Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers: A Non-Fiction Review

“One must work and be bold if one really wants to live.”

Vincent Van Gogh’s life is the stuff of legend filled with passion, creativity, and the  larger-than-life personality of a man whose paintings would change the art world forever with their contributions to Post-Impressionism. Maybe you’ve heard about his explosive time in the Yellow House with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. Maybe you know the salacious details of when he cut off his own ear.

No one knew what the future would think of Vincent when he was a young man in the Netherlands. Vincent was known for his passions, yes. But he was also erratic, bombastic, and to put it frankly, difficult. Even Vincent’s favorite brother, Theo, sometimes found him hard to take. The brothers had a lot in common. They both had red hair and neatly trimmed beards–in fact, if you look at Vincent’s self-portrait and his portrait of Theo you might have a hard time telling them apart, especially when they swap hats. They wrote each other copious letters and shared a love of art. They would both die in their thirties but the legacy they left behind would last far longer.

Vincent didn’t realize he wanted to be a painter until he was in his twenties–he made up for the late start with a zealous commitment to his work and a prolific output over the course of his short life. Vincent only started to get the recognition he craved near the end of his life. Even then his true genius wouldn’t be recognized until years after his death.

While Vincent created the art, it was Theo who helped build the legend. Theo nurtured Vincent’s talents, supported him financially, and made sure his paintings were seen in galleries that were beginning to move away from the old masters and show art in newer, brighter and more abstract styles.

Now, so many years after their deaths, it’s hard to imagine a time when their lives weren’t intertwined. But it wasn’t always like that. It all started on a long walk to a windmill and a pledge of lifelong friendship and commitment to both each other and to their mutual work. That fateful day–the pledge, the commitment, and the companionship–would shape the lives of both brothers as they chased their passions and ambitions both together and apart over the course of their short, turbulent lives in Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers (2017) by Deborah Heiligman.

Vincent and Theo is the 2017 winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction.

Heiligman’s latest book explores the complex relationship between Vincent and Theo Van Gogh as both men tried to define who they wanted to be and to pursue their dreams. Vincent and Theo rarely lived in the same place as they grew older. But they wrote letters to each other constantly detailing their hopes, their failures, and details of their daily lives. Of course, they also talked often about art as it related to Theo’s career as an art dealer and to Vincent’s work as an artist.

These letters serve as a centerpiece to Vincent and Theo and tie together this story of family, friendship, devotion, and art. Short chapters and inventive formatting make even familiar information feel novel as Heiligman delves deep into Vincent’s early life, his changing relationship with Theo, and his rocky journey as both an artist and a young man. Theo, the lesser known of the brothers, is shown equally as he struggles with his own demons while he searches for professional success and love.

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers reframes Vincent and Theo’s lives by examining the give and take in their relationship and the ways in which the brothers influenced each other. New perspectives on key points in Vincent’s life as well as detailed information about the brothers’ early devotion to each other–and the previously little known painting that documents that moment–add new insights even for readers familiar with the artist and his art.

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers is a fascinating and informative story that tenderly explores the momentous and sometimes tragic lives of two of the art world’s most important figures. A must read for art enthusiasts, history and non-fiction buffs, and anyone who needs a reminder that it’s never too late to follow your passions.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

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I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark: A Non-Fiction Picture Book Chick Lit Wednesday Review

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth BaddeleyRuth Bader Ginsburg was disagreeing and asking tough questions long before she became a justice of the Supreme Court. From an early age she challenged inequality, disagreed with unfair treatment, and stood up for what was right.

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark (2016) by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley, introduces readers to Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a child and follows her into adulthood and her time as a Supreme Court Justice.

Levy balances the picture book format with thoughtful text that provides just enough information without bogging down each page with large chunks of text. Baddely’s bold and colorful illustrations make this book arresting from page one with her combination of hyper-realistic figures and more whimsical hand lettering for some of Ginsburg’s bold statements throughout the book.

