Monday, June 27, 2011

On the Blue Comet

by Romsemary Wells  Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline.

Thumbs Up.

Oscar Ogilvie, Jr. and his dad love model trains.  They spend their extra dollars building up a grand layout in their basement, complete with the right trains for the right routes and stations around the country.  All is well and good until the stock market crashes in 1929 and nobody can afford to buy the John Deere tractors Oscar Ogilvie, Sr. sells for a living.  The house is repossessed and the train layout sold along with the house, for the bank to use as a lobby display.

Oscar Jr. is left with the formidable Aunt Carmen when his father leaves to find work wherever it's to be had.  Oscar finds unexpected friendship, and through that friendship a fantasy adventure that unfolds throughout the rest of the book.

The author includes cameos from several historical figures.  I got a good chuckle when the first one dawned on me.  I had to skim back several pages to refresh my memory of how Ms Wells portrayed this person's disposition. 

The periodic illustrations are beautifully done.  Mr. Ibatoulline includes accurate illustrations for the various historical figures mentioned in the story.  I had fun (and wasted too much time) googling images of these historical persons to figure out which ones were who.

The book would make a good tie-in for the study of the early decades of the 20th century.  It could be used for older children to launch into economics or politics (Progressivism, Great Depression, World Wars), math and science (Einstein and his theories), or a study of any number of early 20th century figures.  A child who loves trains would enjoy reading about the models and layouts.

This is a fun book that would be a great read-aloud for multiple age levels.  For independent reading, I think an eager student in grades 3-5 could manage this story.  But some of the concepts and vocabulary are a bit difficult.  As a read-aloud with my elementary aged kids, I've had to explain a bit of history or economics now and then, and we're only two chapters into the story at this point.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Wednesday Sisters

by Meg Waite Clayton

Two Thumbs Up (I could really use a few more thumbs for this one--it's that good.)

The story takes place in a San Francisco Bay area suburb, in the years beginning with 1967.  Frankie tells the story of her friendship with Linda, Kath, Brett, and Ally.  Each woman has her own family, worries, heartaches and secret dreams.  The story is told in such a way that the reader feels a part of the evolving friendship these women share.

After meeting weekly at the playground long enough that they begin to feel comfortable with each other, a couple of the friends decide they'd like to use their time together to do some writing.  Some of the women are less interested, but they are good sports about it.  Soon what started out as a playdate for the kids becomes a writing date for the moms.

As the story continues, the readers are drawn along as these women pursue their writing goals.  But within this primary story, we learn of the secret burdens the various women bear.  We rejoice with them as they learn to trust each other; we share with them as they celebrate the good and mourn the heartache in each other's lives; and we see them grow and change throughout the years. 

Interspersed within the story is the societal growing pains the country is experiencing.  The story touches on the women's lib issue, the peace movement, and racial tensions. The women themselves strive to understand these issues.  Each woman brings a different background and personality as she reacts to and assimilates into her person the various social changes.  Ms Clayton accomplishes this very adeptly.  Her characters and their friendships are never simplistic or artificial; they way they interact and the degree to which each embraces the changing cultures is richly developed.

The book will also be helpful for an aspiring author, as the women work through various books on writing, such as E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel.   Each woman has a "model" story against which she compares her own work and to which she turns for inspiration.  A couple of the women are very adept at pulling quotations from books and calling to mind the characters and plots.  And on one occasion the couples get together for a costume party with a "famous couple from literature" theme.  All these snippets offer readers a constant sampling from a literary smorgasbord. 

The author has included a nice appendix in which she offers a paragraph or two on each of women's model books and also reading lists of the others works cited.  I know I'm going to keep our librarian busy with requests from this list, such as The Great Gatsby, Middlemarch, and Breakfast at Tiffany's; I'll also have to try something by Somerset Maugham and Sylvia Plath; and the list goes on and on.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Revolt in Paradise

by K'Tut Tantri

Thumbs up.

I picked this book up at a second hand store, while just quickly perusing the shelves and randomly grabbing books with covers or titles that looked interesting.  I'm glad I did.  Although I read this book several months ago, I didn't take the time to write about it immediately, so I'll have to try to reconstruct all the thoughts I had at that time.

K'tut Tantri as she came to be known, was born in Scotland, of Manx (from the Isle of Man) parentage.  She moved with her mother after the first World War to Hollywood, California, where she eventually ended up writing for British publications about various facets of the film industry.  But K'tut describes herself as having too much of the Manx in her to really fit in, in America.  She was an artist and a dreamer.

