30 November 2015

Books Completed Since November 1

book icon  A Gilded Grave, Shelley Freydont
In this first of Freydont's "Newport Gilded Age Mystery" stories, Deanna Randolph, her sister Adelaide, and her parents are in Newport for the summer social season of 1895. At the first party of the season, held at her father's partner in the sugar business, a housemaid is found outside, dead on the rocks below the Cliff Walk. While the gossips wonder if "poor Daisy" was involved in some type of scandal, the brother of Deanna's lady's maid Elspeth, Daisy's fiance, is arrested for the murder. Deanna and Elspeth, convinced of his innocence and fans of dime novels with female heroines, are determined to find out who really killed Daisy.

I'm ambivalent about this book. I like the characters—Deanna in particular comes off as an intelligent if more common society girl who cares about clothing and catching a husband than most of these Gilded Age mystery heroines, who are often "offbeat" for the time—and I enjoyed the mystery, which was very convoluted although the "bad guys" start to reveal themselves halfway through; you spend the rest of the book figuring out the "why." But although I enjoy Freydont's Celebration Bay mysteries, I didn't really enjoy her writing in this book. Modernisms crept in at odd times, Deanna is so familiar with her maid as if to be sisters with her, her best friend and former swain Joe Ballard is so ordinary he's bland, and Deanna says things in front of her father and others that no society girl would be caught dead saying in 1895. I'll probably buy the next one and see how the scandalous behavior of Joe's audacious French grandmother will rub off on Deanna now that she's staying with her.

book icon  The President's Daughter, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
I picked this book on a whim out of a free book box at a fall gathering because you almost never see anything written about Ethel Roosevelt: her father, of course, and her parents together, and her brothers, and her audacious half-sister Alice, and even the other end of the family. To my surprise, it's the very believable story of Ethel from the moment her father finds out William McKinley has died and he has become President to the first few weeks in her new boarding school. She describes the tumult in the family upon moving to Washington, DC, and the shock of being sent to school after having had a governess for years and her difficulty in making friend, partially because the other girls are snobbish but partially because she has closed herself off from making friends because she wishes to be at home.

There are some fascinating details here that I've never read anywhere else, including in what bad shape the White House was when the Roosevelts moved in, and that—can you imagine the furor today if this happened?—the President's police force actually instructed Roosevelt's older children that when they went for a ride or walk with their father, if they saw anyone suspicious, they should actually push themselves between the potential assassin and their father because any assassin would be "after the President of the United States, not children." Wow! It's also a surprisingly nice view of Alice Roosevelt from Ethel's point of view, since Alice was known to be "right contentious" with everyone.

If you're a Teddy Roosevelt fan like me or a fan of the Progressive era and you see this book, give it a try. Very worthwhile!

book icon  Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave birth to the First Modern Humans, Brian Fagan
I was crazy for anthropology books as a teenager and constantly borrowed Silverberg's Morning of Mankind from the school library, so I'd been eyeing this book for ages when I finally found a remainder copy. In all I was happy to read about the archeological discoveries made since Silverberg wrote Mankind and enjoyed the photographs of stone age remains and paintings, but I found the text to be very repetitive. Fagan would tease us with a description of "how it might have been": Cro-Magnon tribes or individuals spying or even coming near their Neanderthal compatriots on the same hunting grounds, and then say "of course, this is all theoretical," and then do it again a chapter or two later! It made the book difficult to progress through—despite the author's beautiful descriptions of the landscape and the tribesmen—to the point where you would get to yet another "re-enactment" and sigh. Plus the drawings that are included to help us understand how Cro-Magnon tools were constructed are very vague. The legends and descriptions either point to figures which are not there or the drawing doesn't match what the legend states.

I feel guilty giving this book such a bad rating because I truly enjoyed the parts which brought me up-to-date on discoveries in the archaeological field since the 1970s when I became interested in the subject, and some of Fagan's descriptions are very evocative. I'll probably keep the book, but I think you should find it on remainder like I did, or take it out of the library.

book icon  Cannons at Dawn: The Second Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, Kristiana Gregory
Let me be up front about this: I hated Winter of the Red Snow, Abigail's first "diary." It was pretty dull.

The sequel is much more interesting (with the biggest problem the awful "paintings" of the characters Scholastic is now putting on the covers; "Abigail" has perfectly plucked eyebrows and a flawless complexion and appears to be wearing lipstick). Soon after Mr. Stewart leaves to fight in the war, their home burns down, and the family movies to Philadelphia, but finds no place to stay. Except for the eldest girl, Elizabeth, who remains behind with her intended, who was wounded in battle, Abigail and her family become camp followers, marching behind the troops and providing laundry, sewing, and sometimes even food for them. Life on the road is full of hardships, from mosquitoes to sickness, but it's here Abigail meets the man she will marry, Willie Campbell.

