30 June 2013

Books Finished Since June 1

book icon  America is Born, Gerald W. Johnson
This is the first of three books for young people that Johnson wrote for his nephew about the history of the United States. There's a heavy, avuncular narration that is now out-of-fashion and does seem heavy-handed at times, but it's also a novel approach for the 1950s when the standard narration was often that what the colonial explorers and settlers did was for the good of everyone. Johnson admits that the native people were badly treated and asks his readers who have grown up on endless cowboy and Indian films to consider US history from the point of view of those here when the early settlers arrive. It's certainly not the most even treatment of the era, but certainly shows more consideration for other sides of the story besides the "true blue red-white-and-blue" establishment tale. An interesting artifact from the mid-20th century, and I'm still considering whether to hunt down the two sequels. 

book icon  The Apprentices, Maile Meloy
It is two years since Janie Scott moved to London, met the apothecary's son, and was able to transform into a bird and have other wonderful but frightening adventures with Benjamin, his father, the Chinese chemist Jin Lo, and an exiled Hungarian count against a vindictive spy selling secrets to the Communists. She's back in the States, attending a private school in New Hampshire, her imagination fired by chemistry. Then, as two year's earlier, her life is turned into turmoil: she's accused of cheating and expelled. She takes refuge in a restaurant while she tries to figure out what to do. In the meantime, Benjamin and his father are in the jungles of Vietnam, facing their own dangers, but he's found a way to communicate with Janie—until he realizes she's in danger and calls on their old friend Pip in England for help.

In this wonderfully improbable and exciting sequel to The Apothecary, the children—well, not children anymore, but teenagers—are as resourceful as ever, trying to connect with one another and foil yet another plot to bring nuclear domination to the world. It's impossible to read just one chapter without going on to the next, promising yourself "Just one more" until you've reached the final page. While a returning villain from The Apothecary still comes off as slightly "Snidely Whiplash," the chief antagonist is a more complex, genuinely evil character who is quite chilling. A grand adventure!

(Warning for parents: some graphic but not gratuitous violence. You may want to screen this before reading aloud.)

book icon  More Scenes from the Rural Life, Verlyn Klinkenborg
I am not familiar with Mr. Klinkenborg's column, but have reveled in rural-life observations from favorites such as Gladys Taber, Mary O'Hara, Haydn Pearson, and Rachel Peden. I was not disappointed with this thoughtful book of essays about life on a northern New York State farm, as well as other Western locations he has visited. Occasionally, I thought he was too detached from his observations, but chiefly I just savored his lovely descriptions of countryside, weather, and animal life. These short entries are perfect to read before going to sleep, a welcome respite from our frantic electronic world.

If you enjoyed this volume, I highly recommend O'Hara's out-of-print but well worth searching for Wyoming Summer, a diary of life on a ranch in the 1930s. Klinkenborg's pieces will never replace O'Hara's reminisces and Gladys Taber's tales of life at Stillmeadow in my heart, but they were enjoyable to read.

book icon  A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness
I refer to this as "the toast book."

I read this as a library book when it was first released and really did enjoy it, despite the fact that I intensely dislike vampire romances. The story opens in the confines of the Oxford University Ashmolean library, where Diana Bishop, an American student of ancient alchemical studies who suppresses her witch ancestry, inadvertently summons an ensorcelled volume missing for centuries. Suddenly all the otherworldly denizens of Diana's world—other witches, vampires, and the unpredictable daemons—are watching her, seemingly ready to pounce until she comes under the protection (at first unwillingly) of dashing vampire Matthew Clairmont.

Make no mistake, this book takes its sweet time building its universe, its characters, and its suspense. The protagonists take many chapters to trust and finally depend on each other, and Harkness leisurely details meals, Diana's sculling excursions, cozy rooms and fabulous libraries, castles and clothing, and everything else to add texture and place to her story. I was amused by the reviews of this book that constantly complained that Diana and Matthew strike sexual sparks off each other almost immediately and have many "near misses," but never do consummate their relationship. Heck, I thought the fact that they held off was refreshing (and with no lectures about "saving it for the right person," either). I particularly enjoyed the last portion of the book, where Diana's relatives provide a refuge: their bewitched home is delightful, supplying rooms when necessary, disgorging hidden family artifacts and needed furniture and bedclothes, riddled with family ghosts. Probably a third of it could be edited out, but that would curtail all the wonderful descriptions.

