Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What's your limit?

Mine, in this case, was two words.

More to the point, two wrong words.

I was enjoying Jay Winik's American Upheaval, a massive book that deals with US, Russian, and French affairs after the American Revolution - until I got to this line on page 478:
"Ironically, where Jefferson was a magnificent populist, Hamilton was alternatively derided as pseudo-aristocrat (he married Jane Schyler, a daughter of one of America's wealthiest families)..." [emphasis mine]
Um, that would be Elizabeth Schuyler.

After slogging through 477 pages - which were really very interesting, filled with stuff I was mostly unfamiliar with - I slammed the book shut when I read that one mistake*.

Winik managed to get both her first and last names wrong, something I noticed only because I've been intrigued by Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton since I first met her in the pages of Founding Mothers. (More about that later.) And there were no chapter notes, just a list of some of the sources consulted for that section - which is fine in some works, but doesn't make me happy when I'm trying to figure out where the author's misinformation came from.

(Further irritation: "Jane Schyler" doesn't appear in the book's index, so relocating the passage in order to rant about it took a little while.)

When I read, I want to have confidence that the author's telling me the truth. And in this case, all it took was two words for me to lose that confidence. Was I too harsh? Should I have continued to assume that the rest of Winik's facts were accurate? How many errors do you put up with before giving up?

Next: Why Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton is so fascinating.

*For the record, I was reading the hardcover edition, but The Site That Shall Not Be Named's Search Inside feature confirms that the same words appear in the paperback.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Help me make a reading list, please

After going to hear an excellent Irish-US group last night, I'm in a mood to spend some time reading about Ireland.

When I pick books out for myself, I usually gravitate to historical fiction - which is great; I loved the Irish Country Doctor books, but I have no idea what good contemporary stuff is out there.

Basically what I'm looking for is the Irish equivalent of Ian Rankin's books, something with a great story, with a setting that's almost a character itself. YA and adult fiction are both good, but I try to avoid depressing books.

Any suggestions? They'd be much appreciated.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Trixie goes girly (for a good cause)

"I wish we could go just as we are. I never feel comfortable in anything but jeans. But I suppose I'll have to wear a dress today."
I hear you, Trixie. Comfortable is good. But for a wedding, don't you think you could try a little? We're not even looking for heels here, just something that will look good in the pictures.

The wedding in The Mystery Off Glen Road is that of the Wheelers' chauffeur Tom Delanoy and Celia the maid (who, unless I overlooked it, is never given a last name).

(By the way, I guess it was obvious that book 4 wasn't one of my favorites. This time you get a break from the ranting, though, because I'm a fan of this one. I'm sorry to disappoint anyone who was looking for another sociocultural diatribe. Anyway. Moving on.)

One of the great things about this book is how much time it spends on characterization. (Yes, even when Jim is defined as "one of those people who were so honorable that they leaned over backward to respect other people's rights even when it made no sense." Or when he "slid down the roof and, grasping the gutter for a second, swung himself to the ground... All of the boys were strong and supple, but Jim was the most athletic of them all. There really wasn't anything worth doing that Jim couldn't do - and do awfully well." What can I say? I'm in a good mood today, and feeling indulgent.)

Anyway, the character development includes some of the secondary characters too, like Honey's governess-estate manager-voice of sanity:
Miss Trask was the brisk kind of woman who, no matter what the occasion was, always wore tailored suits and sensible oxfords. She seldom wore a hat over her short gray hair and liked nothing better than to take long walks in the pouring rain, spurning an umbrella as something beneath her dignity.
She sounds like something out of Madeleine L'Engle, doesn't she? One of the quirky-but-wise grandparent-like characters, I think. I'd love to see someone make up Miss Trask's backstory.

Other great things about this book? The 1950s details. One of the illustrations - and if I found a copy online it would probably be one that's in violation of copyright laws, so just find a copy of the original or the Random House reissue - features Reagan the groom in his work clothes: puffed riding breeches and a hat that might be at home on Dudley Do-Right's head.

Also, the "no-school siren" is how they find out about their day off in the wake of a hurricane. No mass e-mails here! And country music is known as "hillbilly songs." And Brian's been saving up to buy himself a new car, one with the respectable price tag of $50.

(Side note: This series introduced me to the word jalopy. Unfortunately, it didn't come with a pronunciation guide, so when I was about 12 I spent a fair bit of time trying to figure out which syllable was the accented one.)

Anyway, Brian's jalopy is at the center of the story here. He's saved his $50, and he's all ready to buy the car from Mr. Lytell at the general store, but when the hurricane makes a mess of the Bob-White clubhouse, he wouldn't even dream of keeping the money for himself. (Because, in case it somehow slipped your mind, Brian and Jim are uber-honorable.)

