31 March 2020

Books Completed Since March 1

book icon  Meg & Jo, Virginia Kantra
How much you enjoy this book is relative to how you react to modern-day retellings of classic stories. I didn't mind the updating so much as Kantra's portrayal of Jo.

So, predictably, this is a modern-day retelling of Little Women. Mr. March is an army chaplain who is too absorbed with his military flock to spend time with his wife and daughters. Mrs. March is back living on the family farm in Bunyan (a tip of the hat to Pilgrim's Progress referenced in the original book), North Carolina, raising goats and selling goats' milk products. Meg, who also lives in Bunyan, is a former attorney now married to John Brooke (a car salesman), and they have twins, DJ and Daisy, who Meg gave up her job to raise at home, but she feels guilty because John has to work so many hours to support them on one salary. Jo lives in a tiny apartment in New York City; having lost her journalist job, she's become a sous chef under the watchful eye of Eric Bhaer, a celebrated chef with his own restaurant. (Beth and Amy will be covered in a second book coming out at Christmas 2020; Amy's still an artist, studying design in Paris. Beth's a musician who has written a song that has come to the attention of a famous country star. They have cameo appearances here. Laurie's modern alter ego, Trey, also has pretty much of a bit part. Very dull.) Then, an accident. Marmee is hurt and Meg must help her; she discovers that the family farm is in debt.

Some people took this updating very badly. I thought Kantra translated it pretty well. Her day-to-day portrayal of Meg's days as a stay-at-home mom was realistic but almost becomes too much; got very tired of reading how often Meg had to strip off DJ's dirty diapers or how often the kids got messy. We get it: SAHM's don't spend all day sitting on the sofa eating chocolate and watching television. The troubles Mr. and Mrs. March have with their marriage hark very much back to the real-life troubles of Abba and Bronson Alcott, where the latter pretty much forwent his family obligations, leaving Abba to do all the work of feeding and clothing the kids, while Bronson discussed philosophy with his fellow Transcendentalists. It was also a hard look at how service men and women often are distanced from their families by military obligations. Also thought Sallie Moffat made the transition from past to present very well, although I frowned when two of Sallie's snooty friends turn out to be Rose Campbell and Phebe Moore from Alcott's Eight Cousins. Note: Rose was never snobby, nor was Phebe. I found it insulting to the original characters.)

(Also, what in the dickens is the matter with DJ? In this female-centric book I can see why they made Daisy the articulate one, but what's with DJ? He hardly says anything, barely does anything, and has no character at all. Even as domestically boring as the original "motherly" Daisy was, she at least had a character. DJ is like a toddler lump of clay.)

Oh, Jo. What can I say about Jo? First is a petty complaint of mine. Why, oh, why, did Bhaer have to be a chef? There are so many of these dippy celebrity chefs on television, why did we need yet another one? Couldn't he have been something interesting? A scientist, an astronaut, an artist, another writer, even a famed college professor? But a chef? Ugh!! And of course Jo [spoiler spoiler spoiler] has to get pregnant after using an aged condom? Good grief. Good God.

I was interested in the modern spin enough to think about getting Beth & Amy when it's released, and to see if Kantra works on the Mr. and Mrs. March plot more. But I am bitterly disappointed in Jo's modern update.

book icon  Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, Valerie Lawson
Having seen the Disney version of Mary Poppins when it first came out, I was quite familiar with the contentious relationship between Ms. Travers and Disney, who, she said, sweetened and prettied up her non-nonsense, vain, plain nanny and turned her story into a sugary confection of singing and dancing animals, with a preposterous subplot about suffragettes. Having also read Mary Poppins and been rather ho-hum about it except for the chapter about the starling and John and Barbara (of course who are not in the movie), I did have to admit Travers made a good point, even though I enjoyed the film more.

