Month: September 2008

by Ruth Stiles Gannett

Finished reading this book with my kid last night. We both liked it better than the last one, but still not quite as much as My Father\’s Dragon. Still, the story is cute and the illustrations are charming. In The Dragons of Blueland, the baby dragon has just arrived home to discover his family is trapped by a bunch of men who want to put the dragons in a zoo or circus. So he flies back to get Elmer for help. Of course Elmer packs his bag with a bunch of unexplained items. Their usefulness isn\’t revealed until the final escape at the end. It\’s not as clever as the first book, and my daughter\’s favorite part seemed to be re-imagining the story afterwards via the map that covers the endpapers.

My favorite illustration was a double-spread in the middle of the book showing the baby dragon hiding in a steam shovel. The only other place my daughter has ever seen such a thing is in the pages of Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. I thought it was nice that she encountered this archaic piece of machinery again, and already knew what it was. It was curious to me how the names of the characters shifted through the three different books. In the first title, the boy is always referred to as \”my father\” even though we know his name is Elmer. I thought this might be confusing to a child, to have a little boy constantly called \”father\” in the story. In the second book, he\’s always called Elmer, but his companion is still just \”the baby dragon\”. The last book revels the dragon\’s name: Boris, and that he found his name embarassing, so never told it. But he\’s still called \”the baby dragon\” most of the time.

Rating: 3/5                       88 pages, 1951

by Ruthanne Lum McCunn

In 1871 a famine swept China, and an impoverished peasant sold his young daughter into slavery. Lalu went through the hands of many abusive owners in China, then was shipped to America where she ended up sold at auction to be the slave of a Chinese saloon-keeper in California. He treated her terribly. Polly (as she was renamed in America) suffered for years under his ownership but never gave up hope of improving her situation. Eventually she was used as transaction in a gambling bet and won by a new owner, a white man called Charlie. A much kinder man, he bought Polly her freedom and together they ran a boarding house. Slowly their partnership developed into a romance, which was quite controversial back then- racism is also part of this story. Polly finally found some happiness in marriage to Charlie, but even then her trials and heartaches were not over….

Thousand Pieces of Gold is full of interesting history, especially depicting how poorly Chinese immigrants were treated on the western frontier. Unfortunately, it\’s not very well-written. Despite the turmoil of events it chronicles (which are based on a true story) and oppressive situations Polly lives through, the book did little to touch my emotions. It\’s just not very memorable. I would recommend it if you\’re really interested in learning more about Chinese Americans in the 1800\’s. But as far as inspirational stories about women overcoming adversity, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Rating: 2/5                      338 pages, 2002

by Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard
translated by George Humphry

In the late 1700\’s, a young boy was seen running naked in the forest near a French village. He was captured and given into the care of a widow, then escaped and survived the winter alone in the forest before being caught a second time. The villagers reported having seen a naked child in the woods some five years earlier, so many of them believed the boy had been living in the wild all that time. Some physicians from Paris examined him and decided he was not really a feral child, but simply mentally handicapped. Itard, a young medical doctor, undertook to \”civilize\” Victor and educate him. The Wild Boy of Aveyron is Itard\’s firsthand account of his attempts. It details all the painstaking methods Itard invented to try and help Victor. Most of it appears to have failed- Victor never learned to speak more than a few words, and even as an adult still behaved in many ways more like an animal than a human being. Yet Itard\’s work was a breakthrough in terms of how mentally handicapped children were treated, and some of his work became (as far as I understand) the foundation of modern sign language.

At the time of his discovery, people were fascinated by Victor because they thought by studying his case they could determine what divided humans from animals- what aspects were learned human behavior, or innate human nature. In the wake of The Wild Boy of Aveyron came many publications studying accounts of feral children thought to have been raised by wolves or other wild animals. The subject fascinated me, and I read half a dozen of them in 2004 (all to be featured here eventually).

