Monday, June 01, 2009

Reading, Watching, Listening ... April & May in Review

Books read in April and May

Professional Books
Image Grammar by Harry R. Noden

For decades, scholars have urged teachers to integrate grammar and writing, yet few have provided teachers with enough strategies and materials to do so. With this ground-breaking book, Harry Noden meets this need in a unique way. This is the generic review on Goodreads. I need to revisit the book in order to explain what it was I loved so much about it, because love it, I did. It was chock full of great ideas and ways to help kids use grammatical structures to improve writing. After all, that's what grammar is for. Grammar learned in isolation is trivia, used in writing it's craft. I'll try to post a link again later when I have a proper review written.

Young Adult/Juvenile Books

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

What the what? That was my first reaction to this book. I had no idea how very scary it was going to be. I was more than a little freaked out while reading this one. Yet, I still want to see the movie.

Early on in the story, Coraline's mom dismisses the relevance of a strange locked door in their parlor after showing Coraline how it merely opens to a bricked up wall, yet when Coraline tries it on her own she finds a passageway. Coraline lives in one part of a house divided into flats. Other occupants are the crazy old man upstairs and the two retired aging actresses.

Ultimately, the book is about a girl who uses a key to open the door between her flat and an unoccupied one on the other side and discovers a rather frightening parallel world on the other side complete with an "other mother" and "other characters" with button eyes. The "other mother" is greedy for Coraline's company and never wants her to leave. Though she looks like her own mother, she seems like a giant spider who's spun an elaborate web in order to trap Coraline who must find a way to save not only herself and her parents but five other souls the "other mother" has previously taken captive.

Creative and fantastical, It's a bit dark and spooky and probably not for young children.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

I read Little Brother in haste trying to decide if I could use it in my Senior Lit summer school class. While I liked it immensely, I decided I'd wait and try to think of a great unit for fall.

First off, Cory Doctorow's book is available for free download here: though I did read a hardcover book format.

Doctorow welcomes the sharing of works and is very much in support of broad copyright laws.

Little Brother is the story of what happens to 17 year old, Marcus and a group of his high school friends the day San Francisco suffers a terrorist attack. They'd skipped school to play an Internet role playing game and were street side trying to escape the crowds after one of their friend was stabbed in the mobs heading for shelter after the bombs blew up in the distance. Suddenly bags are thrown over their heads, the arms are pinned behind their backs and they are cuffed to a pole inside a van. They'd been taken prisoner. At first the reader thinks they've been abducted by the terrorists. Later, we learn it was by homeland security who believed they were suspicious particularly Marcus who demands a lawyer and refuses to give up passwords to his cell phone and other techie equipment he had on his person. The kids are detained in cells and questioned repeatedly for five days before they are released forbidden to tell anyone what happened.

They are forced to lie to their parents who believed they were dead when they never came home. Many, many people are missing because the attacks hit both the Bay Bridge and the Bart tunnel from Embarcadero to the West Oakland station. The Department of Homeland Security has ramped up their surveillance and created "protective" measures everywhere. The city feels like a police state. Marcus doesn't feel safe using the Internet, he knows he's being watched. But he's furious that he and others, innocent people, are being treated like the terrorists the DHS is claiming they are trying to protect them from.

He vows to take down the DHS and the rest of the novel is about how that goes down. The book poses a question of how far the government can and should go in the name of security and defense. It reminds us that we are being watched (note the title... Little Brother... an allusion to 1984!) and monitored. It reminds us that we can become slaves to technology or we can master it and hack it and make the most of it that we can. The book is about freedom and the constitution and the rights of the people. I loved it, and I expect that whether I use this next year with a book club or as part of my curriculum my students will love it too.

In Search of Mockingbird by Loretta Ellsworth

Erin, a MN teen, is struggling with her identity and her father's remarriage. She longs to know her mother and more about her. All she has is a tattered copy of To Kill a Mockingbird with her mother's notes in the margin. She's read that book so many times and it makes her feel closer to her mom. For her birthday her father gives Erin, her mother's diary and Erin is thrilled and hurt that he'd waited so long to share it.

