Here are some of my recent book reviews. All of these originally appeared in other places, in some cases in slightly different form. I hope at least one of the books in this post appeals to you!
Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg
Jerry Lee Lewis, the aging rock legend, sits up in his bed in a darkened room with a loaded pistol on the nightstand and tells his life story to Rick Bragg, our finest chronicler of Southern lives. The result, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, is mesmerizing.
Jerry Lee Lewis isn’t the most … linear communicator, but Rick Bragg listened to Jerry Lee’s version of things and captured the closest version to the truth that we’re ever likely to get. Bragg tells not only the story of Jerry Lee’s entire wild life, but he gives readers The Killer’s way of looking at things. Jerry Lee Lewis never backs down, never gives up, and always does things his way. For example, Elvis Presley received a draft notice and spent two years in the Army that devastated his career. Jerry Lee Lewis received a similar draft notice, tore it into pieces, threw them in the river, and never heard another word about it. The controversies are covered here too: the marriages, deaths, addictions, and criminal run-ins. Bragg brilliantly provides Jerry Lee’s version of things from the perspective of old age while setting the events in a larger, more objective context.
If you like reading about rock history, this book is for you. If you’re a Jerry Lee Lewis fan, you will treasure this book. If you’re a Rick Bragg fan, this book will become one of your favorites. If you’re a fan of both men, as I am, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story will shape the way you think of them for years to come.
Hello, I’m Johnny Cash by G. Neri
G. Neri’s thug-life books for young readers would seem to make him the perfect chronicler of Johnny Cash, the original country music outlaw. Neri’s new picture book Hello, I’m Johnny Cash, unfortunately, is a sanitized version of Cash’s complicated life. The childhood poverty is here, along with the death of Cash’s brother and his father’s meanness, but they are almost lost in the narrative’s rosy follow-your-dreams message. The poems are fine and the pictures are fine, but the instructive lessons for readers that could come from Cash’s struggles with addiction and religion, as well as his work on behalf of the downtrodden, seem like missed opportunities. Hello, I’m Johnny Cash will be a serviceable picture book for students interested in Cash or country music, or for those assigned to read about a “famous person,” but it falls short of engaging readers in the complexity of Johnny Cash.
Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s by Tom Doyle
Framed by the break-up of The Beatles in 1970 and the murder of John Lennon in 1980, Tom Doyle’s Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s is the story of Paul McCartney’s struggles with fame, music, family life, and finances as he tries to create an authentic life while shouldered with a weighty legacy. While the entire book is captivating, the surprises for me were the on-again-off-again relationships between John, Paul, George, and Ringo in the first post-Beatles decade, and Paul’s temper which occasionally boiled over into physical confrontations. He wasn’t as mellow as he seemed most of the time.
Two by Kathryn Otoshi
Two and One are best friends until that green Three comes along, luring away One with the promise that “Odds are better than the rest.” As in her previous excellent picture books One and Zero, Kathryn Otoshi’s Two gives us a playful story of numbers coming into conflict and then finding ways to resolution. Otoshi uses catchy rhymes and rhythms and clever graphics to gently explore how friendships can be threatened and eventually restored. I admire how Two’s subtle wordplay brings out affective and aesthetic possibilities in several math-y concepts: odd, odds, even, greater than, less than, dividing, and angle. Two can be used with all age groups, including older readers who enjoyed One and Zero.
Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands by Katherine Roy
The engaging text of Katherine Roy’s Neighborhood Sharks provides pretty much everything young readers could want to know about the white shark’s role in one California ecosystem. The drawings will keep shark fans coming back to this book and sharing it with each other as the sharks attack and devour their prey in dramatic, colorful two-page spreads.
Lincoln’s Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin
Abraham Lincoln’s corpse must be among the more well-traveled presidential remains. After the 1864 assassination, Lincoln’s body was moved several times, finally coming to permanent rest in 1901. One of the strangest episodes involving Lincoln’s body was an 1875 plot to snatch it from the Springfield, Illinois tomb. Counterfeiters by trade, the grave robbers planned to hold Lincoln’s body for ransom.
The characters in Steve Sheinkin’s Lincoln’s Grave Robbers include the motley bunch of “ghouls,” the earnest Secret Service agents who work against them, and the cemetery monument staff dedicated to keeping the bodies of Lincoln and his family safe from desecration. Published by Scholastic, Lincoln’s Grave Robbers engages young readers by focusing on the drama inherent in this scheme with a few colorful touches of morbidity along the way.
