New Biographies in the Library: July, 2016

I’m going to start posting here about the books that I acquire for my library. For those of you who don’t know, I have a private subscription library in my home, mostly for homeschoolers, although others who are interested in quality books are welcome to visit or to join. I have a lot of older books that are no longer available from the public library as well as some new books that I think will stand the test of time.

Here’s an annotated list of some of the new/old books I’ve acquired (from thrift stores, used bookstores, library sales, donations) in the past month:

Harry Houdini: Young Magician by Kathryn Kilby Borland. Illustrated by Helen Ross Speicher. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

Albert Einstein: Young Thinker by Marie Hammontree. Illustrated by Robert Dorms. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

Kate Douglas Wiggin: The Little Schoolteacher by Miriam E. Mason. Illustrated by Vance Locke. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

George Eastman: Young Photographer by Joanne Landers Henry. Illustrated Rawson. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

I have a young library patron who devours these Childhood of Famous Americans series books. They are a series of somewhat fictionalized biographies of almost all of the famous Americans you can think of. They’re written on a primary grade/easy chapter book reading level, and the stories are engaging and adventure-filled. The bios focus on the childhood years of the subject, hence the series title, but do give information about each person’s adult life as well. I recommend them for second to fourth graders who want to read about real people. I find them to much more readable and “narrative” than more recent biography series for that age group, which sometimes tend to be dry and factual and focused on the adult lives of the biographical subject.

The War in Korea: 1950-1953 by Robert Leckie. World Landmark series is another great series for children and young adults, this one more middle grade level and usually about historical events or time periods, although some are biographies. I didn’t really have any books in my library about the Korean War or set during the Korean War, so I was glad to pick up this Landmark history book.

The Story of Beethoven by Helen Kaufmann. Another series, Signature Books from Grosset and Dunlap publishers. Excellent biographies written by top-notch authors.

Giants of Invention: Stories of the Men Whose Inventions Remade our World by Edgar Tharp. Illustrated by Frank Vaughn.

History’s 100 Greatest Composers: Life Stories of the Immortals of Music Selected by America’s Top Music Critics by Helen L. Kaufmann.

On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne. I found this more recent title, a picture book biography emphasizing Einstein’s unrelenting curiosity, at a thrift store. It’s a lovely introduction to the great scientist and his work.

Theodosia, Daughter of Aaron Burr by Anne Colver

My daughters have become engrossed in listening to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical, Hamilton, and therefore I have listened to bits and pieces of it quite a few times over the past couple of weeks. (Warning: there’s some fairly foul language in the lyrics to the musical, as well as some lurid gossip about the main characters. On the other hand, some of the lyrics are quite funny and witty.) As one thing leads to another, I noticed this book on the shelves of my library and decided to read it. Theodosia Burr Alston was the only (legitimate)* daughter of Aaron Burr, who figures prominently in the life and, of course, death of Alexander Hamilton.

Anne Colver wrote this book for children or young adults, and it was published in 1941. The content is largely pro-Burr, although various characters can’t help speculating that Burr may have lost at least some of his reason and judgment after the duel with Hamilton. Aside from murdering Hamilton, Burr does do other fantastical and ill-judged things: in particular he becomes involved in a plot to invade Mexico and either to deliver it to the United States or to set up a rival empire with Aaron Burr as emperor.

We see Aaron Burr in the book from the point of view of the adoring Theodosia. Her love never fails. She always believes in her father, always expects the best of him, always stands her ground in defending him. However, Theodora’s husband, Joseph Alston, makes a telling statement about his father-in-law, which becomes the summary judgment of this take on Aaron Burr: “It’s hard to pity a man who can never admit he’s been mistaken. Your father has so much to make him a great man, Theo. He has brilliance and ambition and energy. And magnificent courage. But he has more pride than any man is entitled to in this world.”

