Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Pilgrims of Plimouth

Title: The Pilgrims of Plimouth
Author: Marcia Sewall
Illustrator: Marcia Sewall
Genre: Juvenile Fiction, Historical Fiction
Price: $14.95
ISBN: 0698312504

With Thanksgiving just around the corner--or the day after tomorrow--I thought it might be fun to read a couple short Thanksgiving books. The first on my list was an old favorite called The Pilgrims of Plimouth, which is written by Marcia Sewall from the perspective of the pilgrims. Sewall takes on the voice of these wanderers and describes not only their reasons for leaving England, their journey, and the infamous feast (actually, feasts), but also the daily lives of these colonists and the hardships they faced.

Though Sewall has created a lovely picture book with illustrations that are soft and lovely, the colors bringing New England and Autumn to mind, the text is much more adult than one might imagine. At times, you could suppose Sewall had tracked down a pilgrim and interviewed them, then simply rewrote what he or she had to say and sent it off to the publishers. The vocabulary, cadence, and diction seem very authentic. That said, it would be a difficult book to read to a young child. The information given could be perceived as a bit dry unless you're interested in this sort of stuff and could be hard for a younger child to access.

Considering how jumbled the myth of Thanksgiving has become over the years and how those who are aware of the tawdry past the first colonists of this country have with the Native people, it can sometimes feel strange to celebrate a holiday that commemorates a people who soon attempted to annihilate another. This book gives a rather accurate description of these pilgrims, what happened during the first "thanksgiving" and how the pilgrims led their lives. It is much less about the myth than it is about who our nations ancestors were more or less down to an individual level rather than a larger, more ideological level. One may read this book and think less about Native Americans being forced from their lands as well as not being led into the belief that the pilgrims were perfect and had this one fantastic day in history. 

Comparable Reads: I honestly can't think of any right off the top of my head. I suppose a good companion to this book would be 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving, which I will have a review of shortly. The two books are not all a like, beyond subject, but they sort of overlap nicely.

Who this book is for: I feel like this might be a nice family book to have. Mom and Dad can walk their children through the book to help tackle the somewhat difficult language. I also think it would be a nice addition to a fifth or sixth grade classroom during this Thanksgiving time of year. If you were to have your students do a sort of origins of Thanksgiving project, this would be an excellent source to draw from. Sewall cites and uses sources in the writing of the book, so you can be fairly certain that though it's classified as fiction, the information is pretty accurate.

No Fear, No Shame

Title: No Fear, No Shame
Author: Ann Turnbull
Genre: YA Fiction, Historical Fiction
Price: $15.99
ISBN: 0763625051

In the turmoil of post-civil war England, Ann Turnbull brings us the tale of a girl and a boy very much in love, but coming from very different worlds. Susanna is a young Quaker girl facing persecution because of her religion. Will is the son of a wealthy merchant and has recently returned from school and is looking for an apprenticeship. The two meet not long after Susanna is sent to live and work for a widow (also a Quaker) running a printshop and bookstore.

What Turnbull sets before us is a sort of Romeo and Juliet type of story, where two kids from two different worlds very nearly fall in love at first sight and decide they need to be together. The advantage here is no one kills themselves and the story is far less tragic than the drama it shares some themes with. The story moves with the typical pace of a young adult love story, quick and sudden and filled with over-the-top emotions. It captures very modern teen thought processes, though in a very historical setting, adding another layer of complications besides the usual, "Does he like me?" conundrum. Another plus is the fact that the story seems to fairly evenly cover both Susanna and Will, giving two sides of the story, allowing both the girl and the boy be goofy and in love. While I generally find myself annoyed by those horribly dorky girls who mope after boys (despite the fact I did some of that myself not too long ago), the fact that Turnbull adds in the male perspective makes for slightly more interesting reading.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is the historical setting. Turnbull focuses in on the world of the Quakers during the mid-17th century and gives the reader another layer of tension to deal with beyond the love story blossoming between the two main characters. Quakers are dissenters from the Church of England, and their worship is deemed illegal. Many view the Quakers, at best, as law-breakers, and, at worst, workers of some dark art. When Will, the son of a well-respected local, takes up with Susanna and then decides to become a Quaker himself, all Hell breaks loose in the kinds of moral questions one might ask.
Do you risk everything for the person you love?
Do you risk everything for your beliefs?
How far will you go for what is right?
Is it better to keep yourself and your family safe or to work towards the better good?

In all honesty, if Turnbull had just left the story at a romance between two teenagers, I probably would have dropped the book. The characters, while engaging, don't create enough of a story just between themselves. The addition of these moral questions genuinely made me stop and think about what I was reading and if what Susanna, Will, and their Quaker friends endured was really worth it. It's hard to not enjoy a book that not only has some entertainment value, but also gets you to think about your beliefs and what's important to you.

Comparable Reads: A Stitch in Time by Ann Rinaldi comes to mind immediately, though it comes from a different time period  and country (post-Revolutionary war in Salem, Massachusetts). It focuses on the oldest daughter of a well-to-do family coping with numerous issues and romance, some propelled by people others by the time period. The novel also tackles issues to do with the time period, such as the treatment and views of Native Americans, women, and slavery.

Who this book is for: I'm seeing 13 and 14 year old girls (and up) really enjoying this book. Susanna is 14 in the book and experiencing emotions almost any teenage girl would be familiar with. I also think a fan of historical fiction would enjoy the novel as it tastes of realism, though I won't assume or say everything written is historically accurate. It may be an interesting way to introduce a kid who's not so interested in history to some interesting historical concepts along with some timeless ones.

Happy Reading!!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Book Whisperer

Title: The Book Whisperer
Author: Donalyn Miller
Genre: Non-fiction, Education
Price: $22.95
ISBN: 9780470372272

I've been asked to read a lot of books for my education courses, and some have been fairly traditional, perhaps to a fault (my classroom management text is abhorrent) while others have been a bit radical. But this book, one that was lent to me by my mentor teacher this semester, introduces a concept that completely turns the world of English education upside.

Donalyn Miller suggests that English teachers let their students choose their own books. Having come from the school of class-wide novels, starting in the 9th grade, I, at first, could not quite picture what that sort of classroom would look like. Chaos, perhaps? The depths of Hell stretching open and sucking the classroom downward because students weren't having Dandelion Wine shoved down their throats (this was the dumbest book I've ever been assigned to read in high school). Miller spends a bulk of her book explaining what does happen in her classroom, and it's far from horrifying.

Miller teachers a 6th grade English and Social Studies class and she does not assign class novels. Her students are instead required to read a hefty 40 books a school year. And they do it. Well, they do it for the most part. Miller does confess that not all students meet the criteria, but those who don't are still reading considerably more than they ever have in their lives, and plenty of students also exceed the required number of books.

