30 April 2019

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife, Lucy Cooke
I confess, I picked this up because I opened it and came upon the author talking about Swedish police running afoul of moose drunken on fermented berries. How could you not want to read on?

This is Cooke's breezy—occasionally a bit too breezy—commentary on a handful of animals and not only their peculiarities, but the peculiar things men have ascribed to them in earlier centuries, and how they aren't really the way we portray them. For instance, sloths: their slowness has given them a classic bad rap for being useless animals because of their speed—yet sloths have survived longer than man, and manage to survive despite habitat changes, complete with peculiarities (like it takes a sloth a week to poop). She also talks about the aforementioned moose (like maybe they really aren't getting drunk on fermented berries), eels, chimpanzees (and why, even though they're our closest evolutionary relatives, you can't bring them up like children), beavers (do you know a lot of products made for human consumption have beaver anal fluid in them?), hyenas (females have sex organs that make them look like males, and they are strictly matriarchal), bats, frogs, vultures, storks, hippopotami (they have a tough time surviving in Africa, but ones smuggled into South American jungles are doing quite well!), pandas (despite how it looks in zoos, pandas actually mate very successfully and have rather randy sex lives when they do), and penguins. A smattering of bears (despite years of being told giant pandas aren't bears, well, they're closer to bears than anything else) and elephants and migratory birds show up as well.

This is a fun natural history, but be forewarned that since we are talking about past beliefs about animals, you'll need to get through some pretty hideous experiments scientists have done to these animals over the years. It's a small part of the book, but can get pretty grim. The chimpanzee and the vacuum cleaner story isn't exactly safe for work, either.

book icon  Bertie: The Complete Prince of Wales Mysteries, Peter Lovesey
These mysteries (Bertie and the Tin Man, Bertie and the Seven Bodies, Bertie and the Crime of Passion) were first released in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and I can guess they are being re-released due to the continued interest in the British Victoria series currently being produced, featuring adorable Laurie Shepherd as a very young Albert Edward, later to become King Edward VII. I remember passing on them back then, but always regretted not reading them, so I have quite enjoyed getting caught up on Bertie's "career" as a detective.

I found the third book, taking place in Paris and featuring Sarah Bernhardt as Bertie's assistant in tracking down the murderer of the future son-in-law of an old French friend, the least interesting of the lot, although it was a great look at the 1880s Parisian scene. The first story is spun upon the fact that Bertie's favorite jockey Fred Archer just shot himself out of nowhere, after asking the bewildering question "Are they coming?" It did seem the most authentic of the lot, with Bertie investigating one of his favorite pastimes, although I was uncomfortable with Lovesey using a real-life suicide as a jumping-off place for an often tongue-in-cheek mystery. My favorite of the three was Bertie and the Seven Bodies, although the "base the killings around a rhyme" trope has been done often; I like country house mysteries and also Bertie's partner through much of the mystery is his wife Alix, who brings him down, sometimes quite humorously, from his fancy of being a private detective. This is Bertie with all his warts: a womanizer, a gourmand, an enjoyer of fine cigars and clothing, a little bit of a snob, but with a good heart and time on his hands, since his mother Queen Victoria refuses to give him anything worthwhile to do. (Victoria's Jenna Coleman is downright motherly compared to how the real Victoria treated the real Bertie, even in childhood.) And while he is rather a scattershot detective, his adventures are always fun.

If you've any interest in Victorian-era mystery stories or the infamous Prince of Wales who became, as King, "uncle of Europe," these should be your cup of tea.

book icon  Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, Ingrid Fetell Lee
Everyone recognizes that some big events spark joy: perhaps the birth of a long awaited baby, or the first college graduation in a family, a wedding. But Lee talks about the small things that also provide joy: energy, abundance, freedom, harmony, play, surprise, transcendence, magic, celebration, and renewal. She investigates how even just a pop of color affects emotions and how a change of color can even revitalize a neighborhood, how layering of colored patterns can boost your happiness, how walking through nature can relieve stress, how symmetry calms, how adults still need to play, how even the smallest surprise can change your day for the happier, and more. At the back of the book are simple exercises you can do to bring joy to your life.

I'd read about some of these other things in other books (colors in schools and in urban development, how we are starved for nature experiences, about how the Golden Mean affects you emotionally, etc.), but Lee gathers them here in one place. Dead serious people may think this is frivolous, but otherwise it's fun. Would love to experience some of the homes, apartments, and outdoor spaces she describes in the book!

book icon  Re-Read: Little Men, Louisa May Alcott
I picked this up again on a whim one night and immediately fell once again in with the hijinks and lessons at Plumfield School. While we adults know Alcott wrote these children's tales to earn money for her family, and much preferred her "blood and thunder" stories, and while Little Men can be maddeningly didactic at times (and the chapter about the visit of Laurie and Amy's daughter is so sickly sweet it could give you diabetes), I appreciated the story with new eyes after having read several biographies of Alcott and of Alcott's family.

