26 February 2008

12. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Now, you may think I am going a little soft in the mind, but I loved this book. It's another selection from my prime motivator this year, that YA Lit class. When I taught middle school many of my students were obsessed with this book. I never got around to reading it, and would probably have forgotten about it altogether if not for this class.

This book is narrated by Leo, a HS senior in Arizona who falls in love with Stargirl. She is new to the school after being home-schooled her whole life. And she doesn't exactly fit in: she plays her ukulele in the cafeteria; she has a pet rat; she dresses completely crazy (her mom is a set designer, or wardrobe or something); and she sings happy birthday to kids, drops candy on their desks, and commits all kinds of random acts of super kindness.

And I think I have Post-Terabithia-Stress Disorder. The entire time I was reading I was afraid to turn the page for fear that some natural or unnatural calamity was about to overtake the high school and wipe out our dear Stargirl.

I really think Spinelli captured the voice of the teenage mob: their distance in the beginning wrought by misunderstanding; their embrace of the leadership demonstrated by our little bodhisattva Stargirl listening to her inner voice (her confidence in her rightness, her confidence in her kindness); and then their grudge-holding punishment for her going too far.

I think the ultimate lessons (to not judge so quickly, to not reject outright, and, since Leo is our narrator, to embrace the unexpected gifts) are very important for students to read about and discuss. The regret Leo feels after she leaves is palpable, and I think would hit a teen reader even harder than it hit me.

So much of high school literature is about characters listening to the inner voice, their true Self, that I think this book would be an excellent primer. Cuckoo's Nest, Catch 22, and Walden come to mind most immediately.

And perhaps I am being a little too hopeful, but perhaps if the book is read, say, as the second book of the year, or early enough, that it may be possible for teachers and students to start creating a safe space for kids to be themselves. A little nudge toward being more accepting of others. And resisting conformity. And Sameness.

Now I have to get back to reading everyone's outrage at that damnable Nader! Ahem.

21 February 2008

11. The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

Another classic from the Master. I have to say I am really digging the HGW this year. I'm adding The Time Machine to the list and may get to it sooner than some other candidates that have been on the list for a longer time.

This story is told with a narrative frame of "this is someone else's story that I am relating." In this case, the narrator is Charles Prendick, but the story is framed by his nephew.

Charles was a passenger on a ship that catches fire and goes down in the Pacific. He boards a life raft and is rescued by a passing ship. He slowly recovers from his ordeal and manages to see some of the ship that rescued him. It's a filthy mess because the deck is jammed with animals in cages. Prendick meets Montgomery, the man who saved him, and Moreau, the doctor who has brought the animals on the ship. He also meets M'Ling, the attendant to Montgomery.

After they are dropped on Moreau's island Prendick realizes he is on for a long stay, perhaps even as much as a year, depending on when a ship happens by the island. Soon after that Prendick gets a glimpse of Moreau's twisted experiments.

Afraid that he is to be one of Moreau's specimens, Prendick makes a run for it. He leaves the huts that Moreau and Montgomery live in, and finds himself in the thick, leafy jungle. Almost as soon as he is clear of the huts he realizes he is being followed. What he sees terrifies him even more - a half man half beast creature.

After a long chase Prendick takes refuge with the monster and learns that the island is populated by all sorts of mixed human/beast kinds of animals of varying shapes and intelligences. Soon Montgomery and Moreau catch up with him and rescue him from the beasts.

Back at the huts, Moreau explains that he has created these beasts in the name of science, in the pursuit of the godlike power of creation by metamorphosis. Moreau explains that he works on raw (natural) animals and tries to turn them human by way of surgical and chemical manipulation.

Is it so far from our own genetically modified foods like square tomatoes to better fit our sandwiches, or non-seed bearing corn (thank you Monsanto!), or hormone manipulated cows (more milk!), or cloned and hyper-drugged animals we eat?

Prendick understands even though he thinks it's twisted and everything is calm.

Until one of the animals busts loose and goes on a rampage. The power structure (between beasts and humans) of the island is threatened. Prendick, Montgomery, and Moreau's lives are in danger.

I skipped over a lot of the intricate details, but I'll leave you there.

What I find amazing about Wells is his fantastic imagination. His foresight is impressive, taking the science of his day and drawing conclusions that bear out in our day.

I definitely recommend this book and I'm very much looking forward to The Time Machine.

19 February 2008

10 The Giver by Lois Lowry

Another YA lit book for class.

This one starts in some kind of controlled world, a planned community right down to how many children will be born each year (23), and how many each family can have (2). Jobs are assigned by a committee of Elders, but so are husbands and wives (who apply to have a child, and ask for a boy or a girl). One of the jobs in the community is Birth Mother, and these are the only women authorized to have children. After three births they are sent to be field hands and manual labor. Other jobs are Nurturers, who tend newborns until they are placed with families.

There are rules such as no touching, no anger, and the suppression of all sexual desire (by taking a pill every morning). Lying is forbidden.

We follow the story of Jonas, who is 11 when the story starts. At age 12 each of the kids is assigned their life-long job. In the Ceremony he is skipped over and not given an assignment. The Elder calls him up last, and explains that he has been selected to be the Receiver of Memories. Because the populace is so suppressed, they have virtually no communal memory (old people are removed. Once kids leave their parents' home the parents are reassigned). Jonas will be tasked to meet with the Giver, who is to pass him memories telepathically.

