31 December 2011

Books Finished Since December 1

As always in December, I have a good deal of reading of magazines I don't ordinarily purchase during the remainder of the year, looking for Christmas spirit, and this year was a bumper crop. "Our State" (North Carolina oriented), "Cottage Christmas," and some other decorating magazines came up on the radar, but the old standbys were a joy: the British edition of "Country Living," "Early American Homes" annual Christmas issue and also the December issue, "Victorian Homes," and "Victoria" were just some of the pleasant reads. However, I made time for some books as well!

book icon  At Christmas the Heart Goes Home, Marjorie Holmes
You can’t read Christmas compilations which provide short reflections and memories without running into excerpts from this book by Marjorie Holmes, who was in her time a bestselling inspirational author. This book itself is a compilation album of the best from Holmes’ columns from women’s magazines, and it’s a sit-by-the-Christmas-tree with a cat and cocoa type book, with short pieces about Holmes’ home life at Christmas alternating with her thoughts on faith. If you enjoy magazines such as “Guideposts” and their “Ideals” yearly publications and the ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul” books, this is certain to please. Also a good gift book for those inspirational readers.

book icon  The Atheist's Guide to Christmas, edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers
I always like to hear the other side of the story, so I thought this book would be a good addition to my Christmas library. I had already read the book The Trouble With Christmas and thought this book might be along those lines. Most of the book was pleasant or interesting. Most of the atheists writing enjoy the secular aspects of the holiday, don’t mind it being called “Christimas,” and just don’t want to be prosletized to concerning religious – or lack of thereof – beliefs. Since I dislike being prosletized, I was quite in agreement with them. Some of the humorous essays weren’t, but that’s always the risk in an anthology, and indeed “one man’s meat…” is a truism. The one essay I really didn’t like wasn’t really about belief or opposing viewpoints, but was a whiny “my birthday’s on Christmas and I only ever got one set of presents and it’s not fair” screed. Oh, please. Christmas and birthdays aren’t about gifts. Grow up, please.

book icon  I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley
It’s finally happened: due to Colonel de Luce’s lack of funds and the necessary repairs needed on the family estate “Buckshaw” has led him to rent the home out to a movie crew, one of which is famous actress Phyllis Wyvern. Even precocious Flavia, youngest daughter forever tormented by her sisters and a devotee of chemistry (especially poisons), is charmed by Miss Wyvern (although Flavia is soon to spot that Miss Wyvern has her disagreeable side) and is surprised when the actress actually seems to like her. But when the acting company puts on a benefit show at Buckshaw, a body and a snowstorm toss the de Luces, the townsfolk, and the movie company into close quarters and closer suspicions.

This fourth in the Flavia de Luce series has a Christie-ish plot complication, and of course our precocious heroine becomes involved in the murder investigation. But, proving that brilliant deductions or not, Flavia is still a little girl, she is also plotting to catch Father Christmas coming down the chimney, and her two projects eventually intersect, leading to an exciting conclusion. A rather dark Christmas romp, but with some additional revelations about Harriet, Flavia’s late mother, and her relationship with her sisters.

book icon  Santa, Jeremy Seal
James and I listened to an intriguing abridgement of this book on BBC Radio 4X last Christmas, intriguing enough for me to hunt down a copy. Seal investigates the reality and the myth of St. Nicholas, from his shadowed origins to the miraculous “blood” which comes fro his tomb and the theft of his body and its transport to Bari in Italy in medieval times. Seal travels to each of the places in the St. Nicholas legend, leading to some picturesque visits to Turkey and small towns around the Mediterranean, and then to Amsterdam and Belgium. It’s an interesting narrative except for Seal’s insistence on writing Nicholas’ story as if the deceased saint was somehow directing his fame from beyond the grave. Seal sets this against the search of his own children for “the real Santa Claus,” for which the family finally takes a trip to Finland. Unusual and offbeat, but worth looking up if you have an interest in the “ancestry” of Santa.

