18 January 2009

Books Read Since January 10

• American Road, Pete Davies
Today when we complain about bad roads, we're probably thinking of a pot-hole-pocked asphalt mess after the winter or, at the worst, that bumpy dirt road leading to a vacation cabin. But 90 years ago, despite burgeoning automobile sales, the road situation in the United States was dire. Only large cities had paved roads, and what lay between cities and towns were dirt trails that became a muddy morass when it rained. It was common for both automobiles and horse-drawn vehicles to become stuck, sometimes up to their wheel hubs, in this "gumbo."

In 1919, a military caravan composed of early trucks and other motor vehicles drove cross-country from Washington, DC to San Francisco, California, to publicize the Lincoln Highway project. Due to the state of the roads, the trip was fraught with exhaustion and frustration, despite the parties thrown for the participants in the cities in which they camped. One of the military officers along on this ordeal was a young World War I veteran who was thinking of resigning his commission and who, with a buddy, played practical jokes on members of the caravan. He'd later become famous in World War II: Dwight David Eisenhower.

Having made two cross-country trips in the days of the interstate (which, of course, Eisenhower initiated), I found this a fascinating book about the difficulty of cross-country travel in the early 1900s, a chronicle of the construction of the Lincoln Highway and what existed before it, of the men who thought up the project, and the men who endured the drive.

• Eden's Outcasts, John Matteson
He was a man with educational ideas before his time, a man who could tend a garden and discuss Plato, a friend of notables like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, a vegetarian in an era when meat was considered the best food for you, but a flawed man who believed fair-haired people were the most highly chosen and who often let his family go hungry while he tended to his ideals. He was Amos Bronson Alcott, who became the father of one of American literature's most famous writers, Louisa May Alcott. Unlike her placid father, Louisa was headstrong and tempestuous, but the two became bound together as they grew older. A must for Louisa May Alcott fans, even if you, like me, wants to grab Bronson by his collar occasionally and shake some good sense into him.

• Reserved for the Cat, Mercedes Lackey
The fifth in Lackey's "Elemental Masters" series (unless you count The Fire Rose, which preceded that series), in which characters in a Victorian/Edwardian alternate earth where magic exists; the stories are retakes on classic fairy tales. This version of "Puss in Boots" involves Ninette Dupond, an impoverished Parisian ballerina whose brief turn as featured dancer gets her fired after her rave reviews enrage the reigning ballerina. Not knowing where her next meal will come from, Ninette is astonished when a scrawny tomcat starts talking to her in her mind and starts her off on a journey to England, where she will pretend to be a shipwrecked Russian ballerina and get a position at a music hall in Blackpool.

Neither Ninette nor Thomas the cat realizes that the real ballerina will eventually discover that Ninette has stolen her name, and that the woman has been taken over by evil and will do anything to destroy Ninette.

This is a bit of a lesser effort next to Lackey's early "Elemental Masters" books, but fun enough, and the characters are engaging, if not unforgettable.

• Wesley the Owl, Stacey O'Brien
When Stacey O'Brien, a biologist at CalTech, is given the opportunity to raise and observe an injured barn owl, she finds her life not only enriched by knowledge, but by love for the wild bird who has become her family. While this book will occasionally make you cry, O'Brien's often laugh-aloud funny observations of life with an owl is a joy to read—although, even as a bird lover, I still don't know how she got through the feedings! (Warning: the nature of Wesley's diet can be a bit...well, icky.) My favorite bits, however, have to be when Wesley...um, enters puberty, since I had a budgie that exhibited similar behavior, and the chapter where her colleagues at CalTech question her about certain of Wesley's vocalizations is hilarious.

• Re-read: The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgsen Burnett
After re-watching MGM's rather gothic-touched treatment of this classic novel, I retreated to the well-thumbed pages of my Tasha Tudor-illustrated edition for a happy reunion with the moorland setting that helps change a bossy, unlovable little girl who was born in India and a sickly, hypochondriac boy kept hidden in Misselthwaite Manor into two loving, generous, healthy youngsters, with the help of a countrified Yorkshire maid and her animal-loving brother, and the beautiful, hidden garden that young Mary Lennox rediscovers. Delightful from first page to last, no matter what age you are.

• A Drowned Maiden's Hair, Laura Amy Schlitz
Maud Mary Flynn is the worst-behaved orphan at the all-girls Barbary Orphanage, a young cynic who was left behind when her older brother and baby sister were adopted by a farming family. Despite her rebellious nature, she is hungry for love, and when two elderly sisters arrive at the orphanage looking for a little girl and choose her to come with them and be their "secret child," Maud will do and say anything to stay with honey-voiced Hyacinth Hawthorne, who looks like she will give Maud the love she needs—as long as Maud does what she says. But as Hyacinth explains the nature of what she desires from Maud, and as Maud befriends the lame housemaid that Hyacinth scornfully nicknamed "Muffet" because she is afraid of spiders, the basically good-at-heart child begins to wonder if being loved is worth the deceit she will need to perpetrate.

