Friday, December 30, 2005

Book recommendations from 2005

These are some of my books reviews and recommendations from 2005.

The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives: An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History, by Alan Turner. The illustrations by Mauricio Anton are incredible (if sometimes gruesome). The text was a bit too technical to hold my interest, but maybe that's just me. Published in 1997 by Columbia University Press.

Birds of Oregon Field Guide, by Stan Tekiela. If you don't like the usual field guides, you might try this one, which has birds categorized by color instead of type.

The Bronze Horseman: Falconet’s Monument to Peter the Great, by Alexander M. Schenker. A serious historical work, more than 400 pages long including 50 pages of notes, 15 of bibliography, etc., but overall reads well: smooth, interesting, thick with facts without being bogged down in facts. The book covers the political intrigues, personalities, feuds, friendships, engineering, technology, art vogues, and more, related to the building of the famous equestrian statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. This book is in the same vein as Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King (see below), but (fair warning) is priced much higher.

Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, by Ross King. Although this book is about architecture, it is also about life and politics and scandals and innovation and ingenuity and legislation and monopolies and class and warfare of Florence of the 1400s. Think David McCullough type history books. It's not quite the same, Mr. King having his own style, but it's similar. You get the big, broad picture, with context. This book is as lively as a good novel, with lots of history and science and technology, too.

Cardinal Tetras by Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod. From the cover, it looks like a standard 'how to take care of your pet' book from T.F.H. Publications, which does a lot of pet care books. But it's more like a 'real-life Indiana Jones-type goes into Brazil in hopes of breaking a monopoly on fish imports into the United States' book. True-life adventure. Travel. Memoirs. A little science. Some history. Stories about early attempts to raise and breed cardinal tetras in captivity. Copyright 1980, but some of the adventures are in the 1950s. A bit of this and a bit of that, loosely mixed, a hodgepodge, really. But not what it looks like from the outside.

China Doctor of John Day, by Jeffrey Barlow and Christine Richardson. Herbalist Ing Hay was a legend in his own time, and he and storekeeper Lung On of the Kam Wah Chung & Co. remain two of the most beloved historical figures in my neck of the woods (central/eastern Oregon). This book is the only book I know that tells Ing Hay's story.

Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn, by Larry Colton. Not my cup of tea at all, but an eye-opener. Reminded me of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Nonfiction. A hard slog in places, and with language and content issues. But interesting, and different.

Dear Mad'm, by Stella Walthal Patterson. Relates the adventures and misadventures of a delightful lady who decided - at the age of 80, mind you - to go off by herself and manage a placer mine in the north California mountains for a year. From the 1950s, but still in print, and still a kick.

The Electra Story: Aviation's Greatest Mystery, by Robert J. Serling. Also published as The Electra Story: The Dramatic History of Aviation's Most Controversial Airliner. Out of print and usually hard to find, but a compelling read if you can find a copy you can afford. Nonfiction. The Lockheed Electra airliner was a pilot's dream to fly - but in late 1959 and again in early 1960, an Electra went down. In both cases, investigators concluded that a wing (or two) had snapped off in flight. Answers had to be found, and fast.

Father and the Angels, by William Manners. I wish someone would put this memoir back in print. There's no reason I should like a book about the boxer son of an orthodox rabbi in Ohio - except that it's a wonderful book, wise and funny, refusing to fit stereotypes. I read the abridged version, published by Scholastic in 1966. The original was published in 1947.

The Generous Years: Remembrances of a frontier boyhood, by Chet Huntley. Not what I expected from the famous news anchorman. An interesting read.

Hard Bargain: How FDR Twisted Churchill's Arm, Evaded the Law, and Changed the Role of the American Presidency, by Robert Shogan. From the title, I was expecting more slant, but up until the last chapter it's a pretty straightforward, well-documented look at history as it unfolded rather than any sort of advocacy book. FDR is neither demonized nor put on a pedestal, but treated as a working politician, weighing one goal against another, principle against expediency. It's a good read, but not a fast one. I'd recommend it for history buffs, WW II military buffs, and anybody trying to get a handle on how the United States government morphed into its present shape and size. Lots of endnotes, extensive bibliography.

Haunted by A Paintbrush: A True Story, by Al Price with Margaret Friskey. Inspiring, different children's book about the life of a Chicago artist who might have had his career ended with an injury to his right hand - but who came back better than before after learning to paint left-handed. Nonfiction. 1968.

How to Wrap 5 Eggs: Japanese Design in Traditional Packaging, by Hideyuki Oka, 1967. An interesting book to look at, but also a good one to watch for at yard sales and thrift stores if you're into treasure hunting. Twice now I've been able to sell a used copy of this book for more than $100. Copies in really good condition sometimes sell for $500 or more. The sequel, How to Wrap 5 More Eggs, is also collectible, but the prices aren't quite as high. Unique, fun, informative, with a catchy title and good resale potential - what's not to like?

I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven. Some people dismiss this book as simplistic and naive and maudlin. I prefer to think of it as only deceptively simple.

