Kid Lit Review of “Something to Prove: The Great Satchel Paige vs. Rookie Joe DiMaggio” by Robert Skead

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In the winter of 1936, the manager of the New York Yankees wanted to test a 21-year-old prospect named Joe DiMaggio. He couldn’t think of any better way to see how he held up before a top pitcher than to call upon Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige. Paige was thought to be the greatest pitcher in the world, but he was excluded from major league baseball because of his race. But he wouldn’t turn down the opportunity for a game. On February 7, 1936, the Dick Bartell All-Stars, a white barnstorming team, met the Satchel Paige All-Stars in an exhibition game.

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They went ten innings, with the score deadlocked 1-1, with Paige striking out fourteen major leaguers. Then at his fourth at-bat, DiMaggio bounced a hard ball to the pitcher’s mound. Paige knocked the ball toward the second baseman, who seemed to freeze. DiMaggio got to first base and Bartell, who had singled and then stolen two bases, made it home. DiMaggio was ecstatic to get a hit off of Satchel Paige, and the Yankees scout telegrammed the Yankees:

DIMAGGIO ALL WE HOPED HE’D BE. HIT SATCH ONE FOR FOUR.”

But Paige was the real star of the game. DiMaggio later said Paige was “the best and fastest pitcher I ever faced.” Casey Stengel, a well-known American Major League Baseball outfielder and one-time manager of both the New York Yankees and New York Mets, agreed, noting “He threw as far from the bat and as close to the plate as anyone I ever saw.” Nevertheless, no would sign Paige to the major league because he was black. As the author reports, “Phillies manager Connie Mack stated he’d pay one hundred thousand dollars [over $1.7 million in today’s dollars, at a time when the top paid man in baseball – the commissioner – made less than $50,000 a year] to sign Satchel . . . if only he were white.” [The highest paid player on the Yankees in 1936 was Lou Gehrig, who pulled in $23,000 a year. Most players made under $10,000 a year.]

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The story concludes by reporting that twelve years later, and one year after Jackie Robinson broke the color line, Satchel was hired by the St. Louis Browns at 42 years old – the oldest rookie ever.

An Author’s Note at the end of the book gives more facts about DiMaggio and Paige and a selected bibliography.

The multiple award-winning illustrator Floyd Cooper uses grainy sepia-toned illustrations to lend a historical feel to the story. The soft focus is surprisingly effective for the action sequences as well, such as when Satchel is sliding toward base, or Joe is kicking the dirt on the field.

Evaluation: The author does an excellent job at telling the story as if you were watching the play-by-play on the television, in a way that will keep even reluctant readers turning the pages as they can’t wait to see what happens next. He also manages subtly to convey a lesson about the recent history of racism in America, the unfairness of Jim Crow, and the love of sports in spite of everything. It’s a great story!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group, 2013

The great Satchel Paige

The great Satchel Paige

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Review of “The American Vice Presidency” by Jules Witcover

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What has always amazed me is the extent to which potential presidents give little thought outside of political considerations to the nature of the person filling the role of vice-president. Yet that person would of course become president if the president himself died; became disabled; resigned; or was removed from office. [And yes, I am using male pronouns because thus far, no females have occupied either office.] Even Lincoln, who had numerous assassination threats as well as regular dreams that he would die in office, selected someone who would help him get reelected rather than considering what kind of political leader his choice for vice president might be.

(One of the saddest anecdotes about the vice presidency, which Witcover includes in this book, was the response to Lincoln’s emissary when Benjamin Butler entertained an overture from Lincoln about running for Vice President for Lincoln’s second term. Butler replied in part:

“Please say to Mr. Lincoln, that while I appreciate with the fullest sensibility this act of friendship and the compliment he pays me, yet I must decline. Tell him with the prospects of the campaign, I would not quit the field to be Vice-President, even with himself as President, unless he will give me bond with sureties, that he will die or resign within three months of his inauguration.”

Of course, Lincoln went on to do just exactly that.)

In a similar vein, less than twenty years later, Mark Hanna, chief political advisor to William McKinley, and concerned that McKinley’s vice presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt was a “madman,” wrote to McKinley: “Your duty to the country is to live for four years from next March.” Unfortunately for Hanna at least, McKinley served only 200 days before being struck down by an assassin, and Theodore Roosevelt went on to become the 21st president.

