Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Book Review: The Golden Basket by Ludwig Bemelmans (1936)

The Golden Basket by Ludwig Bemelmans is a short novel my husband borrowed through inter-library loan. I only had access to the book for one evening, during which I devoured the wonderful story of Celeste and Melisande, two sisters who stay for a few days in an inn in Bruges, Belgium with their father.

Though the plot of this book is ostensibly about the girls' friendships with some of the people they meet at the inn, it is truly a kids' travelogue for Bruges. During their stay, the girls are taken to a carillon and a cathedral and given a ride on a boat. These visits are described in detail, as are more general aspects of their visit, such as their arrival in their room at the inn, and the way the sunrise looks on a Belgian morning. The descriptive writing is very beautiful, and a complete joy to read aloud.

This book also appears to be something of a prequel to Madeline. During an outing, Celeste and Melisande encounter a spirited little schoolgirl named Madeleine, who has trouble minding her teachers and says “Boo-boo-boo" to everything. This character seems to evolve a bit before starring in Madeline, published three years later, but clearly it is the same little girl, with only a few minor changes. The back cover of the book shows young Madeleine leaning out of her classmates' neat line of march in order to run her hand along a stone wall - this illustration could just as easily be a page taken from Madeline itself.

With or without this teaser for the Madeline series, The Golden Basket is an absolutely delightful book. I read a large portion of it aloud to my three-and-a-half-year-old and she was completely drawn into the world of the story. I imagine she would only be more engaged if she were a bit older and had the attention span to sit through the whole thing. I just can't say enough good about this book. If you have the chance to read it, do. There is no way it can disappoint.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Book Review: The Magic Summer by Noel Streatfeild (1966)

The four Gareth children - Alex, Penny, Robin, and Naomi - live in a house in London called "Medway" with their mother and scientist father. They are surprised enough when their father decides to go away for a year to study epidemics; when he falls ill and their mother must rush quickly to his side, they are thrown for a complete loop. With little time to prepare, the children are sent off to Ireland to spend the summer with their great-aunt Dymphna, who many years before looked after their father after the loss of his parents during World War II. Aunt Dymphna, who lives in "Reenmore," a house filled with books and other items she purchases from flea markets, is an eccentric old lady who values none of the comforts to which the children are so accustomed. She expects the children to cook and clean and to look after and entertain themselves. Though the Gareths have some help in the form of kind and generous neighbors, they are mostly on their own to figure things out, as Aunt Dymphna typically responds to requests for help with cryptic lines of verse and nothing more. To complicate matters further, the children also find themselves hiding a possible fugitive - a boy named Stephan who wears dark glasses -  in one of Aunt Dymphna's bedrooms, fearing that if they don't help him, he will meet with a dangerous end.

This book is quite different from Streatfeild's earlier works. Whereas her titles from the '30s and '40s didn't seem to match a particular formula, this book is much like many other family stories of the 1960s, including those by Elizabeth Enright, to whom the story is dedicated. The main difference between this book and others of its type seems to be in the character of Aunt Dymphna, whose mysterious larger-than-life personality makes her unique among the adults who populate children's books. Aunt Dymphna is a force to be reckoned with, and despite the children's frustrations with her behavior, she never changes, or softens, or apologizes for making the children's visit difficult. She remains who she is, for better or for worse, even to the last moment of the story. It is because of this steadfastness in the character of Aunt Dymphna, and the way the children are forced to grow and change in order to make their time with her bearable, that leads me to dislike the American title for the book, The Magic Summer, and to prefer instead the original British title, The Growing Summer. More than anything else, this is a story about kids who have been a bit spoiled learning how to look after themselves and to grow up in the absence of the kind sympathy of their parents. Aunt Dymphna herself may seem magical, but there is more blood, sweat, and tears in the kids' summer experience than magic.

