Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Waterman's Boy

by Susan Sharpe

Thumbs mostly down.

Ben Warren and his friend Matt, are growing up along Chesapeake Bay.  Ben's dad is a waterman.  He does crabbing and clamming and oystering, all according to their season.  The harvests are not as big as they used to be.  Money is harder to come by and the towns along the bay are transitioning from home-town fishing villages to tourist destinations.

David Watchman is a scientist who is studying the microbiology of the bay to try to determine the causes of the decline in the health of its flora and fauna.  Ben's father, Duke, along with others who make their living from the bay,  is suspicious of scientists, and the government regulations and programs of which such scientists are harbingers.

This potentially volatile situation comes to a head when Ben and Matt discover an illegal dumping site hidden in the marsh.  The site is filled with all kinds of junk including many barrels of what appears to be waste oil.

The story unfolds into a happy ending.  Duke Warren comes to respect David Watchman.  The town decides to study the effects of expansion before allowing more shopping centers and resorts and attractions to develop.  Everyone realizes they want to save the bay and if they all get along and respect each other this will happen smoothly.

Anyone who loves both nature and small government will appreciate the quandary in which these town folks find themselves.  My main complaint with the story is that the solution appears simple.  The characters are somewhat one-dimensional.  Duke Warren is set in his ways and is portrayed as somewhat naive for not wanting government regulations.  The bad guy ends up being a newcomer to town (aka capitalist) who is involved in a business catering to the tourist trade.  The scientist and Ben are the only multi-dimensional characters.  Everyone else is a stereotype.

My second complaint with the story is not so much with the story itself as with the format of the book and what it implies.  The book is obviously designed to be used in a classroom, because it has, in the front flap, one of those charts to show which students used it which years.  As far as literature goes, the book leaves much to be desired.  I can't imagine it being useful to teach about literature and good writing.  The best use to which this story could be used in a classroom is to teach about pollution and environmentalism.  I have a problem with using such one-dimensional characters to accomplish this.  People are not only naive or evil or good or thoughtful.  And in real life the solutions to problems such as those portrayed in the book are never simple.  People and communities are affected by pollution and expansion and a changing income base on a multitude of levels.  It seems somewhat manipulative to portray such a simple solution.  I don't blame the author for this.  I have no idea of her intentions.  But using the book  in a classroom to teach some sort of morality based upon such a simple solution seems somewhat dishonest.

Yet a third hurdle to my endorsement of the book is that Ben and Matt break some major rules and behave in a dangerous manner in order to help find the bad guy.  The author does have an authority figure point this out to the boys, but then they are celebrated and thanked profusely by the community, which could tend to outweigh the  effect of the rebuke in the mind of a young reader who might be drawn to the perceived heroism of the boys.

So to sum up, the plot is not bad.  In fact the plot itself is somewhat well done.  The yarn is good.

The characters ought to be better.  The implications of how the book might be used are frightening.  Any moral lessons are questionable and ought to include parental involvement.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: the True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

by Allison Hoover Bartlett

Thumbs Up.

After many hours of interviews and research, Ms. Bartlett narrates the stories of book thief, John Charles Gilkey, and rare book seller, Ken Sanders, whose perseverance tracked Gilkey down. Throughout, this tale is a celebration of books and book lovers. Ms. Bartlett describes various kinds of book aficionados and seeks to discover what makes someone who loves books and collecting them, cross the line into thievery.

A reader will learn about the history of collecting books, some of the premier venues for finding rare books, and a little of the terminology of the hobby. It's a great read for anyone who loves books, rare or common.

I could just about smell and feel the books Ms Barlett describes. I'd love to see, for instance, an example of fore-edge painting, in which the gilt edge, when fanned just slightly opened, shows a painting of a scene from the book. Occasionally, this process is done twice, so that when fanned the other way, an alternate scene is portrayed.

I could picture easily the wooden fronts and backs and the various leather and linen covers. I could imagine the aisles of such books in the shops Ms Bartlett highlighted. Mmmm.

The book is filled with the personal stories of books sellers and books. The author draws the reader along on the main two courses, that of Gilkey's world of book theft and Sander's drive to discover the thief.

But Ms Bartlett also meanders into frequent anecdotes showing how both a love of books and the stories within books themselves have effected people throughout time. The book pleases on many levels.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Hunting Nature's Fury A Storm Chaser's Obsession with Tornadoes, Hurricanes, and other Natural disasters

By Roger Hill with Peter Bronski

Thumbs Up.

Roger Hill is one of the super elite storm chasers. In Hunting Nature's Fury, he tells us all about it.

The story starts out with Mr. Hill telling about living through the 1966, Topeka, KS, tornado and how that incident set the groundwork for his fascination with storms. The beginning few chapters give the history and technical information a reader will need to appreciate some of the descriptions in the rest of the book.

Each subsequent chapter focuses on a highlight of Mr. Hill's experience chasing storms, which eventually led to a full-time career leading storm chasing tours. He takes the reader on a rollicking ride around the Great Plains and a few other locales, with detailed descriptions of what he and his cohorts experience moment by moment, while in close proximity to each season's most violent storms.

