Monday, April 28, 2014

April 2014 Staff Book Recommendations

April 28, 2014

Bloody Jack: Being an account of the curious adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy
By L.A. Meyer

It’s 1803 and Jacky Faber, orphan and London street urchin, volunteers to be a “ship’s boy” on a British Royal Navy ship to escape the violence and poverty of being homeless. It’s an exciting life, fighting pirates on the high seas and visiting exotic ports. Jacky loves learning the ropes (literally) and sails, and climbing to the crow’s nest with his mates. He especially likes being fed every day. The only problem is Jacky is actually a girl, Mary, and she has to hide her gender for fear of being put off the ship. Her secret must be maintained even from her beloved James Emerson Fletcher, another ship’s boy.

Bloody Jack is the first in a series of adventure novels about Jacky, stories that take her from Boston to the Mississippi, and even to China. Along the way she comes in contact with sailors, spies, slaves, sunken treasure, and sovereigns. But the most relevant “s” in that list is Survivor. Jacky , and her virtue ,survive endless brushes with death: by drowning, by hanging, by runaway kite, by cannonball, by jealous rivals, and in battle. Jacky is clever, intrepid and philosophical. She survives it all - but fate seems to ever be keeping her from Jaimy.

The Bloody Jack books are well-researched. For those readers who are interested, there’re all sorts of facts about sailing ships, life in the early 19th century, and the Napoleonic Wars. Jacky is a delightful and complex persona, and, in fact, nearly all the characters have depth. The author skillfully weaves Jacky’s story in with the most important historical events of her time. Although Jacky is a small child when her story begins, these books are not recommended for younger readers due to some adult-themed material. However, middle-school-aged through adult readers will find themselves on the edge of their seats in anticipation of Jacky’s next escapade.

The series comprises these individual novels, all of which can be read on their own:

As good as these books are, the audio versions are even better. Actress Katherine Kellgren is the voice of every character: young and old, aristocrat and slum-dweller, American teacher and Irish bard, English lord and Boston Brahmin, Spaniard tattooist and French general; she is the master of all accents and both genders, and the full panoply of human emotions. Bloody Jack books and CDs are available at the WPL or through Interlibrary Loan. On the web, see:


April 14, 2013

American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell
By Deborah Solomon

American Mirror is a very interesting and detailed look at Norman Rockwell’s artistic development and career. Solomon’s book is controversial due to her consistent and puzzling hunt for clues to prove that Rockwell was a closet homosexual which are “stretched” so far as to, in the end, prove to be comical and call into question Solomon’s motives for doing so. She describes Rockwell’s childhood in upper Manhattan when Norman started copying battleships from cigarette trading cards. In 1905, Rockwell, 11 years old, won first prize in a New York Herald drawing contest. The family moved to Mamaroneck where he attended high school while also taking classes at the New York School of Art and the National Academy of Art. Later, in 1911, he enrolled in the Arts Student League of New York.

It is important to note that Rockwell grew up during the golden years of the Age of Illustration in America. Howard Pyle was his idol. However, Rockwell also always felt torn between illustration and fine art, even as the borders between the two began to blur (ironic, given that very recently Sotheby’s announced that an auction of a Rockwell painting of the Boston Red Sox, “The Rookie”, might bring $20 - $30 million dollars!). However, the starkly commercial aspects of magazine illustration always nagged at him.

Rockwell’s career spans nearly a century of American art. He did not change his particular style of painting and survived criticism and the vacillating tastes of both the public, art critics, and artists themselves. Not many know of the devastating fire in his studio in Vermont where many paintings and drawings were forever lost. He also had three marriages, all to teachers. He supported war efforts with his art but was strongly against the Vietnam War. He did purport to admire abstract art and even did some work in that area. However, in the end, his lasting legacies are his Saturday Evening Post covers and depictions of small town rural America.

Solomon’s book is well worth reading. It is an in depth account of an iconic American artist, although it is more of a socially than artistically critical appraisal of Rockwell’s years. Her book also contains a little bonus for any readers with a Worcester “bent”: there are two interesting local connections, one on page 215, and another on page 389 – I won’t say more than that. Check them out. In the end, one thing is certain: there won’t be another Norman Rockwell and I think many of us miss his great talent and humor.


April 7, 2014

The Martian
By Andy Weir

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”--Robert A. Heinlein

In Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney doesn’t slaughter any pigs, but he shows his self-sufficiency in many other ways. After a freak accident leaves him nearly dead on the Martian surface, his teammates abandon their habitat and what they believe to be his lost body, and begin the long journey back to Earth.

Watney needs to figure out how to survive for four years until the next Mars mission from Earth arrives, and how to get to their planned landing spot, thousands of kilometers away across the mountainous and cratered Martian surface. But he only has food and water designed to support a team of six for 30 days. The temperature outside the habitat averages 80 degrees below zero, the atmosphere is almost completely made up of unbreathable carbon dioxide, and the accident that almost killed him destroyed the communication equipment so he can’t call NASA for help.

Every astronaut on his team was an expert in at least two disciplines; Watney is a mechanical engineer and a botanist. His cleverness while trying to survive is reminiscent of the old TV show MacGyver, where the title character comes up with astonishing but perfectly reasonable solutions to what appears to be intractable problems.

Most of the story is told from his point of view, until an alert NASA technician sees evidence of change in images of the Martian surface at the location of the aborted mission. Mission Control wants to help but time and physics is working against them…

-- Melody

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