Saturday, July 30, 2016

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase

  • THE BOOK
    • Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase
    • Published February 9, 2016
    • First novel of the author

  • THE PREMISE
    • Black Rabbit Hall is the country home, located in Cornwall, owned by the Alton family. 
    • It opens in the summer 1968 with the four children --- Amber and Toby, both 15, Barney, 6, and Kitty, 3 --- spending summer at the house with their parents.
    • A death occurs early on and everything changes, especially the following summer.
    • Meanwhile, 30 years later, Lorna wants to find a spot for her wedding and seems drawn to Black Rabbit Hall. Why?

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I enjoyed the novel and, even though I had part of the story figured out early on, I was not sure how it would come to be until the end.
    • A (brief) portrayal of idyllic family life in Cornwall? Another of my reading pleasures so this book appealed to me immediately.
    • My only real quibble was that some of the actions of the brother Toby were glossed over. He performs a few actions that would have him hauled into a therapist's office in 2016 but would have been discreetly ignored in 1968/1969 so it's not implausible.
    • The ending was satisfying.
    • Recommended for readers who enjoy mysteries and/or stories that take place in Cornwall.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

  • THE BOOK
    • Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
    • Published March 22, 2016
    • Other works by the author: series of Timothy Wilde mysteries, The Gospel of Sheba, and Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson

  • THE PREMISE
    • Jane Steele is the main character who loves Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Her first person narrative is sort of Jane Eyre redux but with a twist: Jane Steele has killed people.
    • The story takes place in the 1850s and 1860s of England.
    • She has an awful aunt, goes to an awful boarding school, and then lives an awful life until she gets a job as a governess to a Mr. Thornfield.
    • You don't need to know the storyline of Jane Eyre to "get" this story. It helps if one does --- though the main character notes the parallels --- but also takes one out of the book. 
      • Example: An early line (on page 1) is "Reader, I murdered him."
        • For the non-Jane Eyre readers, there is a line in that book, "Reader, I married him."
      • And yet, Jane Steele isn't an evil person. The first "murder" is accidental even though she doesn't see it that way. She is not a serial killer let loose on Victorian England.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I love Jane Eyre so this was a cute touch but the story could probably have stood on its own.
    • It's not a send-up or a straight ripoff of Jane Eyre. In some ways it is kind of a mystery, which makes sense as the author is a mystery writer.
    • Boarding school setting for a portion of the book! Who doesn't love a good boarding school segment?
    • Recommended for readers who like Jane Eyre, Victorian era fiction that has a modern feel, and/or mysteries. Young adult readers would probably enjoy this better than Jane Eyre!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

  • THE BOOK
    • All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
    • Published January 26, 2016
    • Other works by the author include: The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick, Six Months Three Days, Choir Boy and many more.

  • THE PREMISE
    • Two middle schoolers, both outcasts for different reasons, come together and form a friendship. Patricia loves nature and develops magical powers while Laurence is a mechanical genius, building a two-second time machine and a super-computer, all before they turn 14.
    • They are separated just before high school and reunite 10 years later while living in San Francisco. Patricia has graduated from her magical school and Laurence works for a billionaire genius who plans to save humanity by sending some of them to a new planet.
    • The magical and the technological forces are opposing and therein lies the tale.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I hadn't heard of the author but I kept seeing the cover on Amazon's book page and it intrigued me. Birds fly all over the title.
      • I would add a picture but Blogger has decided that adding photos is not possible, apparently, unless you use the Google Chrome browser (Blogger is a Google product). No, I'm not irritated by this. NOT ONE LITTLE BIT. Guh.
      • Dammit! You win, Google!
    • This was a little science fiction mixed with a little magic story. You really get to know the characters as kids before the story moves on to the adult years. I didn't understand why all the school kids treated them so poorly; it felt like such extreme bullying. I assume that this kind of bullying really does exist though. I was just lucky enough to have never experience it and I was nice enough to have never dished it out.
    • I would love to see more about the magical school. It really isn't the point of the book but it had some great attributes and so many people are suckers for boarding school stories --- magical or otherwise --- me included.
    • I am not sure if there will be a sequel. The story ends such that it may or may not require one.
    • Recommended for people who like a little magic with their science fiction and probably for a younger audience than a woman in her 50s. I really liked it though, despite my non-youth.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Miss Spitfire by Sarah Miller

  • THE BOOK
    • Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller by Sarah Miller
    • Published July 10, 2007
    • Other books by the author: The Lost Crown (the lives of the Russian Romanov daughters) and The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century (see my review here)