There are multiple examples of how successful reading and expanded literacy throughout the book, painting a convincing portrait of Miller's classroom. Her students improve their reading skills, write better, and perform just as well if not above students who are placed in more traditional English classes on state exams.  She also provides numerous testimonials from students, as well as sample questionnaires and surveys from her students regarding how they feel about reading. Much of what Miller shares could leave even the most staunch advocate of the class-wide novel questioning her methods.

What's more, Miller is a solid writer. She leaves the dry, lecture-y style behind, which is often adopted in this sort of book, and speaks to you as a colleague, friend, and fellow bibliophile. I found myself engaged with her for all these reasons, but most especially because we seem to share an affinity for fantasy novels. That said, I could see how those who do not share similar tastes in books could become annoyed with her constant references to Harry Potter or Cornelia Funke's Inkheart series.

Another negative I found within the book does not contribute so much to the enjoyment or effectiveness of delivering a message, but with personal philosophy on teaching, or the teaching positions one is in or foresees oneself in. Much of what Miller promotes may not apply to anyone who teaches beyond middle school. I completely agree that before the 9th grade, students should be read, read, reading everything and anything they get their hands on and should be encouraged to LOVE it. I was very rarely ever assigned a book to read before the 9th grade (The Devil's Arithmetic in the 6th grade, and I loved it), and I credit that for helping to perpetuate my love for reading (it also helped that my mom and dad read to us every night before bed up until I was in high school). I found that once I hit the 9th grade and was started to be assigned novels, I read considerably less than I had before, if only because I had not time outside the reading I had to do for school.

However. In high school, you have the expectation that you're going to be graduating at some point and either moving out into the "real world" or entering some sort of post-graduate program (tech school, trade school, university and the like). You're going to have to learn how to delegate your time and energy. You're going to have to learn how to get through doing things you may not be completely emotionally engaged with. And, if you're planning on attending a four-year university, you're going to take freshman English, and this course will have required reading of texts that if you're only reading books you like, you may have never, ever experienced before. Miller never mentions this. In fact, she basically says don't worry about it, but I was not sure if she was saying that specifically to other middle grade teachers, or to all teachers. If it's just to middle grade teachers, right on, I agree, but if it's also directed to high school teachers--eh, wrong!!

I diverge from Miller's beliefs when I say students need to have experiences with different kinds of texts in order to be completely fluent readers. If I was allowed to read whatever I wanted with no check, then it would be YA Fic all the way! But because my education concentration in in English, I have been required to take a multitude of literature courses that have required me to read everything from Percy Shelley to John Donne to Virginia Woolf. Some of it I've liked, some of it I could have done without, but ALL of it has left me a stronger reader, because I've had to work at it.

That said, you probably can't get to that point without a strong foundation in reading to begin with, so elementary and middle school teachers need to get on that. I was lucky, others not so much, and I suppose that's what Miller was trying to say.

I apologize, this "review" has become more of a short treatise on what I think about the teaching of reading. Let's finish this thing up.

Comparable Reads: I haven't had the opportunity to read anything quite like this before, so I don't know that I have anything comparable. I'm more than open to suggestions of similar texts.

Who this book is for: Well, teachers. And I am disregarding content. I think teachers from almost any content area would benefit from hearing about how important it is for students to be constantly reading and engaged in reading. Even if I don't completely buy into everything Miller has to say (though she makes tons of excellent points), she is absolutely correct that actual reading needs to emphasized more in the classroom.

I also feel that parents should read this. Granted, I think parents should read almost any education book, because it's helpful to know how the people who spend six hours a day with your kid feel on certain subjects. I think this book gives excellent insight on how a classroom can be run and what should be expected of children as they take on new skills--and this is important for parents to know.

Happy Reading!!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fires in the Bathroom

Title: Fires in the Bathroom
Author: Kathleen Cushman and the students of What Kids Can Do, Inc.
Genre: Non-fiction, Education
Price: $12.89 (on Amazon)
ISBN: 1565849965

I haven't felt too much pressure to post about the books I've been asked to read for my practicum course this semester, considering the assignments are made mostly up of textbooks, but this book is quite different. The goal behind writing this book was to give teachers, current and future, an idea of what is going on in their students' minds when it comes to school. Kathleen Cushman, along with several students from various areas in the U.S. (mainly California, New York, and Southern New England) wrote the book, giving advice in several areas, such as earning respect from your students, teaching the whole class as well as individual students, and working with ELL (English language learners) students.

While books like this can sometimes seem disingenuous, the kids words shaped into something a little bit more digestible for adults to hear,  the students responses are kept raw and the book is entirely from their point of view. A majority of the texts are quotes from students, explaining their feelings about teachers and what works in the classroom and what doesn't. Some of the responses make sense, at least to me, someone who hasn't been out of high school too long: "If someone gives you a bad grade, they should tell you exactly why" (pg. 27).

Other times things that had never occurred to me appeared, making me consider situations I hadn't had to while I was in high school: "Learning hard things feels most overwhelming when students see the new material as a daunting mass of unfamiliar ideas" (pg. 124). If you've been a good student all your life and then become an enthusiastic learner, it's hard to look at new material in this way, but when you've been in the position where school is not a place where you feel intellectually safe (as is the case with many students), then yes, new material is daunting. I think many teachers or soon-to-be teachers have mostly been in the position where school has come easily to them, and it's something they've embraced. It is not always, and sometimes rarely, the case with their students. It does those students a disservice to not know this other side of the school coin. "Fires" helps reveal that side to those who are unfamiliar.

As touted before, this book is written almost entirely from the perspective of the students. While in most ways, this is absolutely a benefit (it's so important to hear straight from kids mouths how they think--what they say can't be reinterpreted incorrectly), but in others, it can be frustrating. These are high school students, and while they may say they want thing, the also may want the exact opposite. In the beginning of the book, students state they feel like they want their teachers to know them better, to have an invested interest in them and their lives and try to understand what's going on. But they don't want teachers to ask them any questions. They don't want teachers to get to personal. They want them to read their body language. I couldn't help but chuckle a bit as I read this part. They want us to know them, but not at all. And, by the way, it was the same students saying they wanted their teachers to get to know them as well as saying they didn't want to reveal to much of their personal lives to them. It's very typical teenager to give these mixed messages, or at least I know it was for me and my friends.

Though what the students had to say in this part gave me a little laugh, it also frustrated me. The book offered few solutions to this conundrum beyond providing a copy of a questionnaire teachers can use with their students on the first day of school, perhaps making outright questioning less abrasive. I wish a little more information on how to approach the situation had been given. However, on another note, regarding the questionnaire, the book provides several worksheet sort of things to use to work with students or to record information about them. Some of them appeared as though they could be helpful, others perhaps not. I think judgment over helpfulness is more or less subjective. You may read this book and find all or none of the worksheets to be helpful--it depends on how you run your classroom.