Anyway, Diana manages to eat toast at least six times in the first third of the book and the toast orgy continues in future pages; I've been craving toast ever since I read it the first time! Hence "the toast book." Hm. Maybe like Ashmole 782, this book is bewitched, too...

book icon  The Adventures of Amos'n'Andy, Melvin Patrick Ely
By now the radio series and its television continuation have gone down in history as one of the most racist stories of all time—after all, the protagonists were two African-American men played, at least on radio, by two white men who used unlettered slang and malapropism, and who appeared as the characters in blackface makeup in public appearances.

But for years Amos'n'Andy was a hit series appreciated not only by whites, but by a considerable population of blacks, despite protestations from the leading "colored" newspapers of the time. Movies stopped when the series was on the air and the radio series piped into theatres; the television series, while concentrating its attentions on the rude and shiftless characters (the Kingfish and the shifty attorney Calhoun), was the first program to show African-American people as doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, rather than the servitude roles they were reduced to in white-protagonist comedy series.

Ely presents, as evenly as possible, both sides of the argument: the tradition of the minstrel show where even blacks were in blackface; the way Correll and Godsen's original serial take on Amos'n'Andy chronicled the African-American migration from the South to Northern cities and the challenges they faced there (only to degenerate, as many modern television series have, into a show emphasizing the more disreputable characters); the fact that the television series featured an all-black cast when such a thing was unheard of, yet presenting offensive stereotypes with at least half the characters; protests from African-Americans which were met by approval from other African-American groups. Some older African-Americans still remember the series with fondness; most groups, black and white, would rather forget.

An interesting take on what was once an American phenomenon.

book icon  How Not to Write a Novel, Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
In this case the old clichè is false: in this book you catch more flies with vinegar. That's the entertaining concept for this tutorial about what not to do as you begin your Great American Novel, illustrated with truly awful examples of cliches, stereotypes, abysmal writing, multi-page descriptions (as well as exceedingly terse ones), and grammatical horrors. Character and plot development, narrative style, handling of ethnic characters, historical fiction, dialog, and more are covered in a laugh-aloud, but point-taken manner.

The sad aspect of this book? You'll open the next novel in your TBR pile and discover many of the bad writing examples reproduced in the published volume in your hand!

book icon  The Astronaut Wives Club, Lisa Koppel
I became fascinated by the story of the astronauts' wives from the first time I saw The Right Stuff. Already living an uncertain life as the wives of test pilots who might or might not come home every night, spouses of "the Original Seven" were thrust in the limelight, fictionalized in "Life" magazines, and held their breath during each spaceflight. When HBO's Emmy Award winning miniseries From the Earth to the Moon aired, one of the twelve episodes was devoted to "The Original Wives Club," concentrating on the Mercury and Gemini astronauts' wives. So it was with anticipation that I grabbed this volume.

I needn't have bothered. Most of what is rehashed here was addressed either in The Right Stuff or "The Original Wives Club," and the whole book is written at a fourth-grade reading level worthy of "People" magazine. Koppel adopts a chatty, superficial style mixing biographical data with the pop culture references of the 1960s that might be okay for a gossip magazine, but is sadly lacking as a definitive profile of women who juggled frequently absent and often unfaithful husbands, home responsibilities, childcare, and a growing awareness of their own place in a world where opportunities besides marriage and childcare were opening daily. I did learn a few things here and there, like the fact that Trudy Cooper was a licensed pilot, but, sadly, there's not much else here for someone looking for a serious portrait of astronaut wives. Louise Shepard, Betty Grissom, etc. deserve better.

book icon  The Sisters Grimm: Tales from the Hood, Michael Buckley
Things are looking grim for the Grimms of Ferryport Landing. Sabrina and Daphne Grimm and their Granny Relda are no closer to awakening the girls' parents from their spell. Their uncle Jack has found their father's old girlfriend, Goldilocks, whom they think is capable of breaking that spell, but she appears to be fleeing a persistent pursuer. In the meantime, Robin Hood and Little John are put in charge of defending Mr. Canis, increasingly under the grip of the wicked Big Bad Wolf, in Mayor Charming's kangaroo court which surely will put the old man to death. Sabrina's even afraid that perhaps this is the best thing that can happen.

This entry, book six in the series, has a lot going on: the search for a spell quencher, as well as the efforts to find out the truth in the story of the Big Bad Wolf and the madness of Little Red Riding Hood. It is also the story of Sabrina's development from child into young woman, and the decisions—some bad—that she feels forced to make. This is a fun, imaginative series turning fairy tale legends on their heads, but it may need screening for younger readers due to the increasing violence of the conflict to come.

book icon  The Sisters Grimm: The Everafter War, Michael Buckley
SPOILERS AHOY! because the series isn't finished yet!

