Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

On a date with my husband 33 years ago we went cross country skiing at a challenging and hilly course. He had skied the Birkebeiner in Wisconsin and was on the cross country ski team in high school. On one steep, icy hill my ski went out of the track into the opposite one for oncoming ski traffic going up the hill. Straddling both tracks and yelling I had a spectacular crash at the bottom that released my skis like javelins in all directions. He skied down the hill like he was on ice skates, swished both skis together to a full stop and extended a hand to help me up. My cross country skis have a high or stiff camber that allow me to fly down hills completely out of control at high speeds. Great fun. Orville and Wilbur had problems with camber in the second design of their plane as experiments up to that point had a camber ratio that affected stability and caused the plane to crash. Their patented wing warping design had them experimenting with the camber to discover the ideal ratio for their gliders. The camber issue made me think of all my skiing fiascos.

One strength of this book is showing how the Wright brothers experimented, tested, improved, and did not give up in their pursuit of flight. They represent the engineering design process that educators teach to students in elementary school and up. And the author mixes in the human side of the Wright family with their aeronautical achievements to make a highly readable, educational, and entertaining book. As public figures, Orville and Wilbur did not seek nor celebrate fame, but were true to their sole purpose of learning to fly. Their sister Katharine was high-tempered ("wrathy"), opinionated, loyal, and caring. She was the spitfire of the three and added color to the the brothers' story. Wilbur was brilliant and Orville a mechanical genius. The family had arguments but was mainly close and supportive over the years.

The Wright brothers had a successful bicycle business for many years before the idea of flight consumed much of their time. They built a glider and tested it at Kitty Hawk, a rugged island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina where the wind always blew. Living out of a tent they refined and tested their planes eventually succeeding at flying one. They added an engine later in the designs. Katharine helped manage the bicycle business while teaching at a nearby hospital and Charlie Taylor ran the shop while they were at Kitty Hawk as well as being critical in building the engine the Wrights' used on one of their gliders.

Once they had accomplished successful flights, the Wrights had problems with legitimizing their claims of success with the U.S. government. Part of this was their way of going about business. The brothers were afraid of others stealing their ideas and were waiting for a patent so they would not fly for anyone unless the interested party signed a contract before their demonstration. The U.S. government was not interested in their proposition, but France was and Wilbur went there for demonstrations and a contract. The publicity made the U.S. take interest. Later the U.S. army offered a contract and Orville provided demonstrations. After a serious crash, Orville was nursed back to health by Katharine while Wilbur continued with demonstrations in Europe. Orville and Katharine joined Wilbur in Paris and they met with kings from different countries and other influential people. They were a sensation and enjoyed the fame while their father, a Bishop, continually reminded them to stay grounded.

The Wright brothers were self-educated and persevered no matter what the set back. Their educated father had an extensive personal library that allowed for the children to read the likes of "Dickens, Washington Irving, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, a complete set of the works of Sir Walter Scott, the poems of Virgil, Plutarch's 'Lives,' Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' Boswell's 'Life of Johnson,' Gibbons' 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,' and Thucydides. There were books on natural history, a six-volume history of France, travel, 'The Instructive Speller,' Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species,' plus two full sets of encyclopedias." Once back in the U.S. the brothers, particularly Wilbur, spent many years on patent lawsuits that David McCullough skims over. This is a fairly short book and is not highly technical. This may appeal to some and to others they might want less camber. The pacing and mix of technical and human side of the Wrights was just right for me. See if it's Wright for you.

5 Smileys

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Killer Angels (The Civil War Trilogy, #2) by Michael Shaara

Michael Shaara brilliantly mixes historical facts with fictional elements to create complex characters set during the Battle of Gettysburg. Most of the story is through three characters' point of view: General Robert E. Lee who commanded the Rebel army, Lieutenant-General James Longstreet who commanded a corps, and  Colonel Joshua Chamberlain who commanded a Union regiment. The complexities of the men are captured by Shaara who shows their inner conflicts over loyalty, friends, and professionalism.

