30 November 2018

Books Completed Since November 1

book icon  Victoria & Albert: A Royal Love Affair, Daisy Goodwin and Sara Sheridan
This is the second companion volume to the BBC Victoria series, focusing on series two. As in the first volume, it traces what happens in the episodes and explains the actual history being portrayed. It also talks about what in the teleplays has been changed to create more drama or to better illustrate an event. (For instance, in the episode about the Irish famine, Dr. Traill, the Protestant minister who tried to help the starving tenant farmers, did not visit the queen.) While the book is filled with lovely color photos from the series and many behind-the-scenes glimpses are given, from children on the set to how the food scenes are portrayed to what the sets are really built of, the best bits are the inserts which talk about the historical backgrounds: they explain who the Chartists were and why they were rebelling, talk about the sociological issues of the time (child labor, poverty, the Corn Laws, sexual license, and more), explain what the Victorians ate, how they dressed, how they addressed pregnancy and motherhood, sexual inequality, and compare Victoria and Albert to a more modern "power couple," their great-grandchildren Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. Daisy Goodwin also talks happily about how her research led her to discover unknown facts about the royal couple: the scene in the Christmas special where Victoria saves Albert when he falls through the ice was not made up for dramatic effect: it actually happened. Also, apparently the queen loved her food and ate very fast; she could eat seven or eight courses in half an hour, and she didn't keep her nails clean! You won't see that on TV!

I confess, I waited until this went on remainder: $30 is just too much. $8 was much better for a series overview and history lesson.

book icon  The Vanishing Man, Charles Finch
I began reading the Charles Lenox series with the first book, A Beautiful Blue Death, and have pretty much enjoyed the series even when a few things niggled at me (with all the money Charles had, couldn't he get a decent set of boots?). As the series has proceeded, I've enjoyed the development of Lenox's detective agency and his family life, but have been slightly wistful for the days when he investigated crime with the help of his former scout Graham and the advice of his best friend Lady Jane. Happily, Finch has delivered in the second of what I understand are three prequel novels featuring Lenox.

In 1853, Lenox is summoned to the home of the Duke of Dorset, ostensibly to locate a stolen portrait of one of the Duke's ancestors. But as Lenox continues to investigate the crime, he realizes there's much more to the Duke's request. The case will eventually involve William Shakespeare and a hidden facet of the Catholic persecution in past centuries. And as he puzzles over the Duke's mystery, he also tries to help a man who claims he is falsely being held in "Bedlam," London's insane asylum.

I really enjoyed this flashback to the "old days," the mystery is convoluted and takes several twists, and Finch also introduces a fascinating character, Thaddeus Bonden, a gentleman who is known for his ability to find anything. A delightful addition to the story is Lenox's twelve-year-old cousin Lancelot, who is turning his household upside down with his pranks, and who has a great scene where he confronts the Duke of Dorset. (I haven't read the first prequel novel, so Bonden may have been introduced there.) I'm looking forward now to reading the first book and also to the release of the third.

book icon  One-Night Stands with American History: Odd, Amusing, and Little Known Incidents, Richard Shenkman and Kurt Reiger
Not sure why, but I didn't enjoy this as much as Shenkman's other two books, Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History and I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not, perhaps because it seems a jumble of less interesting facts, the first two books having used up all the "juicy" stuff. However, there are still fascinating tidbits within, so perhaps my problem was reading it as a whole book rather than putting it in the bathroom and reading it a bit at the time. (Or it could be that I've read so many American history texts since I read the first two books that a lot of the material was already known to me.) For instance, the Puritans outlawed church weddings. They saw marriage as a strictly secular matter that "belong[s] to the realm of government." Or that, while Sally Hemings was not much chronicled by scholars until the mid 1970s, rude verses about her status as Thomas Jefferson's mistress were bandied about by his contemporaries (rude verses included).

I found the last chapter, mostly about the 60s, kinda dull, but then I lived it once and didn't really care to rehash it.

book icon  Murder Between the Lines, Radha Vatsal
This is the second book in the Capability "Kitty" Weeks series, and it remains as intriguing as Vatsal's first entry. Kitty, reporter for the Ladies' Page on the New York Sentinel, is sent to visit a girls' school famous for the scholarship of its graduates in an era when girls were usually trained to be ornamental. She is intrigued by Elspeth Bright, a budding scientist, who is working on genuine scientific projects at the school. But right after Kitty speaks with Elspeth, the girl is found frozen to death in the snow after a bout of sleepwalking. Kitty is unhappy with this verdict and as she digs deeper, finds much more going on.