After seeing a film set in Bali, she decided that is where she was meant to be.  She packed up and moved there in a somewhat haphazard fashion, with little money or preparation.

The book describes her life there, from her first interactions with the Dutch colonial government; to her stumbling upon the palace of the Rajah and coming to secure the close friendship of the Rajah's son, Anak Agung Nura; her stint as a hotel operator; her imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese during World War II; and her time as a freedom fighter for the Indonesians.

I found her account fascinating.  I learned much about the history of Indonesia.  I was appalled at the treatment of the Indonesian peoples by the Dutch during the colonial era, and especially in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when Indonesians were seeking their freedom.

The book would be a useful tie-in when teaching about imperialism or for a southeast Asian supplement to a World War II unit.  The content is appropriate for any age; I think the writing itself could be readily enjoyed by a capable junior high aged reader.

I've read a little more about K'tut Tantri since reading this book. Although the book is presented as non-fiction, historians and anthropologists would find her account a reflection of the artistic and dreamy personality embodied in K'tut.  It's filled with a good bit of truth, but also, disappointingly, contains a fantasy element.  I found this obituary interesting.

Heads You Lose

by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward

One thumb each direction

Let me be right up front, and begin this review with the reason for the thumb down.  The primary characters in this book are pot growers.  Among some of their buyers are the typical college students and druggies.  But others are nursing home residents, nurses, staff and doctors.  Still more buyers are normal, everyday types who like to now and then smoke pot or sample from the "baked goods" line.   My issue with the book is that it portrays a worldview that sees marijuana use as mainstream.  I can't fully endorse a book that does this.  I understand that many people use pot regularly.  I also understand that in California, where the book is set, the demographics of marijuana use is probably skewed toward a more mainstream percentage of the population.  But I still don't like to see plots that portray illegal activity as normal.

The flip side of the portrayal is that most of those who are totally immersed in the marijuana use lifestyle are the stereotypical pothead types with little or no ambition and who struggle with concentration and memory.  This is a good thing to portray.  It reflects a large part of the pot culture, and the primary dangers from which the law is intended to protect.

Continuing to the thumbs up side of the book, the concept behind Heads You Lose, and its execution, definitely deserves a two thumbs up.

The entire concept of the book, and a big part of its artistic appeal, is the method of collaboration that Ms Lutz chose when she invited friend and poet, David Hayward, to work with her.  She sent her first chapter to Mr. Hayward with the suggestion that they take turns with the chapters, but that they don't consult together on plot ahead of time.  They were allowed to send brief notes along with each chapter, to which the other may respond.  They were allowed to add footnotes during each other's chapters.  But those brief suggestions and criticisms were the only interactions they allowed themselves.

The editors went along with this and the format in which the book is published reflects those rules.  What the readers get is actually both the story of Heads You Lose, and also the story of "The Writing of Heads You Lose".  There was a certain amount of (I think good natured) ribbing along the way as Lutz and Hayward tossed out ideas and criticisms in these notes.

Because of the style of story development, it's somewhat hard to summarize the plot.  In a nutshell, while Lacey is taking out the garbage late one night, she finds a headless body in her yard and frantically tells her brother, Paul, about it as she dials 911.  Before the connection gets through, Paul hangs up the phone.  Because Paul and Lacey grow pot professionally, there are some interior effects in their home that make a visit from the police undesirable.  After a little debate on what to do with the body, they wrap it in a tarp, load it in their pick-up, and drop it into a low spot along the trail at a nearby state park.

Unlike Paul, who is fine with this solution, Lacey feels responsible for the corpse and so cannot rest easily until the case is solved.  But as the bodies stack up, distrust and distance builds between Paul and Lacey; and one by one their friends and acquaintances start to seem shady, or even fearful.

There are some fun twists and turns as the two authors vie for the primacy of their favorite characters and ideas.  The notes back and forth often bring a smile or chuckle.

All in all, I found the concept a pleasing one.  As an aspiring author, I was intrigued by the idea of such an ad hoc collaboration.  I admired the creativity that was loosed in this endeavor.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Penny from Heaven

by Jennifer L. Holm

Two Thumbs Up.

This Newberry Honor book portrays the joys, fun, frustrations, and heartache of Penny, an adolescent of mixed Italian and plain old American descent, during the summer she turns twelve.  She is growing up in New Jersey, in the early 50s.  She is a Brooklyn Dodgers fan.  Penny's best friend is her cousin, Frankie, who has a propensity for trouble.

Penny lives with her mother and her maternal grandparents, and her poodle, Scarlett O'Hara.  Her father died when she was young, and it's one of Penny's constant frustrations that nobody will talk about him.

