Archive for the ‘True Stories’ Category

Review of Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

Friday, December 29th, 2017

Hidden Figures

The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

by Margot Lee Shetterly

William Morrow (HarperCollins), 2016. 349 pages.
Starred Review

After I saw the movie Hidden Figures, I immediately ordered myself a copy of this book. I knew it was one I’d want to own. I was not wrong. (And I have a small collection of books related to Math.)

Now, the movie is – a movie. It presents a summary of the high points of the lives of three female black mathematicians who made a difference at NASA, especially in getting a man to the moon. It’s told in an entertaining way and makes an inspiring story.

The book has a whole lot more detail. The three women featured in the movie had long careers at NASA that lasted decades. Many black female mathematicians began working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics as far back as World War II.

The book has many more details and a far wider scope. You get hints of all the author will cover in her Prologue. Here are some bits from that.

Even if the tale had begun and ended with the first five black women who went to work at Langley’s segregated west side in May 1943 – the women later known as the “West Computers” – I still would have committed myself to recording the facts and circumstances of their lives. Just as islands – isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity – have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life. The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history. It’s a great story, and that alone makes it worth telling….

I discovered one 1945 personnel document describing a beehive of mathematical activity in an office in a new building on Langley’s west side, staffed by twenty-five black women coaxing numbers out of calculators on a twenty-four-hour schedule, overseen by three black shift supervisors who reported to two white head computers. Even as I write the final words of this book, I’m still doing the numbers. I can put names to almost fifty black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers, or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980, and my intuition is that twenty more names can be shaken loose from the archives with more research….

To a first-time author with no background as a historian, the stakes involved in writing about a topic that was virtually absent from the history books felt high. I’m sensitive to the cognitive dissonance conjured by the phrase “black female mathematicians at NASA.” From the beginning, I knew that I would have to apply the same kind of analytical reasoning to my research that these women applied to theirs. Because as exciting as it was to discover name after name, finding out who they were was just the first step. The real challenge was to document their work. Even more than the surprisingly large numbers of black and white women who had been hiding in a profession seen as universally white and male, the body of work they left behind was a revelation….

But before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley’s West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female. For a group of bright and ambitious African American women, diligently prepared for a mathematical career and eager for a crack at the big leagues, Hampton, Virginia, must have felt like the center of the universe.

I must admit, what excited me about this story is that it’s a story about many female mathematicians!

Why is that exciting to me? Well, back in the 1980s, I was a 21-year-old PhD student in Math at UCLA. Out of 120 new graduate students that year, only 5 of us were female, and only one other female was in the PhD program. I did end up dropping out of the PhD program and settling for my Master’s. But while I was there, I felt so much like an exception. The Math department had a long line of portraits on the wall of great mathematicians – and I only remember one woman, Emmy Noether. I always took great pleasure in getting better grades than my male fellow students (as an undergrad, anyway) – but it would have been nice to know about a time when, during World War II especially, the government specifically recruited women to do math.

Now, once they hired them, it was an uphill battle to get the pay or recognition that men with the same qualifications should get. That’s part of the story in Hidden Figures as these brilliant women worked to get the promotions and pay they deserved. Mary Jackson in the book and in the movie overcame obstacles to get the title of “engineer.”

But the book also talks about the history of civil rights as it was played out at Langley. The beautiful thing was that these brilliant women could do the math – and the quality of their work did prevail over the years.

The book begins in 1943, when Dorothy Vaughan began working at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. It continues through landing a man on the moon, and how Katherine Johnson’s equations helped get them there. An epilogue refers to many more years and many more women serving our country with mathematical skills.

This book isn’t a quick summary – watch the movie for that. (And I highly recommend it!) It does give a detailed and epic story of brilliant, unappreciated women who made a lasting contribution to American history.

