Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Trumpeter Of Krakow

I found The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P Kelly a very interesting and creative book. The book is set in Poland in the fifteenth century. It is a story of a family on the run from the Ukraine to guard an ancient possession which is the ancient great tarnov crystal. This is very valuable and sought by many and the only person that the family would willingly give it up for is the king of Poland. The family settles in the town of Krakow and the father of the family takes on a job as the trumpeter for the church of Our Lady Mary to play a tune every hour, and to be the lookout for the town against fires and foreign invasions. Their secret is soon discovered about the whereabouts of the crystal and there are many attempts to steal it. The crystal is soon afterwards taken to the king for it's safety and protection.
I really liked the storyline. It goes from one adventure to another and leaves you wanting more. Not only does it have adventure but it describes somewhat how people acted and thought during that time (I'll have to admit that I had no idea what an alchemist was.) The author wrote also of what the town of Krakow is like and some geographical features of it. It only took me a couple of days to read this book because I could not put it down.
Along with the good story it also teaches of some great moral lessons and patriotism to ones country.
From its fast paced story to it's dramatic ending there is something to enjoy. I think that most children would really like reading this book because it is interesting and they could learn something from it. I don't know if this book is based on a true story or not but the way it was written kind of led me to believe it was, although I searched the king Kazimir Jagiello on the internet and in some books but did not come up with anything. If anyone has any information on this I would be really interested in knowing.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gay-Neck The Story of a pigeon

Gay Neck The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, was not at all what I expected when I started this book. After reading it now it surprised me on how good it is and the deep meaning behind the story.
The book is set in the mid teens of the twentieth century during the first world war. The book starts out in India with the birth of a special pigeon ( gay neck) who is taught and trained by his parents and a sixteen year old boy( I am assuming it is the author, I do not recall the book ever saying his name) in the ways of flying and being a carrier pigeon.
Gay neck runs into many enemies of the sky like owls, hawks, and eagles and must learn how to outfly them or be killed. There are many adventures that gay neck and the boy go through and the descriptions of nature and the surroundings are absolutely magnificent. You actually feel peaceful reading this book.
The book is told by the sixteen year old boy but it also has parts where he has the pigeon tell his own story using, "the grammar of fancy and the dictionary of imagination." In these stories gay neck tells of the experiences he has while exploring and the many attacks on him by other birds. He talks of how cruel the world can be and asks, "Why is there so muich killing and inflicting of pain by birds and beasts on one another? I don't think all of you men hurt each other. Do you? But birds and beasts do. All that makes me so sad."
Gay Neck learns that men do go to war and hurt each other and I think that is one of the points the author was trying to make in that we humans can act just like beasts.
Gay neck goes with Ghond, a friend of his keeper to serve in the war as a carrier piegon and deliver messages from the front lines of battle to the commander in chief. Gay neck and Ghond sail from India to France and they go on a scouting trip to find a German ammunition dump. They see much killing and firing of men against men that both the pigeon and Ghond both have fear in their hearts. They go to a monestary to get healed by the wise lamas and they eventually find peace with themselves and overcome fear, suspicion, and hate.
I really liked this book even as much as I told myself that I wouldn't. I would recommend that any child read this book.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! A Brief Review

I had read raving reviews about this, but skimming through it I had my doubts about whether I would like it. I just couldn't see what the fuss was about. But this collection of monologues and dialogues of various characters living on a manor in England in 1255 is truly exceptional. I think the strength is in how she taps into the emotions and desires of the characters in a way that we can relate to. It is moving in parts, as well as humorous and educational. I would love to see this performed by an actual class!

