12 May 2008

Books Read Since April 24

• Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen
This book really should have another post. I've wanted to read this for years, but just in paging through it I realized the author had an agenda. I didn't know if I wanted to pay full price for "agenda." However, bargain table was more reasonable (it was remaindered because Mr. Loewen has a new edition out).

Despite the agenda, which is more fully realized in the final chapters, I found the book interesting, even though as a history buff I didn't learn too much that I didn't already know. What surprises me is that I learned history in the moldy-oldy 60s pre-Vietnam protests and I was quite surprised that the texts hadn't changed all that much, according to Loewen. But then I know the textbook lobby is quite powerful—look at the recent flap about creation science.

Loewen declares that schoolchildren find history boring and I can remember why: at times it seemed to be an endless parade of names, dates and events. Not many students besides myself were interested enough to do the further reading I did, which brought out the interesting bits behind the data: the people, the times, the social climate. Luckily, I had several history teachers who strove to keep it from descending into an endless blur of facts and tried to put faces and personalities on the two-dimensional figures as they raced along with the weeks of the semesters. There are also times Loewen downright flabbergasts me: in one chapter about history teachers themselves he mentions that an older teacher is surprised when he tells her that the story of George Washington and the cherry tree isn't true—a teacher in the 1990s still believes that old chestnut? Way back in elementary school we were told that legend with the implicit instruction that IT WAS NOT TRUE. My teachers then were all in their 50s. Surely this teacher he mentions was not typical?

I have several quibbles about his tendency to wander off on tangents while talking school history textbooks and teachers. Sometimes he talks about "social studies" and "history" as being the same thing, and, unless things have changed since the late 60s and early 70s when I had these subjects, they are not. Frankly, "social studies" as it was taught in elementary school was a damned bore. We happened to get new social studies books in sixth grade and, instead of the old-fashioned early 1950s geography books they replaced, with their interesting chatter about the areas of the world and of the United States and how the climates and land topography influenced how people worked and lived, the social studies books were endless litanies of country names, populations, and statements of gross national products. They looked like yearly stock reports from a large corporation rather than showing children the interesting and changing world outside their boundaries. I remember being so glad to get to real history when we entered junior high to get away from the remarkable ennui of "social studies."

The one thing I remember from this book among all the things that Loewen points out is that he hates Gone With the Wind. I mean, it really stands out, and what I don't get is why it's there so often. In one chapter, Loewen does talk about enriching history texts with good, well-written historical fiction. I can see GWTW entering his text there, but why is it referred to so often in other chapters? In one paragraph in the chapter about the causes of the Civil War, he goes off on an extended diatribe about how it is amazing that it is still a best seller despite its racist attitude. Eh? Gone With the Wind is a novel. Not only that, it's a novel that was written in the 1930s by a Southerner brought up on old tales of the "brave knights and fair ladies" of the Confederacy. He later mentions 1930s textbooks that are also racist, but says it is understandable since they are products of their time. GWTW is also a product of its time. And, again, it's a novel, not a textbook, so why is it here? No one reads GWTW as a textbook, nor do they (at least I hope!) take its racist text about "childish darkies" as legitimate history. People read GWTW because it tells a good story, not because we agree with its racial or social philosophies. It's an epic fiction about a spoiled young woman who matures due to conflict but who clings to a silly dream that ruins her life, not a legitimate history.

• The Medical Science of House, M.D., Andrew Holtz
Another grab from the remainder pile. Boil this down and it's "a real Gregory House would be fired" and "a lot of it is TV." (Like "Where are all the nurses on House?) Procedures in diagnosing a patient complaint is covered and the skinny behind some of the rare diseases House treats is also offered. Enjoyable, but not essential.

• Lord of the Nutcracker Men, Iain Lawrence
Ten-year-old Johnny's father, a London toymaker, volunteers to join the army when World War I breaks out. Before he leaves for training and then the front, he gives Johnny a set of soldiers from his toyshop. When Johnny's mother goes to work in a munitions plant, she sends him to the country to live with his strict aunt. In the garden behind his aunt's home, Johnny fights endless battles in homemade trenches with his toy soldiers, including the ones his father carves and sends him weekly in letters. The figures grow more realistic the longer his father is at war and Johnny comes to believe that his actions on his fictional battlefield somehow presage his father's fate. Lawrence brings the uncomprehending mind of a child to light in this novel that is simple enough for a "tween" to understand but holds truths about the realities of war.

• Dearest Friend, Lynne Withey
A very readable biography of Abigail Adams, although I found everyone at arm's length.

• Hummingbirds: My Tiny Treasures. Arnette Heidcamp
Three books: A Hummingbird in My House, Rosie: My Rufous Hummingbird, Hummingbirds: My Winter Guests
Arnette Heidcamp became known in her area as "Hummingbird 911" as she learned to observe and then care for injured and late migrating hummingbirds, starting with "Squeak," the "hero" of A Hummingbird in My House, who spends the winter on Heidcamp's specially outfitted sunporch. If you are a bird lover, you should enjoy these tales, complete with full color photos.

