Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book Review: Prairie Tale

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Prairie Tale


Author: Melissa Gilbert

Author's web page: http://www.gilbertboxleitner.com/melissa/index2.html

Date: 2009

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 978-1-4165-9914-2

Length: 366 pages

Illustrations: color photo inserts

Quote: "To me, at forty-four years old, my book was a search for truth and identity. To [my mother]...the ultimate betrayal."

Mothers of forty-four-year-olds should not try to tell us what to write. I can relate. Unfortunately, the more I read of Prairie Tale, the more I found myself agreeing with Melissa's adoptive mother, whose name is carefully omitted from this book: "Write and get it all out...but the classy thing would be to burn it after you're finished." This is the sort of memoir we would have expected Nellie from Little House on the Prairie to write, not Laura. The show was aimed at families; the book is strictly for adults.

(What sort of memoir would the girl who played Nellie have grown up to write? I've not read Alison Arngrim's memoir yet, but it's available here.)

Plenty of celebrity memoirs tell uglier tales. Let's just say that when people go into detail about how "nauseous" they were ("nauseous" is to "nauseated" as "poisonous" is to "poisoned"), they're still nauseous.

Much of what we learn about the real girl who played the fictional Laura Ingalls is the sort of thing we wanted, and had some right, to know. The naming of actors is often one of the more interesting parts of their biographies. In Prairie Tale we learn that Melissa Gilbert's adoptive father's name had been Ed McMahon, but the Actors Guild made him change it, and by the time he adopted the baby he and his wife named Melissa his name was Paul Gilbert. Ed/Paul was an actor, but hardly successful enough to put Melissa into the "legendary show business family" the blurb on the jacket claims. Presumably the blurb writer was thinking of John Gilbert and Ina Claire, both of whom were movie stars, and neither of whom was noticeably related to Melissa Gilbert.

Then there are the differences in the relationships among characters in books, and actors who play their parts. In Laura Ingalls Wilder's memoirs, as apparently in her real life, Laura and her older sister Mary had some quarrels as children, but grew close after Mary went blind. In the TV show Laura and Mary are almost ideal sisters, but off camera, Gilbert says, she and Melissa Sue Anderson never liked each other. In the books Mrs. Wilder fictionalized all bratty, catty, snobby, or spiteful acquaintances she'd had into her "worst friend" Nellie Oleson. In real life, Gilbert says, Alison Arngrim was her friend; apparently they bonded through having to yell at each other on TV.

In the books, Charles Ingalls is an interestingly tragic character. He consistently fails to provide for his wife and children, but they love him, even though they live on the edge of survival until Mary and Laura are old enough to get jobs. In the TV show, Michael Landon, who had become famous by playing never-quite-grown-up "Little Joe" on Bonanza, wanted to reinvent Charles Ingalls as Perfect Patriarch. TV didn't have a good father character at the time, and both Melissas needed one too. Melissa Gilbert counted that Paul had been married thirteen times before he died, fairly early in her life.

Prairie Tale contains lots and lots of celebrity gossip: which stars Gilbert met, which ones were her friends, which older ones' funerals she attended, and so on. It also describes the "Prairie" episodes that have not been endlessly rerun and may be unfamiliar to readers, mentions Gilbert's grown-up acting jobs and those of her husband Bruce Boxleitner, and includes lots of photos.

Unfortunately she doesn't stop there. We didn't need to know when she lost her virginity, but we're told. We might not have heard all the false rumors that were circulated about her, but we're told about them in enough detail that by page 300 we begin to wonder whether some of them might have been true. We didn't need to know all the details of the short romance and long break-up with Rob Lowe, but we're given practically the teenager's diary version of it. Much more about her husbands and pregnancies could have been left to our imagination than is, and at least three quarters of the formerly unprintable words could have been deleted. The list of alternative titles friends suggested for Prairie Tales is hilarious, but suggestions like "From Half-Pint to S.A.G.-ging Adult" would have been funny enough without including the ones like "Little Hoe on the Prairie."

In reviewing another memoir by a woman who was "America's sweetheart" around the same time Gilbert was, Dorothy Hamill's On and Off the Ice, I've said that Hamill's decision to focus on the memories that will be useful to other young skaters was a wise one. Gilbert waited longer to write her memoir, and was right to make it a longer book; she's had many more experiences and grown far beyond the "Half-Pint" she played in Little House on the Prairie

But she might have learned more from Laura Ingalls Wilder. In the Little House books, there's a very abrupt transition from Laura's little-girl memories in On the Banks of Plum Creek to her early-teenager memories in By the Shores of Silver Lake. What happened during these years? Mrs. Wilder never told anybody. Historians say that Caroline and Charles Ingalls managed a hotel during part of this time. Mary became blind after a long, serious illness. Was Laura ill too, or were her pre-teen years too painful to remember? We'll never know. All we can do is respect Mrs. Wilder's decision to keep her secret. Melissa Gilbert should have kept a few secrets too.
 