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Author: Scott O'Dell
Originally published by: Houghton-Mifflin (1960)
Length: 184 pages
My rating: 4.5/5
Awards: Newbery Medal

This simple, lyrical account of a young woman left behind on an island in the Pacific for many years was a surprising page-turner for me. The action begins right away when the Aleuts from the north come to hunt otters on Karana's island, culminating in a battle that leaves her father and many of the other men dead. A year later, the inhabitants of the island leave on a "white-man's ship" to relocate. When Karana's brother is left behind and the chief will not go back to get him, she jumps out of the ship so he will not be abandoned. What follows is her story of her industrious survival on the island year after year. Although told in a very matter-of-fact style, it is heartbreaking at times, but she also manages to find beauty and fulfillment in her solitary life as she waits for the ship to return for her. Amazingly to me, she's never angry with the people who left her behind, or resentful that no one has returned for her. Her anger is focused on the pack of dogs who kill her brother. She makes it her mission to conquer them, but ends up finding her closest companion among them. She is there for so long that the thought of the ship returning for her was bittersweet, and I wondered if in fact it would ever come.
I did not realize until the afterword that this is based on the true story of the "Lone Woman of San Nicolas" who lived on one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara from 1835 to 1853. I would definitely recommend this book to young readers as well as "less-young" readers (that's what I call myself these days--I will never be "old". Thank goodness for hair color!)

Shadow of a Bull

I tried to like this book. But Shadow of a Bull depicts a way of life that is utterly foreign to me. It's a life where bullfighting is an all-consuming art, and a fantastically popular sport, and the bullfighters who dance with (and sometimes conquer) death are the rock stars of their day:
"In Spain, however, people have found a way of cheating death. They summon it to appear in the afternoon in the bull ring, and they make it face a man. Death - a fighting bull with horns as weapons - is killed by a bullfighter. And the people are there watching death being cheated of its right (p. 7)."
Manolo, the 9 to 12 year old protagonist (the son of a famous bullfighter who was killed in the ring when Manolo was only 4 years old) is a sympathetic character. He fears that he is a coward, and the fact that the whole village expects him to follow in his famous father's footsteps makes matters worse.

Unfortunately, I was bored by most of Manolo's story, and then revolted by the details of bullfighting. I did rather grudgingly admire the various matadors' courage and grace, and complexity and history of the corrida. But I really couldn't enjoy Manolo's years of work and his self-discoveries, no matter how skillfully Wojciechowska described the secrets of the bullring and the boys that aspire to be bullfighters, risking their lives just for a chance to train. I did applaud Manolo's growth towards self-determination, which was the basic moral of the story:
"A man's life is many things. Before he becomes a man, he has many choices: to do the right thing, or to do the wrong thing; to please himself, or to please others; to be true to his own self, or untrue to it" (p. 145).
And that's another thing. Shadow of a Bull is all about boys, and the responsibility of becoming a man. An honorable man. The only female character in the book is Manolo's mother, and she's pretty much a nonentity until one minor passage near the end of the story. I don't think a book about such an exclusively male activity (or maybe some women do it today? I have no idea) is going to appeal to many girls. There are plenty of "boy books" that do appeal to girls, but I just don't think that this is one of them.

It didn't help that I didn't care for the illustrations by Alvin Smith, which seemed to embody all that I didn't like about 60's style partially abstract drawings.

Also, I was about a third of the way through the book before I discovered the "Glossary of Bullfighting Terms" at the back, which made it a little easier to check on the terms like veronica, tienta, and muleta, which are crucial to the story (and mostly explained in context, but it's easy to get the different capes and moves and equipment mixed up).

I did end up wondering how integral bullfighting is to Spanish culture today, or whether bullfighting is just a shadow of its past. (But I didn't care enough to research it myself, which should tell you something else about how I felt about the book). Let me know in the comments if you know anything about bullfighting today.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Smoky The Cowhorse

In the preface of Smoky The Cowhorse winner of the sixth newbery medal, Will James writes, "The horse is not appreciated and never will be appreciated enough,-few humans, even them that works him, really know him, but there is so much to know about him."

