31 August 2012

Books Finished Since August 1

book icon  My Best Friend is a Wookie, Tony Pacitti
When young Tony is bullied yet again, his mother shows him his first Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back. Voila! A fan is born!

This is Pacitti's sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and occasionally self-indulgent story of his love affair with the Star Wars films, from being succor in his childhood as the small, shoved-around "new kid" (who inadvertently gets himself a damning nickname not long into the new school year) though his teen and college years. His growing dismay with the prequel films provides a parallel to the blues of growing up and the pain of failed romances.

It's pretty much a book that any fan of any film or television series can empathize with. His fandom, like many fandoms to many people, provides a refuge from taunting classmates and later forms a bond between him and the fellow fans who become his friends.You'll especially enjoy this if you're a Star Wars fan, but the situations can apply to any fandom.

book icon  Jane, Robin Maxwell
Jane Porter, uncensored! When a struggling pulps writer meets an outspoken woman at an archaelogical presentation, he doesn't realize this will lead him to a tale so fantastic he can't even tell it in its original form. But even his own version is so mesmerizing it becomes immortal.

This is the story of Tarzan from Jane's point of view, and the struggling writer she tells the tale to is, of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs presumably retrofit the true story for his audience, as Maxwell's Jane is a far cry from Burroughs' prim lass who accompanies her father on a treasure-hunting expedition. Maxwell's Jane is an independent woman who studies medicine with the approval of her indulgent father, rides astride, and defies her strict mother as often as she dares, until the tall tales of a brash American explorer send them to "deepest darkest Africa." And there the self-assured, charming American begins to change...or was he like that all along?

I enjoyed the heck out of this, but then I'm not a Tarzan devotee except for having seen some of the Weissmuller films and the 1960s series. Those who are Burroughs series purists may not appreciate Maxwell's minor changes to Tarzan's life story, or her placement of Jane in the forefront, but it was enjoyable for me to see the Edwardian-idealized Jane as a strong character. The portrayal of early 20th-century Africa under the thumb of colonialism and the jungle scenes are quite vivid, and her Tarzan seemed much more approachable, especially as Jane learns his fantastic story.

book icon  The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner
The bad thing about listening to podcasts is that they lead you into book purchases. "The Splendid Table" and "A Way With Words" are major offenders; this one came from "Travels With Rick Steves." Weiner, an NPR commentator, travels to different countries in search of elusive happiness and finds the definition of the word is different for each society—well, except in Moldova, where it's so miserable it's difficult to find anyone who's happy (seriously—when I finished the chapter on Moldova I was depressed). In Switzerland happiness seems to be about conformity, in the Netherlands about doing your own thing. He visits Shangri-La (Bhutan), where they actually have a process of Gross National Happiness, and Qatar, where it seems money can buy happiness. In Great Britain there's an experiment on the "telly" to make a town happy; in India meditation is the fashionable path.

Sending Weiner out to discover happiness is rather like watching Lou Grant tour for the same reason. I'm not familiar with his NPR broadcasts, but he wanders like an amiable bear through country after country, affording us tantalizing glimpses of other cultures. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about Iceland, where people are happy despite the long dark winters, but all of it produces a particular kind of happiness born of reading about people and places (even in gloomy Moldova). I'd recommend—happily!

book icon  Star Trek FAQ, Mark Clark
I saw this at Books-a-Million and wondered...after dozens of books and nonfiction magazine articles and even documentaries, what else can be said about the original Star Trek? Especially to me, who had the seminal Stephen Whitfield book back when it first came out in paperback in 1968.

I was pleasantly surprised upon buying it, however, that it still had much to offer. Clark doesn't concentrate solely on the series, although there is a chapter summing up the 79 original episodes and information about creating the series and the setting. Instead Clark talks about Gene Roddenberry's earlier series, what led him to create Star Trek, and what classic science fiction inspired it. He also talks about the three main actors' careers previous to Trek (as well as shorter pieces about the supporting cast), and there are chapters addressing the noted science fiction authors who wrote series' episodes, connections between Trek and other SF series, creatures and gadgets and concepts and social commentary introduced by the series, the animated series and the novels, the efforts to revive Trek as a series before Next Generation came to the screen, even tributes to DeForest Kelley and the luckless "redshirts."

Clark proves there is still something more to be said about Star Trek, and what results is a great fannish read!

book icon  The Story of Charlotte's Web, Michael Sims
I used this as a bedtime book for several weeks and it is just perfect for that purpose. Don't expect a meticulous biography of E.B. White; this charming, sweetly-narrated book is about his animal-loving 19th-century upbringing and the beloved farm he later purchased with his wife Katherine, whom he met at the "New Yorker," the latter which formed the inspiration of his children's classic about Wilbur the pig and the spider who befriends him. Sims shows us the genesis of the gentle book and its characters--at one time Fern was not part of the narrative; it is difficult to now imagine the book without her--and even White's drawings of his conception of the Zuckerman barn and his edits to the story, including the changing of Charlotte's name as he did further research into spiders. White's work at the "New Yorker" and the colorful characters he worked with are also touched on. If you've grown up loving Charlotte's Web, you should enjoy this one: perfect for bedside or fireside, or, as White might have enjoyed a good book, in a hammock under a shady tree.

