Earlier this week, a library patron stopped by the reference desk to execute the perfect 30-second book review. He displayed the actual product, cover facing out (good for us visual learners) and swiftly encapsulated its appeal: it’s a mystery that he’d recommend even to those who don’t favor mysteries because it’s laden with concepts you likely hadn’t thought about before.
The book in question, by Nicholas Kilmer (grandson of “Trees” poet Joyce Kilmer) was Butterfly in Flame, part of the Fred Taylor series. As an art consultant, Fred gains entrée into all sorts of aesthetic and esoteric situations in the course of crime-solving. The appreciative customer, who happens to be a painter, was gratified to gain a practical tip from the story: while oil paintings should be rolled face-in, acrylic works should face out (something about the elasticity–or lack thereof–of the medium).
Who doesn’t love to discover serendipitous tidbits like that? The book I’ve just finished is full of them –though so light in the Mystery department that it should probably move to Fiction. Alice Duncan’s Hungry Spirits hooked me with its 1921 Pasadena, California, setting and novel protagonist: Daisy Majesty is a 21-year-old California girl with a personality seemingly destined for Flapperhood.
But Daisy’s husband has returned from battle severely disabled, a circumstance which prompts young Mrs. Majesty to inventory her talents and set herself up in the lucrative business of telling fortunes and spirit-guiding at séances. From that vantage point, she blithely narrates the adventures of her extended family, including an aunt who lost a son in the war and who was widowed by the 1918 influenza epidemic.
Like post-World War I America, Daisy’s multigenerational clan chooses hopefulness over dreariness. Casting Daisy as breadwinner is actually an inside joke. Guilted into giving cooking lessons to war refugees, Daisy has for textbook the dreaded Sixty-Five Delicious Dishes Made with Bread. An actual 1919 publication available from online stores, this carb-laden culinary guide operates on the belief that everyone can afford bread. Besides, it goes stale, thus requiring creative repurposing. Readers witness preparation of snicker-inducing concoctions like *fried-bread “castles” filled with peas and white sauce.
Back then, carbohydrates were “starch”; macaroni was purchased in long tubes and broken into pieces by hand. But vintage nutritional trivia wasn’t the only reason the story frequently piqued my curiosity. I made mental notes to learn more about veteran victims of mustard gas, the spiritualism fad in the early twentieth century, Pasadena’s history, and some of the books Daisy’s family checked out from the Pasadena Public Library in 1921. Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs were big even then.
Completely unrelated fun fact from 2011, not 1921: Adults who return a completed log for Round Rock Public Library’s grownup summer reading program July 5 through July 10 will receive a free beverage koozy. This promotion won’t be mentioned anywhere else!