane teenage girl named Marcia Slick is about to become a victim of her parents' obsessive need for perfection...

Incredible gadgets, adventures on a secret mode of transportation, despicable villains, travel in some of the most incredible vehicles ever, and engaging characters make this one not to miss.

Books Read

Finished Erik Larson's Thunderstruck. Not quite as compelling as Devil in the White City because poor abused Dr. Crippen isn't quite as fiendish as creepy homicidal Dr. Holmes. I find the Marconi parts absorbing, but then I have an interest in the creation of radio. I wish there had been more photos to show the radio apparatus, the English, U.S., and Canadian locations at that time, and the people involved.

Presently reading: 7 Professors of the Far North, which I bought and started on vacation but never finished, and Jill Churchill's Who's Sorry Now?, another in her "Grace and Favor" mysteries about brother and sister Robert and Lily Brewster, two formerly rich young people whose near starvation existance after the Depression wiped out their money is brought to an end by a bequest from their late uncle, who has promised them millions, but in the meantime they have to live at "Grace and Favor" cottage and learn how to work while uncle's financial advisor manages their money.

I've been reading these since the first because I've always had an interest in the Depression-era due to my parents having lived through it, but my favor in their grace [sorry, I went far for that one] diminishes with each new book. I've kept the others but I actually got rid of the one that had to do with the Bonus Marchers because the Bonus March took about half the book but had nothing to do with the story that was begun in the first chapter. It was as if Churchill said "Look at this disgraceful event in U.S. history; here, I'm going to describe it in detail!" just because it took place in the same era as her story.

Churchill's vocabulary and sentence structure seem to grow more simplistic with each successful volume as well. Who's Sorry Now? is full of short, choppy sentences and repeated explanations (how many times did we have to hear that Lily's dog Agatha rolled in something dead in the space of four pages?). I feel like I'm reading something meant for a reading-challenged teenager rather than an adult mystery novel.