Kids Love Those Animal Sounds!



In the new movie Inside Out there is a nice reference to how important books featuring animal sounds are to kids at a certain point in their lives.  This was certainly true in our house.  First, there was The Golden Book of Animal Sounds.  It wasn’t particularly catchy, but both of our daughters made their first associations between the spoken word and the book in front of them with that very same book.  Of course we loved it!  A much funnier book was Sandra Boynton’s Moo, Baa, La La La.  That book was a huge hit for many years.  It had great illustrations and adorable characters.  Even better, it was silly and got something wrong, so the kids had the opportunity to correct a grown up’s mistake.  That little “slip” was just hilarious.

The best animal sounds book for us hands down was Paul Galdone’s Over in the Meadow.  We went through multiple copies and learned it by heart.  In addition to animal sounds,Over in the Meadow  had counting, rhyming and Paul Galdone’s irresistible illustrations.  Its buoyant spirit and cadence brought out the ham in the reader, so it was just all a lot of fun.  It is sadly out of print, but copies can be found on line.  Get one!  If you can’t find the Galdone version, Over in the Meadow is a traditional nursery rhyme, so other versions are available.

Over in the Meadow demonstrates why animal sound books are so great.  Kids get to hear their parents being silly and, hopefully, throwing lots of expression into their performances.  I miss those days!


Did Everything Happen in January 1973?



As a freshman in college, I devoured Newsweek every week from 1972 to 1976, but it took James Robenalt’s excellent January 1973 for me to realize exactly how much happened in just one month.  Briefly, there was the first Watergate trial, the conclusion of the Vietnam peace negotiations and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion decision.  Additional drama was created by the deaths of former Presidents Truman and Johnson, and Richard Nixon’s second presidential inauguration.

Fortunately, Mr. Robenalt has the advantage of access to all those incriminating tapes, and he makes excellent use of them to build a compelling case that Richard Nixon broke the law repeatedly.  That is the big point of the tapes, but Nixon’s awkward and unpleasant personality really competes for the reader’s attention.  It is hard to imagine how anyone that socially inept could get so far in public life.  Of course these tapes have not been edited to provide a rounded picture of Nixon, and it does come across that he loved his family and even had some friends.  What doesn’t come through is how he did some of the good things, like create a relationship with China, and of course much of his social agenda was a lot more liberal than what many Democrats advocate today.  But this book focuses on his cynicism and win-by-any-means strategy, and there is a lot of material there.  In the “What was he thinking category,” it is still hard to wrap your head around the notion of Nixon creating and maintaining all of these incriminating tapes in the first place.  Talk about being hoisted by his own petard!

Added to the Watergate saga, there are the Vietnam peace talks.  It is pretty clear that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger didn’t like each other and that they certainly didn’t trust each other.  The peace agreement looks like a clumsily orchestrated capitulation, but the back and forth is still interesting.  On the other hand, it is embarrassing to read about how much their respective egos needed stroking.  What an odd relationship between two men who got things done and shared mutual respect and loathing for each other.

My favorite parts of the book were the sections on Roe v. Wade and the stages by which the Supreme Court got to this decision.  The parts played by Justices Blackmun and Powell are particularly interesting.  From a president’s point of view, apparently it is possible to have too much of a good thing.  Nixon had so many vacancies on the Court and his initial nominations generally had such obvious fatal flaws, that he ended up just going with whichever candidate got pushed under his nose at the appropriate time.  He got careless, and from his point of view he paid.  The Court’s internal negotiations on the abortion question makes one nostalgic for a time when courteous discourse and persuasion could prompt so many of the justices to think outside the box and even change their minds.

Whether you are a student of this period or a newbie trying to put it all together, this book is a helpful and fascinating recounting of a remarkable time.

Disclaimer — A Novel — Really Strikes a Nerve



Wow!  Disclaimer  —  A Novel, by Renee Knight, really struck a nerve.  This new novel is brilliantly plotted to ignite that uncomfortable feeling that something from our past is going to come back and hurt us.  Whether you are a world class brooder like Stephen or a less self-aware personality like Catherine (both brilliantly realized characters in this amazing book), the premise is terrifying.  In Disclaimer, the  situation careens out of control and the characters struggle with guilt, misperceptions and helplessness.  They are also forced to adapt to new and unanticipated landscapes.  The story, set in what appears at first to be a very civilized London, is told in short chapters from multiple first person points of few, and it just grabs you because you really want to know what these people are thinking.  I dreaded what was to come, but I couldn’t stop reading.  Only after I finished the book was I able to sit back and appreciate the compelling way that this book reminds us how much we like to tell ourselves that something awful is over and behind us or that some unfortunate event hasn’t really affected us or our children.  This book begs to differ.  I strongly recommend it.

