31 May 2009

Books Finished Since May 1

• St. Nicholas, 1898, Volume 1, November 1897-April 1898
Some good articles that explain how people lived back then, including "The Quick Horse," a nonfiction story about fire horses, trained to be quick to respond rather than speedy; "The Christmas Ship" (fiction about two girls aboard a whaling ship at Christmas time and how a tree and gifts are managed for them), and "The Story of the Wheel" (which is a history of the bicycle, "wheel" being the 19th century moniker for bicycles). Because of my ancestry, I also found "Bell-Towers of Italy" quite good, and here found the original of "Cousin Jane's Mistake," a story of exchanged gifts to two girls accidentally exchanged by an elderly relative to two girls. This is very reminiscent of the later "Fir Tree Cousins," and I believe was also reprinted in one of the Joe Wheeler Christmas in My Heart books.

Some enjoyable serials in this sequence: the adventures of nine boys through the seasons in "The Lakerim Athletic Club," with fellows with nicknames like "Quiz" and "History," plus two battling red-headed twin brothers; "With the Black Prince," about the English, Welsh, Scots and Irish serving with Edward the Black Prince, one of the innumerable medieval stories that were popular back then, the first half of the very long "Two Biddicut Boys," the adventures of two country boys named Quint and Cliff, on the trail of the unscrupulous "gentleman" named Winslow, who sold them a trick dog named "Sparkler," who has been trained to break away and return to his master to be sold again (apparently considered one of the great serials in the annals of St. Nicholas, enough for Henry Steele Commanger to reprint it in one of his anthologies about the magazine); the very beginning of that little girl's delight "Denise and Ned Toodles," concerning a wealthy child who is given a beloved black pony she names Ned Toodles and of their marvelous playhouse, and lastly the fantasy story "Through the Earth," a surprising effort that uses scientific principles known at the time to propel a car, with a young man who volunteered, through the earth from Australia to New York. Fascinating.

• Harlan Ellison's Watching, Harlan Ellison
Harlan would probably hate me. I like things he considers childish or idiotic, enjoy movies he despises for their stupidity, don't agree with some of his world views, not to mention his attitude to Christmas cards and cats. :-) But I enjoy Harlan's essays. They are wonderful rants that contain, even with things I disagree on, truths. He is infuriating, insightful, obscene, thoughtful, egotistical, enlightening, enraging. Most of all I admire his language: whether in tirade or review or a look behind the scenes, he uses the vocabulary of an adult (and I'm not referring to his penchant for the obscene or scatological). He assumes his readers have a brain hiding behind the face they show to the world.

Ostensibly these are essays about the art of the movies. Be prepared for tangents. Lots of tangents, in a cascade of words.

Not to mention anyone who dislikes Robocop is all right with me. :-)

(As a sequel to his Glass Teat duology, I would love to read Harlan's take on modern television: American Idol and the rest of the crowd, today's dramas/comedies, things like Jon and Kate Plus 8—although I have a feeling the vocabulary would...well, be a tad explosive...LOL.)

• Gaby and the New Money Fraud, Paul Berna
This is actually the third book in the series (the British copyright is listed as 1971, but the book was actually published in 1961) and follows immediately before Mystery of Saint-Salgue. It is four years after the events of Horse Without a Head/Street Musician. Gaby and Zidore's schooldays have ended and both are at work, but the gang is still fast friends (well, with some conflicts, as the story proves). Since Gaby is of driving age, they decide buy a large used car that they all can travel in. As Marion and the other kids struggle to provide additional money and Gaby studies for his driver's license, an unlikely vehicle presents itself, as well as a way to earn money.

Once again the ingenious gang of ten has found a way to accidentally get involved in skullduggery, and once again Marion's smarts are called into play, and her dogs become involved. Despite their aging, the Gang of Ten are as entertaining as ever, and the story is very reminiscent of Horse at one point. It also sets up the events in Saint-Salgue nicely, not only with the acquisition of the van, but hinting of Fernand's secrecy with their holiday destination.

