Friday, June 1, 2018

Literary Birthday Book Reviews for June

I must remind readers that these monthly reviews are based on books randomly selected off two ultimate reading lists: 1001 Children's Books to Read Before You Grow Up and 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. First books from each list were sorted by author's birthday. Then sub lists are sorted randomly online. Surprisingly the authors and books selected this month complement each other very well. Both authors are from Germany, both have WWII stories, and both of their chosen books are part of a trilogy!

Our children's author, Judith Kerr, celebrates her birthday on June 14, 1923, and at the age of 95 is still writing and illustrating books! Her latest children's book, Mister Cleghorn’s Seal, was published in 2015. She is known for her series of books about a cat named Mog. Mog is a tabby cat who gets into all sorts of situations and even starred in a Sainsbury Christmas video, where Kerr herself makes a cameo appearance. As a “mother” of two tabby cats, these books will definitely be added to my ever-growing “to-read list.” 

Kerr's autobiographical story, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (Out of the Hitler Time #1), is chosen to be featured this month. She won The Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis (German Youth Literature Prize) for this book in 1974. An annual award, established in 1956 by the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth to recognize outstanding works of children's literature. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit tells the story of Anna and her family who must flee Germany when Hitler takes office. Like her character, the author and her family left Germany in 1933 to escape Nazism, and ultimately end up in England. As in the story, Anna's father resembles Kerr's father: both were writers and had their books and literature burned by Nazis. The story gives readers a look at wartime from a child's perspective and of challenges faced when migrating to a new country. Anna and her brother Max experience racism as German-Jews and must learn to speak a new language. The title gets its name from Kerr's own thoughts about leaving behind a beloved childhood toy, as her family makes their escape. Since they had to move fast and travel light, she was only allowed to take one toy with her. Choosing what to take was a difficult decision.

From an interview in UK's Mirror magazine Kerr shares the title's backstory: As they fled Judith left behind her favorite toy, a battered pink bunny...

“I loved Pink Rabbit. She got quite worn and my brother played football with her! Her eyes fell off so Heimpi, who looked after us, embroidered new eyes. When we left I was allowed to take one toy but I took a stupid little dog instead because it was new. I always blamed myself for leaving her behind. Oh, I did miss her. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for my parents. They hoped they would be able to return or send for things. But it was all taken by the Nazis.” 

This reminds me of my 34-year-old son's favorite stuffed bunny, black and white Bo Ratty. Bo Ratty was given to him by his grandmother one Easter when he was a toddler, earning its name because bunny rabbit was too hard for him to then pronounce. The name actually fits now, since his childhood toy has become somewhat “ratty” over the years. Our family went through many moves with children, in search of affordable housing and job opportunities. Somehow Bo Ratty is still with my son today. It made sentimental feelings for Pink Rabbit more vivid, as I read about how Anna imagined Hitler playing with her beloved toy, and later found out how much that childhood toy meant to the author.

I loved the story of this family's adventures. Through hard times they remained brave and their strong love kept them together. I think this is a hopeful story that children and families starting a new life in a new country can relate too. It also made me aware of the many struggles our own country's immigrants face. Recommended for ages 8+ 

Wolfgang Koeppen (June 23, 1906 – March 15, 1996), was a German novelist best known for his postwar period series, Trilogy of Failure.  In 1962, Koeppen won the Buchner Prize, Germany’s most prestigious award. The second book in this series, Das Treibhaus, was published in 1953, but gained national recognition in 2001 when translated to English as The Hothouse by Michael Hofmann in 2001.  The translated edition was named a Notable Book by the New York Times and one of the Best Books of the Year by the Los Angeles Times.

When reading the book's introduction, I fell in love with this writer before even starting a word of the story to follow. It was his responses to several interview questions that had me. When asked what the crucial event of his life was, his reply was “learning to read.” Another time he was asked how he'd like to die ... a morbid question I thought. Yet when reading his answer was “in bed with a book,” I thought exactly! Koeppen also was noted as saying “It is perhaps my only boast, not to have served in Hitler's armies for a single hour.” 

