30 November 2012

Books Finished Since November 1

book icon  Red, White, and Blue Letter Days, Matthew Dennis
I saw this book on a discount table at the wonderful bookstore at the Colonial Williamsburg welcome center and initially passed it by. I'm glad we went back to the bookstore because I was able to pick it up and really enjoyed it.

This is nonfiction about strictly American holidays, beginning, of course, with Independence Day and Thanksgiving, but also Columbus Day, the "Saint Mondays" (Monday holidays), and Labor and Memorial Days. While each chapter contains a history, the book is more an examination of how the perception of each holiday has changed over the years, and, indeed, how different ethnic groups have viewed the holidays, as for a long period, African-Americans had little reason to celebrate Independence Day, and neither did the Native Americans. I was quite amused, in fact, to read of the subversive use the "Indians" made of Independence Day, hiding the celebration of their own traditions under the guise of "Fourth of July." Good for them! Anti-Thanksgiving protests are also discussed, as are the shift from days which memorialize sober events, such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day, to days for recreation and special sales in department stores, and the conversion of Washington's Birthday in combination with Lincoln's Birthday into a generic "Presidents Day" which exists now mainly for a day off work and a "white sale."

This is a fascinating holidays book which also contains vintage posters, photographs, and newspaper illustrations. Unique!

book icon  Williamsburg: Before and After,
This is a neat hardback mostly picture book of the restoration work done on the different homes in Colonial Williamsburg since the creation of the area in the 1930s. You get a quick overview of the history of the city and its gradual slip into obscurity and a summary of the efforts to turn it into a living history museum by day, but the majority of the book are before-and-after stories about each of the restored homes, who lived in them, and what was removed to restore them to their colonial appearance (in some cases, after more research was done, the homes were restored again). If you are a Colonial Williamsburg fan, this one is a winner, although you may want to find a store or site where you can purchase with a coupon, as it's pretty pricy.

book icon  Williamsburg in Vintage Postcards
An Arcadia Publishing ("Images of America") of the historic homes in Williamsburg, most of them before the purchase of the area that became Colonial Williamsburg. Well, I was interested!

book icon  The Mystery of the Phantom Grasshopper, Kathryn Kenny
Compared to the previous book, #17 of the newer Trixie Belden mysteries, this one is almost written for third graders. The print is large and there's not much to the story. Trixie and Honey are after whomever stole "Hoppy," the colonial-era grasshopper weathervane (supposedly made by the same artist who provided the grasshopper weathervane on Boston's Fanuiel Hall) on the Sleepyside Town Hall. They're crushed when their favorite teacher seems to be involved in the robbery.

We're luckier than Trixie and Honey in that, via print, we are given a clue that the girls don't have. So the culprit is obvious to the reader and makes the girls look pedestrian. A plus to this book is that Bobby is actually given a chance to shine while training a pony for Regan. Nothing special. Frankly, I didn't care whether "Hoppy" got returned or not.

(Okay, perhaps you can comment that it's my adult POV that has gotten in the way of giving these books a better rating, but I can still read young adult and children's books and enjoy them as much as if I were reading them back when they would have been for my age group. I still read the original sixteen Trixie books with great delight. These later ones, so far, just appear substandard.)

book icon  Grace Interrupted, Julie Hyzy
In the second of the Grace Wheaton "Manor House" mysteries, a Civil War re-creation group is holding a gathering at a remote part of the manor grounds so that modern-day influences do not interfere with their efforts to stick to period food and dress. One of the re-creationists is a particularly obnoxious man who has left his girlfriend at the altar; two of her friends appear at the Manor House hoping to even the score. But when Mr. Obnoxious is later murdered, everyone's a suspect, including Grace's new boyfriend Jack and his younger, emotionally unstable younger brother Davey, since Jack was accused of killing the dead man's brother many years earlier.

