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February 2013 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

         
 

Grand Central


by Sam Roberts

reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

 

The demolition of the original Grand Central Station led to the elegant Grand Central Terminal in 1913. One hundred years later, it’s still a historic icon that millions flock to every single year either for work or to gawk at the marvelous architecture. Roberts takes a look at the history of the station, and shows how it has adapted with the times. The book showcases the movies shot there as well as the people who call Grand Central their workplace. Chock full of stunning photos in both color and black and white, it packs quite a punch for a trade paperback-sized hardcover. Any interest in New York or the railroad industry makes this a must read.

 

 

 
         
 

Dinner With Churchill


by Cita Stelzer

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Very few books on diplomacy will make you want to start having champagne with every meal, as well as scarf down oysters and roast beef. Part One of Stelzer's wonderfully accessible history examines how British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, renowned for his love of food and wine, used meals as a diplomatic tool. But the book is much more than just Who Ate What When (though there is plenty of that, complete with reproductions of menus and epic catalogs of the provisions that Churchill brought with him on trips abroad). Stelzer tells the story of how Churchill used his charms and skills to further his political goals, preferring convivial, personal contact to telegrams and phone calls. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill all but moved into the White House, taking advantage of daily meals to talk FDR out of a “Pacific First” strategy and into “Europe First,” thus avoiding the disaster that would have come with re-routing of promised Lend-Lease weapons away from England's war with Germany to America's new war. When hosting his own meetings, Churchill employed seating arrangements as a diplomatic tool, placing people near him sometimes to show unity and sometimes to flatter. Part Two examines in detail Churchill's favorite foods, drinks, and cigars, as well as explaining wartime rationing. Although he dined well when overseas, at home in England he “played by the rules,” adhering to rationing programs. As was allowed, he requested extra ration coupons to provide for visiting dignitaries, dutifully listing their names and dates, and even returning unused coupons to the Ministry of Food. Of course, he frequently received gifts of parcels from the likes of FDR and Stalin, as well as freshly killed game from the hunts of King George VI. The book contains a wonderful collection of rare images and a handy appendix of brief biographical sketches of those with whom he dined.

 

 

 
         
 

Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde: A True Story


by Rebecca Dana

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

Dana's memoir of her crisis of faith in her late-twenties—combined with the requisite romantic problems and a lousy apartment—rises above the slew of similar titles by being genuinely funny, as well as adding considerable interest by telling two parallel tales. Dana was a secular Jew when she moved from Pittsburgh to Manhattan, filled with dreams of glamorous jobs and huge apartments gleaned from movies and TV. And, for a while, she did have it all, including a position as a fashion and style writer for the Daily Beast. But, after breaking up with her boyfriend, the only apartment she could afford was in the far-off neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the seat of the ultra-conservative Lubavitch Jewish community. She moved in (strictly platonically) with Cosmo, an underemployed rabbi, who was studying martial arts while working in a copy shop. Slowly, each was exposed to the other’s world, and they began to explore. “Will it be like Sex and the City?” Cosmo asked when he decided to attend a few of Dana’s parties. Meanwhile, she took part in a “Yeshivacation,” a weeklong religious boot camp for Jewish women that culminated with a field trip to an Orthodox wedding. Dana’s eye is witty and sharp. She describes the giant, glass-walled Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle as “what Zeus would step on if he ever married a Jewish girl” and devotes a several pages to that mainstay of entertainment in New York City:  getting to watch a couple break up in public.

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants


by Alison Maloney

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

This brief survey of the hard work put in by footmen and lady's maids provides a nonetheless entertaining introduction to the world of servants in pre-World War I England.  If you find yourself newly intrigued by the intricacies of kitchen range blacking after watching Downton Abbey, this is the book for you. Even considering that their room and board were covered, that in 1901 a butler—the top of the servant hierarchy—might earn only £60 a year ($5,400 today), and a scullery maid £12 ($1,085), seems amazing. Of course, they had no time to spend any of that money, getting, if they were lucky, only one day off a month (“when convenient” stipulated a typical contract), and part of each Sunday. The hours were equally onerous. Someone had to be up at four in the morning to light all the fires, and, if you were “in service” at a country house giving a grand party, you might not get to sleep until one o'clock the next morning. Still, it beat starving to death on the streets of London. Why was everything, including newspapers and letters, handed to family members on silver platters? In order to “minimize the risk of physical contact” from lowly servants. Not that family members were expected to pay much attention to servants. In to make things more convenient for the family, new servants were frequently given new names. That way the housemaid was always “Emma.” As for hallboys and other lower staff, they strived never to be seen or heard. When accidentally seen, family members could safely ignore them. This book has several period illustrations of advertisements and is punctuated with quotes from Edwardian memoirs, as well as that old standby (and fount of Nineteenth-century cultural information) Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management.

 

 

 

 

 
         
 Fiction

 

 
         
 

Touch and Go


by Lisa Gardner

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

Pain has a flavor.  The question is what does it taste like to you?

And with that line Touch and Go, Lisa Gardner’s pitch-perfect journey into affluent suburbia’s dark underbelly, sprints off to a bracing start and only gets better from there. No one is better a peeling back the blinds to show us what goes on in stately homes where nothing bad is supposed to happen but often does, and Gardner’s latest showcases why after the perfect family up and disappears.

