31 July 2010

Books Finished Since July 1

book icon  The Rebellion of Jane Clarke, Sally Gunning
While this isn't "chick lit" specifically, I don't see this book appealing much to men. I suppose one could even call this a female version of Johnny Tremain. Jane Clarke is a young lady of marriageable age living on Cape Cod; her father, a contentious miller, has been accused of an unspeakable crime against a neighbor he has been feuding with. When Jane doubts her father, and also refuses the marriage proposal of a promising young man, her father ships her off to the home of an unpleasant, sickly aunt in a Boston being consumed by revolutionary fevour. Ironically, Jane's nursemaid duties gradually set her free from conventional thought, as she discovers how ardent a patriot her brother has become, befriends both British and revolutionary figures including bookseller Henry Knox, and grows in both personal and self knowledge. It's a well-written voyage of self-discovery with a nice period feel.

book icon  The Lost Blogs: From Jesus to Jim Morrison, Paul Davidson
What if [insert historical figure here] had had his/her own blog? This is actually a good bathroom book, if you buy it off the bargain shelf since the quality of the humorous blog entries varies; some are actually chuckle-worthy and others just downright dull. Some of the cleverest ones are actually done as graphics.

book icon  It's That Time Again!: The New Stories of Old-Time Radio, edited by Ben Ohmart
Finding this collection was a total surprise; I had no idea anyone was writing stories based on old radio series (what was even more surprising is that three other volumes exist!). The only caveat to what the writers could tackle was that the stories must be original to radio (so no Sherlock Holmes, Superman, Orphan Annie), etc. To me, some of the stories worked, but a few didn't, mainly the ones where the OTR setting was brought up to date, like the Captain Midnight tale. The "Our Miss Brooks" story was the funniest of the lot, capturing Connie Brooks' narrative style, and I also really enjoyed the "Sergeant Preston" story and the "Frontier Gentleman" piece also matched the kind of story the series did, although I guessed what was going on immediately. Some good fantasy pieces, too, especially in the "Dimension X" story. If you're an OTR fan, definitely a must-have.

book icon  A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenberg
There seems to be a trend these days for books that are combination life-lessons and experiences/recipe collections, like Confections of a Closet Master Baker. This one, by blogger Molly Wizenberg of "Orangette," is a by turns amusing and heartbreaking, with interstices of intriguing recipes. As any friend of mine knows, I'm no friend to the stove, the oven, or the cutting board, but Wizenburg's adventures with food along with stories of her larger-than-life father Burg, her sole sojourn to Paris and the boy who left her behind, and her courtship with her husband Brandon make a stew of memories and mouthfuls so delicious that even I can't resist. One portion of the book sent me into tears, however: Wizenburg's chronicle of her father's final illness was heart-wrenching and brought me back to the death of my mother. Find a comfy corner, have a cup of some fragrant drink and a specialty item from a good bakery (or, better yet, make something homemade), and enjoy.

book icon  Priceless, Robert K. Wittman
This was an Amazon Vine choice that looked interesting, and indeed it was. Bob Wittman wanted to be an FBI agent from the time he was a small child. Initially turned down by the Bureau, Bob became a businessman, a husband, a father—and then had the opportunity to join the FBI again. Once an agent, he became intrigued with the fight to recover stolen works of art, and the book chronicles his undercover efforts to recover not only stolen paintings from the world's greatest artists and Rodin sculptures, but illegally sold Native American artifacts and even a rare Norman Rockwell piece. Wittman meets all sorts of creepy gangster types and almost has his cover blown several times (sadly, once by someone who was supposed to be on his side). I enjoyed reading this, but was dismayed to find that the United States spends so little time and energy on recovering these precious treasures compared to other countries, and that the FBI would screw up the chance to recover the priceless art stolen from the Gardner museum in Boston just because some idiot supervisor had to stroke his ego by micromanaging the situation. I guess some executives have to be *ssh*les no matter what kind of important business they are in; Congress doesn't have a monopoly on these idiots.

book icon  Heat Wave, Richard Castle
Wow, that Castle guy can write a heck of a sex scene! :-) Seriously, if you watch the Castle television series, all this will be familiar to you: award-winning magazine writer Jameson Rook [rook...castle...get it?], son of a famous stage actress, partners with tough, gorgeous homicide detective Nikki Heat, who has two police partners (one Irish, one Hispanic), an African-American boss, and an ally in the sassy coroner. (Alexis Castle doesn't seem to have a counterpart.) The book gets much steamier than the series, so if you've been longing for Castle/Beckett action, this may help your cravings. The story about the death of a wealthy businessman who was not what he seemed tries to be suitably complicated, but I guessed the perp halfway through, and most of the fun is noting the Castle conventions in book form. Oh, the "good stuff" is on pages 103-106, if you want to peek. :-)

book icon  Amazing But True Bird Tales, Allen Zullo and Mara Bovsun
I found this for three dollars on Hamilton Books site; it's a delightful small volume of true stories about birds, from bird thieves (stealing golf balls) to bird heroes (awaking owners to a fire) to odd things birds do (becoming fixated on humans or other animals, trying to incubate stones, imitating technological sounds), and more. From hummingbirds to emus, there's something interesting—but mostly funny—in this volume for bird lovers.

book icon  Common Birds of Atlanta, Jim Wilson and Anselm Atkins
JUst what it says; text about the bird on the even pages and photos of same on the facing pages, going in size from the smallest (hummingbird) to largest (crane). Perfect for bird spotters.

