Thursday, October 17, 2019

Review of "HSPT Prep Book 2019-2020: HSPT Study Guide and Practice Test Questions for the High School Placement Test"

Review of

HSPT Prep Book 2019-2020: HSPT Study Guide and Practice Test Questions for the High School Placement Test, ISBN 9781635303254

Four out of five stars

 It is an unfortunate fact of life in the modern world of growing up that your performance on a single test can do a great deal to determine your future. From where you are placed among your peers to your entrance into the school of your choice. One of the significant early tests is the High School Placement Test or HSPT. It is taken by students about to enter the ninth grade or what is in the United States, the first year of high school. If you do well on the HSPT, then you will be placed into the college preparation track, which is often key to your future education.

 This book contains some review material, but there are heavy assumptions regarding previous exposure and understanding. The reviews are short and very to the point. There are exams with questions that require some significant thought, which is the proper level of challenge. It would be very counterproductive to give easy questions on a study exam.

 If your child is someone about to take the HSPT, then acquiring this book and using it as a study aid is a cheap and effective way to improve their chances to earn the score that will give them an edge. However, it is hardly original or unique in the approach.

Review of "Jed: The Story of a Yankee Soldier and a Southern Boy," by Peter Burchard

Review of

Jed: The Story of a Yankee Soldier and a Southern Boy, by Peter Burchard

Five out of five stars

 Jed is a soldier in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He lied about his age in order to be allowed to join and he is now far from his home in Wisconsin and sixteen years old. He is a veteran of the battle of Shiloh Creek and his unit is now in Mississippi and it is the fall of 1862. As experiencing the death and destruction of a battle will do to a person, “all the glitter and promise had gone out of soldiering.”

 Yet, there is still a spark of idealism in Jed and it is rekindled when he encounters a local boy that has wandered away from home and has broken his leg. Even though the boy is hostile to the Yankee soldier Jed, he takes pity on the boy and moves him to the surgeon for his unit. The bone is set and bound in place. The boy wants to return home so the surgeon loans Jed his horse for the return trip, as the boy cannot walk.

 The Union Army often ran low on supplies, so they made do by living off the land. Which meant that they often simply took livestock and foodstuffs from the local farms at gunpoint, leaving the people to starve. Jed was a participant in one such raid and it greatly disturbed him, he vowed to never go on such missions again unless he was ordered.

 With the help of some of the kindly men in his unit, Jed is able to successfully return the boy to his mother and then thwart an attempt to pillage their farm without being disloyal to the Union cause. This is a good story about a boy/man that keeps his ethical and moral principles while others have the heat of battle destroy theirs.

Review of "You Can Tell You’re a Midwesterner When . . . ," by Dale Grooms

Review of

You Can Tell You’re a Midwesterner When . . . , by Dale Grooms ISBN 9781571662170

Four out of five stars

 This is a book of rural “wisdom,” a collection of generally folksy sayings that are a combination of the frivolous and profound. Nearly all of the sayings begin with a “..ya” although a few begin with “you” or “yer.” They are often deliberately grammatically incorrect in an attempt to make them sound more folksy.

 As a former Iowa country boy, I found the first one on page 24 to be one of the most amusing:

“.. ya know what it feels like to whiz on an electric fence.”

In general, country boys can be divided into two categories, those that did take a whiz on an electric fence and those that convinced another boy to go first.

 Published in Iowa, this book is meant to be a frivolous exaggeration of how rural Iowans talk and act. In that sense, this book succeeds, although some may be put off by the deliberately poor grammar.

Review of "Pencil Puzzlers," by Steve Ryan

Review of

Pencil Puzzlers, by Steve Ryan ISBN 0806985429

Five out of five stars

 The puzzles in this collection are hard, but in general all that is needed to solve them is persistence rather than mathematical insight. Although the title hints that the puzzles are those of finding a specific path through a maze, that is not always the case. There are puzzles involving letters in words, determining the values of unseen numbers, a crossword puzzle that uses all 26 letters one time and using straight lines to split a diagram into congruent pieces. The puzzles are challenging, and hints are often given a few pages ahead. Answers to all puzzles are included in an appendix.