Comparable Reads: This book, in some sense, reminds me of The Freedom Writers, by Erin Gruwell, but much less emotionally powerful. However, as far as teaching strategies, this book is far more rich than the Gruwell book (she does have a teacher's companion, however, which I have not read, but I expect it has some strategies there). Also, as I was looking up the price for "Fires" on Amazon, I saw that there were a couple of other books by Cushman, Fires in Middle School Bathrooms, which was published last year and has a focus on middle schoolers, and What We Can't Tell You, which seems like it might be the parents version of "Fires", where teens talk about the things they feel they can't say to the adults in their lives.

Who this book is for: Secondary teachers of any subject ought to investigate this book. It's clear why it was required reading for my practicum class. The insight it gives you, even if it seems obvious or conflicting at times, is insight you need to keep at the forefront of your mind when you go into a classroom. I personally need the reminders from the book because I need to remember every student is not me and that everyone has a unique motivation for getting or not getting work done.

I also feel parents may benefit in reading this book. It will give you idea of how you child may think about school, and the topics discussed might lead to an interesting conversation with your child in how he or she thinks about school.

The book may also be an interesting read for high schoolers themselves. I think, at the very least, teachers could take excerpts from the book and discuss what the students in the book say and feel versus how the students in the classroom feel. It might be particularly helpful if the book covers an area where the class seems to be struggling.

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ten Poems for Halloween

This is more for me and my practicum class than anything else, but this blog isn't such a bad forum to do this. I have ten poems that I am giving to "my" students tomorrow that have a sort of Halloween-y feel to them. Being not so hot at the whole picking apart of a poem, I thought I might briefly organize my thoughts on each one so I have something to say if there's a need.

So, here we go:

"Incantation", George Parsons Lathrop

The first stanza sets the scene for the poem. This late Autumn sort of feel is when "witchery" takes place. The witchery, it seems, is in the change in season, the death of summer and the coming on of Autumn. This poem feels like it's trying to acknowledge a certain magic comes with this time of year.

"The Philosophy of Pitchforks", Sue Owens

This poem has something to do with justice. The pitchfork does the devil's and destiny's work, and is heartless/pitiless, but it doesn't seem to be making any decisions of it's own--it's a tool. The phrase that the "pitchfork play its part as well," makes me wonder. What part is the pitchfork playing?

"Dirge", Thomas Lovell Beddoes

This poem is from the perspective of the dead. They are buried under a yew tree, which has special significance with both death and immortality. The dead are communicating with each other. I found it especially interesting that they think if the living could hear them, they might be jealous. Why? A dirge is supposed to express mourning or grief, yet this poem has a rather upbeat tone, as though being dead is a good thing, perhaps better than being alive. The speaker in the poem attempts to incite the reader to follow them.

"Bats", Paisley Rekdal

The bats are sort of running parallel with images of clothing and body parts, like underwear and empty wombs and breasts. Clearly they are a rather unsettling metaphor for something else (infidelity, an unhappy marriage due to barrenness?).

"The Witch-Bride", William Allingham

What could this poem be about? A man starts out by being enticed by a "fair" witch. Something, someone, a "Shape" comes in the "dead of night" and somehow things change. The good-looking witch becomes something foul. What does this all mean? The man is also stuck with the witch, despite the fact that he'd like to get rid of her. Is there some sort of moral to this story? Don't marry witches? Interesting...

"All Souls' Night, 1917", Hortense King Flexner

Dead loved ones return to life for the night and desire to be close to those still on earth. Why would you not want the dead to know that there is no fire that can warm them? There seems to be some amount of foreboding about the roaming spirits of young lovers. The speaker is trying to keep logs on the fire (keep the room warm--a way to ward off the dead) and fill the room with talking and liveliness, but people are distracted by the spirits, or are put off by them. What does this mean? That we cannot (or should not) forget the dead? That we need to help them rest?

"Mr. Macklin's Jack O'Lantern", David McCord

This poem has a playful feel to it, but then slightly creepy, too, at the end. The pumpkin is carved up pretty innocently, but when the candle is lit and eerie shadows are cast on the walls and floor, the last line seems to imply that the Jack O'Lantern wants to get out. Get out and do what?

"All Hallows Night", Lizette Woodworth Reese

A woman opens her home to ghosts and then comes face to face with her own. This is also after she's made her home "April-clear," which sounds like it could mean she Spring cleaned (her house is super clean). Has the speaker lost herself over the course of the year? The poem reads that she's opening her home to ghosts of the year, so perhaps something has happened to cause her to become a ghost in some manner. A loss, perhaps, or being wrapped up in something else. The fact that she's gone about cleaning up her house and prepared herself to see ghosts sort of implies that seeing the ghost of herself wasn't anticipated.

I realize that I have two more poems to go through ("Dream-Land" by Poe and "Haunted Houses" by Longfellow), but one is very easy for me to understand and the other very complex, so I don't anticipate coming up with something terribly coherent. I am also incredibly tired, so I guess I'm saying I'm leaving it here for now.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Catching Fire

Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi
Price: $17.99
ISBN: 9780439023498

Catching Fire is the second book out in The Hunger Games Trilogy. For fear of spoiling the plot for those who have not read or finished the first book, I honestly cannot say much about the plot beyond it is as gripping as the first. While I often find the second book in many trilogies to be a drag in comparison to it's first and the third, this second installment was incredible (granted, the third book will not be out until next September, so I don't have it as a comparison).

Like the first, Collins manages to grip you and keep you from the first page to the last. At the beginning it feels very much like an extension of the first book, one that you would hope to have (The Hunger Games end making you with for more, and this is it!), but it finishes with a feeling (well, more like a knowing) that things are much, much larger than they appear.

The things I enjoyed in the first book return, like the depth of the characters and the intensity in the plot. I literally could not put the book down (I read it in less than 24 hours). The book kept you going by not giving you a completely clear sense of where Collins was planning on having the ending land. In the beginning it looked one way, in the middle it looked another, and at the end it looked completely different yet again. And, in the very last few pages of the novel, Collins brings the story in a whole new direction. While this is wonderful to read (if you're into that sort of thing), there was one small problem I had. In order to take the story in that new direction, several things had to be explained in about six pages. The information went in so quickly that it took me a couple of reads to really understand what was going on and realize that THIS was actually what was happening, not a daydream or something of the main character's.

For "Comparable Reads" and "Who this book is for", check out my posting on the first book.

