Thursday, February 2, 2017

January 2017 Book Reports

That's right! I'm going to do book reports monthly again. They're for me. I love going back and reminding myself of the great, terrible, and in-between books I've read. It's happening. I'm including stand-out books I read with Emil and Colin (they are six years-old) and Bridget (she is 10 years-old).

1. Scandinavian Gatherings: From Afternoon Fika to Midsummer feast: 70 Simple Recipes and Crafts for Everyday Celebrations by Melissa Bahen
This is a cookbook, but it's also a tribute to family history. I cannot get enough of it. I have Swedish ancestors (on my maternal grandfather's side) and I have read a few Scandinavian novels. I'm fascinated by the style, the art and colors, and the connection to the ocean.

Bahen goes through uniquely Scandinavian celebrations and describes her Norwegian family gatherings, includes recipes and directions for crafts to make. I bought this book a few weeks before Christmas and right in time to have a St. Lucia celebration on December 13th. I had Bridget wear a white dress with a red sash, we decorated the table with a white tablecloth and green wreath and lots of sparkly votive candles. I made Swedish Meatballs (even though that wasn't part of St. Lucia in particular) and we had gingerbread cookies. It was fun to talk about traditions our ancestors had and the meatball recipe was so good.

I noticed after reading the book that my Christmas decorations and the colors I've used in my house (blue piano, red and white in almost every room) fit right in with the Scandinavian decor in the book. Strong vibes from my Swedish ancestors? I think so. :)

2. Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell
This is the true story of Jane Goodall. The illustrations are very sweet. At the end of the book there is a cute photo of little Jane with her stuffed chimpanzee. Since Goodall went on to fight to keep chimpanzees from becoming extinct, this book made me take a hard look at the boys' stuffed toys; Scooby-Doo, a T-Rex, a couple of bears, and Mike Razowski. What seeds am I planting, you guys?!

The book shows Jane's normal yard and home transforming into a jungle in her imagination. She was never afraid and she wanted to learn everything. That reminds me of Emil. :) At a book store a few weeks ago Colin was too afraid to ask one of the employees where the Pokemon books were. Emil walked right up to a guy and said, "My brother wants to know where the Pokemon books are." They have such different gifts! Anyway, Me...Jane is really great. The boys loved that it was a true story, too.

3. The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
I can't remember why I bought this. I think it was super cheap somewhere and I'd heard of Kate Grenville. I usually enjoy Man Booker Prize-winners, too. (I didn't realize when I got it that she'd won the prize for a different book.) The Lieutenant is about a young man, Daniel Rooke, who is very smart, but mostly awkward. He gets a very good education, but ends up going to war (navy) for the British during the American Revolution. (I couldn't think of a book I've read about the American Revolution that wasn't from the American perspective. Hmmm.) Rooke sees terrible things. He comes home injured and very shaken up.

One of Rooke's navy buddies, Silk, tells him about a ship headed for New South Wales, on the east side of Australia, to colonize. Rooke decides to go on this voyage as the astronomer. His mentor had predicted a comet even bigger than Halley's Comet and this would be a great place for an observatory.

Once the ships get to New South Wales, it's pretty grim. Rooke manages to convince the captain that he should build an observatory (i.e. get away from all the other people) farther inland so that he can watch for the comet. Rooke is also trained in linguistics, but he doesn't really think it will be part of his assignment. But of course, that is exactly what his calling turns out to be. The regiment doesn't see the native Aboriginal people living in their soon-to-be colony as human. Rooke begins communicating with a young Aboriginal woman - he teaches her English words and she teaches him her language.

"But language was more than a list of words, more than a collection of fragments all jumbled together like a box of nuts and bolts. Language was a machine. To make it work, each part had to be understood in relation to all the other parts."

When Rooke and the girl start understanding each other, he has a moment of joy and clarity. He recognizes that it is his calling to record this language, to understand them. Of course his captain is not on board, nor is anyone else. Rooke comes to a crossroads - he finds himself part of a "hunting" party with other soldiers to drive the natives off their land. There is a terrible moment when he has to choose between doing the job he was hired to do, or quitting and getting hanged. Reminds me of a scripture I read recently where in a lists of opposites was "joy and remorse of conscience." So the opposite of joy is regret. That spoke to me.

4. Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton by Meghan McCarthy
Betty Skelton rode motorcycles, raced cars, jumped out of airplanes, flew jets and helicopters. And she was a LADY in the 1930s! What is the meaning of this?! The illustrations in the book are great - lots of red and white, very whimsical. The writing isn't the best. I didn't like that McCarthy kept pointing out that Betty was fired BECAUSE SHE WAS A WOMAN. Or Betty couldn't be a pilot BECAUSE SHE WAS A WOMAN. I think I would have had a much better discussion with Emil and Colin if they'd had to ask the question, "Why was she fired?" or "Why couldn't she be a pilot?" Nothing to explore or talk about when the reason was stated so flatly on every other page.

