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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Book Review: The Kitchen House

My wife is in a book club.  It's with a bunch of ladies from the neighborhood, and the way she describes it is "we talk about the book we all read for about ten minutes, and the rest of the time we're talking about everything and everybody else." Which to me, sounds like...well, just a bunch of gossip.  Which is cool. We all do it, why not organize?  

Last month they read a book that my wife thought I'd enjoy, The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. The 2010 novel takes place in the antebellum South, on plantations in Virginia.  My wife knows I like historic fiction, and even though this is centered on women, she figured I'd like it.  She was right.

The story is of course about the interactions between the slaves and the whites who own and run the plantation.  Most elements are things we've seen before in similar books and movies.  The curveball that Grissom throws us is in the person of Lavinia, an Irish immigrant who arrives in the United States in the late 1700s. She's just a child of six when we meet her, and both of her parents died on the voyage over from Ireland. She had a brother, but she was separated from him when they were both taken to be indentured servants.  

While there are many stories about slaves and slavery (and there should be), I'm not aware of many about indentured servitude.  The idea was that the indentured would live with a family for a period of time (seven years was the standard), where they'd work off the price of their voyage to the United States, their upkeep, etc.  Lavinia ends up in this situation, which, although she's white, essentially confers upon her the status of a slave.  She lives with the slaves who work in the "kitchen house," which would be the most upper class of the slaves for this particular plantation.  She's taken in by them as family, and calls the heads of household Momma and Papa.  As she grows older, she comes to understand the hierarchy of the plantation, the social fabric of the larger community, and what her role in it might be.

The resulting book is more complicated than I expected, with doses of joy, but a lot of tragedy.  There are many heroes, but the villains have such power over all of the lives around them that it can become oppressive. Each character is carefully drawn, and we get insights in every side of the complicated institutions of slavery, agriculture, and Southern society.  

If you're a fan of the time period, this book covers approximately 1790-1820, which is earlier than most of these stories.  The Civil War is still a few generations away, and emancipation isn't on the horizon.  Despite that, there's some hope in The Kitchen House

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Book Review: Proxy

Dystopia.  Thanks to the success of The Hunger Games, there's been an onslaught of dystopian young adult literature over the last five years.  Some of it's been pretty good, most of it has been Hunger Gamesripoffs. It's gotten to the point that I'll see that a book is set in a dystopia, which used to excite me...and I'll immediately shut down.  

Despite those feelings, I found a book recently that I really enjoyed, Proxy, by Alex London.  The tagline for the 2013 novel is "some debts can not be repaid," and that's an ongoing theme in the book.

The story takes place some time in the future, where the world has been divided into the haves and the have-nots.  The "haves" live in unbelievable luxury, and everyone else scrambles for the scraps.  There are are walls and systems that separate the two groups, and one of the wealthiest kids in town is Knox.  Knox's father is fairly high up in the security agency that is like the police force for his city, but that doesn't keep Knox out of trouble.  He parties, he's foolish, he crashes cars, he ends up killing a friend.  The twist here is that Knox is never punished for anything he does.  Instead, he's forced to watch a monitor where he sees a proxy, a poor boy named Syd, punished for his actions.  They don't know each other, Syd doesn't know the name of the person whose actions result in his pain and imprisonment.  Knox, a kid who lacks any kind of empathy, doesn't care that his actions are hurting Syd.  

Eventually the two meet, figure out each other's identity, and end up trying to kill each other.  Until they find they have more in common than they expected, and this knowledge puts them onto a path that will take them beyond either of their worlds.  

There were many elements of this world that reminded me of the recent movie Elysium, parts of which I really enjoyed.  The gulf between the rich and the poor is something that we're seeing grow as time goes on, and the scenarios in Proxy don't seem that far away from what's happening around us. There are people who live in gated communities, separated from the commoners, who are driven in a fancy car from their fleet of fancy cars.  Some of these people even run for president.  In any case, there are disparities around us, and Proxy exaggerates them a bit to tell a surprisingly compelling story.  

