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Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

Review: The Port Chicago 50

PortChicago50While two titles do not qualify as a trend, I’d say Sheinkin has a knack for bringing under-the-radar stories from WWII to life and light. After his scientists-and-spies thriller depicting the race to build or steal the world’s first nuclear weapon, Sheinkin revisits the wartime Forties in The Port Chicago 50, about the Port Chicago explosion (also bomb-related!) and the remarkable fallout that forced the US Navy to confront the systemic racism within its ranks.

To tell the story from the perspectives of the Port Chicago 50, a group of black sailors who boycotted their unsafe and segregated work conditions, Sheinkin trawled through court documents and scores of interviews to stitch together this uniquely personal account.

“We had expectations to go to sea on a big Navy ship,” recalled Spencer Sikes, still a teenager when he enlisted. Instead, to keep the Navy segregated, black sailors ended up at Port Chicago in California, where the officers giving orders were white and the crews handling the bombs were black. Worse, the men were expected to load explosives onto Pacific-bound ships without any prior training; the officers made a game out of betting on which crews could load the fastest. The pressure was so bad, Sikes was convinced he’d perish on the pier and never see his mother again. (more…)

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The Wolf and Little Red.

The Wolf and Little Red.

Into the woods and down the dell/
The path is straight, I know it well/
Into the woods and who can tell/
What’s waiting on the journey?

These lyrics from Into the Woods, by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, summed up my attitude towards the film version of my childhood favorite musical. I grew up watching the original on a worn VHS tape. It was one of my first introductions to musical theater.

For those unfamiliar with its premise, Into the Woods is a fairytale mash-up about a childless Baker and his Wife, their quest to reverse the Witch’s curse that keeps them barren, and their consequent encounters with beanstalk-climbing Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, who’ve also gone into the woods to obtain their wishes. If the first half of the musical is about wish fulfillment, then the second act warns that happy endings come at a price. The musical is structured so that Act II mirrors and foils Act I. Even the opening and closing numbers of each act–and a delightful duet and its reprise–serve as counterbalances for one another.

A solid musical with a funny book and a fantastic score, it’s hard to mess up Into the Woods. I’m partial to the original Broadway cast myself, but I’ve seen amateur productions still entertain. That said, I was curious what kind of movie magic director Rob Marshall would bring to Into the Woods on film. From uncomfortably close close-ups (à la Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables) to innovative camera angles to flashbacks, montages, special effects, and who knows what else, there’s a lot of cinematic tricks to play with.

To Marshall’s credit, some of his ideas worked splendidly, like the clever editing during Jack’s big song, Giants in the Sky, which helped to reenact his sky-bound adventures. And the juxtaposition of a banished Rapunzel singing herself to sleep while camped out in a swamp crawling with venomous snakes was a hilarious visual gag. Also, a nice touch: playing a snippet from another Sondheim musical, A Little Night Music, as the background music at the festival. Less successful were Cinderella’s creepy CGI’ed birds; the vertigo-inducing tracking shots during the Witch’s song, Stay With Me, which took attention away from an emoting Meryl Streep; the decision to show the Giant on screen; and the literal interpretation of the song, I Know Things Now, which depicted Little Red being digested by the Wolf in what looked like an esophagus from the Twilight Zone. (more…)

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wild thingsReading Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature was the perfect way to cap off 2014. Written by children’s book bloggers Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta (who passed away shortly before the book was published), it offers an insider’s look at the kidlit world in all its absurdity: scandals! book-banning! in-fighting! In short, it’s about how the adults behind the children’s book industry behave like adults, instead of the angelic, bunny-loving writers that many grown-ups imagine them to be.

“With this book we hope to dispel the romanticized image of children’s literature, held by much of the public, of children’s authors writing dainty, instructive stories with a quill pen in hand and woodland creatures curled up at their feet,” says the Wild Things! authors in chapter one.

Having set the ground rules, Bird et al plunge into the juicy anecdotes: the author who killed her mother with cutlery; the bawdy, sexist book written by the Berenstain Bear series authors; Roald Dahl’s years as a British spy–which involved seducing a congresswoman to influence U.S. foreign policy.

Not all the stories are meant to shock. Some, like the backstory of how Jerry Spinelli got his start in writing, are awkwardly hilarious. Others show missed opportunities–like how an editor’s mistake deprived the world of a Maurice Sendak-illustrated version of J.R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In its best moments, reading Wild Things! is like listening to a master storyteller spin tales about storytelling giants. (more…)

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CallitCourageI’ve given up hope of making good on my goal/bet to read ten consecutive Newbery winning books this year. Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry, brings my grand total to exactly three. The 1941 winner is a familiar title from my childhood, back when I was very much into survival books of the My Side of the Mountain, Julie of the Wolves, and Island of the Blue Dolphins variety. It’s funny how my thoughts on the book have changed since my ten year old self last read it.

