30 April 2014

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  Sergeant Stubby, Anna Bausum
This is the second time in four years I've discovered a new book based upon information I read first in a children's book published in the late 1950s, so it amused me a bit to see this book publicized as the "first time" Stubby's story is being told. Sergeant Stubby, a stray Boston terrier (or possibly Boston mix) who wandered out onto an Army training field in 1917, became the mascot of the 102nd Infantry and accompanied "the doughboys" to Europe. While in service, he was gassed and also physically injured in an attack. Stubby's story (and also the story of Snowman the jumping horse told in The Eighty Dollar Champion) was told in Patrick Lawson's More Than Courage, published by Whitman Books.

Much of Bausum's story of Stubby and his "handler," Robert Conroy, and their experiences in World War I is that of conjecture, as Conroy kept no diary. However, after the war, when Stubby was welcomed home to as much acclaim as the men he served with, Conroy did keep a scrapbook, and much of that information is happily firsthand. Bausum does a super job of describing Stubby's and Conroy's world in the 'teens: the pre-war U.S., the world of the training camps and the trenches, the endless mud and disease and the very real terror of being killed or maimed, the horror of gas. There is also discussion of just what breed of dog Stubby was, as he has been described at various times as a pit bull, a bull terrier, or some other bully breed.

Since this year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the first World War, Sergeant Stubby is a lively and painless way to review the American experience during the event by following an affable dog and his devoted owner, and the book is scattered with vintage war illustrations, and photographs and ephemera from Stubby's scrapbook, plus a close-up of his famous jacket with all its ribbons and medals.

Note to Ann Bausum: if you don't want to drive every Bostonian (and possibly every New Englander) who reads this book mad, please correct the typos in the "Stateside" chapter which refer to the Boston "Commons." It is the "Common," singular, and has never been "Commons." Ever.

book icon  Stuff Matters, Mark Miodownik
I loved this book.

I'd never heard about "material science" when I went to school, but biology left me cold, chemistry was absorbing in the laboratory, but the mathematical portion of the course was over my head. Needless to say, after that, physics was out. :-) But earth science I loved, and I would have loved a course on material science, especially if Mark Miodownik was the teacher. I found myself smiling as I read the science behind the everyday things in our lives: concrete, steel, paper, glass—even chocolate—and the most enjoyable part was that his prose was illuminating and the scientific concepts were clearly explained. Instead of being puzzled by the concepts, I found them completely understandable. Perhaps, for people who are more science-oriented it might have been simplistic, but I found it fascinating, especially the chapter about the silica aerogel.

Miodownik has an easygoing writing style that I really enjoyed, reminding me of Bill Bryson and James Burke. My only problem with this book is that I wish it could have been twice as long! I'll be looking forward to his next book, especially if concerning the same subject.

book icon  My Gentle Barn, Ellie Laks
Ellie Laks spent a difficult childhood in a home and with a family she found distant and uncaring, and she almost always felt like an outsider at school. Her only solace was with her dog and other animals that she befriended. She felt animals spoke directly into her heart. Her early adult years were troubled as she met a man who got her into drugs. Finally she broke away from drugs, married, and had a child. But animals in distress still called to her, and for some time she ran a dog rescue. One day she adopted a sick goat from a badly-run, abusive petting zoo. Over the years she collected more creatures from the same petting zoo and realized what she really wanted to do was run a shelter for abused animals. This is her story of how her dream came true and she founded The Gentle Barn, a refuge that also helps neglected children.

This is an inspiring story, although it's sad and ironic that Ellie neglected her first husband, who didn't plan on having a backyard full of rescued creatures occupying all of her time, the same way that she talks about parents neglecting her. I'm rather surprised he didn't abandon the marriage earlier. The fact that animals "talk" to her without speech and tell her their names sounds a bit farfetched as well, the bottom line is that The Gentle Barn does special rescue work, and the children who visit the farm, victims of abuse, are helped emotionally by hearing the stories of and tending these animals. It's a story of long days, hard work, heartbreak, and a person who rises above emotional troubles to help others. Animal lovers especially will enjoy.

book icon  I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, A Freed Girl, Joyce Hansen
Patsy has lived on the Mars Bluff plantation belonging to the Davis family all her life. Since she has always been lame and when she speaks, she stammers, everyone—or at least those who are not close to her—thinks she is stupid. She must complete the most boring chores day after day, appropriate for someone considered slow-witted. But Patsy's stammer hides a quck mind: she has taught herself to read and write by observing the white children's lessons. Now that the Civil War is over, what will happen to the plantation slaves? Their former masters are supposed to give them land and build them a school, but they're pretending as if nothing has happened. Some of the former slaves even want life to remain the same.

