Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Why Didn't They Ask Evans by Agatha Christie (1934)

When this was published in the United States, it was sold as The Boomerang Clue.   I can't for the life of me figure out why.  No one is from Australia; the murder weapon is not a boomerang.  The word "boomerang" is never even mentioned.  Whose bright idea was this?  The UK title is so much better.  The download I checked out from the library for my Kindle was called the original British title, and God Save the Queen for it!

This was not a book I had ever read before.

Christie was certainly borrowing characters from the gossip columns, as Frankie is a dead ringer for any number of Bright Young People of the 1930s.  Her droll, upper class insouciance at the beginning of the book, and the her excited hijinks with Bobby the vicar's son all read "BYP" - in fact, her solicitor chides her in a fatherly way later in the novel as exactly that "Oh!  you Bright Young People - You Bright Young People," he murmurs, wagging a forefinger.  "What trouble you land yourselves in."

Indeed they do.  But the kind of trouble that Christie gives Frankie and Bobby isn't champagne fueled midnight parties and madcap practical jokes, but a really unbelievable murder/thriller that Scooby Doo would have been right at home in.  Don't read Why Didn't They Ask Evans for the mystery; although it's got some surprising twists and turns, it's also a Christie crime that relies heavily on the kind of coincidences that make you go "hmmmm..."  I wouldn't call them "lazy" coincidences - but I would say most of what happens in this book is highly implausible.  The coincidences are legion - but there is one, the big finish, that was absolutely delightful, and completely saved the book for me.  No spoilers though.

Note to self:  terraces are always something people in books hurry along.  And I'm not even sure what a terrace is.

This book is a grand tour of early 20th century automobiles, most of which I 've never heard of.  The various Essexes and Bentleys and other cars are all the sort of convertible roadster types that rich people drive in BBC costume dramas.

There are some very Mitford-y lines here.  Agatha Christie can't ever be as witty (and bitchy) and Nancy Mitford, but when she puts lines like this in her heroine's mouth - regarding gang murders - "That's a low taste... A single handed murder is much higher-class, Bobby."  That made me chortle with glee.  There are some things I didn't like about this book, but these kinds of lines made the enjoyment overshadow the bad things.

Frankie calls someone a bitch - and all I can say is "Wow!"

Why Didn't They Ask Evans?Why Didn't They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Scooby Doo would be right at home in this novel, particularly towards the end - but so would Nancy Mitford (and several other Mitford sisters, but probably not Unity or Jessica). Christie paints in broad strokes the Bright Young People of the 1930s gossip columns, with droll, insouciant Frankie standing in for the champagne-addled aristrocratic youth of the time period. This certainly isn't Christie's best, but it's a screwball delight to read. You probably will have it all figured out by about half way through, but her crazy characters of Bobby and Frankie and their amateur sleuthing make you not even care. It's a shame Christie never wrote about them again. Favorite, favorite line: vicar's son Bobby is talking about how the murder might have been committed by a gang, and Frankie (drolly, Mitfordly) drawls "That's a low taste... A single handed murder is much higher-class, Bobby." There are several gems like this in the book, and any problems I encountered with plot, etc. are more than made up for by writing like this.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett; narrated by Eileen Atkins (1996, 1908)

I don't think this audio book could have been any better.  Eileen Atkins was a perfect, perfect narrator.  Her "voices" were just right.  She draws the reader gently but surely.  I was hooked within a few minutes, and did not want to stop listening.  Pure pleasure.

I was completely unfamiliar with this story of two sisters and their lives - one who elopes to Paris, the other who stays in her comfortable English industrial town.  I don't think  Bennett is doing anything revolutionary here, and I wasn't changed for the better after reading it.  I just enjoyed it, to the marrow of my bones.  Parts of it made me sad, parts of it made me smile, and towards the end, you are comfortably made aware of your own mortality.  It's a book I'd like to actually read rather than listen to, and may end up doing so.

