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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.   

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Book Review: The Men Who United the States

I've been a fan of popular historian Simon Winchester for several yars now.  His Krakatoa, and The Professor and the Madman, and A Crack in the Edge of the World all pretty much guaranteed that I'd read whatever he writes.  He has a gifted way of writing about historic events that creates suspense and intrigue, without going overboard with too many details, or too many asides.  Kind of the opposite of how I generally write.  So when I saw that he had written a kind of survey of American History, I was all for it.  The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible may be the longest title I've ever written a review on.  But it's a great read. 

The 463-page hardcover was published last year, and examines the process of connecting the United States.  Not just getting the land, but really looking at the connective tissue that ties the country together.  Winchester groups these connections into five parts:

Part I When America's Story was Dominated by Wood, 1785-1805

Part II When America's Story Went Beneath the Earth, 1809-1901

Part III When the American Story Traveled by Water, 1803-1900

Part IV When the American Story was Fanned by Fire, 1811-1956

Part V: When the American Story was Told Through Metal, 1835-Tomorrow

As a British expatriate who recently became an American citizen, Winchester seems to be writing this book as a sort of homage to his adopted homeland. He demonstrates a love for the United States and our history that stays away from American exceptionalism, but does point out American remarkablism (I think that's a new word that I just made up).  

In his lengthy subtitle, Winchester points out the kinds of men (and women, but mostly men) he'll be writing about: explorers, inventors, etc...and how their efforts united such a geographically diverse and distant group of people into one nation.  He begins with Thomas Jefferson's obsession with the West, recruiting Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery to make it to the Pacific, and Winchester does a good job of succinctly retelling their story, threading routes that would be followed by hundreds of thousands later.  He follows their story with seemingly unrelated tales of American geologists, which turn into an explanation of America's vast natural resources and the birth of industry, but also a celebration of the great natural beauties of the United States, and our National Park system.  

Much of the book is about the transportation and communication networks which served to unite the states; the railroad, the canals, the interstates, telegraph, telephones, and eventually television, radio and the internet.  It's a remarkable overview of the last 200 years, and a reminder of just how interconnected the United States has become.  I might like to think that we could function without say, Texas in the union, but they're a part of us.  A part of me (hey, I was born there)(a long time ago). 

Winchester does point out our flaws along the way, and his outsider's perspective comes in handy when he's discussing the treatement of the Native Americans at the hands of Other Americans.  He lets tragedies seep into the book, but they don't ever dominate his overall vision of the United States as the place he wanted to end up, a country with a rich past and a hopeful future.  

If it's been a while since you've picked up an American History book, this is a very readable text.  I devoured it in the space of a few hours, but it would be pleasurable to read a few chapters at a time, remembering some of what we've forgotten since our high school days.  I love Winchester's way with words, and he uses them to tell great stories.  I'm glad I read The Men Who United the States.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book Review: Anne Frank's Chestnut Tree

Part of my job this year has been reading and evaluating children's and young adult books and seeing if they're appropriate to teach students history and other social studies concepts. One of the books I received was an "Easy Reader" style picture book from Random House, one of their Step Into Reading publications. The book, by Jane Kohuth with illustrations by Elizabeth Sayles, is Anne Frank's Chestnut Tree. 

The title alone raised about twenty-three red flags. A picture book about Anne Frank? Teaching little kids about the Holocaust? And specifically Anne Frank? Most kids read Anne Frank's story at some point in middle school, and there's an undeniable power in reading her own words in her diary format. So I opened the book with some trepidation.

Intended for grades 1-3, the book has short chapters and an easy-to-follow plot. The text is simple, with short sentences and a large enough font to read, but it does retell Anne Frank's story in a way that is both respectful of the original material and of history, but softens some of the harshest edges. 

The book is divided into sections: In the Attic, The Secret Annex, and Anne's Chestnut Tree. The first sets up her story, the second is the bulk of her biography, and the last section is the aftermath and a sort of tribute to Anne and her writing. 

Anne Frank's Chestnut Tree does a good job of introducing young readers to complicated topics, like war, antisemitism, and even the idea of concentration camps. Through it all, the authors use the window from the Annex where Anne can see her chestnut tree as a sort of escape, as hope, as her proof that God was still there and loved her. Towards the end of the book, instead of saying something like "Anne died in the concentration camp," Kohuth uses more passive language which feels safer for young readers: "Anne did not survive the war." It's a small difference, but a significant one.

I think it's good to expose children to stories like Anne's at a young age; one of my nieces recently read The Diary of Anne Frank (the real one), and got to the part where Anne and her sister died in the concentration camp, and lost it. She didn't realize they died, and was devastated. Which is an appropriate reaction, of course...but I wonder if she had gone into the book with this picture book as an introduction if it would have helped her through it. 

