Posts filed under 'Junior Project'

“The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

356 pp.

Sidda Lee Walker, engaged to Connor, is coming to terms with the legacy of her mother, Vivi “Dahlin” Walker. Many years earlier, Vivi had “dropped her basket” and beaten her children. Sidda is left with physical as well as mental scars. When she tells an interviewer from the New York Times about the incident, the headline is Tap Dancing Child Abuser. Vivi reads this and refuses to forgive Sidda for misinterpreting her. “My love was a privilege you abused. I have withdrawn that privilege. You are out of my heart. You are banished to the outer reaches. I wish you nothing but unending guilt.”

As the book moves forward, Sidda postpones her wedding. She goes off alone to think about her mother and their relationship, and to bring back memories of her mother at an earlier time. Vivi has lent Sidda a scrapbook entitled the ‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ that chronicles the friendship of Vivi and three other girls.  These girls remain inseparable into adulthood, so the other women are like aunts to Sidda, their children her cousins. As Sidda looks through the scrapbook, alternate chapters give the real story behind each of the mementos. Though Vivi’s life had many difficulties, the Ya-Ya sisterhood helped her survive and grow. The four girls had nights out in the woods pretending to be Indian maidens, giving themselves Indian names; they played several pranks and often got in trouble. In adulthood, they were pregnant at the same time, and in old age, they still picnicked and drank together.

The feel for Louisiana and the South in general adds local color to the novel. It is definitely a “chick” book, glorifying the long, fruitful friendships among women. I found the premise of Sidda as a dramatic director and her need for the scrapbook to help her in directing her next play too contrived.  A homecoming seemed a little easy as the outcome of such anger. However, there are wonderful moments in the book, especially on Vivi’s youth and her time in a convent school—and maybe I’m too harsh a critic because everyone else I know loved this book. If you are asked to read a loosely historical fiction to start a project, this is a good choice.

Add comment May 15, 2009

“Fallen Angels”

“Fallen Angles” by Walter Dean Myers

309 pp.

Richie Perry is an African-American boy who goes to Vietnam. His experiences there change his perception of the world. On his first day out, another new recruit is blown apart when he steps on a mine. A favorite understanding officer, Lieutenant Carroll, is killed a few months later. Soon after, a favorite companion, Brew, has his leg ripped open and dies during the evacuations as Perry holds his hand. Perry also finds that he often does not understand who is the enemy and is frightened of some of the villagers as they may be part of the Viet Cong. On one trip to a local village to search for VC, a woman hands a baby to a GI. The baby explodes, killing the GI. Other soldiers then kill the women and the other child who was with her.

Periodically, Perry is bored. There often seems to be racial tension in his platoon although it is never explored.

Among his other gruesome experiences, Perry is wounded twice. The book has a lot of suspense and excitement. The view of a young soldier seems to be realistic. Someone interested in what the Vietnam War was like or even what it feels like to be a soldier would “enjoy” reading Fallen Angles. This would work for projects requiring you to began with loosely historical fiction, but you can’t have a weak tummy. War is gorey.

Add comment May 15, 2009

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

Jip: His Story by Katherine Paterson

Jip is a quick novel that packs, if not a punch, at least quite a few surprises at the end. I read it this summer and think that it could work for some Junior Projects—but get the teacher’s OK first as s/he may tell you that the book is too short or easy. Outside of the length of the book, the theme is perfect as a fictional starter for research into this period of American history.

The novel takes place in Vermont in the 1850s. As far as Jip knows, he fell off a wagon as a baby in 1847 and was found on the road and taken to the town poor farm as an orphan. He has swarthy (dark) skin which reminds the town folk of a gypsy—thus the name Jip. Though the caretaker of the poor farm and his wife are too lazy to make the farm work, they have Jip who is hardworking, has an unusual ability to deal with animals (an animal ‘whisperer,’ if your will), and is very nearly running the farm himself. Nevertheless, his life is a sad one; he wonders always how someone could have a baby fall off a wagon and not notice, not return to claim it. His secret longing is to be claimed by loving parents.

Jip finds a friend in Put (Putnam Nelson), a ‘lunatic’ for whom Jip builds a cage. Put is an intelligent man and helpful on the farm when he isn’t experiencing a spell of delirium. Eventually, Jip also has the opportunity to attend school, where he discovers that he’s an avid reader. When the truth of Jip’s parentage begins to surface, it is his teacher and her sweetheart who try to help him.

