Book Review:Help!: The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration by Thomas Brothers


Author: Thomas Brothers
Title: Help!: The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration
Narrator: Keith Sellon-Wright
Publication Info: HighBridge Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

I received a free advance review copy of this audiobook through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

The author of this book is a Duke University musicologist, and I don’t think I will represent the musicology well in this summary, although I did find it interesting to listen to. Brothers uses two popular music acts of the 20th century to illustrate the creative genius of musicians collaborating together to create new tunes: Duke Ellington and The Beatles.  This is basically two books in one with half the book about each group of artists.

Ellington is generally depicted as a lone genius composer, but Brothers states that he was more of an arranger than a composer.  He relied on others – particularly Bubber Miley and later Billy Stayhorn – to write the songs, and his entire band contributed parts as they worked on a tune.  That Ellington frequently gave himself sole writing credit was a recurring source of disgruntlement for Ellington’s band members.

The Beatles are more widely recognized as a collaboration – Lennon-McCartney – although it’s commonly believed that John Lennon and Paul McCartney only composed songs together in The Beatles’ early years.  Brothers breaks down the recordings and shows that not only were Lennon and McCartney were collaborating right up until the Beatles broke up, but a wider group of collaborators contributed to creating the Beatles music including George Harrison, Ringo Starr, producer George Martin, sound engineer Geoff Emerick, guest artists like Eric Clapton and Billy Preston, and yes, even Yoko Ono.

Brothers makes the controversial, but accurate, statement that Strayhorn was musically more talented than Ellington, and that McCartney’s musical talent outclassed Lennon’s.  But Ellington had the ability to listen to various solos by the artists in his band and arrange them tunefully, while Lennon brought a rock & roll edge and lyrical bite to McCartney’s music.  As I noted, there’s an academic level to this book that is perhaps beyond a novice to me, but I still enjoyed reading about these great artists and how they made their most memorable tunes.  But mostly, I want to listen to some Duke Ellington and The Beatles now.

Recommended books: How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll by Elijah Wald, Dreaming the Beatles by Rob Sheffield, Duke Ellington by James Lincoln Collier

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Princess in Black and the Science Fair Scare by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale


Author:  Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
Illustrator: LeUyen Pham
Title:  The Princess in Black and the Science Fair Scare 
Publication Info:  Somerville, Massachusetts : Candlewick Press, 2018.
Previously Read by the Same Authors: The Princess in Black (I’ve read all of the Princess in Black books multiple times, but only reviewed the first one for some reason).
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of the 6th book in the Princess in Black series through the Library Thing Early Reviewer program.

My daughter and I enjoy reading the Princess in Black books which gently send up princess culture and superhero stories while be sweet and charming in their own way.  In this adventure, Princess Magnolia leaves monster-fighting behind to attend a science fair.  Or so she thinks, until a goo monster emerges from a volcano model!

Princess Magnolia changes costumes to become the Princess in Black, and the Princess in Blankets introduced in The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate is also there to help.  But then, three undisguised princesses also help out.  The book has a good message about working together to solve a problem.  We also get the goo monster’s perspective, and he just wants somewhere where he can fit in.  And the princesses (and monster) even use public transportation!

It’s a ripping good yarn and things end well for all involved.  My 6 y.o. and I have read it multiple times already and she’s not yet tired of it.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Alpha: Abidjan to Paris by Bessora and Barroux


Author: Bessora
Illustrator: Barroux
TitleAlpha: Abidjan to Paris
Translator: Sarah Ardizzone
Publication Info:
Summary/Review:

This graphic novel made up of simple felt-tip drawings follows Alpha Coulibaly as he attempts to migrate from Côte d’Ivoire to France.  Alpha’s wife and child left earlier to live with a sister-in-law in Paris, and he’s not heard from since.  The dream of reunion carries Alpha for 18 months as he travels in crowded vehicles across hot deserts, lives and works in refugee camps, and sees the suffering and deaths of the companions he meets along the way, including a child traveling unaccompanied.  It’s a heartbreaking yet matter-of-fact story of what far too many people encounter as refugees today.