Book Review: Kay Ann

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Kay Ann


Author: Grace & Harold Johnson

Date: 1951

Publisher: Whittlesey House / McGraw-Hill

ISBN: none

Length: 221 pages

Quote: "Of course, she'd had a grand summer around home, playing tennis, swimming and riding...but...there wasn't much thrill in going out with Jerry."

This was actually the sort of girls' school story I would have liked when I was fifteen...old enough to have felt a hormone surge, sensible enough to know I didn't want to have sex with that boy that year, and very much interested in reading anything written by anyone who was aware that people could ignore their hormones and survive.

Unfortunately, I wouldn't have discovered it when I was fifteen. Probably afraid that high school girls wouldn't read a story about a girl who actually busted a crush and got a life, the publisher made sure to supply a blurb about Kay Ann's "new appreciation of Jerry." You have to read all the way to the end of the book to learn that Kay Ann comes to appreciate Jerry as a friend who shares her interests, not as a "boyfriend." There's no swooning, spooning, or June-ing anywhere in this book...but it starts out as if there will be.

Actually it's a pretty realistic portrait of a tenth grade preppy-type's life. Kay Ann just might end up married to Jerry. He's a nice normal sixteen-year-old boy, still growing, not troubled by hormone surges yet; give him time. Or she might end up married to someone else. Meanwhile, she indulges in a few strictly secret swoons over the new teacher, but refuses to embarrass herself by making any noticeable moves toward him, so when his wife joins him in town she does not want to die of embarrassment. Meanwhile, she keeps on doing the things she's always enjoyed, with friends and relatives and the things that will be part of her adult life (especially if she marries Jerry). She throws all that adolescent energy into the family business, and has a bang-up year.

Not many years after Kay Ann, McGraw-Hill published Eloise Jarvis McGraw's Greensleeves, a realistic but much more sophisticated novel, with some erotic moments, about an older girl who decides to postpone romance while going to college...after discovering that she feels about equally passionate toward a good friend, and toward a man who may not be quite "a jerk" but is definitely an "arrogant, unmitigated, beastly blob of glup." Greensleeves was an easier sell than Kay Ann; it was still circulating in all the libraries into the 1980s. Kay Ann was, apparently, considered dead by its own publisher, because prior to about 1980 one authentic girl-power book was enough of a risk for a publisher to promote--McGraw-Hill couldn't have afforded two.

Too bad. Kay Ann is an accessible, believable heroine for a high school girls' story. The heroine of Greensleeves was not only college-age, but a multilingual European movie star's daughter.

In theory more girl-power stories are being written and published now. Still, for high school girls who might enjoy a blast from the past, here is a nice, wholesome, non-preachy, chaste novel about the real pleasures of tenth grade life.

I'm not sure what the right price for this book would be. What I physically have is a heavily worn, discarded library copy. What I promised online readers was a clean copy, and that is not, currently, easy to find. If this page generates some "buzz," copies may become available, so I'll go ahead and offer it for sale at the standard price, warning readers that they may have to take a rain check or accept a copy that will look heavily used.

Book Review: Big Red

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Big Red


Author: Jim Kjelgaard

Date: 1945, reprinted in 1956

Publisher: Holiday House

ISBN: none

Length: 254 pages

Illustrations: black and white drawings by Bob Kuhn

Quote: "The bear, with his customary cunning, had put a safe distance between himself and the dangerous rifle in Danny's hands."

Seventeen-year-old Danny and his father work on one of the farms that make up the Haggin estate. One of Mr. Haggin's interests is dogs. While Danny's father judges dogs only as "varmint dogs" who hunt anything, Danny thinks of "Champion Sylvester's Boy," whom he renames Big Red, as strictly a bird hunter. After roaming the hills with Danny and building up muscle, however, Big Red proves to be up for almost anything. Older readers may remember the Disney movie about their adventures.

This is one animal adventure story that ends before the animal's relatively short lifespan does. Children like my brother (and like the characters in a whole novel about this issue, Gordon Korman's No More Dead Dogs) have loved Big Red for a long time for this reason. They need to know that most humans outlive several pets, but they hate the parts of novels where the dogs die.

The blurb on the jacket of my copy of Big Red says that it's for readers "from sixth grade up." My brother put a lot of wear on this copy in grades four and five, and had generally outgrown "boys' adventure stories" by grade six. Much depends on a child's familiarity with grown-up words like "inevitable," idiomatic phrases like "hounds bayed thunderous encouragement," dialect words like "get clawed or chawed"...and the maturity with which the child can be expected to learn about the correct use of the word for a female dog.

Although Danny's wholesomeness and consistent triumphs make adult readers suspect that Big Red was one of Kjelgaard's boyhood fantasies rather than one of his adventures, Kjelgaard had spent a lot of time with dogs. Some parts of the story are based on information about dogs that will be helpful to young readers. There's a woman character who might bring the B-word to corrupted adult minds, but the word is properly used of "Sheilah MacGuire," the mate the humans choose for Big Red. Danny innocently expects that Big Red will fall in love with Sheilah on sight--she's so beautiful! To Danny's chagrin, Big Red hardly notices Sheilah's charms but goes into a sulk because his human patted that strange dog. He'll come around, but only after Danny has fussed over him enough to show that he's still the Favorite Dog.

