Friday, May 09, 2014

Mother's Day with Robert Gray and Dawn of Steam: First Light

A special thanks to my mom, Roma Shalin, who read to me from the time I was just a baby until I learned to read at age 4.  For Mother's Day this year, I sent her some cat mystery books, and a card.
I have learned that she loves getting books in the mail as much as I do, and that she likes to sit down with a nice cup of tea and read whenever she can. I guess I am a chip off the old book block, because I do the same, and plan on reading and drinking tea this Sunday on Mother's Day.

Robert Gray: Mother's Day Is 'A Very Booky Holiday'
Do you know what the first rule of Mother's Day is at Hallmark? "Don't make fun of your mom."

Dad? It's always open season on him. Even Mother's Day isn't a safe
paternal harbor (please refer to Exhibit A--this great card featured by
Hudson, Wis.). Tina Neidlein, a Hallmark greeting card writer, told
Bloomberg Businessweek: "On Father's Day, you can say, 'Dad, all you
want is a sandwich!' or 'Dad, you nap a lot.' But if you make fun of
your mother, she's going to cry. And you can't even make fun of that."
Just to be safe, we'll opt
for the "be grateful" strategy, as in "Thanks Mom for Being My First
Storyteller" The new
video from HarperCollins features several authors--Veronica Roth, Soman
Chainani, Lauren Oliver, Ann Patchett, Dan Gutman, Rita Williams-Garcia,
Adriana Trigiani and more--expressing their bookish Mother's Day

Books. That's the ticket. While the don't-make-fun-of-mom edict is
probably based more on Hallmark's penchant for sentimental typecasting
than scientific research, it did remind me that indie booksellers have
long made a point of breaking away from traditional (i.e.,
cliché) merchandising options in their Mother's Day displays. For
example, this year the Book Nook,
Ludlow, Vt., showcases Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work, & the
Will to Lead and Elizabeth Warren's A Fighting Chance on its Mother's
Day table. And then there are the delightfully entomological sentiments
expressed on the cover of a greeting card featured by Greenlight
Brooklyn, N.Y. ("Eating her young meant fewer Mother's Day cards to

Harvard Book Store,
Cambridge, Mass., created a video of personal staff picks for their
mothers, with a nice range of choices: A Fighting Chance, Sibley Birds,
A Platter of Figs, Journey, Ethics for the New Millennium, Beatrix
Potter's Gardening Life, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart and Flour,
Too: Indispensable Recipes for the Cafe's Most Loved Sweets & Savories.

"Mother's Day is a very booky holiday,"
the New York Times observed. "A book isn't too much, it doesn't have to
be prominently displayed, it doesn't demand a conversation about how
calories-don't-count-because-whatever and it doesn't wilt--or it goes
nicely with more traditional gifts, which do do some of those things.
Mother's Day is a fun time to give a book she will love to a friend,
too: maybe a friend whose spouse and children don't 'get it' quite as
well as you do."
Last year, Kobo released a Mother's Day video featuring moms from many countries reading with their children, ending with: "She gave you the gift of reading. On
Mother's Day, give it back."

Once upon a time (let's call it the early 1950s), when I was three or
four years old, a fierce thunderstorm hit our town. Through the haze of
memory, I can still feel the intensity of that storm, but I mostly
remember the shelter my younger brother and I found on my mother's lap
while she read us a story to take our minds off what she called "God
bowling in the sky."

I was reminded of that moment when I recently encountered a lovely and
very bookish e-newsletter column by Nancy Page, owner of Island
Books, Mercer Island, Wash.: "With our youngest, Lewis, leaving home in
the fall to attend college in the Midwest, this Mother's Day takes on a
special meaning and gives me pause to reflect. The school-age years have
been full, as I watched our children forge their own friendships and
become the young adults that they are, but it was the early years when
we hunkered down on the couch and read piles of books for hours at a
time, completely absorbed in stories, that hold the fondest memories. I
liked to read aloud and my kids loved to listen--a match made in