"In God We Trust": The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, by Norman Cousins. Nonfiction. Cousins provides some background and commentary, but he mostly lets Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Jay and Thomas Paine speak for themselves via pertinent material from relevant letters, diary entries and official papers. From 1958.

In the Teeth of the Evidence, by Dorothy Sayers. Short stories, originally published 1940. Two Lord Peter Wimsey short stories, five Montague Egg stories, and ten "other" stories.

Jim the Boy, by Tony Earley, 2000. Recommended, even for those who have become wary of contemporary fiction. It feels pre-PC.

John and Tom, by Willem Lange. This wonderfully illustrated children's book tells the true story of a remarkable Morgan horse named Tom, who rescued a young man pinned by a fallen tree in the winter-cold woods of Vermont. Illustrated by Bert Dodson.

Litigation as Spiritual Practice, by George J. Felos. This falls under the "know thy enemy" category. Strange and disturbing. Written by the lawyer who headed the campaign to kill Terri Schiavo. In this book, he tells of his sometimes desperate search for spiritual meaning and how he found it in 'helping' people 'die with dignity'.

Maudie in the Middle by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Lura Schield Reynolds. Children's fiction based upon Mrs. Reynold's childhood in the early 1900s. Eight-year-old Maudie is secretly campaigning to be named her aunt's godchild, and is, without telling anyone what she's up to, trying to be perfect in Aunt Sylvie's presence. It's not possible, of course, for any child to be perfect, and Maudie has a knack for getting into trouble, despite her repeated attempts to be as good as she possibly can be. Has some wonderful descriptions of life on an Iowa farm a hundred years ago.

More Poem Portraits by James J. Metcalfe (1951). Light verse, in a distinctive style, about everyday life, with great attitudes, terrific rhythm, normal people, humor, longing, faith, love. Pleasant. Witty. Upbeat. (I found it to be a great book for reading in the hospital...)

Mrs. Jeffries mysteries, by Emily Brightwell. A fun, clean, Victorian 'British cozy' mystery series.

No Entry, by Manning Coles. This novel, c. 1958, features trips back and forth between East and West Germany, and puts across the differences in the lives of the people under the different regimes. This sobering message, however, doesn't get in the way of the adventure. Never fear, when British agent Tommy Hambledon is on a case unusual circumstances are almost sure to follow, not to mention lots of action.

The Ordinary Princess, by M. M. Kaye. M.M. Kaye, known for sweeping historical novels like The Far Pavilions and Shadow of the Moon, and for her mystery/romantic suspense books (Death in Zanzibar, Death in Kenya, Death in Cypress, Death in Kashmir, Death in Berlin, etc., etc.), also, once upon a time, sat down under an apple tree in Kent and, fed up with fairy tales that featured only gorgeous princesses, wrote a small gem. Usually marketed to young girls, but witty enough for adults to enjoy.

Penguin English Dictionary, 2nd Edition. This one covers Australian, British, Canadian, North American, Northern English, New Zealand, South African, and Scottish contributions to the language, plus a few key archaic words and phrases, in addition to the worldwide or more standard words and phrases. Bless their hearts; they include phrases. And word histories. I sometimes just browse inside for the fun of it.

Prairie Cooks: Glorified Rice, Three-Day Buns, and Other Recipes and Reminiscences, by Carrie Young and Felicia Young. For those who like their recipes served up with memories (or their memories served up with recipes ;-), Carrie Young writes of her childhood on a farm in western North Dakota "before, during, and after the Dust Bowl."

Prehistoric Mammals Coloring Book by Jan Sovak. It shows over 40 species, from rodent to whale, gopher to woolly mammoth, saber-tooth to Irish elk. Animals are shown in habitats, doing things. Admittedly there are more bared fangs and life-and-death battles than in your general coloring book, but it's not gory.

The Privateer, by Josephine Tey. One of my favorite books by this author, and not at all in her usual line. Historical fiction, about the life and times of Henry Morgan (1635-1688), who helped push Spain out of key portions of its American empire. Like in The Daughter of Time, the author looks at history, and puts her own stamp on it, convincingly. If you avoid historical fiction like the plague because of the strange use of the language, you'll appreciate Tey's approach here. As she said in the Author's Note: "If the characters in the story did not sound quaint to each other, then they have no right to sound quaint to us." Minor warning: there's no gratuitous bad stuff, but this is a violent time period and privateers we're talking about, and the author doesn't make ugly stuff pretty.

Roman Hasford, by Douglas C. Jones. I didn't read this. But a man whose opinion I value said he didn't think I'd like it but it was the best book he'd read in a long time (and he reads a lot). Also published under the title Roman. Winner of the Spur Award for Best Historical Novel in 1987.

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. Lewis does a masterful job of skewering people who build facades of either righteousness or sophistication. On its surface it's a simple story: Screwtape, the experienced devil, has his work cut out for him trying to explain to apprentice devil Wormwood how on Earth to corrupt people. It's what runs under the surface that can get so interesting. Originally published 1941. For a semi-related post, see Meghan Cox Gurdon: Screwtape Revisited.

