Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Sam Sorts - a review

Sam Sorts

by Marthe Jocelyn
Tundra Books, 2017

Sam Sorts is a delightful combination of a messy room, a happy boy, collage art, and the math concepts of sorting and counting.
"Sam's things are in a heap. Time to tidy up. First he finds Obo the robot, one of a kind. Then two snarling dinosaurs, three little boxes, and four fake foods. How many things is that?" 
 Even Venn diagramming makes an appearance with circles created from the red and white string that is synonymous with bakery boxes. But it's not all math—there's fun as well. When creatures meet people, there is visual pandemonium. Realia and cut paper combine to make a mashup gathering featuring a lucha libre wrestler, mermaid, caveman, snake, alien, robot, cowboy, pirate, tiger and more. Sam Sorts is a perfect book for sharing one-on-one or in very small groups. The opportunities for counting and sorting are endless and can inspire similar activity at home.

My copy of Sam Sorts was provided by LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

Friday, May 5, 2017

A comparison of Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow

I recently read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
(Penguin, 2016) which I consider the best, new adult novel I have read in years. I followed it up with his first book, Rules of Civility.

Here is my take on both.

First - the most basic differences:

Rules - spans one year
Gentleman - spans one adult lifetime
Rules - social climber
Gentleman - social outcast
Rules - Manhattan
Gentleman - Metropol Hotel, Moscow
Rules - female protagonist
Gentleman - male protagonist

My takeaway: Become the master of your circumstances or they will master you.

The protagonists in Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow manage their circumstances with aplomb, however, the characters could not be more different. One's fortunes are ascendant, the other's—quite the opposite. Both protagonists are smart, well-read, and appreciative of life's finer things.

Rules of Civility spans a single year—1938 in New York City. The young secretary, Katherine Konstant, can recognize a custom-made suit, an expensive lighter, or a fine glass of liquor because she aspires to have fine things. A Gentleman in Moscow spans a tumultuous period in Russian history—from the Bolshevik Revolution to the Cold War. It takes place within the confines of the fictional Metropol Hotel in Moscow, where Count Alexander Rostov has been sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest. He, too, can easily recognize a custom-made suit or a fine glass of liquor—not because he aspires to have them, but because he had always had them.

Katherine (Katey) is a woman who enjoy life's smaller pleasures. She enjoys people-watching, a well-written book, a well-timed phrase or gesture. But her enjoyment is fleeting—a moment marked in time, appreciated, and discarded without sentimentality.

The Count enjoys similar simple pleasures—but he savors them, appreciating that it is these small joys that make a life worth living. Although his fortunes literally and figuratively spiral downward, his spirit and joie de vivre are rarely diminished. At the worst of times, he finds pleasure in the most basic events.

 The Count has deep, genuine, and lasting connections with those people he counts among his friends—be they cook, revolutionary, poet or child. Katey, too, appreciates her friends, but in a more offhand manner—seeking or eschewing their company as it suits her mood or needs. Still, each has an ethic that suits his/her particular place and time.

Amor Towles' writing is replete with short literary passages that are worth reading on their own. That he has filled two historical fiction novels with thought-provoking commentary of literary quality is impressive. The words of a young girl in pre-WWII Manhattan and a disgraced aristocrat in post-revolutionary Russia jump off the page and insert themselves in the modern world in a way that is urgent and immediate, and not without surprises.

I know that I am late to the party and both books have garnered numerous awards, but I would like to add my hearty recommendation of Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. I cannot wait to see what Amor Towles will offer next!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Monticello - a review

Monticello: A Daughter and Her Father; A Novel
by Sally Cabot Gunning
Harper Collins, 2016
ISBN 9780062320438

No one can ever recount with certainty the conversations and events that transpired within Thomas Jefferson's sphere of influence at his famous Virginia plantation, Monticello.  However, because of his status as, arguably, the most famous of the nation's founding fathers, the particulars of his business dealings, his ownership of enslaved people, and other financial matters are as well known today as they were in his own time.  Also well-documented are his periods of travel to/from Monticello and the important life events (births, deaths, marriages, etc.) of his legal family members.

