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.