31 May 2010

Books Finished Since May 1

book iconVictorian London: The Tale of a City 1840-1870, Liza Picard
I couldn't resist the description or peeps inside this book, and it paid me back for its purchase fourfold. This is a wonderful summary of the lives of Victorians of the lower and middle classes. Picard divides the book into chapters about each aspect of the Victorian life, and, most tellingly, she begins with a chapter about smell, as the manured- and horse-urined streets and the stink of the polluted Thames along with the scents of rarely-washed bodies would have been the thing that struck a modern person most about the era. Then she visits the home, the businesses, the hospitals, the taverns, the social gathering places, and tells of the people, from the mudlarks who risked their lives gathering valuables from the river to be able to eat to the homeowners and the professionals. While certainly not an exhaustive study, it is easy to read without being simplistic, helping you to envision the era. Highly recommended!

book iconSince Yesterday, Frederick Lewis Allen
This was a library read, a sequel to Allen's classic about the 1920s, Only Yesterday. Many books written at this time were stodgy and stiff, but Allen writes in a looser style close to the way a modern book might be written, asking you to envision the world of the 1930s. I found this book a little bit less appealing than the 1920s book only because, having read much about the Depression, I knew most of the material. To me the book shines when he talks about the personalities and other events of the day, such as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. However, if you haven't done much reading about the Depression era, Allen's observations, written immediately after the events, are a fascinating "I was there" text.

book iconA River in the Sky, Elizabeth Peters
Since her original protagonists, the redoubtable Amelia Peabody Emerson and her husband, renown Egyptologist Radcliffe Emerson, are now in their seventies and the younger generation, Walter "Ramses" Emerson and his wife Nefret are parents, Elizabeth Peters is now going back in time to fill in some of the "missing adventures" of the Emerson family. As our story opens, it is 1910, and since Radcliffe Emerson has been banned from Egypt after a contretemps with the Minister of Antiquities, the family is at home in Kent while Ramses works on a dig in Palestine. Then a vague but prophetic stranger arrives at their home.

Like the last few books about the family, the action has shifted to the younger generation, which was inevitable. However, since we know the future of the characters, any suspense which involves the main characters is therefore nonexistent. The different setting (Palestine rather than Egypt) may also put off fans of the Egyptian settings. In addition, Nefret doesn't get much to do in this go-round except worry. A nice additional family chronicle/adventure, but not one of the best.

book iconAmerican History Revised: 200 Startling Facts That Never made It Into the Textbooks, Seymour Morris Jr.
Books like this, which present oddities and hidden facts of history, are compulsive with me; this volume did not disappoint (although I can't claim that I wasn't familiar with all of the "startling facts"). It is divided into ten sections, including forgotten facts, things that almost didn't (or did) happen, presidential trivia, tidbits about sports figures and actors, common folk who were thrust into the limelight, pioneers, philanthropists, financiers, wars and inventions, discoveries and explorers. This is the perfect bedtime book, as in you can read one or two sections at the time. The one problem with this book?: you'll find yourself reading choice bits aloud to anyone who will listen.

book iconTime Out for Happiness, Frank B. Gilbreth Jr.
While almost everyone knows the story of Cheaper by the Dozen, the chronicle of efficiency experts Frank Bunker and Lillian Moller Gilbreth raising their brood of twelve children, and fans may be familiar with the sequel, Belles on Their Toes, this is a less well-known volume written by Frank Jr. concentrating on his parents' early life and their work. I hadn't read it in years and noticed that it was available at the library, since copies are expensive. This is a splendid companion to the other books, beginning with the courtship of Frank and Lillie, then going back to their early lives and continuing with their partnership, and, after Frank's death, Lillie's individual triumphs in the industry despite the opposition to women in the field. A great read about a unique couple, told with Gilbreth's usual humor.

book iconThe Revolutionary Paul Revere, Joel J. Miller
Miller writes a folksy account of the life of Paul Revere, still known mainly for his infamous ride (many of the details which are true "poetic license") against the backdrop of the colonial period and the Revolutionary War, so the reader learns not only about the life of Revere, but about the era he lived in. The benchmark in Paul Revere biographies (quoted in this book several times) is Esther Forbes' masterwork, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, but it is indeed a scholarly work; casual readers and young adults doing research for school may find this volume more approachable. However, Miller's use of modern terms, used to make Revere appear more "human" and less history demigod, was so excessive it began to annoy me, which was a pity since the narrative moved so well.