The author is able to end Anne's story on a hopeful note, which can be difficult with stories set during the Holocaust. End notes cite the Anne Frank House, linking to their website at www.annefrank.org, but it's not clear if the book is officially endorsed by them or not. 

The illustrations are dark pastels, fitting to the story being told, with splashes of color here and there, like I imagine Anne's life was. The characterization of Anne and her family in particular looks as they do in photographs, and I appreciated the efforts of illustrator Elizabeth Sayles in softening the edges without making the family or other characters seem cartoonish.

Can such an elementary reader tell Anne's story effectively? Yes, I think this does. If you're looking for something that's an introduction to some of the horrors, but also heroism, of the 20th Century, it's worth checking out. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Book Review: Latter-Day Lore: Mormon Folklore Studies

A topic I've always found fascinating is Mormon folklore--the stories and culture that have grown up around the Mormons in isolation in the Western United States. Those traditions are the topic of Latter-Day Lore: Mormon Folklore Studies, a 2013 book edited by Eric A. Eliason and Tom Mould.

The hefty (nearly 600 pages) paperback is a collection of writings dating from 1948 on, although most of the 28 essays and articles are from the last 25 years. The majority of the older essays still hold up over time, because they're about rural communities and the transition from pioneer times to 20th Century life. 

The six sections of the book are:

Part I: Mormondom as Regional Culture: Society, Symbols, and Landscape 

Part II: Making Mormons: Formative Customs and Traditions

Part III: The Sacred and the Supernatural

Part IV: Pioneers, Heroes, and the Historical Imagination

Part V: Humor

Part VI: Beyond Deseret: Mormon Folklore in an International Context

The introductions to each section, along with a long scholarly introduction about the context of the Mormons in the West, the role of folklore in researching history, and how they gathered and organized the essays, are all written by Eliason and Mould. It turns out those are the driest part of the collection, although they do a good job of establishing the rest of the book.

Some of my particular favorite essays:

The Mormon Landscape: Definition of an Image in the American West, by Richard V. Francaviglia -- there is something unique about Mormon cities and towns and their situation in relation to each other and the mountains and streams that feed them, when compared to similar sized towns in neighboring states. Francaviglia explains those differences, and gives a sort of primer to help you identify "if you're in a Mormon town or not." 

Nameways in Latter-Day Saint History, Custom, and Folklore, by Eric Eliason -- Mormon given names have always fascinated me, possibly because my own name (Quinn) is somewhat unusual. It defies the naming traditions described by Eliason, but when the time came for my wife and I to name our own sons, we followed some of the courses described in the essay. Eliason details several different traditions, ascribing them to times and places, and examines whether or not they're truly "Mormon" traditions, or "Western U.S." traditions. I loved this essay.

Pioneers and Recapitulation in Mormon Popular Historical Expression, by Eric Eliason -- turns out I like how this guy thinks. And writes. This looks at the idea of the Mormon exodus from eastern states to Utah, and how it's been commemorated and become its own sort of weird object of veneration. I've never quite agreed with it, but Eliason explains it well here. He also looks at how that commemoration has changed over time, and what forms it may take in the future. 

Others in the collection are hit and miss; I felt like the collection and analysis of "BYU Coed Jokes" was interesting, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. Same with the inclusion of "Three Nephites" stories -- similar to the "Wandering Jew" or Michael Landon's Highway to Heaven character...an angelic visitor who pops in, does some good deed, and then vanishes. That essay felt short and incomplete for a subject that's such a huge part of Mormon folklore. 

One that I wanted to love, and that I was keenly interested in, was Susan Peterson's The Great and Dreadful Day: Mormon Folklore of the Apocalypse. Mormons tend to have...interesting ideas about the end of the world (the official name of the church includes the term "Latter-Day" in it, after all), and in my personal experience, the folklore related to the apocalypse goes bananas. Sadly, Peterson's article was originally published in 1976, and although it's well-written, many of the things she includes as evidence or as Mormon conventional wisdom has been changed. 

Overall, it's a collection of scholarly essays that look at Mormon folklore. If you're a fan of American folklore or cultural studies, it's a solid read. Each essay provides enough of a background about what you need to know about the religion for that particular essay, so you aren't ever out of your depth in understanding where the authors are going. If you're interested in the subject, but want something a little shorter, I also recommend Between Pulpit and Pew: The Supernatural World in Mormon History and Folklore.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book Review: The War Within These Walls

There are a lot of books out there about the Holocaust, and World War II in general. I get asked to review many of them each year, and this one...this one was different. There aren't many that cover the problems of the Warsaw Ghetto--indeed the entire occupation of Poland and Eastern Europe is often glossed over in the United States, so it was refreshing to see The War Within These Walls, by Aline Sax and Caryl Strzelecki. 

