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.)

No comments: