28 February 2015

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  Making Masterpiece, Rebecca Eaton
After working at NET/PBS for several years in other capacities, Eaton became producer of the series, and here she tells the story of Masterpiece, from its lowly beginnings as a place to show great English costume drama like The Forsyte Saga and the earliest hit on the series, Upstairs, Downstairs, the Downton Abbey of its day.

While in general I enjoyed this book, my chief complaint is that it's too much Rebecca at times. Granted, some parts of Eaton's life must be examined in the course of charting her rise to producing the beloved PBS fixture, but I got tired of hearing about her mother and how much her daughter resembled her mother, and the four pages where she chronicles how she got her photo taken by Annie Leibowitz was totally self-indulgent. The book is called "making Masterpiece," not "making Rebecca," and that's what we want to hear about, and that's the best part of the book: the stories about Alistair Cooke and Russell Baker and Vincent Price, her meeting a charming young Daniel Radcliffe, convincing Judi Dench to do Cranford, about finding the stories (and later finding stories to produce). In an effort to market the book toward today's audience, there is also a disproportionate amount of data about Downton Abbey; I would have liked to have heard more about the other stories.

book icon  Death Comes to the Village, Catherine Lloyd
A veteran of the Napoleonic wars, Major Robert Kurland returns to his ancestral home to recuperate from his wounds and try to wean himself off the pain medication used on him. One night while restlessly making his way to the window, he spies someone outside carrying a heavy load. Is it something he imagined out of a drug-clouded dream? When Miss Lucy Harrington, spinster daughter of the local rector, pays a call on him, he confides in her, and together, on their own time, the two separately investigate mysterious thefts and the disappearance of two young serving girls who are simply thought of as expendable because they have run away from their positions. Lucy, tired of being the good girl who takes care of the home, relishes her new role as "investigator" and begins to think of Kurland as a friend.

This is the first in a series of books about Kurland and Ashland. Although the language Lloyd uses seems a bit modern for the time period, she pretty much spins an early 19th century English village around her main characters. No one does anything grossly out of character. Lucy is an intelligent and resourceful woman and Kurland holds his own despite his debilitating injuries. I've already bought the second book in the series and am looking forward to it.

book icon  Pioneer Girl: the Annotated Autobiography, Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill
Anyone who has read more concerning Laura Ingalls Wilder other than having completed the set of "Little House" books knows that these fictionalized books based closely on her life story was mined from a simple rough draft memoir called Pioneer Girl which she wrote about her childhood at the urging of her daughter (who also mined two books of her own from her parents' memories). For years this handwritten memoir has been in the possession of the South Dakota Historical Society and one could order a photocopy of the typewritten copy. Now the manuscript, with copious historical notes, has been released as a hefty book by the South Dakota Historical Society Press.

This is the kind of book I like, a monster of a volume with all sorts of historical information and packed with black and white photographs, maps, manuscripts, illustrations from the books, and mementos. This is the real story behind the Ingalls family: the fact that a young couple and their baby lived with the Ingalls family during the long winter, that Laura was almost sexually assaulted by a man whose wife she was caring for, that beloved Jack the Dog didn't stay with the family after they came back from Kansas, that fearless Cap Garland, who helped Almanzo fetch the wheat to feed starving DeSmet, met an early end. You'll also learn the truth about the real Nellie Oleson and Mary's years at the school for the blind. For fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder and/or students of Westward Expansion this is a real find.

book icon  Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910-1969, William J. Mann
This was a fascinating book. One usually believes that homosexuality was unaccepted in Hollywood always and only in modern times have gays been able to live openly and not behind lies. So this was an eye-opener talking about those Hollywood celebrities in the pre-code days that were, if not openly gay, recognized as being gay but kept protected. Have you heard of the first famous Western star? No, not Hoot Gibson or Tom Mix, but handsome Jack Kerrigan, whose stardom was eventually ruined not by his homosexuality, but by an offhand remark he made about being too good to serve in the Great War. Ramon Novarro and Rudolph Valentino were two other celebrities in those days who kept their sex lives circumspect.

Mann covers a lot of celebrities in this book, so most of them don't get a great deal of attention, but he brings to light those the film world has forgotten, like Dorothy Arzner, the script girl and Madame Nazimova, with her smoldering Theda Bara looks. Then there are those who became well-known: Gary Cooper, Clifton Webb, Edward Everett Horton, Joan Davis, Ona Munson, Patsy Kelly. Also noted are the directors, like George Cukor, and the designers, like Orry-Kelly. It is never a tawdry, tell-all type book, which I appreciated.

book icon  Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
Apparently one either loves or hates this book. I loved it.

I came to it, however, only by way of a friend who was deployed on a destroyer for eight months. This was one of the books that kept her on an even keel, so to speak. She flat fell in love with it, even wrote a fan letter to the author and got autographed copies in return. So given the chance I picked up a copy, dived in, and didn't come up until I was through.

Code Name Verity opens in a German-occupied French castle during the second World War, where a Scottish spy is being interrogated. Her captors have finally broken her with starvation and torture and she is telling all she knows about the British war effort, along with the story of how she became friends with a WAF pilot named Maddie. Since she remains alive as long as she writes, her missive becomes a jumbled combination of memories and the information she is giving to the Nazis. Meanwhile Maddie is having adventures of her own and the vagaries of war will bring them together again in the most unexpected way. Wein brilliantly portrays the mind of a smart young woman riddled by pain and duty and of the horrors she endures. The scattered writing style of the first part has put some readers off, but everything "Queenie" writes has specific meaning and contributes to the plot, as the story is ultimately rewarding and heartbreaking.

book icon  Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Simon Garfield
Starting with a periodic table of typefaces on the endpapers, this is the story of fonts.

Different varieties of fonts have existed as long as printing has, but people generally didn't notice them until typewriters gave way to computers when they were able to choose a font besides the traditional typewriter Courier and the standard serif and san serif typefaces became an option. Each chapter covers a different font that's notable in some way, starting with the much maligned and hated Comic Sans (later there's a funny chapter about the worst fonts in the world, and Comic Sans doesn't even come close). Garfield's enjoyable text hops from legibility to kerning to readability to ascenders/descenders (and their role in telling nearly identical fonts apart) to creating an entirely new font for a specific purpose (the one used for the London Underground, for instance). There's Fraktur and Gill Sans and Baskerville and even a dissertation upon the ampersand. As a person who had to be pulled away from font software in computer stores, this book was like sticking me in a candy store. If I had any complaints, it's that there's too many san serif fonts covered! :-) Lord I hate san serif fonts.

book icon  The Grand Tour, Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
This is the sequel to Sorcery and Cecelia (not The Mislaid Magician; or Ten Years Later as I stated in a previous entry; that book is a sequel to this one), in which cousins Cecy and Kate go on their wedding journey with their respective new husbands, James and Thomas, accompanied by Thomas' mother, Lady Sylvia. They are no sooner across the Channel and landed in France than a mysterious Lady in Blue leaves a message for the Marchioness of Schofield (Dowager, not the new bride) and odd things begin to happen to the wedding party.

Frankly, I didn't find this anywhere near as entertaining as Sorcery and Cecelia or even The Mislaid Magician. The story involves a plot to reinstate the monarchy by collecting magical objects and the family follows leads from France to Italy via the Alps. Compared with the other two books it seems long and drawn out, and the magical fillips from the original story are few and far between. Sad to say I found it hard to finish the book.