31 July 2012

Books Finished Since July 1

book icon  That's Not in My American History Book, Thomas Ayres
This is a collection of essays about the myths that still surround events in American history despite efforts to quell them, the most obvious being "facts" like the people of Columbus' time not knowing that the world was round, that Charles Lindbergh was the first person to fly the Atlantic, that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, Paul Revere finished his famous ride, etc. If you're already up-to-date on these "mythconceptions," you'll learn about the original fourteenth state (it wasn't Vermont), an "aeronaut" before the Wright Brothers, an interesting theory about Pocahontas, all about Benedict Arnold and why he might have been driven to becoming a traitor, and more.

Unfortunately reviews have pointed out that several of Ayres' "facts" are untrue, including the story of "Taps," but, as with all historical trivia books, this one should just be a springboard to delve more deeply into a subject rather than taking the statements automatically at face value. This book has merit just for pointing out that there is more to American history than white men making it all happen: many cowboys (and some cavalry troops) were African-American and Native American, there were women who worked behind the scenes in all wars (and they weren't just doing laundry and rolling bandages, etc.).

book icon  The Helene Hanff Omnibus: Underfoot in Show Business, 84 Charing Cross Road, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Apple of My Eye, Q's Legacy, Helene Hanff
More years ago than I would care to remember, a little book became a big best seller, Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross road, the epistolary tale of Hanff's friendship with the employees of a London bookshop. She later wrote a sequel in which she finally got to visit England, but, in the way of things, I never got around to buying it. When a friend read Charing Cross for the first time, it reminded me I had never found the sequel. Via Amazon Marketplace, however, I came upon a bargain: both of the books, plus three other of Hanff's books in an omnibus edition. So after refreshing myself in the original, I then finally read the sequel with a grin of delight on my face as Helene meets some of the people she wrote to all those years and got to complete most of her dreams of seeing what was her magical world: literary England. The other books are just as much fun: Underfoot is the tale of how she tried to become a playwright and ended up writing for television; Apple is the story of her odyssey around her home town of New York City with a friend while writing a tour book; and Q's Legacy brings Helene's story full circle. "Q" was Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, whose books on writing and literature Hanff devoured as her own education when she was unable to finish college. It was in looking for the books recommended by "Q" that eventually drove Hanff to correspond with Marks & Co of 84, Charing Cross Road. If you enjoyed her original book, with all of her opinionated commentary, you'll probably love them all. A bonus for Hanff lovers!

Incidentally, the bookseller I bought this omnibus volume from was, you guessed it, English, which I found very fitting!

book icon  Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin
This is Rubin's sequel to The Happiness Project, which I enjoyed last year despite the annoyed reviews asking "she's rich, why should she be unhappy?" which was the point of the book: Rubin knew she had a good life, but she was still unhappy. Knowing the only person she could change was herself, she was determined to improve her attitude.

This newest book is not as dense as the previous book, but serves as a follow-on to what has already been accomplished. Knowing her home is the most important thing to her, Rubin works on improving her happiness in and with her home starting in September as her children's school year begins and ending in May. Again, Rubin uses what works for her: putting more emphasis on improving communications with her family and her children, making special places in her home (even if they are only small corners), to not procrastinate and even do things that make her unhappy to ensure happiness in the future. Again, Rubin's way is not your own, and by using her rules as suggestions, you can tailor for yourself.

I liked the previous book better, but this has some useful tips as well. The most important one: Be Yourself.

book icon  The Ultimate Dog Lover, edited by Marty Becker
A "Chicken Soup for the Soul"-type volume (even the design is similar) of heartwarming true tales about dogs along with photographs and some training and upbringing tips. I bought mine as a remainder book and for that price it was worthwhile. A nice before-bed book for dog lovers.

book icon  Still Life With Chickens, Catherine Goldhammer
When Goldhammer went through a traumatic divorce, she found she could no longer stay in a family home full of memories. So she bought a small house by the seashore which was definitely a "fixer-upper" (some portions, like the kitchen, required gutting), along with her flamboyant teenage daughter who declared that she wouldn't move unless they could buy some chickens. To appease her daughter and her own guilt about making the child move away from her friends, Goldhammer buys an incubator and raises six chickens from birth, discovering that she gets more solace from caring for the flock than anything else in her life.

Part bucolic memoir and part coping strategy, this is a short, introspective book in the Eat, Pray, Love vein. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but must admit it's not my usual genre, and I was glad I bought it from a remainder table. YMMV.

book icon  America's Hidden History, Kenneth C. Davis
After penning his bestsellers Don't Know Much about History and Don't Know Much about Geography, Davis completed this more-focused book about events beginning with the colonization of what became the United States through the Constitutional Convention. Subjects include King Philip's War and other conflicts between the Puritans and the Native Americans, George Washington's early career, the story of the first colony in America (not St. Augustine!), the story of Dr. Joseph Warren (whose pivotal role in the Revolutionary War is little remembered today), and more.

