Archive for October, 2007

Always Running is recommended reading for the college-bound student, but every student I know who has read it liked it. Its author, Luis J. Rodriguez, was born in Mexico, but grew up in Los Angeles, in many impoverished neighborhoods. He recounts his early life in Watts when his brother, who had “a hunger for cruelty,” regularly beats him up. He also spends time with friends recounting local urban legends and Mexican myths.

 His parents had a hard time keeping jobs although his father had been a teacher and high school principal in Mexico. Stories of the prejudice against his mother are many. She is helpless without knowledge of the English language.

Rodriguez begins running from the police early in life as he pilfers from local markets and breaks rules such as entering school grounds after 4:40 P.M. On one such trip, his friend, running from the sheriff, fell through the roof of a building and died.

 

The first time Rodriguez sees gang shootings is on school grounds. Seeing the fear they put in everyone including the teachers, the “broken boy, shy and fearful . . . wanted what Thee Mystics had; . . . the power to hurt somebody.” Conditions in his life help him move in the direction he wants to go—Garvey High School is so bad that Luis has three teachers and five substitutes in his homeroom the first year. When a shop teacher accidentally cuts his own finger off, Rodriguez finds it and saves it in his locker, showing it around until it decays. When cliques are forced to join gangs, Rodriguez joins. Eventually, most of the gang’s members are dead or on drugs, so Luis is initiated into Las Lomas, enemy to Sangra. On this night, he is beaten and later told to plunge a screwdriver into an innocent man—which he does.

 

There are many stories of Rodriguez being set up by the police, of heavy drinking, burglary, being shot at, and eventually sniffing “anything”—paint, gasoline, clear plastic, etc. Later Luis will use PCP and heroin. He thinks of killing himself.

 

Rodriguez enters Mark Keppel High School where there is a yearly ‘tradition’ of violent fighting between the Chicanos and the whites. As gang activity heats up, several youth centers open up in the area. The gangs take them over, but Rodriguez meets Chente, who helped form MEChA and other Chicano groups—someone who “could get the best from the system . . . without being a snitch or giving in.”

 

Rodriguez discusses hits on rival gangs, a rival gang’s decision to kill his sister for his deeds, the raping of many girls by local gangs, and his own early sexual relationships. Though all this would offend a sensitive reader, that same reader would have already been made sick or given up reading over the incessant violence.

 

Miraculously, although Luis is kicked out of school after school, he begins to frequent the junior college library. Book displays on Puerto Ricans, Chicanos and African Americans are an opening to a better world for him, one that makes him feel connected to the best in people. He finally goes back to high school and makes connections, becoming a leader. After more trials as an adult in the old neighborhood, he realizes that there is no more life for him there.

 

Though Rodriguez states that he wrote this book to help his own son stay away from gangs, I’m afraid that what will draw some of teens to the book is the graphic violence and sexual encounters. For my own part, I had a rough time with Rodriguez because he didn’t seem particularly contrite about anything he had done. My sense was that he found his own actions beyond his control because of his environment.

October 29, 2007

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy was recommended to me when I asked for a “guys’” title. As high school guys go, the title is unfortunate because they judge it as not “manly.” Nothing is further from the truth. It has all the stuff of a great bildungsroman (‘novel of formation,’ a story of growing from childhood to maturity)—an odyssey away from home, the death of and break with parents, a great romance, the loss of the beloved, and the ever-popular horse theft. Yet the language is poetic and the description vivid—it draws the reader to its rhythms. Conversations among the characters are often metaphysical without seeming unnatural.

 

It’s 1949, and sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole plans to leave Texas after his grandfather’s funeral. His mother is selling the old family ranch, built in 1872. With a deep love of horses and ranch life, John Grady would attempt to run the ranch himself, but his mother refuses to consider it. John’s father, divorced from his mother, is dying.

 

John sets out for Mexico with his friend, Lacey Rawlings. The two have many adventures on their way. Of most significance is their meeting with young Jimmy Belvins. Jimmy, riding a beautiful (stolen) horse, follows them and trouble begins. On the run, Jimmy separates from the two older boys. John Grady and Lacey find work at the Hacienda de Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion in Coahuila. The owner, Don Hector Rocha y Villareal treats them well and entrusts John Grady with breaking wild horses. But, John is smitten with the daughter of Don Hector, Alejandra of the black hair and blue eyes. They become lovers, and Alejandra’s great-aunt finds out. She is a philosophical woman, and her stories of the Mexican Revolution and of life are fascinating for the reader. However, she knows what a bad reputation can do to a woman in Mexico and has decided against John Grady. One day, seemingly out of the blue, John Grady and Lacey are arrested.