One of the more interesting portraits is that of Henry Wilson, President Grant’s second term vice-president. Wilson was an advocate of protecting blacks in the South, and for an end to school segregation. He also railed against the “money power” of corporate America. He campaigned heavily for Grant, but it took a toll on his health, and he suffered a stroke barely two months after being inaugurated. For the remaining three years of his life, he was mostly incapacitated, and disregarded by Grant in any event.

Henry Wilson, 18th Vice President of the United States

Henry Wilson, 18th Vice President of the United States

William Wheeler, who served as Vice-President to Rutherford B. Hayes, is another intriguing man. (When Wheeler was nominated, Hayes reportedly turned to his wife and said, “Who is Wheeler?”) While in Congress, Wheeler stood apart for his apparent lack of greed, turning down offers of bribes and even returning his Congressional salary raise to the US. treasury. But like other presidents, Hayes rarely consulting Wheeler on anything.

Of Thomas Marshall, Vice President under Woodrow Wilson, Witcover writes: “Perhaps no previous vice president was more poorly treated up to this time than Thomas Riley Marshall of Indiana.” Marshall was not even told when Wilson suffered a stroke and became incapacitated! Wilson’s true second-in-command (besides his first and second wives) was Colonel Edward House, who, according to some, was the real power behind the throne. But even Colonel House couldn’t stand up to the second Mrs. Wilson. When Wilson was incapacitated, it was Edith Wilson who decided if official papers should be seen or signed by Wilson, and some of the signatures looked like her writing rather than his. Meanwhile, Marshall wasn’t even admitted to Wilson’s sickroom. Wilson did, however, survive his term of office however (in some form or other). When rival Republicans nominated Warren G. Harding for president and Calvin Coolidge for vice president, Marshall sent Coolidge a telegram: “Please accept my sincere sympathy.”

Thomas Marshall, 28th Vice President of the United States

Thomas Marshall, 28th Vice President of the United States

Spiro “Ted” Agnew was totally shut out by Richard Nixon’s tight-knit staff, but was sent instead around the country to make inflammatory speeches railing against unrest on campus. Aided by Nixon speechwriters Pat Buchanan and William Safire, he called Vietnam War protesters “a small group of misfits,” “a minority of pushy youngsters and middle-aged malcontents…,” “an effete corps of impudent snobs….” and “nattering nabobs of negativism,” inter alia. He was also told to target the press and Democratic liberals, saying all the things Nixon wanted to but could not. Agnew was all too happy to comply. In spare moments, he lobbied Nixon’s team to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But nine months into their second terms, Agnew had to resign after he was exposed on multiple charges of taking bribes not only while he was Governor of Maryland, but even as the Vice President. Agnew admitted to taking the money but claimed it had not influenced his official actions. He was sentenced to three years of unsupervised probation and a fine. When a bust of him as Vice President was dedicated in the Senate chambers, he observed: “I am not blind or deaf to the fact that some people feel that this is a ceremony that should not take place.”

Spiro Agnew, 39th Vice President of the United States

Spiro Agnew, 39th Vice President of the United States

The author contends that it was only with the presidency of Jimmy Carter that the vice president (in that case, Walter Mondale), was given tasks to perform beyond the usual ceremonial and political chores. (When nominated, given Mondale’s previous statements about reluctance to campaign, Mondale felt obliged to clarify to reporters: “What I said at the time was that I did not want to spend most of my life in Holiday Inns. But I’ve checked and found they’ve all been redecorated.”)

Walter Mondale, 42nd Vice President of the United States

Walter Mondale, 42nd Vice President of the United States

Ever since Mondale’s time, the author reports that vice presidents “have become genuine partners in governance with their presidents.”

This book seeks to redress some of the injustice that doomed most vice presidents to obscurity, in spite of the impressive careers that led them to garner their party’s nominations in the first place. There are so many interesting anecdotes in this book; these men played important parts in our history, and are worth getting to know.