The subplot involving the young boy with dark glasses, Stephan, who tells the children he has escaped from a Communist country is largely unnecessary and felt like a gimmick to keep kids interested rather than an integral part of the plot. Personally, I think there is plenty of great conflict in the book without Stephan, and I would have happily traded the pages spent on him for more late-night lobster hunts with Aunt Dymphna or a few more awkward exchanges about laundry between Penny and the neighbor women. Though the details of life at Reenmore are wonderfully evocative, and left me with a very clear picture of the setting for the story, I got to the end of the book feeling like I could have enjoyed more detail, not just about the house, but about the neighbor families, the local children, and even Aunt Dymphna's history. It's not that the book doesn't feel complete; I just liked the setting so much, I could have happily spent more time there.

While I think Ballet Shoes is still my favorite Streatfeild title, this book was a treat and I happily read the whole thing in one sitting. It's interesting to see how Streatfeild's writing evolved with the times, and yet remained distinctive as compared with other writers of books of the same genre. I won't forget Aunt Dymphna any time soon, and I look forward to learning about some of the poems she quoted with which I was not familiar. This was the perfect read for a rainy summer afternoon, and one I can enthusiastically recommend.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Review: Beans on the Roof by Betsy Byars (1988)

Most of the time, the Bean children - Anna, George ("String"), and Jenny ("Jelly") - are not allowed to go up on the roof. When Anna has to write a roof poem for a school assignment, however, Mama makes an exception for her, and soon the entire family is up there seeking poetic inspiration.

This book is very spare and short compared to many others by Betsy Byars, and is clearly geared toward an early elementary audience. Even though the plot seems slight, however, Byars manages to pack a lot of subtle details into the dialogue and description. By virtue of the fact that George and Jenny have nicknames at school and Anna does not, the reader gains insight into each child's status among his or her peers and understands that Anna may be quieter and more serious than her siblings. The Bean parents' pride over Anna possibly having her poem selected for a book at school and their comments about not having finished school themselves and having grandparents who could not read at all tell a lot about their past and their future hopes for their children. Even the poems the family members write on the roof reveal something about each one's priorities and sense of humor. It never ceases to impress me how Byars can turn the simple day-to-day events of life into these heartwarming and meaningful stories.

Beans on the Roof is a sweet book that could be used to introduce the concept of writing poetry to kids who are just beginning to compose their own works. It celebrates the warmth of friendship among siblings and the value of writing something you love even if it is not like anyone else's work, and even if it is not recognized by others in the way you hope. In some ways, it reminds me of some of Patricia MacLachlan's shorter, descriptive chapter books (White Fur Flying, The Truth of Me, Fly Away, etc.), but with a lighter touch and a clear appeal to younger readers. I had never heard of this book before this reading, but even though it is not Byars's absolute best, it is still very satisfying and absolutely lives up to the quality of writing I have come to expect from her. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Seven Quick Takes: Netflix's The Keepers

Back in May, Netflix released a new true crime series, The Keepers, which ostensibly focuses on an amateur investigation by former Catholic school students into the unsolved murder of a young nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, who was their teacher at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore in the 1960s. Because of the connection to Maryland, where I live, and the connection to the Catholic faith, which I practice, I decided to watch the documentary when I first heard about it. Almost immediately after I started watching, however, I felt uncertain that I should continue. While the film does show the efforts made to solve Sister Cathy's murder, it also dwells quite a bit on a sex abuse scandal at Archbishop Keough High School that may or may not be connected to the murder itself. Because of the darkness of the content and my concerns over the treatment of the Church by the filmmakers , it took me nearly two months to finish the 7 episodes of the series. Now that I have seen the whole thing, I'm still not sure what I think, but I've compiled a list of my observations about the documentary, in the hopes that they might help others decide whether or not watch.

1. The Keepers inspires sympathy for sex abuse victims.

First, I'd like to say that I do think it is important for Catholics to understand the impact of the sex abuse scandal on the individuals, families, and communities who were victimized by clergy. The first-person accounts of what happened to these young girls at Keough are deeply disturbing to me, and though I was always disappointed in the Church for its poor handling of abusers, I have a new appreciation for how distressing it was for young women to be preyed upon by men who used their positions as priests in order to commit acts of great evil. It is, of course, true that priests are no more likely to abuse children than any other man in any other position, and it is important to me that Catholics continue to defend themselves against the idea that all priests are pedophiles. Still, sometimes I think we can become so defensive over our culture's hatred toward our Church that we turn a blind eye to the real pain of real people. In that respect, this film is eye-opening and powerful.