 

The two are imprisoned in Mexico because of their association with Jimmy. No one believes that their meeting was accidental. I don’t want to spoil Jimmy’s fate for the reader, but the other two are taken to a federal prison where it seems that they will not survive. The boys’ lives are threatened and everyone assumes they have money to use as bribes to get out. (They don’t.) John Grady lives in danger, sorrow, and rage. He wants revenge against the man who took his horse. He contemplates the world, which seems to care nothing for the old, for love, or for passion. He is like Huck Finn, who will “light out for the territory.”

October 29, 2007

I’ve always thought that Beowulf would make a great movie because it has all the elements of high drama—friendship and betrayal, good v. evil, monsters and murder. Now that a film version of Beowulf is coming soon, I think that there will be COHS students who want to read a book with a Beowulf connection. A great choice would be Grendel by John Gardner. As in Beowulf, many of the great themes are there: the struggle between good and evil, the conflict between order and disorder, the hero and his sacrifice for the common good, man’s achievement of immortality, the importance of art and the artist, who gives meaning to life.

 

To enjoy the novel Grendel, the reader has to be somewhat familiar with the Beowulf epic. Gardner was a professor of medieval literature and quite knowledgeable on the subject. He takes Grendel, the first monster to appear in Beowulf, as the first person narrator of the novel. Though in the epic Grendel is the representation of darkness, death, and the very elements that tear community apart, one might make a case (or write a paper) that in the novel he is the protagonist. I don’t believe this myself, but it’s an interesting point of view.

 

Grendel has as one of its themes the ways in which art and language bring order and beauty to life. Though Grendel’s mother is inarticulate, Grendal can speak. Although he lives with her in a cave under a burning lake, as the more developed of the two monsters, Grendel wants to approach civilization and is affected by the words of the Shaper, or poet. He seems to seek purpose to his existence and the reader will at times sympathize with him.

 

Grendel’s approach to civilization only frightens men, and the king, Hrothgar, throws an ax at him. At the same time the Shaper, a blind poet, arrives at the king’s mead hall and sings of Grendel as one of the race of Cain (evil). Grendel seeks understanding from a dragon (another monster that appears in the epic although not for the same purpose). He only learns that life is meaningless, that the Shaper deceives men. He goes away with a curse on him, so that he can’t be injured by men’s weapons. At this point an outcast, Grendel raids the mead hall with impunity, killing and eating men. Only with the arrival by sea of Beowulf can Grendel be overcome. Beowulf doesn’t use a weapon but rather his own hands to tear Grendels’ arm at the shoulder socket.

 

There is much more to this novel, and it is deeply symbolic so that a reader can enjoy it for the philosophies it exams as well as for the story of overcoming a monster (or sympathizing with the monster who is overcome).

October 29, 2007

The Color of Water is a dual biography of a man and his mother. By telling his mother’s story, says author James McBride, he is learning about his own. The narration alternates between McBride telling of his life growing up as one of twelve children and the life of his mother, Ruchel Dwajra Zylska (Ruth McBride Jordan). His own father died when his mother was pregnant with him—the eighth child. She later married Jordan and had four more children. McBride’s step-father is painted as a loving man who made no distinction between his step-children and his own. He was supportive to all, and his death is a blow to McBride. For McBride’s mother, it is an event that sends her into a tailspin.

 

McBride’s family is always poor, but his mother manages, in her own wild and sometimes neurotic manner, to raise a dozen smart, creative professionals. When McBride wavers between professional careers (he’s a man of many talents), he is compelled to ask his mother about her own life. This is terribly difficult for her as she has spent years forgetting her roots. It takes McBride nearly a decade to squeeze the story out of her.

 

Rachel (Ruth) was born Jewish in Poland to a mother crippled from polio and to a small, vicious, and mean-spirited father. Her childhood and youth are unhappy. She is an outcast in Suffolk, VA because she is Jewish. Her father buys a store in the Black section of (the segregated) town and becomes wealthy overcharging his customers. He hates Blacks and berates them in Yiddish. He molests Ruth, and she is afraid of him.