(I did note a "mistake" in the English translation, due to the fact that it wasn't published in GB until 1971...it states Gaby's birth year as 1952. It's actually 1942, since the book takes place ten years earlier.)

• The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart
At the urging of his tutor, an orphan named Reynie responds to a newspaper ad asking "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" The odd test he takes is only the beginning, for then he meets other children he will shortly be involved with: "Sticky" Washington, a timid boy with a photographic memory; Kate Wetherall, bright, optimistic, and acrobatic; and tiny Constance Contraire, stubborn, annoying, and always sleepy, not to mention the mysterious Mr. Benedict of the title.

As it works in these novels (like Fardell's gang in 7 Professors and sequels, the Pevensie kids of Narnia fame, Kiki Strike and her compatriots, even Harry/Ron/Hermione, etc.), the four children are the only ones who can thwart the sinister doings at an island-bound school. I found this tough going at the beginning because, while the children all have unique qualities—Sticky's knowledge, Reynie's problem-solving skills, Kate's ingenious McGyver-like talents, and Constance's stubbornness—they aren't much more personalized than that, besides the fact Reynie, Sticky, and Kate all have loneliness issues. What kept me with this story was the sinister plot, which involved, in part, subliminal messages being telepathically transmitted via television so that the news shows are always broadcasting messages about an Emergency. And it struck me that this is already happening: there is always a crisis on the news today, even ordinary rainstorms and snow showers and windy weather is greeted with the outcry of "severe weather." I only wish this real-life stream of continuing crises could be thwarted by a real "Benedict Society"! Anyway, the plot is inventive and the kids do grow on you after awhile, even if their personalities are not fully realized.

• Night Watch, Stephen Kendrick
One of the last of the books I bought from the Dollar General spinner (they've replaced the spinner with more expensive books). Some of these turn out better than others. I have enjoyed Sherlock Holmes since I saw the film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution when it was released. I enjoy Holmes' pastiches as well. This one was...okay. On Christmas Day Holmes and Watson, at the request of Mycroft Holmes, are summoned to a church where a murder has taken place. The murder needs to stay under wraps because of the nature of a meeting between religious leaders taking place at the church. One of the religious figures there is a very young priest named Father Brown (as in the Chesterton character). The murder involves some complicated moments, but it doesn't ever quite gel as a Holmes story (I can't speak for the Brown portion, as I have not read any Father Brown). In addition, there were typographic vagaries that drove me crazy, hyphenated words in the middle of lines. Its obvious that this was written on a word processor that puts in hyphenation and then no one proofread the manuscript to take out the unneeded ones. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

• Christmas Sucks, Joanne Kimes
Sometimes when you get a bargain book you luck out. And then there's this book. I don't mind unorthodox Christmas humor—I Saw Mommy Kicking Santa Claus was very funny—but a humor book about getting what you want out of Christmas rather than falling for the buying/expectation traps shouldn't be considered funny just because she uses a bunch of swear words and insulting humor. Not worth anyone's time unless you like this type of humor.

• Far Traveler, Rebecca Tingle
This was a nice bargain book acquisition, a young-adult novel about a 10th century teenage girl. Ælfwyn is the shy, studious daughter of a former woman warrior who is the sister of King Edward of Wessex. When her mother dies of a fever she is faced with the choice of marrying an older man in an act that will bind his kingdom to her uncle's or she can be cloistered in an abbey. Hating either option, Ælfwyn flees on her mother's last gift, a warhorse named Winter she can barely ride, and poses as a scop (storyteller) to make her living. But the reader of stories finds it harder to tell them, and then she becomes embroiled with men hoping to overthrow her uncle. I found this a page-turner of a story and found the characters enjoyable.

