The Rooster Crows

Title: The Rooster Crows
Author: Maud & Miska Petersham
Pages: 62
Reading Level: 8 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

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Few things expose the character of a people more than their folk songs. This book, subtitled ‘A Book of American Rhymes and Jingles’ serves as a glimpse into the lives of the American people in their earlier centuries.

Here are a few of my favorite rhymes from this book.

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear,
Fuzzy Wuzzy lost his hair.
The Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy,
Was he? [pg. 37]

=]

The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
Sugar’s sweet and so are you.
If you love me as I love you,
No knife can cut our love in two.
My love for you will never fail
As long as pussy has a tail. [pg. 43]

And perhaps my favorite,

As sure as the vine
Twines ‘round the stump,
You’re my darling sugar lump. [pg. 40]

D’aww.

Discussion.

Several of the poems (as is common with jingles) involved exaggeration / tall talishness.

One of the poems refers to kissing. Another involves a little girl who doesn’t want to get up in the morning until her mother promises her a “nice young man with rosy cheeks”.

Conclusion. A nice introduction to the entertainment of past generations, The Rooster Crows features a sweet Dick-and-Jane illustration style and lots of fun verses.

Six Against the Yard

Title: Six Against the Yard
Author: Various
Pages: 218
Reading Level: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

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So, the tagline for this book is ‘Who Better to Commit the Perfect Murders than the World’s Greatest Mystery Writers?’ but from the description on the back, I couldn’t tell if these stories were written by the ‘world’s greatest mystery writers’, or were about them. I bought it anyway. Turns out they were by. ; )

Before I dive into the stories I ought to explain the concept behind the book. The idea was for six great detective writers – Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts, Father Ronald Knox, Dorothy Sayers, and Russell Thorndike – to write mysteries which they considered to record the perfect murder.  These mysteries would then be turned over to Scotland Yard’s Superintendent Cornish who would try to prove why and how the murderer could be captured. An intriguing idea…

The Stories.

So there are six stories in this collection.

It Didn’t Work Out – by Margery Allingham. Polly Oliver never was a top-liner in the show business, at least not like her friend Louie Lester, who the crowds adore. But Polly isn’t jealous of Louie; on the contrary, she considers Louie to be her best friend. That’s why she is horrified when Louie marries a conceited little peacock who does nothing but mooch off of her fame and borrow her wealth. But Polly will not just stand by and watch this horrid little man ruin Louie’s life. She will stop him – even if it means murder…

The Fallen Idol – by Father Ronald Knox. It is the night of a grand celebration. Enrique Gamba the most powerful man in the Magnolian Commonwealth and the idol of his people has just erected a statue of himself so that he may be celebrated in stone as well as in person. After a glorious speech, he retires to his bedroom. He is never again seen alive.

But how could the murder have been done? There were guards on duty everywhere! And how did the mysterious fire break out in Gamba’s chapel? Could it have been started by the murderer?

The Policeman Only Taps Once – by Anthony Berkely. The only reason Eddie married the old woman is because he is short of cash and, being hunted by policemen on both sides of the Atlantic, he can think of no quicker way to collect funds than to marry some rich old corker. Imagine Eddie’s horror when he discovers that the ugly woman he married has no money after all! Still, if she had not been such a pesky old bird, he might not have decided to do her in…

Strange Death of Major Scallion – by Russell Thorndike. Major Scallion must die. His disgusting, hedonistic life style has caused an unquenchable hatred to arise in the man that Scallion has been blackmailing for years. And not only will Scallion die, he will die a horrible death, a death at the hands of his most disgusting indulgences…

Blood Sacrifice – by Dorothy Sayers. Playwright John Scales hates Garrick Drury, the main actor in his new play, with as much passion as he can muster. Not only has the man destroyed Scales’ play by changing its cynical theme to a sentimental one, but he has the gall to think that Scales should be grateful to him for it. Still, Scales would have never dreamed of murdering Drury – not until an unexpected but perfect opportunity is offered up to him…

The Parcel – by Freeman Wills Crofts. For three years, Henry Blunt has blackmailed Stewart Haslar for a crime committed in his youth. At first, when the demands were small, Haslar was able to cope with them. But now, as the demands escalate, he is afraid that he will no longer be able to meet Blunt’s demands – and, even worse, that his wife will discover his conduct. So Haslar decides that it is time to do away with Blunt.