The Hunger Games

Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi
Price: $17.99 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 9780439023481

When starting Suzanne Collin's novel, The Hunger Games, I had not anticipated finishing it very quickly, having taken on a heavy course load this semester. I finished the 374 page novel in three days. Collins presents an undeniably gripping and suspenseful story that easily pulls you in from beginning to end.

The story centers around Katniss Everdeen, who lives with her mother and sister in the vestiges of North America. The countries we recognize in North America seem to have disappeared and have been replaced by country of Panem, made up by 12 districts and a capital. Katniss lives in District 12, one of the poorest of the districts, where the citizens mine coal (formerly a part of Appalachia). Each year the capital "reaps" two teens, a boy a girl (called tributes), from each district to have them play in the Hunger Games, a televised event where the tributes are expected to survive in the wilderness and kill each other. The remaining tribute wins and brings wealth and perstige to his or her district.

The Hunger Games are set up as a reminder to the country (a place where many are in poverty, coralled in by electric fenses, and are unable to travel beyond their own district) that the government has complete control over the population and it is in  their best interest to obey, or else more of their children will be ripped from their arms. Katniss is the female tribute for her district and is sent to the Capital with a boy she knows, though has never really spoken with him, Peeta Mellark.

The ideas behind the story are undeniably interesting, but a good idea can flop if it's not backed up with solid plot and characters. Collins' writing is amazing. She hold you in place and makes you read until you don't think you can read another word, your heart is pounding so fast, but you keep going just the same. She manages to invoke the same intense feelings you know Katniss is experiencing as she hunts for game at home or her competitors in the Hunger Games. In some ways you feel less like you're reading a book and more like you're taking a ride or watching an extremely intense movie.

Collins' vivid writing brings her characters to life, capturing their essences through both descriptions through Katniss's accute and somewhat jaded eyes and their interactions with Katniss. She allows the reader to see both Katniss's reaction and interpretation of each character, their motives and personal qualities, as well as providing enough for the reader to draw their own conclusion, too. This is something I think can be hard to do in a first person novel, where you are only given as much information as the main character and it can be difficult to figure out certain things before the lead. Here Collins allows us to almost feel as though we're working with Katniss, and I sometimes found myself coming to a different (and correct) conclusion than her, but instead of feeling like Collins had come up with a somewhat dull character, I understand that perhaps she wasn't in the right place to realize certain things just yet. When that was the case, it made the reading all the better--it was rather like watching one of those detective or crime scene shows when you know who's committed the crime, but the detective doesn't and you're just dying for them to find out, always keeping an eye out for the next clue for them.

While one might feel the entire book would revolve around bloodshed and survival, Collins does an excellent job of inserting some very real and complex feelings between Katniss, her friend best friend Gale (a boy and hunting partner), and her ally/enemy/friend/"lover", Peeta. The introduction of these characters, particularly Peeta, show a side of Katniss we would not have otherwise seen. Katniss on her own can actually be quite hard to swallow, because she is a very harsh realist and seems to be nearly hopeless in parts of the book. If not for supporting characters who make her care and love and fight for someone other than herself, she might be harder to digest and seem one-dimensional.

Comparable Reads: It was suggested somewhere (I forget where, on a website I believe), that this is a story about a dystopia. I agree. This brings to mind several books that share a similar thread of a world completely out of sync with human needs. Children's books like The Giver by Lois Lowry (along with Gathering Blue and The Messanger) and The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (there are three other books in this series) speak about worlds where things are so utterly different and dangerous, but are being portrayed as something better than what people had before, much like The Hunger Games. As for some more adult fiction, there are a couple of novels by Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake for one, and The Handmaiden's Tale where one is presented with frightening visions of a future dystopia. Aldus Huxley's Brave New World comes to mind as well.

Who this book is for: I believe most teens and adults will enjoy this book. It's one I believe will join the pantheon a few of the books above have joined--solid literature that reveals the viciousness of humanity and one that makes us question why we behave in the way we do. I can't really think of one particular group who would really take this book and run with it, because I sort of feel it reaches many different audiences (like the Harry Potter series, only better). I think it might make a solid addition to a high school reading list, particularly if it's already featuring books like Brave New World or 1984. It's a different slant and a different perspective than most dystopian novels and it may communicate many of the same messages but in a more appealing way. It's also been suggested it be taught as a bridge to Lord of the Flies.

Word of warning, however. This book feels very real. I would not suggest parents let their young children (like, under 12, depending on their emotional maturity) read this book. You have kids (KIDS!) murdering each other for the sport of a nation and it can be hard to read at times. I would suggest parents of young kids who are eager to read this read it themselves first.

Happy reading!!!!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sabriel

Title: Sabriel
Author: Garth Nix
Genre: Fantasy
Price: $5.95 (paperback)
ISBN: 0064471837

My copy of Sabriel is about five years old and pretty beat up. Some pages are ripped or a bit faded. Every once in a while, as you roam through the book, you'll see my name written in dwarvish runes written here and there, vestiges from my fascination with Lord of the Rings, which coincided with my first reading of Garth Nix's first book in his Old Kingdom Trilogy. This book has been loved and it shows.

The novel centers around Sabriel, a young woman freshly graduated from her girls' school in the land of Ancelstierre. The country has a turn of the century kind of feel (Nix says it's meant to be like our world's 1918), with some electricity and cars, but also an element of the old. Sabriel, however, is not from Ancelstierre, the Old Kingdom, which is separated from the rest of the world by a wall governed by a living magic referred to as charter magic (there is also free magic, but is very dangerous and used by Sabriel's enemies). Sabriel's father, the Abhorsen (more of a title than his name), a necromancer who, instead of raising the dead, puts them to rest and prevents them from running a muck in the living world. When Sabriel's father goes missing and sends her his sword and his bandoleer of bells (the instruments of magic by which the Abhorsen sends the Dead back into Death), Sabriel goes in search of her father, knowing he must be in danger.

Nix's fantasy novel has a lot of different things going for it, not the least of which it doesn't read like it's fantasy. The best fantasy novels have the element of realism to them, where the author allows his reader to sit back, digest the astounding information they've just received (like that simple movement of the hand can produce light or create a protective barrier) and think, "Yeah, that could happen." Through solid characters and believable reactions, he makes fantastical events appear plausible. While it's unlikely that any of us would ever have the opportunity to fly an aircraft made entirely out of paper and flown by whistling in the kind of wind we need, as Sabriel does, her reaction (nervousness, excitement, fear) seems entirely right.

Sabriel is artfully complex, as are all the major characters (Mogget, the cat and servant to the Abhorsen, and Touchstone, a man rescued from Death after being imprisoned there for 200 years). Enough background information is given so that the reader can understand why the characters act the way they do without it seeming odd. Nix is able to skillfully insert information about the characters without bogging the story down in excess detail. It is also helpful that the storyline is very tight, it is clear what is going on without too many pit stops placed to allow pertinent information to catch up. There are also only three characters with which one is really interested in (Sabriel, Mogget, and Touchstone), making tons of extra information unnecessary.

