30 April 2018

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe That Created Modern America, Volume 2: Domination, James D. McNiven
Okay, let me get this out first: I loved the first book in this series, and I loved the text of the second, but I'm annoyed as all get-out about two things.

First, apparently there was a second edition of the first book in which McNiven removed the final two chapters and incorporated it into this second book. I understand his reasons for doing so—thematically it better fit the divisions of the texts: Expansion, Domination, and Apotheosis. But then when I read the second book, I've already read the first two chapters, so I felt a little bit cheated.

Worse, McNiven didn't put the same copious notes he had in the first book in the second book—and these were great notes, they were practically another book!—but instead, to keep the price of the book down, he put the notes online. Hey, I'm online, so I can go read the notes at www.theyankeeroad.com anytime. But what about people who aren't on the internet or who don't want to be? They are royally cheated, and frankly I want to read the notes on a book in the book, not one by one via text links on a web page. So I feel cheated twice.

The remainder of the book? Great trip along US20 all the way, from Erie, Pennsylvania, and the War of 1812 to the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania and how it became an industry to settlement of the Western Reserve to John Brown's raid, all the way down to the Kelloggs of Battle Creek and the founding of Gary, Indiana, once a bustling industrial city and now a bleak part of the Rust Belt, and all the participants descendants of the thrifty Yankees that settled the northeast corner of the United States, from Daniel Dobbins at the Battle of Lake Erie to the Rockefellers.

But I want the dang notes back!!!!

book icon  Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
I've heard about this book for years, quoted in other books, but could never find a reasonably-priced copy until I found one on the library's "perpetual book sale" shelves. It's the entertaining read about two young women who scrimp and save their money in order to sail to Europe in the heady years after the first World War. Practical Cornelia and slightly feather-headed Emily take the cheapest cabins on a Canadian liner, only for the ship to run aground in the St. Lawrence River before they ever reach the ocean. Until they can get another ship, they stay with a friend of Cornelia's mother, only to have Cornelia contract measles from the children there. Eventually she's spirited off the ship and their adventures...or further adventures...continue in England and then in France.

This is a great view of traveling in the 1920s, with bulky purses for your money worn under your skirts for security, the threat of bedbugs everywhere (I was quite astonished at Cornelia's reaction, more upset because it ruined how she looked than that the bed actually was infested; apparently this was a common travel hazard of the time—::shudder::), language barriers at a time when English was not a universal language, the old-fashioned customs of the two countries that no longer exist, money problems, and of course humor from Emily, whose wits are sometimes less than she needs (both young ladies think they are worldly, but in reality they are terribly na├»ve: there's an especially funny couple of pages where Cornelia's parents attempt to explain to the girls why the two men they met at a party were more interested in each other than them, without once mentioning the forbidden word "homosexual").

If you're interested in a "Roaring 20s" version of The Grand Tour or classic American humor, give this one a try. You'll be glad of the internet and travel guides by the time you're done and get a good laugh at the same time.

book icon  Grace to the Finish, Julie Hyzy
In what looks like it might be the last of the Manor House mysteries, Grace Wheaton's life has begun to change after she is declared Bennett Marshfield's heir, and she has a chance to be the silent partner when her roommates, wine-shop owners Bruce and Scott, move into a new location, a classic old building. But when Grace and the guys go to inspect the new home of Amethyst Cellars, they find the dead body of a loan officer from the bank at the foot of the stairs. It looks like a vagrant living in the building might be the culprit, but once they start investigating the victim, peculiarities begin to appear.

And if that wasn't bad enough, Grace's bad-girl sister Liza has been released from prison early, and is now back in Emberstowne looking for her "fair share" of the Marshfield fortune.

While I enjoyed the process of the murder investigation, as well as Grace's rocky beginning at romance with the local coroner, it's the suspenseful subplot with greedy Liza and acerbic Aunt Belinda that gave me the most satisfaction. I've probably read the final eleven pages of Chapter 32 about a dozen times, each time with no less glee.

