Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Sunday Salon: YA

I've spent the past couple of weeks immersed in various books with the "YA" label as I search for the perfect ones for a middle school literature circle I'll be teaching. I have tremendously appreciated various suggestions from readers. Please keep them coming.

So far I've read and reviewed:
Stargirl (review here)
Ties That Bind, Ties That Break (review here)

And read (or re-read) but not yet reviewed:
The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

And I'm currently re-reading Where the Red Fern Grows. I've already determined that we'll read this one. I'd love to do The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but I am concerned about reading too many sad books. I'm not sure what the balance should be between intensely sad books like these two and more uplifting books. The first two books fall into the "uplifting" category, but they aren't great choices for this class for various reasons.

And so my quest continues. Ideas?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Weekly Geeks: Memorial Day

This week's Weekly Geeks asks:
With Memorial Day in the U.S. this coming Monday, I thought it would be appropriate to focus on the military. Either share your favorite book on war or movie on war and why. Provide a clip from the movie if you'd like or a passage from the book that shows us why you it's your favorite book or movie. Or do both. OR choose your own military theme, for example, if you have a relative or friend in the military and you would like to send them a video or a message of thanks, do that on your blog. OR do all three. The book and movie also don't have to be "patriotic" necessarily. For example, one of my favorite fictional books on war is Johnny, Get Your Gun by Dalton Trumbo.

My Dad is veteran of both World War II and the Korean War. Here's a post I wrote last year on Memorial Day— To War—about when my Dad shipped out to Korea. And here's a photo of my Dad and his Dad in about 1943.

My Granddad went into the Navy in 1942 as an apprentice seaman at the old age of 41. My father enlisted in 1943 at age 18. When the troop hit the beaches in France, he was a PFC (private first class) in Ft. Sill, OK at The Artillery School, assigned to a "flash-ranging" platoon (forward observers—FO). Back to Georgia, promoted to buck sergeant and headed out that September on what was once the luxury liner USS Manhattan, stripped down to hold 20, 000 troops. They crossed the Atlantic without escort (the story was that they were so fast that no U-boats could find them) and landed at Liverpool. Eventually they crossed the English Channel and landed on Omaha Beach. There was all kinds of wreckage there from 3 months earlier.

His battalion found out that their equipment has been on a different ship, which had been sunk, so they pitched tents in Normandy and waited for replacement equipment. When it arrived in early December, they headed for Belgium and the front. Almost there they got word of the Bulge fighting and that their sister battalion, 287 FA Ob, had been captured at Malmedy and butchered—which didn't help their morale.

My father writes: “We were not a bunch of heroes. Mostly did counter-battery work—locating German artillery, heavy mortars, rockets and tanks and directing fire on them. Wound up on the Elbe, north of Magdeburg. Crossed the Elbe to finish things off at Berlin; called back to the west bank orders of Ike; sat there and watched from about 30 miles out the fires of Berlin; watched the remnants of the Wehrmacht coming west, flowing south east of the Elbe. Watched the Russians chasing them. Finally, surrender.”

The war wasn’t over for my father, though. Because he had joined the fighting late, he was earmarked for continuing service by going to Japan. He was sent home in July with orders for 30 days leave, then to report to west coast and passage to the Far East. I have often imagined —but can’t possibly—how he felt when they landed in Boston harbor to the cries of newsboys hawking papers with headlines "Second Atom Bomb Dropped on Japan!" I imagine all those days crossing the ocean, knowing that, though he was done battling in one continent, he must barely take a breath and then head off to another. And then, to have the atom bombs be his saving grace. It has always been hard for me to read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, because on one hand I am horrified and terribly sad, but on the other hand….my father.

Korea is another story, several years later. But to tie this all back to books: I am a voracious reader of World War II-era literature. I'm sure I couldn't recount all the books I've read about this era, but here are a few of the more recent ones:

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (which I haven't reviewed yet but was excellent)
The Diary of a Young Girl (by Anne Frank, re-read)
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (re-read)
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Shaffer and Barrows)
Sarah's Key (Tatiana de Rosnay)
Jimmy's Stars (Mary Ann Rodman)
I Have Lived a Thousand Years (Livia Bitton-Jackson)
When the Emperor Was Divine (Julie Otsuka)
Briar Rose (Jane Yolen)
Night (Elie Wiesel)
The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak)
The Nazi Officer's Wife (Edith Hahn Beer)
The Endless Steppe (Esther Hautzig)

