March 2013

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

The Untamed

I was lucky enough to have a copy of The Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone pressed into my hands a few months ago at ALA Midwinter. This collection of global voices is truly a unique title, a book on war that manages to include multiple ages, perspectives, and conflicts. Editor J.L. Powers has done an amazing job of collecting an array of individual narratives to dive into. Some will resonate more than others, but collectively they provide a powerful example of the lingering impact of war on the lives of children and teenagers. What so impressed me is that the children come from such diverse backgrounds; they are soldiers and civilians, from families who fled war or the children of those who fought in it. In ways big and small, subtle and obvious, their lives have been touched by combat and the message they share is serious stuff: you don't get over this, not completely, not ever. You just learn to live with what you know and somehow not let it destroy you.

In That Mad Game, we meet Phillip Cole Manor, who writes of fighting in Vietnam at the age of eighteen; Qais Akbar Omar, who grew up under the Taliban in Aghanistan; and Alia Yunis, who spent many of her childhood years in Beirut during the civil war. There is also Xiaomei Lucas, who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution; Innocent Bisanabo, who fled wars across sub-Saharan Africa; and Rebecca Henderson, who recounts the lives of four teenagers forced to flee Burma. There are essays on Iraq, Iran, South Africa, Cambodia, El Salvador, and Bosnia. Every page is another history lesson, every paragraph another stark reminder of the price we pay for losing peace. "In the Middle East, the advent of war is as unpredictable as the rain," writes Yunis. "Each year the rain is needed desperately, but often it doesn't come. However there is never a drought when it comes to war. Every generation has its war or -- quite often -- wars."

It's easy to recommend That Mad Game to classrooms, but I read this book more to understand and empathize than to learn facts. Jerry Mathes writes of growing up with his father, who was away at Vietnam when he was just a baby, and shows how war can permeate a household and taint those who never know its pain firsthand. "...I realized that I lived among war's flotsam: fatigues, dress blues, rank and unit patches, ribbons, brass insignia, medals that hung on a plaque... Some sacred relics I showed my friends and pretended to know the meaning of what stories these things told." For all that he is mired in his father's war, however, Mathes cannot understand it and he cannot understand what became of his father there. "I have often wondered who the young man was in the photo on the beach or the groom in his uniform before he learned the language of war," he writes. And the reader is drawn into that wondering, into questioning who this man might have been if he had not become "intimate with suffering."

There are more than a dozen biographies in That Mad Game, memories shared, emotional scrapbooks revealed and, as in David Griffith's closing essay "Symphony No. 1 (In Memoriam, Dresden, 1945"), questions are asked that can never be answered. If we are lucky, we will never know what the contributors to Powers's collection have revealed. We will only have their record to better know what it was like; we will only have their sorrow to help us understand. Highly recommended.

One of the more surprising biographies to come my way recently is Frank Young and David Lasky's graphic novel The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song. Weighing in at just under 200 pages and including a CD of Carter Family recordings from a radio show in 1939, this full color history takes readers from A.P. Carter's childhood to his marriage to Sarah, the development of a trio with her cousin Maybelle (who later married A.P.'s brother) and the group's hard rise to country music fame in the late 1930s. We're talking hardcore, powerful, overlooked American history here, and it is in such a lovely package and so compelling to read, that I think it has the potential to be a real treasure to those lucky enough to find it. (In other words, this is the perfect gift for any music lover or American history geek.)

The Carters collected their songs largely from their Appalachian neighbors, as A.P. traveled the highways and byways looking for anyone who had a tune to share. Later accompanied by friend Lesley Riddle, A.P. would transcribe lyrics while Riddle, who could learn melodies by ear after only one listen, would memorize the tunes. With work by Sarah and Maybelle, whose unique guitar style had a lasting effect on American music, the old songs received new life with many later becoming famous. ("Will the Circle Be Unbroken" is likely the most recognized today.) Young and Lasky detail this process, especially the conflict A.P. felt over receiving full credit as writer of so many songs acquired from others, and the many times in which others, especially Riddle were ignored.

