Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tales From Silver Lands

I'll have to say I had quite a fun time reading Tales From Silver Lands by Charles J. Finger. This book is a compilation of tales that the author has collected from his travels in many countries of Central and South America. I find it really intersting reading a large diversity of old tales coming from this part of the world.
These are the kind of stories that would be fun to sit around the campfire and listen to. The tales are really short. Most are only seven or eight pages. I personally liked to read one or two at a time. I did not like the idea of reading all of the short stories at once. I wanted to just read a couple at a time so I could think about them and enjoy them more. I did like some more than others, but all of them were pretty easy to follow.
The stories talk about many different topics but I noticed some themes in the book among which are: that good triumphs over evil, men do not know what is best for them most of the time, and to be hard working and not remain idle.
I think my favorite tale in this book is one called El Enano. This book has an interesting viewpoint on how certain animals came to be: like monkeys, seals, armadillos, and huanacos. I thought that the stories were really entertaining hearing about giants, wizards, witches, evil birds, giant cats, magic spells, animal transformations and so on..
I think that these stories could be read and enjoyed by most teenagers and pre- teenagers but some of them might be a little bit graphic for a young child.
In all I think it was fun to read and is a good choice when you only have a few spare minutes.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Dark Frigate

I was glad I picked up The Dark Frigate by Charles Boardman Hawes winner of the third Newbery Medal award. This book goes much deeper than just sea voyages and pirate tales. It talks of a young man (Philip Marsham) trying to figure out what he wants to become in life and the road he should take.
He is a runaway after an accident forces him to leave the alehouse he was living in due to an illness. He finds himself alone with very little money and no place to go. He meets up with two sailors and eventually finds himself leaving England on the Rose of Devon Frigate.
The frigate comes upon a shipwreck and saves half of their crew. This new crew takes control of the ship and murders the captain after being saved by him. Philip is forced to join them and become a pirate if he wishes to survive. They then set off on a new course robbing and murdering many people on the way. Philip escapes and eventually gets caught and sent back to England to await trial.
The language this book is written in is much different than today and at times can be a little tricky to follow. It uses many phrases that people don't say today but with careful reading you can figure out the meaning to most of the words.
This book teaches many themes among which are Loyalty, bravery, and Courage. Philip learns that not everyone is as honest and as good a person as himself. He loses almost everything he has come to know and everything that he has looked forward to having in the future. He eventually turns his back on England with much disgust and sails again as a captain in the same ship he once left before and vowed he would never return to.
I would definitely recommend reading this book. It has many adventures on the sea and teaches much about courage and loyalty.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

All Outdoors on Maple Hill

Miracles on Maple Hill, by Virginia Sorensen, was a beautiful, rather old-fashioned story that I didn't read for a long time because I didn't really like the cover (yes, all too often I do judge books by their covers) or the blurb on the back, which says:
Marly had been waiting a long time for this special moment. She sat alone in the car and stared at the lonely countryside and the small dilapidated house.

It had to be the right place. All outdoors. With miracles. Not crowded and people being cross and mean. Daddy not tired all the time. Mother not worried.....

She whispered, "Please let there be miracles." (pp. 22-23)
Maybe some kids who are religious or who long to move to snowy hillsides covered with bare trees would be compelled to read more, but I wasn't (and I couldn't entice my 11 year old son to read it, either). But I've been missing out on a wonderful story, a story about spring, and the best kind of neighbors, and flowers and gardens and all of the things you that find in the woods in the eastern part of the U.S. (bloodroot! trillium! foxes!), and a rural way of life that is both rather timeless and so very stuck in the 50's.

If you loved The Secret Garden (and I know lots of girls like me did - check out this nostalgic review of that classic), with its theme of a garden coming back to life along with the main character's health and mental and emotional well-being, then I think there's a good chance you'll like the quintessentially American Miracles on Maple Hill, with its miracles of life "pushing-up" and a father recovering from his experiences as a soldier and a prisoner of war. The whole idea of getting back to nature - which certainly isn't a simpler way of life, but definitely has its own rewards - and returning to the family's roots in rural Pennsylvania are deftly explored.

Also, it's not too often my former interests as an archaeologist (and more specifically and obscurely, as a paleoethnobotanist) collide with my current life, so imagine my excitement over Sorensen's description of the history and origins of maple syrup in Miracles on Maple Hill.*

Sorensen (perhaps unwittingly) does an excellent job of describing the strict gender roles of the 1950's, which often vex Marly, the 10 year old narrator, especially when it comes to things that Joe (her 12 year old brother) gets to do that Marly doesn't.
He [Joe] looked determined and she knew how he felt; after what happened before he absolutely had to see Maple Hill first. And she decided to let him. Boys were queer. They seemed afraid they'd stop being boys altogether if they couldn't be first at everything (p. 21).