It's finally happened: the moment Sabrina and Daphne Grimm have dreamed of. Their parents, once kept under an evil spell, are awake again. Sabrina is looking forward to going home to New York City and taking up her old life, free of the vengeful fairy tale characters who have tried to harm them ever since they came to live with their Granny Relda in Ferryport Landing. And, indeed, her father, still disgusted with his Grimm heritage, is eager to get the whole family far away from his hometown. But Daphne doesn't want to leave their new life and reminds her older sister that some of these "characters" are their friends. It's down to one question: do you do what's safe or what's right?

In the meantime those on the side of the Grimms are training to fight a bitter war against Mayor Heart and the Sheriff of Nottingham. There's a traitor in their midst, and a growing mystery...what happened to another Grimm, one both Sabrina and Daphne were unaware of? And who is the Master directing all this warfare? He's finally revealed...but don't expect it to bring the story to a happy ending.

book icon  Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, Alison Arngrim
I reviewed this as a library copy when it came out:

Arngrim's writing is fast, funny—and sometimes terrifying, occasionally profane, and always absorbing. Arngrim came from a theatrical family: her father was Liberace's manager and her mother the voice of animated characters like Gumby and Sweet Polly Purebred, her brother was the cute little kid with the dog on Land of the Giants. But beneath the surface was dysfunction; her father was gay in an era when it wasn't spoken of and her parents focused so little on their children that Arngrim's "cute" brother molested her from an early age and was a hard drug user, all without their knowledge. In the midst of this chaos Arngrim worked off her fears and frustrations (and the pain of her elaborate wig and costume) via bratty Nellie Oleson, and found friendship with the girl who played her "enemy" Laura Ingalls, Melissa Gilbert. Hilarious and heartbreaking by turns.

But I had to buy my own copy because this is just such a memorable book, from Arngrim relating pranks on the set to her work for AIDS education after her co-star and good friend Steve Tracy was diagnosed with the illness to her incredible tales of her parents' cluelessness when it came to her brother. One of the more enjoyable show business autobiographies.

book icon  The Life and Times of Call the Midwife, Heidi Thomas
Lovely coffee-table type book covering series one and two (and the Christmas special) of the recent hit British series following the adventures of midwives working in the impoverished East End of London during the late 1950s. The genesis of the series is covered as well as the casting, and, most interesting, the effort to make the 1950s setting as authentic as possible. There are neat little "profiles" of the main characters, and dozens of color photographs, not just of the cast, but of the settings and props, and tantalizing glimpses of Jennifer Worth from the journals of producer Heidi Thomas. Well mounted; a great gift volume for anyone fond of the series. 

book icon  Little Shop of Homicide, Denise Swanson
Our protagonist Devereaux Sinclair comes with a big load of backstory: she led a pleasant life in her small hometown in Missouri until her dad was convicted for DUI homicide, her mother left home, and her boyfriend deserted her. (Sounds a lot like a country song, doesn't it?) Later, living in the city and working at a high-powered investment firm, Dev gets out just a month before her boss is arrested for running a Ponzi scheme. Despite having been cleared in court, there are still some people who thought the other employees of the firm—including Dev—knew all about the scam. Now she's back in Shadow Bend, caring for her grandmother and running an old dime store while making gift baskets on the side, and happy with her new lot in life; that is, until a sourpuss police detective who just happened to have lost his retirement funds with Dev's former employer accuses her of murder, one committed with the contents of one of her gift baskets. The victim: the fiancee of Dev's old high-school sweetheart, who supposedly still carried a torch for her.

Dev quickly rustles up her best friends Bess and Ned...whoops, Poppy and Boone...to help her combat the accusation. They think she needs some more professional help, and voïla, handsome detective Jake Del Vecchio, on medical leave after suffering an injury while on duty, arrives. Needless to say, sparks fly as Dev, her friends, Jake, and even spirited grandma Birdie try to run the real murderer to earth.

A cute little cozy with a large dollop of romance book-type passages. If you like your mysteries less frivolous, stay far away.

book icon  Travel as a Political Act, Rick Steves
Steves takes us beyond the scenery, art, and history that make up the bulk of his travel series to write about traveling "responsibly," opening your mind to other cultures and mindsets beyond your own. In successive chapters, we visit the countries formerly comprising Yugoslavia, examine the good and the bad about the European union; examine culture and revolution in El Salvador; experience total government care (and high taxes) in Denmark as well as alternative drug use measures in Amsterdam; visit Turkey and Morocco, countries with large Islamic populations but a secular government; and dip into Iran, long a bad word in the US vocabulary.