Rating: 3/5 …….. 102 pages, 1894

more opinions:
Shelf Love

A Celebration of Birth
by Carroll Dunham

One of the books I read when pregnant with my daughter (she\’s now three). Mamatoto is a collection of cultural practices and beliefs surrounding pregnancy and birth. It\’s full of art, poetry, fables and stories from all around the world. Some of the content is humorous, most of it is encouraging, giving advice, or just showing how different cultures view the process of birth. The art and photographs are lovely. I remember when reading it being astonished at some of the folklore, and wish I had a copy in hand to share examples with you, but my local library doesn\’t have it. This is a beautiful book, wonderful for any new or expecting mother.

Rating: 4/5                     176 pages, 1992

by Stanley Kiesel

I don\’t recall how I first found this book, but I read it when I was a teen and enjoyed it, even though it\’s written for a younger age group. The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids is about a student rebellion in a public grade school. Led by a skinny, nerdy boy who unites all the different groups of students in sabotage against their teachers and the evil principal who wants to force them all into conformity. Eventually events escalate into outright warfare. This book is pretty funny, and at the same time makes some good points about friendship, loyalty, and the value of individuality- even if it\’s all very exaggerated. There\’s a matronly janitor who acts as mentor and spy, a wild girl who will eat anything, and of course, the bookworms. They don\’t want to have anything to do with the war, just sit in peace in their hidey-holes (sewer tunnels under the school), read and swap books! I think my favorite part was reading about the titles they traded and coveted. Eventually they\’re convinced to join in the rebellion as well. I had to search long and hard to find the sequel, Skinny Malinky Leads the War for Kidness, but it wasn\’t half as good as The War and I can\’t even remember much about it now.

Rating: 3/5 …….. 214 pages, 1980

by Ruth Stiles Gannett

This book isn\’t nearly as charming as My Father\’s Dragon, the first in its small series. Elmer and the Dragon picks up the story immediately where the last book left off, with Elmer and the rescued baby dragon flying away from Wild Island. The dragon is trying to take Elmer home, but they get delayed by a storm and end up on an island populated solely by canaries. The canaries are suffering from \”a terrible disease of curiosity,\” so Elmer and the dragon stay to help them out, get rewarded nicely, and then head on home. Cute, but the whole curiosity thing was rather lame. Even my daughter was not very into it this time. She didn\’t mind if we skipped reading it for a few days, and after looking at the pictures so often, told me she\’d already \”read the last chapter\” and didn\’t even want me to finish the book! Too eager to move on to \”the blue dragon book\”. Each copy of the trio has a different colored spine: red, yellow and blue for the last one, The Dragons of Blueland.

Rating: 2/5                     87 pages, 1950

from Booking Through Thursday:

What was the most unusual (for you) book you ever read? Either because the book itself was completely from out in left field somewhere, or was a genre you never read… what was furthest outside your usual comfort zone/familiar territory?

The book furthest from my familiar territory was probably The Reincarnationist, by M. J. Rose. I just don\’t usually read suspense novels, mysteries or thrillers (this one seemed to have elements of all three) and I certainly found out that the hunch I always had of disliking these kinds of books was true. I did not enjoy it. The writing style, the pace of the story, anything. I had to force myself to finish it. Put it aside with relief, and I doubt I will be convinced to read a similar book in a long, long time.

The absolutely strangest book I\’ve ever picked up was Pincher Martin by William Golding. In high school Lord of the Flies was required reading, and I liked it so much I always wanted to try more of Golding\’s works. I\’d never heard of Pincher Martin before, but found a paperback copy at the Book Thing one day. It\’s a book about a man stranded on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. There\’s nothing to eat, no fresh water, no shelter. For pages and pages he struggles to survive on the spray-soaked rocks, his body ravaged by the elements, starvation and sickness. The description of the landscape and Martin\’s actions was so weird most of the time I could not tell what was going on. It got so confusing I skipped the middle and read the end, to figure out what happened. That did not make any sense either. So really I don\’t know if this one counts; I did not understand the book, and did not read the entire thing. It was really bizarre. Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

Caroline Hebard & Her Search-And-Rescue Dogs
by Hank Whittemore

So That Others May Live is the inspiring story of a woman who trained and worked with search-and-rescue dogs, particularly two german shepherds. The book describes how she became interested in doing search-and-rescue, how she acquired her dogs, methods of working with them, several missions to disaster sites (earthquakes and the Oklahoma City bombing) and her pioneering work in organizing rescue teams. It also talks about the psychological trauma of her work, especially how the search for dead victims was difficult for both her and the dogs. While the main focus is on rescue efforts at disaster sites, she also used the dogs to help search for missing persons and criminals; this is discussed briefly. The writing style of this book is pretty simple, so it\’s a quick read, one that will warm the heart of a dog-lover or those interested in similar types of volunteer rescue work.