Jonas and the Giver get to talking about why memories are stored in one person. At first Jonas sees the wisdom in it. When every single aspect of life is controlled there is no reason for choice to exist, and if there is no choice, then no memory is required - no need to make decisions based on wisdom. The Giver, and Jonas when he takes over, serves as the community wisdom. If the elders get stumped, they come to the Receiver of Memories and ask for advice.

Jonas eventually comes to see this as a bad plan. So he escapes to make a new life, and help disrupt life in the community he leaves behind.

At just 179 pages, this book left me wanting more. It's a good idea for a story and could have been developed a lot more. I mean, it's a book for middle school kids, but I could see the same idea being worked a bit more thoughtfully in the hands of an Aldous Huxley, etc...

Crumbolst's brief review here.

12 February 2008

9. Forever by Judy Blume

It really felt like it was going to be forever until I finished this book. Because I'm not a 13-14 year old suburban girl each page, each paragraph, each sentence was pure torture.

This book details the senior year of Katherine, who is contemplating losing her virginity to an extremely patient Michael.

There are the two friends who serve to act as Scylla and Charybdis (I've never been able to use this simile! Thanks Judy Blume!) Sybil the slut and Erica the girl who just wants to get it over with before she gets to college (how many high school boys scoop up some booty just this way?). Katherine wants to find the right guy. Sigh.

He patiently waits. They make out a lot. He patiently waits. They undress each other, but nothing happens. He patiently waits. They give each other hand jobs (described from Katherine's point of view it's quite a dull, dare I say, dry (nay!) experience). He patiently waits. FINALLY! she gives it up. Are you still awake, dear reader?

Sybil gets pregnant (has the baby "for the experience" and then gives it up for adoption). Erica is still waiting (she was dating the male lead in the school play and guess what!? He's geh!).

So then (you're still reading this? why?), Michael gets a summer job far away and so does Katherine. And she gets feelings for Theo, the tennis instructor. Buh-bye Michael. Thanks for the memories.

And get that cover! Thank Jeebus I didn't have to read this book on the subway.

10 February 2008

8. War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

More tripods! My first Wells!

This was an excellent book, and if you haven't read it, you should go get yourself a copy right now. The writing is excellent.

This is Wells's classic about Martians coming to Earth to attempt colonizing. Things go really well for the Martians and really badly for the humans. All of England is smashed, except for London. The people are in chaos and disorganized.

I won't spoil the ending, but I will admit that it completely took me by surprise.

I especially like how Wells described the breakdown of order and government. As the Martians are gassing the Englishmen, Wells writes, "Before dawn the black vapour was pouring through the streets of Richmond, and the disintegrating organism of government was, with a last expiring effort, rousing the population of London to the necessity of flight."

Just a little while later our narrator, trying to get back to his wife, tells us, "By ten o'clock the police organisation, and by midday even the railway organisations, were losing coherency, losing shape and efficiency, guttering, softening, running at last in that swift liquefaction of the social body."

As he travels the countryside, dodging the merciless, killing Martians, and crazy, sometimes violent humans the narrator meets with all kinds. He briefly teams up with a curate who loses his mind, meets up with an artilleryman whose dreams are bigger than his ability, and once, a group of would-be socialists who confiscate his pony and cart for the good of the people. (Maybe that was his brother, actually, who shares part of the narrative, but you get my point.)

And sparing me the political, thematic English teacher spiel is the afterword by Isaac Asimov who explains how the book relates to the Europeans' technological advantages and how they used them to colonize and spread uncaring destruction in their path.

And I thought it was a critique of how we don't take care of dangers until they have already passed. The artilleryman makes a long speech about how this invasion has, basically, thinned the herd, leaving behind only the strong, able, and independent.

Strongly recommended, though you have probably already read it.

Doc's review here and Olman's review here.

07 February 2008

7. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Such a sad little book.

Jess is isolated from his family (dad works far away and he's left home with his many sisters and mom), has few friends, and is scorned by his father for his obsession with art and drawing. His only friend, really, is the cow he has to milk twice a day and, sometimes, his young sister.

Then Leslie moves in down the block and the two become fast friends. Leslie is the daughter of hippies and is very much a free spirit. The two misfits spend the better part of a school year hanging around together, and create their own magic kingdom (Terabithia) in the woods near their houses.

They act as king and queen and fight off imaginary invaders and rule Terabithia as benevolent monarchs.

The one day while Jess is on a trip to Washington DC with his hot music teacher, Leslie has an accident and is killed. (Technically, this is not a spoiler, since this information is on the back cover.) Jess's reaction and recovery is the focus of the last chapter of the book. He builds a bridge to cross the creek where Leslie died trying to get to Terabithia. To honor Leslie's life and their friendship, Jess invites his sister to co-rule Terabithia with him.

And then Tripods come, destroy everything in sight, enslave Jess, defile Leslie's shrine, and kidnap Jess's cow.

04 February 2008

6. I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

How did this book get published?

You know in the movies when you watch a character get tortured and that character twists and struggles and tries to escape the clutches of the villains, and then at the end of the movie the character wakes up and says something to the effect of "wow, that was one hell of a bad dream" and you just want to kill someone, anyone, whether they were responsible or not, for wasting your time?

You know that feeling?

Well, I'm feeling that feeling.

At least have the got-damn decency to explain the friggin' title.

02 February 2008

if sailing isn't possible...

there's only one thing to do:

put your feet by the fire and ignore the fact that you are getting older and your ankles are going bald, enjoy a good book, and fix yourself a black and tan.