I loved Bennett's description of a newly married couple's first fight.  I thought it really captured the moment when new couples have their first spat, and what potentially can happen.  It's great imagery too.

"Both of them suddenly saw that they were standing on the edge of a chasm, and drew back. They had imagined themselves to be wandering safely in a flowered meadow, and here was this bottomless chasm! It was most disconcerting."

Bennett, Arnold. The Old Wives' Tale (p. 104). Kindle Edition. 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I listened to Eileen Atkins read this on streaming audio, and it is one of the best audio experiences I've ever had. Atkins is an incredible narrator; her "voices" are perfect, and she gently but surely draws the listener in. I was hooked after just a few minutes. Bennett's story, of two sisters, one who elopes to Paris and one who stays behind in an industrial English town, is simple but quite lovely. Sophia (wisdom?) and Constance (constant) are well drawn; Sophia's reaction to being left high and dry by her ne'er-do-well husband in Paris have shades of E.M. Forster; one can imagine a character in one of his novels doing and saying similar things, or perhaps Cousin Charlotte telling this story to Miss Lavish (A Room with a View. I don't think Bennett is doing anything particularly revolutionary here; nor did I come away changed. I just enjoyed this novel, down to the marrow. 

Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn (2017)

Citizen of the Galaxy is the one Heinlein juvenile I've read ( actually, I listened to it on streaming audio ) and I came away from it less than enamored.  I feel the same way about Martians Abroad, which I have read (and agree with) is a homage to those young adult (before that was even a publishing term) novels of old.  At one point, I was all ready to quit reading and start on something else, but for some reason, I kept plugging away.  Perhaps if I'd listened to this rather than read it, I might have enjoyed it more.

Martians AbroadMartians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a two star book. It's not terrible, but it wasn't terribly interesting either. Two star books are books I finish (for whatever reason) but don't hate enough to give one star (and a scathing review), but don't like enough to really delve into the reasons for my dispassion. Often, I want two stars books to be something else entirely. So feeling that a book was merely "ok" is my fault, not the writer. I wanted more swashbuckling, or maybe interplanetary intrigue, or aliens. There was some of this (well, not aliens) but not in the way that I wanted.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock by Lucy Worsley and narrated by Anne Flosnik (2013, 2014)

I listened to this on streaming audio.

I love Lucy Worsley.  She is one of my favorite people on television. Wikipedia calls her "an English historian, author, curator, and television presenter."  She's charming, smart (in the sense of her clothing and style), intelligent, funny, and quite beautiful.  We are only able to watch her on YouTube (I think they are all bootleg too - bad us).

I loved her book, particularly the last half or so, which was about detective novels and murder mysteries.  I have so many things I want to read in the future, and listening to all of these great murder mysteries, made me want to read even more.  Sigh.  So many books, so little time.

I did not like the narrator; she sounded like Siri, which was annoying.  But even she could not mar Lucy Worsley's great writing.  This is pop history at it's very, very best.  Lots of scandal, plenty of trivia, famous people sprinkled throughout.
I don't know if the English have the monopoly on murder, but Worsley certainly made the case.  I thought Poe invented the murder mystery, but he was not to be found in this book!

The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred HitchcockThe Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock by Lucy Worsley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think if I were reading this the good old fashioned way, I would have given the book five stars, but because disliked Anne Flosnik's narrative style (she sounded an awful lot like Siri with an English accent), I'm going to go with Four. I love Lucy Worsley (I watch her on YouTube in America), and I think her writing style is great. This is what I call pop history, and pop history at its very, very best - great, accessible, smart writing that is not so academic to make you fall asleep while driving, but also not so dumbed down that you feel like an idiot even reading (or listening) to it; famous people sprinkled throughout (Agatha Christie) but enough new facts and stories to keep you engaged (all of those delicious old murders from the 1800s), lots of scandals, plenty of trivia, but all strung together like Christmas lights, bright and fun - and such a heavy subject too. My only quibble - I thought Poe invented the murder mystery; I know he's not English, but still. That's a minor quibble in a really fun book. The last half of this book is about the golden age of detective novels - I dare you to come away without at least adding one old fashioned mystery to your reading pile!

