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The Extra by Kathryn Lasky

Leni Riefenstahl, in case you’ve never heard of her was Hitler’s pet film maker. She became famous with her 193 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Then, Hitler asked her to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl became the toast of the film world as she went on a publicity tour for her Olympics movie in the United States in 1938. She told a reporter while on tour: “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”

In 1940 Riefenstahl began to make a pet project called Tiefland (Lowland), set in Spain, filmed in Spain and in Germany, and financed by the German government. As extras for the film Riefenstahl used gypsies (Sinti and Roma), unpaid and imported from the concentration camps. The Extra by Kathryn Lasky tells the fictional story of one Sinti girl, Lilo, based on the true history of Anna Blach, a Sinti girl who served as Riefenstahl’s stunt double in the movie. Although Riefenstahl never admitted to mistreating or enslaving the Roma and Sinti extras who worked on Tiefland, it is known that she chose the extras for their “Spanish looks” from the camps and that many, if not all, of them were sent to Auschwitz to die after the filming was complete.

Lasky portrays Riefenstahl in the worst possible light. In The Extra, Leni Riefenstahl is a wolf, self-obsessed, cruel, and opportunistic. Her victims/slaves are the Romani who work and receive somewhat better treatment than they would have received in the camps, but who are subject to the director’s whims and casual acts of callous barbarity. In one scene, that may or may not be true, an extra is killed while the director is filming a scene with a wolf in which she asks the extra to bait the hungry creature with raw meat in order to get a good shot.

I found some of the most interesting material in the book in the author’s note at the end. Although Riefenstah was tried four times for her part in the perpetration of Nazi war crimes, she was never convicted of anything more than being a “follower” or “fellow traveler” of Hitler and the Nazis. She never apologized to the Roma and Sinti for her part in their enslavement and deaths during the filming of Tiefland. She insisted to the end that she was “not political” and that she didn’t know anything about the death camps, although she did grudgingly say in 2002, “I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps.” Riefenstahl lived to be 101 years old, and she is lauded to this day for her outstanding skill as a director and filmmaker and for her second career after the war as an excellent still photographer and underwater photographer.

Can you separate the person from his or her work? If Hitler had been a talented artist instead of a second rate one, could we look at his artwork and not see his atrocities? I find it difficult, and yet I read–and enjoy– lots authors who led less than exemplary lives. Somewhere there is a line between bad behavior that doesn’t spoil the art and egregiously bad behavior that spoils everything it touches. I would find it difficult to watch Tiefland, even though the film itself is supposed to be apolitical, with any kind of objectivity or appreciation.

Midnight Hour Encores by Bruce Brooks

One of my favorite YA novels is The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks. So, when I found another YA novel by Mr. Brooks at the used bookstore the other day, I snapped it up immediately.

Midnight Hour Encores is about a cellist, Sibilance T. Spooner, not a basketball player. And it takes place in the mid 1980′s (published in 1986) as the aforementioned Sibilance asks her leftover hippie father Taxi to take her to San Francisco to meet her mother. Taxi, despite his love for 60′s music and culture, has been the responsible parent in Sib’s life, the one who took her to cello lessons, gave her a home, and gave her plenty of space to grow up into one of the world’s most promising cellists and a very confident and prepossessing sixteen year old woman.

However, as Taxi and Sib travel across the country in an old VW bus, they find that each of them has been harboring a few secrets. And when Sib finally meets the mom who left them when Sib was a baby, things become very complicated.

This book was not as good as The Moves Make the Man, at least not as good as I remember that book to be. (I haven’t read it in twenty years, but I liked it a lot.) Midnight Hour Encores did have its moments, and the emphasis on the idea that people grow and change and that people are complicated and hard to pigeonhole—that was good. The casual acceptance of kids and adults having casual sex was a minor aspect of the book, but I could have done without the assumptions. The ending surprised me, in a good way.

If you’re interested in the 1960′s or in the world of top-flight teen musicians or in complicated family relationships, you might enjoy Midnight Hour Encores. If you haven’t read The Moves Make the Man, I highly recommend it, even if you have no interest in basketball whatsoever.

