Essays · In the Library · Non-Fiction · Quick Read! · Ying L

If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t) | by Betty White

If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t) by Betty White
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011, 258 pages)

I picked up this book because I was intrigued by the media coverage on Betty White’s 89th birthday events in January. Also, I don’t know anything about her.  I only watched some of the re-runs of “The Golden Girls” during the 90’s, and once in a while I catch a few minutes of the new comedy “Hot in Cleveland.”  I finished the book in a couple of hours.  It’s a quick and easy read, but I’m sorry to say that it’s nothing to write home about.

This book is not a memoir, but a collection of very short essays. Some essays are as short as 4-5 paragraphs. Betty White shares some interesting stories and offers her opinions on various topics. She has been in show business for over sixty years. She’s a big animal lover, a funny, positive and talented actress. I loved her in “The Golden Girls.”  She writes that she’s fortunate to have enjoyed good health and been surrounded by talented colleagues. Sometimes, it feels like listening to your grandma rambling on and on.  I just wish she’d given more depth on some topics.  You might enjoy it if you are a fan of Betty White.

Bob G · History · Non-Fiction

Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois | by John J. Dunphy

Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois by John J. Dunphy
(The History Press, 2011, 154 pages)

I love reading books about history, but when I come across one about places I am familiar with, I usually can’t wait to read it. When the author is a good friend of mine, it is even better. I have known John for many years and his many articles and other books have taught me a lot about local history.

Most local people know at least the basics of the story of Elijah Lovejoy, the Alton newspaper publisher who was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in 1837. Lovejoy’s martyrdom is part of the abolitionist story and reveals the tension and conflicts which tore Illinois apart in the years preceding the American Civil War. But the murder was only part of the overall story of slavery and the state of Illinois and Dunphy’s book gives us the backstory on Lovejoy and many other important figures in the fight to restrict slavery here.

One obscure but important person was Edward Coles, who was elected as Governor of Illinois in 1822. His upbringing had convinced him that slavery was not compatible with the enlightenment views of the Founding Fathers and he worked to make sure the state stayed slave-free, unlike the surrounding states of Kentucky and Missouri. Pro-slavery forces were determined to oppose this view and called for an Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1824 to write legislation that would allow slavery to be established. Despite widespread support for the convention, Coles’ view prevailed and it was voted down handily.

Dunphy describes in detail the efforts of Elijah Lovejoy to overcome the strong slavery sentiment in Alton, Illinois, the town where I presently live. Even though he had two of his printing presses thrown in the Mississippi, Lovejoy persisted in trying to publish his newspaper, the “Alton Observer.” Even more interesting to me was to learn of Lovejoy’s efforts to form the first Anti-Slavery Society in Illinois. As it turns out, this organization was formed in the home of abolitionist Thadeus Hurbut, now called the Old Rock House, which is located just a few blocks from where I live. Shortly thereafter, Lovejoy was to meet his fate at the hands of a mob of enraged pro-slavery activists.

There are many other fascinating parts to this book. Dunphy outlines the many important locations of the “Underground Railroad” which allowed escaped slaves to reach freedom by reaching safe havens in the North. One of the major routes for these escapees led through Alton and we learn of the buildings, tunnels and hideouts used for concealing the “passengers” that came through Alton in those days. Alton was also the site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate and the book relates the importance of this event in framing the upcoming Presidential election.

Dunphy’s book taught me a lot more about names I was familiar with but knew little about like Elijah Dimmock, Thadeus Hurlbut and Lyman Trumbull, all important individuals who made their own contributions to the abolitionist cause.

The final half of the book deals with the Civil War in our part of Illinois. There were, of course, no battles fought anywhere around our area but Alton figured in the war as an important river town that was instrumental in shipping supplies and troops to support Union operations in the South. More importantly, Alton was the site of an important Civil War prison that held thousands of Confederate prisoners captured during the war.

All in all, this fascinating book takes us back in time to a point in history where our society was extremely polarized over the issue of slavery. It explains how our local community was tied to the events that would eventually consume our nation and makes me feel good knowing that ultimately, the work of these early “radicals” like Lovejoy and Coles helped keep our state on the right track.

