Book Review: Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald


Author: Lisa Grunwald 
Title: Time After Time
Narrator: Erin Bennett
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This charming historical romance takes place in the 1930s and 1940s, primarily in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.  The adventurous 23-year-old flapper girl Nora and a hardworking railroad employee, Joe, who is a decade her senior, meet at Grand Central in 1937 and fall in love.  The only problem is that Nora is dead.  Killed in a subway crash in 1925, Nora returns every year on the anniversary of her death to Grand Central.  With Joe’s help, Nora learns that she can maintain her bodily form only if she stays within 900 feet of the terminal.

Thus begins a strange romance, where the couple try to make a normal life, taking advantage all of the things a mid-century railroad terminal provides.  This includes the Biltmore Hotel, where the couple lives in hotel rooms, work for Nora, and even an education for Nora at the Grand Central Academy of Art!  There are problems, of courses, mainly that Joe can never bring Nora to Queens to visit his family and that Nora remains forever young while Joe continues to age.  It’s a clever and sweet narrative and it has a twist ending that I enjoyed.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen


Author: James W. Loewen
Title: Lies My Teacher Told Me
Narrator: L.J. Ganser
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 2019 [Originally published in 1994]
Other Books Read by the Same Author: Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong
Summary/Review:

This book is an expose on why high school students hate history and why Americans in general are ignorant of the historical facts of the United States.  With the teaching of American history once again being challenged as “woke” and more ridiculously as “critical race theory” I thought it was a good time to revisit this book.  Despite the title, this book is not an attack on teachers but on history textbooks which Lowen describes in detail as containing many inaccuracies and irrelevant details, as well as a boring writing style.

I have to note that when I was in middle school and high school, far from being bored, I was obsessed with history.  I was privileged to have teachers who somehow dodged many of the pitfalls of American history teaching as well as the proclivity to learn a lot on my own through reading, watching documentaries, and visiting historic sites. I read the first edition way back when it came out in the mid 90s and remember it being mostly debunking the false histories propagated in several prominent history textbooks.  On this reading I found it was less about debunking and more about why history isn’t taught in a way that allows for critical thinking.

The original edition evaluated a dozen textbooks, while the 2004 second edition revisited some of those books as well as 6 new textbooks.  This third and final edition was identical to the third edition but with a new introduction that pretty much noted that little progress had been made.  The problem with history teaching isn’t simple as one might imagine, and while fingers can be pointed at right wing politicians and parents for objecting to teaching warts and all history, they are just part of many complex and overlapping hindrances.  From publishers who appeal to the lowest denominator to sell the most books to the authors whose names are on the cover having little to nothing to do with the books (and the ghost writers who do write the book having very little knowledge of the history), there’s plenty of blame to go around.

As someone who loves history and thinks that kids should love studying as much as I did and gain the sense of perspective that critical thinking of history provides, I find this is an important book and highly recommend reading it.

Favorite Passages:

When confronting a claim about the distant past or a statement about what happened yesterday, students—indeed, all Americans—need to develop informed skepticism, not nihilistic cynicism.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein


Author: Elizabeth Wein
Title: The Pearl Thief
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Los Angeles : Hyperion, 2017.
Summary/Review:

Part of the cycle of loosely-tied together novels about women during World War II, The Pearl Thief acts as a prequel to Code Name Verity.  The novel’s protagonist is Julie Beaufort-Stuart, the Scottish aristocrat who is one of the two main characters of the earlier novel, and is set one year prior to the war when she is just 15.  She returns home her family estate from boarding school to find herself embroiled in a mystery regarding the disappearance of a scholar working with artifacts recovered from their property.

Julie is a great character, impulsive and bold that make her stand out among the staid expectations of her time and class.  Much of the novel explores her new friendship with the siblings Ellen and Euan McEwen, who are members of Highland Travellers’ community that camp nearby.  The trio get into many adventures, and they encounter much prejudice against the Travelers (which Julie attempts to shield with her privilege). The book also explores Julie’s romantic attraction to Ellen and to an older man named Richard revealing her burgeoning sexuality (and hooray for bisexual representation!).

