The House That George Built by Suzanne Slade

The House That George Built is a beautiful nonfiction picture book about the building of the White House, the U.S. president’s home in Washington, D.C. Although George Washington was instrumental in planning and building the White House (which wasn’t officially called the White House until 1901 when President Theodore Roosevelt renamed it), Washington never lived in the house he helped build. John and Abigail Adams moved into the President’s House at the tail end of Adams’ presidency and lived there for about four months.

This book tells about the planning, the building, and the first occupants of George’s house with prose on one page and verse on the adjoining or following page.

This is the design,
that would stand for all time,

that was drawn for the lot,
that grand, scenic spot
for the President’s House that George built.

The illustrations, by Rebecca Bond, spread across both facing pages, and give a sense of the expansive growth of the new house along with the new nation. The verse, of course based on The House that Jack Built, grows, too, and at the end a full poem complements a nearly finished grand house. (The staircase wasn’t quite finished, and the roof leaked.)

I have a couple of more prosaic, factual books about the building of Washington, D.C. and the building of the White House, but this books is so much more fun and “living”, while still providing children with information about the House that George Built. There are even more factoids, interesting tidbits about the history of the White House in the back of the book on a page called The Changing President’s House and on the facing page entitled simply Author’s Note.

I’m quite pleased to add this relatively new book, published in 2012, to my library.

Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson.

“There is no way to write a biography of Shostakovich without relying on hearsay and relaying the memories of people who have many private reasons to fabricate, mislead and revise.” (p.141)

So, this biography of Shostakovich, the Russian composer who immortalized the siege of Leningrad during World War II in his Seventh Symphony, is sprinkled throughout with “perhaps” and “supposedly” and “it is not clear whether” and many, many questions. I was at first a little frustrated by all the “weasel words” with which author M.T. Anderson hedges his sentences and declarations and with all of the open-ended questions with which he ends many of his paragraphs and chapters, but I began to see these uncertainties and essays at truth as (perhaps) metaphorical. After all, Anderson is writing about the events of a composer’s life, many of which are shrouded in Communist propaganda and lies or in the half-truths of people who were trying to live under Communist oppression. But he’s also writing about Shostakovich’s music, which is also vague and uncertain and shrouded, as various experts disagree about the music’s message and meaning. So there are questions, and Anderson asks the right ones while also laying out the facts when those are available in a readable narrative form.

I don’t exactly see why this book is being marketed as a young adult book, unless it’s maybe because the author has written many fiction books for children and young adults. While it’s not a scholarly, academic biography, it is certainly well researched and documented and perfectly suited for adult readers. In fact, unless a person, young or old, is particularly interested in the Soviet Union during World War II or in Shostakovich’s music or twentieth century classical music in general, I doubt this book is going to hold much appeal. Conversely, if any of those interests are there, young and old will find it fascinating. So why is it a Young Adult book? I have no idea.

The details about the siege of Leningrad, taken partly from NKVD archives and records, are harrowing and disturbing (starvation, cannibalism, frozen and unburied bodies, etc.), so it’s not a book for children. The main text of the book is 379 pages and written in a literary, almost lyrical style, so I doubt anyone younger than fifteen or sixteen is going to attempt it anyway. I thought I knew a lot about World War II, but it turns out that I knew very little, aside from the bare facts, about the siege of Leningrad, and I had never heard of Shostakovich’s Leningrad (Seventh) Symphony, not being a music aficionado or a student of classical Russian music.

I was inspired by the book to listen to the Leningrad Symphony, a undertaking in itself since the symphony in four movements is almost an hour and half long. I’ll embed the youtube version that I listened to, but I’m sure that I got more out of it after having read all the historical background in Mr. Anderson’s book. I suggest, for those of you who, like me, are not musically educated, that you read the book first and then listen to the symphony.

Good book, but disturbing. Good music, but also disturbing, especially the relentless march in the first movement.

