Sunday, February 01, 2009

Reading Update

Book #1 of 2009 was Son of the Mob, by Gordon Korman. I picked up this book because of an article I read in a teacher magazine about pairing classics with YA books. This was supposed to be a great companion for Romeo and Juliet. It's the story of a mobster's son who falls for an FBI agent's daughter. It was OK, but not great. I put it in my classroom library and while several kids have started it, I don't think anyone has finished it.

Book #2 was The Splendor of Silence, by Indu Sundaresan. I enjoyed the portrayal of India in the 40s, in the last days of the Raj.

Book #3 was His Majesty's Dragon. I bought this for my classroom based on a review I read, but I don't think it is going to hold the interest of most of my students. It moves a little too slowly for them, and the vocabulary is too challenging for most in my opinion. However, I enjoyed it myself. It's a bit difficult to classify - sort of an alternative history, except that it's fantasy. Perhaps one of the jacket blurbs (quoted from Time magazine) says it best: "Enthralling reading - like Jane Austen playing Dungeons & Dragons with Eragon's Christopher Paolini." Set in the Napoleonic Wars, the series imagines an Aerial Corps which consists of valiant aviators flying dragons. Ultimately, though, I found it a bit difficult to suspend disbelief. Not about the dragons - that part I accepted willingly and with great delight. No, I just couldn't swallow that the mores among the aviators are so - well, 21st century. Laurence, coming in from outside, fights against his shock - but he isn't shocked enough. Yes, this is the period of Jane Austen, and judging by the things her characters get het up about, Laurence would not adjust so easily. That said, I will probably read the rest of the series if I get the chance. The book is great fun and I am probably being ridiculous to ask for social verisimilitude in a dragon book anyway.

Book #4 was a wonderful book called Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski. To make reference once again to a blurb on the book: "A reader doesn't have to have any interest in Christian missionary work, anthropology, or the hill tribes of Thailand to be riveted," says The Christian Science Monitor. As it happens I'm intensely interested in the first two, and it didn't take a big stretch to become interested in the third. Mischa Berlinski is in Thailand because his girlfriend is teaching at an international school. He finds out about a mysterious story - an anthropologist shot a missionary. Soon he is enthralled and must find out more and more. The reader quickly feels the same way. I loved the sardonic, yet sympathetic portrayals of all the different kinds of characters. Some examples:

Gunther the yoga teacher knew all about the Walkers: he, too, had heard stories...."I haff never met them," Gunther said. "But I hear so many things. I do not like this kind of Christian who liff in a big house with so many servants, and then tell the people how they must liff. Is that for you to be a Christian?" Gunther looked at me severely. I shook my head. Gunther himself lived in a big house with many servants and told many people how they must live, but it did not seem the right moment to mention that.

Tom Riley knew the Walker story well, having passed many long evenings in the company of one or another of the Walkers as they went from lonely Dyalo village to lonely Dyalo village, preaching - and in preaching, like war, you get to know folks.

...the fourth-grade teacher at Rachel's school, a quiet Burmese woman...broke her wrist in a tuk-tuk accident. Mr. Tim...asked me to take over her class while she convalesced, and for a week I taught school, an experience so exhausting that I didn't think once of anthropologists or missionaries, just savages.

...she induced in Martiya [the anthropologist] a considerable sense of First World guilt and discomfort. (This discomfort was intensified by Lai-Ma's habit of taking Martiya aside and saying, "Oh, I am tired! How my bones ache! How I wish I were rich like you and could do nothing all day!") Hauling just one plastic petrol-jerry of water up the hill was enough to exhaust Matiya, but Lai-Ma would inevitably carry two, one in each hand, and on her back in a plaited basket, a dozen hollow bamboo tubes each overflowing with water, the whole heavy load held in place with a tumpline across her forehead....Matiya felt like a freeloader every time she saw her in the course of the day.

While this is an intelligent book and was a finalist for the National Book Award, it's also a great story (unlike another book I abandoned halfway through this week because in spite of all the rapturous comments on the back, there just didn't seem to be much of a plot). It is surprising, and funny, and heartbreaking. I recommend it highly - it's certainly the best book I've read so far this year!


Bridget said...

Hey Ruth! Have you read A Thousand Splendid Suns? I read it over vacation, and really liked it! If you haven't read it, I think you'll enjoy it.

Jessica Stock said...

I always appreciate your book recommendations. I'm going to check out Fieldwork. Currently reading "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield and I cannot put it down. (And a Thousand Splendid Suns is one of my favorite books ever)

Ruth said...

Hey Bridget! No, I haven't read it yet but it's definitely on my list. I liked The Kite Runner very much.

Hey Jessica! Yes, I read that and enjoyed it.

John and Jodie Ackerman said...

Might I borrow this one sometime?

Anonymous said...

Hey Ruth, have you considered using GoodReads or Shelfari to track your books? I just started on GoodReads, mainly because the method I was using last year kind of failed me when I got a new computer at work.

Anyway, your book #4 sounds interesting. Maybe I'll put it on my "to read" list. This line caught my eye:
I taught school, an experience so exhausting that I didn't think once of anthropologists or missionaries, just savages.

Is that what happens to teachers too, you spend the whole time thinking of savages? Just kidding, you wouldn't last long if it had that effect on you!