Urban animal lovers can still appreciate the subtleties of this dog romance, but they may be less comfortable with the idea of an animal villain...a "native species" animal villain at that. Although the big bear has earned a name, Old Majesty, there's never any question of the basic assumption that he needs killing, and any man, dog, or combination of men and dogs who can kill him will be heroes. The reaction adults have to this part of the plot is a fairly reliable indicator of how much they know about the habits of bears.

The absence of likable female characters in this story bothers some girls more than others. It does not seem to bother boys...and no, a boy's ability to enjoy stories without heroines does not affect either his ability to appreciate stories with heroines, or his ability to bond with girls as friends.

Big Red is recommended to middle school readers, perhaps especially those whose fathers remember having enjoyed it.
 

Book Review: El Bramido Horripilante

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: El Bramido Horripilante


Author: Victor Iturralde Rua

Date: 1987

Publisher: Libros del Quirquincho

ISBN: 950-9732-51-6

Length: 46 pages

Illustrations: drawings by Istvan

Quote: "El 16 de julio...no habia ruidos, ni carcajadas. Las puertas estaban cerradas, se caminaban casi en punta de pies."

(On the sixteenth of July there were no noises, no laughter. The doors were shut; people went around almost on tiptoe.)

This is a mildly scary story about a faraway village, high in the mountains, where the superstitious villagers celebrated something or other every day, except on the sixteenth of July, when they were silent and mournful. One particular word, the name of a man who had been lost in an avalanche, was forbidden. Any noise on that day, the villagers feared, might start another avalanche (un bramido horripilante, a hair-raising noise).

Sure enough, a bratty little boy finds out the forbidden word and screams it over and over, just to scare his grandparents. And a landslide begins. But the boy and his grandparents survive. And the villagers change their observance of the sixteenth of July.

El Bramido Horripilante is not recommended to anyone who might allow it to be used to encourage noisy, disobedient children. Because of its short length, it is recommended to first year Spanish students; they may need to consult a dictionary but they'll be able to follow the story.
 
This book was not widely distributed in the U.S. At the time of posting, Amazon doesn't have a copy for sale. Secondhand books change hands quickly, so go ahead and order a copy here...if I have to send you a cleaned copy rather than a clean one, I'll send fair warning and a refund.
 

Book Review: Through Gates of Splendor

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Through Gates of Splendor


Author: Elisabeth Elliot

Author's web page: http://www.elisabethelliot.org/

Date: 1956

Publisher: Tyndale House

ISBN: 0-8423-7152-4

Length: 272 pages

Illustrations: black and white photo inserts

Quote: "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."

Most of the memorable Christian aphorisms of the twentieth century are attributed to C.S. Lewis. The quote above, however, came from Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries who approached a hostile native group, then known as Aucas, in 1956. Though some of these people listened to Elliot and his friends, others murdered them. All five young men were married; one of the five widows, Elisabeth Elliot, and one man's sister, Rachel Saint, went to Ecuador to re-establish the mission. This is not their story. This is Mrs. Elliot's reconstruction of the last days of Jim Elliot's life.

Because Elisabeth and Jim Elliot, Rachel, Sam, and Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, and Pete Fleming have been hailed as saints, Mrs. Elliot's books and newsletters have actually had to debunk some of the myths around these people. Yes, the five men, and their families, sincerely wanted to share their religion with the natives of Ecuador. That was all they were trying to do. Mrs. Elliot grew to love the people whose name for themselves is Waorani, and has written about things Americans could have learned from them.

However, the missionary effort was funded by people whose intentions were not purely spiritual, people who wanted to be able to communicate with the Waorani before the Waorani had found out exactly how much their natural resources were worth. The mission base was called Shell Mera. "Shell" is not an Ecuadoran word, nor was the place a shelly beach.

Other complications set in later, as the missionaries tried to live exemplary Christian lives among the Quichua and Waorani people. Mrs. Elliot later wrote a novel about the reality that, when missionaries offered wonderful twentieth-century medicine to their host communities, they would not always have the right cure for the disease concerned. Ms. Saint, who hadn't known she was a polio survivor, turned out to be an immune carrier of the disease and indirectly caused more than five Waorani to die more painful deaths than the five missionaries.

Nevertheless, despite their reputation as brutal warriors (which was more or less what "Auca" meant), the Waorani recognized the women's good intentions. Later in the twentieth century, when visitors to Ecuador asked about the savage primitive Aucas, they were surprised to realize that the savages' children had become a peaceful, mostly Christian community.

Through Gates of Splendor is ultimately about as pleasant to read as Fox's Book of Martyrs, and is recommended for similar reasons. It's one of the classic historical documents of Christianity in the twentieth century. It contains some of the last surviving photos and descriptions of its place and time. If you want a happy ending, you need to read the sequel.
 
Although she was born in 1926, according to her web page Elisabeth Elliot is still alive. She doesn't do e-mail, but does post an address, so she will receive a 10% payment when you buy this book from me.
 

