Book Review: The Five Minute Marriage

Book Review: The Five-Minute Marriage

Author: Joan Aiken

Date: 1977

Publisher: Warner (paperback), Doubleday (hardcover)

ISBN: 0-446-89682-9

Length: 280 pages of text

Quote: “My uncle is so set on the marriage between my two cousins, that he intends to disinherit them both if the wedding does not take place before his death.”

Conrad Aiken, the well-known American poet, had two daughters who grew up in England. Neither tried to write the sort of very very serious and ambitious novels or poems their father wrote. Jane Aiken Hodges specialized in period romances; Joan Aiken (who also married) wrote a few period romances, a few ghost stories, a few murder mysteries, a few contemporary novels, a few imitations of Jane Austen, and one volume of light verse, but was best known for stories about children. Indeed a pair of children, usually a brother and a sister, always “gifted,” emotionally but not physically precocious, are a sort of trademark of her fiction; they’re in this romance too.

The most conspicuous feature of this novel is that Ms. Aiken was obviously playing with the genre. This is a Regency Romance with all the trimmings, the nice but poor girl adrift in a hard world with a mother who’s more of a burden than a protector, the handsome hero who doesn’t seem too promising at first but comes through for the heroine in the end, and all the historical details at a convenient distance from the action…but everybody, arguably including the heroine, Philadelphia or Delphie, has a given name lifted from Arthurian romance, and the hero is burdened with a family name that you’re meant to pronounce like “Pennystone” while you see it as a rude joke.

In the years to come, in her novels for Jane Austen fans, Joan Aiken would really pitch into the bizarre mix of snobbery and misogyny that seems to have complicated women’s lives at the turn of the eighteenth century. In this novel she accepts it. Delphie is obliged to marry Gareth because her uncle thinks she’s Gareth’s first cousin; she consents to the marriage on the promise that it can be dissolved easily once her uncle dies, but the plot thickens…it doesn’t have to make sense, hey? It’s a Regency Romance…Cousin Elaine may be trying to kill Delphie, Cousin Mordred overtly tries to kill Gareth, various other vague and/or illegitimate relatives complicate matters as much as possible…anyway, at the beginning Gareth and Delphie don’t like each other, at the end they do, and all the plot twists tie up in the requisite cellophane-transparent heart-shaped bow at the end.

You won’t believe it. You’re not actually meant to believe it. You’re meant to laugh, and feel relief that your own love life, however messy it may be, is surely less preposterous than Delphie’s. That you will do.

I have exactly one serious objection to this novel, apart from my feeling that editors should have insisted on spelling Gareth’s family name “Pennystone.” The objection is that, if this should happen to be the first of Joan Aiken’s books you read, you might not go on to read and appreciate the books Aiken herself seems to have taken more seriously. This is an amusing romp through the ridiculous, hardly to be compared with the mock-history series that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the character studies of The Girl from Paris or If I Were You, the nonstop nonsense of Arabel’s Raven, the dreamlike stories in Not What You Expected, the subtle social commentary of Morningquest, or the right-to-death eloquence of Midwinter Nightingale.

Though Joan Aiken no longer needs a dollar, readers “meeting” this writer for the first time should visit the blog about her books maintained by her heirs: Some writers’ heirs seem to prefer that the writers’ books quietly disappear and stop reminding them of what they’ve lost. Other writers’ heirs, like Walter Hooper with C.S. Lewis and, apparently, Lizza Aiken with Joan Aiken, keep the books alive for one or more generations after the writers are gone. There won’t be any more books by Joan Aiken but there are plenty of them already (she wrote more than a hundred), and many are still in print.

Anyway, to buy The Five-Minute Marriage (and other vintage Aiken books) here, send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. If you buy four books for a total of $25 that may work out to less than you’d pay some other sellers whose per-book price appears, at first, to be much lower, so shop carefully.

Morguefile book review cat:

blogjob cat

Book Review: Little Town at the Crossroads

Book Review: Little Town at the Crossroads

Author: Maria D. Wilkes

Author’s web site:

Date: 1997

Publisher: Harper Collins

ISBN: 0-06-440651-2

Length: 343 pages

Quote: “Before Laura Ingalls Wilder ever penned the Little House books, she wrote to her aunt Martha Quiner Carpenter, asking her to ‘tell the story of those days’ when she and Laura’s mother, Caroline, were growing up in Brookfield, Wisconsin.”

