Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art by Christopher Moore

I always feel like I should start with a disclaimer – I simply love Christopher Moore, and am predisposed to love anything he writes. If you don’t like him, I doubt I’ll change your mind, but just maybe…

Sacre Bleu is a story about reanimated corpses, paintings that lose their color, and baking rats in pies. It is one part art history lesson, one part murder mystery, one part guide to late-nineteenth-century French debauchery. It is interesting apochrypha about some very famous Impressionists, and the biography of the fictional Lucien Lessard.

Okay, really it’s Lucien’s story, and how he and Henri (Toulouse-Lautrec, of course) decipher the warning they receive from Vincent (Van Gogh, of course) about the Colorman and the women who inspired some of the greatest paintings ever – and never – seen. Our story has us traveling throughout the nineteenth century, discovering the real* stories behind some of the greatest paintings by Monet, Manet, Renior, Pisarro, and of course Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. Ever present is the sinister Colorman, his out-of-this-world blue paint, and the exotic Juliette. Or in Henri’s case, Carmen. Or in substitute-another-painter’s case, substitute-his-muse.

As I mentioned, I am predisposed to love anything Christopher Moore writes, but I did find it difficult to get started with Sacre Bleu. I can’t even put my finger on why it took me so long to get into it, because in the end I really enjoyed the story. I even learned a bit about the art history; thanks to Moore’s afterword  (“So, now you’ve ruined art history”), you actually know what is real and what he has woven into a fantastical world. Ultimately I think Sacre Bleu is a worthwhile read, but if you’re trying to create converts to Moore’s work, I’d recommend starting with another novel.

*These could be real stories. How would you know? Even if you were there, chances are the reality you experienced may differ from the one described in the book. I mean, the sacre bleu doesn’t affect the observer. Or maybe it does and we just don’t know it. What is reality, anyway?

 

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School’s..out..for.SUMMER!

Ah, yes, summer school is over and now I can blog about the books I’m reading for myself. I do intend to continue doing book reviews, just without the titles and sections necessary for class. And what better way to celebrate than with a review of a book about camp?

Postcards from Camp, by Simms Taback

I’ve seen this book at the circ desk the last couple of weeks and finally took the chance to read it today. Can I just say, I’ve never been more wistful about summers during my childhood? I loved camp. I loved checking off the packing list, and shopping for camp clothes, and the old screened-in cabins, and the bell that would be rung loudly to announce meal times, and mail call. Of course the first day was always a little nerve-wracking (except for the summer after 8th grade, when Jill and I took it upon ourselves to run up to every single person at camp and introduce ourselves. I think I had just read Paula Danziger’s There’s a Bat in Bunk Five, where one of the CITs does that), and sometimes it took more than the first day to find a groove.

Postcards from Camp is a story told in art, and that art is, well, postcards. And maps. And letters. And even a pretty funny ransom note. The story itself isn’t particularly ground-breaking – any person who has ever been to camp will already foresee what happens – but the way it is told is just fantastic. Michael and his father correspond throughout the summer. There are pull-out notes, “envelopes”, drawings of the camp counselor (who Michael says is an alien, and also a vegetarian!), and even a pretty memorable ghost story that Mr. Stevens prints on a little pamphlet and sends to Michael at camp. So very fun. If you’re contemplating sending your kids to camp, and there’s a little hesitation on your or their part, share this book! It may help ease you into the idea. One word of caution: if you’re looking for this at the library, ask the juvenile reference desk. Both of the library systems here have this book marked for library use only, and that may be common at most public libraries.

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Week 7: The Wall

Book summary: The true genius of this book is that it manages to be several book in one. Introduced with a history narrative, the action starts very basically – with simple sentences, describing the simple thoughts of a baby or young child. As our author grows, so does the vocabulary and awareness. His pictures become more sophisticated, and more scary, as the child grows to realize there’s another world out there. Interspersed with entries from Sis’s own journals, The Wall tells a story of growing up behind the Iron Curtain in a deeply personal and creative way.

My impressions: I wanted to cry while I was reading this, except that I also knew that freedom would win eventually. I fell like this is such a personal book. Art is personal, it’s the personal made public, and autobiographical art is even more so. I think this book can really reach kids of many ages – younger children can understand the simple text and older students can grasp the more complex story lines told in the margins. I would recommend this book to youth and adults alike.

