Review of “Time Travel: A History” by James Gleick

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

James Gleick’s newest book, Time Travel, was a bit of a disappointment to me. Gleick is an excellent explicator of abstruse subjects (Cf. Chaos and The Information), so I expected a lucid explication of bizarre relativity physics dealing with the nature of time. Instead, Gleick pretty much dismisses the possibility of time travel. He states that, as imagined by writers over the decades, it “does not exist. It cannot.”

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So what is there to write about? Culture: how time travel has been expressed in various forms of media, and the philosophical hopes and dreams behind its enduring appeal, e.g., the desire to continue to exist beyond the years of our allotted lifespan. As he says at the end of the book: “Why do we need time travel? All the answers come down to one. To elude death.”

For most of the book, Gleick describes how various authors, beginning with H. G. Wells and his Time Machine, have explored the potentialities and paradoxes of time travel. His analysis of the literature is enlightening, but will mean more to those familiar with all the works he discusses.

From H.G. Wells "The Time Machine"

From H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”

Evaluation: Since I am more interested in science than in science fiction, my disappointment in the book may not be a fair reaction; fans of time travel in books and on television will no doubt love this overview of how the subject evolved “over time.”

Rating: 3/5

Published in hardback by Pantheon, a member of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to the book, read by Rob Shapiro. Although he does a fine job reading, the problem with the audio version is that the organization or outline of the book is not at all obvious, and it seems to skip from one topic or aspect to another somewhat randomly. I’m sure the structure of the argument would have been easier to perceive in print, but I was never sure where the author was going as I listened in the car. In avoiding the printed medium I may have done a disservice to an author I respect and have enjoyed in the past.

Published unabridged on 8 CDs (10 listening hours) by Random House Audio, 2016

The time machine in "Dr. Who" is called the TARDIS, which stands for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space. Credit: BBCAmerica

The time machine in “Dr. Who” is called the TARDIS, which stands for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space.
Credit: BBCAmerica

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Black History Month Kid Lit Special – A Selection of Books on Slavery for Children

There are a number of reasons to teach children about slavery, even besides the fact that it played such a large role in the history of the world and in the U.S. in particular. Teaching this history can show children that injustices can be corrected and change is possible. They can gain a new appreciation for how far America came from a country in which African-Americans were compelled to build the White House for their white oppressors to a country in which African-Americans lived in the White House. Most importantly, learning about slavery provides an opportunity to discuss morality, compassion, and the question of “just” laws versus “unjust” laws.

There are also moments to celebrate, from those who worked to better their lives against the worst kind of odds, to the brave souls who escaped, and to those who helped them.

As Kadir Nelson wrote in his award-winning book Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans:

“Most folks my age and complexion don’t speak much about the past. Sometimes it’s just too hard to talk about – nothing we like to share with you young folk. No parent wants to tell a child that he was once a slave and made to do another man’s bidding. Or that she had to swallow her pride and take what she was given, even though she knew it wasn’t fair. Our story is chock-full of things like this. Things that might make you cringe, or feel angry. But there are also parts that will make you proud, or even laugh a little. You gotta take the good with the bad, I guess. You have to know where you come from so you can move forward.”

Conflicts over skin color still exist. Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room, but let’s learn from it. Here are some possible resources.

Brick by Brick

Charles R. Smith, Jr. (Author), Floyd Cooper (Illustrator)

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The original White House in Washington, D.C. was built in the 1790s with the help of slaves rented from nearby plantations. The irony of the Founding Fathers who, in search of liberty and justice for all, utilized slaves to achieve it, is a subtle undercurrent in this poetic history of the construction of the new symbol of Free America.

Published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2013

***

No More!: Stories and Songs of Slave Resistance

Doreen Rappaport (Author), Shane W. Evans (Illustrator)

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Excellent collection of the general history of slavery, individual stories and songs, all illustrated by bold oil paintings. Examples of selections include the story of Olaudah Equiano’s survival through the Middle Passage, Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, and Frederick Douglass’s brave defiance of his vicious master.

A time line at the back of the book summarizes the main events of slavery in the U.S. There is also a list of sources and an index.

Published by Candlewick Press, 2002

***

The Listeners

Gloria Whelan (Author), Mike Benny (Illustrator)

The Listeners tells a story of what life was like for children under slavery, but in a way that will not scare young children.

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Young Ella May and her friends, Bobby and Sue, pick cotton all day. Their most important work, however, begins at night, when they hide under their master’s window, listen for news and information, and run back to the slaves’ quarters to report it. In this way, the adults know what to expect and how to deal with it. This book has no scenes of horror. Clearly slaves are not free, but young readers will not be burdened with nightmarish scenes sometimes common to slavery.

