30 April 2020

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  Re-read: Lord Peter, Dorothy L. Sayers
I started reading The Moor on April first, but realized as the news reports continued that I needed a comfort read. Since I'd finished the second book of Sayers' letters last month, it was natural for me to pick this up. It brings back all sorts of old, happy memories: I started reading the Wimsey books after Murder Must Advertise showed up on Masterpiece Theatre in 1974, while I was attending Rhode Island College. I'd take the bus downtown and use my college textbook money to buy the novels two at the time ($2.50 total at the Paperback Books store on Weybosset Street). I paused at buying this one because it was...gasp!...$3.95! I bought it nevertheless...

This is a collection of Lord Peter Wimsey short stories previously published in other books, plus, at the time of the publication, a previously unpublished and neat little short story called merely "Talboys" that was written in 1942, and involved Peter solving a mystery that could involve his eldest son Bredon, then aged six. The mysteries within do not all involve murders; some of the tales involve missing wills, purloined (or soon-to-be-purloined) jewels, a misshapen human being held prisoner, and even a missing street address. Two of the adventures allude to the time where Lord Peter was working undercover for the government, and another takes place upon the birth of his and Harriet's first child. One involves a giant cross-word puzzle and a friend of his sister Mary, in another he has the assistance of his young nephew Jerry. There's also a wonderful novella-length story that involves the appearance of a "death coach," a demure mare named "Polly Flinders," and two rival brothers.

I can't decide if any of these is my favorite, but they're all delightfully Wimsey and therein lies their charm.

book icon  Anonymous Is a Woman: A Global Chronicle of Gender Inequality, Nina Ansary
Ansary is an Iranian who wrote a groundbreaking book on women in Iran called Jewels of Allah, about how women were devalued in that society. This is a very beautifully presented volume about how women from all societies have been devalued over the centuries, the title coming from Virginia Woolf's cynical remark after observing that there were no women of Shakespeare's era who wrote anything extraordinary when every man seemed capable of it:  "Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them was often a woman."

The bulk of the book is fifty short portraits of women who were pretty much marginalized in their time (like Lillian Gilbreth, Bessie Coleman, and Maria Mitchell) to women who pretty much have vanished from history, such as En Hedu-Anna, astronomer, and Tapputi-Belatekallim, Babylonian chemist from the BC era, to a nineteenth century French marine biologist and the first female diplomat, Armenian Dian Agabeg Apcar. All these entries are accompanied by lovely pen-and-wash drawings in greys, tans, blues and greens of each woman.

book icon  The Moor, William Atkins
In English literature, what can be so menacing as the mention of the moors? The bleak landscape of Wuthering Heights and The Hound of the Baskervilles always brings to mind mystery and murder and a sense of the uncanny. Even before she discovers the wildlife-strewn moors to be a good place from her friend Dickon, The Secret Garden's Mary Lennox looks upon the wild moors surrounding Misselthwaite Manor as something disagreeable and moody.

Atkins takes us to the moors in all their seasons, from south (Bodmin Moor) to north (the Otterburn military facility), to discover their wildlife and their peculiar makeup (peated soil unsuited for the growing of crops). But this isn't merely a nature book: Atkins also tells us about the history contained on each of the moors: the murder of Charlotte Dymond, servant girl, on Bodmin Moor; the real story behind the tale of Lorna Doone; the black dog who prompted "the Hound," the landscape of Tarka the otter; attempts to farm the moor, which were disastrous due to the acidic soil; the tragedy that happened in "Bronte Country" in Haworth (and what Bronte tourism has done to the area); the raising of grouse for the pleasure of wealthy men and the hunts performed with beaters; the use of "useless land" by the military.

