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!