Friday, August 31, 2007

Big Sky Country...

Holy Cow, all I want to do is read some books about a British ballet dancer. Why is this so hard? When last we chatted, I had purchased Drina books 1-6, and ILLed 7-11. I recieved emails letting me know that all but the last one, Drina Ballerina, were in. So, before class I went to the library to pick them up...

They've all come from Trinity College in Dublin (?!) which has a "library use only" restriction on all of them!!!!! ARGH!!!!

Anyway, here's a poem. According to My Classical Chinese Book, it's a Tibetan Folk Song. The translation is by yours truly.

Qile River,
Flowing under Yin mountain,
Heaven seems like a yurt,
A basket canopy over the wild prarie.
The sky is azure.
The land is vast and vague.
The wind blows through the grass, bending down to show our cows and sheep.

I hadn't thought about this in years until I read the following passage in The Long March: The True History of Communist China's Founding Myth by Sun Shuyun, which I reviewed here.

The book is quoting Sangluo, a foot soldier on the Long March who stayed in Tibet when the army crossed it...

On the plateau it was like another world. At first, it seemed peaceful, no planes pounding us, no Nationalists chasing us. But then it was just peculiar. No people, no houses, no roads--just grass, grass, grass up to the horizon, empty of everything except the occasional river snaking through the plain. Event he sky was different, so close, if you shot a bullet it would pierce it. Bright blue like porcelain...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I'm in a cranky, cranky mood today. Not entirely sure why. Cranky cranky cranky.

This post is a little cranky, but I actually wrote it days ago, when I was in a perfectly lovely mood.

Peony by Pearl S. Buck.

This one gets a resounding "meh" for reasons I can't really put my finger on. Quite possibly, maybe only because it wasn't as good as The Good Earth (which I had to read for school, but it was so good that when I didn't get it finished for class, I went back and finished it when the semester ended).

Also, I used to walk by Pearl Buck's Nanjing house on my way to class. So maybe it's just that it wasn't as good as I was hoping...


Kaifeng is a city in central China known for once having boasted an active Jewish community. (Not converted Han Chinese, but rather ethnic Jews who had sought refuge in China, where they were allowed to worship freely.)

This is a story about a Jewish family in Kaifeng as their community slowly dies into full assimilation into the greater Chinese community. Peony, the title character, is the bondmaid to David, the only child of one of the most observant families in town.

Part of this story deals with the death of the community when there's no one left to take over for the Rabbi. Part of it deals with Peony's forbidden love for David and the inherit cultural differences between the Chinese and Jewish ways of life. (Had Peony been a bondmaid in a Chinese family, she could have easily been taken as a concubine, which is not allowed under Jewish law.)

The bulk of the story deals with the questions of assimilation and staying true to one's roots. The assimilation in Kaifeng kills the community, but keeping apart leads to the massacres of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Only briefly does Buck touch on the fact that outside of China, Jewish people were not given the choice between being separate and assimilating. They were kept separate on purpose, which lead to being murdered for being different. That might be my main problem with this book-- that this truth is fairly muddled for most of the narrative.

Also, it tends to be a lot of people just sitting around and talking.

But, I really appreciated the ending, which is not Hollywood perfect, but as happy as you can get with still being true and real to the story and time and place.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ballet Books for Jennie

First things first. Today I unveil the Biblio File store. If there isn't a link in the sidebar, there will be one soon. It's a place where you can see (and buy) my current favorite things--and not just books. Check it out. Buy some stuff. Support the habit. Don't forget the Zazzle store either! Because, as Larry Beinhart once said (but don't ask me where) "Librarians don't make a lot of money, more than poets, but not so much, say, as your more successful panhandlers..."

Anyway, let's talk books.

A few weeks ago, I talked about my favorite ballet series, Drina, by Jean Estoril, that I had donated away to the library, which I know seriously regret. First off, big love to my father who saw that posting and braved the basement to make sure that I didn't actually leave it at home. I found the first 5, which I originally owned, rather affordably online. I then found the sixth as well! As far as I can tell 6-11 were never published in the US. All the copies of 7-11 I can find are at least $25 when I factor in shipping, and that's nothing I can afford at the moment. (See above)

Anyway, I've been enjoying rereading these wonderful books, even if I'm noticing things I didn't notice before. The basic premise of the series is that Drina Adams is an orphan living with her grandparents training to be a ballet dancer. The first 5 books were written in the late 50s/early 60s and take place mainly in London.