Once again Grace is involved in a mystery (or the story ends here). :-) The tale dips into a behind-the-scenes look at historical re-creationists (some who strictly keep to the time period, others who are "farby" and include coolers and fans into their historical settings to stay comfortable) and the feuds between them. Grace's romance inches on, and a long-standing mystery is solved. Plus Grace has a new roommate: a cute tuxedo kitten and we learn more about her prickly assistant Frances (some of which definitely surprises Grace!). A nice ambling cozy with likeable characters (I love Bruce and Scott!), even if Grace is a commonplace character. You might want to read the first book, Grace Under Pressure, to get the background on all these characters.

book icon  A Journey to the New World, Kathryn Lasky
This is one of the original stories in the "Dear America" series, and has none of the compelling touches of Lasky's Christmas After All. Indeed, it seems to hit all the Pilgrim clichès: seasickness, conflicts between the "Saints" and the "Strangers," stepping off onto a big rock to get to the mainland, meeting the Indians, etc. Perhaps, being one of the first books, Lasky was forced to stick to a strict outline of what could and couldn't happen. Sadly, it doesn't breathe a whole lot of life into the historical characters except in a few entries where "Mem" (short for Remember) has an emotional revelation about her new stepmother.

These early books did not list the author's name on the cover, and indeed the afterward tries to give the impression that this was an actual diary found in an attic. I notice Scholastic quit doing that after bitter complaints of readers who were taken in by these fake "diaries." These are all fiction, some better than others; this one falls somewhere into "middling" territory. Much better that Winter of the Red Snow, however.

book icon  The Secret of the Unseen Treasure, Kathryn Kenny
#18, and the third of the newer set of Trixie Belden books. A note right off: the cover illustration of the "oval edition" throws you right off; the mystery has nothing to do with skin diving or a mystery on a lake. Instead, it takes place right in the girls' own neighborhood, on Glen Road, which has certainly gotten more populated from the days when Crabapple Farm, Ten Acres, and the Manor House were the only residences for miles around! The gang finds a bag of stolen social security checks in the lake and tries to figure out why they were stolen, only to have them tossed away, while helping Mrs. Elliot make ends meet selling flowers to the local florist. Is her stepson Max trying to drive her off her farm behind the scenes?

This is also "Trixie meets modern times" as drug use is hinted at in the plot (good heavens, no! not by the Bob-Whites!). And Bobby is back to falling down and getting dirty. At least he's not yelling "Holp!" anymore. Better than Phantom Grasshopper, but the density of the old books and #17 is definitely missing. Is "dumbing down" a kids' book series really necessary?

book icon  The Tale of Castle Cottage, Susan Wittig Albert
In this tale, Albert's "Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter" come to an end, as Beatrix considers breaking off her engagement to William Heelis, fearing the reaction of her possessive parents. And then when she discovers her brother Bertram is finally going to reveal his secret marriage after all these years, she believes there is no hope at all.

Of course there's a mystery involved in the story as always—the death of a carpenter who's working on Beatrix's newly purchased Castle Farm, where she and William have planned to live—but it all takes a back seat to the troubles between Beatrix and her parents and the usual animal subplot, which involves the local domesticated crowd and the regulars at the Brockery [badger den] against very sinister rats (who smoke and swear and gamble) hiding out under the Castle Farm barn (an ominous precursor to World War I, which is hinted at with one line of dialog late in the book). Indeed, the animals take up a good part of the story, but the charm of Beatrix's (faltering) romance is the pivot in this one. If you have invested in the series, you'll want to finish the set and "see how the story comes out." A teatime book for sure!

book icon  Quirky QWERTY: The Story of the Keyboard @ Your Fingertips, Torbjörn Lundmark
This is a darling little book printed in Australia that I picked up in a used bookstore that basically tells the story of all the symbols on the modern keyboard, starting with why the QWERTY arrangement was chosen in the first place by main typewriter creator Christopher Sholes (so the typebars didn't stick together when common letter combinations were used) to the history behind the letters (in QWERTY order, of course) and behind the symbols (which I found the most fascinating because while I've read letter histories since I received my first World Book Encyclopedia at age seven—each volume starts with a history of the letter—there aren't that many references to punctuation and diacritical marks around. Ever call something whose name you couldn't remember a "dingus"? Well, that's really three asterisks in a row: ***. The Irish were the ones responsible for putting spaces between the words. And more neat stuff like that.