Written in the style of a legend, Call It Courage is a coming-of-age story about a Polynesian boy named Mafatu who is afraid of the ocean. Because he and everyone in the village is dependent on the sea, Mafatu gets a lot of grief for his fear. (Although to his defense, as a toddler he almost drown during a massive storm, while his mother, who saved his life, died.) Nevertheless, Mafatu is a source of embarrassment to his father, the chief, and a disgrace to his namesake, Stout Heart. So one day, fed up by the taunts of the other boys his age, Mafatu decides to conquer his fear of the ocean by sailing into the ocean. His plan: to set off for a distant island and live there among strangers until he has proven his bravery, and then return home in glory. Instead, he gets shipwrecked on a cannibalistic island (the cannibals visit periodically) with no food, shelter, weapons, or means of escape. (more…)

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storyofowenI’m not a big fan of dragon books, so I was skeptical when I heard the praise for E.K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim, which got a lot of media buzz last month when it was nominated for the Kirkus Prize (it ultimately lost to Aviary Wonders Inc. by Kate Samworth).

Even the premise sounds nonsensical: the story is set in contemporary Canada, but in an alternate version of history where dragons are real. Dragons, it turns out, are addicted to fossil fuels, so they will attack anything that spews carbon: factories, power plants, oil rigs. After the industrial revolution, dragon populations skyrocketed, and cities employed teams of official dragon slayers to combat the problem, leaving rural, less wealthy areas virtually unprotected.

As bizarre as it sounds, the premise works because the dragons don’t feel forced. Johnson manages to make the dragons a believable force in geopolitics. We get glimpses of their role in World War II, the building of the Suez Canal, the First Gulf War, and the power of corporations to influence public policy. You could interpret them as a metaphor, and they do shine a light on all kinds of real-world problems, from environmental decay to celebrity culture and socioeconomic inequality. But leave that to the Common Core curriculum. I had much more fun admiring how Johnston inserted dragons into everyday activities. Think Driver’s Ed is boring? You might miss the boredom if you had to deal with a lesson on what to do if a dragon goes after your car while you’re driving down a lonely road. (more…)

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thimble summerThe 1939 Newbery Award winner, Thimble Summer, by Elizabeth Enright, is bland in a charming and low-stakes kind of way. It’s still a better book than many of its distinguished predecessors.

When we are first introduced to Garnet Linden, age 9, she is waiting for rain. Her parents are farmers, the crops are wilting, and there are bills to pay. I thought this set the scene for a vintage version of Karen Hesse’s gripping Out of the Dust, but alas, no. A missed opportunity. Garnet and her older brother, Jay, go to beat the heat by the creek, which has the tint and temperature of tea. Garnet finds a thimble in the river bank and declares it is magic. That night, the rain comes.

Now that their troubles are in the past, Garnet goes on to have quaint adventures, including:

  1. getting locked in the town library past hours, which, to her credit, she finds absolutely grand
  2. hitchhiking to the “big” city while all in a funk because she feels overlooked and under-appreciated by her family (Garnet is the middle child.)
  3. raising a prize hog and showing him at the fair
  4. touring all the tame antique rides and attractions at the state fair

To end the book, Garnet concludes that she had such a great summer on account of her lucky thimble. Yay. The End.

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images.duckduckgo.comAn E. L. Konigsburg book about an art museum, an irascible old woman, a kid who wants to discover a secret and a mysterious piece of art? You’d be right if your first guess was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but Mixed-Up Files has a lesser-known twin, written 39 years later: The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World (no one can beat Konigsburg when it comes to titles).

If I had to reduce Mysterious Edge to one sentence, I’d call it Mixed-Up Files with opera and Nazi art history. The art museum in question is the Sheboygan Art Center in Wisconsin, home to a historical exhibit of Degenerate art–artwork that was banned by the Nazi government and deemed too terrible for public consumption. As the museum curator, Peter Vanderwaal, works feverishly on the exhibit, his godson Amadeo Kaplan is contemplating his own art mystery in Florida, where Amadeo has just moved with his mother. Like the Mixed-Up Files’ Claudia, Amadeo wants to discover something: a fossil, a secret, buried treasure. He gets a good shot at his dream when he joins his classmate William in clearing out the estate of Mrs. Zender, who in her opera-singing days was known as Aida Lily Tull. Mrs. Zender hovers over their work with an imperial air, and her old-fashioned manners grate on Amadeo’s nerves, yet he can’t help but feel she’s testing him somehow. When he discovers a mysterious sketch tucked away on a bookshelf, and Mrs. Zender manipulates him into keeping it away from antique dealers–nearly costing him William’s friendship in the process–Amadeo begins to wonder what he’s gotten himself into.  (more…)

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