The Scapegoat by Daphne DuMaurier

Wow! This one ranks right up there with Rebecca as one of Du Maurier’s best novels of intrigue and suspense, with plenty of twists, turns and unexpected revelations to keep the pages turning.

“Two men—one English, the other French—meet by chance in a province railway station and are astounded that they are so much alike that they could easily pas for each other. Over the course of a long evening, they talk and drink. It is not until he awakes the next day that John, the Englishman, realizes that he may have spoken too much. His French companion is gone, having stolen his identity. For his part, John has no choice but to take the Frenchman’s place—as master of a chateau, director of a failing business, head of a large and embittered family, and keeper of too many secrets.” ~From the blurb on the back of the book.

The initial premise is a little shaky: can two people who are not twins really look so much alike that a switch will fool even their closest friends and kin? However, given that postulation, the story is incredibly insightful as John realizes that he is bound to the past decisions and mistakes of the man he is impersonating in such a way as to make him almost unable to act in any way except the way that the Comte Jean de Gue would have acted in the same situation. John struggles to become Jean—and to keep from becoming Jean. Then, John must decide whether to let himself care about Jean’s family and Jean’s community, thereby running the risk of hurting them and they him, or whether he wants to withdraw and run away from the responsibilities and possibilities that his new life has thrust upon him.

Several questions infuse the plot with significance:
To what extent am I compelled to be the person that others expect me to be?
Can people change?
Is anyone wholly evil or wholly good, or are we all some admixture of both?
To what extent does a person become what he pretends to be?
Do good intentions redeem mistaken actions that hurt others?
Does the past pre-determine the future?

I just found this review by Helen at She Reads Novels in which she says that “[t]here is also another way to interpret the story, one which goes deeper into the psychology of identity.” I must say that I think I know what she is hinting at, but I hadn’t thought of this alternate theory of what happens in the novel until I read Helen’s review. It’s an interesting thought, and it makes me want to go back and re-read the entire novel to see if it really can be read the way I’m thinking. Enigmatic enough for you?

If you like psychological suspense and the philosophical exploration of sin, history, and identity in your novels, you won’t want to to miss The Scapegoat.

D-Day: Books for Children and Young Adults

D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy, 1944 by Rick Atkinson.
The Story of D-Day: June 6, 1944 by Bruce Bliven, Jr. (Landmark Book #62)

Mr. Atkinson’s story of the events of D-Day was “adapted for young readers from the #1 New York Times–bestselling The Guns at Last Light, D-Day.” Guns at Last Light is the third in a trilogy of books by Mr. Atkinson called the Liberation Trilogy. The three books in the trilogy chronicle the history of the liberation of North Africa, Italy, and Western Europe, respectively. This children’s version of a portion of the third book was published in 2014 by Henry Holt and Company. Rick Atkinson won Pulitzer prizes in both journalism and history, so he would seem to be well-qualified to write on the subject.

I found the book somewhat appealing, especially the photographs, but it was heavy on the details and statistics. I got lost in some sections of the book because of my lack of military expertise in general and my lack of knowledge about World War II and D-Day in particular. The book felt like what it was: a compilation/abridgement of details from a narrative that probably flowed much better and was more understandable in the original, adult version. Young readers (and I along with them) would need both more explanation and less detail in a narrative written just for them.

Mr. Bliven’s Story of D-Day is a part of the classic Landmark series of books on U.S. and World History. Bliven tells the story of D-Day as a story. He fills in background about the war, the troops, and their weapons as the narrative progresses, and the tension and force of the story are preserved in a way that includes plenty of statistics and details, but doesn’t become entangled in them.

Mr. Bliven’s narrative flow is just better than that of the newer book by Mr. Atkinson, probably because Mr. Bliven wrote his book as a whole book for young adults while Mr. Atkinson’s book is an abridgment of a longer work for adults. Also, Mr. Blivens had the advantage over Mr. Atkinson; Bliven was a part of the Allied force that landed in Normandy on D-Day.