Book Review: Construyendo una familia feliz

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Construyendo una Familia Feliz


Author: Nancy Van Pelt (English: Blueprint for a Happy Home)

Author's web page: http://www.heartnhome.com/

Translator: Ada Garcia Marenko

Date: 1985

Publisher: Publicaciones Interamericanas

ISBN: 0-8163-9911-5

Length: 136 pages of text

Quote: "Lo que mas se necesita en muchas casas hoy en dia es la presencia de una familia que haga de la casa un hogar."

This is a book of good, sensible advice for families from a professional Christian family counsellor. Her style of writing is perhaps unusual. She doesn't have a very distinctive way of using words, but she makes interestingly odd connections among thoughts. After recounting the story of the murder of a Christian father on orders from Idi Amin, she concludes with, "En el mundo occidental nos cuesta comprender tales tacticas. Sin embargo, es posible que estemos haciendo lo mismo, solo que bajo un disfraz mas 'civilizado'. Nuestras familias estan siendo divididas, desintegradas--no por la fuerza, como fue el caso en Uganda--, sino, peor aun, !por nuestra propia eleccion!"

(In the Western World it's hard for us to understand such tactics. Nevertheless, it's possible that we may be doing the same thing, only under a 'civilized' disguise. Our families are being divided, broken--not by force, as was the case in Uganda--but, even worse, by our own choice!)

No-fault divorce was written into our laws in order to reduce the incidence of murder, and did...not that anybody would call divorce a good thing for children, but it's like growing old: consider the alternative. There are passages, like this one, when Van Pelt can seem a little shrill.

Still, for readers who would prefer some alternative to either divorce or murder, this book offers useful advice. Marry a good person. Treat that person well. Communicate. Share the chores. Satisfy your mate in bed. Enjoy each other's company. Worship together. Discipline children. And so on.

This book was originally written in English, which is Van Pelt's native language, and mine; the Spanish edition is the one I still have for sale. I'm qualified to say that the Spanish vocabulary isn't nearly as challenging as the thoughts are. Regardless of which language you read these thoughts in first, there will be a tendency to distract yourself with "Yadda yadda, she's preaching again," and start skimming or skipping. (I recommend paying close attention to this tendency when you notice it, because it's likely to appear when you come to something your family would like you to think about in depth.)

Because the long words in the European languages are almost always alike, it's likely that anyone who can read this book in one language, who has studied the other language for a year, will be able to read it in both languages. However, getting real benefit out of this book will involve more than merely translating the words, or adding new words to your vocabulary.

Construyendo una familia feliz is recommended to anyone who can read Spanish well enough to think seriously about their own family life while reading in Spanish.
 

Book Review: For Women Only

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: For Women Only


Author: Shaunti Feldhahn

Author's web site: http://www.shaunti.com/

Date: 2004

Publisher: Multnomah

ISBN: 1-59052-317-2

Length: 180 pages of text

Quote: "Hundreds of personal and written interviews with men--including a professional survey--form the core of this book."

Shaunti Feldhahn wanted to write a novel with a male protagonist. So she asked men for guidance about how he would think and feel in certain situations. Men she knew started sharing things with her. She did a formal survey of a few hundred men she didn't know, and found the same general tendencies. A lot of young Christian husbands wished their wives "knew certain things about men." She summarizes what she learned as "seven revelations."

Some readers have commented that presenting the "seven revelations" in a non-judgmental way makes the book read like some of the antifeminist books of bygone centuries, where the woman had to do all the giving in and never talk back. I don't read it that way. I think there's a clear intention to open a dialogue, paving the way for For Men Only. As Rebecca Johnson says, if a wife reads For Women Only while her husband reads For Men Only, they are in for a lovely time.

What were the "seven revelations"?

1. The husbands wanted respect. Some of them didn't realize that there were things they could be doing to earn more respect. Some really did seem to have self-esteem problems; without necessarily confirming that someone had lost respect for them, they'd act like jerks because they'd rather feel that everyone was against them than that they'd lost someone's respect.

Not asking for directions was a matter of self-respect for some of these men. Never mind whether a problem could have been solved in one-tenth as much time; they wanted to feel that they'd solved it all by themselves.

2. They were insecure. The greater their need to "be in control," the more intensely they tended to feel that the situation was out of control.

3. They recognized that the biological function of a male human, most of the time, is "providing." Even if their wives were earning enough money to support a family in reasonable comfort, they wanted to feel that the family depended on their jobs. (Foolish, you say? Consider the alternative.)

4. They wanted sex. Most wanted either more encounters or more enthusiasm than they were currently getting.

5. They were obsessively visual. Although they didn't report that "thinking in pictures" impeded thought and communication for them in anything like the way it did for Temple Grandin, most of these men wanted their wives to understand that they did "think in pictures." They'd see an attractive woman for a few seconds, down the aisle in a store, on TV during a commercial, and the "picture" of her body would float back through their minds for days. Feldhahn's own husband expressed surprise that, when women say a man is attractive, we may or may not mean we feel any physical attraction to him, and most of us don't keep trying to visualize him naked.