The individual characters show broader themes on the effects of leadership in military, conflicting values, and desire for honor, to name a few. Robert E. Lee was revered by the troops and willing to die for him. Even Longstreet, who disagreed to the core with Lee's strategic decision, would not forsake his post nor go against Lee's commands. General Lee reflected an old way of life that had its roots in England where gentleman, honor, and chivalry prevailed in a ruling elite or aristocracy. The North had its money in cities where any individual could become wealthy without the stronger class distinctions of the South. While the war is known as being fought to free the slaves, it was more complex in terms of an old way of life being threatened by a new way. Some of the minor characters such as Stuart and Fremantle enforce this notion while also adding some comic relief.

Longstreet did not fight for a cause and Lee chastised him over it. The two reflect the professionalism they felt toward each other as soldiers and while he was loyal to Lee, he did not fight for a Cause, but fought to win. He was a complex man that wanted to fit in with his soldiers but he was a frontiersman and not an aristocrat; thus, feeling separate from those around him. One wonders at Longstreet's lack of commitment and inability to communicate with Lee regarding statistical numbers of climbing the hill. He was brilliant with military tactics and far ahead of the times, but couldn't seem to be heard by Lee or other leaders. Yet the two relied on each other and cared deeply for each other's well-being. While other aristocratic leaders like Pickett were enthusiastic about leading the charge of the Gettysburg hill, he later blamed Lee for the death of over half his men. Longstreet knew that the chance of winning was statistically low, but hoped the loyalty of the soldiers toward Lee would produce a miracle. Instead, the Rebel army never recovered from the Battle losing many of their commanding officers and proving Longstreet right.

The Union soldier Joshua Chamberlain, who was a professor at Bowdain before enlisting, shows the only character that was actually in the battle. Lee and Longstreet observed from a distance while Chamberlain led a regiment. He had respect for the enemy and admires their courage. His leadership when the Union soldiers repelled the Rebels from flanking the army showed bravery and wit that made a big difference in the Battle of Gettysburg. He led his soldiers by following three tenants: be courageous, be decisive, and care about his soldiers. He also has a brother in his regiment and shows the difficulty of relying on him and wanting to protect him at the same time.

Chamberlain shows that he does have a Cause: "He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God. This was the land where no man had to bow. In this place at last a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. ...Here we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was. Here you can be something. Here's a place to build a home. It isn't the land - there's always more land. It's the idea that we all value, you and me, we're worth something more than dirt. ...What we're all fighting for, in the end, is each other." He was fighting for freedom not only for blacks but from the old way of life or traditions carried specifically by the English.

While Lee and Longstreet are a look into generalship, Chamberlain reveals what it is like to be in the midst of battle. Studying the complexities of the characters gives a microscopic look into what reflects the bigger issues in military leadership and fundamentals of combat. I didn't realize that this is book 2 in a trilogy. It is not necessary to read book one. I was able to follow the story and characters, although I read it on an eReader and could not see the maps detailing the battle. That was a bit frustrating. A fascinating read that is incredibly well-written about the Civil War.

5 Smileys

All Our Yesterdays (All Our Yesterdays #1) by Cristin Terrill

This had potential but the focus on the romantic subplot over the time travel weakened it and made for some slow reading, particularly in the beginning. Marina is sixteen and comes from a rich family where the dad works all the time and the mom is unhappy with her inability to be successful as an artist. Marina makes friends with James, the neighbor, a couple of years older than her, whose parents died and is being raised by Nate, his Congressman brother. James has a 168 IQ and is working on his Ph.D. He struggles with relationships except with Marina and Finn, a friend from school. When a tragedy happens, Marina and Finn are there for James as they try to unravel the mystery.

I would have liked more focus on the mystery or time travel than the romance. There are too many gaps in it and the end rushes the answers rather than slowly unveiling them throughout the plot. The beginning pacing with Em was good but it went from clues into the romantic subplot. Marina has a girl crush on James but by the end it is supposed to be deeper, only it doesn't make sense after all he's done to her. In the beginning Marina's storyline as a young and shallow person is weak compared to Em's that is full of tension. I thought the tension got lost during the romantic subplot and some of the plot twists obvious. Except the ending. That was confusing and poorly done with flashbacks. Finn's background relationship with James isn't really explained. James is out of school but the two met in school? Except he's a new friend. Perhaps I missed something.