I Dissent includes many fun facts about Ginsburg (her husband did the cooking in the family, Ginsburg has a special collar she wears for dissenting opinions in court) which will surprise and delight readers who are learning about this remarkable woman for the first time. Because Levy covers aspects of most of Ginsburg’s life, the book also includes a lot of information even for readers who might already know a bit about the Supreme Court justice. The book closes with back matter that includes more information about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, notes on Supreme Court cases, a selected bibliography, and citations for the sources of quotes used in the book.

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark is a must read for any young people  interested in the US court system (or even older people–I learned a lot, not to mention tearing up at the end because I loved it so much), fans of the Notorious RBG, and, of course, feminists everywhere. Highly recommended!

Possible Pairings: Spy on History: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring by Enigma Albert and Tony Cliff; Fly High!: The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden, Mary Kay Kroeger, Teresa Flavin; Radioactive!: How Irène Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World by Winifred Conkling;  Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done by Andrea Gonzales, Sophie Houser; Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman; Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs; The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Murder of the Century by Sarah Miller; Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes; Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen; Boss Babes: A Coloring and Activity Book for Grownups by Michelle Volansky

Samurai Rising: A Non-Fiction Review

“Few warriors are as famous as the Japanese samurai. We remember those beautiful swords and those fearsome helmets. We recall, with both horror and fascination, how some chose to end their own lives. But no one can understand the samurai without knowing Minamoto Yoshitsune.”

Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth HindsSamurai warriors occupy an unusual space between actual history and the stuff of legend. Immortalized in countless books and films, these warriors are sensationalized and idealized but rarely studied as historical figures.

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune (2016) by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth Hinds works to correct that with this biography of one of history’s most famous samurai.

Yoshitsune’s story begins in 1160 when his father tries to kidnap the Japanese Emperor and take more prestige and wealth for the Minamoto samurai by force. He fails thus forfeiting his life and placing his rival, the leader of the Taira samurai, in an influential position as the emperor’s right hand. Yoshitsune avoids execution thanks to his mother’s pleas and is instead exiled as a child at a monastery to become a monk.

As he grows older and learns more about his family’s heritage Yoshitsune rejects that path, runs away from the monastery, learns the ways of the samurai, and sets out help his family reclaim their supposed birthright.

This story begins in 1160 when the Minamoto abduction of the emperor fails. Turner bridges the more than 850 years between Yoshitsune and readers with thorough research and a healthy dose of supposition.

Samurai Rising opens with a listing of key figures in the story along with name pronunciations and a short description of their relationship to Yoshitsune. Detailed maps show readers Japan as a whole as well as key battle site and strongholds that will turn up in the story. The text is further enhanced with illustrations from Gareth Hinds that appear at the beginning of each chapter showcasing samurai in action or detailed images of their various equipment. Turner finishes this book with copious footnotes about her research and the details she has chosen to include and interpret in this story.

This book can appeal to a wide range of ages. It’s been discussed as a contender for both children’s and young adult awards and was named a finalist for the Young Adult Library Services Association’s (YALSA’s) Non-Fiction Awards.

Samurai Rising reads very young. The narrative voice feels decidedly middle grade as does the snappy tone and the witty asides peppered throughout the text. Turner’s writing is filled with pat language and anachronistic analogies to better situated samurai life and culture in modern terms. (Example: Saying the “cool kids” of the Japanese ruling class saw the samurai as “dumb jocks” or comparing Yoshitsune showing up at the Hiraizumi estate asking for samurai training to a boy who has never been to Little League showing up for spring training with the Yankees.) This information will work for some readers. I was not one of them.

Aside from pulling me out of the story–because really, even as a historical biography this book is essentially a story–these comparisons often highlighted very specific assumptions Turner makes about who will be reading this book (sports enthusiasts, people with the cultural knowledge to know the Yankees, readers familiar with the stereotypical social hierarchy of high school . . .). Seeing these assumptions at play is intensely irritating as it creates the effect of talking down to readers and, for me, placing me as firmly not within the target audience (which is okay, that happens when adults read YA but it could easily happen for kids and teens outside of the target area as well).