September 16, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Well, normally I write up a little review of the book, but since I know that this entry is primarily for those of you who are reading “The Secret Life of Bees” for a freshman honors’ requirement, maybe I can try a different tactic. As I don’t have to convince you to read the book (you are reading anyway), let me just mention that there’s a nice little summary of the book at the end under the title “Introduction to ‘The Secret Life of Bees.’” It’s much like what I would have to say in summary. There are also questions meant for a discussion group and you might want to ask and answer one of those here. So far I’ve noticed that the comments from incoming freshmen on summer reading have a great deal to do with whether you can relate to the character—put yourself in his or her mindset—and that’s important because the author has probably failed if you can’t. However, as you engage in the honors program in high school, you’re going to find that you’ll be asked for analysis of the books you read, and that requires deeper thought. Answering some of the discussion questions such as “Who is the queen bee in this story?” will be a good start on your analytical journey.

I first read “The Secret Life of Bees” when it came out. I was thinking that was a couple of years ago, but times flies, as they say, and it has been more like six years. So I needed to reread the entire book rather than take a quick glance. And although I think that this is a good book—and a perfect choice for ninth grade summer reading—I don’t think it’s a great book. The same things bothered me on the second reading as bothered me on the first. The story sewed up too neatly. I got a bit tired of the quotes about the lives of bees and then seeing how Lily’s life and the lives of those around her matched the bees. I also got tired of being knocked over the head with the ‘deep’ spiritual and emotional lives of the bee women and Lily’s connection to the power of all that earth mothering. It was just too heavy-handed for me.

I’ve always felt that the best discussion centered on this book would be a comparison to Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Unfortunately, I doubt that any of you have read that book—and now that reading it is out of fashion (not very PC), you probably won’t read it in eleventh grade as students did at one time. But “The Secret Life of Bees,” either purposefully or on an unconscious level, is modeled after “Huck Finn” and I don’t doubt that some PhD candidate is writing about this at this very moment.

If you do get the chance to select a great work of American fiction and are asked to compare it to something contemporary, picking” HF” and “TSLoB” would be a blast. Lily and Rosaleen could be compared to Huck and Jim. Jim, the Black outcast (slave) on the run from a Southern society that takes away his human rights. Huck, the motherless child of a horrific father who physically and emotionally abuses him. Their dependence on one another to escape. Huck’s fluid lying to help himself and Jim. Jim’s need, even as the adult, to depend on Huck because the society gives more value to the child than the man who is black. Jim as a surrogate father and his love for Huck.

Obviously, I think that “HF” is a much better book—this is because the characters are more real to me; they are more deeply flawed. Huck helps Jim in the same way that Lily helps Rosaleen, but because of his upbringing in a racist society, he doubts that he is doing the right thing and believes he’ll go to hell for it. This is ironic, and irony abounds in the novel. It’s what could have made “TSLoB” great, too, but it’s missing.

As just a little sidebar, let me talk about the discussion question “Have you ever heard of ‘kneeling on grits?’” I was thinking as I read the book that, being Southern California kids, you may not even know what grits are. It’s grain (usually corn–hominy) that’s only coarsely ground. When boiled, it makes a sort of cereal. But when it’s still dry, it’s sharp and rock hard. I’ve only ever known one person who as a child was punished by kneeling, not on grits, but on split peas. The result was that when she grew up, she moved away from her parents and would NEVER allow them to see their grandchildren. I think that gives us a pretty good idea of the harshness of such a punishment.

Another of the discussion questions asks you to project into the future. I kept thinking about Rosaleen voting. The book ends on a happy note with Rosaleen registering, but at that time, and in that place, trying to vote might have cost her her life.

A penny for your thoughts.

(Earlier Entry)

Borders (the bookstore) is doing some promotional stuff that you might be interested in if you have chosen to read the novel for Frosh Honors.

Excerpt from the book:

Super quick interview with the author (Sue Monk Kidd) on making the book into a movie:

Video clip of the upcoming movie:

Ms. W.