I like the way the Epilogue puts it:

Katherine Johnson’s story can be a doorway to the stories of all the other women, black and white, whose contributions have been overlooked. By recognizing the full complement of extraordinary ordinary women who have contributed to the success of NASA, we can change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule. Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences, it was to fit in because of their talent. Like the men they worked for, and the men they sent hurtling off into the atmosphere, they were just doing their jobs. I think Katherine would appreciate that.

margotleeshetterly.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of March, Book Three, by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

March, Book Three

by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
art by Nate Powell

Top Shelf Productions, 2016. 246 pages.
Starred Review
2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
2017 Printz Award
2017 Coretta Scott King Author Award
2017 Siebert Medal
2017 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction
2017 Battle of the Books Winner

I was at the Youth Media Awards in Atlanta, Georgia, on the Monday after Trump’s inauguration, when this book by John Lewis won an unprecedented four awards, and not a single Honor among them. Atlanta is John Lewis’ home district, so he was there, and had participated in the weekend’s Women’s March. Later that day, I went to the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award program and heard John Lewis speak. Every speaker mentioned how thrilled they were to be in the room with him. After that, I received a free copy of this book, got it signed, and shook his hand.

And this book continues the telling of his story, in graphic novel form. This volume 3 contains more violence than the earlier volumes. It begins with a bombing of a church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963, and continues through Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when marchers were met with violence at the Edmund Pettis Bridge and John Lewis was hospitalized, and ends with the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law.

The whole story is framed by looking back from the day of President Obama’s Inauguration – a direct result of the work that was done in the 1960s.

The book is about idealism and about conflict – from both within the movement and outside it. It’s also about nonviolence being met with violence and standing for what you know is right.

An accessible look at history through the eyes of someone who was there, this book is a monumental achievement and deserves all of the many awards it has won.

I’m putting this on my page for Children’s Nonfiction, because it is written for teens (and I don’t have a teen page for nonfiction). But be aware that the level of violence is high – because that’s what these activists faced. They put their lives on the line for what’s right.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing, by Jen Waite

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing

A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal

by Jen Waite

Plume (Penguin Random House), 2017. 258 pages.
Starred Review

I thought I’d read just a chapter of this book on Friday night. But once I started, I couldn’t look away until I’d finished.

Yes, it’s the true story of an apparently wonderful husband who cheated, lied, and turned out to be a psychopath. (There is a disclaimer at the front that this is not an official diagnosis. This isn’t an official diagnosis, either.) Many of my readers know that I, too, had a husband who cheated – and the long, awful time of suspicion and being lied to and desperately trying to fix things eventually ended with finding out it had all been much worse than I’d thought.

Jen Waite’s story is different from mine. She had only five years she thought she’d had a good marriage (and came to find out, he’d been cheating very early on). But that feeling of devastation? The world-toppling discovery that leaves you not knowing what was ever real? The wondering, always wondering what he’s up to right now and compulsion to check? All of that felt horribly familiar.

When I read that her husband was working long, long hours – through the night to the early hours of the morning – I just cringed. (That one took her a long time to figure out. And I know why – He’s working so hard! You want to be supportive! He’s sacrificing so much time for his job!)

Anyway, this is a story of a marriage – how they met and fell in love quickly – and betrayal. The discovery happened shortly after the birth of their first child. Jen Waite tells the story beautifully and suspensefully. She starts with the moment she read the email her husband had written that changed her world. It’s just a paragraph, which ends like this:

What I am seeing must have a logical explanation. It must be a misunderstanding. As soon as I can talk to my husband, he will explain and everything will be OK. This is not an emergency yet. If I can just hear his voice, I will be able to breathe again. Balancing the baby in one arm, I reach for my cell phone with the other, unconsciously bouncing my knees to soothe my daughter’s screams.

After that, she alternates between sections describing “Before” and “After.” The “Before” sections deal with how they met and built a life together. The “After” sections involve finding out what, actually, happened, and how she very slowly figured out the extent of his betrayal.

Jen finishes up the book describing how she has resolved to become a licensed therapist, specializing in recovery from psychopathic relationships. Yes! So it ultimately becomes a story about wresting good out of a nightmarish situation.

For me, reading it gave me a sense of solidarity – a reminder that I wasn’t the only one who ever got cheated on. (I know this intellectually, but that’s different from feeling sympathy as the author describes going through it.) But it also gave me a lovely realization of how far I’ve come. Yes, I remember being so devastated – but I am not devastated now! I remember trying to get my life back on track and find my footing – and (Wow!) I have done so! Not only am I working full-time as a children’s librarian and youth services manager – I even had my dream come true and am on the Newbery committee! And I would never have even become a librarian if my husband hadn’t left me – I was enjoying working part-time far too much.

I liked her emphasis that life goes on and we can emerge better and stronger. Yes! This is true!

You may not have such a personal connection with this book, but either way, it’s still a gripping and emotional true story. It will give you insight, compassion, and understanding for people caught in such an awful situation.