But how can he do it in such a way that he is completely free from suspicion? What is the perfect murder?

Praises.

I loved the concept of this collection – first-rate detective novelists going head-to-head with a genuine inspector from Scotland Yard. I enjoyed the mysteries- I thought parts of them were ingenious – but I found Superintendent Cornish’s ruminations to be far more interesting. This paragraph was an especial favorite of mine.

There are certain sentimental people who always feel sorry for the convicted murderer- so much so that they have no pity to spare for his, or her, victim. There are others who, while horrified by certain murders, find excuses for others. But there is no excuse – there can be no excuse for murder. Human life is sacred, unless it has been forfeited to the law and is taken, after due legal process, for the protection of society. But no private individual can be allowed to assume the functions of judge and executioner. That way lies anarchy. [pg. 37]

I was a little annoyed by the fact that the Superintendent refused to admit that any of these crimes may have been committed and gotten away with. But I suppose he felt it his job to reassure the public of the Yard’s abilities. ;)

I also found this statement from ‘actor’ Garrick Drury to be insightful.

“When all’s said and done,” he remarked, “the box-office is the real test. I don’t say that in a commercial spirit. I’d always be ready to put on a play I believed in – as an artist – even if I lost money by it. But when the box-office is happy, it means the public is happy. The box-office is the pulse of the public. Get that and you know you’ve got the heart of the audience.” [pg. 157] (emphasis mine)

Discussion.

As is obvious from the above synopses, several of these stories was told in the first person – from the perspective of the murderer. Now, this made the stories very interesting, I’ll grant you. But they also presented a moral dilemma.

It is the natural tendency of a reader to identify with the protagonist – to glory with him in his triumphs, to experience despair in his failures. When the protagonist is a murderer, this can be dangerous, because it encourages the reader to think along the same lines as the murderer – “This man is a blackmailer – he doesn’t deserve to live!” I admit that I fell into this trap several times myself. I would catch myself agreeing with the murderer about how much the victim deserved what was coming to him (often the victim was a vicious, evil man). Usually the man did deserve punishment, but by judgment of a jury, not a private affair.

As a collection of murder mysteries, Six Against the Yard naturally dealt with some violence. But only one out of the six murders – Strange Death of Major Scallion – went too far with its descriptions. And that one went way too far. It was so disgusting that I do not feel equal to outlining its particulars. Sufficient to say, I found it appalling and gross. Yuck.

The very first story involved an unhappy marriage situation in which the husband treated the wife with cruelty. The murderer tries to separate the two out of pity for the wife, but when she refuses to leave, kills the husband instead.

In one story *SPOILER* a man marries a woman for her money and then plots to kill her. In the end, she discovers his plan and kills him instead.

In a different story, a man hits a woman who has been taunting him. She admires him for his pluck to hit her. (?!?)

Conclusion. I loved the concept behind this book, but would have been better pleased had it been differently executed.

Little Sure Shot

Title: Little Sure Shot
Author: Stephanie Spinner
Pages: 48
Reading Level: Beginner
Star Rating: ★★★

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Time for a little sharp-shooting.

Her Life.

Little Annie was nine years old when she first began to shoot. And it didn’t begin as a hobby – she shot to provide food for her poor family. And it worked! Annie quickly became a crack shot, and shot so much game that she was able to sell some of it to restaurants.