June 24, 2008

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

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

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy was recommended to me when I asked for a “guys’” title. As high school guys go, the title is unfortunate because they judge it as not “manly.” Nothing is further from the truth. It has all the stuff of a great bildungsroman (‘novel of formation,’ a story of growing from childhood to maturity)—an odyssey away from home, the death of and break with parents, a great romance, the loss of the beloved, and the ever-popular horse theft. Yet the language is poetic and the description vivid—it draws the reader to its rhythms. Conversations among the characters are often metaphysical without seeming unnatural.


It’s 1949, and sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole plans to leave Texas after his grandfather’s funeral. His mother is selling the old family ranch, built in 1872. With a deep love of horses and ranch life, John Grady would attempt to run the ranch himself, but his mother refuses to consider it. John’s father, divorced from his mother, is dying.


John sets out for Mexico with his friend, Lacey Rawlings. The two have many adventures on their way. Of most significance is their meeting with young Jimmy Belvins. Jimmy, riding a beautiful (stolen) horse, follows them and trouble begins. On the run, Jimmy separates from the two older boys. John Grady and Lacey find work at the Hacienda de Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion in Coahuila. The owner, Don Hector Rocha y Villareal treats them well and entrusts John Grady with breaking wild horses. But, John is smitten with the daughter of Don Hector, Alejandra of the black hair and blue eyes. They become lovers, and Alejandra’s great-aunt finds out. She is a philosophical woman, and her stories of the Mexican Revolution and of life are fascinating for the reader. However, she knows what a bad reputation can do to a woman in Mexico and has decided against John Grady. One day, seemingly out of the blue, John Grady and Lacey are arrested.


The two are imprisoned in Mexico because of their association with Jimmy. No one believes that their meeting was accidental. I don’t want to spoil Jimmy’s fate for the reader, but the other two are taken to a federal prison where it seems that they will not survive. The boys’ lives are threatened and everyone assumes they have money to use as bribes to get out. (They don’t.) John Grady lives in danger, sorrow, and rage. He wants revenge against the man who took his horse. He contemplates the world, which seems to care nothing for the old, for love, or for passion. He is like Huck Finn, who will “light out for the territory.”

October 29, 2007

Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, is the story of a Confederate soldier during the Civil War, Inman, who decides to walk home to the Blue Ridge Mountains after participating in the fighting at St. Petersburg. Although not historical fiction as the genre is defined, COHS teachers may accept it when asking you to read historical fiction. It’s a nice novel with which to start the junior project, and it has lots of bonuses including adventure and romance.


The novel opens with Inman in the hospital, a deep wound on the back of his neck, one that his comrades in arms assumed would kill him. Somehow he survives, and the amazing repetition of this survival against all odds makes up a good deal of the story. However, Inman is bitter and disillusioned. He escapes the hospital and decides to walk home and see if Ada, a woman he left behind, will have him for a husband. He thinks often about the changes in himself and whether he is any longer fit to be a husband.


Having gone AWOL, Inman is an “outlier” and thus on the run; although he meets may people who aid him as he heads home, he must be wary of them all. This sense of everyone being the enemy is the pervasive element of Inman’s existence and provides much of the tension in the novel. He lives through surreal situations, betrayals by both men and women, more brushes with death, and even being buried alive. Inman’s chance meeting with the ‘goatwoman’ saves him as she has spent twenty years alone in the woods and knows herbal remedies for his wounds. He thinks about her solitary existence and realizes that though it’s tempting to live away from civilization, he wouldn’t be able to do it.


There are some gruesome scenes in the novel, particularly when Inman has promised to help a young woman whose pig—and only source of food—has been stolen by Federal soldiers. He is able to hunt the men down with his backwoods knowledge (he even uses turkey calls from a tree). When Inman returns the pig and helps Sally—an eighteen-year-old widow with an infant—slaughter it, his actions in killing the Federal soldiers seem justified. (The idea of righteousness and morality would be a good starting point for a paper on the book.)


While Inman is making his way home, alternating chapters cover the life of Ada. She is well-educated, but has no practical knowledge about running a farm. When her father dies, she is helped by Ruby, the child of a ne’er-do-well father who has raised herself and is utterly competent as well as self-reliant. Their story, along with that of the ne’er-do-well father, Stobrod, is just as compelling as Inman’s. Overall, Cold Mountain is a gripping novel—a great choice for outside reading.

October 29, 2007


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