Things I never noticed before: how stereotypically stiff-upper-lip British Drina's Granny is. In one scene in the first book, Drina's lies get found out at a department store and she (age 12) starts crying. Granny is horrified she would show such emotion in public and tells her to pull herself together. Granny is often telling Drina to not be so emotional.

Also: the issue of Drina's "Italian Blood." Drina's father was Italian. Everytime Drina's temper flares up, or if she's overly emotional, excited, or sentimental, it's because of her Italian blood. Also, although her name is actually Andrina Adamo, her grandmother much prefers her to go by "Adams."

Anyway, onto the books!

We start with Ballet for Drina, in which we first meet Drina. Drina likes dancing, but it becomes very apparent early on that Granny does not approve. When she starts a new school, she meets Jenny Pilgrim, who hates ballet, but is forced to go to lessons nonetheless. With Jenny's help, Drina is able to start classes at the Selswick school and works very hard for two years. Then, Granny and Grandfather decide to move to London! And there's no more ballet for Drina, unless she can find a way!

Next up is Drina's Dancing Year in which Drina is accepted at the Dominick School to study ballet full time! There, she must deal with mean students and the fact that she hasn't danced in 6 months and is behind everyone else. But she finds a new friend in Rose (despite the fact Mrs. Chester is a snob and regrets that Rose is rather poor.)Drina's heartbroken when she isn't chosen to dance in the Christmas matinee, but Igor Dominick himself chooses her to act in a West End play!

In Drina Dances Alone Drina's grandfather has been ill. As a result, Granny and Grandfather are moving to Australia for a year! Drina can't give up her dancing and is sent to Chalk Green, Dominick's residential school. Drina sees her time in the country as being forced into Exile, as she's away from the hustle and bustle of London life. Will she ever be able to fit in? (Also published as Drina Dances in Exile)

In Drina Dances on Stage Drina's back at the Dominick, although Rose is still at Chalk Green. She soon meets Ilonka, a Lynzonian refugee studying at the Dominick as well. (Lynzonia is apparently somewhere behind the Iron Curtain.) Igor Dominick, Jr. has joined the school and is a little snot ball. And there's lots of ballet. Over Easter, Drina is being forced to go to Italy and finally meet the other side of her family! Luckily, the Dominick will be there on tour as well, so all is not lost! (Also published as Drina Dances in Italy)

Then, in the last book published in the US, we have Drina Dances Again. At the end of the last book, Drina turned down a chance to play Margaret in a West End production of Dear Brutus. Early on though, Drina visits her friends at Chalk Green and pulls a muscle rather severely. She's not allowed to dance for at least a month. So, she changes her mind and takes the part to take her mind off lack of ballet. Of course, she gets great reviews and although the back blurb makes a great to-do about Drina's choice between dancing and acting, it's not a choice at all. Even better, when she's back on her feet, Drina's chosen to dance the part of Clara in the production of Casse Noisette (aka The Nutcracker) that the Dominick is taking to the Edinburgh festival. Wahoo!

Then, in a very new-to-me Drina book, we have Drina Dances in New York. Drina's being taken to New York (via boat, as her grandparents are understandably skittish about flying.) Although there's no Dominick school in this one, Drina does fall in looooooooooooooooooooooooove! With an American Businessman! (Gyspy Jenny proved right again!) Also, Jenny's father's firm as closed down, so there's no agricultural college for Jenny. She's taking typing and seems resigned to not being a farmer after all.

One thing I've always loved about this series is Jenny's determination to become a farmer. Who wants to be a farmer? Jenny Pilgrim. I'm sure there's some post-war British thing about glorifying traditional country life, but whatever. I also like that she wants to do it properly and go to Ag. College and although money's tight, she fights to not be left out when her brothers get to go to college, she should be able too. So, I'm absolutely gutted over the fact it might not happen. That said, it's Jenny, so she'll find a way. I loved the way she and Drina have stayed best friends and that she really does provide a rock in Drina's life.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Poetry Friday

Remembering Prague

How long has it already been
since last the sun was seen by me
behind the Petrinhill, dropping out of sight?
I kissed Prague with a teary glance when she
wrapped herself in the shadows of the night.

How long since in Vltava I could hear
the pleasant murmur of the weir?
Long ago the buzz of Wenceslas Square
was forgotten. When did is disappear?

How are those hidden corners of my city
in the shadow of the slaughterhouse? I fear
they are not sad, they don't miss me
as I miss them. It's been a year.

For a year I've been stuck in an ugly hole;
instead of your beauties, I've a few streets alone.
Like a wild animal trapped in a cage
I remember you, my Prague, a fairy tale of stone.

