August Minireviews – Part 1

So I find that I not-infrequently read books that I just feel rather “meh” about and they don’t seem worth writing an entire post about.  However, since I also use this blog as a sort of book-review diary, I like to at least say something.  So I’ve started a monthly post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

//published 1942//

In this outing for PI Phillip Marlowe, the tough-talking-but-soft-hearted detective finds himself working for a rich but rather dreadful old widow.  Per usual, Marlowe is pulled into all sorts of shenanigans, most of which would seem unrelated to someone more optimistic than our hero.  The mystery in this one seemed stronger to me than the first few books, and I really enjoyed the story.  These books are pretty fast reads and I am finding them to be thoroughly engaging.  3.5/5.

Once Upon a Kiss by various authors

//published 2017//

This collection of short stories are all retellings of fairy tales by random YA authors.  I picked it up as a free Kindle book in hopes of maybe finding some new authors to check out.  However, none of the stories in this collection rated higher than a 3/5 for me, and some I didn’t even bother to finish.  To me, a short story should still have a coherent plot with a beginning, middle, and end, and some kind of driving force for the protagonists, but a lot of these stories just came across as ‘sample’ writing – a few stories literally just stopped and were like, ‘If you want to find out more about what happens next, be sure to check out my book!’ which annoyed me so much that I won’t be checking out their books.

Overall, not a complete waste of time, but almost.

The Cat Sitter Mystery by Carol Adorjan

//published 1973//

This is an old Scholastic Book Club book that I’ve had around for as long as I can remember.  I read this book when I was pretty little – it was possibly one of the first mysteries I ever read.  I was quite enthralled with the exciting and mysterious events surrounding Beth’s neighbor’s house!

Rereading as an adult, this story about a girl who moves into a new neighborhood and then ends up taking care of her eccentric neighbors’ cats, doesn’t really have a great deal of depth, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.  Adorjan does a really great job of making the whole story plausible, and also setting up reasonable explanations for all of the shenanigans.  The side story about Beth trying to settle into her new neighborhood in the middle of summer is also done well.

My edition is fabulously illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush, who illustrated several other childhood favorites, like Magic Elizabeth and Miracles on Maple Hill.  They are probably most famous for their work with the original editions of The Borrowers and their sequels.  The Krush’s line drawings are just perfect, especially of the cats.

All in all, a comfortable 4/5 for this short children’s book, an old favorite that held up quite well to an adult reread.

The Story of Amelia Earhart by Adele de Leeuw

//published 1955//

Back in the 1950’s, Grosset & Dunlap published a series of children’s biographies called ‘Signature’ books – each one has a copy of the famous person’s signature on the front, and an illustrated timeline of ‘Great Events in the Life of…’ inside the front cover.  I really enjoy history books that are aimed at the middle school range because they usually hit all the high points without getting bogged down with a lot of details and political opinions.  It’s a great way to get a basic introduction to a person or event.  I’ve collected a lot of these Signature books over the years – they have those delightful cloth covers from the era and are just a perfect size to read.

That said, I wasn’t particularly impressed with this one.  While it was a fine read, de Leeuw’s choices about what random vignettes from Earhart’s life to include seemed really random.  For instance, an entire chapter is devoted to a random event in Earhart’s life involving a neighbor who treats his horse cruelly – and in the end, Earhart and her sister don’t actually get to rescue the horse – instead, it escapes and then dies leaping over a creek?!  It just felt incredibly random and didn’t really add any information about Earhart – it never came back as this big influential event or anything.  There were several other, smaller stories like that throughout, like de Leeuw had collected tons of tales and then just pulled out of a hat which ones to include.  It was definitely much choppier than other Signature books that I’ve read.

Still, Earhart had an amazing and fascinating life.  I really loved how so much of what she did wasn’t amazing because she was the first woman to do it – but just the first person.  I love biographies that emphasize a woman’s abilities, intelligence, and skills as those of a person instead of those as a woman.  No one is going to believe that women are just as capable as men if we constantly act like being a woman was a weakness they had to overcome.