First and foremost Alcott wanted to defend the teaching methods espoused by her father Bronson Alcott and featured them prominently. "Teaching" in those days chiefly meant making children sit still and memorize things for hours at the time ("stuffing their heads like a Strasbourg goose," as Louisa put it—when I visited Old Sturbridge Village, the gentleman at the schoolhouse remonstrated me when I called him a "schoolteacher"; he was a "school keeper," he corrected me, there to make sure the kids read their books and did their lessons, not to teach), and Bronson's ideas were rather radical: he advocated schools governed by kindness, about children learning lessons about nature in nature itself rather than out of a dry textbook, of other hands-on instruction (rather like the later kindergarten movement and Montessori schools). American schools gradually did begin using most of these methods, but sadly today, except in innovative schools, have regressed. Once again children's heads are being stuffed like geese, this time to pass tests, and the valuable outdoor time that was found so useful in working off restlessness in pupils has now been restricted. Unless a child plays sports, many get no exercise at all, and recess is a declining event. The Bhaers, like Bronson, believed a good mixture of study and story, outdoor play and indoor hobbies, best gave children a rounded education.

The other thing I noted immediately in these days of sexual harassment of girls at school and in the MeToo movement is Jo's insistence that the boys as well as girls be taught good manners, and that boys learn to treat girls and women with respect. When Nat, Tommy, and Demi ruin Daisy, Nan, and Bess' "dinner party," Jo doesn't accept that "it was only in fun" and punishes the boys for their rudeness by forbidding the boys to speak to the girls. The boys soon realize the girls are as worthy as other boys of respect.

Also there is the matter of Jo's "black sheep" Dan, who has had a rough upbringing and who is coarse and wild. While he must learn respect and that duties come before pleasures, he is also given love and acceptance. Today Dan—and also perhaps wild little Nan Harding, Daisy's headstrong and sometimes heedless classmate—would be referred to counseling; perhaps they would be given ADHD drugs. Jo's solution to their restlessness is to give them both something to do that will absorb their energies, and along with love and kindness, this turns the trick. (I am not suggesting that ADHD drugs are bad and counseling is of no use. Some children are so hyperactive mentally that they literally do need medication to settle their minds to be able to think, and sometimes no amount of love and care can make up for childhood abuse. But sometimes it seems that drugs and counseling are quick-fix sops thrown at parents by a handful of lazy and greedy advisors.)

If you stopped after Little Women, I do recommend Little Men (eat a pickle while you read the "Goldilocks" chapter if you like) and its sequel, Jo's Boys, in which Alcott gives to Nan the ending Louisa Alcott really wanted for Jo.

book icon  Death of a New American, Mariah Fredericks
My favorite period of history is the U.S. and Great Britain 1880 through the beginning of the first World War, so this hit my radar immediately. I wondered if I would have a problem with it being the second book in a series, but discovered it didn't make too much of a difference to the mystery portion of the story.

Jane Prescott is still fairly new in her position as ladies' maid to sisters Charlotte and Louise Benchley, still recovering from mercurial Charlotte's ill-advised engagement that went sour (see the first book). As news of the Titanic disaster makes headlines, Jane is accompanying Louise to Long Island for her upcoming wedding to William Tyler. Louise doesn't think much of herself and Jane is hoping marriage to the handsome and slightly shy himself William will help her. When they arrive at the home of Charles Tyler, William's guardian uncle, a man who is helping in the fight against the "Black Hand," gangsters among the newly-arrived Italian immigrants, Jane is drawn to the Tylers' nursemaid, a quiet young woman named Sofia who appears to adore her charges. But not long after they arrive, little Mabel Tyler rushes to Jane, frantic: her baby brother is crying and crying, and Sofia is not answering when Mabel calls for her. In the nursery, Jane finds baby Freddy on the floor and Sofia dead. The crime is written off as a botched kidnapping (an Italian gangster had been threatening the Tylers), and Sofia is considered part of the plot, but that doesn't square with Jane. She doesn't think Sofia had any part in the crime.