Noah Webster: Man of Many Words by Catherine Reef

One of my pet peeves about contemporary nonfiction books for teens and tweens is that the authors seem compelled to share all the interesting tidbits and rabbit trails from their research in sidebar boxed text or sometimes even entire pages of boxed text asides. These text boxes break up the flow of the narrative, and they annoy the heck out of me when I’m reading. I can’t resist reading them to see what I might be missing, and I’m almost always sorry that I did because I lose track the story at hand.

Catherine Reef’s biography of Noah Webster avoids the text box pitfall, and she includes all the extra material she researched on the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution and early American life and politics in the narrative itself. I could read about the ratification of the U.S. Constitution as I read about Noah Webster’s opinions about the Constitution. And no text boxes were inserted to aggravate and sidetrack my reading. So, score one for this biography.

The narrative itself was well-written and interesting, and the illustrations were well-placed in old-fashioned frames which complemented and didn’t interrupt the story. Unfortunately, the size of the book itself, about 8″ x 10″, was awkward and made it somewhat difficult to read in bed or even in a comfortable chair. This size seems to be popular these days for nonfiction tomes, but I’m not a fan.

This biography for young adult and middle school readers is 171 pages long and gives a full picture of Noah Webster and his times and his influence on the American language, education, and government. The author mentions Webster’s conversion, as an adult, to a renewed, or perhaps new, faith in the God of his forefathers, but she does seem rather perplexed and detached about the meaning of all that religious talk on Webster’s part.

“Noah blocked himself off from the din of life by packing the walls of his study with sand. Yet there was one voice he found impossible to keep out: the one he believed belonging to God.
One morning in April 1808 , he was alone in his study. ‘A sudden impulse upon my mind arrested me,’ he said. ‘I instantly fell on my knees, confessed my sins to God, implored him pardon, and made my vows to him that . . . I would live in entire obedience to his service.’ The next day he called his family together and led them in prayer, as he would do three times a day for the rest of his life.”

One can almost hear in the background the biographer’s thoughts of “how quaint and colonial–believing that one can hear the voice of God!” I would have liked to know more about how Noah Webster’s April awakening and commitment to obey the voice of God impacted his life and changed his actions, other than prayer three times a day. The book does tell us that his new found faith caused a rift in his friendship with one Joel Barlow, an old crony who was also an atheist and a poet. Webster reneged on his promise to review Mr. Barlow’s latest poem because the poem was not in keeping with Noah Webster’s newfound Christian convictions. And late in his life, Noah Webster attempted a revision of the King James Version of the Bible, but the Webster version was not a commercial success. That’s about all we learn from this biography about Mr. Webster’s faith and his practice of that faith. Maybe that’s all there is to know.

At any rate, I find that juvenile biographies are a wonderful introduction to people and events of the past. I am inspired to read more about Noah Webster and perhaps get answers to the questions I have left after reading this biography. Ms. Reef’s bibliography lists other biographies of Mr. Webster:

The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall.
Noah Webster and the American Dictionary by David Micklethwait.
Noah Webster by John S. Morgan.
The Life and Times of Noah Webster, an American Patriot byy Harlow Giles Unger.
Noah Webster, Schoolmaster in America by Harry R. Warfel.

I am intrigued enough that I might want to try one of these five biographies. Any suggestions as to which one?

Called for Life by Kent and Amber Brantly

Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic by Kent and Amber Brantly, with David Thomas.

I’ll start out by telling what I missed in this story by Ebola survivor Kent Brantly and his wife, Amber. There’s nothing in the book about how Mr. and Mrs. Brantly came to know the Lord, nothing about their childhood, or their growth as Christ-followers, except in relation to their missionary commitment. I would have liked to have read more about each one of the couple’s initial salvation experience as a sort of a background to their experiences in Liberia. However, this book is not the book for that.

