Archive for November, 2007

I decided to read How I Live Now in my search for good, young-adult fiction because it won the Printz Award for excellence in YA literature. It’s the story of Daisy, an American teen with some serious problems. Her mother died in childbirth and she refers to herself as her mother’s murderer. Her father and his new wife are expecting a baby, and Daisy is the odd-girl out. She is also anorexic.


To lighten the family load (or so it seems), Daisy is shipped off to England to stay with her Aunt Penn and her four cousins, none of whom she has met before. They live in a farmhouse in the countryside in a sort of idyll not common in the modern word. The family is sensitive and preternaturally perceptive. Aunt Penn must travel to Oslo to discuss the coming war—a situation that seems to be long in coming, and no one believes it will happen; but happen it does. Suddenly Daisy is in a foreign country without an adult to supervise her or her cousins. At first this is fun—living off the farm—but when the war actually touches their lives, the story changes.


Daisy is separated from her male cousins and must look after her nine-year-old cousin, Piper, when they are removed from the farm. They see the devastation of war—cold-blooded murder and the death of animals. Even Daisy must learn to kill an animal to save it from suffering. Eventually, the girls brave the elements and starvation in an effort to return to the farm and find out what has happened to the boys.


Daisy is the sort of teen everyone likes—that is in fiction. She’s sassy and audacious. The narrative uses run-on sentences and unusual capitalization to give the reader a sense of Daisy’s ironic sense of humor. As she learns to draw on her resources to live through the war, she matures and becomes much less self-serving.


A few aspects of the novel did bother me. One was that, near the end of the book, the author jumps forward in time about six years. I felt this was a way of not having to deal with the end of the war—or even of ever letting the reader know who the enemy was and what the fighting was about. More disturbing was Daisy’s relationship with her cousin, Edmund. Although she hadn’t met him before her trip to England, and he is the sort of boy she would fall for, the fact that they have a physical relationship gives the book a little ‘ick’ factor—after all, he still is her first cousin, whether she knew him previously or not, and such a relationship is taboo. (There are no details, graphic or otherwise, and the two are separated through most of the book due to the war.) However, on the whole, teens will like the book, both the loveliness of life in the countryside and the portrayal of life in a war torn country.

November 14, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (the author of The Kite Runner) is popular right now for good reasons. Again, Hosseini explores life in Afghanistan, but with this novel, there’s no escape to the United States. Three decades of war—Soviet rule, an anti-Soviet jihad, a civil war and then the takeover of the Taliban—bring the country to ruin and victimize many citizens, especially women. A Thousand Splendid Suns is largely the story of two of those women, Mariam and Laila.

Mariam is the daughter if a wealthy business man who has three wives. Unfortunately, her own mother was just a maid in the household, and Mariam is often reminded that she is illegitimate. Any dreams she might have for her life and future are crushed at fifteen when her father, as a way of removing the embarrassment that Mariam is to him, marries her off to a much older man, Rasheed, who brutally abuses her. Her dreams of being a mother are thwarted as she has miscarriage after miscarriage. Her inability to provide Rasheed with a son drives him to hate her.

In youth, Laila lives with her liberal, educated parents next door to Rasheed and Mariam. When a stray bomb leaves Laila an orphan at fourteen, she has no choice but to become Rasheed’s second wife, angering Mariam, who has spent eighteen dutiful years with Rasheed. However, as Rasheed is simply abusive by nature, he tires of the beautiful Laila. The women become allied against him and dream of escape.

Most Colony students will love this book. I think too much like an editor to give it the praise for perfection that I see in reviews. In The Kite Runner, Hosseini’s main character, a writer, has a professor who tells him to cut clichés. When I read that, I laughed thinking this must have been based on Hosseini own experience since his clichés sometimes irritate the reader. His plots can be predictable as well, as with unanticipated pregnancies and dire consequences. However, these faults are small in comparison to the impact his work has on the American reader. Students will be stunned at the description of life in a war zone and of the Taliban’s use of punishment (cutting off hands and stoning to death at half-time during soccer games are a few examples.) The following are examples from A Thousand Splendid Suns of new laws imposed by the Taliban when it takes over Afghanistan:

Singing is forbidden.

Dancing is forbidden.

Writing books, watching films, and painting pictures

are forbidden.

Attention women: You will stay inside your homes at all times. . . . If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home.

You will not, under any circumstance, show your face.

You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten.

Cosmetics are forbidden.

Jewelry is forbidden.

You will not wear charming clothes.

You will not speak unless spoken to.

You will not make eye contact with men.

You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten.

You will not paint your nails. If you do, you will lose a finger.

Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools for girls will be closed immediately.

Women are forbidden from working.

If you are found guilty of adultery, you will be stoned to death.

Having some idea of what life is like in other parts of the world is one reason teachers ask you to read “multicultural” books. We readers may not remember the names of all the ethnic groups in Afghanistan, but we come to understand that there is tension between them and that they see themselves as separate peoples. We learn how truly misogynist a society can be.