Some reviewers seemed disappointed by the fact that this book was not labeled more heavily as being about only the colonial period. The cover is indeed not clear about this, but by reading a description of the book this became understood, so I don't understand what the problem was. I don't read many books about this era and found this quite enjoyable since it doesn't dwell on the usual facts, although I was amused by this unfortunate typo about our first President: "...young George Washington gained entree [sic] into...most powerful families..." Well, I'm glad he was fed!

book icon  Holmes of the Movies, David Stuart Davies
This is an out-of-date, but informative British book about the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in films, peppered liberally with photographs. It begins with the silent films and spends some time on the three portrayals of Holmes that the author finds the most notable: Arthur Wontner, Basil Rathbone (even if Nigel Bruce had to portray Watson as an ass), and Peter Cushing (despite the fact he was too short to be Holmes). The final film mentioned is the not-yet-premiered The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which, after my vaguely remembering viewing of the Rathbone movies at a young age, was my true first introduction to the Great Detective. Isn't coincidence fun?

book icon  Rattle His Bones, Carola Dunn
For Daisy Dalrymple, it's just another day at work: she's doing a story on the new exhibition of dinosaur bones at the Museum of Natural History, although this particular outing has a holiday air as she is taking her nephew Derek and her future stepdaughter Belinda Fletcher to see the exhibit. Daisy is in the middle of an interview when a shout of pain interrupts her: one of the more unpleasant members of the staff has been killed, impaled on dinosaur bones.

It's the usual pattern in this eighth Daisy mystery, as she's embroiled directly in the case, to Inspector Alec Fletcher's dismay. The prologue lets us in on another crime in progress at the museum, so the stakes are higher than most. It's also fun to have an opportunity to wander around (even in literary form) inside an old-fashioned museum, not the bright glass-and-metal of the present, but one with polished dark wood display cases with brass trimmings, and envision the day when dinosaur theory was still very new. There's a large cast of characters, so lots of opportunity for red herrings. A nice solid entry in the series.

book icon  All My Patients Have Tales, Jeff Wells, DVM
I've been addicted to veterinarian books since James Herriot appeared upon the scene, so it was a natural that I was going to snap up this one at an opportune financial moment. It's the pleasant story of Wells' training in South Dakota and practice in Colorado, and his work with both large and small animals—and after reading Nick Trout's memoir I was happy to see there wasn't a sign of snark!

I'm not sure what else I can say about this book. It's a nice read that lovers of veterinarian stories and animals will probably enjoy. It offers a good look into the routine, emergencies, and sacrifices of a vet's life. There's some funny sequences with some of the animals—how about a pig named "Bacon" and a cow chase? I guess my "problem" with other vet books besides Herriot's is that he wasn't only telling stories about his practice, but was telling us about a now-vanished way of life and vet practice among the Yorkshire Dales, using now outmoded medicines and creaky transport, and dealing with farmers working in a traditional lifestyle. Somehow our protagonist watching television and driving a pickup truck doesn't have the same poetry. :-)

book icon  The Winter of the Red Snow, Kristiana Gregory
The Stewart family lives near Valley Forge and witnesses the terrible wintering of General George Washington's troops during the Revolutionary War. They help as best they can, offering supplies and assistance, and Abigail and her older sister help their mother do the laundry for Washington and his officers, as well as sewing shirts and knitting scarves and mittens for the soldiers who are perishing with cold and disease.

As always in the "Dear America" series, some of the books work for me and some don't. Winter is not a bad book, and there are some terrible truths that Abigail learns (the executions for deserters, for example, and the fact that not all Tories are demons as the propaganda of the time would have had them believe) that take the story beyond a children's history look at the winter of 1777, but I found the story strangely lifeless. The family and their friends never came truly alive for me.

book icon  97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, Jane Ziegelman
This is a combination of ethnic history that can't be beat: the story of a Lower East Side New York City tenement house through the five ethnic groups that resided in the building between 1863 and 1935, how they worked and occasionally played, and the foods they ate, and how these foods entered the American way of life, from bagels to spaghetti. 97 Orchard was originally built for a German family in what was then a German neighborhood. It then by turns provided a home to Irish, German Jewish, Russian Jewish, and finally Italian families. Recipes from the era are liberally scattered through the text as Ziegelman examines the changes wrought by time and assimilation. A great read!