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Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth by Norman F. Cantor with Dee Ranieri (2005)

There were two very interesting things in this very short book.  First, there aren't very many biographies of Alexander the Great and this book actually has a section on that very thing, describing each book written about Alexander and what they do right and wrong.

Second, Cantor really calls a spade a spade.  He frankly refers to the ancient Greeks as pedophiles (they were) and also matter of factly refers to Alexander's homosexuality.  He might have slept with women, but he liked men way better.  He didn't like boys, he liked men.  I know that "gay" is a modern construct, but (at least in my head) Alexander starts skating close to a modern gay.

Other than those two things, this book had sort of a throwaway quality.

Side note:  who was Dee Ranieri?  She didn't score any mention on the cover, just on the title page.  This is kind a television show sort of thing to do (See this:  http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AndStarring).  I imagine Dee Ranieri was some sort of assistant who wrote a big chunk of this book.  But I can't find out anything about her (him).

Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the EarthAlexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth by Norman F. Cantor
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I liked two things about this book. First, there really aren't all that many biographies, scholarly or otherwise, about Alexander the Great, and that fact is a small section of this book. Cantor (or Dee Ranieri? Whoever Dee is) went through each of these books, what was bad and good about each. I thought that was fascinating, actually - sort of meta. And two, Cantor calls a spade a spade. He comes down on the ancient Greeks for their pedophilia (such an unpleasant and weird juxtaposition, the men who invented democracy also loved pubescent boys. Yuck.). He also is unabashed about Alexander's gayness. Alexander was not a pedophile like his fellow Greeks. He loved grown men. Women in Alexander's life were pretty much to be married as political pawns; it was men he wanted to be with. Perhaps that explains the dearth of biographies; the life of Alexander until very recently is a hot potato when it comes to his proclivities. Other than these two things (and the mystery of Dee), the book was sort of a throwaway (though not a "throw down").

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The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, And Breakthroughs in Modern Art by Sebastian Smee (2016)

Art history certainly is not one of my areas of expertise; I know just enough about art and artists to be slightly dangerous, or perhaps to answer a few questions in trivial pursuit without having to resort to say "Picasso" for every answer.  Smee's book was eye-opening, engaging, and at the end of the day, quite a good read.  The four sets of rivals were Matisse and Picasso, Manet and Degas, Pollack and de Kooning, and Freud and Bacon.  Their names were all familiar; but their lives (and quite frankly, their art) were not.

Matisse: revolutionary for his time.
Picasso:  really quite awful regarding women; a letch.  He sounds vile.
Manet:  revolutionary for his time, and, well, sort of forgotten I think.  People mix him up with "Monet" for sure, including me.
Degas:  I knew next to nothing about Degas, and before reading this, would have mixed him up with Gaugin.  Degas painted the ballerinas, but this was essentially about his early life, not that time period.
Pollock:  The worst kind of artist, in the sense that he was an awful drunk and mean as a snake.  After Picasso, the second biggest jerk in the book.
de Kooning:  I knew nothing about him, and come away knowing just a little bit more;  he was an illegal immigrant though, which was interesting.  This chapter was the weakest in the book.  It was primarily about Pollack, who is far more interesting.
Freud & Bacon:  both incredibly fascinating and the best chapter in the book.

If Smee's intent was to show how rivalry changed these artists, I am not totally sure he succeeded in each chapter.  To begin with, the four chapters read like four small books - or really, four pieces of long form journalism. They are very, very loosely connected, and "rivalry" certainly isn't one of those links (perhaps "art" and "artist" are the true links between the four).  Secondly, the rivalry between all of them seemed forced.  Like Smee set out with this in mind and then wrote his way through it, without having much evidence to back it up.