The Hothouse is set in the capital of postwar Germany, the city of Bonn and takes place over a period of two days. Readers will follow thoughts and actions of Keentenheuve, a member of parliament. He has recently returned to his homeland, having been away in England for several years to avoid Nazism. Keentenheuve is a brooding character and wants to work at restoring his beloved county, but isn't sure he can trust his colleagues who each represent different factions. Haunted by their country's involvement in WWII, and the atrocities served by German government, everyone seems to have mistrust, guilt, and a jaded sense of reality.

In the book’s opening chapter Keentenheuve is introduced as a grieving widower. His much younger wife, Elke, has tragically succumbed to an alcohol / drug overdose. This sets a sad tone that stays with the story, as emotions can't improve greatly in just two days. Keentenheuve feels responsible; for neglecting his wife. He has spent too many nights at his government apartment, leaving Elke alone to find company with the wrong crowd.

The writing style of Koeppen is very descriptive, lyrical, and somewhat complex, with sometimes paragraph-long sentences. I also discovered new (sometimes forgotten) words that increased my range of vocabulary. For instance, another way of saying something is odd … can be referred to as something “droll.” Lexicons would love this book, and because of its poetic style, it is very beautiful when read aloud.

Here’s an example of Koeppen’s style and also marks his character's feeling of despair quite well … “He had attended committee meetings, he had spoken in parliament, he had revised legislation, he didn’t understand it, he could have stayed at Elke’s side, stayed on the side of youth, and perhaps, if he hadn’t done everything wrong, it might have been on the side of life as well. One human being was enough to give meaning to life. Work wasn’t enough. Politics weren’t enough. Those things didn’t protect him from the colossal futility of existence. It was a mild futility. It didn’t hurt. It didn’t stretch out long ghost arms to catch at the MP. It didn’t throttle him. It was just there. And it remained. Futility had shown itself to him, it had introduced itself to him, and now his eyes were open, now he could see it everywhere, and it would never disappear, it would never become invisible to him.”

I shared this book with Gerhardt and Johanna from Ashe County’s German Club to get their take on the story. They both agreed that the rambling, and yes sometimes repetetive wording, can be a bit much at times. Maybe something was lost in translation and reading it in its original language would have been more enjoyable for them. Although, others in our book group savored the lyrical phrasing, which often took on stream of consciousness, roll-and-flow-like thoughts. Koeppen lets readers ‘become’ his character with this technique. As always book club fare highlights food mentioned in the story. With this book there were sugared almonds, potato cakes, fizzy lemonade, and Cheryl's delicious version of Beef Steak Esterhazy. I discovered when researching the name Esterhazy, (belonging to a German political family), that it is often descriptive of foods including scorched onions. Karin, another member of the German club, introduced us to stollen, a German fruit bread often served at Christmas … perfect since this story takes place during the holiday season! Reading this book was a cultural experience for me that increased my knowledge in so many areas. If you decide to read this book I recommend digesting it slowly so as not to “choke” on unfamiliar words or miss out on Koeppen's descriptive detail.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Summer Fun = Summer Reading and Other Library Activities!

Ashe County Public Library has something for everyone, and we're not just talking about books. Although to begin with, I will mention that books are the perfect vehicle for transporting yourself to another place (or time) if you can't afford a get-away vacation. In a recent online book club poll, members were asked where they would be physically, based on the book they were currently reading. At the time I “was” in Munich, Germany and replies from others touched on all corners of the world and everywhere in between.

During the summer months, our youth services department has many activities to keep children reading. There will be lots of hand-on programs and special events that include: music, art, science experiments, storytelling and magic. Some programs require pre-registration, but this year for big events, FREE tickets will be made available thirty minutes before programs begin. Be sure to check the library's website calendar and save-the-dates for these activities. Even though school is out for break, it is important to keep reading and exploring through books. Children are encouraged to read with incentives for special events and prizes. But the best thing about reading during the summer is to keep your brain active and retain skills and knowledge.

Even for adults, throughout life, the habit of learning is something one should make a regular practice. The benefits of life-long learning are many, but primarily these can be accounted for in three categories. The greatest benefits help with coping in a fast-changing world, greater paychecks with increased job opportunities, most of all learning and reading will add enjoyment and fulfillment to your life.
I'd also like to point out that play is a big part of learning, especially when interacting with others. This builds social skills and imagination. As mentioned, you can find more than just books at the library, there are unique check-out materials available that add to the experiences of learning and playing. Such as, ukeleles available to borrow for discovering a hidden musical talent and newly added gym bags with balls, jump ropes, frisbees, etc … for park fun. Be sure to make Ashe County Public Library a top destination place when planning your summer. We look forward to seeing you there!