book iconGarden Secrets for Attracting Birds, Rachael Lanicci
Not that we need to attract any more; our feeders are doing booming business. :-) But this is a lovely book filled with the most popular "backyard birds," and what plants, seeds, and "furnishings" you can add to your yard to attract each one. The bird photos are just stunning, especially those of the adults feeding the babies, and the babies themselves.

book iconWild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs, David Cruise and Alison Griffiths
If you grew up, like me, loving each horse book written by Marguerite Henry, you'll remember "Annie" Bronn Johnston, the woman who became appalled at the fate of the mustangs of Nevada and fought to keep them from being herded up and sold for slaughter. "Wild Horse Annie's" real name was Velma, a woman whose body was cruelly wracked by polio at a young age, leaving her face misshapen and her body with a host of medical problems. But it didn't stop Velma and her husband Charlie from trying to save the horses, from daring raids on corrals to facing even more frightening varmints: politicians and the Bureau of Land Management. This is Velma's story, more fascinating, adult, and straightforward than Henry's (her friendship, and, sadly, falling out, with Marguerite Henry is included in the narrative). Highly recommended for fans who grew up with Henry's story of Velma and horse/nature lovers.

book iconInventory, by the writers of the A.V. Club
From the bargain rack, an entertaining book of lists, although there are too many references to rock bands for my liking. How can you not like a book with a list called "6 Keanu Reeves Movies Somehow Not Ruined by Keanu Reeves"?

book iconOur Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter
What made the English language what it is? The usual histories of English cite the invasions of the Angles and the Saxons (from where we get "good old" Anglo-Saxon words), then the Vikings (remnants which can be found in Yorkshire town names and words with "sk"), and finally Norman French. Yet English contains structures not used in any other Germanic-based language, nor in French. Where did this structural style come from? McWhorter's answer: Welsh and Cornish, and perhaps even a smattering of Phoenician. McWhorter definitely believes that the old Celtic word structure inspired some of the unique usage of English, and spends the remainder of the book trying to prove it by example. If you're not really into linguistics, you'll be bored with this book. I found it moderately interesting, but then I'm odd like that. :-)

book iconHow the States Got Their Shapes, Mark Stein
I looked at this one off and on, but did not buy it until the History Channel special based on the book aired. Title tells all: how were the boundary lines of each of the states decided upon? Fascinating bits including why Mississippi and Alabama have those "tags" (for access to the Gulf; it was previously part of Florida), why Nebraska has a corner cut from it, and why it, Kansas and the Dakotas are of the same height, why Michigan got the peninsula, and more historical goodies. Heck, I never realized Fall River was once considered to be part of Rhode Island; we gave it back to Massachusetts in exchange for East Providence. Um...not really a fair trade. :-) (J/K! I used to work in East Providence.)

book iconTrue North: A Memoir, Elliott Merrick
This is an extraordinary book. In 1929, Merrick quit his rat-race advertising job and moved to the wilds of Labrador, where he met and married his wife Kay, a mission nurse. This volume chronicles a winter odyssey that the Merricks took while accompanying a friend running his trapline. They suffer cold and exhaustion, and Merrick both suffers a gunshot wound and a severely cut toe, yet both find beauty, awe and inner peace in the freedom of the wintry world. While Merrick is unflinching in describing their hardships, his prose makes the winter world poetic and majestic, and the men and women who endure and triumph over it like heroes of old who are still down-to-earth. For anyone who's ever wanted to break away from the humdrum. Note: this was written in 1930, and some descriptions of the Native tribes are no longer "PC." However, Merrick is much more admiring of their lifestyle than others of his time.

book iconThe Sisters Grimm: The Unusual Suspects, Michael Buckley
Sabrina and Daphne Grimm were two orphans shunted from foster home to foster home until their grandmother came to claim them. Little did they know they were descended from the Grimm brothers, and that they were about to live in Ferryport, a hidden refugee town for all those fairy tale characters: the mayor is Prince Charming, still in love with schoolteacher Snow White, and the sheriff is one of the Three Little Pigs. In this outing, the girls start school, only for Sabrina to be terrorized by bullies and perplexed by perpetually sleepy classmates. Then her teacher is killed. What kind of creature is stalking Ferryport Elementary?

Buckley has created a fun mishmash of fairy tale creatures, fantasy events, and real-life children coping with them. The stories are suspenseful as well as seasoned with a generous dollop of humor. Be warned, however, that the tales do contain violence; these are not Disney fairy tale pastiches.