If you're looking for a fresh take on dystopias with a very interesting story, hunt down Proxy.  It's a good read.   My only caveat -- it ends with a cliffhanger.  So there will be another book in the series.  I'll be reading that one too.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Book Review: Diego Rivera - An Artist for the People

One of the subjects I feel like I'm weakest on is art.  I never took any art classes in school--not even the rudimentary drawing classes I probably should have had in middle school.  I wish I had.  But I didn't.  So I got some art in my AP History classes, and...well, I guess that's it.  So when I picked up the book Diego Rivera: An Artist for the People, I felt a little overwhelmed, but also excited to read it.  Maybe I'd actually learn something. 

Susan Goldman Rubin's biography of Diego Rivera is intended for middle grade readers (usually 5th to 8th grades), but it's an excellent introduction to the man and his place in both Mexican and American history.  

Diego Rivera was a painter, specializing in enormous murals.  He trained in Europe, then returned to his native Mexico, where he started experimenting with frescoes (painting on still-wet plaster) and other forms of murals.  As his subjects, he chose the Mexican people.  Instead of just the descendants of Spaniards, he also celebrated the history and culture of the many native tribes that were absorbed into Mexico over the centuries.  He ended up being invited to paint a dozen incredible panels in the National Palace in Mexico City; the entire artwork together is called Epic of the Mexican People: History of Mexico from the Conquest to 1930.  Incredibly detailed, and vibrant with explosions of color, they tell the history of Mexico through the 20th Century, but instead of focusing on the upper classes, as histories often do, he really focused on the peasants, the laborers, the working class.  

During this same period, he married Frida Kahlo, and their distinctive and different art styles could be seen as an analogue to their rocky marriage.  They actually separated and remarried, and were a tempestuous couple.  They were probably also enormously entertaining.  There's a humor in their relationship that Rubin is able to draw out in her descriptions, making for a fun read.

The book focuses on two major projects in the United States: one in San Francisco, the other in Detroit.  Both murals were about work--one about the work of making a mural (pretty meta) and the other industrial workers.  Both murals faced criticism, which redoubled because of Rivera's history with the communist party.  The Detroit Mural may be my favorite, and a big part of that is how Rubin decided to present the work.  She shows us the early sketches and charcoal drawings of how the mural would be laid out, more detailed and fine-lined "cartoons" that were the actual size of the fresco, and then the finished painting, including details you might overlook if you were looking at the whole mural.  

Overall the book is a beautiful tribute to a man who made the most of his talents, and who continued to do work that he felt was paying homage to "the little people" of the world his entire life.  I wish there were more people like him.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Book Review: All the Truth That's In Me

A big part of my last three months has been reading.  Dozens of books were sent to me for some work with the Children's Book Council, evaluating books for their social studies application.  And I've loved it.  One of the most remarkable experiences was reading the book All the Truth That's in Me, by Julie Berry.  

A Young Adult novel that's 275 pages long, it started out being a book I hated.  I hated it. I dreaded picking it up.  The book is set in a Puritan village in the 17th Century. Even though the village is fictional, the situations seemed very authentic.  A theocracy that forms the basis of both the local government and social life--carefully prescribed rules that guided the actions both public and private--and a young woman named Judith who is dropped in the middle of it.  

Kidnapped by her friend's father when she was still a girl, she's returned to Roswell Station six years later, but permanently mutilated--he cut out her tongue when he let her go.  She can't read or write, and according to their traditions, she was somehow wicked, and deserved her fate.  She's a pariah in the community, and even in her own home, where her mother can't accept a damaged girl who she wrote off as dead years ago.  The mystery of what exactly happened to her, and if she can find happiness in this closed community is at the heart of the book.

Berry's characterization of Judith is especially strong, and as it's told in the first person, it really needs to be.  The author's description of the village, the customs, and the culture that Judith was returning to is also very good, and from a history teacher's perspective, seemed authentic to the time period.  

