31 July 2020

Books Completed Since July 1

book icon  Re-read: Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
I remember wanting to order this from the Doubleday Bargain Book Club as a teen, but my mom nixed it when she saw it was "an underground classic." Later I bought a paperback copy. It's the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a young human born on Mars and brought up from infancy by Martians. When he is returned to Earth by a later exploratory team, he must learn to be human...but his strange upbringing has left him with strange abilities and a unique outlook on life. But political machinations are going on behind the scenes, and a nurse who befriends "Michael" takes the bold step to bring him to the estate of an eccentric attorney/writer.

This book has been controversial from the start—the free love and communal living themes scandalized conservatives when it was published. More recently it's been scorned because all its female characters seem to love having sex and getting pregnant (alas, as Heinlein got older his fiction seemed to revolve around activities that he was probably no longer fit for). Many people hate Jubal Harshaw because he's an opinionated old coot spouting all of Heinlein's pet theories. (Me, that's why I like Jubal: as an introvert, I admire his opinionated outbursts, whether I agree with them or not, because I can't vocalize what I think.)

I read this early enough in my life that none of this really matters. These folks are like old friends. I roll my eyes now at the sex-and-pregnancy stuff, but you have to note one thing: none of the women in the story are at any time forced into these activities. They go into it because they want to, not because some man is bullying them into it. (And a few of them are physically capable of taking out any guy who does try to bully them.) In some cases, for good or for bad, it's women like Agnes Douglas who are the real power in the world. Mike views all the craziness of human life as a stranger to the human condition in which each of us grows up—the social, political, religious, societal, behavioral mores that we are taught from babyhood—and attempts to explain how strange all these mores appear when approached from a total alien viewpoint. The book is full of memorable characters, like the opinionated Jubal, the imperious Agnes Douglas who runs her household and her husband's career with equal shrewdness, Dr. Mahmoud reconciling his devout Muslim beliefs with new ideas, Mike himself, Patty Paiwanski the "tattooed lady" and snake lover, and even minor characters like Jubal's mechanic Duke, Captain Von Tromp and Dawn Ardent.

At times rambling—we have the uncut edition that was released several years back—and annoying, but sometimes cannily on the mark. YMMV.

book icon  Re-read: Johnny Tremain, Esther Forbes

book icon  Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg: John's Story, 1775, Joan Lowery Nixon
This is the sixth and final book in Nixon's series taking place in Williamsburg during its heyday as colonial capitol of Virginia, centering on 11-year-old John, next to youngest child of Robert Carter Nicholas, member of the House of Burgesses, and opens with Governor Dunmore's capture of the store of gunpowder held in Williamsburg's Magazine. To Mr. Nicholas, this is just another in a long list of injustices toward the Virginia colony that he hopes can be resolved with debate and negotiation, but to 20-year-old George Nicholas, this is it. To him there is no expectation that Britain and the American colonies can find common ground. It is time to fight for freedom. John, who respects his father but hero-worships George, he can see that both men make valid points—but his brother's acts, to an 11-year-old, are more exciting, and soon he and his best friend Robert are attending militia drills.

One of the things I appreciate most is that Nixon doesn't try to make a 21st century "woke" boy out of John. When Governor Dunmore threatens to arm the slaves if the colonists don't behave properly, John is genuinely confused. The Nicholases treat their slaves humanely. His mother feeds, clothes, and nurses them. Why on earth would they take up arms and fight against their family? It's only after he hears the family slaves talking about taking up arms and after a few events convince him how important freedom is, that he understands that freedom isn't something just reserved for white people, that all deserve freedom.

The gem in this series of six books is still the volume about Caesar, the enslaved boy coping with both growing up and finding his place in a world where decisions have been taken away from him, but all the books are worth reading.

book icon  Our Boston: Writers Celebrate the City They Love, edited by Andrew Blaunder
This is a compilation volume of essays written after the Boston Marathon bombing about what each author loves about his favorite city: essays by George Plimpton, Dennis Lehane, Susan Orlean, Pico Iyer, John Updike, and more. Some of the best essays are the ones that actually talk about the bombing, the shock and indignation, the people who raced toward the carnage rather than away to help the wounded. There are stories about Dorchester Avenue, about Cambridge, the Boston accent, Filene's Basement, a girl who appeared on the PBS series Zoom, Boston marriages, and more. My favorite essay was Scott Stossel's "Reading Around Boston," about the Boston bookstores I came to love in the 1980s and which are mostly gone now and which I ache for intensely.

