Category: Family Problems


     Breaking Night by Liz Murray

 Being the child of drug addicts makes for a life both frightening and weird. There’s no stability, the strangers in house can be anyone, including child sexual predators. And the parents themselves are pretty much checked out even while they’re checked in.

 Liz Murray tells her story of growing up this way. Her father was a drug dealer. He was making a lot of money selling prescription painkillers, but was caught. After that, he had no real means of supporting his family. And he was a drug addict himself, mainlining cocaine. During the day, he would roam the streets, looking through others’ garbage and collecting thrown-out objects that he considered useful gifts for his wife and two daughters.

 Meanwhile, Murray’s mother had been using drugs since adolescence. She was addicted to cocaine. She was mentally ill—schizophrenic—and it seems that she used drugs as a way of self-medicating. She is truly disabled, incapable of having a job. She receives welfare checks monthly, but with the cost of her and her partner’s (Liz’s dad) drug habits, the money is always gone in a week. Eventually, her habit causes her to contract AIDS.

 Murray discusses the love she has for her parents despite their serious failing. They also appear to love her and her sister, who vies with Liz for their parents’ affection and who plays mean tricks on her as a way of getting attention. At any rate, the child Liz often has to take care of her parents, and their roles are reversed. Her sister seems to be above the fray. She is capable of studying and going to school while the world is falling apart around her. Liz can’t manage that attitude.

 When Liz’s mom and sister leave the father, Liz stays behind. The apartment is crumbling and filthy. Eventually Liz finds herself part of the ‘system,’ living in a home for girls. She hates it and hits the streets, depending on a few friends and her new boyfriend, Carlos, to keep her safe. But Carlos is a hustler and Liz eventually realizes this. She is tired of asking her friends if she can spend the night and use the shower. She decides to go back to school. At seventeen, she has exactly one high school credit.

 Fortunately, Liz has the opportunity to enroll in a school for students whose lives have been rough. She has that second chance and takes full advantage of it. With the help of some excellent teachers, she gets a scholarship from the New York Times and heads for Harvard.

 High school housekeeping: I think most teens are really going to like this story. The ones who are fortunate will have the sense of their lucky breaks. (“But for the grace of God, there go I” as we used to say.) For those less fortunate, Murray’s tale offers hope and genuine evidence of a teen being able to turn things around. I did wonder why Murray preferred to live on the street or in cheap hotels (right next to a murder scene in one), rather than stay in the home for girls. She lacked privacy there, but there was food, shelter, and clothing. And, well, it wasn’t a murder scene. I wish Murray had given more information about her choice. But other than that, this is truly inspirational stuff.

Murray’s situation and the outcome made me reflect on the importance of teacher-mentors in teens lives. Here’s a little unasked for advice to teens: many good and excellent teachers care deeply about their students, but they can’t all mentor every student (like 160 per teacher?). They’ll connect deeply with a few. If you don’t connect with a particular teacher, it doesn’t mean that s/he is a bad person. But it does mean you need to reach out to another good teacher for help. Having a mentor can make all the difference in a life, as Murray shows us.

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick 

Pat Peoples seems like the sweetest man on earth, but for some reason he’s coming home from a mental institution to live with his parents—in his mid-thirties—and he completely loses it when he hears Kenny G music.

Pat thinks he has been away for a few months. Actually it’s been four years. He thinks that he is experiencing “apart time” from his wife, and that if he can control his temper (‘it’s more important to be kind than to be right’), and stay on his rigorous exercise program and lose weight, he will win her back. Because, after all, his life is like a movie created by God. It will have the silver lining of a reunion with Nikki.

In trying to understand Nikki, Pat is reading all of the books that she teachers to her high school English classes. He’s surprised at how negative and depressing they are. As a former English teacher, I laughed at Pat’s comments on books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They don’t have the kind of silver linings Pat expects form life, the kind that ought to be examples for kids.

At home, the silver lining also remains hidden. Things are not going as Pat planned despite hours of daily weightlifting, regular visits with a psychiatrist, and all that reading, Nikki isn’t back on the scene. But another woman, who at first seems like a nymphomaniac but is grieving in her own dysfunctional way, is following him on his long runs. Meanwhile, the mood of the Peoples household, and particularly Pat’s father, swings with the fortunes of the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Pat’s dad is emotionally distant and unforgiving.

So where’s the silver lining? It’s not the one Pat was looking for, but it’s there. And I loved going on the journey with Pat to find it. Good, heartwarming stuff that embraces dysfunctional people of all kinds.