book icon  Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World At War, December 1941, Stanley Weintraub
Weintraub appears to be making a latter-day career about writing about Christmas in the United States during various historical eras (both World Wars, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War). His newest effort concerns the Christmas of 1941, as the United States was still reeling from the events of December 7, and Washington, DC, was in hubbub about a visit from Winston Churchill (during which Churchill addressed Congress and gave his famous “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter” speech). In the meantime, General Douglas MacArthur is doing little to defend his patch of the Pacific Ocean—some interesting neglect brought to light!—and Adolph Hitler is collecting warm winter clothing for the troops he refuses to pull out of Russia. The result is a bit plodding, but there are some intriguing tidbits about Churchill and MacArthur.

book icon  Have Yourself a Very Vintage Christmas, Susan Waggoner
Waggoner's nostalgic books ( Christmas Memories: Gifts, Activities, Fads, and Fancies, 1920s-1960s, It's a Wonderful Christmas: The Best of the Holidays 1940-1965, etc.) have been delightful exercises in nostalgia about the sights, sounds, tastes, and the toys of Christmas from 1920 through the 1960s. In this volume she guides the reader not only through the different styles of decorating between the 1920s and the 1960s, but she also presents little craft projects for each decade that will help your decorating ring true--cards, ornaments, room decorations, gift crafts--With full-color illustrations and directions throughout. The person who will appreciate this most will be the one who enjoys vintage crafts, but fans of vintage Christmas will probably enjoy it as well.

This Year's Dozen Favorite Books

(And four runners-up, since these things are always hard.)

In no particular order:

book icon  A City So Grand, Stephen Puleo (Nonfiction; a history of Boston from 1850-1900)

book icon  The Technologists, Matthew Pearl (Fiction; mystery thriller set in post-Civil War Boston)

book icon  Service and Style, Jan Whitaker (Nonfiction; a history of United States department stores)

book icon  Into That Silent Sea, Francis French and Colin Burgess (Nonfiction, history of the early U.S. and Russian space programs)

book icon  The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure (Nonfiction; a woman's search for self through the "Little House" books)

book icon  Our Glorious Century, Reader’s Digest Books (Nonfiction; coffee-table, lavishly illustrated book about the 20th century)

book icon  The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin (Nonfiction; one woman's search for the definition and origin of happiness)

book icon  The Shanghai Moon, S. J. Rozan (Fiction; mystery about a missing valuable necklace which disappeared during World War II)

book icon  The Vertigo Years, Philipp Blom (Nonfiction; Europe between 1900-1914)

book icon  The Ninth Daughter, Barbara Hamilton (Fiction; historical mystery involving Abigail Adams)

book icon  The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris (Nonfiction; first in Morris' three-book biography)

book icon  Walking English, David Crystal (Nonfiction; Crystal's odyssey across Great Britain in search of the English language)

Honorable mentions:

book icon  A Renegade History of the United States, Thaddeus Russell (Nonfiction; history from a different perspective)

book icon  Robert A. Heinlein, volume 1, William H. Patterson Jr (Nonfiction; first part of Heinlein bio)

book icon  Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City, Michelle Nevius and James Nevius (Nonfiction; a street-by-street travelogue/history of NYC)

book icon  A Bitter Truth, Charles Todd (Fiction; #3 in the Bess Crawford series set during WWI)

01 December 2011

Seven Books to Read Every Christmas

Please note most of these are out of print. If you're interested, hit bookfinder.com, Amazon Marketplace, or e-Bay. And, why yes, some of them are children's books. Some of the best books ever are children's books, and you don't need to be a child to read them.

book icon  A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
You've probably seen this as a movie or a television special. The story was done as a silent film as far back as the turn of the century. The first animated television Christmas special was about Dickens' Carol, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol to be specific. And perhaps a Dickens novel is not what you want to tackle; after all, isn't he voluble?