• American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, Nick Taylor
My parents were teenagers and then adults during the Depression and I grew up on their stories, plus I lived in a city where many of the bridges and roads were of WPA vintage, so I enjoyed this sprawling volume that begins in 1932 as the Depression reaches its ultimate depth and ends in 1943 when it dissolves during the heated days of World War II. In between lie the politics, the machinations, the accusations of laziness and Communist infiltration, the edifices and the works of the Works Progress (later Works Projects) Administration. My favorite parts of this book are when the author concentrates on one person or one project within the whole, whether it is the Timberline Lodge in Oregon or LaGuardia Airport in New York, a packhorse librarian or an African-American writer, the Federal Theatre Project in which Orson Welles and John Housman mount a modern-day Haiti-set version of Macbeth or hot lunches for children. It is also a portrait of Harry Hopkins, the man who was in charge of the WPA for most of its life. This is crammed with information, but even at its most political is never dry. Highly recommended for American history buffs!

• Revolution at the Table, Harvey Lowenstein
As the century came to a close, Americans were found to be eating unhealthy diets full of fats, with few vegetables in evidence. Not the 20th century, the 19th. Lowenstein has created a very readable sociological study of the eating habits of Americans from 1880, when fried foods for breakfast and meat three times a day was the norm, through the 1930s. On the way, food fads such as Kelloggs' cereal diets are touched upon, plus the actual weaning of Americans away from good food like whole grain breads to processed foods like white bread and bleached flour with the help of the government, formula feeding of babies over breastfeeding, the discovery of how different foods fueled the body and then of "vitamines" that changed eating habits, schools of cookery designed to lure ethnic families away from their own diets and onto "real American food," and more interesting facts about how the American diet changed in only fifty years.

• Death at Bishop's Keep, Robin Paige
Mystery writer Susan Wittig Albert and her husband collaborate on this first of their "Victorian mysteries." Spirited, orphaned, half-Irish/half-English Kathryn Ardleigh, who secretly writes sensational fiction under a pseudonym to keep the wolf from the door, is summoned to England by an aunt she didn't know she had to work as a secretary and translator for confidential papers of a secret society her aunt belongs to. Upon arriving in England, Kate makes friends with Eleanor Marston, her brother Bradford, and Bradford's friend, Sir Charles Sheridan, amateur photographer, who has recently taken some photos of a mysterious body found at an archeological dig. Kate is welcomed to her job by her pleasant Aunt Sabrina, but must put up with not only her unpleasant Aunt Beatrice Jaggers, who also lives at the family estate of Bishop's Keep, but an undercurrent of rebellion going on with the servants due to "Aunt Jaggers" iron regime, and soon becomes embroiled with the mystery of the body, the secret society her aunt belongs to...and with Sir Charles, who is struck by her independence and intelligence. This is the first of a series of "cozies" with the usual unconventional heroine, but it's a really fun read and the characters are appealling, from the highborn Marstons to the Bishop's Keep servants and ingenious Kate and Charles themselves. Recommended for cozy fans.

• Paradox of Plenty, Harvey Lowenstein
Lowenstein continues his examination of American diet habits from the Depression to the organic food revolution of the 1980s. In the process he examines exactly how many of the malnourished "ill-fed" in the Depression were truly suffering from malnutrition, how proposed food rationing caused hoarding in World War II, how the American public came to mistrust the government that was supposed to be protecting their nutritional interests, how the processed food that was supposed to be wonderful for us turned out not to be, how vitamin supplements and women's constant dieting came to the fore, and the rise and fall of restaurant cuisine, critics, and chefs. Like his previous book, this is immensely readable and a fascinating overview of the American diet.

• "Just a Housewife": The Rise & Fall of Domesticity in America, Glenna Matthews
In 1850, women were the moral and domestic center of the home. Men went out and made the money, but it was the housewife who made life comfortable for all, who nourished and neatened, and "civilized," as Huck Finn put it, both the men and the children. In literature she was second only to God. By 1950 the housewife was being reviled as a do-nothing bitch who passed her days in idleness, shopping and eating orgies, and nagging. What happened in between? Matthews describes how the rise of labor-saving equipment, processed and prepared foods, and other modern inventions to take the drudgery away from the housewife also took away the respect she had previously garnered. This tied in quite nicely with the Lowenstein books, as there are several chapters on prepared and processed foods and how they changed the American palate. Some great insights on the domestic writers of the day (and their writings), including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author of the creepy short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" (which illustrates what happens when a woman takes the "rest cure" so prescribed in those days) and Marion Harland, the mother of Albert Payson Terhune.