 

Ruth has a natural affinity for her Black neighbors and customers. Eventually, she has a Black boyfriend and becomes pregnant by him. Since this is the late 1930s, if people found out, the boy would be lynched. Ruth ends up in New York with relatives who will barely abide her but offer knowledge of a doctor who performs abortions. Ruth decides to stay in New York and avoid her father as well as the suffocating South. Here she meets her first husband, McBride.

 

Ruth’s family disowns her for marrying a Black man. Feeling a deep need for forgiveness—and for forgiving—Ruth becomes a Christian. Her family then considers her dead and will not speak to her, even when she is a pregnant widow with seven children.

 

This is a bittersweet story. McBride is right to be amazed by his mother, who is often the only white woman in the neighborhood. She refuses to see color lines and doesn’t acknowledge the stares and taunts of those around her. Her belief in the value of an education, tempered by her religious zeal, help to mold the author into the creative and successful man he becomes.

October 29, 2007

Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, is the story of a Confederate soldier during the Civil War, Inman, who decides to walk home to the Blue Ridge Mountains after participating in the fighting at St. Petersburg. Although not historical fiction as the genre is defined, COHS teachers may accept it when asking you to read historical fiction. It’s a nice novel with which to start the junior project, and it has lots of bonuses including adventure and romance.

 

The novel opens with Inman in the hospital, a deep wound on the back of his neck, one that his comrades in arms assumed would kill him. Somehow he survives, and the amazing repetition of this survival against all odds makes up a good deal of the story. However, Inman is bitter and disillusioned. He escapes the hospital and decides to walk home and see if Ada, a woman he left behind, will have him for a husband. He thinks often about the changes in himself and whether he is any longer fit to be a husband.

 

Having gone AWOL, Inman is an “outlier” and thus on the run; although he meets may people who aid him as he heads home, he must be wary of them all. This sense of everyone being the enemy is the pervasive element of Inman’s existence and provides much of the tension in the novel. He lives through surreal situations, betrayals by both men and women, more brushes with death, and even being buried alive. Inman’s chance meeting with the ‘goatwoman’ saves him as she has spent twenty years alone in the woods and knows herbal remedies for his wounds. He thinks about her solitary existence and realizes that though it’s tempting to live away from civilization, he wouldn’t be able to do it.

 

There are some gruesome scenes in the novel, particularly when Inman has promised to help a young woman whose pig—and only source of food—has been stolen by Federal soldiers. He is able to hunt the men down with his backwoods knowledge (he even uses turkey calls from a tree). When Inman returns the pig and helps Sally—an eighteen-year-old widow with an infant—slaughter it, his actions in killing the Federal soldiers seem justified. (The idea of righteousness and morality would be a good starting point for a paper on the book.)

 

While Inman is making his way home, alternating chapters cover the life of Ada. She is well-educated, but has no practical knowledge about running a farm. When her father dies, she is helped by Ruby, the child of a ne’er-do-well father who has raised herself and is utterly competent as well as self-reliant. Their story, along with that of the ne’er-do-well father, Stobrod, is just as compelling as Inman’s. Overall, Cold Mountain is a gripping novel—a great choice for outside reading.

October 29, 2007

Into the Wild

Soon to be a movie, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is the story of Chris McCandless’s adventure in the Alaskan wilderness. It includes several others of Chris’s adventures in order to show the reader that Chris was not an idealistic greenhorn when he walked into the Alaskan rough country. It is no mystery that Chris died—that is stated immediately. The circumstances that brought about his death make up the bulk of the book. The reader comes to understand how Chris ended up starving—what in his personality and background brought him to this pass. It’s a good adventure read, but COHS English teachers will probably accept it when they ask you to read a biography or memoir. It’s a connection to the American writer Thoreau. And once again, like Ordinary Wolves, it shows the reality of the harsh Alaskan wilderness. Fans of Jack London might enjoy Into the Wild as well.

 

After graduating from Emory College, Chris changes his name to Alexander Supertramp and goes out to live a Thoreauian self-reliant existence. Much of his journey is documented in a journal in the third person, and some of that journal is quoted in the book.

 

Once he’s graduated, Chris “disappears” and his family never hears from him again. (They hire a private investigator, but the PI is unsuccessful.) He ventures to Mexico, takes a canoe trip, loses 25 pounds; but through it all he is exhilarated by his adventures. Ridding himself of his worldly good, he works for a time in Las Vegas and then Bullhead City. He even convinces a religious man to give up his worldly possessions and find God on the road, through self-reliance. (This man is so taken by Alex—Chris—that when he hears of his death in Alaska, he loses his faith in God.) Finally, McCandless spends months in Carthage, South Dakota working as a mill hand for a man named Westerburg.