There are two stories here that meld into one: the story of the dilemma of the slaves themselves about their futures and the story of Patsy, who comes into herself as an individual and as a person who has formerly been beaten down by criticism who suddenly finds she has talents to share. From the "dummy" of the plantation, Patsy becomes a teacher her friends can depend on. A nice, solid story of real-life plantation life (not the romanticized pap of the last century). According to the sticker, this book won a Coretta Scott King Award.

book icon  Edison and the Rise of Innovation, Leonard DeGraff
This is a marvelous coffee-table type volume chronicling Thomas Edison and his inventions. While Edison's biography is briefly touched upon, and his first invention (a stock ticker) and lesser inventions are commented upon, the book mainly chronicles Edison's most famous innovations, the ones that changed peoples' lives, including the phonograph, the long-lasting electric light bulb (Edison did not invent the first electric light bulb; arc lights were in use for many decades earlier, but they threw a harsh light and were expensive—what Edison invented was an inexpensive light bulb that most people could afford to use in their homes), motion pictures, portland cement, storage batteries, and rubber, plus a look at his laboratories, which were the innovation centers of the time.

The most wonderful thing about this book are the beautiful illustrations throughout: modern and vintage photographs of the inventions, workshops, and people involved, and illustrations of Edison's notebooks, vintage advertisements, newspaper stories, patent illustrations, engravings, and store displays of Edison products. It's a virtual museum of historical objects and persons to make any history buff drool. If you're interested in the age of invention, this is a great bet; those looking for a detailed bio of Edison will need to look elsewhere.

book icon  Birdmen, Lawrence Goldstone
At the turn of the century, not only the Wright brothers dreamt of the sky. From Otto Lillenthal and his wings to Octave Chanute, Augustus Herring, Samuel Langley, Louis Bleriot, and the man the Wrights considered their greatest rival, Glenn Curtiss, men on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean wrestled with the problem of heavier-than-air travel. Birdmen chronicles the steps—and often mis-steps—in the efforts to fly.

I have to be honest; it's my husband who's the aviation buff, but I've been to so many aviation museums with him I've taken a liking to the early aspects of aviation, including ballooning and the career of the Wright brothers. I thought this book would be more enjoyable than it was; it's a very knowledgable, but I also found it very dry, especially the parts devoted to the Wright brothers' efforts to slap lawsuits on anyone who seemed to be copying their patented wing-warping innovation. The book is at its best when it chronicles the groundbreaking flights and the dismal failures, the air races, and the structural innovations. The legal aspects are otherwise rather tedious.

book icon  A Brief Guide to Star Trek, Brian J. Robb
As someone who bought Stephen Whitfield's The Making of Star Trek when it was published back in the late 1960s, the question might be "What could yet another book say about this series that you didn't know?" Rather a lot, actually, as it's not just about the original series, but all the spin offs, the films, and the reboot. Since we got bored with Voyager in second season, Enterprise after first season, and missed great chunks of the last two seasons of DS9 because of its broadcast time (and because, up against Babylon 5, there really wasn't much choice which one we would watch regularly), we also missed a lot of what went on with the various series, and it was nice to read a wrap-up, and such things like the Voyager cast's criticism of the show's shortcomings, examinations of what worked and what didn't in Enterprise, and other later tidbits were interesting. There's a surprising lot of Trek information packed into this small book.

book icon  Tales of the New England Coast, anthology, Castle Books
It literally took me years to buy this book. I first saw it way back in the late 1980s in Oxford Too, the late Oxford Books' remaindered/used outlet, but always gave it a miss. But recently a one-dollar price tag changed my mind.

These are stories about New England taken from old magazines like "Scribners" and "New England Magazine," from the time period 1884 to 1910, ranging in subjects from fisher folk to historical sites like Salem, Massachusetts, and the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport, Rhode Island, to historical portraits like the story of the Boston Post Road and the stagecoaches that traveled it. In typical adult Victorian magazine style, the narratives are voluble and occasionally very dense. I was struck by the social snobbery of several of the articles, especially "Newport," which seemed to be primarily about the titled people who lived glittering lives in their summer homes, as if the ordinary citizen of the city wasn't good enough to write about.

The articles, however, make you think about how the country has changed in over one hundred years. It's not just the lack of modern technology, but the close-knit, often remote communities that existed back then. "Fisher folk" are discussed as if they are some alien breed of humans, and one article concentrates on the "characters" that exist on the Maine coast. Our society has become so homogenized we don't really have groups like this any longer, unless they are some religious sect.

In addition, there are dozens of black and white photographs of "how it used to be" in tourist areas like Martha's Vineyard, Salem, Block Island, Gloucester, Cape Cod, and Bar Harbor, showing lovely country views of places now covered with blacktop, billboards, and businesses. It will make you long to take a time machine back to the quiet beauty of these places.

book icon  Elementary, edited by Mercedes Lackey
This is a second collection of stories based on Lackey's Elemental Masters novels, in which Air, Earth, Water, and Fire mages exist in an alternate Britain between 1890 and 1918. The short stories, however, have a broader range and take place from the Aztec era to Edwardian Britain, with the final tale, Lackey's own, in an indeterminate era based on the Red Riding Hood legend (a preview of her next Elemental Masters novel).

In general I liked this total collection better than the last, but the complaints I had in the first book still stand: several stories are just incidents rather than complete stories, such as "Feathers and Foundations," which is an anecdote about the Warders and the ravens at the Tower of London. Others, like "The Flying Contraption," involving a little girl and the Wright brothers, were just strange. I enjoyed "Fire Storm," although very little elemental magic moved the story. Then there was "London Falling," an interesting, but grisly, story that is a fictional follow-on to the true crime book Devil in the White City. "Air of Deception" is a new story about Aurelia Degard, apprentice parfumeuse, and one of the better entries.