All in all, this was a fun and interesting book.  I’m not particularly into aviation, but apparently Earhart herself wrote a couple of books – I’m especially interesting to check out her book 20 Hrs., 40 Min. about flying over the Atlantic – I’m curious to see how it compares to Charles Lindbergh’s account, which I ended up really enjoying a lot.

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

//published 1943//

The fourth Phillip Marlowe felt a little darker than the first three.  Marlowe seems a little jaded, and while he still manages to make fun of many of the terrible people he meets (usually everyone he meets is pretty terrible), sometimes it felt a little serious, like Chandler genuinely was starting to think that everyone out there really is terrible.  There is also a rather gruesome scene when a body is found – not exactly graphic, but so well implied that it didn’t need to be in order to make me feel a little queasy (possibly because I was trying to eat a baloney sandwich at the time).

However, the mystery itself was, I felt, the strongest yet.  The reader has access to all the same information as Marlowe, and while I was able to connect some of the dots, I didn’t hit them all.  I really enjoyed watching everything come together, but the ending was just a bit too abrupt to feel completely satisfactory.

Still, a really great read, if a bit darker than the earlier fare.  3.5/5.

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Patrick Henry: Firebrand of the Revolution // by Nardi Reeder Campion

//published 1961//

This is an older biography of Patrick Henry (1961), with target audience of middle school/junior high.  Overall, this was a really excellent read, with plenty of details about Henry’s life and career, but not too overwhelming.  It’s written to engage younger readers, so there is some dialogue and little anecdotes along the way, but most of these stories added to the character development of Henry, helping us to see what shaped him throughout his younger years and even as an adult.

It’s been a while since I studied this era of American history, so my memories of Henry were a bit vague, other than attributing his famous cry of “Give me liberty, or give me death!”  Reading this book made me want to learn more about this fascinating man – poorly educated, more comfortable in the wilderness than anywhere else, a failure at so many careers, a self-made lawyer, a man who lived his religious beliefs, a non-drinker, father of seventeen children, the first governor of Virginia, and a passionate advocate of personal freedom and the equality of all men.

Campion did a really wonderful job of putting Henry in his time period as well.  For instance, the topic of slavery is touched on a few times – something that Henry struggled with, but was more or less resigned to, a product not just of his time, but of time immortal, as there have always been slaves throughout the history of mankind.  (Which obviously does not justify it, but I think sometimes people get really hung up on the concept that the founding fathers could fight so passionately for their freedom while ignoring the fact that so many people were enslaved.  A terrible thing, yes, but not as hypocritical as we may believe at this time.  There has been slavery throughout every time of recorded history, and are still slaves even today; I think it is rather unfair to expect those founding fathers to not only set up the world’s first democracy from scratch, but to also expect them to reject a concept ingrained in humanity for thousands of years, as though their failure on that point means that everything else they did was worthless.  But I digress.)

While Henry was initially friends with Thomas Jefferson, their relationship soured over the years, and Campion also weaves that story throughout the book, helping the reader to see how this breakdown could have occurred.  And while Henry was a passionate speech-maker, he was no writer, which means that much of our perspective of Henry as a person is through people who, at the time, were writers… like Thomas Jefferson.  While Campion never comes across as defending Henry, she does remind the reader that historians are people, too, who have personal opinions and beliefs, so when someone like Jefferson says that Henry was “avaricious and rotten-hearted,” he may not have been completely objective.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am interested to read more about Henry’s life.  Campion’s description of the build-up to Henry’s greatest speech genuinely gave me chills.  I wished that I could have learned a little more about his  home life (with seventeen children, it seems like there would be scope for something interesting there!), and I also think that a more in-depth biography would have more information about Henry’s negative views on the Constitution (which Henry believed was basically worthless without a Bill of Rights to accompany it).

All in all, Firebrand of the Revolution was a great place to start – enough to give me a good overview of Henry’s life and leave me interested to learn more.  5/5 and recommended.

