31 March 2009

Books Read Since March 7

• Rhett Butler's People, Donald McCaig
When you read a book written by an author who has won acclaim for a Civil War novel and who has written other highly-acclaimed books, and that particular author was chosen by the estate of a well-known writer to continue the saga, you expect a lot.

This book ain't it.

I didn't expect Margaret Mitchell's style; that was so unique and descriptive it would be hard to live up to. But McCaig's prose is so spare it's numbing. Did he even read Gone With the Wind? The quotes from the novel aren't even accurate and he has Rhett actually seeing Scarlett for the first time earlier than the barbecue at Twelve Oaks. The story with Rhett's sister Rosemary parallels the story of Rhett and Bonnie Blue. Oh, yeah, and Rhett was an early pioneer in race relations and even had close friends who were black. Ho hum.

However, this novel has one thing going for it, especially if you are even slightly knowledgeable of horses: there's a wonderful scene where Rhett rides an "11-hand black stallion." Er...and this came out of a supposed Civil War expert? The horse Rhett is riding is then 44 inches at the shoulder. Anything under 14 hands is a pony. This gaffe should keep you laughing for weeks. Certainly it's the only pleasure that will come out of this mess.

• Clues in the Shadows: A Molly Mystery, Kathleen Ernst
• The Cry of the Loon: A Samantha Mystery, Barbara Steiner
• Lady Margaret's Ghost: A Felicity Mystery, Elizabeth McDavid Jones
These are three of the four newest "American girl" mysteries. Some of the previous novels have been quite smart, but I detected an air of tiredness about these three entries. The solution of the Molly mystery seemed to be just tossed in; most of the books was a lecture about post-traumatic stress syndrome. It also used the old plot device of the family members acting so nice that the person being accommodated feels uneasy. The Samantha story is pretty much a different retelling of an earlier Samantha mystery The Curse of Ravenscroft. As for the painter's identity, wasn't that just a bit convenient? The Felicity title turns out to be a partial red herring, as the majority of the mystery is about something else altogether. And one of the characters is a red-headed orphan named Anne who is treated badly by her employers? Oh, dear. It also bothered me that the books are starting to take on the aspects of the television movies about these characters, rather than the original books. For instance, Molly talks about dancing in the Miss Victory pageant. Um, she didn't, at least in the books.

• Before Green Gables, Budge Wilson
I asked in my Rhett Butler's People review if McCaig actually read the book. It's obvious that Budge Wilson hasn't read any of the Anne of Green Gables books as in the afterward she thanks people for finding supporting documentation in the books for her. Where Wilson attempts to explain things like where Anne got her love of words and how she learned so many large ones when she had inadequate schooling, she almost explains too much. For instance, Anne always insists her name be spelt with an "e" at the end. According to Wilson, this apparently was something her father used to say which was passed on to Anne from the woman who kept house for her parents and later cared for her, and throughout the book Anne is proud of her name spelt with an "e." But, if you've read the original book, Anne really didn't like her name, remember? She wanted Marilla to call her "Cordelia." She only resigned herself to being "Anne" if it could be spelt with the "e" at the end which looked more elegant to her.

Wilson tries to excuse all the adults who have been cruel to Anne in her childhood. Drunken Mr. Thomas has just lost all his dreams and is pathetic. Mrs. Hammond of the three sets of twins is just suffering from postpartum depression. The woman that runs the orphanage was just brought up very strictly. And what about all the people Anne befriends? Does no one, like the friendly schoolmarm or the embittered schoolmaster (changed by his exposure to Anne's positive nature) or the midwife ever think to rescue her from her grinding life?

The language of the tale also bothered me. Montgomery wrote in an 19th-century style that did not talk down to children (in fact, Anne of Green Gables was not written as a children's book), yet thousands of children have enjoyed it. Wilson seems to try to make adjustments so that elementary school children can understand the story and the resulting prose is choppy, with short sentences and easy-to-understand vocabulary. I didn't hate this book—interesting take on Anne's past—but it was ultimately disappointing.