The full color illustrations are realistic and touching, with a great deal of attention paid to facial expressions that often tell the story without a single word. The authors handle all of the personal elements of the Carter story -- especially the breakup of A.P. and Sarah's marriage while the group continued to perform and record -- with a deft touch and the final pages are bittersweet in their intensity. The Carter Family is part of our national story, but it is rare that their significance is fully appreciated outside the most ardent of country music circles. Young and Lasky have done a wonderful job of making the family's contribution appealing to a wider audience and The Carter Family is a unique tribute that just might make this American treasure relevant in a new way to the twenty-first century.

Count me as one of those people who thought she knew plenty about Yoko Ono. While I'm beyond blaming her for The Beatles' breakup, I saw Yoko as offbeat artist, John Lennon's muse-lover-wife-loyal widow and... well, that was pretty much it. My total lack of knowledge about her life has made the revelations in Nell Beram and Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky's biography Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies all that much more engrossing, and I invite people who think they know her story to dive into this one ASAP.

Ono grew up during World War II in Japan. She had parents who were alternately authoritarian and disconnected (sometimes both at the same time), and she insisted on making an artistic life for herself with absolutely no idea how to do it. She just jumped into the world she wanted to live in. Along the way, she married three times, had a child who was later abducted and hidden by her ex-husband, thus removed from her life for decades, and she fell madly in love with one of the most dynamic men of the twentieth century. Simply put, Yoko Ono was one of the most unorthodox anti-Disney princesses ever who made her own happily-ever-after happen. The tragic ending to her great love affair is the stuff of pop culture legend, and an international sorrow. But she is far more than just the wife of a Beatle, as Beram and Boriss-Krimsky prove; Yoko Ono is really something special.

The authors take readers through Ono's life in chronological order, giving teens a firm view of how her worldview was shaped by the events of her chaotic (and almost unbelievable) childhood. They provide dozens of outstanding photographs, including many of her artwork and performance art pieces. There are also excerpts of her written work, discussions of her influences, and, of course, an in depth look at her relationship with Lennon. Budding artists are going to find much to admire about her commitment to creating art -- the art that mattered to her and defied all expectation and convention -- but readers who dream about something more for themselves than they have been raised to expect will identify with Ono's journey. The authors have done an outstanding job of making their subject highly relatable; Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies is really a title to check out for assignment or pleasure.

Catherine Reef follows her impressive biography of Jane Austen (Jane Austen: A Life Revealed) with what has to be one of the saddest family stories ever recorded, The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. I'll start by saying there were actually two other Bronte older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. The fact that no one has ever heard of them or their books, is because they died in short succession from tuberculosis when they were only ten and eleven years old. The girls became ill while attending the sort of boarding school that is right out of Dickens (or Jane Eyre). Both Emily and Charlotte, who also attended the school became ill as well, although once their sisters died, their widowed father decided that getting them home sooner rather than later was a good idea. Too bad it only took two dead daughters to realize how horrible the place was.

In the years after their return home, the Bronte sisters, with younger sister Anne and brother Branwell, who succumbed to alcoholism, drug addiction, and tuberculosis when he was thirty-one, spent an enormous amount of time creating poems, stories, and, in Branwell's case, paintings. At one time or another, they all continued to receive formal education and worked, primarily as tutors or governesses. Reef shows how they left home to make money, and yet always returned, usually because they could not stand their employers (who all sound abominable). The Brontes loved the moorland where they grew up and pined for it in letters; home for these siblings was certainly where their hearts were.

As she writes about the writing lives of the three surviving sisters, Reef shows the sources of their novels, all of which were based firmly in their living and teaching experiences. The heavily romantic aspects seem to have hinted at their secret dreams, longings they harbored that were never fulfilled. Reef also does an excellent job of showing how difficult it was for the Bronte sisters to be taken seriously once their feminine identities were revealed; clearly they were right to use male pseudonyms to publish their books.