 Math skills or insight are not needed to solve these puzzles, they are solved using systematic trial and error. Therefore, people of all ages can use this book to sharpen the edges of their brain cells.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Review of "Daddy’s Little Girl: For Dads and Little Girls of All Ages," by Donna Reed

Review of

Daddy’s Little Girl: For Dads and Little Girls of All Ages, by Donna Reed

Five out of five stars

 This heartwarming story is a common one. A loving father is forced to work long hours in order to pay the bills and therefore his daughter rarely sees him as she is growing up. It is something that is always foremost in her mind and she is now older.

 Forty years have passed, and she has acquired two tickets to the University of Iowa versus Purdue University basketball game. Instead of asking a friend, she calls up her dad and asks him to go with her. He agrees and their sharing of the activity rekindles and reinforces a bond between them.

 The story then quite correctly points out that little girls of all ages need much more than food on the table and a better way of life. However, this point of emphasis does leave a bit of reality behind. It is easy to point this out, yet for many it is much harder to carry it out. For a large number of people, not working those extra hours means that decisions have to be made regarding what bill is not paid that month.

 This book was published in 1994 and for the majority of people in the United States, their wages have stagnated since then. It is not their fault and they are often faced with two options. Bankruptcy or working longer and harder. Loving parents will always choose the latter.

Review of "Child Ward of the Commonwealth," by Eileen Cleary ISBN 9781599487465

Review of

Child Ward of the Commonwealth, by Eileen Cleary ISBN 9781599487465

Four out of five stars

 One of the realities of the world is that there are some children that simply should not remain in the custody of their parents. Almost anything is better than the environment they are living in. Unfortunately, the alternatives that they often find themselves in are not much better. While most have improved from the conditions many years ago, orphanages are still in general rather dismal places. Granted that foster care is generally better, it can often be a stark existence where the child is tolerated rather than loved and cared for.

 The author of this collection of poems had a childhood that was an incident of that reality, and the short segments of verse describe some of her experiences. There is nothing horrific such as an explicit sexual assault documented in this collection, although it is clear that there was the potential. Many of the poems describe an emptiness, the child survives to adulthood, yet the childhood years were not ones of happiness and healthful play.

 For example, the short poem on page 31:

“We carry, like a dead baby, our unfinished love. A thing outlived. Holy. Yet dreadful. Through awkward centuries of November, shapeless days assemble.”

 The poems in this collection are not uplifting, or even a song of triumph over childhood adversity. They are metaphorical allusions to a childhood that is remembered, but not fondly.

Review of "The Joys of a Simple Life," by Elmarie Novak

Review of

The Joys of a Simple Life, by Elmarie Novak

Four out of five stars

 The author grew up in the area of Spillville, Iowa and this book is a collection of short recollections she has of her life in the years 1924-1934. She is of Czech Catholic heritage, which is fitting for Spillville is the home of the oldest Czech Catholic Church in the United States. Her family lived on a farm and while they had a personal electric power system run by batteries and a recharging generator, the house was heated by woodburning stoves and water was derived from cisterns for storage and hand pumps for delivery.

 Like all such farm families, the people worked very hard, yet they always ate very well and enjoyed life. There was a tight bond of family and community among the people, one of the essays is about when an entire family was stricken with the flu and quarantined. The author’s family did their farm chores as well as those of the stricken family and bought their groceries, setting them on the porch in order to avoid physical contact.

 Like the title, the writing is also fairly simple, there are errors and some repetition. Yet, the points are well made, although they lacked a lot, the family and the community described in this book had many things that modern people no longer have. I would describe their lives as “uncomplicated” rather than simple.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Review of "On the Ropes: A Novel," by James Vance and Dan E. Burr

Review of

On the Ropes: A Novel, by James Vance and Dan E. Burr ISBN 9780393351224

Five out of five stars

 This graphic novel is based on a lot of history, much of which is no longer heavily emphasized in the educational curricula. The setting is the United States in 1937, where the Depression is still heavy and even the employed struggle to make ends meet. Large corporations do not hesitate to hire thugs to beat up union organizers and some of those doing the beating wore police and National Guard uniforms. Major newspapers, the only real mass media outlet at the time, often took the side of the companies, claiming that people fighting for a union and decent wages were “Reds,” the common term for communists at the time.

 The main character is Fred Bloch, a young man that lost his leg in a train accident and has found what passes for a home in a traveling circus funded by the WPA. He is apprenticed to Gordon Corey, an escape artist that has shackles put on his arms, a hangman’s rope around his neck and then at the count of five the trap door under his feet is opened. Although Gordon is clearly a man on the edge of self-destruction, he always manages to carry out his daring escape.

