Archive for May, 2006

Songs: Men don’t buy pajamas for pistol-packing mamas, and other hard lessons I’ve learned from Broadway musicals

Tuesday, May 30th, 2006

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Books etc. / For children 5 and under / For children 5 and up / For children 8 and up / Learning to read / For children 12 and up / Sophisticated readers / Fat books (Deep books for sophisticated but young readers) / About educators educating / Technical Books / Gifted Education / Books whose protagonists are gifted, intellectually / All book reviews


Caution: This piece includes spoilers. If you don’t want to learn much about the plot of Annie Get Your Gun, please don’t read on.

About 11 years ago, desperate for a distraction for my then-4 yr. old daughter, I sat her down in front of a TV, popped a tape of Carousel into the VCR and walked away. When I stopped by to check up on her 45 minutes later, I found her facing the screen, tears streaming down her face. It was then I should have
realized that musicals’ pretty costumes and music often disguise powerful messages.

Years later, I found myself in the video rental store on my birthday. The plan was to eat a festive dinner and watch a video of my choosing.  “Old musicals are always safe,” I thought, addled by the aging process. I brought home the 1950 screen adaptation of Annie Get Your Gun, starring Betty Hutton and Howard Keel.

Annie Get Your Gun tells the story of Annie Oakley, best shot in the West, in music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Much-loved songs from the show include Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly, The Girl That I Marry, I Got The Sun In The Morning,
Anything You Can Do, and There’s No Business Like Show Business.

Annie Oakley sings the theme of musical loud and clear in the brilliant lyrics of You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun, which include:

… When I’m with a pistol
I sparkle like a crystal,
Yes, I shine like the morning sun.
But I lose all my luster
When with a Bronco Buster.
Oh you can’t get a man with a gun.

While Frank Butler, the man Annie aspires to wed, sings:

The girl that I marry will have to be
As soft and as pink as a nursery

The girl I call my own
Will wear satin and laces and smell of cologne


A doll I can carry,
The girl that I marry must be.

There we sat, the daughter (by now a teenager) who cried through Carousel, younger daughter about 6, parents, and even the cat watched, rapt, as the music traced Annie Oakely’s life. Annie evolves from an ignorant hillbilly (Doin’ What Comes Naturly) whose shooting must be sharp if she is to feed her family, into the most talented and renowned sharpshooter in the world. Which threatens to destroy her romantic relationship with the second-most talented sharpshooter in the world, Frank Butler. So after watching for nearly two hours, the lesson my daughters learn is that in order to catch and keep the man she loves, a talented, beautiful, intelligent young woman does best to convince him that she’s just not as good a shot as he is.

Which is why, several days later, I was not thrilled to observe my usually-retiring young one scale to the top of a pile of bags of manure outside our drug store and unabashedly belt out multiple choruses of There’s no business
like show business
to the amazed and delighted stares of our fellow-patrons.  “That’s alright,” I told myself,  “these people have no idea that this song, which has no doubt delighted millions, is from a reactionary musical that delivers a negative message about the need for girls to scale back their ambitions and hide their talents in order to succeed in the world.”

My feelings of failure as a parent worsened when my young daughter became infatuated with a CD of the Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun starring Bernadette Peters. Not only is the message of the show in this very recent production unimproved — and how could it be, it’s deeply embedded in the book? — but the performance by Peters is a real disappointment. Her hillybilly accent goes in and out and is embarrassingly influenced by Brooklynese.

Thank goodness my daughter was most interested in the funny competition song, Anything You Can Do, which Annie (at a point in the story where she is still mercifully unaware that a woman’s place is second to the man’s) sings with her rival/intended, Frank Butler:

Anything you can do,

I can do better.
I can do anything
Better than you.

Since dear daughter objects to “mushy love songs”, she (and I) were mostly able to avoid Annie’s decision to permanently hide her gifts. Unfortunately, You can’t get a man with a gun is such a funny but direct description of the thought process that leads to Annie’s capitulation that it proved impossible to ignore. I hate the meaning in the following words, but I just adore the word play:

A man’s love is mighty
It’ll leave him buy a nightie
For a gal who he thinks is fun.