And this is the book Maria D. Wilkes made out of the story Aunt Martha told. Laura Ingalls’ mother and sister make friends with a German immigrant girl who spells English words correctly but pronounces the letters “Ah-bay-tsay-day-ay,” and so on, so she can’t be given credit in spelling bees. Laura’s Uncle Henry brings in passenger pigeons to cook into pigeon pies. Woodchucks attack the garden just in time to win the children the right to keep a dog, even though their widowed mother hasn’t felt able to afford to feed a dog. There’s a Maple Syrup Festival and an Independence Day parade.

Apart from being illustrated by Dan Andreasen rather than Garth Williams, this book is much like the original Little House books, with memories of how people used to do everyday work told as vividly as memories of special events. Elementary school readers should be able to enjoy it; if they’re interested in old crafts and old songs, they may enjoy rereading it every year.

Although there are those who think the original “Little House” series (Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, Farmer Boy, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, The First Four Years, and some would add On the Way Home, West from Home, and Young Pioneers) was sufficient unto itself, the descendants of Ma and Pa Ingalls preserved enough other family letters and souvenirs to have inspired storybooks about Laura’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother as little girls. A certain sense of authenticity has of course been sacrificed: these are reconstructions, not memoirs. Children, however, affirm on Amazon that the additions to the “Little House” collection others have made after Rose Wilder Lane’s lifetime are still good reads.

Maria D. Wilkes, who has outed herself as being known in real life as Maria DiVincenzo, is alive and maintains an historical research web site. Therefore Little Town at the Crossroads is a Fair Trade Book. If you buy it here, for $5 per book + $5 per package, I’ll send Wilkes or a charity of her choice $1 per book sold. That’s more than some Amazon sellers are asking, but if you order four books for a total of $25, you may be ahead financially to buy the books here–and if they’re all by Maria D. Wilkes, she or her charity will receive $4. Payments may be sent to either of the addresses in the lower left-hand corner of the screen.

Here, for Google + purposes, is our Morguefile Book Review Cat:

blogjob cat

Book Review: Let’s Stop Beating Around the Bush

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Let’s Stop Beating Around the Bush

Author: Jim Hightower

Date: 2004

Publisher: Viking

ISBN: 0-670-03354-5

Length: 227 pages, plus index

Quote: “The Bushites are—let me put this as politely as I can—NUTS!…and it’s time we stopped beating around the bush about it.”

What’s an anti-Republican campaign book like this doing on this web site? Although the Blogspot members and I believe that, currently, Republican presidential and congressional candidates are the less dangerous kind, we are all about fair hearings for all sides. Facts tend to be arranged in slanted ways by biased writers, so it’s good to read both Republicans’ and Democrats’ books.

In this book, Jim Hightower demonstrates his skill at a specific genre of comedy: Pick a successful politician, find some statistics about what he’s done, and exaggerate the bad effects for which the politician can in some way be blamed. Extrapolate from every statistic the most outrageous ramifications: “If Bush is elected, you’ll soon be able to surf in Asheville.” “American will reach that long-sought utopian ideal of a nation based on 100% pure consumerism.” “You’ll soon be able to eat [B]russels sprouts that not only taste like bonbons but also will have your heartburn medicine and erectile dysfunction pills genetically spliced into every bite.”

It was funny but perhaps frightening when it was new. Now that W Bush’s second term has come and gone, and we still have the same coastline, a few of us are still working, and Brussels sprouts still taste like leafy green vegetables, it’s comedy all the way. Any time people try to project today’s facts into the future, they’re likely to come up with things as absurd as Hightower’s fantasy about Brussels sprouts tasting like bonbons. That’s the nature of the game. So people trying to draw attention to today’s facts can be excused for going all the way into comédie noire. What’s inexcusable is ignoring the facts.

The sad part is, the facts in Let’s Stop Beating Around the Bush are still true. “Having blasted off the top third or so of a mountain—along with its forests and animals—the coal companies then bulldoze the rubble (which used to be the mountaintop) into the valleys and streams below, burying them hundreds of feet deep with what the companies call ‘spoil.’” This has happened. It’s still happening. And we’re not seeing any efforts on the part of W Bush’s alleged opposition to reverse this process.

Where I live, Republicans have started displaying messages like “If you think coal is ugly, look at poverty.” I am looking at poverty, and I can say that I would literally starve before I’d strip-mine my land…but then I don’t have children. By and large coal miners do not want to poison us all; the ones I’ve met are human beings who want to earn a decent living in their own communities. To Republicans I say: there must be some alternative that is preferable to either strip-mining or poverty.