I checked the author’s website, and she’s got further encouragement for people who are putting their lives back together. May she continue to grow better and stronger because of what she’s been through.

jenwaite.com
plumebooks.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Moto and Me, by Suzi Eszterhas

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

Moto and Me

My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom

by Suzi Eszterhas

Owlkids Books, 2017. 40 pages.
Starred Review

This simple nonfiction book for kids was a big hit when I booktalked it to early elementary school grades.

The story is this: Author Suzi Eszterhas was living in Africa as a wildlife photographer. A baby serval was separated from his mother by some tourists who thought he was in distress during a fire. They took him to a ranger station. The baby needed a foster mother to take care of him and teach him how to live in the wild. Suzi stepped up for the job.

The story is illustrated with abundant photographs – and Moto is adorably cute! The author explains clearly how she fed and tended him. He learned on his own to hunt, practicing with the stuffed toy she gave him, Mr. Ducky. The pictures of him learning to hunt, climb trees, and puff himself up in defense (to look bigger) are also adorable.

The book isn’t long, but it’s packed with information and photos. I was fascinated by Moto’s story, and kids will be, too. And now I know much, much more about servals (African wildcats) than I ever did before.

suzieszterhas.com
owlkidsbooks.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

Saturday, August 5th, 2017

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

by Al Franken

Twelve (Hachette), 2017. 404 pages.

Okay, I’m going to stop being embarrassed for liking Al Franken’s books so much. Years ago, I read Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right and enjoyed it, but I didn’t post a review because I wasn’t ready to admit how much I enjoyed it. (Though to be fair, he included more “jokes” in that one, and I thought went a little too far in spots.)

This book has a lot more restraint – and he talks about how difficult it was to learn that restraint! Yes, I also liked that he left out foul language. There’s a note right at the beginning of the book:

Throughought this volume, whenever you see a very mild oath like “Fiddlesticks!” (or some gentle name-calling like “numbskull” or “dimwit,” or some old-timey synonym for “bull—-” like “poppycock” or “flim-flummery”), followed by the letters “USS” in superscript, that means I’ve replaced something far more plainspoken with a less offensive phrase or expression. The “USS” stands for “United States Senate,” the body in which I now serve. I feel I have a duty to both my colleagues and my constituents to make at least a token effort to preserve its dignity and decorum. I wish I could say the same for that dunderhead [USS] Ted Cruz.

Call me a prude, but I found the result much more pleasant reading – and more creative language – than his earlier books where he didn’t show that restraint. (Though I did think the note was really funny!)

This book tells the story of how Al Franken got into politics and what he’s trying to do in the Senate (represent the people of Minnesota).

He’s a Progressive, and so am I, so that’s partly why I enjoyed his book so much. But it’s also an entertaining story (He does know how to write and how to entertain.) of politics in America today.

It’s funny, though – He does tell a lot of stories about jokes his staff wouldn’t let him tell! Way to get back at them! And most of them are quite funny. And the context tells the reader that they are, in fact, jokes. In almost all cases, you can see that his staff was right and he shouldn’t have told the jokes when he was initially tempted to.

The chapter on Health Care was enlightening – and timely. I also like the chapters where he shows that it is still possible to do good work on things both parties can agree on. And I like the chapters with stories of Minnesotans. These show why Al Franken is doing the work he does.

But I think my favorite chapter was the one on “Lies and the Lying Liar Who Got Himself Elected President.” He explains at the beginning that maybe it’s a little weird, but dishonesty has always gotten under his skin. I guess that rang true because I’ve always felt the same way. I feel like catching someone in a lie should be their utter disgrace.

But he goes on to say:

Back in the good old days, fact-checking politicians was a different ball game. Looking back now, it seems almost adorable that I made a decent living writing books about catching right-wing Republicans in their lies. What I did was effective, I realize now, mainly because a lot of their lies had the veneer of plausibility, and because at least some of the liars liked to pretend that they were telling the truth – which was of course a lie, but which was also part of the fun.

But now we seem to have entered an era where getting caught lying openly and shamelessly, lying in a manner that insults the intelligence of both your friends and foes, lying about lying, and lying for the sake of lying have all lost their power to damage a politician. In fact, the “Trump Effect” yields the opposite result: Trump supporters seem to approve of the fact that he lies constantly, including to them. Like a movie that is loosely based on a true story, Trump’s fans seem to feel that he is making the dull reality of politics more fun and interesting by augmenting it with gross exaggeration, and often utter fantasy.

