Archive for October, 2008

The Little Book of Plagiarism by Richard A. Posner

This book is literally little—the pages are 4 by 6 inches, and it’s only about 100 pages long. However, its comments on plagiarism—how it is defined (with difficulty) and what it means historically and in our world today—make a great quick read. Students will better understand why plagiarism is such an intellectual sin. Teachers can mull over the changing nature of plagiarism and might even want to use a few of Posner’s examples. And no—you wouldn’t be plagiarizing to do so if you credit Posner. Just don’t use too much of Posner as examples for your classes—then you’d be violating fair use—a copyright rather than a plagiarism issue.

Some of the more fun passages in the book include a look at Shakespeare’s source for Antony and Cleopatra (Shakespeare? A plagiarist?); the origin of the word plagiarism (from a Latin word that describes someone who stole someone else’s slave); a discussion of fairly recent accusations of plagiarism (Dan Brown of “The DaVinci Code” fame, J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, and the historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose). A perfect example of the kind of plagiarism that high school students are often guilty of is discussed throughout the book—Kaavya Viswanathan’s use of slightly altered passages from the ‘chick lit’ works of Megan McCafferty. You probably couldn’t find a better example for a class discussion.

Other than a few political jabs at the ‘lefties,’ including academics (who are all lefties, I guess) soft on plagiarism, the book is entertaining as well as enlightening.

October 29, 2008

Whirligig by Paul Fleishman

In trying to kill himself, Brent causes an accident that kills Lea Zamora, a high school senior whose life is very promising. Brent was drunk and had just been humiliated at a party by the girl he is lusting after. His actions were thoughtless and now a wonderful person is dead. How can Brent atone—how does he seek forgiveness?

Lea’s mom, though grieving, is the person who helps him, oddly enough, by asking him to make reparations. As part of a program for victim’s families, Lea’s mom requests that Brent make whirligigs and place them in the four corners of the United States—Maine, Florida, Washington, and California. She asks this because Lea loved whirligigs and seeing these blown by the wind would make people happy. Brent is not required by law to do what Mrs. Zamora asks, and his parents raise all sorts of objections, as if to protect him. But Brent is very sorry about what he’s done. He NEEDS to repent and so agrees to the request. Mrs. Zamora gives him a 45-day bus pass good all over the country and a disposable camera to take pictures of the whirligigs when he finishes them.

The story shows how Brent’s odyssey changes him into a better person as he endures physical fatigue and becomes more skilled in carpentry. It also shows, through interspersed chapters, the effect that Brent’s whirligigs (all of them have Lea in them in some way) have on people who see and enjoy them.

This is a beautiful story about the need for forgiveness as well as about growing up and accepting responsibility for one’s actions–and the journey there. If you’ve read Homer’s “The Odyssey,” I wonder if you see a connection.

October 27, 2008

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

“Lie down with dogs; wake up with fleas.” I remembered reading this ‘aphorism’—a witty little statement by Benjamin Franklin—as I read the novel “Monster.”

The main character of the novel, Steve Harmon, is in just such a position. He appears to be a good guy in general—he has no criminal record and he’s a talented cinematographer. Yet he has somehow gotten involved with other guys who are accused of murdering a Harlem drugstore owner. Steve is accused of being the lookout for a robbery that ended in the murder. Now, at sixteen, he is on trial for that murder.

The story is told through Steve’s journal entries and through a screenplay he is writing about his experience. The journal gives the reader insight into Steve’s experience in jail and his feelings about his experience. The drama is more objective—people speak for themselves—lawyers, the four accused boys, the officers, the judge. The truly interesting thing about this format is that it is not clear whether Steve has willfully participated in the drugstore robbery. As you read and try to figure it out for yourself, you’ll be swayed by the evidence, by your sympathy for Steve and his parents, and by your own experiences with the law and prejudice—whatever those experiences are.

As a parent of teenage boys, I wanted to hand all three this book as a cautionary tale—read this so that you can see what happens when a good kid hangs around the wrong people.

