31 October 2020

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  Sorry I'm Late, I Didn't Want to Come, Jessica Pan
I had to pick this up: Jess and I sounded a lot alike. We crossed streets to avoid talking to people. Ducked out of noisy parties early. Thought going to any big gathering where there was drinking and noise as energy draining. Found socializing exhausting.
I was lucky; I found science fiction conventions. I normally don't chat to strangers, but will there, because I know there is acceptance there. But Jess' close friends had all left for new lives or other careers. Yes, she had her partner Sam, but she still had no close other friends. So she tried living the life of an extrovert to help her find some new ones.
Jessica Pan's writing is humorous and I chuckled several times in her adventures. I thought I was pretty shy, but her introversion was almost debilitating. I applaud several of the thing she did to overcome this, including doing a presentation for The Moth, doing stand-up comedy, joining an improv group, and going on a vacation not knowing the destination. But some of the other therapies she was given just appalled me, the worst being to talk to strangers and, instead of making small talk, ask them "Deep Questions" like "Are you lonely?" or "What's the worst thing you've ever done?" I find this rude and invasive. Do the psychologists of the world not respect anyone's privacy any longer? Not to mention that a couple of things that people told her during this therapy would have been prime targets for blackmail! I do understand that this was to elevate conversation between mere chitchat about sports or the weather, but I thought it was seriously invasive and creepy. I sure wouldn't have responded to Jessica! Neither would I have hung around Budapest not consulting a guidebook (apparently she wasn't allowed to????) and asking "Deep Questions"—get the guidebook, go someplace you're interested in, then start chatting to people there!
An okay examination of changing personal behaviors if you can get around the "Deep Talk" invasion of privacy business (plus I found the magic mushroom chapter a little creepy, too).
book icon  Murder on Union Square, Victoria Thompson
One final obstacle remains in the process for Sarah Brandt Malloy and Frank Malloy to adopt Catherine, the little girl Sarah rescued from abuse: her mother was married at the time she died, so her husband, even though he is not Catherine's biological father, is still her legal guardian. But, their attorney tells them, if the man, actor Parnell Vaughn, signs over Catherine to them, they may adopt her. But when the Malloys visit Vaughn, his grasping fiancee says he'll only sign if he's paid a thousand dollars. This too is illegal, but Frank and Sarah love Catherine too much to say no. But the next day when Frank takes the papers to Vaughn, he finds him dead, and his fiancee screams that Frank killed him. Frank's arrested. Due to the inheritance he received, he can just pay the courts off to "forget" the case, but Frank and Sarah, and their co-workers Gino and Maeve, would prefer that he clear his name, especially for the sake of Catherine and Frank's son Brian. So the four of them work the Palladium Theater, finding out much more about actors—and their foibles, superstitions, personal habits, and performances at the drop of a hat—than they ever wanted to. Frank's and Sarah's mothers also lend a hand in this mystery that raises quite a few eyebrows in the plot along the way.

There are so many suspects in this one and so many motivations that much of the story is taken up with the four leads' interviews with the suspects, and for a while things seem to go around in circles. This is very realistic from an investigative point of view—both police and private detectives must hash and rehash clues to arrive at the truth—but sometimes the repetition gets a little dull. So you'll have to stick with the characters a bit while they reach the inevitable.

Plus we get a reappearance of Serafina, the fortuneteller who appeared in a previous book; one of the actresses, Verena, helps with the case with some coaxing from Gino (to Maeve's annoyance), Maeve gets the workmen at the new clinic whipped into shape, and she also comes up with a great cover name while pretending to be a reporter: Mazie Dobbins. I laughed aloud when I read that.

