Archive for September, 2008

“The City of Ember”

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

With the movie version coming soon, I decided to read “The City of Ember.” It’s a quick, easy read, but very engaging. Science fiction and fantasy fans will like it, but I think anyone looking for an adventure might enjoy it.

Though the novel doesn’t directly state the fact, the reader soon understands that Ember is a city underground, provided for by the “Builders” over two hundred and forty years ago. Ember’s problems are many. The Builders—hoping to create a society that will escape the fate of the world above ground (whatever that is—I thought of a nuclear holocaust), stored provisions to last at least two hundred years. They also provided directions for the residents to leave Ember and come back above ground. But these directions have been mislaid and no one in Ember knows that there is an outside world. There is only their city—artificially lighted through electricity generated with the help of the river. Outside of the city everything is pitch dark and nothing exists. As the electrical infrastructure deteriorates and the food stores run low, everyone is frightened but they don’t know how to solve their problems.

Two teens, Lina and Doon search for clues. Both have been assigned their jobs the same year. These assignments are random and Doon gets ‘Messenger’ whereas Lina gets ‘Pipeworks.’ They agree to exchange and it is through their jobs that they gain some knowledge of the problems the city is facing. They make important discoveries and see a way out of Ember into a brighter future. However, in another matter, they are accused of lying and causing the city’s residents to panic. Knowing that no one will believe what they have discovered and with the mayor’s security force on their trail, they must decide whether to save themselves.

Add comment September 29, 2008

Bless Me, Ultima

“Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya

This review has been created by the Academic Decathlon class at COHS. It’s a team effort.

“Bless Me, Ultima” is a novel set in Guadalupe, New Mexico. The narrator, Antonio Marez, is an adult looking back to when he was six years old. Antonio is conflicted over his future. His father’s side of the family have always been nomadic cowboys, living near the sea. His mother’s family have been farmers, living on the llano (plains, grasslands). Antonio us being pulled in both directions. In addition, his mother wants him to be a Catholic priest. he is quite religious and thinks he might make a good priest.

Antonio begins to question this heritage when Ultima comes to live in his family’s house. Ultima, or La Grande, (we think she is known from life on the llano when she helped ) deliver Antonio. This creates a connection between the two.

The townspeople are suspicious of Ultima becasue she is a curandera. A cuandera is folk healer who uses herbs. People suspect that she is a bruja, or witch. Although Ultima seems to have supernatural powers, she is unable to interfere with the destiny of others.

Ultima does have some friends among the townspeople. One is Narciso. He is the town drunk, but also a friend of the Marez family. He defends Ultima’s reputation and warns her when Tenorio, the saloon owner, threatens Ultima’s safety. He has three daughters who are truly brujas. These are the women who made Antonio’s uncle very ill. He would have died if not for Ultima’s cure.

The longer that Ultima is in the Marez home, the more Antonio explores spiritual avenues outside the Catholic Church. A friend, Cico, tells him the story of the golden carp and takes Antonio to a secluded section of the river to see the carp. The carp is purported to be a pagan god.

Tenorio’s fears and hatred for Ultima cause him to challenge her more than once. In one incident, Tenorio states that Ultima will not be able to cross the threshold of the door when a cross is placed there because the cross has the power of God. Ultima does indeed cross the threshold, but the reader realizes later that the blessed sewing needles making up the cross have fallen from the threshold, leaving him to wonder if Ultima really is a witch.

Ultimately Ultima dies after Tenorio realizes that Ultima’s spirit is contained in her owl. Tenorio kills the owl, and Ultima falls mortally ill. 

Antonio learns to incorporate the many spiritual aspects of his Hispanic heritage including the pagan golden carp, Ultima’s power of goodness, the Catholic.

