30 September 2011

Books Finished Since September 1

book icon Rick Steves' London 2011
Ah, wishful thinking! Enjoyable tour book with the usual offbeat Steves jokes, covering historical and artistic sights (Steves even talks about significant pieces of art in each of the museums covered), along with day trips to Windsor, Greenwich, Stonehenge and Bath. Fun inserts include places to see out of Harry Potter, pub history, free and inexpensive sights, St. Paul's Cathedral during the Blitz, and more, and there's a handy packing list, British to American dictionary, notes about where to get essentials, and more. Fun reading and looks useful for traveling. Maybe someday...

book icon The Worlds of Back to the Future, edited by Sorcha Ní Fhlainn
Given the humor of Back to the Future and its sequels, you might believe the only serious discussion about the trilogy would relate to the physical process of the making the films. But here thirteen different authors present an alternative to that point of view: a dozen essays plus introduction about the three films, with an emphasis on Future's cultural themes.

The dozen essays in this book range from the very scholarly to slightly lighter pieces, but all are serious in their intent: how the series was a definitive product of the Reagan era, discussion of incest and racism themes in the films, Thomas Wilson's portrayal of each of the films' villains, the Western trope as used in the third film, how Marty was allowed to correct his own timeline without repercussion while other time changes were seen as needing repair, the narrow role of women in each story, etc. One of my favorite pieces discussed how the score enhances the storyline. Back to the Future fans should enjoy this multi-viewpoint examination.

book icon Thunder Dog, Michael Hingson
One of the most miraculous stories to come out of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, was the story of Michael Hingson, a blind man who was unerringly led out of the World Trade Center tower by his guide dog Roselle. In addition, the presence of a blind man and his dog in the staircase of Tower 1 helped keep others calm and probably saved additional lives.

Hingson retells his memories of that day interspersed with stories about his life. Diagnosed as blind at six months old, Hingson's parents refused to treat him as some fragile creature who could only function with supervision. He was treated no differently than any other child and even bicycled alone much of the time (something that many of today's parents would blanch at even with a sighted child), and to meet the world fearlessly.

Hingson's story is well-told and inspiring, but the title of the book implies that his guide dog would be the pivotal character in the story. Instead, in much of the book, Roselle is a peripheral character, especially when Hingson spends some time talking about the problems still faced by the blind, which are eye-opening and infuriating, but still seem to be a digression from the stated intent.

book icon Robert A. Heinlein, Volume 1, William H. Patterson Jr
Everything you wanted to know about Robert Heinlein, and were never able to ask.

This is a very dense biography of Heinlein, beginning with his family (including a portrait of his grandfather, who inspired Ira Johnson, grandfather of "Lazarus Long"). Mr. Patterson seems to know every little detail about Heinlein's life, down to specific details of infections he had, and as a Trivial Pursuit source, it can't be beat. We learn of Heinlein's real first wife (a high-school classmate, who married him and then promptly refused to leave home), his tempestuous marriage to Leslyn Macdonald, his first attempts at writing and first sales, his friendship with editor John Campbell, his short naval career and of the new work he found during World War II (along with fellow future science fiction writers L. Sprague DeCamp and Isaac Asimov). It is during World War II that Heinlein meets Virginia Gerstenfeld, who will provide the next chapter in his life.

I discovered many things in this volume—the regular routine of a student in Annapolis, that Heinlein ran for public office and enjoyed going to nudist camps, stories about the Heinleins and their friends (Ray Bradbury, Forrest J. Ackerman, the DeCamps, etc.), his quest to find publishers for his stories and how they changed from inception to final publication—but in the end I never felt I touched the "real" Robert Heinlein. The many facts seem to hold the man at arms' length. Nevertheless, I will buy the second volume. I just hope Patterson doesn't go the way of Blanche Wiesen Cook—will we ever see the third volume of Cook's Eleanor Roosevelt bio?

book icon The Romeo and Juliet Code, Phoebe Stone
Felicity Bathburn Budwig arrives in Bottlebay, Maine, to live with her father's family when her parents Danny and Winifred are called away. She has lived all her life in London (her mother's home) and doesn't know what to make of the wild seaside town, the old Victorian house, and her relatives: her grandmother, known as The Gram, her eccentric Aunt Miami, and her uncle Gideon, who appears to dislike her father and who has nailed the family piano shut. Adrift among friendly strangers, she clings to her stuffed bear Wink, and wonders about the other resident of the house, a mysterious person called "Captain Derek" who never leaves his room.