P.G. Wodehouse – A Life in Letters // edited by Sophie Ratcliffe

13022713

//published 2011//

As soon as I heard about this book, I knew that I wanted to not just read it, but to own it, so that I could savor it whenever I wished.  I haven’t regretted investing in this hefty tome (especially since I got it used, hardcover, for only $5!), even though it has taken me months to wade through it.

 

While, on the whole, I’m not someone who enjoys delving into the personal lives of individuals whose art I enjoy, there are some exceptions to the rule.  Agatha Christie’s autobiography was an absolute delight, with a fascinating glimpse into the age in which she lived.  More recently, John Cleese’s rambling about his early years and the various events that led up to the formation of the Pythons was fun and engaging.  A Life in Letters was a different sort of autobiography, because it isn’t exactly an autobiography as such.  Instead, it was a biography with large batches of letters in between.

In her introduction, Ratcliffe explains that while Wodehouse’s writing often seems conventional and frivolous,

beneath the mostly male upper-crust there is some radical table-turning.  Butlers bail their masters out, passion wins over reason, and girls, invariably, know more than boys.  The letters reveal the roots of this reversal.  Wodehouse was a self-made man who married a chorus-girl, spent time with Hollywood music stars, and endured Nazi imprisonment and journalistic accusations of treason.

Ratcliffe’s admiration for Wodehouse is obvious throughout her introduction and the biographical sections she writes.  She explains that she has attempted to find balance throughout her choices in which correspondence to include.  With the cooperation from the Wodehouse estate to include “freedom to publish any and every part of any Wodehouse letter,” she must have had a very hefty task in editing for this volume.  At 542 pages (plus endnotes), she has definitely included many, many letters.  She says,

Letters have been chosen for inclusion on the basis of their individual merit – either in terms of the information that they offer about Wodehouse’s life, the evolution of his style, or times in which he lived.  Cuts within individual letters have also been essential, but passages have only been removed if they are irrelevant to the main thrust of the letter, or to Wodehouse’s biographical or artistic narrative.  I have made a particular point of leaving the letters that Wodehouse sent during the war years as complete as space will allow.

As regards those “war years” letters, I admit that I had only a vague notion of some trouble Wodehouse had during that time.  I am not sure if it is my position as an American reader, or as a somewhat younger fan of his, but before I read this book I really had no notion of the extent of persecution Wodehouse suffered because of the infamous German broadcasts.  Ratcliffe makes no secret of the fact that she believes Wodehouse to be completely innocent of anything so dire as treason, and believes that Wodehouse’s letters, circumstances, and letters speak for themselves.  In some ways, I think that one of the purposes of this volume was to place that situation in the perspective of Wodehouse’s entire life.

The book is divided into sections by date.  Each chapter  begins with Ratcliffe’s biographical notes as to what was going on with Wodehouse’s life at the time.  These sections were just as interesting to me as the letters, as I really didn’t know much about his life going into this book.  After that, there is a collection of letters from the dates indicated.  Some of the letters also have editorial introductions, which actually brings me to my only complain about this book – the formatting of those introductions.  Throughout the letter section, there would be letter, letter footnotes, heavy dark line to indicate letter break, next letter.  But if a letter warranted an introduction, that introduction was placed between the footnotes and the dark line – so it always felt to me that the introduction actually belonged to the letter before it… funny how the brain works at times, and I can’t really explain why this aggravated me throughout all 500-odd pages, but it did!

The letters themselves are delightful.  There is something quite personal about correspondence, and it is obvious that Wodehouse cares a great deal of his circle of friends.