Writing issues aside, Samurai Rising is also a book that glorifies violence and war and doesn’t look to closely at the implications of writing a history about the “winning” side of this samurai battle. Why are the Minamoto the heroes? Why is violence and death acceptable within the ceremony of samurai culture? Turner never really says. I don’t have the background in Japanese history to say much of anything but I will point you to Leonard Kim’s review which raises a lot of these questions and points out some of the inherent flaws in this viewpoint.

The scope of Samurai Rising and the subject matter is especially impressive given the relative dearth of textual evidence from the time. Turner takes on a lot here and she successfully breathes life into Yoshitsune’s story making it engaging and approachable for readers. Whether or not that is a good thing is a matter open to interpretation and discussion.

If you want to hear more thoughts about Samurai Rising be sure to check out Sarah Couri’s review on Someday My Printz Will Come and the discussion in the comments on Heavy Medal as well. Leonard Kim’s review should also be required reading about this book.

Possible Pairings: The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb, The Samurai’s Tale by Erik Christian Haugaard, The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin, Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki

Wonder Women: A Non-Fiction Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs, illustrated by Sophia Foster-Dimino (2016)

“So join me on a journey into the history of bad-as-heck babes. Just keep in mind that these are only some of the amazing women in the history of our world. Many more are out there, and many more are to come. In fact, you know what?

“You’re next.”

Wonder Women by Sam MaggsIn Wonder Women Sam Maggs offers quick biographies of twenty-five women in history who achieved great things and made some of humanity’s most significant discoveries. Maggs does a fantastic job with this extremely readable examination of women you may or may not know who have left their mark on history.

The book starts with an introduction (quoted above) from Maggs before moving into the body of the text which is broken into five chapters titled Women of Science, Women of Medicine, Women of Espionage, Women of Innovation, and Women of Adventure. Each chapter showcases five different women organized chronologically with some women dating as far back as 1240 up to modern times.

Each chapter ends with a paragraph-length summaries of some other notable women in each category. Every section starts with an illustration of the woman featured and a quote. Maggs ends each chapter with an interview with a modern woman working in a related field (for the Women of Science chapter she interviews Dr. Lynn Conway, a computer scientist, electrical engineer, and science educator).

Maggs has carefully curated the group of women featured to create an inclusive group of women of all ages from around the world and a variety of backgrounds. Each biography segment offers just enough information to showcase each woman and pique readers’ interest to research further with longer biographies.

Wonder Women includes some familiar suspects like Ada Lovelace, a British mathematician and first computer programmer, and Bessie Coleman, an African American Aviatrix who is roughly contemporary with Amelia Earhart. Maggs also showcases women who will not be as well-known to readers (even feminists who read a lot of biographies and non-fiction!) like Brita Tott (Danish and Swedish spy and forger), Noor Inayat Khan (Indian American Author and Allied spy), or Ynes Mexia (Mexican American botanist and explorer). Backmatter includes a bibliography and index.

Maggs’ candid tone and chatty narrative style makes it easy to breeze through this book in one sitting while clear section breaks and varied material also make it great to read through and savor as a slower pace. Wonder Women is sure to appeal to reluctant readers, non-fiction enthusiasts, and anyone who enjoys a good biography. Highly recommended!

Possible Pairings: Spy on History: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring by Enigma Albert and Tony Cliff; Fly High!: The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden, Mary Kay Kroeger, Teresa Flavin; Radioactive!: How Irène Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World by Winifred Conkling;  Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done by Andrea Gonzales, Sophie Houser; Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman; I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy; Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu; The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Murder of the Century by Sarah Miller; Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes; Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen; Boss Babes: A Coloring and Activity Book for Grownups by Michelle Volansky

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, A Life in Nature: A (Non-Fiction) Picture Book Review

Ansty Ansel: A Life in Nature by Cindy Jenson-Elliot and Christy HaleWhen he was a child, Ansel Adams could not sit still. He fidgeted. He wanted to run. He did not like being indoors.