When Annie was fifteen, she went to live with her sister, Lyda, and brother-in-law, Joe, in Cincinatti. It was there that she participated in her first shooting match. She beat the famous sharp-shooter, Frank Butler for a prize of one hundred dollars! Apparently, that’s not the only thing Annie won, because a year later, she and Frank were married.

Soon they began shooting together in Frank’s shows. Annie learned all of Frank’s tricks and began performing a few of her own. They performed together in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, and eventually traveled to Europe. Annie even got to meet Queen Victoria and Germany’s Crown Prince!

Annie shot up until her death in 1926. She is remembered now as one of the most talented sharp-shooters in the world.

Cautions.

Ms. Spinner writes that Annie couldn’t understand why a women couldn’t be a lady and a crack-shot, too. She thought she could be both. And I agreed with her; I don’t see anything contradictory in femininity and strength. However, the last page praises Annie for her progressive spirit, clearly contrasting it with “staying at home and taking care of children”.

As a little girl, Annie does something knowing that her mother would disapprove.

‘Heck’ is used three times.

Conclusion. Very simple, but good.

The Country Artist

Title: The Country Artist
Author: David R. Collins
Illustrator: Karen Ritz
Pages: 56
Reading Level: 9-12
Star Rating: ★★★

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Beatrix Potter. The name that now means cozy little animal stories for children. The name that produced dozens of animal characters who have delighted generations. But who was she? What was she like?

Beatrix’s life is simply described in The Country Artist from her life in upscale London, through her gloomy childhood, eventual marriage, and life at Hill Top Farm.

Discussion.

Beatrix’s family was wealthy, and both of her parents chose to occupy themselves with indolence. They were not really involved in their children’s upbringing save when important decisions – such as education – were to be made. These decisions were made without any real knowledge of their childrens’ souls, and the children themselves often chafed under the decisions. Later, Beatrix engaged herself to a man against her family’s wishes; they objected because he did not meet their social standard. This man died before they could be married, and she later became engaged again under similar circumstances.

We are told that a particular nurse told Beatrix “Scottish tales of witches and fairies, of enchanted forests and glens.” [pg. 9]

Obviously, the very stories Beatrix wrote were partially fantasy and are discussed.

Conclusion. An interesting biography of a prominent authoress who was plagued by significant relationship issues.

The Hollow

Title: The Hollow
Author: Agatha Christie
Pages: 190
Reading Level: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

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Poirot.

The Story.

It seemed too obvious, this murder, too picturesque, too stagey. In fact, when Poirot first chanced upon the body, he thought it was a joke – thought that his hostess was playing a pretty little game with him. It was only when he obligingly knelt to ‘examine’ the body that he discovered that the red fluid sopping up the shirt was not red paint, was indeed blood, and that the man was dying.

Poirot glanced up. The woman standing near the body, standing over him, was the man’s wife. And she was holding a gun. Holding a gun and protesting her own innocence…

As clues point every which way, can Poirot battle the overwhelming tide of evidence and pin down his murderer?

Cautions.

The Hollow is a about the Angkatell family and their friends, the Christows. John Christow, the man who is eventually murdered, is not a man of strong character. Fifteen years before the start of this book, he broke off his engagement to Veronica Cray, a beautiful actress that he was dippy about, but who was too controlling. Now, he is a doctor who is consumed with his work, discontent with his family, and entangled with love affairs. He is a very impatient man who treats his wife, Gerda, like a toddler (she is, admittedly, an unintelligent woman, but with nurturing could have improved), and pours most of his emotional energy into Henrietta Savernake, his current mistress.

But then, during a visit to the Angkatells, Christow meets up with Veronica. They have a one night stand (we are told this in vague terms – no actual scene), after which Veronica urges him to divorce his wife and marry her. John refuses, and later that day is shot.

Unavoidably, his affairs are probed and discussed as they inform the murder and would provide several suspects with motives.

A little girl tells her father’s fortune at the beginning of the story. Everything she says comes true.

Henrietta says that she believes it is more important to please people than to tell the truth.

