Capital Dames by Cokie Roberts Gives Rich Background to Civil War Washington

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Cokie Roberts, the NPR and ABC New political commentator, has written an entertaining and informative book about the women in Washington, DC. during the period 1848 to 1868.  Capital Dames does an excellent job of recounting the lives of a well chosen swath of women who lived in Washington, DC, during the middle of the nineteenth century.  The book particularly focuses on Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley, Rose Greenhow, Jessie Hart Fremont, Elizabeth Blair Lee and Varina Davis, but there are also wonderful cameos of Dolley Madison, Clara Barton, Sojourner Truth, Julia Grant, Dorothea Dix, and many other equally fascinating women.  Slavery and the Civil War are the focus of much of the book, which shows how much women contributed to the debate and to the work that needed to be done.  These were active women, who had wide circles of influential friends and who didn’t hesitate to back one politician over another.  Even where they disagreed, many of these women remained close friends.  When they hit hard times, some of them proved exceptionally resilient, even as others simply never recovered.

It is a rich story that is elevated far above what ladies wore or the mere fact that a woman was the spouse of a famous man.  Many of these women were particularly astute and active.  Whether they knew it or not, they contributed to the development of feminism because of their activities and because of how they saw themselves in this highly charged, political environment.

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Excellent News! The Crayons Have Come Home

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Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers have done it again!  The Day the Crayons Came Home is the perfect sequel to The Day the Crayons Quit.  It is completely hilarious and succeeds purely as a very funny children’s book.  If one is forced to consider the book at a more philosophical level, it does a great job of acquainting children with a number of useful concepts.   It shows what might happen when someone leaves home in a way that is very funny, yet offers useful cautions and considerations.  On an even deeper level, it raises issues about the crayons’ sense of self.  Some of them question their own colors.  I could go on, but really you should just read this book and enjoy the humor and appreciate the empathy it instills in its readers.

A Mystery for Downton Abbey Fans

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Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman is Tessa Arlen’s first mystery, and it is quite enjoyable.  The murder is set in a large country house during a lavish weekend party.  The time frame is just after Edward VII’s death and before World War I, and in the background it is clear that many things are changing in England and for the characters in this book.  The murder causes Lady Montfort and her housekeeper Mrs. Jackson to consult and work together in a damage control effort.  This is an interesting partnership, and in general the interplay between Upstairs and Downstairs is entertaining.  I found Mrs. Jackson to be the most interesting character, but the Lady Montfort character also held some surprises.  This is a relatively light book and a quick read, so I would have found it helpful to have a Cast of Characters section at the beginning of the book.  All the lords and ladies were confusing.  It was difficult enough to keep track of the host family and its staff, but the aristocratic visitors frequently appeared without introduction.  That small reservation aside, if you like Downton Abbey and enjoy light period mysteries, this is a very good read.

A Savage Economic Tale of Displacement

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Chad Broughton’s Boom, Bust, Exodus  —  The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities, is one of the more depressing books I have read recently, but it is a very insightful, useful book.  Broughten records the sad saga when a Maytag refridgerator plant in Galesburg, Illinois, is shut down and moved to Mexico.  Spoiler alert:  no one you care about  really wins here.  I always like to know what people are thinking as they encounter adversity, and the author does a thoughtful and consistent job of interviewing and sticking with an interesting assortment of players.  He tracks the union workers in Galesburg, Illinois, by showing what they had in their glory days and then the ominous signs and then finally the closing of their Maytag refrigerator factory.  So many of them are completely unprepared to do anything else.  They are used to earning $ 15 plus an hour when their factory is closed in 2004.  They have a lot of notice that isn’t all that helpful when most of them barely have a high school degree and are dismayed and highly insecure about returning to school.  Even with relatively generous unemployment and education benefits, it is a very tough road.  Since Maytag was the biggest show in town, none of these people have easy places to seek other work.  The economic jolt is severe since they had bought their houses and organized their lives around their stable Maytag income and benefits.  Virtually none of the people who are followed recoup their Maytag earning power, but some of them pursue degrees and many of them seem to end up relatively content.  The author notes that the women workers were generally better at returning to school and to reinventing themselves.  While that point isn’t especially developed, it is sadly encouraging to see a male author spend so much time interviewing and following both female and male workers.

Not surprisingly the only person who seems to have truly profited from this mess is the last executive standing.  He is portrayed as driving the company into the ground and then making off with a $ 20 million golden parachute when the company is sold.  He is last seen living in a gated community and actively supporting LIbertarian candidates.  One of his neighbors calls him “a capitalist evangelist.”

What happened to the refrigerator manufacturing after it was transferred to Mexico is terribly depressing.  It is fair to say that the American worker’s loss wasn’t necessarily the Mexican worker’s gain.  The author follows Mexican workers who struggle on very little income as they take on very arduous, yet basically unskilled, manufacturing jobs.  Worker safety concerns are fairly non-existent; the pay is awful; and the jobs are transitory at best.  The supposedly lower cost of living provides no safety net for these workers.  It is still too expensive to live.

For me the most interesting part of the book was to track a rich assortment of individuals through their personal economic and social upheavals.  The author asked the questions that needed to be asked and apparently established a continuing rapport with his subjects.

In its conclusion the book addresses many ideas that would benefit from further development, perhaps in another book.  In this book they served as a way to begin to make sense of all the individual stories that had been told.  In that context, the author’s concluding comments were valuable, particularly as they demanded that the reader ponder large issues, such as what’s going on in Mexico, how might American manufacturing be transformed and made more profitable and, fundamentally, the high cost of inequality.