Recommended books: Aya by Marguerite Abouet
Rating: ****

Book Reviews: Dig if You Will the Picture by Ben Greenman


AuthorBen Greenman
TitleDig if You Will the Picture
Narrator: Peter Berkrot
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc., 2017
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program (although I ended up listening to an audiobook from the library)

Greenman’s book is the story of Prince’s career largely told through Prince’s music with a focus on his role as a cultural icon and sometimes generous/sometimes rocky relationships with other musicians.  Prince’s biography is in there too, but it’s more of the details fall into place around the examination of his music.  Greenman is a devoted fan of Prince so his own experience as a Prince fan emerges several times in the book, but unlike Rob Sheffield who makes the fan’s experience a window into a greater understanding of an artists, Greenman’s personal reflections seem more an intrusion.  Nevertheless, it’s overall a great attempt at understanding the life work of someone as mercurial and hard to define as Prince.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: When Grit Isn’t Enough by Linda F. Nathan


AuthorLinda F. Nathan
TitleWhen Grit Isn’t Enough 
Publication Info: Boston, Massachusetts : Beacon Press, 2017.
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Linda F. Nathan is an educator and founder of the Boston Arts Academy (BAA).  Like most public high schools in Boston, the student body of the BAA is largely children of color from low-income families, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants. Reflecting on her years as headmaster of the BAA, Nathan recalls her pride in promising students “college for all,” and was seemingly successful as the BAA has high graduation rates, high college acceptance rates, and a higher than usual rates of students going on to graduate college.  But she also questions whether high schools are properly preparing students for college, or if “college for all” is even the promise they should be making.

Much of her data who comes from former students who struggled to complete college and usually not because they couldn’t handle the academics.  Instead colleges create many barriers to students based on their race and socio-economic status that make it hard for her student to fit into the college culture, get the support they need, and keep on top of all the costs of attending college.  And yes, they make mistakes – failing to fill out a form, missing a meeting with a supervisor, not keeping the grade point average up – but while these things are just road bumps for more privileged students, they can end a college career for Nathan’s students and others like them.  Not only that, but low-income students are often left with crippling debts for the course they did take, but not able to transfer those credits.  Even community college, often presented as a good alternative or preparation for a four-year college, has it’s own problems and can be exploitative of low-income students.

Nathan also investigates the “no excuses” philosophy common in many charter schools that claim to be preparing poorer children of color for college.  While Nathan is very careful to withhold judgment of charter school teachers’ emphasis on strict discipline and rote behaviors, it’s hard not to read about what Nathan witnesses in this schools and not see it as abusive and ultimately more geared to the needs of adults than the education of children.  Again and again, Nathan reveals the idea of “grit” being used to pin any failures of children on their own character rather than question the reality of poverty, racism, and inequality.

Grit is Not Enough is important read for understanding the realities of public education today.  Nathan and her former students, as well as present-day students, are voices that need to be heard more in informing our nation’s public policy regarding education.

Favorite Passages:

Deeply held beliefs frequently go unchallenged in societies.  They are how we explain phenomena or culture or history. They are often false, yet persist.  I believe that these assumptions, or what I’ve come to call false promises, persist in public education because we hold so tightly to the American ideal of equality.  It is this belief that I and many Americans desperately want to be true.  It is this belief that we fight for.  But it is also this belief that we must fully unpack, deeply understand, and interrogate if we are to uphold our fragile democracy.” – p. 6

“It is the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ ethos to which so many generations of Americans adhere.  Yet data repeatedly show hoe poverty, social class, race, and parents’ educational attainment more directly influence an individual’s success and potential earnings than any individual effort. We clearly do no yet have a level playing field, but this belief is all but impossible to challenge. Whenever we hear of another bootstraps story, we want to generalize.  We disregard the fact that luck often plays a major role.  And in generalizing and celebrating the individual nature of success, we disregard the imperative to rethink social and economic policies that leave many behind.” – p. 8

“In middle- and upper-middle-class families, an invisible safety net typically surrounds young people planning to go on to college.  There is usually a family member or friend who will step in and remind a student about the intricacies of student loans and deadlines, or the m any requirements for staying registered once enrolled, or issues that can arise with housing.  However, if you are a lower-income student and you miss one or two e-mails or have a change in your adviser, you may find your dreams derailed.  It may be tempting to dismiss the examples above as ineptitude or carelessness on the part of individual students, but why must there be different rules, expectations, and outcomes for low-income versus middle- or upper-income students?” – p. 23

“If we allow an assumption like ‘race doesn’t matter’ to prevail, racial issues can be conveniently explained or excused as singular matters to be solved by individual intervention.  Singular responses allow us to avoid the actions needed for racial and socio-economic equity and a path toward a healthy and vibrant society and economy.” – p. 73-74

“What all the talk about grit seems to miss is the importance of putting children’s experience front and center.  In other words, when the emphasis on grit ends up as a stand-alone pedagogy, the context of student’ life and family circumstances is ignore.” – p.76

