30 April 2013

Books Finished Since April 1

book icon  Here is Where: Discovering America's Great Forgotten History, Andrew Carroll
I always wince a little bit when people say they "hate history," as the author of this book does up front, but on the other hand can understand. For years uninspiring history teachers have made the study a jumble of rote names, dates, and events. I was lucky and had history teachers that tried a bit harder to bring the past alive, parents and relatives who had lived through historic events (the Depression, the Hurricane of 1938, World War II) and talked about it, and, finally, when I reached eleventh grade, Alistair Cooke's brilliant America program. Cooke didn't just name pertinent dates and people, he talked about the things limited history classes left out: Columbus' charismatic personality, the sufferings the pioneers endured crossing the continent, the appalling conditions among the poor and the burlesque houses of the turn of the 20th century, etc. So a book like this, talking about the forgotten people and events of United States history, is like a Christmas feast, the ordinary combined with the extraordinary.

Carroll's journey begins in a light rail station that was the site of an ironic piece of history: there Abraham Lincoln's eldest son Robert was saved from death by Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes, a fact not even noted at the rail station itself, which gives him the idea to search for unmarked historical sites all over the country. He begins his journey on the privately-owned island of Niihau in the Hawaiian chain, where a forgotten event (well, to everyone but a recent episode of PBS's History Detectives) eventually led to the internment of Japanese citizens. Along Carroll's journey, you will learn of courageous runaway slaves, of the noted gangster whose brother worked in law enforcement, of ancient settlers' homes and of rocket launches, presidents, ordinary folks, and the fellow who invented television while plowing his father's fields, not to mention the first African-American to not give up a seat on a bus to a white person (hint: it wasn't Rosa Parks).

This book was a real treat for a history lover, and I highly recommend it.

book icon  Trixie Belden and the Mystery of the Queen's Necklace, Kathryn Kenny
Apparently whatever ghostwriter did this volume had the impression Trixie was a rude, boorish teenager. Impulsive surely, but rude...what the heck? Trixie laughing so hard about the Shakespearean names of hotel rooms that she gets the Bob-Whites refused rooms? Being so loud in Madame Tussauds that she gets them in trouble? Really. Did they even read the other books?

The skinny on the plot: Honey, Trixie, Mart, and Jim, chaperoned by Miss Trask, are off to London and then to Stratford to track down Mrs. Wheeler's family (no ancestry.com then!) and find out if a large, elaborate paste necklace might have some historical value. Honey inadvertently mentions the necklace in public and the next thing you know, a mysterious man in grey is following them everywhere (or so Trixie thinks, as no one else ever sees him). They gain a guide in an amiable Scotsman who saves Honey from a bus and who takes a shine to Miss Trask (and she, surprisingly, to him!). So are they really being followed? And who's the enemy here?

Besides Trixie's odd antics, because this is for kids everything is explained: the difference in British and American English (Mart is forever translating things), well-known historical sites, even 221B Baker Street, which, I'm sorry, Trixie should have remembered, since they talk about her in connection with Sherlock Holmes so much. Sightseeing facts are tossed in liberally as well, so this may not be the ideal volume for the nostalgic adult. :-)

book icon  French Twist, Catherine Crawford
So what's a nearly retirement age childless woman doing ordering this book? Well, because I'd read French Kids Eat Everything and considered Bringing Up Bebe, and I was intrigued to find yet another book about French parenting making the rounds. I enjoyed this book a lot, but perhaps not for the reason the author would want. I was just plain amused to hear about this novel "French parenting."

You see, fifty years or more ago, when I was a kid (yeah, I did walk to school in the snow, but not uphill both ways) this was the way AMERICAN parents brought up their kids. You were taught to be polite and respectful. You were at least expected to try a new food, and while your mother might give you a break on a few, there were just foods you had to eat because the doctor said they were good for you. Kids didn't eat endless specially prepared meals of chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, and hot dogs; you ate the good chicken/pork chops/beef/veal you were served along with healthy helpings of corn, salad greens, carrots, etc. Kids washed up and went to bed without endless bedtime rituals and didn't sleep every night in their parents' bed. Screaming tantrums got you removed from the premises. Kids didn't make the rules, the parents did.

Well, until some psychologists and "parenting experts" (a lot of whom didn't even have kids) decided that if you didn't indulge your child in every whim they would grow up emotionally stunted and turn into raving maniacs who hated their parents.