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A Happy Mishmash of Vacation Reading

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I love vacation reading.  I just returned from a glorious 11 day vacation in Iceland with my family.  Reading is always an important part of any vacation, and the long plane flights provide extra opportunity.  I spent my reading time finishing up a few books in progress and starting some new ones.

I love Scandinavian murder mysteries, but had never read Arnaldur Indridason until I prepared for this trip.  Since this was my first (but hopefully not my last trip to Iceland), I started with Reykjavik Nights, Indridason’s most recent book, the prequel to his mystery series featuring Inspector Erlendur.  In the prequel, which I wrote about last month, Erlendur is just finding his way into a career in detection, and his personal life is up for grabs with an overlay of dubious omens.

On vacation, I read Jar City, which was Indridason’s first Inspector Erlendur novel and is set perhaps 20 years after the Reykjavik NIghts.  Jar City is a great mystery and does a wonderful job of setting up an atmosphere that is gloomy, tawdry and threatening.  At this point, I should note that the Iceland we saw was beautiful and sunny, and it was kind of hard to imagine murders happening there.  Clearly, I need to return during the darker winter months.  But getting back to Inspector Erlendur, by this this novel, he is an established and respected detective.  He has an morbidly intriguing romantic side that appears when he pursues clues and connections that leave his colleagues shaking their heads.  It is all pretty sordid.  There is a lot of skipping from scene to scene as the investigation unfolds, and that really helped the pace of the story.  As a person, Erlendur has bigger problems.  He doesn’t get along with his colleagues, and his personal life is a mess.  The disturbing signs that appeared in Reykjavik NIghts, have pretty much come home to roost.  The best this book can do is suggest a slim possibility that he may establish a decent relationship with his addicted adult daughter.  Romance seems quite unlikely.  Who would ever go out with this man?  I am anxious to read the other Inspector Erlendur novels to see how it all sorts out.  I recommend Jar City, and do try to go to Iceland.  It was one of the most amazing places i have ever visited.

We had been warned that the food in Iceland was not much to write home about.  Happily, we enjoyed great food, even as there were internal family debates about whether the family’s resident weird foodie could ethically try minke whale.  We never debated the puffin appetizers, and horse didn’t elicit the same level of debate.  Anyway, we had great food, particularly the fish and the lamb.  There was, however, one restaurant where the food was pretentious and served at a glacial pace.  The foodies in the family appreciated the food when we finally got it.  I was underwhelmed, but felt happily vindicated when I got back to the hotel and picked up David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day.  Among all the wonderfully humorous essays in the book, he took aim at pretentious New York restaurants in the essay entitiled “Today’s Special.”  His comments about all the dishes having at least 15 ingredients, one of which he was sure to dislike, and about the trend to stack food vertically in weird towers, while leaving acres of space on the remainder of the plate, really struck home.  I am trying to figure out why I never read Sedaris before.  He is really funny and on point.

Marina Lewycka’s “Various Pets Alive and Dead” was a good vacation novel.  Lewycka paced the story of a hippy couple and their more conventional adult children by having different characters tell the story in the first person.  The book was set in England and had nice bits about such seemingly unrelated topics as out-of-control investment banking, free love and the pressures of helping an adult child with special needs become independent.  I have liked Lewycka ever since I read her amazing A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.  If you haven’t read that book, you should really track it down.  It is unusual and wonderful.

While on vacation, I also took the opportunity to reread the late PD James’ fourth detective novel, Shroud for a Nightingale.  I love PD James, and this is a fine book.  It features an excellent plot, a creepy setting and a younger, and less patient Inspector Adam Dalgliesh in the earlier stages of his career.  In addition to her detective fiction, James also wrote Talking about Detective Fiction, which is a really interesting discussion of detective fiction.  It was illuminating for the reader and helpful for would-be authors.  It also steered me to some other great detective novels.

While we were meandering among Iceland’s gorgeous fjords, glaciers and waterfalls, I also got the chance tp reread John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  What a great book!  The Cold War is such an interesting period, and LeCarre tells a great story, while he examines the bizarre and fruitless world of Cold War spying.  No one ends up looking very good.  There is a lot of gray in that book, but I still cared a lot about the spy in question.

Also gray and murky was Raymond Chandler’s The High Window, a Philip Marlowe detective novel.  Here again there is a lot to dislike about the main character, but you root for him.  I could almost hear Bogart speaking the lines of this very noir book.  I don’t know why Southern California is such a great setting for noir detective novels, but it surely is.  I liked this book, but probably not as much as the other books I read this vacation.

Finally, while we are sort of on the subject of Iceland, Michael Lewis’ Boomerang —  Travels in the New Third World was my first introduction to the culture and people of Iceland.  In Boomerang, Michael Lewis, an amazing non-fiction writer with financial expertise, visits some of the countries involved in the global financing disasters of the 2000’s.  His comments about Iceland, where all sorts of people just started trading with a complete lack of knowledge and experience, but insane financing from their banks, were both hilarious and terrifying.  I didn’t see any signs of that kind of activity this summer.  On the other hand, Lewis’ depiction of Greece and Germany and their symbiotic relationship was fascinating and it doesn’t seem as though all that much has changed since the book was published in 2011.

So, the vacation was great, and reading made it that much better.   I am already planning the books I’ll take on my next trip.