Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Musings: I can't help but approach this book as an educator (and, sadly, a natural cynic), so I think I had some difficulty finding this book as inspirational as others have (I imagine vets would feel the same way about All Creatures Great and Small, which I quite enjoyed). But, first, the good. Students are rarely given voices, and clearly Gruwell was successful in helping "at-risk" kids, who have been failed by the school system, gain agency, self-confidence, and strength. She also gave students a caring and supportive environment, something all teenagers desperately need. Through her efforts, the students felt important, recognized, and empowered to make positive change in their own lives and their community. The book also acknowledges the awareness young people in bad environments have of what's wrong in their world, and instead of condemning them for it, the book (and the Freedom Writers program) gives them a positive outlet.
Each "diary" entry is not attributed to a specific student. Gruwell says early on this is to protect the students and acknowledge the role all the students played in editing, revising, and supporting. Yet the style of the entries simply rang false to me. I've read a lot of 9th grade writing--both in a wealthy suburb and in the inner city--and very few students write with such strong narrative style. The entries were structured similarly and sounded similar, making them seem inauthentic. While I don't doubt the truth of the students' stories, the book felt overly edited and standardized.
Nearly all the entries concern tragedy in a student's life: child abuse, domestic abuse, rape, beatings, drug and alcohol abuse, teenager pregnancy, illness, homelessness. Most entries end with general statements about the student's new-found desire to overcome the challenges or prejudices and save the world. It's great for the students to feel inspired to change, but it's much more difficult to actually make those changes, and that aspect of the students' lives was missing. In the end, I felt like the book defined the students by tragedy. That's the only lens the reader sees them through, rather than hearing about what they actually did to change. In reducing the students to heart breaking stories, the students become more stories and less people.
Gruwell also discusses some of the problems she had with her department. I can totally understand; I'm sure I'd hate her too. She does amazing things for her students personally and gets computers donated, meets celebrities, and brings the students on various trips around the country. I couldn't help but imagine the other high school students not in her class had to feel abandoned and left out, and other teachers--even excellent ones--had to feel inadequate. That's not to say Gruwell shouldn't have done what she did, but rather it's sad that only one group got so much attention and support.
I was much more interested in how Gruwell achieved such community and involvement in her classroom, but the book does not address her teaching methods. She has written other books about curriculum that probably would have been more appealing to me.
Freedom Writers illustrates the struggle of students in rough districts and is able to show the positive effects of creating a safe community for young people to share and move beyond tragedy.
***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge and the TwentyTen Reading Challenge ("Win! Win!" category).
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Musings: I received this book free at the NCTE conference and was drawn to its post-apocalyptic sounding title. Although I enjoyed the book, I think the title is misleading, as there's no indication or fear of Commonwealth's permanent isolation.
Last Town effectively weaves together various historical events: the 1918 flu pandemic, World War I, and labor strikes. It was interesting to see how the politics of each intersected within the characters to create conflict. And, of course, many of these same conflicts are still in play today, from the hysteria over H1N1 to the debates over the purpose and righteousness of the war in Iraq.
Philip is the protagonist of the novel, and he has a lot of backstory. I felt, at times, that there were too many pieces of his character that needed weaving together. Nonetheless, he's someone to cheer for as he grapples with everything from decisions of morality to decisions of romance.
Graham, Philip's foil, has a similarly weighty history, but he's also less likeable and relateable. Because of this, although each man represents different sides of difficult issues--family versus community, morality versus practicality--it's significantly easier to empathize with Philip.
Things go from bad to worse quickly in the novel, and I found the pervasive sadness difficult. Even small moments of joy are quickly destroyed. I kept holding out for an ending that would restore hope, but Mullen seemed insistent on ensuring that would be impossible.
I read little historical fiction and probably wouldn't have tried this except for the misleading title, but I think the issues it raises are so contemporary and the characters so fully fleshed that it's worth the read.
