Review of “Moonglow” by Michael Chabon

Moonglow is a novel that is written to sound as if it were a memoir about the life of the author’s late grandfather. Through the vignettes that the grandfather related over the last two weeks of his life, we learn what it was like to be him and to have had his perspective on life. But it is not meant to be truthful; as Chabon writes in an Author’s Note preceding the book:

“In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”

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Thus, he claims, it is his ““first faux-memoir novel.” He also declared in an interview about the book:

“It is an attempt to explain an enigmatic advertisement I found in a copy of an issue of Esquire magazine in 1958 for Chabon Scientific Company that sold a model rocket. This memoir is the fictional history behind that advertisement to explain it.”

In previous books, Michael Chabon has proven to be a master of the meticulously wrought phrase. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, for example, his evocation of New York life in the 1930’s was absolutely rhapsodic. I didn’t feel that this book rose to that level, although Chabon adroitly captures the subtleties of the grandfather’s life in a panorama that spans World War II, marriage to the narrator’s grandmother, the post-war race for scientific hegemony, the way in which the grandfather spent his retirement, and finally his deathbed conversations with his grandson in 1989.

It is both a chronicle of an individual life and of the broader era in which that life was lived.

Evaluation: Some of the themes Chabon has used before reappear in this book, such as of the impotency of men in the face of evil, the appeal of storytelling in reshaping memory, the ways in which imagination can help make reality endurable, and the redemptive power of love.

Yet, although Chabon conjures this grandfather’s life so vividly, strangely, the story did not engage me emotionally. Nor did the author wow me, as in the past, with his magical flights of prose.

I thought this was a good book, but because this author has written some great books, I found it disappointing.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016

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President’s Day Kid Lit Review of “Presidents of the United States”

This thin volume, touted as “backpack-friendly,” contains a short overview of all 45 presidents of the United States, through and including Donald Trump.

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Each entry has facts in brief, a time line, and key historical dates.

In terms of content, I found nothing significant missing that would be appropriate for the intended audience of 8-12 (although it seemed to me that the blatant omission of why Clinton was impeached would only raise more questions).

My main reaction to this book was: why would any kid with computer access want this book instead of, say, checking Wikipedia or Google for the same information? Of course if a child did not have any access, or any frequent access, to online resources, this book would indeed be valuable.

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But in addition, I found it not so interesting. There was nothing there to grab me; no entertaining trivia or statistics (such as, perhaps, how many presidents were named John or in which states were the most presidents born). There are so many fun facts that could have been included, like who was the first president to use a telephone or drive a car; who was the shortest or tallest? Which president went for a swim almost every day in the Potomac River without any clothes? How many presidents died on the Fourth of July and who were they? How many presidents were related to one another? Even if the author had included relevant political cartoons pertaining to each president, it might have added some unusual interest, and made it more appealing to kids.

But I do like the handy size, and I liked the balanced nature of the write-ups.

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Evaluation: If you have a young child who cannot for any reason access the internet easily, this reference guide could be very useful.

Published by Time Inc. Books, 2017

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Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, & His Revolutionary Transformation by Marfé Ferguson Delano & the Mount Vernon Staff

This is a very good book for grades five and up about the lives of slaves on George Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon, and how Washington’s views on slavery evolved over the years.

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Washington left voluminous papers at the time of his death, including his letters to farm managers at Mount Vernon while he was away – first fighting the Revolutionary War, and later serving as the nation’s first president.

He called his slaves “my people,” and told his managers he expected “that my people . . . be at their work as soon as it is light, work ‘till it is dark, and be diligent while they are at it.” He not only used slaves to do all the menial work of taking care of what eventually grew to 8,000 acres and a large house with constant visitors, but a number of them were skilled artisans as well.

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Washington was a hard worker himself, but of course his life was his own to choose. He fed and clothed his slaves and took care of them in sickness, but expected in exchange “such labor as they ought to render.” Moreover, they received no more than the bare minimum, per Washington’s orders:

“It is not my wish or desire that my Negroes should have an ounce of meal more, nor less, than is sufficient to feed them plentifully.”

Since “plentifully” wasn’t usually enough, they were allowed to grow vegetables and sell items they made in their “free” time to buy more.

In addition, most married slaves were not able to live in the same place as their spouses; Washington had other farms, and housed them where they were assigned to do work. They generally used their one day off to walk the many miles necessary to see their partners. At age 11, children began work training, and at 14 they were assigned to adult duties.

Although Washington himself was not known to be physically abusive, this was not always true of his overseers. After one reported to Washington that he whipped a female slave for being “impudent,” Washington wrote back “Your treatment of Charlotte was very proper,” adding that “if she, or any other of the servants will not do their duty by fair means, or are impertinent, correction … must be administered.”

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Occasionally, Washington’s slaves ran off. The author reports that between 1759 and 1799, at least 47 slaves ran away. She conjectures that more might have left had they not felt bound to Mount Vernon by strong family ties to other slaves. Washington “spared no expense” trying to track them down. He considered their behavior to be acts of betrayal and ingratitude.