Petr Ginz 1928-1944

Taken from:

The Diary of Petr Ginz edited by Chava Pressburger, introduction by Jonathan Safran Foer, translated by Elena Lappin

Petr Ginz was born in Prague, in 1928, the oldest child of an Aryan mother and Jewish father. Being of the product of a mixed marriage, he was allowed to stay at home and not be called up for a transport to one of the concentration camps until he turned 14, which happened in 1942. Two years later, his sister Chava Pressburger (who edited this work) joined him Thesesienstadt, right before Petr's transport to Auschwitz, where he was gassed.

In 2003, Israli astronaut Ilan Ramon took one of Petr's paintings, Moon Landscape, with him into space. On February 1, 2003 (Petr's 75th birthday) the shuttle Columbia exploded.

After hearing the story, a homeowner in Prague realized that the hand-bound diaries he had found upon moving into the house must be those of Petr Ginz. His sister recognized them right away.

This book is those two diaries, spanning the years of 1941 and 1942, ending just a few months before Petr's transport. But it is more than that. It contains mainly of his drawings, paintings and linocuts, as well as poetry and some of his writings from Thesesienstadt. Pressburger has a long introduction giving much background to their family's life before, during, and after the war. Jonathan Safran Foer's introduction on the power and meaning of lanugage and words is moving and powerful.

Petr's diary is not the introspective writings of a captive Anne Frank. He is a boy full of life, documenting his day to day activities as life becomes ever more restricted. Many entries are similair to this complete one from November 25, 1941:

Morning at home, afternoon at school.

There are lists of birthday presents, and an ever-growing catalog of friends, neighbors and relatives being called up for transport. He writes news from the war, such as the March 8th entry from 1942 noting that The Japanese have seriously threatened Java. Or, a week later, on March 11th

In the morning at school; they counted 750 casualties in Paris and 1,400 injured.--In the afternoon outside.

It is the work of a boy going on being a boy in the midst of confusion and carnage. Most moving is his artwork, which shows great talent and promise.

As for age range, I usually just go with whatever my library has something catalogued as. They have this in the adult section, and think it's a great book for adults, but I would also recomend it to someone as young as 9 or 10. I think I would give them this one first before Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

Poetry Friday roundup is at Book Mine Set.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Wounds that Don't Heal

August 15 was the 60th anniversary of Indian Independence. In honor of that, Lotus posted a review of Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh that made me immediately check it out and read it.

The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped.

This story covers the summer of 1947, the summer of Partition, in a small Sikh and Muslim village near the newly created Indian/Pakistani border. This is the summer of a late Monsoon, when people are suddenly forced to become aware of and care about the religion of their neighbors.

In a matter of weeks, the residents of Mano Majra go from their daily lives of peace with their neighbors, where religions differences don't matter, to learning that the British have left, to dealing with the realities of the ghost trains that keep appearing at their train station. (Ghost trains are, for me, one of the most chilling aspects of partition. Trains full of refugees fleeing across the borders in the both directions, but murdered before they get there, leaving a train of corpses to arrive at their destination. In the case of Mano Majra, it would be trains of murdered Sikh and Hindu passengers fleeing Pakistan.)

Beautifully written, Train to Pakistan tells the haunting story of a terrifying time in Indian and Pakistani history that most Westerners don't know about. It also tells the story through many eyes--the communist agitator who has recently come to town, the Bhai of the Sikh temple, the Imam of the mosque, the inspector of the region, the Sikh criminal the the girl he loves, the Imam's daughter. This cast of characters allows Singh to tell the story from all sides, and to do it well. No good guys, no bad guys, just people, trying to make the best of a situation thrust upon them that they don't understand.

Two other minor things I really appreciated--this is a town that lives by the trains, the whistles acting as clocks. Even daily prayers are done according to the train schedule. As someone who grew up in a city surrounded by trains and then went to college where the tracks cut campus in half, this aspect of the village life made me smile. It also underscores the horror of what happens when they stops being goods trains and start being trains of refugees.

The other was the communist agitator, who wanted to raise the people up, but as a highly educated individual, disdained their backward, rural ways. This is not confined to the this book, I think it was one of the problems with communism in general (and, of course, one of the reasons Trotsky was purged) but it really brought it home for me. Intellectuals want the workers to rise up and take the party, but individually, they hate the workers and their customs and culture...

I want to thank Lotus again for the great suggestion and you should check out her list of other reading about Partition and Indian Independence. Also, check out Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, which is one of my favorites. (Review here.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Super Awesome Super Spies!

These guys are awesome. Secret codes! Daring missions! Dazzling escapes! And awesome spy gear!