And yet, Theodosia, and the readers of this lightly fictionalized biography of Theodosia Burr Alston are impelled to pity Theodosia and her infamous father by the end of the book. He almost became president, but he was also thwarted and insulted at every turn by Alexander Hamilton and his political allies. Burr lost his wife (also named Theodosia) during Washington’s presidency. He endured Hamilton’s calumnies for many years without reply. Then, came the duel, which Burr initiated, and the people of New York were so incensed at Burr that he felt he had to leave the country. And he owed so many debts that he fled with hardly any money to France where he lived in near-poverty. Then, after the Southwestern Empire debacle, Theodosia’s only child, a son named for his grandfather, died of a fever. And in the final tragedy of the book, Theodosia set out from Charleston to travel by ship to New York to visit her aging and still beloved father, but the ship she was on never arrived. Lost at sea.

I don’t really know what to think about Aaron Burr or his daughter. Anya Seton wrote a novel, My Theodosia, also published in 1941, which apparently paints a much different picture of Burr and his daughter. I haven’t read Seton’s novel, but according to Wikipedia Seton portrays a traitorous and hugely ambitious Aaron Burr and again, an adoring and manipulable Theodosia. Burr offers his daughter the opportunity to become Princess of the Western American Empire, and young Theodosia has a brief romance with Meriwether Lewis, thwarted by her protective father. I prefer the Colver version of Theodosia and her father, but I’m not at all sure what is actually accurate or true.

And so the Burrs remain an enigma to some extent, but fascinating nevertheless.

*I went on a bit of a rabbit trail after reading the Wikipedia article about Aaron Burr, which stated that he had two illegitimate children with his East Indian servant, Mary Emmons. These two children, John (Jean) Pierre Burr and Louisa Charlotte Burr, grew up to become influential members of the free black community in Philadelphia, and Burr’s grandson, Frank J. Webb, wrote the second African American novel ever to be published. What would Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan preacher and Aaron’s Burr’s grandfather, have thought of his illustrious, infamous grandson and his progeny?

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book by Wendy Welch.

I forget where I saw a reference to this delightful nonfiction book about a little bookstore in rural southwestern Virginia (Appalachia), but big thanks to whomever it was that recommended the book to me. The actual name of the eponymous bookstore is just about too long to fit on the cover of the book: Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Bookstore, Crafts, and Cafe. The owners Jack and Wendy Welch serve up Scots shortbread, tea, both iced and hot, and loads of used books in every conceivable genre. Ms. Welch, in her memoir about how two inexperienced innocents started a used bookstore on a shoestring and a prayer, gives unwary wannabe bookstore owners fair warning: running a halfway profitable and successful used bookstore is hard work, especially in a small town of about 5000 people. Don’t try this at home, folks. Well, the Welches did try it at home (they live upstairs above the bookstore); however, after reading The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, I wouldn’t dare to copy their business plan. If you are an aspiring bookseller, I would at least advise reading Ms. Welch’s book to get some idea of what you may be getting yourself into.

Nevertheless, this book about books and bookish people was a great read. As you can see from this video of A Typical Day at Tales of the Lonesome Pine, the little bookstore would be a lovely place to visit, even with all the cats and dogs running loose. (I’m not an animal person, but I love my books enough to put up with a few animals.)

When Ms. Welch quoted C.S. Lewis, Edith Schaeffer, and the Dalai Lama within the first fifteen pages of her book, I knew I had found a kindred spirit. Then, the subtitle of “community and the uncommon pleasure of a good book” is so akin to my little project of creating a community of families who love good books in my little private library. I just settled in and read all about Jack and Wendy and their adventures and misadventures in their little bookstore. I promise that if I ever get anywhere near southwestern Virginia and Big Stone Gap, Tales of the Lonesome Pine Bookstore will be high on my itinerary. And just reading about it made me want to go on a used bookstore adventure trip of my own.

So, what are the best used bookstores in your neck of the woods? Where do you go when you want to browse, and smell, and dip into a multitude of old books?

The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill by Andrea Warren

The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill: Growing Up Billy Cody in Bleeding Kansas by Andrea Warren.

