31 May 2015

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  At Home, Bill Bryson
I originally read this book in 2010, and this was my commentary:

Think of this of "a short history of nearly everything having to do with the home." Bryson takes us from attic to cellar in the old vicarage he calls home in England to tell the story of private life. After examining the pivotal year of 1851, the Crystal Palace and the Great Expedition, and the land surrounding his home, Bryson starts with the basic structure of all human shelters, the one-room living space that became the medieval hall, and then visits each individual room to chronicle a different aspect of society: the bathroom to examine sanitation; the kitchen to talk about food (of course); the scullery to discuss servants, etc. The home becomes a springboard of discussion to architecture, social customs, furnishings, plants...even sexuality, and all in Bryson's engaging fashion.

The true test of this book: it kept me absorbed in [the] 3 1/2 hour [DragonCon] ticket line in over 70 degree heat. Now that's interesting writing!

In 2013, Doubleday brought this out in an illustrated edition, with vintage artwork, maps, schemata, drawings, photographs, portraits, etc. on glossy paper. I drooled the moment I saw it, until I got to the price. Finding it on remainder was much more satisfactory (it was the price of a trade paperback by then). And, by golly, I fell in love all over again, Adam fireplaces, Palladian homes, wonky WC fixtures, and all. Worth getting if you are into home histories or Bill Bryson.

book icon  Before Tomorrowland, Brad Bird, Jonathan Case, Jeff Jensen, Damon Lindelof
This is sort of a book written by committee, and it shows.

On the other hand, it's a nifty prequel to the Disney 2015 summer film Tomorrowland, which shows you what happened before the film begins. It opens initially in 1926 when 10-year-old Henry Stevens visits an exhibit about the future with his father, but the action chiefly takes place the first few days of July in 1939, as we follow Clara Brackett and her teenage son Lee as they attend the very first World Science Fiction Convention. A comic book is being given away at the convention, and it appears to hold the key to a secret that Lee and Clara become privy to by following clues contained within. But there are darker forces at work: the Nazi scientist Rotwang and the spy he employs.

There are certain neat situations in this book, including making Amelia Earhardt one of the heroes, but for me it tries too hard to recreate the campy adventure novels and serials from the 1930s. A pity, too, because the Plus Ultra organization, its founders, and what they have discovered are intriguing. Lee and Clara are appealing characters, however, and it was worth following them through their adventures to the end.

book icon  The Lighter Side of Sherlock Holmes, Glenn Schatell
If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, you will probably love this collection of cartoons by Norman Schatell (Glenn's father), who for many years drew cartoons and illustrations that appeared in "The Baker Street Journal," "The Sherlock Holmes Journal," and other publications devoted to the Great Detective. The book's cover sets the stage admirably: it's the doorway of 221B, with a doormat that boldly proclaims "Do Not Clean Your Boots."

My only complaint about this book is that I thought too many cartoons were repeated; one would, for instance, appear at the beginning of the book and then near the middle or the end there will be the original sketch for the same cartoon. Otherwise it's delightful for any Holmes fan or one on your Christmas list.

book icon  Dead Wake, Erik Larson
Several books have come out about the Lusitania in this, the 100th anniversary of her sinking, and this treatment, by the author of Isaac's Storm and Devil in the White City turns the story into a tale of suspense, juxtaposing information about the passengers going aboard the ship and about the ship itself against the story of the U-20, the submarine which sank her. We meet the experienced captain of the ship, William Turner, and some of her famous passengers, including bookseller Charles Lauriat, Englishwoman Margaret Mackworth, producr Charles Frohman, Alfred Vanderbilt (yes, of those Vanderbilts), and Theodate Pope, a rarity in that era, a woman architect, plus the captain and crew of the U-boat.

I particularly enjoyed how Larson fitted in the details of the time into the tale of the danger Lusitania was sailing into and the politics and hostilities that prompted the attack. Even the smallest details are enjoyable, such as how a heat wave struck New York days before "Lucy's" departure, while men still wore winter-weight hats (fashion dictated no lighter straw hats until May 1). While it is not the most exhaustive study of the life and death of the Lusitania, the tense narrative and the historical details make this tremendously readable and memorable.

book icon  Love Thy Neighbor: The Tory Diary of Prudence Emerson, Ann Turner
It's 1774 and the Emerson family lives in Great Marsh, Massachusetts, where Prudence's mother is the town midwife, and they live a comfortable life. But the Revolutionary War is upon them, and one by one their neighbors turn against them, for they are loyal to King George III. Prudence's best friend Abigail slowly is turned away from her as even the school is segregated along Tory and Patriot lines, the miller will not grind her father's grain. A fellow Tory and neighbor even has his horse stolen and painted with the words "Tory Nag."

Most children's books of long ago treated Tories as undesirables and painted them as rich snobs who cared little for their American home. But the Loyalists came from all economic groups and even different races and ethnic groups. Turner makes the point that the Tories were only traitors to those who had a Patriot viewpoint; otherwise they were just like anyone else, trying to make a living and abide by the laws, and that loyalties even crossed family lines as they would later do in the Civil War (you are never quite sure where Prudence's brother's feelings lie). It's also an interesting look at the work of a midwife and what herbs they used to help their patients.

book icon  The Penderwicks in Spring, Jeanne Birdsall
I admit, I was a little taken aback by some of the reviews for this book. People were very upset that Birdsall had moved up the Penderwick family timeline, and then included a very strong, troubling plotline halfway through the story. But as I settled into the book, I found that the time progression had not spoilt the storytelling nor the characters.