Once in a while Fritz came by and said Daddy had worked long enough - and then they went fishing. Of course Joe went, too, and Mother and Marly had, as Mother said, "a fine female time." They didn't have to cook perfect pots of things every meal but ate up all the leftovers (pp. 90-91).
In the end, though, Marly gets to help make syrup and touch everyone's heart:
"We've decided the boys can take turns at it," Miss Annie said. "No one boy is going to suffer much loss of school if those runs last a solid month or more."

Marly stood by the telephone, poking Mother with her elbow. "Mother - ask her why the girls can't come. Why, I can carry as many buckets as Joe can!"

"You can't either!" said Joe.

"I can!"

"Ssssh!" Mother said.

There was a little silence on the other end of the phone. Then Miss Annie's voice came again. "I heard that," she said. "I didn't even think about the girls. I don't know why I didn't. Actually..." Another little silence. "I'll talk to them about it. If there are any girls who want to come and work, I don't see why they shouldn't."

"Maybe they won't want to, really," Mother said. "I'm afraid Marly's different. She's rather a tomboy - "

"Mother, I'm not!"

"You are too," said Joe.

"Just wait and see then!" Marly said (pp. 171-172).
The sibling interactions are rather realistic, don't you think? In the story, Marly and Joe clearly love each other, but can't help baiting each other at every chance.

Anyway, I unexpectedly loved Miracles on Maple Hill, and I'm looking forward to sharing it with my daughter (sadly, I don't think I will be able to convince my son to read it). Maybe by the time she can read it, the publisher will have produced a more appealing cover and blurb.

Gathering sap in Vermont in 1940; photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326]

*If anyone wants to read more about maple syrup vs. sugar vs. sap production in Native North America, check out A Sweet Small Something: Maple Sugaring in the New World by Carol I. Mason, which GoogleBooks provides as part of the complete text of The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies, by James A. Clifton.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle

I had a very fun time reading The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, the second winner of the newbery medal. This book is full of adventure and you don't really have to think too hard to read it. It is a real page turner with really short chapters that allow you to stop and go whenever you please.
The book is set in the time frame of the late 1830's to the early 1840's and is told by an old man looking back in time to when he was nine years old. He tells the story of many of his amazing adventures he had as a boy and meeting the famous Doctor Dolittle.
One day while wandering the boy comes upon a squirrel that had been injured by a hawk. The boy rescues the squirrel but it is in very bad shape and is in need of serious attention. The boy hears of the famous Doctor Dolittle and eventually meets him and asks if he would look at the squirrel for him. The doctor agrees and treats the squirrel. The doctor has a great advantage over other naturalists in that he can talk to the animals and because of that he is able to solve many problems and hardships.
From here on out the doctor and the boy are great friends and the boy eventually becomes the doctors assistant and is allowed to live with the doctor and go on his voyages with him.
They decide to go on a voyage to the floating Spidermonkey Island to study natural history and there they rescue and meet one of the greatest naturalists of all time, Long Arrow.
While on the island the doctor helps the poor people considerably. He helped them overcome the cold. He showed them fire. He fought in battle with them and he eventually became a king against his will.
One of the greatest things in this book to me was the doctors ability to talk with the animals and his views on them.
One of the points people sometimes make about this book is the racism. It is true that in the older version there are some refrences to it. I don't think that is one of the major points that Lofting was trying to make while writing the book though. The new version of this book has been edited and I was surprised to find that quite a considerable amount of writing had been taken away from the older version which is really disappointing because much of it did not have any racism at all. There is an afterward in the new book by his son explaining why the old version was edited.
I'm glad I read both the new and the old version so I did not miss anything. I would recommend this book for children because of its adventure and it's lessons towards kindness and respect towards animals.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Holes by Louis Sachar

This was such a great read that I feel I could recommend it to anybody. Children, teenagers, adults, men or women. It’s a very quick read, but unlike some other short novels I read, it left quite a big impression on me. It’s probably because it can’t be categorised into anything I’ve read before and because it was so beautifully crafted. Its theme is unusual and it would be hard to convince someone to read it by simply telling them what it is about:

A clumsy and unlucky boy gets sent to a detention camp by mistake, where everyday, together with other “troubled” boys, he is made to dig a hole in the hard ground. Five feet deep, five feet across. Apparently this exercise is supposed to build their character and make them better boys, but there's something their warden is not telling them…

The truth is this is not just Stanley’s story at Camp Green Lake. It’s about Stanley’s ancestors, and about Stanley’s camp-mates. It’s about the weird connections that life lays ahead of us and how they affect our destiny one way or the other. It’s about lethal lizards and about onions. There’s also a hearth-breaking love story and a gypsy curse. And there’s friendship. Powerful and selfless friendship. That’s all I can say about it. More would spoil the plot, which is far more interesting than it sounds.

