Thursday, April 17, 2014
Age Range: 5-8
Grade Level: K-3
Submitted by Tina
The little animals did not eat frogs, rabbits, and mice, but used computers to dominate the earth. It is silly and funny, for children aged 5 and up. The author is a very creative storyteller.
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Submitted by Gerti
When you choose a novel that’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, you know you’ve got a good one, and even though this is a very old work (1927) by a very old author (1897-1975), I was hooked from the opening line. “On Friday noon, July the 20th, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated 5 travelers into the gulf below.” The book lives up to its hype, and is a truly great effort from the author.
Thornton Wilder’s novel takes that simple “fact” (it is actually fiction), and weaves it into a fascinating look at the lives of the people who died in that event, as researched and pulled together by a local monk who was trying to use their deaths to illustrate that God punishes the wicked. But what the story actually shows (and why the original copy of Brother Juniper’s work is destroyed by the church) is that their lives are not evil at all, but that the lives are ended for no fathomable reason. Young, old, good, evil, loving and innocent, the 5 people who died are not the worst in all Peru, and that is a mind-blowing concept to Brother Juniper, who so desperately looked for a divine plan to human life and death.
The 5 people are thoroughly fleshed-out characters, brilliantly drawn by Wilder. The first biography is of the Marquesa de Montemayor, who is not only a gifted writer, but a woman who loves her only child (a daughter) with an open, generous heart, even though that child never returns her affection, and in fact seems to go out of her way to plague and annoy her. Luckily, the daughter is married to a man (in faraway Spain) who appreciates the old lady, and saves the beautiful letters the Marquesa writes to his wife, letters which turn into classics of Spanish literature. The Marquesa dies accompanied by her servant and companion, Pepita, who was raised in a convent and has been given to the Marquesa so that the Mother Superior can prepare her to take over the many good works affiliated with their order. Pepita’s death shows the aged Mother Superior that despite her vain belief that the church hospital and school are important, God does not care if those good works continue after her death.
Also killed in that accident is Esteban, brother to another orphan dropped off at the Convent of Santa Maria Rosa de las Rosas. The twin boys grow up with their own secret language, and are very close to one another, until the one named Manuel falls in love with a local actress. This love pulls the brothers apart, as Manuel won’t confess his love to the woman, as he can’t imagine his brother living without him. Manuel then becomes very ill and dies, and Esteban is forced to live without him anyway. But his life has lost its meaning, and he tries suicide. A famous ship captain tries to interest him in life and the world again and he is on the journey to join that ship when God takes his life by having him fall off the bridge. Ironically, the man who trained the actress his brother was in love with also dies in the bridge accident, along with the young actress’s sickly son.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Submitted by Gerti
This is the 2nd book of Amy Stewart’s that I have finished reading, starting with “Wicked Plants” and here reading her “Wicked Bugs.” I don’t know which she wrote first, but they are very similar in design and execution, although I must admit I like “Wicked Bugs” better. I am still working on a third book of hers, “The Drunken Botanist”, but I haven’t managed to finish it yet. It isn’t nearly as interesting as these other two if you don’t plan to brew your own moonshine!
Like “Wicked Plants”, “Wicked Bugs” is full of strange and unusual facts about insects, arachnids and other creepy crawlies (like scorpions). Like her other book, the creatures descriptions are arranged alphabetically for ease of use, and there is a tab on the upper right corner of the page that indicates whether it fits various categories, like “deadly” or “painful.” While for the plants, I was upset that there were no actual full-color pictures of the plants to help humans avoid them, here I don’t mind the sepia-toned drawings of the insects, etc., mainly because so few of them reside in the US!
Unlike “Wicked Plants,” the drawings in this book don’t bother me, mainly because they are of the creepie crawlie in question, and not of some bizarre nightmare or a psychedelic state the bug bite might cause. It was actually fun showing my kids the pictures of the various bugs, some of which appear to show the creatures actual size, which is pretty creepy when they are 5 inches or larger! I don’t know whether the pictures accurately represent their actual size, only that the size of the drawing of a particular bug seems to mimic the size range the author mentions. Actual entomologists might quibble about it, but I don’t care that much! I’m really just counting eyes and legs when I look at bugs!
Is it worth reading? Yes, like “Wicked Plants”, “Wicked Bugs” is probably even worth purchasing for the home library, since it talks about how dangerous various critters can be. I would especially buy it if I were planning to head to South America or Africa or some other site where the bigger, deadlier things lurk. Fortunately, here in the United States, it seems all I have to watch out for are eating raw pork (she does include a section on parasites) and getting bitten by a brown recluse. Still, this book makes me glad that I spend most of my time indoors!
Monday, April 14, 2014
Submitted by Gerti
This book was recommended to me by the mother of another teenaged boy, and I read it, thinking it might be something my son could read with interest, since he’s not a big fan of mathematics. I’m not a big fan either, but I must say, this book taught me a thing or two, and one of those is not to trust everything you read!