6. They wanted more, not less, romance in their lives. However, they had different ideas of what was "romantic" than some of their wives did. If they admitted to thinking that the main reason for a candlelight dinner would be to conceal that the food didn't look quite right, they still wanted the "romance" of doing fun things together...hiking, biking, skiing, swimming, sailing, camping, and if their wives went about it in the right way even remodelling the house together.

7. They cared more about appearances than they were entirely happy to admit. "Women need to realize that their doubling in size is like a man going from being a corporate raider to a minimum-wage slacker," one of these guys told Feldhahn. "She is not taking care of herself, so she feels bad about her looks, she has little energy, and we are limiting our opportunities" to go out and have fun, another husband complained.

Some of us may have noticed these things long before 2004. For others of us they may not have been relevant: some men don't think in pictures; I was blessed with a hand-and-ear thinker. Then again...he died, and the "seven revelations" have contributed to the fact that I've been using the phrase "Significant Other" to refer to the same privacy fanatic for all these years.

For many Christian wives, these "seven revelations" may be invaluable. Feldhahn is not the only one out there who notices the "Wide Loads" waddling around many churches on Sunday mornings. "Wide Loads" of both sexes say, "Our emphasis should be on spiritual love, not physical attractiveness." Maybe so, but unattractiveness is not the worst consequence of obesity. Male "Wide Loads" become grumpy; females become depressed; their social and family lives become boring, and they may die "old" at or even before age forty.

Some Christian wives might reasonably say, "Didn't Feldhahn even try to explain to these men what happens to a woman who has had too many babies, too close together?" If she did, she doesn't mention it in this book. (When an earlier version of this review appeared on Yahoo, someone commented that at a book discussion Feldhahn had indicated that some of the husbands appreciated effort.)

She also doesn't mention the way some men's willingness to desert an obese wife can become its own revenge. I knew an alleged Baptist who walked out on his wife because the fourth baby had produced more weight gain, impaired thyroid function, and depression than the first three had. He'd been secretly exchanging e-mails with a woman who had posted pictures showing that she had a good figure...some years before he actually met her, anyway. When he found an opportunity to meet her she seemed more functional than his wife, so he left his wife for her. Hah. About a year after the divorce, the wife had recovered and looked pretty again, and the homewrecker had become one of those sloppy, heavy, middle-aged women who can be mistaken for sloppy, heavy, middle-aged men. Idiot Boy went to custody court to attack his wife's character, took a look at her, and has been repenting of his folly ever since.

Feldhahn doesn't actually say "The family that works out together, stays together," but when she quotes all these young men pleading for more romantic physical activity and complaining about how hard it is to be faithful to a fat, depressed wife, she comes close to it. Her take on this idea is positive. What wife or husband doesn't want more time to unwind from work, more time to supervise the kids while attending to each other, more cheap mini-vacation time, a good-looking partner, and a cheerful and healthy family? Getting out and moving around together can be the key to all of these things.
 









Book Review: Picture Book of Musical Instruments

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Picture Book of Musical Instruments


Author: Marion Lacey

Date: 1942

Publisher: Lothrop Lee & Shepard

ISBN: none

Length: 55 pages including index

Illustrations: drawings by Leonard Weisgard; more drawings than text

Quote: "Originally all the wood winds were made of wood. Now, however, metal is often used."

This thin little book was written for adult symphony-goers. The drawings are recognizable and clever, but don't really show children what the instruments look like as clearly as photos would. There's not much text, and lines like "The English horn is half again as large as the oboe, and is pitched a fifth lower" are obviously addressed to people who know how big an oboe is and what a fifth sounds like.

This book was recently discarded from my local library because it wasn't circulating. I can see why. It was mis-shelved with the picture books written for kindergarten and first grade readers. It has no business in their corner of the library.

Marion Lacey didn't even consider the musical instruments that get most use today. One might understand the claim that the bang and twang of much popular music wasn't what she would have called music, but where are the wood blocks, triangles, tambourines, autoharps, and recorders that first grade students actually play? What about the organ or piano they might hear at church? What about the guitars, harmonicas, keyboards, and miscellaneous "folk" instruments their parents might play for fun? The Picture Book of Musical Instruments is written from the viewpoint of a Music Snob who admits only symphonies as "music." This attitude has probably done more than any other single factor to reduce Americans' interest in symphonies.

So, as a first book for music-loving children, this is a bad choice. And I might add that the physical construction of this book suffered from wartime austerities. When I read my copy, I laid it across my knees, and when I'd finished, short as the book was, there were freshly faded spots on the faded red cover, and spots of red dye on my knees.

As a souvenir for symphony lovers...it's not as good as From These Comes Music, but it might be treasured as a souvenir of an occasion or a person.
 

Book Review: On and Off the Ice

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: On & Off the Ice


Author: Dorothy Hamill (with Elva Clairmont)

Date: 1983

Publisher: Knopf

ISBN: 0-394-85610-4

Length: 181 pages

Quote: "I felt that in a sense I was no longer Dorothy Hamill--I was the United States."