She loves her family, she bears her father no ill will in his upcoming marriage, but she feels like she needs to get away and so she boards a bus for Alabama to meet Harper Lee.

The story reads like Erin is far younger than 16. For some reason I felt like I was reading about a 12 year old. I'm not sure why. Something about her thought processes or your feelings about writing and her mother seemed distinctly younger than the character was meant to be.

On the bus, Erin meets several kind seatmates, strangers who each impact her as much as she impacts them. The heart of the story takes place on the eternal bus ride.

The book is nice, yet not very memorable. Perhaps others will like it more than I did.

Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr

Wicked Lovely has been on my to-read list for months and months. I finally picked it up in May and I wasn't disappointed. I figure if you like Twilight, you'll like Melissa Marr's books. Instead of vampires, she writes about fairies and for some reason I was more interested in this story. Aislinn is a teen whose mother died when she was young and who now lives with her Grandma. They share a secret. They can see fairies. The fairies that are apparently everywhere co-existing around us, pulling pranks and sometimes harming humans and each other. These fairies aren't some dew on flower sprinkling tiny sprites, they are life size, sometimes beautiful, sometimes awful looking creatures. Aislinn's had her whole life to learn the rules and obey them she does. One is never to look at them, to notice they are there, to let them know that she can see them. And never run when being pursued by a fairy.

Aislinn's best friend is a pierced, tattooed man named Seth who lives in a trailer which because of its construct can keep the fairies out. When Aislinn's weary of the fairies or the pretense she knows she can visit Seth and be safe. As the story opens we see the tension between she and Seth as it seems their relationship may be changing into a romantic one. And we see that things are changing in the fairy world. Keenan, the Summer King, is looking for a new love, and once he's made his
choice, she'll be powerless to refuse. He has his eye on Aislinn.

The story has myth and mystery, ritual and romance, all interwoven. I enjoyed it immensely for its genre and am looking forward to picking up the next two books in Marr's series.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson

We read Octavian Nothing for book club along side the George Washington: Spymaster book and I felt the two were good complementary texts. This one is a young adult novel which has a rather elevated vocabulary and explores some difficult issues. There was some discussion in our group as to whether or not we'd even call this a "YA book." It was meant to be written in the Gothic style and I think it's a very successful effort in that regard. It's quite neat, actually.

Much of the story is set in Pre-revolutionary war Boston at the home of Mr. Gitney or 03-01 as he prefers to be called (in his numerical system he's devised). There, young Octavian lives with his mother and it's not too long before we discover things are a bit unusual at the Novanglian College of Lucidity wh
ich is the official name for Gitney's "operation" in Boston. He has a team of researchers in science and all sorts of philosophical pursuits who come and go and are apparently studying Octavian as well.

The story explores the science and beliefs of the era, racial tensions, mounting tensions between the British and the Patriots, and personal freedoms and responsibilities. Most of the story is told through Octavian's eyes, but there is one section which I rather liked in which a young soldier named Evidence writes letters to his sister Fruition and we learn the events of the story that way.

A great scene in the story, which occurs just before all hell breaks loose, is the Pox Party which lends its name to the title of the book. In this scene Gitney rounds up friends and family and they infect t
hemselves with a low dose of the small pox in an effort to become immune. One book club member commented that the scene reminded them of The Masque of the Red Death.

There is a sequel and if I'd had it handy I might have just kept on reading. I was pretty captivated by this story and am eager to see where it leads.

School Book Club Picks
Luna by Julie Anne Peters

This was a school book club selection and probably not one I would have chosen. Luna is told from the point of view of Regan, the younger sister to Liam/Luna who is a high school senior preparing to transition from boy to girl despite the fact that only his/her younger sister knows the truth of his/her existence. The story approaches struggles within the family, the feelings Regan has as she struggles in Chemistry class, and as a boy she likes shows interest in her at school, and it shows how her struggle to support her sibling is interfering with all aspects of her life.