Interspersed with the mystery plot is Kitty's interview with wealthy Alva Belmont, once married to one of the Vanderbilts, who is an ardent suffragist, and the fate of one of the other girls from the school, Georgina Howell, who is fascinated with Kitty's profession and ready to escape the stultifying atmosphere of the school. Vatsal deftly mixes Kitty's investigations (plus a personal matter involving her father) with the suffrage movement and Woodrow Wilson's involvement with it, and also the advances in militarization as (what we know and Kitty doesn't) the Great War approaches. Progress even comes to the Ladies' Page by the end of the book.

One of the reasons I love this series is that in most other historicals that I've read, the woman protagonist is often just a 21st century woman dressed up in 19th or early 20th century clothes. She's for suffrage, she talks back to authorities, she believes in modern ideas. Kitty still hasn't turned twenty in an era where it was thought women's health suffered if she studied or read too much. When a doctor tells her this, she actually believes it for a few days until both another doctor's input and her own common sense tell her it's not true. She's not sure if women should vote. When sometime terrible is about to happen, she doesn't suddenly make like a superhero and fix it herself. She more truly embodies the young woman of the "'teens" who's embracing the ideas of what women can actually do.

book icon  Peter Pan and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, J.M. Barrie
Sometimes I can pick up a children's book now as an adult and get as much enjoyment out of it as I would have as a child. This happened with Sawyer's Roller Skates and Grahame's Wind in the Willows. So I decided that I should make up for having never read Barrie's Peter Pan, and bought this edition, which also contains the chapters on Peter from Barrie's novel The Little White Bird.

I guess I came to this too late. Barrie seems to have inserted a lot of sly jokes for adults in the story, as in the opening chapter where he chronicles how Mr. and Mrs. Darling met, and the absurdity of having a Newfoundland dog as a nurse (because the children drink so much milk and they don't have the money), but that still didn't help. Peter is a petulant brat—I much prefer the lost boys, who are at least nice to Wendy—and, although I can usually get around racist attitudes in old books by reminding myself this was another time and managed to get through the references to "redskins," but when the Indians "prostrate" themselves before Peter, and Tiger Lily talks in what is stereotypical Chinese dialog ("Peter Pan save me, me his velly nice friend"), it was a bit much. Wendy gets to do nothing but tell stories and mend the lost boys' clothing, and there are bits of narrative that are more misogynist than any of the series books that I've read.

The Kensington Gardens portion is a bit of whimsy about how Peter Pan came to live in that famous London park as a baby whose "mother shut the window against him" and wouldn't allow him to come home, replacing him with another baby. This will strike you as some cruel abandonment until you realize (and what Peter doesn't) that Peter is actually a baby who died. As he becomes a fixture in the park, he helps a little girl named Maimie.

Sorry to be a killjoy, but I was not enchanted by this, and would not buy it for a child.

book icon  America and World War I: A Traveler's Guide Mark D. Van Ells
It took me ages to read this book, not because it's shallow, but because it's so dense. This is not your average travel "tour book" with notes of historic sites and then good restaurants and hotels. It is basically a history of the United States' participation in the first World War as illustrated by landmarks and tributes left behind, both in the United States and in Europe. Van Ells covers everything: the outbreak of the war, the primary general of the war (Pershing, including his excursions against Pancho Villa before we joined the fight), training camps, the trenches, the battles, the small French and Belgian towns, digressions to cover the battles at sea, the new war in the air, and the treatment of people of color who fought, and finally of the last battles and the Armistice.

Photographs, cartoons, drawings, battle maps, tables, and other printed media are used to enhance the details of this incredibly detailed book that includes visits to memorials, battle sites and other significant places, museums, statues to the famous and to the now unknown, and to cemeteries still tenderly cared for. A bibliography and a list of the sites close the volume.

Don't expect a brief description of each site. This really is more of a history book than a travel book, but if you're looking for a WWI history that leads you to historical sites, you'll be pleased with this.

book icon  Posh and Prejudice, Grace Dent
Oh, my gosh, how did it take me eight years to read the next Shiraz Bailey Wood book? Shiraz is just your average "chav" (a British insult word for what we might call "trailer trash"; she lives with her working class family in Essex, wears lots of makeup and bling and also hoodies, and the family has the stereotypical chav Staffy—Staffordshire terrier; think "pit bull"—as a pet. She's always looked forward to quitting school at sixteen and getting a job, but in the first book in the series, her English teacher has inspired her to continue with her education if she passes her exams. She and her best friend do pass the exams, and are off to the Sixth Form, where she is quite happily studying Latin and classic novels and Shakespeare—but she's also still mad about her working class boyfriend, until a sarcastic but well-to-do rich boy in her class starts showing an interest in her. Now she's conflicted: does she stay with the boy she's always had a crush on, or the new guy who makes her heart go pitter-pat, but is so far above her station? And as much as she loves studying, she's still not longing to be university—she's tired of being tied down.