2 comments September 19, 2008

“Best American Short Stories 2007″ and “Every Man for Himself”

Best American Short Stories 2007 edited by Stephen King

Every Man for Himself edited by Nancy E. Mercado (but all the stories are written by men)

When teachers assign short story reading to their students, many of the students just pick any collection of short works off the shelf and read the first story in the book. I imagine that doesn’t hurt anything—students have been exposed to some good fiction in this way—but there are some really good stories available in the library that you might want to check out. I recently read two collections that I really enjoyed.

This summer I read “Best American Short Stories 2007” which was edited by Stephen King. This is one in a series of yearly collections that have a different guest editor each year. So the taste of the editor influences the choices somewhat. King says he likes action, but I found his choices good for thought, too. My favorite story was “Findings and Impressions” by Stellar Kim, narrated by a radiologist who diagnoses a woman with breast cancer after examining her mammogram images. I know it sounds like a weird premise, but it is this unusual take that makes the story the good. The woman isn’t a person to the radiologist in the beginning—he doesn’t know her. She is only a diagnosed cancer. But he does get to know her, to like her, and is afraid for his son to become too close to her because he is sure the woman is going to die—and his son has already experienced the death of his own mother. It’s sad and full of compassion at the same time. A really different story is “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.” St. Lucy’s is like the homes for ‘wayward’ (pregnant) girls back in the day. But in this home, girls who are human children of werewolves are being civilized. Very creative! For those who like lots of action, “The Boy from Zaquitos” is about a guy who is trained to be a germ warfare assassin. He has special implants in his teeth that he cracks open and emits plagues, silently killing thousands. “Wait” is a story of international air passengers who end up stranded in an airport somewhere in African (I don’t think the story indicates where) and the whole group starts enacting the world political situation. A metaphor for current life. The 2008 version is on order for our library!

“Every Man for Himself” is meant to appeal to guys, but I liked it a lot. I had to get past the cover art though—two urinals on a tiled bathroom wall, one lower for a small boy, one higher for an adult man. Clearly, the stories are about growing up, but—maybe because I’m not a guy—I thought the cover was a little gross. Stories I remember best are “Shockers” about a boy whose girlfriend is only dating him (a sort of goth kid) to shock her parents. But the boy has lost his own father and makes a connection with her dad. Another I liked was a little mini graphic novel “Strange Powers,” a story of how love changes a guy’s perception of the world. In a story called “Princes” a boy challenges his parents, letting them know he is gay by insisting that he be allowed to bring a male date to his brother’s bar mitzvah. It’s really a story about courage and the connection between the two brothers. My favorite of the group was Walter Dean Myers’ story “The Prom Prize” in which a pretty popular guy allows his friends to have a lottery to choose his prom date. The boy is an African American athlete. The winning girl is white. Everyone has something to say about the date, what should or shouldn’t happen between the couple—everyone in the school thinks it’s their business and the results are pretty funny. All the stories have a pretty good sense of the trials of being a guy. I hope you’ll read them.

Add comment September 18, 2008

“Night” and “Dawn” by Elie Wiesel

Knowing that all freshmen here at COHS read “Night” by Elie Wiesel, and that sophomores have “Dawn” as a possible outside reading choice for history projects, I decided I’d have a go at it. I had read “Night” in the past and found it deeply depressing—no surprise, I’m sure, as a personal account of a Holocaust experience has to make the reader wonder about man’s inhumanity to man. The most difficult part of reading “Night” was, for me, the sense that the evils perpetrated by the Nazis could indeed break the human spirit and make good people behave in a way that they would have previously regarded as something less than human. I still remember the story of a son wrestling his father for a loaf of bread.

Judging by the title, I thought that “Dawn” would be a story of some sort of redemption in the aftermath of the Holocaust. I had no idea what the subject of the book was, and it surprised me—as well as made me think.