Armed with this information, Sally Cabot Gunning has crafted a thoughtful piece of historical fiction that explores the relationships of Martha Jefferson, the former President's eldest child, with her father, her siblings, her large family through marriage, and the people enslaved by her family—particularly Sally Hemmings.

The story unfolds in three parts, arranged by date and the plantation at which Martha lived. It begins with the years 1789-1800, and her residence at the Varina planation with her husband Thomas Randolph, whom she married shortly after returning from France.

Martha had decried the decadence and filth of Paris to Tom Randolph, but in truth, there was something as decadent about Monticello, although in a different way—the slower pace of life, perhaps, or the way her father's French wines and more elaborate French furniture, just now beginning to arrive from France, seemed out of place.  And then Negroes.  They crept about in an unnerving, pantherlike silence that Martha hadn't noticed before she left for France.  What did they hear as they moved about? And why hadn't Martha ever before wondered about that?  Martha puzzled over what seemed such a great change, either in her or in life at Monticello, she truly didn't know which.  She asked Maria, pointing as Sallys' sister Critta whispered out of the room after stirring up the fire, "Were they always so quiet?"
(from page 20)

This finely crafted work of historical fiction gently forces the reader to view history through a variety of lenses, none of which are rose-colored. Wishing for an end to the family's dependence on slavery, Martha nevertheless becomes embroiled in a lifelong conflicted existence - constrained to the restrictions and social mores of a Virginia planter's wife and daughter of a President, which render her often helpless yet still complicit in her family's continued connection to enslaved people. The political upheavals of the new nation provides the backdrop of the story, but politics is not the story.  This is a story of a woman's struggle to be a good wife, to be a good mother, to honor her father, and to help shape his legacy.


My copy of Monticello was an Advance Reader Copy supplied by the publisher.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors - and its Malaysian alternative

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors

by Drew Daywalt with pictures by Adam Rex
Harper Collins, 2017

I read The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors on the advice of a librarian friend (thanks, Rebecca). It tells the fictional origin story of the game that siblings and playground pals have used to decide things for as long as one can remember.  Of course, with the combination of Drew Daywalt and Adam Rex, you know it's going to be funny.

I don't want to review it, however, I want to tell a story.

When my children were little, a Malaysian friend of mine came over to visit.  We each had three kids and they played together often.  When I suggested that they decide something with Rock Paper Scissors, she was puzzled, so I explained the concept.

"Oh!" she said.  "I know that.  In Malaysia, it's bird, water, rock," and she made the appropriate hand gestures for each.  It took me a minute to wrap my head around that.  Water wears down rock, bird drinks water, rock crushes bird.  At first, it seemed a gruesome game for little kids to play, but who am I to say? Honestly, I always thought that rock covers paper was a rather lame win. Is Bird Water Rock not a more accurate depiction of how things work in the world? 

My roundabout point here is that we must always remember that everyone comes into life with a different backstory.  That's what makes the world such a rich and interesting place. That it the reason for the #WeNeedDiverse books campaign.  Not only is it comforting to see yourself in the pages of books; it's eye-opening and mind-expanding and refreshing to see someone different in the pages of books.

And speaking of refreshing, I kid you not ... On another warm summer day, nearly twenty years ago, I asked this same friend if I could get her a cold drink.  She asked for a shandy.

"A what?" I asked.

"Half beer, half lemonade," she said. "We drank that in Malaysia all the time."

"Ha! ha!" I laughed.  "That sounds awful!"

That was nearly twenty years ago.  How I wish we would have run with that thought to the patent office or the nearest brewer!  Now shandies are so popular - but don't kid yourself into believing that Budweiser invented them.  Just ask someone from Malaysia.

So, enjoy The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors (a sample is below), but keep Bird Water Rock in the back of your head.  Both are worthy of your attention.