The only thing Lundmark didn't address was how the arrangement of the keyboard has changed from the 1970s. I was reminded of this during a conversation about typewriters as Christmas gifts on one of my Christmas gifts, where I posted a picture of the typewriter I received under the tree in 1970. The location of symbols on the keyboard changed from when I learned to type in 1970, with the result that I had to teach myself to type again when I went back to school for a year in 1981.

The " used to be over the 2.
The ' used to be over the 8.
On the key where the " and ' are now, there were the @ and the ¢ (which is no longer on the modern keyboard; you hold down the ALT key and type 0162 on the numeric keyboard instead)
The _ was over the 6 and there was no ^
The * was over the -
Plus, on the older typewriters pre-1970, there was no 1 / ! key. You made the number one using the lowercase l. In those typewriter days, the ! was made by typing a . then backspacing and typing a '.
There also were no ~ and ` on the typewriter keyboard.

And now it's time for me to start my Christmas reading glut—I've already begun on the magazines. Those Christmas book reviews will be posted in Holiday Harbour.

06 November 2012

Thinking of Donna Parker on Election Day

It may be, you would think, a strange direction.

For those of you unacquainted with Donna, she was the heroine of a series of seven books published by Whitman Books in the late 1950s/early 1960s. She solved minor mysteries, like "who is the elderly man living in the woods?" or "who is using the school home ec rooms at night?" but mostly the Donna Parker series was about growing up. She had a dad, a stay-at-home mom, and a pesty younger brother, a best friend named "Ricky" (short for Fredericka), and a gaggle of school friends (including one poor girl named Karen who never got a last name). She was an ordinary kid, no budding sleuth like Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden. Her mom nagged her to eat a good breakfast every morning, her dad called her "Cookie," and her younger brother lived to annoy her. She existed in one of those series book whitebread small towns (about a two-hour train ride to New York City); if Donna ever encountered "Negroes," Jews and Catholics, it was probably in books—even the housekeeper was white.

In Donna Parker: Special Agent, Donna and Ricky are entering ninth grade. Since childhood they have always done things together. Now, when they have a chance to join after-school clubs, they come to their first parting of the ways: Ricky wants to take drama, Donna wants to join the school paper. And both follow their dreams.

Donna finds the school paper a mixed bag: the other kids she works with, save one, are great and the advisor, Miss Fischer, is a dream teacher. To her surprise, she finds herself elected assistant editor, but everyone knows she won't do much, since snooty Joyce Davenport, the daughter of the town newspaper editor, is in charge. And then, when she least expects it, Joyce breaks her leg and Donna is in charge.

The Summerfield Junior High School kids are looking for an interesting angle for their paper. They decide on covering the school election, with the school having a goal of 100 percent participation. When Donna talks about this while visiting Joyce, the girl convinces Donna how important participation in the voting process is, and her parents agree. So the kids expand their project: helping with the campaigning for city mayor. Not for specific candidates, but helping people vote. The students who could drive would drive people to the polls. Girls would babysit children so mothers could vote. And the kids would encourage everyone to vote: canvassing voters over the phone, tacking up posters, talking to people. Goal: 100 percent participation, just like at school.

Remember, this was the late 1950s: the Cold War, fear of spies, slapping "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance because of "those Godless commies." Children's series books like Donna Parker and Ginny Gordon and even Trixie Belden often emphasized public service: the Bob-Whites raise money for charity, the  "less fortunate" are helped via Christmas baskets and fundraisers, the kids support the Community Chest. But this was the one specific instance of elections and the right to vote and the need to vote were pointed out, and in words and ideas even a nine-year-old (me) would understand.

The town of Summerfield doesn't quite make the school record. Only 90 percent of the town votes, and Donna is so disappointed, so down, until everyone tells her what a terrific job she has done heading this project. Can you imagine if that happened today? 90 percent! What a feat accomplished that would be!

Go on. Go out there and vote. Do it for your town, your county, your state, and your country. Your vote matters. Everyone's vote matters.

If nothing else, do it for Donna.