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About John Green

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For this entire school year, my students — mostly the 8th graders, but now the 7th graders, too — have been raving about John Green.  They loved The Fault in Our Stars.  “It’s sooooo good,” they would tell me, “and sooooo sad!”  They gave me a little bit of a teaser: the novel is about a teenage girl with cancer, and she has a friend (a boy)  who also has cancer.  Since they told me the book is sooooo good, I assumed the boy and girl have a romance.  Since they said it is sooooo sad, I figured that probably someone in the book dies.  And those two potential plot points didn’t pull me in.  It sounded like a sappy novel that stereotypical teens like because they are obsessed with love and death.

For quite a while, I didn’t exactly avoid reading the book, but I definitely didn’t make it a priority.  But when more and more students kept talking about the amazing John Green, I thought I’d give him a try.

I started to read Will Grayson, Will Grayson.  I hated it.  Couldn’t even get half way through it.  Honestly, I’ve even blocked out the reason why I hated it, but I think it was because it was crude.  (Yes, many of my students have read and loved that one, too.)  I’m told (by an adult whose judgment I trust) that it has a valuable lesson at the end, but that you have to go through way too much sludge to get there for it to be worth it.

Still, since my students were so enthralled, I thought I’d give Green another chance.  Since The Fault in Our Stars is perpetually checked out of every library I visit, I chose An Abundance of Katherines instead.

And you know what?  John Green is a really good writer.

If you were to ask me what it is that makes him good and why my teenaged students love him so much, I would answer you this way:

He, like, totally gets how teenagers think and talk, you know?  I mean, he doesn’t do it in a way that’s completely distracting like you might think he would; instead, it feels natural.  I can totally hear my students talking this way.

Also, even in the midst of “like” and “totally” and “awesome” and the sarcasm that seems to inevitably accompany puberty, he’s not afraid to use advanced vocabulary.  Really advanced, too.  He uses words that even I don’t always know.  And he loves to make incredibly obscure references to history or literature or music or art or mathematics.  Not only that, but he truly does address some important life lessons and issues.

So, having read and enjoyed An Abundance of Katherines, I figured I needed to read the much beloved tale of The Fault in Our Stars.

I was partly right.  It is rather sappy, and teens obsessed with love and death will probably enjoy it immensely.  But it is still intelligently written.  And as a bonus, it takes place in Indianapolis.  (It’s always a little fun to read a book set in a place you know.  I enjoyed being able to picture the references to Castleton Mall and Broad Ripple and Meridian Hills.  John Green lives in Indianapolis, by the way.)

I preferred An Abundance of Katherines, though.  It felt both more and less realistic.  The premise on which the book centered was less probable, but the characters themselves seemed more real.  These characters deal with struggles that most kids will encounter — understanding relationships (both romantic and otherwise), leaving your comfort zone, being forced into situations you would not have chosen, trying to figure out the meaning in your life.

So, I like John Green.  I would even go so far as to recommend him to those who enjoy young adult literature.  Go to the library to check out one of his books.

That is, if they aren’t all checked out.

Recently Read Books

Here’s a brief update on what I’ve been reading lately.

Anna Karenina. Leo Tolstoy.   It took me a mere ten months to get through this book, and the only reason I stuck with it (this was my third try) is because Stephan loves this book.  I think I might enjoy better an abridged version that leaves out all the Russian politics.  This was not an easy or enjoyable read for me.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  Brian Selznick.  This book was recommended to me by one of my students.  Selznick is an illustrator, and this very thick book has scores of original drawings.  The story is good, too, but this is an especially nice book for those who appreciate art.

Splendors and Glooms.  Laura Amy Schlitz.  An historical novel with a touch of fantasy thrown in, this book deals with marionettes and puppet shows, a sinister puppeteer, two orphaned urchins, a kidnapped aristocratic little girl, and a domineering old woman who controls her servants with the same magic she is trying to rid herself of.

Flygirl. Sherri L. Smith.  Another historical novel, this time set during World War II, this young adult novel focuses on a young, light-skinned black woman who longs to fly an airplane.  Passing for white, she enrolls as a WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilot).  The reading level and interest level is probably upper elementary, lower middle school, but I found it interesting that the main character is not as young as the book’s likely readers as is often the case.  Ida Mae is in her early adulthood, but the story educates young readers about what the WASPs did, and about racism in the United States and the armed forces during that time period.