Ms. Warren says in her author’s note at the end of the book that she set out to write a book about Kansas history, “Bleeding Kansas”, during the time prior to and during the Civil War. She needed a “hook”, a young person who lived in Kansas during the time period and who experienced the difficulties and vicissitudes of war-torn Kansas. She chose Buffalo Bill Cody who moved to Kansas with his family at the age of eight in 1854 and who grew up at the center of a conflict that shattered his family, tore apart the entire region, and made Billy Cody both a responsible man and a participant in the violence and fighting at a very young age.

What was fun for me in reading this new book, just published in November of last year, was how it serendipitously impinged upon and overlapped with several things we have already been reading and discussing in our homeschool this semester. We’re studying the Civil War right now—and its aftermath. So, a biography of Buffalo Bill, especially one that concentrates on his childhood in Bleeding Kansas before and during the war, is just parallel to what we are reading and studying. Then too, we have been reading the Newbery award winner Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith as our morning read aloud book. The protagonist in that book is a young Union soldier, Jeff Bussey, from Linn County, Kansas. I was fascinated to read, in conjunction with the fictional Jeff Bussey’s adventures, about Billy Cody’s adventures as the son of an abolitionist father and later, as a Jayhawker himself. Bill Cody, at age seventeen, went on raids across the Kansas-Missouri border with a group called the Red-Legs, “one of the most infamous Jayhawker bands of them all.” Jeff Bussey encounters Southern-sympathizer Bushwhackers who come to his home on a raid and give him good reason to join the Union army.

Another intersection between this biography and our other studies came as I marveled at the age at which young Billy shouldered responsibility for tasks and decisions that we in this day would never allow or even conceive of at his age. With my adult children I have been discussing the tension between over-protection of children in our culture and the need to protect them from the over-sexualization and violence that our culture promotes. Billy’s parents didn’t seem to be interested in protecting him from hard work, hard living men, or adult decision-making. Two examples:

“Billy drove the supply wagon back and forth to Uncle Elijah’s store in Weston (MO) to get supplies—a big job for and eight year old since it meant crossing on the ferry with the wagon and horses, loading all the goods into the wagon, and then recrossing the river, driving the wagon to the store, and unloading everything. But Billy liked the challenge and was proud that he could already do the work of a man.”

“Billy (age nine) worked alongside several other herders as they moved the cattle from one grazing site to another to fatten them for market. At night the herders ate by firelight and slept under the stars. Billy missed his family and worried about his father’s health and safety. But otherwise it was the perfect life.”

At age fifteen Bill Cody was a rider for the Pony Express. At seventeen, he joined the Union Army. These freedoms and responsibilities were allowed and even expected for young Billy Cody in a Kansas that was a much more dangerous place than 21st century Houston, TX. There were Jayhawkers, Bushwhackers, horse thieves, Native Americans who were still at war with the United States, knives, guns, and all of the other possible dangers that were part of living on the frontier in a state that was near to anarchy. And we are afraid to allow our children to walk to school by themselves?

Another book that my daughter and I are reading together is Jim Murphy’s The Boys’ War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk About the Civil War. In that book boys as young as ten or eleven join the Union or the Confederate armies. Some of them ran way from home to join up and lied about their ages, but others were allowed or even encouraged by their parents to sign up. Boys in that era were expected to be men at age twelve or thirteen, to do a man’s work and to shoulder a man’s responsibilities. (And girls often got married at thirteen, fourteen and fifteen and saw themselves as adults, too.)

I don’t say we should go back to those times and those mores in all respects, but perhaps we should quit infantilizing our young men and women and start asking and allowing them to meet challenges and gain the pride and maturity that comes from feeling that they can do the work of a man—or a woman. (Do hard things.)