The author has created a cast of colorful, loveable characters; she has skillfully juxtaposed the flair and love of Penny's Italian relatives with the seemingly boring, but constant, plain old American side of her family.

I don't want to give too many details about the historical fiction angle of this book, because Ms Holm leaves the most important aspect of history to the end in a wonderfully fulfilling revelation to Penny.  But I will say that it's a book that highlights an important part of our cultural history, one that isn't often brought to light.

The author has also included as an unofficial afterword, the explanation of how the story coincides with that of her own family.  She includes family history, including pictures, and describes other aspects of the book that are particularly historical and how she learned of them.

I would say the primary audience is late elementary or junior high girls.  Boys or older girls would like it, too, once they started, but they may not want to admit it, since the story revolves around a twelve year old girl.  For read aloud, it would be suitable and enjoyable for a wide range of ages and both genders.   

Penny from Heaven would be a useful addition to any unit study highlighting the homefront angle of WWII America, a study of the cultural aspects the greater New York City/northern New Jersey area, or of immigrant history, particularly that of Italian Americans.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Complete Mediterranian Cookbook

The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook : Over 150 mouthwatering, healthy and life-extending dishes from the sun-drenched shores of the Mediterranean, shown in 550 stunning photographs

Author: Jacqueline Clarke, Joanna Farrow
Hermes House Publishers 2006, ISBN: 9781843097921

This book is wonderful. It is also not widely available anymore, at least, by this title.

Two thumbs way up.

Excellent organization, excellent descriptions, excellent tutorials, excellent history, excellent recipes, with excellent photographs. Just as a work of art in an of itself this book is wonderful. OK, you get it. I really like this book. So, what's to like?

The Introduction explains the relationship between the local Mediterranean foods, the recipes, the peoples who made them, and the popular "Mediterranean diet." This is followed by 8 pages of descriptions of ingredients and their unique Mediterranean uses.

The chapters are: Appetizers, Soups, Vegetables, Salads, Fish and Shellfish, Meat, Poultry and Game, Grains and Beans, Desserts and Baked Goods. The chapters are followed by a good index.

As an example of the teaching nature of the text from the recipe for Mouclade of Mussels, [a garlicky, curried cream of mussel soup] the first step states: "Scrub the mussels, discarding any that are damaged or open ones that do not close when tapped with a knife." (p. 120)

I like the assumption that the reader may never have handled fresh mussels. I have never done so myself and would not have known how to properly clean and sort.

Each recipe is beautifully illustrated, clearly listed, with very simply and clearly described steps for preparation and presentation.

I'm hungry.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

For Your Confirmation: Promises and Prayers, Hallmark gift book

Two thumbs way down.

In Confessional Lutheran congregations Confirmation is not a sacrament nor merely a ritual. It is public confession made by the confirmand of his or her baptismal faith and desire to go to the Lord’s Supper as a member of the congregation. Confirmation recognises publicly that a baptized member of Christ’s church has been instructed in God’s Word to the point that that person is now able to examine himself or herself before going to the Lord’s Supper. Confirmation is also the time when the congregation and the pastor publicly testify that they believe the confirmand should be allowed to the Lord’s Supper because that person is now able to examine himself or herself according to God’s Word.

Finding gifts for confirmands that reflect this confession of faith is difficult. And there are many products in this world that are designed for “Confirmation” but have nothing to do with Confirmation in Confessional Lutheranism.

A member asked me to review a gift book from Hallmark. This is an example of a gift that has nothing to do with Lutheran Confirmation. In fact, this gift book undermines Christianity with Marxism, Moralism, works-righteousness and denial of the Resurrection.

For Your Confirmation: Promises and Prayers
2009 Hallmark Licensing, Inc.
Editorial Director: Tod Hafer;
Art Director: Kevin Swanson.
ISBN: 978-1-59530-134-5

Hallmark packages appealing products for any occasion. This product is a beautifully designed and arranged gift book for Confirmation. I’m not thrilled by the lime green color scheme. The design is reminiscent of the release of the Living Bible called “The Way”. And the book seems unavailable at the Amazon and Hallmark websites.

It’s unavailability is a good thing. The volume relies upon 4 notoriously bad bible translations, CEV (Contemporary English Version by the American Bible society), NCV (New Century Version  by Thomas Nelson). MSG (The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language by Eugene Peterson), and the NLT (New Living Translation of the Bible by Tyndale House Publishers. The other translation used is the NIV (1984 The Holy Bible: New International Version: North American Edition from the International Bible Society.)