I dunno, there still may be mysteries for Grace to solve, and lousy Liza will still be close by, and the matter with Grace's new guyfriend isn't complete yet...so perhaps not the last?

book icon  The Book, Keith Houston
From the same author of Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, it's a book about...well, guess what. We start with a surface to write upon: first papyrus, which gave its name to paper; then parchment, then the story of rag paper (which is from China, but who actually created it and who legend says created it are two different things), and then the explosion of need for paper which brought wood pulp (and then yellowing, fragile paper) into the mix. Next a history of writing (I was astonished to learn that most scribes who copied books were not literate; they were not copying words, but shapes) that became at first carved pages and then moveable type and finally increasingly more mechanized typesetting; next illustration from hand-drawn to woodcut to etching to halftones; and finally the form of the book: tablets to scrolls to folds to paged volumes.

Houston has a delightful, light but always informative style in which you learn much and enjoy doing it. The Book is peppered with illustrations about books, and every page leaves you wanting more. A must for every bibliophile.

book icon  Grave on Grand Avenue, Naomi Hirahara
LAPD bicycle officer Ellie Rush is back in her second adventure, working her way up in the ranks rather than trying to rely on her aunt, Cheryl Toma, the assistant chief of police. This time she and a co-worker are working crowd control on a concert in which a noted Chinese cellist will be playing. Minutes after Ellie exchanges pleasantries with an Hispanic gardener, the man has fallen down a set of stairs, accused of trying to steal the Chinese cellist's priceless instrument, but stopped by the cellist's father. When the gardener dies, a manhunt is on for the father; in the meantime, a bank robber dressed as an elderly woman is terrorizing banks. Ellie's personal life is getting chaotic as well: her ancient car has been stolen, her ex-boyfriend (who she's remained friends with) is acting distant, and her best friend is more and more absorbed in her new reporting job—and if she hasn't had enough jolts, her father's long-lost father (thought to be dead) turns up on her doorstep.

I'm enjoying this series not only for the mystery and for learning about LA's bicycle corps, but because of Ellie's ethnic mix of family and friends. Usually the protagonists of these cozy mysteries are so whitebread and cliche that they're not only boring, but all mix together: which one's the heroine of the knitting mystery, which is the lead in the craft mystery; which is the historical character who solves the mystery, etc. The family and friend dynamics are just as interesting to me as the mystery, which was reasonably complicated and satisfactorily solved. However, I'm damned sick of Aunt Cheryl dumping a bunch of responsibility on Ellie that isn't hers. She may be a great assistant chief of police, but she's a rotten aunt.

book icon  Pagan Christmas, Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Ebeling

book icon  America and the Great War, Margaret E. Wagner
This is a super almost coffee-table sized book chronicling the history of the United States' reaction to and then our entrance into what became the first World War. Starting with a prologue that covers the sinking of the Titanic (I didn't realize that although Titanic was under British registry she was financed by J.P. Morgan) to the early months of 1914, and continuing with the outbreak of the war in Europe and the U.S.'s efforts to stay out of what was seen as a squabble among degenerate royalty and far below lofty American ideals, with Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet keeping a distance despite European efforts to get the country to take sides and offer assistance. Unfortunately submarine warfare, news of atrocities by the Central Powers in Belgium and Armenia, suspected sabotage, and other indignities eventually caused the government to change its mind.

I really appreciated this book for showing me how the unrest in Mexico contributed to our participation in the war. It is still difficult for me to resolve how a country so adamant about not being involved in the conflict could suddenly turn about to become so rabidly for participation, with even children's books having war-related plotlines and improbable "Hun" spy stories. Usually when one hears what was going on in the North American continent before April 2017, you have a few paragraphs about Pancho Villa and General Pershing, but there were actually a succession of clashes between Mexican insurgents along the U.S. border and deaths of American citizens before the infamous Zimmerman Telegram tipped the scales. Also, there were many more ships, both civilian and military, sunk by U-boats than the Lusitania and the couple others that are mentioned in most histories. (Amazingly, while the U.S. was neutral, German submarines visited our shores, most notably in Newport, RI, where the captain gave tours of the ship while a message was being relayed to him!) Also focused on are woman's suffrage efforts during pre-war and war years, efforts of African-Americans to gain fair treatment, and finally the innocent "grippe" that eventually killed more men than the war, the so-called "Spanish influenza."

