Balthazar The Great

“Where Bone?”, a kids’ picture book written and illustrated by Kitty Moss, is a hilarious account of a hilarious dog named Balthazar, who has lost his beloved bone. Balthazar is my emotional doppelganger and my personal guru; his plight and his behavior speak to me because I, too, go a bit (or very very) crazy when I lose my keys, my glasses, my nail clippers, my anything. Balthazar, you have taught me that I am not alone. Continue reading

Those amazing and unpredictable unicorns: five magical picture books

 

Consider the eternal and eternally wonderful unicorn — the favorite animal of thousands of children and quite a few adults I personally know. And best of all, because those lovely creatures are purely imaginary, they can be almost anything we want them to be — any shape, any size, any color (any pigment of our imaginations). Here are five adorable picture books all about that favorite of all imaginary animals. Unicorns all over the place! And each of the books has some really important things to say to our little ones, and to all us stodgy old ones, too. Continue reading

‘The Invisible Alphabet’ by Joshua David Stein and Ron Barrett is a clever and thought-provoking picture book

With “The Invisible Alphabet,” author and illustrator Joshua David Stein and Ron Barrett have created a really unusual and thoughtful picture book that is perfect for engaging children’s creativity and thinking-outside-the box skills. Even the cover, with the word “invisible” barely seen because it’s white-on-white but in shiny print gives a clue to the brilliant art inside. The black ink with white paper and just a hint of orange is the theme throughout the book. That orange provides the only actual color in the illustrations.

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‘Anxious People’ by Fredrik Backman is a brilliant mystery and an insightful view of the human condition

“Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman is about us. It’s about every person who has ever doubted themselves, worried about not being able to do something, fretted about making a mistake, or looked at others with either awe or disdain. It’s a book in which all readers will be able to find themselves – for better or worse. But it’s also a book that every reader will feel better for having read.

With “Anxious People,” Backman gives us permission to be imperfect. The second paragraph in the story tells us:

“This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots. So it needs saying from the outset that it’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is. Especially if you have other people you’re trying to be a reasonably good human being for.”

He goes on to say that “there’s such an unbelievable amount that we’re all supposed to be able to cope with these days.” To me, as a teacher back in the classroom teaching via a computer screen to children at home, this book gives me permission to accept the fact that I really don’t know what I’m doing. None of us do. All of us teachers are muddling through the best we can, even though we are facing students who turn off their cameras to leave the room, to browse on their computers, to play; shy students who turn off their cameras and won’t talk, so we don’t even know if they are there, on the other side of the screen, listening and learning. We can’t do really enjoyable things like reading picture books to them or giving them a hug or just sitting on a rug and talking. We deal with having to repeat sentences when a child can’t hear us through the computer, or having to show multiple times how to access a web page or assignment. It’s frustrating and we are helpless — and after reading this story about people who try their best against all kinds of odds, I feel better. Really better.

In this story, there are many characters, but there is only one very significant bridge. It’s a bridge that plays an important part in the story because of one person who jumped from it many years ago and one person who did not. There is also an extremely inept bank robber and the bank robber’s hostages. 

We learn a lot about the hostages and two of the police officers who are trying to find the bank robber and solve the mystery of where the robber went after the hostages were released. We learn about the wife of one of the police officers, who also happens to be the mother of the other police officer. The father and son are very different, but alike in perhaps the most important sense. They both loved this woman fiercely, and they miss her every day. And Backman performs his literary magic of combining life and birth and death into a story that’s poignant and bittersweet and melancholy and beautiful — and about life.

The many other characters are all very important, and we get to know — and like — them all because Backman imbues each character, no matter how unlikable he or she might seem at first glance, with human qualities and human frailties. The story weaves around and around, from the characters to the bridge and into parts of the past that made the characters who they are as they are held hostage by the unsuccessful bank robber.

Backman shares what he believes is the most important thing in life (as I see it). We must love and cherish those who are close to us, our families and our friends. He also seems to believe that we must help others whenever possible.  And he also asserts, in no uncertain terms, that most of us go through life not knowing what we are doing, but doing the best we can. He writes, “We don’t have a plan, we just do our best to get through the day, because there’ll be another one coming along tomorrow.” We worry about raising our children and do it pretending that we know how to do it. That is how we get through a good part of life — by pretending that we know what we are doing. Surprisingly enough, it often works.

And tomorrow I will go back into my classroom, sign onto my Zoom class meeting, and pretend that I know how to teach 4th grade dual language on a computer to lovely children who deserve the best education but who are only getting the best that I can provide. And I fear it’s not enough, as do most of the other teachers struggling along in this pandemic. As do many, many others who are also struggling along in this strange, anxiety-provoking time. 

And at the end of each and every day, I actually do what Backman suggests at the end of the story. He says,

“But when you get home this evening, when this day is over and the night takes us, allow yourself a deep breath.