***This book qualifies for the TwentyTen Reading Challenge (T.B.R. category).
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Musings: I picture vets much like I picture doctors: in sterile offices with crisp lab coats and helpful technicians. Herriot's world is nothing like this. Taking place in rural farms nearly eighty years ago, Herriot's practice involves being on call twenty-four hours a day, arriving at farms in all forms of weather, stripping off his shirt, scrubbing down with water and soap, and getting down and dirty. It's hard work, but it's clearly work Herriot loves, and his enthusiasm for his customers, patients, and town is infectious.
All Creatures is less a narrative than a large collection of short anecdotes about his practice. Many of the stories evidence Herriot's admiration for the hardworking farmers. I teared up at a touching account of a young farmer with just a few animals who stayed up for twenty-four hours rubbing down an ailing cow or a wealthy aging farmer with many animals who nonetheless had been daily attending to two retired horses for twelve years. Even the difficult farmers--those who don't pay, those who don't trust vets--are detailed with good humor. Herriot is also happy to describe his own shortcomings and small humiliations.
What sets the book apart is its overall warmth and optimism. I find myself dragged down by daily annoyances (people, rules, responsibilities), but Herriot's book finds the good in every situation. In fact, I find the best adjectives to describe the book are those words which normally make me groan and wince: heart-warming, touching, sweet. The devout cynic within me struggled against the basic goodness of the stories Herriot tells, but in the end, I gave in.
Herriot is a simple storyteller, and each small chapter ended with me smiling. In an age of modern conveniences and in which the family farm is largely nonexistent, it was also rewarding to read about a different time.
Herriot's book is not a straight autobiography, as the stories are a combination of real experience and creative license, but I don't think that diminishes the pleasure of reading any. It's a warm story that doesn't resort to melodrama.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Musings: Life As We Knew It is somewhat different than most of the post-apocalyptic literature I've read. Rather than just detailing life after the apocalypse, Life As We Knew It concerns the events before, during, and after the catastrophe. The reader sees our perfectly ordinary world disintegrate and ordinary citizens struggle to survive. Now I know little about the science and the moon's affect on Earth, but regardless, what is most appealing about the novel is how plausible it all sounds. Miranda and her family don't face killer zombies or a government run by all-seeing dictators; they try to eat, keep warm, and stay together when the outside world is no longer a source of support.
Pfeffer uses diary entries to tell the story as Miranda keeps a daily record of what happens. I'm not crazy about that format (really? You're writing when the world has just erupted into chaos? You really took the time to meticulously recreate dialogue from earlier in the day?), but it's not too much of a distraction.
Miranda and her mother are fully detailed characters. They want to live and they want to support their family, but they both experience doubt, anger, resignation, and hope. The brothers, Jonny and Matt, are a little more one-dimensional. I had also hoped for more from Megan, Miranda's fervently religious friend. I can certainly see how people might turn to religion in this time, but Miranda is so condescending and fanatical that Megan just comes off as crazy. I think it would have been more interesting to see two very different--but balanced--reactions to what happened.
Some parts of the book don't quite come together. Would Jonny's baseball camp really still be running during all of this? And if the baseball camp has food, why doesn't the whole starving family enroll in camp? The family is just lucky enough to have made a huge run on food and all necessary supplies and have a well and have a wood burning stove? Despite the widespread death and starvation, there are no violent encounters with other families?
The deus ex machina which ends the book also felt a bit false, but in a story in which things almost always get worse, it's good to have a ray of sunshine.
I'm not particularly eager to read the next in the series although I may get around to it eventually. The bleak tone may wear on some readers despite the positive emphasis on the strength of family bonds. However, Life As We Knew It does do a good job of forcing the reader to wonder, "What would I do?"
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Musings: I was intrigued by Butler's Kindred and was interested in more of her heavier science fiction, so I picked up Bloodchild. It's an interesting collection of works: three traditional high science fiction stories, one story in the "real world," one story that falls in between, an autobiographical essay, and an essay on writing. I prefer books of short stories that are intended as a cohesive unit, so although some parts of Bloodchild were interesting, I felt less affected by the book as a whole.
I did like that Butler includes a short afterword following each story explaining some of her thought processes behind the story. It's was interesting to read about Butler's mindset when she wrote and compare my reactions to the story to her intentions.