The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern ArtThe Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art by Sebastian Smee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Art history is certainly not one of my areas of expertise. I know just enough about art and artists to be able to answer trivial pursuit questions with answers other than "Picasso." So reading this book from the vantage point of learning something new was a great experience. Smee is a good writer; his book was neither terribly academic and dry, nor a vapid pop biography. If Smee's book was a meal, then it was rather well-cooked meat and potatoes, rather than a tv dinner or fancy French. But if his intent was to prove something about the power of rivalry vis-a-vis art and artists, I'm not so sure he succeeded. Almost, the book is an exercise in writing towards a theme; Smee wrote the art of rivalry into being, perhaps in a bit of an "emperor's new clothes" facade. Each of the four chapters centered on the "rivalry" between two artists, and in each of the four chapters, I learned a bunch about the artists, enough to find Picasso and Pollock to be sort of reprehensible (their art might be great, but their personalities are shit). Every chapter essentially reads like a piece of longform journalism though, and this unifying theme of "rivalry" just didn't hold water for me. If you can ignore that, you will enjoy this book (I was successful in that pursuit).

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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault (1969)

I stopped reading this to read Orwell's 1984 and I'm not going to back to it now - and probably not ever.  Mary Renault's writing is dense and elegant, but... to start with, there is a ton of assumed knowledge about Alexander the Great that Renault expects us to have, which I do not.  What the hell did we do before Google?  Because I know next to nothing about Alexander, often I was like "what the hell?"  Especially the idea that a 12 year old boy is flirting with grown men.  I'm reading up on the Greek world simultaneously, and as Norman Cantor writes in his (merely okay) mini-biography of Alexander the Great:  "Most Greek adult males would have regarded the body of a twelve-year-old pubescent boy as the most beautiful body image. There was plenty of physical contact between adult males and their young acolytes, who were raised and educated in their households." (Cantor, Norman F.. Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth (p. 15). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.).  Now that's the historic truth about Greek men.  And reading about it in a book of history is interesting (to put it lightly).  But I don't need to read a full account.  It's creepy.  I don't know what Mary Renault was up to, and nearly half of the way through the book, I don't think I care anymore.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (2014)

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsWhat If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The part of my brain that processes complicated math and physics has atrophied into a hard little shrunk up ball of gunk, kind of like what happens to elmer's glue when it's left in the sun, or a booger. If that part of my brain even existed it all; my memories of math classes are not pleasant. I always like science though. I never advanced any farther than the basics. So much of this book - MUCH - went over my head. As a humorous writer, Munroe is excellent - there is some great witty comedic writing on here, a direct descendant of Cecil Adams and The Straight Dope (a favorite of mine in time of yore). But each of these hypothetical questions seemed to work like this: Munroe writes something incredibly funny, then he goes hardcore in the answer (while most of the time remaining funny) then ends with something equally funny. The bookends were what I enjoyed the most; the hardcore stuff just made me feel dumb. In a good way though.

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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

1984 by George Orwell (1949)

Let's start with the fact that in seventh or eighth grade, I read Animal Farm by George Orwell thinking it was going to be like Narnia or Charlotte's Web for grownups, because it had talking animals in it, and it wasn't like those books AT ALL.  I mean, if instead of Edmund Lucy had betrayed Tumnus to the White Witch and Lucy herself made Tumnus into glue, then Animal Farm would have been like Narnia.  Just because animals talk doesn't mean a book is going to be enjoyable (sort of how I felt about The Magicians).

I don't think I ever read 1984, I imagine because of my Orwellian traumatization.   I have it in my head that I started it at some point in high school, made a face, and went back to Tolkien.

Jump to 2017, and I've at last read, and been thoroughly horrified and depressed by 1984.    It's my own damn fault I have to read it too.  I wasn't ever planning on reading it, but it's for my book club.  My book club book this month was supposed to be Connie Willis's Crosstalk (my choice) but I suggested we read 1984 because since the election of our current authoritarian-in-chief and the decline of our government, 1984 has been one of Amazon.com's bestsellers (it's current at 31).  And everyone agreed, and now here I am, depressed.