• Little Women Abroad, ed. by Daniel Shealy
Although her literary alter ego Jo March never went to Europe, Louisa May Alcott made two trips to the continent, one as a companion (where she met the young Polish pianist who inspired "Laurie") and once, chronicled in this book, with her youngest sister May (the inspiration for Amy) and a friend, Alice. Louisa was still debilitated from the effects of calomel given to her while nursing soldiers in the Civil War, and the sisters and friends flitted from one warm or historical site to another, improving Louisa's health and giving May the exposure to art she desired. Both women wrote dozens of letters home to their parents and to their sister Anna, and although most of the originals have not survived, Bronson Alcott had the foresight to copy most of the letters, which are collected into this volume along with many of May Alcott's drawings of the landscapes, buildings, and people that they encountered along the way. This is fascinating reading of "the Grand Tour" of Europe in the late 19th century, as Louisa and her companions ride rickety wagons over the mountains and May Alcott visits the famous St. Bernard Hospice, and they encounter difficulties engendered by the Franco-Prussian War. Copiously footnoted.

• Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson
Want to brush up your Shakespeare? This a brief but enjoyable volume about the essentials of Shakespeare: the meager facts that are known about his life, the sources of his plays, the phrases and words he seemingly created out of thin air, the different versions of his folios (and the amazing fact that his plays survived when most of the famous ones of the era vanished), and other tidbits about the Bard told in Bryson's entertaining fashion.

• The War That Made America, Fred Anderson
In his more ambitious work, The Crucible of War, cited in the Morgan book below, Fred Anderson commented that most people today think of the French and Indian War as a minor event in colonial American history. Wow. What are they teaching in history class these days? Events from this war, also known as the Seven Years' War, prompted the American Revolution. Anderson focuses on the personalities of the war, including testing and training of young George Washington, and also the dehumanization of the Native tribes, plus touches on the Acadians exile.

• The Name of War, Jill Lepore
This is a rather odd book about King Philip's War, which ended the relationship so tentatively set up after the landing of the "Pilgrims" in Massachusetts. Their tenuous relationship with the different native tribes in the area deteriorates until the son of Massasoit who befriended them, Metacom, also known by the English name of Philip, leads a rebellion against the "civilized" English. Lepore includes actual testimony from settlers' journals, including Mary Rowland's best-selling narrative of captivity, as well as a play written in the 1800s to portray the changing attitude to the tribes involved and Philip himself.

• The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl
What if 19th century writers Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes, along with publisher James T. Fields, became involved in a mystery? The gentlemen, who have formed a "Dante Club" while Longfellow is translating The Divine Comedy, slowly become aware that recent Boston deaths are emulating the gruesome punishments in Dante's nine circles of Hell. Also investigating the brutal crimes is the first African-American police officer in Boston, Nicholas Rey. In the meantime, the Commission that runs Harvard is attempting to bar Lowell from teaching Dante, and indeed trying to get a translation of Dante quashed once and for all.

I found this a page-turner with all sorts of delightful insights into the writers portrayed, but be advised that Pearl has attempted to emulate the verbose style of 19th-century prose; the text contains multiple descriptions, literary allusions, Boston history, portraits of the writers and their families, and minute details of life in that era. It will not be for all tastes.

• A Royal Pain, Rhys Bowen
Bowen has her cozy village-set Constable Evans and her feisty Molly Murphy in turn-of-the-century New York City—and then there is "Georgie." Second cousin to King George V and thirty-fourth in line for the throne, Georgie has been left high and dry by her older brother Binky after their father has lost all their money. She has no employable skills and can either marry "Fishface," a German prince, or become a companion to an elderly cousin—or continue what she is doing, living in the family townhouse and attempting to earn money by valeting stately homes, until Queen Mary asks that she escort a visiting German princess whom she hopes will lure her oldest son (the future Edward VIII) away from the "villainous" Wallis Simpson. Saddled with a kleptomaniac princess who learned English from American gangster films, her snobbish escort and grim maid, Georgie does what she does best: stumble headlong into mystery. The "Royal Spyness" stories are strictly for laughs—enjoy!