book icon  The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures, edited by Mike Ashley
All right, I have to confess, I read this book in such a long period of time, one story at the time, that I'm not sure I remember half of them. I can tell you what my least favorite story in the book was, something called "The Adventure of Vittoria the Circus Belle," which I found tedious and not at all Holmesian. The other stories range from fair to good; many are attempts to recreate stories that Dr. Watson "skipped," so that there are two stories featuring "the red leech" Watson hinted so tantalizingly about, one of them featuring Holmes and Watson's contemporary, H.G. Wells. The stories are placed in chronological order with "editor's notes" for each fitting them into the Holmes canon, so that we begin with Holmes' involvement in a mystery at Oxford University during his tenure as a student to the final story where Holmes recruits Watson from medical service on a World War I medical station. Peter Tremayne, Michael Moorcock, H.R.F. Keating and twenty-three others provide the tales.

book icon  Summer at Forsaken Lake, Michael D. Beil
If you run your eyes over children's book covers these days, filled with supernatural characters, and wonder "Whatever happened to the old-fashioned kids' adventure book?," ponder no more. This is the closest you'll get to the old "kids on their own" tale as you can find today. The Mettleson kids, 12-year-old Ncholas and his younger twin sisters Hayley and Hetty, don't know what to expect when they're sent to their Uncle Nick's lake home for the summer. But in a few weeks the children are learning to sail on Goblin, patronizing the local library, and, in Nicholas' case, making friends with a girl named Charlie who pitches a wicked curveball.

There's also a hidden compartment in Nicholas' bedroom (which used to be his Dad's), an unfinished movie about a local legend called "the Seaweed Strangler," and many more secrets about a shattering event in his father's past.

Delightfully in the company of an adult who eschews "helicopter parenting" and organized activities, the Mettleson kids and Charlie have a summer to remember in this book to remember. We are reminded how intelligent, resourceful, and responsible tween-age children can be, and there are so many neat sailing, building, and amateur film adventures the kids can have that I doubt if anyone misses marathon television sessions and video games. I particularly liked the way Charlie is a girl who is good at baseball and who's shown as competent at working on a boat, but she isn't thrown up as a "See! Girls can do anything boys can do!" lesson. You'll feel like you spent a super summer at Forsaken Lake yourself and wondering why they just don't make them like this anymore.

book icon  The Great Silence, Juliet Nicolson
This is Nicolson's "bookend" to her previous The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm, which I so enjoyed, and it is equally enjoyable, just the sort of history book I love, one which follows the repercussions of the war on the men who fought, the women who waited (whilst fighting for their rights), and a society which was thrown into upheaval. An opening chapter about the war segues into the Armistice, and then into the real meat of the volume. Chapters 3 and 4 I found of particular interest, as it dealt with the rehabilitation of wounded men. This was a war in which men not only lost limbs, but endured frightening facial wounds. Many retreated from the world, but strides in plastic surgery made the return almost bearable for some.

Other people inhabit this absorbing book: the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence, Dame Nellie Melba, Nancy Astor, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), a young Barbara Cartland, Vera Brittain, a wakening lower class that realizes that the future need not be "in service," the suffragettes, and even a real-life Tommy Atkins. The book ends with the dedication of the Cenotaph and the internment of an unknown British soldier in Westminster Abbey. My thanks to Nicolson for yet another great read.

book icon  Alone in the World, Catherine Reef
This is a simple, but unflinching, children's picture and text book about orphans and orphanages in American history. While avoiding intense explicit discussion of violence, racism, abuse, and want, Reef still manages to realistically outline the bleak, often frightening world of abandoned children. (She also points out that most "orphan" children weren't completely parentless; most just had a parent who couldn't afford to keep them or were encumbered by their own personal and physical demons like alcohol and drug abuse.) Drawings and then photographs chronicle the changing face of the orphan from colonial America well through the 1950s, and the photographs are as fascinating for adults as well as for children. A nice solid introduction to the concept of the orphan/orphanage that forms the basis of so many classic children's books.

book icon  The Last Dickens, Matthew Pearl
Publisher's clerk Daniel Sand dies while on an errand for his employer, James Osgood; his death is dismissed as a return to the debilitating drug use Sand suffered from some years earlier. But Osgood as well as Sand's sister Rebecca believe Daniel would not have betrayed them in that manner. Was Daniel killed, and perhaps for what he carried—all that existed of Charles Dickens' final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

Pearl's novel is a labrynth mix of the search for any hidden chapters or notes having to do with Drood, as well as insight into the cutthroat world of 19th century publishing, where it was fair game for books to be pirated and published by unauthorized means, and where corporate takeover attempts weren't much different from today's. In a flashback sequence, we relive Dickens' last tour of the United States as publisher Osgood and accountant Sand (an outcast in feminine society because she has dared to divorce her abusive husband) race to England to see if any other part of the final work can be found. The sinister world of the opium trade, which prominently figures in Drood and, as even exists today, the demands of fanatics and publicists desperate for the celebrity figure's attention, are also explored as Osgood suspects that a neurotic woman fan may have access to the manuscript.

I didn't quite like this as much as Dante Club or The Technologists, but in this centenary year of Dickens, I enjoyed finding a novel that explored his superstar popularity as well as his ceaseless problems with his books being pirated, all worked up into a mystery of Drood-ish proportions.

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