This is the first book by Elizabeth Wein that I don’t love, but it is a great character study even if I found the narrative to be a bit slight.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Pirates of the Carribean by Jason Surrell


Author: Jason Surrell
Title: Pirates of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies
Publication Info: Disney Editions (2005)
Summary/Review:

Pirates of the Caribbean is one of my all-time favorite Disney attractions so it was a lot of fun to get a behind the scenes perspective on the history of the ride.  Surrell, who was a Disney imagineer at the time of writing, digs into how the original Pirates came to be at Disneyland in the 1960s (one of the final projects with Walt’s direct involvement although he died a few months before it opened).  Then he explores how the ride was adapted and changed for Florida, Tokyo, and Paris.  The book also does a great runthrough of the ride experience in each location, with quotes from Imagineers who helped design them.  Finally, the book concludes with a surprisingly interesting story behind the making of the first movie adaptation Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. This coffee table sized book is lavishly illustrated with everything from artistic sketches to models to photos of the ride in operation.

Recommended books:

 

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward


Author: Catriona Ward
Title: The Last House on Needless Street
Narrator: Christopher Ragland
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

The Last House on Needless Street is a strange and unsettling horror/mystery where it’s clear that something is very wrong, but one doesn’t know what it is. The story is told from the point of view of four different characters:

  • Ted Bannerman is a man who lives in a ramshackle house with boarded up windows, is haunted by the memory of his authoritarian mother, and has frequent blackouts.
  • His teenage daughter Lauren visits from time to time, but Ted doesn’t allow her to go out of the house, and its unclear where she goes when she’s not at Ted’s.
  • Ted’s pet cat Olivia (yes, part of this book is narrated by a cat) who is deeply religious and, well, catty.
  • Dee, a woman who moves in next door.  Her little sister was abducted a decade earlier and she’s been looking for her ever since.  The police searched Ted’s house at the time of the crime but have since cleared him.  Nevertheless, Dee suspects Ted to be the kidnapper.

The book slowly unravels the mysteries in a story where no one is who they appear to be.  I have to admit that I got frustrated in the early going and had to look online for plot summaries to get through it (which are hard to find since no one wants to spoil the book).  But I did find that later parts of the book to be satisfying and it has a more positive, upbeat ending than I imagined was possible for a book like this.

Recommended books:
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx


Author: Harpo Marx
Title: Harpo Speaks!
Publication Info: London : Gollancz, 1961.
Summary/Review:

The silent Marx Brother is surprisingly wordy in this entertaining memoir.  Harpo’s early days are full of stories of hustling and mischief in a Jewish enclave of Manhattan.  Then his mother Minnie shaped the Marx Brothers into a performing troupe with years and years of grueling tours across the country.  They become famous on Broadway and then in Hollywood, although Harpo spends surprisingly little time talking about their films.

The book sags a bit when Harpo talks about how his friendship with theater critic Alexander Woollcott earned him a spot on the Algonquin Round Table.  There are pages and pages of stories about playing croquet and traveling the world with the literati.  Things pick up again in 1933 when Harpo became the first American performer to tour the Soviet Union and how he became a courier for the State Department on the way home.  Later parts in the book are charmingly wholesome as he gives up his longtime bachelor status to marry Susan Fleming and together they raise four children.

A great book for fans of the Marx Brothers and anyone with in interest in early 20th century show business.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge


Author: Kaitlyn Greenidge
TitleLibertie
Narrator: Waites Channie
Publication Info: [Prince Frederick] : Recorded Books Inc., 2021.
Previously Read By The Same Author: We Love You, Charlie Freeman
Summary/Review:

Set during and immediately after the American Civil War, Libertie is narrated by a free Black girl named Libertie Sampson.  She’s raised in Brooklyn (often referred to in the historically accurate parlance of Kings County) by her mother Cathy who is one of the first Black women to become licensed as a medical doctor.  In addition to running a practice for the local community, Dr. Sampson helps enslaved people who have escaped from the South.

Libertie is under a lot of pressure from her mother to also go into medicine, although Libertie does not wish to follow that path.  Eventually, after flunking out of college, Libertie accepts the marriage proposal of her mother’s apprentice Emmanuel and moves with him to Haiti.  Despite the promise of a new nation of free Black people, Libertie grows quickly disenchanted with Haiti and it at odds with Emmanuel’s family.

This book deals with a lot of issues. The conflict between mother and daughter is at the heart of the novel, but also more broadly the idea of how Black people should be and act now that they’ve gained their freedom.  The book also deals with colorism, as Libertie herself is dark-skinned, and the discrimination among Black people. Finally, it’s a book of self-discovery as Libertie having decided how she does not want to live her life figures out what she really wants to do.