Translated from Dutch into English last year, the 175-page hardcover is like a fusion of a graphic novel and a traditional prose book. Not that it has speech bubbles or anything, but it's so heavily illustrated that it comes across that way. Each page has drawn pictures in shades of gray and black and blue, making for a dark book--which fits the subject matter perfectly.

The main character is Misha, whose family is moved with the rest of their Jewish neighbors and friends and family into a neighborhood in Warsaw that's been walled off by the Nazis--the Warsaw Ghetto. It's incredibly crowded, with people dying from disease, starvation, and worse things. Misha does what he can to help his family, especially his younger sister. He starts with trading goods, then stealing, then crawling through sewers to escape the ghetto and smuggle food back in. Eventually conditions get so bad that he's recruited with a group of resistance fighters, who make an attempt to overthrow the Nazi soldiers and get out of the ghetto for good. 

Even though I knew how the Warsaw Uprising would end, Sax still tells a compelling story and creates a compelling, likable character in Misha. He goes from being a sweet kid to a hardened soldier quickly, but you see how his spirit is crushed, then raised again with each small triumph. If you're interested in World War II, but seeing a fresh perspective on it, look for The War Within These Walls. 


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Book Review: Bad Girls

There are a lot of books about bad guys out there. And, as the term suggests, those books are almost always about bad MEN. Often we assume women are incapable of great villainy, because they're supposed to be the "gentler sex," and the "fairer sex," and all that. But if you've ever seen women fight each other, you know they're as vicious as any man could ever be. 

Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple are a mother-daughter team who have come up with a book to balance the scales a bit: Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves & Other Female Villains is a 2013 hardcover that combines a mini-biography and graphic novel format to explore the lives and villainy of two dozen women. They range from 800 BCE to the 20th Century, and include some of the names we've come to know best: Delilah, Jezebel, and Salome from the Bible, Bloody Mary, Anne Bonney and Mary Read, and the legendary Lizzie Borden and Typhoid Mary. We even get gangsters like Bonnie Parker and Virginia Hill. 

The format of the book has Jane and Heidi as characters in comic book format, introducing each player before their prose biography of that villain. This allows them to give some commentary on the ladies in the book, debating whether they were villainous at all, or just trying to be an independent woman in a man's world. Some of the women who come down somewhere in the gray area between hero and villain: Cleopatra, Anne Boleyn, Catherine the Great and Mata Hari. All of whom ended up in positions of power, and all of whom (okay, except for Catherine) met miserable ends. It makes for an interesting look at gender roles, and what exactly it means to be a hero or villain. If you're interested in history, and in great evils done by the "gentler sex," this makes for an entertaining read. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Book Review: The Blessing Cup

If you've ever seen the play or the movie Fiddler on the Roof, you're familiar with the story of how the Czar ordered all of the Jews to leave Russia. I was in that play in high school, and my niece is in that play now. Chances are good that if you're in the United States, at least, you've seen some production of it. And it's a good story. Parts of that story are retold, with a different angle, in Patricia Polacco's 2013 picture book "The Blessing Cup." This book is sort of a companion piece to "The Keeping Quilt," another book by Polacco with a similar message.

The story starts in Russia in the early 1900s. Anna's family is bullied by the czar's soldiers, but manages to continue their farm life. As part of their shabbat rituals, her mother pulls out a fine China tea set, one that she's had since early in their marriage. Inside the teapot was a note from Anna's great aunt: "This tea set is magic. Anyone who drinks from it has a blessing from God. They will never know a day of hunger. Their lives will always have flavor. They will know love and joy...and they will never be poor!" 

Those blessing seem to be lost when the czar's soldiers come and burn their small village, forcing Anna, her family, and all of the people they know to leave Russia for good. They're shown unexpected kindness as they flee Russia, and then again when they emigrate to the United States. We get glimpses of what happens to Anna's family (Patricia Polacco's great grandmother) and the Blessing Cup as they go from generation to generation, and city to city. The ultimate fate of the Blessing Cup was a surprising one, and I enjoyed the ending of the book more than I thought I would.

Polacco both wrote and illustrated the story, with pencil drawings that have only splashes of color. The tea set is colored with bright blue and red, and there are occasional spots of color in the clothing of Anna's family, but most of the book is black and white. I enjoyed the intersection of World History with Patricia's own Family History, making the world a little smaller, and a little more relevant to readers. Sometimes I wonder if we all knew our own family stories a little better, if we'd find these remarkable stories in our own lives. Maybe it's time to find out.