Thursday, January 31, 2008

5. Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

The title: Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her
The author: Melanie Rehak
Publication: Harcourt, 2005
Got it from: La Library

It was a cold September morning, 1992. I was ten years old. My dad had picked up my grandmother from the airport where she had just returned from an overseas visit to my uncle. Everyone else was asleep and I stumbled bleary-eyed into the kitchen to discover two presents waiting for me, fresh from Japan: books one and two of the Nancy Drew series. Thus began my foray into the world that enthralled generations of girls (my grandmother included). I never read the whole series, as did some of my friends, who owned all 50+ of the originals and reread them half a dozen times. Truthfully, I never found Nancy Drew sexy enough to keep up my interest - I mean, Judy Blume talked about periods. But I have a certain fondness for the titian-haired detective and certainly more so now that I've read this book.

Girl Sleuth is more about the two women who essentially created the Nancy we know and love than Nancy herself. It's also about the 20th century history that surrounds Nancy, including the women's rights movements of the early century and later the 1960's, which I find fascinating. (I did my undergraduate thesis on a comparison of the suffrage movements in Canada, the US and Britain so this was right up my alley). Not everyone may be interested in early twentieth century women's history, though, so I could see how this book might bog people down in parts. What I found most interesting was how Nancy - independent and uninterested in domesticity and marriage - was adopted by feminists as their icon.

Which of the two women (Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Mildred Wirt Benson) was the "real" Carolyn Keene? As the book clearly notes, it's complicated. Both could lay equal claim. Harriet's father, a pioneer in children's publishing, actually first came up with the idea for Nancy, the Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins in the early 20th century. He hired Mildred, a talented young writer of about 25 to pen the first few Nancy Drews based on a few brief outlines. He died soon after, leaving his company in the hands of his young daughter Harriet, who took on the job of CEO at a time when women simply didn't work outside the home. I do love me a good story about women who triumph in business. (Go read Butterfly by Kathryn Harvey. Seriously. Now). To make a long story short, Mildred wrote the first few dozen books in the series under Harriet's strict and watchful eye, until Harriet decided to take complete control of the series and write them herself. Harriet died in 1982 at the age of 90. Mildred only died in 2002, when she was still working as a journalist at the incredible age of 96.

I could go on a lot more, but to sum up: history of early 20th century children's publishing industry + 2 incredibly take-charge women + women's suffrage movement + one feminist girl detective who don't take crap from no one = one awesome read. A-

Sunday, January 20, 2008

4. Pants on Fire

The title:
Pants on Fire
The author: Meg Cabot
Publication: HarperTeen, 2007
Got it from: La Library

Confession time: I very rarely read light, fluffy books like this. But Meg Cabot - so awesome it hurts. Sure, the title and the cover make this book seem so stupid. (Again, I'm thinking there's some kind of blonde conspiracy because the heroine is actually a brunette, but that's another post for another time). So, yeah. Meg Cabot books are actually a lot smarter than you would think, often hysterically funny and an absolute treat to read. In fact, the social commentary and hilarious romantic misunderstandings often remind me of a modern-day Jane Austen. If Miss Austen were alive today, she'd be Meg Cabot.

Like Jane Austen heroines, and every Meg Cabot heroine, the star of this book (Katie Ellison) is a naive young woman who is in love with someone who isn't right for her, and can't see that the perfect man is actually her best guy friend (who is himself in love with her, although she won't realize it until the end). That's the basic gist of it. Katie lives in a small seaside town in Connecticut where she works as a waitress for a restaurant that specializes in quahogs (clams), which she can't stand. The plot is kind of complicated (really) and she has this thing with an actor guy while she's dating stupid-but-nice football player Seth, and meanwhile her old friend Tommy Sullivan is back in town - the one who used to be a geek, but is now super hot. But will Katie ever admit what happened the night "Tommy Sullivan is a freak" was written on the middle school gym wall? Will she become Quahog Princess despite her hatred of them? Will she stop telling lies to make everyone happy but herself?

Oh, those crazy teenage years. Meg Cabot books bring back so many memories. The fear of ostracism. Frienemies. Parents who just didn't understand. Being so in love with a guy you couldn't eat for three days. (Not that I did that...umm....) No wonder the only time I didn't read YA books was when I was in high school, because it was so much like real life.


Friday, January 18, 2008

3. Rick Mercer Report:: the Book

The title: Rick Mercer Report: the Book
The author: Rick Mercer
Publication: Doubleday Canada, 2007
Got it from: La Bibliotheque

I think I realized I was humourously/intellectually in love with Rick Mercer when I was about thirteen. That winter, I came down with a whopper of a cold and was forced to spend several days in bed. I was deluged with Canadian culture because a) I had to read The Cremation of Sam McGee for English class and b) my TV only got the CBC, leaving me to watch reruns of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, which remains to this day one of my favourite shows. The reason I know anything about anything in politics is through 22 Minutes and Rick Mercer in particular was always my favourite satirist.