“Mr. Bliven wrote briefly for a newspaper in Stroudsburg, Pa., and for The Manchester Guardian, the British paper, before graduating from Harvard in 1937. He then wrote editorials for The New York Post, leaving to serve in World War II.
‘I was a lieutenant in the field artillery and took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy and wrote a children’s book about it a dozen years later to find out what happened,’ he said. That book was ‘The Story of D-Day, June 6, 1944′ (Random House, 1956). ~From a NY Times obituary article about Bruce Bliven, January 14, 2002.

Even though, as Blivens makes clear in his book, most of the men who were in the first wave of soldiers on the Normandy coast on D-Day had no idea about what was going on in the overall invasion, or even what the plan was for the entire operation, Bliven was able to reconstruct the story of D-Day and make it clear for young readers and for adults like me who need lots of “hand-holding’ background and explanation embedded in an absorbing narrative story.

I highly recommend the 1956 The Story of D-Day, or possibly (I haven’t read it) the updated version of Bliven’s classic account, Invasion: the Story of D-Day, which was published by Sterling Publishers in 2007.

Poetry Friday: Hosie’s Aviary by Tobias and Leonard Baskin

Hosie’s Aviary is a book of bird poems and drawings. It’s a lovely collection, a family project, and a delight to the ear and the eye. For example, the poem “EGRET”:

Long hair
and pencil bill,
does this egret write poems?

Leonard Baskin was planning and studying to become an Orthodox rabbi like his father until at age 14 he saw a sculpture demonstration in Macy’s department store, and he began studying art instead. Baskin became a famous sculptor and also illustrated many children’s books; however, it was for Hosie’s Alphabet (Viking), text written by his children Hosea and Tobias and by Lisa, his second wife, that he received a Caldecott Honor in 1973. In 1979, Mr. Baskin illustrated and published Hosie’s Aviary, also published by Viking Press and also written by his children Tobias, Lucretia, and Hosea, and by Lisa Baskin.

Leonard Baskin, who died in 2000, seems to have been a fascinating man. He was a friend of Ted Hughes, for whom he illustrated the poetry collection, Crow. The first Crow poems were written in response to a request by Baskin, who had at the time produced several pen and ink drawings of crows. Hughes’ wife, Sylvia Plath, dedicated one of her poems, “Sculptor”, to Leonard Baskin. Mr. Baskin was the sculptor for one section of the memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Washington, D.C.

Tobias Baskin, who just happens to have been born the same year I was, became a “self-directed learner” much like his father. He is now a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In the following video, he gives an acceptance speech to a homeschool group called North Star in Massachusetts which gave him an award for self-directed learning, or as he says, for dropping out of high school:

Tobias Baskin, 2010 from North Star on Vimeo.

Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague

A best-selling author of adult women’s novels and a picture book author, who happen to be married to each other, team up to write a middle grade time travel adventure. It sounds as if it might be a good idea.

However, I just don’t think they pulled it off. The plot is fine: Margaret’s only hope to save her father from dying for a crime he didn’t commit is to go back in time and stop the chain of events that turned her father’s harsh judge into a merciless tyrant. Luckily for Margaret and for her dad, time travel runs in the family, even though the family members have all made a solemn vow not to use their time-travelling abilities.

It’s not the plot; it’s the characters themselves and their motivations that are clunky and unreal. Lucas, the unjust judge, becomes a minion of the very forces and people he wanted his father to fight against, and he loses faith in his father with very little warrant. Margaret’s father is sentenced to life imprisonment on the basis of little or no evidence, and the fact that the “company”, Victory Fuels, owns the town and is out to get him doesn’t really seem plausible. They’ve bought not only the whole town, but also the entire state of Arizona it seems.