After reading this book you can obviously tell that the author does know horses and really does appreciate them.
This story is about one horse in particular named Smoky, and the story of his life. Set in the early twentieth century in the Northwestern United States, this book really captures the way of life for the american cowboy, and the authors descriptions of things are really good and detailed.
Smoky starts his life being born on a nice spring day and for the first four years of his life he is free to roam the land doing whatever he pleases. His freedom of roaming the land comes to an end for a while when he meets the human. He is broke and trained by a cowboy named Clint and from the moment he first set eyes on that mouse colored horse he knew that he wanted him and would do almost anything to have him.
Smoky makes friend with Clint and they have many years of happines as Smoky works as a Cowhorse on the rocking R ranch. One winter after being set free on the range smoky is stolen.
Things go from bad to worse for the horse. He is mistreated so badly that he hates every human. He is whipped, spurred, beaten, and starved. The descriptions on how the horse feels and thinks are really good, and you feel a sadness for the horse as you read it. The horses heart and spirit are broken and the horse really does not care about anything anymore. He just goes along with it.
Smoky eventually becomes an unbeatable outlaw rodeo horse where no cowboy is able to beat him. After many years bucking his body gives out then he is sold as a saddle horse, and finally a plow horse.
He was driven very hard and almost to the point of death when he is found and rescued.
The author had really strong feelings for the treatment and proper handling and care of horses. The book does not name many characters and you get the impression that the horse is worth way more than the cruel people that abuse him.
This book is a real page turner. It was great for me cause I have never been around horses and it was intersting to get an introduction to what they are like. I think that anyone that likes horses or any other animal would really like this book. It exceeded the expectations that I had

Gay-Neck (aka Chitra the Pigeon)

Poor Gay-Neck. His name (and the book title) is rather unfortunate today, especially given the age of the kids that are most likely to read about him. Since my local library recently provided home access to the Oxford English Dictionary, I was able to learn that "gay" didn't become commonly associated with homosexuality until the 1940's; Dhan Gopal Mukerji wrote Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon in 1927.

Mukerji obviously refers to the definition of gay that means: "bright or lively-looking, especially in colour; brilliant, showy" - on the second page of the story, he says:
"His name was Chitra-griva; Chitra meaning "painted in gay colours," and Griva, "neck" - in one phrase, pigeon Gay-Neck. Sometimes he was called "Iridescence-throated" (p. 16).
Although I don't think that Iridescense-Throated: The Story of a Pigeon is much of an improvement over Gay-Neck, I do think that American publishers could take a cue from their British counterparts, who've changed the title to Chitra: The Story of a Pigeon. It's exotic without being overly weird, and maybe then kids wouldn't be afraid to check it out of the school library. But perhaps the fact that Gay-Neck won the Newbery award - and is listed by this title in so many places in the U.S. - prevents us from changing it.

Anyway, Gay-Neck was an interesting book, quite different from what I expected from "The Story of a Pigeon." There was information about pigeons' lives, but I also learned about India in the early 1900's, and even a bit about World War I (from the perspective of a carrier pigeon).

As I was reading Gay-Neck, however, I felt a nagging sense of familiarity. Finally, "O beloved ones of Infinite Compassion" (p. 178), I realized that certain phrases and descriptions reminded me of the Rudyard Kipling stories that I read as a child - especially The Jungle Book and Kim. There are elephants, tigers, water buffalo, fierce hawks, wise hunters, and even wiser lamas who live in splendid lamaseries high in the Himalayas in both. It's all very colorful (no pun intended).

Some of my favorite parts are the rather poetic passages (or, as Mukerji says, "the grammar of fancy and the dictionary of imagination", [p. 74]), like this description of a night that Chitra, the narrator (Chitra's unnamed teenage handler), and the narrator's mentor, Ghond, spend tied to the branches of an enormous banyan tree (so they don't fall when they doze off):
The tiger had vanished from under our tree. The insects had resumed their song, which was again and again stilled for a few seconds as huge shapes fell from far-off trees with soft thuds. Those were leopards and panthers who had slept on the trees all day and were now leaping down to hunt at night.