Women and children as "camp followers" were a common feature of wars in those days. It is a part of history little spoken about unless you visit historical sites like Valley Forge. Gregory has written a good tale of how they lived, coped, and even triumphed. If you can suffer through the dullness of Red Snow, you will probably enjoy this portion of Abigail's tale much better.

book icon  Pledging Allegiance, Lawrence R. Samuel
This book sounds as if it should be a history of the Pledge of Allegiance (surely there's a book out there about it, isn't there?), but it's actually a fairly engrossing history of the bond drives during World War II. To raise money for the war effort in the first World War, the fundraising efforts were called "Liberty Loans" and some exquisite artwork came out of these efforts, but it was thought at the beginning of the second World War that the Liberty Loan drives were meant to appeal to only the wealthy or at least well-to-do. These new fundraisers wanted Americans to realize that the Nazi and Japanese regimes threatened everyone's way of life and attempted to sell war bonds to everyone, even children.

Therefore, one of the things they did was make war bonds available in small denominations. One didn't have to make an executive salary to buy one: the janitor, the dog-catcher, the factory worker could afford them. Children, who had less money than anyone, could buy war stamps to paste into a book that would eventually be worth enough to buy a war bond. War bonds were touted as perfect gifts: no wallets, toys, or expensive dresses!

The chapters I found most fascinating were the ones selling war bonds to African-Americans. The Liberty Loans had only concentrated on whites; War Bonds were for everyone. People of color treated as they were had no especial reason to support a war effort that excluded them on so many fronts: segregation, black men only recruited as orderlies or janitors, blatant prejudice. Yet the War Bond chairmen fought that they not be excluded from the war effort, and the results are impressive: people of minimal salaries sometimes gave more than white people with higher wages.

If this book has one problem, it's the quoting of too many statistics. It's at its best when it talks about the individual efforts of those who gave.

book icon  Re-read: Autumn, Susan Branch
Like all of Susan Branch's books, exquisitely decorated with her watercolor motifs of cozy things and seasonal icons, this is just a beautiful volume for anyone who loves the colors, the scents, the chill of autumn, autumn leaves, gingerbread, hot soup, warm cocoa, and the promise of a cozy winter. Mostly recipes, but also "things to do" lists, enumerations of savors, and, again, all that beautiful watercolor art.

book icon  Re-read: Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday, James W. Baker
Your typical Thanksgiving book for adults is a cookbook, whether of traditional foods or new twists, like using other ethnic foods for "spice." The book may also have tips on decorating: "tablescaping" and other ideas of how to set a pretty table. Let's say I hate cookbooks, unless they have something historical to offer, like The Little House Cookbook. Very few adult books ever talk about the holiday itself or its history. Those are mostly reserved for children, and run the gamut from the old "Pilgrims and the Indians" story—even though we have known for years now that most of our stories about "the first Thanksgiving" are myths created after the fact, many people still think that Pilgrims wore black and had hats and boots with buckles, that the feast they celebrated in 1621 was a "Thanksgiving," etc.—to stories about being generous and giving thanks. Baker's Biography is a very readable companion piece to Diana Appelbaum's Thanksgiving, but is an easier read without being simplistic. It also touches more on things like images, writings, and films about Thanksgiving, changes in menus in the intervening years, and parades and football games. The one thing that this book makes very clear is that the "iconic" autumn Thanksgiving imagery of Pilgrims and Indians only became emphasized at the very end of the 19th century and during the early decades of the 20th, back when the United States became flooded with non-English speaking immigrants whom the schools wished to impress upon some idea of the country's heritage. Previous to that it was simply a winter New England holiday which spread as New England residents moved westward, and involved reunions with family and friends. Even fictional short stories about Thanksgiving mostly emphasized reunions between estranged or long-parted relatives; Pilgrims and Indians were rarely to never mentioned.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to read more about the history of the Thanksgiving holiday and its changing face over four centuries.

book icon  One Man's Meat, E.B. White
After reading The Essays of E.B. White, I had to purchase this other collection of White's essays, written between 1938 and 1943, after White and his family pulled up stakes from New York apartment life to a saltwater farm in Maine and first published in 1942 with ten fewer essays, starting with White talking about packing up his New York life. If you think there is culture shock today when moving from city to country or coast to coast, imagine it in an age when radio is the biggest thing in technology, going from a modern furnished city apartment to the country with no electricity, no central heat, and animals to care for. The seminal ideas that would later see light as Charlotte's Web can be found here, plus the juxtaposition of ordinary farm chores (sick animals, extricating oneself from the snow, obtaining enough wood to keep warm) against the upheavals of events in Europe, and finally war itself, where White finds himself cutting marsh hay one day, helping to conduct blackout drills the next.

I continued to be amused by the way White's pre-war commentary has parallels today, including a diatribe about television (as seen at the 1939 World's Fair) which sounds just like modern complaints about the internet! Plus ça change, plus c'est la même indeed! In each essay his gift for just the right word, just the right phrase is evident again and again, whether he's discussing the fragility of turkeys or the World's Fair or lambing season or a bond rally. Just paging through this book to recollect some of the essays makes me want to sit down right now and read it again. E.B. White was an American treasure. Find this book, or the Essays. You won't regret it.

book icon  Christmas book review in Holiday Harbour