 

What books are you reading lately?  Do you have any suggestions for me?

Book Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

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Photo Credit: goodreads

 

I was in the library the other day, and the audio version of this book was on the center display — the one where they show off books of a particular topic or theme.  Sometimes the theme is a holiday or a season.  In spring, it’s often filled with books about flowers, for instance.  I’m not sure what the theme was this month because I didn’t look closely.  Food, perhaps?  But as I love lemon cake, I was intrigued.  I don’t do terribly well with audio books, so I headed to the shelves to see if the print version was there.  It was, so I checked it out and read it.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender follows the life of Rose Edelstein, who discovers at nine years old that she can taste feelings in food.  As in, whatever emotions the cook or baker had when preparing the food, she can tell when she eats.  This is upsetting to a young girl who must now mange her mother’s despair, the cafeteria lady’s grief, or the anger of the employee in the cookie shop down the block.  After all, she is learning to manage her own developing emotions, and now she must deal with the hidden, secret emotions of her family as well as people she’s never met.

Rose’s family is detached from each other — she from her parents, her mother from her father, her brother from herself — except for what seems to be a strange dependence of her mother on Rose’s brother.  But brother Joseph is separate from everyone in the world, it seems, and Rose can’t figure out why; she only knows that his peanut butter sandwiches taste so terrible she can’t even swallow them.

The novel takes seriously this idea that Rose can taste emotions.  When other characters discover the trait, no one seems to think it impossible — just unusual.  It reminds me of magical realism, but only to a tiny degree.  A more significant focus is the dysfunction of a family and a girl who is learning to navigate life in the midst of it.  As Rose ages (the book follows her into her twenties), we see how she grows maturity and compassion, and how she learns to connect to others because of– or perhaps despite — her special ability.

This isn’t a happy book, but it isn’t terribly sad either.  Melancholy is perhaps the best word.  Intriguing.  Thought-provoking.  Funny at times.  It’s a good read.

Book Review: Wicked

image courtesy GregoryMaguire.com

I generally like stories told from a unique point of view.  The first book I read like that was The True Story of the Three Little Pigs  by Jon Scieszka.  I also enjoyed the movie Hoodwinked, which does a similar thing.  So, since Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire was along those same lines, and because I’d heard rave reviews about the musical based on the book, I figured I’d love this novel.

Maguire begins the tale before the Wicked Witch of the West, whom he names Elphaba, is even born.  We see her flawed parents, the strange religious trends of the time, and the ways that Elphaba’s father, Frex, a minister, tries to fight against paganism and what seems like an Oz version of the occult.  When Elphaba is born, she is inexplicably green and has very sharp teeth.  The story follows Elphaba for a few years during her toddlerhood, then jumps ahead to her college years where she meets Galinda, who eventually becomes Glinda, known to you and me as the Good Witch of the North.

The story here is filled with political intrigue and sorcery (which seems partly academic subject and partly dark magic).  Elphaba both struggles to fit in and becomes her own strong-minded person.  Another jump, and we are a few more years into the future when Elphaba is a political activist (terrorist?) fighting against the evil regime of the Wizard.

As the book progresses, you see Elphaba not merely as a Wicked Witch, but a torn, lost soul, often rejected because of her strange skin color, just trying to do the right thing and make a difference in her world of Oz.  I’ll admit that Maguire is imaginative.  But I found the story confusing and hard to follow, as well as a little creepy with some sexually graphic material and some serious weirdness on the religious side of things.

Maybe the musical is lighter, but I don’t recommend the book.

Score: 5/10

Book Review: It’s Not News, It’s FARK

image courtesy Amazon.com
First of all, you’ll have to go to Amazon.com to actually “Click to look inside” the book.  I couldn’t grab an image of the book off the Fark.com website, so I had to use one from Amazon instead.

In It’s Not News, It’s FARK: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off CRAP as News, Drew Curtis examines mass media and points out the ridiculous things they do.  Stories about the weather are just one example.  Every summer, reporters go out and tell us that it’s summer and it’s hot outside.  Every winter, they stand in a blizzard to tell us it’s snowing.  There are the other seasonal stories as well, like how we are told every holiday that roads will be congested because people are traveling for the holiday.