 

Krakauer details the mistakes that he believes killed Alex, including the possibility of eating the poisonous seeds of a wild potato plant. The saddest fact for the reader is that if Alex had only brought a topographical map, he would have known how close he was to a little basket of salvation—but for Alex, that would have been less than self-reliant.

1 comment October 29, 2007

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is the story of a young man who joins a traveling circus during the Great Depression. It’s well researched and includes period photos. It’d be a really fun book to use as the starter fiction for the junior project. Though it’s not true historical fiction, it’s the sort of book that many English teachers at COHS will accept when they assign the reading of historical fiction or period pieces. It’s recently been a best seller and has elements to appeal to just about anyone—adventure, romance, revenge, and ultimately murder.

 

Jacob Jankowski is on the verge of taking his final exams at Cornell and becoming a veterinarian when his parents are killed in an automobile accident. Jacob’s world suddenly ends. He finds that his parents have mortgaged their home to pay for his education; the bank repossesses it. With nothing of his old life remaining, Jacob jumps a train on his way to living as a ‘hobo.’ However, without knowing it, he’s jumped a circus train, and as a man with valuable veterinary skills, he is offered a job with the Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

 

Circus life is tough; there’s a pecking order within the cast of workers and the performers are the stars. Just about everyone is mistreated, including both animals and humans, by the unscrupulous owner and manager, Uncle Al. Jacob almost seems doomed from the start. He must room with Kinko, an angry dwarf who’d like to blame some of his life’s misery on Jacob; he falls in loves with the stunning Marlena, who performs stunts with horses. Unfortunately, Marlena is married to a deeply mentally-ill man (psychotic?) who happens to be the animal trainer and very high in the pecking order. August is often brutal to the animals. Jacob, as you would guess from his profession, has a difficult time abiding this. He is particularly disturbed by August’s treatment of Rosie, the circus’s only elephant, who seems not to be able to obey commands and yet also shows deep intelligence. He discovers that Rosie only responds to Polish. This, however, does not stop August’s mistreatment of her.

 

The story is told as a series of memories of a contemporary Jacob—he’s ninety-three years old and resides in an assisted living facility; he suffers the many indignities of old age. How the story of Rosie, Marlena and Jacob turns out; and how the story of Jacob the old man concludes, were both a little too neat for me to believe either one. However, circus life, as it is presented to the consumer, is magical. So in this case, a fantasy ending isn’t so bad.

October 29, 2007

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, by Kim Edwards, has had a nice run on the bestsellers’ list, I think, because it deals with the ways in which making a single bad decision can wreck lives.

To be honest, it was difficult for me to accept the premise of the novel. David Henry, a young orthopedic surgeon, delivers his own twins when his wife, Norah, goes into labor during a snowstorm. He has been able to drive as far as his office, and his nurse, Carolyn Gill, meets him there to help with the delivery. Norah, who is unconscious, first births a healthy boy, but afterwards, delivers a girl with Down Syndrome. Believing that Norah will be incapable of dealing with a mentally-disabled child, David gives the baby to Caroline to take to an institution. He then tells his wife that the second baby died.

Caroline tries to give the baby up at an institution, but doesn’t have the heart. She is single, in love with David (although he can’t be sure of this). With no ties, she decides to take the baby and run away to a new life. She then raises Phoebe as her own daughter, constantly battling the medical and everyday prejudice against a child with Down Syndrome.

That a single woman with a good career would take on the responsibility of a mentally-challenged child is a tough sell for me. Further, the baby was born in 1964 and the mother was unconscious. Perhaps this indicates that David didn’t have the right drugs in his office, but my mother gave birth to five children beginning in 1954, and was always conscious (though drugged). Knocking women out cold to deliver a baby seems dated. In addition, the prejudice against Phoebe runs deep. As a small child, she is stung by a bee and is allergic. When Carolyn takes her to the hospital, staff members assume that she will not want the child treated (meaning that Phoebe would die and no longer be a burden). Again, I knew people in the 1960s and 1970s with kids who had Down Syndrome, and seeking a quick way to have them die wasn’t part of any of their agendas. I really wish the book had been set back at least twenty years—or more—so that the many incidents would seem more believable.