 There is a great deal of labor strife and Fred is associated with a national organization of labor organizers. He is a message runner and is being stalked by two ruthless men employed by the corporations. They will not hesitate to kill to carry out their mission, and that includes the brutal slaughter of women that go contrary to their wishes.

 This is a tough graphic novel, yet it revisits the days of the Depression when workers striking for union recognition and higher pay were killed, some of which were women marching in solidarity with the men. It is also important for the current generations to understand that the Depression was an extremely tough time and standing up for your worker rights could mean getting beaten or shot. It is a book that could be used in history classes in order to provoke discussion and further research and a reminder of the past struggles of labor.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Review of "Snap Me Perfect! The Darrell Porter Story," by Darrell Porter with William Deerfield

Review of

Snap Me Perfect! The Darrell Porter Story, by Darrell Porter with William Deerfield ISBN 0840753675

Four out of five stars

 This autobiography of Darrell Porter, an admitted alcoholic and drug addict, appears to have a happy ending, as it ends with him clean and a born-again Christian. Out of curiosity, I investigated his life after this book was written and learned that he died in 2002 at the age of 50. An autopsy revealed a level of cocaine in his body “consistent with recreational use.” Therefore, it is clear that he was never able to defeat demon coke.

 Although Porter played 17 seasons in the major leagues and had some outstanding seasons, a strong argument can be made that he would be in the Hall of Fame if he had not been under the influence most of the time. In 1979 he led the majors with 121 walks and scored and batted in over 100 runs. Feats where the only other catchers to accomplish them are in the Hall of Fame.

 This would be a better book of Porter had not descended to the level of seeking pity, often blaming his father for being unloving. Some of that is no doubt due to the fact that Porter never had to experience the issues of struggling for money. Many children of working-class parents that struggle to make ends meet resent their parents until they themselves are in that situation. Only then, do the appreciate what their parents did and sacrificed for them. Porter signed for a major bonus right out of high school, so lack of income was never an issue for him.

 As you read this book, you are amazed that Porter was able to function as a star at the major league level. He claims that he strictly controlled his intake, but that is a delusion that is easy to see through. He describes being so paranoid and delusional that he kept a loaded shotgun near his bed and found conspiracies against him in chance encounters with people.

 A natural athlete that was so gifted that he received multiple offers from NCAA football powerhouses as a quarterback, Porter could have been one of the greatest of all time. Yet, his significant feelings of insecurity and inadequacy were so strong that they were the stepping-stone to his drug use in an attempt to cope. This book is one that will make you sad, even more so because his story is not unique.

Review of "A Coloring Book of Ancient China," Bellerophon Books

Review of

A Coloring Book of Ancient China, Bellerophon Books ISBN 0883880776

Five out of five stars

 This is both educational and a challenging coloring book for adults. The images are from works created in ancient China and are composed of many tiny details, giving the artist an essentially infinite number of possibilities to develop. Most of the pictures are copies of museum pieces and there is a short caption of text giving the message of the image as well as the origin and current location.

 There are many ways in which to study history and learn about other cultures. While this book is not for everyone, it certainly is a worthy object of study and artistic activity.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Review of "The Blue Ribbon Day," by Katie Couric

Review of

The Blue Ribbon Day, by Katie Couric ISBN 0385501420

Five out of five stars

 The theme of this children’s book is how to bravely face failure and use it as a learning experience and as a way to move on to other things that may be more suited to your physical and mental skills. Ellie McSnelly and Carrie O’Toole are friends at Brookhaven School. They get very excited when they see a sign announcing tryouts for soccer.

 When the workout is in progress, Ellie demonstrates significant skills at the game while Carrie has trouble making contact with the ball. When the roster is announced, Ellie has made the team while Carrie has not. After shedding tears of disappointment, Carrie decides to enter the school science fair. Her project is the use of sugar solution to make blue rock candy, and her project does so well that she wins a blue ribbon. Demonstrating to the reader that there are many types of skills, what a person needs to do is discover which ones they have and learn how to leverage them to success.

 The text is written in four-line segments, where lines 1 and 2 and then 3 and 4 rhyme. All rhymes are simple and can be understood by the student in the middle of elementary school. The illustrations are colorful and depict a lot of action with intense facial expressions.