The war letters were quite interesting.  Wodehouse’s genuine distress over the broadcasts, and the world’s reception of them, is so very sad to read.  It is hard enough to feel judged by the relatively small circle of people normal people know – I cannot imagine the pressure of an entire world full of people treating you with such negatively and, frequently, outright hatred.  And to feel that there is no real defense that you can make – that every word you say only makes it worse…!  And saddest of all, that he never was able to go back to England!  Outcast from his home…

He wanted to write a book about his time in the internment camp, an attempt to help the public see his perspective and to understand how the broadcasts came to be made, but it was a difficult book to write.  In a letter to one of his best friends, William Townend, he writes,

My trouble has been to get the right tone …  comedy will keep creeping in at the most solemn moments.  I wrote this yesterday – ‘The global howl which went up as a result of my indiscretion exceeded in volume and intensity anything I had experienced since the time of my boyhood when I broke the curate’s umbrella and my aunts started writing letters to one another about it. ‘

But despite all the pressure, Wodehouse still stayed strong to his own personal beliefs.  I loved when he was being pressed to declare his hatred for the Nazis and the Germans, and his response was, “I do not hate in the plural.”  Such strong words; I love them.

Throughout the letters, Wodehouse’s strong sense of humor is evident.  He is a master of taking his frustrations and difficulties and turning them into opportunities for self-depreciating humor:

A few days ago I received a formal notification from the French Government that I was no longer considered ‘dangereux’ to the safety of the Republic.  Up till now the Republic has been ducking down side streets when it saw me coming and shouting, ‘Save yourself, boys!  Here comes Wodehouse!’, but now all is well and me and them are just like that.  I am glad of this, because I have always considered them one of the nicest Republics I have ever met, my great trouble being that I simply can’t master the language.  My instructor at the Berlitz was strong on pencils.  She would keep saying, ‘Un crayon.  Le crayon est jaune.  Le crayon est bleu’ and so on till I really got good on pencils.  But in actual conversation I found that it didn’t carry me very far.  I was sunk unless I could work the talk round to pencils, and nobody seemed really interested in them.

One of the best parts of reading books like this is to find out little snippets of commonality.  For instance, if I had to choose one character from all Wodehouse’s writing who is my favorite, it would be Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle.  I can’t really explain my fondness for him, but I really do love that fellow very much – I have a great deal of empathy for his love of quiet, country life (and pigs) and fear of formal gatherings and crowds.  So it was rather a delight to find

I love [Jeeves] and all I ask is for a constant supply of ‘Jeeves’ ideas.  Actually, I prefer my Blandings Castle stories to the Jeeves stories, but I have a very good time writing the latter.  I think Lord Emsworth is my favourite character.  But Jeeves runs him very close.

Another personal opinion of mine was bolstered as well – my least-favorite Jeeves book is most definitely The Return of Jeevespublished also as Ring for Jeeves.  This because it is Jeeves – but no Bertie!  Wodehouse says,

I was very relieved that you liked Ring for Jeeves.  But I think I made a bloomer in using Jeeves without Bertie.  It’s really Bertie whom people like.

Much of Wodehouse’s correspondence is fun because it deals with his own opinions on other people’s literature.  In one letter he is writing about various poetry he has been reading.

Why will people collect ALL a poet’s work into a volume instead of burying the bad stuff?  It’s a nasty jar, after reading ‘The Nightingale’, to come on the following little effort of Keats: –

There was a naughty boy,
And a naughty boy was he,
He kept little fishes
In washing tubs three
In spite
Of the might
Of the maid
Nor afraid
Of his Granny-good –
He often would
Hurly burly
Get up early…

I can see Keats shoving that one away in a drawer and saying to himself ‘Thank God no one will ever see that baby!’.  And then along comes some damned fool and publishes it.

Another thing about Wodehouse’s life that was a delight to read was his genuine love and affection for his wife.  They married after only knowing each other a few weeks, and remained married for sixty years.  Throughout his letters, Wodehouse never has a negative word about his wife, and his letters to her are warm and touching.  His letters to her always begin with something like, “My darling angel Bunny whom I love so dear,” and frequently mention how lonely and empty the house is without her.  The letter he wrote to her on their 59th anniversary says,

Another anniversary!  Isn’t it wonderful to think that we have been married for 59 years and still love each other as much as ever except when I spill my tobacco on the floor, which I’ll never do again!