I enjoyed most of the book, but there are too many essays about sports. There are so many wonderful historical places, great places to see like the Museum of Science and the Rose Kennedy Greenway or the aquarium or the museums, quirky television stations like WSBK, and all everyone talks about are the Red Sox (and the Bruins and the Patriots). I expected some mention of them, as you can't mention Boston without mentioning the Sox, but it seemed sports turned up in every other essay.

book icon  Bryant & May: The Lonely Hour, Christopher Fowler
Every time I read a Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery, I wonder to myself how Fowler is possibly going to top the last one. And, just as always, I finished this newest volume thinking "Wow!" Especially at the end of the penultimate chapter.

Christmas celebrations have ended and once again the Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in when a man of Indian descent is found hanging upside down from a tree, surrounded by occult items. His time of death is estimated at 4 a.m. Senior detectives Bryant (the eccentric, outside-the-box theorist) and May (the erudite one) and their team are puzzling whether it's some sort of bizarre cult event (of course Arthur Bryant immediately contacts his friend Maggie, a practicing witch), bored punks, or more sinister forces when another  4 a.m. death occurs, a suicide this time—or was it? Unknown to them, a chubby young woman named Sparrow who was out watching bats with a conservation group has befriended the killer, and also knows both of the victims who died. In the meantime one of the PCU is not really who they seem, and John May has a secret which may endanger the group.

London folklore,  Bryant's daffy investigative style, tensions simmering in the PCU, Sparrow's unwitting friendship, and the real story behind the crimes are deftly woven into another Fowler page-turner. I love these books. I can't wait for the next one to see how the resolution to aforementioned Chapter 49 comes out.

book icon  Produce & Conserve, Share & Play Square: The Grocer and the Consumer on the Home-Front Battlefield During World War II, edited by Barbara McLean Ward
I am embarrassed that it took me so long to finish this book. I bought it ten years ago at Strawbery Banke, having fallen in love particularly with the little grocery "The Little Corner Store" which is 1940s themed and reminded me so much of the "spas" and superettes of my childhood. I remember wanting it so badly, but because of its size was afraid it was too expensive, until we went into the gift shop and I found out it was only $10. Then it got shuffled to the bottom of a to-be-read pile and passed over.

Basically it tells the story of World War II home-front life and food rationing as told through Bertha Abbott's Little Corner Store, which opened in 1919 and closed in 1950. There's a general article about the American home front: war bonds, food rationing, propaganda, and another on ration stamps, as well as follow-on articles that concentrate on New Hampshire's war effort and the history of small groceries.

The second half of the book chronicles the reconstruction of the war-era look of Bertha Abbott's corner store. Especially fascinating is how they reproduced the 1940s-era packaging by copying existing remaining boxes from the era and then printing new ones.

book icon  Howloween Murder, Laurien Berenson
This is a novella in Berenson's Melanie Travis mystery series in which a murder comes too close to work: the accused is Harriet Bloom, the super-efficient secretary to the head of Howard Academy, where Melanie works as a special ed teacher. The police think she poisoned Ralph Pender, an elderly neighbor who has dementia, with one of her famous Hallowe'en treats, marshmallow puffs she typically gives away to the neighbors. The headmaster of Howard Academy knows Melanie has rooted out other criminals before; he's hoping she can discreetly suss out this one before the academy gets a bad rep. And Melanie truly believes Harriet could never poison anyone.

There's only one problem with this mystery that is set happily in October in New England, and all the sights and sounds and smells and excitement—autumn leaves, crisp air, Hallowe'en prep, luscious fall foods—that come at that time of the year. Melanie meets some new people, some unfriendly, most of them quirky and nice, she forms a stronger bond with Harriet than she has in years, there's nice bits about Kevin selecting a costume, Aunt Peg manages to not overrun the story for once...but once the actual murderer is introduced, you'll know the person immediately. Yes, you'll have to learn why the crime took place, but you won't need to guess who; trust your first instincts.

Still, I loved every bit of this for the reasons enumerated in the previous paragraph—and one more thing: the subplot involving Melanie and one of the young students at Howard Academy. In the end, that's the element that's the most magical about the whole story.

book icon  Travels, Michael Crichton
I have wanted this book for years after seeing a used copy for sale at the Cobb County main library, but I didn't have cash. At the book sale last fall I finally found a copy. And I guess I enjoyed it.