Anyway, I read this entire book avidly and found it to be a fascinating account of a boy growing up on the frontier. There’s a little bit of information in the final chapters about Buffalo Bill’s show business career, but that wasn’t the focus of the book. And that wasn’t what made it so appealing to me. Bill Cody made some bad decisions (becoming a lawless Jayhawker) as well as good ones (becoming the sole financial support for his mother and sisters after his father’s death) as he became an adult during his teenage years. But he lived a rich and mostly honorable life, full of adventure and yes, responsibility. Young men (or women) who spend their lives playing video games and watching youtube would, I think, be incomprehensible to a time-transported Buffalo Bill.

Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too by Stanley Young

If you have any young readers in your family who are planning on a military career, this biography of William Henry Harrison, one of the Landmark history series, would be a good book to share. If any of them have political ambitions, it might be of interest for them to to read at least the last few chapters of the book in which Harrison runs a political campaign and is elected president. And those of us who are fascinated by language and the history of words and phrases can find in this story of a frontiersman turned statesman, the origin of such American colloquialisms as “keep the ball rolling” and “Long Knives” (for white men) and “OK” and of course, the titular campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too”.

William Henry Harrison isn’t a well-known president. He only served in office for one month before he died of pneumonia and passed the presidency on to his vice-president, John Tyler. However, he lived quite a colorful and adventurous life, both in the military, fighting the Indians in the Northwest territories, and as a public servant, serving in the Ohio legislature, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and finally, the presidency.

The funniest part of Harrison’s story was his nomination as Whig candidate for president. Harrison was nominated instead of Henry Clay, the most famous Whig, because the party convention thought Clay might be too controversial to win over the incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren. (Clay was furious when he didn’t get the nomination, saying, “My friends are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them!”) The Whigs also thought Harrison would be more discreet and more popular in the West, where he was a hero for fighting and defeating Tecumseh and his Indian confederation. One of the Whig leaders, Nicholas Biddle, warned Harrison to not say anything that could possibly be construed as taking a position on anything: “Let no Committee, no convention, no town meeting, ever extract from him a single word about what he thinks now or what he will do hereafter.” Sound political advice? Or somewhat cynical and impracticable?

I enjoyed reading about this little known president and military hero, and it made me want to read more about Tecumseh and Henry Clay and John Tyler and . . . lots of others. Oh, the serendipitous rabbit trails of a reading life! I also found out that Harrison trained and became friends with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark at Fort Pitt. And Harrison served as ambassador to Colombia for a year, where he met and supported Simon Bolivar, the great South American liberator. What a varied and fascinating life!

The pen and ink illustrations in the book, by prolific illustrator Warren Chappell, are particularly detailed and would be excellent for study or for copying by budding artists. Author Stanley Young, was, as best I can figure out, a playwright and partner in the publishing house of Farrar, Straus and Young, later Farrar Straus Giroux.

U.S. Presidents Reading Project–2016 Update

Presidents’ Day seems like a good day for updating my U.S. Presidents Reading Project. I’ve been slowly working on this reading project for a few years now. I had a goal of reading one biography of a president per month, but that was a little ambitious. I think I’ve averaged more like one biography every six months, or two per year.

Here’s a list of some of the biographies I either have read or plan to read for this project. If you have any suggestions for the presidents whose names have no biography listed, or if you think I should choose another book other than the one I have listed, please leave any and all suggestions in the comments.

1. George Washington, 1789-97. Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner, READ: Semicolon review here.

2. John Adams, 1797-1801 (Federalist) John Adams by David McCullough. READ: Semicolon review here. I also watched the mini-series based on this book.

3. Thomas Jefferson, 1801-9 (Democratic-Republican) I’ve taken a dislike to Jefferson after the Washington biography and the John Adams one. So I’m not sure which Jefferson bio to choose, one that’s flattering to restore my faith in this rather contradictory and enigmatic president, or one that’s iconoclastic to reinforce my antipathy.
Beth Fish reviews Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford.

4. James Madison, 1809-17 (Democratic-Republican) The Great Little Madison by Jean Fritz. (Read, but not reviewed.) Yes, this one is a children’s book. I plan to read children’s books for some of these presidents because sometimes they’re better than the adult tomes. And I may use the children’s biographies in future school years. And reading a children’s biography may tell me whether or not I want to read more about a particular president.
I also read and wrote about A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor.