High school housekeeping: I’m always hoping that high school students will read adult books because they often (though certainly not always) juggle more issues, have more challenging vocabulary and less certain endings—like real life. I think Silver Linings Playbook is a good choice for moving into adult fiction. It’s just slightly longer than the typical YA fiction, but shorter than much adult fiction. It’s funny. You’ll like the main character, the story, and the pace. You’ll like that you can compare it to the movie. In addition, Matthew Quick writes YA fiction as well—and we have his stuff in our library. He was a high school teacher at one time, and has a good sense of what entertains and informs you. As mentioned above, The Silver Linings Playbook has a humorous vein about the books read in high school English classes. I really think it would be fun to have a ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ class and read this novel first, then read all the novels mentioned in it—and compare students’ reactions to the book to Pat’s reactions.

     Reason to Breathe, by Rebecca Donovan

I was talking to another teacher at Chaffey High, Mrs. Vanderbeck (who used to work at Colony as well), about the bullying books I was reading this year. She told me about one she thought was great, so I asked her to write a guest blog post and share the book with you. Here it is!

I just finished a book, Reason to Breathe, by Rebecca Donovan.  It’s about bullying and physical abuse, but from the adults that are supposed to look out for you.  Emily, “Emma” has worked really hard to create a facade of indifference to all the students around her.  She is counting the days to her “liberation”. The day when she graduates from high school and is able to go to college. 

Emma is a straight A student, editor of the school newspaper, is a star soccer and basketball player, all the while hiding a terrible secret.  Her best friend, Sara, knows that things are not perfect at Emma’s home, but she doesn’t know the lengths Emma has gone to protect her little cousins.  In spite of her best efforts, she falls in love with Evan Matthews, a new student to her school, who won’t take “No” for an answer. The book is graphic, sad, and yet allows the reader to feel Emma’s annoyance, curiosity, interest and finally the love she thought was not meant for her, at least not in her current situation. I really enjoyed it. It’s a fast read. I am going to put it out for my students so they might read it during SSR. –Mrs. Vanderbeck

High school housekeeping: I looked and I have one copy at Chaffey, none at Colony. So I’m adding it to my ‘purchase ASAP’ list. I also see that it is the first book in a series, so if you also enjoy it, I’ll get the sequels. –Ms. W.

Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers  

 

Regina has bullied other girls all through high school. She’s popular. She’s Anna’s best friend. And Anna is the queen bee of the Hallowell High, calling all the shots, deciding who’s in and who’s out. What separates Anna from the typical queen bee is her sheer pleasure in hurting other people. She wants other students to be afraid of her.  She wants to see them suffer the humiliations she doles out. But she also doesn’t want to get her hands soiled. So she lets others do the dirty work, with the reward that they can continue to be her friend. Regina has done a lot to stay Anna’s best friend, and for three years, she thinks it’s been worth it. But all that changes one night at Josh’s party when everyone except Regina is drunk.

Regina is the designated driver, a role she hates because she’s so bored watching everyone making fools of themselves. But when she tries to rouse the drunken Anna from the den floor to take her home, Anna can’t be moved. Instead, Anna’s wasted boyfriend, Donnie, tries to rape Regina.

And here Regina makes her big mistake. She runs to Kara’s house. Kara who had been too sick to go to the party. Kara, whom Regina has always disrespected. The Kara that Regina was always putting in her place. So although Kara promises to help—and tells Regina she should stay quiet about the whole thing so that she doesn’t awaken Anna’s anger—she does just the opposite.

When Regina gets to school on Monday, she finds out about the rumors. There is nothing for her to do. Anna has frozen her out of the popular group, ruined her reputation and replaced her with Kara. Having the word ‘whore’ written on her locker is just the beginning of a series of more and more vicious ‘pranks’ that turn violent. The whole school is invited to an “IH8RA” website.

There’s no one that Regina can turn to, as she has alienated and hurt so many people by doing Anna’s bidding. She’s treated other people almost as badly as she is being treated now. That makes it hard to sympathize with her. What has she done to Liz to make her have a breakdown?

Yet one of the people Regina hurt is willing to give her another chance. That’s Michael, a loner who spends a lot of time writing in a journal. How does Regina endanger him just by hanging out with him?

“Do something.” Regina always thinks to herself. She wants to fix things. She wants to learn not to care what the popular group thinks. But her solutions often backfire because Anna is so good at being so bad. And because Regina doesn’t trust any adult enough to confine in them. It looks like she’s not going to be able to save Michael anymore than she can save herself.

