Tuesday, March 31, 2009

89 (2009 #14). Lincoln: A Photobiography

by Russell Freedman,
read by Robert Petkoff


I’ve always had a soft spot for Abraham Lincoln. Like my dad, I was born in Illinois (my mom and my four other siblings are all native Houstonians). In fact, my paternal great-great grandfather, Fred Dienes (1828-1896), owned a hat store in Springfield, Illinois and supposedly sold a hat to Lincoln. Maybe his store is somewhere in this photograph (also found in black and white in the book on page 29):

About 40 years ago, I wrote an essay on Lincoln and won a trip to Washington, DC, for the inauguration. And now I live in Granbury, where John Wilkes Booth (who allegedly was not killed after the assassination of Lincoln) lived as John St. Helen. Supposedly his ghost haunts the Opera House on the downtown square (just a half mile from my house), and the gun used in the assassination was found just two blocks from my home.

So I was excited to see that Russell Freedman’s 1988 Newbery winner, Lincoln: A Photobiography was now available as an audiobook (no doubt due to the 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial). The second disc includes an interview with the author and is enhanced with a Flash slideshow of a few (but nowhere near all) of the archival photographs from the book. Broadway and movie actor Robert Petkoff narrates the book, providing variation in voices for the numerous quotations (by and about Lincoln) used throughout it.

This audiobook was fascinating. Freedman chose details (and quotes) that would be of interest to both children and adults, and wove them into a cohesive narrative. I thought I knew a lot about Lincoln (thanks to all that essay contest research years ago), but I learned a lot from this book.

Despite my fondness for audiobooks, this is one that definitely should be paired with the book. The Flash slide show only includes a few photos from the book, probably because permission could not be obtained from the various sources (listed on page 145 of the book) to use all of them in the Flash format. There are a couple of great series of photos of Lincoln, one set (pages 64-65) showing the progression of his beard growth in 1860-61, and another set (pages 116-117) showing how the strain of the Civil War aged him. The print book also includes appendices on Lincoln memorials/monuments/museums and books about Lincoln, and an index. I could definitely see a struggling reader using the audiobook along with the print version.

On the other hand, the interview with Freedman on the audiobook is valuable, with some great quotes of its own: his advice to "...make use of the library and the precious help of the librarian, and not to trust everything you see on the Internet,” and “Biography lends itself to the art of narrative…to the fascinating spectacle of character meeting circumstance and either changing events or being changed by them—or both, as happened to Lincoln.”

Referring to the research he did for this book, which included travel to many sites relevant to Lincoln, Freedman also said, “Everything you see with your own eyes adds to your understanding of the life and times you are writing about.” He also said, “I wish I’d been able to include more in my book about Lincoln as a writer...He wrote every word of every speech himself, and yet writing did not come easily to him...he re-wrote, revised, and polished...He was a writer I admire greatly.”

Speaking of writing, Lincoln described it as “enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space” (p. 135). I discovered this quote has an interesting history, being part of a much longer lecture on “Discoveries and Inventions” that Lincoln delivered in a number of Illinois towns. Probably the best thing about Lincoln: A Photobiography is that it took me days to write this review, because I kept exploring little tidbits in it like the photograph of 1858 Springfield (part of a postcard series) and quotes like the one on writing (which led to learning Lincoln actually had an invention patented). A book that can inspire that kind of curiosity is rare. I wish this book had been available when I wrote my essay all those years ago!

Monday, March 23, 2009

88 (2009 #13). Baby Jesus Pawn Shop

by Lucia Orth

Set in the Philippines around 1982, during the years of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, this debut novel contrasts the life of poverty of typical Filipinos with that of their wealthy countrymen and of the American diplomats who aide in propping up Marcos in order to maintain US military bases on the islands.

American Rue Caldwell is different from most diplomat's wives, with a job in a local science nonprofit. She is attracted to her husband's driver, Doming Aquinaldo, who is struggling with his own desires for revenge for his labor organizer's father's death at the hands of Marcos cronies.

Author Lucia Orth, who like Rue spent five years with a nonprofit in Manila, does an outstanding job evoking the Philippine setting so that the reader feels s/he is there. The characters, plot, and book title are intriguing.

The only problem I had with the book was its (hardbound edition) cover. I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The pair of eyes and dagger on the blood red cover, with this title, would not have compelled me to pick up the book in a library or book store - and that would have been my loss.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

87 (2009 #12). A Gentle Rain

by Deborah Smith

I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and read it during Spring Break, which turned out to be appropriate timing.

