31 January 2012

Books Finished Since January 1

book icon  A Book of Feasts and Seasons, Joanna Bogle
I had never heard of Ms. Bogle until I happened to record a few programs of hers off the EWTN (Catholic) network, a simple series called Feasts and Seasons in which she chats about the liturgical year and makes easy recipes associated with each season. (And I'm really unhappy that I missed the programs concerning the first and second Sunday of Advent!) This is a book having to do with the feasts within the liturgical year, and the mainly British-themed (Bogle is a Catholic Briton) traditions and food that goes with them, told in a matter-of-fact style with a dry humor I enjoyed. I found this book fascinating, but then I'm an Anglophile. Catholics should also find it of interest.

book icon  Santa Claus: Last of the Wild Men, Phyllis Siefker
How did a dour, austere bishop from Turkey evolve into a jolly, fur-trimmed chubby fellow driving a team of reindeer? Most histories of Santa Claus cite a softening of notions of discipline, concepts of various artists over time, and other evolutionary changes. However, Siefker has written an intriguing study that offers us instead Santa's evolution from an older religious symbol, the pagan Wild Man of the forest, who has been embodied in St. Nicholas' European companions (Belsnickel, Pelznichol, Smutchli, etc.) as well as in other iconoclastic figures such as Robin Hood, the Harlequin, and Puck. She digs deeply into pagan traditions and, whether you agree with her theory that the pagan Wild Man became intertwined with the Christian gift giver or not, gives examples of some fascinating ancient traditions revolving around old pagan beliefs, some traditions which lasted well into the 20th century. My big complaint is that most of the illustrations supporting Ms. Siefker's theory are badly printed (some are no more than two-tone outlines that look like badly photocopies illustrations). For instance, a picture of an ancient wagon supposedly dug up from an archaeological site is so bad it could be a 19th century farm wagon. Still, the text is readable and thought-provoking.

book icon  A Secret Gift, Ted Gup
In 1933, at the height of the Depression, the mysterious "B. Virdot," via a newspaper ad, offered the citizens of the hard-hit city of Canton, OH. the sum of $10 for letters telling about their circumstances. Back in the 1930s, charity was anathema to most people, so it was telling that "B. Virdot" received so many letters that he instead sent $5 to twice the amount of people. The incident might have been forgotten had not Ted Gup inherited a suitcase with his late grandfather's papers, and discovered that his relative had been the mysterious "B. Virdot." Using the carefully saved letters and followup correspondence, Gup tracked down each of the families that received money and discovered what that small but welcome gift did for each of them. It's also the story of Gup's grandfather, Sam Stone, an immigrant who knew what losing it all meant.

I enjoyed this book as a portrait of what the everyday Joe went through during the Depression, and also the gradual revelation of what made Sam Stone the man he was and perhaps why he felt he had to give the money away. The text is a tad padded, and Gup's "big reveal" isn't as dramatic as the lead in would have you believe, but those are minor quibbles. The main story is the one of the beneficiaries of "B. Virdot" and how they survived.

book icon  Murder on the Flying Scotsman, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple is heading northward on the Flying Scotsman to another historical home in order to write an article for "Town and Country" magazine when she discovers an old friend, 11-year-old runaway Belinda Fletcher, daughter of Scotland Yard inspector Alec Fletcher, who has investigated several murder cases Daisy has stumbled upon—and someone she is becoming very fond of. Daisy takes on care of Belinda until her father can be contacted, and the pair encounter the family of a dying wealthy landowner heading into Scotland for a last meeting with them. The large, mostly ungrateful family includes the man's twin brother, his heir, who has scandalized the family by planning to leave his fortune to "a foreigner"!—a young Indian doctor. But the trip turns deadly when the old man is murdered, and Belinda was a witness to one of the clues.