Surprise! we didn't. All of the novelty "French parenting" is just practical advice from an earlier era. The narration is a bit scattershot, but it's mostly fun, but the biggest revelation in this book if you're an older person is how spoiled the author's children were before she started "French parenting." My parents would have been appalled at the manners and habits of Crawford's daughters.

book icon  Dear America: Dreams in the Golden Country, Kathryn Lasky
This is the enjoyable "diary" of Zipporah Feldman ("Zippy" to her friends), who moves with her Jewish family from Russia to the tenements of New York City. The family is discouraged at the crowded, smelly tenement house in which they end up, but soon Zippy is trying to catch up in school (they won't let her go into her proper grade until she can speak English fluently), her eldest sister is organizing sweatshop workers, and her father has found work. Zippy can't figure out, however, where her middle sister goes during the night, nor why her mother is so afraid to give up her old-country ways (including the wig which was traditional among Russian Jews), nor why they need to have a smelly boarder. Once again, as in Christmas After All, Lasky draws on the experiences and memories of her ancestors to make the story more true-to-life. Her portrayal of the crowded conditions in the tenements and in the streets of the Lower East Side are very vivid and jibe with other accounts I have read, including Sam Levinson's. Zippy is a smart and spunky heroine caught between old customs and new, and doing her best to make her own way.

book icon  Doctor Who FAQ, Dave Thompson
Okay, this isn't as good as Star Trek FAQ, since the last sixty pages are pretty much an episode list and a list of books and comics (but for that it's a good summary of each), but there's a lot to like in Thompson's collection, if you can be patient with his likes (the first four Doctors and the seventh, and, marginally, I think the ninth) and dislikes (every other Doctor and every redhead who's stepped aboard the TARDIS—don't get him started on Rory Williams). Neat chapters/essays: how the Fourth Doctor took PBS by storm, followed by a short history of the creation of the series (including its origins in British SF); an examination of the succession of companions; how the author thinks the historical stories have become disappointing; and a ripping entry about "The Daemons." There's also a rather overlong chapter on the villains and intriguing bits on Doctor Who songs (no, not incidental music and the theme song, but tunes like "I'm Gonna Spend My Christmas With a Dalek") and toys, and pieces on sea monsters and the Tube to boot.

And of course there's Daleks. All about the Daleks, and vintage images of Daleks (along with vintage books and posters, which are fun all in themselves). Yeah, it's a bit pricey, but this Who fan since 1974 enjoyed the hell out of it.

book icon  Cronkite's War: His World War II Letters Home, Walter Cronkite IV& Maurice Isserman
Although we watched our news—and all the space mission coverage!—on NBC (Chet Huntley and David Brinkley), there's nothing I like better than watching retrospectives of the past and seeing Walter Cronkite, listening to his authoritative, comforting voice, whether it tells about the anguish over the assassination of a president or the joy of watching man leave his home planet. His The Twentieth Century was a Sunday-night staple in our home.

Cronkite's news career during World War II was what brought him to the fore in news reporting, but, as for almost every other reporter and every other soldier in the fight, his heart was at home with his family and especially with wife Betsy, whom he was separated from for three years. His letters vividly speak of his loneliness.

Unfortunately, they don't speak of a lot else all that interesting. Due to censorship, Cronkite doesn't write much about the war, except for a few poignant bits, like a few lines about a aircraft gunner who stuck to his gun even when the turret cover was ripped off and was so severely frostbitten he had no face left, or a personal experience in which a buzz bomb struck the rear of the building in which Cronkite and a buddy shared an apartment. Mostly he speaks of how much he misses Betsy (and the other red-head in his life, their cocker spaniel Judy), the bad weather, the bad food, his annoying roommates, the lack of fuel, the aborted war assignments. When he does get to go on something significant, he can't write of it to Betsy except in passing, although we do get passages from many of the articles he wrote about those missions via inserted news stories. After a while, it just gets tiresome—especially when we're told by the supporting narrative for the fiftieth time that Judy is the cocker spaniel (we get it, she's their dog) or information is imparted in the narration which is then repeated by Walter several lines later in the actual letter. It was nice to see Cronkite's "softer side," but to tell the truth I found this book slow slogging.

book icon  Trixie Belden and the Mystery at Saratoga, Kathryn Kenny
Another good entry in the "Trixie sequels" (after the classic sixteen), Saratoga, the 24th book in the series, opens with Honey's tearful news that the Manor House's beloved stable manager, Bill Regan, has vanished after leaving her parents and his nephew cryptic notes about having to go away and take care of some business. The girls suspect, since Regan's mysterious past has something to do with the racetracks at Saratoga, New York, that he's there, and, since the Wheelers are also there for the racing season, talk Honey's parents into having them as guests.