He goes on to explain why this is important.

I really think that if we don’t start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it’s going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything….

I’ve always believed that it’s possible to discern true statements from false statements, and that it’s critically important to do so, and that we put our entire democratic experiment in peril when we don’t. It’s a lesson I fear our nation is about to learn the hard way.

That’s why my Global Jihad on Factual Inaccuracy will continue. I cling to the hope that national gullibility is a cyclical phenomenon, and that in a few short years we may find ourselves in an era of Neo-Sticklerism. And a glorious era it shall be.

One can only hope!

TwelveBooks.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

Thursday, August 25th, 2016

hamilton_largeHamilton

The Revolution

Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical,
With a True Account of Its Creation,
And Concise Remarks on Hip-Hop, the Power of Stories, and the New America

by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

Grand Central Publishing (Hachette), 2016. 288 pages.
Starred Review

This book is magnificent! Now I really need to figure out a way to get to see the musical.

This is not, however, a good choice for audiobook listening. That’s how I started it, hoping maybe they’d include some clips from the show. Nope. (Only some bars as an introduction.)

The book itself has wonderful material added to the text about the musical. It includes the complete libretto, with large photographs. Most pages of the libretto, in fact, are superimposed over or printed next to large format photos of the actors singing that particular song. The libretto is peppered with notes from Lin-Manuel Miranda.

They tried to include these things in the audiobook. There are two “additional” CDs. One includes pdf files – of the libretto, perhaps with photos. (I didn’t check.) The other is Lin-Manuel Miranda reading the notes. But since the notes are simply read – out of context, not in place in the libretto (Presumably where they go on the libretto is in the pdf.) – you’re going to want to read them, anyway.

Now, I had listened to the first two CDs before I went on vacation. While in California, my sister played for me the wonderful cast album, which gave much more context to what I had listened to. When I got back, my hold came in on the print form of the book – and I learned that the words of the songs are all written out – right next to the information about writing and casting that song. So I switched to the print form and read the words to all the songs, with notes and with pictures, in the right order along with the chapter about writing that song and what it meant in context.

The story of writing and casting the musical and all that it means in America today and why it’s such a phenomenon is the subject of this book.

Here’s a section from the Introduction where Jeremy McCarter explains the plan of the book.

It tells the stories of two revolutions. There’s the American Revolution of the 18th century, which flares to life in Lin’s libretto, the complete text of which is published here, with his annotations. There’s also the revolution of the show itself: a musical that changes the way that Broadway sounds, that alters who gets to tell the story of our founding, that lets us glimpse the new, more diverse America rushing our way. The fact that Lin wrote the show largely in sequence means that this book can trace the two revolutions in tandem. The story of the show’s creation begins at the White House on May 12, 2009, when he performed the first song for the first time. It ends with opening night on Broadway, August 6, 2015, just after he completed the final scenes of the show.

The story is fascinating – both the story put into the musical and the story of the creation of the musical. I have now also placed a hold on Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Here’s a section from a chapter about Ron Chernow’s help in the writing of the musical:

He walked into a rehearsal studio in the Garment District and was, by his own admission, “shocked” by what he saw. The men who were going to sing the roles of Washington, Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers were black and Latino. Not being a rap listener, Ron hadn’t given much thought to the fact that the people best able to perform the songs that Lin had been writing might look nothing like their historical counterparts.

Lin and Tommy saw no difficulty in making this imaginative leap. In fact, they raised it to a principle. As Tommy would state it again and again in the years that followed: “This is a story about America then, told by America now.”

Within five minutes, Ron was carried away by what he heard. He became what he calls a “militant” defender of the idea that actors of any race could play the Founding Fathers.

Just having all the words of the songs is by itself a reason to get the book – because the songs are packed with information. Having read the whole thing, I’m planning to buy myself a copy of the cast album and listen to it all again – I will catch so much more.

There’s all kinds of background information here about casting the show and putting it on, but one of my favorite chapters was about special performances they did for local high schools – and the energy that the teachers harnessed and brought back to the classroom. They included some exciting stories about the students engaging with the material.

Then they ended the chapter talking about what will happen when Hamilton is licensed to be performed in schools.