High school housekeeping: It’s my goal to read many ‘bullying books’ this year. Although all the titles I read over the summer are good, they seem to appeal to a specific audience or have a supernatural element to them. Some Girls Are is the first that deals with real problems and allows them to have the worse possible outcomes.  It has broad appeal—I think this is the one that everybody will be telling friends to read. I hope that none of you have ever had to deal with anyone as vicious as Anna or Kara, but I bet a lot of readers will recognize their type. Mean girls to the nth degree.

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This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith

 

I’ve already said that I needed to walk away from the bullying books for a couple of weeks. With school starting, I wanted to read something upbeat. I don’t think I could have made a better choice than This is What Happy Looks Like.

 

Ellie lives in a small town in Maine. One day she gets an email from a stranger asking her to walk Wilbur. As a dog lover herself, she responds and lets the sender know about the mistake. Well, Wilbur is not a dog, but a pig—yes, just like in Charlotte’s web.

 

What Ellie doesn’t know is that the sender is Graham Larkin, a teen movie star and countrywide heartthrob. Because the two are strangers, they joke about the pig and then realize that they like the conversation. They write back and forth for months. Graham has been having a hard time making deep connections with others due to his fame. Even his parents act strange now that he has hit the big time. So, as he continues to write to Ellie, Graham decides to remain anonymous. When the venue for his next film falls through, Graham gets the director to shoot the movie in Ellie’s hometown.

 

What fun for Ellie, right? To find out that the guy she has a long-distance crush on is actually a star? But, there’s the catch. Ellie and her mother have a family secret. They need to stay out of the limelight because any interest would draw attention to her U.S. senator father—who, as a married man, had an affair with Ellie’s mom years before. Ellie hasn’t even told her best friend about this, and she hasn’t seen her father in years. Now it looks like he’ll be a candidate for president.

 

Smith does a great job showing the spark—the chemistry—between Graham and Ellie. We get why they enjoy one another so much. And they are both fully-drawn characters, people we feel we know. We like their intimate conversations, we like the way they treat one another. We’re rooting for them.

 

And even if things can’t work out like they do in the movies—well, this is what happy looks like. Enjoy.

High school housekeeping: Don’t let the length of this book scare you. Many of the pages just have the text of short emails.

 

       The Signal by Ron Carlson

I needed a little break from reading those ‘bullying books’ and wanted to read an adult book. So I decided to go for The Signal because I knew Ron Carlson to be an excellent short story writer, and I figured this slim novel would be just as good.

The Signal is great reading, and I think teens who may have tired of YA formula romances will like this novel a lot. Adults should love it. It’s such good writing. While reading, I kept thinking this is what Hemingway would have written if he’s had a better understanding of women, been less of an ego. Carlson is something like Cormac McCarthy minus a lot of the violence. (But not minus all of the violence.) There’s just all this beauty in the world at the same time that danger is approaching and a relationship is going to pieces. To pull all three of those elements together and not waste words is quite an achievement.

Mack and Vonnie are taking their tenth annual backpacking and fishing trip in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. They’d been married, but have recently divorced. This is to be their last trip together although Mack is hoping somehow to make a connection with Vonnie. But he’s messed up so badly recently. His mistakes began with the good intention of saving the ranch that had been in his family for generations. This made me think of how adults always told me, when I was young, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It was a common aphorism.

In The Signal, Mack has landed in a sort of hell on earth, never mind an afterlife. He has worked for shady characters, not questioning the drug deals that he must’ve known his employer was setting up. He’s been involved with a broken woman, hurting both her and Vonnie. Finally, he started working for a man his father knew, someone making a lot of money in what seems to be unofficial government operations.

When things continue to go badly for Mack, he, in a drunken rage, attacked the car of Vonnie’s new boyfriend, and ended up in jail.

Now, on his trip in the Wind River Mountains, he hopes to make a lot of money by finding something for that unofficial government operator—something that crashed landed and needs to be recovered. He’s bit off more than he can chew. And considering the enemies he’s made over the last several years, there’s more at stake in this trip to the wilderness than he understands.