“We want to allow for growth mindsets in a way that might equalize the playing field, yet we continue to entrap so many of our young people with the assumption that if they just play by the rules, do the right things, they will be successful.  Achieving high test scores has become the only way to measure success or to prove that students have learned grit.  Equating better test results with healthy learning has reduced many schools to a narrow understanding of learning.” – p. 106

“Imagine if American high school students knew that they could study careers in music or finance in a vocational school as either an alternative or precursor to college.  Imagine if our community colleges could truly reinvent themselves and be places where students enter the allied health professions or even design professions.” – p. 133

“School can be the place where you practice how dreams are realized.  School can be where you can build a strong sense of self – an identity that you can belong to a special tribe, like artists, or change-makers, or mathematicians or inventors.  To ensure that schools incubate future dreams and dreamers, curriculum, structures, and pedagogy must encourage deep engagement both with teachers and with community members.  The walls between school and community can and should be permeable.” – p. 161

Recommended booksTinkering toward Utopia by David Tyack  and Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch

Rating: ****

Book Review: Siege by Roxane Orgill


AuthorRoxane Orgill
TitleSiege: How General Washington Kicked the British Out of Boston and Launched a Revolution
Publication Info: Candlewick (2018)
Summary/Review:

I received a free advance reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Siege is a book that tells the story of the Siege of Boston in 1775-1776 from multiple perspectives and entirely in verse.  It’s a spectacular way of presenting how the Continental Army was able to fortify the hills surrounding Boston and force the British Army to evacuate the city. And while there’s poetic license, almost all of this book is based on historical fact.  The characters include familiar names like George and Martha Washington, Colonel Henry Knox, Sir William Howe, and Abigail Adams, but also Washington’s aide-de-camp Joseph Reed, Washington’s enslaved manservant William Lee, and rank-and-file Continental Army privates Caleb Haskell and Samuel Haws.  Orgill also versifies Washington’s daily orders and the news from Boston.  This is a wonderful approach to presenting a moment in history and highly recommend it.

Favorite Passages:

“Funerals – three, four, five a day
General Gage has ceased
The pealing of church bells
They cast too melancholy a mood
They do not bring back the dead” – p. 31

“I believe it
from the jetsam
washed ashore
spindles
headboards
tables without legs
splintered drawers
carved backs of Chippendale chairs

they’re leaving the town intact
but nothing to sit upon.” – p. 171

Recommended books:

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick, A Few Bloody Noses: The Realities and Mythologies of the American Revolution by Robert Harvey, and 1776 by David McCullough

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Gypsies of New Rochelle by Ivan Jenson


AuthorIvan Jenson
TitleGypsies of New Rochelle
Publication Info: Michelkin Publishing (2017)
Summary/Review:

I received an advance reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

I gave up on reading this novel about 40% through.  The novel set in 1980 is narrated by 17 y.o. Shawn Aldridge, the youngest member of an eccentric family that recently moved from the midwest to the New York City suburb.  All of the children are expected to accomplish something great, but most of the family’s hopes are pinned on Shawn’s sister Nora becoming a concert violinist, leaving the other children to work out their resentment and inadequacy in other (supposedly comic) ways.  Shawn, an irritating narcissist, sees himself as a sensitive poet and spends much of his time taking the train to New York where he dates an exotic dancer, while simultaneously dating a typical middle-class suburban girl in New Rochelle.  The characters frequently stereotype others, and the author’s voice seem to agree with them.  The dialogue is stilted and unbelievable. Really everyone in this book is loathsome, and while it’s possible to have a novel with no sympathetic characters, you have to be a better writer than this.  I’m not surprised to look at Amazon and see this book compared to Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors, because I hated the movie adaptation of that book for many of the same reasons I hate this book.

Favorite Passages:

“Now, there were two sides to this family. One was playful, fun, drunken and the other was desolate and desperate. At any given moment I could not tell which side was going to win out. The dark or the light.” – (Kindle Locations 134-135).

Rating: *

Book Review: The Ballet Lover by Barbara L. Baer 


Author: Barbara L. Baer 
TitleThe Ballet Lover
Publication Info: Open Books, 2017
Summary/Review: I received an advance reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

This novel begins in 1970 and tells the story of Geneva, a writer for a niche ballet magazine, set against a feud between the great dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova.  The cruelties and sexism of the ballet world are reflected in Geneva’s life as her publisher squashes her honest accounts to maintain access, her long distance boyfriend plans a future with little concern for Geneva’s interests, and she has to care for her aunt who survived an escape from Nazi Germany.  Geneva’s keen observational skills that make her a talented journalist also seem to be a handicap as she seems to often be observing rather than acting on her own life.  In addition to an interesting fictional narrative there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes segments in ballet drawn from real life. The one thing about the conclusion of the book is that Geneva’s problems aren’t really resolved so much as she grows older and doesn’t find them so important anymore, which I guess is real life, but much of an ending for fiction.