 This is a good book for children, the theme is about life and how the manner in which we face and respond to disappointment determines whether we will be successful or not. I strongly recommend it for all children.

Review of "Manners in Public," by Carrie Finn

Review of

Manners in Public, by Carrie Finn ISBN 9781404831537

Five out of five stars

 There are many simple ways in which a person can grease the operations of social cohesion, many of them are called “manners.” This book covers many of the basic ones, such as saying “please” and “thank you” to others. Other simple actions are taking your proper place in line in public places, staying quiet in educational places such as libraries and museums and always putting your trash into the proper receptacle.

 Written at the level of the early elementary school student and illustrated with people that have large round heads with long and extremely skinny necks, this is a book that will start the child on the road to being a good and kindly citizen. Something that there can never be enough of.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Review of "Dolley Madison Saves George Washington," by Don Brown

Review of

Dolley Madison Saves George Washington, by Don Brown ISBN 9780544582446

Five out of five stars

Courageous when others were not

 One of the unverified statements of history is that Zachary Taylor was the first person to use the term “First Lady” to describe Dolley Madison, the wife of President James Madison. The phrase supposedly appeared in Taylor’s eulogy of Dolley Madison, one of the most popular presidential wives of all time. She was elegant, dignified and worthy of the role.

 However, this book is about her courage and resilience. When the British were marching on Washington, D. C. in 1814, the soldiers that were assigned to guard the capitol had all fled, along with nearly everyone else. When a messenger on a horse came charging in and said the British would be there shortly, she did not panic. Instead she ordered men to break the frame holding the painting of George Washington and entrusted the painting to two leading citizens. Only then did she leave Washington to be burned by the British forces.

 Dolley disguised herself as a simple farm girl so that she could successfully evade the British and avoid negative comments from Americans sick of the war. Once the war was over, she went back to being elegant and dignified. One of the most impressive women of American history, this book describes her courage under fire, both literally and figuratively.

Review of "Noah Webster & His Words," by Jeri Chase Ferris

Review of

Noah Webster & His Words, by Jeri Chase Ferris ISBN 9780544582422

Five out of five stars

 The subject matter of this book makes it highly educational, for it is something obvious after the fact. Yet it is a topic that is rarely considered. It is the existence of a unified system of how words are to be spelled and defined.

 Noah Webster was the author of the first comprehensive dictionary of American English and it was responsible for codifying how words were written and used. Some of the most popular dictionaries are still written under his name hundreds of years after the publication of the first one. If you allow for the regular revisions, Webster’s dictionary is the second most popular book ever printed in English.

 This story of Webster’s life and ambitions is very well written and illustrated. He was a man with a mission, it took him decades to complete his dictionary, the first edition was not published until 1828, after twenty years of editing and proofreading. Yet, he always knew that he was writing a classic, a book that generations of students would rely on and sometimes grow to hate. There were many times when I was in elementary school that the teacher would tell us, “Look in the dictionary.” Add this book to the list of those that are must reads for elementary school children.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Review of "The Road Warrior," starring Mel Gibson

Review of

The Road Warrior, starring Mel Gibson

Five out of five stars

 This remains one of the best action/disaster movies of all time. The climactic chase scene with orchestrated mayhem involving all of the vehicles still amazes me after seeing it more times than I have fingers and toes. I also consider it Mel Gibson’s greatest performance as Mad Max, a man with apparently no heart and a killer that remains an honorable man.

 The setting is the Australian outback in a post-apocalyptic world where brutal gangs rule, pillaging and destroying all that is not part of their organization. Gasoline is called “juice” and is the most precious commodity. Multiple lives will be spent in order to acquire a few gallons.

 The ultimate prize is a permanent location over an oil well where the inhabitants are refining and storing the fuel. A gang led by a man called Lord Humungus has the site under siege and time is running out on the inhabitants. Their goal is to break out and travel over 2,000 miles to a place of fresh water and greenery. To them, it is paradise.

 Even though the performance of Gibson is first rate, the roles of the supporting characters are strong and at times more effective than Gibson. Bruce Spence plays the gyro captain, a man that flies a gyrocopter powered by a VW engine that is air-cooled, which reduces the weight. While he is not much of a warrior, he is easily overpowered by Max, he remains a man with a sense of humor and is in his own way very capable. One of the best scenes is when he wipes his mouth in the manner of a fine diner after eating dog food out of a can.