Under the heading “Congratulations!” this volume offers a generic definition of confirmation as a “very important step in your faith. It means you’ve decidet to take everything you’ve been taught about god so far and make some pretty important decisions on your own.” Thus, Confirmation is primarily assumed to be a “rite of passage” to adulthood. This idea might work for an American Bar-Mitzvah, a Unitarian church,  or even a secular rite of passage. But it does  not work for Confessional Lutherans. 

In Confessional Lutheranism the focus is on the student re-affirming his baptismal vows spoken by his sponsors as an infant and being capable of self examination in preparation for the Lord’s Supper based on sound instruction in God’s Word and agreement with the confession made in the Small Catechism of Martin Luther. This volume has nothing to offer Confessional Lutherans. But it does have much that could distract and pervert.

After the introduction there are 46 short devotions arranged in order as: a hip picture, topic, discussion, Bible passage, and quotations from other sources (sometimes the Bible). 

Topics: The topics tend to focus on issues over which teens may have great concern: “Communication is More than Words” (p. 29), but some seem overly sanctimonious: “Worship Means Showing God You Mean It” (p 185). 

Discussions: The discussions tend to use a gimmick to point to some kind of “truth” which the discussion summarizes.  The Bible verses and quotations are chosen to support this “truth.” Most often these discussions focus on the “social gospel”. None of them speak of the bodily resurrection. The discussions do not  begin to express even the full teaching of the Apostles’ Creed. The Social Gospel is prominent. Marxism is the foundation of the Social Gospel, and Marxism approves of the manipulation of religion for Marxist goals. While the editors of this volume may not have had Marxism in mind when they put this volume together, they certainly did not see Marxism as opposed to Christ. And this is a great fault with this product.

Bible Passage: I mentioned the problem translations above, here are a couple examples parallel to the New King James Version:
2 Chronicles 16:9: NKJV
For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him.
New Living Translation (used in this book on page 26:
The eyes of the Lord search the whole earth in order to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.
1 Timothy 6:6: NKJV
Now godliness with contentment is great gain.
New Century Version (used in this book on page38)
Serving God does make us very rich if we are satisfied with what we have.

Sometimes the choice of a passage is just contextually wrong, such as using Zophar’s sanctimonious correction of Job in Job 11 as a proof passage that the reader should motivate himself/herself to better devotion to God. 

Quotations: The quotations used in this volume seem to have been chosen without any consideration of original context, contemporary usage, or the religious and political philosophies of the person being quoted.  A few examples: on page 23 are quotations about the church from Bridget Willard (“Church is what you are and do”), Margaret Meade (!) and A.W.Tozer. Burlesque artist Mae West is cited on p. 27;  Rachel Naomi Remen (!) on page 31 next to Mother Teresa; Nelson Mandela (Atheist and Communist) and Alexander Graham Bell (American Eugenicist and inventor) on page 47.

Not really worthwhile for a gift at all, unless you want to mix Christianity with progressivism, Communism, Eugenicists, Burlesque, and promiscuity. 

Get this book instead:
This won't let you down.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Stolen Genes, Stolen Children

by G. R. Revelle

One half of a thumb up, one and a half down.

This is a hard review for me to do because it's by a start-up author who I believe self-publishes under his own company, Smultron Publications.  Since I myself hope to have some of my writing published one day, I want to support the effort of Mr. Revelle.  But there are things within this book that make it impossible for me to give it a two thumbs up.

The book is historical fiction, including bits of 20th century Norwegian and Swedish history, and World War II history.  The historical information and several main themes within this book appeal to me.  Progressivism, eugenics, and genetic manipulation are exposed and discussed.  These are important ideas.  Society benefits from conversations about the sins of its past.  Too often they are forgotten under the broiling current of contemporary societal conversations, even when those conversations follow lines of reasoning similar to the ideas acknowledged as mistakes of past generations.  From the introduction to Stolen Genes, Stolen Children, Mr. Revelle himself appears to have written, at least partially, with a goal of inspiring such conversation.

The plot is compelling.  I was drawn in, although it took me several chapters to feel the pull.  The characters are well done, although a few are somewhat one-dimensional.  Mr. Revelle does a good job describing scenery and sounds in nature and the city.

The story is set in 1965, but also contains many flashbacks to the days before, during, and immediately after World War II.  In some ways, the flashbacks are the story, more than the later story line.