But they don’t buy pajamas
For pistol packin’ mamas,
And you can’t get a hug

From a mug with a slug,
Oh you can’t get a man with a gun.

Anyone who rode in our car listened to this song over and over again until our local librarians finally compelled us to return the CD.

We’re now on to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat and Weird Al Yankovic. The music and lyrics aren’t as fantastic, but at least the messages are slightly more positive, for girls at least.

The lessons I hope I’ve learned from this experience are:

  • Musicals do pack a punch. The songs that make them compelling also project their messages to impressionable children.
  • Children do listen, hear, and, worst, understand these messages. Stephen Soundheim told us this in Into the Woods. But I had forgotten.

Happy listening.

–Emily

If you’re going to watch Annie Get Your Gun, get the DVD or VHS video of the 1950 movie. The CD of Bernadette Peter’s performance is certainly interesting, but the Ethel Merman version’s the one I recommend.

Carousel, on the other hand, is gorgeous, if depressing. There’s a VHS version but the DVD is not much more expensive.


Rants and reviews table of contents / Into the Woods / Annie Get Your Gun / Learning to Build and Program Robots / Stomp / The Armadillo Dance

Book review: The Egypt Game

Friday, May 26th, 2006

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Author:Zilpha Keatly Snyder
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 8 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 8 and up
Genre:fiction, magic
Year of publication:1967

Realistic adventures of some children who think hard about their make-believe. The plot does involve a series of child murders, but these are not described in any detail.
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Book review: Models for Writers: Short Essays for Compostion, 8th ed.

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

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Author:Alfred Rosa
Reading Level (Conceptual):College-prep
Reading Level (Vocabulary):College-prep
Genre:non-fiction
Year of publication:1997

by Alfred Rosa and Paul Eschholz Published by Bedford/St Martins Models for Writers seems to be very appropriate for the in-the-box sort of essay required on SATs and college applications. The target audience is a first year college student, yet the text does not pander or seem to assume the student can not think for him/herself. Also the text is not excessive on what I can best term to be "hip and cool": this being the attempt by the authors/publisher to appeal to some imagined college teen fixated upon MTV, fashion dictates, etc. The book also seems very appropriate for the younger teen. This is in contrast to many of the books that had essays dealing with the angst of teenhood to excess. There are many excellent samples of essays, many by well known authors, to illustrate the various points the book is trying to teach.

We are just beginning to use this book but to date, find the arrangement and presentation of the book very acceptable. The book clearly breaks down the elements of the essay and spends a full chapter (with outstanding examples), on this. Thesis, Unity, Organization, Beginnings and Endings, Paragraphs, Transistions, and Effective Sentences all merit separate chapters. A portion of the book is devoted to discussion and examples of the language of essays (Diction and Tone, Figurative Language). The balance of the text is devoted to different types of essays: Illustration; Narration; Description; Process Analysis; Definition; Division and Classification; Comparison and Contrast; Cause and Effect; and finally Argument. A nice plus of this text is the inclusion of a Thematic Contents which lists the essays used for example by theme: Family; Friends and Friendship; People and Personalities; Life and Death; Men and Women; The Minority Experience; Science and Technology; Observing Nature; Work and Play; Language and thought; Enduring Issues; Popular Culture; Education; The Urban Experience; Health and Medicine; Writers and Writing.
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If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Models for Writers: Short Essays for Compostion, 8th ed

A review by a guest commentator

Book review: Dragonfly

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

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Author:Alice McLerran
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 8 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 8 and up
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2000

Smoothly told tale of a group of people who band together to raise a dragon. Confronts the reality of "scientists who would intervene" without making them out to be evil.

Contrasts nicely with Song of the Gargoyle

-- Emily Berk

If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Dragonfly

Book review: Messenger

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

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Author:Lois Lowry
Reading Level (Conceptual):Sophisticated readers
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 8 and up
Genre:fiction; dystopian
Year of publication:2004

Sequel to Lowry's Gathering Blue, and, some might consider this the third in the dystopian trilogy that started well with, and has coursed relentlessly downhill from, The Giver. The plot is highly derivative of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, The Birthmark, with some unpleasant touches and Christian symbolism similar to Zilpha Keatly Snyder's Until the Celebration, but entirely lacks the beauty of the Below the Root books.