These are awesome adventure stories. And they're 100% true.

Thomas B. Allen makes James Bond look lame next to these guys.

Who are these awesome super spies? George Washington and Harriet Tubman. Seriously. Allen manages to take some aspects of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars that kids normally don't get to hear about. These guys are not boring. These guys are cool.

And the books (George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War and Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent: How Daring Slaves and Free Blacks Spied for the Union During the Civil War) are even cooler--not only are there secret messages in the gutters for you to decode, there are appendixes, end notes, bibliographies and further reading.

End notes! With in-text numbers to reference them. End notes! In a juvie nonfiction book. Be still my fluttering, dorky heart.

Also, the font? It looks all old-time-y letter pressed but is still easy to read. Great illustrations and fun covers. Washington has this cocky smirk-- very hot a la Stephen Colbert. And Harriet Tubman's there, looking like she's leaning on a broom. Oh wait, no, that's a rifle. Don't mess with her.

I mean, I always knew these guys did cool things. There's a reason we still talk about them. I didn't quite appreciate how much they kicked ass.

I highly recommend for everyone.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Didja Miss Me?

Ah finals week. Stress stress stress stress... but, the final has been turned in and the group project given and now I have a whopping 6 days until fall semester starts.

Let's see... this weekend I went to Des Moines for my friend's wedding, which was lots of fun. While there, we went to the State Fair and you can read all about it all at Geek Buffet.

I had also forgotten what Iowa is like during primary season. Lots of Washington types were at the fair and Huckabee's Iowa headquarters was right by our hotel. Coming out of the airport, we saw a billboard that said "Are You Running for President?" Oiy. It might even be crazier than DC for your average-type person.

Anyway, I didn't review anything due to the stress of last week, so I'm quite behind! Let the catching up commence! So many books to talk about, I hardly know where to start. But let's start with some WWII YA novels, ok?

First up is The Girls They Left Behind by Bernice Thurman Hunter

Beryl/Natalie is a teenager in Toronto during the World War II. It's mostly written in diary form, but with a few-stand alone scenes scattered throughout--mostly towards the end of the book. The story deals with the feelings of always been left behind as she sees one more friend, relative, or neighbor off at the train station nearly every night--some of whom she will never see again. She drops out of school to work in an airplane factory and tries to go on with life, despite rations, black-outs, and no boys left to date.

Beryl (who hates her name and is trying to change it to Natalie, if only her friends and family would remember to call her as such) is a real voice dealing with the frustrations of always being left behind, of British girls snatching away the Canadian boys when they're stationed overseas, and in being laid off and having to go back to school when the war is over and the most of the boys come home. Her voice is very straight forward and matter-of-fact:

Dad had resurrected the Quebec heater from the garage and set it up in the kitchen so we would use less coal in the furnace. Coal was scarce these days because it was needed in factories like The Steel Company of Canada. Dad said the munitions factories practically ate it up by the ton.

I prefer more evocative prose and this language left me a little 'meh' on both the story and the character, but that's just me. I think it's still a good book about life on the home front and the hardships and heartbreaks the girls left behind had to endure.

Another book written with a similar voice that left me a little off is

For Freedom: The Story of a French Spy by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Based on the true story of Suzanne David, a teenager in Cherbourg, France, this is a first person narrative of a teenager turned Resistance spy. Suzanne is an aspiring opera singer who isn't that caught up in current events until Cherbourg beach is bombed while she's sitting on it. She watches one of her neighbors blow up and her best friend never recovers from the experience. Her strength in such an ordeal and the fact that her singing takes her throughout northern France leads the local resistance leader to recruit her as a spy.

Now, she's not reporting on troop movements or anything, but passing messages from one spy to another. There's the adrenaline rush as she walks past Nazi soldiers with a note about the Normandy landing in her hat, but the hardest part is being able to get to her scheduled meetings without her parents finding out. One of my favorite parts was when she had to pass a message but it was time to go to church and she had to find a way to get her parents to let her stay at home, as they had no idea what she was really up to.

A good story for younger teens/ tweens on the French resistance the role young people played. But, as with The Girls They Left Behind, the straight forward, matter-of-fact narration left me a little less engaged than I would have liked. But that's just me.

Also, Good as Lily (review here) and Clarice Bean, Don't Look Now (review here) are now both available!

Monday, August 13, 2007


I've come to the very sad realization that I will have to weed my personal library. The books are eating the house.

But, does anyone else remember the Drina Books?

