One-Minute Book Reviews

April 19, 2009

What Will Stop the Somali Pirates? History May Hold Clues

Filed under: History,News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:22 pm
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A "modern economic order" helped stop Barbary pirates.

How can the U.S. and other nations end the plunder in the Gulf of Aden? What can prevent another hijacking like that of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates?

John Sledge says in the Mobile Press-Register that anyone hoping to learn from history might track down The Barbary Coast: Algeria Under the Turks, “a highly readable and thorough examination of the problem of piracy off the North African coast from the 16th through the 19th centuries,” by the historian John B. Wolfe:

“Though the modern situation in Somalia differs significantly, there are also striking similarities, and Wolf’s relating of the European and subsequent American diplomatic and military efforts in Algeria is highly instructive.”

Sledge adds that by the early 19th century, Barbary pirates had learned how to wrest ransom or protection money from European governments reluctant to become entangled in the politics of the outlaws’ Algerian ports. Then thieves began taking U.S. merchant ships in the Mediterranean. As the Europeans had done, the Americans struck deals with the pirates. But when Thomas Jefferson became president, he refused to pay, and the country’s vessels became more vulnerable. Some relief came after Commodore Stephen Decatur sailed into the Mediterranean and, by showing U.S. military muscle, ended the practice paying tribute to thieves:

“The piracy problem was finally resolved for everyone in 1830, when the French moved into Algeria and occupied it for the next century and more. As Wolf explains, the French brought ‘modern economic order, more rational urbanization, extended education and public health services, and a greater respect for the rule of law.

“If Wolf’s book is any guide, the Somali problem will not be resolved unless and until a comparable across-the-board commitment is forthcoming. The chances of the United States spearheading such an effort, with the billions of dollars no doubt required, are slim …”

Sledges’s review isn’t online, but I’ll add a link if or when it appears.

The Associated Press has posted this report on the two staff members of Doctors Without Borders kidnapped today in Somalia.

February 9, 2008

Natalie Babbitt’s Cycle of Stories About an Out-of-Work Pirate, ‘Jack Plank Tells Tales’

The author of Tuck Everlasting returns with a lighter book about a reformed plunderer-of-the-high-seas

Jack Plank Tells Tales. Story and pictures by Natalie Babbitt. Scholastic/Michael Di Capua, 128 pp., $15.95. Ages 7–9 (ages 4 and up for reading aloud).

By Janice Harayda

Jack Plank Tells Tales is the book many parents have been waiting for – a pirate story for children too old for picture books but too young for Treasure Island. It lacks the psychological heft and stylistic perfection of Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, a modern classic. But it’s several nautical miles beyond many other recent pirate stories, including Peter Pan rip-offs and cheesy movie tie-ins.

Jack Plank is an amiable out-of-work pirate who is cast off the ship Avarice because he lacks a talent for plunder: “You have to yell and make faces and rattle your sword, and once you’ve got people scared, you take things away from them.” So he has to find a new job after he settles into a boarding house on Jamaica in about 1720.

Each day he looks for work, with the proprietor’s 11-year-old daughter as his guide, and finds something wrong with one of his options. He can’t fish because it reminds him of a shipmate’s story of a man who turned into an octopus and can’t work in a sugarcane field because he would have to cross a bridge that brings to mind a sailor’s account of a troll. Each night he entertains the boardinghouse residents with another tale of why he has come up empty-handed, which leads soon to a job that suits him the way a deep harbor suits a galleon.

The stop-and-go narrative makes this book good bedtime reading for children who can handle its two deaths by stabbing even as the lack of a strong forward momentum may make it easier for others to put down. And there’s not much thematic development – this is light entertainment, an amusing cycle of stories billed by the publisher as a novel.

But Babbitt’s engaging pencil drawings – and a handsome jacket and design by Kathleen Westray – help to offset the narrative limits. The refusal of American Library Association www.ala.org to give Tuck Everlasting a Newbery Medal or Honor Book citation may have been the organization’s greatest awards blunder of the past 40 years, compounded by its continual failure to recognize Babbitt with the Margaret A. Edwards award for lifetime achievement. Lois Lowry is a good writer. But why Lowry has won the Edwards award and Babbitt hasn’t is a mystery that this appealing book only deepens.

Best line: Many of the tales in this book develop folkloric motifs such as that of the mummy’s hand, and its story of a girl raised by seagulls has an especially memorable illustration of a feral child.

Worst line: The last: “But it seems to be sure that, as Waddy Spoonton pointed out, it’s never too late to be happy.” This ending is unusually sugary – and clichéd – for Babbitt. And the text doesn’t really prepare you for it.

Published: May 2007 www.scholastic.com

Furthermore: Babbitt won a Newbery Honor Book designation for Kneeknock Rise, a completely inadequate recognition of her body of work from the ALA. As a former vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle, I appreciate the great difficulty of getting literary prizes right. But the ALA is just embarrassing itself on this one.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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