The one downside to the story is something I only really noticed once, the first time I read the book. I recall feeling as though the beginning was too slow. Rereading the book earlier this month, I didn't feel this way at all, and felt as though things moved along pretty quickly. While I did get frustrated the first time, and even stopped reading for a couple of weeks, when I did finally return to the book, I was quickly pulled in and couldn't put the book down (much like this past time reading).

Comparable Reads: The best comparison I can make is Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials Trilogy. The idea of multiple worlds, the realism behind the fantasy, and the solid and thoughtful characters are concurrent in both. The concept of making inexperienced young people the heroes of the book runs between both as well.

Who this book is for: It's for those who truly enjoy a solid fantasy novel, not the grocery store fluff (someone who likes Pullman or C.S. Lewis or Lloyd Alexander). The richness of the storytelling could also pull in those who are not typical fantasy readers, because the story isn't blatantly fantastical--no big puffs of smoke and bolts of lightening as magic is performed, no strange races of creatures with ridiculous and hard to pronounce names, and the story is very human and has been used before in all sorts of genres. And it is not as message oriented as other fantasy books are, as it's not an allegory or a reinterpretation of another work. This makes it quicker to read and digest along with being very fun.

Happy reading!!

Link

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lysistrata

Title: Lysistrata
Author: Aristophanes, Translation by Douglass Parker
Genre: Drama
Price: $5.99 (paperback)
ISBN: 0451624955

Lysistrata is a play coming to us from Ancient Greece, written by Aristophanes, an Athenian playwright, known for his comedy. The play surrounds a bold and strong Athenian woman, Lysistrata who is tired of the men from Athens and its neighbors constantly being away at battle. In hopes of getting the men to stop fighting and stay home, she devises a genius plan--women need to stop putting out.

This plot is golden. The concept itself is fantastic, especially considering it was written well, well, well before the rights of women and sexual revolution and married women didn't seem to hold any real power when the play first originated. The risque nature of the play also allows for some witty banter and clever innuendo that one can truly appreciate. It also comes in handy during a time when war is close to the front of our mind (though not so much now with the economy in such a state).

The cast of characters are interesting, if slightly one-sided, though that could have something to do with the play's length (it's very short and can easily be read in one sitting or two). You have Lysistrata, who is very bold and bright, but her goal seems to be just as much about showing how stupid men are as it is to stop the fighting. Then there is her friend and second-in-command of sorts, Kleonike, who is the sex-pot, fashionista of the bunch (kind of like a Samantha from "Sex in the City"). The last most notable character is Lampito, a hardcore fighting Spartan woman, who, while dedicated to the idea, isn't the brightest woman of the bunch.

My one major complaint about the play has very little to do with the play itself and more to do with the translation. My copy was translated by Douglass Parker. One of his goals stated in the introduction was to render a "modern" translation of Aristophanes Greek. My copy was first published in 1964, making the "modern" translation sounding completely ridiculous. When you go hunt down a copy of the play, I suggest finding a current modern translation, or a classical translation.

Comparable Reads: I am sadly under read in the drama department, so my catalogue of comparable reads comes mainly from Shakespeare. The best comparison I can come up with is A Midsummer's Night Dream. The cheekiness of this play is also present in Lysistrata.

Who is this book for?: Girls! Guys would enjoy it, too, I think, but there is nothing better than reading a book or play were girls get one over on the guys. Get it for your girlfriends, add it to your book club list, and have fun with it. I also think it's a fun first introduction to classic drama, because it's a good example of the rules that classic drama has to adhere to (place, time, and space) as well as just being fun. I first read it my senior year of high school in an English class, which is probably the best time to use it in high school because they've all sort of reached that age where they can still giggle at the idea of sex and still have a coherent discussion about the book's true subject. Link

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Freedom Writers Diary

Title: The Freedom Writers Diary
Author: The Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir
Price: $13.95 (paperback)
ISBN: 9780385494229

"The Freedom Writers Diary: How 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them" is written on the title page and truly describes the book you are about to read. This "diary" tracks the lives and progress of the students of Erin Gruwell's high school English classes based out of Long Beach, California. The students in her class were all deemed impossible to deal with in one way or the other, either because of learning disabilities or behavioral issues. There are 142 diary entries from the students and eight from Erin Gruwell, starting from the student's freshman year of high school to their graduation four years later.

The best part about this book is having the privilege to watch these students grow. The initial entries revolve around the students' thoughts about their new teacher and whether or not they think she'll last. Most think not. Ms. Gruwell is a young, white and somewhat privileged (or at least perceived to be by her students) individual. Her students are young teens who are, in many cases, minorities coming from either bad homes or neighborhoods, where gangs run rampid and academic success is frowned upon or can even get you killed. Many of the students don't see how this woman can offer them anything useful. They soon learn how much she can offer them.

Through books, field trips, projects, and opportunities of a life time (like meeting Miep Gies, the woman who help hide Anne Frank and her family), Erin Gruwell shows her students how to be empathetic people and life long learners. As you read along, mentally joining in on the students' adventures, you become inspired. A student who was formally part of a gang or a drug addict, is finding their self-worth, realizing there is a world to join and problems they can solve. There is also beautiful poetry, much of it written by the students themselves which really pushes the writers into and beyond the stated goal to provide a true look at how teens think and feel.

The story in and of itself is amazing and could easily have been told by just Erin Gruwell or someone else who was in the know, but the fact that you are reading these kids words, just as they meant to put them down, is what completely sells the book. There is a realness and depth that is hard to write unless you truly know. Kids write casually about being shot at while coming home from school or, even in the same entry, talking about their excitement in meeting and the connection they made when seeing Zlata Filipovic for the first time.

Another fantastic feature in this book is what it teaches you about some of this country's most recent history. If you're of a younger set (like myself) you may not remember the riots after the police beating of Rodney King in 1991. The book begins in 1994, and though the riots occurred three years previously tensions are still high in this particular area of California. It was fascinating to read the perspectives of teens from multiple races (black, which, and Hispanic) and whether or not they felt the tensions were justified. Considering the recent election of our country's first African-American president and the fact that I've been fortunate enough to avoid discrimination, I learned a great deal about recent history I was never made aware of and what life can be like for those of other ethnicities. Through this book I have a little more understanding of what it's like to live in a dangerous time and to be judged by something as arbitrary as my skin color.