While reading the paper one afternoon, Karin sees the name, Arlene Angel, in a list of nurses being tried for their participation in the euthanasia programs practiced under the Third Reich.  This name jumped out at Karin, because it was a pseudonym occasionally used long ago by Alena Engela, a good friend from Karin's nursing school days.  Reminded of the close friendship they had enjoyed in their early years, Karin sets out to contact this Arlene Angel to determine if it is indeed her friend.   And if so, to lend whatever aid and support she can to Alena during the trial.

In the process of digging through old records, hoping to find a way to exonerate her friend, and at the same time experiencing continuing mortification at the extent of the euthanasia program, Karin discovers several unexpected connections.

The flashbacks in the narrative trace the history of Alena; aeronautics engineer, Lorentz Klein; the Norwegian Resistance movement; and Karin, herself; along with a number of less major characters.

The story line is very interesting and contains a few twists and turns that I perhaps ought to have seen coming, but didn't.

The negative aspects of the book begin immediately, in the first paragraphs of the prologue.  The author introduces his work with a somewhat hoaky fictional account of how an early farming woman discovered fertilizer when an early herdsman let his water buffalo wander onto the woman's garden.  The somewhat silly account seems unrelated to the point for which the author uses it.  And it presents a weak beginning to what later in the prologue becomes a very good introduction to the philosophies presented in Stolen Genes, Stolen Children.

Regarding the narrative's exploration of the philosophies or ideals of genetic engineering and eugenics, the connection between the fictional narrative and a deeper analysis of such philosophies is somewhat weak.  The author leaves to the reader most of the thinking and exploring .  The narrative certainly introduces the the subject and shows it from several angles.  But from the build-up in the introduction, I was expecting a richer or somehow different depth of discussion of the subject.

The biggest negative for this story, however, is that it is a prime example of the risks of self-publishing; or put another way, it lends credence to the importance of a professional editorial staff.  The book is filled with grammatical errors.  Truly filled.  To the point of distracting from the story line.  There are many points at which a sentence begins one way and ends in a different direction.  The reader is left interpreting what the author intended.  There are sentences in which the subject or object of a clause is missing, and again the reader must guess.  Sentence parts often don't agree in person, number, tense, voice, etc.  Commas are used very sloppily, often giving the sentence an entirely different sense than that which the author obviously intends.  There are many places the spellcheck or auto-correct was trusted in error.

And let me reiterate.  The book is filled with mistakes of this sort.  Sometimes there are several examples per page.

The narrative also contains at least one historical error, of the sort which a professional editor is trained to catch.  The author includes as historical, the mythology surrounding the song, Edelweiss, that Richard Rogers wrote for the 1959, The Sound of Music.  One scene in the book describes a character getting sentimental over the song as an Austrian folk song from his childhood in the early years of the 20th century.

From the prologue, "The novel... is based on facts, figures, and personalities, though the characters and plot themselves are purely fictional."  The author is making a claim to the historicity of the information presented within the fictional plot.  The somewhat lengthy introductory pages of the prologue seem to be intended to make people consider and evaluate the idea of eugenics and its place in the world today.  Besides just being annoying and distracting to a reader, the sloppy presentation of the story distracts from the author's purpose.

A reader is left wondering about the care that went into the historical research and the accuracy with which it is presented.  "If the author is so careless with his editing, how can I trust his research?"

Especially when an author is making a claim toward a certain ideal, such an author ought to use care in presenting the material.  The carelessness of presentation casts doubt upon the entire issue.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Nancy and Plum

by Betty MacDonald

Two thumbs up.

This book is awesome.  I can't wait to read it to my kids.  The characters are vivid, the scenery is colorful and richly described, the plot is engaging.  The characters, while not perfect, strive to be good.  There is a clear delineation between good and evil.  And there is a sweet happy ending.

Nancy and Plum live with Mrs. Monday in her boarding home in Heavenly Valley.  But life at the boarding home is anything but heavenly.  While Mrs. Monday and her niece Marybelle live high on the hog, the other residents in the home are clothed in tatters and kept half starved. 

Nancy is a calm quiet girl and her younger sister, Plum, is full of mischief.  They make up pretend stories to get through the hard times.  They go to story hour with Miss Appleby at the library.  And they attend school with the dear, Miss Waverly.

The spirit of Nancy and Plum shines brightly through while they survive in these depressed circumstances.  They hold each other up and they buoy the spirits of the other children who are stuck together with them in Mrs. Monday's Boarding Home for Children.  The antics of the girls will make you laugh, and their heartache might just make you cry.

Mary Grand Pre had done nice illustrations to compliment this new edition. 