Evaluation: Even many history buffs will be astounded by the extent to which they do not know the names of some of the men in this examination of the 47 vice-presidents who have served thus far in American history. The author includes a chapter on every single one of them, and the stories and personalities depicted are absolutely fascinating. If you love history and politics, as I do, you will really appreciate this book!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Smithsonian Books, 2014

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Review of “A Desperate Fortune” by Susanna Kearsley

By now Kearsley’s use of the same broad themes and organizational style for her books is familiar to readers, yet the books are still irresistible, much as the books of Eva Ibbotson are. When you have a good formula, you might as well capitalize upon it!

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As in two of her previous books – The Winter Sea and The Firebird, the action moves back and forth between the present day and the time of the Jacobite Movement in Scotland, with parallel heroines facing similar issues and encountering similar romantic possibilities.

Jacobites were mostly Irish and Scots in the early 1700’s who were seeking to bring the exiled Catholic King James VIII back from France to take the Scottish throne. (James is Jacobus in Latin.) It was a time full of daring, conspiracy, heroism, and subterfuge, providing a great opportunity for exciting and romantic stories. (This period also serves as the backdrop for Diana Gabaldon’s popular “Outlander” series.)

The modern protagonist in this book is Sara Thomas, a currently unemployed computer programmer with a talent for numbers and ciphers. An expert on Asperger’s told Sara that she, who shared that syndrome, was just wired differently, “like the lone Mac in an office of PCs.” While that metaphor gave Sara comfort, there was no denying she was a bit easily distraught and overwhelmed, and that she preferred to work alone. So when her cousin Jacqui got her a solitary position deciphering a coded journal from 1732, she leapt at the opportunity. Jacqui went along with Sara to Chatou, outside Paris, to help her get settled in the house of the woman, Claudine, who had the journal, and who would host Sara while she worked.

The decoding that Sara is hired to do was contracted for by the author Alistair Scott, who was working on a book about the period and eager to find out what this encoded journal contained. It belonged to Mary Dundas, 21, who Alistair thinks was just “an ordinary girl” writing during extraordinary times. Alistair explains the Jacobite movement to Sara, also filling in readers with sufficient background to follow the rest of the story.

In Chatou, Sara meets the most agreeable housekeeper, Denise, as well as her handsome ex-husband, Luc Sabran, who lives on the grounds. The two share custody of their 9-year-old son Noah. Sara is attracted to Luc, but believes that people with Asperger’s can’t have successful relationships.

Back in 1732, Mary is sent on a “mission” to help camouflage the identity of a Jacobite man on the run as he tries to elude English authorities. The two are accompanied by an older female chaperon and a forbidding-looking bodyguard, the powerful, silent Mr. MacPherson. Ah, Mr. MacPherson. Here is a dark mysterious bad boy extraordinaire, the epitome of the “strong yet gentle” trope. True to the nature of such romantic characters, he is irresistible not only for his bravery and fierceness, but for his well-but-not-totally-hidden depth, caring, attentiveness, and passion.

As events in Mary’s journal unfold, she learns more about who she is and who she has the potential to be, just as Sara does in the present day. And they both discover that the future, which seemed so foreclosed, might offer possibilities for their happiness after all.

Evaluation: Sara and Luc’s (modern) story is good, but Mary and MacPherson’s 18th Century story is even better. The 18th Century characters are far more dashing, if perhaps not as realistic. (But as mentioned above, the period of the Jacobite upheavals elicited all sorts of the daring and doughtiness as exhibited by both Mary and MacPherson.) Both romances are quite moving, as is a third that the author manages to sneak into the plot. The history is well reported, and the ending has a bit of flair distinguishing it from the usual romance novel ending.

An afterward provides more details on the historical characters and circumstances reported in the book.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. in paperback by Sourcebooks, 2015

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Review of “Bet Your Life” by Jane Casey

This is the second in a YA series about sixteen-year-old Jess Tennant, a girl from London who moves with her single mom from London to the small wealthy seaside town of Port Sentinel, where her mom grew up. The two are living with Jess’s mom’s twin Tilly and Tilly’s big, likable family. In the first book in the series (How To Fall, see my review here) Jess solved the mystery of the apparent suicide of her cousin Freya the year before.

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This book begins when a boy from Jess’s high school is left for dead on the street on Halloween night. Sebastian (“Seb”) Dawson was not well liked, and it appears someone was out for revenge. But the police chief, Dan Henderson, is calling it a “hit and run” car accident. Seb’s sister Beth, who is BFF’s with Petra, Jess’s young cousin, asks Jess to help find out who did this to Seb.

