Archive for December, 2008

“The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink, translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway

Although “The Reader” is one of those books about which little can be said without giving away the ‘secret,’ it’s a great novel in the way that it approaches guilt and moral responsibility. Since it has been made into a movie that’s coming out in a few weeks (January 9, 2009), I thought I’d review it now.

“The Reader” is set in post World War II Germany, starting in the 1950s. Michael Berg, a 15 year old becomes so sick from hepatitis that he vomits in the street. Hanna Schmitz, who is much older than he—in her thirties–helps him. After months of recovery, Michael goes to Hanna’s house to thank her for her assistance. The two begin a love affair. Right away, we wonder about the moral ambiguity of the characters as Michael is only a minor. (Note that this is not a book with any sexual description; the things that the reader will find offensive or at least question are the decisions and actions of the characters, not graphic scenes.)

Soon Hanna makes Michael read to her each time he visits. When Hanna disappears without a trace, Michael is forlorn. Several years latter, when Michael is a law student, he is assigned to follow a trial in which Hanna is one of the defendants, accused of Nazi war crimes as a former SS officer.

When other defendants place the blames for many atrocities on Hanna in order to mitigate their own guilt, she is both evil and a scapegoat. Why she allows this is one of the secrets of the novel. “The Reader” raises questions about whether a person can be both evil and benign and about society’s responsibility to remember its history, including its atrocities. Though a quick read at just over 200 pages, the novel is thought provoking.

December 10, 2008

“Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Although you are younger than Elizabeth Gilbert and, hopefully, have not experienced the kind of life crisis that prompts the journey detailed in this memoir, I think you’ll be able to relate to the idea of trying to pull your life together after some sort of loss. Since Gilbert is an excellent writer, you’ll also enjoy the wry way she is able to poke fun at herself at the same time that she works through some serious life changes.

When she was thirty years old, Gilbert realized that her marriage wasn’t working and that she had no desire for children. She spends nights crying on her bathroom floor, wondering what she should do. She comes to understand that she should get a divorce, and then all hell breaks loose. Her husband makes it as difficult as possible, and she gives him all her assets (house, etc.), just to get out. At the same time, she falls in love with a man whom she describes as wonderful, but who is also a bad choice for her. She’s a human shipwreck—too thin, too sleepless, lost and sinking fast.

Gilbert decides to go away for a year and visit three countries for four months each—Italy, India, and Indonesia (specifically, Bali). In Italy, she learns to speak Italian simply because it is such a beautiful language—and she eats the most delicious food she’s ever had, gaining some much needed weight. In India, she stays in an ashram to learn how to meditate and pray with the intensity that she believes spiritual life requires. In Bali, she befriends two traditional healers and falls in love.

All of the author’s experiences help her along a journey of self-discovery where she gains spiritual insight and finds the balance she seeks in her life. Her good-humored writing style will make you feel like she’s just chatting with you across the table, and yet will help you gain insights into life as well. A good choice when your teacher assigns a biography/memoir—or when you seek balance in your own life.

December 10, 2008

“The World is Flat” by Thomas L. Friedman

Throughout my reading of “The World is Flat,” I wondered, would your average high school student want to read this? This is ironic, because where subject matter is concerned, this book should be required reading for every teen. It’s all about you and the world you will be living in, the world in which you will succeed (or fail) at making a living, at making peace and progress.

This isn’t a book about life before 1492. The author, a Pulitzer Prize winner, uses the word ‘flat’ to mean that the world is now a level playing field for opportunities—economic and educational. Whereas young Americans and western Europeans once had more opportunity than any other people in the world, modern technologies, especially communications technologies, have insured that bright young people from third world countries are now competitive. Friedman discusses ten ‘flatteners’ that caused this including outsourcing, the change in supply-chains and in the way we organize and receive information. The examples are both diverse and numerous. Manufacturing will be off-shored to China for years to come—the only thing altering this is when China becomes a technology leader and competes at another level. In the meantime, India is available for the outsourcing of jobs that had been ‘safe’ for many years—service jobs such as accounting, engineering, and computer programming. Even tutoring is outsourced quite effectively.

As I have children your age, reading this book made me want to run around like Chicken Little screaming, “The sky is falling!” Would all jobs—not just those for the uneducated—walk out the door? What would my kids do once I got them through college? Happily, the outlook is not all dim.

Friedman makes a good case for being educated—and even for a broad liberal arts education that includes high level math, science and language. The old “reading, writing, and ‘rithematic,” just to a higher power. To succeed, young American s will need to be both creative and adaptable. To keep their country safe they will, paradoxically, need to be open and embrace globalism. School Library Journal says that this is “an ideal title for tech-savvy teens.” I think it’s an ideal title for all teens—who will realize how tech-savvy they need to be.

December 10, 2008

“Same Kind of Different as Me” by Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent

Ms. G here at COHS recommended this book to me because it was so moving that she couldn’t put it down. It’s quite a tale—and I think you, too, will be moved to tears.

