November Reading Round-Up

I haven’t had much time to do reviews lately, so I’m going to gather up a few short reviews for books I’ve read since finishing the last book I reviewed, Sourdough Culture. I re-read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad as I was teaching both books this month. I tried something I have never done before I listened to both books as I took my daily walks at 1.3x speed. I found I was able to keep up and get through the readings more quickly. I’m not sure it would work with books I’ve never read before, but it was a great timesaver for re-reading books I needed to read for work.

I also re-read Frankenstein along with Michael Ian Black’s podcast Obscure. It was interesting, as Michael pointed out some of the book’s flaws, and I have to admit I hadn’t noticed these storytelling issues in the past, largely, I believe, as a result of English teacher conditioning. I’d be the first to admit not all classics are great, but it was interesting to read this book along with someone who didn’t like it.

November Reading Round-UpThe 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson, Nikkolas Smith
Published by Kokila ISBN: 0593307356
on November 16, 2021
Genres: Childrens
Pages: 48
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
five-stars

The 1619 Project’s lyrical picture book in verse chronicles the consequences of slavery and the history of Black resistance in the United States, thoughtfully rendered by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and Newbery honor-winning author Renée Watson. A young student receives a family tree assignment in school, but she can only trace back three generations. Grandma gathers the whole family, and the student learns that 400 years ago, in 1619, their ancestors were stolen and brought to America by white slave traders. But before that, they had a home, a land, a language. She learns how the people said to be born on the water survived.

This book was outstanding. I often purchase children’s books for classroom use even though I teach high school because if you can explain a topic to a child, pretty much anyone can understand it. Over the last five years or so, in particular, children’s publishing has made a much greater effort to incorporate books about children of color by authors of color. They still have a way to go, but it’s important for all children to see themselves in books, and it’s also important for all children to learn about people who are different from them. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop developed the term “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” to explain this concept. The sliding glass doors are an invitation to enter, to go inside. I was able to attend a keynote at a recent English teacher’s conference in which the author Nikole Hannah-Jones and illustrator Nikkolas Smith discussed the making of this book, and it was fascinating to hear about the way Smith developed the artwork, which is gorgeous. What I love most about this book is the counternarrative it offers to a colonist’s perspective that an indigenous culture had no culture. Naturally, this is never true, but it’s a lie that is often told to justify treating people as less than human. This would be a great gift for any child’s library, and it should also be in every school and classroom library.

November Reading Round-UpGrace: Based on the Jeff Buckley Story by Tiffanie DeBartolo, Pascal Dizin
Published by First Second ISBN: 159643287X
on April 28, 2019
Genres: Biography
Pages: 160
Format: Paperback
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
three-stars

A moving graphic biography for music lovers, Grace: The Jeff Buckley Story is painstakingly researched and created in collaboration with Jeff Buckley's estate.

California, 1991. All his life, people have told Jeff Buckley how much he looks like his father, the famous ’60s folksinger he barely knew. But Jeff believes he has gifts of his own: a rare, octave-spanning voice and a songwriting genius that has only started to show itself. After he falls in love with a mysterious girl in New York, he sets out to make a name for himself outside his father’s shadow. What follows are six turbulent years of music, heartbreak, hope, and daring—culminating in a tragedy that’s still reverberating in the music world today. Written by Tiffanie DeBartolo and with art by Pascal Dizin and Lisa Reist, this graphic novel biography uses archival material provided by Jeff’s mother, Mary Guibert, to reveal the young songwriter in the process of becoming a legend.

This book was okay. Let me start by saying that I’m a huge fan of Jeff Buckley’s, and I have been for a long time. I recently went to see a touring production of Hadestown with my husband, and once my husband pointed out that Orpheus was giving off Jeff Buckley vibes, I couldn’t unsee it. I listened to the off-Broadway production and discovered that Damon Daunno pretty much sounds just like Jeff Buckley.

And he even resembles him a bit. Broadway performer Reeve Carney has been tapped to play Jeff Buckley in a film production based on the artist’s life. I remembered I had this graphic biography on my wishlist, so I went ahead and purchased it. I was a bit disappointed. I felt that at times, the story was not treated with seriousness, especially as depicted by the artist. I really didn’t care for the art; the cover led me to believe I’d be seeing something different inside the book, and while some of the art was fantastic, most of it was too cartoony. The story sort of peters out after Buckley records Grace, and I don’t think enough of his story was really included. This was sort of the Wikipedia version of his biography. The book also seems to imply that Buckley committed suicide, which is a rumor that has been given no credit by anyone who knew him. I would advise Buckley fans to avoid this book and look elsewhere for a good biography.

November Reading Round-UpWe Are Still Here!: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know by Traci Sorell, Frané Lessac
Published by Charlesbridge Publishing ISBN: 1623541921
on April 20, 2021
Genres: Childrens
Pages: 40
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
five-stars

Twelve Native American kids present historical and contemporary laws, policies, struggles, and victories in Native life, each with a powerful refrain: We are still here! Too often, Native American history is treated as a finished chapter instead of relevant and ongoing. This companion book to the award-winning We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga offers readers everything they never learned in school about Native American people's past, present, and future. Precise, lyrical writing presents topics including: forced assimilation (such as boarding schools), land allotment and Native tribal reorganization, termination (the US government not recognizing tribes as nations), Native urban relocation (from reservations), self-determination (tribal self-empowerment), Native civil rights, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), religious freedom, economic development (including casino development), Native language revival efforts, cultural persistence, and nationhood.