Fear not, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in seven weeks, as a message to more fortunate Londoners to help the poor. For its brevity, it's full of memorable descriptions and even more memorable characters—who even marginally familiar with English literature doesn't know who Ebenezer Scrooge is? Dickens' descriptions of London at Christmas both good—the lovely Christmas market, the love exuded by the Cratchits—and the bad—the realities of poverty in 19th century England—make vivid pictures that remain in your mind long after you finish reading. An even better reason to read the tale: even the longest film adaptation of the story doesn't contain all the aspects of the novel. Did you know on his travels with the Spirit of Christmas Present Scrooge visited a lighthouse? a coal mining village?

book icon  The Cottage Holiday, Jo Mendel
The Tuckers series of children's books was published in the 1960s by Whitman: father, mother, five rambunctious children, a big shaggy dog and a cat. Most of the novels are typical children's adventures (befriending the new neighbors, spending a summer at the beach or with relatives, participating in sports). But this Christmas story is a little gem.

Seven-year-old Penny is often sick and wonders about her place among her healthier, boisterous siblings (sixth-grader Tina, aspiring cook; twins Terry and Merry; and younger brother Tom). After being ill before Christmas and unable to participate with her siblings in a school Christmas program, she wishes the family might spend the holidays at their cottage at the lake. To her delight her doctor declares her well enough, and the family arrives prepared for nonstop fun for the holiday. Instead, the children are propelled into an adventure involving a marauding cougar and the danger it brings to a stranded woman. The kids play in the snow, find a Christmas tree, bake pies, and do other fun activities that don't involve staring at a screen or manipulating a game controller. But the heart and soul of this book is Penny's search for her own special talent, something that will serve her while she "sits still and takes pills," and it gives the novel a sweet, timeless quality with an ending that will leave tears in your eyes.

book icon  Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost
This is one of a series of four books about a Vermont farm family, the Clarks, in the late 1940s that vividly brings life on a small family property alive. The Clarks raise much of their own food, as well as supply milk to the local dairy and sugar off in the spring, and their bountifully old-fashioned Christmas is like a greeting card come to life: the children snowshoe in the woods to find natural decorations for the house, eldest Toby rebuilds a sleigh to use behind Windy Foot, his dapple-grey pony, and also helps defend the stock when a bear prowls the neighborhood while waiting for mail-order gifts to arrive, the family goes into town for shopping at a delectable general store and caroling; there is snow, skiing, ample food from the farm, and even an unexpected, special gift for Toby's younger sister. In addition, there's excitement involving a marauding bear and a sports accident. The best part is the family warmth and love which encircles one like a blanket and you're sorry when the final page turns and you have to leave the Clarks on Christmas evening.

book icon  Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky
As the Depression deepens, Minnie Swift and her family are feeling the pinch more and more. They are closing down rooms in their home to save coal, eating an endless series of almost meatless meals seasoned with quantities of cheese, and noticing with reluctance that their father comes home from work earlier every day and locks himself in the attic with his typewriter.

And then a distant cousin comes to stay with them, Willy Faye, a girl raised in the Dust Bowl and now an orphan. Minnie discovers she's never seen a movie, never heard of Buck Rogers, never eaten a peach. So she figures that Willie Faye will have a lot to learn from her family. She doesn't realize what the family will learn from Willie Faye.

Kathryn Lasky based the characters in this book on her own grandparents and aunts and uncles, and one of the sisters' boyfriends on her father, and her affection for all of them shows. Minnie's family includes a precocious only brother who builds radio sets at the same time he makes childish jokes and a fashion-designer-in-the-making sister who can make stunning, novel outfits from scraps of fabric and old clothing. The story rings with hardship, or the family associates with those dealing with hardship (several chapters take place in a Hooverville), and yet they manage to rise above it.

If there's one problem with the story, it's the slightly fanciful epilog (all the "Dear America" books have one, which chronicles the later lives of the characters). I would have been pleased if the future turned out well, but having it turn out wildly successful for everyone was a bit much. Still, the main tale itself is magic.

book icon  The House Without a Christmas Tree, Gail Rock
Based on the 1970s Christmas special by the same name, this is the story of 10-year-old Addie Mills, a smart, spunky fifth grader in the small town of Clear River, Nebraska, who is being raised by her laconic, introverted father and loving grandmother. Addie has wanted a Christmas tree during the holiday season for years, but her father has always refused on the grounds that it's a waste of money because they have Christmas at a relative's home. It's only when Addie wins a tree in a school contest that the real truths come to the fore.