A Shelter Sketchbook, by John S. Taylor. A fun book, as well as instructive. Taylor studied regional, and sometimes ancient, building features designed to handle local conditions - natural air conditioning systems in the Middle East, passive solar designs of Pueblo Indians, etc., and presents them in sketches.

Study in Sisu: Finland's Fight For Independence, by Austin Goodrich. This 1960 book is out of print, and of course history has veered a little since it was written, but it's a great reminder that more than once in the past when the Finns were up against overwhelming odds, enough of them mustered the deep strength they needed to fight back hard enough and smart enough and long enough to win.

The Third Life of Per Smevik, by Ole Rolvaag. Fiction, but based on Rolvaag's own experiences as a young immigrant to America. Originally written under a pen name because he thought it was too personal. I reread this one every few years, just because.

A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison. This 1972 novel was marketed as science fiction, which it is - which is to say that much of it is based on solid science, with mind-stretching guesses about the possibilities of technology. But it's also an alternate history book and a rip-roaring adventure book, with very funny jabs at popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s, but with sad and solemn places, too. And there's a romance woven in as well, from the guy's point of view. Quirky, unusual, fun, albeit with wild and abrupt changes of pace and style. It's an odd book, but I've put a copy aside to re-read in a year or two, just for the fun of it (and also because it seems like the type of book where you could miss stuff the first go-round). Fair warning: my copy, a Tor paperback, second printing, has too many typos for comfortable reading. (Grrrr.) Also published as Tunnel Through the Deeps.

Turncoats, Traitors and Heroes: Espionage in the American Revolution, by John Bakeless, c. 1959. I haven't read this book, but did read Spies of the Revolution by Katherine and John Bakeless, Scholastic, 1966. It's aimed at school-age kids, and is based on Turncoats, Traitors and Heroes. I read Spies of the Revolution several years ago and haven't seen the early days of our country in the same light since. Interesting stuff. I expect the book for grown-ups would be even more interesting. At a guess.

Washington Goes to War, by David Brinkley. Nonfiction. Funny, sad, eye-opening, well worth a read, especially if you're tired of the historically-challenged utopians who are just sure that government during World War II ran like clockwork compared to today.

Why Buildings Stand Up: The Strength of Architecture, by Mario Salvadori. A good overview for laymen.

The Yellow Coach, by Elisabeth Kyle, 1976. Juvenile historical fiction, set in France during the Revolution. A servant girl at a remote country inn and her friend Jacques try to help King Louis, Marie Antoinette, and their two children sneak out of France. Somewhat poignant book - the servant is the same age as the royal daughter, and is afraid the girl so like herself will be guillotined if caught.

Yorkie Doodle Dandy: A Memoir: Or the Other Woman Was a Real Dog, by William A. Wynne. Self-published, with some of the problems commonly found in homegrown books, but a wonderful story. It's about a Yorkshire Terrier found in New Guinea during World War II who went on to an entertainment career in the United States. During the war, Smoky was put to work - everything from helping set up an air base to entertaining troops - and also flew along on photo recon missions. Nonfiction.

Your Teens and Your Teens and Mine, by Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Ferris. A combination memoir and self-help/advice book for teenage girls which covers such things as being afraid, gaining self-confidence, getting along with people, being one of a family, learning to think, going steady, exploring in books, being a citizen, getting the most out of travel, getting married, and more, with points illustrated by events and lessons from the former first lady's life.

You Shall Know Them, by Vercors. Vercors, more famous for publishing things during World War II that made the Nazis unhappy, set his sights in this book on the insanity of the mid-twentieth-century debates about whether black people were as fully human as white people. So he illustrated absurdity with absurdity. Suffice it to say Vercors wrote a murder mystery in which the murderer happily confesses but the mystery that must be solved is whether the victim is human or animal. A good read as well as a dead-on social satire. My copy is a 1953 English translation. Originally published in French as Les animaux denatures. Also published as The Murder of the Missing Link.

The Zimmermann Telegram, by Barbara W. Tuchman. Nonfiction. A wonderfully detailed account of the high-stakes showdown and war of nerves after Britain discovered, during World War I, that Germany was trying to arrange for Mexico and Japan to attack the United States, to keep the U.S. on its side of the Atlantic. From 1958.


lin said...

If you are looking for another book to read, I have one that I recommend highly.

The book is titled "The Fall of Lucifer", written by Wendy Alec.

The book opens with the three Angelic brothers, Lucifer, Michael and Gabriel, in heaven before the fall. Over the course of the book, the essence of the angels is developed. The controversy arises when God created man to be higher than the angels, in that we are created in the image of God. Lucifer was embittered to the point of rebellion.

Various historical events are incorporated, and the plot offers the perspective of an angel into the events. The novel develops the beauty of heaven and the grotesque quality of hell, the depths of evil, and the beauty of grace. It communicates these themes through beautiful imagery and an intriguing plot. The beautiful imagery would make for amazing scenery!

This is a fast read, 300-page novel that is consuming to the imagination and penetrating to the heart. I hope they make this book into a movie. It would be amazing. If you have time, I hope you enjoy it!

Kathryn Judson said...

lin, Thanks! I hadn't heard about that one.