  • THE PREMISE
    • This is a book aimed at junior high age readers.
    • The story follows Annie Sullivan as she heads to Alabama for the fateful meeting and breakthrough teaching the deaf and blind Helen Keller. In other words, it's a version of "The Miracle Worker" made accessible (no pun intended) for a new generation.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • First off, I was in a production of "The Miracle Worker" in 1979. I played a blind girl (but not THE blind girl). A group of us give Annie Sullivan a doll as a gift for Helen. 
      • My (ONLY) line was something like this: "We hear you're going where the sun is FIERCE."
      •  Look at me! As far as I know, this is the only picture of me from that production. I made all the pinafore aprons for the cast too! The two people in front are the actor who played Helen's father and our drama teacher taking curtain calls. The actress who played Helen is to the right holding the big bouquet. (Little blind girls with one line don't get diddly squat.)
    • Helen Keller died when I was 6 years old and the play and film of "The Miracle Worker" came out in 1959 and 1962, respectively. Both Anne Bancroft (who played Annie) and Patty Duke (who played Helen) were still very active performers until their deaths, Bancroft in 2005 and Duke this year.
      • The point is, Helen Keller was a real person to us growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. I'm not even sure my son, who's 23, even knows who she is, much less anything about Bancroft or Duke.
        • Yep, just quizzed him: he knew that Helen was deaf and blind but he hadn't a clue about anything else. Nor did he know who Bancroft and Duke were. (I think I need to tell him that Patty Duke's son was Sam in the "Lord of the Rings" movies.)
      • This book does a great job introducing a new audience to the lives of Annie and Helen and encourages those who are interested to learn more about them.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

  • THE BOOK
    • Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
    • Published July 1, 2016
    • Other books by author: Why? Because We Still Like You: An Oral History of the Mickey Mouse Club and Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic

  • THE PREMISE
    • This is a behind-the-scenes look at how the TV show "Seinfeld" came to be and how it impacted culture. It's also about how it's still impacting culture more than 15 years after it finished its run on network TV.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I have read more than a handful of books about various TV shows and they almost all promise to be the "definitive" book on the subject. Spoiler alert: very few are truly definitive.
    • My definition of a definitive book about a TV show would include:
      • Interviews with all the surviving cast members, writers and creators
      • An episode list with plotlines & trivia about each one
      • A character and actor list
      • The narrative of how it all came to be
    • This book has only the last item on that list. That doesn't mean it's bad, just that it's in no way definitive.
    • There are no fresh interviews with Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Michael Richards (I would have to assume that this was not for lack of trying.)
    • Instead you get fresh interviews with several of the writers, the real Joe Davola, the real J. Peterman, Kenny Kramer, Larry Thomas (he played the Soup Nazi), and the like.
    • It is interesting to read how the writers mined their own lives for stories and plot points but that's basically the whole thing, chapter after chapter, as the seasons progress.
      • Apparently they changed writers almost every season to always have fresh new incidents to mine for story purposes.
    • It is essential reading for the completist but not for the casual fan. Otherwise you're better off just watching the episodes again.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Neither Snow Nor Rain by Devin Leonard

  • THE BOOK
    • Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service by Devin Leonard
    • Published May 3, 2016
    • First book by the author.

  • THE PREMISE
    • Starting in the 1700s, this is the history of our country's postal service with all the glories and the hiccups that entails.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • My grandfather worked for the USPS for many years, including a stint in the U.S. Navy as a postal clerk during World War II. He was in his late 30s at the time and my mother had memories of traveling to San Francisco to visit her dad with her mom and brothers in 1945.
    • The post office processes billions of pieces of mail for a reasonably inexpensive charge. For just 47 cents you can have a letter delivered in about 1-3 days anywhere in the United States. That seems kind of remarkable if you really think about it.
    • As the history moves through time you also learn about the other ways parcels are delivered (Fedex, Pony Express, DHL, etc...) and how those companies filled a niche.
    • New technologies were used by the Postal Service and the chapter about the use of airplanes in the 1910s was very interesting. It was not a safe job in those days.
    • Management positions used to be given on the basis of which party was in office at any given time. Republicans came in and you got all new bosses as a reward for their support during campaigns. Then the Democrats came in and it was their turn to hand out plum positions. The rank-and-file employees were basically the same group.
    • Stamp collecting was very popular and got a boost because Franklin Roosevelt was a collector too.
    • You used to be able to have savings accounts at the post office! This stopped in the 1960s but there is talk of bringing them back at some point.
    • The book is quite interesting but had one egregious error: that "Cheers" a TV comedy that featured a mailman character (Cliff Clavin) was on CBS. It was on NBC. The other mailman character on NBC was Newman on "Seinfeld". 
    • "Going postal" is still shorthand for a workplace shooting due to several major incidents beginning in the 1980s.
    • Sorry, there are just so many fun little facts and stories in this book. Recommended for those who like U.S. history.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Look, I Made a Hat by Stephen Sondheim