There are some stereotypes that left me uncomfortable. Marina's parents are one dimensional self-centered people, while Luz is the motherly type in Marina's life. This is not developed. Marina wears dorky pajamas Luz gave her over to James house that shows actually how much she loves Luz. There are more instances but they are few and far between. Also, the author tells the reader how Marina feels more than shows and it works against creating a complex character. The first person point of view also works against giving rounded characters. James becomes a one dimensional character and Finn isn't developed enough to understand his motives except being in love with Em. Time travel books and movies are found in abundance and when done well can be very interesting, but this one misses the mark for me.

3 Smileys

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

I collapsed after reading this. What a slog. Good, but dense, detailed, and darn long. I don't particularly care for Jared Diamond's writing style. He's detailed, scholarly, and repetitive. There is so much information I had to take frequent breaks and snatch some quick reads in-between chapters. I almost abandoned it a few times but then I'd find a different chapter interesting and get hooked again. Diamond has solid arguments for explaining why societies collapse and while fascinating, he's overly detailed in spots - at least for me. His thesis shows five factors that influence the collapse of a society: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, decreased support by friendly neighbors, and society's response to environmental problems. The book is full of great information and I can see recommending students to read certain chapters, but not the whole shebang - unless they are persistent readers.

Many of the societies he examines collapsed because of their fragile environments. While Diamond doesn't play judge and is sympathetic toward those who made decisions that were wrong and caused the downfall of their societies from ancient to modern times, he is judgmental against those who obviously don't care about the environment, who "rape-and-run" making quick cash and leave environmental disasters for citizens and governments to clean up. He balances this analysis of greedy businesses with stellar businesses whose good practices show how everyone can benefit when a company creates a product that respects the environment.

"Environmental determinism" looks at the physical environment such as climate and geography trying to determine how it affects societies. This concept has had negative press over the years and has led to some people using racism or superiority of intellect over other cultures based the oppressor being smarter than the suppressed group of people. Diamond is always refuting this and he also takes his studies further looking at multiple aspects of a hypothesis that include climate, geography, botany, science, economics and more. It is one reason his books are so dense and slow to read. But they are fascinating and require thoughtful reflection.

He has quite a few great quotes and I would have expanded on them if my Nook eReader hadn't deleted all my highlights. I will try to remember some from my bad memory. The genocide in Rwanda was a product of land disputes, deforestation, exports, and too many people living in extreme poverty. There was a direct correlation between starvation and increased crime. Diamond explains how the ethnic violence was not based solely on ethnic hatred but tied in with land disputes. The argument is compelling and interesting. Australia's fragile environment is a great chapter to read as well.

Diamond discusses the rarity of a leader who has the courage to anticipate a potential problem and take steps to solve it before it becomes a crisis. "Such leaders expose themselves to criticism or ridicule before it becomes obvious to everyone that some action is necessary." Think of all the leaders you've come across in your life that surround themselves with people that tell them what they want to hear. The ability to listen to criticism and use it constructively and not be corrupted by power is not the norm.

I thought "Collapse" and "Gun, Germs, and Steel" both had first chapters that were hard to get through. This one is too detailed on Montana and slowed the pacing. The ancient societies that collapsed were not quite as interesting as the modern ones as his analysis is more complex because he has more information to prove his hypothesis. The author is quite brilliant and worth reading.

3 Smileys

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

We are moving to South Africa so I thought I had better read this bestseller from 1948. I listened to the audiobook performed by the actor, Michael York. His incredible voice changes helped me visualize the characters; however, I should have read the book as my weakest learning style is auditory and it took me awhile to get the African village names and characters sorted. The Reverend Stephen Kumalo, who lives in Ndotsheni, a village in eastern South Africa, receives a letter saying his sister, Gertrude, is ill and he should come to Johannesburg. Kumalo hopes to find his son, Absalom, who has also gone to Johannesburg and he has not heard from in a few years. In Johannesburg, Kumalo is assisted by Msimangu, the priest that sent him the letter, and the two set off to find Gertrude and Absalom. Along the way they see economic and social conditions that gave rise to apartheid. Alan Paton's writing is lyrical and full of emotion; a social protest novel that reveals the political and social issues of the time. I think it would be good paired with "Things Fall Apart," that shows the breakdown of the tribe from a black man's perspective; whereas, "Cry the Beloved Country," is from a white man's perspective that reveals postcolonial attitudes of liberalism and Christian paternalism.