High school housekeeping: The Signal is a short and powerful adult novel. It’s full of danger, the opening of old wounds in a complicated relationship, and life in the outdoors. It shows the world from a guy’s point of view, one who has really messed up, but one with whom we sympathize. I’d recommend it to anyone, but if you are a guy who doesn’t read a lot and is ready (or being compelled by a teacher) to read a novel, this would be a good choice. You’ll care about Mack and the people around him. Your teacher will be impressed by your good taste in literature.  :)

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga

Fanboy puts up with the bullying he receives throughout his sophomore year of high school by hanging on to a few things he regards as good: his friend Cal—a popular jock, but also secretly a comic book fanatic; his late-night writing and illustrating of an original comic book which he hopes to have published; the knowledge that he’s the smartest kid in his school and can leave all his tormentors behind in two years; and a bullet he carries every day, one he uses as a sort of worry stone.

It seems that Fanboy will just continue his miserable existence with his pregnant and self-involved mom and his stepfather, whom he calls the ‘step-fascist.’ To ease his suffering, he keeps a list of all the people who have done him wrong and sometime fantasizes about school shootings in which they are hurt. But one day he receives an email from Kyra—Goth Girl—questioning why he puts up with the school bullying. She has images of him being repeatedly slugged in PE class while the teachers all stand in a corner and talk. Suddenly, Fanboy has a second friend, one he can claim in public.

But Kyra is one messed-up girl. She lies out of habit and has dark secrets. She is volatile and often irrational, getting into arguments with Fanboy that result in wildly inappropriate behaviors, cutting him off, and then reappearing in his life without explanation. Yet she understands Fanboy’s creative drive and his insights about the hollow experience of his education. She both helps and hinders Fanboy.

What Fanboy learns about coping and about standing up for himself against his tormentors makes The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl a worthwhile read. That said, I do worry that if you aren’t a comic book fan yourself, or at least someone who has seen several superhero movies (and there are so many that are popular right now), you might get lost in the discussion of comics and comic book creators. If you happen to be a comic book fan, I think you’ll love this novel and the richness of Fanboy’s obsession with his artistic pursuit. Goth Girl remains an enigma to the end. The novel doesn’t have the tidy closing that most YA novels do, and that might be a problem for some readers. But if you think about friendships and romances in real teen lives, you’ll find that Fanboy and Goth Girl is often spot on.

  The Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir by James Brown

James Brown begins with that phenomenon of nature that all of us here in the Inland Empire know: the Santa Ana winds. We’ve seen the uprooted trees and downed powerlines in front of our schools, the smashed fences in our backyards. And we know about and fear the fires, and that less natural phenomenon, the arsonist.

And so Brown begins by speaking directly to our experience, and continues to do so. Though heartrending, many of the details of his biography are not so uncommon. There are the crazy lives he and his siblings lived with their unbalanced mother, his drug abuse at an early age, his alcoholism and the way it wrecked his marriage. That he not only survived all of this, but later moved on to have a creative life would be reason enough for me to recommend the book to you.  Well, that and the fact that Brown doesn’t waste any time blaming others for his addiction and missteps.

Fortunately, there is so much more here, packed into a tightly narrated work, in what feels like a group of loosely-woven short stories, organized not by chronology but through emotional connections.  For example, the thoughts on the Santa Anas lead to the story of Brown’s mother leaving him in the car while she runs out to set an apartment building on fire, an act which costs a life.

The book itself is littered with (well-deserved) praise from many famous people, but the comment by Janet Fitch is the one that struck me as closest to my experience with The Los Angeles Diaries: “Oddly inspirational, the tale of the last man standing.” In part, Fitch is referring to the fact that both Brown’s sister and brother committed suicide. This is certainly a story of survival—and of survivor’s guilt. That it is so well written is the bonus that makes me want to hand it to you when you when come in to the library for a biography.

Since I am dealing with high school and with assignments, I want to add the housekeeping details that only pertain to our particular situation: The Los Angeles Diaries is exactly 200 pages long—that is, the exact number of pages that many teachers use as a minimum requirement. This, I know, will thrill some of you. Since each chapter reads like a stand-alone story, I don’t think you’ll have any problems stopping and starting; you won’t get lost, and each new day’s reading will be a sort of fresh tale. Oh—and you are going to love the story about how the alcohol-addled Brown, in hopes of making up with his wife, buys her a pot-bellied pig.

 Bruiser by Neal Shusterman 

If you loved someone, how much would you be willing to do for him or her? If someone loved you, would you allow him to suffer so that you could succeed?

There are a lot questions to ponder in Bruiser. I picked it because I thought it was a book about bullying—and that’s one of my current themes—but, though it does deal with bullying, it is a more complicated look at relationships and what it means to take advantage of others. What it means to be responsible for ourselves.