Citation: Sis, P. (2007). The wall. New York, NY: Frances Foster Books.

Professional review:

“Personal, political, passionate – these are among the qualities that readers have come to appreciate about Sis’s autobiographical books such as The Three Golden Keys (Doubleday, 1994) and Tibet through the Red Box (Farrar, 1998). This layered foray into family and Czech history begins with succinct sentences at the bottom of each page. Cations accompanying the art – arranged in panels of varying size – fill in more details. The pacing and design of the compositions create their own rhythm, contributing much to the resulting polyphony. Sis immediately engages even his youngest audience with a naked, cherubic self-portrait, colored pencil in hand. The ensuing scenes of home and community life in Prague, rendered predominately in black and white, are punctuated with Communist red and tiny fragments of color as the young artist experiments in the face of rigid conformity. The third-person narration achieves an understatement that helps to mitigate the more disturbing descriptions found in his double-spread journal entries. Bordered by Sis’s youthful art, photograph, and propaganda posters, these selections depict his reality behind the Iron Curtain from 1954 to 1977. The recurring themes of music and art as important vehicles of self-expression, and the relationship between a government’s inclination to embrace or suppress that creativity and the state’s vitality, will resonate with teens. This celebration of the arts climaxes in a full-color spread a la Peter max. Complex, multifaceted, rich in detail, this book shares the artist’s specific heritage while connecting to universal longing. His concluding visions of freedom are both poignant and exhilarating…”

Lukehart, W. (August, 2007). The wall: Growing up behind the iron curtain. [Review of]. School Library Journal, 53(8), 139-140.

Library uses: I know kids don’t like learning during the summer, but I think this book could really be used during the weeks leading up to Independence Day to contrast the experience of growing up in Communist Prague with the relative freedom of growing up in America. I think this book is engaging and personal enough to stand out among other books that may try to teach that lesson.

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Week 10: Amulet: The Stonekeeper

Book summary: After losing her father in a tragic car accident, Emily’s family works to put the pieces together. But two years later find them packing for a house that has been in her mother’s family for years. Warned that the house will require a lot of work, Emily and her brother Navin are prepared to find a mess. What they’re not prepared for is finding the mystery of what happened to their great-grandfather, Silas. An eccentric inventor, Silas disappeared after his wife died – some of the locals think he’s died and is haunting the house! Then Emily finds a mysterious amulet, which warns her the family is in danger…

Strange robots, even stranger creatures, and a brief encounter with Silas only confuse Emily and Navin more. Will the amulet help save them?

My impressions: This is my second attempt at a graphic novel, and I have to say I rather liked it. The first one I tried was very busy and cluttered and I didn’t know where to read next. But Amulet: The Stonekeeper was easy to read, interesting, and I want to get the rest of the series soon! I love the mother’s honesty – that their old (newer) house is too expensive, that she misses their father tremendously, that she loves them. While I think parents do need to be brave to reassure their children, kids also need to know that it’s okay to grieve, to feel bad some days, to not have all of the answers all the time. It’s a very human moment. That is juxtaposed against the horrific, octopus-like creatures that swallow Navin and their mother; the cuddly rabbit they meet at their great-grandfather’s other house; and the robots that help run the household. 

Citation: Kibuishi, K. (2008). Amulet: Book one the stonekeeper. New York, NY: Graphix.

Professional review:

“With many a SZZT! SZRAK! FWOOM! and SKREE!, young Emily learns to use an energy-bolt-shooting amulet against an array of menaces to rescue her captured Mom in this graphic-novel series opener. When a scuttling “arachnopod” sucks down their widowed parent, Emily and younger sib Navin pursue through a door in the basement and into the alternate-Earth land of Alledia. Finding unexpected allies in rabbit-like Miskit, grumpy Cogsley and other robots created by their mysterious great-grandfather, the children weather attacks from huge, tentacled Rakers, a pointy eared elf prince with shark-like teeth and other adversaries to get her back—only to discover that she’s in a coma, poisoned. Off to Episode Two, and the distant city of Kanalis, for a cure. The mid-sized, squared-off panels are sometimes a little small to portray action sequences clearly, but the quickly paced plot is easy enough to follow, and Kibuishi is a dab hand at portraying freaky monsters. Fans of Jeff Smith’s Bone will happily fret with the good guys and hiss at the baddies…”

[Review of The Stonekeeper: Amulet Book One]. (November 15, 2007). Kirkus Reviews. Available from http://www.kirkusreviews.com.