Kumalo and Msimangu are good men that travel from place to place observing how the black man has lost "his tribe" and support system since white men has colonized Africa. Kumalo comes from the country and views the city as a corrupting influence on young people. Traditions with a chief as head of the tribe and support system of others members who teach moral behavior has been replaced by the white man's influence and this is represented in the lawless city of Johannesburg. The result is corruption as people live in fear.

Kumalo begins his journey rooted in the old ways and once he travels to Johannesburg he discovers that the world has changed and he must change with it. The erosion of African society is symbolized in representations of a barren land and the erosion of the red soil that bleeds into the rivers like an open wound. Stephen Kumalo's home is decaying with his sister turning to prostitution and his son committing murder. Kumalo clings to the old ways at first realizing that he must change by the end to adapt to a changing world, but he suffers terribly along the way and like Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Kumalo must lose his son, sister, and family before gaining a new one. He realizes that he must reach out to help those in need or suffering and give to them selflessly; hence, creating a new tribe.

Kumalo meets his brother, John, who has rejected the tribe but who has an incredible voice or speaking ability that others listen to, but he is corrupt and only thinks of himself. He is hollow and unreliable as a friend or relative. A foil to him is Dubula, a man that is the voice of the boycott. His motives are unselfish and Kumalo and Msimangu realize that he would make a great leader because power would not corrupt him. He's morally stable, unlike John Kumalo. Many times throughout the novel the power of corruption is brought up and it is the self-sacrificing men that are held up as examples to emulate.

The economic and deplorable social conditions are revealed throughout the journey, but it is mainly through James Jarvis that the white person is supposed to recognize actions he or she can take to help mend the gap with blacks. James Jarvis is a country man like Kumalo and when his son is murdered he reads his notes discovering his son thought deeply about the racial problems and was trying to change the world to be a better place. James is changed and decides to work for a solution toward helping the tribe. He introduces a man that shows the blacks agricultural methods that will help till the soil or heal a broken land by beginning something new for the blacks.

When I read, "Huckleberry Finn," as an adult I could see why others took offense at the stereotypical portrayal of blacks. In Paton's novel, the whites are superior and the blacks are left with the whites making morally correct decisions to benefit them. Stephen calls James Jarvis an angel because he's showing the natives agricultural techniques and he's building a new church which allowed him to remain a pastor there. This is supposed to help them with the tribal displacement but it is always the whites in this story that have the knowledge and vision for the tribes. Paton wanted South African natives to embrace Christianity because this would lead to moral living and he suggests farming as a way to get back in touch with the land.

I've been reading Jared Diamond's book, "Collapse," about elements that lead to a society's demise. Poverty, over farming, deforestation, climate, and environmental issues are usually significant factors along with different catalysts that cause the collapse. Paton focuses mostly on moral decay and the break down of the tribe. While Paton's attempt to change racial injustices is noble, his story shows at the same time the attitudes of the day full of colonial views of an enlightened Western civilization replacing a barbarian one. Many find his book outdated because of his portrayal of blacks. For further reading on this topic, I put the article at the bottom of the page. This is a story that will lead to plenty of discussions.

5 Smileys

Source: Paternalism, Ideology, and Ideological Critique: Teaching "Cry, the Beloved Country" Author(s): Patrick Colm Hogan
Source: College Literature, Vol. 19/20, No. 3/1, Teaching Postcolonial and Commonwealth Literatures (Oct., 1992 - Feb., 1993), pp. 206-210
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: Accessed: 08-06-2016 15:44 UTC 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Booked by Kwame Alexander

This book-in-verse (or is it verse-in-book? novel-in-verse? or a novel inverse? or inverse novel? I shouldn't be writing a book review last crazy week of school) about a boy who loves soccer and is dealing with the divorce of his parents. Kwame Alexander can pound out images and rhythms that will make you beat through the pages like a drummer. While "Crossover," the 2015 Newbery Winner was on basketball this one is on soccer. Except the sport takes back seat to the power of words as Nick Hall learns to use them against teachers, parents, wooing a girl, and friends at school. He says he hates words since his dad is a professor and "verbomaniac" who has written a dictionary he's making Nick memorize. But Nick likes words. If he didn't he wouldn't fling around words like "limerence," "codswallop," or "ragabash". This story might leave you with "onomatophobia", but it sure is a heck-of-alot of fun.