Its subject matter will appeal to history teachers, its array of juicy roles will appeal to young actors, and its mélange of musical styles will appeal to almost everybody. In a given school year, they imagine, that might mean 600 or 700 student productions around the United States.

What will it mean when thousands of students step into these roles at age 15 or 18 or 20 – roles that have changed the lives of the original cast members, who encountered them at a significantly later age? Leslie says that playing a Founding Father has made him feel newly invested in the country’s origins, something that always seemed remote from his life as a black man in America. “The empathy that requires, the connections you make, the lines you draw between the things you want and the things they wanted, that you love and they loved, I never found all that connective tissue before this show.”

Lin hopes those student productions will strive for the diversity of the original production, the ethnic mix that makes Hamilton look like a message beamed back from Future America. It means that whatever impact the show might have on Broadway, and however long it might run, the biggest impact won’t be in New York: It’ll be in high school and college rehearsal rooms across America, where boys learn to carry themselves with the nobility of George Washington, girls learn to think and rap fast enough to rip through “Satisfied,” and kids of either gender (Lin isn’t doctrinaire) summon the conviction of John Laurens, the freedom-fighting abolitionist, who sings, “Tomorrow there’ll be more of us.”

The book is framed by two performances for President Obama, and there are reflections at the end that communicate part of why this musical is so inspiring.

Unless Lin made the whole thing up – and nobody has said that he did – it suggests that however innovative Obama’s speeches and Lin’s show might seem, they are, in fact, traditional. They don’t reinvent the American character, they renew it. They remind us of something we forgot, something that fell as far out of sight as the posthumously neglected Alexander Hamilton, who spent his life defending one idea above all: “the necessity of Union to the respectability and happiness of this Country.” Obama’s speeches and Lin’s show resonate so powerfully with their audiences because they find eloquent ways to revive Hamilton’s revolution, the one that spurred Americans to see themselves and each other as fellow citizens in a sprawling, polyglot young republic. It’s the change in thought and feeling that makes all the other changes possible.

The Obama presidency will end in January 2017, but the show that shares so much of its spirit will keep running. At the Rodgers that night, the president all but anointed Hamilton as a keeper of the flame. His “primary message,” he said, was to remind people of the need to keep hoping and to work together, but “this performance undoubtedly described it better than I ever could.” The most important affinity that Hamilton will carry into its future isn’t a specific message, though, political or otherwise: It’s an underlying belief in stories, and their power to change the world.

Good community organizer that he is, the president knows that stories can be an engine for empathy, and a way to show people what they share. It’s why he introduced himself, in that first big speech in 2004, by telling his own story. In the years to come, some of the many, many kids who are going to see and even perform Hamilton will be newly inspired to tell their stories too. Every time they do, the newly kaleidoscopic America will understand itself a little more.

“I can do that,” they’ll say. And if they’re like Alexander Hamilton, they’ll add, “And I can do it better.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Symphony for the City of the Dead, by M. T. Anderson

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

symphony_for_the_city_of_the_dead_largeSymphony for the City of the Dead

Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

by M. T. Anderson

Candlewick Press, 2015. 456 pages.
Starred Review
2016 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Finalist

I’m not sure why this book is marketed for young adults rather than old adults, except that it’s super interesting, contains lots of photographs, and isn’t written in tiny print. The story doesn’t pull any punches or hide any of the horrors of war, nor does it focus on the time in Shostakovich’s life when he was a young adult. But yes, it’s interesting for young adults, as any well-written narrative nonfiction would be.

The book begins with a prologue that piques the reader’s curiosity. The first scene is of a Russian agent smuggling a small box of microfilm to an American agent in 1942. The microfilm has come through Tehran, Cairo, and Brazil on its way to New York City. The contents of the microfilm? The Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Why had the Soviet government arranged so carefully for this piece to be shipped to the West across battle lines, across a Middle East that was swarming with Fascist tanks, across seas festering with enemy subs? How could it possibly be worth it?

And who was the composer of this desperately sought-after score? Dmitri Shostakovich spent the first several months of the Siege of Leningrad trapped in that city under fire, writing much of his Seventh Symphony in breaks between air raids. He had first announced that he was working on the piece over the radio in September 1941, just a few weeks after the Germans had started shelling the city. . . .