As Felicity unravels one mystery, another presents itself. Why does Uncle Gideon go off by himself, and where? Why haven't her parents contacted her since she was left behind? Why does her family sometimes "try too hard"?

I enjoyed this book but had problems with Felicity's voice. She didn't sound like a real English child to me, at least an English child of that era, and her words and narration are often stilted. She also takes a stunning piece of news much more calmly than seems realistic. The mystery is well-paced, and the slowly-revealed backstory also well-done, although if you have read anything about the 1940s you may recognize Uncle Gideon's visitor and guess the truth somewhat early. Still, the characters are fairly likeable, there is a lovely old-time feeling to some of the passages, and the well-described Maine setting is a definite plus.

My main objection to this book is its supposedly "vintage" cover which is more 1950s than 1940s—girls didn't wear sneakers like that back then, let alone pink sneakers! Plus it makes the story look like some type of goopy teen love tale. A more moody, windswept beach with the small figure of a girl holding a stuffed bear against an old Victorian house with people peeking out at her would have been much more evocative and appropriate.

book icon The Last Illusion, Rhys Bowen
Still torn between her love for police officer Daniel Sullivan and her own need for independence, private investigator Molly Murphy and Sullivan attend a vaudeville performance where the famous Harry Houdini will perform one of the acts. But during the act before Houdini's, the magician's assistant is mortally wounded. It is through this gruesome crime that Molly meets Bess Houdini, who wishes to hire Molly to protect her husband—Bess fears this violent act is a further threat to her husband, whom she feels is being followed. Although Daniel tells her not to get involved, Molly complies with Bess' wish. And, sure enough, at the least someone appears to want Houdini dead—or at least out of business.

I usually gobble these stories up, but I found I had a lot of trouble getting through this one. Not sure if I just wasn't interested in the Houdini storyline or was a bit weary with Molly's waffling between her job and her man, although I find her predicament understandable given the era. Perhaps it was just because her friends Sid and Gus had so little time. Many interesting facts were included about Houdini and his family, including the technique of several magic tricks (fans of Remember WENN will be familiar with at least one), and at least one facet of his life I found very surprising; not to mention Bowen's descriptions of the New York heat wave were very evocative. Just was a bit ambivalent about the story as a whole. YMMV!

book icon Arctic Autumn, Pete Dunne
Some people like beaches and sprawling in the sun. Me, I am drawn to cold places, which explains my delight with this small volume about the author's trips to various Arctic locations, from Bylot Island during the summer solstice, to Churchill, Manitoba in late October, with his wife Linda. From an expedition to see caribou to another for an encounter with polar bears, from a leisurely canoe trip to an introspective hunting trip, Dunne attempts to capture all facets of the Arctic tundra: its wildlife, its threat from climate change, the lives of its first human inhabitants, the influence of "civilization" on its ecosystem, but most of all the beauty of the region. At times thoughtful, humorous, solemn, and offbeat; always informative and pleasant to read. Like the dreamy child dreaming of snowy climes in the first chapter, this book makes me long for a trip to the tundra.

book icon The Technologists, Matthew Pearl
Pearl returns to Boston for his fourth 19th century-set mystery thriller, where a mysterious technological attack on the city—the disabling of all compasses in Boston Harbor on a foggy night, leading to destruction and carnage—begins to point a finger at the newly-opened Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is feared and despised by its rivals at Harvard and its charismatic and temperamental notable naturalist Louis Agassiz. Marcus Mansfield, a Civil War survivor at 22 and the charity pupil at the new institute, plus members of his graduating class, the first at the Institute, including a lone woman who must study chemistry cloistered from the other pupils because science is not considered a "womanly" study, slowly become ensnared in the machinations of the twisted genius who continues to torment the city. When glass melts from windows and off watchfaces, the Institute's students decide to take matters into their own hands to hunt down the perpetrator.