Page then chronicles a title-rich reading life with her children before
concluding: "So maybe I could have done this mothering thing differently
and my children would be practical scientists or mathematicians in the
making, but instead they are exactly as they always have been and really
in my opinion, should be, the sorts who love stories, bookseller's
children. I am forever grateful for those years spent reading to them.
So if you are at home with little ones, I suggest you make time to read.
Read a lot to them. Punctuate your days with books, piles of books on
the couch. You will never regret it. Happy Mother's Day." --Robert Gray
Dawn of Steam: First Light by Jeffrey Cook and Sarah Symonds is an epistolary steampunk novel that takes place in an alternative-history universe in which England is the most powerful country and America has yet to break away from the British Empire, and is thus still uncharted and wild anywhere west of the Mississippi. A young man sets out to find his fortune and adventure by following the fantastic journals of Dr Bowe, who is a Jules Verne-like figure.
The novel's protagonist is Gregory Conan Watts, who writes to his soon to be wife, Dr Cordelia Bentham-Watts, to Lord Donovan and in his travel journal of the adventures that he and his team face in trying to find a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Pacific Northwest.
While the book is written in Victorian and Regency style, it isn't the writing that makes the first 100 pages slow going. The  unnecessary footnotes by Cordelia and the long chapters detailing too much about the difficulties of assembling the "team" that Watts needs to get him through this adventure make the stop-start reading frustrating. There are also numerous redundancies, paragraphs that could have communicated their idea in one sentence instead of ten (page 79 is rife with examples.)
The gathering of crew members for the dirigible that Watts and company will venture forth in is reminiscent of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" with a few ladies, (who in the end are the real heroines of the tale.)
There's not a great deal to like about Gregory Conan Watts, who does little but chronicle the adventures and take photographs of the people and places that the team encounters. He hasn't the courage to try and save anyone but himself when the going gets rough, and he spends an inordinate amount of time passing judgement on anyone who isn't British and male, or British and a "proper lady" who practices perfect manners, is fragile, pretty and basically useless. He continually makes arrogant and sexist observations particularly about "poor Harriet Wright" a woman who has come along with the perfect Miss Coltrane to learn to  "present herself as a fine lady of society and eventually to marry well." Every time she fumbles, even slightly, Watts makes note of it in a sneering fashion that becomes nauseating and hypocritical all too soon (his fiance, after all, is a woman doctor who obviously had ambitions well beyond her 'station' as a female). Once he discovers that she has great mechanical aptitude, however, he grudgingly admits that she might be useful to the team to help repair some of the devices the team take with them. Yet again, he says "...for perhaps if she truly had such a gift for the manly pursuit of artifice, certainly well beyond my own understanding, then perhaps some part of her mind is entirely unsuited for womanly pursuits." Though one could argue that women were subjected to a rigorous moral and societal code of conduct in the 19th century, I would respond that if you are rewriting history for the background of the book, why not give women greater freedom and respect than they had in the actual 19th century?
Miss Sam Bowe, daughter of the famed writer who inspired the trip that these people are taking, originally presents herself as a man, because she has tremendous knife-fighting and survival skills learned from Native American Indians, whose language she also speaks. Of course, Watts has little to say about her that is positive, calling her crazy several times, yet it is Miss Bowe who saves several crew members numerous times and is one of the few people with the courage to kill off the rival gangs sent to pursue Watts group in another dirigible.  Bowe and Eddy, and occaisionally James Coltrane were the only characters who were at all interesting throughout the novel as they displayed bravery, intelligence and grit that was never a part of the make up of the protagonist, though his wife writes in the introduction that he was hailed as a hero.
Though Dawn of Steam is written in a fashion that doesn't lend itself to light reading, after the first 100 pages, the plot starts to steam right along, and the story becomes more engrossing. I'd give this novel a B- with the hope that, as it is part of a trilogy, that the author trims his redundancies and removes some of the rampant sexism/nationalism from future novels. I'd recommend it to those who enjoy the works of Jules Verne and HG Wells.

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