‘Damn’ is used twenty-six times, ‘God’ eighteen, ‘hell’ six, and ‘bitch’ once. Also, a particular chocolate and cream dessert is called ‘nigger in his shirt’. (?!?)

Conclusion. Interesting, but not as clean as Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot Investigates, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Murder in Mesopotamia

Title: Murder in Mesopotamia
Author: Agatha Christie
Pages: 228
Recommended Ages: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

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Poirot ventures into the world of archaeology.

The Story.

Mrs. Leidner is a frightened woman. She believes that a person is following her – stalking her. She claims to have received notes from this person to the effect that he intends to kill her. She is certain that if she is not protected, she will soon fall victim to a murderous killer. But others aren’t so sure…

Her husband and all of her friends at the archaeology dig believe that she is in no real danger – that it is only her nerves at work. Still, Dr. Leidner hires Nurse Leatheran to look after his wife in the hopes that a constant companion will soothe her nerves. And it works – Nurse Leatheran comforts and assures Mrs. Leidner; makes her feel more secure. But none of them are prepared for the day when Mrs. Leidner is murdered…

But who killed Mrs. Leidner? Was it the mysterious stalker? Or was it someone nearer to home… Only Poirot can unravel this case!

Cautions.

The narrator attempts to solve the mystery by relieving the murdered woman’s last few hours. The narrator does this in the hopes that she might be mediumistic. Her method is to “hypnotize” herself – telling herself over and over that she is Mrs. Leidner, that it is half-past one, that the door is opening, etc. She succeeds in very thoroughly spooking herself and feeling like a fool.

We learn towards the end of the story that Mrs. Leidner was conducting an affair with Mr. Carey. There are a few comments made which indicate this fact prior to Poirot’s final revelation of it. This fact plays a part in the motive for murder.

Poirot begins his final revelation “In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” [pg. 195]

Pottery is said to be 7,000 years old.

‘Damn’ is used eight times, ‘hell’ four, and variations of God’s name seven times.

Conclusion. An interesting story with a twistastic ending!

26 Fairmount Avenue

Title: 26 Fairmount Avenue
Author: Tomie dePaola
Pages: 57
Reading Level: 7-8
Star Rating: ★★★

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26 Fairmount Street (along with the other books in the 26 Fairmount Street Series) records the childhood experiences of Tomie dePaola and feature his family as the main characters.

The Story.

In the year 1938, I did not live in the house at 26 Fairmount House. That is because 26 Fairmount House had not been built yet. But Mom and Dad were already making plans to move to 26 Fairmount House. It was all their idea to build it.

I was excited to be moving to a new house, but I didn’t realize how long it would take. Lots of things happened before we were ready to move – a hurricane came through, I started kindergarten, and I helped to put out a fire. So many things happened that I began to wonder – are we ever going to move at all?

Discussion.

I liked the family relationships in 26 Fairmount Avenue. Tomie loves both of his parents – he even declares that his mother is “probably the smartest person in the world”. Tomie and his brother get along well, and the parents obviously love the children. Tomie also has fun relationships with his grandparents!

My biggest concern with 26 Fairmount Avenue is its references to pop-culture. Tomie loves to watch movies. I didn’t mind so much the occasional reference to The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, and Shirley Temple. But the entirety of Chapter Three is spent in the movie theater as Tomie watches Disney’s newest release, Snow White. Now, the chapter is very humorous (Tomie is very disturbed by the inaccuracy of the movie, and shouts out whenever the movie deviates from the real story, much to the chagrin of the other spectators. I laughed while reading it.), but Tomie describes the story from beginning to end, including the magic, and the more grotesque details. I suppose the entire chapter could be taped together…

Whenever Mrs. dePaola’s friend, Mrs. Crane, is scared of a thunderstorm, she insists on being sprinkled with Mrs. dePaola’s bottle of Holy Water. When the hurricane comes through, she sprinkles everyone with the Holy Water.