While the book was not a non-stop edge of one's seat read, it did have times at which I could not put it down. Besides that, there is within the pages a mini-seminar on interpreting severe weather.

Mr. Hill also tries and largely succeeds in describing the excitement he feels when close on the heels of a violent storm, while drawing a distinction between that excitement and a callous attitude toward those people who experience loss at the hands of such a storm. He describes moments of grief and a vicarious sense of loss when families or entire communities are affected by a storm's damage. He relates stopping to help those in need when necessary; and he rejoices when an especially dazzling storm is not near human habitation.

Although I don't expect to book a storm chasing tour vacation any time soon, I did request a few more books and DVDs on the topic of storm chasing from the library.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Dr. Seuss's ABC An Amazing Alphabet

by Dr. Seuss

Thumbs up.

Yes, I loved this book when my first several kids were young and I still had time and energy to read the same books over and over and over again to my kids.

But here's something cool. I just found a minimally animated video of Dr. Seuss's ABC on youTube.

At some point, Random House created a set of videos to go along with several of the Dr. Seuss books. I don't know how or where they were circulated; I don't ever remember having seen any of them. Apparently they are out of circulation at this time.

But now an ambition fan has put them on youTube for the viewing pleasure of others. They seem to be about 10 minute videos and don't seem to take too long to download. We also watched Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?

I thought the ABC one worthy of mention, since it would work well for a busy homeschool mom as a short educational interlude, to keep a toddler busy while Mom teaches a math or grammar lesson, or gets dinner on, a load of wash in, or has a cup of tea.

Do you Hear When They Cry

by Fauziya Kassindja

Thumbs up.

This was a hard book to read. One of those narratives that grabs one, and drags him or her through horrible real life experiences, and doesn't let go until he or she has reached the end.

Ms Kassindja is a Muslim woman from Toga, Africa. In October of 1994, she ran away from home at 17 in order to escape a polygamous marriage to an older man and and the prospect of female circumcision (known legally in America as Female Genital Mutilation or FMG). Unlike the book I reviewed a few weeks ago, Cruel and Usual Punishment, this author has clung to her Muslim faith and the book reflects this adherence throughout. It gives a much more positive picture of the Muslim faith and those who follow it.

The book, however, is about so much more than that. During the first several chapters, Ms Kassindja teaches the reader all about what her life was life in Toga. This is very skillfully done and I learned many things, all the while enjoying the happy narrative of the author's younger life.

When Ms Kassindja eventually had to leave her homeland, she stayed briefly in Germany. From there, at the urging of a friend, she chose to come to America and request political asylum. Ms Kassindja spoke English and wanted to finish her education. With few options available to her, this seemed like a reasonable plan.

This latter part of the book, by far the longest part of the narrative, is much less joyful then the first. The ordeal that the author lived through while awaiting her various hearings is a travesty. And if an accurate depiction of how America treats her refugees it is a true blot on our national conscience.

It would be impossible for me to list everything Ms. Kassinja writes about. But eventually she was put in touch with several advocates who used her case to set precedence in ruling impending FMG as warranting asylum. She was released on parole after spending 16 months in a series of facilities, some of that time in maximum security prisons sharing a cell with women incarcerated for violent crime. Shews eventually granted asylum in June of 1996.

Hopefully all the publicity her case caused also has lead to better, more humane conditions for those who find themselves running to us in fear.

I realize there are many issues, political and social, to consider with regard to US immigration policy. There are no easy answers. But after reading Ms Kassindja's account, I certainly am more aware of some basic human conditions that can in our INS detention facilities. The book puts a human face on an otherwise impersonal definition of a detainee and elicits empathy toward those with nowhere to run.

My Haunted House

by Angie Sage

One thumb up, one thumb down.

This book is a bit bizarre for my taste. That said, we did it as a read aloud and the kids loved it. It is a suitable choice for a wide range of ages and engages both boys and girls.

The story revolves around strange and unusual Araminta Spookie, and a cast of equally strange and unusual characters. They live in an old, tumble down, Queen Anne style mansion.

Araminta lives with her Aunt Tabby and Uncle Drac. Aunt Tabby seems mostly normal, but she is portrayed as an unlikeable character.

Uncle Drac appears to be obsessed, as his name might imply, with the vampire lifestyle. He works nights and sleeps during the day in his sleeping bag, hanging from the rafters of a turret filled with bats.

Araminta loves her house. She lives in the constant hope of meeting a ghost. She's also in constant apprehension of having to deal with Aunt Tabby, whose existence Araminta views as the bane of her life.

Push comes to shove when Aunt Tabby decides to sell their house and buy a more normal and functional one. The rest of the plot evolves as Araminta attempts to sabotage Aunt Tabby's plans. Along the way she meets some interesting characters and even makes a new friend.

Although the book might at first glance seem to be of dark subject matter, it is primarily lighthearted fun. There are few values lessons throughout the story, should a parent choose to make use of them.

The font is easy on the eyes and there is a cute-in-a-quirky sort of way illustration every few pages. It is the first of a series. I think the series could encourage a reluctant reader.