Monday, September 27, 2010

Sir Charlie

Sir Charlie: Chaplin the Funniest Man in the World
by Sid Fleischman
268 pages
published by HarperCollins

Publisher's description:

See him? That little tramp twitching a postage stamp of a mustache, politely lifting his bowler hat, and leaning on a bamboo cane with the confidence of a gentleman? A slapstick comedian, he blazed forth as the brightest movie star in the Hollywood heavens.
Everyone knew Charlie—Charlie Chaplin.
When he was five years old he was pulled onstage for the first time, and he didn't step off again for almost three-quarters of a century. Escaping the London slums of his tragic childhood, he took Hollywood like a conquistador with a Cockney accent. With his gift for pantomime in films that had not yet acquired vocal cords, he was soon rubbing elbows with royalty and dining on gold plates in his own Beverly Hills mansion. He was the most famous man on earth—and he was regarded as the funniest. Still is. . . . He comes to life in these pages. It's an astonishing rags-to-riches saga of an irrepressible kid whose childhood was dealt from the bottom of the deck. Abundantly illustrated.

My Comments:

Sir Charlie jumped to the top of my reading pile after I saw my teenage nephew browsing through it. He said he liked it because of all the pictures. There are an abundance of wonderful black and white photographs, including publicity stills from Chaplin's movies, family portraits and news images. The pithy captions help to make browsing informative as well as enjoyable.

The print is large, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Fleischman's writing is facile. I found the text to be very engaging, and peppered with quirky phrases that I would describe as old-fashioned. Younger readers who are unfamiliar with them may pick them up from the context, look them up out of curiosity, or simply move on without worrying about their meanings.

Chaplin's story is the story moviemaking in America - you can't learn about one without learning about the other. Young people who dream of making comedies, whether on a big or small screen, can learn a lot from Chaplin, and this book has the potential to inspire them to seek out his best works.

Fleischman clearly admires Chaplin, but doesn't let that admiration blind him from his less admirable traits - like his foul treatment of younger actors. He doesn't gloss over Chaplin's failed marriages or movies that flopped. He also states that Chaplin, "outlived his genius," a phrase that bothers me in general. I would hope that readers are captivated enough to watch Chaplin's work and then make their own assessment.

Back end materials include a Charlie Chaplin time line, an extensive references section that includes extended comments about many aspects of Chaplin's life, a bibliography made up of books and a few documentaries, a select list Chaplin films, and an index that includes names, places, film titles, and relevant terms like "banana peel" and "pantomime."

Your comments?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

They Called Themselves the K.K.K

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group
by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

172 pages
published by Houghton Mifflin

Publisher's description:

Boys, let us get up a club. With those words, six restless young men raided the linens at a friend's mansion, pulled pillowcases over their heads, hopped on horses, and cavorted through the streets of Pulaski, Tennessee. The six friends named their club the Ku Klux Klan, and, all too quickly, their club grew into the self-proclaimed Invisible Empire with secret dens spread across the South.

This is the story of how a secret terrorist group took root in America's democracy. Filled with chilling and vivid personal accounts unearthed from oral histories, congressional documents, and diaries, it is a book to read and remember.

My comments:

My teenage niece and nephew visited a couple of weeks ago, and before they arrived I put a few books out on the coffee table to see if they'd look at them. This is one that my nephew, a high school junior, said that he would read based on the cover alone.

The image of the sweat-stained hood is striking and practically dares you open it up and have a look. The black and white book design is very nice throughout, and is credited to YAY! Design, a company who also claims design credit for The Secret of the Yellow Death and The Frog Scientist, among others.

Bartoletti begins her narrative with the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, and quickly moves to the story of six former Confederate soldiers who hated and feared Union rule and the threat of racial equality. What they began as a sort of fraternity in 1866 quickly morphed into a group that existed to bully freedpeople. Early chapters are devoted to the beginning and early spread of the Klan. In later chapters, the focus shifts to horrible crimes perpetrated by Klansmen, and the personal experiences of their victims. The final chapter and epilogue tell of the federal government's crackdown on Klan activities, made possible by the Civil Rights Act of 1871, and the undoing of that act just a few years later. She also touches briefly on the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, perhaps an excellent topic for another book.

