Kid Lit Review of “The Music in George’s Head” by Suzanne Slade

If you read this blog, you might have guessed that I am a big George Gershwin fan. I used to have an LP of Gershwin himself playing “Rhapsody in Blue” and played it so much that it sort of disintegrated. (….so did record players, so it wasn’t as tragic as it seems.) Thus I was delighted to see this book for children on Gershwin, which is subtitled “George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue.”

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As the book begins, the author reports that Gershwin, even as a child, heard music in his head all the time in the streets of New York where he grew up. His mother bought a piano for George and his brother Ira, but Ira decided he had no interest. As for George though, as the author reports, “When he felt those smooth keys beneath his fingers, his face lit up like the lights on Broadway.”

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He learned to play almost by instinct. He also began studying piano and sneaking into concerts to hear others play. When he was 15, he got a job at a music store, playing sheet music customers wanted to hear. He penned his own songs too, and at 17, he sold his first tune. He wrote “Swanee” when only 20 years old. But he loved jazz, and decided to write a jazz concerto, which was of course “Rhapsody in Blue.” It premiered on February 12, 1924. The author opines:

“No one had ever heard anything like it. Except George. He’d been hearing beautiful music all his life.”

Like other books for children on music, this one is full of musical onomatopoeia that helps conveys the sounds incorporated into Gershwin’s music.

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Much of the inspiration for the author’s text comes from Gershwin’s own words, who, for example, told his biographer:

It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise…. And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.”

The illustrations by Stacy Innerst put the words of the author into motion, cleverly showing the influences that went into “Rhapsody in Blue” in stylized jazzy acrylics painted in a palette dominated by blue.

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An Author’s Note at the end of the book lists some of Gershwin’s other accomplishments, from his songs for Broadway (they included “I Got Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and “Embraceable You”) to writing the acclaimed opera “Porgy and Bess” (my favorite opera, of course). (Note: Many of his lyrics were written by his brother Ira.)

Tragically, Gershwin died of a brain tumor at age 38. (It is possible his death could have been prevented. You can read an article on what happened here.)

Evaluation: I think it would be fun and interesting for kids to learn about musical antecedents, from “Tin Pan Alley” to the beginnings of jazz and blues. Much of what they listen to today owes a great deal to these roots.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Calkins Creek, an imprint of Highlights, 2016

George Gershwin in 1937

George Gershwin in 1937

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Review of “Finding Fraser” by K.C. Dyer

The story is about Emma Sheridan, who, at 29, having been fired from her job and with no romantic prospects, drops everything to leave Chicago, travel to Scotland, and maybe find her own Jamie Fraser as in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. She also starts a blog to document her progress.

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This book has a cute premise, and I liked the way narrative chapters were interwoven with blog posts. The fact that the blog posts had comments also added to the fun. But I thought the quality of the book was very uneven. The parts about Scotland were sketchy – there she is crying over Culloden, for example, but if you weren’t already familiar with what happened there, you wouldn’t get much information here beyond the fact that many Scots died there for some reason or other. And after a very short time in the country, she starts referring to “my beloved Highlands.” Really?

Moreover, early on in the story, she is robbed in Scotland. You would think she would have then taken steps to protect her credit, for example, or to file an insurance claim, particularly since she was in constant contact with her sister, the Chief Financial Officer of a big Chicago firm. But inexplicably, she never takes any of the necessary steps.

Also, since the outcome was obvious, it would have been nice to find out more about her eventual romantic interest, who, it might be noted, only had about twenty minutes of contact with Emma before he became smitten. Instead, a yahoo that Emma thinks looks like Jamie occupies most of the story and most of Emma’s (and our) time. She is so clearly trying to fit this totally inappropriate guy (jerky to the point of caricature) into an Outlander-shaped procrustean mold that it’s hard to fathom why she doesn’t see this herself.

Finally, there wasn’t very much about the Outlander series in this book at all, aside from the Scotland setting and the jokes about kilts. Oh, and Emma’s tendency, whenever anything went wrong, to turn to the Outlander books and chase fantasies from them for solace. Her coping skills leave a lot to be desired.

Still, I think the author shows promise and creativity. Some of the characters, like Morag McGuinty, and Ashwin Patel, are very entertaining. Too bad Emma herself was so lacking.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016

The "real" Jamie Fraser - as played by Sam Heughan

The “real” Jamie Fraser – as played by Sam Heughan

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January 19 – National Popcorn Day

According to The Popcorn Board (an organization funded by U.S. popcorn processors to raise awareness of popcorn), the actual date of National Popcorn Day is a matter of debate. Some sources report it as January 19; others claim it takes place on whatever day the Super Bowl falls on. It doesn’t matter to me; today seems like as good a day as any to talk about popcorn.

The Spanish exploration of the New World is notable (inter alia) for introducing Europeans to popcorn. When Columbus first encountered the Arawak tribe, he was given a popcorn corsage. (And then he and his men killed them all, but not because of the popcorn.)

... and then we can start raping and killing....

… and then we can start raping and killing….

Popcorn also played a large role in Aztec culture. It was often made into necklaces or headdresses, and it was commonly used to decorate religious statues. Aztec girls danced in popcorn garlands (and not much else). One Aztec ritual involved throwing a whole ear of un-popped popcorn into a fire as a sacrifice to the gods. They referred to the kernels which came out as “hailstones.”

Aztec Empire circa 1519

Aztec Empire circa 1519

Today, Americans consume some 16 billion quarts a year of popcorn. That’s 51 quarts per man, woman, and child.