A German Military Judge Is Really Fed Up During the Last Years of World War II


It is hard to know what to think of WernerOtto Muller-Hill, the German military judge who kept a diary during the last year of World War II while he was serving as a military judge for the Third Reich.  Muller-Hill’s diary has been translated with some editing in The True German, with an introduction by Benjamin Carter Hett, and translation and editing by Jefferson Chase.  Muller-Hill was approaching 60 and had a wife and young son, when he decided to start a diary in March 1944.  He knew that this was a dangerous act that could get him killed if he were discovered, but he wanted to make a record for his family.  As he writes, Muller-Hill knows Germany will be defeated and that it is only a matter of how and when.  He is furious with Hitler for dragging German into what he sees as an unnecessary and catastrophic war.   He is completely cynical about Goebbels’ incessantly shrill and groundless reports of victory and as well as all the aggressive military orders that cannot be executed because the German army is in shambles.  Several times he writes that Germany has no right to expect any mercy when the war is over because of how it has behaved and, in particular, how it has murdered Jews.  Muller-Hill clearly knows quite a bit about that and seems to appreciate how unforgivable Germany’s behavior has been.  He is very concerned about what will happen to him and his family.

Yet, as he criticizes his countrymen for buying Hitler’s false promises and behaving so badly, the sixty-four thousand dollar question is where was he?  It seems that the best he could say for himself is that he wasn’t an active supporter of the regime, but neither was he taking any active measures to resist.  Indeed, he kept doing his job until the end.  Given the timing, it is of course possible that Muller-Hill wrote this with an eye toward making himself a more sympathetic prisoner for the Allies, but that doesn’t seem to be the thrust of his diary.  For example, he writes about the Holocaust as if it were a tactical error that will doom Germany, but doesn’t express any empathy for the Jews or give any indication that he ever opposed Anti-Semitism.

It is a short book that leaves a lot of questions, but it does provide a primary source and helps us understand what at least one person was thinking as the war drew to a close.  Interestingly, after the war, Muller-Hill returned to his legal career as a prosecutor.  It seems like life largely went back to normal for him until he died in 1977.


Heroine of the Civil Rights Movement

Information about heroines of the Civil Rights Movement seems to come in dribs and drabs and can be pretty hard to find.  Fortunately, James McGrath Morris’s new biography Eye on the Struggle:  Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, does a wonderful job of telling us who Ethel Payne was and why she was so important.  Ms. Payne was an activist and a pioneering journalist for more than fifty years.  She covered the Civil Rights movement in the South and was The Chicago Defender’s first Washington correspondent.  She was also among the very first black women journalists to appear on television.  She knew and followed virtually all of the Civil Rights leaders and American presidents of her time.  At times, her consistent presence at so many of the seminal events of the twentieth century had a kind of Zelig or Forrest Gump-like quality, but that characterization really isn’t fair, because time after time she deliberately inserted herself into the action.

Ethel Payne embraced her self-imposed responsibility to make the country and its leaders aware of the Civil Rights movement and then to keep reminding them of their responsibilities.  At a time when Jim Crow was rampant, she accompanied Harry Truman on a whistle-stop tour across the country.  She was the first black woman reporter to attend presidential news conferences and then she repeatedly asked Dwight Eisenhower questions he didn’t want to answer about his administration’s poor showing on the Civil Rights front.  She didn’t get good answers, but she knew that her colleagues would report the Q and A in the national press.  She knew Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and was frequently infuriated and then sometimes heartened by their stances on race.  She also traveled widely.  In addition to numerous trips to Africa, she attended the Bandung conference, went to Vietnam as a reporter and interviewed Nelson Mandela not long after his release from prison.  It was a remarkable career.

How did Ethel Payne accomplish so much?  She never hesitated to take the initiative, she showed tremendous resilience as her career ebbed and flowed, she was a nice person who helped other people, and she was absolutely determined to promote the Civil Rights movement through her reporting.  This last point begs an interesting ethical question.  In her time, Ms. Payne apparently made the deliberate decision to promote the leaders of the Civil Rights movement through her reporting.  She had a mission, and it didn’t include revealing the leaders’ warts and infighting.  I squirmed at this deliberately selective approach to reporting, but in fairness, this reticence can be cast as a product of a time when presidents’ physical infirmities and sexual activities simply weren’t reported.  Then again, we live in an era that maybe isn’t all that different.

I highly recommend this book.  We all need to know about Ethel Payne and to make sure our children do as well.