Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Monuments Men, Winnie the Pooh and Three Book Reviews

I really want to see this movie, not because of the stellar cast, but because the men who went in to save the art and cultural history of the world from Nazis were the unsung heroes of WW11:

A clip and several featurettes for The Monuments Men,
based on Robert M. Edsel's book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi
Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,
were showcased by
Indiewire. The film, directed by and starring George Clooney, features
an all-star cast that includes Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray,
John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Bob Balaban. The Monuments Men hits
theaters February 7.

I am a huge fan of Winnie the Pooh, and, probably because I share traits with that silly old bear, (and my friends and family share traits with the rest of the gang in the 100 Acre Wood) I love hearing the story of the real Winnie, and how he grew up with the help of a kind man named Colebourn, who loved animals and named Winnie for Winnipeg, the town of his veterinary practice. Whenever I think of Veterinarians, I think of the JFK quote about Veterinarians being the greatest of doctors, because "They can't ask their patients what's wrong, they just have to know."

The True Story of Winnie(-the-Pooh)

Here's a fun teaser in anticipation of A.A. Milne's birthday this
Saturday: a picture book biography of the real Winnie, the bear that
inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.

Illustrator Sophie Blackall
recently at the London Zoo to research the beloved cub, spoke to us by
phone from the wilds of the Western Catskills. The project (tentatively
called Finding Winnie and slated for fall 2015) came from editor Susan
Rich at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. "The story is, as Susan
described it, one of those stories you're surprised you don't already
know," Blackall said. Author Lindsay Mattick is the great-granddaughter
of Lt. Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian and soldier with the Royal
Canadian Army Veterinary Corps. "It's the telling of the story of this
remarkable bear," said Blackall, "told in the author's voice to her

Sophie Blackall with author Lindsay Mattick and the original
Winnie-the-Pooh at the New York Public Library's "The ABC of It

Colebourn joined up during World War I to care for the horses, leaving
behind his veterinary practice in Winnipeg. He took the train with a lot
of other soldiers, and it stopped at White River Station. On the
platform was a trapper with a bear cub. "He was smitten with the bear
cub," Blackall said of Colebourn, who gave the trapper a $20 bill in
exchange for the bear. "It was a wild whim of a gesture. His colonel was
horrified and said, 'What are you doing with this dangerous creature?' "
Colebourn tamed the "dangerous creature," the cub won them over, and
they called him Winnie (short for Colebourn's Winnipeg). Winnie sailed
with them to England, and stayed with the soldiers as they trained in
Salisbury Plain, but Colebourn realized he couldn't take a Canadian
black bear into trench warfare in France. So he left her at the London
Zoo, and visited her after the war.

"She was an absolute favorite at the London Zoo," Blackall said, "and he
decided to leave her there." Christopher Robin, A.A. Milne's son,
befriended the bear. Milne was friendly with one of the zookeepers, and
they got to feed Winnie spoonfuls of condensed milk, according to
Blackall, who enjoyed "rummaging around" in the Zoo's archives. "The
librarian asked, 'Would you like to see the daily occurrences?' "
Blackall reported in a British accent (she is Australian herself). "He
brought out these massive leatherbound ledgers, handwritten by the
zookeepers in fountain pen." They recorded everything on that day, from
the weather to the number of visitors to the amount taken at the ticket
gate, and the arrivals and departures of the animals. "This list of
animals is so lyrical and beautiful," said Blackall. "I could look up
the day that Winnie was donated. It said, 'dank and foggy.' They were
repainting the carousel and fixing a saddle on the elephant."

She wandered around the zoo and saw where Christopher Robin would have
climbed the stairs. "They have a statue for Winnie, and for Harry, which
is very nice," she said, "and another statue of the bear and Christopher
Robin." Blackall is in the very early stages of the project now, but
predicts, "It's gonna be an absolute joy--this cub with all the soldiers
in uniform, the ships and horses." Blackall admits, "I was besotted with
A.A. Milne and Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin as a child, and
it's never diminished." --Jennifer M. Brown

I love a good review, but I also love a well-written nasty review, and those listed as finalists for this award have done an excellent job of eviscerating the books they are reviewing.

Eight finalists have been named for The Omnivore's Hatchet Job of the
established to honor "the writer of the angriest, funniest, most
trenchant book review of the past twelve months." The winner, who will
be announced February 11, takes home a year's supply of potted shrimp,
courtesy of the Fish Society.

I just finished three books that were oddly uplifting, which was a good thing, since I had a bout of the flu last week and could barely get out of bed. 