There are also happy moments in the book back at the slave cabins: the joy of family and food and community; dancing to music heard from the master’s house, and the news that Abraham Lincoln has been elected to be President of the United States.

For an introduction to slavery, I can’t imagine a nicer book. And the illustrations are beautiful.

Published by Sleeping Bear Press, 2010

***

Henry’s Freedom Box

Ellen Levine (Author), Kadir Nelson (Illustrator)

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With fabulous illustrations by Kadir Nelson, this book tells the story of Henry Brown, who, in 1849, escaped from slavery by having himself mailed to Philadelphia. Henry traveled 350 miles from Richmond, Virginia, in a nail-biting trip that took twenty-seven hours. Henry “Box” Brown became one of the most famous escaped slaves and his story remains incredibly inspirational.

Both the author and the illustrator have won many awards. This book is excellent in every respect.

Published by Scholastic Press, 2007

***

Love Twelve Miles Long

Glenda Armand (Author), Colin Bootman (Illustrator)

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I can’t articulate adequately what a good book this is. It is based on the true story of the mother of Frederick Douglass, who is separated from her son because of slavery by twelve miles. She doesn’t stop that from letting her see him though, and sometimes makes the trip up and back in one night, just so she can be with him. In the book, she and Frederick go through a ritual in which she describes for him her thoughts during each mile, and how much she loves him, and her faith that one day they will be free and live together: “There will be no slaves or masters. No one will own us.”

This beautiful book is illustrated by candlelit paintings and express the love between Frederick and his mother. Highly recommended!

Published by Lee & Low Books, 2013

***

Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story

Janet Halfmann (Author), Duane Smith (Illustrator)

Robert Smalls, a slave used by Confederates in Charleston, South Carolina during the Civil War to pilot the steamship Planter, committed an amazingly daring and brave act to win freedom for himself and his family. In the early morning hours in May, 1862, the white captain and crew of Planter were ashore for the night contrary to orders. The ship was loaded with arms for rebel forts. At around 3 a.m., Smalls collected his wife, children, and twelve other slaves, and commandeered the vessel. He disguised himself as the captain (even assuming the captain’s stance), guided the ship out of the harbor, and surrendered to Union forces.

Union press hailed Smalls as a national hero, calling the ship “the first trophy from Fort Sumter.” A Congressional bill signed by President Lincoln awarded prize money to Smalls, which he used to purchase land near his birthplace in South Carolina.

This story will amaze and inspire you.

Published by Lee & Low Books, 2008

***

A Freedom River

Doreen Rappaport (Author), Bryan Collier (Illustrator)

This book relates the true story of John Parker, a slave who learned the trade of iron molding and saved enough money to buy his own freedom. He made his way to Ohio and went into business for himself, becoming wealthy. But he never forgot where he came from. At night, he helped slaves from Kentucky escape across the river to freedom in Ohio. He guided hundreds of slaves, despite a $1,000 bounty placed on his head by slaveholders. The collage-and-watercolor illustrations add to the drama of his story.

Published by Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books for Children, an imprint of the Disney Book Group, 2000

***

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom

Carole Boston Weatherford (Author), Kadir Nelson (Illustrator)

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Harriet Tubman’s escape to freedom from slavery and her role in helping others to escape via the “underground railroad” is told in terms of the religious faith that inspired and sustained her. The poetic text (“Lord, don’t let nobody turn me ’round”) and gorgeous pictures by Kadir Nelson highlight her struggle (especially in the wonderfully painted facial expressions) and show how her faith helped her overcome the most harrowing of circumstances.

Published by Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books for Children, an imprint of the Disney Book Group, 2006

***

Freedom in Congo Square

Carole Boston Weatherford (Author), R. Gregory Christie (Illustrator)

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In Louisiana, slaves had a day off from work on Sundays. In New Orleans, after 1817, they could only gather in one place on this day, an open field known as Congo Square. There, the slaves could play African music, dance, play, and sing. As the author says in an Afterword, “For a few hours every Sunday, Congo Square gave slaves a taste of freedom.”

This book has much to recommend it: the story will teach children some of the many things slaves were required to do. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the harshness of slavery with the joy expressed on (half)days of freedom certainly illustrates – both in words and pictures, how absurd was the outrageous canard that slaves were “happy.” Finally, the way Christie changes the lines and colors of his art can show children how important and effective images are in affecting perception.

Both the author and the illustrator have garnered many awards.

Published by Little Bee Books, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing Group, 2016

***

Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass

Doreen Rappaport (Author), London Ladd (Illustrator)

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After Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, he went on to educate himself and take a prominent role on the national stage during the time of Lincoln, the Civil War, and the struggle for black suffrage that followed. The author incorporates quotations from Frederick Douglass’s into this biography for children, which showcases how poetic and stirring Douglass could be.