Enjoyable, but you have to get through the long investigation.
book icon  A History of Children's Books in 100 Books, Roderick Cave and Sara Ayad
I have the book A History of Books in 100 Books and thought this would make a good companion volume to it. It is, although it was published in England and is very British-centric. It opens, as you might expect, with a chapter about the first books designated for children, which weren't published until the late 17th century, and then wanders afield through folklore from Aesop to Africa, to nonsense tales, animal stories, instructive and religious stories, babies' books, volumes that tell of other cultures, women writers, fairy tales and fantasy places, tales of exploration and colonialism, history books, and more. Notable American books are mentioned, as are African and Indian and Chinese contributions, but the focus is chiefly British.
Still miffed because they mentioned "The Youth's Companion" and several other periodicals, and completely forgot "St. Nicholas," which was really odd since several of my compilations of that noted magazine are from British editions printed by Beatrix Potter's publisher, Frederick Warne & Company!
book icon  The Library Book, Susan Orlean
Susan Orlean interweaves her love for books with the story of the 1926 Goodhue Central Library of the Los Angeles library system and the terrible fire the historic building suffered in 1986 when a suspected arsonist lit a fire in the stacks and the tinder-dry books in the badly-ventilated area burned as if they had been soaked in gasoline, with temperatures that reached over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. As firemen desperately fought the fire in one part of the building, courageous volunteers raced inside the unaffected portions to rescue books until it became unsafe. Days later, more volunteers rescued waterlogged volumes, hoping to save some of them. The arsonist was never caught, but long suspected was Harry Peak, a misfit who said he was nowhere near the library, then changed his mind and said he was there, then said he was not again...each time he was questioned changing his story. It's also the story of the Los Angeles library system itself, including its pioneering women head librarians who were eventually booted out to make way for an eccentric who had no training in library science but who was a man, an odd duck who actually did do positive things for the library. Orlean even examines the role of libraries today, especially urban libraries who are attempting to make themselves relevant, especially in low-income neighborhoods, and how they are attempting to diversify the audience they serve.
If you're a book lover, this volume is like a treat from a candy store. The accounts of the fire will make you weep in realizing how many historic volumes were lost. While Harry Peak's involvement (or non-involvement) was never proven, you'll become equally annoyed at his aggrandizement of himself and his shifting stories and excuses. Heck, Orlean's story about her trips to the library with her mother and about the books she loved are almost worth the price of the book alone.
book icon  The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found, Karina Yan Glaser
What a change from two years earlier, when the Vanderbeeker family's landlord was a cranky recluse living a solitary life in his top-floor apartment. Now the five Vanderbeeker children: teen twins Isa and Jessie, Oliver (the only boy), knitting-mad Hyacinth, and little Laney are helping Mr. Beiderman train for the New York City marathon. But their excitement is tempered by a bombshell: the identity of the homeless person living in the shed in the neighborhood's communal garden. It's someone they both know and love, and they'd do anything to keep this person from leaving their neighborhood and possibly leaving them forever. In the meantime, Hyacinth is unsure of how to make new friends at school, and Isa worries that a boy she likes may not like her any longer.
Amid the joy that is always around when the Vanderbeekers assemble, the kids have to face some hard truths about all families not being like theirs. And, even more daunting, is that something I feared in The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue has come to pass. If you are reading this to a child, please note there is a death in this book and be prepared. It's beautifully related but terribly sad and made me cry.  The children are given an opportunity to prepare, participate, and grieve in their own way, which is as it should be instead of being protected from life's inevitable truths.
book icon  Re-Read: Harvest at Stillmeadow, Gladys Taber
It's that time of year when I go looking among my to-be-read pile for "something that is like Gladys Taber." Alas, I've spent something like 30 years looking for someone "like" her; best to just go back to the beginning and re-read the Stillmeadow books. Taber, originally from Wisconsin, spending her married life living in New York City, bought a vintage Connecticut farmhouse (as so many New Yorkers did from the 1930s-1950s—remember the I Love Lucy episodes set in Connecticut?) near Southbury, raised cocker spaniels, planted a garden, cooked luscious meals and relaxed (sometimes) on weekends and in summer before coming to live there full time, and Taber, in "Ladies' Home Journal" and "Family Circle," wrote about her experiences at "Stillmeadow." These columns were later published in over a dozen compilation volumes, of which Harvest at Stillmeadow was the first.

These columns, from 1935 to 1940, and covering two years at Stillmeadow, are simple journal entries of daily life: the vagaries of the spaniels (Star and Sister, their two main dogs, hated each other), the travails of gardening and then the succulence of the food that came out of it, closing the house for the winter and reopening it in the spring, the perils of having summer visitors (the behaviors of which made me rather indignant; it's impolite to invite yourself over, keep your hostess hopping with requests for items and entertainment, and then leave her to clean up your mess!), the adventures of the children, and the passing of the seasons. Reviews of her books often show up on blogs and sites about mindfulness; certainly there's a slow, easy pleasure about a Stillmeadow book, one that makes you think longingly of homes in the country, shady gardens, homecooked dinners, watching sunny meadows and frosty evenings from a garden chair or from before an open fire. It's a mellowing experience.