So why did I hate it so much at first? Honestly, it's because the first 30 pages or so were so confusing that I'd read a handful of pages and throw the book across the room.  Because I was required to read it, I'd pick it up again, but it was hard going.  That first part of the book is written in what I can only call "micro chapters," which would shift in time and place and perspective and leave my confused.  These tiny snippets--flashes of awareness--would sometimes be as short as three to a page, but those three passages wouldn't connect to each other in any way that I could see.  Gradually the passages grew longer until Judith's story became more cohesive and coherent, and the rest of the book provided content and meaning for those earlier frustrating bits.  

By the middle, it was a page-turner, and by the end of the book, it was one of my favorites that I read for this program. Entertaining, well-written, with some powerful imagery and messages.  I loved it.  I can see it being a good book for young adults who maybe aren't ready for The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible yet, but with similar themes and settings. If that sounds like something that's up your alley, or if you're a fan of YA books with strong female protagonists (there are a lot of them out there), this one is unusual enough and different enough that you'll remember it for years to come.  I know I will.  

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book Review: The Fire Horse Girl

I just finished reading 93 books for a social studies committee that I'm on.  The goal is to find the best books to recommend for students, teachers, and school librarians across the country.  When you're reading that many books in a relatively short time, certain patterns emerge.  With the Young Adult novels, the pattern became apparent awfully quickly: 

Plucky Girl from (insert location or time period) comes to (new place), where she meets (usually a boy, sometimes a female ally), who eventually seems to betray her; Plucky Girl finds a new direction in life, triumphs over her obstacles, and has a Happily Ever After.  

Seriously. It got to be like Mad Libs after about five books.  When I picked up The Fire Horse Girl, by Kay Honeyman, I was afraid it would be more of the same.  Instead, what I got was a very well-written, nicely researched novel from a first-time author.  And even if the book follows the pattern established above, it's worth the time to read it.  

The Plucky Girl is named Jade Moon, and she's living in China.  She's more headstrong and reckless than other girls her age, and her family blames on the sign of the Chinese zodiac she was born under: the Fire Horse.  We get insight into what life in China in the 1920s was like, and the traditions Jade Moon is expected to uphold.  She's deemed unmarryable, and is sent to America to try her fortune there.  Her family has some connections that will help her along the way, but she's really doing this very much alone.

Honeyman gets into the historic context of what it would have been like to be a Chinese immigrant at the time--going through the west coast version of Ellis Island, called Angel Island.  Unlike Ellis Island, Angel Island became a longterm prison of sorts for many Chinese immigrants, and Jade Moon stays there for months before being allowed to go on to San Francisco.  There she faces more discrimination, and more challenges--some because of her race, others because of her gender.  She finds ways around these challenges, but in unexpected ways that were both clever enough and interesting enough that the book became a real page-turner.

If you're interested in history, or in headstrong young women who are going to change the world no matter what others tell them, The Fire Horse Girl is an entertaining read. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review: Salt Lake City's Historic Architecture

I'm something of an architecture buff.  Architecture nerd.  Geek. Whatever you want to call it, I pay attention to the buildings around me.  More than just a place to get out of the elements, they're built the way they are for a reason.  I don't have any professional training, and given my math skills, could never actually build anything, but I love architecture.

When I saw Images of America: Salt Lake City's Historic Architecture by Allen Dale Roberts, I knew I had to pick it up. The book is part of a long-running series from Arcadia Publishing, with hundreds of books celebrating local history across the United States.  Their pattern seems to be mining photos from the archives of local/state historical societies, and then finding local experts to write about them.  In this particular case, it worked perfectly.

Mr. Roberts is an award-winning architect and the president of CRSA, an architectural firm in Salt Lake City that specializes in historic preservation and restoration.  So when he writes about the buildings in the book, he knows what he's talking about.

The 128-page paperback volume features hundreds of buildings, divided into nine chapters based on the function of the structure: Civic and Public Architecture, Industrial Buildings, Hotels and Apartments, Religious Architecture, etc..  