Amusing, sometimes dead funny, and occasionally poignant, Dent shows us a girl on the cusp of maturity, unsure of her future, but knowing there's something more out there. By the way, ignore the awful American covers; Shiraz, despite her craving for bling, is much more than the image shown. In the vein of Adrian Mole, but she doesn't whinge anywhere near as much.

book icon  Legacies: Collecting America's History at the Smithsonian, Steven Lubar and Kathleen M. Kendrick
You find the most intriguing things at book sales. Take this book: it was a dollar, a big coffee table book about the Smithsonian. But not just the run-of-the-mill book where galleries are shown, or artifacts, or perhaps a history is told using those artifacts. This volume is different: it's about how the Museum of American History (once the Museum of History and Technology) has changed over the years, how the collection of artifacts has changed, and how they have been differently interpreted.

For instance, did you know the Smithsonian was originally founded only to hold items of scientific import? So some of the best loved items in the museum, like the Fort McHenry flag we refer to as "the star-spangled banner" and painted portraits of the famous were not considered acceptable in the original museum. They were held here and there until it was determined that the Smithsonian would not have just one focus and more than scientific instruments would be accepted. At first the historical artifacts had to come from noted, often wealthy Americans and usually concerned the founding of the U.S.: George Washington relics including silver tea services, bullets from the Revolutionary War, uniforms and weapons of officers. Later items began to then be accepted, but still from the noted. It was only in the 20th century that the notion of displaying artifacts that came from "just folks" and had to do with ordinary life or culture (like Julia Child's kitchen or Archie Bunker's chair or a teenage girl's jeans) might tell a very different story about our culture. At first only the First Ladies' dresses and other clothing were displayed; modern displays also touch on what that First Lady did with her time and her title. Displays are also constantly being reinterpreted: a suit of buckskin worn by a Native American and common clothing of a pioneer might have been displayed in the old days as a curiosity about a conquered people and how frightening settlers found the "savages," next to the attire of the area's "real" heroes. A modern display will discuss the displacement of Native Americans and their mistreatment by some of the pioneers during the days of Manifest Destiny.

It's a really fascinating look into how museums develop displays and how changing attitudes changes the historical interpretations and therefore the displays. Contains large color photographs of items in the Museum of American History, from Washington's silver to that pair of jeans.

book icon  Tails, You Lose, Carol J. Perry
In this second of the "Witch City" mysteries, Lee Barrett is rebounding after a house fire which destroyed the top story of the house in Salem, Massachusetts, where she is living with her Aunt Ibby. Having lost her job at WICH-TV, Lee will start anew after Christmas as an instructor at "the Tabby," the Tabitha Trumbull Academy of the Arts, located in the old Trumbull Department Store, which is reputed to be haunted. Christmas is hardly over when Lee learns from her boyfriend Pete Mondello, police detective, that the handyman at the Tabby has disappeared; he went down to the basement and vanished.

Lee and her students get thoroughly involved in both the mystery and their class in television broadcasting, and of course her latent clairvoyant tendencies pop up to guide and confuse her. When someone in the story mentioned bootlegging, part of the plot clicked into place for me—that's not a spoiler, but pretty evident if you remember your history lessons from school. Otherwise Perry weaves an interesting puzzle around her main characters and supporting actors.

These books aren't great literature, but they are fun, and I enjoy them.

book icon  Thanksgiving: The True Story, Penny Colman

book icon  Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Robert M. Grippo and Christopher Hoskins

book icon  Re-read: Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday, James W. Baker
James W. Baker has written the very readable Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday. This works very well as a 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" 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 just a New England holiday which spread as New England residents moved westward, and involved reunions with family and friends. Even stories about Thanksgiving mostly emphasized reunions between estranged or long-parted relatives; Pilgrims and Indians were not 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  The New England Butt'ry Shelf Almanac, Mary Mason Campbell
I found this on Archive.org and became enchanted with the Tasha Tudor drawings, so wanted a "real book" of my own. It is divided into the same sections for each month: a section opening page drawn by Tudor, a one-page list for your birthdays and anniversaries, the flower of the month, the bird of the month, an essay for the month finishing with recipes, and finally an essay on a New England personage ("Snowflake" Bentley, Emily Dickinson, Gilbert Stuart, Sarah Josepha Hale, etc.), with a smattering of color Tudor illustrations inside.

Where has Campbell been hiding? As far as I know, this, The New England Butt-ry Shelf Cookbook, and Betty Crocker's Kitchen Gardens are her only three books. The portraits of the New Englanders are interesting, but I love the essays—she sounds a lot like Gladys Taber and I could have read much more about her country home, following old customs like May baskets, etc. Heck, even her cooking chatter was great to read. No more exists; what a pity!