When they had gone the frogs croaked, insects buzzed continually and owls hooted. Noise, like a diamond, opened its million facets. Sounds leaped at one's hearing like the dart of sunlight into unprotected eyes. A boar passed, cracking and breaking all before him. Soon the frogs stopped croaking, and way down on the floor of the jungle we heard the tall grass and other undergrowth rise like a haycock, then with a sigh fall back. That soft sinister sigh like the curling up of spindrift drew nearer and nearer, slowly passed our tree. Oh, what a relief! It was a constrictor going to the water-hole. We stayed on our tree-top as still as its bark - Ghond was afraid that our breathing might betray our position to the terrible python (pp. 61-62).
One thing that I didn't particularly like about the story was that the different parts seemed so unconnected. First we learn about Gay-Neck's birth and training, his odyssey across India and his battles and his mate, and then bam! He's in Flanders with Ghond and the Indian Army, carrying messages for the Commander-in-Chief, "who looked like a ripe cherry and exuded a pleasant odour of soap....unlike most soldiers" (p. 141).

The black and white illustrations were beautiful and unexpectedly striking - though interestingly, few of the works featured pigeons. I Googled illustrator Boris Artzybasheff, and found quite a bit more information on him than on the author. Apparently Artzybasheff illustrated Gay-Neck quite early in his career, and went on to do hundreds of more well-known pieces of graphic art, including about 200 covers for Time magazine. Check out one of his two-page spreads from Gay-Neck here:

I also rather enjoyed the spiritual side of the Chitra's story, with the narrator's musings about the "inviolate sanctity" of the highest peaks and the many different animals' instinctive acknowledgement of dawn. The lamas do steal the show with their kindness and their meditations on courage:
"Here let it be inscribed in no equivocal language that almost all our troubles come from fear, worry, and hate. If any man catches one of the three, the other two are added unto it" (p. 128).
The ending was also quite satisfying, including some surprisingly modern reflections on animals in their natural habitats, and thoughts on the emotional ravages of war - personally, for Ghond and Gay-Neck, and for mankind in general, who are "so loaded with fear, hate, suspicion and malice that it will take a whole generation before a new set of people can be reared completely free from them" (p. 171-172).

How can I not recommend a book about a pigeon (a pigeon, of all things!) that ends with this paragraph (p. 191)?
"Whatever we think and feel will colour what we say or do. He who fears, even unconsciously, or has his least little dream tainted with hate, will inevitably, sooner or later, translate these two qualities into his action. Therefore, my brothers, live courage, breathe courage and give courage. Think and feel love so that you will be able to pour out of yourselves peace and serenity as naturally as a flower gives forth fragrance.

Peace be unto all!"

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sailing by Ash Breeze (a Review of Carry On, Mr. Bowditch)

Although Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham, started out rather slowly, I did enjoy it. I'm not sure that most kids (who haven't poured over all of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring works, like I have) would enjoy it so much. Unless they really, really like nautical metaphors.

The main character - Nat Bowditch - is an earnest, hardworking, exceptionally intelligent boy who comes of age during the story, which takes place from the late 1700's through the early 1800's.

Nathaniel has a difficult life in Salem, Massachusetts. His father, Habbakuk (!!), is a cooper who "lost his tuck" (i.e., his ambition; he became depressed) when his ship foundered on a lee shore (see where having read O'Brian comes in handy? I know all about the perils of losing your anchor to windward).

There are a lot of children in the Bowditch family and not much money, and Nat is forced to give up school, which he loves, and work for his father and then as an apprentice (indentured for nine years!) to a ship's chandlery, "where he kept books and sold marlinspikes, belaying pins, and hemp rope" (p. 66).

There are many family deaths (which really happened and was not uncommon in this period in history), but Nat's reaction to the tragedies is curiously flat. The narrative concerning the romances in Nat's life is similarly unemotional and frankly, rather tedious.