Produced with items from the archives of the Library of Congress, the volume is stuffed with color and black-and-white posters, documents, photographs, political cartoons, propaganda items, book and manual covers, maps, and other illustrations to heighten the experience. There's even a photograph of that "infamous Zimmerman telegram"!

In some ways this book is a hard read, not because of the war casualties, but how a mob mentality and the Sedition Acts made former German-surnamed neighbors into enemies and how American freedoms were curtailed due to fears of spies, sabotage, and plain old xenophobia. In some ways creepier than the combat stories because these vigilantes were supposed to be working for good.

book icon  Perish from the Earth, Jonathan F. Putman
The second in Putman's "Lincoln and Speed" mysteries reunites Joshua Speed, Springfield general storekeeper, and Abraham Lincoln, at this time a circuit lawyer in Illinois. As the story opens, Speed has just made the departure on the "War Eagle," a steamship in which his father has invested, and which is losing money. While aboard, Speed watches as a drunken young planter gamble away money he was taking back to his father and older brother, accusing the man with whom he played of cheating. The captain has the young man taken back to his cabin to sober up, but when the boat makes port in the town of Alton, Speed is aghast when he and Lincoln come upon the young planter's body floating in the river. The supercilious town constable, a transplanted Frenchman who considers himself a genius at crime solving, immediately arrests an artist who was also aboard the ship and who was said to have quarreled with the young planter.

Speed and Lincoln's efforts (along with Speed's freethinking younger sister Martha) to clear the painter plunge them into secrets they couldn't have imagined, kept by the ship's captain, his majordomo, and other townspeople, as well as the frightening specter of mob violence that erupts in the town when a noted abolitionist refuses to stop printing his inflammatory newspaper.

I enjoyed the previous book and this as well, even if it presents unflinching looks at the early hatred of abolitionists, frontier "justice," and the horrors of slavery (minus the actual racist language that would have been used). Once again, as in the first book, one of my favorite parts of the story is the way it's told, with the author using as much early 19th century language and grammar as possible without making the story not understandable to modern audiences. It gives it a particular authenticity, although it appears toned down from the previous book.

My only problem with the book was an anachronism: in one scene, a character starts to "unstrap his Jurgensen watch" from around his wrist, which implies it's a wristwatch, but wristwatches for men were not even conceived of until the Boer War and not commonly worn until the first World War, plus Jurgensen didn't start making wristwatches until 1919. That really distracted me from the early 19th century setting.

book icon  Re-read: Up the Down Staircase, Bel Kaufman
The film of this book popped up on TCM recently, and after rewatching it I couldn't resist re-reading the book. I found my original copy in a used bookstore many years ago, knew the title only by reference, but, upon opening it and being seduced by its unique narrative, quickly snatched it up. My current copy has an introduction by the author telling how the story was written, how difficult it was to sell due to the unique format, how the book took her from obscurity to fame, and how, even in 1991 when the introduction was written, the story was still relevant.

Heck, even now in 2018 it's still relevant.

Instead of being told in a standard first- or third-person narration, Kaufman's classic story of a neophyte teacher in a tough New York high school is told in the printed chaos of Sylvia Barrett's first semester at Calvin Coolidge High: handouts, flyers, compositions, memos, the student entries from the Suggestion Box she places in her homeroom, frantic interoffice communications, students' notebooks, plus Sylvia's regular letters to her friend Ellen, in which she laments her inadequacies in transferring her love of English to children who are hobbled by absent parents, racial prejudice, unrealistic dreams, gang violence, drugs, and simple hopelessness. At once humorous, infuriating, sobering, illuminating and just plain entertaining. You'll remember Sylvia, motherly Bea, flighty Henrietta, officious J.J. McHabe ("Admiral Ass"), prima donna Paul, mousy Sadie Finch, the helpless school nurse, the librarian who hates books being taken from the library and the guidance counselor who fancies herself Freud, and the mysterious janitor who's always "not here," plus students like Joe Ferone, Jose Rodriguez, Alice Blake, Linda Rosen, Rusty O'Brien, Edward Williams, and Harry A. Kagan, "the students' choice," long after you close the covers.