Like the previous book, the cover was done on the cheap, using snippets from other Elemental Masters novels. Sad that the publisher itself doesn't even value these books.

book icon  Dying in the Wool, Frances Brody
Kate Shackleton's husband disappeared in the carnage of the first World War and, in the four years since he was declared lost in action, Kate has developed a small talent for searching for missing persons. When a friend she nursed with in the Voluntary Aid Detachment asks her to take on a search for her father, the owner of a profitable woolen mill who disappeared in 1916 after having been rescued from a suicide attempt, she attempts to make a go of it professionally. Needing an extra hand, Kate employs John Sykes, an out-of-work police officer, and stays with her friend Tabitha in the weeks before her wedding to delve quietly into the mystery from the family point of view. And what she finds are plenty of secrets.

This is an English country mystery in the classic style, with an appealing, if not exactly sparkling protagonist, and a slow-moving, yet twisting narrative with a surprise or two around every bend. We get an interesting portrait of Britain in the 1920s, in which a woman driving her own car is a novelty, yet the period details don't overpower the story, and the woolen mill details are fascinating. Best yet, Kate and John's relationship is refreshingly unmarred by sexual tension. If you're looking for a fast-moving modern-style detective novel, this isn't it; if you enjoy cozies alĂ  Christie, it may be a perfect fit.

book icon  Call The Midwife: Farewell to the East End, Jennifer Worth
This is the third and final book in Worth's trilogy based upon her career as a midwife in London's dockland slums. This time Jenny, Cynthia, Trixie, and Chummy as well as the Sisters of Nonnatus House must deal with an unmarried girl whose delivery will be as much a surprise as it is for the midwife, the amazing story of a pregnant woman where no woman should ever be, and the identical twins Mavis and Meg who prove formidable when the former is expecting. Sister Monica Joan continues to prove mercurial, and we finally see how Chummy meets and courts her policeman. Worth also provides grim stories about tuberculosis that runs in families and back-alley abortionists; in a lighter note, a chimney cleaning and a birth combined prove a sooty operation.

While the stories about the midwives and the nuns are as lively as ever, I think Worth was running out of novel experiences for this final book, and it is padded out with extended stories about each of the mothers and children, plus some horrific historical facts, including the story of the abuses of the Contagious Disease (Women) Act. There is a welcome epilog to let us know what happened to each of the characters after the Docklands were cleared and Nonnatus House closed for good.

book icon  The Prime Minister's Secret Agent, Susan Elia MacNeal
I'm tempted to call this outing "How Maggie got her groove back."

Margaret Hope, former American mathematician, now a British spy, is still recovering from her arduous mission in Berlin in which she discovered she had a German half-sister, confronted her mother (a Nazi spy), killed a man, and rescued her lover—who promptly dumped her when he found she'd turned to another man after he was declared dead. Maggie's now training spies in Scotland, where she struggles with depression, while her mother Clara, imprisoned in the Tower of London, slowly reveals a grisly secret. And then Maggie's close friend Sarah becomes critically ill after being accused of murder.

Frankly, most of this book isn't about Maggie at all, but about the machinations behind the attack on Pearl Harbor, from Dusan Popov's warning to J. Edgar Hoover about certain suspicious Japanese military movements to the fateful hours just before and after (you may be interested, or perhaps even a bit outraged, at who MacNeal speculates knew about the attack beforehand). In the meantime Maggie searches for the source of Sarah's illness (a mystery that takes a page out of an episode of Foyle's War; and I was amused that Porton Down was mentioned just after I had seen the episode of The Bletchley Circle that referenced this war location). Make no mistake, the multiple plotlines keep the pages turning, but there's a little less of Maggie Hope in this Maggie Hope mystery. Incidentally, MacNeal's anachronisms still jar: I don't think people referred to "the big picture" back then.

book icon  A Coal Miner's Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska, Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Thirteen-year-old Anetka lives in a Poland that has been conquered by the Russians, so she is understandably annoyed when a young Russian soldier begins flirting with her. But her lot seems thrown in with him when he, she, and her little brother head for America with steamship tickets provided by a man who works in a Pennsylvania coal mine with her emigrant father—the price of the tickets? Anetka must marry the man—and be mother to his three small daughters.

This is a vivid portrayal of the hardships of immigrants in the coal mining industry in the late 19th century. Anetka goes from a poor but bucolic rural environment to a filthy, rude, poverty-stricken life, living with a man she does not love, but whose children she does come to care about. The immigrants are hated by the American citizens who seem to have forgotten they were immigrants once themselves, who fear the "hunkies" will steal jobs from them, and they are cheated at every turn by the mine owners and foremen. The early activities of the Mine Workers' union play a role in the story as well, underlined by the very real specter of Anetka's loneliness.

The setting of this book was also appealing in that this was the situation my grandparents entered upon coming to the United States: from rural Italy to a coal-mining village in eastern Ohio. The romance is also very sweet.