This is a dandy Dickensian-like Gothic (and borderline steampunk) mystery-thriller, not quite so dense as Pearl's Dante Club (which is referred to). It also portrays the early days of MIT when its students and their studies were distrusted, and of the hardships a young woman incurred when trying to obtain a higher education; when the rich boys of Harvard held sway in society and the rise of technology both awed and frightened the population. I found this a page-turner from beginning to end, but be forewarned that you must be happy to read Dickensian-like prose to get the full enjoyment of this novel.

book icon Marie-Grace and Cécile
Meet Marie-Grace
Meet Cécile
Marie-Grace and the Orphans
Troubles for Cécile
Marie-Grace Makes a Difference
Cécile's Gift
I'm a sucker for history, which means I can't resist each new incarnation of the American Girls. This new series puts a different twist on the usual progression of each girl (an introduction, school story, holiday story, etc.). Instead both characters are introduced in a paired set of books that tells of their meeting from each girl's point of view, then follows the girls switching points of view through one year and a pivotal point in time: the 1853 yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans. Marie-Grace Gardner is a doctor's daughter newly returned to her late mother's hometown of New Orleans, where her father sets up a medical practice, who meets Cécile Rey, daughter of a noted New Orleans stonemason, when she takes singing lessons. The Reys are gens de couleur libre, free persons of color, whose lives are much different than that of the slaves in the remainder of the South.

The epidemic is the main focus of the stories, but the girls also help out at orphanages overflowing with children whose parents have died of disease, and save a baby who is being sought by slave traders. (Parents, please note: a regular character does die in the epidemic.) As in all the American Girls books, the language is simplified for young vocabularies, which often makes the narrative a bit stilted. I also don't like the illustrations on the new books as well as I did the older ones; the expanses of flat color—gouache?—make the faces appear artificial most of the time, although there is at least one lovely illustration of the two girls at church.

All in all, I enjoyed the era as it was portrayed and the child's-eye-view of race, sickness, and sacrifice, but this is not my favorite entry in the series.

book icon Vintage Notions, Amy Barickman
This is a nifty craft book with a focus more on sewing than anything else; nevertheless I really enjoyed it due to the vintage illustrations and text taken from Mary Brooks Picken's publications for the Women's Institute. Chapters are divided by month, with an inspirational essay, notes on attitude, fashion, and food, and one "magic sewing pattern" for each month, plus seasonal tips, and, as I mentioned, delightful 1920s illustrations from Picken's newsletters. Anyone into vintage women's crafts who wants a peek into the past should enjoy this volume. Just be aware it's a bit expensive; I bought it with a coupon!

book icon Lessons from the Mountain, Mary McDonough
When she was ten years old, Mary McDonough won the role of Erin Walton in the television movie The Homecoming, which later was picked up as the television series The Waltons. McDonough played Erin for ten years (and then in six subsequent television movies) and had an almost universal positive relationship with her television co-stars.

Unfortunately behind Erin's sweet smile there lay a person who was beset by doubts, from childish fears to troubling teenage worries about her body and appearance. As an adult, she opted for breast implants to help her have a more positive body image and boost her career. Instead, it was just the beginning of massive health problems that endangered her life and the care of her daughter.

McDonough writes in a stream-of-consciousness style that may bother people who prefer more traditional narratives. As a Walton fan I enjoyed her memories of the series, and I was dismayed at the negative effect the implants had on her later life. I personally believe breast implants for cosmetic reasons are ridiculous and unnecessary, and felt bad that McDonough so disliked herself that she would opt for this "solution" to her image problems. It is yet another sign of the unrealistic ideas we have given to young women for years, that somehow having big breasts will make them feel "more womanly" and solve their problems. I wish her a brighter and healthier future.

Please note that this is not simply a memoir of McDonough's time on The Waltons. Several reviewers seemed disappointed that this was not the book's only focus. McDonough uses the word "mountain" to not only refer to the series' setting, but to the "mountains" she faced in growing up and with her illness.

book iconMockingbird, Charles J. Shields
Nelle Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird became a classic upon publication, has been all her life an intensely private person. So author Shields was handicapped by not having the input of his subject in writing this memoir, relying on articles and other people's impressions of her to form his text, and I'm sure Miss Lee did not approve.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book because I liked the woman that emerged from Shields' research: an individualist, not concerned with fashion, perceptions of young women at the time, or criticism. She forged her own path despite family disappointment in her choices, and friends, classmates, and other acquaintances who thought her "an odd duck." We learn of the real-life town, Monroeville, AL, which inspired the fictional Maycomb, of Miss Lee's childhood with an emotionally troubled mother, her college years in which she honed her writing, and the gift of time she was given by friends to write To Kill a Mockingbird. A good part of the book addresses her friendship with mercurial Truman Capote, and the assistance she lent him while researching his book In Cold Blood. Capote pretty much comes off as I remember him from television talk shows: aggrandizing and flamboyant, yet with a veneer of insecurity.

If nothing else, you get some interesting glimpses behind the scenes of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.