Except for the fact that there's a big "information dump" during a library sortie researching a prominent horse owner, and another given by Honey about the history of Saratoga (because Trixie never pays attention in history class, apparently; how does she get promoted in school?), this is a dandy mystery with lots of red herrings and a sauce of danger, even if the girls get into giggling fits one too many times. Oh, and the social problem lesson for this volume is gambling addiction. Recommended for Trixie fans.

(I found it amusing that when Honey does her "history of Saratoga" summary for Trixie, she doesn't mention the one thing a Wimpy-hamburger-loving Bob-White probably would have remembered the most about Saratoga: it was the birthplace of the potato chip!)

book icon  Little Women, Annotated Edition by Daniel Shealy
If you're an Alcott fan, as I am, this volume will be a delight. I've read Little Women since childhood (all the way back to when I complained to my mother when I found out I read an abridged edition—I wanted the whole story!) and, by dint of further reading, found out many of the historical background items for this book, but this collects all of them in a super package, from the many references to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, to how book events paralleled the Alcotts' real lives, to definitions of familiar objects and terms in the 19th century that have since disappeared, like a charabanc, pickled limes (which, BTW, sound disgusting!), and trumps. (I did find it a bit sad that the author needed to translate several words that I found commonplace; is it really necessary today to tell someone that "sober" means "solemn," for instance?) Other than the fact that a couple of the annotations struck me as incorrect or odd, and that one illustration was mislabeled, this is thoroughly delightful from cover to cover. Included in the text are illustrations from various editions of the book, from May Alcott's originals to the Louis Jambour drawings that I grew up with, and stills from the various film versions of the story.

An introduction provides historical and biographical background to Alcott and the writing of the book. Also cool is the fact that Shealy uses Alcott's original publication text, which was edited when the book was brought out in a uniform edition several years later (this is the version most people have been reading since 1880; Alcott's publishers objected to the slang that had been used in the original version, such as "ain't," and "don't" rather than "doesn't" and corrected them, as well as fixing other descriptions—"stout" was removed from descriptions of both Mrs. March and Professor Bhaer, for example, with "tall" substituted); these changes are listed in an appendix. Absolutely worth the money!

book icon  Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge, Lindy Woodhead
Just so we're clear here: Mr. Selfridge, which has lately appeared on Masterpiece, is a fictionalized soap opera based on the story of the real Harry Gordon Selfridge; this book is about the real thing. However, the real Harry (his friends actually knew him as "Gordon") was just as audacious as his television counterpart.

When H. Gordon Selfridge opened his first department store at Oxford Street in London, it was the beginning of a revolution. Selfridge, who started out as a stock boy and served under the American department store giant Marshall Field, took the stock from behind the counter, tucked away in nondescript boxes, and put it on display for his customers to touch (and smell, in the case of perfume—he moved the perfume counter to the front of the store to cover the pervading odor of horse from the street). He took makeup "out of the closet" (previously it had been hidden at the back of the store, women not wanting to admit they used "paint" to enhance their appearance). His display windows were inventive and eye-catching rather than just a jumble of for-sale merchandise. His promotions included inviting adventurers of the day, like aviators and explorers, to the store. He believed in paying his employees a living wage. But he had his dark side: losing quantities of money gambling, and being unfaithful to his wife, lavishing large amounts of money on his mistresses.

Woodhead's lively biography is all the more interesting because it's the true tale of Selfridge and the retail world he changed. The modern department store is partially that way because of Selfridge's marketing and design choices one hundred years ago.

book icon  A Crimson Warning, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily Hargreaves and her husband Colin, dashing espionage agent for the Crown, return to London for the season, but their arrival is greeted with the current scandals: a young woman making a promising engagement is revealed to be illegitimate, a busy exporter was left to burn to death in his own warehouse and before his death, his front door and steps were smeared with red paint. Then red paint begins appearing on other homes, revealing other scandalous secrets, and breaths are held: who will be next and what will be revealed? And will Emily's best friend Ivy be one of those exposed in a scandal?