This is a tale of microfilm canisters and secret police, of Communists and capitalists, of battles lost and wars won. It is the tale of a utopian dream that turned into a dystopian nightmare. It is the tale of Dmitri Shostakovich and of his beloved city, Leningrad. But at its heart, it is a story about the power of music and its meanings – a story of secret messages and doublespeak, and of how music itself is a code; how music coaxes people to endure unthinkable tragedy; how it allows us to whisper between the prison bars when we cannot speak aloud; how it can still comfort the suffering, saying, “Whatever has befallen you – you are not alone.”

M. T. Anderson does tell the story of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony and thoroughly explains why it was so important and why symphony orchestras all over the world wanted to perform it. But more than that, he tells the life story of Dmitri Shostakovich and the story of St. Petersburg, the city of his birth, later called Leningrad. This story requires telling the story of Communism coming to Russia, with the rise of Lenin and Stalin. And then it tells the story of World War II, and how at the outset Stalin believed Hitler’s promises and eliminated Russian military leaders who told him otherwise.

The majority of the book, though, is about the Siege of Leningrad, during which Shostakovich wrote his Seventh Symphony. This siege lasted 872 days – the longest siege in recorded history. Hitler had decided he didn’t need to attack the city – it could be starved.

The story is not pretty. The author doesn’t shy away from the deaths – and the cannibalism. Shostakovich was evacuated from the city before the end of the siege, but the author still fills us in on what was happening in Leningrad where Shostakovich’s sister was still living. Especially poignant is the story of the musicians who were still alive in Leningrad assembling to perform the Seventh Symphony.

Eliasberg [the conductor] remembered that night for the rest of his life. (It was to be the high point of his career.) “People just stood and cried. They knew that this was not a passing episode but the beginning of something. We heard it in the music. The concert hall, the people in their apartments, the soldiers on the front – the whole city had found its humanity. And in that moment, we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine.”

Naturally, while reading this book, especially the description of the symphony, I had to look up a performance on the internet and listen. Knowing the background made it far more meaningful.

Notes in the back explain the difficulties associated with piecing together this story. As M. T. Anderson asks, “How do we reconstruct the story of someone who lived in a period in which everyone had an excuse to lie, evade, accuse, or keep silent?” This book is an amazing piece of scholarship wrapped up in a gripping narrative and sprinkled with an abundance of photographs.

If you are at all interested in the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the fate of musicians and artists under the Soviets, the rise of Communism in Russia, World War II and the Russian Army, or the City of Leningrad, you can’t find a more absorbing way to learn more than reading this book.

candlewick.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Humans of New York: Stories, by Brandon Stanton

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

humans_of_ny_stories_largeHumans of New York

Stories

by Brandon Stanton

St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2015. 428 pages.
Starred Review

I loved Brandon Stanton’s first book, Humans of New York. Now I love his second book even more. In the first book, about half of the photographs had captions. In this book, he interviewed everyone, and includes snippets or in-depth stories from those interviews.

You still have high quality photographs of random people, in all their variety, from the streets of New York. But you’ve also got their stories.

Honestly, some of these stories will break your heart. Others will make you shake your head. Some are inspirational. Some are simply cute. There were several with the caption “Today in microfashion,” showing a small child dressed in a striking outfit.

What comes home to me after reading it is the sheer number of amazingly unique people on our planet (let alone in New York!).

Many of the stories go on for paragraphs. This isn’t as quick a read as the first book. However, I’ll quote a small selection of some tantalizingly short captions to give you an idea. Imagine wonderful photos of the people doing the talking.

“I’ve got what I want. I’ve got a place to live, a girlfriend, and a child. My biggest struggle is just figuring out how to maintain.”

“I spoil every girl I’m with. I’m bringing this dog to my girlfriend now. I’ve already gotten her a snake, a rabbit, and two dogs. She loves animals. She wants to be a vet.”

“Sometimes, when I’m going home to see her, I think: ‘Nobody should be this happy on a Tuesday.’”

“I went to a psychic the day before I met him. She told me I was about to meet the woman of my dreams. I said: ‘I’m gay.’”

“Had cancer six times. Beat cancer six times.”

“Three thousand years ago I had a disagreement with Zeus about the Trojan War, and he’s been harassing me ever since.”

“I’ve completed a series of monumental-sized drawings in ballpoint pen of girls who’ve killed their mothers.”