This definitely qualifies as what Charlotte Mason fans would consider a living book.  It ought to be a classic.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Thieves Break In

by One thumb up and one thumb down

I would have enjoyed this book more had I not read the quote on the back from The Santa Fe New Mexican, "For those who thrive on Jan Karon's Mitford novels."  The protagonist in both is an Episcopalian Priest.  The similarity stops about there.  Yes, I'd say that's about the only commonality.  But the comment would imply to me a hometown portrayal of American values and a rich depiction of the variety of personalities that makes life interesting.  Those features are what makes the Mitford books stand out in the literary marketplace.

Another quote on the back, this from Sarah Graves, author of the Home Repair is Homicide mysteries, with which I'm unfamiliar "...Two smart quirky sleuths with a heart--and soul."  The two quotes taken together gave the impression that the characters would be presenting some sort of morality.  As I found out, they were.  But the morality portrayed is not of the traditional Judeao-Christian bent.

For the one thumb up, the book is a pretty good murder mystery, nothing outstanding, but then, that's not usually the purpose in reading a murder mystery.  The characters are mostly well developed, the plot has appropriate twists and turns, the settings are interesting and richly described.

An interesting departure from the typical murder mystery, is the sleuthing the primary gumshoes, Katherine and Tom, do.  Although they are not primarily the ones who solve the mystery, they are instrumental in solving it, mostly through a series of coincidental incidents.  Katherine and Tom spend their time unravelling the mysteries of the family line of the landowners where the murder took place.  Everything of course falls together at the end, but I found this use of the sleuths an interesting twist.

The strong point is probably the author's use of time.  The story-line unfolds in a non-linear manner and skips from one decade to another in a fashion exactly to my liking.  I had to check back on people and places periodically, but not so much that it became frustrating.  At two points, just when I thought I had lost all the connections completely, the author gave me a family tree to which I could refer.  Some of the threads of story were only touched upon once early on and then left to the end.  This device left me curious throughout as to how these strings were going to be woven in.

My disappointment with the book is based on my personal morality and my preference for reading books that either avoid moralizing completely or portray traditional moral lifestyles.  This book seems to want to portray those things traditionally considered immoral, as sanctioned by those who are supposed to be the shepherds of the church. 

The protagonist, the Reverend Kathryn Koerney, is an Episcopalian priest.  Her cousin who has just died under mysterious circumstances was her best friend, and we find out was homosexual.  This in itself is not important, nor was the gentleman's sexuality important to the story line, but the way it is portrayed is somewhat preachy and moralizing.  I felt as though the whole reason for including it was as an opportunity to portray bigotry against the homosexual lifestyle.

Kathryn at one point in the book arranges to stay the night with a guy she's falling in love with, although because of the way the plot unravelled near the end, we're not told whether she kept that date. 

From the beginning, it is clear that Tom, Kathryn's fellow sleuth and one of her parishioners is in love with her, but is himself married to another.  At the end of the story, as a hooked line to the next book in the series, Tom is encouraged by a wise elder character to not give up on Kathryn.  His final words of exhortation, "I seriously doubt that any man who does not have the balls to get out of a loveless marriage deserves Kathryn Korney."

All these moral points would not bother me as much in a different setting.  But taken together and portrayed as they are, they seem designed to push the envelope.  The idea of a pastor who accepts non-traditional values seems a bit contrived.  At best, the effect does not make for pleasant diversionary reading.  At worst, it just makes me plum mad.  It seems deceitful and preachy.  Especially when coupled with the endorsements the publishers chose to put on the back cover of the book.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Nanny Diaries

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Giants in the Earth

by O. E. Rolvaag

Thumbs up.

This classic tale of Norwegian immigration to Dakota Territory, tells the story of the Spring Creek Settlement.  Per and Beret Hansa, Hans and Sorrina Olsa, Syvert and Kjersti Tonseten, and the two Solum brothers face together, the perils of westward expansion.  Among the hardships they must bear are hunger, backbreaking labor, difficulties in childbirth, fear of the native people, grasshoppers, and summer and winter storms.  But worse by far for some, is the fear and loneliness of this new country.  The openness and stillness are so pervasive they are hard to ignore.  And for some settlers, including Per Hansa's Beret, they sometimes lead to insanity.

Rolvaag, himself a Norwegian immigrant as a young man, tells all too realistically the sights and sounds of the prairie and the various emotions of the settlers.  We laugh and cry with them.  We appreciate the noble sacrifices they made in order to turn what is described as a desolate and forbidding landscape into the communities and farms that thrive in those prairie lands today. 

We hear with Per Hansa and Beret the, "Squeak, squeak," of the wagon wheels and the, "Tish-ah, tish-ah," of the grasses opening before and closing behind the wagon.