Typical of its genre, this romance was ultimately predictable, but still a fun and easy escapist read. Like some of the events in the story (like the untrained heroine becoming a barrel racing champion on a nearly-wild horse in just a few months), most of the characters are a little "too-too" to be true. Ben Thocco, the hero, is a Seminole struggling rancher who used to be a Mexican wrestler (and gigolo), who the adopted-now-orphaned, wealthy, can-do-anything heroine, Kara Whittenbrook (aka Karen Johnson) drooled over while her environmentalist adoptive parents worked in Brazil. The supporting characters (mostly mentally-challenged ranch hands, including Ben's Down Syndrome younger brother and Kara's birth parents) are all good, and the villains are all bad. Nevertheless, I particularly enjoyed the depiction of the setting of rural, non-tourist Florida. Good beach reading.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

86 (2009 #11). The View from Saturday

by E. L. Konigsburg

I have mixed feelings about this book. Personally, I loved it, I could really relate to it, and I thought it was very well written. Conversely, this is one of those Newbery winners that probably appeals to adults more than children.

This book received the Newbery in 1997, the year my son started sixth grade. He was in an advanced program and on the math team. I was a bit of a nerd myself at that age (Who am I kidding? I’m STILL a nerd), winning the science fair and the spelling bee. I could SO relate to the Academic Bowl team in this story (from page 148, “Here were four kids who could speak in complete sentences without a single you-know as filler”). I think my son and his classmates could as well.

Nevertheless, even though its reading level is grade 4-5, the structure of the book will be daunting for many even-older readers, because it’s not linear and it is not plot-driven. E. L. (Elaine Lobl) Konigsburg ties together the first-person narratives of the four sixth-grade Academic Bowl team members (who call themselves "The Souls"), Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian (who are interconnected in other ways), with the third-person limited story of their coach and teacher, the wheelchair-bound widow Mrs. Olinski, and an overall third-person omniscient tale of the team’s progress in Academic Bowl competition.

In “The View From Saturday: A conversation with E.L. Konigsburg, winner of the 1997 Newbery Medal” by Judy Hendershot and Jackie Peck (Reading Teacher, May 1998), Konigsburg says,
When I got to where Julian was telling Ethan about the B and B, I remembered that I had in my files a story about a young man named Noah whose mother insists that he write his grandparents a bread and butter letter, a B and B letter. That made me remember another story about a dog named Ginger that plays the part of Sandy in the play Annie. And that led me to another story about an Academic Bowl team. Before I had finished my walk, I realized that all those short stories were united by a single theme. Taken together, they reinforced one another, and the whole became more than the sum of the parts.

...all of my books deal with a child's search for identity....children want two things at the same time: They want acceptance for what makes them the same, and they want acceptance for what makes them different from everyone else. That conflict between those two needs reaches a climax at the age of 12. When I was growing up, it probably was age 14, but I think it's now 12. That problem of wanting acceptance for being different from everyone else and wanting to be the same is a strong conflict. I can continue to write for children because the basic problem has not changed.

Although never explained in the story, I think the meaning of the title is in the way the students’ bonding at tea on Saturdays at Sillington House gave them a different view of the world. Ethan says,
Something in Sillington House gave me permission to do things I had never done before. Never even thought of doing. Something there triggered the unfolding of those parts that had been incubating. Things that had lain inside me, curled up like the turtle hatchlings newly emerged from their eggs, taking time in the dark of their nest to unfurl themselves. I told jokes I had never told before. I asked questions I had never asked before....When it was my turn to tell what day I would like to live over...The Souls...were not embarrassed to hear, and I was not embarrassed to say, "I would like to live over the day of our first tea party. And, look," I added, "every Saturday since, I get to do just that." (page 93)

And near the end of the book (page 157), Julian’s father says to Mrs. Olinski:
“The Souls…found on their journeys what you found at Sillington House.”
“A cup of kindness, Mr. Singh? Is that what I found?”
“Kindness, yes, Mrs. Olinski....found kindness in others and learned how to look for it in themselves.”

In her Newbery acceptance speech, Konigsburg said, “A person must experience kindness to recognize it. He must recognize it in order to develop it. Being kind makes us kind....there is a critical age by which we must experience kindness to be kind. And that critical age is before adolescence. That critical age is in the cruelest year — grade six.”

The book subtly and gracefully deals with issues of race and disability as well. It’s sometimes sad and often funny. It was very amusing how Konigsburg tied in questions they received in Academic Bowl competitions with the team members’ individual narratives.