Possibly as a reward for buying a real book instead of trying to read Hightower on a computer, we’re told, “Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and the other pooh-bahs of high-techery…brag that theirs is a ‘clean industry.’…They might try selling that…[claim] to the people around Guiya, China. This is one of the low-wage hellholes that America’s high-tech executives use as a dumping ground for their electronics waste, which includes some 45 million computers that are discarded annually…Computers are loaded with toxins…Poor Asians are paid a pittance to scavenge various metals and other resalable compounds out of these machines. Indeed, about 100,000 people, including thousands of children, in Guiya toil in the midst of piles of electronic trash, using acid to extract traces of gold, dumping cathode-ray tubs filled with lead, opening toner cartridges by hand…Guiya’s groundwater is now so polluted that the people have to truck in water for human use.”

Think about this the next time you call the repair shop and they say, “It would be cheaper to buy a new computer.” For you, maybe…but think about the human beings stuck with the horrible job of “recycling” your old computer. Maybe secondhand parts will serve your needs until you can move back to a clean, Green, non-electric and fully recyclable metal typewriter, or until the industry invents a less toxic way to build computers, after all.

And let’s hope none of the male readers of this book is still buying herbicides to give his lawn that Astroturf look that went out of style approximately five minutes after Astroturf was invented. “Atrazine is the most commonly used weed killer…Atrazine residue runs off into our waterways, and it’s now found in our drinking water, groundwater, streams, snow runoff, etc.—even rain…Atrazine causes male frog cells to produce an enzyme that converts their testosterone to estrogen, perverting their sexuality and destroying their reproductivity…The Environmental Protection Agency allows three parts per billion of atrazine in our drinking water. Yet the frog mutation is taking place in water with only one tenth of one part per billion.” And some people are still looking for a genetic cause for homosexuality?

Hightower is a full-time professional Democrat who would probably like to be called his party’s answer to Rush Limbaugh. He wrote this book as a campaign document, a bit of Bush-bashing. The facts are, however, bipartisan. The real enemy is selfish greed, which affects Democrats and Republicans in similar ways. “Just when you start to cheer for these Democrats, their leader gets caught…In 2001, on the night of December 20…Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle [was] slipping a little ol’ provision into the ‘miscellaneous’ section of the Pentagon’s appropriation bill. Tom’s amendment had been written…on behalf of Barrick Gold…one of the biggest mining corporations in the world…Barrick owns a massive gold mine in Tom’s state of South Dakota…[T]his mine is in line to become another Superfund site, potentially costing the company $40 million to clean up…Daschle’s little ol’ amendment…exempts Barrick Gold from ‘any and all liability relating to the mine’! It exonerates this corporation for all ‘damages to natural resources or the environment.’”

Facts, Gentle Readers. You could read’em and weep. Or, with Hightower’s help, you can read them with a smile…if only the kind of peculiar twisted grin George H.W. Bush wore while declaring the Gulf War. Why agonize when you can strategize? Satire can be a good source of ideas. Fact-packed satires are the best. Check the facts! Use them! Don’t let them be forgotten, merely because the election’s over and the predictions went the way of last week’s weather forecast. Hightower hands us names, and since you’re reading this review on a computer you can type in the names and use the Internet to update the numbers. Thirteen years after the 2004 election, this book is surprisingly relevant.

Hightower is alive and writing at . So, this and his other vintage books are Fair Trade Books. For $5 per book + $5 per package, payable to either address in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, you get a clean secondhand copy and Hightower or a charity of his choice gets $1. If the Postal Service is still using the same packages they used the last time I shipped books, you could throw in at least There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos and possibly If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates for a total of $20 (all three, paperback), and Hightower or his charity would get $3. He’s written another book; as usual, we recommend buying new books from bookstores, book parties, or authors’ web sites, whenever possible, to encourage writers.

Morguefile book review cat:

blogjob cat

Book Review: Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail

Author: Christopher Dawes

Date: 2005

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton / Thunders Mouth

ISBN: 1-50625-678-8

Length: 322 pages

Quote: “[T]he man who sits up there with Johnny Rotten and the ghost of Sid Vicious in the very highest of the high chairs of punk rock infamy was, quite literally, on my doorstep.”

Probably not altogether by accident, music journalist Christopher Dawes found himself living across the street from semi-retired punker Rat Scabies. The two became friends, and one day Scabies proposed a treasure hunt in France. The real purpose of the hunt was to find out how an obscure, probably crooked, French priest had gone from poverty to extreme wealth about a hundred years ago. Some reasonable explanations are discovered but, because they find it interesting, Dawes and Scabies report at length on the little international community of people who believe the priest might have found ancient treasure—possibly the treasure of the Merovingian kings who were supposed to have possessed the Holy Grail.