Dates to remember in June: 
 Children’s Programs
  • Friday Frolic every week at 10:30 a.m. for Pre-Ks: June 1 – I is for Imagination, June 8 – Music and Ranger Joe, June 15 – Bubbles, June 22 – Surprise!
  • Hands on Regional Museum visits at 10:30 a.m. with Boomwhackers. Discover some of the smallest bones in the body – the ones in our ears! Come out and play a song on palmpipes and listen to crystal water glasses. *Registration required. 
  • North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences presents the Sounds of Nature at 10:30 a.m. on June 28. * Registration required.
  • Turchin Art Center visits at 11:00 a.m. on June 29 (for ages 3-6). Join us for art and a story! *Registration required.

NEW This Summer - pick up a (FREE) ticket at the library for these programs 30 min. before start time.
  • See Caleb Sigmon LIVE! and hear a spectaccular story told by a fantastic illusionist (for ages 6-12) at 10:30 a.m. on June 12.
  • ScienceTellers share “The Mystery of the Gold Piano” (for ages birth – 12) at 10:30 a.m. on June 19. Don't miss this wild west story, told with science experiments!
  • Almost Amazing Al” performs an (always) amazing magic show at 10:30 a.m. on June 21 (for ages birth-9)
Tween Programs
  • STEM for Tweens - Join us in all the fun of experiments that can go wrong at 3:00 p.m. on June 14. *Registration required.
  • Turchin Art Center visits at 4:00 p.m. on June 28. Join us for art and a story! *Registration required.
  • Comic & Anime Club meets at 3:00 on June 1, 15, and 29 for ages 10 – 18. Explore the artistic style and creations of Comic Books, Anime, and Mangas.
Teen Programs
  • T for Teen – Gamers Unite! Meet-up at 4:00 p.m. on June 5. Xbox360 and laptops available for teen gaming.
  • Board Game Café is open at 4:00 p.m. on June 12. Play a variety of board games and enjoy coffee and sweet treats.
  • The Teen Creative Corner meets at 4:00 p.m. on June 19. Join us for a wide range of creative crafts and projects.
  • TLC (Teen Listening Council) is a safe place for teens to talk openly about any subject. Drop in at 4:00 p.m. on June 26.
Adult Programs
  • For all your tech troubles, book and appointment with our friendly reference librarians.  Call 336.846.2041 x227.  Free computer classes are offered on a variety of topics every Tuesday.
  • Yoga Club meets in the library’s downstairs meeting room at 5:30 p.m. on Mondays.
  • Drop in for support on your PhD (Projects half-Done) at 10:00 a.m. on June 2. Find new ways to stay motivated to achieve your goals throughout the year!
All Ages
  • Read & Craft meets at 10 a.m.  on June 16. Travel the world with a hook in one hand and a ball of yarn in the other. This month we celebrate America with patriotic crafts.  Instruction available for beginners and project materials are provided.
  • The Community Drum Circle meets at 5:30 p.m. on June 14 and 28.  Join the celebration of drums, while exploring the soul and spirit of music!
  • Mountain Music Slow Jam will meet from 3:00-5:00 p.m. on June 2 and 16 in the downstairs meeting room. Songs are explained as to timing, breaks, etc… and played in slow time.  Designed for beginners, all skill levels are welcome.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Literary Birthday Book Reviews for May

Coincidentally, The Literary Birthday Book Reviews for May are spotlighting two male British authors who live in London; Graham Swift, author of Waterland, celebrating a  birthday on  May 4 and Michael Rosen, well-loved children's poet celebrating on May 7.  

Born on May 4, 1949, Swift published his semi-autobiographical novel Waterland in 1983, winning the Guardian Fiction Prize. The story's main part takes place in the Fens, the lowest land in the United Kingdom.  This coastal area, consisting of fresh- or salt-water wetlands, is a major agricultural source for grains and vegetables. The land here is particularly fertile with its nutrient-rich shallow water, mineral-based silt deposits, clay and peat.  Reading this book triggered interest about the landscape and history of its civilizations.  It makes sense why early settlements took to this soggy environment, considering the natural barrier it provided against foreign invasion.  The Fens were a place of refuge for monasteries, now cathedrals, and are referred to as “The Holy Land of the English.” 