Frankly, reading this book made me like Travers—born Helen Lyndon Goff, and known as Lyndon in her youth—as an adult a lot less. She had a hard bringing-up: her father, Travers Goff, was a bank clerk who made up stories about himself and drank too much. Her mother, Margaret, was orphaned and was raised by her "Aunt Ellie." Lyndon lived with Aunt Ellie for a time as well. Like her father, she never thought of herself as Australian, but as a UK expatriot. As an adult she lived in England, raised an adopted son there (he later became an alcoholic), "taught" at various American universities where she was lionized but never really taught anything, just spoke extemporaneously and expected the students to idolize her. Plus she became involved with a spiritual guru named Gurdjieff, who was a fraud and a sadist to his followers, requesting they do absurd and sometimes hurtful things to prove themselves worthy. I suppose the author wanted me to see Travers as an independent woman ahead of her time and erratic creator of a cultural icon, but frankly by the time I was done I disliked the woman intensely and it was a slog to get through the last half of the book.

book icon  Wonton Terror, Vivien Chien
In this fourth "Noodle Shop" mystery, Lana Lee, now officially the manager of the Ho-Lee Noodle House in Cleveland, Ohio's Asia Village shopping center, is overseeing a new venture: having a food truck at Cleveland's new Asian Night Market. Their "next door" neighbors at the Night Market are fellow food-truck vendors Sandra and Ronnie Chow, proprietors of Wonton on Wheels, and old friends of both Lana's parents and Ruby, a jewelry vendor at the Night Market. As the night ends, Lana and Ho-Lee's chef Peter spot flames coming out of the Wonton on Wheels truck—and then there's an explosion. When the smoke and the debris clears, the truck is no more, and Ronnie's body is still inside. When Lana's boyfriend Adam Trudeau of the detective squad looks into the crime, he discovers Sandra had been an abused wife and she is the immediate suspect. Lana, on the other hand, suspects Sandra's brother Gene, a disheveled often-drunken man resentful of his sister's abuse.

Between Adam telling her to bow out of the sleuthing this time, and Lana's over-eager best friend and roommate Megan egging her on, how can Lana not ask a couple of questions? Or talk to some people associated with the Chows? After all, Ronnie was abusive and Sandra deserves some justice...

Another reasonably interesting adventure from Chien, in which the Lee family dynamics are as interesting as the story.

book icon  Timekeepers: How The World Became Obsessed With Time, Simon Garfield
This was the one non-Women's History Month item I read because of yet another change to Daylight Effing Saving Time; it's a collection of essays about various aspects having to do with peoples' interest in time, from the role of trains in establishing standard time around the world, the establishment of our calendar, an interesting essay about the tempo at which older music should be played (the classic composers apparently played their own compositions at a tempo that philharmonics that will not use today), horology a.k.a. watchmaking (and the story of how the Swiss watch came down in the world), working smarter at your job, a crazy movie called The Clock that is just twenty-four hours of movie clips involving clocks, and the slow food movement and other attempts to "go back in time" like the Prince Charles-designed village of Poundbury (which I realized the moment I read about it that it's the village being lampooned as "Plinkbury" in the hilarious young adult book Christine Kringle). Enjoyable for anyone interested in the history of timekeeping.

book icon  Where the Past Begins, Amy Tan
I have never read any of Amy Tan's books, but this one looked so tempting: about her history and how that history affected her writing. I enjoyed her stories—if "enjoyed" can be used considering the sadness of much of the text—of her past: of her mother who made a forbidden match after being in an arranged marriage (she abandoned her daughters from her first marriage to come to the US), and of her mother's bouts of depression and threats of suicide, of her go-getter father, of how she and her brother Peter (who was an advanced student for his age) were pushed and bullied in their education and how she never felt good enough compared to him (he later died of a brain tumor), of how she thought of herself as "the fat little girl," of how she loved drawing as a child (some of the drawings are included in the text), some of these memories very painful and distressing to read. The rest of the book—about how she doesn't know how she writes, and how sometimes she has to force herself to do it—is actually kind of blah. She talks about learning music and how she made up stories in her head to go along with the music she was learning to play, and this leads to the most excruciating bit of the entire book, eight pages of a pointless story about a woman named Anna that was inspired by Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3. I am sorry Tan's childhood was so bleak, but it made absorbing reading—the rest: eh.