Brewster Rawlins is called ‘Bruiser’ at school and is voted the ‘Most Likely to Get the Death Penalty.’ He’s a loner and kids at his high school tell tales of his strange home life with his uncle and his brother Cody. No one is sure what happened to his parents.

When Bronte sees the Bruiser in the library looking for a book of Alan Ginsberg poetry, she is intrigued. She decides to go out with him although her twin brother, Tennyson, objects. When Tennyson later sees Brewster in the locker room without his shirt, sees the incredible mess of his battered back, he starts to understand that Brewster is the abused, not the abuser.

Both Tennyson and Bronte come to know Brewster. There’s a strange ‘reveal’ to his situation, and it’s not far into the book. Telling you what it is would help me talk about the book, but it’s something that I think shouldn’t be given away in a review.

I’ve been book-talking Shusterman’s Unwind for a while, and it’s a quick-paced adventure through a dystopian future. This one is different—it slows down a bit, gives you the chance to think about individuals and their situations, about friendship and sacrifice. Not only about what we’re willing to sacrifice for others, but what is appropriate in asking others to sacrifice for us.

Until Tuesday by Luis Carlos Montalvan 

 

 

Montalvan returned from two extended tours in Iraq a wounded warrior. Two Iraqis attempted to assassinate him because he was working hard to stop bribery and a thriving black market of US goods where he was stationed.

 

 

Though Montalvan knew he was hurt, he didn’t get all of the medical care he needed, partly because he was afraid that admitting how bad he felt, including the fact that he had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), would hurt his army career. Above all, he wanted to be a good soldier.

 

 

Finally, after three years of terrific back pain and unbearable migraines, after self- medicating and turning to alcohol, Montalvan learned that he had three cracked vertebrate and several brain injuries. He was growing distant from his family. His father, a Cuban American whom Montalvan describes as having a macho code, believed that he didn’t want to get better. When he attempted to get help from the Veterans’ Administration Hospital, he was forced to see a different doctor with each visit, one who always asked, “So, what’s wrong with you?” This is the exact wrong treatment for PTSD because strange situations invoke the symptom of needing to be on high alert.

 

What saved Montalvan from self-destructive drinking, withdrawal from loved ones, and a phobia of strangers and public spaces? Tuesday, the golden retriever that he received as one of the first dogs trained for wounded warriors.

 

 

Tuesday was a graduate of Puppies Behind Bars, a program in which inmates help to train dogs that will go to wounded vets or become EOD dogs. It was great to learn about this program and how it helps both inmates and soldiers. The man who helped to train Tuesday had been in prison for thirty years. After training seven dogs—and having an unheard of 100% success rate—he was paroled. What could he do for a living on the outside after all that time? Train more dogs, of course.

 

 

Part of Montalvan’s story is political. He discusses his sense of betrayal by the United States government—both of service personnel and of the Iraqi people who helped the Americans on the promise that the US would protect them. On this, the author has much to say—how the war was conducted with insufficient oversight, how high ranking officials lied about the troops having enough members or enough equipment so that the picture given to the media was rosy (and totally false). Montalvan tells a sorry tale about his best Iraqi friends, who, after devoting themselves to the US cause, were left to be murdered or flee the country and fend for themselves as nearly starving refugees. He also tells the very discomforting story of a military couple having a baby. Before the baby is born, they know she is missing several vital organs, but don’t abort her because the military (for moral reasons) doesn’t cover abortion. Instead, the baby is born, and suffers torment for several weeks before dying—and an infant death was the only possible outcome. The couple splits. Montalvan is certainly making a statement about morality.  Not everyone will like everything that he has to say—but he regards it as a point of honor to tell the truth about his experience in war. He wants the reader to understand why we lost the war for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Iraqis, and he lays it on corrupt and incompetent leadership.

 

Montalvan also regards it as a point of honor to tell the truth about the violation of the rights of the disabled, especially those with service dogs. Many store owners, bus drivers, subway employees, restaurant owners and more keep Montalvan away because they don’t think Tuesday is really a service dog, although he wears a vest. (They expect to see a harness such as guide dogs for the blind use.) After undergoing persistent harassment, which exacerbated his PTSD, Montalvan found that his new tour of duty was to education companies about service dogs.

 

 

This memoir is both a heartwarming and cautionary tale—not an easy mix to write. It’s one of several good books I’ve read recently about the heroism of our military men and women on the ground and our lack of support for them when they want to tell us the truth about war. But we need to hear that truth, and reading Until Tuesday is a good way to start.

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