They had very difficult lives. Anne and Emily died young as well, and poor Charlotte, who finally married a kind and decent, albeit unexciting, man, died before the death of her first child. So while they live forever in their books, it's pretty hard for me to not to see their biography as anything other than a first class tragedy. I remember struggling through Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre as a teenager (I never finished the latter, I'm afraid), but never once giving the authors a second thought. Reef yet again shows that a deeper appreciation for the authors will only deepen appreciation for the works themselves. I know it will be hard for me to think of either book without remember how much the authors suffered to make their art.

Kay Frydenborg brings a timely contribution to the always wonderful Scientists in the Field series with Wild Horse Scientists. Focused on the Assateague Island National Seashore and the horses made famous in the Marguerite Henry's classic Misty of Chincoteague, the text takes a long look at the efforts to save the horses there (and also in Montana) from the burden of overpopulation. In careful, precise language and the series' trademark stellar photographs, Wild Horse Scientists follows the work of Ron Keiper and Jay Kirkpatrick, whose entire careers have been devoted to working with wild horses. This is nothing less than an effort to keep wild animals wild and safe; something that humans we struggle with more and more as the twenty-first century redraws the map of human and animal interaction.

The Assateague Island National Seashore is split between Maryland and Virginia and suffers from aggressive weather that includes everything from bitter winters to summer bugs right out of a horror movie. The horses on the Virginia side are famous for their annual fundraiser swim across the channel to the mainland known as the "pony penning." The horses receive biannual veterinary care, and then older foals are auctioned off. Frydenborg focuses on the Maryland horses and the innovative contraception program in practice there that has been ninety-five-percent effective at keeping birth rates down and allowing the horses to remain wild. Keiper and Kirkpatrick have spent decades monitoring the Assateague horses and developing the perfect chemical cocktail that could be "shot" into the females via dart gun. As of 2011, the same method is being used with the Pryor Mountain wild horses in Montana. In fact, it was a promise to help those horses that drew Kirkpatrick to the isolated population in Assateague, which allowed him to work out a successful method of contraception with little interference from outside influences.

What I love about the Scientists in the Field series is that each of these books teaches me about people doing things I never imagined, pursuing careers in the field that are exciting, important, and immensely satisfying. Kirkpatrick and Keiper have done valuable critical work that will likely be responsible for changing the manner in which we deal with the wild horse population in America. This is something that needs to be handled sooner rather than later, and Frydenborg shows how the dedication of a group of tenacious scientists really can make a huge difference. Be sure to keep your eyes out for reports on the wild horse population and the effectiveness of contraception on the long-term health of the herds.

COOL READ: While I have come across several good cookbooks for teens, the new sports nutrition title Feeding the Young Athlete by Cynthia Lair and Scott Murdoch is an unexpected twist on the "what to eat" genre. In a muted palette with a faded design that evokes lockers and denim, Feeding the Young Athlete is inviting without being overbearing -- no glossy magazine pages or vapid advice columns here. Don't confuse the serious approach with dull, however; the authors know their audience is busy and don't bother piling on the text. There are recipes, meal plans, discussions about hydration, snacking, and sugar ("The calories in highly sugared products are empty, or naked"), and a ton of solid advice on what to eat, when to eat it, and why.

At only 140 pages, it's pretty impressive how much information is packed in here and all of it is relevant. Lair and Murdoch have managed to put together a guide that treats athletes like the serious teens they are and is intent upon making them stronger, smarter, and better at what they want to do. Coaches should use it, parents should read it, and teenage athletes should keep it in their backpacks, on their passenger seats, and beside their beds. There are a ton of magazines out there that will tell you how to get in shape but Feeding The Young Athlete is the only guide I've seen that understand the uniqueness of the teenaged body. This is important, and it's well done. Kudos all around.

Colleen Mondor writes about aviation, exploration, and sometimes her family history. Find out more at her website, chasingray.com.