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.

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