31 October 2010

Books Finished Since October 1

book icon  Fannie's Last Supper, Christopher Kimball
I hate to cook, but there's nothing better that I like than to read Christopher Kimball's column in each issue of Cooks Illustrated. His articles about Vermont put me in mind of Gladys Taber.

In this book, Kimball has brought his desire to cook a 12-course dinner from the original Fannie Farmer cookbook alive. We follow Kimball and his assistants as they plan the meal and attempt—as closely as possible—to cook it in period style. Of course (if you're familiar with Cooks you know they always change recipes to improve flavor) Kimball and the Cooks folks play with the recipes and actually reject some of them for not being all that tasty. This has apparently disturbed some of the folks who read this book, and it is a bit ironic that Kimball wrote a book about cooking alà Farmer and then did not go precisely by her recipes, but instead used better-tasting ones from other chefs. But since I have no interest in the actual cooking part and just read this for the historical perspective on cooking, I quite enjoyed the entire narrative. The revelations about cooking over the wood stove were especially "eye-opening." I knew they made the kitchen hot, but I never imagined things melted!

Warning: the chapter about the calves' brains may be a bit much for the modern person who gets everything packaged in plastic.

book icon  The Sisters Grimm; Once Upon a Crime, Michael Buckley
Sabrina, Daphne, Grandma Relda, Mr. Canis, and police chief Hampton are on a mission: to return an injured Puck to a colony of Everafters in New York City where his family—the imposing Oberon and Titania of "Midsummer's Night's Dream" fame—can hopefully cure him. Instead the porcine police chief finds love and danger when he falls for a "fairy godfather's" girl (yes, it's exactly what you think it is), and Sabrina finds herself face-to-face with Puck's jealous girlfriend.

Once again Buckley has well-mixed classic fairy tales for a rollicking, but sometimes creepy, adventure in a really-out-of-this-world place, NYC at Christmastime. One thing bothered me: Granny really came down hard on Sabrina for using magic in the previous book. This time Daphne wields the wand and Granny doesn't seem to mind. Bothered me, as Sabrina, even if she is pushy, does seem a bit put-upon.

book icon  Nellie Oleson Meets Laura Ingalls, Heather Williams
Since the "pre-Little House" adventures of Laura's grandmother Charlotte and great-grandmother Martha have come to an end, apparently since Harper-Collins wanted to dumb them down and the writers refused, these are two newer books about characters related to Laura. This one tells Nellie's side of the story of when the Ingalls family arrived in Walnut Grove and the events of "Town Party, Country Party" and the grasshopper invasion.

The story actually introduces Nellie, Willie and her family some time earlier; Laura doesn't enter the picture until halfway through the book, although Charles Ingalls is shown in the first chapter. I guess we are supposed to feel sympathy for Nellie when we hear about her distant father and social-climbing mother, and moments do exist when Nellie's bratty shell melts and she feels bad for people. But frankly, she's obnoxious from the start, corralling Willie into playing a mean prank on the schoolteacher, and you're glad when the plan backfires. So I'm a bit puzzled to what purpose the book was written. Williams does a good job keeping the narrative "Little House"-like, but it's still hard to warm up to Nellie.

book icon  The Power of Babel, John McWhorter
Okay, I'm at a loss what to say about this one, although I enjoyed it. But then I devour good linguistics books like one eats potato chips. One of McWhorter's main points is about dialects versus the "standard" in a particular language: the standard isn't really the "most correct" version of the language, as one might think; it's just the version of the language that was chosen to become the standard, so that, really, "Cockney" is no less credible than "BBC English," "Parisian" isn't the be-all, end-all of French as opposed to what they speak in other areas of France, and a southern accent in the United States is no less "educated" than the flat midwestern tones once preferred of newscasters—they're all just versions of the same language which evolved in different areas. He uses pop culture and familiar media figures to explain these differences, which makes the text lively and less dry than some academic tomes about language.

book icon  Re-read: Mr. Revere and I, Robert Lawson
Since we were going to Boston on vacation and I had long dreamed of visiting Revere's home, I just had to re-read this fun and lively view of Revolutionary Boston as seen through the eyes of Revere's horse. Sherry, or Scheherazade, as she is properly known, is originally a British cavalry horse, brought to Boston with the soldiers to help quell the rebellion. By a series of misfortunes, she comes into the possession of Paul Revere and sees the opening volleys of the American Revolution.

This is painless, occasionally humorous—some of the Founding Fathers, like Sam Adams and John Hancock, are shown in a not always flattering light—history for kids, which shows them that the folks behind the Revolution were not demigods, but ordinary folks with an extraordinary idea: a new republic not based on a monarchy. And, through Sherry, they understand what it is like to be free. Great story, if not always precisely in line with real historical events (the horse Revere rode on his famous "ride," for instance, was someone else's, and it was taken from him).

book icon  Full Dark House, Christopher Fowler
This is all I need, another series. But what a fun series! In present-day London, 80-year-old Arthur Bryant is killed while working late at the Metropolitan Police's Peculiar Crimes office. His grieving partner, 76-year-old John May, attempts to solve the crime, which appears to have something to do with Arthur's opening of an old case, the first one which Bryant and May solved together, during the height of the Blitz, when a killer stalked the backstage area of the Palace Theatre.