Beautifully described by Atkins as he hikes each moor and weaves each region's folklore into the rugged landscape.

book icon  St. Nicholas, Volume LVII, November 1929-April 1930
Because there's nothing like a "St. Nicholas" for comfort reading. This, at the time I write it, is the last one in my collection, and the final six issues published by the Century Company (I believe they went out of business during the Depression). Some interesting reading here, including the serial "At the Sign of the Wild Horse," the story of Veronica, who goes to visit her eccentric uncle and aunt at an artist's colony in NY, where she's at first attracted to handsome, indolent cousin Brad over younger brother George, who's industrious, competent, and socially awkward. The other stories I particularly liked was a series about Iglaome, an Inuit boy, son of a tribal chief, and his adventures. Some of these old texts devalue minorities, but the stories about Iglaome and his way of life are just plain adventure tales with no annoying commentary about a "primitive" way of life. (Also enjoyable were a trio of stories about a young man named Hsaio Fu living a traditional life in China.)

Still popular in the volume are short stories about army life during what was then known as "the Great War," including an amusing one where the camp mutt persuades a man to re-enlist, and two stories about "Shorty" and "Red," who serve in the tank corps. Other stories I liked were "The Chucklehead" about a sheepherder asked to give up his great lumbering old English sheepdog in favor of a collie (and how the collie comes out second best); "In the Storm Country" about two quarreling children at Christmastime at a deserted ranch; another in the "Tommy Dane" series about a young man and his partner, an expatriot Brooklynite, who work on a Mexican ranch, this one about a clueless "tenderfoot" visitor; and "The Sky Test" in which a teenage boy working on an airfield has to keep a undisciplined wealthy man from wrecking the airplane he so cavalierly flies.

The regular columns "Keeping Up With Science" and "The Watch Tower" (which was begun after the US entrance into WWI) are also of interest. "Science" celebrates both Admiral Byrd's successful flight over the South Pole and also the physical discovery of the planet [yes, planet; I'm old school!] Pluto. Some of the stories are remarkably current, such as articles about the gross waste of coal-powered plants and the pollution it causes as well as the necessity of reforestation. "Watch Tower" chronicles the negotiations between the US and the European countries to reduce submarines (France is the lone hold-out!) Two issues featured only international correspondence in "The Letter Box," with the correspondents detailing how life was lived in New Zealand, Argentina, China, Japan, etc. in 1930.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Cowboy Mystery, Jerry West
Number twenty in this series is a fast-moving story that starts out with a Nevada father and his two children rescuing Pam and Ricky after the Hollisters' burro Domingo gets into into his head to wander out in the road. Mr. Blair, son Bunky and daughter Gina are returning from New York where they were trying to sell their ranch, but the buyer backed out because his timid daughter saw flashing lights in the distant hills; plus someone is making off with baby pronghorns on their property. If that wasn't bad enough, someone seems to have been following them!

Next thing you know Elaine Hollister and the kids are on the way to Nevada, where 12-year-old Pete, 10-year-old Pam, Ricky (age 7), Holly (age 6), and 4-year-old Sue are eager to solve another mystery. On the way there, someone steals Mrs. Hollister's wallet and she's accused of causing a car accident, and when they get there the kids see someone at the sheriff's office they're sure is a bad guy, but he turns out to be the Tumbling K's (the Kirby ranch) new cowhand. The kids are still convinced he's the culprit, but what's with those flashing lights, vanishing pronghorn fawns, not to mention mysterious figures flitting in the woods?

Really, there's something going every minute in this story, and the girls rarely sit anything out because of their sex: Pam and Holly even go along with Gina and ranch employee Cindy when they go hunting for the bad guys following a hunch Pete has after doing research in the local library. In this one, though, Ricky gets the last word!

book icon  The Journal of Beatrix Potter, From 1881 to 1897, translated by Leslie Linder
In the 1950s, a motley pile of papers was found on one of Beatrix Potter's properties that she had left to the National Trust. They were in a strange shorthand code that no one had seen before, and some were in the tiniest print on small note sheets of paper. Leslie Linder, intrigued, brought some of these sheets home and tried to decipher them. It took months, but Linder finally worked out a key, and this volume is the painstaking work of years.

Beatrix's journal, written from when she was fourteen to when she was thirty, with some gaps for illness, were written in code in a desperate attempt to have at least a little privacy from two parents who pretty much controlled her life, her mother considering that Beatrix's life should be taking care of the Potter household and relieving her (Mrs. Potter) of the responsibility. Meanwhile, Beatrix took drawing lessons, studied animals and plants, and went to art exhibitions to learn techniques.