• The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood, Susan Wittig Albert
The third in Albert's fantasy/cozy mysteries involving Beatrix Potter and her life in the village of Sawrey after she buys a small farm. In this outing, Beatrix is still shuttling back and forth to London due to the demands of her overbearing parents, but finally has come to relax a few weeks at Hill Top Farm when one of the local landowners, a war veteran, suddenly marries, to the villagers' astonishment and gossip, a actress. Into the mix come three schoolchildren searching for fairies and the usual animal subplot, this time having to do with a rat invasion at Hill Top. Those looking for thrills and mayhem may go elsewhere; this a leisurely cozy.

• The Thief Taker, Janet Gleeson
It is late 19th century London. Widow Agnes Meadowes has worked for many years as the head cook in an upper middle class household of silversmiths to support her little boy who lives with a friend. At the same time that she finds out her friend cannot care for young Peter any longer, an expensive "bespoke" piece that her masters have been working on for a local nobleman is stolen, an apprentice is killed, and one of the housemaids disappears. Her employers enlist Agnes' help in recovering the piece and speaking to the "thief taker" they hope will find the miscreant, but Agnes' own passion about the theft, the missing girl, and the fate of her son draw her into the dangerous underworld of London. Another remainder find, this book was quite enjoyable, despite and with its unsanitized view of the hazards of household service and criminal machinations.

• Little Heathens, Mildred Armstrong Kalish
Kalish's simply written, yet absorbing memoir of growing up on the farm during the Depression. There are no revelations, just a look back at the chores, pranks, and other day-to-day living in an era when picking berries was a treat, the weekly wash took all day and many hands, everything from clothing to furniture was recycled, kids made their own fun (and sometimes nearly got killed doing it), and working hard was rewarded with a roof over one's head and three square meals. Many old-time farm feast recipes are included.

• Tumbling Blocks, Earlene Fowler
The latest in Fowler's Benni Harper Ortiz novels, it's Christmas in San Celina and while Benni prepares for a special art exhibit at the museum she works for, she also scrambles to get ready for the visit of her mother-in-law. Surprise! mom shows up with a new husband, which causes even more contention between Gabe Ortiz and his mom. I know Gabe had it tough after his father died and he and Benni are still suffering repercussions from the events of the previous book, but I think I'm a bit in agreement with the reviewers on Amazon.com who say they are tired of Gabe's moody tantrums.

08 May 2008

Successful Searches

I took some time at lunch today to do some book searching on Amazon Marketplace and was pleasantly pleased. I had a list of three books I was looking for and found them all for less than $20 (that's with postage). One was Gladys Taber's Harvest of Yesterdays: My Life Before Stillmeadow, which will fill in the gaps between Especially Father and Harvest at Stillmeadow, the first Stillmeadow book. Another was the Christmas book I found at the library last fall, Jack Newcombe's New Christmas Treasury. The copy I found was only 27¢! The third book I was looking for, Christmas From the Heart of the Home by Susan Branch, I actually found on Barnes & Noble's equivalent to Amazon Marketplace.

Despite having a 30 percent off coupon to Borders, I took the opportunity to order America 1908 from Amazon Marketplace as well. I found it for a price that would basically be equivalent to having a 30 percent off coupon when the paperback comes out next fall.

While I was searching I thought about other books I had not been able to find and went searching for Mary Ann Madden's Son of Giant Sea Tortoise. The title needs explaining, I'm sure. :-)

Many, many years ago, when I was in high school, I was in the Woolworths at Garden City Shopping Center and, in a rack of remainder books, found a book called Thank You for the Giant Sea Tortoise, edited by Mary Ann Madden. Apparently New York magazine (not The New Yorker) used to—or maybe they still do—would host these clever little contests in each issue. Sometimes it was asking for clever anagrams, or creative casts and/or titles for movies (Henry Fonda in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or Michael York and Burt Lancaster in The War of the Roses, for example), or appropriate names for products ("Kiddy Foil" and "Ova Kill" for contraceptives), but as I read through the book (of course I bought it; it was only a quarter) my favorites became the contests in which they asked people to write something.

Some of these were (1) a composition written about a pet by a celebrity at age eight, (2) epitaphs for the famous, (3) various prose items in the style of a famous writer (for instance, a weather report by A.A. Milne or Shakespeare or a letter of resignation by Dr. Seuss, in rhyme, of course), (4) typical final dialog from two different movie genres, etc. These entries were always by far the funniest and also showed brilliant cleverness on the part of the person who entered.

Thank You for the Giant Sea Tortoise, incidentally, came from the contest "unseemly greeting cards for unlikely occasions." Over ten years later I found another book in the series, Maybe He's Dead, so today I searched about and found out there was a third book (actually the second of the three), called Son of Giant Sea Tortoise. How could I resist?