This particular title was part of a grant our library received and we were given 10 copies to distribute to students
and yesterday we met after school to discuss the story. It wasn't universally loved but no one disliked it either. Several were troubled by the ending. It seemed a bit too "pat" for me and at the same time too vague for some students.

Peters' book reminds me of the novel Middlesex; only in that book, the central character Calliope/Cal is actually hermaphroditic. In this story Liam/Luna is transgendered and it was enlightening to us to understand the difference between that and homosexuality. The book brought out some good discussion on gender roles and expectations placed on us by society. It reminded us
about family dynamics and it was that bit that really got me. I found myself tearing up or crying at several parts of the book and I guess that is a good sign in that it moved my cynical rock hard heart.

Looking for Alaska by John Green

This book came recommended for a few sources as did all of the John Green books. As a young adult book this one was pretty good. I didn't love it like some of the kids did, but then again I'm not a "young adult." We read it for our fourth after school book club book of the year and a couple kids told me it was their favorite one. I think my favorite was the Sherman Alexie one.

In Green's book, a young man, Miles "Pudge" Halter, moves to Culver Creek boarding school in Alabama in search of something new and exciting. Friendless and bored, he hits the mother lode with a roommate like The Colonel. All the students at the school are pretty smart with a tendency to prank each other and the queen of all pranksters is Alaska Young. The novel follows the friendship of Alaska, Pu
dge, The Colonel and Takumi throughout that school year.

The story has a fair share of F-bombs and some sex and alcohol in it, and one oral sex scene which caught me off guard, readers be warned. The structure of the book is also a bit unusual. It's a sort of countdown to an event for chapter divisions. "One hundred and twenty-seven days before," "forty-nine days before," and then there is an after section that follows suit. It added to the suspense and anticipation as a reader.

I'm not sure I can really relate to the prep school, boarding school mentality (even if my protagonists are "scholarship" kids) so that was one drawback for me. But the kids in my book group still seemed to feel it was relevant to them and so I guess that's all that really mat
ters, eh? Also I had a chance to MEET John Green at IRA so that was pretty cool too.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I discovered I liked this book as much as I thought upon rereading it for book club--I'd read it a year ago. We all seemed to be enjoying it--not everyone was done. Even though the story includes a hidden Jew, it is an entirely different perspective on the WW II experience.

It seems I've been discovering books like that for a little over a year now. It started with Suite Francaise, a story from the French perspective about the Germans moving in and occupying France during WW II. Then I read Atonement, which was a British perspective that included in the larger novel, the British soldiers' retreat to the French coast near Belgium and the work of the nurses back in England. Next I read The Reader which is more about relationships and choices that specifically about the war, but we are offered glimpses of the German's national guilt following the holocaust. We see one trial in an attempt to bring justice to survivors by prosecuting a handful of concentration camp prison guards.

Finally, The Book Thief is a childhood tale, a story of family and friends and reading and books in the midst of this horrific setting--a small town on the outskirts of Munich in Germany during WW II. It's sweet and funny and tender and loving but every action is shadowed by the world in which they live. It reminded me that people grew up like this. That entire childhoods were sprouted and spent under the shadow of Hitler. With fear lurking dark all around.

The story's narrator is Death and I liked that aspect but because of that the whole construct of the point of view, of that narrative device, the book is a bit wobbly. I found his voice and fascination with color and use of synesthesia to be poetic and lovely, but some have found Zusak's writing style to be suspect.

One twitter friend admits that while she loved it, most in her book club found it just too depressing. I guess I found it uplifting. I felt that Hans and Rosa Hubermann were great heroes and wonderful parents and people. I loved so many small details in this book and the big ideas too. I'd highly recommend this one.

Tale of Despereaux by Kate diCamillo

I read this book when it first came out and enjoyed it, though not as much as my pal Marci did. I like the voice and the style of the book, the way the story has three strands to it. I've heard Kate DiCamillo speak a couple times and she's absolutely fabulous, so I'm always eager to pick up her work. I reread Despereaux for two reasons. One: I was at Marci's and I ended up being part of "storytime" with her kids and even got a guest reader role for a few chapters. That was enough to suck me in to the story and push me to grab a copy from our school library. Two: I wanted to see the movie and needed a refresher.