Because we made it through this day as well. There’ll be another one along tomorrow.”

Buy “Anxious People.” Read it. You will love it, and perhaps more importantly, you will feel better. You are not alone.

Did I mention that the writing is beautiful? Touching? Incredibly thoughtful?

“Fallout” — the Horror and the Cover-up

“Fallout,” Lesley M.M. Blume’s non-fiction description of John Hersey and his essay, “Hiroshima,” is an all-too-vivid and, I’m quite sure, all-too-accurate account of how “Hiroshima” was created; of the dangers Hersey courageously faced because he dared to write and then publish the essay; of the roadblocks Hersey and his editors and publisher encountered because of the semi-forbidden subject matter; and, above all, of the horrors generated by war in general and the use of the first atomic bomb in particular.

The title of Blume’s work, “Fallout,” is itself a word of several relevant meanings: the fallout following the explosion over Hiroshima refers, in part, to the radioactive poisoning suffered by much of the city’s population and the resulting additions — deliberately hidden — to the original death-count caused by the bomb. The first estimate was 42,000. The count that was available to Hersey was 100,000. The count most often estimated today is about 280,000. Two hundred eighty-thousand dead innocent civilians. The entire U.S. government and military establishments, Truman to MacArthur to the government PR squads, perpetrated an expansive and complex cover-up in order to hide the horrors of Hiroshima. They implied that the Hiroshima event was “just” a big, impressive bomb invention that forced the Japanese to surrender and, in the process, demonstrated that America was inarguably the most powerful country in the world.

Blume concisely re-tells the stories of the six survivors whom Hersey chose to exemplify the actual devastation of the bomb and the effects of its aftermath. Hersey realized that numbers like 42,000 do not even begin to tell the story. The war-weary public was numb to the effects of numbers on their psyches. He also realized that in some cases a picture is not worth a thousand words. A mysterious mushroom cloud communicates nothing about the terror of a nuclear attack.

But, he knew, a detailed description of eyes hanging from their sockets; skin, like ill-fitting gloves, peeling off hands; and bodies and bones of loved ones forming ugly blackened masses lying all over the ground would affect readers in ways that death numbers and pictures of the bomb could never accomplish. And his words did work effectively to make the public aware of the very real and potentially very personal effects of the attack — personal because Hersey brought the sheer horror of the bomb directly to the minds, hearts, and homes of the American people. He accomplished his stated purpose: to warn every person that each of us is a victim; that the world would now be a boiling cauldron of nuclear power and waste; and that what happened to those six people might well happen to us if we don’t stop the spread of the  madness of nuclear armaments. The world was now in a new and different kind of ever-present mortal danger, every single day a threat to our very existence.

Blume’s work, like Hersey’s, is a testament to the power of fine journalism. She brilliantly recreates Hersey’s fragile position as the ultimate whistleblower, as well as his earth-shaking reporting. After “Hiroshima,” he was loved and appreciated by thousands of people. But he was also despised by hundreds of the world’s powerful figures and by many Americans who refused to see their nation in a new and unflattering light. He had divulged difficult truths. He had destroyed the cover-up. He had dented the glorious reputation of post-war America. He had exposed his country’s callous disregard for the lives of civilians — guinea pigs — human beings just like us.

And, ironically, he had become the enemy of both Cold War foes. Many American officials despised him and his essay because he had damaged our post-war image as the “good guys.” He had made the Japanese people the victims and had turned the spotlight away from the unforgivable tortures inflicted on American military men by the Japanese “animals.” He had given the Soviet Union even greater incentive to catch up in the nuclear arms race. And on the other side, the Soviet power structure felt that he had intended to make the USSR look comparatively weak in the eyes of the world; that he was simply a disgustingly effective purveyor of American propaganda; and that he was proclaiming, in effect, “Russia, here’s what we will do to you if you dare to challenge us.”

Finally, Blume makes a brief but powerful plea at the end of her book. She urges us all to demonstrate once and for all that we have learned the lessons of Hiroshima and “Hiroshima,” to heed the uncomfortable truths of journalistic truth-tellers, to accept and act on the reality that the world since Hiroshima is teetering on the edge of self-destruction, and to understand that the time for ending the madness is now. Time is short.

Review by Jack Kramer. First published on Bookreporter.com

‘Until I Find You’ by Rea Frey is a dark novel of love and loss and a mother’s determination to save her baby

“Until I Find You” by Rea Frey is a story filled with darkness and loss. There’s a lot of loss going on from main character Rebecca Gray’s point of view. In fact, one of the losses is her sight. She has a degenerative disease and can only see shadows, and she knows her sight will get worse and worse. To make matters even darker, Rebecca is a widow. Her husband died when she was newly pregnant, her mother shortly after that, and her grief at losing her husband, her mother, her sight, and the life she envisioned is quite overwhelming.