The authors live in Delaware, and their concept of the backwardness of Arizona, both in 1938 and in 2014, just doesn’t ring true for me. Hove they been to Arizona? Of course, I’ve never been to Arizona myself, so I could be wrong. Maybe Arizona is just full of towns owned by energy companies who are evilly fracking away the environment and railroading whistle blowers into long prison sentences on trumped up charges. After all, it’s Arizona. Villainous energy companies. Anti-environmentalists. Corrupt justice system.

Then, to top it all off, Margaret and her friends Josh and Charlie are able to effect a complete turn around in the judge’s character and actions with an insignificant little historical artifact. Just as Lucas Biggs became a father-hating minion of evil on the basis of very little evidence, he also repents and does a 180 without much reason to do so.

I just couldn’t swallow this one. But the time travel aspect is handled well.

Spunky Girl Spies and Tries (To Keep Hoping)


Harriet M. Welch.
Ramona Quimby.
Jo March.
Trixie Belden.
Flavia de Luce.
Nancy Drew.
Hazel Kaplansky.
Star Mackie.

One could go on listing spunky girl heroines, wannabe spies and detectives, and just generally nonconformist and stubborn females in children’s fiction for a long time. (In fact, Jen Robinson made just such a list of 200 “cool girls from children’s literature” a few years ago.)

I read Hope Is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera and The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill by Megan Frazer Blakemore back to back, and the female protagonists, Star and Hazel, will forever be associated and somewhat confused with one another in my mind. Star and Hazel definitely fit into the cool, spunky female character category. If you read one of these two books and like it, you’ll probably like the other.

Hazel Kaplansky of Spy Catchers is a girl sleuth who models her detective activities on the famous Nancy Drew. Set in 1953, Spy Catchers of Maple Hill has as its historical background and key conflict the Cold War and the Red Scare of the 1950′s. Hazel is determined to find and expose the “Commie” spies that she is sure are conspiring to infiltrate and destroy Maple Hill, Vermont—if not the entire United States.

Hazel is relentless and somewhat arrogant in her search for truth, justice, and the American way. “What’s the point of modesty?” she says at one point to her friend and fellow detective, Samuel. “I’ll be modest when other folks start to realize how remarkable I am.”

By the end of the book Hazel has come to a few realizations herself—and received a bit of a comedown when she finds out that her unfounded suspicions have hurt good people. However, the last few pages of the story show Hazel, as determined and undaunted as ever, spinning new theories and visualizing herself as “Hazel Kaplansky, star student, holder of knowledge, solver of mysteries, and future double agent.”

Star Mackie in Hope Is a Ferris Wheel is just as stubborn in her sense of right and wrong and her quest to make sense of her world as Hazel. Star is a little younger than Hazel, and in spite of Star’s somewhat dysfunctional family life, she’s a bit more innocent than Hazel. Star’s father disappeared when she was a baby. Her mother says her dad is a no-good bum and won’t let Star even communicate with him. Her sister Winter, whom Star idolizes, has been kicked out of school for writing horror stories with lots of “characters in them [that] have the misfortune of dying horrible deaths, like having all of the blood explode out of their bodies” and a “family of inbred mutant cannibals” who happen to have the same names as her classmates.

The whole family, Star, her mom, and Winter, have moved from Oregon to California in search of a fresh start, and their home is “the pink-tinted trailer with the flamingo hot glued to the roof” in Treasure Trailers trailer park. Star (like Hazel) is unpopular with her new classmates because of her trailer park origins and general lack of conformity, and so she tries starting a club to make new friends. But Star, again like Hazel, is rather bossy and stubborn, and friendships are hard to initiate.

I liked the fact that both of these books feature imperfect young protagonists, and not everything is resolved in the end of either book. Hazel doesn’t become subdued and older but wiser. Star doesn’t really connect with her father, and her new friends are, well, a little flaky and unreliable. Nevertheless, as Star would say in imitation of Emily Dickinson, “Hope is a Ferris Wheel. . . Hope becomes A Thing/ That, When you’re getting Off,/ You take With you to Bring.”

There’s still hope for Hazel Kaplansky and Star Mackie to grow into strong young women with wisdom tempered by experience. And they’re the kind of girls who will experience a lot because they aren’t going to sit around and wait for life to come to them. If you’re a fan of Harriet the Spy or Flavia de Luce, you might very well enjoy either or both of these middle grade novels.