That’s the dilemma facing our old friend detective Tessa Leoni when the Denbes simply vanish from their stately home in Boston’s toney Back Bay.  Her first thought is abduction.  Only where’s the ransom note, some proverbial contact from the kidnappers demanding something for the family’s safe return?  Clearly something else is involved here and, just as clearly in the world imagined by Gardner, it involves long-kept, deadly secrets and subterfuge no one ever suspects could involve someone living on the same block as them.  So, not surprisingly, Leoni’s investigation turns inward toward the abductees as well as the abductor.   The poor Denbes, in other words, are not without sin.

The real terror in Gardner’s tales of familial nightmares turned real on this street corner or that lies in their inherent plausibility.  After reading Touch and Go, you may never look at your neighbor the same way again.  No one writes this kind of modern horror tale better than Gardner, no one.  Turn on the lights before you start and don’t forget to lock the doors too.

 

 
         
 

After Rome: A Novel of Celtic Britain


by Morgan Llywelyn

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

When the Romans left Britain in 410 A.D., after occupying it for 350 years, what they left behind rapidly deteriorated due to lack of skills and knowledge. Needed to fight barbarian hoards attacking the continental Empire, Rome recalled her soldiers, gentry and administrators, abandoning not only the major cities like Londinium, but small towns in the rural portions of Cymru (Wales). Roads fell into disrepair, aqueducts collapsed, and civil authority evaporated. Centered in Wales, this tale by multiple best-selling and award-winning writer Llywelyn, depicts a world unto itself. Christianity exists, but it is the Celtic variety where gods of nature are worshiped alongside the relics of saints. The Irish and Scotts had never been conquered by Rome, and now they are beginning to move in. Some by simply walking south and setting up homesteads in newly empty regions, and some through open warfare. Against this vivid background, Llywelyn tells the story of two cousins, young men who are about to grasp the opportunities that their ruined civilization presents. Dinas wants to form a band of highwaymen/pirates as a fast track to accumulating wealth, seizing land, and, becoming a local king. After all, that's how the Romans did it. Cadogen, saddled with an unreliable, possibly unstable young woman he doesn't have the heart to turn out on to the streets, is forced to follow in his father's footsteps as a magistrate in a burned-out town. By making the most of this unique setting, Llywelyn presents a sort of post-apocalyptic novel that's also rich in true, historical detail.

 

 

 
         
 

Deck Z: The Titanic


by Chris Pauls & Matt Solomon

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Perhaps a mash-up of zombies and the Titanic was inevitable given the current zombie craze and the enduring fascination with the tragic ship’s one and only voyage. Deck Z’s conceit is to tell you the “real story” of the Titanic, but it is at turns too loose and too strict about the facts.

A German scientist experimenting with a cure for a horrible plague realizes the military is planning to use the disease as a weapon. To save the world and continue looking for the cure, he flees Germany for America, eventually booking passage on the Titanic. When the disease gets released, he helps the crew try to contain the outbreak and expose the German secret agent who has followed him aboard.

Several well-known people are characters, such as Captain Edward Smith; J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line; and naval architect Thomas Andrews. Ismay fairs poorly, and even though this is similar to what really happened, it seems overdone. Smith is overdone in the other direction, becoming a zombie-beheading hero thanks to a fictional background as a cavalryman at a time when, in reality, he was rising through the ranks at sea. It’s an awkward historical revision, and undercuts using a famous true story as a backdrop.

Deck Z is an entertaining-enough popcorn read for people who populate the Venn-diagram intersection of “likes zombies” and “likes Titanic,” but it doesn’t push the envelope in any interesting directions.

 

 

 
         
 

The Burn Palace


by Stephen Dobyns

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

 

As a lifelong resident of Rhode Island, I was thrilled to see Stephen Dobyns supremely chilling The Burn Palace set in my home state.  And is there a better place, I ask you, to set a truly terrifying Stephen King-like tale that good old traditional New England?

Whatever the answer, it’s hard to imagine a more one than The Burn Palace, an elegantly effortless portrait of small town isolation and angst that will remind King faithful of his best work chronicling life in the fictional Castle Rock, Maine.  Well, Brewster is fictional too but that doesn’t stop the requisite number of things from going bump in the night.  That includes a snake found in place of a baby in a hospital bassinet, a local witch cult, a murdered insurance investigator, and a strange rivalry for scariest place in town between a funeral home and a yoga studio.  Like King, Dobyns gives us a sane voice at the center of the madness in the form of local detective Woody Potter, a poor man’s Alan Pangborn from King World.  Being overmatched and overwhelmed doesn’t stop Potter from becoming the one thing that can stop Brewster from falling to the evil forces that have invaded the town. 

In that respect, along with his lyrically cool writing style, Dobyns’ latest becomes equally reminiscent of Ray Bradbury at his best.  This is suburban paranoia done as well as Ira Levin did urban paranoia in Rosemary’s Baby, Rhode Island forming the perfect backdrop to the true horror that goes on behind locked doors and drawn blinds.

 

 

 

 
         
         
         
         
         
         

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