What do you think? Were you sympathetic with Steve? Is it true that if you ‘lie down with dogs’ you will ‘wake up with fleas’?

October 23, 2008

Cleopatra VII (The Royal Diaries) by Kristiana Gregory

This is the first book I’ve read from “The Royal Diaries” series. If you’ve read books from the “American Girl” series or, better yet, the “Dear America” (“My Name is America”) series, you will be right at home with the format. This ‘diary’ of Cleopatra’s early teen years, is, of course historical fiction. The author, Kristiana Gregory has taken some known historical fact and mixed it with what she imagines a young princess in ancient Egypt would do and think.

As the diary tells it, Cleopatra flees Egypt with her father, Ptolemy XII, when enemies threaten his life (a puff adder, a poison snake, is set in his room and his wine is also poisoned.) Once in Rome, seeking the protection and military help of Caesar, the two find out that Cleopatra’s oldest sister has taken over the throne and later has been strangled. The second sister then takes over. Cleopatra herself is third in line to be pharaoh, but she is certain she would be a better ruler than her shallow sister, whose heart is more concerned with jewelry. However, she also fears that her father could have her killed if he suspects that she wants to usurp his authority. From this point forward, the diary tells of events back in Egypt and those in Rome as father and daughter wait for Rome’s help and the good weather required for a return trip to Alexandria.

Many of the details here bring the ancient world to life. The filth and stench that ordinary people had to deal with on a daily basis is an eye opener. There is much of interest that can be researched—what about the Alexandrian Great Library? Or the 400-foot-high Pharos Lighthouse, considered one of the wonders of the ancient world? Did Cicero make those speeches indicating that Rome should not help Egypt? Did Cleopatra really learn several languages with ease? Did she actually have a pet leopard (a character in this book)? Was Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra’s father, truly an alcoholic?

The interaction between Cleopatra and Marc Antony sets up the future romance between them. You should read the historical note at the end of the novel to see how their relationship turns out. The illustrations at the end are also interesting and enlightening.

October 23, 2008

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Holt

When I was studying literature in college, I remember being told a story about a Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor. Asked why Southern writers always have freaks in their novels, she responded:

“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.”

Reading “Zachery Beaver” reminded me of this quote. It’s 1971 in Antler, Texas, where nothing much happens until a trailer pulls into the parking lot of the Diary Maid. Inside is a sideshow attraction—Zachary Beaver, the “fattest boy in the world” at 643 pounds. Antler folks line up to pay $2 each to have a look at Zachary. Thirteen-year-old Toby Wilson and his best friend Cal are among the gawkers, but soon become curious, and then concerned about Zachary when they realize that his manager and guardian has apparently abandoned him in the parking lot.

Toby and Cal aren’t the only folks in Antler to notice what’s happening. For all the boredom available in this small town, there is a lot of deeply felt human kindness as well, and the ‘freaks’—actually misfits–of Antler work to help Zachary by bringing him food and protecting him from vandals. But Zachary is wary of people—after all, he lives as a sideshow attraction, being made fun of. When Toby and Cal arrange a trip to a drive-in movie, they see how Zachary must shut down in order to get through the staring and whispering of strangers.

This novel says a lot about dreams and life’s disappointments. Toby is somewhat ashamed of his father who is the town postmaster but also raising worms to sell to bait shops. Toby’s mom, who is a waitress at the Bowl-a-Rama Cafe wants to be the next Tammy Wynette (a famous country singer) and leaves her husband and son to try her luck in Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry. Miss Myrtie Mae, the town historian and librarian, gave up her chance for love to care for her brother, the judge, who is now senile. And the girl of Toby’s dreams, Scarlett, wants to be a model (if only she had better teeth) and is in love with someone else. Everyone—not just Zachary–is vulnerable.

The benefit of a small town is that people know each other—and when they do, they accept each other’s quirks as well as help one another in times of need. One of the most moving scenes of the novel is a mother receiving the news that her son has been killed in Vietnam. Moving, too, is the fact that the entire town shuts down and everyone attends the funeral—except Toby and the town drunk—their absence caused by more vulnerability that must be resolved.