It's not just a book about travel to specific places, but about Crichton's travel through his life, starting at medical school, which he finished, but discovered he didn't like practicing medicine all that much. Back in medical school he had started writing paperback thrillers and he discovered he liked writing much more than being a doctor.

So over the years he had traveled many places—climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, visited New Guinea, Bangkok, Jamaica, gone swimming with sharks, encountered gorillas—and also investigated many things like psychics, meditation, spoon bending, auras, etc. with an open mind. Some of the travel chapters were quite creepy, like where he tried diving without tanks or went swimming close to sharks. The "woo-woo" chapters were fairly interesting; some of it he found good, some he still didn't believe in when he finished—his point was that he went into them with an open mind. Frankly, the chapter where he talked about having a conversation with a cactus still seemed a bit dumb. And the portion of the book where he talks about a friend taking him to a "child whorehouse" was revolting.

I kind of came out of this book not liking Crichton as much as I had before I started it, even though most of the chapters were interesting. 

book icon  A History of the World in 12 Maps, Jerry Brotton
As a kid, I found maps endlessly fascinating. When I found out there was something called a "cartographer," it joined my "what I want to be when I grow up" list. I even created maps for the locations of the stories I wrote. So it was a cinch I would buy this book.

And I did like it, although it's not a light book and it took me several tries (and years) to get through. The twelve maps are not only ones I were familiar with—the one I understood was the oldest: Ptolemy's, Google Earth, and of course Mercator's map which makes Greenland look larger than continents—plus those I didn't know anything of, including the first map to mention "America," the Hereford "Mappamundi" (which is painted on leather), a French map which is the first drawn from land that was surveyed using modern methods, and more. Maps aren't a story of only drawings, but of societies and how they see the world: the earliest Christian maps had Jerusalem as their center. And of course "north" has always been "up" (which in modern times sorely tries the Australians). The Mercator story, for instance, involved the mapmaker's persecution because of his being a heretic (he was Protestant in a then aggressively Catholic society). And since everyone who loves maps knows the Mercator map so exaggerates the world, there's a chapter about finding the best possible way to portray a round earth on a flat surface.

Don't be misled by my inability to make it through this book for years. It really is absorbing if you are at all a "maphead." 

book icon  When Television Was Young, Ed McMahon, with David Fisher
When I bought this book I didn't even notice that the author was Ed McMahon, let alone the Ed McMahon. With Fisher, who also co-wrote McMahon's memoir, Johnny Carson's long-time announcer (and long-time spokesman for Budweiser) tells the rollicking story of early television, when an announcer had to be quick on his feet and with his mouth. McMahon started on local television in Philadelphia, then went on to New York, where he finally paired with a young host named Carson and the rest was history.

But this just isn't McMahon's story: he begins with the history of television broadcasting as well as some of the famous shows of the day: Today, Your Show of Shows, Toast of the Town, The Tonight Show (of course). He talks of live shows where things went badly and bloopers brought laughs to grim dramas; now-famous actors who cut their teeth on live television; classic scripted shows like Naked City, Amos'n'Andy, Space Patrol; television personalities such as Bob Keeshan, Dave Garroway, Dick Clark, Dennis James, Arlene Francis. And of course there's a sizeable chapter on "Mr. Television" himself, Milton Berle.

It's a fun romp, but McMahon and/or Fisher takes the Milton Berle gag wayyyyy too far. Once the Berle chapter is finished, they resort to a silly gag of "Milton" interrupting every subsequent chapter with a joke. Once or twice might have been cute. The Berle gag runs through half the book and becomes annoying as hell. If you can tolerate it, you'll enjoy the rest of the book.

book icon  Greetings from the Lincoln Highway (Centennial Edition), Brian Butko
People tend to think that Route 66 was the first transcontinental highway, but the Lincoln Highway, started in 1913 and ending in the mid-1920s, came before that highway where you could "get your kicks." "The Lincoln," later US30 and then superseded by Interstate 80, began at 46th Street in New York City and ended in San Francisco in Lincoln Park, following old trails like the Lancaster Turnpike in Pennsylvania, the Mormon Trail, the Sauk Trail, and the road to the Donner Pass, plus existing roads and new roads connecting cities. Increasing motor traffic in those days required paved roads, as the "gumbo mud" of the existing roads had been a thorn in the side of horse-drawn carriages for years.