2. The Keepers spends a lot of time on the sex abuse scandal. 

Despite my feelings of sympathy for the victims, I did notice that this documentary dwells heavily on the abuse scandal, to the point that it feels a little like a bait and switch. For several episodes, the murder takes a backseat to the details of attacks on these young girls, and it begins to feel like one is watching an expose about the sex abuse scandal and not a murder investigation at all. Obviously, the women who are investigating Sister Cathy's murder have a theory of the crime in which Sister Cathy was killed because she knew about sex abuse taking place in the school, so it does make sense to explore all the evidence they can find. But I did question whether the filmmakers chose to include so much about it because they knew it would appeal to our culture's desire to condemn the Church. Obviously, these girls were really abused, and the Church is responsible for that, but there was so much detail about each attack that after a while I started to feel really uncomfortable.

3. The individuals who appear in The Keepers all seem to be former Catholics.

When I first became interested in watching this series, I think I expected more practicing Catholics to be involved in the investigation. Instead, it seems that every abuse victim, every priest, and every nun who was interviewed for the film has left the Church. I am not necessarily surprised that someone who was abused would have a hard time remaining Catholic after enduring such trauma, but the prevalence of ex-Catholics and the complete absence of any outwardly practicing Catholics gives the series a subtle bias that bothers me. I feel like it contributes to an idea in our culture that Catholicism is something one outgrows, or gets over. Certainly someone who hates the church prior to watching The Keepers would not be challenged in that position at all as the series progresses.

4. The Keepers routinely avoids calling clergy and religious by their titles.

I have always been kind of a stickler about capitalizing pronouns that refer to God and properly addressing nuns, priests, and bishops using their correct titles and greetings. So it bothered me when I realized that the filmmakers and investigators associated with The Keepers routinely refer to clergy and religious by just their first or last names without regard for their proper titles. In some instances, it makes sense, because the individuals in question are no longer sisters or priests, but there were other situations where it felt that their titles were being omitted to distance the individuals from the Church and to demonstrate an unwillingness on the part of the filmmakers to respect the priesthood or sisterhood. I readily admit that I was looking for red flags, and it is very possible I am reading too much into this particular observation, but it happened often enough that it felt intentional.

5. The Keepers speculates a lot of about Sister Cathy's commitment to her calling.

Initially, I thought that Sister Cathy was going to be the one Catholic in the film to represent what the Church actually teaches, and to fulfill her role as a nun without a hint of scandal. Sadly, there are large sections of certain episodes that pore over Sister Cathy's personal letters and quote sections where she expresses doubts about her final vows and a possible desire to  marry a man (a priest, actually) rather than go on living as a nun. I think these can be interpreted as the last-minute questions any young person asks herself before making a lifelong commitment, but the film avoids commenting to this effect, leaving the impression that Sister Cathy didn't take her calling to be a nun seriously, and further perpetuating the idea that the Church is an institution which one leaves when one eventually comes to one's senses. 