book icon  Final Exam, Carol J. Perry
Lee Barrett, now settled into her job as field reporter for WICH-TV in Salem, Massachusetts, is happily helping her Aunt Isobel ("Ibby" to her friends) prepare for her 45th class reunion, and meets other members of the reunion committee at the house she and Ibby share, including Steve Overton, class Golden Boy, who's running for Congress; Penelope Driscoll, an avid scrapbooker; and Bobby Ross, former hockey prodigy with a drinking problem. But there's a fly in the ointment of this school reunion: earlier in the day Lee and her camerawoman Francine witnessed a vintage Ford Mustang being pulled out of the water at the old granite quarry: a car that belonged to Aunt Ibby's high-school sweetheart Ted Thorne, who vanished the night of the prom and was assumed to have run away from an unhappy home life in that very car.

A human skeleton is found in the car. And you can guess who it belongs to. And at the same time, Lee, who's a "scryer" who's seen visions of future and past evens in shiny objects since she was a kid, begins having them again: about the class reunion, about Aunt Ibby and her mother Carrie, and other more ominous things.

Once I got over the shock that Lee's "elderly" Aunt Ibby was in the same year graduating class as I was (Class of 1974), I enjoyed this one because you got some glimpses into Ibby's younger life and her relationship with Lee's mother. I pegged "whodunit" about 2/3 of the way through, and the person behind that person (read: the real bad influence is exactly who you think it is), but still enjoyed Perry's storytelling, as well as Pete's further acceptance of Lee's otherworldly talent and its uses in revealing the truth. Not a lot of one of my favorite characters (River North, the witch and television host) in this story, but maybe another time. 

book icon  Holiday Symbols (2nd Edition), Sue Ellen Thompson
This is a neat Omnigraphics reference volume described by the publisher as "describ[ing] more than 900 symbols associated with 224 popular holiday and celebrations in the United States and around the world." This is done in an alphabetic order with standard sections: an opening summary that tells what type of holiday it is (religious, national, cultural, etc.), date of observance, where in the world it's celebrated, what symbols represent it, what colors may represent it, and what holidays are related. Then the full entry talks about the origins of the holiday, the symbols and their history, and a bibliography for further reading. Along with the usual standard holidays (Christmas, the solstices, various cultural groups' new year celebrations, etc.), there are Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Laotian, Greek, Russian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and more holidays. Great for research about celebrations around the world and just plain browsing.

book icon  The Olive Farm, Carol Drinkwater
Most Americans probably remember Carol Drinkwater for playing Helen Alderson Herriot in the BBC's beloved All Creatures Great and Small television series for the first three years. (If her romance with "James" looked very realistic, I understand that it was because she and her co-star Christopher Timothy were having an affair.) But this story follows Drinkwater after her Creatures tenure, when she is still acting and producing, but also in love with Michel, a divorced father of two. Both have always wanted a country home in France, and, on a mad whim, decide to sink all their savings into a crumbling old Italian country home and olive farm called "Appassionata." They are risking a good deal of money, because if they can't make up the difference in a certain time, "Appassionata" will be repossessed and none of the money they spent, even for upgrades, will be returned. So in they move to a property clogged with weeds and brush, into a house full of insects with a leaky roof, and try to carry out their improvements despite a nasty succession of hired people who either treat them like dirt or run out on them, their friends—an impoverished African migrant worker and a local, René, who helps them get the olive crop up and running—while still working on both their careers to be able to earn money to fix the money pit that is Appassionata.

At the same time that I was indignant over the people who cheated them and wondering how they could possibly live in such a hot, horrible climate in a bug-infested dirty house, I was really wistful over reading about their great adventure: taking an abandoned piece of property and turning it not only into a going concern, but into a home that embraces family and friends. Drinkwater's lively, descriptive style never flags and whether she is freaking out about having to fly back and forth to the States and make the closing on the property, mourning over her father's death, coping with Michel's slightly resentful daughters, or describing the beauty of the countryside just outside of Cannes, her narrative is spot-on. Looking forward to the sequel!

book icon  The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, Abbi Waxman
Y'all know I have this love-hate relationship with chick-lit. At its most basic this is a love story, but the fact that the protagonist is an introvert book-lover who works in a bookstore and whose only social life is playing trivia was very close to my heart.