book icon  Murder Most Medieval, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers
I find anthologies often on spotty ground, mediocre tales mixed with better ones (although sometimes you get a total dud). This was one of the better mystery short story collections I have picked up recently. My favorites in this volume were Doug Allyn's Tallifer story, in which the minstrel who agrees to escort a blind girl has a very different adventure than he imagines, Ellis Peters' "origin story" of how Cadfael left military service and went into the monastery, and an unusual story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, but I enjoyed all the tales, even the Sister Fidelma story, which I must confess, I found slightly dull. Fans of medieval mysteries will probably enjoy this book.

book icon  Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth—A Life Beyond Cheaper by the Dozen, Jane Lancaster
If bringing up a dozen boisterous children and being a "working mother" at the same time seemed like it was fun when you read Cheaper by the Dozen, this is the flip side to the hijinks. Lillie Moller (she changed her name to Lillian upon graduating from college because she thought it sounded more mature) was the daughter of a well-to-do family who could have married into "money" and been pampered for the rest of her life. Instead the bright, intelligent girl, who attended college and won a degree, then went on for her doctorate in an era when women were supposed to be maternal or ornamental, married self-taught engineer Frank Bunker Gilbreth, who willingly accepted his wife as an intellectual partner. Together, until his death in 1924, and then afterwards, Lillie Gilbreth made inroads in the field of motion study and psychology in the workplace. This biography reveals many personal things that weren't brought out in Cheaper and its sequel, Belles on Their Toes (which were, after all, not really biographies but humorous memoirs). If you were ever curious about the Gilbreths beyond the process charts, taking a bath in the least amount of time, and having tonsils removed en masse, this is an in-depth, well-paced narrative.

book icon  A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson
After reading his two books about the English language, his Tales from a Small Island and I'm a Stranger Here Myself, not to mention the delightful Short History of Nearly Everything, I thought the next Bryson to investigate should be his volume about his plan to walk the Appalachian Trail. I started it several months ago, then put it down, really turned off by the buddy Bryson picked to be his walking companion, an overweight junk-foodie named Katz. However, when I return to it, Katz didn't seem all that bad; in fact, he was right in place among the often odd hikers Bryson meets on his quest between the earnest nature aficionados and hiking fans. I ultimately enjoyed the volume as a whole, but often was irritated at Bryson's humor; however, descriptions of breathtaking woodland settings, trail companions, and odd places along the route won out over these occasional lapses. Bryson fans will enjoy.

book icon  The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Jacqueline Kelly
In 1899, Calpurnia Virginia Tate, "Callie Vee" to her family, is sandwiched between three older brothers and three younger, the despair of her mother who wishes her to grow up ladylike, and, like her brothers, is in fear of her grandfather, who lives with them, but who has given up on the family business to hole up in an old shed, his "laboratory." Then one day, to satisfy curiosity, Calpurnia braves her grandfather's expected wrath.

What a surprise then that the old man opens a new world to Calpurnia, that of nature, and the two of them form a close bond. In the meantime, she lives through the day-to-day routine of a Victorian child: piano lessons, problems with her brothers, worrying about losing the love of her beloved older brother, and, worst of all, lessons in "domestic science" from her mother and the family cook, who expect her to fit the women's mold of the time.

This is a wonderful book: Calpurnia's narration is bright and sparkling, her brothers torment her but love her, the slice-of-life sequences remind one of Penrod, frequently with a bit of humor. The descriptions of the weather, the countryside, the town, Grandfather's "laboratory," etc. were vivid, bringing the era and setting to life. I was also impressed that the author did not make the mistake of so many modern books, that the "good" white people are somehow enlightened to the plight of minorities and treat them well where others do not. Sadly, this was the subtle prejudice that was so hard to overcome in those days, that minorities were only fit for manual work and that "they want to be that way." It is a great irony that while Calpurnia and her grandfather are learning so much about the natural world, they have not yet learned the most basic of lessons, that skin color is not a barrier to intelligence or ambition. Other little ironies abound, like the fact that Mrs. Tate deplores the use of "drink," yet in stressful times takes Lydia Pinkham's "vegetable compound," which is one-fifth alcohol.

Every once in a while, a word or phrase breaks the carefully crafted 19th century world for a second, but this is a minor problem only. Highly recommended.

book icon  In Spite of Myself, Christopher Plummer
What a fascinating book! More a stream of memories than an actual autobiography, Plummer starts with his unconventional upbringing in Canada, continues with his breakthrough into acting, and then just keeps going, Energizer Bunny style, in an endless string of sometimes humorous, sometimes sad, very often eye-popping adventures. These aren't the tales of his upright life: if the narrative is being straight with the reader, Plummer seemed to spend half of his life inebriated, or at least drinking a lot; he admits that his first two marriages were made on whims and he was an absentee husband and father, and that he was often boastful, crass, rude, profane, or otherwise not the world's best guy.

On the other hand, his stories of acting on stage and in the movies were mesmerizing, especially tales of noted actors like Sir Laurence Olivier, Jason Robards, Raymond Massey, Eva Le Gallienne, James Mason, Mildred Natwick, Rex Harrison, Rachel Roberts, Kate Reid, Katherine Cornell; writers like Lillian Hellman and Neil Simon; producers, directors, "Broadway angels," locations including a miserable, filthy set and lodgings in the Soviet Union, and so many more. Since Hollywood tales are "a dime a dozen," much dirt being dished on the popular magazines of my childhood like "Photoplay," "Screen Stories," "TV-Radio Mirror," etc. which my mother bought and I surreptitiously read, I found Plummer's tale of stage life, foibles and fumbles the most absorbing. He even tells a good dog story about his family pets.

This rambling narrative probably could have used a good editing, but for myself, I had a great time wandering amongst Plummer's memories. YMMV.