6. The Keepers does not allow the Archdiocese of Baltimore to defend itself adequately. 

As I watched each episode, and the evidence mounted against certain priests and against the Archdiocese as a whole, I kept waiting for the moment when the Archdiocese would have an opportunity to defend itself.  When this moment finally did come, however, it was a let-down. The Archdiocese was only willing to submit answers to questions in writing, rather than having a representative appear on camera. When the written answers are shared with various interview subjects, these subjects invariably accuse the Archdiocese of lying. Since we have only the responses to the select few questions Archdiocese representatives were asked, and no follow-up questions to clarify anything or refute the claims of the interviewees, the reader is left with the impression that the Archdiocese lied in the '60s and continues to lie to protect itself now. Maybe this is true - and if so, the Archdiocese should be taken to task for concealing the truth - but it seems to me that there is more to the story that was purposely left out because it might paint the Church in a positive light. At the very least, I think the filmmakers could have asked many more nuanced and probing questions than they did. In its own FAQ about the case, the Archdiocese states that "The Archdiocese offered on several occasions to answer any and all questions for the production and, in fact, provided written responses to questions from producers of the series. Unfortunately, the producers asked very few questions of the Archdiocese before releasing the series and did not respond to the Archdiocese’s request to receive an advanced copy of the series." It strikes me as irresponsibly one-sided to let the opinion of a small number of interview subjects be the final word about the Church's role (if it had one) in the death of Sister Cathy, especially when it seems the Archdiocese was open to answering more questions.

7. The research presented in The Keepers is impressive.

Even with all my quibbles about the treatment of the church, I think what kept me watching the series was the impressive amount of research Sister Cathy's former students have been able to accomplish. The Keough alumnae responsible for the grassroots effort to find Sister Cathy's killer have truly left no stone unturned, and seeing their organizational methods, the charts and stacks of paper, and their boldness in making phone calls and visits to strangers really appealed to the side of me that studied library science and enjoys Sue Grafton novels. Whatever the attitude of the filmmakers, I feel that these women were in every way dedicated to finding justice for their beloved teacher, and that their only bias is in favor of the truth, whatever that may turn out to be.

Seven Quick Takes is hosted weekly by This Ain't the Lyceum

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reading Through History: D.J.'s Worst Enemy by Robert Burch (1965)

While his older sister, Clara May and younger brother, "Skinny Little Renfroe" manage to get along and work together as a team and a family, D.J. often chooses to be on the outskirts, picking fights and causing mischief with his best friend. Though his parents try to convince him repeatedly to join the family and stopping picking on his siblings, it isn't until peach picking season, when D.J.'s pranks lead to serious illness for Renfroe and major disappointment and embarrassment for Clara May, that he begins to understand he is truly his own worst enemy.

This book, though superficially similar to a book like Strawberry Girl, is actually very simplistic and almost boring by comparison. The story is message-driven, and there is never a moment where the reader is not aware that she is being taught a life lesson about the importance of family cooperation. D.J. is not a particularly believable twelve-year-old boy to begin with, and the sudden dawning of his self-awareness in the second half of the book makes him even less credible. This story clearly has one aim: to warn kids away from being like D.J. And it's hard to feel connected to a first-person narrator who is clearly just a pawn in a very special lesson. 

I did like the descriptions of the peach harvest, which gave a glimpse into this very specific time and place. I just wished these details had served as more than a vehicle for the didactic storyline. It felt like most of the events of the book were random and included only as a means of forcing D.J.'s ultimate reformation. 

We own this book, and I would have no problem with my kids reading it if they want to in the future, but I won't be prioritizing it as a read-aloud nor would I be especially disappointed if they decided not to read it, or said they didn't like it. I'd give it a solid three stars because the message, though lacking in subtlety, is a good one, and because the writing is decent. Still, it is mostly a forgettable book, and I wouldn't recommend bending over backwards trying to get a copy, nor am I especially interestedin the sequel, Renfroe's Christmas. I am, however, looking forward to trying some of the author's other books, especially Ida Early Comes Over the Mountain and Queenie Peavey, about both of which I have heard good things.  

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Book Review: The Spettecake Holiday by Edith Unnerstad (1958)

Five-year-old Pelle-Göran, who is ordinarily a very well-behaved little boy, has begun acting out as a result of his mother's recent injury which has kept her confined to a hospital bed. Though his mother is expected to recover, Pelle-Göran's father thinks it will be better for everyone if Pelle-Göran goes away on a holiday to his grandmother's house. While visiting his grandmother, Pelle-Göran gets to know his cousin, Kaja, who is an orphan, as well as a variety of colorful characters who live near the farm. While his mother convalesces back home, Pelle-Göran helps to reunite an estranged grandfather with his grandchildren, discovers whether dogs can talk, and learns to make a spettecake, the gift he has promised to the doctor for curing his mother.