In spite of all of this, over time Washington began to see slavery in a new light. Several of his close associates, including the Marquis de Lafayette and John Laurens, were avid abolitionists. When the Revolutionary Army began to take black soldiers, Washington got to see blacks from a different perspective. And a young African-born slave and poet named Phillis Wheatley sent a paean to him that impressed him greatly.

Eventually he decided to free those slaves that he could upon Martha’s death. (He could not free them at the time of his own death since some would revert to the estate of Martha’s family, the Custis estate, per “dower law.” Also, he did not want to break up the families of his own slaves who had intermarried with such “dower” slaves.) In addition, he stipulated in his will that slaves too old and sick to work were to be “comfortably fed and clothed by my heirs while they live.”

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Washington’s relative benevolence was in stark contrast with most other Founding Fathers, including of course Thomas Jefferson, the author of the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The book is illustrated with photos by Lori Epstein, pictures of costumed reenactors, and reproductions of portraits and drawings from the era.

The book also contains a chronology, bibliography, and list of sources at the end.

Rating: 4/5

Published by the National Geographic Society, 2013

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Review of “Undertow” by Michael Buckley

Lyric Walker and her BFF Bex Conrad, both 17, live in a run-down part of Coney Island known as ”The Zone” or “Fish City.” It is an area of two square miles bordering a massive tent city where 30,000 members of the “Alpha” live. The Alpha are a mixed race of powerful people who come from underwater. [So powerful they have to live in a slum? One of the many things that don’t make sense.] But now some of them are going to come to the local high school because, isn’t that what aliens or “others” usually do in YA books?

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There is of course a lot of xenophobia toward the Alpha, but Lyric contends that racial animus isn’t new to the area:

“The Chinese hated the Japanese, and the Jamaicans hated the Koreans, and the Mexicans hated the African Americans, and the Russians hated the Orthodox Jews, and the white people hated all of them.”

[Really? The Jews are a “race” not a religion? And they aren’t white? Interesting view, not heard by me outside of Nazi or alt-right propaganda material. … just sayin]

In any event, the integration of Alpha kids into the schools is opposed of course, with a Michele Bachmann clone filling the same role George Wallace did in 1963 when he tried to keep blacks from attending the University of Alabama.

But the students manage to get inside, and a new principal, David Doyle, who clearly is not an actual educator but some sort of government enforcer, asks Lyric to be a “guide” to the Alpha prince, Fathom. Gee, I wonder if they will fall into InstaLove….

Meanwhile, a lot of rabid and violent protestors commit or attempt to commit acts of violence against the “monsters” (making the usual very obvious point about who the real monsters actually are), and tension increases.

On a micro level, tension is also escalating for both Lyric and Bex – Bex has abusive parents, and Lyric has parents with a big secret.

Can they overcome their problems peacefully, or will they have to turn into a group of N.E.R.D.S. (National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society) – i.e., kids with superpower upgrades. Oh wait, that’s Buckley’s middle grade series. This one has some hot kissing, so it can’t be the same.

Nevertheless, the ending is right out of Marvel Comics, or N.E.R.D.S. without its G rating. And like the comics and the N.E.R.D.S. books, this is only the beginning of a series.

Discussion: Despite my reservations, the story isn’t all bad – at least the part involving the “humans.” The YA characterizations and angst are well-done. The portions involving the Alpha are a bit over the top, and don’t always make sense. But readers will warm up to Lyric, her family, and her BFF, and the bonds among them. Lyric is also unusually mature for a YA protagonist – another plus.

Evaluation: If you like comic-book type action with some YA romance thrown in, this book may have appeal. Judging from the reactions on Goodreads, this book has been very well-received.

Rating: 2/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015

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Review of “The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

This is a fun and heart-warming space opera that takes place aboard the “Wayfarer,” a ship patched together for long-haul journeys to carry out the contractual creation of wormhole tunnels. It is manned with a small, diverse and endearing multi-species crew. The spaceship is “home” to the crew, and the crew members have become family to one another.

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Several changes in the status quo occur to set up the action. One is that the crew acquires a new member, Rosemary Harper, to serve as clerk to the affable captain. Rosemary has a secret, and it unclear at first what her actual role will be. The second is that the ship receives a very lucrative contract offer to make a new tunnel connecting Central Space to a far off planet in possibly hostile territory. The third is that several of the crew members face existential challenges that cause the crew to reevaluate their feelings toward one another, and their respect for one another’s cultures.

Discussion: The descriptions of the diverse species in the Galactic Commons, the disparities and similarities among them, and the ways in which they each strive to adjust and have consideration for the others, are quite entertaining. I also enjoyed the emphasis on the quotidian – such as the need to come up with clothing and ship decor, food that appeals to everyone, treating wounds, making the spaceship “homey,” and dealing with interspecies attractions.

There is much discussion about what species can and should do to survive, most of which involves a rejection of hatred and killing to solve problems. As one of the characters tells Rosemary:

“All you can do … all any of us can do . . . is work to be something positive instead. That is a choice that every sapient must make every day of their life. The universe is what we make of it.”

The pacing is slow, but not in an off-putting way. Rather, it just seems like one more resemblance to the television series “Firefly.” Each chapter could serve as an “episode.”

Evaluation: This is an entertaining story that is perhaps more about relationships than its status as a “science fiction” book would suggest.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2014

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