Dorothy Hamill started skating when she was eight years old. At nine, she decided to make it a career. Practice and more practice, working through pain, solid legs, a quiet and disciplined personality, and a beautiful face, can do a lot for a person. In just ten short years, Hamill was the world's champion skater, with an Olympic gold medal and dozens of other prizes in her collection.

This book is about skating, and that's about all. In between 1976 and 1983 Hamill found time to get married, help her mother recover from surgery for cancer, raise money for the American Cancer Society, and bury her grandmother; in the book she also mentions plans to have children. Those parts of her story touch on other people's stories, so we're not told much about them. There's not much about Hamill's education in the book, although she went to school; not much about friends or family; no mention of religion or politics. This is intentional. Part of Hamill's charm was a quiet, reserved manner. She didn't tell people more than they were interested in knowing.

This quality makes On & Off the Ice a good, tasteful, family-friendly story that nine-year-old girls can share with their brothers without embarrassment. The personal memories Hamill shares are the ones that may be helpful to other young athletes: having to say no to other sports and concentrate on skating, having to "advance at a snail's pace" and perfect simple moves before doing fancy ones, being forbidden to chew gum while skating.

The vocabulary of this book is also accessible to nine-year-olds. Figure skating does have its own vocabulary, but if primary school readers want to learn about skating, they'll learn words like "axel," "camel," and "mohawk."

Many young women have been called "America's sweetheart." In an odd synchronicity, I read On & Off the Ice during the same week I read Melissa Gilbert's Prairie Tale. No doubt thousands of Americans will always love both of these teen stars, but let's just say that it's easier to love a teen star who tells us how to be a successful athlete than one who tells us more than we ever wanted to know about anybody.

However, for adults who wanted to know more about Hamill's family life, a personal memoir describing her parents' declining years has also been published.

Book Review: The Clarinet and Saxophone Book

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Book Title: The Clarinet and Saxophone Book


Author: Melvin Berger

Date: 1975

Publisher: Lothrop Lee & Shepard

ISBN: 0-688-51708-0

Length: 126 pages

Illustrations: black and white photos

Quote: "The clarino was the high-pitched trumpet of that time. [Johann Christoph Denner] chose the name [;clarinet] because the new instrument sounded so much like the trumpet."

This is a first book about the single-reed musical instrument family, written for middle school readers. There's a chapter about the history of the clarinet and saxophone, and subsequent chapters about how they're built, how they make sounds, how reeds are grown and shaped, the music that's been written for these instruments, people who were playing them professionally in the 1970s, public school bands that featured these instruments in the 1970s, and what other people were doing with these instruments in the 1970s.

Obviously the section about "The Clarinet, the Saxophone, and You" is as out of date as the little girl's band uniform in the cover picture. Otherwise, this is still a good book of information about instruments that were developed for use in symphony orchestras only after much of the great orchestra music had been written, and have yet to find their place in folk and popular music. Clarinets were definitely part of the "German Band" fad, saxophones were part of early swing and jazz, and both instruments adapt well to modern performances of traditional tunes...but so far no musical tradition really features the clarinet or saxophone in the way orchestras feature violins, marching bands feature trumpets, or rock bands feature guitars.

It might be argued that both classical and popular music would be better off without the single-reed instruments, since playing these instruments regularly tends to push the upper teeth out at the same time that it erodes the enamel on the lower front teeth. Perhaps the challenge for musicians in the twenty-first century will be to design new woodwind instruments that preserve those nice mellow woody tones while vibrating the reed against something other than the player's teeth. And I say the sooner the better.

The Clarinet and Saxophone Book is recommended to anyone interested in learning to play the clarinet and saxophone as they are, or in designing ecologically sound, human-breath-powered improvements on these instruments.

Book Review: Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook


Author: Scott Adams

Author's web page: http://dilbert.com/blog

Date: 1996

Publisher: Harper Collins

ISBN: 0-88730-788-4

Illustrations: cartoons by the author

Quote: "If you are not a manager, put this book down right now."

The comedy of the Dilbert cartoon series depends on two basic premises: (1) The managers of the offices you know are human beings, not dogs, cats, rats, or lunatics whose few remaining hairs form little devil horns. (2) If the decisions of the managers you know seem arbitrary, egotistical, and silly, you have a constitutional right to warn them that they're going wrong by showing them a Dilbert cartoon.

Therefore, everybody likes Dilbert cartoons.

While most cartoonists settle for reprinting last year's cartoon strips as a book, Scott Adams pieces his books together with fresh new text in which he explains the thoughts that inspired the cartoons. The use of text seems to inspire him to fresh satirical blasts. Every page or two continues to contain a cartoon.

It's all very funny, and while humor-challenged socialists gripe because the strip never recommends nationalizing the industry (could this be because few of us believe it could work?), I occasionally ask myself why Dilbert, Wally, and Alice don't just start their own business. Big business secret #1: small, efficient businesses are to big, bloated businesses as Jerry Rice is to Rush Limbaugh. Big business secret #2: big, bloated businesses have lobbied for years to create illogical laws that function to keep small, efficient businesses from running circles around big, bloated businesses. You can blame protectionist laws on capitalism and Big Business, or on socialism and Big Government, or (like Lincoln Steffens) simply on "corruption." My point is, protectionist laws are what keep Dilbert, Wally, and Alice chained to their cubicles.