After Dead by Charlaine Harris is really just a little compendium, in alphabetical order, of snippets that tell what happened to the characters in the Sookie Stackhouse series after the end of "Dead Ever After," the last book in the series. It would take any serious reader about 25 minutes to read through this book, which for some odd reason is a hardback. It should have been a paperback, and I can only think that it was an effort by Harris to squeeze the last dime out of the Sookie series by cramming a few paragraphs between those ugly illustrations that 'graced' the cover of her series. Seriously, they're what is called, I believe, naive art, but what they look like to me is some kid in middle school with a slight talent for drawing created one-dimensional quaint figures and then tarted them up with glitter. Really, there's glitter on the cover of a novel that is not for children or young adult girls. Bad taste notwithstanding, I would not recommend that anyone waste their money on this tiny book which is more style than substance. Get it from the library, page through to the end to find out what happens to Sookie and Sam, and then return it. Shame on Harris for tarting up leftovers and then serving them in hardback form to gullible fans whose loyalty would go beyond the breaking point for this book.  

I'll Be Seeing You by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan is a wonderful epistolary novel of the correspondence between a wealthy woman on the East Coast and a blue-collar middle-aged woman living in Iowa City, Iowa during WW11.
Gloria "Glory" Whitehall gets Rita Vincenzo's name from a hat, and the newlywed writes to the 'garden witch' in Iowa right away, detailing her loneliness during her pregnancy as she waits to hear from her husband and Rita waits to hear from not only her husband, but her son, both of whom signed up for the War.
Like the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this is one of those novels whose heartfelt prose in letters leads us to learn of some of the greatest and most heartwarmingly unforgettable characters in modern literature. Engrossing and engaging as the letters are, they'd still be just letters if Hayes and Nyhan hadn't caught the sights, sounds, smells and most importantly, the people of the era so perfectly that the reader feels as if they're watching everything unfold first-hand. From the rigid German neighbor Mrs K, to the ragged Roylene, daughter of an abusive tavern-owner who is carrying Rita's first grandchild, every character is fully dimensional, fascinating and an integral part of the narrative. I couldn't get enough of this charming correspondence, and I wish the book had been longer, but by the very satisfying end, I felt as if Glory and Rita were now family, and I knew they'd be okay.
Masterfully written, I'd give this book an A and recommend it to anyone who enjoys learning about what life was like for 'regular' people during WW11, especially the women who waited at home. 

Union Street Bakery by Mary Ellen Taylor was a surprise, as I wasn't expecting it to be quite as unique as it turned out to be. Taylor blends some paranormal elements into this tale of loss and hope, and creates a historical mystery concerning slavery at the same time. 
Though that sounds like too many things going on at once, somehow Taylor, like the bakers in her book, makes it all come together in a savory and delicious confection of a novel.
Daisy McCrae was abandoned by her mother when she was only a toddler, told to wait and eat a cookie at the Union Street Bakery. When it becomes obvious that her mother isn't coming back, the McCrae family, mom, dad and two sisters, decide to adopt Daisy and raise her as one of their own.
Unfortunately, Daisy has a tsunami of bad luck when she's in her 30s, and, after losing her job in high finance, and losing her boyfriend, Daisy is called back to save her family's bakery, when it becomes clear that her sister Rachel, (great baker, lousy with numbers) and her sister Margaret (great with history, lousy at being on time or being nice) are running the bakery into bankruptcy under the noses of their retired parents. Daisy, believing that as a businesswoman she was meant for better things, is soon up to her elbows in receipts and bills and taxes, all while dealing with two ghosts, a woman whose voice she hears and an angry man who throws things around, and her ex-boyfriend who comes to town and opens a bike shop not too far from the bakery.
On top of that, the town's ancient curmudgeon tells Daisy that she saw her birth mother on the day Daisy was abandoned, and knows who she is, but won't tell Daisy. Instead, she leaves Daisy an old journal, written by a slave girl named Susie that just brings up more questions for Daisy, who has been searching for clues about her birth mother since the fateful day she was abandoned.
Other than the prose, which was so straightforward it almost seemed amateurish, and the cold and cruel birth mother who wants nothing to do with her daughter, there are no bitter or ugly notes in this pleasant symphony of a book. Even Susie the slave girl has a happy ending, and the books theme of family defined as the people who love you is nicely completed and tied up with a ribbon at the end. I'd recommend this book to foodies who love a good historical mystery or women who enjoy stories of adopted children finding their parents as adults. A B+ for this fun novel that defies categorization.

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