We share with Beret the fear of the open spaces and the almost supernatural forces that inhabit them. We can feel the great silence along with those first settlers.

We experience the manic energy of Per Hansa to get more and more ground broken and keep ahead of his neighbors.  And we rejoice over each acre of sod he breaks and the large sod house and stable he provides his family.

We feel Syvert and Kjersti's sadness, and even bitterness, when they are not able to have children.  We breath a sigh of relief with Per Hansa, when his wife and child make it through a frighteningly difficult birth.

We rejoice Per Hansa's faithful friends, Hans Olsa and Sorrina, when their friend's wife returns to her senses.  We can appreciate the import of their steadfastness to Per Hansa and his family.

But most of all, we feel gratitude and awe toward our forebears for the hardships they surmounted that we might have the farms and towns that make the great plains the great communities they are today.  These people were truly giants in the earth.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The White Mountains

by John Christopher

Two thumbs up!

This is the first installment in the classic Tripods trilogy written in the late '60's by British science fiction author Samuel Youd under the pseudonym, John Christopher.  This series for youth truly stands the test of time.  I enjoyed it in the late '80's, when I first read it as a child, and I enjoyed it now, as an adult.

The story begins quite like a coming of age tale.  We find Will, on the eve of his Capping ceremony, which will mark his entrance into adulthood.  He lives in a futuristic society in which everyone has been enslaved by the mysterious Tripods through mind control made possible by the implantation of metal Caps on the heads of 14 year old during a special celebration.  We slowly learn who the Tripods are as the story progresses, as the story is told from Will's point of view, and he isn't quite sure what they are or how they came to rule over man.

This thrilling science fiction adventure is captivating for so many reasons.  Certainly, the idea of a boy battling large, metallic creatures who are possibly alien beings is motivation enough for many kids to pick up the book.  But looking deeper, the thoughts of Will as he journeys toward a life of freedom from Capping and the Tripods are just as important.  We see struggles that many children his age face: a desire for true friendship, respect and his own place in the world.  We see a child who questions authority, and wants to think for himself.  We see his bravery, but also his fear.  We see him second guess himself in moments of weakness, yet prevail-----perhaps the same weaknesses which allowed this futuristic human race to become slaves to the Tripods long ago.

It is also interesting to hear these characters, who live in the future but with 19th century technology, give their views on "relics of the ancients" that they see remnants of.  Items like watches, subway systems, canned food, trains---are completely foreign concepts to Will and his companions.  They seem to know as little about what life had been like on Earth before the Tripods came as they do about the Tripods themselves.  One could speculate about how a society could be so physically, mentally and morally weak to have allowed themselves to be overcome so completely by the Tripods.

With rumors that this trilogy will soon be made into a movie, it's a great time to rediscover this classic contribution to children's literature.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Write, Slide and Learn: Phonics

Edited by Kate Cuthbert

Thumbs up.

This is a really neat book with a variety of phonics activities.  The range of activities is quite large, with just a few pages at each level, so this could be a deterrent for some users.

Perhaps the most useful lessons are found in the first few pages.  The book begins with a really nice section on choosing the correct short vowel to match the pictures.  Since many kids have trouble hearing the difference between some short vowel sounds, particularly, a, e, and i, these lessons give fun reinforcement when first learning those distinctions.

There is a section on long vowel sounds with a silent e.  This section could be used to introduce the "first vowel says its name, second vowel is silent" rule. 

After that, the progression of the book becomes slightly more arbitrary.  The lessons continue with an extensive long vowel section, less suitable for a beginning reader, then back to some consonant practice that a beginner could do.

The long vowel sections could be useful for those practicing spelling lessons with various long vowel combinations or for review of the above.  It includes a few pages of practice for each of the long vowel sounds in which the child chooses which vowel combination is the correct one for a given picture.  For instance, on the long o page, the student must choose between o, oa, ow, and o+e, to complete the words  "n__s__"  or  "t__ __d"  and there is a corresponding photo for each.

The book includes lessons on choosing whether the vowel sound is long or short; ending and beginning consonants, and general consonants; ending and beginning blends; digraphs; and review pages.

The book is a write on/wipe off style book that is actually easy for the kids to wipe off.  That is a big plus for me, since it seems like so many reusable books of this sort take a parent to do the wiping.  It comes with its own marker.  It has an enclosed spiral binding, in which my daughter kept handy a paper towel for wiping the pages clean.