This, the first of the books, is a little less polished than the later ones, where gradually the childhood tales give way to Gladys musing about growing older, the state of the world, the disappearance of the countryside around her—but always about her pets and her cooking. In fact, I came to her through her dogs: a volume called Especially Dogs, Especially at Stillmeadow in my junior high school library. Once tempted by Stillmeadow, it's hard to turn away ever again.
book icon  On Spice: Advice, Wisdom, and History With a Grain of Saltiness, Caitlin Penzey-Moog
I gave this to James on his birthday because one of our favorite things to do is go over to the Penzey spices store on Roswell Road and smell the spices. He handed it off to me, a small book, and said "It's an easy read." It is, but also a fun one. Penzey-Moog grew up helping in her grandparents' spice store and learned more about food seasonings than most will ever know. She gives a history of each spice (or herb; she decided to go with the broader sense of the definition of "spice" as an additive to food dishes, whether they were from seeds, roots, plants, flowers, etc.) with interesting commentary on history (such as the French and the Dutch basically lost their monopoly on their spice islands because they treated the indigenous workers so badly that these slaves would give away the precious seeds/plants), and chat about plants which were used as medicines. You'll learn what we use as cinnamon really isn't (unless it's from Vietnam, it's probably cassia); that turmeric (the "new" wonder spice) is actually good for you, but not as good as its press insists; why a few threads of saffron are so expensive; and much more. She also talks about what spice mixes contain (Cajun seasoning, five spice powder, jerk, vadouvan, and more), the difference between "peppers" and "peppercorns" (not to mention paprika), and many other items of food trivia.
Not a fan of cooking, but an interesting read due to the history.
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of the Little Mermaid, Jerry West
This is number eighteen in the book series about the Hollister family (dad owns the Trading Post, a sports/hobby/hardware store, mom is a housewife but always ready to join or head family adventures, and there's the kids: Pete, age 12; Pam, 10 years old; Ricky, age 7; and Holly, 6—there's also a younger sister, Sue, age four), not to mention the collie, the cat and five kittens, and the pet donkey. They travel to interesting places and usually solve some sort of mystery doing so.
In this entry, they're winging it to Denmark to visit Copenhagen, when a fellow passenger, Miss Petersen, an assistant to the Queen who is returning a priceless Little Mermaid statue to the royal family from a museum loan, allows the kids to see the artifact. Unfortunately, she also allows another passenger, a bearded man Sue calls "Mr. Bushyface," to check out the statue. When they reach customs, the statue is gone and the kids suspect the bearded man. They tell Miss Petersen they will search for the statue while touring Denmark.
No sooner do they leave the airport than Sue is rescued by Karen Clausen, a schoolteacher, who introduces the family to her Farfar and Farmor (grandfather and -mother). Through the Clausens, the Hollisters learn of another mystery: someone is breaking into old churches which have ships' models hanging in them (an old Danish tradition), and destroying the models. Are the crimes related? If you said no, you haven't read enough Hollister adventures.

This is a picturesque volume with the family visiting many Danish landmarks, including, of course, Tivoli, the amusement park that inspired Walt Disney to build Disneyland. That's one of its problems, too; it's almost too much of a travelogue, the author trying to wedge in all the cool attractions and a very active mystery as well, where the Hollisters and their Danish friends are always bolting off on a new chase after a fresh clue. It makes its breathless way from one to the next with almost no stopping.

Problems: What kind of steward was Miss Petersen for allowing "Mr. Bushyface" to take the mermaid statue in its case to his seat when she was supposed to be protecting it? In real life she would be so fired. Also, what's with Ricky in this book? He's constantly disobeying his parents and getting into dangerous situations; once he almost takes Pete with him. The kids are usually so much smarter than this.

Big plus, though: with the Hollisters away from Shoreham, we don't have to put up with Joey Brill for a whole book!
book icon  North to the Night, Alvah Simon
Alvah Simon had always had an affinity for the north, and as an adult this crystallized into wanting to winter above the Arctic circle in a sailboat and learn about the native Inuit who make the area their home. He has met a woman who shares his adventurous spirit, if not quite as much of his passion, and, with the purchasing and refitting of the steel-hulled sailboat The Roger Henry, Alvah and Diana will make his dream come true in Tay Bay in Canada.
And then Diana's father dies.
This is mostly the story of Simon's odyssey, alone except for a frightfully mercurial kitten named Halifax, frozen in the ice on Tay Bay throughout the long Arctic night, suffering early from miscalculations he made about the amount of oil he needed, at least once going blind for several days from an unknown ailment and blessing his habit of always keeping gear in the same place, almost freezing to death in his sleeping bag after his cabin becomes moisture-ridden due to a lantern kept on too long, and other everyday survival efforts in the -50℉ cold. There were times when I really thought he was crazy for doing this, and I still wonder why he and Diana had to stay on the boat; couldn't they have camped on the shore?
On the other hand there are beautiful moments when he ventures out between snowstorms and discovers the grandeur of the Arctic, and profound encounter with the Inuit, who never hurry, accept what they need to do to survive, temper their anger, and live fulfilling lives. He observes local wildlife and keeps a respectful distance from polar bears, who menace him on more than one occasion, and, in one case, is betrayed by a duplicitous "naturalist" who talks him into letting him take photos of a rare bird's nest.