Now you know. Knowledge is power. Now you can cut through some of the bloat and necrosis in whatever business you're in. You can be ethical, 99% stress-free while you work, efficient, and creatively fulfilled in self-employment...works for me, when I get work. Or you can join the crowd who just try to be grateful that their wage-slave job isn't quite as ridiculous as Dilbert's.

If you decide to be independent, I think you may need Dilbert more than the wage slaves do. From time to time we need reminders of what we're missing.

Book Review: Dogbert's Clues for the Clueless

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Dogbert's Clues for the Clueless


Author: Scott Adams

Author's web page: http://dilbert.com/blog

Date: 1993

Publisher: Andrews & McMeel

ISBN: 0-8362-1737-3

Length: 112 pages of cartoons

Quote: "You could buy some other book on etiquette, and in it you might find such useful tidbits as what kind of uniform the upstairs servants should wear, or the proper way to address the Pope when you meet him in person. But if you want practical information--like what to do after you sneeze in your hand--then you have to buy this book."

This book is for giving to the outstandingly rude co-worker. It shows and tells rude people:

"If your lips are extended beyond your nose, then you are about to do something rude."

"Don't try to crush people by pushing the 'close' button" (on an elevator).

"For some strange reason it is expected that guests bring gifts to parties. Generally, a host will know if your gift is something you found in your glove compartment."

How reliable is Dogbert as a guide to etiquette? What would you expect from a fat neutered male albino lapdog? He confuses Manx cats, which have extra-thick fur and short or missing tails, with Rex cats, which have very sparse fur and normal tails. He suggests that it's normal for Dilbert's dates to flirt with other guys, perhaps rude when Dilbert's dates forget that Dilbert is still there and kiss other guys, and definitely rude when Dilbert's dates get too carried away to stop kissing other guys when Dilbert tells them that in another five minutes he'll go home.

Dogbert also seems to think it's normal to be traumatized when new mothers feed their babies in public. I think it would be healthier if new mothers kept their babies at home, away from airborne germs, too, but I could wish that some of the other Dilbert cartoon characters (perhaps Angry Alice?) had at least suggested that Dogbert and other males might benefit from therapy to deal with the inferiority complex they're showing.

Anyway, if you know the cartoons, you know the very special etiquette and logic of Dilbert's world already, so why bother about inaccuracies? Dogbert's Clues for the Clueless contains more than a hundred cartoon strips you've not seen in the newspaper. You want it. There are lots of other places to buy it but when you buy it here, Scott Adams gets a payment.
 

Book Review: Insects Do the Strangest Things

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Insects Do the Strangest Things


Author: Leonora & Arthur Hornblow

Date: 1968

Publisher Random House

ISBN: none

Length: 60 pages

Illustrations: color drawings by Michael K. Frith

Quote: "The dragonfly does not look like a dragon. It does not look like a fly. It looks like a pretty little airplane."

This book has no introduction. It hardly needs one. The first paragraph is typical of what's in Insects Do the Strangest Things: fun facts about insects, written to challenge primary school readers.

Children of all ages (as well as adults) like fun facts, so this book and its companions, Birds Do the Strangest Things and Fish Do the Strangest Things, may be good choices for older readers as well. They're excellent choices for older siblings who like, or can be persuaded, to read aloud to preschoolers.

At the time of publication, this book also deserved commendation for not encouraging children to kill moths, butterflies, and beetles for their collections. As I recall, all the other nature books I had at this time, if they mentioned insects other than honeybees, told us how to kill the insects and display the bodies. It's possible for country children to acquire an impressive collection of moths and butterflies without killing anything, but now even no-kill collections are out of fashion because their popularity encouraged people to kill too many specimens that should have been allowed to live and multiply.

However, before sharing this book with children, parents may want to make up their minds about the ethics involved in filling a bottle with fireflies to use as a lamp. (When we read this book, my parents asked my brother and me how we would like to be trapped in a bottle.)

Insects Do the Strangest Things also encourages children to try keeping a praying mantis as a pet. This is definitely preferable to trying to control nuisance insects with poison sprays, which damage the environment and may cause allergies and/or build up toxicity in humans. Mantids, like their biological "cousins" in the roach and cricket families, often seem completely unafraid of humans. They can be trained to approach a human and beg for food treats. Bold, cleverer than many insects but none too bright, some of them even seem to enjoy having their backs stroked. Unlike roaches and crickets, mantids eat only other living insects, so they don't spread diseases...but parents may want to make a decision before a child decides to want a mantis for a pet.

Mantis egg cases are often sold for organic pest control. They work best if the eggs are kept at natural light and temperature conditions, in a safe place from which the baby mantids can move right back outdoors as soon as they hatch. Mantis hatchlings don't just eat the eggshells; if not exposed to other prey fast they'll eat each other.

