28 April 2011

Free book roundup!

One of my most favorite things about springtime in New York (I'm sure it carries over to other big cities): the convention of divesting oneself of books no longer wanted by just setting them out on the curb to be snatched up by passersby. Over the past couple of weeks I've gained a passel of new reads this way:

Delicate Edible Birds, Lauren Groff: Found on Graham Avenue on the way to my friend Ash's, IIRC. Amazing title, gorge cover design. Wasn't blown away by the stories, though, which fell very much into what my friend Jason calls "the Iowa pattern": the modern MFAish trope of "everything was X until Y changed everything." It's not a bad plot outline, really, but it's overused by the keepers of realistic literary fiction, and it make me kinda tired--especially in a collection of stories, where the trope repeats itself every 30 pages or so. I would give it a C, which I hasten to add is not an outright condemnation: as an old professor of mine liked to point out, a C is average, and most people are average at most things. This one went back out to the curb.

Jenny Lind and Her Listening Cat, Frances Cavanah: OK, this wasn't on the street--Chris picked it up at a friend's I-have-too-much-stuff giveaway. But it was free, is my point. Just a charming and inconsequential 1960s children's book about the Swedish soprano (I say this like I knew who she was) and the story that she got her start singing to her cat. Awwwww.

The Horse in the Attic, Eleanor Lowenton Clymer: See above for provenance. Review = ehn. Maybe if I was eight and really into horses? Which I wasn't, when I was eight, or ever, really. Horses are big and smelly, and I fell off one once. (Yup, I did get right back on.)

Moon Over Manifest, Clare Vanderpool: This one was free because it came from the library, which most of my recent reads did. Really, I guess the "books on the street" intro was kinda misleading (though I am excited to see what the spring and summer will bring in that regard). Anyway, the shameful truth is that I didn't read this book as an ARC despite my curiosity--I worked with Vanderpool at Watermark Books--because I didn't like her, and was vocal about it, which at the time I attributed wholly to her job performance but in retrospect was largely my being a twerp, and really I owe her an apology. Clare? If you're reading this, I'm sorry I was mean to you. Then this book won the frickin' Newbery, which a debut novel hasn't done since the 80s, and so I HAD to read it! It is, in fact, a lovely and solid piece of historical fiction. Abilene Tucker, a 12-year-old who's ridden the rails with her father her whole life, has now (1936) been sent to live in the small southeastern Kansas town of Manifest (based on Vanderpool's grandparents' hometown of Frontenac). She misses her father and doesn't understand why he picked this place to abandon her, why she has to stay put. As she searches the town around her for traces of her father--spurred on by a cigar box full of keepsakes she finds hidden in her room, and the stories of Hungarian diviner Miss Sadie--she's plunged into the history of Manifest itself in 1917, when it was a community of new immigrants kept in check by the owners of the local coal mine. There are elements of mystery, and a lot of overlooked history, both in the 1917 and 1936 threads: anti-German sentiment during WWI that led to PC terms like "Liberty cabbage" for sauerkraut, the agony of the Dust Bowl (knowledge of which seems not to be taught in history classes outside the Midwest).  Manifest very much reminds me of  the historical-fiction Newbery laureates I loved as a child: Sarah, Plain and Tall (1986); Jacob Have I Loved (1981); Roll of  Thunder, Hear My Cry (1977); The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1959); Strawberry Girl (1946) (AGH I could just keep listing, and now I want to read all of those again). Definitely worthy to join their ranks.

Sin in the Second City, Karen Abbott: Also from the giveaway (the other books Chris selected for were Arnold Lobel's Whiskers & Rhymes cause KITTIES, a novelization of the X-Files episode "Eve," and a 90210-expanded-universe Christmas story. If I read those last two, you're not hearin' about it). He picked it cause of its old-timey Chicago setting a la Devil in the White City--it's a very similar endeavor, spinning the interwoven stories of the Everleigh sisters, keepers of the swankiest turn-of-the-century brothel in Chi-town; the South Side Levee red-light district where they and the whole price range of prostitutes (from their $50 minimum to the $1 cribs on Bed Bug Alley) made their home; and the reformers and lawmen who crusaded against them, bringing the topic of "white slavery" into the public eye, eventually leading to the Mann Act and the quashing of more-or-less-official vice districts in American cities. Fascinating stuff, and another reminder that debauchery wasn't invented in the 1960s--but the writing just doesn't quite get there for me, with a lot of unevenness of tone and too many unanswered questions: e.g., was the "white slavery" panic overblown? Certainly sex trafficking did and does exist: but how prevalent was it, really? Abbott can't really figure out where her sympathies lie--with the folks trying to rescue harlots or the admittedly glamorous Everleighs--and the book's a bit mushy because of it. Still, I do like my history titillating, and I remain interested in reading her latest, American Rose, on the life of Gyspy Rose Lee. (Oh, and I was completely mistaken about her having written A History of Celibacy--that's Elizabeth Abbott--but that book is gangbusters, and y'all should read it.)

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