I know that barely touches the surface of WWII literature. A fantastic site for more reading material is at War Through the Generations.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Review: Ties That Bind, Ties That Break

Continuing in my quest for books for a middle-school literature circle, I read Lensey Namioka's Ties That Bind, Ties that Break as suggested by KB at The Brain Lair. I loved this book about one girl's quest to end foot-binding in her family. Ailin is the third daughter in a middle-class family in China in the early 1900s. Like all young girls of her class, she is expected to have tiny bound feet and marry the right husband. But after seeing her sister's useless feet and watching women hobbling around for their whole lives, Ailin snaps and refuses. Fortunately, her father and grandmother have a soft spot for Ailin, and they allow her to go unbound. The decision results in a series of events that ultimately lead Ailin to America.

I find the subject of foot-binding fascinating. I think my fascination started with a biography of missionary Gladys Aylward and continued with Snowflower and the Secret Fan. What a bizarre practice. I love that this book tells the story from the perspective of a child. (One thing I didn't like about the book was the voice of young Ailin. The conversation between 5-year-old Ailin and her 7-year-old betrothed was just silly. Little girls don't talk like that.)

My preteen daughter is reading this right now and likes it. I'm not sure that I'll use this for my literature circle because it is really a "girl" book. I'm not sure the young men in my class would find this very interesting. But for girls ages 10 and up, I highly recommend it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Book Review: Stargirl

I really want to love this YA book by Jerry Spinelli. Everyone seems to love it. But I have to say, it didn't do much for me.

I read Stargirl as part of my quest for three perfect books to read for a middle-school literature circle I'm teaching in the fall. The book appeared on several "Listmania" lists on, in the category "best books for middle-schoolers" or something like that. It sounded intriguing. The story goes that Stargirl appears in school one day. She's been homeschooled her whole life, and she is a complete individual: a nonconformist who plays the ukelele at lunchtime, cheers for the opposing team at basketball games, and wears crazy outfits. She's hated, then revered, then rejected again. The book is narrated by Leo, who ultimately becomes her boyfriend for a few weeks. Predictably, he can't stand the shunning involved in being associated with her, so he rejects her too. The book is all about nonconformity and group-think in a school setting.

I am always slightly uneasy when I dislike or feel ambivalent about a book that is so well-loved. I feel obligated to analyze myself. I think in this case, much of my annoyance with this book has to do with Stargirl being homeschooled. No doubt this is a reaction to the stereotype of the weird homeschooler as portrayed by Stargirl. I understand that this was meant to be a compliment; that Stargirl in her nonconformity is somehow magical and wonderful and is exactly what we all should aspire to be. But it just didn't work for me. Again, it could be because I'm a homeschooling parent and also teach literature to homeschooled teens, but her character felt silly. Maybe I'm so used to seeing/being a nonconformist that one as a central character seems so contrived.

But here's the other thing: I just didn't think this book was terribly well written. The characters were too flat. I couldn't get a grasp on any of them, including Stargirl. I understand that the characters had to be somewhat flat so that Stargirl could shine among them, but they were too flat. And she was too colorful without having a great deal of depth.

But I'm just one voice in hundreds who have reviewed Stargirl, and I'm an adult reader of a YA book. I suspect my preteen daughter will like this book. I'll report on that later. But I'm not going to be using it in my lit circle, especially since the book depends on the public school group-think as essentially a main character—and pits the lone homeschooler as a heroine/freak.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Book Review: Cutting for Stone

I don't know if it's possible for me to do this book justice in a review. I have to say, right off the bat, that I am a huge fan of Abraham Verghese. I became enamored with him in the early 1990s with his memoir My Own Country. Turns out that Dr. Verhese and I were living in the same town in upper East Tennessee (Johnson City) at the same time—in the mid-to-late 1980s. I was a college student, and he was a young doctor specializing in infectious diseases at the Veterans' Hospital, where I used to take walks. About the same time that most of the U.S. was becoming acutely aware of AIDS, Dr. Verghese was discovering a huge pocket of AIDS cases in upper East Tennessee, and he became the local AIDS expert. My Own Country is the powerful book that came out of his experiences dealing with people, mostly men, coming home to the mountains to die. Verghese is a tremendous writer, full of lyrical medicine and poetry.

