Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sea Creatures from the Sky

By Ricardo Cortés
Black Sheep/Akashic     2018
48 pages     Picture Book

I read Sea Creatures from the Sky aloud to the most discerning audience possible, my 5- and 6-year-old grandchildren. The children had insightful reviews of the book, and I will include their thoughts in my look at the book. The book was released on April 3.

This is a gorgeously illustrated view of the world by a shark. It begins, “This is a tale of no one believing something that is entirely true” and that philosophical view continues as the shark views his world and the world above the water. It includes the shark being caught by a pair of marine biologists, who measure him, probe him, tag him, and then throw him back into the sea. 

First, both children needed to be told that the shark was telling the story. After that, they had a different perspective about the book, and laughed in different places than they might have had they continued to look at the story from their own perspective. Davick (5) shouted at the beginning, “It’s about a shark!” and he also enjoyed naming the different fish that were in the illustrations. Adela (6) loved that the story was in rhyme, and they both enjoyed it when the biologists caught the shark on a line with a fish for a lure.

We discussed how everyone has a different view of the world. This, of course, is a hard concept for children, and I think that reading this book to a classroom of first or second graders would engender quite a bit of philosophical conversation. Additionally, it might be a good book for a science class. My grandson loves to read about animals and he found the pictures very appealing. Adela, the first grade reader, found that she could read the entire book, which made her very proud.

Truly, the illustrations are beautiful—far more beautiful than the writing, which tends to be good for giggling—which both children did as I read it. Together it made a great package, which we all enjoyed. 

Cortés is the author/illustrator of several children’s picture books, but most famously, he is the illustrator of Go the F—k to Sleep, the bestselling adult parenting book and it’s children’s counterpart, Seriously, Just Go to Sleep.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ready Player One

By Ernest Cline
Broadway Books     2011
374 pages     Science Fiction
Audio Book

What a marvelous geek fest! My husband and I listened to Ready Player One on our trip to the Alabama coast in February. It got us there and back, and then we had to spend a few breakfast reading days to finish it. What amazed me was that it held the attention of 70-somethings who didn’t quite get all the 80s references the book offered—and my husband has never played a video game in his life. Still, we were fascinated and can’t wait for the movie to come out at the end of the month.

The reality of teenage Wade Watts is dystopian. It is 2044 in Oklahoma, and the world is in near collapse. Wade lives in a high rise of stacked house trailers, but his true life is the virtual reality universe he escapes to every day. He attends school in that universe and spends most of his time in a game called the OASIS, a virtual-reality online game. One reviewer called it Second Life on steroids.

The OASIS was designed by a famous video game designer from the 1980s named James Halliday, who has hidden his fortune (billions of dollars) in the online game. The entire geek world is trying to find the Easter Egg, the last treasure in the game that will release the money, but it has been five years since Halliday died, and no one has made much progress. Wade’s gaming Avatar, Parzival, is racking up points in the game, but it is when he combines forces with four other avatars that the excitement begins to build. Of course there has to be an enemy, and the OASIS enemy is a corporate behemoth named IOI that is attempting to take over the world.

That’s the plot. But it is so much fun. Ready Player One is very visual, because Cline is a screenwriter, but it is also extremely humorous. The references just keep rolling. In order to solve the game, Wade has had to become familiar with as many 1980s references as he can, so lines from movies, TV shows, and songs are abundant. For example, somebody found 88 movie references in the book. (How many times would you have to read a book to document all the references? I told you it was a geek fest!) Wade also has to master every video game from the 1980s and decide which of those games were Halliday’s favorites.

We especially enjoyed the audio reading by actor, Will Wheaton. (I saw him last night on an episode of Big Bang Theory.) He brings the book to life. BTW, he mentioned in an interview that he really likes doing audio books because that’s how he gets his own reading done by preparing for the audio recording. The movie is directed by Steven Spielberg, the biggest name around. Early reviews are encouraging. The movie makers must have had a great time!

My last comment is that reading doesn’t have to be a serious enterprise. Sometimes it just needs to be fun, fun, fun. This is one of those times!

Here is a you tube video of references in the movie.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

We Matter: Athletes and Activism

By Etan Thomas

Akashic Books     2018
320 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

I want to give a shout out for a book that has crossed my desk. We Matter by former professional basketball player, Etan Thomas, is a series of interviews and commentary. Thomas discusses Black athletes and their activism—from taking a knee during the national anthem to forcing the University of Missouri president to address racially-charged incidents on campus. The stories are profound as are the interviews. Thomas’ narrative helps put the Black Lives Matter movement into the long-term perspective it deserves—how we got to where we are now.