Library uses: I would love to have a “graphic novel” awareness night at the library. Many parents, teachers, and even some librarians, don’t see these works as worthy reading. We could do “story time” for adults! I think this book would be a good choice – it’s reasonably quick to read, it has some serious issues the characters must face, and I think it falls on the spectrum right between those “graphic novels” that are just re-tellings of existing novels (like the Sherlock Holmes or Jane Austen stories), and those that parents would disregard as “comic books”.

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Week 9: Jazz

Book summary: Walter Dean Myers’ collection of poetry tells the story of Jazz, that distinctly American music form, in swinging words and be-bopping rhythms. The introduction gives readers an education in what jazz is, while the glossary and timeline provide further instruction. But this “text” is anything but stodgy. Myers writes jazz – you can hear the trumpets and saxophones in the syllables he puts together. He had the good sense to get his son Christopher to illustrate his poems, and the smooth outlines, mellow colors, and larger-than-life perspectives are reminiscent of World War II-era nightclubs. The characters move, they sway, they dance and play. If the visuals aren’t enough, there is also a CD available, with the poems being alternately spoken and sung to jazz music.

My impressions: I think this book is awesome! I’ve put it (with the CD) on my wish list at HPB. Unless their parents teach them, students don’t get much music history education. Frankly, at a young age, they may be bored to tears by it. But Myers’ poetry provides a fun, interesting way to teach such a history. Additionally, I think Jazz provides a fun segue from the silly, rhyming poetry popular with small children, to a more mature style. Hearing the poems read with music may inspire older children to see poetry as something beyond dusty, old required reading.

Citation: Myers, W.D. (2006). Jazz. New York, NY: Holiday House.

Professional review:

“There have been numerous picture books about jazz and jazz history over the last decade, and by and large, the illustrators have fared better than the writers at capturing the spirit of the music in a way that relates to the young. Those attempting to describe the music in verse have encountered particularly rough sledding, many forced either to rely on wild abstraction (Raschka) or to craft poems so complex they exclude all but the most sophisticated young readers (Wynton Marsalis in his recent Jazz A B Z). Now, finally, the father-son Myers team has put together an absolutely airtight melding of words and pictures that is perfectly accessible to a younger audience. The poems parallel significant stages in the development of jazz, but the historical connection is only tangential; the draw of the poems, as with the music, is rhythm, and Myers captures the rolling cadences of early New Orleans jazz (“Well, good-bye to old Bob Johnson / We’ll haul his body slow / There’s a white horse a-striding / A sad deacon riding / Six men to lay him low”) as well as the staccato sounds of be-bop and beyond (“A shaved reed tongue is crying / In the blood dark studio / Drums add bark and grumble / As a trumpet blares something rude”). And, best of all, Christopher Myers’ pictures make those rhythms visual, the curving lines of his figures seeming to move off the page, swinging to the beat. Middle-graders will feel the sound of the words and pictures working together, and younger kids will hear and see that connection when adults share the book with them…”

Ott, B. (September 1, 2006). [Review of Jazz]. Boolist. Available from http://www.booklistonline.com,

Library uses: I think this book would provide a great background for a story time during Black History Month. The jazz band from a local high school could play for the group.

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Week 5: The Red Pyramid

Book summary: Carter and Sadie Kane aren’t really looking forward to the Christmas Eve trip to the British Museum with their father. Carter goes to far too many museums, as he lives with their Egyptologist dad; Sadie considers herself a city girl and feels more at home in the modern world of London, where she  had lived with their maternal grandparents since their mother’s death.

Then the museum blows up.

Finding that he has unleashed the ancient (and evil) god Set, Dr. Set is trapped in the underworld. It is up to Carter and Sadie to discover their ancient family secrets in a whirlwind journey from London, to New York, to Egypt, and to the Underworld. Carter and Sadie learn whom to trust – and even how to trust each other.

My impressions: Rick Riordan has definitely earned a place in my heart with J. K. Rowling (actually, the fact that he’s from Texas may earn him a larger seat). Fans of mystical, magical, epic series will likely fall in love with the Kanes as much as I did. Told from the point of view of both kids, The Red Pyramid manages to get across a pretty complete picture of the saga. Sadie’s sassiness is truly amusing; her typical-adolescent concerns (boys, lip gloss) are even funnier against the backdrop of running for their lives. That combination of humor and suspense, combined with the elements of an epic battle against evil, kept me interested all the way through. It also made me wistful for a sibling, seeing how much Carter and Sadie come to know and care about each other, despite their disparate personalities and separate upbringings. I can’t wait to finish the series!

