From New Orleans to Charleston to London: Books read

Heather Graham’s THE UNKNOWN: A Krewe of Hunters Novel is part of a long-running series about a New Orleans based society that sees dead people and fights crime. In this installment, a woman whose grandmother’s ghost has twice warned her about a dangerous arsonist looks like the firebug herself (how else did she know the neighbor’s house was on fire); fortunately one of the Krewe realizes she has the same gift they all do. But when the killer realizes she Knows Too Much, will she be able to survive? This one didn’t work for me — it’s romantic suspense and apparently that’s not my type of thing (it’s not a genre I read much), so that’s not a reflection on the book.

Having read a fair amount of John Wyndham working on The Aliens Are Here, I continued on and read his 1953 THE KRAKEN WAKES. Two married journalists — given the sexism of some Wyndham, the wife is surprisingly competent — witness mysterious meteors falling into the depths of the ocean. It eventually becomes clear the “meteors” were alien vessels, but even though we have no use for the depths of the Marianas Trench, the world’s governments decide they can’t coexist with the aliens. When our attack doesn’t wipe them out, retaliation is inevitable …

This is surprisingly contemporary in its portrayal of our leaders just twiddling their thumbs while the world burns. Nobody wants to evacuate the sea coast or detour shipping around the occupied ocean floor so government try to pretend everything’s fine, no need to do anything drastic that might lose popular support or displease powerful business leaders. Certainly no need to acknowledge that one scientist was spot on in predicting what would happen. The downside is that it’s very, very, very talky to the point I started skipping large chunks of it. And fresh off my movie book, the degree of Othering didn’t help. Efforts to establish communication with the aliens might have been interesting — how do we do it when we can’t go down that low and they don’t want us there anyway? — but this just assumes coexistence is impossible so of course, we must go to war. And the final victory is achieved off-stage by the kind of “deus ex laboratoria” Wyndham mocks in The Midwich Cuckoos.

MADNESS RULES THE HOUR: Charleston, 1860 and the Mania For War by Paul Starobin looks at how South Carolina approached the election of 1860 determined to preserve their right to treat human beings as property but unsure of the best path — immediate secession? Wait until the rest of the “slave power” was ready to join them? Work within the Union for now? Key factors include a firebrand secesh newspaper editor, working classes who wanted to eliminate competition from free black labor, Lincoln’s election (the firebrands were delighted, figuring the less abolitionist Stephen Douglas might have defanged the push for immediate secession) and starry-eyed optimism about their future. Good, with some memorable characters including a seamstress jailed merely for having abolitionist views and free blacks terrified to discover their rights were suddenly disappearing.

Twenty years after Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings ended with John Gordon cast back to the present, cut off from his future friends and his lover Liana, he finally made his RETURN TO THE STARS (I imagine the first book coming out in paperback generated enough interest for the sequel). After several years sleepwalking through 20th century life, Gordon is physically returned to the future instead of just his mind. This proves a mixed blessing as he and Liana have to adjust to the new status quo and, of course, there’s a new threat to the peace of the galaxy. Great fun, and the conniving villain Shorr Kahn (now on the heroes’ team) steals most of his scenes. There are some added short stories in the series I may pick up eventually though the crossover with Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark is way pricey.

POPULUXE was Great Funk author Thomas Hine’s first book on pop-culture design and artifacts, focusing on the 1954-64 period when cars got tailfins, Americans got suburban homes and everything from motels to time pieces borrowed design tips from satellites and atomic research. Hine argues this was partly America’s sunny conviction that they were hurtling into a newer, cooler future and partly the working class having money to spend and a willingness to do so (tailfins were originally for Cadillacs so they suggested status even on cheaper cars). It was also partly marketing: once most people had a car, encouraging them to upgrade for style and design was a way to keep sales going. This book didn’t work for me as well as Great Funk, partly because I’m more attached to the 1970s. Also, though, because Populuxe needed more photos and possibly more scope (he mentions Barbie but he could have spent more time with her, and with toys in general).  Overall, though, very interesting with details such as Hine’s defense of the suburbs (arguing they were less conformist than old ethnic neighborhoods) and looking at contemporary worries the family fallout shelter meant a loss of community spirit (would you let your neighbor in if there was a crisis?).

Last week I mentioned reading THE DOMESTIC REVOLUTION: How the Introduction of Coal Into Victorian Homes Changed Everything, by Ruth Goodman, an excellent look at how increasing deforestation around London led to the city becoming an early adopter of coal for heating and cooking (in some parts of England, wood fires were the norm into living memory). As coal burns hotter and stays hotter longer — and gives out unpleasant, dirty smoke — this had a ripple effect on methods of cooking (boiling works very well with coal), cleaning and home construction. Goodman has worked in a lot of living history projects (including one of those PBS series) so having hands on experience with old-school cleaning, baking and firemaking adds some interest — though you have to want nerdy immersion in the topic to enjoy the book I think.

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One response to “From New Orleans to Charleston to London: Books read

  1. Pingback: Hollywood, Broadway, the stars and the Great War: books read | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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