What this book does do well is tell the story of how Kent and Amber Brantly ended up in Liberia on the frontline of the fight against the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. And it tells in detail how Kent Brantly contracted Ebola himself and how he survived the virus that killed so many people in Liberia and in other West African countries. In the book, Brantly also gives God the credit for saving his life, while acknowledging that many people and circumstances came together to make it possible for him to receive expert medical care and treatment.

I was intrigued learn of the many factors that converged to make Mr. Brantley’s survival and healing possible and of the heroic actions of many missionary doctors and nurses and Liberian national doctors and healthcare workers in their team effort to combat the Ebola outbreak. It’s a good, inspiring story, and it made a good antidote to the darkness of the news story of death and destruction in Paris that dominated this past weekend’s newsfeed. I admire Kent Brantly and his fellow Ebola survivor, Nancy Writebol, even more than I did before reading this account of their faith in God and their tenacious fight against Ebola.

I recommend Called for Life. I needed some contemporary heroes to restore my hope, and I imagine you do, too.

Finding Someplace by Denise Lewis Patrick

On her thirteenth birthday, Reesie Boone finds herself stranded in the home of her elderly neighbor, Miss Martine, as Hurricane Katrina turns Reesie’s home, New Orleans, and her neighborhood, into a disaster zone. Will Reesie and Miss Martine escape the floods, and will they find Reesie’s family?

I’ve read couple of other middle grade fiction books set in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina:

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana and
Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick.

Honestly, none of the three stood out or seemed really special. Maybe I’m jaded. Reesie’s story is fine, and it does deal more with the aftermath of of the hurricane and the long process of recovery and finding a “new normal.” Nevertheless, I felt as if I’d read it all before.

However, that doesn’t mean that middle grade readers who are just now wanting to find out about Katrina and its effects in the lives of the people of NOLA would be as dulled to the subject as I am. Any of these three would do the job adequately, even if none of the three is what I would call memorable.

Maybe reading this nonfiction book about Memorial Medical Center and the events that happened there during Katrina was so disturbing that I was spoiled for anything else.

Saturday Review of Books: November 14, 2015

Such a sad weekend, and I’m very late with the Saturday Review link-up. Still, I would like to enjoy your book review links, if you would be so kind as to share them. My prayers are with the people of Paris and Syria and Iraq and all the other places in this sad world where darkness attempts to put out the Light.

Au commencement était la Parole, et la Parole était avec Dieu; et cette parole était Dieu: Elle était au commencement avec Dieu. Toutes choses ont été faites par elle, et sans elle rien de ce qui a été fait, n’a été fait. En elle était la vie, et la vie était la Lumière des hommes. Et la Lumière luit dans les ténèbres, mais les ténèbres ne l’ont point reçue.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcomea it.


Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

You can go to this post for over 100 links to book lists for the end of 2014/beginning of 2015. Feel free to add a link to your own list.

If you enjoy the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon, please invite your friends to stop by and check out the review links here each Saturday.

Binny in Secret by Hilary McKay

I said in my review of the first book in British author Hilary McKay’s new series about a girl named Binny and her family that these books were for people who were not averse to quirky and and slightly dysfunctional families. Then, in this next book, Binny in Secret, while Binny and her little brother remain quite endearingly odd, Binny’s mother steps in and becomes involved and responsible. It’s a good thing she does, I suppose, for the fictional Binny’s sake, but it spoils my thesis about Hilary McKay and dysfunctional, uninvolved, or absent parents. Oh, well.

Binny in Secret takes Binny and her little family—Mother, sensible older sister Clem, Binny (age 12), and sweet baby James (age 6)—to the country to live while their house is being repaired. (The roof fell in during a storm.) Benny hates life in the country, hates her new school, and really hates the new neighbors who are also the landlords. Unfortunately, Binny expresses her feelings about all of the above quite freely and gets herself into trouble with not only the neighbors but also just about everyone else.