What I loved about it was the rewarding feeling that it gave me when all the threads came together in the end. All the different layers and the details in the story became one neat pattern of a jigsaw, which felt so satisfying. I love when the authors know exactly where they’re going and how they’re going to get there, even though it’s intimidating from an aspiring writer’s perspective.
I’m sure I will re-read it one day, which is saying a lot, since I don’t usually reread books.
Besides being a great piece of storytelling, it triggered many emotions. It was humorous, tragic and even heroic at some point. It was pure comfort reading. A book to keep for those reading slump sometimes people fall into. I can guarantee a speedy recovery!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I've had this book on my shelves for over a year, but I just wasn't sure that I wanted to read a dog story - and especially not one where I was afraid that the dog might die (I'm more than a bit like the kid in Gordon Korman's No More Dead Dogs, I guess). We had to put our very elderly and much loved dog to sleep this summer and reading Marley and Me for my book club last year already made me a sobbing mess. I really didn't want another Old Yeller experience.

But Amanda's recent post finally convinced me to pick up Shiloh when I didn't feel like reading anything else in my "to read" stack. I've noticed that good kids' or YA books really help me get out of a reading slump.

Anyway, I enjoyed Shiloh, in a quiet way. I thought that Phyllis Reynolds Naylor really captured many of the joys of having a dog, as well as a thoughtful 11 year old's perspective on some weighty moral questions. I liked how the story unfolded, the ending was entirely satisfying, and I saw lots of great possibilities for discussion (if I could ever convince my own 11 year old to read it. But at least he's reading another Gordon Korman book recommended by his teacher right now).

But somehow the book just didn't transport me or totally engage me like my favorite Newbery winners (or some children's books in general) have. I didn't have any problems setting it down at night, it didn't make me cry (spoiler alert - highlight to read: no dogs died, thankfully!) or laugh out loud, and I thought the book was perceptive but not incredibly insightful.

Maybe my standards are just really, really high. I think some of the other books I've read for this project have blown them sky high, actually. Anyway, I would recommend Shiloh, especially to 9-12 year olds, and I am glad to have read it, but I'm not going to push it towards random friends and family members insisting that they read this incredible work that will change the way they feel about kids' books or dogs or life in West Virginia.

Here's one my favorite passages about dogs from Shiloh, though, and one that struck me as very true (especially since I'm still missing my dog):
We stand out in the meadow flying the kite, and I watch the blue-and-yellow-and-green tail whipping around in the breeze, and I'm thinking about Shiloh's tail, the way it wags. You get a dog on your mind, it seems to fill up the whole space. Everything you do reminds you of that dog (p. 92).

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Story of Mankind

When I picked up the first newbery medal book, The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon it was not what I expected. My first thought was how huge the book was and how it could possibly be written for a childrens audience. After sitting down and reading the first few chapters I began to understand it's writing style and unique way of representing history.

He did a good job covering what he did in the very large timeframe he had to work with, which was the time from which man (or a creature more or less resembling man) has been on this earth. I imagine it must have taken a lot of time and patience to cover all of this material, not to mention the numerous hand drawn illustrations and maps.

In the foreward the author talks of a visit to the tower of Old St. Lawrence in Rotterdam that he took in his younger years. After climbing to the top of the tower he looks down and remembers all the history making moments that happened in the busy streets below where people were going about their business in their normal fashion. He finds this trip very rewarding and returns many more times. He then gives us the "key" that will open the door of history for us.

The first half of this book is a lot easier to read than the second half. It made me remember a lot of history stories I had learned from school and I also learned many other facts and stories I did not know before.

This book reads more like a story than a history book. The book does not try to give an account of everything that has happend in the history of mankind. It tries to explains certain significant events, that without them the world would not be how it is today. The books talks about how we have become who we are today, from being men and women concerned only about finding food and shelter to using our brain to make tools. It talks about the origin of writing and the importance of being able to write down thoughts and ideas. This book focuses on how and and most importantly why things happened the way they did.

I enjoyed reading how man has evolved into the present day. I particularly enjoyed the chapters about the revolutions and how people over came the rich and corrupt governments to become independent people and nations.

Most of the chapters read just like a story. There are others however, like National Independence and Colonial Expansion and War, that are very confusing and you have to be very focused on reading them so you don't miss anything. When I say confusing I mean that there are too many people, dates, and countries to remember and this makes it difficult (even as an adult) to follow.

The goal of this book is to try to give you a taste of history and I believe the author has done just that. He really tries not to let his own views and perspectives bias the book, and he does a good job of making history fun for the most part. Overall it's a good read but I really doubt many children would pick it up and read it.