Jess protests she is not “Port Sentinel’s answer to Nancy Drew” but both Petra and Beth plead with Jess, and her own conviction that this was no hit and run case also helps persuade her to investigate. But obviously, whoever did this to Seb doesn’t want to be discovered, and soon Jess herself is in great danger.

Evaluation: Jane Casey writes very appealing books. Her intrepid female protagonists have lovely self-deprecating senses of humor, and are brave in almost every aspect of life except that of trusting someone with their hearts. There is good tension and pacing, and the depictions of friendship are as well done as the romantic aspects.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by St. Martin’s Griffin, a division of Macmillan Publishers, 2015

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Review of “Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups” by E. Foley & B. Coates

Perhaps you are past your college years but still like to learn, and would prefer a book to tote around rather than sitting in front of your computer for a “MOOC” (massive open online course). Maybe your kids are studying Shakespeare in school and you want to participate. Or maybe you just love Shakespeare, as I do. For any of these reasons, this book has a lot to recommend it.

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The book is short but still includes summaries of all the key plays and sonnets. The authors also provide a lot of background historical information (for example, a guide to the family trees in the history plays, or how illegitimacy and insanity were viewed in Elizabethan times). Some of the most famous speeches are reproduced in the book (although in truth, there are so many, they had to be selective), as well as lists of some words and phrases that Shakespeare introduced to the English language.

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There are nice “bonus” compilations within as well, such as descriptions of some of Shakepeare’s best minor characters and most dastardly villains, and a list of some of his best insults. (He coined so many: there are a number of websites that highlight them for you, such as this one, where you can find “Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch!” from Henry IV Part 1. Sounds like the perfect way to express road rage!)

Occasionally, the authors include side-by-side modern translations of famous speeches, but there probably could be more. (You can find a larger selection on a website called “No Fear Shakespeare,” here.)

[And about those websites – yes, there are a gazillion of them relating to Shakespeare, and they are very fun. But this book manages to include much of the same information all in one place.]

There is an annotated list of great Shakespearean actors, and it would have been nice as well to have a list of best Shakespeare “retellings” – especially those in movie form – (e.g., “Scotland, PA,” or “Forbidden Planet”) and take-offs (such as “The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet,” or “The Third Witch,” although the authors do reference Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead”). Some of the modern movies could provide a good way to generate interest in Shakespeare among younger people. “10 Things I Hate About You,” the popular movie with Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger, may induce delighted viewers to read Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”

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Similarly, when newcomers to Shakespeare discover that “West Side Story” is a recapitulation of Romeo and Juliet, might that not spark their interest to see how they differ? (The answer is: not all that much! Compare, for example, the song “Tonight” from the movie to passages like Act III, Scenes 1 and 2 in Romeo and Juliet. The rival gangs (Capulets and Montagues on the one hand, Sharks and Jets on the other) are getting ready for a showdown with each other when it gets dark. Meanwhile, Juliet, like Maria, bemoans the endless day, and can’t wait for night to come when she can see Romeo. Shakespeare’s words are beautiful, but Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics do a pretty good job in expressing the same sentiments.)

Many people have no idea how many books, movies, plays, operas and television plots come directly from Shakespeare, and it would have been useful, in my opinion, to point that out. Shakespeare is far from “irrelevant” to today’s world!

But just as there are many different schools of interpretation of Shakespeare (the authors provide a list explaining eleven of them), it’s clear there is no guaranteed way to please everyone. This book, which tries to provide a soupçon of much of Shakespeare’s work, makes a great start.

At the end of the book, there is a compendium of quotes arranged by subject matter, and a fun quiz to test your Shakespeare knowledge.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2015

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Kid Lit Review of “The Song of Delphine” by Kenneth Kraegel

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This unusual and imaginative story by author and illustrator Kenneth Kraegel is about two lonely girls who live in a palace “in the far reaches of the wild savannah.” One of these young girls is Delphine, an orphan and servant girl for Queen Theodora. She is very sad and lonely, and sings to lighten her load.

The second little girl is Princess Beatrice, a niece of the queen, who has been sent to live with the Queen because she didn’t get along with her new stepmother.

