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.