Alexander seems to be "back in the saddle," so to speak, in this latest Lady Emily mystery. Emily is closely involved in the investigation of who killed the exporter as well as in a later murder which takes place, solving clues scattered in the British Museum among the antiquities she so loves, deciphering codes, even exploring a location where a young woman was supposedly imprisoned and accompanying Colin to a fetid match factory where the disabled are being exploited. A string of colorful characters appear, including the eccentric Lady Glover, who drives a team of zebras, and Jeremy Sheffield makes a welcome reappearance. This isn't a deep psychological mystery, but it's a good solid read.

book icon  Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, William S. Baring-Gould
You can't read books about Sherlock Holmes without tripping over the title of this book, written by a prominent Sherlockian. It's a biography of the Great Detective, deduced from comments and references in the Canon as well as deductions made over the years by the Baker Street Irregulars (not Holmes' youthful assistants, but the society of Holmes lovers). A good portion of the text is given over to retelling some of the notable stories of the canon, so the faithful Holmes fan may find much repetition. It's interesting to see the biographical deductions, especially in Holmes' early life, while one later relation seems a bit of a stretch. I'm glad I finally found this book after reading about it so many time, but IMHO I don't think it would be of interest to anyone who isn't a Sherlock Holmes fan. If you're a Holmes newbie and want an introduction to the universe, something like the "Dummies" guide to Holmes would be a better bet.

book icon  Two for Sorrow, Nicola Upson
"Baby farming" was the name given to the 19th-early 20th century practice of unscrupulous midwives who took in unwed expectant mothers (or women who didn't want any more children), promising them that their children would be adopted, but in reality allowing the babies to die. When Josephine Tey decides to write a novel about the two most notorious baby farmers, Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, who were hanged at Holloway Prison, she has no idea how her research will eventually connect to the brutal murder of a young ex-convict working as a seamstress.

Multiple plotlines run through this third Josephine Tey mystery. One is the novel that Josephine is writing, which tries to make sense of why a woman so devoted to her own child would condone the death of babies. There is also the continuing story from the previous books in which Josephine comes to terms with a relationship. The main storyline involves Tey's club, which is associated with a nurses' college, a charity show for which Inspector Archie Penrose's cousins are making the costumes, the seamstress' murder, and the long-ago suicide of a university classmate of Tey's. This is a complicated mystery with many threads, and the addition of the relationship issue almost bogs the story down. Still, I found myself enjoying the puzzle enough that the romantic plotline didn't distract me overmuch. If you are sensitive to such things, do note that the murder is described in detail and there is also a detailed sexual encounter.

08 April 2013

Read Faster, You Fool

I've been an Amazon Vine member since 2009. I'd been doing Amazon reviews for a while before that, and was very surprised to be asked, because I certainly didn't have hundreds of reviews.

The idea is that every third Thursday you are sent a "targeted" list, supposedly by your interests. (There are some bitter comments from childless people who get offered baby strollers or nipples for bottles, women who are offered men's items, etc.) This is usually one to two pages. Then on the following Thursday all the items left are offered and you can pick two more. The items are usually books, but almost everything else has been offered, from electronics to food. You get the items for free, but in return, you are required to review them—a more thoughtful review than "I really liked this" or "This was awful."

The rule was, when I joined, that you had to review 75 percent of everything on your list. This was fair. I pretty much kept up with this for quite a while, but then, just being human, did skip some things. Last year the percentage you had to review was increased to 80 percent.

Sometimes things just don't work out. I've loved Amazon Vine because, since the books were Advance Reader Copies and free, I could occasionally step out of my book comfort zone without feeling like I'd wasted money. I don't usually read "chick lit," but once I selected a novel about a fictional dressmaker aboard the Titanic, another about a young woman living in Niagara Falls just after the falls were rigged to provide electrical power. I even got some military nonfiction. Just lately I got a book of Oz short fiction (definitely for adults), even though I've never been much of an Oz fan. But I also got a book that I thought was a geological history that turned out to be a climate change diatribe. A book about dogs that has actually turned out to be a bit dull. And even a piece of electronics which I ended up not using because after I read the other reviews of it, I didn't want to take a chance with it.

Friday everyone on Amazon Vine got an e-mail. Starting May 15, 100 percent of everything you order has to be reviewed within 30 days. Ouch! If you read slowly, better not order tomes. If they're offering something summery in December, you're probably not going to take it. Waiting till the grandkids visit at Thanksgiving to test out the cool toy you chose in May—not any more. The sticker was that this 100 percent review policy is retroactive through the beginning of January. So most of us have to hustle to get any back items reviewed. I'm enjoying Cronkite's War, but it's slow going as well. I have that and another book to finish for this month and will need to watch what I order from now on.

I guess I understand. The publishers and manufacturers want some advance reviews on the site before the product is released and everyone's been procrastinating too much, including me. Sadly, it's "safe" choices from now on.

Now to finish Cronkite...