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Delphine is excited to have a girl her own age come to the palace, but Beatrice is turns out to be a mean, snobby bully who breaks a mirror and then threatens to tell the Queen that Delphine was the guilty party. Again, Delphine sings, this time at night, “with heavy, worried tears.”

To Delphine’s delighted surprise, a dozen friendly giraffes, attracted by her singing, come and take her out from her window and into the savannah.

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Alas, she feels obliged to ask them to take her back, and they return her – but not to her own window, rather to Beatrice’s! Beatrice was livid, but then Delphine noticed a picture of Beatrice’s mother by her bedside, and understood that Beatrice must be lonely too. So she sang for her.

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The next day, Delphine was brought before the queen, and told that from then on, she would not be a servant, but would be the court singer.

Beatrice apologized to Delphine: “Thank you for being so kind, even when I have been so cruel.” Delphine then offered to take Beatrice out with the giraffes, and they happily explored the night, together.

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The vivid and simply-drawn watercolor-and-ink artwork by Kraegel enchanted me from the very first page. This is a magical book that teaches some positive lessons.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2015

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Review of “The Library at Mount Char” by Scott Hawkins

This may be one of the most creative books I have ever read, but also one of the strangest and definitely one of the most horrific. It is way, way out of my comfort zone, but I am glad I stuck it out.

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The book is probably best described as a fantasy, but it also has elements of horror, science fiction, alternate history, and is a very funny and astute social satire, in a sort of Vonnegut vein. I might even be tempted to throw in romance into the mix. It’s a disturbing book, with some of the worst images I’ve encountered in reading. But there’s also redemption, kindness, some laugh-out-loud moments, and lots of thought-provoking scenarios.

The plot centers around Carolyn Sopaski, a woman in her thirties who lives with eleven other people of around the same age, all under the thumb of a man they all call Father. They live sort of outside time and space, as opposed to in “America.” Each of the twelve is assigned to master a specific area of expertise called a catalog, the books for which are found in Father’s “library.” This not an ordinary library, and these are not your ordinary catalog collections you might find in an institution of learning; while some disciplines sound relatively normal, like medicine, math and engineering, or languages, there is also “murder and war,” liaising with animals, and something that might be called “rummaging around through dead people.” Through this knowledge, the librarians have infinite power. Thus, control over the library is contested every 60,000 years or so; Father’s hegemony is officially “The Fourth Age of the World.”

"The Library of Babel"  is a short story by Argentine author and librarian Jorge Luis Borges conceiving of a universe in the form of a vast library, undoubtedly in part inspiring this book as it has informed many other works of art.

“The Library of Babel” is a short story by Argentine author and librarian Jorge Luis Borges conceiving of a universe in the form of a vast library, undoubtedly in part inspiring this book as it has informed many other works of art.

As the story begins, Father has gone missing, and they have all undertaken to employ their various skills to try to locate him. They are also going to ask the Emperor of Beasts to help, and to that end, they ask Caroline, who can speak “American” is asked to go into the world of America and bring back “an innocent heart.” She counters: “An innocent heart? In America?” But she doesn’t mind going out into America; for one thing, she really likes the guacamole.

In a bar, she picks up a person she deems to have a good heart, and explains to him what she needs him to do. Then all hell breaks out, in many senses. The Department of Homeland Security gets involved, and even the President of the U.S., who knows all about Father, and, like everyone else, is afraid of him.

In the end, we take a brief foray back to the beginning of the characters’ stories, and learn how they came to the library. One of these characters, in a hilarious tribute to Richard Feynman, decides to leave our universe, because he doesn’t understand it. And as for the rest, there is a new beginning, in ways I guarantee you could have never anticipated.

Evaluation: Not all the plot threads thrown out into the story were fleshed out (so to speak). But some aspects of the book – the social satire, the incredible originality – are outstanding. There are many things to love: the idea of a “heart coal”; how dead people pass the time (watching television, of course); funny contemporary cultural references (of course Wolf Blitzer is all over it when chaos erupts!); and then there is the way that even under the very, very worst of circumstances, it is love, or even just the memory of love, that can keep you sane.

Rating: 3.75/5 (and XX-Rated for sex and violent images)

Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, a Penguin Random House Company, 2015

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