Who could forget him taking then-prime minister Jean Chretien to Harvey's? Or how he got a million signatures to change Stockwell Day's name to Doris? (Think about that one if you have to). Or his signature rants? When Rick started Made in Canada, I watched it because I knew if Rick was involved, it would be hysterical. And it was. When he left 22 Minutes, I followed him to The Rick Mercer Report, his current show. The man is a Canadian icon. If he ran for prime minister, he would win.

This book is basically a collection of his rants from the show's past four years. As always they are short, razor sharp and absolutely on target. No politician or party is sacred. He's gone skinny-dipping with a Liberal, had the Conservative prime minister tuck him in bed and ridden a tandem bike with the leader of the NDP. And they all get skewered - deservedly, but never with malice. The only thing I wish about the book is that there had been more new material. For someone like me who had practically memorized the rants, it felt more like a reread. Doesn't matter. A for Awesome.

Monday, January 14, 2008

2. The Bridegroom's Bargain

The title: The Bridegroom's Bargain
The author: Sylvia Andrew
Publication: Harlequin, 2005
Got it from: David, Christmas 2006

Q: Is the bride holding a pistol on the cover of the book?

A: Yes. Yes, she is.

Q: Did dad think the guy on the cover looked like Dean Cain?
A: If Dean Cain wore Regency garb.

Q: So why is the bride holding a pistol?
A: Because she tried to kill her husband at their wedding.

Q: And did she?
A: Well, that would make for an interesting necrophiliac romance.

Q: How long did it take you to read this book?
A: Far too long.

Q: Isn't the heroine supposed to be a redhead? Why is she blonde on the cover?
A: Shh!

Q: Are you going to tell me anything about the plot or what?
A: Yes, the heroine tries to kill the hero because she thinks he killed her brother and ruined her father.

Q: Did he?
A: No, it turned out to be her evil cousin all along.*

Q: Who was the best character?
A: Richard, the groom.

Q: And the worst?
A: Alexandra, the bride. She drove me crazy. To be fair, Richard was kind of information-withholding, but she was all, "I will heedlessly ignore your sound advice and steer in the direction of danger" throughout the book. Enough with the doubting of your husband and make with the sexxoring already!

Q: Overall?
A: The beginning was good, middle meh and ending teh awesome! A fairly entertaining book. B. (It would have been B+ if Alexandra had grown a clue.)

*Note - on the off chance that you were planning on reading this book and you think I ruined the ending, if you hadn't figured it out by the end of the first chapter you deserve to have it spoiled.

Friday, January 11, 2008

1. Voices from Dickens' London

The title:
Voices from Dickens' London
The author: Michael Paterson
Publication: David & Charles, 2006
Got it from: Dad, Christmas 2006

The Victorians have always fascinated me, due in large part, I think, to the fact that they existed in a world that was so similar to our own and yet so distant. Many things that are part of our everyday world (organized sports, highways, cheap postal rates, photography, etc.) were either invented or vastly improved by the Victorians. Even so, though they existed barely a century ago, their world would be completely unrecognizable to us. As Peter Ackroyd states in the forward, Dickens' London had more in common with a third-world city like Jakarta or Columbo. The stench and filth would have been unimaginable (the Thames was used both for drinking water and sewage), the noise unbearable and the brutality and shortness of life unthinkable. Yet London was the first city to reach a million people since Rome and was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution and thus the modern world.

As this book's title might suggest, Paterson uses contemporaries of Dickens, and often Dickens himself, to describe London at this time. Two passages in particular stand out for me that illustrate the differences between our world and theirs. The first concerns the scandal caused by the introduction of the top hat, which seems extreme to say the least:

The top hat was first worn on the streets of London in 1797 by a man named John Hetherington, who was arrested as a result. It looked so unusual that he was booed by passers-by, and four different women fainted on seeing it. He was charged with breach of peace for wearing 'a tall structure having shiny lustre calculated to alarm timid people' and ordered not to repeat the offence (p.42).

Though 1797 was well outside the Victorian era, this is the sort of thing that we often associate with the Victorians: strict morality, fear of the unusual, punishment over seemingly trivial things. Never mind that before long, every man wore a top hat and to not do so was seen as positively scandalous!

The other passage is considerably darker and struck a sad note with me. It is in regards to the position of the poor and how miserable and unthinkably tragic their lives were:

...I visited the back room on the ground floor of No. 5. I found it occupied by one man, two women, and two children; and in it was the dead body of a poor girl who had died in childbirth a few days before. The body was stretched out on the bare floor, without shroud or coffin. There it lay in the midst of the living, and we may well ask how it can be otherwise that the human heart should be dead of all the gentler feelings in our nature, when such sights as these are of common occurrence (p. 200).

Readers not used to Victorian writing styles may find this book a challenge. For me, the book was dense and took a long time to work through, but the information was extremely worthwhile and I often found myself laughing out loud and sharing passages with others. Yes, it did take me over a year of picking up and putting down to finish, but it was altogether very satisfying. A.