Biography · In the Library · Jean R · Non-Fiction

The Story of Charlotte’s Web | by Michael Sims

The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic
by Michael Sims
(Walker and Co., 2011, 307 pages)

The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims is a well-written biography of E. B. White with an emphasis on how White came to write the classic, Charlotte’s Web.  The book begins with the author, Michael Sims, and his wife standing in the barn formerly owned by E. B. White that housed spiders and pigs just like the barn in Charlotte’s Web. From there, the biography moves to the childhood of Elwyn Brooks White. Elwyn was born July 11, 1899 to a wealthy family. He was a shy boy who preferred to spend his time outdoors and with animals rather than socializing with people. In 1909, not yet ten years old, Elwyn had his poem, To A Mouse, accepted for publication in Woman’s Home Campanion. White went on the have several more things published before he reached adulthood.

As an adult, Elwyn became known as Andy. He worked for The New Yorker magazine. At The New Yorker, White met his wife. He and his wife purchased the farm in Maine that featured the barn mentioned at the beginning of this review. On his farm, White cared for chickens, pigs, geese, cows, and sheep. White was fascinated by the spiders in the barn. He studied spiders and gradually decided that he could make a spider the heroine of a book. That book became Charlotte’s Web. It took E. B. White six years to research, write, and complete that children’s classic.

The Story of Charlotte’s Web is easy to read and well researched. Not only did the author, Michael Sims, tell the story of E. B. White’s life, but he explains the culture of the early twentieth century and the influences on White’s life. This biography made me want to read Charlotte’s Web all over again.

Food! · Julia P · Memoir · Non-Fiction · Quick Read!

Four Kitchens | by Lauren Shockey

Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris
by Lauren Shockey
(Grand Central Publishing, 2011, 352 pages)

Lauren Shockey graduated from the University of Chicago and realized that what she really wanted to do was cook.  Despite slight reservations from her parents, she attended the French Culinary Institute in New York and then set off to work as a stagiare around the world.  A stagiare is a “kitchen apprentice” who works for free in various restaurant kitchens to get real hands-on experience.  Lauren lands a stage in Wylie Dufresne’s restaurant, wd~50, which specializes in molecular gastronomy.  She then heads to Hanoi in Vietnam, Tel Aviv, Israel, and finally Paris.  The restaurant she works at in each location teaches her something different about how restaurants are run, how to best work with food, and cluing her in to what she really wants to do in her culinary career.

It was interesting reading about the different locations and the types of food enjoyed there.  Shockey is a good writer, but I didn’t really warm up to her as a person.  Recipes were provided at the end of each chapter, but most didn’t seem overly accessible to me.  Or, at least, I didn’t find myself wanting to try any of them out.  Despite knowing all the experience Shockey got as she traveled all over the world, she just didn’t really develop the kind of culinary presence I normally look for when reading food memoirs like this.

This was an interesting and unique memoir, but it didn’t really live up to my “food memoir” expectations.

Fiction · Jean R · Mystery

Murder Past Due | by Miranda James

Murder Past Due by Miranda James
(Berkley, 2010, 304 pages)

Murder Past Due by Miranda James is the first novel in the A Cat in the Stacks Mystery series. The hero is a male librarian, Charlie Harris, who works in the archives of a college library in Athena, Mississippi. Charlie’s sidekick is Diesel, a Maine coon cat, who goes almost everywhere with Charlie. Charlie is a widower who lives with his boarders in a house that he inherited from his aunt.

In Murder Past Due, Godfrey Priest, a famous thriller author, returns to his childhood hometown, Athena, to meet the son that he never knew that he had. Godfrey and our hero, Charlie, went to school together. Godfrey’s son is one of Charlie’s boarders. As you might guess, Godfrey’s visit to Athena does not go well. Godfrey is murdered in his hotel room. Charlie, along with Diesel, is able to unearth clues to help solve the murder mystery.

Miranda James is a pseudonym for Dean James, a librarian at the Texas Medical Center Library. James also writes under the names Honor Hartman and Jimmie Ruth Evans. James has a nice writing style. In Murder Past Due the chapters flowed well. The story was more of a stroll than a sprint. The reader wants to know what happens, but is in no real hurry to finish the book. I will look forward to reading the second book in the series, Classified as Murder.