Popcorn, is of course, a type of corn (or maize). Of the six types of corn/maize – pod, sweet, flour, dent, flint, and popcorn — only popcorn pops. (Rather clever that popcorn is named popcorn….)

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A number of states currently vie for the record for making the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball. In 2013, the honors went to The Indiana State Fair with a 6,510-pound popcorn ball (topping the old record by 1,450 pounds). The popcorn ball took 75 people 329 hours to build and used 977 pounds of popped popcorn; 1,113 pounds of mushroom-shaped popcorn kernels; and 5,534 pounds of caramel-like syrup to hold the popcorn ball together.

World's Largest Popcorn Ball - Indiana State Fair - 2013

World’s Largest Popcorn Ball – Indiana State Fair – 2013

There are probably as many recipes for popcorn balls on the web as there are popcorn kernels in the world, but I like this one for fancy popcorn balls from Orville Redenbacher:

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You can also take advantage of the chocolate-caramel-salt craze with popcorn, as with this easy recipe for Twix Caramel Popcorn.

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Happy Popcorn Day!!

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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Review of “The Unexpected Everything” by Morgan Matson

This young adult book takes place in the summer before Andie Walker’s senior year in high school in Stanwich, Connecticut. Andie, who is 17, and her three BFFs, Palmer, Bri, and Toby, hang out together constantly. In fact, Bri and Toby are inseparable. Palmer’s boyfriend Tom is also part of the group. As the story begins, the other three girls besides Palmer are looking for summer romances. Andie’s relationships usually last only around three weeks, and she is fine with that.

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Andie’s dating pattern gets a change, though, when – while doing her summer job walking dogs, she meets Clark, a handsome shy guy with a big dog named Bertie. Although Clark is tongue-tied in her presence and at first says nary a word, she gets a crush on him. In a humorous aside, their incipient relationship is almost derailed when Andie confesses she doesn’t read books:

“‘I know how to read,’ I said, seeing the alarm in this expression, ‘I just don’t love fiction. You know, novels.”

“Wait,” Clark says, “What do you do on planes?”

This is actually more than funny to Clark, because it turns out he writes books – he is the young author (19 now) of a series of vastly popular fantasy novels, and sections of this book are preceded with excerpts from his books that mirror what will be happening in the story.

The relationship with Andie and Clark has some other roadblocks to overcome. One reason Andie’s previous relationships have been so short-term is that she, the daughter of a career politician, holds back and doesn’t like to reveal much about herself. Opening up to another person is dangerous:

“It went against everything I’d been told my whole life – sometimes explicitly, but more often not. . . . Stay on message. Don’t tell people what you really think or feel – unless it’s been vetted and approved. Keep people at arm’s length and your feelings to yourself.”

Plus, she lost her mother five years earlier to cancer, and she is afraid to get too close to anyone.

Other themes include the changing nature of friendships, Andie’s relationship with her father, and dealing with loss.

The story unwinds pretty much predictably, with an ending that ties together the rest of the book in a paean to fantasy sagas.

Evaluation: Generally, Matson is a good writer who creates engaging stories and characters. This one, I thought, was a little long, and could have undergone some downsizing without sacrificing the appeal of the story. The characters were also not drawn as convincingly as usual for this author, and I wasn’t sold on the chemistry between Andie and Clark. Nevertheless, it’s a fun book, and has lots of appealing and clever aspects to it.

Rating: 3.25/5

Published by Simon & Schuster BFYR, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2016

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Review of “To Capture What We Cannot Keep” by Beatrice Colin

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This historical novel that begins in 1886 imagines a relationship between one of the engineers working on the Eiffel Tower, Émile Nouguier, and a Scottish widow, Caitriona (Cait) Wallace, who is temporarily staying in Paris. Cait has come as a chaperone to Jamie and Alice Arrol, whose uncle sent them on a “Grand Tour” of the continent. When Émile and Cait meet, they are attracted to one another, but they are from different social classes, which were rigidly separated in the Belle Époque of France. As Gustave Eiffel says to Émile: “My dear boy… we may be able to span huge ravines with iron, but in France men like us, professional men, no matter how wealthy, still cannot cross the social divide.”

The first sketch of the proposed tower made by Maurice Koechlin in 1884

The first sketch of the proposed tower made by Maurice Koechlin in 1884

Nevertheless, Émile and Cait embark on a surreptitious relationship (or so they think), set against the background of the ongoing construction of the tower, and of the reckless behaviors of Alice and Jamie in Paris. The historical structural and financial difficulties of assembling the tower, the fears and doubts of the populace, and the vagaries of weather and labor conditions all contribute to the background of the story. The author also limns the era well in terms of fashion and social mores, the artistic revolution that was going on simultaneously, the double standards for men and women, and the hypocritical two-layered nature of a society that was obsessed with appearances in public, while roiling underneath with sub rosa experimentation in sex and opium use.

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Evaluation: The background on the construction of the Eiffel Tower was interesting, although I thought it could have been edited down a bit; the details tended to dominate the story. Alice and Jamie were absolutely repulsive; given their ages, it would have been nice to see them have some nuance or discipline. Cait and Émile were appealing characters, but Cait was a bit too much of a martyr. She suffered endlessly and unjustly, and the decisions she made just added to her martyrdom. Although the author tried to add a bit of redemption at the end, it didn’t seem like enough to make me feel happier about reading the book.

Rating: 3.25/5

Published by Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, 2016

Note: You can learn more about the construction of the Eiffel Tower here.

Émile Nouguier

Émile Nouguier

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