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Since January, I’ve been on the wait list at the library for Robert Edsel’s The Monuments Men, about the WWII exploits of art preservationists saving valuable artwork form the Nazis in liberated Europe. I think I read about the book because there was a movie released in February called Monuments Men starring George Clooney. Hence the popularity of the book. (Has anyone seen the movie? Is it any good?)

Under the Egg is a children’s novel that incorporates a lot of World War II history about the Monuments Men and stolen works of art and concentration camps into an art adventure for inquiring minds. I enjoyed the story, which features two thirteen year old girls investigating a possibly valuable, possibly stolen, painting by Raphael during a hot New York City summer. However, there are several weaknesses in the story which may make it a no-go for some readers.

The plot is great. However, the execution of the story leaves something to be desired. The impetus that begins the action and the denouement of the story each depend on huge coincidences that were hard to swallow. Although I’m not an author and don’t know exactly how it could be done, I think the plot could have been managed without the coincidences.

'The resurected Christ' photo (c) 2012, Helena - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Also, I loved all the history that is interspersed thoughout the story. I like reading about history. But I’m not most readers, and I think that some juvenile readers in particular will balk at the amount of historical exposition that is included in the novel. Maybe not. Again I loved it, but there is a lot of information and commentary about art and Nazi art thefts, about Renaissance artists and symbolism, especially Raphael, about the Monuments Men and about German internment camps and the Holocaust.

QOTD: Who is your favorite Renaissance artist? (I’m rather fond of Rembrandt, myself.)

The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs

Big Hair and Books

I had intended to get a review written and posted about Cornelia Meigs’ 1922 Newbery Honor book, The Windy Hill, soon. I just read the book last night. However, I forgot about Rosemond’s Way Back Wednesday link-up, and of course, The Windy Hill is way back, almost a century back. So, here goes.

The very first year that the Newbery was awarded, Cornelia Lynde Meigs’ story of two young teens solving a family mystery at their cousin Jasper’s house in the country won a Newbery Honor. Ms. Meigs was a teacher whose first book, The Kingdom of the Winding Road, was published by Macmillan in 1915. Meigs’ books won Newbery Honors again in 1929 for Clearing Weather and in 1933 for Swift Rivers. I read and reviewed Swift Rivers a few years ago, and I still remember quite a bit about that story, something I can’t really say about many of the more recently published children’s books I’ve read. Finally, in 1934 Ms. Meigs’ biography of Louisa May Alcott, Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women won the Newbery Medal. Over the course of her career, Cornelia Meigs wrote over thirty books for children.

On to the book at hand, The Windy Hill tells the story of a family feud, a rather polite New England sort of feud, but a family quarrel nonetheless. The author tells her story from the point of view of fifteen year old Oliver and his sister Janet who have come to visit Cousin Jasper in his country mansion near Windy Hill. Unfortunately, Cousin Jasper is not himself. Something, or someone, is troubling him, and Cousin Jasper is not a very entertaining host. Oliver first decides to run away from the problem and return home on the next train. But on his way to the station, he meets The Beeman, a beekeeper with a penchant for storytelling, and as Oliver thinks and listens to the Beeman’s stories of the history of Windy Hill, he decides to stay and figure out what is wrong and do something to help.

The historical stories, one about an Indian named Nashola, another set during the War of 1812, and a third during the California Gold Rush, illuminate both the past and the present, and the main story comes to a climax when evil is revealed, good is rewarded, and all is made right. It’s probably unsuited for the internet generation, but I enjoyed the slower pace. The Windy Hill served as a good old-fashioned antidote to all the dark, weird, and twisted children’s books I’ve been reading for the past week or so. If my children were still young enough for read-alouds, I’d put it on the read aloud list.

QOTD: What’s your favorite Newbery Award or Newbery Honor book? What Newbery Award book do you think should definitely not have been chosen for the award?