5. James Monroe, 1817-25 (Democratic-Republican) James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Harry Ammon.

6. John Quincy Adams, 1825-29 (Democratic-Republican) The Life and Times of Congressman John Quincy Adams by Leonard L. Richards.
Or maybe, Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon by Michael O’Brien.
I read Cannibals of the Heart: A Personal Biography of Louisa Catherine and John Quincy Adams by Jim Shepherd.

7. Andrew Jackson, 1829-37 (Democrat) American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham. I have a copy of this one, and I started it, but never got very far.

8. Martin Van Buren, 1837-41 (Democrat)

9. William Henry Harrison, 1841 (Whig) Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy by Robert M. Owens.
READ: Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too by Stanley Young. (Landmark history book for middle grade readers)

10. John Tyler, 1841-45 (Whig) John Tyler, the Accidental President by Edward P. Crapol.

11. James Knox Polk, 1845-49 (Democrat) Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman.

12. Zachary Taylor, 1849-50 (Whig)

13. Millard Fillmore, 1850-53 (Whig)

14. Franklin Pierce, 1853-57 (Democrat)

15. James Buchanan, 1857-61 (Democrat)

16. Abraham Lincoln, 1861-65 (Republican) Whereas with several of preceding presidents there is a dearth of good biographies to choose from, for Abraham Lincoln, it’s more like an embarrassment of riches. Which biography of Lincoln should I read?
Maybe, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Lincoln and Douglas: The Years of Decision by Regina Z. Kelly. (Landmark history book for middle grade readers)
Abe Lincoln Grows Up by Carl Sandburg.
I did read Lincoln’s Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin, not a biography but rather an entertaining glimpse of the times about 10 or 12 years after the death of Lincoln.

17. Andrew Johnson, 1865-69 (Democrat/National Union) The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days That Changed the Nation by Howard Means.

18. Ulysses Simpson Grant, 1869-77 (Republican) Grant: A Biography by William McFeely.
The Story of Ulysses S. Grant by Jeanette Covert Nolan. Another juvenile biography.

19. Rutherford Birchard Hayes, 1877-81 (Republican) Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876 by Roy Morris Jr. READ, but not reviewed. I have some notes from this book, and I could write a review, even though I read it about a year ago. It was good, but not great.

20. James Abram Garfield, 1881 (Republican) Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield by Kenneth D. Ackerman.
I actually read Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.

21. Chester Alan Arthur, 1881-85 (Republican) Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves.

22. Grover Cleveland, 1885-89 (Democrat) To the Loss of the Presidency (Grover Cleveland a Study in Courage, Vol. 1) by Allan Nevins.

23. Benjamin Harrison, 1889-93 (Republican)

24. Grover Cleveland, 1893-97 (Democrat) Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage by Allan Nevin. (2 volumes)

25. William McKinley, 1897-1901 (Republican) In the Days of McKinley by Margaret Leech.

26. Theodore Roosevelt, 1901-9 (Republican) I read Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough, River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard, and Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris.

27. William Howard Taft, 1909-13 (Republican) 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs–The Election That Changed the Country by James Chase.

28. Woodrow Wilson, 1913-21 (Democrat) Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency by W. Barksdale Maynard.

29. Warren Gamaliel Harding, 1921-23 (Republican) Florence Harding: The First Lady, The Jazz Age, And The Death Of America’s Most Scandalous President by Carl Sferrazza Anthony. I read most of this one last January/February (2015), but didn’t quite finish it. It’s a really long and discouraging biography of First Lady Florence Harding. The book itself and the writing are fine; it’s the people and events that the book chronicles that are discouraging and sad. I can’t believe that anyone could be as sexually promiscuous and dishonorable as President Harding and still live with himself, much less become president of the United States. No wonder the twenties were roaring.
The Strange Death of President Harding by Gaston B. Means and May Dixon Thacker.
1920: The Year of Six Presidents by David Pietrusza.

