Archive for February, 2009

Review of A River of Words, by Jen Bryant

Friday, February 6th, 2009


A River of Words

The Story of William Carlos Williams

written by Jen Bryant

illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2008.  36 pages.

2009 Caldecott Honor Book.

Here’s a simple picture book biography of the poet William Carlos Williams, but it’s done with excellence.

The collage artwork in this book is noteworthy, recalling the modern art that influenced William Carlos Williams.  The artist used covers from old books, among other things, and created evocative and beautiful illustrations of the poems and of the poet’s life.

The story is told simply, with a taste of actual poems he wrote (and several are written on the endpapers).  The author tells about how the other activities and interests of his life influenced and shaped his poetry, but how poetry was a constant from childhood on.

An inviting and interesting picture book biography.  Isn’t that what a picture book biography should do?  Introduce an interesting person and provide a look into his life that entices you to want to know more.  (And there is a time line of his life and a list for further reading at the back.)

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Review of The Facttracker, by Jason Carter Eaton

Thursday, February 5th, 2009


The Facttracker

by Jason Carter Eaton

illustrations by Pascale Constantin

HarperCollins, 2008.  260 pages.

Reminiscent of The Phantom Tollbooth, The Facttracker tells of the town Traakerfaxx, where the townspeople get Facts from the Facttracker in his Factory and sell them to the world.

One person in Traakerfaxx does not have any facts about himself.  A sad and lonely boy lives there.  He is small, but not too small.  The facts about the just small enough boy were lost shortly after he was born.  He has gotten messages that the Facttracker is looking for them, but hasn’t heard anything for quite some time.

All is going well until the day of the explosion.  That’s the day the just small enough boy gets to enter the Factory and meet the Facttracker.

After the Factory explodes (and you wouldn’t want me to spoil the surprise and tell you why, would you?), the Facttracker’s twin brother Ersatz shows up.  Ersatz takes the Seed of Truth and builds, in place of the Factory, a Liebrary.  He shows the townspeople and their clever, handsome mayor that lies are a lot more fun to sell than facts.

The Facttracker is imprisioned in the belly of the Liebrary, and it’s up to the just small enough boy to save the world.

This book is a lot of silly fun, if you can keep yourself from objecting to the places where the analogy breaks down.  If you’re willing to take it all with tongue in cheek, you will have plenty to enjoy.

The author is full of authorial asides to the reader and lots of playing with authorial conventions.  For example, Chapter 13 has the heading crossed out, with the title, “There Will Not Be a Chapter 13 Because It Might Be Unlucky and the Facttracker Needs All the Luck He Can Get Now.”

If you’re willing to not take it too seriously, you can have a good deal of fun reading this book.

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Review of Down Girl and Sit: Bad to the Bone, by Lucy Nolan

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009


Down Girl and Sit

Bad to the Bone

by Lucy Nolan

illustrated by Mike Reed

Marshall Cavendish Children, 2008.  53 pages.

Starred review

I delight to think of a beginning reader decoding this book and being rewarded all along the way with hilarious inside jokes.  Down Girl and Sit: Bad to the Bone has four chapters, so it is for a child already reading.  But the chapters are short, full of pictures, and laugh out loud funny in a way the narrator would never understand — but the reader does.

Down Girl tells us the story of how she and her friend Sit attempt to train their masters with simple concepts.  For example:  “Cats are bad.  Dogs are good.”

The reader knows that Down Girl is completely misinterpreting her master Rruff’s intentions, as Down Girl earnestly explains how she loyally carries them out.

Especially delightful and reminiscent of “Who’s on First?” is the chapter after Down Girl and Sit tried to be “bad to the bone” to get attention.  Their masters take them, along with another dog Hush, to Obedience School. 

Their poor masters are not very quick learners!  They keep calling Down Girl and Hush by Sit’s name!  Then they start using the name of some dog named “Stay.”

This could have gone on forever, but thank goodness a squirrel ran past.  We all jumped.  We barked and tried to chase him.  Our masters yanked on our leashes.

“Down girl!”  “Sit!”  “Hush!”

Finally!  They got our names right.  Now they might pass the class.

We looked to see if the teacher was smiling.  He was not.

Well, I can’t blame him.  We have been working with our masters for a long time.  We haven’t gotten very far either.

I wanted the teacher to cheer up, so I jumped up and kissed him.

“Down, girl!” he said.


I wagged.  It is very, very hard to train a human.  But sometimes, just sometimes, they can surprise you.

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Review of Loving What Is, by Byron Katie

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009


Loving What Is

Four Questions That Can Change Your Life

by Byron Katie with Stephen Mitchell

Harmony Books (Random House), New York, 2002.  258 pages.