Comparable Reads: With all their references to the hard times they faced and to the book itself, the most comparable read that I can think of is the diary of Anne Frank. Between the realness in both the description of events and the teen voice, the two come off being very similar. I also feel one of my previous reads that I posted about, Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a good comparison. His book also tackles the issues of race and poverty in America and what it's like to feel shunted aside for things you have no control over.

Who this book is for: I think teens need to read this book. They need to see that they have a voice, that there are some teachers in this world who care, and that they are capable of starting to make a difference now and don't have to wait until they're "all grown up." In fact, doing something now can have more impact on their lives than when they're adults, because they will learn lessons and fix problems that will carry them into adulthood far more effectively than if they had done nothing at all. Just one note of warning, however. There is some harsh language and very difficult topics to handle, such as molestation and rather grisly deaths of parents and children. While the information is valuable, it's important that parents and teachers are aware in case they don't think their child or student can handle the subject matter.

I also believe that teachers can learn a lot from the book. It was actually assigned to me for an education course and I absolutely see why. Erin Gruwell does more than sits her students down and says, "Read X amount of pages for next Wednesday. Now write me a persuasive essay." She knows her students and gets involved in their lives and actively tries to reach them by using different methods. While we all can't get world famous activists to come and speak privately to our students, teachers can offer a variety of opportunities to their students if they get creative.

Happy Reading!!




Thursday, August 20, 2009

1776

Title: 1776
Author: David McCullough
Genre: Nonfiction/History
Price: $11.47 (paperback on Amazon)
ISBN: 9780743226174

I should say, before I dig into the book itself, that it took me about a month and a half to finish this bugger (hence the two month gap between this entry and the last). Now, you don't necessarily have to use this piece of information as a guide for whether the book is good or not. I have a toddler at home, so finding time to sit and read (and really digest what I've read) is pretty difficult. That said, let's get on with it.
David McCullough's novel-like depiction of one of the most tumultuous years in America's Revolution, 1776, propels readers back in time to witness the actions and emotions of the Revolutions most dynamic and interesting characters. Most of us have had the basic run-down of the American Revolution went (we won, right?) and can even name a few key battles, but McCullough offers so much more. Through the use of letters and diary entries along with fairly interesting narration, the reader follows the plot of the war along with Washington, Nathaniel Greene, Henry Knox, Cornwallis, General Howe and his brother, Admiral Howe, and many other soldiers, civillians, congress and parliament members coming from both sides of the conflict. It is the smooth use of letter and diary snippets that truly brings the book to life.

McCullough is also able to offer pieces of personal information that one may not have had through a basic knowledge of the Revolution and it's figures. When he offers small bits of information about King George's marriage and his love for farming, you are more ready to see that while the Americans had every right to feel as though they had been wronged, King George may just be more than a crazed tyrant, and that there were more politics involved than cruelty.

McCullough also writes a great deal about Washington and his love for his burgeoning new home, Mount Vernon, providing bits of letter from the General to his friend back in Virginia, over seeing the remodeling of the home. Washington would often go from discussing how the campaign was going to what kind of paint he wanted used in a particular room. Besides the glimpses into extraordinary men's ordinary goings-on, McCullough draws from the diaries and letters of unknown men, young men often farmers turned soldiers. These accounts of the war and what it was "really" like provide a human side that often isn't felt in a U.S. History class.
The other winning quality of the novel is the general easiness of the "plot". You don't have to be a huge history buff to get what's going on and to be interested. McCullough finds a way to make a story everyone knows the ending to intense.

My one complaint with the book were the occasional bouts of awkwardness in the writing. There would be times when I had to stop and reread a sentence or passage several times. The wording would not connect as clearly as it could. This made getting through the book as quickly as I'd like very difficult.

All in all, the book provided a unique look at a year in our country's history. By providing a personal side to the Revolutionary War and allowing a glimpse into the lives of our country's heroes, McCullough creates a vivid account of our country's birth and reminding us all of how truly lucky we are.

Comparable Reads: Not being one to read a lot of non-fiction, I can't think of anything that is comparable off the top of my head. McCullough has written several other historical books, including a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of John Adams (HBO made a mini-series based off the book).

Who this book is for: I think this book is for the average Joe who's taken some interest in his country's history. McCullough's style caters to a more broad audience, not just the history buffs who enjoy miring through complex and antiquated texts. Because McCullough breaks down what's happening instead of assuming we all paid attention in U.S. History, the book is more enjoyable and reads like a novel. It think it would also make an especially great read (at least parts of it) for a high school history class, or would even make a good example for a high school English class in how even non-fiction texts can have a voice and plot and don't have to be dry and boring.

Happy reading!

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Voyage of the Artic Tern

Title: The Voyage of the Arctic Tern
Author: Hugh Montgomery
Illustrator: Nick Poullis
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Price: $16.99 (hardcover)
ISBN: 0763619027

The Voyage of the Arctic Tern is a far-flung tale of an ancient fisherman, Bruno, searching for redemption after he brings about the demise of his fellow villagers after a bargain gone bad with a vicious Viking, Mad Dog. Bruno is sentenced to a life of immortality to suffer the guilt of killing his friends, and he can’t be freed until he saves a life, rescues one betrayed, and finds and gives away great wealth. And while those may seem like daunting tasks for one man, Bruno receives help in these tasks. There is Stephen Hunter, a Lord and seaman, Christopher Edge, a physician with a specialty in poisons, and Adrian, a talented cook and barman. All three work with Bruno across time and sea to help him towards his goal of mortality.

The most engaging and interesting part of this book is the fact that it is entirely in verse—rather like an epic poem for kids. I was surprised to find a piece of YA fiction in verse, because that doesn’t strike me as something a kid would want to read. And while I was pretty worried about reading a sort of modern epic poem (especially after having spent a semester with Milton in a Renaissance Literature class), I was pleasantly surprised. The writing was neither too heavy nor too Dr. Seuss-y (I love Dr. Seuss, but there’s a time and a place). It was enjoyable and even more entertaining to read allowed. My one complaint is that the rhyme scheme did not always feel consistent, meaning you weren’t always positive how or what the author was trying to rhyme. While it doesn’t really affect the reading of the story, for those of us who have had various English epics thrust down our throats, it’s a bit disconcerting.

The story itself is as interesting as the mode it is presented in, however, it is very simple. There are no real big surprises or plot twists, but the endearingness of the story is enough to keep you interested, along with your investment with the characters. Bruno the fisherman is silent and somewhat brooding, but kind, and the reader isn’t aware of his sordid past until farther into the book. The other three main protagonists are the sort of people to be admired—noble, loyal, and intelligent. And the antagonist, Mad Dog, is someone to be despised and somehow seems to step out of the pages the most strongly out of all the characters (except perhaps Bruno). The characters strong admirable or despicable traits lend them well to a somewhat moralistic story about the triumph of good over evil, even if it takes two thousand years.