I was excited several years later when The Tennis Partner was published. This memoir details his relationship with his medical student and tennis partner, who, like many in the medical profession, becomes a drug addict. Again, Verghese's writing is simply exquisite. I was privileged to get to hear Dr. Verghese read at a small bookstore in Knoxville after The Tennis Partner was published, and I have to say that he reads just like he writes. I was smitten all over again.

And now 10 years later, Dr. Verghese gives us his first novel, Cutting for Stone. This is a magnificent novel, following the short life of Sister Mary Joseph Praise and then the longer ones of her twin boys and their adoptive family, from India to Ethopia to New York City. As in all of Verghese's works, the setting is a hospital, and medicine is woven intricately in with the story of this family. Verghese does wonders with his characters. They are all practically visible and nearly all loveable, in spite of their mistakes. (And if they aren't loveable, than at least we understand why.)

I really can't do this book justice in a review. Verghese is so eloquent, his subject matter fascinating, the characters so rich: you just have to read it. Toward the last quarter of this book, I almost dreaded reading it because I didn't want it to end. I seriously hope we don't have to wait another decade for Dr. Verghese's next book.

**ADDENDUM** I had an email from Abraham Verghese himself in response to my review! My heart went pitter-patter, truly! And he sent me this link to a fantastic review by Simon Schama of Financial Times.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Sunday Salon: My TBR List is Out of Control and Other Bookish Rambling

My TBR list is really ridiculous. It's gotten to the point where I'm reluctant to add anything new unless the review is absolutely riveting or if the book is by an author whose work I like. This year I've only added 11 books so far.

I also have this "bad" habit of picking up library books from the "new books" shelf that aren't on my reading list. And now I have a new challenge. I'm going to be teaching a literature circle for middle schoolers and a World Lit class for high schoolers beginning in August. I'm going to have to devote a large portion of the next few months to re-reading books to pick which ones I want to teach. I have great suggestions for World Lit from this post; I'm going to start the selection process by plowing through Crime and Punishment for the first time in 20 years very soon.

Now I'm looking for suggestions for books for middle-schoolers. I'd like to do three books for a 10-week class. I'm thinking along the lines of Where the Red Fern Grows, Number the Stars, Julie of the Wolves, Shiloh, etc., but I'm open to ideas. The class would be for boys and girls, 6th-8th grades.

And now, since it's Mothers' Day, I'm going to take some time this afternoon to actually lounge around and read.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Weekly Geeks: Mark It Down

I haven't taken part in Weekly Geeks in ages, but my schedule is finally easing off for the summer. This week's topic is bookmarks:
Do you use bookmarks or just grab whatever is handy to mark your page? Do you collect lots of different bookmarks or do you have a favorite one that you use exclusively? If you're not someone who uses bookmarks on a regular basis, have you ever used anything odd to mark your place?
My very favorite bookmarks are the ones that my kids make for me. My 11-year-old daughter is an especially prolific bookmark-maker. Lately she's been making glittery polka-dot ones, and those are awesome. Next, I often use handmade cards for bookmarks. My kids often make me sweet "I love you" cards and leave them by my bedside, so they are very handy bookmarks for my night-time reading. And finally, I mark my books with whatever is around: scraps of paper, important receipts, pencils, hairbands, drawings. I rarely use "real" bookmarks, although my kids do pick up a few freebies each time we go to the library. They seem to disappear as soon as we walk in the house, however.

I will say that I am attracted to store-bought bookmarks. I often finger them, enjoying the verses and/or artwork. But then I think, "Why would I spend $3.25 on a bookmark when I have kids and construction paper?"

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Review: Epileptic 1

I probably should not call this a book review; it's really a quarter-of-a-book review. Turns out our library only has the first volume of David B's graphic novel Epileptic, but of course I didn't realize i was reading only the first volume until I came to the end and thought, "Huh. That's seems to be a quick ending."

Epileptic was recommended by a friend of a friend, who recently finished his dissertation on graphic novels. The story is David B's memoir of growing up in a family whose central focus is his older brother, an epileptic. Most of the first volume centers on the various "cures" that the family embarks upon, from psychics to macrobiotic communities. It is a chaotic, frightening childhood, and the art reflects the artist/author's confusion and yearning for a normal life. I really wanted to smack some sense into his selfish, irresponsible, childish parents. Perhaps the remaining volumes shed some light as to why they drag their children from one deranged situation into another.

I do intend to purchase the nearly 400-page graphic novel ultimately, as my 75-page version left things hanging. I'm really enjoying trying out different graphic novels, although thus far I did appreciate Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis much better.