The book has an anti-gun vibe, which is interesting because I didn’t know guns were an issue “across the pond”, but it’s nothing too propagandistic. And there’s a tiny bit of magical realism or fantasy mixed in with the realistic story about a girl who learns to temper her judgments and accept differences while she saves a wild animal friend from being hunted and killed.

Then, there’s the timeslip or time connection between Binny’s life and the children who lived in the country house back in the early twentieth century. Benny doesn’t ever travel in time. Nor do the other children—Clarry, Peter, and Rupert–travel to the future. But there is a connection as Binny finds relics from the past in the attic of her new home, and she works both literally and imaginatively to put together a story that will reveal the lives of long-ago children and what happened to them as they grew up.

In short, if you like Hilary McKay’s Casson family, you will probably like Binny Cornwallis and her family, too. I can see the Cornwallises and the Cassons becoming friends, marrying each other eventually, and raising little free-spirited Cornwallis-Cassons. Or Casson-Cornwallises.

I’m thankful today for the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of all of our families, especially mine. Lord, help us to give grace, laugh a lot, and enjoy each other’s peculiar strengths, habits, and even weaknesses.

Poetry Friday: Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree

Apple Tree by Z-babyThe tree of life my soul hath seen,

Laden with fruit and always green: (x2)

The trees of nature fruitless be

Compared with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel:

By faith I know, but ne’er can tell (x2)

The glory which I now can see

In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,

And pleasure dearly I have bought: (x2)

I missed of all; but now I see

’Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m weary with my former toil,

Here I will sit and rest awhile: (x2)

Under the shadow I will be,

Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,

It keeps my dying faith alive; (x2)

Which makes my soul in haste to be

With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

I found several choral versions of this song, a poem/carol by an anonymous eighteenth century poet set to music by Elizabeth Poston. But I rather liked this solo rendition by Lee Farrar Bailey.

I’m thankful today for the rest I find in Christ the Apple Tree.

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

Fuzzy Mud is a well-written and engaging look at biochemistry, math, bullying, bravery, cowardice, and making moral choices. Those disparate subject areas and themes in the lives of fifth grader Tamaya Dhilwaddi and seventh graders Marshal Walsh and Chad Hillegas form the glue that holds this novel together and make for a satisfying near-apocalypse story for middle grade readers.

It’s the “fuzzy mud” that’s the problem. The self-replicating microorganisms that are supposed to be a new fuel that will revolutionize the energy and fuel businesses may be out of control. And Tamaya, Marshall, and Chad are about to step into —literally—a big mess that makes their small problems with bullying and being bullied look really small.

Louis Sachar, the talented author of the Newbery Award winning Holes, as well as many other favorite middle grade and young adult novels, has written a great book. And it’s short, only 180 pages, a plus for reluctant readers who want a book that doesn’t take them a year to finish reading. The only issue I had with the book was the population scare statistics that are used to show the importance of developing a new, inexpensive biofuel. I have a thing about population alarmists: I don’t believe them. When I was in high school, back in the dark ages of the nineteen seventies, I was told that we were running out fuel and food and every other resource and that if people didn’t quit having so many babies the world was going to DIE OF STARVATION!

I read Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb. I believed that the world was in crisis, and that children were the enemy.

“Dr. Ehrlich’s opening statement was the verbal equivalent of a punch to the gut: ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over.’ He later went on to forecast that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s, that 65 million of them would be Americans, that crowded India was essentially doomed, that odds were fair ‘England will not exist in the year 2000.’ Dr. Ehrlich was so sure of himself that he warned in 1970 that ‘sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come.’ By ‘the end,’ he meant ‘an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.'” NY Times Special Report

Anyone who is reading this post knows that Ehrlich’s dire predictions didn’t come true. I learned more and read more and went on to have eight children. And I resent reading a new, updated version of the old scare stats in a children’s book. I really think the “overpopulation” propaganda could have been left out of the book.

Otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? Well, the book was enjoyable, and I would recommend that you read it for the story and just ignore the over-population junk science.