For some reason, our local librarian felt that our ten year old would find this book less intense than The Giver. Maybe so, but it's not interesting, not well written, and not optimistic.
Rather than Messenger, read The Giver or Below the Root.

If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Messenger

Book review: Winter’s Tale

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

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Author:Mark Helprin
Reading Level (Conceptual):Sophisticated readers
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Sophisticated readers
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:1983

New York-state-based magical realism. One of our favorite books.
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If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Winter's Tale

Book review: Eldest (Book 2 of Paolini’s Inheritance trilogy)

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

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Author:Christopher Paolini
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2005

We found Eragon, the first book in this trilogy (as of Spring, 2006, the third is not yet published), so involving that we were not sure we would survive until we read Eldest.

And, well, Eldest is ok.

We are certainly going to read the next book in the series, just as soon as we can get our eyes on it.

But Eldest, like many of the middle volumes of many trilogies, was much more of a chore and less of a pleasure to read than Eragon was.


Perhaps this is because Eldest intersperses the interesting tale of Eragon's formal education as a Dragonrider with the travails of Eragon's cousin, Roran.

While Eragon gets to hang out with the beautiful, gentle, self-involved, enigmatic Elves, Roran faces the wrath of the evil Empire pretty much on his own. And poor Roran, unlike Eragon, lacks many of the advantages that make Eragon's struggles tolerable. For example, Eragon has a dragon who has endowed Eragon with super-human abilities. Roran would also have benefited from a mentor who could have explained why the Empire was inflicting atrocity after atrocity upon Roran and his village. Roran can rely only on his considerable mental, political, and physical talents, fueled by his passion for his love, Katrina, to empower him to save himself and his fellow villagers.

Eldest is bleak, much, much bleaker than Eragon. In fact, so bleak that my daughter and I often found ourselves hard-pressed to keep reading. On the other hand, when, at one point, Roran finally managed to score one of his several victories over his oppressors, my daughter was surprised and impressed. "Way to go, Roran," she cried. And meant it. I mean, many of the characters are very interesting, likeable even, even some of the not-so-savory ones. We certainly did want to know what happened to them and wished them well.

Many reviews of Paolini's books have mentioned how derivative they are of the Lord of the Ring books. Since I am not much of a fan of LOTR, I can't address this point by point. Eragon certainly borrows conventions and plot twists from earlier dragon-based fantasies. It's impossible to not notice Eragon's debts to Anne Mccaffrey's dragon books. Eldest steals from other conventions as well; it seems to incorporate some Star War-ish motifs, and not to its great benefit. However, I was not overly troubled by these borrowings; I think they happen often in fantasy. What I care about is how well a book immerses us in the lives of the characters and the lands in which they find themselves.

Paolini has done a good job, I think, of describing the cultures of the Elves and the towns and villages through which Roran and his allies pass. For example, when Paolini documents the way Eragon finds himself helpless to stop in his romantic pursuit of Arya, an Elf who may be nearly a century older than he is -- well, it is embarrassing, heart-breaking, and, while my daughter and I kept hoping Eragon would just stop making Arya feel that she was being stalked, we felt it rang very, very true. We pitied Eragon and sympathized with Arya for having to (repeatedly) reject him. "She's HUNDREDS of years older than you, stupid," my daughter exclaimed at one point.

And there are other very lovely touches here -- Paolini's explanation of how Eragon becomes a vegetarian, for example, and the complex rules he lays out governing the use and language of magic.

On the other hand, beware of graphic violence and a pervasive sense of dread in the face of overwhelming, evil enemies determined to crush the life out of Eragon, Roran, and everyone they know. And know that this sense of overwhelming danger is not resolved by the end of this, the middle, of the trilogy.