“It’s hard to adjust. You’re reading a story to your daughters every night, then the next thing you know, you’re only doing it once or twice a week. It’s been hard letting go. It all happened without my consent. It only takes one person to want a divorce. And that person wasn’t me.”

“She helps me with my math homework. When I run out of fingers to count on, she lets me use her fingers, too.”

“I once crash-landed a plane in a desert in Tunisia. I wasn’t even the pilot. The pilot got hysterical and I had to grab the controls.”

Reading this book is a wonderful way to celebrate the amazing diversity of humans.

humansofnewyork.com
stmartins.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Watch Out for Flying Kids! by Cynthia Levinson

Saturday, June 25th, 2016

watch_out_for_flying_kids_largeWatch Out for Flying Kids!

How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community

by Cynthia Levinson

Peachtree, Atlanta, 2015. 216 pages.
Starred Review

I booktalked this book in local elementary schools this year. It’s a story about real kids, with a large format and lots of pictures — and everything in it is true.

A section of the Prologue neatly explains why this is an important book:

Watch Out for Flying Kids spotlights a little-known corner of this universe: youth social circus.

As the first word of the name suggests, “youth circus” refers to programs in which the performers are children. The nine performers featured in this book are teenagers.

The word “social” refers to the mission of bringing together young people who would not ordinarily meet — or, if they did, might fear or oppose each other. The two organizations portrayed in this book — the St. Louis Arches and the Galilee Circus — bring together young people from vastly different backgrounds and cultures through training in circus arts. The goal of both groups is to replace fear with respect and opposition with trust, changing the world one acrobat, contortionist, and flyer at a time.

Why wouldn’t these kids meet if it weren’t for circus? Why might they even fear or mistrust one another? The three white and two black troupers who are Arches live in different neighborhoods and go to different schools in St. Louis, Missouri, a city that is segregated by race and income level. The two Arabs and two Jews who perform with the Galilee Circus in northern Israel live in towns segregated by religion, ethnicity, language, and history. They represent groups that have been violently at odds with each other for hundreds of years.

Watch Out for Flying Kids shows what happens when all of them get together. That is, it demonstrates how they learn to juggle their responsibilities, fly above the fray, balance schoolwork and circus work, unicycle circles around people who doubt them, tumble gracefully through life — even when injured — and walk the tightrope of politics and friendship.

This book looks at the two circuses, the St. Louis Arches and the Galilee Circus, over the years 2005 to 2014. Nine kids in particular are highlighted and their journey described.

Performing in a circus is tremendously difficult, and the hard work and dedication required is conveyed well. The two circuses got to visit each other’s countries and perform together, and the book also shows us the challenges of working together across cultures.

This is a wonderful, inspiring and informative book about a group of kids working hard, forming a community, and putting on a great show.

cynthialevinson.com
peachtree-online.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh, by Kathryn Aalto

Saturday, June 11th, 2016

natural_world_of_winnie_the_pooh_largeThe Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh

A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood

by Kathryn Aalto

Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 2015. 307 pages.

Back in 1999, my family and I got to visit Ashdown Forest and play Poohsticks at the original bridge, so I was delighted when I learned that someone had written a book about the place where A. A. Milne lived and where the real Christopher Robin played, the sites made famous in Winnie-the-Pooh.

This book is filled with photographs, which makes it especially wonderful. The author starts by telling the life stories of Alan Alexander Milne and Ernest Howard Shepard and how they came to collaborate.

Milne had a childhood rich in experiences of wandering the outdoors, and provided the same for his son. Telling about his life shines light on the stories he later chose to tell.

For Milne, warm early memories of roaming the natural world with his brother Ken inspired him to create the setting for what would arguably become the greatest children’s books of the twentieth century, touching generations, selling millions of copies, and being translated into dozens of languages. The books were richly inspired by his adventures with Ken and reflect themes of freedom, adventure, friendship, and cooperation. When Milne wrote about the Hundred Acre Wood, it was a way to revisit his own golden memories, as we shall soon find out.

Milne and Shepard had an unusually involved collaboration, and Milne shared royalties with Shepard, in an unusual relationship for that time.

