28 February 2018

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  Re-read: Addie Pray, Joe David Brown
I originally picked up this book when it was known as Paper Moon after the film it begat. Paper Moon is indeed a favorite of mine, and I always admired Peter Bogdonovitch's choice to make it in evocative black and white. If you've seen the film, it takes a good deal of its script from the text, but Addie is older in the book, and the book continues on after "Moze" and Addie ditch the fancy car. If you have no experience with either, Addie Pray is the story of an eleven year old girl con-artist who travels around with the man who may or may not be her father (her "mama being fast and all"). Her partner in crime is Moses "Long Boy" Pray, a charming wanderer who makes a living selling "memorial Bibles" and "memorial photographs," conning greedy people with anonymous wallets stuffed with cash, and selling cotton he doesn't have. He and Addie live a charmed life, save for a few obstacles in the way, like cootchie dancer Trixie Delight, but a deal with a bootlegger might just kill them.

This is one of my very favorite books in the entire world, and I apparently have a thing for spunky girls named Addie, what with Addie Mills along with Addie Pray. While I like the movie immensely, the book is full of additionally adventures, Addie's matter-of-fact and sometimes hilarious narration (her description of Trixie includes this gem: "...I don't guess most people looked past her bosom. Oh, my, that bosom. If Grant had met up with breastworks like that, he never would have taken Vicksburg,"), and characters like Colonel Culpepper and Amelia Sass. It's fun and in places touching, and gives a vivid portrait of the South (the movie takes place in Kansas) during the Great Depression. If you've only seen the film, try the book; it's terrific.

book icon  How to Do Just About Anything, Reader's Digest books
This is one of those numerous RD books you find on the remainder shelves in Barnes & Noble; I can't seem to resist them. This contains an assortment of recipes (main dishes, vegetables, desserts, jellymaking, etc.), skills (how to tie a tie, make a window box, train your dog, etc.), fun things to do (ride a surfboard, paint a picture, etc.), prudent things to do (save money, wash windows, remove makeup properly, etc.), and other odd little things. It's a fun read, and a good book to leave in the bathroom to just dip in.

book icon  A Lab of One's Own, Patricia Fara
In the 1880s, reluctantly authorized by male authority, women began going to universities. Too many still disapproved, both men and women who felt a woman's only career should be as wife and mother. Doctors of the time even said that women's brains were not made for studying of difficult subjects like mathematics and science, and that women who tried to pursue these fields would go mad, and, worse, studying would ruin her body for childbearing and make them less feminine. Women persisted at their studies, even though at some universities they could not graduate with their male classmates or get an actual diploma; a certificate would be mailed to them.

When World War I broke out and men marched to the killing fields of the Somme and Ypres; back in Great Britain someone must take their places, and these highly educated and highly intelligent women did, hoping this would turn the tide for both professional women and for woman's suffrage. But, as Fara narrates, women were still marginalized, patronized, and sensationalized as "unwomanly" even as they demonstrated their skills; often credit for work they did went to a supervisor (a man). And even though they might be praised for "pitching in" while the war was in progress, once the war was over, they were expected to quit (or were immediately fired) to make room for male workers, told to go home and raise babies.

Informative and infuriating, spotlighting, among others, Virginia Woolf's sister Ray Strachey, chemists Martha Whiteley (who was one of the inventors of tear gas) and Dorothea Hoffert, mathematician Elizabeth Williams, botanist Helen Vaughan, radiologist Edith Stoney, and physiologist Mabel Fitzgerald (who didn't get an official degree until 1972!), this is a great overview of what should have been a breakthrough moment for professional women, but was aborted by prejudice and hidebound tradition.

book icon  Leeches and Liberty, Richard H. Kennedy
I picked up this book at the history/gift shop on the Main Street in Yorktown, VA, particularly because it was set in Pawtuxet Village in Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War (right "down the road apiece" from where I grew up). Thirteen year old Lukus Carr demurs at being a partner in his father's grist mill. Apprenticed to a minister, although he does not feel the call to preach, he learns a great deal about plants and their use as medicines, and when his teacher calls him out for not being interested in the ministry, suggests he find another occupation. Deciding to travel to the colonies, Luke eventually apprentices to a physician and learns his craft. Soon he is married and then participating in the fight for freedom against Great Britain, jotting all the significant events of his life down in his journal.

Kennedy, who participates in Revolutionary War re-enactments, does a great job in bringing Carr's medical practice to life. His methods of doctoring would seem very strange to us now—blowing smoke in people's ears to cure earache, bleeding with leeches or a scalpel, believing in "humors" that guide the body, etc.—but these were the accepted treatment of the time. We see his day-to-day practice as well as his battling of epidemics (smallpox and influenza particularly) and participation in the war and a friendship with General Nathaniel Greene, and Kennedy takes care not to make him a man ahead of his time with modern morals—he neither appreciates Quakers and their pacifism (frequently attacking their scruples that do not keep them from profiting from the war), and like any man of his time, he still believes people of color are not as intelligent as white people and pretty much destined to remain slaves.

