Review of “Love, Ish” by Karen Rivers

Mischa “Ish” Love is a precocious 12-year-old who is heavily into science and environmentalism, to the chagrin of her mom, who wishes she would be more relaxed and enjoy life more. (Ish says her mom “has obviously mistaken me for an ice dancer or a regular girl…”)

Ish for her part is frustrated that she is the only one who seems to be taking the planet seriously, while other kids “run around and throw their candy wrappers into the wind and assume someone else is going to clean up their mess.”

Ish did, however, have a great deal of fun when her BFF, Tig Diaz, lived next door, but he moved away nine months prior, and she hasn’t heard a word from him since. Tig shared her concerns and dreams, but just dropped her without a word. She tries to pretend he is just “dead to her” now, but she misses him, and is lonely and hurt.

She tries to think about other things, and occupies her time planning for her eventual immigration to Mars as part of the “Mars Now” project that purports to be equipping Mars for settlements in ten years. She will be 22 then and just knows she will be perfect, if only they will accept her into the program. She and Tig had spent six years planning for what they would do on Mars and how they would survive. She muses:

“If people were all either flowers or weeds, I’d be a weed. Weeds are survivors. Weed are what they need on Mars. Nothing fragile. No one who will die at the first sign of trouble.”

But alas, Ish turns out to be a flower after all, when it is discovered that she has an aggressive brain tumor. She is told it is the size of a Brussels sprout, so she calls it that, or Nirgal, which was how the ancient Bablylonians referred to Mars – Nirgal meant “death star.”

The rest of the book takes us through the states Ish goes through – the sadness, the anger, and the fear. But eventually she manages to find acceptance of her situation:

“Like you imagine your life is this elaborate line that twists and curls and makes beautiful pictures, but the real beauty of life is that it isn’t like that at all. It’s a meteor, streaking across the sky. Meteors don’t twist and turn. They just cut straight across, faster than you ever imagined.”

Ish undergoes chemotherapy and radiation, but the tumor grows fast, and takes over larger portions of her brain. She loses more and more of a sense of her surroundings, increasingly imagining herself living on Mars, planting things, and waiting for everyone else to come. Finally, all she can see are prisms of light – a symphony of light, “playing inside me, singing about all my beautiful forevers.”

Evaluation: This book is not as depressing as it sounds, but it is by no means a “happy” story. The author does an excellent job of describing the processes of hospitalization and chemotherapy, and portraying what it might be like to have brain functions gradually slip away. This little girl’s journey will help kids understand similar situations of sick relatives or friends in their lives.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Algonquin Young Readers, 2017

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | 2 Comments

Review of “The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds” by Michael Lewis

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who trained as psychologists, have become famous for their work describing how the human mind works, particularly in how it sometimes deceives itself. I would call them “intellectuals” though rather than “psychologists” because their ideas have permeated diverse fields such as economics, decision theory, law, medicine, political policy, and even sports. Kahneman received a Nobel Prize in economics; Tversky probably would have shared the award, had he survived. Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.

30334134

The two friends and colleagues explored many patterns in thought by which human beings deceive themselves, from over-generalizing good assessments about a person based on one particular positive aspect, to deducing a cause and effect relationship between things that may just be randomly coincident in time or place.

Perhaps their biggest contribution was to debunk the reigning economic theory that rational decision-making guides human decision making. Their work led to the now ascendant field of behavioral economics, represented most prominently by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. [See, for example, the book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard Thaler.]

Their work was also summarized and popularized in Kahneman’s best seller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I also recently reviewed.

Michael Lewis has written a book that combines the biographies of the two men; the story of the long-lived and sometimes tempestuous relationship between them (Lewis calls it “a love story”); and an explanation of their work and how it impacted other fields. Lewis is an excellent writer who is able to digest and explicate Tversky’s and Kahneman’s sometimes difficult and arcane ideas. Moreover, he is able to make the reader care about the two protagonists as people as well as the source of important concepts. His concluding chapter, especially the last paragraph, is particularly moving.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2017

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the 1970s.