Twelve-year-old Nick Hall daydreams in class getting the teacher's unwanted attention. He uses words in a clever way to charm her on to Team Nick before using the same technique to get a girlfriend. Although shy and scared of girls, his words come through for him in the end. His mom and dad are splitting up and he goes through grief as his athletic mom leaves to train horses in Kentucky. When he expresses how upset he is he finds the power of words to bring his mom back and find some equilibrium in a rough time. Cody is his soccer friend who he joke-brags with they are on rival soccer teams and will play each other in a prestigious tournament. When things fall apart, the rapping librarian hooks Nick onto reading and a book club where he discovers books help him articulate what he's going through in his life at the moment (and win the girl of his dreams).

The end doesn't tell the reader what was in the mysterious dragonfly box. A dragonfly symbolizes change and self-realization which is Nick's character arc in the story. If I had time I'd look into rappers. I'm sure the author is doing more with the verses than I can tell but I'm on a break away - I have a parent waiting for this book at the circulation desk and I'm trying to write this as fast as I can. If I shoot this review over the goal or you think it is ragabash, that's why.  (Ah... I see on my labels/tags that I usually use novel-in-verse. Long day.)

5 Smileys

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey by Ozge Samanci

This graphic novel is well done, but I'll have to send it up to the middle school library as it is too young adult for elementary students. Ozge Samanci's minimalist illustrations and dry sense of humor make this an excellent look into what it was like growing up in Turkey. The heart of the story is about Ozge trying to figure out what she wants to do in life and the difficulty of trying to live up to her father's expectations and imitate her brilliant older sister. She recounts the political and cultural upheavals growing up and the dangerous culture she lived in. A near rape, prejudice from extreme ideologies at school, and fierce competition of trying to make it into prestigious schools make this a page turner. Ozge never takes herself too seriously though and the humor and lightness balance out the dark incidents. A terrific read.

Ozge grew up in a middle class family with two parents that were educators and nonreligious. They raised Ozge to be strong and wanted her to have a good job. Getting into the top high schools and universities was competitive and difficult. Ozge chronicles this difficult journey that show flaws in an educational system many will relate too. Her path of self-discovery follows first in her sister's footsteps and she fails, next she tries to follow her father's path and fails, and last she tries to follow her own heart and fails. She never gives up and finds, with the help of family and some loyal friends that help tutor her through her classes so she can pass, that she is able to discover her passion for drawing. It is the failures and resilience to learn from her mistakes that are a part of Ozge's journey of discovering what she wants to do with her life - something we all can relate to. She is one brave person that is easy to cheer on as she works through issues.

The author does a good job explaining the different leaders of the country and how they affected her country. A funny bird crops up on many of these pictures with some wisecrack comment. She shows the leaders saying one thing but doing the opposite in private while the bird hangs upside down on the president's speech bubble saying, "Liar." Later, she's trying to get the courage to tell her mom about her teacher's corporal punishment of all the students in the classroom and the bird is making light of the incident. Ozge is a strong-willed girl willing to stand-up for herself. She's a bit of a loose cannon as a young kid and her yellow hair that shoots out all over the place reflects her high spirits. There are pictures of her friends with rock star posters in their bedroom and Ozge has Jacques Cousteau because she's going to be a famous diver. Later, she humorously "talks" to Poster Jacques trying to sort out what she wants to be in life. The page where she is suspended for speaking her mind at school and criticizing the play chosen for the theater production is a hoot. The close-up photo of the suspension letter with her miniaturized and sliding down its folded edge off the page with the bird and its speech bubble saying, "Bye," is one of my favorites. I'm sure you'll find your favorites too.

5 Smileys