Comics · Fiction · Julia P · Quick Read!

Cathy: Twentieth Anniversary Collection | by Cathy Guisewite

Cathy: Twentieth Anniversary Collection by Cathy Guisewite
(Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1996, 160 pages)

There are few comic strips I love as much as Cathy.  I don’t remember what compelled me, but I was itching to pick up a Cathy collection and thanks to the joys of MOBIUS I found the Cathy: Twentieth Anniversary Collection.  Guisewite breaks the books up into 5-year chunks (covering 1976-1996) with a brief intro to each section giving the reader insight into what was going on at the time, both in the world and in Guisewite’s life.  She selected the various strips that she felt best represented the time period and her frame of mind.

I will say that re-reading Cathy now, when I’m more closely aligned with Cathy’s age, makes me appreciate it so much more.  I loved it 20 years ago, but I’m laughing for totally different reasons now.  I remember that when I read the comic as a pre-teen and a teenager I really thought Cathy’s life was what it meant to be a grown-up.  Haha and I guess I was kind of right 😉

This was a light, fun read for me.  If you love Cathy you’ll enjoy this book.  Now, if I could just fine a true anthology of every strip.  I never did get to read about when Cathy and Irving finally got married…

Fiction · Gwen B · Thriller

Private Games | by James Patterson and Mark Sullivan

Private Games by James Patterson and Mark Sullivan
(Little, Brown and Co., 2012, 448 pages)


On your mark
Private, the world’s most renowned investigation firm, has been commissioned to provide security for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Its agents are the smartest, fastest, and most technologically advanced in the world, and 400 of them have been transferred to London to protect more than 10,000 competitors who represent more than 200 countries.
Get set
The opening ceremony is hours away when Private investigator and single father of twins, Peter Knight, is called to the scene of a ruthless murder. A high-ranking member of the games’ organizing committee has been killed. It’s clear to Peter that this wasn’t a crime of passion, but one of precise calculation and execution.

First, let me start by saying, I’m a big James Patterson fan.  Anyone who knows me, knows that!  I read James Patterson everything.  But, If I’m to be honest, I have to admit that this was not one of the best in the Private series.  Don’t get me wrong, the first two books in the series were very good, but this one was not as exciting or suspenseful.  It didn’t have that edge of your seat and can’t wait to turn the next page thriller excitement like his the other two.  That being said, this was still an okay read in it’s own way.  I learned a lot about London that I didn’t know and about the Olympic games themselves.  The scenery details he described were just beautiful.

It was kind of hard for me to get into right away like I usually do with James’ books.  In fact, it would take me a couple of days before I even would pick it up again.  And, I wondered, what’s up with that?  That’s definitely not normally a problem when I’m reading James Patterson.  Maybe those parts were written by his co-author.  I don’t know.  Some parts just didn’t feel like something that James would write.  There was not that intense suspense and excitement of what was going to happen next so that you just couldn’t bear to put it down because you had to find out.  I just kept telling myself, okay this is going to get better. After all, we’re talking James here, right?

It took me a little longer to get through this one.  Some parts were excellent, but then other parts were very boring and confusing at times and I got bored very easily with it.  To me, this was definitely not one of James’ best.  I just finished his Private #1 Suspect a couple of weeks ago and it was very good.  So I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this one, knowing it was going to be the same.  I don’t know what happened here, though.  Maybe he wrote it too soon after writing Private #1 Suspect.  Come on James!!  I know you.  You write so much better than this.  Maybe he’s taking on too many co-authors and should go back to just writing his books by himself.  Or maybe this one just wasn’t a good fit between the two authors.  This was the first one he did with this author.  He has another one coming out called Guilty Wives on March 26.  I hope the James I know will be back.  Again, I can’t wait to read it.  If you’re a Patterson fan, you will still want to read it though, just because you’re a fan.  Just don’t be surprise to be a little disappointed.  I give it two out of five.  Sorry James.  I’m still a big fan though 🙂