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | 3 Comments

Kid Lit Review of “Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe” by Deborah Blumenthal

This book tells the little-known story of Ann Cole Lowe, born in 1898, an African-American fashion designer who overcame a great deal of hardship and prejudice to become a leading star in the fashion world, even designing the wedding dress for Jacqueline Bouvier when she married John F. Kennedy.

Picture of Jacqueline Bouvier's wedding gown

Picture of Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding gown

Ann grew up in Alabama sewing alongside her mother, who, however, died when Ann was just 16. But Ann kept up with her mother’s orders, and even attended design school in New York in 1917. But, as the author reports, she had to sit all alone in a separate room since she was black.

81pexhq56rl_1250

Eventually Ann was able to start her own business. One of the more memorable vignettes in the book is about the time Ann came to the Bouvier mansion in Newport, Rhode Island in 1953 to bring the wedding party dresses for soon-to-be Jacqueline Kennedy. The butler told her she would have to use the back entrance:

“Ann said that if she had to enter through the back door, the bride and bridesmaids wouldn’t be wearing her dresses for the wedding. She entered through the front door.”

Ann continued to design dresses for prominent women, but struggled financially, and in 1960 was forced to close her salon. She died in 1981 at the age of 82.

81vcjijedsl_1250

Illustrations by Laura Freeman are done in a style fashionistas will recognize known as “fashion illustration” or “fashion sketching.” They not only show a representation or design of a garment but are considered as a form of art. One sees less of it now with the greater use of photography, but designers still use this form of art for the initial representation of their ideas. [While Freeman’s illustrations of some of Lowe’s finished gowns show women of color wearing them, Lowe’s designs were mostly purchased by wealthy white society women.]

unnamed-4

Evaluation: I always loved beautiful gowns as a girl. I would have loved this book, as it combines an inspiring story with a “princess” element that will have broad appeal.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little Bee Books, a division of Bonnier Publishing, 2017

Ann Cole Lowe

Ann Cole Lowe

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | 2 Comments

Review of “Between Two Skies” by Joanne O’Sullivan

Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in southeast Louisiana on August 29, 2005 was one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States.

Overall, at least 1,245 people died in the hurricane and subsequent floods, and total property damage was estimated at $108 billion in 2005 U.S. dollars. The most severe damage occurred in the coastal areas, with ground zero at the low-lying area of Plaquemines Parish. As CBS News reported:

“[The storm left] the landscape dotted with smashed, grounded boats, homes torn apart and flooded. Fishing, shrimping and oyster fleets were destroyed. Around 990,000 gallons of oil were released and towns were flooded with contaminated water.”

Some homes were under 26 feet of water, and even ten years later, those communities were still picking up the pieces.

This young adult novel is set in fictional Bayou Perdu, one of the small communities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in Plaquemines Parish – “the place where Louisiana takes its last breath before plunging into the Gulf of Mexico.”

In August of 2005, the heroine of the story, Evangeline Riley, was just turning 16. Evangeline had won the under-sixteen fishing rodeo; like her dad who was a shrimp fisherman, she loved being out on the water. She felt like if she didn’t spend time on the water, she would shrivel up: “Thoughts come to me when I’m on the water. It’s clear who I am out here. Not who I am compared to anyone else. ” She also loved the ecosystem of the bayou:

“The most beautiful birds you’ve ever seen – roseate spoonbills, blue herons, and snowy egrets – build their nests in our marshes in the winter and teach their babies to fly here.”

Roseate Spoonbills in a Louisiana Bayou

Just as much as she appreciated the biota, she relished the human ecosystem of Coastal Louisiana, with its mix of French, Italian, Irish, Croatian, Spanish, Vietnamese: “America may be a melting pot, but Louisiana is a gumbo pot.” She cherished its unique mix of languages, cultures, music, food, and even looks.

