13 July 2008

Books Read Since June 26

• Murder in Chinatown, Victoria Thompson
The latest Sarah Brandt/Frank Malloy mystery in paperback finds Sarah not trying to become involved in the case of a vanished child: a fifteen-year-old Chinese/Irish girl who disappeared after she discovered her father was planning to marry her off to a 40-ish Chinese merchant. As always, Sarah finds herself involved no matter how hard she tries to stay aloof, and the result is a tense and often disturbing story. I also found intriguing the little-known historical fact about Irish girls marrying Chinese men (since Chinese women were forbidden immigration).

• An American Album: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Harper's Magazine (anthology)
I found this massive volume on the remainder table for $5—why not? It was crammed with short stories, editorials, and nonfiction articles from Harper's from its inception in the 1850s through 2000: Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Hardy, commentary on the death of Dickens, President Clinton's impeachment, World War I and II memoirs, stories including Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter" and Mark Twain's "Extracts from Adam's Diary and Eve's Diary," an examination of the Battle of Antietam and the massacre of My Lai, depressing and rather horrifying memoirs like "Users, Like Me" (very gross scene of a baby playing with broken glass while its mother gets high) and "The Rake," about children abused by their stepfather. A panorama of the American experience, both good and bad, and absorbing historical perspective all in one volume.

• Three Bags Full, Leonie Swann
Early one morning a herd of sheep, including the clever Miss Maple, head ram Sir Ritchfield, Mopple the Whale with his prodigious memory, and other members of the flock find their shepherd George dead in their field, with a spade through his chest. As humans gather, discuss George's secrets and his life, and attempt to break into his caravan, the equally puzzled sheep try to solve the mystery of who killed him. This is an offbeat, often funny and intriguing novel in which the sheep are not cartoon animals, but simply try to figure out what happened to George as if they were real sheep with sheep thought processes, overwhelmed by grazing needs, herd memory, thoughts of food, fear of the butcher, the incomprehensibility of human behavior, and their own terrors of the mysterious wolf they fear stalks them. By the time you're done, you may want a sheep of your own.

• Her Royal Spyness, Rhys Bowen
Pure romp! It's 1932, and is the tale of Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, otherwise known as "Georgie," daughter of the late Duke of Glen Garry and Rannoch, and 34th in line for the throne of England. Her half-brother Hamish (otherwise known as "Binky") and his wife Hilda (otherwise known as "Fig") have cut off her allowance now that she's turned twenty-one and she faces either an arranged match to Prince Siegfried of Romania, whom Georgie refers to as "Fishface," or striking out on her own, which will be difficult because as a minor royal she has no idea how to support herself. Still, on a pretense, she flees to the family townhouse in London, where she visits with her loveable grandfather in Essex (her mother was a commoner), gains support from her old school companion Belinda Warburton-Stoke, and meets equally impoverished—and devastatingly handsome—Irish peer Darcy O'Mara. Then suddenly there's the matter of the strange Frenchman who claims to have the deed to the family estate and is found dead in Georgie's bathtub... Just fun all around, with delightful characters...if the mystery's light, who cares?

• Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver
My grandfather, my dad's father, used to claim I wasn't really Italian: I didn't like pepper, or red wine, and especially gardening, since every Italian family we knew had some sort of small vegetable garden somewhere in their backyard. Dirt and sun and worms and I just never got along. However, this doesn't keep me from enjoying reading nonfiction about people who have farms, and I truly enjoyed this narrative about the author's family's effort to live for one year on a Virginia farm, only eating whatever they could grow or raise on their property or buy locally (although I still can't understand all the excitement about eating vegetables...LOL). Each chapter is highlighted by a sidebar written by Kingsolver's teenage daughter, who places a younger perspective on the family's search for self-sufficiency. There are some interesting recipes included, and some very humorous chapters about the younger daughter's chicken-raising operation and their turkey-breeding efforts.

• Re-read: The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright
Books about animals were my delight as a kid, so I didn't read any of Enright's Melendy family books until I was an adult. Now I'm enjoying them, as much for the period details (the books were written, except for the last, during World War II, so scrap drives and Victory Gardens pepper the narratives) as for the adventures of the four children: Mona, almost fourteen, future actress; Rush, twelve, aspiring pianist and engineer; Miranda, known as Randy, ten, into art and dance, and six-year-old Oliver, who loves bugs, dirt, and toy soldiers, like any boy of that age at that time. In this first of four novels, the children pool their allowances so that each Saturday one of them in turn will be allowed a fantastic excursion: Randy goes to an art exhibit for the first adventure and befriends Mrs. Oliphant, an elderly widow whom previously the children thought was boring, Rush goes to the opera and finds a surprise on his way home, and Mona...oh, Mona does something shocking—at least for a thirteen-year-old in 1941! The kids are normal kids, not prigs, the adventures are fun...highly recommended for whatever age!

• Re-read: The Four-Story Mistake, Elizabeth Enright
The Melendys are moving, lock, stock and their beloved housekeeper Cuffy and handyman Willie Sloper, to a house in the country nicknamed "the Four-Story Mistake." It's an eventful year, in which Randy learns to ride a bike and makes more friends in town, Mona finds a career in radio, Rush builds a tree house and gives music lessons...and that's only a few of the things the Melendy children do in their first nine months in their new home. Simply fun from first page to last.

• The Joys of Love, Madeleine L'Engle
This formerly unpublished young adult novel recently released by L'Engle's granddaughters is the story of Elizabeth Jerrold, an orphan being raised by her straitlaced Aunt Harriet, who has been lucky enough to get an apprentice job with a small theatre group in New York for the summer. Along with helping out in the troupe's cafeteria, typing and running errands for the theatre owner, and practicing small parts with her fellow apprentices and other members of the troupe, Elizabeth, tall and coltish, has fallen head-over-heels in love with the company's Swedish director, who seems to be responding in kind. But four days in midsummer will completely change everything: the way she thinks of her fellow actors, the profession, of the actress she idolizes, and even the man she loves. I don't find this the best of L'Engle's stories, but it's a welcome addition to her body of work, and interestingly, since L'Engle has always intertwined her characters from one book to others, she mentions Ilsa Woolf, the heroine of her most difficult-to-find novel, Ilsa, in her story of Elizabeth as the woman who nurses Elizabeth's late mother through her last illness.

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