This novel, translated from Swedish and set in Sweden, is a charming story of the same variety as The Good Master, wherein a child steps out of his comfort zone and begins to grow up as a result of the experience. Pelle-Göran, though seemingly obnoxious at the start of the book is actually a sympathetic and sweet protagonist. His concern for his mother, as well as his innocence about farm living, make it easy to root for him, and his friendship with cousin Kaja is a strong element of the story. Because Pelle-Göran likes to hear stories, there are also a few Swedish folktales interspersed throughout the novel, which give the book a little extra cultural flavor. Though much of the story feels universal, and could happen on a farm in any country, these folktales help to give the American reader a little insight into Swedish customs.

The Spettecake Holiday wasn't exactly the kind of book I had in mind when I first chose family stories as this month's theme for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, but it winds up being a good fit. Not only does Pelle-Göran worry for his mother, but he also grows closer in affection to his grandmother and cousin and witnesses and helps to resolve the difficulties between two of the neighborhood children and their own grandfather. The story itself is largely episodic, and sometimes I found myself wondering if anything was ever going to happen, but what seems to be at its heart is the importance of family and the value of their support in enduring childhood difficulties. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable and gentle tale, appropriate for reading aloud to kids as young as five or six. In addition to The Good Master, The Spettecake Holiday would also pair well with the 2015 novel, Adventures with Waffles by Maria Parr, which is set in Norway and is also a work of translation.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The RAHM Report for 7/17/17

This was a fairly productive reading week compared with the rest of the summer so far.

I finished three novels for adults:

  • A Novena for Murder by Sister Carol Anne O'Marie was a very satisfying mystery starring an elderly but spunky nun as the main character. I like that the book was written by an actual nun, so it is theologically sound and represents the church fairly, but I also appreciated that not everyone in the book was perfect, and that the nuns in the book have flaws and foibles like anyone else. I see that some of the other titles are on Open Library, so I'll plan to read those soon. 
  • Murder in the Mystery Suite by Ellery Adams ended up being a worthwhile read, even if elements of the story are a bit far-fetched. I really like the setting and the characters, and though I think my next Adams book will probably be book 3 from the Books by the Bay series, I do plan to return to this series and see where it goes next.
  • Always My Girl by Samantha Chase is a contemporary romance novel, and though I liked the first two books of the series, this one fell flat. Each book of the series is about a different Shaughnessy brother, and Quinn, featured in this book, seems to have much less personality than any of the others. I also just didn't feel the connection between him and his lifelong best friend, Anna, who is the heroine of the story. Too much sex and not enough character development overall. But I've already started the next book, This is Our Song (about Riley, the musician), and so far, it is much better. I'm sure there will be some sexual content that I could live without, but as long as the characters are a bit more interesting, I will stick with it. 

I also finished two children's books this week:

  • My husband brought home The Golden Basket by Ludwig Bemelmans one night, and I read it in about an hour. In addition to being a great kids' travelogue about 1930s Bruges, Belgium, it also turned out to be the first book in which Madeline appears! A full review of the book will be on the blog later in the month. I really wish this book were more widely available because I really enjoyed it.
  • On Quicksand Pond by Janet Taylor Lisle was mostly a disappointment. I'll have a full review either here or on Goodreads in a few days, but for a book with so much going for it - mysterious storylines, interesting characters, and strong descriptions - it really just wasn't satisfying.

Next on my to-read list are two more children's books. I'm reading Those Miller Girls! by Alberta Wilson Constant (illustrated by the Krushes!) for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge and A Picturesque Tale of Progress: Beginnings I because we just bought the whole set and I want to start previewing for homeschool purposes. Technically I am also still reading Rightfully Ours, but I haven't really touched it this week, and I'm still listening to Life Among the Savages, but slowly, in part because I don't want it to end!

Today I'm linking up with Unleashing Readers / Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday, What Are You Reading?