Starred review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #4 Other Nonfiction

Loving What Is is hard to describe.  It doesn’t quite fit into the box of any religion or philosophy I might try to fit it into.  In my view, this is a tool that a person from any religion can use to move further along their own spiritual path.

The title probably says it best.  With her process, Byron Katie shows you how to begin to stop arguing with reality and start loving what actually is happening in your life.

Katie doesn’t tell you what to think.  The Work she presents consists of four questions you ask yourself.  She doesn’t tell you how to answer them.

You start with a stressful thought.  She even suggests you fill out a Judge Your Neighbor worksheet to find thoughts you are thinking that are causing you stress.  I can use the example, “My husband should not have left me.”

Question One is:  Is it true?

It’s a simple question, and usually our gut reaction is Yes, of course it’s true!  In my example, the Bible even says that he was sinning, so of course he should not have done that.  He hurt people, didn’t he?

Question Two asks, Can you absolutely know that it’s true?

This question takes you deeper.  After all, what do I mean by “should”?  I’ve got a much closer relationship with God than I did before my husband left.  I’m happier and healthier, and am enjoying pursuing my own interests and passions more than I was able to when I was living as a wife.  Can I absolutely know that he should not have left me?

Question Three asks, How do you react when you think that thought?

For my example, the answer’s easy.  When I think the thought, “My husband should not have left me,” I get angry and sad.  I start wanting some kind of compensation.  I feel sorry for myself.  I want to make him change.  Bottom line, none of those reactions make me feel good.

Question Four asks, Who would you be without the thought?

Notice that she doesn’t tell you to give up the thought!  Katie’s far more gentle than that.  She just asks you to envision what you would be like without the thought.  In my example, I’d be happier, freer, and much more satisfied with my life now.  I’d have a lot more joy in the present.

Finally, she follows up the questions by suggesting that you look at “the Turnaround” and see if that statement might be even more true.

In my example, “My husband should not have left me,” there are at least three turnarounds:

I should not have left me.

I should not have left my husband.

My husband should have left me.

Just looking at the first one, when I’m in my husband’s business, brooding about what he should have done, aren’t I in that moment leaving myself?

Besides that, I can’t do anything about what my husband does, only about what I choose to do and think.

My example is not as complete as the many examples given in the book of people from a wide variety of circumstances going through the four questions with Katie’s help.

I find my resistance to the ideas here is mainly centered on the idea that no one “should” sin.  I don’t like the turnaround “My husband should have left me,” because it sounds like condoning sin or calling evil good.  (How arrogant I sound even admitting that!)

I can deal with it better when I realize that Katie’s ideas greatly help to get me to a Joseph place:  “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, to accomplish what is now being done.”  After all, if I am happier and healthier than before my husband left me, what is there still to be angry with him about?  Who am I to get hung up on what he should or should not do?  What business is that of mine anyway?

This is why I think that Katie’s ideas can be helpful for anyone from any religious background.  Unless that religion encourages you to judge your neighbor — but I don’t think there are many of those out there!

She helps you examine what you are thinking and how that fits with reality.  You can become much more joyful about what actually is happening to you.

Definitely ideas worth thinking about!

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Review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Dial Press (Random House), New York, 2008.  278 pages.

Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #1 Fiction

I heard about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society from library customers, and was completely delighted with it.

Initially, the book reminded me of 84 Charing Cross Road, since it was also a book of letters.  These letters, since fictional, had even more variety and spice.

Author Julia Ashton begins a correspondence with the people of the island of Guernsey (in the English Channel) when she receives a letter that begins like this:

Dear Miss Ashton,

My name is Dawsey Adams, and I live on my farm in St. Martin’s Parish on Guernsey.  I know of you because I have an old book that once belonged to you — the Selected Essays of Elia, by an author whose name in real life was Charles Lamb.  Your name and address were written inside the front cover.

I will speak plain — I love Charles Lamb.  My own book says Selected, so I wondered if that meant he had written other things to choose from?  These are the pieces I want to read, and though the Germans are gone now, there aren’t any bookshops left on Guernsey.

I want to ask a kindness of you.  Could you send me the name and address of a bookshop in London?  I would like to order more of Charles Lamb’s writings by post.  I would also like to ask if anyone has ever written his life story, and if they have, could a copy be found for me?  For all his bright and turning mind, I think Mr. Lamb must have had a great sadness in his life.

Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast pig.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers, so I feel a kinship to Mr. Lamb….

Who could resist answering such a letter?  Set shortly after World War II, as Julia inquires more about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, she learns about their extraordinary lives during the German occupation of the island.  Since she was looking for a topic for her next book, she ends up visiting the island and the islanders quickly gain a place in her heart.

They will gain a place in the reader’s heart, too.

Yes, there are some awful stories from the war, but the overall tone of the book is uplifting, heartwarming, and delightful.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive — all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.

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