My favorite story was probably "Speech Sounds," set in a post-apocalyptic world where disease has made people unable to communicate (i.e. unable to speak/understand language or read/write). In this world, a friendship develops between a woman named Rye and a man named Obsidian. "Speech Sounds," like most of the stories in the collection, focus on relationships between people. These relationships are often strained by secrets and things unsaid. But the relationships in Butler's stories are also made of people willing to accommodate, adjust, and accept in order to find some peace.
Another story, "Bloodchild," was very traditionally science fiction, which is not a genre that particularly appeals to me, so I had a difficult time getting in to the story. Butler's essays had some interesting information but felt like they were lacking much life or enthusiasm.
I admire Butler's work and the issues she addresses, so I'm sure I'll try something else by her, but perhaps I'll look more carefully for one within my genre tastes.
***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Musings: I think I'm typically wary of prep school fiction, but I loved Disreputable History. And I'll even admit I have a bit of a literary crush on Frankie. Frankie is a feminist hero who actively rebels against the unwritten codes of behavior, specifically those that govern men and women's actions, and more broadly those that govern how people act within society. Not that Frankie doesn't experience moments of doubt along the way--after all, she likes Matthew and wants to be his girlfriend--but that won't stop her from doing all she can to prove she's more than others expect her to be.
Frankie's great at breaking down gendered standards that guide relationships. She has an awesome rebuttal to an ex-boyfriend's paternalistic attempt to warn her against Matthew, and she has a similarly independent response to her sister when her sister says she is a toy of Matthew for wearing a shirt he gave her. Lockhart does an excellent job capturing the dynamics of boys' and girls' relationships in high schools that I thought was very true to life.
Disreputable History also spends a considerable time on the panopticon (idea comes from a prison design): the concept that people feel as if they are being watched and judged at all times, thus causing people to obey standards of behavior even when alone. In this way Lockhart explores how many of our behaviors and interactions are guided by fear of societal reprisal. It's heavy stuff for a young adult book, but it doesn't feel heavy at all in the novel.
Lockhart keeps an active and conspiratorial tone in the book which, although told in third person, conveys Frankie's attitude and voice perfectly. The social commentary is worked into snappy dialogue and the genius mechanism of Frankie's mind, so the book never feels dogmatic.
There's perhaps a bit too much time spent on imaginary neglected positives (INPs). For example, "Impetuous means hotheaded, unthinking, impulsive. The positive of it doesn't exist, so you can make a new, illegitimate word. Petuous, meaning careful" (111). It's cute and funny and something I've pondered before, but the joke drags on some.
Otherwise, I loved the book. Frankie is the awesome girl everyone wishes he/she knew, and the ending is satisfying and realistic. I think it would be an excellent way to jump-start discussions on gendered expectations within the classroom.
P.S. I rarely have anything to say about covers, but the paperback cover is terrible. I read a hardback version (cover pictured above), which I think effectively conveys the book's content. The paperback cover looks cheesy. It's disappointing because I know I wouldn't ever pick up a book with that cover at the store, and I think it could keep people from buying it.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Musings: Strangely, March seems to be a "books about books" month for me, with The Book of Lost Things following my reading of Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots and North's Libyrinth. Because reading is so important in my life, it's been interesting to read how various authors have imagined other-worldly relationships between books and readers.
Of the three, The Book of Lost Things is my favorite, perhaps because it is able to succeed in combining different aspects of literature together. It incorporates the retelling of fairy tales within a classic fairy tale structure while also seeming contemporary, and it features a young protagonist coming of age within an adult categorization instead of YA.
There is something comforting and reassuring in David's journey, which never feels foreign. Some stories referenced and transformed within The Book of Lost Things are directly from childhood classics (Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin), but even when Connolly is not directly relying on individual stories, the feel of David's journey remains within the fairy tale genre. However, this impression did not make the story seem tired to me, but rather enhanced the book's atmosphere and tone.
Like the original fairy tales, Connolly's book acknowledges that real stories have no "happily ever after." However, the lack of assured happiness does not mean that the relationships forged through selflessness and compassion are worthless. David's relationships with the brave Woodsman and the knight Roland help David overcome fear of real threats and imagined. There is a lesson within the book, but it's more realistic than cautionary.