The book is filled with wonderful similes and metaphors; for example, Ethan describing Julian on page 66: "His skin was the color of strong coffee with skim milk-not cream-added." Nadia says (on page 26) her “Grandpa Izzy's eyes are bright blue like the sudden underside of a bird wing." On page 64, Ethan says the Sillington place “is a huge old farmhouse that has had so many add-ons it looks like a cluster of second thoughts." My favorite on page 23 compared painting Nadia without her freckles as “like brushing the cinnamon off cinnamon toast.”

A teacher could use examples from this book to study these figures of speech as well as other vocabulary and cultural references, and the use of humor, flashback, irony, perspective, and point of view (the "view" from Saturday?). I enjoyed a book with a positive view on academic excellence written by an author who doesn’t write “down” to her readers and believes they can understand her. The unabridged audiobook really contributed to the story, with a full cast of separate voices for each team member, Mrs. Olinski, and the overall narrator.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

85 (2009 #10). 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina

by Chris Rose

This was the selection of the local book club this month. We're not sure who suggested it, but suspect it was because Rose was a Pulitzer finalist for his columns after Katrina in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. This book is a collection of the columns from 2005 post-storm and 2006. The subtitle is important to make it clear that the book is not an account of riding out a hurricane in progress.

The columns were good, and I appreciated Rose's fair treatment (i.e., it wasn't all a "poor me/us" book and is even funny at times). Rose even writes about his diagnosis of depression near the end of 2006. However, the columns were not organized chronologically, which made them difficult to follow at times. The lack of flow made the book less compelling; I had a hard time getting it read. Furthermore, there were a number of references in the book that probably make sense to those who live/lived in New Orleans or are familiar with it, but make little sense to an outsider like me.

I grew up in Houston and my first "real" job was in Corpus Christi, during and after Hurricane Allen, so I have experience with hurricanes and their aftermaths (Red Cross shelters, cleanup, FEMA, etc.). I could probably relate better to a similar book about Ike and its effects on Galveston, simply because I am familiar with that city (as I could easily relate to Isaac's Storm).

The first edition of this book only covers 2005 and was self-published by Rose in February, 2006. It includes photographs by British photojournalist Charlie Varley which add a lot to the book; I wish they could have been used in the later edition.

This is not a book I would re-read, but it would probably be appreciated by New Orleans residents and fans, past and present.

Friday, March 13, 2009

84 (2009 #9). Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

by Mildred D. Taylor,
read by Lynne Thigpen


Where to begin? For starters, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a must-read, and most deserving of its 1977 Newbery Award. The unabridged audiobook version, brought to life by actress Thigpen (of Carmen Sandiego fame), is excellent.

Although the narrator and main character, Cassie, is nine, the book is written at a fifth- to sixth-grade reading level. That, and the subject matter, makes the book more appropriate for middle school, and perhaps some advanced fourth- and fifth-graders.

Taylor introduces the complexities of race relations, even between children. She portrays African-American characters who recognize discrimination and fight it with dignity where they can. In her 1977 acceptance speech, Taylor said, “I had a driving compulsion to paint a truer picture of Black people…I wanted to show a Black family united in love and pride, of which the reader would like to be a part.”

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is actually part of a historical fiction series written about the Logan family, which is modeled on Taylor’s own family, from her great-grandfather’s purchase of land in Mississippi in the 1880s to their move to Ohio in 1943 when Taylor was three months old. It has an interesting history. In the Horn Book Magazine article, “How the Little House Gave Ground: The Beginnings of Multiculturalism in a New, Black Children's Literature” (Nov/Dec2002, Vol. 78, Issue 6), Barbara Bader writes:
Mildred Taylor had tried to write parts of her family history...before she heard about the Council on Interracial Books contest in 1973. She had tried to tell the story that became Song of the Trees from the perspective of her father, the original of the boy Stacey, but she had trouble speaking in a boy's voice. Then, with four days to go before the contest deadline, she made his sister Cassie the narrator....

...Heading home to California after the award ceremony in New York, with a publishing contract for Song of the Trees to boot, Taylor stopped off in Toledo to visit her family and, around the dinner table, heard her father and uncle tell the story of the black boy who broke into a store, and how he was saved from lynching, that provides the climax to Roll of Thunder. Hear My Cry. Taylor didn't think of the book as a story for children, she says, but rather as an adult novel along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird. No, editor Phyllis Fogelman told her, it would be "more recognized" as a children's book. In the event, those words rank as a major understatement: Roll of Thunder took almost every available prize including the erratic Newbery, which assures a book of maximum attention and puts the rare, very fine winner over the top.