October 14, 2008

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff

The blank verse form of this novel brings lyrical beauty to the story of two inner-city teen girls—fourteen-year-old LaVaughn and seventeen-year-old Jolly. Though LaVaughn lives in ‘the projects,’ she has a strong widowed mother looking out for her, one who insists that college is a must. LaVaughn is focused on her future and works hard at school to make the grade. On the other hand, Jolly is a lost and desperate mother of two. Functionally illiterate, Jolly works in a factory until she is fired after she refuses sexual advances from her boss. She has no life skills and this includes her ability to parent—her apartment is filthy with odd bits of smelly old food left about, meals for the roaches. She runs out of diapers and clean clothes and LaVaughn describes her as doing everything ‘half-way.’

We learn that Jolly’s inability to deal with every day life, to “take hold” as LaVaughn’s mother keeps saying, is rooted in her lack of family support. The only parent she’s ever known is an elderly foster mom, ‘Gram,’ who died shortly after Jolly comes to live with her. LaVaughn has taken a job babysitting Jolly’s two kids while Jolly works, hoping to save money for college. But when Jolly, loses her job, LaVaughn babysits for free—that is until she realizes that she is only providing a sort of welfare for Jolly and not helping her ‘take hold.’ It is only when Jolly decides to go back to school—and includes parenting classes—that she has any hope of taking the lemons that life has given her and making lemonade.

If you have any doubt that high school matters—that working hard on becoming educated matters—reading this book is a MUST!

October 14, 2008

The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell

The story of Anna Schoene’s childhood in Shanghai, China in the 1930s and her late childhood and teen years in Pasadena is so thick with period detail, that both locales should come alive for the reader. In fact, it is this abundance of detail that, though I often found it contrived and irritating, would work well for you if you select this novel to start your Junior Project.

Anna’s father, Joesph, is the son of missionaries and was born in China. He speaks fluent Mandarin and passionately loves Shanghai, staying there to run a rather shady import-export business even when the dangers of doing so are evident to everyone around him. While foreigners leave the country, Joseph allows his wife and child to depart without him. He has survived being kidnapped. Once Shanghai falls to the Japanese (WW II), Joseph is taken as a prisoner of war and tortured. Surviving, he briefly joins his wife and daughter in Pasadena, but can’t settle there. He goes back to China, and eventually Shanghai, where he becomes the prisoner of the Chinese Communists for four years until he is inexplicably released and then expelled from Hong Kong in 1954. The chapters on Joseph’s various imprisonments are riveting.

Once back in the states, Joseph moves close to Anna, now an adult with children, and makes efforts to reconnect. Anna’s mother has died of leukemia and Anna’s grandmother tells her to be careful—Joseph has proven to be self-serving and has always put his interests above his family. Yet, before she died, Anna’s mother has told her that she should forgive her father. It is this theme of forgiveness which adds depth to the book.

What seems contrived in this novel will actually benefit you in your project. The book reads as though the author had done research, not only in historical documents, but also by perusing every “Life” and “Look” magazine of the period that she could get her hands on. Perhaps she hates to have wasted that time and wants to include everything she found—a common post-research mistake. And so as a reader, you will be treated to the titles of popular movies, the names of recording artists, songs and albums, the names of local restaurants and their order on the street as well as a run down of the menu of each. You’ll even learn what brand and shade lipstick Anna’s mother wears—because Anna’s mother is proud to share this information with her (huh?). When you turn from the fiction to the research, you’ll have a plethora of 1930s-1950s details to choose from.

October 14, 2008

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Although I’d only heard great things about this book, I hesitated to read it because I have been let down by the author before. It was as though he wanted the reader to understand that he was an American Indian and then said, “And you can’t possibly get what that means, so shove off.” Pretty depressing.

Fortunately, Alexie’s first ‘young adult’ novel is a different experience all together.