If you are looking for some giddy schoolgirl's hidden thoughts about sex or boys, you won't find that here. Beatrix worked her opinionated wit on art galleries (Michaelangelo, she thought, was overrated), the strange people encountered in the Potters' travels to Scotland and the Lake district, and even the behavior of her own pets. Some of her commentary is her blunt talk about politics—she hated Prime Minister Gladstone (whom her father photographed professionally) and his role in the death of General "Chinese" Gordon, and angrily hoped that his government would be voted down.

How much you enjoy this is dependent on your interest in Beatrix Potter. Note that you won't discover anything about her "little books" like Peter Rabbit which made her famous, or about her art techniques, although you will see frustrated commentary about art supplies and techniques that she dislikes, and the fact that some of her art classes did not teach her what she wanted to know. Near the end of the journal she does talk about her uncle talking her into submitting her mushroom and other fungi drawings to a learned journal; they were favorably received until the scientists found out they were drawn by a woman. The journal ends before she had any of her books published, so you won't read about her effort to privately publish Peter Rabbit, and then her partnership with Frederick Warne & Co. There are black and white and color plates of Beatrix's art, sketches, and paintings, photos of the original diary pages, and photos of Beatrix and photos taken by her father Rupert Potter.

book icon  Re-read: The Librarians and the Pot of Gold, Greg Cox
Of course I had to have a hard copy; e-books are sadly still unsatisfying. This is the third and last of Cox's original novels based on the TNT fantasy series The Librarians. In 441 AD, the Librarians' deadliest enemies, the Serpent Brotherhood, led by the sinister Lady Sibella, tried to wrest a pot of gold from a reluctant leprechaun and sacrifice an innocent infant to their malevolent cause. With the help of a Librarian, his Guardian, and the man who would later become Saint Patrick, Sibella was destroyed and the plot thwarted. Now a new leader, Max Lambton, a amoral Englishman who has taken over the Serpent Brotherhood with Coral Marsh, his partner who can create magical objects, wishes to finish the job Sibella began. It's up to Eve Baird, Guardian; Librarians Jacob Stone, Cassandra Cillian, and Ezekiel Jones; plus the caretaker of the Library Annex, Jenkins (Flynn Carsen is missing in action in this outing), to stop him.

With the action revolving around St. Patrick's Day, the plot moves swiftly from Ireland to Paris (where the Librarians face off against the Phantom of the Opera) to Oregon to Chicago and even to an colony of leprechauns near the Annex. The plot, however, isn't quite as tight as the previous two. There is one character who appears whom you almost immediately guess who the person is. I was also quite disappointed that there was seemingly no way to save another character, who seemed promising and might prove an interesting project for Jenkins. However, the entire book is worthy of  a Librarians episode as Cox works his own magic on the familiar characters. Once again Cox does a great job making each character sound just like his or her television counterpart; you can hear John Larroquette speak when you read Jenkins' lines.

BTW, when Jenkins mentioned one of the items in the library was Prufrock's Peach, I nearly spit out my drink. Not only media asides, but literary ones as well! Good one, Greg! 

book icon  My Sherlock Holmes: Untold Stories of the Great Detective, edited by Michael Kurland
I quite enjoyed this collection of Sherlock Holmes tales not told from the point of view of John Watson. As in all these collections, some are better than others. Probably my favorite story in this volume is "The Dollmaker of Marigold Walk" in which Mary Morstan, the first Mrs. Watson, solves a mystery that begins when a settlement-house regular is robbed, although the tale of the second wife, Juliet, is almost as entertaining. Two members of the Baker Street Irregulars have their own stories, but I preferred the one in which Wiggins is instructed in crime investigation by Holmes himself by helping a Professor Charles Dodgson (yes, "Lewis Carroll") find some missing journals to Billy's adventure with a Hungarian woman. The Mrs. Hudson story is told in the form of an interview in which she tells the story of Holmes helping her husband Harry. In another tale, Irene Adler's daughter, Neige receives her late mother's bequest—and a long-hidden secret.