The lessons are of two sorts, every other page is a practice page of four rows with four pictures in each, and a place below to fill in the correct letter or letter combo.  There is a neat sliding mechanism that allows the child to check each row after filling in the answers.  As the child pulls the slide, the pictures are hidden and are replaced with the correct entire word, and below it the particular letter or letter combo that the child ought to have filled in.

The alternate pages have just a few colorful photos and blanks, which reinforce the lesson.  These pages have no answers included.

The pages and binding seem durable.  The photos throughout are engaging and colorful.  Most pictures are easily identifiable, but a few were difficult for my preschooler to determine.  I'm sure an older user could more readily identify the photos.  The book was originally published in Australia, so there are occasional words that have different English usages in American English, such as a light "globe" instead of "bulb".

Over all the book is very nice.  It could make a nice addition to a homeschool collection, or a summer review or a classroom learner.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Day They Came to Arrest the Book

by Nat Hentoff

Thumbs mostly up.

More than telling a story, Mr. Hentoff uses this book as a platform from which to introduce, in a manner interesting to middle through high school aged kids, the idea of censorship and book banning.  The setting is a somewhat generic Anywhere, USA, town high school, aptly named, George Mason High School.  The cast of characters includes students: Barnaby, the high school newspaper editor of Jewish descent; Gordon, an African American young man; Kate, an aspiring feminist; and several other minor characters: students, teachers, the principle, a past and present librarian, and various townspeople.

The basic story line begins with a history teacher, Mrs. Baines, juxtaposing Huckleberry Finn with readings from Alexis de Tocqueville in order to introduce her 19th century American history class.  Gordon, the African American student, is frustrated, seething would be more accurate, over the racial slurs and constant use of the "n-word" in Huckleberry Finn.  After his father demands the principle remove this book from the school entirely, Mr. Moore, the smooth talking principle tries to deal with the situation discretely.  He encounters resistance, however, from both Mrs. Baines and the new librarian, Miss Fitzgerald.  They demand the principle follow official procedure.

This leads to the school board appointing a review committee which will hold community hearings.  The committee will then approve a recommendation by vote and present it to the school board for guidance.  The school board must then hold its own open meetings and cast a vote.  Throughout this process the faculty, student body, and entire community becomes involved.  Eventually the situation ends up on national news.

Mr. Hentoff does a fairly good job of trying to portray all the various sides of the issue of censorship within a school setting.  He addresses the ideas of students being a captive audience, of schools being houses of learning, and the debate over at what age and in what way students ought to be introduced to analyzing ideas different than their own.  He addresses the idea of a restricted book shelf and students opting out of certain class materials.  He addresses teachers having autonomy within their classes.  He is a little weak, in my opinion, on parental authority and rights.

I think Mr. Hentoff did a pretty good job of spinning a compelling plot out of a civics lesson.

The characters are somewhat unevenly drawn.  The adults are developed very well.  They are often quite comical in their idiosyncrasies.  The kids are not very well developed except to tell us one or two things that might be important to them.  The author takes a couple of chapters to introduce the students, but it seemed a bit rushed.

There is one somewhat blaring irony that I can't decide if the author stuck in intentionally. I think I've decided it was an oversight, since it was mentioned, but it's irony never brought out.   At one point the kids are trying to think of an example of a book nobody could disapprove.  Kate, the budding feminist, who has jumped on the anti-Huck Finn bandwagon for it's portrayal of women's place in society, suggests Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as a book about which nobody could complain.  Since so many of the issues in Pride and Prejudice revolve around what we might consider very restrictive roles for women in society, it somewhat surprised me.  It was either done intentionally, in order to show the blunders any strongly opinionated person might sometimes stumble into, or it was sloppy work on the part of the author and editor.

Another interesting point of view is portrayed in a conversation about a new class offering the content of which is aimed at teaching different sides of cultural issues.  The stated goal is to pacify parents who might worry that teachers are too liberal on social issues.  The list of typical issues with which conservatives might be concerned:  flat earth, forced sterilization of the poor, and the use of military might against Russia.  (This was written in 1982).  I found it interesting that forced sterilization is portrayed as a conservative issue, since in its heyday, it was quite obviously a progressive issue. I also, even as an active Conservative, don't know too may people (read: any) who believe the earth is flat.

All in all this book could be useful for teaching about political activism, the role of community and parental involvement in schools, and the obvious topic of censorship and banning of books.  But I would say that a parent would want to read this book along with a child, because of the many shades of opinion portrayed.  The book also leads to a conclusion with which all parents may not totally agree.

I myself mostly agree with the solution, but there are things within the book I would have discussed further with a student.  I didn't like the way some of the opinions were presented and the slant that was taken toward some viewpoints.