A fun fact not discussed in the chapter on dragonflies is that some species of dragonflies, as well as mantids and paper wasps, like to be around humans because they eat all the insects that annoy humans. The old superstition that dragonflies will use their needle-shaped bodies to sew up someone's ears or nose may have started when people observed how often dragonflies perch on a human's ear or nose. Although few humans enjoy being perched on by dragonflies, the dragonflies do this in order to catch and eat flies, gnats, and mosquitoes.

Most of the insects discussed in this book are harmless, enjoyable species, but the book does discuss flies, mosquitoes, ants, and fleas (although technically fleas aren't insects). Neutrality is maintained. The Hornblows leave it up to parents to tell children whether spraying insects is ever justifiable.

However, enjoying the fun facts in Insects Do the Strangest Things may be a good preparation for a Green child to grow up interested in encouraging insect predators rather than trying to poison insects.
 

Book Review: A Spell Is Cast

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: A Spell Is Cast


Author: Eleanor Cameron

Date: 1964

Publisher: Little Brown & Company

ISBN: none

Length: 271 pages

Illustrations: drawings by Beth and Joe Krush

Quote: "Cory felt her heart lighten. She felt it quicken with excitement at sight of the gulls wheeling high up, being blown in the wind and then planing down on still wings."

Cory has always lived with her mother, mostly in New York City. During the time frame of this family romance, a spell is cast over Cory by the new pleasures she discovers at her grandmother's house on the northern California coast. Not only does she discover cliffs, caves, seabirds, boats, and beaches; she also meets interesting people her own age (unspecified, but apparently between twelve and fifteen) and bonds with the woman her uncle ought to have married.

Of course, Fergie and Andrew, the elderly hired couple whose names started to sound newly ironic around the time this book went out of print, claim that a spell was cast on Cory from the very beginning. She's enchanted because she happens to be lefthanded, and her name sounds like the word they used for this quirk in Scotland, "cawry-fisted."

Then there's the vague sense of pleasant wonder that Eleanor Cameron had such a way of weaving into her novels. Cory's uncle and his girlfriend would probably have been reconciled in any case. In 1964 anybody who played a musical instrument would probably have played the old tune "Greensleeves." Because this is an Eleanor Cameron novel, the adult romance has to be restarted when Cory hears each half of the former couple playing "Greensleeves" and thinks people who know such a lovely tune just have to be meant...Female readers seem to have forgiven Cameron's heroines, especially Julia Redfern, for this kind of self-dramatization.

The Krushes add their own kind of enchantment with their lavishly detailed drawings of old houses, cars, and costumes. Their line drawings were sketchy, almost cartoonlike, and for shading they simply scribbled with the side of the pencil, yet you could pick out any object the Krushes drew from a group of possible real-life models. This team had such a unique talent that even fellow illustrator Elizabeth Enright contributed two books (about a 1960s family who discover and restore a well preserved 1890s neighborhood) to the list of Krush-illustrated books. A Spell Is Cast sold well in the 1960s and 1970s and is probably one of the easier Krush-illustrated books to find...but it's not cheap.

This book is recommended to anyone who wants to recapture the spell this book cast over girl readers in middle school. As an adult romance, its plot may be a bit thin...or it may re-enchant romantic types' inner children enough that they'll forgive this book for having more scenes of childish wonder at beaches than scenes of grown-up passion. The passion is there all right; it's just family-filtered.

Real-world readers may be shocked at the price if they click on the button below. As regular readers know, this e-book store is growing out of the inventory of a real-world display of secondhand books, and the copy you can buy there is a cleaned, but still roughly used, discarded library copy. Clean copies of this book, which are what I'll mail out when you click on the button, have become collectors' items.

Book Review: A Child's Comfort

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: A Child's Comfort


Author: Bruce Johnson

Date: 1977

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

ISBN: 0-15-117184-X

Length: 116 pages

Illustrations: many full-page photos, some pattern graphics

Quote: "The colors you've selected may be the child's first visual experience."

This posthumous book seems to have been the last project Bruce Johnson, then employed by the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, worked on before he died. He was not yet thirty years old. In this short hardcover book, he set out to accomplish three things:

(1) To catalogue the quilts in a display the museum officially opened three months after Johnson died.

(2) To discuss the history of children's quilts.

(3) To help readers design and make classic child-sized quilts.

He didn't have time to do any of these things at great length, but he did them competently. This book contains lots of inspiration and an adequate amount of instruction for quilters.

Most of the pages are devoted to full-page pictures of the museum's quilts. Needless to say, they're all beautifully worked. Some have faded; a quilt catalogued as "pink and white" was probably red and white when new, and appears to be pink and tan in the book. Some are still colorful, and some reflect a period when brown tones were considered interesting in their own right. Some have large, simple motifs; some are made of dozens of tiny pieces; some have pictorial appliques, and some are "whitework," elaborately quilted pieces of plain white fabric.

Experienced quilters may not need an instruction section to tell them how to use these inspirations, but, for those who need to be walked through a project, the book contains detailed instructions for Log Cabin and other classic patchwork quilt patterns.
 
Although the author is no longer living, A Child's Comfort is available only at collectors' prices.