Sunday, October 18, 2009

Reading Update

So here are the latest books I have gulped down.

Book #47 was Troy by Adèle Geras. This was named a Publisher's Weekly Best Children's Book of the Year (to name one of the children's book awards listed on the back) - but it is not at all for children. Much as I like retellings of the Troy story, I didn't like this one. It took the epic tale and turned it into a story of some young people who just happen to work for, or run into, or otherwise be aware of the principals. This author handles the whole supernatural element of the Iliad by having characters run into gods, have conversations with them, and immediately forget the whole thing. At first I bought this but I tired of the device pretty quickly.

Book #48, A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly, is not really for children either, but I feel a bit more comfortable putting this one on my shelves than the last. Mattie Gokey is sixteen and lives in the Northern Woods of upstate New York. Mattie wants to go to college, but she promised her dying mother she would take care of the family. She wants to be a writer but she wants to get married. She gets a job at a hotel and there is a witness to some events leading to a mystery; this part of the plot is based on a true story. The book is really about expectations of women, and whether it's possible to have it all. Although it's set in 1906, I think this is still a pretty timely theme. I found Mattie a believable protagonist, and appreciated her struggle, leading to no easy answers.

I've been waiting for a year for the sequel to The Hunger Games, and I read Catching Fire in a few hours and now have to wait at least another year to find out what happens next. This is what you get when you read living authors and get tied up in their series! I never used to do this. I blame it all on Harry Potter. Oh, the book? Catching Fire, book #49 of the year, was just as breathless as the first book. I couldn't put it down and my heart thumped madly the whole way through. My students are going to LOVE it.

Book #50 was a much more sedate reading experience, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, by Sven Birkerts. This was recommended by my friend Janet; here's her great review. Like her, I most enjoyed the chapters about reading and was less interested in the ones about technology and how it's ruining everything. I loved Birkerts' own autobiography of reading and it made me think about writing my own. I will definitely reread this one because there is a huge amount to think about in these pages.

I really did gulp this next one, book #51: Rules, by Cynthia Lord. What a wonderful book! I started reading it at bedtime on a school night and didn't stop until I was finished, nearly 200 pages later. Catherine is twelve and has an autistic brother. She loves him but he is embarrassing. He doesn't know how to act. She decides to help him out by creating rules for him. I thought about this as a read-aloud but, though I want to share it with as many of my students as possible, it really isn't a book to read aloud. It's about different ways of communicating, and there are font changes all through that are for the eye and not the ear. The rules that Catherine makes for David. The word cards that she writes and illustrates for the boy she meets when she goes to occupational therapy with her brother (he can't speak and points to word cards to communicate). The quotes from Frog and Toad books that David uses to express his emotions. The book is funny but it also made me cry. Highly recommended.

In 'Tis, by Frank McCourt (book #52), one of McCourt's teachers tells him his writing has "gusto." It certainly does, and yet the book left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. It covers a lot of the same time frame as Teacher Man (reviewed here) and since all the parts of 'Tis I liked best were the teaching parts, I could have just skipped this one. McCourt's wife asks him at one point what he would do if he weren't Irish, and I was on her side in this, as in much else. She gets tired of him standing her up night after night because he was out drinking with his friends. She even sensibly breaks it off with him more than once. He complains constantly about his sad childhood in Ireland - and sure, it was sad. We got that in Angela's Ashes. The part I disliked the most in this book was when McCourt was in the military (during the Korean War, but stationed in Europe) and was sent to Dachau to do laundry. We see McCourt so emotional over Dachau that he can't eat (and this is an event for the boy who was constantly "starving with the hunger" in Angela's Ashes). Then on the way back with the clean laundry, the soldier boys stop at a refugee camp and pay the refugees with coffee and cigarettes for sex. OK, I guess this is all very honest and human, but it just made me feel sick.

Book #53 was Andrew Clements' Lost and Found, a quick, fun read about a pair of twins who are tired of being treated as a unit. When a clerical error results in only one of them being registered in their new school, they decide to take turns attending. Clements is the father of identical twins and he does a good job of creating two believable brothers.

I've now read lots of Caroline Cooney's books. She is a favorite with many of my students. This one, book #54, was Diamonds in the Shadow, about African refugees with a complicated past. It's exciting and fast-paced. It also treats Africa as a monolithic Place Where Bad Things Happen, but that seems like an ungenerous quibble to make about a book which will make teenagers aware of things that most of them have never thought about before. It really stood out to me because I have an African student at the moment who is sensitive to that label and I won't be able to use this as a read-aloud. This is a great story, though.

Book #55 was also recommended to me as a book for children, just like the one with which I started this post. I'd say it's for older readers because of the relationship in the story. The book is Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. It has blurbs on the back from Scott Westerfeld and Neil Gaiman, but it also has several techie names I haven't heard of. Marcus is seventeen, and spends much of his time playing games which are a combination of computer games and real-life running around San Francisco. (His handle is "w1n5t0n" - Winston, get it, get it? This is Little Brother, and that was Big Brother? OK, I'm glad you get it.) Marcus and his friends are out playing one of their games when a huge terrorist attack takes place on San Francisco, and the rest of the story is about Homeland Security trying to make everyone safe by taking away their liberties. It's very timely, and very entertaining, but due to the aforementioned mature themes I really don't think I can hand this to the guy in the front row whom I had in mind for it - maybe in a few years.

Now I'm back to attempting War and Peace again. Last time I got over 300 pages into it, and wasn't even a quarter of the way through, and took a few days off from it, and then felt I had lost my train of thought and would never be able to tell all those Annas apart again. I remember a weekend in graduate school when I read two 500 page 19th century novels - in French. I can't really do that any more, now that I am not in driven-graduate-student mode any more, and now that I have children. And now that I spend hours of great reading time blogging...

1 comment:

Janet said...

I haven't read 'The hunger Games' yet. It would have to be an inter-library loan book. But now that the sequel is safely out and it's not possible to be left hanging, it might be time to try!

I'm glad you liked 'Gutenberg'! I had one other friend try to read it, but she found it "dry." I also love your idea of making your own reading autobiography.

Rules sounds really good!