Published by Jump at the Sun, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2015

***

The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up To Slavery

Judith and Dennis Fradin (Authors), Eric Velasquez (Illustrator)

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This book tells the true story of three slaves from Kentucky – John Price, his cousin Dinah, and his friend Frank – who crossed the Ohio River to freedom in Ohio, where slavery was outlawed. But they couldn’t rest easy: part of the compromise legislation of 1850 was a toughening of the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slave owners to capture and return runaways from anywhere in the U.S. Aiding slaves was made a federal crime. But the citizens of Oberlin, Ohio decided that helping the slaves was the only moral choice.

Published by Walker Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013

***

Freedom Over Me

Ashley Bryan (Author and Illustrator)

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The author reports in an Afterword that he came across a collection of slave-related documents that included an “estate sale” of eleven slaves (along with cows, hogs, and cotton). Since the slaves were only referred to by gender and age, he decided he wanted to create stories for them and give them voices.

He introduces each slave by a picture he has imagined of the slave, noting his or her age, price. Then the slaves, in free-verse first-person narrative, tell the roles they play on the estate. The next page after each introduction imagines the dreams of that slave, which are in stark contrast to what a slave is allowed to do, and which always end with the dream of freedom.

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2016

***

Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation

Marfé Ferguson Delano (author) Lori Epstein (photographer)

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This well-researched examination of George Washington’s evolving attitudes on slavery is accompanied by descriptions of what kinds of slaves he had and how they lived.

***

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Review of “Hero of The Empire” by Candice Millard

This book, subtitled “The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill” is a history of Winston Churchill’s early life, with a focus on the years 1899-1900. It was during this time that Churchill traveled as a journalist to the Boer War in South Africa, ended up a prisoner, and effected a daring escape.

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Churchill believed that he was destined for power and fame. In fact, his self-confidence and belief in his special destiny were quite remarkable. It is true he came from a powerful family; his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had served as Secretary of State for India and later Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. His mother, Jennie Churchill, was considered to be one of the most beautiful and influential women of her time. But the extent of Churchill’s belief in his singularity was still astounding. As just one of many examples, while taking part in 1897 Siege of Malakand in colonial British India’s North West Frontier Province, he wrote his mother he wasn’t worried about bullets: “I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.”

Churchill in 1899 (age 24)

Churchill in 1899 (age 24)

What he wanted most though, was to gain a reputation for personal courage, and by all accounts, he consistently acquitted himself well in that respect. As Millard writes: “Although Churchill had been called many things – opportunist, braggart, blowhard – no one had ever questioned his bravery.” He didn’t have much of a chance to evince it however until the Second Boer War broke out in South Africa in October of 1899.

The Boers had lived in the region relatively unmolested until they discovered diamonds and gold. The area was previously occupied by the San, Khoikhoi, Xhosa, and Zulu peoples. When the Dutch and German Huguenots arrived, later known collectively as Boers, their diseases wiped out a large number of the natives. The whites thought the surviving native people only suitable for slavery. The British had outlawed slavery; although they believed whites to be superior to darker races, and that these darker races might merit abuse and social scorn, they drew the line at enslaving them outright.

South Africa at the time of the Second Boer War

South Africa at the time of the Second Boer War

But the Boers persisted in doing what they wanted, and thus the British became convinced that the “insolent” Boers must be curbed. Churchill in particular had argued that “war was the only answer.” [Whether the British umbrage was over the outrage of slavery or over the outrage that the Boers, rather than the British, had control of the gold and diamonds is not entirely clarified. It seems as if it were a bit of both.]

When Churchill arrived in South Africa, he gushed over the land: “All Nature smiles, and here at last is a land where white men may rule and prosper.” Although, as Millard points out, “the white men Churchill had in mind for ruling and prospering in South Africa were certainly not the Boers . . . ”

Nevertheless, she reports:

“. . . the [Boers] had had the same rush of desire and deep sense of entitlement when they first laid eyes on Natal. Since the earliest days of the war, both the Boers and the British had held an unshakable belief in the righteousness of their cause and the unworthiness of their enemy. Neither group, however, had given a moment’s thought or would have cared if they had, to the fact that the land over which they were fighting did not belong to either one of them.”

On November 15, 1899, a month after Churchill arrived in South Africa, champing at the bit to see action, he joined a reconnaissance mission on an armored train. Louis Botha and his Boers successfully attacked the train, and took some sixty captives, including Churchill.