This is a lovely short novel about an intelligent girl and a father who could have been labeled "mean" or "cruel." Instead, we slowly find out some family secrets. The story also paints a simpler time when kids shopped at drugstores for a beloved teacher's gift, homemade decorations sufficed on a Christmas tree, and the big treat for an afternoon was baking gingerbread men.

(I don't usually push DVDs with my books, but the DVD of this story is well worth finding. Lisa Lucas is perfect as slightly bossy Addie, Mildred Natwick properly motherly as her grandma, but Jason Robards shines as the withdrawn father with a secret heartache.)

book icon  The Homecoming, Earl Hamner Jr.
This short novel formed the basis for a television movie of the same name, which became the pilot film for the long-running Depression-set series The Waltons, about a Virginia backwoods family poor in material goods but rich in love. If you've seen the film, you will still find in the book points of interest, as not only were most of the characters' names changed for the movie, but some of them were slightly softened for 1970s television: for instance, in the book the father character is a bit of a gambler and drinker (although not to his family's detriment!) and the "John-Boy" of the book smokes a cigarette while hunting for a Christmas tree on his own. While the movie is much more rough-hewn than the series was, the book is even more realistic, giving a truer portrait of the harshness of the times.

book icon  The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson
This is a deserved Christmas classic about a family of six undisciplined (literally), half-wild children who are growing up with little supervision and who are the terrors of their elementary school. The Herdman children's divorced mother works double shifts at a factory to support them, and they receive little love and much fear from their classmates. Then the whole kit'n'caboodle of them get involved with the local church's Nativity play.

This is a very funny novel, not just from what happens when the kids join the Christmas pageant, but from some pointed commentary from the narrator, an unnamed child whose mother is in charge of producing the pageant. Her quirky descriptions of her friends (including one little girl she describes as "so squeaky-clean that she had dishpan hands by the time she was four years old"), events at home (I particularly love her father's attitude), and the pageant preparations are sharp and funny. This is a feel-good book with a message that is handled humorously and in a non-heavy-handed manner.

30 November 2011

Books Finished Since November 1

book icon  Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language, Ina Lipkowitz
I'd no sooner heard Ms. Lipkowitz talking about this book on "The Splendid Table" with Lynn Rossetto Kasper than I had to find and buy it. Discussed is the etymology of five basic foods: apples (and fruit), leeks, milk (dairy), meat, and bread. Along the way she dispenses vintage recipes, examines the way we change food names to make them seem more glamorous or just even not so bloodthirsty, and investigates the adult bigotry toward milk (and why this differs between northern and southern Europeans). I found it enjoyable and fun, but then etymologies are my "thing." A great read for those interested in word history or basic cooking history.

book icon  New England: Land of Scenic Spendor, National Geographic Society
This is a lovely book for New Englanders or New England lovers, comprising five articles and their illustrations from "National Geographic" magazine: one about the shore, another about the wilderness areas, a third about the cities, plus two more about noteble places. A comfortable travelogue, and the photos are lovely.

book icon  Picturesque Story of Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland, Frankenmuth, Mich.
Just what it says, the development of the world's largest Christmas store, from Wally Bronner's sign painting business to three small stores in downtown Frankenmuth to the large store it is today. Many photos!

book icon  A Red Herring Without Mustard, Alan Bradley
Having accidentally set the gypsy fortuneteller's tent afire, young Flavia de Luce offers the the woman the hospitality of a campsite near her home, Buckshaw, a crumbling estate housing Flavia, her stamp-engrossed ex-military father, her two hostile sisters, and her father's shellshocked former batman. Flavia, a precocious 11-year-old bullied by her sisters and fascinated by chemistry, only means to do a good deed, and is horrified when she discovers Fenella, the gypsy, bludgeoned in her caravan. No sooner has Fenella been hospitalized, with Flavia befriending her granddaughter Porcelain, and a break-in is discovered at Buckshaw, a murder occurs.