November 14, 2007

The Book of Dead Birds

We often think of authors as distant celebrities, but the truth is that more authors—even of very good books—are desperately working alone in the hope of sharing their vision with others. Here in the Inland Empire, we have many good authors doing just that. One, Gayle Brandeis, has written a lovely novel that would be a perfect choice when a teacher asks you to read about a culture you know little about.

The Book of Dead Birds is the story of Ava Sing Lo, the daughter of a Korean woman who was forced into prostitution on a U.S. Army base. The base was segregated and Helen serviced the African American men. She becomes pregnant with Ava and manages, through deceit, an escape to California.

The fact that Ava is a product of a forced sexual encounter with a stranger makes her a constant reminder of her mother’s shame. Racial prejudice makes her feel that she has no connections. In a first person narrative Ava tells the story of how she hopes to make a connection with her mother, whose pet birds she has been accidentally killing for years. (This narrative alternates with chapters on Helen’s life.) Finally, at 25, Ava, still unemployed after earning a Master’s Degree, decides that she will head out to the Salton Sea and help with rescue operations during the worst bird die-off the country has ever experienced.

At the Salton Sea Ava meets a man who takes a real interest in her and learns to heal her own heart and as well as her relationship with her mother. There is a poorly thought-out subplot in which prostitutes in the Salton Sea area are being murdered, but overall, the book offers its reader a story both bittersweet and heartwarming. Winner of the Bellwether Prize (for fiction that addresses issues of social justice).

1 comment November 9, 2007

Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund is the perfect book for the junior English project that starts with a work of fiction. It’s rich with historical as well as fictional characters and takes on several of the social issues of Antebellum New England and America—Transcendentalism, religion (in Unitarianism and Universalism), the rights of women, and slavery. Even so, it’s not a book that all high school students will be able to read. At nearly 700 pages, it’s much longer than the books most read. The old-fashioned writing style and the wood-cut images are delightful in that they pull the reader into the 19th-century New England of the novel, but it is a technique unfamiliar to many students.


For those of you who are good readers, do read Ahab’s Wife. You’ll find adventure as Una, the protagonist runs off to sea aboard a whaler, which sinks after a run-in with a whale (Yes, the book has a connection to Moby-Dick and Una is that Ahab’s wife). She survives the shipwreck, but must live with the dark secret of cannibalism. You’ll meet, if only briefly, many literary giants of the period—Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Nathaniel Hawthorne, disguised as one of his own characters (“The Minister’s Black Veil”). Any of them will make an interesting subject for later research as will Frederick Douglass, whom Una hears speak. There’s plenty of romance and heart break as well. Though Una seems a bit modern for her time (she easily accepts her neighbor’s homosexuality), she is a bold and kind woman at once, and has characteristics we all would like to emulate.

November 6, 2007

The Known World by Edward P. Jones is a wonderful book for any reader; fortunately, it also works nicely into some of Colony High’s reading requirements.  Taking place in Antebellum Virginia (about 20 years previous to the Civil War), the novel has a historical element that makes it a perfect choice for the junior research project which requires a book of fiction as a beginning. At nearly 400 pages, its length serendipitously equals the length students most frequently request. Best of all, this is a book for critical thinkers as it explores the complex moral ground of slave owning.


Henry Townsend owns 33 slaves and 50 acres in Manchester County, Virginia. He is also Black and a former slave himself. His father, Augustus, purchased himself, his wife and Henry from their master, William Robbins. Robbins has a special fondness for Henry—one might say he loves Henry as a son. Because of this, the two maintain a relationship over the course of their lives. While Henry becomes a shoemaker, Robbins helps him to buy his first slaves. Robbins’ relationships are complex. He loves a black woman and has children by her, but he can be brutal to his slaves.


Henry’s relationship with his own father is strained. The elder Townsend maintains a moral ground against slaveholding and doesn’t visit his son. Henry’s wife, Caldonia has parents who also own slaves and consider them their children’s legacy. Meanwhile, Caldonia’s brother would like to free his future slaves, putting a strain on his relationship with his mother. For all the Blacks—slave and free—life is tenuous. At one point, a slave trader decides to eat the ‘free papers’ of a Black man and then sell him cheaply as a slave to anyone who won’t ask too many questions.


When Henry dies unexpectedly, Caldonia is not capable of keeping the plantation in order. She depends on the head slave for emotional support—while he hopes that she will free him and marry him–and things fall apart. The many vivid characters will keep you involved in The Known World.

November 6, 2007

When teachers ask students to read biography or memoir, I know their secret hope is that students will learn something about a role model. Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder is a book that honors that secret hope. It’s the story of Paul Farmer, a doctor who specializes in infectious diseases and who has dedicated his life to helping the poorest of the poor in the central plateau of Haiti.