[This book is a bit rosy on the picture of inclusive diversity it paints; Louisiana regularly shows up in lists of “top ten racist U.S. states.” Louisianian David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan big shot and perennial political candidate, founded the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) in 2000. His one-time partner Don Black started the notorious white nationalist site Stormfront. Newspaper stories surface with disturbing frequency about racist incidents occurring in a variety of settings ranging from a high school reunion to a college fraternity, and even to a recent incident involving a racist judge. Thankfully, however, there are pockets of acceptance in the state, and this story highlights one of them. Also current Mayor Mitch Landrieu has played an important role in advocating for the embrace of pluralism. But there is still a persistent culture of “white-on-white just-between-us” exchanges that tends to militate against progress in integration.]

But none of that mattered with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. It was the day of Evangeline’s 16th birthday when her family got word that the huge hurricane was on the way, and that they must evacuate. They headed to the home of a relative in Atlanta, Georgia, and were heartbroken upon hearing about the destruction that came to the Gulf Coast. It was a long time before they were assigned a trailer home back in the area so they could return.

FEMA trailer park in Baker, La., – one of 132 group sites housing an estimated 298,000 people in Louisiana who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina (Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe)

[Less than 24 hours after the New Orleans levees broke, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), set up contracts with trailer companies to provide housing for people whose homes were destroyed in the flood. Since 80 percent of New Orleans, plus a whole lot of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coastline, had been flooded, the necessity for housing was overwhelming. FEMA needed some 120,000 trailers, far outstripping existing supply, so they had to be produced. Not covered in the book is the fact that many of these trailers tested for dangerous levels of formaldehyde – about 40 times the recommended levels. You can read more about that situation here.]

Striking image of the inside of a church in Plaquemines Parish after the hurricane (Credit: Radhika Chalasani)

In the meanwhile, Evangeline and her sister Mandy enrolled in school in Atlanta, where each of them had different adjustment problems. Mandy was no longer the popular, sought-after girl she was back in Bayou Perdu, and Evangeline felt lost without the bayou itself:

“I miss the water, the birds, the wind through the marsh grass. I miss the sunset and the sound of that hard, hard rain falling on the roof. I miss the smell of salt in the air, that awful heat rising up from the docks. I feel sore all the time from all the missing. Bruises just beneath the surface. Invisible.”

But then she ran into another evacuee at her school she had met back home, and had briefly crushed on: Tru Nguyen. She felt happiness again for the first time: “I am bursting. All those SAT words that mean ecstatic. Ebullient. Elated.”

Tru was attracted to her as well and they tentatively began a relationship. Although the dark clouds of her life now were “edged by silver,” she couldn’t help feeling like her namesake, Evangeline, the heroine of the poem by Longfellow about the Acadians who fled Canada and ended up in Louisiana, becoming known as Cajuns. The poetic Evangeline is separated from her love and her home, but she can’t deny the “inexpressible sweetness” of Louisiana. As Evangeline recounted, “Above her is the Louisiana sky. Below is its reflection in the water. She is there in her boat, suspended in the middle, ‘hanging between two skies.’” This Evangeline felt that way too.

A Louisiana Bayou

Evangeline and Tru hardly began acknowledging their feelings for one another, however, before their parents inadvertently intervened. Tru was taken back to the coast to work on his father’s fishing boat, and Evangeline accompanied her own father to their assigned trailer near their old home. Before she left though, her school counselor gave her a blank journal with a quote written on the inside cover by Camus she said reminded her of Evangeline: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

At this point though, almost everyone had been separated; not only Evangeline and Tru, but Evangeline and her friends from before the storm, and Evangeline’s family, now divided into two parts.

Where would fate lead them all? As Tru once said to Evangeline, “I think the things we love are what lead us to our fate, you know? Maybe that’s what fate is. When you catch up to the things you love.” The Epilogue two years after the storm lets us know how it worked out.