One of the problems of any modern-day novel written about that period is that so many of the heroines turn out to be 21st-century women in 19th/early 20th century dress. (This was particularly egregious in Cathy Pegau's Alaskan mysteries.) They are all for women's suffrage, educated women, free love, not automatically being married...and they don't sound like their Victorian/Edwardian counterparts who did believe in these things. I liked Jane because she's not sure about these things, but at the same time she is coming to believe that all women shouldn't be relegated to be dutiful wives and airhead spinsters. She is basically learning as she goes along, and doesn't feel the need to topple social structure immediately as she does. She seems more realistic. I also liked her friend Anna, who has gotten involved with labor unions in order to get her own people, and other immigrants, paid fairly.

I also enjoyed this book because of the Italo-American storyline, as all four of my grandparents were from Italy. The novel shows the type of bigotry they endured every day, something that was still alive and kicking well into the 1940s when my mother took her mother to the Red Cross to see if there was any word of my uncle, who was stationed in the Pacific during World War II, and my grandmother was dismissed by a Red Cross worker as "another stupid Dago."

I now know I want to read the first book in this series to see how she came to work for the Benchleys, what happened to Charlotte, and how she met Herald reporter Michael Behan.

book icon  American Moonshot, Douglas Brinkley
This is an interesting take on the U.S. space program, paralleling the histories of the early space pioneers along with the early life of a youngster who would seem like the last person to put his interest in flying to the moon: the wealthy young scion of one of Boston's noted families, John F. Kennedy. Brinkley chronicles the career of Kennedy against that of the pioneers of space travel: Goddard, Oberth, and finally Von Braun.

In general I liked this book because I was a small child during the Kennedy administration and remember the "Camelot" mystique and because I followed the space program as an older child. However, I am dismayed by the reviews that cite so many mistakes in the text. I'm sorry to hear there are so many factual errors since I really liked the idea of paralleling the Kennedy story with the space program history.

book icon  Keeping Up Appearances: Hyacinth Bucket's Book of Etiquette for the Socially Less Fortunate, Roy Clarke and Jonathan Rice
I got this for 75 cents at a book sale and chuckled my way through it. The narrative ties together dialog from the television series, and it's a fun read if you enjoy following the adventures of "the Bucket woman." Don't pay full price, though. (I know, that would horrify Hyacinth...)

book icon  A Gentleman's Murder, Christopher Huang
It's 1924 in London, England, and Eric Peterkin, like his father and grandfather before him, belongs to the Brittania Club, an exclusive gentleman's club for ex-military members. He is used to the peculiarities of the members, and when one of the members bets another that he can break into a lock box in the the members' safe deposit room, he merely views it as another club foible—until the person whose box was supposed to be raided turns up dead in the supposedly always-secured room. In involving himself in the mystery, with the help of his sister Penny and eccentric friend Avery, Eric is thrown back into war memories, long-buried secrets, and the specter of the charnel fields of Flanders, along with the disappearance of a Chinese nurse from an estate turned convalescent hospital.

The twist in this story is that Eric Peterkin is somewhat of a stranger in a strange land: while his father's heritage gains him membership in the Brittania, he is still looked on with suspicion (even by a couple of members) because his mother was Chinese. It is the era of the "Yellow Peril" in literature and in theatre, and Eric, who evaluates books for publication, is already tired of books with Chinese villains and seeing plays with Chinese villains. As he investigates the crime that took place in his club, he is continually mistaken for a chauffeur, servant, or lackey.

Huang has written a great "Golden Age" style murder mystery with a twist. I enjoyed this thoroughly and hope there are sequels.

book icon  Tales from Shakespeare, Charles and Mary Lamb
You can't make it through 19th century children's literature without bumping into "Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare" somewhere along the line. Brother and sister Charles and Mary Lamb (he was the younger) adapted in 1807 twenty of Shakespeare's plays (fourteen comedies and six tragedies—no historicals) into prose (while including tough subjects like murder and jealousy, of course they skipped sexual situations completely). What follows is a very likeable narrative of the most famous of the plays, including "The Tempest," "Romeo and Juliet," "Macbeth," "Midsummer's Night Dream," etc. and if you wanted to know more about the plays without reading them, this is a good way to learn. The edition I found at Barnes & Noble is from Fall River Press with illustrations taken from Arthur Rackham, Robert Anning Bell, and Walter Paget (brother of Sidney, who illustrated some of the Sherlock Holmes stories), all lovely 19th century work that enhance the story narratives.

book icon  Easter Ideals, Ideals Publications
The spring edition of Ideals, this is devoted to both the religious side of Easter and general spring beauty, a collection of artwork, lush photographs, poetry and essays, plus the Bible narrative for Easter. Particularly liked the poems "Symbol," "April Rain," and the Wordsworth "Written in March," plus Pamela Kennedy's essay about Thomas the apostle.