Like the previous mysteries, this is a chipper, quick moving, good-natured classic mystery story. Repercussions from the First World War are mentioned, but this is not an introspective mystery like the Maisie Dobbs stories, or Anne Perry's Great War puzzlers. Characters have an Agatha Christie type manner, and while the plots aren't as clever or convoluted as Christie, or the characters as complicated, it's a thumping good period intrigue. It's also nice to see a child who isn't angsty about the idea of her father remarrying!

book icon  The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: The Discerning Fan's Guide to Doctor Who, Marc Schuster and Tom Powers
Essay collections about themes and concepts in Doctor Who vary in quality; this one is quite good, with essays ranging from the Doctor's relationships with his own kind and with his companions to larger themes such as the future of humanity as portrayed in the series and the concept of faith. Other parts deal with the series as spectacle, the various personalities of the Doctors and how they become a coherent whole, and the concept of death. There are eight essays in all, and all are worthwhile for any Doctor Who fan looking for more info about the series than simply a cast list and pictures of monsters.

book icon  Elegy for Eddie, Jacqueline Winspear
Everyone in the costermonger community knows Eddie Pettit, a slightly "slow" man (today we would say he was autistic) who was born in a stable and has an uncanny way with horses. So when Eddie dies under unexpected circumstances at a paper-mill, the costermongers hire Maisie Dobbs, whose father was once one of their number, to look into Eddie's death. They fear the killer was a young man who "had it in" for Eddie and want him brought to justice.

Once again Winspear is allowing Maisie to progress with the times. Her previous World War I-consequence investigations have given way to those which touch upon the tenuous times of the 1930s, with Adolf Hitler coming into power and the fears of perceptive politicians and those alert enough to read the signs of approaching trouble. Innocent Eddie, his last weeks troubled by a new friendship, had gotten himself involved in something much bigger than horses and the costermongers, and Maisie will need all her wits to follow the threads of the mystery.

In addition, she is still reluctant to commit to her relationship to James Compton, and, when one of her employees is attacked, must come to terms with her tendency to meddle in people's lives for her own comfort. This was a page-turner from the prologue, where we learn of Eddie's origins, and, although the three-page wrap-up of world events in chapter one is a bit awkward in getting us up to speed, the rest progresses at a quick clip, not allowing Maisie's self-doubts to slow down the continuing riddle of Eddie's death. Winspear's chronicles of Maisie continue to please. Once I started reading I could not put it down, except to get a night's sleep.

book icon  A Pocketful of History, Jim Noles
A neat book telling the stories behind each of the images on the reverse side of the state quarters (and also the US possessions) that were released for ten years starting in 1999. Some icons were obvious—the Massachusetts Minuteman, Hawaii's King Kamehameha, Abraham Lincoln gracing Illinois—but who is that horseman on Delaware—hint: it's not Paul Revere, but another Revolutionary War hero—why are diamonds gracing Arkansas and a buffalo centered on Kansas? Virginia's quarter will teach you about those other ships: not the Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria or the Mayflower and the Speedwell, but the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed. You'll learn about Connecticut's Charter Oak, Nevada's mustangs (and the famous "Wild Horse Annie"), and more. A great bedside book for an easy and enlightening state per night.

book icon  The Fleet Street Murders, Charles Finch
Amateur sleuth Charles Lennox attempts to juggle running for Parliament in a village close to Durham while still investigating the murders of two journalists, one venial and taken to bribes, the other a god-fearing man. What links their deaths? If that wasn't enough to worry about, his best friend and his wife endure a grevious loss, which leads his fiancée to have second thoughts about being married soon.

I didn't like this quite so much as September Society, as I found the bits where Lenox is getting the constituents of the village to like him a bit tedious, although it is intriguing to see how the Parliamentary procedure worked back then (imagine representing people you know nothing about!). Again faithful butler Graham proves himself a veritable Bunter in getting people to like his employer due to his affable personality, and again a book set in an earlier time proves politics hasn't changed much, as an aspect of this story owes much to tales of bygone Chicago elections.

book icon  House M.D., The Official Guide, Ian Jackman
This is an enjoyable look behind the scenes at the series House, MD. Chapters take you though the inception of an idea through filming an episode, while interstice chapters examine each of the lead characters and what makes them tick, and also discusses with each of the actors the thoughts they put into the motivations behind their characters. No really surprising insights, but still of interest, and Hugh Laurie's introduction is a "hoot."

One oddity to this book is a persistent printing error when anything is italicized: all the ligatures (ff, ffi, fi), etc. are absent—there's just a blank space in the word! This tells me that the italic font they used to print the book didn't have ligature characters. Very unprofessional of the publisher not to notice it.