One of the best features of this story is how the author takes the time to bring the reader from the present into the past, giving parts of a story that could have happened yesterday as well as two hundred years ago. He also takes the time to point out locations that still exist, according to him, in Plymouth, England (where most of the story takes place). It adds a really pleasant air of truth to a story one would most likely never believe to be true. He is also just vague enough where, if you have the imagination for it, you could believe the written events just might have occurred.

Another very fun quality to the story are the sort of foggy and eerie illustrations. There are illustrations on nearly every page and they are done in such a way that they put you in the mind of mist and fog, which is often described, in the book. You can’t quite make out a character’s face or pick out distinct features on a building. It fits well with the vagueness the author features as he mentions certain figures (such as an unnamed queen of England in search of peace with Spain).

All in all, the book is a fun read, particularly enjoyable on a sunlit porch looking over the water. It intrigues the imagination and tickles the tongue.

Comparable Reads: It makes me think of the stories I read late in elementary school. There is something C. S. Lewis-esque about it, but not quite so morally driven and much less fantastical. It also made me think of a movie: Pirates of the Caribbean. While you don’t have Captain Jack Sparrow, the high adventure and conniving pirates sort of take you there.

Who this book is for: The age set for this book is definitely middle to late elementary school aged and into middle school. That’s not to say older children wouldn’t like it, or you couldn’t read it to your younger ones, though. In fact, I see this book best being used for rainy afternoon or nights with the family during summer break. Parents should enjoy reading this aloud to their kids, and I think the kids, at any age, would enjoy having it read to them. I think that kids could have a great time imagining the story to be true and spending a day at the ocean spotting the Arctic Tern among the waves, or searching for lost treasure.

Despite the thickness of the book, it is only 212 pages long, and I’d say only 20 to 25 lines per page, due to the fact that it’s in verse. I think the book could be managed quickly. I also think it’d be a useful opener for teachers to use to introduce epic poems. An elementary or middle school teacher could read this to her class, or have her students read it to give a taste of the parts of an epic poem and to bring about others, such as The Odyssey.

That said, this book is definitely not for everyone. The verse, I imagine, could make it unpalatable for more people than if it were just written in prose. For me, it makes the book, for others, I could the verse ruining the experience. It does rhyme, but as I mentioned before, I don’t feel as though it’s Dr. Seuss-y. I think it’s mostly a matter of personal taste.

Happy reading!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Nevermind the Goldbergs

Title: Nevermind the Goldbergs
Author: Matthue Roth
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Price: $16.95 (hardcover)
ISBN: 0439691885

When first approaching Nevermind the Goldbergs, I was pleasantly surprised by the uniqueness of the idea behind the novel. You have Hava, a punk-rocking seventeen year old who's from New York City and happens to be an Orthodox Jew. While in the city, she inhabits a very enclosed world, filled with rules, beliefs, and ideas completely foriegn to those in the secular world. When cast for a television sitcom about a family of Orthodox Jews (like the Cosby's, only Jewish, the book says), Hava is thrown into the Hollywood world, a place that doesn't exactly embrace all the conservative tenants that Orthodox Judaism does (like shomer negiah--girls aren't supposed to touch boys they aren't related to). Reader is compelled to watch Hava navigate this strange new place with a certain amount of cynicism, arrogance, and a surprisingly genuine love for her religion and God.

The biggest thing I can say for this book is that it educates you. Clearly Matthue Roth has a brilliant knowledge of Orthodox Judaism--not just the extensive and numerous laws and rules, but the culture and daily life that goes along with it. There were so many nuances between Hava and the other Jewish characters, particulaly once out of the sheltered neighborhood in New York, that you felt like you were in on an inside joke you otherwise would be clueless about. Roth suddenly makes you this honorary member of the Orthodox Jewish community, where you eat and pray with the characters and understand the numerous difficulties in being a very religious person in a very secular society.

But that's just one small part of the book. The story is really Hava's story, and unfortunately, I found her to be barely palatable. She (and many of the other key characters) is unlikable. While her conflicting emotions about the situation she had been flung into were understandable and natural, her handling of them mad her come across as a bit of a bitch. She tries very hard to maintain a sort of cool, mainstream appearance while maintaining her religion at the same time. While admirable, her belief that she is doing it well leads to a sort of "cooler-than-thou" attitude that isn't flattering. While I understand and know first hand, having been a teenage girl myself, that these feelings and behaviors are common and relatable, the writing doesn't make them feel common or relatable.

There are other character issues as well--no one seems to like each other. Hava doesn't seem to care for any of her friends at home and is only friends with them because she is forced to spend time with them. The actors with whom she works are, for the most part, not likeable (either weak-willed or incredibly catty and two-faced) and they don't seem to like Hava. There is back-stabbing and a sort general stand-offishness (or cruelty, even) that is bandied between the characters. For example, I was completely taken aback by the nastiness between Paula, the actress portraying Hava's onscreen mother, and Hava. At one point Paula puts a television in Hava's dressing room with live feed from her dressing room, so Hava can watch her having sex with another actor. Disgusting, right? Unbelievable that a forty-year-old woman would do that to a seventeen year old, right? And I'm supposed to enjoy reading about these people? Not so much...

That said, all the main characters have multiple dimensions. While you may not like them, you get why they are the way they are. Hava and one the girl playing her sister on the sitcom, Evie, need to grow up. They need to mature and learn that the world does not revolve around them, though with fame being thrown in their faces, I see this will be hard.
See, I'm talking about them as if they're real people. While Roth may not have crafted the friendliest of characters, he has gone beyond the one-dimensional heroine and created a complex person.

Another issue I had was how Hava arrived in Hollywood. The novel starts with her leading a normal life in New York--going to school, hanging out with friends, and enjoying her favorite music. While at school one day, she gets a call that she's been cast in a sitcom. Did she audition? No. Did she send in a tape or headshots? No. She was "discovered" by producers, somehow, after she was in a rather play about composer John Cage. She flies out to Hollywood the next day and starts filming shortly after. And her conservative parents are okay with it. Does this seem a little strange to you? First of all, I don't know what parent, religious or not, let's their underage seventeen year old just go to California alone, with no supervision, to be on television. That struck me as extremely odd and kind of a cop-out on Roth's part. Shouldn't there be some tension between her and the parents? An argument? Something?! Secondly, and perhaps this is just my naivete about how Hollywood works, but would they really cast a complete nobody in just a day? That struck me as odd, too.

When authors sort of take the easy way out and don't bother to give an explination for things (and I felt this happened a lot over the course of the book), it makes it very hard on the reader. If I am not fully invested in what you have to say, meaning, I'm not willing to believe everything you tell me, the story becomes nothing more than a poorly told fairy tale.