The narrator, Elisha, is a survivor of Nazi death camps. He is recruited to go to Palestine as an Israeli freedom fighter—what people would refer to as a terrorist if the freedom fighter were waging war against them. Elisha is chosen because he has no family—they have all died in death camps—and nothing particular to live for. Working to create Israel gives him something to live for—a homeland. But what happens to him as a freedom fighter brings up all the moral questions of his activities. The British control Palestine. Another Jewish freedom fighter is captured by the British and sentenced to die. As retribution for the death, the freedom fighters/terrorists will execute a British soldier at the same time. The soldier is arbitrarily picked off the street and hidden in a basement. Elisha is chosen to be the executioner. This is ironic considering Elisha’s name.

The entire book reflects on the choice Elisha has to make as he communes with his dead family members, his past self and other freedom fighters (one of whom is, again ironically, nicknamed ‘God.’) As short as the novel is, I think some students will pick it as an outside book thinking it will be an easy read. Considering the questions it addresses, nothing could be further from the truth.

September 17, 2008

“Trouble” by Gary D. Schmidt

No matter what a person does to avoid it, trouble can find him. That’s what Henry Smith learns although his father has always said that staying away from Trouble was easy enough.

The Smiths are a much untroubled family as the story opens—wealthy, they live in a New England mansion that has been in the family for over 300 years, situated in a perfect town called Blythbury-by-the-Sea. Henry’s older brother, Franklin, is a superstar high school athlete and rugby player. Life is good.

One night while he is out running, Franklin is struck by a truck and lands in the hospital in a coma. Life for the Smiths changes overnight as they wait to see if Franklin will live or die. When the alleged driver of the vehicle, Chay Chouan, a Cambodian immigrant, comes forward, the town anti-immigrant sentiments run high. But at the pre-trial hearing, Henry finds out things that he had never known about his brother, including that he had often made fun of Chay and beat him while his friends held Chay down. Franklin’s true character appears to be that of an arrogant, privileged jerk.

Chay is not convicted of a crime, but his family disowns him because they are ashamed of him. Confused and angry, Henry decides that he is going to climb the most rugged mountain in the area, Mount Katahdin, partly because Franklin had told him he wouldn’t be able to do it. Henry’s friend Sanborn, comes along, fearing that Henry will be hurt if he goes alone.

Although it’s a coincidence that the two boys are hitchhiking and Chay picks them up—in the very truck that hit Franklin—as the reader, I believed the story because I understood that Chay was stopping for ‘black dog’—a dog that had been his until his father starved and then threw the dog in the ocean. The three boys then hike the mountain together and we learn more about each of their lives. Chay is the product of a rape in a Cambodian re-education camp and he’s also a protector of Henry’s sister.

The trip results in danger, revelation, a new understanding of the characters, and the opportunity for forgiveness. It brings up issues such as immigration, a bad economy and even the repercussions of slavery. This was a great book and A Junior Library Guild pick. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

September 17, 2008

“Out of War: True Stories from the Front Lines of the Children’s Movement for Peace in Columbia” by Sara Cameron

Nine chapters of “Out of War’ each discuss one of the child leaders of the Children’s Movement for Peace in Columbia. For many years, Columbia has been torn apart by political factions, drug lords that wrestle for control over regions, gangs and extreme poverty, both rural and urban. In the mid-1990s, UNICEF (a United Nations children’s organization), the Catholic Church and others helped to create the Children’s Peace Movement. The children who tell their stories not only give us a picture of the peace movement, but of the terrible lives they have survived.

Juan Elias’ father and cousin are assassinated one day in the father’s dental office. Juan had hoped to go to work with his father that day, but was late getting ready. Maritza comes from a violent home and although she tries to make peace, she lives a dual life and is caught up in street gangs. Johemir lived alone for eight months when he was only ten years old because his mother had to take a job in another area just to survive. He and others volunteer in the “Return to Happiness” program help small children who are victims of violence—one seven-year-old boy reported having seen his father murdered, cut up, put in a bag and thrown in a river. Unfortunately, stories like this are quite common.