“The Absolutely True Diary” is a fictional account of the life of a fourteen-year-old Spokane Indian, Arnold Spirit (Junior). He has a lot working against him—he was born with water on his brain (hydrocephalic) and is bullied by his peers. His father’s an alcoholic (but only when he’s drunk!) and Junior is getting a lousy education on the reservation (rez). In order to change his luck, Arnold decides to go to the ‘white’ school in Reardon, Washington, 22 miles from the rez. Happily, he makes friends and becomes one of the school’s basketball stars. But his friends on the rez call him an ‘apple’ for being red on the outside, but white on the inside. So the one constant question of teen life—Who am I?—has multiple meaning in Junior’s life.

The Indians in this novel are neither the stereotype of savage or noble nature guide/shaman. Junior knows a lot of people with a lot of problems—especially alcoholism. Yet the book is wildly funny, and we laugh out loud as we root for Junior to make it in life. One of the reasons we do so is the cartoons by Ellen Forney that are interspersed throughout the book. Ostensibly, they are Arnold’s cartoons and drawing, as he is a budding artist. These comics can be read as a stand-alone story. One of my favorites was “Junior Gets to School,” with five panels, showing what happens to him Monday-Friday as he tries to make his 22 mile trip. Another non sequitur that is hilarious is “THE UNOFFICIAL and UNWRITTEN (but you better follow them or you’re going to get beaten twice as hard) SPOKANE INDIAN RULES OF FISTICUFFS.” It’s easy to see why life is so hard for Arnold.

“The Absolutely True Diary” won the National Book Award and was a Junior Library Guild pick. Reading it gives you a chance to think about the difficulties encountered in getting out of tough situations–and yet it’s still uplifting. And funny, funny, funny at the same time. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this one!

October 13, 2008

Conception by Kalisha Buckhanon

I picked this new YA novel off our shelf because it won the Terry McMillan Young Author Award. I think of Terry McMillan as light reading. Although she does deal with the issues of Black women, she can be pretty funny. The serious tone of “Conception” then caught me off guard.

Fifteen-year-old Shivana Montgomery is an African American girl living with her mother in inner-city Chicago. Her future looks pretty bleak—there doesn’t seem to be much learning going on at her high school, and Shivana’s mom is bitter about men and life (with good reason), often taking it out on Shivana. Shivana herself is a product of her environment. Far from perfect, she is having an affair with the father of the children she babysits for—a thirty-five year-old man who deals drugs to supplement the family income. Of course, the wife who is paying Shivana to stay with the kids doesn’t know this. The man, LeRoy, doesn’t seem to care much about birth control, and Shivana ends up pregnant. She decides to have an abortion as the only way to jump out of the cycle of poverty. As she tries to come to terms with her life, she meets nineteen-year-old Rasul, and he gives her hope that they can have a better future together.

The unusual thing about this novel is that the unborn baby is a major character. It is her job to try to convince Shivana not to have an abortion. She is an old soul that has never been born, although she’s tries several times. Each of her ‘moms’ is a young Black woman who comes to a tragic end while pregnant—a slave who is beaten to death, a girl who is lynched, a woman who commits suicide. (As I said, this is a bleak story). But as an old soul, the baby is omniscient—she knows everything about the outside world and describes it lyrically, beautifully.

Shivana is something of a paradox. When she speaks and interacts with her friends, she sound like a poor, inner-city girl. Her language is often crude and she can toss the ‘n-word’ around pretty frequently. When she thinks, her language is elevated, her vocabulary very rich and her talent for creating beautiful images and figurative language is enviable. As a critical reader, I can see this as a fault of the author’s—if Shivana is leading a hard-scrabble life and lacks all opportunity and a decent education, it’s hard to believe in her depth of knowledge, vocabulary, etc. However, this second Shivana allows the author to display her own tremendous writing talent—which is, I am sure, why she hasn’t worried about consistency.

I would only recommend this novel to mature readers. Some might find the language offensive; and it deals explicitly with adult issues of sexuality and abortion. But if it’s a gritty ‘real’ drama you’re looking for, this may be the book.

October 13, 2008


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