By contrast, Ansel loved the great outdoors–especially the parks surrounding his California home. When his father recognizes that his son will not thrive in a traditional school, he helps Ansel educate himself with access to books and also studying nature.

This choice will change the path of young Ansel’s life in Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, A Life in Nature (2016) by Cindy Jenson-Elliot, illustrated by Christy Hale.

This non-fiction picture book introduces young readers to an iconic American photographer and his work documenting the country’s National Parks. Jenson-Elliot’s text is long enough to be informative but brief enough to remain approachable for younger readers.

The biographical book also includes some little known facts about Adams such as his accomplishments as a pianist (and his subsequent choice between pursuing a career as a professional pianist or as a photography). The back matter in the book has additional details, resources, and some reprints of Adams’ actual photos.

Large page spreads work to bring natural wonders to life in this vibrantly colored picture book. Hale makes “antsy Ansel” immediately fascinating along with the stunning pieces of nature that captivate Adams for much of his life and career. Detailed illustrations also reproduce some of the photographer’s iconic photos throughout the book.

Antsy Ansel is a beautifully illustrated introduction to one of the foremost photographers in the United States. A great choice for anyone looking to introduce young readers to biographic texts and a timely read for the centennial of the National Parks System.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Who Wins?: A Non-Fiction Review

Who Wins? by Clay Swartz, illustrated by Tom BoothHave you ever wondered if Queen Elizabeth could best Gandhi at Ping Pong? What about who who if Charles Dickens could beat Marie Curie at Karaoke?

Who Wins? (2016) by Clay Swartz, illustrated by Tom Booth has answers to these and other important questions.

Swartz has put together 100 historical figures from a variety of time periods and regions (and a decent balance of men and women) to pit in head-to-head competition in a variety of categories. Each figure has an illustration, a fighting nickname (Cleopatra “Queen of the Nile” Pharoah, Feminist, Diva), a brief biography, and rankings on a scale of ten in wealth, fitness, wisdom, bravery, artistry, leadership, and intelligence.

Readers can use the rankings and their own opinions to choose winners in each battle. The book is designed to be flipped back and forth between competitors and the 50 competitions. Random flipping can lead to some unlikely matchups as well as landslide winners (I feel pretty strongly that Shackleton could beat just about anyone when it comes to escaping from Alcatarz). Meanwhile other competitions are too close to call.

Because of the rankings, readers can put as much or as little thought into the winner of each match as they like. (I opened up a lot of the discussions by asking probing questions. “Sure, Leonardo da Vinci has a 10 for leadership. But what about his 6 for intelligence? Couldn’t that be a problem if he was trying to catch Jack the Ripper?”)

The variety of matches and competitors, as well as the multiple ways Who Wins? can be read make this a great book for reluctant readers and biography buffs alike. I have coupled this book with a teen video gaming program with great success. While teens waited for their turn on the video game controllers, they joined me making up different matches. Everyone had a good time picking competitors and competitions and then we debated who might come out on top.

Whether you are reading this book alone or using it in a group for some quick entertainment, library programs, or even a party game, the facts speak for themselves. Who Wins? is a winner for readers of any age.

Bonus:

I couldn’t end this review without including a some interior images from the book. Here’s a spread I made on Instagram putting Harry Houdini against Alan Pinkterton in The Hunger Games. I think the match is no contest, but what about you? Let me know in the comments.