Of the 220 buildings featured in the book, about a third of them have been destroyed.  For some, it's understandable.  The site of the building, the cost to renovate, safety concerns--all play a role in deciding if a building should stay or go.  For others, it's a loss that left me genuinely sad (and sometimes angry) about the shortsightedness of previous generations.  Chief among these are the Commercial Block, which was a beautiful building near my former workplace downtown, and the Dooly Block, Utah's only building designed by renowned architect Louis Sullivan.

As you read the book, the names of certain architects keep coming to the fore: Richard Kletting, Frederick Hale, the firm Pope and Burton...most of the significant buildings in the late 19th and early 20th Century were designed by a handful of men and their firms.  You begin to see common themes and design elements in their buildings, and I love knowing a little more about the backgrounds of the structures.  Names of sponsors of the buildings also keep coming up--the Mormon/LDS Church of course is responsible for many of the buildings in Salt Lake City, but a family of four "Walker Brothers" and the silver mining magnate Thomas Kearns also served as a counterpoint, building commercial buildings to rival the economic and political hold the Mormons had on the city.  It makes for an interesting study in contrasts, and a kind of time machine to look at my hometown.  

The photographs are all black and white, pulled from various state archives, with a handful of modern black and white photographs that may have been taken by Roberts himself. Most buildings are featured two per page, but some significant buildings merit their own page, or even multiple pages.  Roberts' captions are succinct but informative, and I enjoyed reading this book more than I expected.  

If you're a fan of architecture, and happen to have ties to Utah or Salt Lake City, I highly recommend this book.  Since I know most people reading this don't have those ties, look for the Images of America books that represent your own community.  Chances are good that there are many of them, and if they're anything like this one, they'll be a good find.   

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review: The Cat With Seven Names

One of the perks of my current job is that I end up seeing a lot of current books. Most of them claim to be social studies-related, but there are many different ways to interpret what that means.  It can be history, geography, or just personal relationships.  Which means that pretty much any book can qualify.  

One book came across my desk at the end of last year that I didn't think I'd like, but ended up loving:The Cat with Seven Names, written by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Christine Davenier.  I'm not generally a cat person (I do have one)(it might be because I have one), I'm really more a dog-lover. But this book, and the message in the book, captured my heart.

In a busy neighborhood, filled with brownstone apartments, different people go about their lives.  They don't necessarily interact with each other, they pass each other on the streets, but don't say hello, don't even notice each other--they just hurry about their business.  Like most of us do.  

A cat came to my back door one day. Gray, with white paws. Nobody visits me much. I put down the book I was reading (I am a librarian), and I let him in.

The kind woman feeds the cat, reads some books with him, and feels the love and companionship that a cat can bring.  The librarian names him "Stuart Little." A few pages later:

I went out for the paper once, in the cold of dawn. Left the door ajar. With my walker I moved slow as molasses. So a cat slipped in. Just like that. My family's grown and gone, so this small bit of company felt nice. Kinda filled up the house again.  

...this older man also feeds the cat, and has conversations with the cat, who he names "Kitty-Boy."  Kitty-Boy just talkes back in cat language, but the old man is fine with it.   

The cat comes and goes as it pleases, eventually visiting six different people and families in the neighborhood.  And gets six different names as it does so.  The other people include a homeless man, a police officer, and others...and then the cat's true owner finds him.  She's been looking all over for him, and finally finds him.  The circumstances bring the neighborhood together, bonding over this pet they've come to have in common.  They're able to build on this community, actually talking to each other, and eventually having street parties and opening up their homes and their hearts.  

The end papers of the book tell the whole story--the beginning of the book is a view of the street, with everyone looking down at the sidewalk, turning towards their own homes, a dark aspect about the scene...at the end of the book, it's a brighter view, ostensibly the same, but with friendly faces, hands waved in greeting, happy faces, and a sense of community that was missing.  All because of that dumb lost cat.  

I really loved this book. It's got a powerful message, and the story and artwork match up beautifully.  If you've got children, or teach them, and want to help them learn about building bridges to other neighbors and cultures, this is a great way to do it.