Poe's "M. Dupin" has his own story, as does James Phillimore (he who vanished after bringing his umbrella home), Professor Moriarty, Colonel Moran, and Reginald Musgrave (who recounts how he first met Holmes). At the end are amusing little short pieces by an aggrieved Inspector Lestrade, Watson's dresser Stamford, and other characters.

book icon  Coming to Grips with Huckleberry Finn: Essays on a Book, a Boy, and a Man, Tom Quirk
This is a fairly interesting set of essays about Mark Twain himself and about Huckleberry Finn in particular, and is especially absorbing when the writing of the novel itself is talked about. Twain did not write the book all in one sitting, and indeed it ends up being a combination of river adventure, lampoons of Southern customs and hypocracy, and then the strange, often objectionable final part with Tom Sawyer engineering a "romantic" escape for Jim. Quirk also compares Twain's writing for Finn against his nonfiction narratives A Tramp Abroad, Life on the Mississippi, and various short essays. He also discusses the racism charge against the Huckleberry Finn, and how Jim was championed by no less than Ralph Ellison and other African-American activists.

book icon  The Narnian, Alan Jacobs
While this follows the life of C.S. Lewis from his birth to death, it is not a traditional biography. Instead Jacobs follows Lewis through his creative output, from the fantasy world "Boxen" he made up with his older brother "Warnie" as escape from their distant, alcoholic father, through his journey to Christianity from a long period as an atheist and his science-fiction trilogy and Christian writings, and finally to the Narnia books, and then his final writings. His friendship with the Inklings, including J.R.R. Tolkien (who Lewis called "Tollers"), his strange pact with a friend during the first World War that left him promising care to his friend's mother and sister throughout the former's lifetime (even though she became a burden to him), and his final relationship (initially friendship and finally love) with his American correspondent Joy Davidman is also chronicled.

This is the first bio of Lewis that I've read, so I don't know if Jacobs has omitted vital facts or not, but it was absorbing reading that brought Lewis and his friends to life. I could almost see "Jack" Lewis wandering about in his rumpled clothes and bellowing a greeting to his university students.

book icon  St. Nicholas, Volume XIX, Part II: May to October 1892, the Century Company
So I went running back for the first of the five unread volumes of "St. Nicholas" I had. And I should have checked it after I bought it, because it's missing the month of August (I was missing a month out of my 1880 volume as well). Luckily this volume is digitized on Google Books, because I was following the adventures of both "Two Girls and a Boy," about Mildred, a girl living in "Washington City" with her parents, her father having been injured in the Civil War and still suffering the effects of a bullet that was not removed, and her friends, a brother and sister whose father is an Army officer, and "Tom Paulding," about a fatherless boy who is attempting to find a hidden hoard of gold in a part of New York City that was once countryside to help his mother pay the mortgage on their home.

The 1890s were the heyday of Tudor Jenks, who provided absurd fairy tale-like stories for the magazine, and several are included here. Several articles are about hunting, which were considered fit thrillers for boys of the day, but now strike readers as pointless. Why on earth would you want to kill a tapir? Three stories are about a sagacious horse named Rangoon (although the final story is a disappointment) and left me wanting more. A rather sad little story had to do with ten little Native American girls at an "Indian school" who raise money so a little "colored girl" can also go to school, knowing what I know now about how bad the "Indian schools" were for the pupils they were supposedly trying to help. There's also a rather pathetic little story about Napoleon's only son (Americans quite lionized Napoleon, judging by the articles about him) who had to give up being "the little king" to a mere duke in the Austrian army (his mother Marie-Louise was Austrian).

The missing volume was full of sea stories, including that of a cat who went to sea, how ships signal each other, a young man who goes out on a long-term fishing trip, and more. It was quite salt-sodden! 