Custer by Larry McMurtry
In the years after the Civil War my great-great-grandfather, a Union soldier, went AWOL from the Army in Kansas. An old letter from his daughter says that he was having trouble with a superior officer, and one of them was going to kill the other unless my great-great-grandfather took off. General George A. Custer was in Kansas at the same time, and I’ve always wondered if maybe he was the superior officer mentioned in the letter. I can easily believe that an ancestor of mine could become frustrated with a difficult leader, and Larry McMurtry’s “short life” of Custer shows how the general wasn’t very well liked among those with whom he served.
McMurtry’s Custer is a character sketch and personal reflection on the high and low points of the general’s career. McMurtry, one of my favorite authors, doesn’t attempt to cover every aspect of Custer’s life. In addition to McMurtry’s story-telling, I especially enjoyed the descriptions and photos of the Indian leaders of the time.
Although I learned a few things about Custer, nothing here shed new light on my great-great-grandfather, except maybe this tantalizing detail: “If Custer signally lacked something it was what the rest of the world calls conscience. He had no capacity for empathizing with the pain and suffering of others … Conditions being what they were, desertion was a constant problem, both in Texas or Kansas, sometimes running as high as 50 percent. Custer treated the deserters savagely, often sending his brother Tom to shoot them. Those who made it back to the forts faced cruel punishment.”
Mudball by Matt Tavares
This terrific Matt Tavares baseball picture book tells the story of Minneapolis Miller Andy Oyler, the shortest guy in the league, and the day he hit the shortest home run in baseball history. A rainy field might be most players’ nightmare, but with the help of some timely mud, Andy Oyler has his best game ever. Although the story’s accuracy is hard to verify, Matt Tavares renders that meaningless as Andy Oyler’s mudball game crosses into mythology: a compelling tale with a resonating moral lesson. While the entire plot of Mudball takes place in one at-bat, the book’s narrative is enhanced by detailed, dramatic, captivating drawings. (I would love to have a print of the art on the two-page spread holding the publication info and the title page. Yes, Mudball had me hooked from the publication data page.) This is an excellent choice for a read-aloud, and for all baseball fans.
Hamlet: Poem Unlimited by Harold Bloom
Hamlet: Poem Unlimited offers twenty-five brief ruminations on various aspects of the play from critic Harold Bloom unified by the notion that Hamlet and its main character contain depths of consciousness scarcely fathomable by mere mortals. Bloom says that Hamlet is a character akin to Adam, David, Jesus, Prometheus, and even Shakespeare himself. In his wide-ranging work Harold Bloom rarely seems in awe of anything, but Hamlet leaves him analytically breathless: “Don’t condescend to the Prince of Denmark: he is more intelligent that you are, whoever you are.”
Hamlet: Poem Unlimited has a place in a critical library. I can easily imagine students finding it useful to illuminate their interests in specific characters, episodes, and situations from Shakespeare’s most important play.
Waiter Rant by The Waiter
Waiter Rant is anonymously written by “The Waiter,” an experienced server and manager at a high-end New York restaurant. Despite a little too much irrelevant oversharing and psychobabble, Waiter Rant provides interesting and often humorous insights into the life of a waiter and the restaurant industry’s inner workings. My biggest take-aways from Waiter Rant are that restaurants are at their worst on holidays, some customers behave despicably when they go out to eat, and many professional restaurant workers live outside of social norms. Waiter Rant also includes a really good story involving Russell Crowe. If you’re trying to decide whether to read this book, take a look at the appendices. If you find those intriguing, you will probably like Waiter Rant.
Night Moves (Doc Ford Mystery, #20) by Randy Wayne White
Night Moves is a different kind of Doc Ford novel involving an unsolved World War II military mystery that played out in the Everglades. There are bad guys, but for the most part they are on good behavior as they try not to get caught while hanging around Dinkin’s Bay. This novel has bits and pieces of several other areas of interest, including snag fishing, Indian mounds, drug smuggling, stingrays, a missing cat, and a found dog. Author Randy Wayne White expertly juggles all of this while Doc Ford applies a bit of wisdom from one of his mentors: “The fact that unexplained elements are noted within a similar time frame while in the field does not guarantee those elements are linked or are even significant.” More than in the most recent books, Ford’s relationships with recurring characters Hannah Smith and Tomlinson continue to evolve as we see him trying to figure out where romance and friendship fit into his complicated existence.