  • THE BOOK
    • Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics, 1981-2011, with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany by Stephen Sondheim
    • Published November 22, 2011
    • Other book by the author: Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics, 1954-1981, with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes

  • THE PREMISE
    • The lyrics and details cover the musical plays Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins and more.
    • Stephen Sondheim has been a composer and lyricists since the 1950s and had written several classic musicals. They are all included in his two books. I read the first book a few years back and finally picked this one up after watching the movie "Into the Woods" last month.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I haven't seen all of Sondheim's works but I have seen versions of Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, and Company
    • As I said I had just watched the movie of "Into the Woods" so I thought it would be a good time to start delving into the lyrics. It is not easy reading lyrics when you don't necessarily know the music and the dialogue is not included in the books so it's not always easy to follow the stories.
    • For the record, "Into the Woods" was kind of weird. The first half was cute and a a clever take on getting fairy tale characters their happy endings. Then comes part 2 and whoo boy! Then everyone gets an unhappy ending. Talk about depressing!
      • This doesn't make it bad --- it was entertaining --- just different from what I expected as I went in with no notion of the plot. The cast was good, the best being Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt.
    • As an assassin buff I would like to see a version of that musical someday.
    • Recommended for those who have an interest in Sondheim and musical theater.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Borden Murders by Sarah Miller

  • THE BOOK
    • The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century by Sarah Miller
    • Published January 12, 2016
    • Other works by the author: Miss Spitfire (about Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller's teacher) and The Lost Crown (about the 4 daughters of Czar Nicholas II). She has an upcoming work on the Dionne Quintuplets due in 2018.

  • THE PREMISE
    • The trial of the 19th Century has to be the Lizzie Borden case. She was accused (and acquitted) of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe. 
    • "Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done she gave her father 41." I knew this bit of doggerel from the schoolyard and it was a few years before I knew anything more about the real case. 
      • When I was a kid in 1975 there was a TV movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery (whom I adored; she died too soon) called "The Legend of Lizzie Borden". I am almost positive that this is where I learned about the crime. It included a shocking possibility: that Lizzie might have committed the crimes while NAKED. (Remember, this was a TV movie in 1975!) That's how she avoided getting blood all over herself.
      • As the author points out, almost everything about the poem is wrong. It was a hatchet, not an axe (yes, most of us wouldn't know the difference between an axe or a hatchet but people in the 1890s would have). It wasn't her mother but her stepmother and she got 18 or 19 whacks while the father got 11. And it may or may not have been Lizzie who did it.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • Interestingly, this particular book is aimed at the middle school age market! It is pretty thorough in the details and is not written in a juvenile way so adults will enjoy it too. (Sadly, in our world, worse things happen on the TV news and in video games so kids of today won't be shocked overall.)
    • Interesting that the "crime of the century" took place in the 1890s while our generation's "crime of the century" (O.J. Simpson) took place in the 1990s and both ended in acquittals.
    • Recommended for fans of true crime books.
    • I think I will read the author's other books too. I played a little blind girl in my high school's production of "The Miracle Worker" (I had ONE line early on in the play but I made some of the costumes!) so I have always been interested in Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller. And the Romanov dynasty is one of my favorite historical subjects. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Run of His Life by Jeffrey Toobin

  • THE BOOK
    • The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin
    • Published September 1996
    • Other works by the author: he writes for The New Yorker magazine and works as a political analyst on CNN. 

  • THE PREMISE
    • This is a legal journalist's account of the O.J. Simpson trial which Toobin attended as it happened in 1994 and 1995.
    • It basically covers the participants in the trial, the evidence, and the media storm that ensued.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I recently watched the ABC/ESPN 5-part documentary called "O.J.: Made in America", covering everything from his beginnings to his current stint in prison.
      • What was fascinating about the documentary and book was how well each explained the long time institutional racism that led to the "not guilty" verdict. After decades of abuses at the hands of the LAPD the African-American community rallied behind "their own" and let him escape conviction for two brutal murders.
      • As a celebrity, especially a sports star, he actually received special treatment from the LAPD unlike non-famous black men.
      • The problem was this: O.J. didn't deserve it. He was famously quoted, "I'm not black; I'm O.J.!"
    • This book was also the basis for the recent TV show "American Crime Story" (which I did not watch).
    • The book has a definite point of view: Simpson obviously did it. So if you feel he is guilty of murder then you will read the book and shake your head in disgust. If you believe he was not guilty then you might not agree with most of the book.
    • I came away so sorry for the victims, Nicole and Ron.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Masked (all about The King & I) by Alfred Habegger