• Execution Dock, Anne Perry
In this newest Willam Monk mystery, Monk is trying to convict a loathsome man named Jericho Phillips, who takes poor young boys from the street and confines them to a barge on the river, keeping them fed and warm in exchange for performing sexual acts in front of and with wealthy young men and posing for pornographic photos. Unfortunately, as a favor to his father-in-law, barrister Oliver Rathbone, a friend to both Monk and his wife Hester, defends Phillips so skilfully that he escapes prosecution in the murder of a teenage boy. Angry at having been outmaneuvered, Monk swears to catch Phillips at some other crime to keep him from plying his trade. But in the course of the investigation, Monk finds out that his predecessor may not have been the honest man he seemed—and that his enemy will do anything to succeed, include ruining Monk's name. This is a great entry in the series, with slowly mounting tension. My only complaint: the story just suddenly ends and I wasn't sure how the coup de grace happened.

• The Genuine Article, Edmund S. Morgan
I picked this one off the bargain book table because it was labeled as "essays about early American history." What I didn't realize is they were actually essays based on published history books; basically reviews and the author's thoughts on the subject. Still, most of the essays were quite interesting and this was what prompted me to get the books about the French and Indian War and King Philip's War out of the library. The author writes intelligently, but doesn't get bogged down in a lot of academic blather.

• The Portable Italian Mamma, Luara Mosiello and Susan Reynolds
::giggle::snort::chortle::giggle:: This compact little humor book subtitled "Guilt, Pasta, and When Are You Going to Give Me Grandchildren" has it spot-on, although there's a dismaying reliance on Italian celebrities and ... sigh ... The Sopranos. What happened to the annual church feasts? (I know New York has 'em.) Picnics complete with food cooked at home and eaten off of plates that Mamma has to wash when she gets home? More about Italian mammas/nonnas/aunts from the kids' point of view? I could tell you stories...oh, wait, I already have! LOL. (Also recommended: Rick Detorie's (of the comic strip "One Big Happy") How to Survive an Italian Family.)

30 March 2009

College Life Never Changes

Elizabeth Wales doesn't think college is the best solution in life. She's an average student and not particularly fond of studies. But her older sister loved college and thinks it would be perfect for her. So off goes the reluctant student, to be confronted with the realities of campus life, cliques, supercilious upperclassmen, and even duplicitous classmates, and learns more than she wants to about coverups, plagarism, and false friends. But along the way she also develops close companions, a talent for leadership, and even discovers she likes certain sports.

If her college years don't sound much different from yours, consider that Betty Wales "went to college" over 100 years ago, via the pen of Margaret Warde. You can read all Betty's adventures on www.archive.org.

Oh, the "flip book" format is neat; using your mouse, you can turn the page like a real book. I've included the PDF link in case the flip doesn't work on a certain browser.

To view college life in 1907 and life through 1917:

Betty Wales, Freshman: "flip book" or PDF file

Betty Wales, Sophomore: "flip book" or PDF file

Betty Wales, Junior: "flip book" or PDF file

Betty Wales, Senior: "flip book" or PDF file

Betty Wales, B.A.: "flip book" or PDF file

Betty Wales & Co.: "flip book" or PDF file

Betty Wales on the Campus: "flip book" or PDF file

Betty Wales Decides: "flip book" or PDF file

06 March 2009

Books Read Since February 11

• The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, Lauren Willig
The fifth entry in Willig's "Pink Carnation" series finds her modern heroine, graduate student Eloise Kelly, getting on swimmingly with her new beau Colin—if she can ignore the references to "spies" that have been leveled at him by a jealous old girlfriend. Could Colin be following in the footsteps of his ancestor Richard Selwick, the "Purple Gentian"? The Napoleonic flashbacks in this entry are more about perceptions of the world and oneself than the previous romance-novel complications as Robert Lansdowne returns to England to right a wrong and finds himself falling in love with his bookish cousin Charlotte (close friend to Henrietta Selkirk Dorrington), whose idea of love is full of more fantasy than reality. Those longing for flaming sexual tension will have to look elsewhere; Robert and Charlotte are a charming couple, but their courtship is strictly low-key. However, the story about King George's possible lapse into another fit of madness and Robert's involvement with a creepy "Hellfire Club" will keep the pages turning. These books are all fun, but I felt real kinship with Charlotte despite her naiveté.