I won’t call this a good book, but “The Number Devil” is a book full of strange and unusual facts about numbers and math. I enjoyed the drawings and the various exercises and games the author included. But some of the book just seems to be a weird translation of a European text. Since Hans Enzensberger lives in Germany, I assume it was originally written by him in German, and there are some times I wish I could have read it in the original, because the translation just seems so awkward! I wonder if the person who translated it from German to English was a native English speaker, or just someone who studied English in school! It seems like the latter was the case.
That criticism aside, I fully related to the story of Robert, the elementary school student who doesn’t like math (or his math teacher – the humorously portrayed Mr. Bockel). I like the book’s format, where each new topic in math is taught in the guise of a dream, and each chapter is called by the night Robert dreams about that mathematical concept. What I like least about the book is that until the end, I as the reader didn’t realize that the terms I was learning (like Bonacci numbers, for example) were made up. Bonacci numbers are actually Fibonacci numbers, and the difference in terms to me is slight, so I don’t understand why the author couldn’t just have used the real terms if his intention was really to teach people about math. It bums me out that a math hater like myself actually went to the trouble of trying to learn some of these mathematical terms, only to find out that the words the author used for them was wrong. It’s a bit of a cruel trick.
So, is this book worth reading? Yes, probably more for a math teacher (who knows what the real terms are and would find their approximations amusing). As for me, I would prefer another person to translate this story from the original text, and for that translator to use the actual terms and names for famous mathematicians instead of using the clever (but inaccurate) substitutions the author makes. It’s not an easy read for an English major, and finding out at the end (where the glossary of “real” terms and names resides) that I have been deceived is the literary equivalent of sitting in the corner with a dunce hat on. It makes me appreciate that math is practical and its many tricks were discovered by clever people throughout history, but it makes me dislike this author who was more clever than practical if he was really trying to give his readers a math lesson. I think it’s the author who’s the devil in this work.
Friday, April 11, 2014
Submitted by Gerti
“Stardust” is the third book by Neil Gaiman that I have recently read, and it bears a strong resemblance to the last book “Neverwhere” – as it also involves a world that is different from that in which we humans normally live. The book begins in the small British village of Wall, which necessarily has an enormous wall on one side of it, through which there is a passage with guards from the town stationed on either side of it. On the other side of this opening, one can see a meadow, and some trees in the distance, but the guards are ordered to keep residents and visitors to Wall from passing through it, due to the magical nature of what exists over there. However, once every 9 years, there a market in the meadow, and residents of town and beyond get together to meet and trade goods.
Teeing up the fairy tale, for that is what the story becomes, is Dunstan Thorn, a Wall resident who like every young man of a certain age is in love with a local girl. It is time for the market, however, and he goes through the gap in order to find a lovely little trinket for his sweetheart. Instead, he finds an old witch who owns a stand offering beautiful glass flowers which make an unearthly music. The old woman’s servant is a lovely young girl who is chained to the stand, but Dunstan still manages to buy a flower from her. However, when the girl kisses him he becomes enchanted, and returns to the fair late at night to make love to the slave girl. After the market, life goes back to normal in Wall, until a small baby appears on the village side of the gap one night. A name tag attached to him calls the baby Tristan Thorn, and Dunstan and his beloved village girl (who have gotten married by this point and had a baby of their own) take the child in.
Years pass, and Tristan falls in love with another gorgeous village girl, and promises to do anything if she’ll only kiss him. When the pair see a falling star, she asks him to get it for her, and he has to pass from the village into the meadow to do so. Then his adventures really begin, for he discovers that the fallen star is actually a living creature in fairy land, and that although he also has a chain to bind her, he let’s her go of his own free will. She runs away, but a tree tells him he must save her, for a pack of witches needs the star’s heart in order to bring back their youth. Fortunately, Tristan is such a good-natured creature, that everything in the forest is willing to help him, whether unicorn or dwarf, and he is able to save the star (whose name is Yvain) from imminent death. Of course, they fall in love, and the story has a few more twists and mysteries before Tristan can become the king he is destined to be with Yvain by his side. There is a secondary plot involving seven murderous uncles of his who also want to rule, but things turned out in the best possible way, as they do in any good fairy tale.
I love Gaiman’s imagination, and his sense of morality, which comes through loud and clear in this book, as the good guys always win, and even the bad guys often undergo a change of heart. A lovely story for a snowy afternoon.
Thursday, April 10, 2014
Submitted by Gerti
There are so many fans of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” and so many authors who have taken that classic 18th century novel and written satellite books which hover around its story and characters. The temptation would be to see Jo Baker’s book as just one of that pack. But hers is a different take on the classic romance, and even though Baker occasionally drops in lines and scenes from the original (which are like seeing an old friend in a crowd for me), Baker tells her story from the Longbourn servant’s vantage point. For those who are not familiar with the Austen original, Longbourn is the name of the house in which Elizabeth Bennet, heroine of “Pride and Prejudice”, and her memorable family live.