At the end of the day, this was a fantastic book.  There is so much information about Wodehouse as an individual, about his writing, about the history through which he lived, and more.  Ratcliffe’s biographical sections are very well done, providing the reader with plenty of background information and context.  I most definitely recommend this volume to those who love Wodehouse’s writings.  Despite the length of time it took me to read it, this book was genuinely engaging, and is one that I anticipate referencing whenever I read any Wodehouse books going forward.

 

A Curious Man

9780770436223

 

by Neal Thompson

published 2013

Subtitled The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley, this book was an entertaining, informative, and fascinating read.

So quite a while back I got an email telling me about a new book reviewing program called Blogging for Books.  I am always excited to get free books in exchange for my opinion (since free books and expressing my opinions are two of my favorite things), so I jumped right on the bandwagon.  When Tom and I were in the Key West back in February of 2011, we visited a Believe It or Not museum that was great fun, so this book grabbed my attention.  I love reading biographies of random people.  I mean, everyone reads about George Washington, but Robert Ripley??  New and exciting.

Unfortunately, this book arrived the same week we got possession of our new house – actually, it has the privilege of being the very first book I received at this house.  But that meant that I was immediately swept up into the madness of turning this place into something livable, and that was definitely a time-consuming task.  I’m notoriously slow at reading nonfiction even in the best of times, and I’m embarrassed at how long it’s taken me to work my way through this read.

Don’t be fooled by my slow pace – actually, this book was well-written and entertaining.  Thompson does an excellent job pacing the story of Ripley’s life.  I’m always frustrated by biographers who jump all over a person’s timeline, but Thompson manages to stick to a fairly linear tale.  Ripley, of course, makes an intrinsically fascinating subject, with a life full of madcap adventures, unusual travels, and wild ideas.

I only had  a few cons about this book, and they had more to do with personal preference.  For one, there were no chapter titles.  For a biography, it’s nice to have some kind of indication as to what point in the person’s life we are going to be talking about, and I missed having some kind of signpost along the way.  My second thought is that while there was a little section of photographs in the center of the book, it felt as thought here could definitely have been some more illustrations/pictures, preferably some of Ripley’s cartoons that Thompson was describing.  I don’t know if there were copyright issues or something that prevented that from happening, but for a biography about a cartoonist, it was sadly lacking in cartoons.

But those are finicky points just to prove that I actually read and was engaged in this book.  Overall, it flowed very well.  I appreciated Thompson’s ability to introduce characters and then reintroduce them later with just the amount of reminder background.  This was especially helpful since I was reading this book over several weeks’ time.

Another thing I also appreciated was that while Thompson did not attempt to deny or gloss over Ripley’s rather loose morals as concerns women, he didn’t make that the cornerstone of the book, either.  I’ve noticed a tendency among modern biographies to read more like a gossip magazine, spending copious amounts of time trying to determine an individual’s true sexual preferences, and explaining in detail the various affairs in which said individual found himself entangled.  Thompson strikes the balance of keeping with the facts as they are important to telling Ripley’s life-story as a whole, which was nice.

Thompson also manages to have a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor that I think even Ripley would have appreciated.  I got a particular chuckle out of this line –

[Ripley’s claim that Lindbergh wasn’t the first to fly across the Atlantic] sounded absurd, even anti-American, as some angrily claimed.  It was as if someone recklessly asserted that George Washington wasn’t the first president, that New Jersey wasn’t really a state, that Pluto wasn’t a planet.

I was also much entertained to come across other familiar names –

The show would air in prime time on Sunday nights, with Ripley as the host, assisted by a sidekick/bandleader named Ozzie Nelson and Nelson’s soon-to-be wife, the singer Harriet Hilliard.

As someone who grew up watching Ozzy & Harriet reruns, I never knew that they made their start with Ripley!