Citation: Riordan, R. (2010). The red pyramid. New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children.

Professional review:

“Since their mother’s death, six years ago, 12-year-old Sadie Kane has lived in London with her maternal grandparents while her older brother, 14-year-old Carter, has traveled the world with their father, a renowned African American Egyptologist. In London on Christmas Eve for a rare evening together, Carter and Sadie accompany their dad to the British Museum, where he blows up the Rosetta Stone in summoning an Egyptian god. Unleashed, the vengeful god overpowers and entombs him, but Sadie and Carter escape. Initially determined to rescue their father, their mission expands to include understanding their hidden magical powers as the descendants of the pharaohs and taking on the ancient forces bent on destroying mankind. The first-person narrative shifts between Carter and Sadie, giving the novel an intriguing dual perspective made more complex by their biracial heritage and the tension between the siblings, who barely know each other at the story’s beginning. The first volume in the Kane Chronicles, this fantasy adventure delivers what fans loved about the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series: young protagonists with previously unsuspected magical powers, a riveting story marked by headlong adventure, a complex background rooted in ancient mythology, and wry, witty twenty-first-century narration. The last pages contain a clever twist that will leave readers secretly longing to open their lockers at the start of school…”

Phelan, C. (May 15, 2010). [Review of The Red Pyramid]. Booklist. Retrieved from http://www.booklistonline.com.

Library uses: I would use this title for a tween/YA book club or reading list. Some fun activities related to the book could be making pyramids, writing names in heiroglyphics, and discussing what items they would want to be buried with – what’s really important that you would want to have (quite literally) forever?

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Week 9: Castles: Old Stone Poems

Book summary: Castles: Old Stone Poems takes us on a lyrical tour of (mostly European) castles. The poems capture a bit of the history of the castles, the places they are, and the people who lived in them. The illustrations are beautiful; the color and lighting are reminiscent of early Renaissance works.

My impressions: I am prone to enjoy everything castle oriented – moats and towers and princesses and knights and sword fighting, all right up my alley. So I love the paintings in this book, they’re really gorgeous. As for the poetry, I think it’s just fine. The poem for each castle does tend to have it’s own style and rhythm. However, I really worry it may be too erudite for it’s intended audience. Depending on their outside interest, older elementary students may not know very much about European history, or the folklore associated with certain places like Transylvania, or Viking legends. I think the goals are pretty lofty, but it takes a very special type of child to appreciate poetry, history, warfare, and art. But for the special children (I’m sure there are some out there) who do appreciate some of these aspects, this book could be an invaluable tool in getting them interested in poetry.

Citation: Lewis, J. P., and Dotlich, R. K. (2006). Castles: old stone poems. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong.

Professional review:

“Gr 4-6-History and legend blend in this collection. The mostly European-based selections focus on Bodiam Castle (England), the Tower of London, Edinburgh Castle (Scotland), Chambord (Erance), Bran Castle (Romania), etc., in addition to Himeji Castle (Japan), Catherine’s Palace (Russia), and Hearst Castle (U.S.). A section entitled “Medieval Minutes” follows the poems, providing additional facts (many of which are not about medieval times) and a time line for historical context. Burr’s oil paintings capture the grandeur, loneliness, and mood of each castle in evocative shades of light and dark. Yet while the subject matter and rich illustrations are ripe for kid appeal, the book’s lack of focus may ultimately lose its intended audience. Readers will undoubtedly wonder why the castles themselves are not pictured in a number of the poems. Likewise, the lofty, sometimes awkward verse and cryptic references to historieal events will leave most children confused. With adult support to tie together facts and poetic references, a small niche of castle fanatics may be willing to invest the time needed to uncover the juicy tales behind these poems…”

Maza, J. (October 2006). [Review of Castles: old stone poems]. School Library Journal52(10), 179.

Library uses: I could use this in April to promote Poetry Month to boys. Perhaps having more traditionally “male” interests, such as warfare, knights, dragons, and history, represented could get boys excited about poems. I also like the aspect of teaching kids about non-verbal poetry – that images and buildings can be poetic in their way.

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