In the past, windmill pumps assisted in the job of building drainage banks, but in the 1940s when this story begins, diesel-powered pumps and electric stations are employed for continuous reclamation of the land.  With this setting in mind, imagine how teenagers, living in this isolated region, might have spent their free time.  And imagine what purpose an abandoned windmill might play when sexual curiosities develop.  Tom Crick, a high school history teacher, is the central character and narrator of Waterland.  He describes the Fens as a magical place; like a fairy tale. On second thought, maybe I shouldn't say this story begins during post-war times.  In fact, to tell it properly Tom goes back several generations, tying in historical references from the French Revolution to Heraclitus of Ephesus. 

This book would appeal to those who like literary fiction. For readers not inclined to digest a saga spanning decades, there is a film based on this novel, starring Ethan Hawke, Sinéad Cusak, and Jeremy Irons. When we gathered to watch the film, my book club friends had mixed feelings, but everyone agreed Waterland is a strange story. It was also noted, that this story covers a number of depressing topics, beginning with murder, followed by suicide, incest, abortion, and kidnapping. That's a lot of fear and guilt! Refreshments served to enhance our discussion included: fried eel, pickled herring, salt and vinegar chips, crackers, and 'ale.'  The reference to ale comes from the family's history in the ale-making business. There is also mention of various ways to cook and eat eel, and even a whole chapter about the biology of eels. Some of us loved the eel, while among others, I politely declined this delicacy.  
Another major character is Tom's mentally challenged brother who spends a good amount of time riding or working on his Velocette motorcycle.  This bike probably has some sort of symbolic meaning, since motorcycle is the last word in this book.  Also near the end of the story, Tom's wife Mary is unraveling and becoming hyper-religious.  But most magical of all, (totally unplanned) when meeting my friend Cheryl for coffee (at A's Backstreet Café) to share thoughts about Swift's book … this is what we saw sitting next to us, as a table ornament! 

Michael Rosen, born May 7, 1946, is a bestselling author of picture books and poetry. He was the Children's Laureate in the UK for 2007-2009, and winner of the Eleanor Farjeon Award.  Rosen has a YouTube channel where he recites his poetry and tells stories.  Believe me it is worth checking this out. Very entertaining! He mentions on his website that he is currently writing a rhyming picture book for Scholastic.

“I can’t say much about it yet – top secret! – but it’s about a dog. Well not actually ‘about’ a dog – more, ‘by’ a dog. OK, I realize a dog didn’t write it, but you get what I mean! Anyway, I’m still working on it. I mean, the dog’s still working on it.”

In honor of National Poetry Month, a special reading was held at the library in April.  Maureen Dintino and her little dog Roxy stopped in to read aloud Poems for the Very Young, an anthology collected by Rosen.  There are traditional verses, nonsense rhymes, and poems by Jack Prelutsky, Stevie Smith, A.A. Milne, Eve Merriam, Margaret Mahy, Michael Rosen, and many more in this collection.  Some poems are even authored by children. 

One anonymous poem, “Man Fat,” was the favorite of young reader, Alena Dodd.  The illustrations (by, Bob Graham) contribute greatly to each poem’s presentation. For instance, Man fat / Top hat / Fell flat/ Squashed hat … showed a rather large man lying across the bottom of a two-page spread. Next to the flat-on-his-back man was a flat-as-a-pancake hat.  It is the sound of words, rhyming and repeating, that makes them so appealing to listeners and readers. 

Maureen even discovered a poem that she uses all the time on her husband, Tom. And she didn’t even know it was a poem! “Go to bed Tom,” is in fact an English nursery rhyme.  As for Maureen, she uses this phrase fairly often when Tom falls asleep in front of the TV at night.  She used a loud, annoyed tone of voice when reading this poem.  With hilarious hind-sight, we later discovered that this rhyme has a very sweet melody.  

Roxy enjoyed all kinds of attention from the children at her debut poetry reading.  She brought along “magic rocks” (crystals) to give everyone who attended the event.   She is also looking forward to reading Rosen’s new “dog book,” once it is published. This collection, although targeting the very young, is fun for adults too. Especially when reading aloud with children!