Jesus, this book is depressing.  Orwell gives us no fucking hope whatsoever.  The world is going to de-evolve into a nightmarishly totalitarian place, and there doesn't seem to be a damn thing we can do about.  Fuck you Orwell.  Fuck you.

I completely ken why people are reading the book (again).  I would be arguing that he-who-must-not-be-named seems to have taken some of his raison d'etre right from the pages of 1984 except it's becoming more and more obvious that he-who-must-not-be-named is (insert word meaning "knows how to read but is too stupid to actually read anything other than a tweet about himself").  But the minions of he-who-must-not-be-named have clearly read this book; it's almost a like a playbook (along with Mein Kampf).   His and their mastery of Orwell's doublethink and doublespeak; his and their scary ability to manipulate the past to control the present (but hopefully and wishfully and prayerfully NOT the future); his and their use of the a modern medium ("let's all sing like the birdies sing... tweet, tweet tweet, tweet tweet...") to keep half the masses frothing and ranting and raving and on their side.  Additionally, there is Orwell's idea of a society based the retention of power rather than class that resonated as well.  I also keep thinking about "it was only a hopeless fancy," the essentially meaningless "prole" song of the moment created by Big Brother and Co. as part of an unending series of "bread and circuses" meant to dupe the ignorant public (Kardashian, anyone?).  And never ending wars the public gets all riled up and patriotic about periodically, but most of the time ignore (this isn't just a Trumpian thing though).  And a police state.  And everything being political (on both the left and the right).  And how what used to be orthodoxy has become the golden mean...

There is too much of a mirror here; too goddamned much.

The world is not 1984.  Yet.  I don't think we are being spied on through our t.v. screens.  Just our internet.


Orwell is obsessed with sex.  I guess he was writing in a more repressed time than our own, and sexual freedom and expression seemed like A Big Deal then.  Not so much now.


As a book, it's really pedantic.  I thought Orwell had A Point To Make, which was made at the expense of most of what makes up a story.  That said, some of the book was quite gripping.  I didn't particularly like anyone in the book, but they all had tough lives and had been molded into unpleasant people, so I can forgive them that.  

19841984 by George Orwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let's start with the fact that in seventh or eighth grade, I read Animal Farm thinking it was going to be like Narnia for grownups, because it had talking animals in it, and it wasn't like those books AT ALL. I mean, if instead of Edmund Lucy had betrayed Tumnus to the White Witch and Lucy herself made Tumnus into glue, then Animal Farm would have been like Narnia. Just because animals talk doesn't mean a book is going to be enjoyable (sort of how I felt about The Magicians). Because of my Orwellian traumatization, I've avoided 1984 until now, and now only because my book club is reading this (at my suggestion too, what a fool I was, what an addlepated fool). By the last page, I was morose as f&&& (thanks again Orwell). Lord, this book is depressing. Orwell gives us no f&&&ing hope whatsoever. The world is going to de-evolve into a nightmarishly totalitarian hell hole, and there doesn't seem to be a damn thing we can do about (side note: the polar bears are all going to die too). F&&& you Orwell. F&&& you. However, I completely understand why so many people (of a certain political bent) are reading this right now (again for most, I imagine) though; 1984 seems to be the playbook for our current national government. All that doublespeak and doublethink tweet tweet tweeting forth from he-who-must-be-named must have Orwell staring down (or up?) with bemused horror.

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich; read by Nicolle Littrell (1999)

"Sadness overwhelmed her when she tasted the sweetness."  Erdrich, in her beautiful, simple language, is describing the feelings of Omakayas, an Ojibwa girl from the 1840s.  Omakayas and her family are out "sugaring" from maple trees; spring is in the air, everything seems happy, gay, carefree.  But Omakayas is remembering the hard winter that was just ending, when smallpox struck, killing many, including her beloved baby brother and a dear friend.  This line could also be describing this incredible book.  It's a sweet book, but also tinged with sadness.  It's meta sadness too; we are sad for Omakayas and her family, but we are also sad because we know what is coming - hints of the "chimookoman," the white man eventually driving them away is present throughout the novel; also sadness for a lost way of life.  Not simple; this isn't a romantic view of the Enlightenment noble red savage.  The life of Omakayas is difficult, with much concentration on finding food and making a living.  Sickness and death is present from the very beginning as well.  But the sadness lies in this people and their ways, gone for over a hundred and fifty years.  A sweetness tinged with sadness.