One of the more interesting serials was a memoir of Laura E. Richards, a popular writer in her day, and the daughter of Julia Ward Howe (who wrote "Battle Hymn of the Republic") and Samuel Gridley Howe, head of the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, and an example of child life in a middle-class home of the day. Another nonfiction serial was "Strange Corners of Our Country" which talk about the natural wonders out West, like the National Bridge in Arizona and El Morro. And I found another article that related to my family: "Volcanoes and Earthquakes" once again talked about the earthquake that hit the island of Ischia (off the coast of Naples, Italy) in July 1883. From the article:
"It was nearly ten o'clock on a Saturday night. The week's work was done. The fishermen had drawn up their boats on the beach, and were in their homes. Hundreds of picturesque hotels and cottages nestled peacefully amid the tropical foliage. The hotels were thronged with visitors, and the theater was crowded.

"Suddenly a tremendous shock was felt, and a sound heard like the thundering of a train over a bridge. Two more shocks followed, and all was over. In the space of fifteen seconds three towns had been destroyed and thousands of people had lost their lives."
It was in this earthquake that my mother's father lost his own mother (and sadly gained the stepmother from Hell).

book icon  The Ghost and the Bogus Bestseller, Cleo Coyle
Penelope Thornton-McClure recommends a spicy new potboiler to a woman who walked into her aunt's small bookshop, only to have the women see a photo of the author and claim it's a photo of her! She then runs out of the shop, with the book unpaid for, furious. And when Pen ferrets out who she is and where she lives, and visits to get her money or the book back, she finds the woman dead after falling off a balcony. The bonehead chief of police thinks it's a suicide; Jack Shepard, the 1940s-era ghost who haunts Aunt Sadie's shop thinks it's murder. And then things get really strange: can Pen's old classmate, bookish J. Brainerd Parker, have anything to do with the racy bestseller? And what is she to do about the girl her eleven-year-old son ran away from school with so the grieving child could attend her father's funeral?

I have a love-hate relationship with this series of books, originally written under the pen name "Alice Kimberly." Although it takes place in Rhode Island, my home state, the author doesn't seem to know a damn thing about RI, and populates her fictional Quindicott village with a bunch of eccentric Yankees straight out of Cabot Cove on TV, when RI is primarily made up of people of Italian, Portuguese, Vietnamese, and Hispanic heritage. Nobody in Quindicott goes to Dunkin Donuts, eats clam cakes at Aunt Carrie's, buys doughboys at Oakland Beach, attends Catholic church feasts in the summer, and mourns the loss of traditional stores like Benny's and the Outlet Company. Instead they patronize the various quaint little shops with goofy pun names that populate every single cozy mystery small town. I was frankly astonished that in this book they actually use a specific "only in RI item" as a clue and actually included a person with the surname "Silva." Wow. Maybe this is progress?

The last one of this series was written in 2009, and, besides the usual gaffs mentioned above, I'm wondering what in holy hell happened with the characters in the past eleven years. Except for the murder angle, the story seems written more as a comedy than a mystery. Seymour Tarnish the postman babbles on with his supposedly fannish dialog and old media references, more annoying than ever. After seeing the mysterious woman's dead body, Penelope starts brooding about the suicide of her husband and wondering if she failed him, when in the previous books he was a creepy spoiled scion of a wealthy family who pretty much killed himself to spite her, and his equally creepy family kept trying to take her son Spencer away from her and bring him up as "an Aryan from Darien," to quote Auntie Mame. Police chief Ciders, who reminds me of the police detective on Father Brown (who couldn't find a white cat in a coal bin), seems to have gotten stupider in the interim. And what the dickens is with Jack? In the previous books he was impatient but also wise, and even sort of romantic, a cynic with a heart of gold and a soft spot for Penelope, both emotionally and sexually. In this book he just nags and nags and nags with his 1940s slang growing deeper and deeper with every page. You would think being a ghost in the 21st century he would modernize his vocabulary a little (I mean, in one part of the book he even plays and masters one of Spencer's video games, so he can learn)! If he nagged me as much as he nagged Penelope in this book, I would take the nickel that links Jack's ghost to the store and go toss it out in the ocean at Brenton Point!