Another familiar name popped up a few pages later –

When a young Minnesota cartoonist noticed his dog’s propensity to eat broken glass and sewing needles, his first thought was Ripley.  The boy drew a picture of his dog Spike and mailed it to New York.  In early 1937, Ripley published the sketch inside a Believe It or Not panel with a caption explaining that C.F. Schultz’s dog “eats pins, screws, and razor blades.”

Charles F. Schulz, whose ill-mannered dog became the cartoon legend Snoopy, was just fourteen.

(And that’s what I mean about how it would have been nice to have some more cartoons – this would be a fun one to see.  I will say that there is a page at the beginning of the book encouraging me to download an app and then scan the photo pages and be able to see more photos…  except when I  buy a print book, I want to read the print book, and like to have all the material, you know, in print.)

In fact, Ripley was one of those people who seemed to know everyone.  His career spanned a time period that saw great changes in the entertainment industry – he started with cartoons in newspapers, but throughout his life he published books, ran radio programs, and eventually even had television shows.

I’ve noticed that frequently, when I’m studying something, I keep noticing that something popping up everywhere.  A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I were out adventuring.  We stopped in a small town about 30 miles from home, New Straitsville.  We’d been through town several times before and always seen a sign for “Robinson’s Cave.”  This particular day we stopped and checked it out.  Considered by many as the birthplace of the mining unions in this country, the cave itself isn’t much to look at (in southeastern Ohio, “caves” are usually more like gashes in the sandstone; our family calls them “cavishes”), but there are several informative signs explaining the history and importance of the location.  During the chaotic throes of several mining strikes, angry miners set coal carts on fire and rolled them into a mine.  This fire, started in the 1880’s, is still burning today underground (believe it or not!).  Off and on throughout the last 130 years, the fire has come closer to the surface; in the 1970’s it got so hot that one could literally fry eggs on the state route that runs through New Straitsville.  While reading the signs, I was quite pleased and entertained to come across Ripley.

007

 

Tom and I were especially entertained by the rifle in the picture above…  really, that’s still the attitude one finds in New Straitsvillians today.

At any rate, A Curious Man was well-written and engaging, telling the story of Ripley’s life in a easy-to-read and interesting manner.  I definitely recommend it if you are interested in Ripley himself, or, like me, random biographies are intriguing people.

Many thanks to Random Reads for providing this book free of charge; the only way in which this impacted my review was to make me feel quite guilty that it’s taken me so long to finish reading and reviewing it!

 

LeMay

001

by Barrett Tillman

Published 2007

In this biography from the Great Generals Series, we learn about the life of Curtis LeMay.  I was expecting this book to be an incredibly dull account of the general who bombed Japan during WWII, but it was actually a fascinating read about a man who did so much with his life that we were already through WWII within the first third of the book.

I was also gratified to learn that LeMay is an Ohio native.  Always good to find a fellow Ohioan out making history.  :-D

But in all seriousness, this was an interesting book, if nothing else than for LeMay’s opinions on defense and nuclear weapons.  He was a strong and uncompromising man who determined what he believed to be the best course of action and then followed it.  While not everyone may agree with his views, one cannot help but admire his intelligent determination.

Eisenhower

002

by John Wukovits

Published 2006

This is another book from the Great General Series, following the life of Eisenhower.  It was rather interesting to read a book that focused on his military career rather than his presidency.  The book was well organized, concisely written, and was interesting to read, even from a completely non-military perspective like my own.

MacArthur

004

by Richard B. Frank

Published 2007

So, I’ve recently read several books in this Great Generals Series.  I like the layout of the books, and they have just about the right amount of detail for me; I like to know about people’s lives but don’t always need a 600+ page dissertation.

MacArthur’s life and personality made for an interesting read, and Frank’s writing was easy to follow.  However, the entire final chapter of the book was devoted to how MacArthur would have viewed all major foreign policy since his death.  And it wasn’t even couched in terms of “perhaps MacArthur would have…”  Nope, the author would say things like, “MacArthur would most certainly have disagree with the handling of…” and it just really annoyed me that this random dude thinks that he has the right to make MacArthur’s decisions for him.

Anyway.  Otherwise a good read.