While an occasional modern term pops up occasionally, the feel of a doctor living in the 18th century is well transmitted by this novel, are as his doubts about his talent and his purpose in life, and his feelings for his family. If you are interested in Revolutionary-era life or 18th century medicine, you may find this enjoyable.

book icon  Victoria: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen, Helen Rappaport
Eeek! This was released at $30! But now it's on remainder, at $7, was much more interested in getting a copy.

This is the companion book to the first series of Victoria as shown on the BBC and repeated on PBS. I was amused by Daisy Goodwin's revelation that the genesis for this series was an argument with her teen daughter; she realized that Victoria was a teenager when she ascended to the throne, and how would that POV shape her?

Don't expect a detailed biography of Victoria; this is just an overview of her early life with extracts from her diaries (which are fascinating all of themselves) and other Victorian writings, plus beautiful color photos from the production and behind-the-scenes inserts about the actors and also the historical events behind the story (the Bedchamber crisis, the scandal with Lady Flora Hastings, the Chartists, etc.). A chapter at the back shows filming locations.

Perfect for series fans, with history tossed in for welcome verisimilitude.

book icon  The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
Another one of those children's classics that I never read as a child, since I preferred books about real animals (Call of the Wild, the Silver Chief books, Big Red and sequels, etc.) even if the animals talked among themselves as in Black Beauty and Beautiful Joe. Of course I'd seen Disney's Ichabod and Mr. Toad, but Toad always got on my nerves.

Well, Toad still gets on my nerves. I find him very annoying, and think Rat, Mole, and Badger are very patient in trying to reform him. The only Toad adventure I find tolerable is the first with the caravan. My favorite chapters are about Rat and Mole's friendship and adventures, such as when Rat follows the imprudent Mole into the Wild Wood, the lovely "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" story, and my favorite of all, "Dulce Domum," about Rat and Mole's Christmas. The little mouse carolers get me every time.

Best of all are Grahame's lovely descriptions of the countryside, and the darling little English cottage fixings in the animals' burrows. When I read these things I want to grab all my money and go find one, which is ridiculous because they're not owned by poor people anymore and I wouldn't have a tenth of the money I need. But they're sure pretty to read about, and Willows has lyrical, dreamy descriptions of animals, seasons, and nature that make you feel as if you are there.

book icon  Red, White, and Who: The story of Doctor Who in America, Steven Warren Hill, Jennifer Adams Kelley, Nicholas Seidler, and Robert Warnock, with Janine Fennick and John Lavalie
In 1963, Doctor Who premiered on the BBC, and, unless you were visiting the British isles or one of the commonwealth countries, you'd probably never heard of it. When it was finally sold into syndication in the US, it was dismissed in a two-page TV Guide article and then slowly began to appear on American stations, which is where I found it in the mid-70s. It was tough being a Doctor Who fan back then; no other magazine ever talked about it, and friends you shared it with often didn't like it. Then the Tom Baker episodes came in a second wave...and American Doctor Who fandom never looked back.

This book attracted me from the time I heard about it, until I saw the price. Goodness, what on earth could it say that it would cost $50? Then my husband found it on discount and gave it to me for Valentine's Day and I found out: Wow. There are 500 pages of closed-spaced text, plus another 130 pages of appendices, not to mention a bibliography and an index. You could squash mice with this book. Plus it includes dozens of photographs, pamphlets, promotional materials, memos, letters, convention advertisements, fanzine covers, toy photos, etc., anything and everything relating to Doctor Who and Doctor Who fandom in the United States, down to items like listing known fanclubs, Doctor Who related newsletters and fanzines, and even a salute to the infamous Howard da Silva introductions to the Tom Baker episodes (explaining the premise of the show to us "dumb Americans"). From the era of DWAS and NADWAS (and the reign of Barbara Elder) to camera copies to PBS fundraising nights featuring the Doctor to "the wilderness years" and the Fox movie to the revival of the series, this book covers it all.

Yes, it's expensive. But if you're a Doctor Who fan from way back, like me, put some money away every week, or look for discounts, and save up for this volume. You won't be disappointed.

book icon  The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair
I've been a color junkie since my mother bought me my first 48-crayon Crayola box (and pleaded for a 64) and a big British paintbox, so this book was like a box of sweets for me. After scientifically defining color and explaining the principles of additive and subtractive color, St. Clair then works through the palette starting with white, through the spectrum from yellow through green, then brown and finally black, talking about notable colors like the deadly lead white, chalk, Indian yellow (did it really come from cows' urine?), amber (fossilized tree sap), scarlet (originally a cloth), cochineal (a still-common red dye made from...insects!), the infamous Tyrian purple, mauve (the first man-made color), the rare and expensive blues (ultramarine, Egyptian blue, woad, indigo), hypnotic absinthe color, the reddish russet which was originally grey-brown, mummy brown (yes, it came from where you think it did), kohl (the first eye shadow), charcoal, and more.