It’s fascinating to learn how Rebecca manages life with a baby. She diapers him, changes and bathes him, feeds him, and takes him for walks in Elmhurst, the suburb of Chicago where she grew up. She lives in the house she grew up in and is able to function there perfectly; she also navigates her way to the nearby park and friends’ houses. Her strength and her determination not to let her blindness hamper her become a stumbling block when she ventures out determined to not rely on anyone else. At times, we want to shake her and tell her that it’s permissible to let others help; that people who are sighted rely on others, and she certainly can, as well.

The story is told from alternating perspectives, that of Rebecca — labeled “Bec” and told in first person narrative — and that of Crystal, one of Bec’s new friends, told in third person narrative. Crystal and Bec met at a grief group and became friends. They live within a few blocks of each other in Elmhurst. Both Bec and Crystal are very unhappy. Both are widows, both have a child, and both are suffering severely. Bec is the center of the story, and her grief is compounded by all her other losses. Her life seems very dark at the start of the story. She imagines that someone has been watching her inside her home. She finds her front door unlocked when she is sure that she had locked it. She finds the baby’s playpen moved from the room she kept it in to another room. As readers, we believe her, but we also wonder if she is a completely reliable narrator. Is her emotional state causing her to imagine things?

The one bright spot is that an old boyfriend, Jake, who she believes is the love of her life, is back from out of state. He texts her and wants to meet. He knows that she is widowed, and when they meet, she realizes that she’s still in love with him. But when her baby disappears and is replaced with another infant, will he believe her? He’s a Chicago detective, so he could be the perfect person to help her find out what happened to Jackson.

Bec knows her baby. She knows what Jackson smells like, feels like. She knows every inch of him because while she can’t see him, she feels him, she touches him. She knows the patch of eczema behind one ear and the notch on his collarbone. The baby in the crib in her house is not the quiet placid Jackson who never cries.

But what do you do when no one believes you — her friends, most of whom have never really held Jackson or spent a lot of time with him, the police who were called to her home when she thought someone had been inside, and maybe even Jake. Bec knows she’s on her own, and she knows unequivocally that the baby isn’t hers — even if no one else believes her.

The story takes off at this point, and while we don’t know quite what to believe, we know that Crystal’s life, too, is far from perfect. Crystal’s narrative is vague, and there are omissions. Her ten-year-old daughter Savi is a talented cello player, and Bec, who was a symphony cellist, gives her lessons. But Savi is unhappy because she knows her mother is unhappy. While she has fun with the nanny, a young woman named Pam, we get the feeling that Pam isn’t what she appears to be, and that she’s hiding something.

The mystery of where Jackson is, how Bec will figure it out, and who her friends really are intensifies as the hours and days pass. There are many clues and many red herrings, and while we know Crystal’s story is also important because she’s the other narrator, we don’t know her role in the story.

While the beginning was a bit slow, the action and emotions really pick up once the baby is gone, and in fact, I stayed up late to finish the book and find out how it all ended. Frey has written a story that will chill readers but will make us think about living with a visual or hearing impairment. How do we remake our lives if we lose our sight? And the fact that Bec has also lost every single person in her family is perhaps the worst loss.

It’s not all dark, though. Frey provides a very satisfactory ending with a hopeful tone for Bec’s future. Light at the end is welcome, indeed.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by St. Martin’s Griffin, the publisher, for review purposes.

Three wonderful nonfiction picture books about dogs and cats and shelter animals

With COVID-19, many families have adopted needy shelter pets. But there are still many, many animals in shelters across the country who are in need of a loving home. These three picture books will not only share why it’s rewarding to rescue a pet but also share how to train your new dog or cat, thanks to National Geographic Kids’ two training books for kids. Continue reading

‘Death Rattle’ by Alex Gilly is a mystery that dives into detention centers, murder, and corruption

In “Death Rattle,” Alex Gilly takes us to Southern California. It’s not Hollywood and stars, though. It’s undocumented immigrants and a suspicious murder at a detention center that causes Nick Finn and his wife Mona, a human-rights lawyer, to investigate. When Mona gets threats, she knows she’s on the right track.

People around the investigation begin dying. When Carmen, the young woman whom Finn rescued from a sinking boat, is bitten repeatedly by a snake in a detention center and not given appropriate medical care, she dies. Mona is determined to get justice for Carmen, who was also brutally tortured by someone in the drug cartel before she escaped Mexico.

The main characters, married couple Nick and Mona, are people we like because they are real people with foibles and backstories. Their determination to do the right thing is stirring, especially when many just want to ignore the plight of the undocumented. While there are twists at the end, to many mystery readers, the twist is easy to foresee. The foreshadowing is a bit heavy handed at times, but the overall plot is thrilling, and readers will want to know exactly how it all ends up.

Although this is the second book in the series, and I didn’t read the first one, that didn’t handicap me at all. It works fine as a stand alone novel, and I would like to read future novels in this series.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher, Forge, for review purposes.