The book should serve as inspiration to young athletes as well as the socially and morally conscious who deplore police brutality and discrimination . It also helps put President Trump’s policies in perspective through the eyes of the athletes Thomas interviewed. 

We Matter closes with two poems written by Etan Thomas. One is about the impact of Colin Kaepernick on the culture. The other called “You Matter”  is a call for African American youth to believe that they are important in a culture that disparages them.

But the darkness will come to light
And our strength will surprise you
When your walls come tumbling down just like Confederate statues.

I encourage you to read this interview with Thomas in the New York Times and buy the book for those who will value it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

White Houses

By Amy Bloom

Random House    2018
240 p.     Historical Fiction

I first encountered the author Amy Bloom when I was sent a copy of Lucky Us to review. I loved it, and I couldn’t wait to read White Houses about the great woman, Eleanor Roosevelt and her lover, the journalist and author, Lorena Hickok.

In an essay on Book Page, Bloom says that she first learned about the love affair between Eleanor and “Hick” (as she was called) in a 1992 biography of Eleanor Roosevelt by Blanche Wiesen Cook. Apparently there are 3000 letters between Eleanor and Hick in the FDR Library in Hyde Park. At first, when historians read Cook’s biography, they were appalled that she had written about the relationship. Even, Ken Burns, in making his documentary about the Roosevelts, thought the relationship was just gossip. Blum says, however, that the letters are so dramatic and love-filled that their relationship could not have been platonic. Other historians have come to accept that as well.  In 2018,  the idea is more dramatic than scandalous, but the thought of a homosexual relationship for a first lady makes for great fiction, which Amy Bloom has brilliantly and tenderly created.

Lorena narrates the story of how they met, how they loved, how they separated, and how they reunited when FDR died in 1945. Lorena is a marvelous character from a very poor background, raped by her father as a young girl, sent to live as a housemaid when her mother died, and found work for a time in the circus. Because of her tenacity and brilliance, she became a journalist, and she met Eleanor on FDR’s first political campaign. She had to resign from the AP because of a loss of objectivity about the first couple, and Franklin helped her get a job within the White House. There, she was able to continue her affair with Eleanor unrestricted and with the full approval of Franklin, who, of course,  was having his own affairs.

What we learn about Eleanor is pretty much what we have already come to know about her, historically. She was gracious, charming, and kind to everyone who crossed her path. During the years of their affair, Lorena was in and out of Eleanor’s life, all while Eleanor became a powerful figure in American culture. Lorena knew Eleanor in a far more intimate way than the world did, and the picture we get of Eleanor, from Lorena’s perspective, is a loving and passionate woman, anxious to pursue a relationship outside the restrictive boundaries of the White House. At the same time, Lorena knew that Eleanor was a woman of principle. “Eleanor thought that if you were a person of advantages and intelligence, you were responsible for every single thing you did or said and every choice you made until the day they laid you in the ground.”  Lorena always knew that Eleanor would never leave Franklin, so, off and on, she pursued other relationships and other homes, away from Eleanor and the pressures of life in the White House. She always loved Eleanor, and when Franklin died, she ran to her home to comfort her as no one else could.

Bloom’s writing is gorgeous. Lorena tells of her infatuation with Eleanor. “And when I was the object of her love, when her eyes lit up across the room, when she touched her fingertips to the pulse at the base of her throat, to mark the spot for me, to mark herself, I thought that there was no sacrifice I wouldn’t make.” I also loved the passage about middle-aged bodies. “Every woman’s body is an intimate landscape. The hills, the valleys, the narrow ledges, the riverbanks, the sudden eruptions of soft or crinkling hair. Here are the plains, the fine dry slopes. Here are the woods, here is the smooth path to the only door I wish to walk through. Eleanor’s body is the landscape of my true home.”

What we learn about Franklin Roosevelt is pretty much what we already knew, and other than this secret affair, our understanding of Eleanor doesn’t change much, either. White Houses flows so well, and is written with great style and immense feeling. The Kirkus reviewer says, “Bloom elevates this addition to the secret-lives-of the-Roosevelts genre through elegant prose and by making Lorena Hickok a character engrossing enough to steal center stage from Eleanor Roosevelt.”

 I was a toddler on a train ride with my mother on the day that Franklin Roosevelt died, and even as young as I was, I can remember the chill that swept over the passengers as the news spread throughout the car. It is a moment I will never forget.