Despite occasionally thinking Simon needed to chill out somewhere, I was enthralled by this book.
book icon  The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, Caroline Preston
This is a darling graphic novel told in "typed" commentary along with vintage 1920s mementos: magazine clippings, ticket stubs, old photos, menus, telegrams, note paper, schedules, postcards, paper dolls, school documents, maps, advertisements, etc. to tell the story of Frances "Frankie" Pratt, from Cornish, New Hampshire, who gives up on her dream to go to Vassar and goes to work as companion to an elderly woman, whose shell-shocked son romances Frankie without telling her he's married. Once again given the opportunity to attend college after her disapproving mother intervenes, Frankie is off to Vassar where she makes friends, and then heads up for more adventures in New York City and in Paris.
The inventiveness of Preston's storytelling makes up for the fact this is just a historical romance novel, with Frankie becoming involved with three different men, all who contribute something to her understanding of adulthood without ever holding her back from becoming her own person, as well as with a useful but ultimately "user" of a college roommate and a very odd instant onboard friendship with a young woman who'd planned to go to France to live and ends up marrying a Russian on board.
Preston also has another of these scrapbook tales out, A War-Bride's Scrapbook, that looks just as endearing. 
book icon  The Last Seance and Other Stories, Agatha Christie
I picked this up as Hallowe'en reading and was not disappointed, although some of the stories are better than others. This basically collects any Christie story that involved some type of supernatural element, even if the element is later proven to be a trick, so there are even some Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple tales here. The titular tale sets the scene with a creepy narrative about a medium who's about to abandon her calling but reluctantly agrees to do just one more seance. Other stories involve a solitary family being visited by a stranded motorist, a Poirot mystery about an Egyptian dig that results in a curse, a man whose cousin has an aversion to gypsies due to a perpetual nightmare, the story of an old house and a little boy and a very persistent ghost, an elderly woman who starts hearing her deceased husband whispering to her from the radio, the unsettling tale of a man who has seemingly lost his mind and acts like a cat, a deadly cult who inherits its members' money, and more.
The whole volume was enjoyable, but I especially enjoyed "The Dressmaker's Doll," about two sisters who are nonplussed by the arrival of a mysterious doll in their midst. A real page-turner of suspense!
book icon  The Life and Times of Edward VII, Keith Middlemas
I've been interested in the life of Queen Victoria's heir "Bertie" (Edward VII) ever since I saw the British drama Edward the King. Victoria expected him to emulate his clever (and, to her, perfect) father, the beloved Prince Albert, and as a middling student (he might even have had a learning disability) especially compared to his quick older sister, and not quick to catch on, he was a lifelong disappointment to her and this treatment told on him all his life. He begged to have more responsibility, but thinking him indolent, much of it was handed over to his younger brother, leaving the bored prince to get involved with gaming, horse racing, society gatherings, and "fast" women, which only increased his mother's scorn.

Make no mistake, as Prince of Wales "Bertie" was no saint. He had affairs, gambled (but never got into debt) with friends, took advantage of his position in life, and basically lived the lifestyle of the privileged few. But he did much good for the country in other ways, including diplomatically, and served ten useful years as king, not to mention was an adored grandfather and an affectionate parent. Had his mother actually given him the responsibilities he wanted, his life and reputation might have turned out differently.

This book is a lavishly illustrated story of his happy childhood, unhappy boyhood, discontented adulthood, and term as monarch, with photographs, drawings, printings, cartoons, and other illustrations providing visual reference of both his private and public life. Quite enjoyed it.
book icon  Really Truly, Heather Vogel Frederick
This is the third book in the Pumpkin Falls Mystery series, featuring Truly Lovejoy and her family. Dad is a retired Army officer who lost his arm to an IED; they now live in Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, running the family bookstore. Truly, already six feet tall in eighth grade and a prodigious swimmer, has two older brothers and two younger sisters, and loves birdwatching. Living in New Hampshire wasn't in the plans for the family until her dad lost his arm, and Truly still smarts from being away from her favorite cousin/best friend Mackenzie—until, during her mom's family reunion being held in Pumpkin Falls, Mackenzie insists Truly come with her to "Mermaid Camp," interrupting Truly's carefully planned summer.
I have to admit, although the foray to Mermaid Camp pushes the remainder of the plot of the story, I spent about half the book stewing at the fact that "best friend" Mackenzie basically bulldozes Truly into going to what I consider a really stupid camp. Sure they found out about a hidden treasure and meet a couple of elderly ladies who swam with Esther Williams in her films...but, really, "mermaid camp." Ugh. And having to put up with snooty Hayden Drake on top of it. All you need is a Nellie Oleson at your camp.
Once Truly's back home and gets roped, reluctantly at first, into a community project, the story perks up. Unfortunately to succeed Truly must run afoul (several times) of her strict dad; one understands where he's coming from, but you can't help feeling sorry for her efforts continually getting her in hot water. So, while I really enjoyed the book...ick, mermaid camp! Science camp, birdwatching camp, swimming camp, book camp...but mermaid camp. No. Not ever.