Flavia is in usual form in this third book in the series, alternately helped and hindered by Porcelain, however, I didn't enjoy it quite so well as the first two. There is a nice bit of business with something having to do with Flavia's late mother and a funny incident with the police inspector's wife.

book icon  The Dressmaker, Kate Alcott
One of the notable tales from the Titanic disaster is the story of the lifeboat built for fifty which only held twelve, caused, according to later investigation, by lifeboats being lowered prematurely in a panic by an untrained crew, an historical incident which becomes the crux of this fictional story.

Household drudge and aspiring seamstress Tess Collins escapes from France by making a devil's bargain with the imperious Lady Duff Gordon, noted fashion designer, who is traveling to New York with her husband Cosmo. Tess has cause to regret her decision almost at once, as Lady Duff Gordon insults her one minute, praises her the next, but she is so eager for the woman's help to enter the dress designing field that she will put up with almost anything. In the aftermath of the disaster, Tess continues loyally standing up for her employer, even when ugly rumors surface about her having forbidden the sailors in the lifeboat to go back for survivors. She also befriends Sarah "Pinky" Wade, suffragette and rare woman reporter who is trying to get to the truth of the matter, and Jim Bonney, a sailor she previously encountered on Titanic, who was in the same lifeboat as the Duff Gordons and who refuses to be bribed with their money.

There's a good story behind this novel, set against the backdrop of the progressive-era United States, and it did keep my interest, but the text seems more suited for a younger audience than one for adults. The language of 1912 was more formal than today, but you would never know it from the dialog. Modernisms creep in, although, thankfully, there's nothing really egregious. The sentences are short and choppy; the prose rather flat. Alcott tries to bridge the century by addressing problems familiar to 21st century readers: a young woman caring for an aging parent, another young woman enduring emotional abuse from an employer, a young man fighting a system ruled by the "haves," a politician investigating a scandal, but while the characters experience emotional turmoil, it seems superficial, as if they are acting a part rather than truly living it. I also thought period color was sorely lacking: one of the joys of reading historical novels are the details specific to that era, and one doesn't need to describe every gas bracket, flocked wallpaper, and horse-drawn conveyance to do it, either.

In short, it's a nice historical read with some good details about the aftermath of the Titanic (very few novels address the hearings that took place afterward), but not very complex.

book icon  The World of the Trapp Family, William Anderson and David Wade
This is a perfect book for those who wondered "what they really looked like." Although the Trapp family is forever tied to the beloved film and stage musical The Sound of Music, the real family story is much more complex. While this is mainly a photographic memoir of the history of the family, Anderson's brisk text does cover the history of Georg Von Trapp's first marriage, Maria's youth, and finally the history of the family after the marriage of Georg and Maria, and emigration to the United States as a performing singing group, later to settle in Stowe, Vermont, where the Trapp family still owns a lodge. Accompanying them was their friend Father Franz Wasner, who molded them into a choir and performed as their conductor. The busy Trapps, practicing, performing, making crafts, doing farm and religious work, building a place to live, and welcoming guests will make you feel positively slothful. :-)

book icon  Murder on Lexington Avenue, Victoria Thompson
When a prominent businessman is killed, Frank Malloy is assigned to the case. The chief suspect appears to be a young deaf man who was teaching the businessman's daughter, also deaf, sign language, something her father had forbidden her to learn. Frank discovers that the young man works at the school his deaf son Brian attends, which teaches their pupils to use sign language, and the young woman attends a rival school, where only lip reading and speech are taught.

When the businessman's wife goes into labor, midwife Sarah Brandt is drawn into the case, and she finds, as Malloy does, that the family situation is more convoluted than either can imagine: the girl appears happy her father is dead, her mother has apparently been carrying another man's child, her brother seems unnaturally overprotective of her, and the young man accused of the crime appears besotted with her. Does he love her enough to kill her father to remove the barrier to their marriage? Another solid mystery in the Gaslight series, with some flirting between Malloy and Brandt, and an interesting look at the different philosophies of teaching the deaf, along with the unpleasant reminder of the eugenics movement.