This, the Centennial edition, is a definitive one. It maps how you can follow the original Lincoln and its later "generations" which followed more suitable routes, town by town and state by state from Atlantic to Pacific, and scattered through almost 300 pages of text are wonderful and evocative pieces of memorabilia from the teens to the 1950s: documents, letters, postcards, advertising, photos of tourist camps and motels, napkins, menus, brochures, maps, diaries, newspaper reproductions, essays, cartoons, road signs, monuments, mile markers...in short, anything and everything to capture the essence of the Lincoln Highway. After a while the road directions in the text may get a little tiresome, but every single illustration will bring a smile to anyone who loves history, especially early 20th century transportation and travel.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of the Totem Faces, Jerry West
Oh, dear. Of all the Happy Hollisters books I have read so far, this one seems to have aged the worst. The action begins when little Sue reports that Joey Brill and his running buddy Will have stolen a totem pole from someone's yard. (Really, how do Joey and Will get away with the crap they pull? They remove something from a neighbor's property and no punishment is meted out? Their parents must know someone in the city government!) The five kids (12-year-old Pete; 10-year-old Pam; Ricky, age 7; Holly, age 6; and Sue, who's four) and their visiting cousins Teddy and Jean rescue the totem pole, which is a reproduction that an old Alaskan "sourdough" has made for one of their neighbors. The man tells them a story about a tribe of Alaska natives who lost an identical totem, which legend says holds a secret. Since Teddy and Jean's dad, a famous comic artist, has run out of ideas for his stories, the next thing both families know, they're headed for Alaska, where the Hollisters of course wish to search for the lost totem so they can return the treasure to the native tribe. In the process, they meet two Alaska native children who have had their boat stolen, so they can't enter a salmon derby. Of course the generous kids want to help them as well!

The story does well describing life in Alaska in the early 1960s, and the two Native children and their family are portrayed respectfully of their culture and their amusements. But by today's standards the treatment of the totem, which is a Native American cultural symbol, is not very respectful: the sourdough shouldn't be building one as a decoration for someone's home. It is at least treated as something special.

The troubling portion of this story is a chapter where the Hollisters visit a hospital. They have befriended a nurse who tells the kids most of her patients are Eskimo children. (We'll skip over the fact that most Americans don't realize that "Eskimo" may come from a pejorative term and you shouldn't use it.) The kids are wild to meet Eskimos and go to the hospital to meet the kids and have a good time playing with them, but some of the language make it sound like they are going to a zoo to meet some exotic animals. (No, the children are not compared to animals. But the language just isn't right, either.)

This is such a good-natured series and most of the Alaskan scenes are handled very well, but I would read the Eskimo chapters first and decide what you might want to say to a child about them.

book icon  A Country Practice, Douglas Whynott
Chuck Shaw operates a mixed practice, small and large animals, in rural New Hampshire with his partner Roger Osinchuk, who does a large part of the horse work. The practice has more work than two veterinarians can handle, so Chuck hired Erika Bruner, a newly qualified vet who wishes to work with cattle. Whynott's story follows the varied cases that happen in a rural animal practice, from palpating cows to see if they're ovulating to dog and cat injuries to the horse practice Roger loves.

Anyone looking for the poetry of James Herriot will be disappointed, however, this is an interesting look into what makes a modern rural veterinary practice tick. Chuck is largely overworked, but can't bear to let down any of his patients, and he would like to take more time off. Roger loves the horse work, and we follow his own personal odyssey with raising a beautiful stud horse named Shawne. Erika throws herself into dairy cow work with gusto, determined to become an expert in detecting pregnancies in cows. Yet she finds there's something missing.

Good reading if you are a fan of the veterinary shows on National Geographic Wild and want to see the ins and outs of the business. Rather troubling when you hear about people putting perfectly healthy animals to sleep for no reason. Liked that Chuck Shaw tried to find them homes so the practice didn't have to do that.

book icon  Re-Read: The Crystal Cave/The Hollow Hills/The Last Enchantment, Mary Stewart
We lived very simply when I was a kid: one car, one television, one phone (fastened on the wall), one radio. We didn't take a real vacation (a.k.a. not going to a relative's house) until my mom went back to work. It wasn't of much consequence, except for me there were never enough books. They were a precious commodity with Dad's limited salary, so most of what I had was the cheap Whitman books that cost less than a dollar, some of them "authorized editions" of television shows, or classics like Beautiful Joe, a few girls' books like the Donna Parker series. Later I'd squirrel away my quarter allowance for three weeks to buy a new Get Smart paperback novel.