For me, one of the most interesting things about what the teens said about their experiences was how they had learned that revenge didn’t work. Ultimately, many talk about forgiveness and the need to be the ones to end the violence. This idea can relate to violence in other ways—what students might be experiencing here in Southern California—in cities, schools, and in their homes. I hope COHS student will comment on this. What did you think of the ‘children’s referendum’ in which millions of children ages 7-18 voted for the rights to life and peace as their most important rights? How does this help—or does it?

If you enjoyed the book, the author also wrote ‘Natural Enemies,” which is an eco-novel. If you are interested in more information about the Children’s Movement, check the list of websites and resources at the back of the book.

September 17, 2008

“The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls

Yes, memoirs of dysfunctional families and abused children are quite popular among adults now as they are among teens. “The Glass Castle” could be grouped into this genre, but it is set apart by the fact that Walls’ parents are not overtly abusive—they seem to love their children—but they are so neglectful that it defies imagination. How the Walls children managed to grow up and escape a life of poverty is a great read.

Walls’ father was an alcoholic and her mother was an (unsuccessful) artist. Both are completely impractical and have no parenting skills. They allow the kids to do as they please and to raise themselves. Jeannette severely burns herself when she is three because she catches fire trying to make herself a hotdog. The dangerous mix of children and fire still doesn’t sink in for the parents, and there are several close encounters throughout the book.

Mrs. Walls has a teaching certificate, but is rarely employed because she doesn’t like the routine or getting up in the morning. She has an excuse for everything about her life and nothing seems to bother her too much. If the family doesn’t have the money to feed its pets, then all the better—the pets are learning survival skills. Rex Walls is very intelligent, but he always has pie-in-the-sky schemes and resorts to alcohol and arguing on the job, which routinely get him fired. He seems to make more money playing poker than he does working. Thus the kids have to learn survival skills just as the pets do. They sleep on cardboard boxes and cover themselves with a plastic raft to keep the rain off when the roof leaks. They scrounge for food and eat out of the schoolyard trashcans. If the family accumulates too much debt—or just gets the itch to move—they ‘skedaddle.’ They don’t pay to have the garbage collected, and it ends up in a large hole the kids had dug in the yard—a hole that was supposed to be for the fountain of the ‘glass castle,’ a dream house that Rex is always modifying plans for and never building.

While the kids are young, they are able to believe in the glass castle of their future. Their father has sometimes delightful ways of disguising his negligence—such as the Christmas when the kids will get no presents, but he takes each of them outside to name a one of the stars in the night sky as their own. However, ultimately, the children must place themselves in reality.

September 16, 2008

“Running with Scissors” and “A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father” by Augustine Burroughs

As I watch students pick out biographies for class assignments, it always occurs to me that there are books you’d like better if you just knew what they were about. It seems that the same few subjects are always selected—Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana. Even when students choose Martin Luther King, Jr., I know it is because they already know a lot about his life from reading about him every year from fourth grade on.

I’ve asked your teachers if you can read memoirs when assigned biographies and, happily, the answer is yes. The hard thing about finding a memoir is that it won’t be cataloged with the biographies. It will be found wherever its subject is found. So a good book about a boy soldier in modern-day Sierra Leone is cataloged with books on Africa—and you’ll probably never find it. To get some of these good books into your hands, I thought I’d review some of my favorites. So I’ll start with one I just read, “A Wolf at the Table.”

Augustine Burroughs has written several memoirs, the most famous of which is “Running with Scissors,” which was made into a movie. “Running” is one of those crazy books that should make you weep for the terrible life of an emotionally and psychologically abused child, but that makes you laugh out loud as well. In it Burroughs discusses his childhood. His mentally ill mother hands him over to her (rather crazy) psychiatrist who adopts Burroughs. He describes his life in the doctor’s home as a mad house. The family never cleans anything and keeps a Christmas tree up all year. The wife of the psychiatrist is also a psychologically beaten woman who eats dog food as a snack. Though Burroughs is only thirteen years old, he is encouraged in a relationship with a man in his mid-thirties—a relationship that any normal person would regard as child abuse. The psychiatrist arbitrarily offers medication (drugs) to Augustine and makes predictions about the future through ‘Bible dipping” and reading the angles of his stool in the toilet.