Incidentally, 97 Orchard Street is now the New York Tenement Museum.

book icon  The Storm Makers, Jennifer E. Smith
It all starts when Ruby McDuff sees the strange man in the family barn. The McDuffs have living in the country for a year now, so that Ruby's dad can pursue his dream to be an inventor and her Mom an artist. Next her recently moody twin brother Simon shorts out the toaster by just touching it. And then when Ruby confronts the stranger she saw in the barn, he tells her that Simon is a Storm Maker, one of an elite group of people who can manipulate the weather. But a rogue Storm Maker is planning to get his hands on Simon, to take charge of the world's weather his own way.

It's the old story: children help defeat evil, but it's not a bad spin on the genre. Ruby must keep her brother from being used by the twisted Rupert London, helped by her stranger from the barn, Otis Gray, a man with a secret, and Daisy, the town mechanic. There are a lot of Wizard of Oz riffs in the story that work well with the weather theme, and Ruby and Simon have a nice sibling relationship, not nasty enough to be off-putting, but not perfect, cloyingly supportive siblings, either. The Storm Makers are almost plausible enough to be real, and the adults as a whole are not plaster saints, but not totally profane: even the main villain has a tender spot. This would be great for read-aloud.

book icon  The Poisoner's Handbook, Deborah Blum
This is another book that I picked up from a remainder table because it looked interesting, but didn't know if I was going to enjoy, but bought because it was cheap. This book would have been worth full price—it's absolutely fabulous. It's the story of the birth of forensic medicine in New York City starting in 1915 when the city hired its first trained medical examiner, Charles Norris (previously the medical examiner was a political appointee and a drunken sot), through his death in the 1930s when his associates have formed a solid forensic team. Norris worked long into the night to learn to detect poisons even in their minutest quantity and often spent his own money on supplies and equipment. The chapters chronicle different poisons from chloroform to heavy metals, the crimes committed with these poisons, and how Norris and his team learned to detect them.

Possibly the most horrifying passages of this book involve how the Federal Government poisoned any number of people during Prohibition by adding additives like gasoline to liquor to keep people from drinking. As someone whose grandparents still made wine during Prohibition and has heard jokes about "bathtub gin," it's mind-blowing how many people died from drinking tainted alcohol and how the government was culpable. Prohibition did nothing to stop drinking and alcoholism and actually created organized crime as we know it today.

Blum writes easily and informatively about all these subjects. It's all enthralling if occasionally uncomfortable. Don't read this during dinner or if you're sensitive to descriptions of dead or diseased bodies. Super nonfiction for historical or medical fans.

book icon  13 Little Blue Envelopes, Maureen Johnson
I found the premise of this book intriguing: a teenage girl who has lived a mostly sheltered life receives a set of blue envelopes from her recently deceased, free-spirited aunt. The first envelope instructs her to pack a backpack and go to the airport, the first step on a trip to Europe. In the process, Ginny will learn more about life, love and living large.

Well, that was the theory, anyway. As much of a devotee as I am of Auntie Mame and although weekly on his radio show Rick Steves and his guests assure me that Europe isn't dangerous, the idea of sending a rather naive seventeen-year-old girl off to Europe to discover life with nothing but a backpack and an ATM card rather horrifies me. If Ginny had been a more adventurous type maybe I would have felt differently, but she's really rather a dull heroine who basically develops a crush on the first guy she meets in Europe while she's learning about her aunt's interesting life. (Frankly, I would have preferred reading a book about the aunt.) I got the sequel to this book as a free e-book and that relieves me, since I'd like to find out what happened to a certain item that has vanished by book's end, but not enough to pay for another "adventure" of this kind. If this is female adolescent "chick lit," I know why I never read any of it at that age. I much preferred books about the space program!

book icon  The Broken Lands, Kate Milford
This is Milford's exciting prequel to The Boneshaker, taking place chiefly on Coney Island during the era in which the Brooklyn Bridge is being completed. When two evil entities, Walker and Bones, arrive in New York City, it is the crossroads of power situated there that they are setting greedy eyes on. If they can overcome the five guardians of the city, they can turn it over to Jack Hellcoal, the man who once beat the Devil at his own game. Into the mix of Tom Guyot, the African-American man who once defeated Jack, various Coney Island denizens, and real-life journalist/writer Ambrose Bierce come Sam, a young card sharp whose father died working in the cassions of the bridge, and Jin, a Chinese girl apprenticed to a fireworks master. It will take them all, and more, to defeat Walker and Bones

This is an exciting, suspenseful, and sometimes truly scary young adult novel that can be read by all ages with pleasure. Milford paints a vivid portrait of young Coney Island before the arrival of the amusement parks in an era still reeling from Reconstruction and recession, and of the great bridge that will bring changes to both Manhattan and Brooklyn. You come to care about Sam, Jin, and their companions as they protect the city they love in a story that's a little bit Bradbury and a little bit Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. A definite keeper!