31 October 2015

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  The Complete Days, H.L. Mencken
My original review of the abridged version of this volume:
This amusing and nostalgic book is a collection of essays from three of journalist/"American Mercury" editor Mencken's autobiographical volumes, Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days. The first is a wry and often funny chronicle of his childhood, while the middle volume covers the obvious, and the final volume covers his adventures in the political world, music, and an incredible visit to Cuba during a revolution. Even in his childhood narrative the knife-edge Mencken wit manages to draw blood as he skewers schoolmasters and sentimental fiction (before discovering his favorite novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Frankly, I enjoyed the heck out of it, and now want to find the omnibus edition that contains all three books in their entirety. For Mencken fans or those who want a non-sympathetic portrait of the sometimes not-so-"good-old-days."

(Warning: Mencken came from a different era. You may be uncomfortable at some of his offhand racism, but it's better to see how it existed than try to pretend it wasn't rampant in his society.)
This Library of America version not only contains the complete contents of all three books, but all his notes to the three different volumes, with photographs of his childhood home, friends, some of the personalities he talks about, etc. I particularly loved his chapters in Newspaper Days about how they got the newspaper published after a lethal fire roared through the city of Baltimore.

book icon  Theater Shoes, Noel Streatfeild
This is a companion piece to Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, in which three orphans, after the disappearance of their father during the war and the death of their guardian grandfather, are sent to live with their mother's mother, a renown actress, who enrolls them in the same school that the Fossil sisters attended. None of the children are especially keen to go, as Mark has always planned to go into the Navy like his father and was looking forward to going to military school. The eldest, Sorrel, finds she has a talent for acting and the youngest, Holly, for dancing, just like her heroine, Posy Fossil, and Mark's talent for singing seems to point at a stage career for him as well.

It's a bit of a re-do of Ballet Shoes, with an imperious old woman instead of friendly Garnie, but BS fans will be happy to know that the Fossil sisters make guest appearances in letter form as inspiration for the three siblings. Pleasant, but nothing special like Ballet Shoes.

book icon  From Birdwomen to Skygirls: American Girls' Aviation Stories, Fred Erisman
This is a fascinating niche publication which talks about the early series novels for girls that involved them with aviation. As the series books of the early 20th centry usually stuck girls in conventional roles, even when they ventured afield as in The Motor Girls, books like The Flying Girl from the turn of the century (inspired by women aviators like Harriet Quimby), The Sky Girl and the Ruth Darrow books of the 1930s (inspired by Amelia Earhardt), and the Linda Carlton books of the 1940s all showed young women embracing the aviation challenge and making their mark on it despite male domination. Sadly, even after the actions of the WASPS and similar groups in World War II, girls' books went from women being pilots to women being stewardesses, a "more glamorous job" appealing to "young ladies" that thrust them again in a subservient position.

You can read many of these old aviation stories online and it's really sad to realize that role models for young women actually deteriorated as the century progressed rather than improved. If you are interesting in this history of children's literature, or the role of young women in children's literature, this is an enjoyable overview of those few series' books that did not have young women with their eyes on their "Mrs. degree."

book icon  Thoughts on The Thin Man, edited by Danny Reid
Okay, I admit it. I bought this book because someone I know online had an essay in it (it's the one about the Thin Man television series, which I got to watch in the early 1980s and I wish had been written more about, since I barely now remember it, except for the stars Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk and the fact that Jack Albertson was in it). After being disappointed at the two "new" Dashiell Hammett "novellas" that turned out to be script outlines, this published foray turned out to be much more pleasurable, even if six of the articles are recaps of the six films. There are two nice essays about stars William Powell and Myrna Loy, plus one about the director of the original film, a cracking good one about Nick and Nora as the ideal couple, a couple of drinking games to be played with the movies, essays about the music, Nick Jr, the other films Powell and Loy did together, and more. One of the most intriguing is a piece about the "Mrs. Asta" subplot in the sequel; since Nick and Nora were now about to be parents, the indiscriminate drinking and carousing in the first film would need to be toned down. So now the sexual jokes passed on to, of all things, the Charles' little terrier!