• The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley
"Buckshaw had been the home of...the de Luces[,] since time out of mind." Living there in 1950 are widower Colonel de Luce, avid stamp collector and World War II veteran, and his three daughters, Ophelia, seventeen, a typical teenager; Daphne, thirteen, a bookworm; and the eleven-year-old, Flavia...wise beyond her years and enamored of chemistry—especially poisons. It is Flavia who find the dead body in the garden, after witnessing her father react to a dead bird on the back doorstep, a snipe with a stamp stuck on its beak, and an argument between him and a stranger. It is Flavia who sets out on her trusty bicycle "Gladys" to the local library and the hostelry and other places to solve the mystery of the man in the garden, and who gets into more trouble than she ever bargained for.

Flavia is simply delightful, although I must confess that after a while I got tired of her similes! If Wednesday Addams had a best friend, it would probably be Flavia de Luce (who would also be a perfect candidate for Ronald Searle's St. Trinian's school). She is diabolical, clever, humorous and even tender at times, but always worth following, along with her slightly dysfunctional family; unpredictable Dogger, now a groundskeeper but once a soldier who served with her father; police Inspector Hewitt and his assistants; and the inhabitants of the small English town of Bishop's Lacey. This description does no justice to the book. If you enjoy precocious, but never precious, children, English towns, and offbeat mysteries, this one is for you.

30 May 2009

The Newest American Girl

And she's Jewish!

Rebecca Rubin is a Russian Jew who lives on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1914. Her dream is to become an actress in those new things, "the movies."

Meet Rebecca and her family

New York Times article about Rebecca

Jerusalem Post article about Rebecca (note: this one has some spoilers about the stories)

Boston.com article about Rebecca (what's with these nitwits complaining that she's Jewish?)

USA Today article about Rebecca

MSNBC article about Rebecca (geez, what's with all the emphasis on the doll? it's the books that are important)

The Jewish Week article about Rebecca (more spoilers!)

CNN.com article about Rebecca (sigh...again with the doll...)

12 May 2009

The Kids in the Castle

Anyone remember the scene in My Friend Flicka where Ken is looking at his books and notes one called Castle Blair, about a bunch of kids in an Irish castle? Always wondered if it was a real book, and yes, here it is, from 1879, no less!

10 May 2009

All Our Tribbles Are Small Ones

Did you know that David Gerrold's book about the making of the Star Trek episode "The Trouble With Tribbles" is online as a PDF file?

06 May 2009

The Tail End (But Not Really) of the Horse

It's only been a few months since I found that there were three sequels to Paul Berna's The Horse Without a Head (later made into a amazingly faithful Disney adaptation). In early April I bought what I thought were the second and third book in the series on e-Bay. Surfing about Amazon.co.uk last week I found the fourth book, Gaby and the New Money Fraud, at the low price of £2 (an amazingly low price since the only other copies I could find were going for between $44 and $131 on Amazon Marketplace and £9 and £106 otherwhere on Amazon.co.uk—no cheaper than $18 on bookfinder.com!). At first it looked like the vendor didn't ship outside the U.S., although the notation said "International Delivery available," so I e-mailed the person a note and they said they would ship to the States and did whatever they had to do at their end so I could order.

Well, it has arrived here within eight days! Not only that, but a bigger surprise: it's actually the third book in the series. The copyright date is down as 1971, but it was published in 1961 in France. It explains how the kids got the van that they drive in Mystery of Saint-Salgue and a mystery surrounding it. Inspector Sinet also appears in the story, although he was missing from The Street Musician.

(Postscript: It's been very enlightening to read this book "after the fact," as it also provides the setup for Fernand's destination.)