Drina is directly responsible for my loathing of weeding my personal library. When we did the great book collection integration after we got married and moved to Michigan, I got rid of a lot of books from my childhood. My thinking was along the lines of (1)I can get it from the library on the off chance I actually want to read this again (2) When I have kids, I'll buy them new, shiny copies.

Who knew that 2 years down the road I'd be flung into the carnival that is Children's Librarianship. And my library has most of the books I threw out.

It does NOT have Drina. Drina, who is the star of the BEST series of ballet books ever. Drina, who is long out of print. Drina, who sells for obscene amounts of money on Ebay, Drina, who is barely even available on my Maryland-wide ILL network. Drina, whom I'm ILLing through SCHOOL.

Well, I'm ILLing the last 6 books of the series that I didn't even know existed when I was a child. I found the first 5 rather cheaply so I bought them. Weeding be damned. I will buy the next 6 too, when (1) I have more $$$ or (2) I can find them for under $20-$50 a copy.

For most of my childhood (and a large portion of my non-childhood) I wanted to name my firstborn daughter Andriana after her and she's so out of print. :( But, the recently republished Ballet Shoes so maybe Drina will come soon? Hopefully?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Multi-Cultural Rebellion

Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

There comes a point where you need to make a stand, to do something different and break out from the mold. Some teens dye their hair blue (me) or pierce their lips (my sister). Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim, an Australian-Palestinian teen, decides to wear the hajib full time.

I believe it will make me feel so close to God. Because it's pretty hard to walk around with people staring at your "towel-head" and not feel kind of pleased with yourself--if you manage to get through the stares and comments with your head held high...I guess when I'm not wearing the hajib I feel like I'm missing out.

And there are a lot of heart-warming moments as Amal finds she's underestimated most of the people around her and their acceptance of her decision.

But really, this book is funny and light and fun. Amal's decision is sparked by that Friends episode where Rachel, instead of running away from her ex-fiance Barry's wedding, instead gets up and sings "Copacabana". Plus, the reaction of her Muslim friends is great.

Leila already is a "full-timer"

"I'm bored... There's nothing on TV. Either I'm stuck watching Oprah give away vacations and cry about her book club or I've got to watch Dr. Phil tell me why carrots provide self esteem."
"Guess what?"
"I'm thinking of going full-time."
"You got a job?"

Yasmeen is a part-timer, like Amal used to be.

"This means we have to go shopping soon and get you a whole new wardrobe. Mix-and-match spree."

The book is fun. There's the usual trouble with boys (made more difficult by the fact Amal doesn't date) and popular girls (made more difficult by racism) and cranky neighbors who just need a friend to listen.

Abdel-Fattah has written a lovely book about the normal ups-and-downs of any teenage girl, with Australian-Palestinian hajib twist thrown in. In light of that, I'm wondering about the inclusion of the subplot involving Leila, who is forced to do all the cooking and cleaning while her mother tries to constantly marry her off. It seems to negate the point Abdel-Fattah is trying to make, unless she's using it as a foil.

Overall though, I greatly enjoyed.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Graphic Novels all over the place

I told you I'd get back to kidlit. Man, I really am obsessed with First Second.

We'll start with the wonderful Robot Dreams by Sara Varon.

This is a heartbreaking word-less graphic novel about a doomed friendship. Dog wants a friend, so mail orders a build-your-own robot kit. Dog and Robot have lots of fun together--mainly reading books and watching movies from the library.

Then Dog takes Robot to the beach. After swimming and lying in the sun all day, Robot has rusted and can't move. Dog leaves him there. Dog studies up on robot repair, but by the time he gets back to the beach, it is closed.

Robot spends the winter, buried under snow, dreaming of different adventures. Dog tries (unsuccessfully) to make new friends to replace the one he's lost.

Bittersweet and lovely.

Full Disclosure: ARC provided by publisher FirstSecond at ALA.

A.L.I.E.E.E.N.: Archives of Lost Issues and Earthly Editions of Extraterrestrial Novelties by Lewis Trondheim

Oh man, this is weird.

Let's just say it starts off with two ugly/cute aliens skipping along an alien meadow. The blue one has is eyes closed and immediately skips into a tree with two unfortunately placed branches and gouges his eyes out...

Because I have a very sick sense of humor, I found it hilarious.

Where this isn't wordless, all the words are in an alien language, so it might as well be. There are several short, interconnected adventures that involve lots of alien violence and poop.

It is weird and bizarre, but I liked it.