Probably for Thin Man film fans only.

book icon  The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing, Ewan Clayton
I have to admit, it took me a while to get through this book although I was fascinated by the idea of a history of writing. However, while this book briefly touches on Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Greek contributions to the alphabet, the bulk of the narrative is about the Latin alphabet and European writing. The author spends many pages talking about the minute changes to the Latin alphabet over the years, the creation of "small letters," the changeover from handwritten manuscripts in legible letters to the advent of print and the creation of different fonts. I'm a font nerd and after a while some of the detail made my eyes glaze over, but then some new concept would emerge and I would forge on. There's some fascinating discussion about inks, pen points and the angle of holding the point, the creation of fonts (it's a lot more than just drawing some letters), quills vs. steel pens, etc., but be advised this is a scholarly work, and pretty much Eurocentric. If you're looking for something on Sanskrit, the Arabic and Cyrillic alphabets, and Japanese and Chinese brush writing you'll have to look elsewhere.

book icon  Darkwalker, E.L. Tettensor
While Darkwalker's society resembles early 19th century England, the story is set in a completely different universe where our protagonist, Nicolas Lenoir, once a noted police investigator, has taken refuge in the small metropolitan area of Kennian, giving the minimum effort he can at his investigative job and ignoring the efforts of his not-yet-jaded subordinate. Some years earlier, Lenoir escaped the Darkwalker, a spirit who takes revenge on those who defile the dead, and the experience has permanently embittered him, so when several children are ripped from their graves, Lenoir knows he will have to confront the Darkwalker once more. But it may cost him his life and that of his faithful assistant Kody.

There are several parallels in Lenoir's society to our own, including the Adali, a group of foreigners to Lenoir's land who resemble gypsies. Indeed, the story sometimes seems as if it wants to be set on Earth, and then veers away when it gets too close. Lenoir is your typical tormented 21st century hero; his only close—and that's describing the relationship charitably!—friends appear to be his teenage snitch, Zach, who gets more than he bargains for when he helps Lenoir, and the languid, sexy Lady Zara, who conducts salons with the most desirable men and women in town. I enjoyed reading the book and solving the mystery of the missing children's bodies, but I didn't find anything particularly unique about the Lenoir character.

book icon  Two Hundred and Twenty Two Baker Streets, edited by David Thomas Moore
Collections of short stories commonly end up being middle-of-the-road, with some good stories, some bad ones, and some which are just okay. This collection, which offers up Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in alternate personas throughout history and around the globe, is like that. You have him (in other guises) as a carny, a gentleman in the 1600s, an investigator living in South Africa, even in a land of fiction. One of my favorite stories has Holmes conjured up by a wizard to solve the disappearance of one of his fellow wizards in an Asian-flavored universe. Another story that I found amusing concerned a teenage girl who writes Sherlock/John fanfiction. On the other hand, the story of Sherlock and John living in the drug world of 1970s New York City left me cold. Some of the stories were just okay. Take a dip, but I'd do it at bargain book prices.

book icon  Re-Read: But Daddy!, Tom Buck
This was one of my favorite books in the Hugh B. Bain Junior High School library, one of the volumes I withdrew every summer when we were allowed to take ten books home. Books about large families or unique families seemed to be in abundance during the 1960s, and this was just one of them, about the hijinks of the Buck family: father Tom, a magazine editor, mother Pat, and ten children as the book starts (Adrian is born about halfway through the narrative). They're Irish Catholics who live in a small rural area in New Jersey, and as an Italian Catholic only child, I so enjoyed reading about the funny things that happened in a multi-child family, like little Ferry being forgotten on the potty chair or the bedlam that ensued when taking the kids shopping en masse, or getting them ready for Christmas Eve service, or even Tom's painful experience during the "Pop-O-Rama Jamboree." Plus I could relate to Sunday Mass, priests who didn't understand the realities of families, and other quirks of Catholicism.

Rinker Buck mentions this book in his own story, Flight of Passage, saying that it enjoyed quite a bit of popularity in its day. It's a bit of a jolt having thought of the family as so wonderful in my youth and then realizing that Kern, Rinker, and Nick had later issues with their father's insistence on perfectionism. But to me it's still as endearing and funny as ever, especially when I remember Ferry wailing "I'm ready!"

book icon  Flight of Passage, Rinker Buck
Having read Buck's Oregon Trail, I had to go back and find this highly-acclaimed earlier book in which he describes the adventure he had with his oldest brother, Kernahan. In 1966, he and Kern bought a Piper Cub, restored it during the winter, and then, with their father's permission, the two flew the plane alone from their New Jersey home to a relative's home in California.