Farmer is a graduate of Harvard, and as a young man established the Haitian clinic Zanmi Lasante. (The name means Partners in Health in Creole.) This is the only health care available to thousands upon thousands of Haitian peasants. Farmer is now one of the world’s leading experts in treating communicable diseases including AIDS and tuberculosis. He has more energy than most of us could imagine; he seems to me to be a sort of secular saint who now has medical organizations in many areas of the world. His deep feeling for the impoverished Haitians is awe inspiring. He is so giving, so caring and wonderful, that when reading about him, it’s difficult to put the book down. The comments on the back of the book cover such as “He has embarked on an epic struggle” and ‘He wants to change the world” as well as “A genuine hero alive in our times” are not hyperbole. You’ll agree, again and again, as you follow Farmer’s career. He received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 1993. His life story will make you want to change the world, too!

November 1, 2007

Manny is a street orphan living in Juarez, Mexico, whose life is full of hunger and danger. He lives in a cardboard lean-to. He had been abandoned by his mother when he was a baby and raised for a time by nuns in a Catholic orphanage. He begs for food and for money from tourists. Since he is small for his age, he has to be very clever about money he gets from tourists, as bigger boys will beat him and take his hard-won money away. He is also concerned about men who will steal him off the streets and act as pimps to sell him to older men. (This is a book that can be read by students younger than those in high school, so the words prostitution and pimp are never used, but the more mature reader understands what is being discussed.)


Robert S. Locke is exacting about forms and ritual of the army. Unfortunately, images of dead friends from Vietnam still haunt him, and he wipes these away with Cutty Sark. Manny “meets” the sergeant one night when Robert is vomiting (drunk) in a Juarez alley. Manny tries to steal Robert’s wallet, unsuccessfully. Subsequent meetings seal a relationship between them, and Manny finally has the courage to tell Locke the truth about himself—that he hopes to cross the border into El Paso and find work. Still the pimps lurk at the edges of Manny’s life.


The Crossing, by Gary Paulsen, is very short, very easy to read, and very well depicts the poverty and fear that would drive Manny to the dangers of the “crossing.”

November 1, 2007

Cold Sassy Tree opens with Grandpa Blakeslee telling his daughters that he plans to marry Love Simpson only three weeks after the death of his wife. The women are scandalized, as is the town. The new relationship is central to the novel. In its beginning, Love and Rucker are living together as a man and his housekeeper. In agreeing to this arrangement, Miss Love inherits the Blakeslee house and furnishings. Unfortunately, she has no family of her own and was hoping to be accepted by Mary Willis, Loma, and the town. The town is further scandalized when a man, Mr. McAllister, a huge Texan, arrives at the Blakeslee home with a silver-trimmed saddle. McAllister is Love’s former fiancé, who, we later learn, dumped her when she told him about being raped by her father when she was twelve. McAllister passionately kisses Miss Love and they are seen by one of the town gossips. Love finds herself removed as the Methodist church’s piano player. She and Rucker start to hold their own church services in the house which are too jolly for the town, and more scandal ensues.


Everything Miss Love does seems to turn out wrong. The difficulty of living in a small town is apparent to the reader. Cold Sassy Tree is a great slice of life from Georgia at the turn of the century (1906). The narration reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird although this book does not delve as deeply into racism and social issues. However, Will comes to understand the unfair treatment of African-Americans and of “lint-heads” or children who must work in the local mill. This novel is a good choice for a work with which to begin the junior project.

November 1, 2007

In The Boy Next Door by Sinclair Smith, Randy finds herself frightened when her father goes away on a business trip for three weeks, leaving her alone in the house. She also seems to be misplacing items that she never loses such as her cheerleading sweater. When a new boy appears from nowhere and tells Randy that he is working on the “fixer upper” next door so that his family can move in soon, she is glad for his companionship.


Julian is always pushing Randy to live on the edge. Eventually, he asks her to do terrible things, causing injury to some of her classmates. Alice, Randy’s best friend, is convinced that Julian doesn’t exist because only Randy has seen him. It appears that Randy is hearing voices and is mentally ill. This is a quick-read thriller with an eerie ending.

November 1, 2007

Though the title Boy might suggest that this is a book for children, the tales of Roald Dahl’s own childhood is wacky good fun that young adults will enjoy. Dahl briefly discusses his parents, but he concentrates on memorable incidents from his early childhood and school years.


Dahl discusses Mrs. Pachett, the dirty candy shop owner who always has an evil eye for small children. He and his friends seek revenge on her by putting a dead rat into one of the candy jars. Later, he is caned for this. In fact, he is caned several times during his school years, and discusses the cruelty of English public schools. When the boys wrote home, the headmaster would overlook their letters so that they could not say that they were being mistreated or that they hated their food, etc. The young, busty matron who keeps the boys in line is caught by Dahl in her room in an amorous embrace with a teacher. In a fit of homesickness, Dahl pretends to have an appendicitis attack.


Dahl reviews the good times as well. He especially loved his summers in Norway. Even frightening events are made funny, such as the time the family rode with the “Ancient Half-Sister” on her first automobile drive. She crashed the car, and Dahl’s nose was cut off, hanging by a piece of skin. On the whole, the book is a good laugh.

November 1, 2007


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