  • THE BOOK
    • Masked: The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the Court of Siam by Alfred Habegger
    • Published June 30, 2014
    • Other works by the author, an English professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, include The Life of Emily Dickinson and several books about Henry James

  • THE PREMISE
    • Anna Leonowens was the real person whose life inspired the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical "The King and I".
      • She taught English to the King's children in 1860s Siam (now Thailand) and wrote a couple of memoirs about the experience that were popular in the 1870s.
      • In the 1930s a woman named Margaret Landon wrote a book about Anna Leonowens called Anna and the King of Siam. This was the basis for the 1946 Irene Dunne/Rex Harrison film and then the Broadway musical "The King and I".
    • The problem is this: Anna Leonowens did not tell her story factually. She lied, exaggerated, plagiarized and embellished her tales. Why?
      • Anna Leonowens was NOT the proper British lady as portrayed by Deborah Kerr. She was of Anglo-Indian descent, a fact she hid from everyone, including her own children. Her paternal grandmother was an Indian woman. In the 19th Century this mixed parentage was considered shameful. It also kept people from rising beyond a certain point in their careers or in society. Anna Leonowens would not have been acceptable in English society had they known of her mixed heritage.
        • In fact, she never lived in England, only passed through on her way to Ireland and then North America after her Siamese adventure. She was born in India and was 1/4 Indian.
        • The book quotes several people who commented on Anna's "tanned" skin, assuming it was a remnant of her time in Southeast Asia. She completely cut of contact with her family once she married because they would expose her efforts to pass as white.
      • She made the King of Siam seem a barbarian fool, when he was an enlightened man for his time, having been a Buddhist monk for over 25 years before he became king. He was also in his late 50s when she went to Siam, considered elderly at the time. (In other words, NOTHING like Yul Brynner.)
        • He did have a harem of wives and concubines and this was something Anna, with her staunch missionary-taught Protestantism, loathed.
        • Anna wrote of the concubine Tuptim who escaped the palace and was burned to death in front of Anna's house. It never happened!
      • Anna portrayed herself as the person who influenced the crown prince to abolish slavery in Siam (which was quite different from slavery in America, almost closer to indentured servitude in most cases). She actually had nothing to do with it.
        • Siam is the ONLY country in Southeast Asia that was not colonized by the superpowers of the time. Britain had Burma, Singapore and Hong Kong, the Dutch had Indonesia, and the French had Cambodia and Vietnam. (That all worked out well.)
      • When Margaret Landon wrote her book she used Anna's information as her primary source which is why the history of Anna and the King of Siam is still wrong in all its particulars. 

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • This book, though a little dry in places, is very detailed in its research and its debunking of several myths that have been immortalized in the musical version of the story.
    • It was fascinating that this poor woman, who was part "native" and widowed young (and only two of her four children survived childhood), felt the need to lie and hide her past for fear of discovery and probable resulting ostracism. You can hardly blame her for wanting a better life for herself and her children than society allowed.
    • I recently watched "The King and I" for the first time. In the second half was a "ballet" typical for the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. This ballet was a Siamese take of Uncle Tom's Cabin! It was called "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" and narrated by the unhappy concubine Tuptim (played by a very young Rita Moreno!). The music and dance styles happen to be more pan-Asian than specifically Siamese or Thai but it is stunningly beautiful to watch.
      • Before I watched the movie all I knew of the story was that she was the English teacher who danced in the huge hoop skirts with King Yul Brynner. I knew the songs "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance" and that the king liked to say "et cetera, et cetera, et cetera".
      • And then here comes the practically out-of-nowhere ballet of Uncle Tom's Cabin! Totally batshit crazy! 
        • But then Rodgers & Hammerstein also created a tender musical about spousal abuse with this line: "It is possible dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all." GAG! 
        • And when they made Maria Von Trapp's story into a musical they thought, "Nuns vs. Nazis! Yes!"
    • Anyway, when I went to read about the story behind the movie musical I found this book and my library had it! Highly recommended to those with an interest in Asian history and the story behind the musical of "The King & I". 
    • Now I need to keep an eye out for the Irene Dunne/Rex Harrison/Linda Darnell (non-musical) version!