Bryant and May are an odd couple; I thought of a 1940s version of Holmes and Watson, with Bryant as the eccentric and May as the more conventional (and more attractive to women). Fowler brings the WWII atmosphere of the Blitz to life—not just hardy Londoners stiffening their upper lips, but the fear and the uncertainty and the spooky feeling of streets under blackout, not to mention the claustrophobic feeling of the theatre. Yet the narration is also offbeat and frequently humorous, especially when presenting Bryant's oddball friends. I really enjoyed the entire milieu.

book icon  Re-read: Ocean-Born Mary, Lois Lenski
Most people are more familiar with Lenski's regional series, like Strawberry Girl, but I have always also loved her historical stories, like A-Going to the Westward, and this book, which I first read in junior high school. When we went on vacation this year, we stopped at the setting of the novel, Strawbery Banke (the original name of Portsmouth, NH), where I was delighted to see the real places mentioned, like Puddle Dock.

This is not the true story of Ocean-Born Mary, a child whose presence on a ship caused a pirate captain to spare the lives of all if she was named after his little sister, but a fictional tale that Lenski has spun about the child. She arrives in Strawbery Banke to help an ailing cousin and experiences all sorts of adventures with the merchants and seafaring inhabitants of the port town, befriending an ailing child, a shipmaster's daughter, a woodcarver, a restless boy assigned to herd cows, and a merchant's daughter. And she also meets the man who spared her parents' lives, the pirate Philip Babb, who will once again cause problems in her life.

Today's children might find this book dull, but I loved every bit of historical detail in this book as a kid and still love re-reading it.

book icon  The Writer's Tale: The Final Chapter, Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook
In February 2007, Benjamin Cook shot Doctor Who's Russell T. Davies an e-mail: would he be interested in providing some input to Cook about how a Who episode is written? As Russell answered, "You had me at hello."

The "article" evolved into The Writer's Tale, and then The Final Chapter, a 700-page collection of the e-mails (and occasional texts) shot back and forth between Cook and Davies between the fateful day in 2007 through David Tennant's final appearance as the Doctor. In between, in a great cascade of words, one actually does find out how more than one episode is conceived, filmed, and finished, and a whole lot more. Before Catherine Tate signed up for her season, for example, Davies was working through the creation of a new companion for the Doctor, a young woman named Penny, whose father was a stargazer. How Penny changed and then morphed into Donna Noble, and how the stargazer became her grandfather, played by the delightful Bernard Cribbins, is completely told here.

In the meantime, there are behind-the-scenes glimpses, Davies' growing pressures as a writer for both Who and Torchwood, premieres, filming successes and problems (that damaged bus in "Planet of the Dead," for instance, was supposed to be whole; it was damaged in transport), script flaps, actor changes, the conception of the final story, and perhaps even a partridge in a pear tree. All in great fun—I found it totally absorbing, down to the terrible puns.

book icon  Death on the Lizard, Robin Paige
Sir Charles Sheridan and his American wife Kathryn Ardleigh (also known as Beryl Bardwell, well-known author of thrillers) are back for one last case, set in the Cornish countryside where brilliant but mercurial Guglielmo Marconi has done the impossible: sent messages across the Atlantic by wireless. But the natives of "the Lizard" hate the noise and hurry the radio towers bring to their quiet corner of England, and when two men die on the site, foul play is suspected.

In the meantime Kate befriends Lady Loveday, a widow whose young daughter recently drowned, and who wishes to try to contact her through spiritualism. But when Kate makes a query or two, it looks as if little Harriet's drowning may have something to do with the conflict over the wireless station—and with spies of that selfsame station. And can Marconi's new inamorata be involved as well?

An excellent portrait of the times, where locals feel traditions are slipping away too fast to "newfangled" technology (times, it seems, never change), with multiple mystery threads. The "bad guys" are pretty easy to spot, though; if you are fond of impossible conundrums, read for the Edwardian atmosphere instead.

book icon  Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., Barbara Barnett
Two books on House, MD were released this fall, the "authorized" guide and this, based on Barnett's popular blog "The End of the Thought Process." Like her blog, it's a great read, especially her analysis of each character (the emphasis on our "hero," of course, but also on Wilson and Cuddy and the original group of "ducklings." The latter part of the book is an episode guide, with such notations as the diagnosis—it's never lupus, except once it was—and the epiphany that led to it, "House is a Jerk" moments (of course too numerous to name), bromance minutes, continuity notes, nods at pop culture, and more, with inserts directed at a closer look at certain key episodes, like the award-winning "Three Stories." Sure to please a House fan—well, at least it pleased this House fan. :-)

book icon  Turkish Delight & Treasure Hunts, Jane Brocket
Not being able to find Brocket's original foray into this area, Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer, for less than $40, I purchased this follow-up, a delightful little volume that brings together recipes and instructions for making foods mentioned in classic children's books, like "sugar on snow" from the little house books and raspberry cordial from Anne of Green Gables, as well as instructions for making or buying a skipping rope like Mary Lennox's or kitemaking. If you are fond of classic children's novels, you will read this with a big grin on your face, as it's just as cozy and welcoming as it sounds.

book icon  Colonial New England on 5 Shillings A Day, Bill Scheller
From the time I saw Shakespearean London on 5 Groats a Day, I thought the idea of exploring history via a "tourist's guidebook" to be fun and clever. Although I bought the Shakespeare book first, because of our recent vacation, I read this one first and was not disappointed. The author offers an accurate portrayal of colonial times (travel, food, customs, etc.) at about 1760 (often with notes of what happened in the future). The most fun are the sly little asides to events that have not yet happened, as in noting that Sam Adams looked as if they had no future except as a brewer, or that "base ball" was much too ruffianly a sport for New Englanders and it should be consigned further west to "other Yankees." If all the other "Five" travel books (Ancient Greece and Europe, the Wild West, et al.) are as humorous and informative as this volume, I will have much fun "traveling" through history.