Mom finally joined the Doubleday Bargain Book Club, in part to get me some decent reference books. I still have my chunky Thorndike-Barnhart dictionary, the Roget's Thesaurus, my first atlas, all bought with the six-books-for-99-cents option you got for joining. Mom got a sewing book, too, and a calorie-counting book, and something else (I think it was religious). Then for a year we were required to buy a book a month, either the selected offering or an alternative. It's how I first read Leon Uris' QBVII, Gone With the Wind (which was intended for my mom, but which I read in four days), and got copies of six favorite animal novels, including Lassie Come-Home and Misty of Chincoteague.

The Crystal Cave was an odd choice. I'd never been much for lords-and-ladies "thees-and-thous" medieval films like Robin Hood and Camelot. I'd seen Disney's Sword in the Stone and didn't much care about it. But that was the most interesting choice that particular month, and I knew Mary Stewart from her novel The Moon-Spinners.

I fell into her Arthurian world and never came out, just as I knew this time around if I plucked the book off the shelf (I have the one-volume trilogy edition, not the individual books I got from Doubleday) I would have to read through all three books without stopping. I simply fell in love with her Merlin and his world, and since then even when I try other versions of literary Merlin (Barron's, Lawhead's) and video Merlin (I love Nicol Williamson, but the snake-loving weird Merlin of Excalibur was repulsive, and Sam Neill, who could have done a wonderful job with Stewart's Merlin, got instead stuck with a cross-eyed Helena Bonham Carter and a jokey Martin Short in a titular miniseries) they always fall short in some way.

It's hard to explain why I do love it so, because most critics of the books say that Merlin is commonplace, or there's not enough magic. Maybe that's why I do love it so much: it's not a fantasy, it's a historical narrative with a protagonist who just happens to have otherworldly powers. Most of what Merlin achieves is through his intelligence, his education, his quick thinking, his ability to negotiate, and sometimes just his talent for bluffing. He's a man who I wouldn't be awed in meeting, but is very down-to-earth. I also love the portrayals of the other characters in Merlin's orbit: his mother who has never betrayed his father's identity, his father himself, his uncle Uther who eventually becomes king, Uther's Queen Ygraine, the young Arthur and his best friend Bedwyr, and especially Merlin's servants, from Cerdic and Cadal to Ralf and Ulfin, and their relationships with each other. They all seem like real people to me. A plus in this re-reading, from a stay-at-home perspective, are Stewart's beautiful descriptions of a British countryside that was: the lush valleys, the harsh hills, the winter starkness, the spring beauty, and the ruins of old forts and shrines, and the description of fifth-century villages (some of them not always pretty), and how people at each level of society lived, from simple shepherds to innkeepers to blacksmiths all the way to the royal houses Merlin associates with. The final volume of the trilogy may refer to "last enchantment," but for me it's been one that never ends.

book icon  Phebe Fairchild Her Book, Lois Lenski
After two books based on her childhood experiences, Lenski wrote the first of her historical books in 1936. Phebe Fairchild, age 10, is sent to live with her family in the country when her father, a sea captain, takes her mother home to England for a visit and then goes on a voyage to the Mediterranean.  Her grandmother, aunts, and cousins are all welcoming and nice, but they are also strictly religious; warned by her father, Phebe doesn't dare show them her frivolous Mother Goose book, nor the jewelry her mother entrusted her with.

Lenski basically wrote this story as a "slice of life" tale of, as she explains, "child life and country life in 1828 Connecticut," when the United States was on the cusp of becoming an industrial nation. Phebe is one of the witnesses to the expansion of canals to carry goods rather than "freighters" and machine-made goods instead of homespun. Phebe herself is a rather bland little girl, except for one incident of rampant disobedience with a visitor's clothing, so the main charms of this story are noting the upbringing of children in the early 19th century, the sheer hard work of country life, but also of the pleasures and the feasts, of typical plays and pranks of the era, the changes industrialization were already bringing and the resistance of elders to it, and of the unceasing labor of women. She also doesn't stress enough the importance of the Mother Goose book, which was the first published book for children in the US which was not intended to impart a Christian lesson, like the hornbooks and chapbooks that came before, but was simply for a child's amusement—to tell children that it was okay to have fun.

In later historical books, Lenski would add some danger or mystery into the story (the pirate character in Ocean Born Mary, the pioneer journey in A'Going to the Westward, etc.) rather than having a simple series of incidents in a child's life. Still worth reading for Lenski's research and the glimpse into 1820s American rural life.