If you love color, and the history of colors, and a good bedtime read (short chapters, one to three pages), this book is for you. I even love the cover, which looks 3D even though it isn't.

book icon  The Lincoln Deception, Donald O. Stewart
As Ohio Congressman John Bingham—the man who prosecuted Abraham Lincoln's assassin's compatriots—lays dying, he lays out a strange story to his doctor, James "Jamie" Fraser, who considers Bingham his mentor: before her execution, Mary Surratt told him a dark secret about who was really behind the assassination. Fraser, growing curious, agrees to help Bingham's sisters look through his papers. As he starts this project, he makes the acquaintance of Speedwell "Speed" Cook, a black man who used to play professional baseball until the leagues forced out "the Negroes," and as he reads through Bingham's papers, he decides to take up what today we'd call a "cold case" with the help of Cook. Soon both Fraser and Cook are talking to important men...and being threatened.

I'm with Cook and some of the reviewers of this book: I know Fraser is a small-town doctor who hasn't gotten around much, but he is so incredibly naïve through most of this book you want to shake him. Picture this: you're investigating someone who you think was behind a Presidential death. The dude says, "Hey, I have an errand to run at [this dangerous place]. Why not come with me?" and Fraser just goes. (He pays for it, too, but acquits himself quite nicely. But after that he keeps believing people!) Speed Cook, of course, who's been brought up not to trust anyone, especially if they're white, should have brought a leash.

Not a bad mystery, unfolds slowly, Fraser and Cook both nice guys, but Fraser is clueless about what Cook goes through as a person of color (as really he would, as white people were brought up in a world apart). A little dull, but I am going to read the rest of the books.

book icon  Becoming Madeleine, Charlotte Jones Volkis and Léna Roy
I saw this almost first thing the week it was released; I had a coupon and valiantly declared "I would look around" before making a decision. I did look, but it was pretty much forgone the way the coupon would be used.

This biography by Madeleine L'Engle's granddaughters is for the tie-in with Disney's A Wrinkle in Time movie, so is written for middle-grade students and ends at the publication of the book, so the narrative is simple but does capture L'Engle's unconventional childhood, her fears, and her triumphs. Absolutely priceless are the extracts from her journals and her drawings, as well as the various photographs of her from girlhood to author, wife, and mother.

I hope Volkis and Roy will consider doing an adult biography of their grandmother or have someone impartial do one. Yes, I've read the infamous "New Yorker" article, and yes, I know Madeleine's life, even after she married, was not strewn with roses, and that her relationship with her children was not as sweet as Victoria Austin's, and that her son's alcoholism was apparently a result of not being able to live up to his literary self (Rob Austin) and that also that Hugh Franklin allegedly had girlfriends on the side. I don't think it makes her any less of a person to know the other, real disappointments in her life, or failures of self, and certainly no less of a writer.

I would love to at least see Madeleine's journals and letters (about her travels or thoughts, not about personal stuff) and more pictures!

book icon  Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser
This is technically a re-read, but my first reading of it was as an e-book, and somehow they don't seem as real as a paper book.

Wow. That was my first reaction to this meticulously researched historical book. As McDowell's The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder shows us the natural world behind the "Little House Books" saga, Fraser's volume paints the history of Laura's family and Almanzo's family, then the couple themselves and finally daughter Rose Wilder Lane, against the historical events of the United States. You'll meet one of Charles Ingalls' ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, and his descendants including a poet of published verse, find out the history of the Big Woods and the Indian wars that enabled the Ingalls and Quiner families to settle there, learn the truth about the Kansas house on the prairie and why the Ingalls really left (and who Laura may have confused with Soldat du Chêne), about the homesteading laws that enabled them to claim land in DeSmet, and about the history of "the Land of the Big Red Apple" and the world of the Depression-era Missouri where Laura and Almanzo ended their days, not to mention the historical figures and radical politics that became part of Rose Wilder Lane's life. The Little House books exist in an enchanted bubble of a children's book series where "now is now" and never "a long time ago"; the Ingalls family did not. They lived, as we all do, against the events of history which shape our lives. A presidential assassination, an election, a natural disaster, a Congressional decision can all change the future.