***This book qualifies for the TwentyTen Reading Challenge ("Who Are You?" category).
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Musings: Monique and the Mango Rains, a straightforward and informative nonfiction read, provided a interesting glimpse into the lives of Peace Corps volunteers and the lives of the people of Mali. For both topics Holloway is an even-handed narrator who describes her time with Monique without pity or condescension.
The book celebrates the skills and triumphs within the village while also acknowledging the people's lack of accessibility to medical care and nutrition. Monique, a bright and energetic young midwife, is the star of the story. Her optimism and tireless energy match well with Holloway, who shares her passion. Their close friendship shows how universal relationships can be. Holloway also has an interesting perspective as a Peace Corp volunteer. Unlike other Westerners (doctors, for example) who might come to African countries to help, Holloway has no real expertise to offer--just a willing body and mind. Because of this, she is able to learn and assist while not imposing her beliefs of how things should be done.
One of the issues Holloway especially focuses on is the sexism in the village and the way in which it limits women's options. She works with Monique in these areas, providing regional information on the dangers of female genital mutilation and assisting the village in gaining access to birth control, but in all these instances changes come from Monique's work. The one area Holloway does directly intervene in is ensuring that Monique, not her father-in-law, receives her salary, but clearly Monique benefits from an intervention that, according to social custom, she could not easily do herself.
Holloway writes simply and directly, so I found the book engrossing and quick. I'll admit to knowing very little about many African nations, and although Monique and the Mango Rains provides just one viewpoint of one specific place, I enjoyed its fair depiction of the author's time there.
***This book qualifies for the TwentyTen Reading Challenge (completing the "Up to You!" category) and the POC Reading Challenge.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Musings: Although I found mostly middling reviews on Libyrinth, I was intrigued by North's use of literature throughout the young adult novel. The books speak to Haly, and these are not unknown books, but books we are all familiar with: Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, Lord of the Flies, and Charlotte's Web, just to name a few. I had a hoped for a kind of YA-Thursday Next (albeit without the humor), and I was in that sense somewhat disappointed. Although quotes from novels pepper Libyrinth intermittently and speak apropos to Haly's current situation, they didn't feel like a fully integrated part of the book.
Haly and Clauda were somewhat generic characters for me, and although I wished them success, I didn't feel especially connected to them either. The novel does largely succeed, however, in its commentary on the power and dangers of knowledge, and North was able to take a slightly different approach to censorship. The Libryarian's rightly treasure books and the knowledge they possess, but they also hoard that knowledge, keeping it only for the elite within the Libryrinth. The Eradicants (or Singers) fear literacy and destroy books, but through singing they ensure that all people have equal access to information. Of course, both groups must come together in the end. The reconciliation is perhaps overly optimistic (and, for me, a bit cheesy), but the message is nonetheless valid.
Unexpectedly, this book qualifies for both the POC Reading Challenge and the GLBT Reading Challenge. I had been looking for books in the sci-fi/fantasy realm for those challenges, so it was especially exciting to unknowingly find one that fit both. Haly is part Thesian, a group of dark-skinned people, and numerous Thesian characters are in the novel (the cover also seems to depict Haly well!). Clauda is a lesbian, and although her sexuality is not a large part of the book, same sex relationships are periodically mentioned and are clearly an accepted part of this society.
In the end, Libyrinth wasn't a favorite, but I liked it more than I thought I would after reading a few other reviews.
***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge and the GLBT Reading Challenge 2010.
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Musings: The siege of Leningrad is one part of the history of World War II that I knew little about. However, it's the perfect setting for Benioff's blend of lightness and tragedy in City of Thieves. During the book's setting, citizens are equally in danger from starvation, their own army, and the enemy's army. In times like these, with no chance of peaceful normality, the absurd is the only thing that makes sense. So while Lev and Kolya's mission is inane in a time of war, it also makes perfect sense, and the boys accept it as thus.
Benioff is skilled as creating dramatic juxtaposition so that moments of terror and abject cruelty are interwoven with comic moments such as Kolya's obsession with sex or Lev's attempts to woo a female sniper. Terrible things happen--and Benioff does not brush over them--but he also accepts and celebrates that humankind is inherently hopeful and irreverent. Because of this, the reader is carried along in a book that does not succumb to one overwhelming emotion or another, but rather recognizes the place for many emotions within the human experience.