30. Calvin Coolidge, 1923-29 (Republican) A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge by William Allen White OR The Autobiography Of Calvin Coolidge by Calvin Coolidge. (After Harding, they needed a “Puritan”—or atlas a gentleman.)

31. Herbert Clark Hoover, 1929-33 (Republican)

32. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933-45 (Democrat) Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship by Jon Meacham. I rather like Churchill, FDR not so much, so this one sounds like something I could enjoy and learn from.
I read FDR and the American Crisis by Albert Marrin and enjoyed it very much, since it was neither hagiographic nor a a disparaging of FDR and his presidency.

33. Harry S. Truman, 1945-53 (Democrat) Truman by David McCullough. 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner.

34. Dwight David Eisenhower, 1953-61 (Republican) Ike: An American Hero by Michael Korda.
My Three Years with Eisenhower by Captain Harry Butcher.
Crusade in Europe by Dwight Eisenhower.

35. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1961-63 (Democrat) I might just re-read Profiles in Courage in lieu of a biography of this overrated (IMHO) president.
I read and wrote about “The President Has Been Shot!” The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson, a YA nonfiction account of Kennedy’s assassination.

36. Lyndon Baines Johnson, 1963-69 (Democrat) The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, Volume 3 (2003 Pulitzer Prize for biography) by Robert Caro.

37. Richard Milhous Nixon, 1969-74 (Republican)

38. Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr , 1974-77 (Republican)

39. James Earl Carter, 1977-81 (Democrat) An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood by Jimmy Carter

40. Ronald Wilson Reagan, 1981-89 (Republican) Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader by Dinesh D’Souza.
I am reading Reagan: The Life by HW Brands—slowly. It’s good, but exhaustive.

41. George Herbert Walker Bush, 1989-1993 (Republican)

42. William Jefferson Clinton, 1993-2001 (Democrat)

43. George W. Bush, 2001-2009 (Republican) Decision Points by George W. Bush.

44. Barack Hussein Obama, 2009- (Democrat) Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama.

Baker’s Dozen: 13 Presidential Biographies to Read in 2016

I hope to work on my US presidents project this year as I read some of the biographies (and autobiographies) that I picked out a few years ago for this project. Thursdays seem like a good day to update my progress on the Presidents Project, so that’s the plan.

Books to read in 2016:

1. Finish reading Ronald Reagan by H.W. Brands. I’m on page 122, and I hope to pick this book back up and finish it in January.

2. Decision Points by George W. Bush.

3. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham.

4. Truman by David McCullough. 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner.

5. Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too by Stanley Young. (Landmark history book for middle grade readers)

6. Lincoln and Douglas: The Years of Decision by Regina Z. Kelly. (Landmark)

7. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr by Anna Erskine Crouse and Russel Crouse. Another Landmark history, not about a U.S. president, but it is about two men, either of whom could have become president had they not allowed their personal feud to consume them.

8.The Story of Ulysses S. Grant by Jeanette Covert Nolan. Another juvenile biography.

9. Abe Lincoln Grows Up by Carl Sandburg.

10. Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation by Peggy Thomas. Picture book biography emphasizing Jefferson’s skills and interest as a naturalist and gentleman farmer.

11. The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon (Exceptional Social Studies Titles for Intermediate Grades) by Carla Killough McClafferty.

12. The President and Mom’s Apple Pie by Michael Garland. In this fictional picture book, set in 1909, President William Howard Taft comes to town to dedicate the new flagpole, but he gets distracted by the aroma of mom’s apple pie.

13. The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub: Poems About the Presidents by Susan Katz.

This list seems readable to me. The huge tomes are balanced by light and easy picture books. Again, I can’t wait to get started.