This was another classroom library purchase, and I think it explains very succinctly what issues indigenous people have experienced with settler colonialism in the USA. I was not surprised to learn one of the sources for the information was David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. I learned much of the information covered in this children’s book from Treuer’s book. However, as I said before, if you can explain it to a child, you can explain it to anyone. One of the reviewers on Goodreads complained this would not make a great read-aloud for children, and I would say I agree with that assessment. It’s more of an information text for people of all ages who want to learn about the issues the book discusses.

November Reading Round-UpChange Sings: a Children's Anthem by Amanda Gorman, Loren Long
Published by Viking Books for Young Readers ISBN: 0593203224
on September 21, 2021
Genres: Childrens
Pages: 32
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
five-stars

A lyrical picture book debut from Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman and illustrator Loren Long. “I can hear change humming/ In its loudest, proudest song. / I don’t fear change coming, / And so I sing along.” In this stirring, much-anticipated picture book by inaugural Youth Poet Laureate and activist Amanda Gorman, anything is possible when our voices join together. As a young girl leads a cast of characters on a musical journey, they learn that they have the power to make changes—big or small—in the world, in their communities, and in most importantly, in themselves.

In contrast to the previous book, this book was made for read-alouds, and it’s no wonder, as Amanda Gorman is a brilliant young poet. This book’s catchy language will appeal to people of all ages, as well. I would highly recommend it to anyone thinking of gifts for children, especially. I’m not sure if it has a place in my classroom library, as it doesn’t focus on a single issue, though the artwork makes it clear the book is about community organization. I think that’s what would make the book appealing to children, however. It’s a beautifully written and beautifully illustrated book.

Update 12/2: I have removed the name of one of the illustrators of Grace by request. I retrieve all metadata on books from Goodreads.

Reading Update: Wolfe and Lovelace

Major-General James Wolfe
Major General James Wolfe
I am in the reign of George III in Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of Britain, and I read a wonderful story that I plan to share with my students next week when we read Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” During the French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War), General James Wolfe took Quebec in 1759. Wolfe had been ill with consumption and forced to spend a great deal of time in his tent. Things looked bleak for the English serving under the dying general. As the summer waned, the troops became fearful they’d have to put off their assault on Quebec until after the winter. Wolfe tried, ineffectively, to lead from his tent, but none of his plans seemed to budge the French from their position. Wolfe’s consumption went into remission, and he hatched a crazy plan.

 

At dead of night, Wolfe led the the 5,000 British and American soldiers with blackened faces silently downriver in rowing boats till they were opposite the Heights of Abraham. As he was borne along the treacherous river whose rocks and shoals made it a hazard to all but Quebeçois, Wolfe softly read out his favourite poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray, published only a few years before, a copy of which his fiancée had just sent out to him from England. His thin face, touched by moonlight, seemed to wear a beatific expression as he murmured the sonorous words whose Romantic, melancholic spirit echoed his own. As the mysterious cliffs loomed up ahead and the men rested on their muffled oars, Wolfe closed the book. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I had rather have written that poem than take Quebec.’ But then he leaped overboard, into the swirling St Lawrence, and ran ahead of them until his was only one of the many tiny figures on the vast cliff face pulling themselves up by ropes.

When dawn rose over Quebec Montcalm [the French commander] awoke to see on the plain behind him, above the cliffs said to be unclimbable, row after row of British redcoats. They were in battle array and far outnumbered the French, whose sentries’ mangled bodies bestrewed the cliffs or floated in the river below. It was a breathtaking, almost impossible, feat, to have put thousands of men on top of a cliff overnight, but Wolfe had done it.

Wow. The French and Indian War doesn’t get much press in American history classrooms, likely because it’s overshadowed by the American Revolution 20 years later, but this is the kind of story that makes history fascinating to me. Wolfe and Montcalm both died in the battle. George II commissioned a painting by Benjamin West to commemorate Wolfe’s death:

The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West
The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West

The result of this battle was that the British wrested control of North America from the French. While the French still controlled Louisiana, the British were no longer inhibited from expanding westward.

The other book I’m reading is a combination of two of my main interests: reading and technology. Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley is part detective story, part Romantic novel. The premise is that Byron really did write a novel in the famous gothic storytelling contest at Villa Diodati in Switzerland, the result of which was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s The Vampyre, which would later inspire Bram Stoker. The two major poets in the group, Byron and Percy Shelley, didn’t produce much of note. Crowley’s Byron did, but it was suppressed by Lady Byron. Smith, who works on a website celebrating women’s accomplishments, is on the trail of Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter, and she thinks that Lovelace might just have saved her father’s novel by encoding it. Lovelace is famous for writing what many believe is the first computer program for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, a device which if built, might have become the first computer. It was Lovelace who saw the device’s potential. The computer language Ada is named for her.

So yes, I’m doing some fascinating reading. What are you reading?