Although Lev is the protagonist, Kolya is the standout character of the book. His arrogance, confidence, and optimism add humor, and he is the catalyst for Lev's growth. Kolya sets himself up as invincible, and although later events prove that wrong, it's almost impossible to see him as anything but unassailable. I loved the development of the boys' relationship throughout the book.
I am sometimes wary of books based on wars because the immense amount of tragedy can be overpowering. However, Benioff struck the right tone and created such appealing characters that the overarching feeling in City of Thieves is of hope and survival.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
Musings: Finnikin of the Rock leans traditional/high fantasy, which is usually not my genre. In fact, in the first few pages when I was hit with a slew of generic fantasy names, I was a bit turned off, but I'm glad I stuck it through. In the end, I really enjoyed the book, especially the first two-thirds or so, and the characters within it.
There's a lot going on the world Marchetta has created, but it's easy to focus on the lives of Finnikin and Evanjalin as they push and pull against each other, each trying to do what he/she thinks is best for the kingdom. Much like I felt with Fire and Graceling, I enjoyed the novel most when it could focus on their relationship rather than on broad politics. I'm always a sucker for a pining relationship, and I fell completely for this one.
I did became annoyed toward the end of the book as Marchetta needlessly prolonged the expected romantic union for a good seventy pages or so. And, in fact, when said romantic union did occur, I was a somewhat disappointed. The relationship had been built in both sweet moments and devotion in the hardest times, and the final acceptance of the relationship was a little too frivolous.
I also felt conflicted over the book's treatment of women. At the time of the novel, Lumatere worships two goddess, Lagrami (light) and Sagrami (dark). The goddesses were once worshiped as one, but Evanjalin says men feared the power of a female goddess and thus broke the worship in two in order to minimize female power. That commentary and others on the way in which men can fear and seek to dominate women were interesting. At the same time, there was an extraordinary emphasis on rape, which I had trouble with. I found it disquieting, and I'm not quite sure why; certainly rape would happen in the world Marchetta created, but I also felt like rape was mostly discussed in the way in which it hurt men--the fathers, for example, who would kill their daughters rather than let them be raped. On another vein, at one point in the novel, the travelers stop and Finnikin has a brief guilt-free romp with a prostitute. While rape is certainly different than prostitution, given the description of the poverty and forced servitude of the time, it's hard to believe the prostitutes are in the profession out of a happy freely made choice. The lack of acknowledgment of that while frequently speaking of the horrors of rape bothered me. Some of these problems may have arisen out of the lack of female characters; through most of the story, Evanjalin is the only female voice.
Finnikin of the Rock definitely comes at the adult end of the young adult spectrum, as often its tone (and sometimes content) seemed geared more toward an adult audience. I don't think the book would be inappropriate for younger audiences, but I was a little surprised by the designation.
Despite my problems with some aspects of the book, I was truly drawn into the story and felt emotionally attached to the characters. I know this is Marchetta's first fantasy novel, so I'm interested in reading some of her other fiction.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Musings: I had so much fun with the last book in the series that I was eager to pick this one up. In fact, a large reason I reread Wuthering Heights was because it makes an appearance in The Well of Lost Plots. This book follows the familiar path of the first two and is equally enjoyable, though not significantly different. In fact, the general plot of the story is already hazy to me, but I had a good number of laugh out loud moments and chuckling at the literature and grammar jokes. I enjoyed the explanation for why Americans don't use "u" in words like color and flavor and for why an entire chapter of Joyce's Ulysses has no punctuation. Seeing the whole Wuthering Heights crew in anger management was fabulous (I would have loved more with those characters!). Probably my favorite part, though, was a entire page about "an untidy man wearing a hat named Wyatt" (15). If only I could convince my students how hilarious misplaced modifiers can be.
I love this series because it makes me proud of being a stringent grammarian and proud of having read so many "classic" texts. It's like discovering other people share your nerdy habit.
- See my reviews of book one in the series, The Eyre Affair, and book two in the series, Lost in a Good Book.