• Quoth the Maven and Spread the Word, William Safire
The usual entries in Safire's collections from his "On Language" column. If you're interested in the use of words, the misuse of words, and other lexicological matters, these volumes are a continuation of a good thing. My favorite part of all of these books are the responses Safire includes with the entries, pointing out his own errors or arguing usage with him. Some of them are very funny and come from familiar sources, such as Alistair Cooke.

• Raisins and Almonds and Murder in Montparnasse, Kerry Greenwood
Dani has chatted so much about the Phryne [pronounced "Fry-nee"] Fisher mysteries in her book blog that I was quite eager to try one or two. Sadly, the Cobb County library system has only three of the series (which numbers around eighteen now) and none of those the first book. So I tried these two, numbers #9 and #12 respectively. Since I didn't read the first story, I have had to glean knowledge of Phryne's history: apparently she was brought up in a hardscrabble Melbourne, Australian household, then inherited money from distant family in England. Now she lives in Melbourne again, comfortably rich, a free-spirited flapper with servants, two wards (girls she rescued from squalid conditions), a secretary, a police contact, an exotic Hispano-Suiza motorcar, and a Chinese lover. She operates as an inquiry agent/detective, drove an ambulance during World War I, and, oh yeah, has an active sex life.

Phryne is an intriguing character surrounded by a stable of other interesting supporting characters. The books are great fun. Raisins and Almonds involves a mystery in the Jewish community while Murder in Montparnasse reunites Phryne with an acquaintance from her postwar years. However, I did get a bit tired of the description of Phryne as a "Dutch doll" (do most modern readers even know what this means?) and I guess I'm a prude, but it bothered me that Phryne is continuing to be someone's lover after he's married, even if it is an arranged marriage and the future wife doesn't mind. YMMV.

• Among the Mad, Jacqueline Winspear
Sixth in Winspear's series about Maisie Dobbs, private investigator and psychologist, whose cases usually involve some form of aftermath from World War I. Following an incident involving a war veteran on Christmas Eve 1931, Maisie's name is mentioned in a note to the Prime Minister threatening great loss of life. She is cleared by the police, but is drawn into the investigation as mysterious events begin to happen, like the hideous death of some stray dogs, as the mysterious correspondent insists something be done for war veterans. In the meantime, she also tries to help Doreen Beale, wife of her assistant Billy, who has sunken into debilitating depression after the death of her child.

This is quite a chilling novel as the suspense is notched up chapter by chapter and a madman's plot is slowly exposed. If the mystery itself isn't creepy enough, Doreen's treatment in a psychiatric hospital will certainly make you glad you live in this century and not the last.

And...sigh...as excited as I was about the Astaire/Rogers mystery, I gave up on it not even halfway through. It was about communists and the murder of a Russian, lots of Sol Hurok malapropping his way through conversations, and name-dropping. I may not have been in the mood.

04 March 2009

Return of the Headless Horse

In checking out the comments to my post Hail to the Headless Horse! about Paul Berna's 100 Million Francs, otherwise known as The Horse Without a Head, you will see that I made the astonishing discovery that there was a sequel to that novel.

In fact, if the list of information given in this great review of The Horse Without a Head is correct, there are three sequels to the original! The reviewer on "Freaky Trigger" briefly discusses the plot of the second book, which takes place two years later. I found this plot description of The Mystery of Saint-Salgue on e-Bay (cover picture here): "Gaby and his gang of friends have acquired a racketty old Citroen which holds all ten of them as well as eleven stray dogs. In it they set off for a camping holiday in the South of France. During the first night out they meet two strangers from Canada who charm them with talk about a village called Saint-Salgue from which the Canadians believe their home in the prairie took its name. The gang soon realises that the name Saint-Salgue has a mysterious significance not only for their new-found friends but also for two unfriendly characters who are trailing their van." I have not found any information about the fourth book.

• A Hundred Million Francs (Le Cheval sans tête), 1955
• The Street Musician (Le Piano à bretelle), 1956
• The Mystery of Saint Salgue (La Piste du souvenir), 1962
• Gaby and the New Money Fraud, 1971

There also appears to be at least two books about Inspector Sinet, the police officer who helps the children in Horse Without a Head:

• The Mule on the Motorway aka The Mule on the Espressway (Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère de l'autoroute du sud), 1967
• A Truckload of Rice (Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère des poissons rouges), 1968

Anyway, majorly cool!