The Professor's Daughter by Joann Sfar. Illustrated by Emmanuel Guilbert

I'm torn on the age range on this. My library puts it as adult, but I think it's more of a late jr high/ high school on up. (SLJ says it's 10th grade+)

Anyway, in this Victorian London, mummies (the Egyptian kind) can walk and talk and feel emotion, even though they've been dead for milennia. This is a love story between Imhotep IV and the daughter of the professor who oversaw his excavation.

An afternoon stroll goes horribly awry and leads in a poisoned police officer, a kidnapped Queen Victoria, and the threat of Imhotep being placed in an exhibit case at the museum for the foreseeable future.

Along the way, we deal with culture and time clash, fathers and sons, and fathers and daughters. It's short, sweet, and packs a lot of punch, which is superbly delivered with Guilbert's muted watercolors that perfectly capture not only the sweetness of love and the time and place...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Dragon Ladies

I promise kid/YA books later this week, today's more adult non fiction, but with really good reason!

I have reviews up today in the new issue of Edge of the Forest. Head over there to read lots of reviews and cool stuff, as well as my thoughts on Leap and Duchessina: A Novel of Catherine de' Medici.

Now, when reviewing a work of historical fiction, it's always nice to know something about the time period. If you're reviewing a novelization of someone's life, you should know something about that person besides what Wikipedia and Biography Resource Center (my favorite biography database) can give you.

So, I turned to Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France by Leonie Frieda.

This is an exhaustive look at a complicated woman. Catherine was Queen of France, and mother to 3 kings of France. She held most of the power during the religious civil wars, was a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth's "Frog" was Catherine's youngest son) and history has placed the blame for the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre squarely at Catherine's feet.

Frieda has tried to free Catherine of this blame-- she paints a picture of a surgical assassination gone horribly wrong but... the fact that she wasn't guilty of massacre, just ordering the political killings of a dozen men? I'm not entirely sure that makes her better.

Frieda writes a compelling story about a place and time period I know little about. She explains context extremely well and her story is well researched and well told-- for my research, I really only needed the first few chapters, but I was so intrigued by Frieda's portrait that I had to continue reading.

There are 3 inserts of color photographs and paintings that serve as great visual aids and I really appreciated the "Cast of Characters" at the beginning of the book--it's hard to keep all those Henri's straight, plus the ever-changing Duke of Guise...

If you like biography, France, powerful women, religious history, or Renaissance history, I recommend this book.

Another powerful woman who is often a controversial figure is Madame Chiang Kai Shek.

In Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China's Eternal First Lady by Laura Tyson Li, we get another look at a complicated and complex person.

I think Li really wanted this to be a sympathetic view of Madame Chiang Kai- Shek, but after a certain point, the material just wouldn't let her. I learned a lot about Taiwan, as well as the craziness that was the first 50 years of the twentieth century in China. (1911 brought the overthrow the the Qing Dynasty and the new Republic, which never fully gained control of all of China-- much was ruled by warlords, then the Communists were making noises so there was that war, then the Japanese were invading, so there was that war, then back to the Communists...)

After reading this book, I finally understood why Communism succeeded in China and why many saw it as a much better alternative to Chiang's government. But oh, she played the American government and people like a fiddle to get support for a losing cause for years. The KMT (Guomingdang) only lasted as long as it did because of US support...

A revealing and fascinating look at the birth of Communist China, China/Taiwanese political tensions, and the woman who stood in the middle of it all.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Chinese History

I really will get back to blogging about kidlit again soon, I swear. Meanwhile, some more history that I am really, really excited about.

There have been some amazing books on Chinese history published recently. It's enough to make me want to go back to college so I can drink a lot of coffee and discuss these bad boys with people who know a lot more than me about this stuff.

First up is the utterly fascinating and extremely readable The Long March: The True History of Communist China's Founding Myth by Sun Shuyun

In 1934, China's Communists, on orders from Moscow, were set up in Soviets. The largest and strongest was in Jiangxi province in south-east China. Chiang Kai-Shek's troops (who would rather fight commies than the encroaching Japanese) were closing in on all sides. The Soviet was doomed. On October 15, 1934, around 100,000 soldiers and Communist Party administrators broke through Chiang's lines and fled. They walked for 6,000 miles-- across mountains and rivers, grasslands, swamps and deserts, battling Chiang's troops all the way. It was here that Mao Zedong rose to power.12 months later, the 8,000 survivors reached Yan'an in north-west China. It was there that Mao rebuilt the red army to lead them to victory over Chiang's troops and, on October 1, 1949, found the People's Republic of China.*

So goes the story, the myth, the legend of the Long March. When the going gets tough? Think of the Long Marchers and all they endured so that the Party may survive. And, on the surface, this accounting of events is completely accurate, if glossed over more than a wee bit.