Burroughs emerges worse for the wear. He has a second memoir “Dry” in which he discusses his alcoholism. “A Wolf at the Table” is Burroughs’ most recent best seller. Here he goes back in time from his other memoirs to remember his father, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts. Professor Robison is psychologically cruel. He will never show Augustine affection, and in fact, seems to enjoy watching others suffer. Burroughs makes a ‘father’ out of clothes and pillows. His real father kills Augustine’s guinea pig and turns his dog into a violent attack animal that must be euthanized. He calls his son and tells him that he is going to kill him. The fact that Burroughs survived and remained sane, even funny, is a testimony to the human spirit.

September 16, 2008

“Year of Impossible Goodbyes” by Sook Nyul Choi

I guess August was the ‘month of impossibly short reads’ for me because here’s another little book that I thought was deeply moving. It’s shelved with children’s fiction in the library, but I hope that won’t keep you away from it. It’s a beautifully told, heartbreaking story with at least some happiness at the end. I know your teachers are often asking you to think about what life is like in other parts of the world—and this is a great account.

The narrator is ten-year-old Sookan. She relates the experiences of her Korean family near the end of World War II. She—and all of Korea—is under Japanese occupation—and this has been going on a lot longer than WWII—more like thirty years. The Japanese occupiers are cruel just for the sake of cruelty and use the war effort as an excuse for all of their behaviors.

Sookan’s family runs a ‘sock factory’ which employs young women and older teen girls. They must work long, grueling hours for low wages (sometimes they are not paid at all) to make socks for the Japanese war effort. Sookan’s mother and gruff aunt care deeply for the girls and try to keep them fed and protected. When Sookan’s grandfather extends some kindness to one of the girls, the Japanese military come to the house and cut down his beloved pine tree. After this, grandfather is tired of life, and Sookan learns of the physical torture he had endured by the Japanese. The sock-factory girls are later taken away to be ‘spirit girls’ for the Japanese troops. They cry out “I’d rather be dead!” and I wondered if younger readers would understand that this meant the girls were being taken into forced/enslaved prostitution.

Just as we hope things will get better with the end of WWII, North Korea is occupied by the USSR (Russia), and Sookan’s family must escape to get beyond the 38th parallel. Their efforts—guided by a double agent—are both exciting and heartbreaking. A wonderful read!

September 16, 2008

Bad Boy: A Memoir by Walter Dean Myers

Another quick book that I read this summer was “Bad Boy: A Memoir” by Walter Dean Myers. Myers is a well-known (and well-loved) author of young adult fiction and has written several books that are popular here at COHS including “Monster,” “Fallen Angels,” and “Slam!” “Bad Boy” is the story of Meyers’ childhood and young adult years. It’s a good, quick read for anyone with a biography assignment or anyone just interested in the author of some of their favorite books.

Myers grew up in Harlem in the 1940s. His memoir gives us a sense of place and how much Harlem meant to Meyers as a boy. His upbringing is unusual: though his parents are alive, he is adopted by the ex-wife of his father and her husband—the Deans—when he is just a small child. “Mama” read to him daily, and this was the seed of Myers’ love of reading and writing.

Though his experiences as a child are limited, as Myers grows and sees more of the world outside Harlem, he experiences racism. In addition, he has a speech impediment, and because he is often teased, he fights on a regular basis. His friendship with a white boy falls apart as they grow old enough to go to clubs where Myers is not allowed because of his race. Though Myers is a gifted child and attends an accelerated junior high, by high school he is frequently truant. He cannot reconcile himself the fact that he is receiving a good education just to be a manual laborer. Some of his classmates are applying to colleges that, again, are closed to Myers because of his race.

Thank goodness Myers finally found his writing voice and listened to an English teacher who told him, “Whatever happens, don’t stop writing.”

September 16, 2008


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