As soon as I started flipping through Who Wins by Clay Swartz and Tom Booth (thanks @workmanpub for the review copy!) I knew I wanted to stage a battle to see who would win the Hunger Games. Harry Houdini was my immediate choice for one contender. He's a performer, he's athletic, and he's daring. Basically, I'm pretty sure Houdini could have been a career tribute in another life. Picking his rival in this match was a little harder. At first I considered Eleanor of Aquitaine or Sacagawea or even Cleopatra, I realized these women would never go along with the Hunger Games and would just jump right to bringing down the Capitol. Then I found Allan Pinkerton and the match was set. Pinkerton was a tough guy with a strong moral code. He used his strength, toughness, and ingenuity to catch notorious train and bank robbers while also establishing a detective agency that still exists today. So who would win here? While Pinkterton would no doubt make an admirable showing with his bravery and start an early alliance with some of the other tributes, I have to give this match to Houdini. His work as a magician and escape artist, mean that Houdini would be able to work alone and endear himself to viewers to gain sponsors. All the while Houdini would bide his time until the moment came to strike and become the lone victor. #whowins #booknerdigans #bookstagram #bookishfeatures #goodreads #bookstagramfeatures #instabook #instareads #igreads #booknerd #bibliophile #books #reading #currentlyreading #amreading #bookworm #bookish #bookgram #owlcrateoctrep

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Symphony for the City of the Dead: A Non-Fiction Review

“We can trust no one. In a regime where words are watched, lies are rewarded, and silence is survival, there is no truth.”

Symphony for the City of the Dead by M. T. AndersonIn September 1941, Hitler’s forces moved against the Soviet Union in a bid to take the country’s capital in Moscow and the historic city of Leningrad (now and previously St. Petersburg).

So began one of the longest sieges in Western history. More than a million people died over the course of the years-long siege. Amazingly, despite crippling his own military from the top down and breeding a culture of such fear that officials preferred to make ill-advised decisions rather than risk contradicting him, Stalin and the Soviet citizenry held out. Faced with starvation, blitzkrieg attacks, and the continued severity and dangers of life in Soviet Russia, the residents of Leningrad held on.

In the midst of this bleak landscape, music became an unlikely ray of hope. Varying wildly between a darling of the communist party and one of its biggest perceived heretics, Dmitri Shostakovich was a composer known around the world. With threats everywhere from both the Nazi’s and his own government, Shostakovich would write a symphony to rouse the Soviet public during their time of need.

The symphony would speak when the people feared to, it would mark all that was lost during the Communist Revolution and the Siege of Leningrad. It would give voice to sorrow and loss as well as hope and redemption. Shostakovich’s symphony would offer common ground between the unlikely allies of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. This is the story of that symphony, the country that inspired it, the compose who wrote it, and the war that shaped all of them in Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad (2015) by M.T. Anderson.

Anderson offers a thoroughly researched look at a slice of WWII history that might not be familiar to many Americans. Symphony for the City of the Dead begins with the bizarre transport of Shostakovich’s symphony (via microfilm) from the Soviet Union to the United States. After that prologue the book is framed around Shostakovich’s own life from his early childhood to his death. The book touches upon the communist revolution and explores the composer’s complicated relationships with his country and the Communist Party.

Symphony for the City of the Dead includes an extensive bibliography and footnotes in the backmatter detailing Anderson’s sources throughout the novel. Strangely, for such an iconic figure, little is known as fact about Shostakovich’s life. Anderson is careful to couch his own thoughts in research and supporting documentation while also noting when the narrative veers into supposition. The book also offers a thorough and detailed accounts of the movements that led to the Siege of Leningrad ranging from Stalin’s wild incompetence and paranoia to Hitler’s Wermacht strategy.

Because of the content and the level of research involved, Symphony for the City of the Dead is a dense book. The material gains a more narrative quality after the first hundred pages but it takes a while to really dig into the material.

Anderson offers a strange mix of the bloody nightmare that was Communist Russia during the Siege of Leningrad and the optimistic hope of post-war Russia. Symphony for the City of the Dead is a fascinating example of the power of story–especially the power of art and music–as well as thoughtful look at how the truth can be shaped in the telling. A must-read for WWII history buffs and music buffs in particular. Highly recommended.