I think, perhaps, the fact that I wasn't privvy to everything that was going on kept me from enjoying the book. Hava's relationships with people for example--one moment they're cool and fun, the next they're losers, or vice versa, and there is no explination for the sudden change. Or how and why she does certain things. There are a couple of times where Hava runs off when she should be filming the T.V. show. You get the impression that she's frustrated, but nothing's happened. I spent a great deal of time sitting there, book open in my lap, jaw dropped, asking, "But why?"

Roth does an excellent job in crafting complicated characters in interesting situations. I kept reading because I wanted to what Hava would do next, and wondered if she would remain Kosher or how she would (or if she would) maintain shomer negiah. Despite my feelings towards the characters, I wanted to know the end (though I had to push myself to get there). In any case, the idea behind the novel was a good one, the characters well crafted (for the most part), if a bit mean, but the plot was too thick, too confused, and trying to be too many things at once (a coming of age story and teen drama mixed with an homage to Judaism, punk rock, and California).

Comparable Reads: I honestly can't think of anything I've read that it's like. Uniqueness is something Roth seems to have going for him. If you've read it and can think of something, feel free to leave a comment.

Who is this book for?: This book will, at the very least, intrigue your smart-ass teenage girl. Hava isn't a mirror, like many heroine's in these types of books tend to be, but a mannequin. You might have the same clothes, and similar figure, but she's completely different and almost unrecognizable at the same time. That idea, I think, can be intriguing to teenager who is struggling to fit in, but doesn't want to fit in at all.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Illustrator: Ellen Forney
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Price: $8.99
ISBN: 0316013692

If you're one of those people who's a sucker for a good go-get-'em story, this is it. Sherman Alexie's first novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a true-to-life novel written from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old boy, Junior Spirit, a Spokane Indian, living on a reservation in Washington State. Junior was born hydrocephalic ("water on the brain" as Junior puts it) and not expected to survive, and if he did, he would live as a vegetable or with mental retardation for the rest of his life. Sounds like a fun book, right? Well, Junior turns out okay--he's actually a pretty smart kid with a love and talent for drawing. When a teacher at his reservation high school suggests (well, practically demands) that he transfer to a school off the reservation that would better fuel his potential, he does. Alexie describes and artist Ellen Forney shows a boy who's past tells him he should not succeed, but he does anyway.

This novel would not be nearly as intriguing if it were not for the setting. For those of us who didn't know much about life on an Indian reservation, this was a wake-up call. This is not simply some kid in poverty trying to fight for a better life. He is trying to beat off generations of abject poverty, distrust of an entire group of people (white people), and a cycle of abuse and alcoholism. The serious lack of hope slaps you in the face while reading certain passages. Alexie, having grown up on the reservation where the story is set, is well aware of this life and does not sugar coat the situation. While Junior is a funny and bright kid, a blast listen to, there is a sense of bitterness when you read about his life on the reservation and the painful awareness he has, knowing everything Native American's have lost as a people. Reservation life is a major player throughout the book. Junior has to face the biogtry at his new school (he is the only other Indian there, as the book says, besides the mascot), but he also must face the anger of community members back on the "rez." While Junior is already grappling with typical teenager crises, he must also maneuver between two cultures and try to maintain an identity.

And it's not just the bitterness that you can hear when you read Diary but every other emotion that Junior experiences. It feels as though Alexie froze his voice at fifteen and was able to put it on the page. For anyone who has any extended interaction with fifteen-year-old boys, you'll hear them here. There is a certain friendly self-conciousness that travels with kids at that age, and it's here in this book. And it's there in a variety of scenes, not just in the ones that are authentically "boy" (boners, girls, masturbation, fighting, sports), but in other, more serious topics (racism, hope, death). And since Junior is a cartoonist, there are a number of really great accompanying illustrations, which enhance the whole experience of reading Junior's words, because you are privvy to both forms of his thoughts.

This is also the first book I've read in a long time that actually had a natural plot. It didn't seem quite so contrived, or like a teen drama series on T.V. So many books in this genre have a very predictable plot: things suck, something changes, things suck less, things are GREAT, something happens, things suck more than ever before, things get better and/or are great again. Here, the good and the bad come all at once, or take turns, but I kept waiting for that terrible thing to happen (and terrible things do happen), but there isn't that dramatic, hear-wrenching moment where everything in Junior's life is destroyed. Things get hard, yes, not to minimize some of the heart-breaking things that occur, but some good parts of life are preserved. Junior remembers that, despite all the crap life is throwing at him, life is still worth living. This is one of the most important messages in the novel--no matter what, life is still worth it, you can move on, and you can have hope.

Comparable Reads: The best thing I can compare this to is Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks and Catcher and the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Junior reminds me of Bone and Holden in the sort of tough-kid acidness and the general weird-brilliance all three seem to posess. So, if you've read either one of those books and enjoyed them, this is a definate must-read.

Who is this book for?: Give this book to your middle to high school aged son, cousin, brother, nephew, best friend, whatever. It's hysterical, talks about heavy subjects without getting corny or actually feeling heavy, and is just overall fantastic. I also think it'd be a good choice for someone who isn't a big reader. It's a fast read, the language is accessible, and it has pictures (who doesn't love pictures?!). Fair warning, though, it CAN get crude. My tolerance is pretty high, but if you're a parent handing this to your kid for summer reading, be warned: there is talk about masturbation, erections, and sex. Nothing graphic and probably not anything most teens don't already know and talk about, but it's good to know.

Happy reading!!

What's this about?

What I'm about to share with you are my adventures in literature--the ups and downs, the great triumphs and the unbearable losses. I love to read, and it's a passion that I want to share with others, either through teaching, writing, or through this blog (if anyone bothers to read it). Over the course of the summer, and hopefully through the upcoming Fall and Spring semesters, after I finish a book (hopefully there will be many), I plan on posting a review. If anything, the writing of the review will be an exercise for me in working with literature, something I certainly need. At the most, I hope this blog might someday become a tool for someone in choosing a good book. I don't claim to be an expert in literature, inherently knowing what is "good" or what is "bad" by our culture's somewhat arbitrary standards (I still don't get what's so great about Hemmingway...), but I read a ton, and I read a pretty large variety of books, and that, I feel, gives me some level of credibility. Expect to see everything from old classics (think Dickens, Austin) to contemporary (McEwan, Atwood) to completely random children's books I've been reading my 14 month old. And please, please feel free to let me know you're reading along. Comment on reviews. Tell me they're great, tell me they're total crap. Let me know if you've read the book, too, and what you think! I want to know that I'm not the only one on this adventure. So, c'mon, let's go!