Steves admits he doesn't want Danish taxes or have women swathed in burkas surrounding him; he does ask that you understand the reasons other cultures prefer their own way of living. While veiling seems extreme to us, for example, to certain Muslim families it means their daughters will not grow up being sexualized as they see Western countries treating women. Older Bosnians actually miss Communism because they did not have to worry about medical expenses or old age pensions. Admittedly a bit evangelical, but still...always food for thought.

book icon  Memories Before and After The Sound of Music, Agathe von Trapp
If your exposure to the story of the Trapp family has been the Rogers and Hammerstein musical...well, it's a lovely movie with fabulous music, but not much of it is true. For the real "Maria's" side of the story, a visit to her Story of the Trapp Family Singers is in order. But for the story of the Trapp family before the arrival of their unladylike tutor (the real Maria was employed as a tutor to one of the children who had been sick, not as a governess), we must turn to this easygoing memoir by Agathe von Trapp. The first half of the book chronicles the Trapp family life before the death of her mother, who succumbed after the rest of the household recovered from scarlet fever. We meet the grandparents of the original seven children, including the aristocratic but loving "Gromi," and the Whiteheads, the Trapp children's maternal British family. Agathe also paints a loving portrait of her father, whom she thought was terribly portrayed in the film as a martinet, and we follow the children and their parents on adventures in Austria and Italy, including camping trips on deserted islands and adventures aboard a sailing ship.

Agathe's chronicles after her father remarries are briefer, possibly because she knew her stepmother had chronicled those years more fully. Still, some facts came as a surprise: I had no idea Maria was known to the children as Gustl (a diminutive of her middle name Augusta) before becoming their stepmother! She also briefly vents some frustration at Maria's meddling in her adult life, but mostly the book chronicles smooth sailing and hard work. Her prose doesn't exactly "sing," but if you're interested in knowing more about the family, especially before the advent of Maria, this is a good solid choice, and it's illustrated by her charming pen-and-ink drawings.

book icon  Among the Janites, Deborah Yaffe
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that...devoted admirers of novels of note will eventually seek and encounter one another."

Actually, Yaffe had me at page three of her introduction, in which she described herself and commented, "As far back as I can remember, I earned good grades, hated gym class, and read with a ravenous hunger." And she wore glasses, too! :-) Jane Austen was one of her childhood favorite authors, but years after befriending Austen fans, organizing an Austen book club, and attending meetings of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), she began to wonder about her fellow "Janeites." What drew them to Austen? How far did their affections reach: did they just see the movies (to drool over Colin Firth in a wet shirt) and perhaps read one or two of her books? Were they addicted from childhood to Austen's novels or did they come to be a fan later in life? Nor, she knew, were devoted Austen fans unique to modern times; the word "Janeites" was coined to describe them in 1894.

Within a framing sequence of purchasing a gown to attend the Regency dance at the upcoming JASNA convention, Yaffe talks about all aspects of Austen fandom: taking Austen tours, writing Austen-inspired fiction, finding other Austen fans pre-internet, Austen web pages and mailing lists, and more. You'll meet the former computer executive who restored an Austen relative's home, the gadfly who proposes there's a much darker subtext under Austen's prose, people whose devotion to Austen kept them on an even keel during major disasters in their lives and others to whom the characters are so real they develop personal dislikes or affections for them. You don't even need to be familiar with Austen's works to read this book (I've never read Austen myself, despite the fact that every e-reader I've ever owned has come with a copy of Pride and Prejudice; I can't seem to get past that classic first line)—handy summaries of her six books are included as an appendix—because it's not just a portrait of Austen fans, but a summary of fandom itself, people who have found a family with those who have like interests.Whether your fandom is based on print or visual media, you will probably recognize archetypes here. A delight from beginning to end.

03 June 2013

Food for the Mind

What were adults reading 100 (or more) years ago?

I've chatted in this blog about my collection of bound issues of "St. Nicholas" magazine, which was published first by Scribner; their magazine for adults was, not surprisingly, "Scribner's Magazine"; when "St. Nicholas" was sold to the Century Company, naturally its adult counterpart was "The Century Magazine."

I've written about reading a bound copy of the latter before here, but if you want to do your own investigation, Google Books now "has you covered." For instance, here's a bound copy of 1912 -1913's "Century":

which includes the sobering “Is the Negro Having a Fair Chance?” by Booker T. Washington, a stinging indictment of "separate but equal."

From a year earlier: November 1911 - April 1912

In fact, if you note the first "Century" issue listed on this search page and click the "more editions" link next to it, you will get an extensive list of the bound issues you can check out.

But don't be surprised after reading the subjects and text in "The Century" if "The Economist" and "Scientific American" suddenly look like sixth-grade fare and "People" only fit for kindergarteners.