The sheer amount of information in this book about the Indian wars, the pioneer experience, the socialist movement, and other historical events may daunt some readers, but it is extremely rewarding to see how the times shaped the story of this particular family. The book includes maps, illustrations, and photographs to help bring the era alive.

book icon  An Untimely Frost, Penny Richards
Lilly Long has been cared for by theatre group empresario Pierce Wainwright since her mother's murder 11 years earlier, and has become an accomplished actress herself. However, after her new husband abandons her, taking all her money and making a mockery of what she thought was a happy new life, Lilly is intrigued by an ad looking for female operatives at the Pinkerton Agency. She hopes if she is hired  that she can stop other women from being victimized like she was. After being reluctantly hired "on spec" and trained, she's sent to the town of Vandalia, to see if she can locate a minister who vanished taking all the church's money. Lilly no sooner has begun asking questions than everyone in town gets cagy around her, except for the roguish and handsome boxing promoter she bumped into on the train.

Yes, Lilly does make some fairly elementary bloopers in investigating her first case, but then she's only 22 and a neophyte at the detection business, so I give her a nice solid "A" for effort; she's certainly no shrinking violet and endures a frightening encounter in an old building. The mystery also takes several twists that I enjoyed. However, I guessed right away why a certain person had disappeared from society and also the true identity of a person who appeared to be following Lilly. Plus I was a little disappointed when Richards popped up a new love interest for her in Vandalia almost immediately, and a couple of modern terms tossed me out of the story (I don't think people had personal agendas in 188). However, this doesn't keep me from wanting to follow her to her next adventure, and of course her faithless ex-husband will pop up again, and she will continue searching for a murderer now that she remembers more details about the killing.

book icon  America's Historylands: Landmarks of Liberty, National Geographic Society
I found this for a dollar at a book sale; it's from 1962 and is a compilation of historical articles from "National Geographic" magazine. It's written in that old expansive historical style that glorifies American historical characters in a way we don't today, seeing them more as ordinary people who did extraordinary things. It's still fun to read, but I found myself a bit troubled: all the photos of people touring historic sites show white people only and the texts (written by professional historians!) still refer to Native Americans as "redskins." Since National Geographic reporters have gone all over the world and reported on all sorts of communities and civilizations, it was rather jarring to see such a "white" America. Heck, even when I was a kid in 1962 I remember more racial and ethnic variety in the people I saw in everyday life. So while enjoyable and I learned some historic facts I didn't know, you can also read this to see how far we've come in including people of color in our publications.

book icon  To Die But Once, Jacqueline Winspear
May 1940: Publican Phil Coombes is worried. His youngest boy Joe, apprenticed to a painter who's doing war work, is unhappy at his job, as he tells his parents each time he calls, and he's also suffering from terrible headaches which he suspects is due to the paint fumes. When Joe stops telephoning, Coombes asks Maisie Dobbs to locate him. For her part, Maisie's private inquiry business is still thriving, but her personal life is full of worry: her partner Billy Beale's eldest son and her best friend Priscilla's oldest boy are both in the service, and it looks like the former may be trapped in France by a German advance. Billy's younger son wants to fix engines for the RAF and Priscilla's middle son Tim, only sixteen, is wild to do something for the war effort. Plus Maisie is becoming quite attached to Anna, the young orphaned evacuee she took into her country home.

Just when you think you have the plot straight in this book, another thread is unraveled, and it's a wonderfully complicated mystery as only Winspear can write, combining Joe's whereabouts, Tim's frustration, the slow realization that there is something very wrong at the painter's company, a suspicion that something may be amiss with government funds, and always the looming threat of invasion by the Nazis. When word goes out that troops are trapped on the shores of France, the action ramps even higher.

Along with a complex mystery, there is the underlying theme of older children wanting their freedom, and the fears parents have for their children as they grow older and must make decisions for themselves, so there is not only a satisfying puzzle to work out, but a look into feelings surrounding children "leaving the nest," further amplified by war. One of the best Maisie Dobbs stories ever.

(Winspear sums up previous events of her characters well, but if you want to get a fuller portrait of them, you need to read the series in order from the beginning. They are excellent mysteries and you won't regret starting from scratch. To Die But Once is #14 in the Maisie Dobbs series.)

book icon  Britcoms FAQ, Dave Thompson
This is a brief overview of British comedy television series (touching briefly on a few radio series) by addressing the main categories—sitcoms, sketch comedy, political satire, outrageous comedy, memorable characters or unusual situations, etc. We begin with Tony Hancock, whose sketches still existing can be seen on YouTube and which are still hilarious, and the infamous Goons, Monty Python, the Goodies, and Fawlty Towers are all here, as well as The Good Life, To the Manor Born, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, The Young Ones, Man About the House, Dad's Army, the inevitable Are You Being Served and Last of the Summer Wine, and individual comedians like Peter Sellers, and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Thompson even admits he couldn't fit more shows in (like Keeping Up Appearances and Morecambe and Wise), but I would have preferred he do so and omit the 80 pages of episode guide stuck in back of the book. Incredibly he didn't even mention Benny Hill or Dave Allen. So I enjoyed what I read, but I wanted more, more, more.