Then there’s the fearmongering.  For instace, say there’s an asteroid out there in space, and its current trajectory is headed roughly in the direction of earth.  If it stays on the course we think it’s on (unlikely) and doesn’t burn up in the earth’s atmosphere (unlikely) and crashes into New York City (unlikely, but it would always be someplace like New York or LA, not an uninhabited region of the Mojave Desert or the middle of the ocean), a lot of people could die!  Everybody PANIC!

As you read the book you will nod your head, realizing that you’ve seen these types of stories on TV or in the paper all your life.  Maybe you realized how silly they were.  If you didn’t, you sure will after reading this book.  It’s amusing and eye-opening.

Score: 9/10

Book Review: Firefly Lane

image courtesy KristinHannah.com

After I read Winter Garden, I decided I kind of liked Kristin Hannah’s writing.  So when I came across Firefly Lane in the library, I thought I’d try it as well.  (Plus, I know they say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I liked the cover and covers definitely influence me.)

Firefly Lane tells the story of two girls who become best friends and then follows them through their lives.  Tully is outgoing, popular, determined, and stubborn, but her father skipped out so early in her life she can’t remember him and her mother is completely unreliable.  Katie is shy, awkward, and diffident, but has a stable family who loves her.  These two start out on the same path — same college, same major, same career choice — but their roads eventually diverge.  Katie gets married and chooses to stay home with her babies while Tully climbs the corporate ladder to fame and fortune.  It’s a test of their friendship, but they stay strong until one betrays the other in such a way as to risk damaging the relationship forever.

This book reminded me of Forrest Gump because of the way it touched on major national and world events and popular music.  The events and songs provided a framework to the rest of the story.  While I wouldn’t say it was a good book (because to me that implies some sort of literary significance that I don’t really feel this book possesses), it was an enjoyable book.  I liked the characters (except when they were being stupid and you’re not supposed to like them then anyway) and was interested to see how their friendship would be affected by their life choices.

Score: 8/10

World War II Fiction

Recently, I unintentionally picked up two books from the library that had to do with World War II.  The first one was Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah.

image courtesy KristinHannah.com

The story is of a family — a mother (Anya), a father (Evan), and two daughters (Meredith and Nina).  Anya, while showing love to her husband, has always been distant from the daughters.  The only time they felt connected to her was when she told her Russian fairy tale.  The daughters, now adults, have given up on trying to get to know their mother.  But as Evan lies on his death bed after a heart attack, he gives his daughters each a task: Meredith to take care of Anya and Nina to make her tell the fairy tale — the whole thing this time.  It’s not easy, and as Anya begins to show signs of dementia, and Nina is rarely around since she travels the world as a photo journalist.  Meredith feels the pressure of take care of Anya as well as managing the family business and keeping her crumbling marriage intact.  But when Nina returns and begins to prod Anya into telling the fairy tale, they learn that their mother experienced some terrible things during World War II which have impacted her ability to connect with people.

The characters and relationships are well-drawn, and the fairy tale provides suspense.  Although not what I expected, this book is worth reading.

Score: 8/10

The second book I read was When the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe.

image courtesy bookdragon.si.edu

Again, this book was not what I expected.  By reading the book jacket, I thought it would have a lot of magical realism, but I was mistaken.  The story takes place in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation.  So right there I learned something — I didn’t know the Philippines were at all involved in WWII.  A family and their neighbors hide in a basement to try to keep safe from Japanese soldiers.  Told from the points of view of three characters — a young boy, a teenage girl, and a guerrilla rebel — the novel weaves in stories with moral lessons, told by the characters, along with the events that are happening currently to the characters themselves.

I found this book a little confusing, but this may be because I was expecting something completely different.  Also, since I had just finished reading Winter Garden which had some upsetting descriptions of WWII conditions, reading another such novel so closely on its heels was probably not the best idea.  The characters were believable, if not altogether likeable (though the unlikeable characters seemed drawn this way on purpose) and, assuming Holthe did her research and presented things accurately, I gained some knowledge about the history of the Philippines and its role in World War II.

Score: 8/10