-- Emily Berk


If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Eldest (Book 2 of Paolini's Inheritance trilogy)

Almost anything from Into the Woods

Sunday, May 21st, 2006

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Like…:

Here are two princes discussing themselves, their lives, their loves:

\”Clever,

Well-mannered,

Considerate,

Passionate,

Charming,

As kind as we’re handsome,

As wise as we’re rich\”

And, here’s Jack, of Jack and the Beanstalk fame, singing about his adventures:

\”There are GIANTS in the sky!

There are big, tall, terrible GIANTS in the sky!\”

In Little Red Riding Hood’s song, after she’s been rescued from the wolf, she explains how much she’s learned from
her near-death experiences:

\”When he said, ‘Come in!\” with that sickening grin, how could I know what was in store?

Once his teeth were bared, though, I really got scared–well, excited and scared–

But he drew me close, and he swallowed me down,

Down a slimy path where secrets lie that I never want to know,

And when everything familiar seemed to disappear forever,

At the end of the path was Granny once again.

So we wait in the dark until someone sets us free,

And we’re brought into the light, and we’re back at the start.

And I know things now, many valuable things, that I hadn’t known before:

Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood,

They will not protect you the way that they should.

And take extra care with strangers, even flowers have their dangers.

And though scary is exciting, nice is different than good.

Now I know: don’t be scared. Granny is right, just be prepared.

Isn’t it nice to know a lot! And a little bit not…\”

The witch’s lament, after Rapunzel escapes from her tower and bad things happen to her:

This is the world I meant.

Couldn’t you listen?

Couldn’t you stay content,

Safe behind walls,

As I Could not?

Now you know what’s out there in the world.

No one can prepare you for the world,

Even I.

How could I, who loved you as you were?

How could I have shielded you from her

Or them…

No matter what you say,

Children won’t listen.

No matter what you know,

Children refuse

To learn.

Guide them along the way,

Still they won’t listen.

Children can only grow

From something you love

To something you lose…

An appreciation of Into the Woods

Cold Missouri Waters Lyrics by James Keelaghan

Sunday, May 21st, 2006

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Extremely sad song that describes how the innovators among us are
not always appreciated. About the person who invented the backfire.

We like the performance by Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell on

Cry Cry Cry

August ‘Forty-Nine, north Montana

The hottest day on record, the forest tinder dry

Lightning strikes in the mountains

I was crew chief at the jump base, I prepared the boys to fly

Pick the drop zone, C-47 comes in low

Feel the tap upon your leg that tells you go

See the circle of the fire down below

Fifteen of us dropped above the cold Missouri waters

Gauged the fire, I’d seen bigger

So I ordered them to sidehill and we’d fight it from below

We’d have our backs to the river

We’d have it licked by morning even if we took it slow

But the fire crowned, jumped the valley just ahead

There was no way down, headed for the ridge instead

Too big to fight it, we’d have to fight that slope instead

Flames one step behind above the cold Missouri waters

Sky had turned red, smoke was boiling

Two hundred yards to safety, death was fifty yards behind

I don’t know why I just thought it

I struck a match to waist high grass running out of time

Tried to tell them, Step into this fire I set

We can’t make it, this is the only chance you’ll get

But they cursed me, ran for the rocks above instead

I lay face down and prayed above the cold Missouri waters

And when I rose, like the phoenix

In that world reduced to ashes there were none but two survived

I stayed that night and one day after

Carried bodies to the river, wonder how I stayed alive …

Triplets

Sunday, May 21st, 2006

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From the MGM Picture \”The Band Wagon\”

Music by Arthur Schwartz; Lyric by Howard Dietz

Performed by Nanette Fabray, Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan

but we first heard it performed by John Lithgow (and like his performance better) on his CD:

Singin’ in the Bathtub

Three little unexpected children

Simultaneously the doctor brought us in

you can see we’ll be three forever and

A E I O You wouldn’t know how agonising being triple can be

Each one is individually the victim of that clinical day (?)

…We do everything alike

We look alike

We dress alike

We walk alike

We talk alike

and what is more we hate each other very much

We hate our folks

We’re sick of jokes on what an art it is to tell us apart!