Nina Lee Hill was raised mostly by her beloved nanny Liz, but knows she's loved in her own way by her single mother Candice, a photojournalist. She loves her job at Knight's Books, but the shop's come on hard times and her boss Liz Quinn is always hiding out from the landlord. Nina lives with her cat Phil in an old, picturesque, and old-fashioned neighborhood in Los Angeles, and the highlight of her week is playing trivia with her closest friends (their team is "Book 'Em, Danno"). In fact, their team is so successful they regularly have to change venues—and that's where they come up on a new team that can wax their tails, and the team captain Tom, who completely captures Nina's attention and vice versa.

But there's a bigger shock in store for Nina: her biological father, who she never knew, has died and left her a legacy which includes a whole bunch of half-siblings and cousins she never realized she had, who range from Peter, who's gay, friendly, and delighted to find Nina, to Lydia, the aggressive cousin who thinks Nina's out to falsely claim their father's inheritance.

And, of course, there has to be the usual misunderstand where the couple break up and all seems lost, which is de rigueur in romance stories. But this one is fun

book icon  Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg: Maria's Story, 1773, Joan Lowery Nixon
Ten-year-old Maria Rind faces her toughest challenge—previous to that it was coping with her three rambunctious brothers—after he beloved father dies. Maria and her father were very close, and now she needs her mother more than ever. But Clementina Rind can do only one of two things: give up and appeal to charity, or continue publishing her husband's newspaper, The Virginia Gazette. She chooses the latter, making Maria feel even lonelier than ever as she takes over most of her mother's cooking chores and rides herd on her mischievous brothers. However, when Maria realizes they will lose all they love, including her grandmother's silver spoons that mean so much to her mother, if her mother does not continue working on the newspaper, she tries to make do—and then fears that when her mother publishes stories counter to that of the opinions of the British Crown, they will lose the newspaper after all!

Some of this book is quite sad because of Maria's loneliness and need, and she just can't understand why her mother can't drop everything to comfort her; then later she cannot understand why her mother can't just go along with everything the King and Parliament says to keep their life secure. Only later will she understand that her mother has to stick to her principles.

Factual essays at the end of the story talk about child life in 18th century Williamsburg, the city itself, and the role of the printers in dissemination of news, and of the new ideas of liberty.

book icon  The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, 1937-1943, From Novelist to Playwright (Volume 2), edited by Barbara Reynolds

Reynolds, also the author of a biography of Sayers which I quite enjoyed, has distilled letters of interest into this volume, which starts as the author brings her most famous creation, Lord Peter Wimsey, to the stage in a play called Busman's Honeymoon (the book followed later), and follows her as she becomes a playwright, author of both stage work (The Devil to Pay, The Zeal of Thy House) and radio plays (the noted BBC productions He That Should Come and The Man Born to Be King), as well as explaining her role as Christian apologist, noting that she was not stating her own philosophies but teaching the beliefs of the Church, coping with the approach and then ordeal of World War II, and keeping in touch with her son John Anthony, who is now away at school. There's a long row between herself and the BBC about her production of The Man Born to Be King because she wished to tell the story of Jesus as if he, as she believed, was a real, live human being, and the BBC authorities were apprehensive lest this "less than reverent" version of the Biblical tale be construed as sacrilegious. (They also complained that it used "slang" and didn't sound "Bible-like," which was what Sayers intended, to show Biblical people were just "folks" like anyone else. And the temerity of having ... gasp! ... Christ's words spoken by an actor? Shocking!)