References to the Indiana Jones movies, which I’ve managed to avoid seeing, are scattered thickly throughout this book. Whenever someone does something bizarre there seems to be an Indiana Jones tie-in. There are also coded texts in Latin, references to a wildly speculative historical study called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and lots of visits to the kind of obscure attractions of France—intermittent springs, natural and human-enhanced rock formations, mountain landscapes in which medieval minds traced mystic symbols—that interest me more than resorts and museums. Neither Dawes nor Scabies speaks French fluently, so there’s also the plausible detail that all the people they talk to are fellow English-speakers, that they’re never told as much about an attraction as they might have been told.

They don’t come home wealthy, but they have a book-worthy series of comic, scholarly, and sometimes dangerous adventures. And, along the way, those of us who’ve never liked punk rock get a look at a real punker. Behind the atonal music and grotesque makeup, Scabies turns out to have matured as a gentleman, a scholar, and apparently a decent husband…quite a surprise for those who’ve assumed that all the original punkers must have OD’d or committed suicide by now.

Do I believe even as much of this preposterous story as Dawes claims is true? I think, on the whole, I do…because I’ve read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and talked to people who are into that kind of thing. They’re quirky, but real, and this is the sort of thing they get up to. They’re well worth knowing for about as long as it takes to read a 322-page account of some of their adventures.

Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail is recommended to those who like adventure, comedy, and/or medieval history.

Christopher Dawes is alive and still writing, though not apparently on the Internet (his other works include some unmentionable punk-appeal titles and a book about laser welding), so this is a Fair Trade Book. As usual, sending $5 per book + $5 per package to either of the addresses in the lower left-hand corner gets a clean secondhand copy sent to you and $1 sent to Dawes or a charity of his choice. If you want four copies, send me $25 and Dawes or his charity will receive $4.

Medieval French castle from NicH at Morguefile:


Each President Had Something to Teach Us

This post started out as an exercise in improvisation: “Improvise a speech supporting or refuting the statement that each of our past Presidents has something to teach us.” I limited myself to the ones that people I knew remembered…

Woodrow Wilson: Though not allowed to vote, a woman can function as President. (At least if she’s Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, who, even in Virginia’s Fightin’ Ninth District, was a woman you didn’t meet every day.)

Warren G. Harding: (It is hard to find good things to say about President Harding, but he did leave a generous bequest to a church college.) You don’t have to remain a member of a church to be loyal to the people whose fellowship you have abandoned.

Calvin Coolidge: Quiet is good.

Herbert Hoover: A person who genuinely rises above the love of money may be hated more than a corrupt sell-out like Warren G. Harding. (My grandfather was a great fan of President Hoover.)

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Polio survivors can be strong and tough.

Harry Truman: Any U.S. citizen can be President.

Dwight D. Eisenhower: Hating the Third Reich has nothing to do with hating German people.

John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you but…” Or, if the Old Left’s most beloved icon of the twentieth century were around in this century, he’d be mistaken for a Right-Wing Wacko Bird. (Though he could disprove the accusation.)

Lyndon B. Johnson: It’s possible to die from guilt, if you have been the worst President of the century.

Richard Nixon: It’s possible to live with the guilt if you were only the third worst President of the century. (Nobody liked President Nixon much, but at the time the EPA was a big improvement over what we’d had before–nothing–and the food stamps program was an even bigger improvement over what we’d had before–donations of incredibly bad food to poor people.)

Gerald Ford: A nice guy can be President if he’s tall, decent-looking, and extremely rich.

Jimmy Carter: The President of the United States can walk on his own two feet, in public, no matter how the guards carry on. (Carter may not be remembered among our best Presidents, but he’s been a world-class public relations man for a world-class charity.)

Ronald Reagan: An aging actor who’s never had a good part before can be a great President if that happens to be the type he plays best.

George H.W. Bush: American body-type prejudice is truly ridiculous. (Although he was taller, stronger, and more dangerous than President Reagan, fair hair and a tenor voice caused him to be tagged as a “wimp.”)

Bill Clinton: An easy way to distract attention from ordinary bad ideas is to blame each bad idea on a subordinate employee. An easy way to distract attention from disastrously bad ideas is to get caught in a stupid lie about whether you got someone else’s clothes dirty. An easy way to be fondly remembered afterward is to claim the credit for subordinate employees’ good ideas.

George W. Bush: If your father has started a blood feud, and you get yourself elected to public office and get thousands of your constituents killed in an act of war aimed directly at you, it is possible to look wholesome enough on TV that many Americans will forgive you for it.

Barack Obama: A President who has really learned from all the foregoing examples, especially that of W Bush, can sponsor some of the world’s worst ideas and still be reelected…at least, by virtual ballots.

Image of past Presidents, looking worried, by Sgarton at .