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.