Aunt Nell tells Tomie that “if you wanted something really important, you could ask your guardian angel, and as long as it wasn’t a bad thing, you’d probably get it.” [pg. 45] Tomie submits his request and it is “answered”.

The dePaolas celebrate Christmas. Their festivities include Santa Claus decorations as well as gifts from Santa. They also set up a manger scene on the fireplace mantle.

Uncle Charles’ girlfriend, Viva, is mentioned three times.

‘Gee’ is used once. Twice, Tomie mentions his dad using ‘bad words’ but the specific words are not given.

Conclusion. Sweet, but not spotless.

The Man Who Would Be King

Title: The Man Who Would Be King
Author: Rudyard Kipling
Pages: 48
Reading Level: 13 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

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A story of adventure, intrigue, companionship, and betrayal…

The Story.

It seems impossible. Yet here he is – Carnehan, the same man that stood before me two years ago contracting with his comrade, Dravot, that they two would become the kings of Kafiristan. The same man, but oh how different now! Then he was bright, happy, full of life and health – ready to take on the world! Now, he is a cowering, whining cripple, barely able to stand and shrinking from the notice of day. What happened during those three years? What happened to the Man who would be King?

Discussion.

Alright. So there are two main things that I want to discuss about The Man Who Would Be King. The first is the interpretation of the story – what it means and what we can learn from it. The other is an evaluation of the story – how it was written and how it should have been written. (Like I know better than Kipling, right? Right.)

An Interpretation. The Man Who Would Be King is, ostensibly, a classic adventure story. As the story begins, we learn that Carnehan and his cheeky friend, Dravot are planning to launch a two man invasion on a small Middle Eastern nation, with the naïve intention of becoming kings. Sounds like a riproaring fun scenario! But The Man Who Would Be King is not fun. I don’t mean that to say it was boring or annoying or anything negative – it simply was not a fun story. It was a sober story told in occasionally humorous tones.

I don’t know how Kipling meant The Man Who Would Be King to be interpreted. I don’t know if it was intended to be an up and up adventure story or a political agenda expressed in covert language. So instead of falling all over myself trying to tell you how he meant it, I’ll tell you how I took it.

The Man Who Would Be King was a story of pride. It was a story of the destruction of pride. And it was a story of how no one – no one! – is allowed to lift himself up and call himself god. Because that’s exactly what Carnehan and Dravot do. They don’t set out plotting to do it, I’ll give them that, but as soon as the opportunity arises, they capitalize on superstition and pretend to be gods, thus commanding the idolatrous and subservient worship of a people group and enthroning themselves as absolute sovereigns over a sphere. They maintain this masquerade for quite some time, but in the end, their fall is swift and horrible. The people they tricked into worshipping turn upon their fallen gods in rage. Justice is executed.

All of which I found to be a poignant reminder of how carefully we must guard our hearts against the sin of pride. We may not do anything so drastic as Carnehan and Dravot, but we are guilty of the same sin on a smaller scale, for we all seek to inflate our own importance for the purpose of gaining power, admiration, etc.

An Evaluation. I believe that The Man Who Would Be King could have been written much more effectively. It wanted to be an adventure story and contained most or all of the right elements – ambitious protagonists, an exotic frontier, and a kingdom at stake (all it was missing was the beautiful princess – think Prisoner of Zenda) – but it was hampered stylistically by two things.

First was the narrative within a narrative technique. Adventure stories are rarely as interesting in this format as they could have been in an outright narrative, primarily because the suspense is precluded. We already know that something terrible happened to Carnehan and that Dravot is dead. So, while we may wonder at what happened in those two years, we aren’t glued to the story, because we already know its outcome. Also, narratives-within-narratives (henceforth NWN) rarely let you forget that what you are reading is, in fact, a story. You aren’t allowed to get into the story – you may only listen to it. Carnehan’s story felt faraway to me – out of touch with reality and really unearthly. Perhaps Kipling meant it to be that way. I don’t know.