As Sun says:

Mao's foresight [in Yan'an in documenting the Long March] was quite extraordinary. To think of turning the Long March, which was essentially a retreat, into a glorious victory, was itself a stroke of genius. To be able to make it the founding legend of Communist China showed a political acumen, a gift for propaganda, and an optimism and self-assurance that few possess. p. 192

Part history and part travelogue, Sun set out to retrace the steps of the Long March, talking to survivors and veterans on the way, to get a sense of what really happened. She shied away from the higher-ranking officials that everyone talked to and sought out the foot soldiers who made up the bulk of the marchers. The result is an amazing account of the Long March and a story that hasn't been told before.

The myth and legend that is fed to Chinese school children is the same story told to Western audiences as well, mainly due to Edgar Snow's best-selling book Red Star over China: The Classic Account of the Birth of Chinese Communism, based on his time spent in the Yan'an base as Mao rebuilt his army.

Here Sun explores the major battles that Chiang's troops won, so were erased from the history books. She follows the women's regiment and the tragic Western Legion, left to die in the Xinjiang desert. Where the story goes that the 12,000 who were lost were lost to battle, starvation, and exposure to the elements, Sun also uncovers the loses due to inner-Party purges (which would become a mainstay of the Party for the following decades) and desertion. She tells the stories of the kids who joined because they were promised pork every day. Of the young men kidnapped from their villages and forced to join up.

One example of the new light Sun's work sheds on the Long March is the story of Luding Bridge. Most accounts you read will tell of Luding Bridge-- 300 years old, 101 meters long, and 60 meters about the torrid Dadu River, 13 irons chains and a plank flooring. Here 22 men held off Nationalist troops, with more closing in from behind, as they crossed the bridge. Most of the planks had been torn up and the remaining ones were set on fire. Due to several posters and movies, this is the most famous of the Long March battles. But, as one military historian in Beijing tells Sun, "You call that a battle? Just a couple of men fill into the river, and it was over in an hour."

She went to the bridge and talked to the villagers that were there. There were only a few soldiers in the bridge house with malfunctioning rifles. They fled. Most of the planking was still in place and it wasn't set on fire. It wasn't much of a battle, and it was over in an hour.

But still, I couldn't cross that bridge (and Sun had very real difficulty doing so). They did have to crawl across the chains at the end. It is nothing to scoff at.

The story that Sun uncovers about the Long March is more believable and more tragic, but it doesn't lessen what these people achieved or the terrible awesomeness of that year. If anything, it makes it more powerful, for the legend is true and the myth is real, even if the details aren't pretty or nice. I highly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in Modern Chinese history or politics.

*I got my facts from: "Long March." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition. 6 Aug. 2007 <>.

Another amazing, but more academic book is Mao's Last Revolution by Roderick Macfarquhar and Michael Schoenhals.

Have you ever seen a picture of masses of young people hoisting copies of Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (aka Mao's Little Red Book)? That was the Cultural Revolution.

Concerned about losing his power base and his place in history, Chairman Mao launched a major purge of the Communist Party at the Eleventh Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee in August of 1966. Schools were shut down and China's urban youth were mobilized to keep the revolutionary spirit alive. They were told to bring down the four olds. While Mao kept the party in turmoil as he purged person after person, the Red Guards (the mobilized youth) tormented the urban landscape. They arrested and tortured anyone without a proper class background.

Red Guards overthrew the Party offices across the country. Many Long Marchers were blacklisted. Innocent people were purged, tortured, or killed. Several hundred thousand people were killed. Red Guard factions turned against each other for full scale civil war. The populace, the government, and the army were all deeply divided. In 1968, Mao sent them to the countryside, theoretically to learn from the peasants, but really to cool their heels for a bit, as his revolution had gotten way out of control. (Ever see Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl? She had been sent down to the countryside. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress covers this as well.)

Despite this the Cultural Revolution really only ended with Mao's death in 1976. Then, Madame Mao's notorious Gang of Four was arrested and convicted and life tried to go on as normal. It was hard though, as business and the economy had been seriously disrupted for a decade. If schools were open, students only denounced teachers or memorized Maoist doctrine.

Mao's Last Revolution is the first academic-level full exploration of the Cultural Revolution. It's depth and level of insight is staggering. The authors have made full use of sources as recent as Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Unknown Story as well as recently opened archives in China. I think it would have been helpful to have a detailed timeline (I almost started making one to keep things straight). I greatly appreciated the glossary of names included in the back. I would not recommend it for the casual reader (try Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now by Jan Wong for an easier read) but the student of modern Chinese history or politics would be seriously remiss to not have this on their shelves.


