I have always had trouble concentrating on one thing for a long period of time. That aspect of my makeup even extends to my choice of books. Fortunately, I have time to jump from one genre to another whenever I please. The books that I discuss below illustrate the variety of books that intrigue me.
I have seen the 1932 mystery movie The Penguin Pool Murder that features the spinster school teacher/sleuth Hildegarde Withers (Edna May Oliver) and Police Inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason) a number of times on the Turner Classic Movies channel, but I only recently realized that the movie was based on the 1931 novel of the same name by Stuart Palmer (1905 – 1968). Nor did I know that Palmer wrote 14 Hildegarde Withers novels (beginning with The Penguin Pool Murder) and numerous short stories about her adventures. The book begins with Withers taking her elementary school class to an aquarium on a field trip. While there she sees a body in the penguin tank, and ends up helping Piper find the murderer. It was fun to read the novel, but I couldn’t help visualizing Oliver and Gleason in their movie roles as Miss Withers and Inspector Piper as I read the book. Withers and Piper seemed to have a grudging respect for one another, but the ending of the book indicated that their feelings for one another were much deeper than I suspected.
When I first saw the dashing Zorro on TV back in the late-50s Disney TV program, I was fascinated. We kids spent a lot of time drawing Zs in the air just as Zorro did with his sword – except he usually did it on the uniform of the buffoon Sergeant Garcia. Guy Williams had the role of Zorro in the Disney series while Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas played Zorro in two feature films – one in 1998 and the other in 2005. Zorro’s life began over 90 years ago as the main character in Johnston McCulley’s 1924 novel The Mark of Zorro. In that novel Zorro takes on the persona of the foppish son of a wealthy man, but becomes the dashing hero when the helpless are being persecuted. McCulley would write other books about Zorro, but the ending of The Mark of Zorro leads one to believe that he didn’t originally intend to do so.
The Lodger (1913) by Marie Belloc Lowndes (sister of the writer Hilaire Belloc) is a mystery novel that reminds us of the case of London’s Jack the Ripper (who was active from 1888 to about 1891) . It has to do with a very strange man who takes lodgings in the home of a couple, Robert and Ellen Bunting, who were formerly servants in other people’s homes. They have fallen on hard times and are delighted when this man moves in, but they (especially Ellen) become more and more concerned about their lodger as his habit of occasionally going out in the middle of the night seems to coincide with the brutal murders of young women. And Ellen occasionally overhears the lodger reading the Bible and ranting about loose women. The plot thickens when Robert’s beautiful, young daughter (from a previous marriage) comes for a visit. Will the lodger notice her? Will it be safe to leave her alone with the lodger? How will Lowndes end the novel (since Jack the Ripper was never identified)? I think it’s worth reading The Lodger to find out.
The Lodger was first filmed as a silent movie in 1927 by director Alfred Hitchcock, but the story was modified greatly. The novel has had many adaptations for the screen and radio over the years. Some of the radio adaptations can be found at the bottom of the Wikipedia article on the silent film.
What if Charles Lindbergh, a fan of Hitler, had run against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and won? Would we have entered World War II on the side of Great Britain and France? Would the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor? Those are two of the many questions answered in Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America. To make the story personal, Roth put himself and his family at the center of the action. I found this to be a well-constructed, thought-provoking novel with some plot twists that even tie in with the kidnapping of Lindbergh’s son. Unlike many of Roth’s books, there is little sex in it, and (as strange as it may seem) there are numerous funny moments that counterbalance the plight of American Jews when crushing anti-Semitism becomes prevalent in America with the blessing of President Lindbergh.
I am a big fan of Voltaire, but not as big as I was before I read Passionate Minds: Émilie du Châtelet, Voltaire, and the Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment by David Bodanis. This 2006 biography introduced me to a brilliant woman who has been marginalized by history just as she was by most men (and women) during her lifetime. Women authors had problems, but their problems were nothing compared to those of Émilie du Châtelet who grew up loving science and who, as an adult, turned out to be a gifted mathematician despite her lack of formal education (because she was a mere woman). Bodanis presents Émilie as a woman who was probably smarter than Voltaire, had more common sense, and lacked the massive ego that often got him in trouble. Voltaire was often at odds with the French censors and with influential Frenchmen, but many of his troubles would never have existed if he had simply followed Émilie’s advice. Bodanis characterizes the relationships between French men and women of the eighteenth century as being very tied to their libidos. When couples married it was understood that both parties would discretely take lovers soon thereafter. In the case of Émilie and Voltaire, her husband and Voltaire actually became good friends even though her husband was fully aware of the long-running relationship between Voltaire and his wife. From start to finish I found this a fascinating book, but the death of Émilie after giving birth to the child of another of her lovers was heartbreaking. And it was heartbreaking to know how much more she could have contributed to science and mathematics if she had only been given a chance.
Judy Blume’s books are often at or near the top of banned or contested book lists, so I decided to read one of them to find out what they contain that is so horrible. I chose Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. (1970) because it is so often listed as the most offensive of her many books. There were two aspects of this novel that would surely outrage certain groups of people. Margaret is reaching puberty, and she and her friends have very frank conversations about what is happening to their bodies. Margaret also has a mother whose fundamentalist Christian parents have disowned her (and, by extension, Margaret) because she married a Jew. Blume is writing for young people, and she is writing about subjects that are important to them. I understand that some people don’t want their children to be exposed to those subjects by books they consider unacceptable, but I hope that my 12-year old granddaughter will read this particular book in the near future. It might help her to better understand what’s going on as she is transformed from a girl into a woman.