So Trixie comes up with a plan to get the car for him:
"Mr. Lytell has promised Brian not to sell his jalopy to a dealer until next Saturday. Between then and now I've got to get the diamond ring so I can give it to him as security. The only way I can possibly convince Dad that I should have it is for me to go feminine all over the place. As you pointed out, I can't do that suddenly, so between now and Friday I've got to do it by degrees. Mart, to repeat myself, is going to be suspicious until the very end, so I've got to fool him first. Do I make myself clear?"
Just in case she didn't, here's the plan: Trixie uses the diamond ring Jim gave her in the first book, currently reposing in the family safe deposit box, as security, while the Bob-Whites fill in as temporary gamekeepers on the Wheeler estate and earn the money to redeem both the ring and the car. To justify her new fondness for jewelry, Trixie pretends to be crushing on Honey's cousin Ben, who's about to spend the week in Westchester. Any questions?

No, it doesn't make sense. But neither do screwball comedy plots, and we still love them.

She makes her first girled-up appearance at dinner one night:
It was agony, but Trixie somehow did it. She appeared at dinner that evening wearing a red-and-white dotted-swiss Nylon frock, white socks, and black patent leather slippers. She had brushed and dampened her blond curls so they looked almost as neat as thought they had been set by a beauty parlor expert. She had also helped herself to her mother's hand lotion and toilet water.

The whole thing had been such an effort that she found she couldn't walk naturally...

Nobody said a word for a long minute. Then, as though they, too, were controlled by strings, Trixie's father and older brothers all simultaneously took large sips from their water tumblers...

Mart uttered a sound which was identical with the yelp which Reddy emitted whenever Bobby accidentally stepped on his tail.
See, you can tell I'm in a good mood because I'm not even complaining about the construction "identical with."

Next comes the ask, as fundraisers say:
"The point is," she said sweetly, "since I haven't got a seed pearl necklace, I simply must have the diamond ring that Jim gave me. Please, Dad, won't you get it out of the bank? I mean, Ben is the sophisticated type of boy who expects his date to be at least dressed." She turned to her mother. "Honestly, Moms, I feel positively naked in this dress without any jewelry."
As in all screwball comedies, the artificial crush wouldn't be any fun if Trixie and Ben actually liked each other.
"Don't worry... He doesn't like you any more than you like him, so when you swoon around and act as though you were crazy about him, he probably won't even notice."
Honey gets a rare display of intelligence: "The bi in bicycle means that it has two wheels. I think it's Greek, like Phi Beta Kappa."

Which prompts Trixie to speculate on the likelihood of her joining that group:
"Even if I do get better marks in math so I graduate from high school and go to college, no one's ever going to give me a Phi Beta Kappa key."

"Oh, I don't know," Honey said cheerfully. "Jim is sure to get one. He'll give you his."
Because Jim, even though he won't come out and say it, has a thing for Trixie.
"Oh, my goodness," [Honey] cried exasperatedly. "Can't you leave her alone? Don't you know that her heart is broken and all because Ben is so crazy about Di?"

"So that's it." Jim abruptly left the stable.
Me, I'll take Mart over Jim-the-greatest-of-them-all.
"I have no intention of galloping or Sherlocking. I will simply provide Trixie with a few facts about snares and traps and such. Thus, if she doesn't fall into them, she will be able to recognize same."
Consider this your spoiler alert. From the book's last page:
"What's all this about a ring?" Ben interrupted. "It sounds as though you two were engaged or something."

Trixie sniffed. "If Jim were the last man on earth I wouldn't marry him."

"Is that so?" Jim gave her a gentle push and Trixie found herself sitting in the snowbank with Di...

"Do you think I'd get myself engaged to anybody as dumb as that?" Jim asked Ben...

Jim relented then and helped Trixie to her feet. "On you," he said, "snow looks good. You should wear it more frequently. Especially on your eyelashes. Much more becoming than mascara."
All together now: Awwwwwww.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Trixie Belden and the Class Snobbery

In Trixie's fourth adventure, The Mysterious Visitor, she delves into the unexplored world of social classes. She learns that there are poor people in Sleepyside. And the nouveaux riches? Well, you just can't expect real warmth or taste.

This book marks the first appearance of Bob-White Diana Lynch, whom Trixie introduces like so:
"Next to you, Honey, she's the prettiest girl in our class. She doesn't get very good marks, but neither do I. She's got two sets of twins for brothers and sisters, and her father made a million dollars a couple of years ago. They have a huge place that's as gorgeous as yours, high on a hill that's even higher than your hill, with a marvelous view of the river."
Aren't those the details you want as soon as you meet someone?