 Another strong performance is put in by Vernon Wells as Wez, a psychotic member of the Humungus gang. When his boy toy is killed, he goes out of control to the point that Humungus puts him in chains. To many, the most memorable character is the Feral Kid, a young boy that lives near the permanent compound, communicates by grunts and growls, moves in and out of the compound via tunnels and sports a deadly metal boomerang.

 This is a movie that you can watch many times and suddenly spot a feature that you never noticed before. As someone that has studied ways in which civilization can be restored after a global disaster, I pay attention to ways in which the good side could better fight back against the Humungus gang. A gasoline bomb catapult always comes to mind.

Review of "Alice in Wonderland: An Illustrated Journey Through Time," by Mark Salisbury

Review of

Alice in Wonderland: An Illustrated Journey Through Time, by Mark Salisbury ISBN 9781484737699

Five out of five stars

 This is not a history of the story of what is probably the most well-known fictional character, it is a more targeted history of how she has been portrayed in Disney productions. Using text and images that are both live and animated, the author tells the story of how the original idea of making an animated Alice movie came about and how the portrayals evolved and developed through several iterations.

 The early days of Disney are explained, when times were lean, and it was uncertain whether there would ever be any Alice production at all. It is impossible not to be impressed by the quality of the artwork. The reader also learns some of the specific details of animation, there are images of live characters performing the actions that will eventually be carried out in animation.

 For example, on page 77 there is a picture of a young actress playing large Alice inside the White Rabbit’s home. On page 76 there is an image of two dancers performing live-action reference footage for the Tweedledum and Tweedledee dance sequence.

 This is an excellent book about the history and technical aspects of the production of the Alice movies by the Disney company. Some aspects of it could serve as instructional material for courses in the making of animated movies.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Review of "Shoeless Joe & Me," by Dan Gutman

Review of

Shoeless Joe & Me, by Dan Gutman ISBN 9780064472593

Five out of five stars

 One of the great unfortunate events of major league baseball is the case of the man known as Shoeless Joe Jackson. While he was otherwise intelligent, he was completely illiterate to the point of not even being able to sign his name. Yet, he was likely one of the most naturally talented players of all time. His throwing arm may have been the best to ever appear, there are confirmed legends as to how far he could throw a baseball.

 Even though no one ever made a credible claim that Jackson did anything to throw the 1919 World Series, he was caught up in the scandal and banned from baseball for life. His “crime” was having knowledge of the attempt to lose and not reporting it. Which was incorrect, for he did report it to the owner of the White Sox at the time, the notorious tightwad Charles Comiskey.

 This story once again has the title character (Joe Stoshack) capable of traveling back and forth through time by clutching period baseball cards. His subject this time is Shoeless Joe Jackson and his actual role in the Black Sox scandal. It is a great history of this event, anyone with knowledge of the case understands that a great injustice was done to Joe Jackson and he deserves to be in the baseball Hall of Fame.

 The Gutman books are an excellent way to learn baseball history, they set aside the legends and deal with the facts of the players. If you don’t come away from reading this book thinking that Joe Jackson should be in the Hall of Fame, then you have no heart. For it is clear that he was an innocent man caught up in a storm of “throwing the rascals out.”

Review of "The First Strawberries," by Joseph Bruchac

Review of

The First Strawberries, by Joseph Bruchac ISBN 9780425287477

Five out of five stars

 This Cherokee fable is retold in a delightful and informative way. It has an Adam and Eve type plot, but with a happy ending, even though it involves a fruit, specifically strawberries. It opens with the sentence, “Long ago when the world was new, the Creator made a man and a woman.”

 When the man comes home from hunting and supper is not ready because the woman is picking flowers, he is angry. As a consequence, the woman simply walks away at a rapid pace. Unable to match her speed, the man falls behind and the sun takes pity on him. After several tries with known fruits and berries, the sun creates a new fruit, the strawberry. Unable to resist the temptation, the woman stops to pick and eat. All is forgiven and from that point on the Cherokee have a new source of seasonal fruit.

 The artwork is excellent, and the text is written at the level of early elementary school. This book would be an excellent addition to elementary school libraries, and I would have read it to my daughter when she was young.