Although it was the second book written, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry falls in the middle of the series chronologically. I’m eager to read the other books: prequels The Land (about main character Cassie’s grandfather), The Well (about her father), and Song of the Trees (its plot is referred to in Roll of Thunder), and sequels Let the Circle Be Unbroken and The Road to Memphis. Two other books, Mississippi Bridge and The Friendship, are set at about the same time as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and include characters from the other books.

The book hasn't endured without controversy. In a September 2001 interview in Booklist Taylor stated that "when Roll of Thunder first came out twenty-five years ago, there were white families who criticized it, saying, 'oh, this would never have happened.'...Now the same thing is going on with black families who don't want their children to hear the 'n' word and to hear about the truth. How can I tell a story about this period in our history without using this word?"

Similarly, in the foreword to the 25th anniversary edition of the book (published in 2001, and read by Taylor herself at the end of my audiobook edition), she writes,
...there are those who seek to remove books such as mine from school reading lists....There are those...who would whitewash history.

...In recent years, because of my concern about our “politically correct” society, I have found myself hesitating about using words that would have been spoken during the period my books are set. But just as I have had to be honest with myself in the telling of all my stories, I realized I must be true to the feelings of the people about whom I write, and I must be true to the stories told....My stories will not be "politically correct," so there will be those who will be offended…, but as we all know, racism is offensive. It is not polite, and it is full of pain.

At the end of this foreword, Taylor indicated she had “only one more story to tell about the Logan family. It is the story of the family in the North, the days of World War II, and the first seeds of the Civil Rights Movement.” In another interview in February 2008, Taylor said, “With the passing of many members of my family from my father’s generation - the resources of many of my stories - as well as the passing of my own generation, I hope I can still do that.”

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

83 (2009 #8). The Willoughbys

by Lois Lowry

I read this book because it was being talked up earlier in the year as a possible Newbery Medal contender (it wasn’t a winner or Honor Book). In The Willoughbys, two-time Medalist Lois Lowry makes fun of prevalent clichés in classic children’s literature – the “four worthy orphans with a no-nonsense nanny,” the “bereaved benefactor with a ward” (an abandoned baby), selfish parents, and a plucky boy – by weaving them together in a tongue-in-cheek tale.

It takes a few chapters to warm to the main characters, the Willoughby children who wish to be orphans like those in the “old-fashioned” books they like to read, whose parents don’t really want to be parents. This could be a dark tale (like some of Roald Dahl’s or the “Series of Unfortunate Events” books by Lemony Snicket), but it quickly becomes amusing.

Some of the humor I enjoyed included the fractured faux-German spoken by the plucky boy ("Schlee you later, alligatorplatz!" and "Ach. I forgotzenplunkt. Sorrybrauten," for example), and puns on the baby ward’s name, Ruth (when the Willoughbys leave her on the candy-maker benefactor’s doorstep, they are Ruth-less, and the candy-maker eventually names a confection after Baby Ruth).

The best parts of the book are at the end – the glossary and bibliography of 13 classic children’s books. Lowry uses 38 big words in her book, and provides funny definitions in the glossary. Example: “IGNOMINIOUS means shamefully weak and ineffective….This book has ignominious illustrations. They are shamefully weak because the person who drew them [Lowry herself] is not an artist.” I love the fact that Lowry challenges her readers to expand their vocabularies!

The annotated bibliography of "books of the past that are heavy on piteous but appealing orphans, ill-tempered and stingy relatives, magnanimous benefactors, and transformations wrought by winsome children," which include The Secret Garden, Pollyanna and The Bobbsey Twins, with all but one published in 1934 or earlier. Their descriptions are droll; for example, Little Women: "Meg is mature and sensible. Jo is literary and boyish. Amy is vain and foolish. Beth is saintly and dies."

The more of the bibliography books you’ve read (or know of), the more (I think) you will appreciate this book’s parody. I’d only completely read three of the 13, but I was familiar with all but two of them. That may be a problem for today’s kids, as I’m guessing most of them have perhaps only read James and the Giant Peach (the only one published after 1934, and that in 1961).

I think this book would be a great read-aloud by parents who have read some of the bibliography, and will also be enjoyed by children who like snarky stories (like Snicket’s and Dahl’s) and won’t be upset by the unsympathetic characters (it does have the obligatory happy ending). It’s a fast, easy read.