Christmas in South Africa, 1902

From Cowboys and Cattle Drives by Edith McCall:

“He worked there until December. Then he was asked to drive a bunch of mules to the town of Ladysmith. On the way, he saw posters for Texas Jack’s Wild West Show. Such shows had becomes popular all over the world, beginning with Buffalo Bill’s show of the 1880’s and 1890’s, for all the world loved the riding, shooting, roping American cowboy.
Will could hardly wait to go to see Texas Jack and find out if he was really from Texas and above all, a true cowboy.
‘Sure am,’ said Texas Jack. ‘And who are you?’
‘My name is Will Rogers, and I’m a cowboy from Indian Territory,’ he said.
‘Is that so? Are you pretty good at riding and roping?’
‘Just fair as a rider, but I can handle a rope pretty well,’ said Will. He showed Texas Jack a little of what he could do, including the Big Crinoline, one of the most difficult tricks.
Then came the words that started Will Rogers on his career.
‘How would you like a job in my show?'”

To read more about Will Rogers and other famous cowboys, check out Cowboys and Cattle Drives or any of the following excellent children’s books, available in my library, Meriadoc Homeschool Library, and I hope in yours:

In the Days of the Vaqueros: America’s First True Cowboys by Russell Freedman.
Cowboys of the Wild West by Russell Freedman.
Cattle Trails: Git Along Little Dogies by Kathy Pelta.
Cowhand: The Story of a Working Cowboy by Fred Gipson.
Will Rogers: Young Cowboy by Guernsey Van Riper, Jr.
Will Rogers: His Life and Times by Richard M. Ketchum.

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.

Hidden Gold by Ella Burakowski

I find Holocaust memoirs to be somewhat variable in quality and readability. Maybe the memoirist’s memories are not that detailed or reliable. Sometimes the person who has undertaken the task of writing the stories down is just not a great writer. Sometimes the reader may be the problem: I’m not immune to the chilling effect of a jadedness produced by too many horrific World War II stories, too many atrocities, too much suffering and starvation for a person to read and assimilate.

Hidden Gold is an excellent example of a Holocaust memoir that is sharp, well-written, detailed, and narrative. I was absorbed by the story of young David Gold and his family and their survival in hiding in Poland, written by Mr. Gold’s niece and based on Mr. Gold’s memories of 1942-1944 when he was twelve to fourteen years old. “David Gold’s memories of his formative years during World War II are as vivid and compelling under his niece’s pen as if they happened yesterday.” (from the blurb on the back cover of the book)

The Gold family–David, his two older sisters, and his mother–survived in hiding on a Polish farm because they were rich, because they were smart and initially healthy, and because they were lucky, or perhaps preserved by a miracle form God. Even though the memoir is woven from David Gold’s memories, David’s older sister Shoshanna, who later became the mother of the author, emerges as the heroine of the tale. Shoshanna is the one who negotiates with outsiders on behalf of the entire family because she has blue eyes and speaks Polish without a Yiddish accent. Shoshanna is the one who encourages the family not to commit suicide when it seems that choice is the only one left to them. Unfortunately, Shoshanna Gold Barakowski died at a relatively young age in 1972, while the author was still in her teens, and the other sister, Esther, also died (of cancer) in 1984, long before Ms. Burakowski began to write this book.

I did wonder how much the author embellished or assumed as she told of the thoughts and motivations of her family members, most of whom were not available to vet the text or give their own take on events. Still, most memoirs are a mix of fact and fill in the blank, and I give the author credit for filling in, if she did, in a way that reads as authentic, coherent, and literary. I read and believed, and I was reminded that hatred and prejudice and bravery and human endurance are all a part of our shared human history as well as evident in the present day “holocausts” that continue to be perpetrated on the innocent and the unprotected.

[T]he memoir as unfiltered actuality is a myth. Fickle and unreliable memories must be reconstructed and made coherent; a story’s assembly, style, and characterization will inevitably compromise any strict retelling. Emphatically, this does not mean the work is less autobiographically or historically valid—–only that it is never pure autobiography or history, and has to be understood and embraced thus. Truth isn’t synonymous with historicity, and infidelity to the latter isn’t necessarily betrayal of the former. ~”The Holocaust’s Uneasy Relationship with Literature” by Menachem Kaiser, The Atlantic, December 2010