The emotions in the illustrations came from the inkwell of his heart and observations of real-life, but Milne also had a hand in matters. He expressed how he envisioned the stories and characters. Drawings evolved in conversations over tea and lunch, in letters between the two men, at the Milne home on Mallord Street in London, and, of course, on a visit to Hartfield. Unlike Picasso, who said, “I draw not what I see but what I think,” Shepard drew from real life. In fact, his visual memory was so acute that he could re-create on paper events and people he remembered from years earlier. Knowing how Ashdown Forest inspired the stories and setting Milne created, Shepard visited and sketched Ashdown Forest in 1926, the two men walking to Poohsticks Bridge, Gills Lap, and elsewhere. The bee tree, Wol’s tree, Galleons Lap, and the Enchanted Place were real places Shepard interpreted with a notebook, pen, and pencil in hand. He wanted to capture a tangible sense of place to set the adventures. He sketched pine trees and heathland and watched Christopher Robin making mud pies with Graham, Shepard’s son, in the gardens at Cotchford Farm.

This was interesting and explains why the drawings of Winnie-the-Pooh don’t look a whole lot like the original bear belonging to Christopher Robin which is kept in the New York Public Library:

Shepard’s masterful illustrations were tenderly drawn from real life. He enhanced Milne’s characters – their dialogue, manner, and adventures – to capture the charm Milne put in words. All the creatures were drawn from Christopher Robin’s own stuffed animals except for one: Winnie-the-Pooh. This characterization was inspired by Growler, a teddy bear belonging to Shepard’s son. Years later, Shepard recalled telling Milne, rather sheepishly, how Growler lost a fight with a dog in a Montreal garden. Perhaps they commiserated. Perhaps Milne felt relief. He, too, had a secret. Roo, he revealed, had met a similar fate in the jaws of a dog in a nearby orchard.

After writing about the history of the two creators and their collaboration, the author talks about the places – actual and imaginary – from the books. This is the part that makes me want to go back to Ashdown Forest. She found the origins or inspiration for nearly all the places in the book. Yes, some of them I definitely remember visiting with my family, but I will bring this guidebook if I ever go again and find the places I missed. I will also plan more than one afternoon to spend there. She makes a strong case that the best way to explore A. A. Milne’s natural world is by walking, and there are an abundance of walking paths in Ashdown Forest.

We also would have done well with the tip to bring our own sticks to the Poohsticks bridge! There aren’t many to be found at the site where Christopher Robin played the traditional game – though we did see lots of sticks downriver! In the one site she mentions apart from Ashdown Forest area, the author and her family went to the 2014 World Poohsticks Championship in Oxfordshire.

The third section of the book tells, fittingly, about the natural world of Ashdown Forest, its history and the flora and fauna found there.

Though the Hundred Acre Wood is imaginary, you can still see it in the gorse, heather, and Scots pines of Ashdown Forest, which lives on and changes slowly over time. Milne’s classic stories also live on, showing no signs of abating in the hearts and minds of readers around the world. What many are not aware of, however, is how much history is present in this ancient landscape, shaped as it was (and is) by kings, commoners, and conservators. The forest has a story of its own – one that began long before Milne’s characters ambled in and became a part of it.

With this three-pronged approach – Milne’s life, the book places, and the history of the forest – the book feels a little repetitive. Poohsticks, for example, are mentioned more than once in each section. The author uses the least excuse to quote from Winnie-the-Pooh, which is certainly forgivable, though wasn’t always necessary (at least for this reader, who pretty much has it memorized myself). In the section about the flora and fauna, there were many photos, but they didn’t always match up to what was mentioned, though that may just be a layout issue.

Overall, this is a wonderful book that makes you want to go immediately to Ashdown Forest and spend a few weeks with the spirit of a boy and a bear playing in the Enchanted Place at the top of the forest. I wish we’d had this book before we visited, and now I must go again some day. Anyone in my family, be alerted: There is a place called The Hatch Inn in the neighborhood, where William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound used to hang out. (My family name is Hatch.) If I had known this existed, I would have made sure to visit that as well.

How does the story continue between Christopher Robin and Pooh bear? That is a narrative left to our imaginations. But we can return to that place, the Hundred Acre Wood, with its honey trees and sandy pits, rabbit holes and tree houses. It is not merely a fabled literary landscape that exists only in our minds. It is Ashdown Forest, a living landscape where Milne walked for decades and which inspired him to set these stories. You and I can visit it today. And if you and I can visit those enchanting places in more than our imaginations, is that time of our lives truly gone?

kathrynaalto.com
timberpress.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/natural_world_of_winnie_the_pooh.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?