book icon  Murder in Greenwich Village, Liz Freeland
Louise Faulk has fled her dull life as her uncle's bookkeeper for his butcher shop in Altoona, Pennsylvania (and a secret that is slowly revealed as the book progresses) and is working for a small publisher in New York City thanks to her Auntie-Mame-like aunt whose nonconformist views hide the fact she writes bestsellers about sweet country girls. Louise and her roommate Callie attend one of Aunt Irene's famous parties, then come home to find Callie's pest of a visiting cousin, the mousy Ethel, has been murdered wearing Callie's glamorous clothes in Callie's bed. The creepy son of the landlady tells the police he saw a blond man on the stairs earlier, one that matches the description of Callie's married lover Sawyer. But it also matches the description of the promising writer Louise met at Aunt Irene's party, and of Otto, who fancied himself in love with Louise and has just arrived in NYC to have one of his songs published by a Tin Pan alley firm. Worse, the police arrest Otto with little evidence. Louise is determined to prove it isn't him, Callie's out to prove it isn't Sawyer, and detective Muldoon is determined to get them out of his hair.

The mystery is pretty good in this one, but it's yet another book about a plucky young woman who doesn't hold with convention and is determined to find the real culprit even if it puts her life at risk, which it certainly does at the end. I guessed Louise's secret pretty early in the book as well.

My biggest problem with this book is that it takes place in 1913 and despite numerous references to Tin Pan Alley, jazz, shoes peeking out from under long skirts, suffragettes, and the saxophonists living in Louise's building, plus a final brief reference to "war breaking out in the Balkans," I never got the feeling that it was 1913. Without those few details it could have been the 1920s or the 1930s. I didn't want scads of minute descriptions of everything, but the story didn't feel tied to the time period, and the characters talked not much differently than we do today, using very little period slang. However, I would probably read another book about Louise.

book icon  The Sherlock Chronicles, Steve Tribe
This nifty book was released just after third season of Sherlock aired. It's a combination of "making of," behind the scenes photographs, the occasional Holmes illustration, deleted scene excerpts, comparisons of Sherlock scripts against original Holmes stories, and myriad other goodies associated with the brainchild of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat that was conceived on a train trip. You find how they choose filming locations, how they devised Sherlock's escape at the end of season two, the e-mails shared when the show and later scripts were being devised, the story of the original 60-minute pilot and how it became a 90-minute film, and more Sherlock and John goodness (including why in this series it's first names and not last). There are some neat photos, too, including Benedict Cumberbatch with his (and Sherlock's) parents, and photos of Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller (the updated Sherlock Holmes in the U.S. in the series Elementary) alternating roles of the scientist and his creation in a stage production of Frankenstein.

Even the end papers are cool—it's the infamous "Sherlock wallpaper" that's been made so famous on the series so that it pops up on e-reader covers, bookcovers, cell phone protectors, textile patterns, etc. A must for Sherlock fans.

book icon  C.S. Lewis & Narnia for Dummies, Richard Wagner
If you've always wondered what the Narnia books were really all about, this is a good primer to the most famous works of C.S. Lewis, made into both radio plays and television and theatrical films. The book opens with a brief history of Lewis, including the college years that drew him away from Christianity and the events in his life that drew him back, and then jumps into the seven Narnia children's novels, noting the novelists who influenced Lewis, the parallels with Christianity (but, as Wagner explains, not told as allegory; instead the Narnia books are a "supposal"), a who's who of characters, a list of themes, and summaries of all the books with Lewis' themes of sacrifice and faith pointed out.

The second half of the book is devoted to Lewis' other works, from the well-known Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, , the Space trilogy, and The Screwtape Letters, to the more obscure like Lewis' first work, an allegory called The Pilgrim's Regress, Till We Have Faces, The Problem of Pain, The Four Loves, and The Abolition of Man. A list of authors favored by Lewis, print and internet resources, and two suggested biographies round out the book