book icon  A Ball, A Dog, and a Monkey, Michael D'Antonio
I found this volume in the splendid bookstore of the Museum of the Air Force; there was so much to choose from and I decided on this, and it did not disappoint. It is the story of Sputnik and the next faltering steps into space, of those who later became famous in both United States and Soviet Union space programs, and of the atmosphere, life, and philosophy of the late 1950s. There's a surprising lot of information in this book that I had not yet encountered in any other book about the space program: a chapter about James Van Allen (as in the Van Allen radiation belt) and his "rockoon" (part rocket and part balloon); the tale of the Reston family's car trip through the Soviet Union; the career of reporter Wickie Stivers, a woman in a man's world; how a sleepy town in Alabama came to the forefront; the story of the animals that went into space, including Gordo the squirrel monkey and Russia's Laika; the development of Cocoa Beach; the government's fears vs. the public's surprising lack of curiosity; and the sometimes unusual personalities involved on both sides. This is a lively, enjoyable collection of engaging behind-the-scenes stories.

book icon  The King's Best Highway, Eric Jaffe
I spent many years of my life riding up and down Post Road in Rhode Island, so I was naturally drawn to this history of what was originally the communications corridor of first the British colonies and later the New England states. There were, as I discovered, actually two routes, the one from Boston to Hartford thence to New York, and the route I was most familiar with, which runs past the airport and down past the Washington County beaches. The first part of the book covers the role the route played in colonial and later Revolutionary politics and life. The last part covers the rise of the automobile and how the old Post Road was almost overwhelmed by the rise of the superhighways. The central chapters take a curious detour into the history of the Northeast Corridor's railways; however, it parallels the influence the railroad had between the day of coaches and the rise of the automobile.

If you grew up near the two Post Roads as I did, you may find this history interesting. However, the book is a bit dry and I don't see it appealing to the general history reader.

book icon  Acceptable Loss, Anne Perry
In what could be said to be the second half of a two-part story featuring Perry's early Victorian police detective William Monk, this novel picks up where Execution Dock left off, with Monk still determined to put an end to the sexual abuse of young boys by procurers who use the youngsters for the amusement of wealthy young men. However, the revelation of the money behind this horrific enterprise has put Monk and his wife Hester at odds with the wife (Hester's former assistant at a refuge for poor women) of their good friend and barrister Oliver Rathbone.

It was good to have a resolution to the mystery originally raised in Execution Dock, but it appears Perry had to run roughshod over at least one character to do so. From a wealthy woman who once defied convention to help Hester, Margaret Rathbone has turned into someone obsessed with her father to the point she will not listen to her sensible friend or adoring husband. One might have been more sympathetic to the emotional dilemma she faced due to Monk's revelations if she didn't spend the entire book acting like a frightful witch to people she implicitly trusted earlier. This inconsistency bothered me, and I therefore did not enjoy the story as much as I might have. At least it didn't end with a frustrating cliffhanger like its predecessor!

book icon  The Mayflower and the Pilgrims' New World, Nathaniel Philbrick
This is stated as a young people's version of Philbrick's Mayflower, but it is a surprisingly adult if abridged text. It is excellent for a basic overview of the origin of the Pilgrims, their settlement on the shore of Eastern Massachusetts, and the long bloody history of what became known as "King Philip's War," with maps and illustrations scattered throughout the text. While the wording has been simplified, you will not feel talked down to if you use this as a simple way to acquaint yourself with the basic facts, and then continue to the original book for additional details if you find yourself so inclined.

book icon  The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell
If this is a typical example of the author's sense of humor, I wasn't impressed. Her snark is not my style. However, I learned more about two of Rhode Island's founders, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, from her book than I ever did in twelve years of Rhode Island education, so along with my lack of approbation of her humor I must include appreciation for her history lesson. Unfortunately the book is riddled with modern American political potshots as well, and as a whole I did not enjoy it.