Batty, the youngest "original Penderwick sister," is now ten years old. Oldest sister Rosalind is in college, and Jane and Skye are both involved in their education and their own lives, so Batty preoccupies herself with her stepbrother Ben and two-year-old Lydia, her new half-sister. She is still deeply in mourning for her beloved Hound, the family dog, who died a few months before. Then she discovers she has a new talent, and, to further it, she starts her own business, walking neighbors' dogs. But along the way a secret will be revealed that will shatter Batty to her very soul.

The storyline presents a very important lesson about what we say to children and how they interpret what they overhear. Batty's emotions are very real and very raw, and the chapters concerning her reaction might be upsetting to sensitive children. But the story is also incredibly realistic, painful, and touching, and I read through it with a lump in my throat, especially when Batty is working through her feelings at the death of Hound. So many parents don't understand how deep children's feelings go in regards to pets, and how they may hide those feeling so not to be considered "silly."

A different type of Penderwick book, but rewarding on its own merits.

book icon  Re-Read: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
I decided it was about time I bought a nice hardback copy of one of my favorite books, especially so it will match the new book, Go Set a Watchman. There is a book that will have big shoes to fill, but still, I am curious about it and will buy it.

Unless you've been living under a rock for years, everyone knows the story of Mockingbird: three formative years in the lives of two children growing up with their attorney father in the segregated South of the 1930s.  Along with a neighbor's visiting nephew, the children explore life, including the legend of a young man infamous in their small town for having been confined in his own home for years. But a shadow is approaching them: their father has taken upon himself to take up what he knows is a lost cause, the defense of an innocent African-American man accused of raping a white young woman, because it is the right thing to do.

You may think: I've seen the film and know what a great story this is, but the book is so much more: characters and situations that add to the story of Jean Louise Finch, known as "Scout," her brother Jem, and their friend Dill Harris. You meet Atticus' sister Alexandra and brother Jack, read about Scout's difficulties in school, her relationship with Miss Maudie, find out so much more about Calpurnia, and discover the importance of the encounter the two children have with Mrs. DuBose, the difficult elderly woman who is only an afterthought in the movie. Scout's narration is unforgettable, as is her story.

book icon  Shady Characters, Keith Houston
Punctuation as we know it has been in development for long years. While the spacing of words was early used for better understanding, use of marks to separate statements and ideas came later in the form of pilcrows (otherwise known as the paragraph sign ¶ ) and section signs (§). Houston discusses all these and more, including the useful interrobang which never caught on, the octothorpe (#, a.k.a. the "pound" sign or "number" sign) with its new life on Twitter, the @ sign which has become indispensable in e-mail, and even the manicule (☚), a symbol older than you think (it's not a Victorian invention).

Aside from the fact that Houston refers back to previous chapters more frequently than I would like, this is a fascinating romp into history that shows changes in punctuation over the years, plus it's liberally illustrated with old manuscripts so you can see the physical changes. Houston also has a blog about punctuation under the same name.

book icon  Independence Slay, Shelley Freydont
In the third of the Celebration Bay mysteries, Liv Montgomery is coordinating the annual Independence Day festival, which includes the re-enactment of a historically questionable event in the town's history. Each year the descendant of a war hero kicks off the festivities—except on this year, when a dead body is found on the parapets of the family mansion and a frightened young man with learning disabilities is found next to it. Plus our local hero is nowhere to be found, bad boy newspaper editor Chaz has vanished, and it looks as if the mansion will be sold, which means Celebration Bay would have no place to hold its battle re-enactment.

Many threads going here as Liv, Ted, and eventually Chaz try to clear the young man, Leo, of a murder charge as well as solve the mystery of Henry Gallantine's disappearance, and there's a dandy sequence with a secret passage, not to mention the Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper who keeps impeding the investigation. Liv learns more of Chaz's secrets and it seems this relationship, too, shall progress, but Ted still remains a mystery—I wonder if a future mystery will involve his past. An entertaining cozy in a town where you might like to live.

book icon  Everyday Life in Early America, David Freeman Hawke
I'd already had the post-Revolution and Victorian books in the "Everyday Life" series, and just bought the Westward Expansion/Civil War volume, so decided to buy the other two books in the series. This, the first, is, sadly, a bit tedious, and that's a shame, because there are facts here I'd never read anywhere else, such as that the Pilgrims had little experience in farming; or how the amount of land a colonist had in different parts of the country determined what type of fence you would build (incidentally, "good fences make good neighbors" was a truism: if you did not have your crops properly fenced in and cattle ate them, it was your fault, not the owner of the cattle). There is a continual emphasis on the colonists' use of wood from the plentiful forests, England having nearly been deforested by that time by the regular need for wood. One of the interesting points of discussion is how the traditions of English life changed, for instance, that in England farmers lived in the village and walked to their fields every day; once in the United States they moved their homes to their fields. It's a good summary of colonial life, but rather dry. I'm glad to have it to complete the set, though.