Even though I couldn’t believe many of the details of this novel, I still enjoyed the main issues. David makes a life-altering mistake by not letting life take its course. Norah always grieves the daughter she believes has died. David must hide his lie for a lifetime and it makes him more distant and emotionally unavailable, so that Norah looks outward for emotional support. The twists and turns of their relationship and of David’s relationship to his son are more honest than other aspects of the book in examining how secrets destroy lives. Phoebe’s life is seen as something whole and containing its own happiness–despite what the people around her assume about her inability to lead a fulfilling existence.

This novel would be a good choice for the junior project. It might be fun for a student to look into some of the facts of the 1960s and 1970s—what childrearing was like, how Down Syndrome was ‘treated,’ etc. I’m guessing that most COHS students would truly enjoy the book. I know several people who have read it, and none had as difficult a time as I in suspending their disbelief in order to become engaged in the plotline.

October 26, 2007

Ordinary Wolves

Although my copy of Ordinary Wolves tells me it’s a best seller, unlike The Kite Runner, I don’t know anyone else who has read it. Like The Kite Runner, it’s a good choice when a teacher asks for a ‘multicultural’ novel or a book about a culture different from your own.

Ordinary Wolves is the story of a white boy who grows up in the 1970s in the Alaskan wilderness. Cutuk lives in a sod igloo with his artist father and his brother and sister. They have no modern conveniences and live like the local Inupiak (Inuit or Eskimo) people have traditionally done. The father, Abe, is an environmentalist to a degree that few people can (or are willing to) manage. Ironically, as the local Inupiaks are adopting some modern American conveniences such as flush toilets and fast food, Cutuk wants to follow tradition. Tradition not withstanding, because he is not really an Inupiak, he is taunted, beaten up, and generally rejected by other children. Loneliness and isolation are important themes of the novel.

The author, Seth Kantner, lived such a childhood, and the novel is autobiographical. Because he knows what he’s talking about, Kantner doesn’t romanticize the wilderness. Living in the icy north of Alaska is tough at all times. Even running sled dogs requires constant vigilance as ice may get between their toe pads and cause frostbite. (Summer is no easier as flies swarm and cause the dogs misery by biting their testicles.) In the struggle to make a life on the frozen tundra, Cutuk, like his father, attempts to do no harm to the people and world around him. When he moves to Anchorage as a young adult, he finds life in the city confusing and the residents disingenuous.

Ordinary Wolves is a good choice for those who enjoy Jack London’s fiction, like wilderness survival stories, have a deep concern for the environment, or just have a desire to understand what ‘roughing it’ really means.

Add comment October 24, 2007

One of the comments you’d never see in a professional book review is “The book is graphic enough to appeal to high school guys.”  I hate to admit it, but this is something I think about when I’m reading. Research shows–and anecdotal evidence at Colony High backs up that research–that high school boys rarely read, almost never when they have the choice.

This summer I read a great book–and I mean great in every sense—a literary masterpiece, a stunning work of fiction, an insightful look into a bleak future, a beautiful rendering of the father-son relationship. And–ta da–a book graphic enough that it will appeal to high school guys.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the story of an unnamed father and son who are making their way to the sea in a post-apocalyptic world. “A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” have left the world barren. Animals are dead (or long ago eaten by the few remaining people), plant life is scorched and roads are melted. The air is always gray with ash, as is the snowfall. The sun is blotted out and winter arrives early. All living people are scavengers—and with little left to scavenge, most are cannibals as well.

In a world that is virtually hopeless, it is amazing that McCarthy can wrench the heart of his reader with the love of the father and son. The father has often told the son that they are “the good guys” and while they have to be on a constant alert for others (who might capture and eat them), they would never do such a thing themselves. Though starving and exhausted from their trek, the son reminds the father that the two of them “carry the flame.”  The son always wants to do well, including helping other people. The father knows better and is more wary. Understanding that he is dying, he saves two bullets in his gun so that he can take his son with him.

Some of the situations McCarthy envisions are horrific (people imprison others and eat them limb by limb, cauterizing the amputations) and yet all strike the reader as inevitable in such a world. Too often, I’ve read reviews that describe a new novel as a ‘tour de force.’ After reading the book, I assume that the reviewer was the author’s best friend. The Road is one novel that deserves the praise.

October 24, 2007


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