At the time Kern was seventeen and Rinker was fifteen.

This is a big adventure about two boys on their own for the first time, completing a journey that most adults would be wary to accomplish, taking their cue from their father, a larger-than-life flyer and writer. Certainly it was nothing I would ever tackle, even now. As they skipped from airfield to airfield, adults came to rib them, but they made fast friends as well.

Like Buck's previous book, there is a lot of salty language in this story, and it may offend people more due to the age of the protagonists. Plus there's a chapter where they talk about "doping" the airplane (coating the wings with a protective coating made of highly volatile chemicals that made them high) and how their sister would come help them just because she enjoyed getting high. I've also read a couple of reviews that claim the aviation details are made up. But it's a grand adventure, if a bit sobering after reading Tom Buck's rollicking memoir and realizing these troubled kids are the same funny youngsters. I did enjoy it, though.

book icon  The Trouble With May Amelia, Jennifer Holm
In the sequel to Holm's Newbery Honor Book Our Only May Amelia, the feisty sole girl in the Jackson family faces new challenges. It's 1900, and the family is still struggling to support themselves farming on the Nasel River in Washington State. May Amelia is somehow always in trouble, whether she burns the breakfast or washes out the sourdough starter jar, and she's continually thwarted by her seven brothers, who do nothing but tease her. But then a man arrives in the community saying that the railroad will be coming through the Jackson farm. May Amelia translates for her father that this is a great opportunity and he decides to risk mortgaging the farm to buy shares in the new railroad.

The engaging May Amelia still struggles with her family and her place in the world as her story continues. While several incidents are funny and engaging, like the childrens' effort to keep their teacher from being married, the book is also full of sad incidents including the arrival of two cousins from Finland, the injury of an uncle, and other sobering facts of pioneer life. It is to May Amelia's credit that she can keep her chin up even through disaster and the scorn of her own family.

I loved seeing May Amelia again, but there were times I wanted to thwack her father and several of her brothers down the Nasel River.

book icon  New England Notebook, Ted Reinstein
One of WCVB Boston's longest-running local television shows is Chronicle, a slice-of-life delight in which host Reinstein visits unique places and speaks with unique persons in the six New England states. There's the story of Polly's Pancakes in New Hampshire, Paul Revere's expense sheet for his famous ride, the United States' smallest state capital Montpelier (where you can stick your head in the mayor's office and find him making photocopies), clam chowder and that most New England of restaurants, the diner, Boston's newest attraction, the Greenway, and more tales from the nooks and crannies of the stony Northeast. For New England fans and travel junkies, with lovely color photographs and a different slant from most travel books.

book icon  Trick or Deceit, Shelley Freydont
It's Hallowe'en time at Celebration Bay, a small community that has rebuilt its moribund economy by becoming a town of seasonal festivals. A haunted house contest is in progress, and part of the proceeds will fund a badly-needed community center. Town festival runner Liv Montgomery is also hoping that she can get a grant for the center from a philanthropic acquaintance she knew in New York City. But then the winner of the haunted house contest has his display trashed, and in the mess found scattered in the vacant lot next door, the body of one of the judges is found. Next thing she knows, Liv, her assistant Ted, the infuriating editor of the local newspaper Chaz, and the local sheriff are all involved in another murder case.

The big trouble with this one is that, despite misdirection, you'll spot the murderer early on, otherwise there's a lot of Hallowe'eny goodness going on in Celebration Bay: a witch and her coven have taken over one of the stores on the square, a religious extremist is protesting the celebration, the haunted house finalists are at each other's throats, and, as always, Chaz is being his annoying self. I'm still waiting for Freydont to reveal the mysteries of Ted, who puts on a startling performance at a town council meeting. Plus there's a whiff of romantic interest for Liv. Red herrings don't save the mystery, but it's still a fun Fright Night in a series I really enjoy.