An adult reader - and a particularly knowledgeable younger reader, can't help but to compare another little house in the woods of the upper midwest, that of Laura Ingalls Wilder.   Erdrich seems to be telling a mirrored story of Laura and her family; the setting is the similar (a little birchbark house); the narrative voice is similar (American plain style writing?); Wilder goes into detail about various day-to-day activities, so does Erdrich.  The Ingalls family and Omakayas's family both have "sugaring" parties, although with different outcomes. Both Laura and Omakayas describe in loving detail their cousins.     Both characters suffered a hard winter, although Laura was much older (both families nearly starved to death though).  

This isn't Little House though; you shouldn't dive into this book thinking that it's a carbon copy with Native Americans standing in.  For one thing, Laura Ingalls Wilder, like Omakayas, had a little brother who died; Erdrich decided to make that death one of the central points of action of the book; Wilder left her little brother completely out.  The Little House books are tinged (tainted?) with Rose Wilder Lane's Libertarian beliefs; the Ingalls are always headed west (happily so) and completely rely on themselves (which wasn't really true).  Omakayas and her family will eventually and unhappily head west, against their will; they also have a close knit and supportive community that helps one another.  Differences are celebrated as well; Old Tallow is one of my favorite characters, a woman who hunts bears and lives like man, breaking gender stereotypes (as well as Native American stereotypes, I think).  The family is also mixed race, with French as well as Ojibwa ancestry. 

 I still love the Little House books after all these years, although I can see their flaws.  I love The Birchbark House just as much.  

I would love to see Laura and Omakayas meet and exchange stories; let's add Caddie Woodlawn in there as well.  They can all go whoop Nellie Olsen's ass.

The Birchbark HouseThe Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Sadness overwhelmed her when she tasted the sweetness." That's how Omakayas, the main character, felt when tasting spring maple sugar after a particularly brutal and deadly winter. That's also how I felt when reading this book. It's superbly simple story, but rich in character, plot and detail. It's also a sweet story, because Omakayas, her pet crow, her bratty little brother, her beautiful older sister, are all crafted so lovingly and carefully. But sadness will overwhelm you, dear reader - Erdrich doesn't let us look at 1840s Native American life with rose colored glasses. You are sad because of some plot points (which I won't spoil) and you are sad because Erdrich hints - and you know - that chimookoman, white people, are coming to drive Omakayas and her family away. You are sad because a way of life is going to disappear.

Erdrich seems to be taking another little house story, that of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and taking some of the themes found in those famous books, and skewing them in such a way to make you think, contrast and compare. Discerning lovers of the Little House books who also recognize their flaws will enjoy this book as much or more. Both have similar settings, simple writing styles, are family and "small adventure" driven, and contain many details of a past way of life. Even some of the scenes in the book are similar - both have maple sugaring parties, for example, although quite different. But Erdrich isn't giving us a carbon copy of the Little House books with Ojibwa stand-ins. Erdrich's character are more varied, and the addition of Old Tallow, a gender-norm breaking female bear hunter, as well as another female cousin who runs with the boys, gives girls like this some characters to relate to - the Little House books are always reminding poor Laura to be a regular girl, not herself (although Laura chafes at this throughout the series, and in real life too).

I've read this book at least twice, listened to it on audio once - and each time come away more impressed. It's a marvelous book. I would love to see Laura and Omakayas meet and exchange stories; let's add Caddie Woodlawn Caddie Woodlawn in there as well. And Nellie Olsen - we can see how these four very different girls from the same time period would interact. What a delight that would be!

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