If you are more tolerant of Vowell's prose, then there is much of interest in this book, which addresses the Puritans who settled Massachusetts after the Pilgrims [different group!] settled in Plymouth. The two groups are often confused, with "our Puritan forebears" much different than stereotypically portrayed. The conflict between the philosophies of John Winthrop and Williams/Hutchinson are well described. If you care enough to extract the fact from the snark and frequent political diatribes, you will have some interesting facts. Otherwise, steer clear.

book icon  Just My Type, Simon Garfield
Given that my husband has had to drag me away from font software during much of our relationship, I couldn't help buying this book, and it did not disappoint, beginning with the endpapers of the Periodic Table of Typefaces and opening with a bang!-biff!-pow! in a chapter about the most vilified typeface of all time, the ubiquitous Comic Sans. In short, amusing but informative chapters, Garfield discusses the history of typefaces, how typefaces influence us, stereotype situations, the anatomy of a typeface, how modern typefaces are created and the intents of their creators, how logo fonts become representative of the product or person they advertise, even spotting font anachronisms in films. College Humor's funny videos "Font Conference" and "Font Fight" make a brief appearance as well! For font fans, a fabulous feast!

31 October 2011

Books Finished Since October 1

book icon  A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900, Stephen Puleo
John Winthrop's "city on a hill" becomes a leader in things technological and sociological in this engrossing read by Puleo, bookended by two rail events: the railroad exposition of 1851 and the building of America's first subway in 1899. In the intervening years, Boston becomes a leader in antislavery movements, precipitated by the return of a refugee under the Fugitive Slave Law; the amazing landfill of the Back Bay is begun, most of the business district is destroyed by fire, and the once-despised Irish gain a social foothold in the city, followed by the Italians.

I have other histories of Boston, but this one presented even more facts and stories I had never heard of in a highly-readable, but never condescending style. A must for anyone who loves the city or late 19th-century American history.

book icon  The Sherlock Holmes Companion, Daniel Smith
This is a lovely glossy coffee-table-like book that I found on the remainder shelf at Barnes & Noble. It contains synopses of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels (sans spoilers), but the big draw is the variety of illustrations: from the stories themselves (Sidney Paget and otherwise), covers of different Holmes editions (including an American paperback from the 1950s where the woman character resembles a dance-hall girl from a saloon), playbills, movie and play posters, and more. You'll see William Gillette (who popularized Holmes' wearing of a deerstalker and smoking a calabash pipe, not Conan Doyle), Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, etc. Also included are inserts by people who have had to do with Holmes, including both David Burke and Edward Hardwicke from the Brett series. Recommended for Holmes fans!

book icon  Mysteries of Animal Intelligence, Sherry Hansen Steiger and Brad Steiger
I have a much-read book called The Strange World of Animals and Pets and I thought this might have a few more good stories about animal instincts and intelligence, so I gave it a try. Sadly, it's a bit dull, even for the age group it's written for (9-12). Some phrasing is awkward, and some of the stories seemed pasted verbatim from Chicken Soup for the Soul-type books. Still, there were some stories I had never heard, so it wasn't a total loss.

book icon  Royal Blood, Rhys Bowen
When hated relatives show up, what do you do? This is the problem for Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, otherwise known as "Georgie," 34th in line for the throne, and in no position to quibble because the townhome she's living in belongs to the visiting relatives, her actual amiable brother "Binky" and his annoying wife "Fig." Georgie seeks escape in any way she can, and accepts an errand from her cousin Queen Mary: to go to Romania for the marriage of a minor prince, since the bride is an old school friend. But Georgie finds more than she can handle: not only her handsome "sometimes beau," but the odious German prince they keep trying to marry her off to—and suspected vampires, not to mention the death of an unmannerly general!

I found this outing much more appealing than the last; Georgie is more proactive even as she displays her usual talent for falling into mysteries and murder. Introduced is the clumsy country maid Georgie's affable grandfather supplies to accompany her to the wedding, and a great deal of the humor is supplied by Georgie trying to make a proper lady's maid of "Queenie." Flamboyant best friend Belinda also manages to turn up along with all the regulars. A fun romp with a not-bad mystery thread woven throughout.

book icon  Scout, Atticus & Boo, Mary McDonagh Murphy
Disappointing. I was hoping for some literary criticism and also examination of each of the main characters along with commentary, but this book is pretty much an introduction which sums up the narratives which follow, which are basically well-known writers and other celebrities talking about how much To Kill a Mockingbird meant to them. It is a litany of "oh, how I wish Atticus was my father" or "oh, how I loved (or wanted to be) Scout." I'm not saying that the various authors of the essays had nothing to say, but I was expecting a little more "teeth" to them. For instance, I understand there are African-American critics that dislike this book because it is about yet another powerful white man who tries to save poor black people, with the implied meaning that people of color will always need white people to rescue them. You won't see that opposing viewpoint here.