Author Ron Hall is married to a woman who cares so deeply for others that her story is pure inspiration to the reader. Debra Hall’s willingness to not only feed and clothe but befriend the homeless shows us what true faith can do—it knocks the patronizing ego right off the shelf and helps us see the real person we are connecting with. Debra’s faith is the force that lets her recognize Denver Moore as a man for whom God has big plans.

Denver was a homeless African-American who came to the Union Gospel Mission for meals, but who kept himself apart from others and trusted no one–with good reason. Denver grew up in the American South not only under Jim Crow laws, but as a sharecropper—which translates as a sort of modern slavery. He lived in a place that time left behind, where he works land he doesn’t own and owes money to ‘the man’ for bare essentials. He never went to school; being illiterate, there seems to be no escape for him from desperate poverty. (There’s a story of racism in the book that will chill your bones, but I don’t want to give away the whole book!)

Denver and other homeless people start referring to the Halls as “Mr. and Mrs. Tuesday” because they work at the homeless mission every Tuesday, unlike most folks who are just holiday volunteers. Soon Deborah is spending many days each week helping, organizing outing, and more. Denver’s faith is revived through Deborah’s actions.

When tragedy strikes the Halls, the tables turn and Denver’s friendship helps them keep their faith. As Denver says, using fishing as his metaphor, true friendship isn’t a catch-and-release program. It’s for keeps.

When your teacher asks you to read a biography or memoir, pick this one up and see how ordinary people overcome extraordinary obstacles.

December 4, 2008

“On Writing” by Stephen King and “Extraordinary Short Story Writing” by Steven Otfinoski

Happily, here at Colony High there are several of you who are interested in creative writing. Here are two books I’ve read recently that I think are very helpful for the emerging creative writer.

“On Writing” by Stephen King

Stephen King has had more success than nearly any fiction writer who has ever lived—and that’s saying a lot. I wondered if his advice would be any good—I mean, after all, didn’t he just arrive at stardom and hang out there ever since? So I was happy to find that he has a lot of sound recommendations. Although every one of his books has been a bestseller, it took him a while—and many rejections of shorter work—before his career took off.

“On Writing” starts by telling of memorable incidences in King’s life. This helps us understand how he comes up with some of his ideas, but some are just based on dreams or his creative imagination. After discussing some useful rules of writing, King again discusses his life and the accident that nearly ended it. (An aside: although it isn’t the most important rule, I loved King’s diatribe about adverbs and how you should never, ever use them. I wondered about fans of “Twilight.” I just read it and though I can see why it’s popular, the author’s use of adverbs drove me crazy! The main character does everything ‘incredulously’—which detracts rather than adds to the description.)

The claim on the book jacket that “On Writing” is “friendly and inspiring” is true—so try it as you work toward your creative writing goals.

“Extraordinary Short Story Writing” by Steven Otfinoski

Here’s a fun book written especially for high school students. As I mentioned of Stephen King, most writers have short works published before they can get anyone to seriously look at their novels. Agents will often want to see publication credits, even if those credits are from very small magazines.

“Extraordinary” covers the story process (ideas, outlining, first drafts, and revision) and includes how-to mini-guides (humor, suspense and mystery, science fiction and fantasy, and historical). Try out some of the exercises. Work those creative writing muscles!

December 1, 2008

“Gods of Manhattan” by Scott Mebus

I’m on a crusade to read more ‘fantasy’ books that appeal to guys as well as girls. “Gods of Manhattan” is one. I had seen it recommended to readers who like the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series—that would be me! So I read “Gods.” While I found it much choppier than the Percy Jackson books—and sometimes lacking explanation for the hierarchy of the spirit world—it is a fast, fun book.

Thirteen-year-old Rory Hennessy, who doesn’t believe in magic, acts as a ‘volunteer’ for a magician who performs true magic at Rory’s sister’s ninth birthday party. Suddenly, much that appears to be magic comes to light. Rory sees weird stuff—a cockroach riding a rat, a Munsee Indian who appears to have come from an earlier century. How can this be?

Rory discovers that he is a “Light”—someone mortal who can see into the spirit world of Manhattan—known as ‘Mannahatta’ in the novel. Real historical folks from New York are alive in this spirit world as gods of many, often mundane, things. You could impress your teachers with a book report that mentions Peter Stuyvesant, John Jacob Astor, Walt Whitman, Alexander Hamilton, Horace Greeley, Babe Ruth, Zelda Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker.

Basically the spirit world is in trouble and it’s up to Rory to help save Manhattan. There’s a murderer on the loose—one that is killing gods. A second problem is that the Munsee Indian spirits are locked in Central Park and cannot escape the curse that keeps them there. Rory wishes to free them. And he and his sister Bridget (who is a pretty tough little kid) have many cool adventures while trying.

December 1, 2008


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