Latham makes the story much more interesting when she describes Nat's love of mathematics and his desire for knowledge, and his passion for teaching navigation to everyone on the fo'c'sle*. It is classic story of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, or to use the nautical term (which Latham never fails to do**), sailing by ash breeze:
Sam said, "Bah! Only a weakling gives up when he's becalmed! A strong man sails by ash breeze!" (p. 47)

..."When a ship is becalmed - the wind died down - she can't move - sometimes the sailors break out their oars. They'll row a boat ahead of the ship and tow her....Oars are made of ash - white ash. So - when you get ahead by your own get-up-and-get - that's when you 'sail by ash breeze'." (p. 48)
I think that this book was written mainly for boys, but I'm afraid that its lack of action and the overt moralizing may turn many of them off today. Yes, it's laudable that Nat wants to be a Harvard man more than anything else, and that he can learn any language, including Latin, with just a dictionary, a grammar, and a New Testament, but I don't think this will lead a lot of kids to identify with Nat.

And there are parts of the story where there is action - how could there not be action, on a tall ship doubling the Horn at the turn of the 19th century? - but Latham doesn't make you feel the exhaustion of several days of "all hands on deck" with wet clothes, cold food, and foul air belowdecks the way some authors do (not just Patrick O'Brian! read Tony Horwitz's description of sailing in the beginning of Blue Latitudes). When I read about someplace so different, I don't want to see a dispassionate list of what Nat endured. I want to taste the hardtack, weevils and all. Paula Fox did a much better job of this in The Slave Dancer (the depressing 1974 winner).

I liked the classic illustrations by John O'Hara Cosgrave II, but I really wanted a map. A trip to the island of Bourbon was an important part of the story, but until they mentioned that it had been re-named Réunion, I had no idea where they were (near Nantucket? by Hawaii?). And frankly, I only knew where Réunion was because I'd read The Mauritius Command (yes, yes, O'Brian again). If kids are reading this (and I know it's a favorite for some homeschoolers), then a map with Réunion, Madeira, Cadiz, and Batavia is a really good idea.

This online biography of Nathaniel Bowditch by the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society filled in some of the questions I had after I finished the book. What happened to Nat's father? What did Nat do after his last voyage? How much of Carry On, Mr. Bowditch was true? (This last question only partially answered, of course). It was undeniably cool to read that a copy of Bowditch's The New American Practical Navigator is still carried on board every commissioned vessel in the United States Navy.

* fo'c'sle=forecastle, or the living quarters in the bow of a ship where the crew is housed. In the book, Nat is quietly egalitarian, teaching the entire crew the arcane arts and science of navigation. I have no idea if this is an invention of Latham's, or something that Mr. Bowditch was actually known for doing. It would be nice to know one way or the other; this is something I really don't like about these children's biographies.

**"You know an anchor won't hold if the cable's too short. A man always needs another shot in the locker" (p. 170). Then there's living by "log, lead, and lookout", always "having a good anchor to windward", "swallowing the anchor", "splicing the main brace", and a lot more. I have to say some of these were the best part of the book for me, but I think it's unlikely most other readers will agree.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Shen Of The Sea

Shen Of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman is a collection of sixteen amusing and interesting chinese stories. The story Shen of the Sea is the second of the sixteen stories. Chrisman studied the ancient chinese culture and collected stories and folk tales and wrote them down in his own words.
The stories were fun to read. Some of the characters in the stories had really similar names so you had to pay attention so you knew what character the author was talking about. Most of the stories are really humorous and you can really enjoy reading them.
A lot of the stories are about how things were invented or came to be. It tells of the invention of printing, chopsticks, gunpowder, tea, kites, plates or china, and so on...
My personal favorite story in this book is one called As Hai Low Kept House, which is a comical story of a young brother watching the house for his older brother. Hai Low does everything that his older brother tells him to do but still gets in trouble for it. After doing everything wrong he eventually ends up being king.
I think children would enjoy reading these stories and I think they would get a good laugh out of this book. I really enjoyed it.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

More Controversy about the Newbery Award-Winners!

A friend just sent me these links - first, a recent article in the School Library Journal, by Anita Silvey: Has the Newbery Lost Its Way? (subtitled "Snubbed by Kids, Disappointing to Librarians, the Recent Winners Have Few Fans"), with the following response: The Best Book No Kid Wants to Read.

And this was also interesting - note that all three parts are worth reading: Newbery Report, Part 1 of 3.