Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree


It’s 1930 and times are tough everywhere.  The garden club in Darling, Alabama, have just held their first garden club meeting in their new clubhouse.    It needs a new roof, but that’s the least of their problems.   Something’s going on at the bank, and the young blond who works at the cosmetics counter at the drug store goes missing--then is found dead in a stolen roadster.

Life in a small town in the 1930’s is depicted so charmingly, and with such period detail that it’s easy to feel as if you’re right there with the Dahlias, playing Hearts on Monday night, paying a nickel for a bar of soap, correcting carbon copies of typewritten letters, and worrying about the welfare of your friends and neighbors.  

Humor, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant, adds to the cozy, comfortable tone.  When convicts escape from a prison farm, and one gets away in the direction of Briar’s Swamp:  “Buddy Norris had tried to give chase on his Indian Ace motorcycle but he had hit a chicken, lost control, and rammed his motorcycle into the corncrib,”  breaking his arm.  The chapter featuring a conversation on a telephone party line is priceless--and “spot on.”

Susan Witting Albert gets all the details right in this new series, and its first offering:  “The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree.”

Monday, August 16, 2010

Twilight at the World of Tomorrow

   Pocast / Audio

  I’ve always been fascinated by World’s Fairs, and because I never had the chance to attend one, I guess I like to attend them through books about them.
     The 1939 and 1940 World’s Fair in New York City had everything:  lights and action, famous people, new technology, financial challenges, pavilions from around the world--all on a reclaimed dump, in the midst of the war brewing in Europe.

     It was touted as a look forward to a future of peace--when the world wanted so much to believe in peace, but realities in Europe made it an impossible dream.  It was meant to surpass the 1933 World’s Fair, a grand plan that fell short of its goal.  The ego of the president of the Fair infused the fair with part inspiration, part vulgarity, and part that was just plain silly.

     Albert Einstein spoke at the fair, even as he was writing his letter to President Roosevelt about the atomic bomb.    European nations built pavilions, only to leave them empty or as monuments to the spirit of a people mourning the loss of their freedom as nations fell to the Nazis.   The General Motors Futurama exhibit transported visitors on moving seats through a huge diorama of a cross section of the United States.   There was an aquacade, a midway, food vendors--and all the triumphs and troubles you might expect from an event of this scale--the largest world’s fair that had been produced at the time.

     “Twilight at the World of Tomorrow:  Genius, Madness and Murder at the 1939 Worlds Fair on the Brink of War” is a detailed look behind the scenes of the fair--the planners, the backers, the nations, the people attending the fair, and the people working at the fair.  It’s a story with Albert Einstein and the story of two New York City Bomb Squad policemen killed by a bomb placed in the British pavilion.
     It’s a story about politics--in New York, in the Fair organizers and backers, and in the world.  They could not be separated in 1939.

     When I picked up this book I was expecting it to be like “Devil in the White City, “ but it is its own story.  Perhaps it is my interest in world’s fairs but, in spite of this not being my usual sort of read, I found myself going back to finish it every time I thought I might not.   The fair represented something of a microcosm of what was happening in the world in 1939--a world that hoped for peace even as it fell inevitably toward world war. 

     Not your usual history book, “Twilight at the World of Tomorrow, “ by James Mauro nevertheless tells about this moment in world history against the backdrop of a world’s fair.

A new Sherlock Holmes


I used to think of Sherlock Holmes as a brilliant, but egotistical loner, who gave little thought to anyone but himself--and perhaps Dr. Watson--or his cases.  A 15 year old American girl taught me differently.
     Walking in the Sussex Downs to escape her tyrant of an aunt, Mary Russell stumbles--literally--on a gaunt, old gentleman sitting on the grass watching bees.  It is none other than the great consult detective Sherlock Holmes, and through the eyes of Russell and the relationship between this pair of intelligent and observant characters we see a Holmes that is deeper and fuller and more...
human than Conan Doyle’s. 
     Woven into the adventures of this unlikely pair is a portrait of two complex people: he an aging British criminologist--a man of science, and she a young American--a Jewish theological scholar.  I was skeptical, I confess, thinking, “Oh, come on, now!  Sherlock Holmes teaming up with a 15 year old American girl?  The Baker Street Irregulars are one thing, but a 15 year old American girl?”  But I was utterly...charmed.  It seems like that shouldn’t be a word applied to the Sherlock Holmes I had read about in Conan Doyle's stories.
     Add to that skillful, intelligent plot twists, fascinating characters, and utterly fantastic but plausible adventures and you have a beguiling read from start to finish.  Russell assists Holmes when she comes back to Sussex from her studies at Oxford, and when an American senator’s daughter is kidnapped, she joins in the rescue attempt, and the the subsequent tangle with a master criminal.
     History, philosophy, science and setting all intertwine with the mystery to be solved.  The intelligent plot and substories keep the mind engaged and, sometimes, the heart pumping.  Britain and the world in the WWI era are skillfully evoked as the reader is drawn in.
     I was prepared to not like this book but I am now a die-hard fan of the series that it started and whenever I finish one I can’t wait for the next, to see where life and crime and the world take this pair next.
     If you liked Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, if you
didn’t like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes you’ll like “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice,” by Laurie R. King.