This is an absolutely absorbing young adult novel taking place in the early 1900s, with a gripping plot and unforgettable characters. I remember seeing this when it first was published and noting that it sounded intriguing; when I found it on remainder I was delighted. It completely fulfilled my interest in it. Highly recommended.

09 January 2009

Books Read Since November 16

No, I didn't read fewer books during this period. :-) It's just that during the holiday season I read Christmas books and magazines. The books were reviewed in Holiday Harbour.

• A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving, Godfrey Hodgson
If you have read Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower, you will find this volume redundant; however, if you are looking for a readable narrative about the "Pilgrims," their beliefs, their sojourn in Holland, and then their voyage and survival in the New World, this one will fit the bill. Detractors complain that it doesn't tell as much as Mayflower, but it doesn't claim to.

• Stories to Live By, edited by Marjorie Vetter
What a cool find!—these are growing-up stories for girls published in the 1940s and 1950s in the Girl Scout magazine, American Girl. I had AG in the early 1970s, when the stories became funky and full of 60s twaddle; these go in the other direction and sometimes feel quaint because of the stereotypes about girls in them. On the other hand, subjects still of concern today, such as being overweight or peer pressure, are covered, and by well-known authors like Betty Cavanna. I really enjoyed reading this one and "traveling back in time."

• Crusader Nation: The United States in Peace and the Great War, David Traxel
This was one of my finds at the Book Warehouse in Pigeon Forge; since this is my sphere of American history interest, I found it enjoyable indeed. Traxel writes in an uncomplicated, but not simplistic style about the United States' efforts to be a peacekeeper and innovator, until the "Great War" changed the country's isolationism. To my pleasure, there was plenty of material about my favorite president, Theodore Roosevelt. Traxel covers not only political, but social innovations. Well worth your time if you are a United States history buff.

• The Mark of the Lion and Stalking Ivory, Suzanne Arruda
I found Stalking Ivory in the bargain bin at Borders, and therefore started the Jade del Cameron series from the middle. I loved the 1920s East Africa setting, but there was something about the prose that bothered me. Finally I went back and found a cheap copy of the first book, Mark of the Lion.

Jade del Cameron, a young American woman of part Spanish descent (she was raised on a ranch in New Mexico), is driving an ambulance during World War I when her fiancé David Worthy is shot down during a dogfight. With his dying breaths he gives her a ring and begs her to find his brother in Africa. But Jade remembers that David once told her he was an only child.

After kicking off the plot in the first chapter, the remainder of the book takes place in East Africa, where Jade searches for David's mysterious brother. In the course of the story, she meets an English couple working a coffee plantation, whose wife will immortalize Jade in a series of romance novels.

Jade, as in most of these mystery-adventure novels, is a woman before her time: independent, free thinking, not ready to be encumbered by marriage—and of course good-looking, with raven-dark hair. The first novel is a cracking good adventure story, but I think I had trouble with the sequel Stalking Ivory because it was straying into romance novel territory, especially with the appearance of the handsome young American former pilot Sam Featherstone. Jade seems to change in Ivory, too; she becomes more of a conservationist...not sure if this is a natural progression because of what she has seen in East Africa or because the author chose to make her more "environmentally friendly."

I have to admit that in the end I enjoyed both books, but I think Mark of the Lion was the stronger.

• No Rest for the Wiccan, Madelyn Alt
This is the fourth in a series of "bewitching mysteries" about Maggie O'Neill, who works at Enchantments, a New Age gift shop run by a witch. Maggie has been discovering her own empathic powers and is coming to terms with herself, if having trouble deciding between the two men in her life, the practical policeman and one of her employer's "witchy" cohorts, a free-spirit biker type. Then her "perfect" sister Mel becomes bedridden and in the course of caring for her, Maggie discovers an evil spirit in the home. But it's nothing to what happens after a local feed mill owner is threatened and then dies of an apparent suicide.

If you enjoy themed cozy mysteries, you might enjoy the Alt books. I like the characters, even if they often don't seem real—except for Maggie's sister. Little Miss Perfect I want to slap. :-)

• Foundation, Mercedes Lackey
Mercedes Lackey returns to her Valdemar universe after a five-year absences. While Foundation, set at the time that Herald's Collegium is being built (and being fussed about by older Heralds who think the old way of instructing novices one-on-one is fine), isn't terrible, it does read a bit like a young-adult novel rather than a tale for adults. And there is the usual plot: adolescent, badly treated (in this case, the boy protagonist Mags is a mine slave, so it's more serious than usual), is Chosen and finds happiness, but also finds challenges in the form of evil intentions by outsiders. In this case the "evil" comes late in the novel and is just a setup for the remainder of the trilogy, so nothing really earth-shaking happens. Still, it's another new Valdemar novel, and hopefully something a bit more exciting will occur in the sequels.