August 2015 – 150 sustainable homes were built in New Orleans by the Make it Right organization founded by actor Brad Pitt

Evaluation: This is a gem of a book. It is not only a lovely story about coming-of-age and young love, but about the varied response to a calamitous disaster by both the government and the people in the country who responded in different ways to it. It is also a stirring tribute to Louisiana. It is perhaps best expressed through music as it was in the book, and as it is in this video shown below. The clip shows the incomparable Billie Holiday (accompanied by Louis Armstrong) singing “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” (written by Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter), the lyrics for which include:

“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
And miss it each night and day
I know I’m not wrong this feeling’s gettin’ stronger
The longer, I stay away
Miss them moss covered vines the tall sugar pines
Where mockin’ birds used to sing
And I’d like to see that lazy Mississippi hurryin’ into spring

The moonlight on the bayou a creole tune that fills the air
I dream about magnolias in bloom and I’m wishin’ I was there . . . . “

Rating: 4/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2017

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | 2 Comments

Review of “The World Remade: America in World War I” by G. J. Meyer

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

G. J. Meyer writes in his introduction to The World Remade that he will tell four stories that are almost always told separately: (1) how the U.S. came to enter the First World War; (2) how America’s intervention decided the outcome; (3) how the war changed the U.S. in its very nature; and (4) how the Paris peace conference dashed the hope that the postwar settlement would justify America’s sacrifices. Meyer succeeds in covering each of these issues comprehensively and cogently and with occasional fresh insights even 100 years after the events described.

Looming over the complicated tale is the now controversial figure of Woodrow Wilson, a president elected in 1916 ostensibly because “he kept us out of the war,” but who schemed to enter the conflict on his terms. For example, Wilson insisted that America never became an “ally” of the Entente Powers, merely an “associated Power,” and never even declared war against Austria-Hungary, thus staying above the fray.

In Meyer’s telling, Wilson is almost Trumpian in his need for adulation. Despite his veneer of probity, Wilson comes off as nearly as immoral as our current president. Meyer opines that Wilson “was drawn into the war less by political pressure, or the U-boat campaign, or the greed and fear of American business, than by his own rhetoric.”

Woodrow Wilson

There are no heroes among the principal actors in this tale. Eugene V. Debs, leader of the American Socialist party may be an exception, but he was a minor player who spent most of the war in prison. John J. (“Black Jack”) Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Force, is another American icon whose reputation is tarnished in Meyer’s account.

Among the surprises in the book, Meyer is fairly sympathetic to Germany’s involvement in the war. He notes that Britain’s use of propaganda was far more effective than Germany’s, attributing America’s entry in the war on the side of the Entente as a function of Britain’s successful manipulation of how news of the war reached the United States. Early in the war, the British navy cut the only transatlantic cables coming from Europe, leaving Americans dependent on news arriving over cables from Britain.

Meyer decries the effects of the war on American civil liberties. Opponents of the war were not only castigated and ostracized, but many were imprisoned on flimsy charges.

Carl Von Clausewitz, the Prussian military historian and philosopher, defined victory in war as ending in a better arrangement than what preceded the war. Meyer concludes that despite a clear military “victory,” the arrangements following the war were at best an ambiguous improvement. In Russia, the unattractive, undemocratic tsarist regime was supplanted by the execrable communist state; the Hohenzollern regime in Germany was replaced by the weak Weimar Republic that led to the triumph of the Nazis; the Middle East, subject to manipulation by the war’s participants, became the mess it is today; and Britain and France were weakened militarily and economically so much that two decades later they were unable to put up feeble resistance to Nazi aggression.

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia with his cousin, King George V of the United Kingdom (right), in German military uniforms in Berlin before the war; 1913

Evaluation: Meyer intersperses his principal narrative with short chapters – almost asides – about specific aspects of the war such as: labor relations; buffalo soldiers; the temperance movement; the air war; Sergeant Alvin York; and the influenza epidemic. His writing is clear and his arguments are compelling. This is an excellent book.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, 2017

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | 4 Comments