This was a tough book to read since Libertie seems constantly to be dealing with the disapprobation of others and her own self-criticism.  It made me anxious to read.  Nevertheless, this is an excellent narrative with a lot of interesting period detail.

Rating: ***1/2

Comics Review: Star Wars (2020- )


Title:  The Destiny Path
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Date: November 10, 2020
Writer(s): Charles Soule
Penciller(s): Jesús Saiz
Letterer(s): Clayton Cowles

Star Wars comics picks up from the previous run with stories set after The Empire Strikes Back. If you always assumed that Boba Fett immediately delivered Han Solo frozen in carbonite to Jabba the Hutt, you will also surprised that there were some challenges on his journey.  Also, Luke, Leia, and Lando return to Cloud City (under Imperial control), each looking for something. I kind of felt that unlike the earlier comics series where the stories seemed to be probable adventures of our favorite Rebels between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, that this is more of an attempt to retcon Star Wars.  But we shall see where it goes next.


Title:  Operation Starlight
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Date: April 6, 2021[
Writer(s): Charles Soule
Penciller(s): Ramon Rosanas, Jan Bazaldua
Letterer(s): Clayton Cowles

The Rebel Alliance is scattered across the galaxy and can’t communicate without being discovered by the Empire.  The solution may be found in an ancient droid and Lando’s henchman Lobot!  The series also introduces and interesting new antagonist in Imperial Commander Ellian Zahra, although I suppose her days are numbered since she never appears in Return of the Jedi. This is another good but not great Star Wars comics collection.


 

Title:  War of the Bounty Hunters
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Date: December 28, 2021[
Writer(s): Charles Soule
Penciller(s): Ramon Rosanas,
Letterer(s): Clayton Cowles

This Star Wars story kind of feels like something I would’ve come up with my Kenner action figures as a kid.  What if frozen Han Solo is stolen and is involved a big game of keepaway among Boba Fett, the Rebel Alliance, the Hutts, Qi’ra and the Crimson Dawn, and the Imperials lead by Darth Vader himself.  It’s the ultimate ludicrous crossover story, but kind of fun in a way.

Book Review: So Many Ways to Lose by Devin Gordon


Author: Devin Gordon
Title: So Many Ways to Lose
Publication Info: New York City : Harper, 2021.
Summary/Review:

So Many Ways to Lose is a history of the New York Mets by a long-time fan and writer who happens to live near me in Massachusetts. Gordon’s thesis is that the Mets are a team that is known for their futility and for losing in creative ways, and yet that has only made their moments of greatness all the more endearing.

Since I’ve read a lot about the Mets (and of course, spent most of my life watching the team), I was familiar with many of these stories.  But I was impressed with the angles Gordon took on telling the stories. I particularly liked:

  • connecting Cleon Jones story to the history of Africatown in Alabama which was founded by people brought from Africa on the last known slave ship the Clotilda
  • How Mackey Sasser got the yips and had trouble returning the ball to the pitcher
  • While Bobby Bonilla Day has become a day to mock the Mets, Gordon explains that it was a good deal with positive outcomes for the Mets
  • the greatness of the Endy Chavez catch
  • How Bernie Madoff bamboozled the Wilpons, owners of the Mets, but nonetheless a somewhat sympathetic portrait of the Wilpons

The parts on the Mets success in 2006 (and subsequent flops in 2007-2008) and 2015 feel rushed.  But then again I’ve read about those accomplishments in other books.  This is an enjoyable sports book and a requirement for every Mets’ fan’s library.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Highly Irregular by Arika Okrent


Author: Arika Okrent
Title: Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme―And Other Oddities of the English Language
Publication Info: Oxford University Press (2021)

Summary/Review: I always love a good book about why English seems to make no sense.  Okrent breaks down English’s oddities into conflicts of words usage changing among the different languages of various invaders of Britain, the biggest being the Norman invasion which lead to centuries of the elite speaking French while the commoners spoke English.  The introduction of the printing press lead to attempts of standardization for words that previously had no standard spelling, but localized so that they didn’t always end up logically applied.  Then in the 19th century, classically trained scholars tried to apply the standards of Greek and Latin to the unruly English language, causing more problems in the long run.  Event today English is evolving and changing in weird ways while still oddly being a successful means of communication among people who use the language.  The book is broken up into short chapters so it can be read all at once or broken up to be read at one’s leisure.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2