Rating: 3/5                       295 pages, 1995

by Orson Scott Card

This is one of those books packed with a complex story and thought-provoking ideas. Yet at the same time it really disappointed me, and I just cannot love it the way I did Ender’s Game. In Speaker for the Dead, thousands of years have passed since Ender nearly obliterated the alien Buggers, causing his name to be vilified by the universe for killing an entire race. Now mankind has discovered another form of alien life, and they don’t want to repeat the same mistake. Contact is strictly guarded, so many restrictions its nearly ludicrous. Life on the new planet is complicated further by the presence of a deadly disease, the secrets of its pathology deliberately hidden by those who found its cure. Members of the scientist family involved summon a Speaker for the Dead to reveal the true desires and motivations of their dead father in a public ceremony- not knowing that the Speaker is Ender himself, who by some quirks of space travel has skipped over the centuries while only ageing minimally. Ender has his own motivations for coming to this planet- to redeem what he did to the Buggers by facilitating understanding between humans and the new aliens, and finding a place where the Bugger hive queen can come back to life.

It’s a great story, fraught with moral and religious dilemmas and showing how vast misunderstandings can be, not only between the obvious alien races, but between people of the same community and family. The problem for me was that it covered so great a scope of time- and several generations- that I felt like I was just observing all the characters from a distance (rather like in Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang) and couldn’t get close to any of them. Even the passages describing Ender’s inner conflict and emotional moments left me unmoved. What really motivated me to get through the book was curiosity about the alien race, but there was far too little information about them. In fact, there was very little description at all, of the setting, the characters, or anything else. This is a story almost totally expressed in dialog and heated conversations, quite the opposite from the last book I read (which was a stream-of-consciousness monologue inside a teenager’s head). So even though I think Speaker for the Dead is a good book for the questions it raises, and heavy moral quandaries it wrestles with, in comparison to Ender’s Game it really fell flat for me. It’s great for analyzing and arguing over with your spouse (we read it at about the same time), but not a book with characters who feel like friends I’d want to visit again.


Rating: 3/5
382 pages, 1986

by Keith Miller

This gently moving story speaks in poetic language, each chapter a quiet vignette of its own. Set in an entirely imagined land, a world inhabited by fantastic beasts as well as men, where half the people have wings and can fly. The winged people and the earthbound don\’t really mix. Pico, lonely poet and librarian in his little town, was born wingless, but he loves a girl who has them. So he sets off on a journey to a fabled city where supposedly there\’s a book that can teach him to gain wings and fly.

I had high hopes for The Book of Flying. The dreamlike setting and events, the beautiful language. The wandering poet who must travel the world. It feels like one long, elaborate parable. But two things failed me. I was unable to feel anything for Pico. He seemed such a gentle, almost innocent person I really wanted to like him. Yet although chasing a dream for the love of a girl evidences some passion, his actions appeared so passive; besides a token vocal protest, he never resisted (at least as far as I got) when others forced him to do things against his character. After fifty pages I just didn\’t care enough about him to continue. And the sensual parts of the story bothered me (again, because of how Pico responds to them). Yet the setting and events are so imaginative the pages still tug my curiosity, so I\’m setting this one aside, perhaps to return to later. Maybe I just wasn\’t in right mindset for it.

I first heard of this book on Chris\’ fantastic blog, Stuff As Dreams Are Made On. It\’s in such short supply I feel lucky to have acquired a copy from Paperback Swap, so I\’m not going to let go of mine soon, even though it failed to enthrall me on the first reading attempt.

Abandoned                 272 pages, 2004


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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