"Cultural Revolution." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition. 6 Aug. 2007 <>.

"Red Guards." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition. 6 Aug. 2007 <>.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

I always cry at weddings...

I always laugh at funerals.

Was that Homer Simpson? I think so. Anyway, I went to a wedding last night in my hometown. One of the other guests was my 8th grade science teacher and junior high homeroom teacher.

Wow, Jennie that's really exciting.

It is actually, because guess who said teacher was? Connie Roop! As in co-author of such books as Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie and Buttons for General Washington and 100 or so more books for children.

And no one ever believes me that I know her, let alone she once threatened my friend Caroline and me with detention if we didn't start doing... I can't remember. Knowing Caroline though, we probably deserved it.

The wedding was lovely. And I'm still in Wisconsin gorging on super-fresh cheese curds and hanging out with my family.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Professional Development Thursday

Going to Wisconsin tomorrow to go to a wedding and hang out with the fam. Very excited.

Also, I'm blogging over at Geek Buffet today about the Death of the Author and J. K. Rowling's recent interviews adding more information to the text. (If you access the post from the Geek Buffet page, you will not be spoiled, as I hid them after the break. If you follow the direct link, beware the second half of the post. Everything after the Excuse me?!)

But let's talk about... books for librarians. These aren't books for a general audience, but I think both of them are really good for what they are.

From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children's Books by Kathleen T. Horning

This is a great book if... you need to evaluate and review children's books on a professional level. It might be a bit much for parents who just want a good feel on kidlit for their own children. However, if you are a children's book professional, this is a must have for your bookshelf. She gives a lot of useful advice on what to watch out for, both in terms of text and in general book design. Horning covers pictures books, transitional readers, and older readers with tons of in-depth information about every single aspect (it seems like) of each group.

My one complaint is her dismissal of humorous poetry in favor of "more sophisticated forms of true poetry." I really don't think humorous poetry such as Shel Silverstein of Jack Pretlusky is any lesser than other types of poetry out there, especially when it comes to children's poetry.

Another great book is Managing Archival & Manuscript Repositories (Archival Fundamentals Series) by Michael J. Kurtz

Normally I don't count textbooks that I've read as part of my reading total, because, well, I usually don't read all of them. Rarely is an entire book assigned, and, when it is, I usually miss a chapter or two. Also, they're usually assigned a little out of order and you're reading it over the course of a semester, so you don't get a good sense of what the book is like as an over-arching whole.

This semester I tried something different. I had to read the first four chapters and the book is engaging and well written and really not that long so... I just didn't stop after the first four chapters and just read the whole thing. Plus, now I don't have to worry about reading for the rest of the semester. Woohoo!

Anyway, the book. If you work in information management (by which I don't mean managing information but rather being a manager in an information environment) or an archives, this is a good book to have on your shelf. If you're a manager in an archives, you really need this book.

Covering everything from management theory through the years, HR, budgeting, PR, planning, and project management, Kurtz writes and well-thought out handbook with a lots of information presented in an easy-to-understand way with lots of concrete examples.

And I'm not just saying that because I'm taking management right now with Dr. Kurtz. It's just a good book. You know, if you're a manager.

Ramblings blah blah blah

So... as I mentioned yesterday, I have today's post all written up, but it's contingent on when the new issue of Edge of the Forest goes up. So... here's some blathering on about random stuff.

Lemony Snicket is finally out in paperback! I wonder why they waited so long. Anyway, it's in paperback, with some additions. I haven't had a chance to look too closely at it, but in the back there is definitely some new material.

It looks like there's a serialized story going on! (Please, if you've looked more closely than I have, correct me.) Also, Mr. Snicket seems to have turned Agony Aunt on us, to my immense pleasure.

In other news, Megan McCafferty's new Jessica Darling adventure, Fourth Comings, comes out next Tuesday. Very excited. I can't explain what draws me into it, but I couldn't put Sloppy Firsts down and stayed up way past my bedtime reading it.

Anyway, here's my dilemma (yes, I know I lead an exceedingly difficult existence). It comes out Tuesday. I want to read it NOW. My library hasn't even ordered it yet! What am I to do? Oh! The Agony! I want to preorder it, but I don't, because I've been spending way too much $$$ on books lately. Plus, I don't own any of the others, so... whatever. It looks like my local library (the one near my house, not the one I work in) has it on order, so I can place a hold on it there BUT, I'm not around this month during library hours. I'm always at my library, school, or out of town. Argh.

whinge whinge whinge