As far as I recall, only the servant Mrs. Hill is mentioned in the original, as Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs. Bennet, is constantly requesting her presence to do work for her. But of course there would also be a man servant in a gentleman’s house at that time, and in Baker’s book, that is Mr. Hill, a gay man who uses Mrs. Hill as his beard. Mrs. Hill doesn’t mind, because she has a few secrets of her own, including that she had a love child with Mr. Bennet (Elizabeth’s bookish father) before he got married. That union produced a son, whom Mr. Bennet has never acknowledged, but who has found work at Longbourn. There are also two kitchen maids on the Bennet payroll, and of course, one of them eventually falls in love with this son of Mrs. Hill and Mr. Bennet.
I’ll admit I am a traditionalist, so like many readers, I have notions of the characters even beyond what Jane Austen wrote (and probably meant) them to be. So to my mind, these changes and alterations are disturbing. As readers and fans of the films no doubt remember, the Bennets do not have a son (only 5 daughters), which means that when Mr. Bennet dies, the girls can’t keep living in the house – as it is what is called “entailed” to the humorously officious clergyman, Mr. Collins. That causes much grief for the Bennets, and leads to a battle between Mrs. Bennet and Elizabeth after Elizabeth refuses Mr. Collins’ marriage proposal, even though it would keep the house in the family. I don’t like that Mr. Bennet has a child out of wedlock, just as I don’t like that he didn’t marry Mrs. Hill when he got his servant pregnant, whatever the morals of the time
Baker must take great joy in these relationships which push the envelope on 18th century mores. She has one of the kitchen maids fall for a black servant of the Bingley’s, and has the same girl sleep with Mrs. Hill’s son before marriage. She clearly shows the scoundrel Wickham’s affinity for young girls, as he trifles with another, younger kitchen maid at Longbourn. And of course there is the matter of Mr. Hill’s hidden homosexuality. Baker seems to glory in lifting the moral rock of the time, showing us the slime underneath. And while I love stories about the Regency, the intent to sully its innocence seems a bit deliberate to me. The book’s prime saving grace is that Baker looks in-depth at a Regency servant’s endless work hours and often back-breaking chores, a view rarely seen today.
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
Submitted by Gerti
I have read many books by Philippa Gregory, and she is one of my favorite authors. She has written several books about the Tudor kings and queens of England, including some on Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary (“The Other Boleyn Girl”), as well as one about Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn’s daughter. Since I love Henry VIII and his many wives and children, those are easy reading for me. “The White Princess” is a bit earlier in history, involving Henry VII, the first Tudor king of England and H8’s father, and I am far less familiar with that part of the family’s history. It makes this book harder to read for me, and a bit less interesting.
The main characters in this book are Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII’s mother and therefore, Henry VII’s wife. But this book takes place at the end of the Cousins War – the War of the Roses – during which the royal houses of York and Lancaster fought for the throne of England. Elizabeth of York was the mistress of Richard III, who was killed by his enemies, in order to crown Welshman Henry Tudor (later Henry VII). But in order to make his rule seem legitimate to the other important families in Britain, Henry Tudor has to marry Elizabeth, as she is the oldest princess of the house of York, the daughter of the king before Richard did his usurping. A York-Tudor marriage will unify the troubled country, but will the couple involved be able to stand each other?
One of Gregory’s great gifts when writing about history is her ability to take dry facts and breathe human emotion into them. Likewise in this tale, she takes Elizabeth, who should by rights hate the man who killed her lover, and makes her eventually love Henry Tudor. But she can’t leave it at that. Gregory than takes Henry Tudor, who was strong enough on Bosworth field to take the crown from a fallen King Richard, and shows him as a man plagued again and again by the ghosts of the Princes in the Tower, Elizabeth’s two brothers (and York heirs) who have disappeared from their prison. As each pretender to the throne appears, Henry trembles, and can’t decide whether his new wife is his ally or his enemy.
It is thrilling when historical fact jumps into the book, as when the King and Queen of Spain agree to send their daughter (Catherine of Aragon) to marry Arthur, the oldest son of Elizabeth and Henry Tudor. But any fan of Henry VIII (Arthur’s younger brother) knows how that will turn out! Still, as Gregory herself admits in the Author’s Note, there is enough mystery in our knowledge of the real history of this time to make some of this book conjecture. Like any good history book, it makes me want to do more research (this time, into the Pretenders) and that’s good enough reason to like it. Is it her best novel? No, but it is good enough to fill a snowy winter afternoon. I wish I’d read “Red Queen” and “White Queen” right before this one (and not years ago), so I had more historical background on the important ladies whose rivalry stands behind this book’s story.