Bartoletti makes great use of oral accounts of the Klan's actions, both from former Klan members and their victims. A note at the very beginning explains that some of the language used in these accounts may be offensive, and also explains why the accounts of many former slaves are transcribed in non-standard English. I appreciate that the language has not been edited.

Newspaper illustrations and a few photographs are presented throughout the book, and these are all accompanied by excellent captions that provide context and source credits. I especially enjoyed seeing the political cartoons by Thomas Nast. I remember learning about Nast's skewering of Tammany Hall in high school social studies, but not his interest in civil rights in the South.

The bibliography and source notes are presented in narrative form, complete with photographs from Bartoletti's travels to the South. I found this section to be just as fascinating as the main text. Over the course of seven pages, she recommends scholarly texts as well as trial testimonies, white supremacist perspectives and titles on racism in general. She also recounts her attendance of a Klan Congress, "That night I couldn't get the shower hot enough to scrub away the words," she said. This is one instance where I was glad to read the entire bibliography section from beginning to end. The amount of research that went into this book is stunning. It's clear that Bartoletti threw herself passionately into writing this book, and her excitement for historical research transmitted to me as I read.

Other useful back end materials are a civil rights timeline that begins with the Emancipation Proclamation and ends with President Obama's election, quote attributions grouped by chapter, Acknowledgemnts that direct readers to the Southern Poverty Law Center for more information, and an index that includes references for text and illustrations.

* This is an official nomination for the YALSA nonfiction award. The winner will be announced in January.*

Your comments?

Friday, September 3, 2010

The War to End All Wars

The War to End All Wars: World War I
by Russell Freedman
176 pages
published by Clarion Books

Publisher's description:
Nonfiction master Russell Freedman illuminates for young readers the complex and rarely discussed subject of World War I. The tangled relationships and alliances of many nations, the introduction of modern weaponry, and top-level military decisions that resulted in thousands upon thousands of casualties all contributed to the "great war," which people hoped and believed would be the only conflict of its kind. In this clear and authoritative account, the author shows the ways in which the seeds of a second world war were sown in the first. Numerous archival photographs give the often disturbing subject matter a moving visual counterpart.

My comments:
Freedman's book has received much praise and some criticism, and I have tried to not let either color my own opinion as I read it. At first, I was a bit overwhelmed with the rapid pace at which Freedman tore through the causes and early stages of the war. World War I is a complex subject, and he did have to simplify and condense many events in order to squeeze them into a few coherent chapters.

At times, I felt like I was getting a "greatest hits sampler" of the war, with one-sentence references to popular figures like Eddie Rickebacher in Chapter 6: The Technology of Death and Destruction. While chapters like this one and the next one (on life in the trenches) were interestng, I also felt that they weren't telling me anything I hadn't already gleaned from history textbooks and movies. Later chapters, on the battles of Verdun and the Somme (chapters 8 and 9) engaged me more. Finally, I felt like I was reading something new.

The photographs throughout are fascinating, especially the ones depicting soldiers fighting just feet away from discarded bodies, or carrying wounded comrades to safety. I like that they are given so much space on the pages. I only wish that there were more maps. I could have really used maps during the chapters on Verdun and the Somme, so that I could picture the small stretches of land that were so fiercely and tragically fought over.

I like that the source notes are divided by chapter, and that the pages that they reference are clearly marked. The selected bibliography lists many recent works, but the narrative presentation makes picking out the titles and authors more difficult then if it had just been formatted as a list. The index appears to be comprehensive and is very useful for looking up specfic people and battles, as well as the various countries' involvement in the war.

Overall, this is a "big picture" type of book, meant to give you an overall picture of the subject rather than getting into the nitty gritty details. Along the way, however, there are some very interesting details, like the frequent quotes from soldiers who were there.

If there is a big picture that I get from this book, it is how arrogance tempts leaders of powerful countries into entering easy wars that prove to be anything but. Sound familiar? I hope that the irony of Freedmans' book title is not lost on his young readers.

Your comments?