At this point, I've managed to pick up my own copy for the shelves and still haven't seen the film. I do enjoy DiCamillo's work and would always recommend her. If you can ever see her speak at a conference or a bookstore or wherever she might roam, do not miss it! She's wonderful--dry-deadpan-wit-wonderful!

Graphic Novel
The Savage by David Almond

I bought this book at an IRA booth at a bargain price. It was on my "to read" list, solely for the cool cover! I love Dave McKean's illustrations. They are wild and wonderful. Almond is a British author and his book is a combination of graphic novel and juvenile fiction. It's a mystical blend of the film Stranger Than Fiction and The Secret.
The Savage is about a boy named Blue Baker who's recently lost his dad and is being bullied. He's decided to write a story, this book is his story. He writes about a savage boy who lives alone in Burgess Woods. Blue's story is written with inventive spelling and errors which I found to be a little distracting, though I'm sure Almond was going for authentic kid style. Where this book gets trippy is when Blue's storybook Savage seems to come to life and do things in Blue's world. The story is mildly violent, and a little freaky. I guess it's the sort of thing a young boy might write. Though it's not my favorite book as of late, I did think it was inventive and unusual and the artwork was great!

George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War by Thomas B. Allen

While this book had a cool premise and lots of great resources I felt it was dry, too brief, and confusing as a result. I am all about the spy world and so learning about a founding father through that lens was neat.

The book is aimed at young readers and maybe if they were already studying the Revolutionary War this would make sense to them. However, I felt like there were so many names thrown at me with little sense of who they were or how they connected. It was a lot to keep track of and it just seemed like the author could have have delved a little deeper with each one to bring the reader into the personality and character of the various players in the story.

The notes at the end of the book that corresponded with the chapters were particularly fun. I also can see how some might get a real kick out of trying to write things in Tallmadge's code which is provided in the back of the book. The author includes a lot of websites where one can view other primary source materials and I thought that was a real bonus. Ultimately though, I didn't love the book and I really wanted to.

The Reader by Bernard Schlink

When I saw the film version of The Reader I instantly wanted to discuss it with someone. The ending was mystifying to me. I wanted to know how the two characters truly "felt" toward one another. Was it actually love? Was it love for both of them? I was struck by the story and immediately added the book to my "to read" list with hopes that a written version might add in a bit more explanation or narrative element complete with a bigger glimpse into the characters thoughts as if that would help me to understand better than the intense looks and implied emotions through action in the film.

What I discovered is that I actually knew LESS at times while reading the book. It seemed like there were some extra bits in the middle of the book. For some reason I don't recall him visiting with his father about the situation with Hanna at the trial... I think in the film he sees his professor. The ending was rather spot on.

Overall, I think the film was VERY well done and Kate Winslet was a terrific Hanna. I liked the book and it provided a very good book club discussion. I liked that the focus on the Holocaust was only minimal and while that colored and shaped much of what was going on in the book there was so much more. It was about personal responsibility, choices, and guilt.

To read this book in isolation would have been less satisfying for me than reading it and then discussing it with me book group.

Films watched in April and May

Star Trek
Wonder Woman (an animated film released in 2009)
The Women (1939)
The Women (2008)

Brideshead Revisited
New in Town

Music listened to in April and May
4 disc set of US Number Ones
with songs from the 50s, 60s, and 70s grouped by category:
  • Diners and Doo Wop (1955-1960)
  • Swingers and Sweethearts(1960-1964)
  • British Invasion (1964-1966)
  • Motor City (1966-1979)
Travel tunes to and from IRA
"My Life Would Suck Without You" by Kelly Clarkson

The Weepies -- Say I am You
Joan Jett -- Fit to Be Tied Greatest Hits
Kid Rock -- Rock n Roll Jesus
Hairspray The Soundtrack to the Motion Picture Musical

Other favorite songs from May
"Stagger Lee" by Lloyd Price
"Careless Whisper" by Seether

anything by Susan Boyle
Here's her singing Cry Me a River, for example. (love that song!)

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