Second is its brevity. Because Kipling DID choose the NWN technique, the story had to be kept short. After all, Carnehan couldn’t talk for two days straight! But I thought that had the story been told forthrightly (as I suggested in the paragraph above) and had it been expanded, it could have been much more effective. I don’t believe that longer is better in general, but as readers, we need enough time to get involved with our characters. The Man Who Would Be King just didn’t give me that time. So, when it ended, I felt sorry for Dravot and Carnehan, but I was not connected enough to them to actually feel empathy for their situation.

Caution.

Carnehan and Dravot not only claim to be gods and encourage idolatrous worship, but they also encourage the re-opening of a Masonic club in Kafiristan in which they establish themselves. They initiate a large group of men into the club and use it to further their power.

There is some little discussion of women – Carnehan and Dravot swear that they will not “look at any woman black, white or brown” until they are established in their kingdom. After they are kings, Dravot declares that he wants a wife and tells Carnehan that he should get a wife, too, “a nice, strappin’, plump girl that’ll keep you warm in the winter.” To be fair, Carnehan replies by paraphrasing Scripture to his friend. “The Bible says that Kings ain’t to waste their strength on women, ‘specially when they’ve got a new raw Kingdom to work over.” I’m not sure how he missed the parts about lying and taking the name of God in vain…

‘Damn’ is used five times, ‘hell’ once, and ‘niggers’ once. Variations of God’s name are used as exclamations a total of twelve times.

Conclusion. A very thoughtful piece from Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King explores the issue of human pride and the inevitable destruction that accompanies it.

A Tree Is a Plant

Title: A Tree Is a Plant
Author: Clyde Robert Bulla
Pages: 35
Recommended Ages: 5-6
Star Rating: ★★★

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Because I have no cautions and the story is very simple, this review will only consist of one paragraph. (A record!) The basic idea of this book by Clyde Robert Bulla (Shoeshine Girl, A Lion to Guard Us)  is to outline the growth of an apple tree from its beginnings as a seed to its end as a fully mature, fruit-producing tree. It is instructional on a very basic level and could be used either as a first grade reader or a read-aloud. The illustrations are not great, but they are not ugly either.

Conclusion. I said it all already. The end! : )

The Rider of Lost Creek

Title: The Rider of Lost Creek
Author: Louis L’Amour
Pages: 153
Reading Level: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

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Louis L’Amour returns with an exciting story of honor and murder.

The Story.

Kilkenny is not a man who forgets favors. So when Mort Davis, a man who saved his life, asks for Kilkenny’s help, he responds immediately. What he finds when he arrives at Davis’s ranch is perplexing.

Webb Steele and Chet Lord tower over the valley with their huge ranches. They are determined to squelch Mort Davis – seem to be under the impression that he is a malicious squatter and perpetrator of annoyances.  But Kilkenny divines that Steele and Lord are not the main players in this game; they are but pawns being controlled by a stronger and more deadly brain.

But whose is it? And why does he want Davis – and Kilkenny – dead?

Discussion.

Loved this quote.

“This is a violent time. But if only bad men could use guns the world would be in a sorry state. We need such men as you, men who know when to use and when not to use guns, men who will carry them not as a threat but as a protection for themselves and others.” [pg. 119]

Three romantic incidents:

1) In the first chapter, a rider says that he wants a bath, a shave, and a look at the girls before he heads to his boss’s ranch.

2) A girl nearly runs Kilkenny down with a buckboard. He tells her he’d like to kiss her, but that the circumstances aren’t right. Later, he does kiss her, but nothing comes of it.

3) When Kilkenny first meets Nita, he finds that

“Her figure was seductively curved, and she moved with a sinuous grace that had no trace of affectation.” [pg. 71]

‘Damn’ is used fifteen times, ‘hell’ ten, and ‘godforsaken’ once.

Conclusion. Not a necessary story, but a fun adventurous one.