Monday, September 14, 2009


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!!


Friday, September 11, 2009


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!!