I want to know more about Betty Skelton! I'm interested in interesting people. :) There were a few places where I thought more explanation was required. On one page Betty is shown as a 7 year-old kid "flying" an airplane while her Dad kept a lookout so she wouldn't get in trouble. I think she just sat in the cockpit of the plane, but the book made it sound like she actually flew the plane. When none of the other experiences were imaginary, it was odd to have that one thrown in without explaining that she got to pretend to fly. Again, though, the boys always like hearing true stories.

5. The Great Bicycle Experiment:The Army's Historic Black Bicycle Corps, 1896-97 by Kay Moore
In 1896 Lt. James Moss tried to get the Army to use bicycles instead of horses. He led an infantry of Buffalo Soldiers in Missoula, Montana and this all-black regiment made several experimental bicycle rides to see if bicycles were a viable option.

This is one of the books for Battle of the Books this year. Bridget is her team captain! She and I are reading some of the books on the list together. I found this story so fascinating, but Bridget and I agree that it is one of the most boring books we've ever read together. The writing is not up to the story.

The Bicycle Corp. rode to Yellowstone (fun pictures) and from Missoula to St. Louis, 2000 miles! It's truly an amazing story. They had to be in amazing physical condition. The Army ended up passing on using bicycles for the main transportation, though.

6. The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough
I'm a huge David McCullough fan and I'm visiting New York City for the first time in a few months. One of our activities is walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, so I wanted to do some research. (The other day Bridget commented that Brian and I sure are doing a lot of studying for our vacation. Hahahahaha! I want to have an immersive experience, what can I say?) I listened to this book and I probably should have read a hard copy. I need to see pictures of a caisson. I don't get it.

Every time McCullough was recounting the human parts, the political machinations behind getting the bridge built, the absolute decency of Washington Roebling, the role Emily Roebling played, the con artists who tried to make a buck... that's when I was so interested that everything else in life took a backseat. A guy won the bid for the cables that would hold up the bridge and he went to very great pains to deliver inferior cables that hadn't passed the inspection. WHY?! Why on earth would you risk killing or injuring hundreds of people? Of toppling a work of art that had already taken 12 years to get this far? People who work so hard to deceive and make a quick dollar are the dumbest.

I heard a lot about caissons and Caisson Disease (The Bends). I think I might have it. I shouldn't joke. It was interesting to see the doctors and Roebling and the other engineers trying to figure out what was going on with workers who were having paralysis, headaches, memory loss - all hours and sometimes days after they'd been working dozens of feet underwater in the caissons. They'd get "this close" to figuring it out, but never all the way. Washington Roebling was one of the most tragic victims of Caisson Disease (several guys died from it - including his father, John Roebling, who was the original architect of the Brooklyn Bridge, but he didn't live to see even the first pillar coming out of the water). He still had everything in his head, though. And Emily Roebling became an engineer and ambassador for her husband as a result of his disease. Theirs was a pretty inspiring marriage. It's my favorite to read about and know couples who become better because they are together. The Roeblings weren't competing for attention or recognition, they were trying to build a bridge that would stand the test of time and elements. Emily did what she had to do to help her husband execute his vision.

I'm so excited to see the Brooklyn Bridge in person! McCullough is the master at conveying the emotion of historical events. One of my favorite parts of the book was his chapter on the ceremony for the official opening of the bridge. They had no microphones, so people (of which there were thousands) who were sitting more than 50 feet away couldn't hear a word. Back in that day, speeches would go on for HOURS. (We got a taste of that at the Golden Spike reenactment a few years ago. The humanity! Stop talking!!) The crowd got very restless because all these old guys were going on and on and finally a trumpet player got up and played the Star Spangled Banner. He was cheered and cheered (people could hear him!). The guy played an encore. More cheering! The next speaker pulled the guy off stage before a third song and the smiling trumpet player started playing a song off stage, which delighted President Chester Arthur and many people in the audience. Ha! Fun.

Truly, the Brooklyn Bridge is a triumph.

7. Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett illustrated by Jon Klassen
I bought this book for Emil for Christmas in 2015. (I always get the kids a book for Christmas.) The story of boys digging a hole speaks to Emil. :) Sam and Dave vow to not stop digging until they find something "spectacular." Every time they decide to start digging in a different direction, we pan out to see that they are a few shovels-full of dirt away from a huge jewel. Emil and Colin both go crazy when they see that jewel! The three of us end up laughing hysterically every time we read it. Then Emil talks about digging holes every day for a week. :)

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