Recommended booksUnder the Net by Iris Murdoch and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Games by David Goldblatt


Author:  David Goldblatt
Title:   The Games
Narrator: Napoleon Ryan
Publication Info:  Tantor Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

I received a free audiobook copy of The Games through the Library Things Early Reviewers program.

Goldblatt’s history of the modern Olympic Games from 1896 to the present is a top-down overview of the International Olympic Committee and organizing committees more than the stories of participants in the games and particular events that I had hoped for.  Nevertheless, it’s an interesting look at general trends and growth of the Olympics.  For example, in the early 20th century the Olympics were more of a sideshow to World’s Fairs (Paris, St. Louis, London) held over several months  rather than discrete sporting events.  Yet, the Intercalated Games of 1906 in Athens, which were inline with the Olympic movement’s founder Pierre de Coubertin’s vision of a quasi-religious sporting ceremony, yet Coubertin refused to attend.  The Olympics came into their own in the 1920s and Los Angeles and Berlin used the games to make major vision statements for the future.  After some quieter, austere post-war games, Rome, Tokyo, and Munich all used the Olympics to reintroduce their countries to the world, while Mexico City and Montreal attempted to introduce themselves to the world stage.  The Lake Placid and Moscow games are the clearest examples of how the Olympics being outside politics was never true.  The Los Angeles and Barcelona games showed that the Olympics could make a lot of people a lot of money, but Atlanta, Beijing, Sochi, and Rio showed that the Olympics makes money through the most exploitative and neoliberal practices possible.

Goldblatt’s narrative makes it clear that whatever lofty goals the Olympic movement professes the contemporary games fail to live up to them, and that this is pretty consistent with the Olympics’s history.  Whatever joys the Olympics bring, it does more harm than good.

Recommended books:

Football Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper, How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer, and Eight World Cups by George Vecsey
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Fever of 1721 by Stephen Coss


Author: Stephen Coss
Title: The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics
Narrator: Bob Souer
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster (2016
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced readers copy of this audiobook through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.

1721 is a pivotal year in Boston history.  Coss details how a popular party of elected representatives challenge the rule of the Royal Governor establishing the ideology and some of the organizations that would be used by the Revolutionary generation 50 years later.  At the same time, The New England Courant is launched as the first colonial newspaper completely independent of the government’s imprimatur and challenges the political and religious leaders of the time.  Tying them together is an epidemic of smallpox and the effort of some learned people in the town to try to fight it using a new idea, inoculation.

There are five pivotal figures in this book:

  • Elisha Cooke, Jr., the popular party politician whose election as Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representative leads to a showdown with Royal Governor Samuel Shute, who dissolves the House and calls for new elections.
  • James Franklin, publisher of The New England Courant, who publishes opinions that scandalize the established elites and religious leaders of the colony, while also aiming for a more entertaining and literary journalism than offered by the two existing newspapers.  While generally on the side of reason against tradition and superstition, Franklin’s Courant comes out strongly against inoculation.
  • Benjamin Franklin, James’ much younger brother and apprentice who educates himself with materials at the print shop and makes his first impression by anonymously submitting the Courant‘s most popular opinion pieces under the pseudonym of Silence Dogood.  Franklin, of course, is a direct connection to the Revolutionary period of the 1760s & 1770s.
  • Cotton Mather, the conservative Puritan preacher and theologian, seeking redemption for his part in the Salem Witch hysteria.  Surprisingly he is also a man of science who initiates the call to attempt inoculation against small pox which he learns of from his African slave Onesimus and the writings of physicians in Europe.
  • Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, a middling physician who answers the call to attempt inoculation and continues to do so despite strong opposition in the town and threats to his life.  Boylston ends up successfully inoculating nearly 250 people for smallpox despite being a provincial doctor with no formal training and doing so before anyone in Britain had attempted to do so.

While I was familiar with a lot of the aspects of this history, I found it fascinating how Coss tied them together and showed how they influenced one another and lasting impact on Boston and Colonial America.  It’s a fascinating and engaging historical work.

Recommended booksThe Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic That Changed America’s Destiny by Tony Williams,  Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore, and The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
Rating: ****