I found myself reading passages aloud, not about religion, but about her feelings about freedom and responsibility, akin to that of Benjamin Franklin: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." (Which, apparently, is not what most people think it is, but in Sayers' case it was.) Very enjoyable if you are a Sayers' fan and can get past just thinking of her as Wimsey's author, but as someone with a great deal of interest in Biblical interpretation.

I thought there were the only two volumes of her letters, but it appears there are two more, one of which goes for online for $913.00! Needless to say I won't be reading them, even borrowed, as the library never has anything I read. A pity, because her writing engrosses throughout.

The BBC Production of The Man Born to Be King (not the original, from 1967)

book icon  Murder in Tranquility Park, J.D. Griffo
In the second of the Ferrara Family mysteries, granddaughter "Jinx" has talked Alberta Scaglione (who recently inherited a lake house from her deceased aunt) into jogging with her in the morning, through a park that has a hand-built treehouse in one of its numerous old oaks. Unfortunately for both, one morning they find a dead body laying under that particular tree: Jonas Harper, an employee of the city.

You guessed it: before you can say sfogliatelle, Alberta, Jinx, Alberta's sister the ex-Sister, and sister-in-law Joyce are back on the case, especially after Jinx's best friend Nola, a schoolteacher, is accused of murdering Harper, and deputy Kichiro Miyahara, Nola's boyfriend, starts acting very strangely. With the help of Nola's principal, Sharon Basco, and the new medical examiner Lori LaGuardia, two elderly Italian ladies and their granddaughter, and one African-American sister-in-law dive into the crime. For their efforts, they have the police chief call them pazzo, get the brakes cut on a car they're driving in, and end up having Alberta and Jinx run smack into danger.

These books are sometimes highly improbable, but are just fun, and it's so great to have an Italian protagonist who uses all the sayings I heard in my childhood.

book icon  The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America, Harvey Green
Another library book sale find. Illustrations of household items and Victorian men and women from the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum in New York liberally dot this interesting book about the lives of middle-class women. While men went pioneering, exploring, and out into the sordid business world, the woman was supposed to be the stabilizing, civilizing force that created a moral society. Therefore great steps were taken to keep her pure and innocent, giving rise to myths that women's brains weren't "large" enough to be able to cope with higher learning, and doctors' misunderstanding of how the female reproductive system actually worked led to belief that "female problems" inevitably led to "hysteria" (the same root as the word "hysterectomy") and mental illness.

If all this wasn't bad enough, there were so many rules: length of courtship, how women should dress and behave, the suppression of women's sexuality (it might cause mental illness!), a long list of mourning etiquette, and more. Through diary entries and history texts, women's lives are followed from their graduation from girlhood to womanhood, courtship, "of course" marriage, and finally death. Meanwhile there were some breakout ladies: women who actually remained spinsters because they wanted to, women who had ... gasp! ... careers, and women who rode that dangerous new fad, the safety bicycle!

The chapters on women's health (apparently you had to keep your uterus from falling out!) and housework are real eye-openers!

06 March 2020

This Month's Theme...

So what's everyone reading for Women's History Month? The other day I corralled some of the women's nonfiction I have, and, of course, I have plenty of mystery stories with female protagonists. Alas, that means I can't read a Longmire book this month. 😊

I've already read Meg & Jo, Mary Poppins She Wrote, and the fourth "Noodle Shop" mystery (Wonton Terror), and, since I try to alternate fiction and nonfiction, thought it would be appropriate to go from an Asian mystery to Amy Tan's book Where the Past Begins. I have all sorts of choices after that: in fiction the latest paperback edition of one of the "Royal Spyness" mysteries, another "Witch City" mystery, another Flavia de Luce book, the resumption of Cleo Coyle's "Ghost" mysteries, even a book about BBC workers during the second World War; in nonfiction the second volume of Dorothy Sayers' letters, the final volume of Blanche Weisen Cook's Eleanor Roosevelt bio, Heather Lende's Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs, the book about Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret that got their nanny "Crawfie" fired, and more.

And, oh, goodness, the library book sale is next weekend... It's supposed to rain, so I must mull upon how to keep the books dry.