General Louis Botha

General Louis Botha

Although the officers, with Churchill among them, were housed in surprisingly good accommodations, Churchill could not bear not being the master of his own fate, and became obsessed with escaping. He was supposed to be a part of a group of three escapees, but after Churchill climbed over the fence, the others had no opportunity to join him. Thus he was on his own, with hardly any food and not much of a plan.

In spite of these negative odds, the incredible luck he had always experienced continued to favor him, and the author details how Churchill traversed the 300 miles from Pretoria to freedom in what is now Mozambique. She manages to outline the journey in a way that is full of suspense and excitement, even though we know the outcome.

Churchill's Wanted Poster

Churchill’s Wanted Poster

Discussion: It’s hard to warm up to Churchill. He was spoiled and full of a sense of entitlement, both from being born to a rich noble family and just from being a white male. He insisted that whites were “a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race,” and thus believed deeply and ardently in Britain’s right to rule over others. His confidence and “chutzpah” knew few bounds.

Yet he also had many admirable qualities, and this book in particular highlights his fortitude, and how he proved himself to be “resilient, resourceful and, even in the face of extreme danger, utterly unruffled.” The book also provides a good analysis of the situation in South Africa and the Second Boer War.

The hardcover edition includes maps and photos.

Evaluation: This is a very entertaining, informative, and perhaps lesser-known (at least in the U.S.) story about someone considered to be one of the great leaders of the 20th Century.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Simon Vance performs up to his usual impeccable standards, and is especially convincing when he speaks in the voice of Winston Churchill.

Published unabridged on 8 CDs (10 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Random House, 2016

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Review of “The Problem with Forever” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

This book for young adults begins with Mallory and Rider growing up in the same foster home in the Baltimore area with two very abusive parents. Rider, while only six months older than Mallory, always acted as her protector: hiding her, advising her not to make a sound, and taking the blows that otherwise might have landed on Mallory. He read The Velveteen Rabbit to her when she was scared, and he promised he would be there for her “for forever.” But when Mallory was 12, she ended up in the hospital and got adopted by two doctors who had cared for her. She thought she would never see Rider again.

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After years of home schooling and lots of therapy, Mallory, now almost 18, decided she was ready to try public school for her senior year of high school. She still hardly spoke, having been conditioned to be as quiet as possible. But she knew she had to get over it to get on with her life.

Her first day of school, she is stunned when Rider walks into one of her classes. Mallory discovers that Rider is the same in many ways: he is kind, and has an unshakable protective instinct. But he also has no expectations of respect by anyone, including himself. Rider is also shocked to see Mallory, and in spite of having a girlfriend, Paige, he and Mallory fall into InstaLove.

Rider thinks Mallory still needs his protection, but actually, it turns out he is even more stuck in the past than Mallory. Will the past pull them down, or can they learn to focus on the future instead of the past? Can love make them, like the velveteen rabbit, “real,” in spite of all the damage that has been done to them?

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Discussion: This book has much appealing about it, but also much that is, well, a bit much. First, some criticisms:

To some extent, the author parades a checklist of issues confronting the characters that borders on the excessive. There are mean girls – and yes, where else does this manifest itself the most but in those two nightmare locations, by the lockers and in the cafeteria? Mallory’s best friend struggles with a disease that is about to change her life for the worst (although that plot line is kind of dropped). We also have drugs, gangs, cultural and class conflicts, self-esteem problems, the broken foster care system, adoption problems, to have sex or not to have sex, and more. Most are handled well, but it does seem a bit extreme and exhortative.

The characterization is mixed. Rider is adorable and quite likable, but so nearly perfect – smart, brave, smart, and talented – that the revelation of his flaws revealed in the end doesn’t ring entirely true. The character of Mallory is not consistent. She talks fine at home and has a best friend through home schooling with whom she can communicate normally. Yet otherwise she is close to mute. Nevertheless, she has a bit of a miraculous recovery from the beginning of the book to the end, as the author embraces the now very popular “Pretty Woman” trope of who is rescuing whom.

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On the positive side, the romance is very charming, and even heart-warming. There are some good messages about gratitude and kindness, while still having the courage to live your own dreams rather than being entirely other-directed. The author also spends some time on the often neglected subject of regarding bad things as positives, for the lessons they teach and for the way they highlight by contrast the good things.

Evaluation: I enjoyed this story in spite of some of the criticisms I had. In fact, I liked it enough to wish the “Epilogue” would be expanded into a second book.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Harlequin Teen, 2016

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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 happened during his lifetime and how he felt about it. But this book is not meant to be entirely 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 his wife (presumably Chabon’s grandmother), the post-war race for scientific hegemony, the ways 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, the story just did not engage me that much on an emotional level. 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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