There are certainly worthwhile bits, including Mary Badham's memories of filming the movie, but I would certainly wait for a remainder sale or a paperback version.

book icon  Mr. Monk on the Road, Lee Goldberg
All's well for Adrian Monk—as well as it can be, anyway, when you are as obsessive-compulsive as the San Francisco police department consultant can be. Now that he's solved the mystery of his wife's death and his horizons have widened after finding her daughter, Monk wants to do something to help his agoraphobic brother Ambrose, who hasn't left the house voluntarily since he was a child. So with his reluctant assistant Natalie Teeger in tow (Monk doesn't drive), he rents an RV, drugs his brother on his birthday, and takes him on the road to see some of the sites he's missed during his lifetime.

Since it's Monk, you know somewhere along the road there will be a mystery or two to solve. This is a funny and sometimes touching entry in the series, as Ambrose—without leaving the RV but once!—experiences the wonder of the world around him, including his first "sleepover" and a visit to the Grand Canyon. For some reason Natalie is saddled with what I thought was a kind of dippy phobia that is only integrated into the book as it concludes, and one of the mystery elements is introduced rather late into the story. Still, more fun than frowns in this outing, especially in Goldberg's introduction of Lt. Disher's replacement and in Ambrose's blossoming (within reason, of course).

book icon  A Rather Curious Engagement, C.A. Belmond
Cousins Penny Nichols and Jeremy Laidley, now owners of an English townhouse, a French country villa, a vintage car, and not a small amount of money from the inheritance left them by their Aunt Penelope, decide to form a business together as well as buy the townhome and repair the villa. Guided by their attorney, not to mention a couple of relatives, they decide also to indulge in one big "splurge," a small 1920s era yacht. But no sooner have they purchased Liesl's Dream when the boat is stolen, propelling them into yet another mystery.

Again, a slow, amiable mystery that is as much Mediterranean travelogue and food feast, as well as love story. Jeremy's ex-wife Lydia has appeared, clearly appearing to have designs on him again, and the couple are exploring their own feelings for each other while delving into the mystery of a missing (if it exists at all) aquamanilia (a metal sculpture also used as a vessel for liquids). Slow-moving but enjoyable if that's what you're in the mood for.

book icon  More All-of-a-Kind Family, Sydney Taylor
I was delighted to find this at a charity booksale; long ago you could find the "All of a Kind" family books in inexpensive Dell Yearling editions, but they sadly went out of print, only to be reprinted some years back as very expensive paperbacks, then vanishing. Some of them, especially the final book, are now selling for up to $170 each!

This, the second book in the series, continues the adventures of the "steps-and-stairs" sisters Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie, growing up with their Papa and Mama and baby brother Charlie on New York's Lower East Side. There's nothing earth-shaking about these books; it's just the day-to-day lives of the family, taking place in 1917, with a lively subplot about Uncle Hyman's romance with a merry lady named Lena. Taylor's books about the family are taken from her own childhood memories, so the stories have the ring of truth while surrounding you with warmth. Curl up with a hot drink and this book, and visit 1917!

book icon  A History of the World in 6 Glasses, Tom Standage
I don't think I got as much out of this book as I would have if I had sat down and read it in one go; instead, my reading was spread over some months and I probably lost threads of ideas in the interim parts. However, when I was reading it I did enjoy what I read, even if beer (how do you drink anything that smells that bad?) and cola (::shudder::) are not my favorite things to read about, except in a historical perspective. I especially enjoyed the coffee chapter and the stories of how the coffeehouses became social centers and even businesses (re Lloyds of London). Also interesting portions on the Roman drinking habits (wine diluted with water).

In fact, you can judge by this lackluster review how I should have done this book better justice. Perhaps if I ever get through my mounting to-be-read pile I'll have a go at it again. The subject certainly deserves better, although the prose is a bit plodding, which may have contributed to my desultory reading.