As a 'surprise' for Diana, he had persuaded Mrs. Lynch to order caterers, a five-piece orchestra, and even decorators from New York.
Diana's bedroom:
It was a decorator's dream of a room, done in royal blue and gold. There were twin beds in it, a huge sofa, two comfortable chairs, a desk, and even a love seat. The gold silk curtains matched the bedspreads, which were monogrammed in royal blue.
But there's a cure for all that, because old money always knows best:
"It's really quite simple," Miss Trask put in. "I'm sure, Honey, that Mrs. Wheeler would like very much to invite Di's parents to the dinner she's giving next Friday night. When she telephones Mrs. Lynch tomorrow morning, she could suggest at the same time that Di's friends would have much more fun if the party Di gives is simply an informal affair."
(Side note: Old money also understands noblesse oblige. The Wheelers are giving a cottage to their soon-to-be-married chauffeur and maid. But it's not just out of altruism:
"If they set up housekeeping in the village, they'll lose their jobs because Dad and Mother have to have a maid and a chauffeur who live on the premises."
Ah, the difficulties of maintaining a country estate.)

Oh, and this:
"Listen, Di," Trixie said seriously, "you've got to stop hating being rich."
And then there's the other side of town, a street Trixie has never heard of until the Wheelers' chauffeur sets her straight:
"Anyway, he says Hawthorne Street is the worst street in town. Most people call it Skid Row. Nothing but ramshackle houses where bums live when they're not in jail."
Our heroine is a little concerned about her foray into this new world. The solution? Dehumanize the residents!
"There's nothing to be afraid of," Trixie said to herself firmly. "This used to be a cowpath once. I'm going to pretend that all these strange-looking people are harmless cows."...

The women, in their bright shawls and full skirts, looked like gypsies, and the men, when they moved at all, shuffled as though their feet hurt. Even the children moved slowly and stared suspiciously at Trixie as she passed by.
And once she moves onto Hawthorne Street itself, in all its underclass glory:
They were no worse than the dilapidated buildings in the alley, but there was something evil about them. The accumulated dirt of years clung to them, and there wasn't a single solitary soul in sight... There were no porches or stoops here.
I don't know what else to say about the rampant class bias. Is it Julie Campbell's perspective, or did she just think it would be appropriate for the characters?

Thus endeth the rant. Let's move onto other details.

No, one more minor rant first. Feel free to count the instances of stupid in the following sentence:
"But he couldn't have been one of the first settlers [of Arizona]. They were mostly killed off by the Indians before the Revolution."
Okay, back to being frivolous. The Mysterious Visitor includes some good bits of dialogue, including this:
"I guess you're right," Trixie said again. "I was just thinking -"

"Don't," Reagan interrupted. "Don't think. Every time you do, this place is swarming with state troopers and G-men."
And this:
Trixie shrugged. "Do you know what 'casing the joint' means, Honey?"
"No, I don't," Honey said crossly.

"You should read more detective stories," Trixie said.
And then there's an exchange that's of interest primarily because it ties into the plot of a Cherry Ames book written by the same author (writing as Julie Tatham):
Jim patted Honey's hand. "You're too young and innocent to understand the nature of shady characters like Olyfant. They make it their business to know all there is to know about rich or famous people like the Lynches."

"I still don't understand," Honey said. "Newspapers and county clerks* don't give information to just anyone, especially not to shady characters."

"But crooked politicians do," Jim said, grinning.

"That's right," Mart said. "I've been looking into Olyfant. He's been arrested dozens of times but never convicted of anything. That spells a crooked political connection in capital letters."
I don't believe we've started keeping track of books in which Trixie gets tied up, so let's consider this Item #1. Like the "bracelets" list, it's going to grow.

*Today, at least, the second half of Honey's assumption is patently false. County clerks and other municipal employees are governed by the state or local version of the Freedom of Information Act. It's an important piece of legislation - even if I did grumble about making copies for FOIA requests back when I worked for a municipal agency.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

According to books read in 2009...

Taken from Educating Alice and many others:

Describe yourself:
Struts and Frets
How do you feel?
Along for the Ride
Describe where you currently live:
The Hive
If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
The Falls
Your favorite form of transport:
The Rock and the River
Your best friend is . . . ?
You and your friends are . . .?
Ladies of Liberty
What’s the weather like?
Favourite time of day?
Shelf Discovery
What is life to you?
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg
What is the best advice you have to give?
How to Talk Minnesotan
Thought for the Day?
Alphabet Juice
My soul’s present condition?
The Treasure Map of Boys