Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I'm on a reading stand alone fiction books kick lately. I similarly found this book like Reservation Blues and another teacher encouraged me to read it. When she summed it up, a boy with Asperger's tries to solve the case of who killed a neighbor's dog, I figured I would give it a go.

I read this book in two sittings. I'm moving next week and the more free books that I can give away/give to goodwill, the better. I also couldn't put it down. When I went to check out my opinion of the book with goodreads, well... some of the reviewers REALLY hated the book. Like, absolutely hated the book/would never ever attempt to give it to another person/never sell it/wish it on some poor smuck. Some people really liked it, but most found it so-so. 

I'm firmly in the camp of so-so. It's very post-modern type of novel. It's told in the POV of Christopher, a teenage book who is on the spectrum. He lives with his father in England and goes to a Special Needs school, though he is very good at mathematics. With encouragement of his teacher, he decides to write a novel but since can't imagine unreal things, decided to write about something true that he considers a mystery. Christopher found a neighbor's dog with a gardening fork (the big ones) in him. The dog was dead. Christopher picked him up to hold him and the neighbor caught him then accuses him of killing the dog. 

He goes around to investigates who killed Wellington, the dog. Through his investigation, Christopher reveals his backstory and the way he thinks. His mother is dead, even though the way that Christopher tells the story of his mother in the hospital makes the reader think there is more to the story than her dying. He reveals his method of thinking, such as his favorite colors, his least favorite colors, his enjoyment of math, his hopes of becoming an astronaut (and reasons why he can never be is heartbreaking), and his befuddlement of people. 

His father tells him to stay away from the death of Wellington case, but Christopher, who connects more with dogs than with people, does not. After an epic blowout with him and his father, the story changes from a boy with autism writing a mystery to solving the mystery of his family. 

The book starts you off on one adventure but then completely changes gears halfway through the book. Christopher's emotions are real, but he processed them very differently than other people. There are emotions of other individuals in the story, but that is lost through the eyes of Christopher. Maybe the subtly is supposed to be lost. I'm not sure, but the mystery of who killed the dog ends rather lamely after Christopher went through the work of talking to strangers and making maps of what could have possibly happened. 

Christopher's declaration that he "can never tell a lie" is an interesting characterization point and when I was reading it, it made me uncomfortable. He states that it is nearly impossible for him to do so, because the unpredictability of what could be there instead of what is there is too much for him and he gets confused and overwhelmed on what to choose. During the book, he definitely does lie, omit facts and tells white lies. I'm sure this is an active choice by the author to say that he can never lie, but in fact, Christopher does and has no insight to what he does to other people. This leads into how he can trust others and his wariness of people.

His mother, in fact, is not dead, but left her husband. She moved to London with the husband of the neighbor whose dog was killed. Chris' father, angry and sad, tells Christopher that she died and hides the letters that she written to him for a year. When it is revealed who killed Wellington, Christopher decides he is no longer safe with his father and decides to move in with his mother in London. For a boy, with autism, who never went anywhere on his own describing his tale of going to London, was a part of the novel that I couldn't stop reading. He even takes his rat with him!

The book ended on a happy note, which made me go, 'aw.' I worked with students with autism for many years and this year also had a few students with autism in my classes. Christopher had a lot of the same characteristics: concrete thinkers and they have the ability to be overstimulated very easily. Everything needs to be scheduled and make sense and I laughed when Christopher discussed his timetable and how when they went to France, he made his parents tell him everything they were going to do that day so he could feel better.

Overall, it's a quick read. I wouldn't go out and buy the book, however, but it's a good way to pass the time.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie

I discovered Sherman Alexie this year while my juniors were reading Native American literature in their English class. The kids enjoyed his memoir called Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian and a few of them read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven for their final projects. Reservation Blues was another one of the books that was up for grabs at the end of the year when a social studies teacher was retiring. I'll admit, the title didn't look appealing, but I took it anyway. I'm not normally a plain fiction reader, but I knew the author and figure I would give it a shot.

Sherman Alexie... this book, the history of Native Americans, for a lack of a better word, is just sad. Heartbreaking. But the kind of sadness that doesn't make a person cry, but seeps into the bones and lingers. The kind of sadness that couples with hopelessness and stays with you forever. From the atrocities that occurred with the Native Americans, no one should ever forget what happened, and Reservation Blues makes damn sure of that.

The story opens with a folk legend that is taken for truth. Robert Johnson is standing at the crossroads in the Spokane Indian Reservation with a guitar and deep cuts on his hands. He doesn't want to play the guitar, he tells Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a member of the tribe who is the only one brave enough to speak to him, that he can never play again because The Gentleman will find him. Thomas offers to give him a lift but leaves him at the foot of the mountain when Robert Johnson requests to see Big Mom. The guitar is left in Thomas' car, and the guitar persuades Thomas to start a band with his three former/current bullies, Victor and Junior.

They soon become popular on the reservation and they play their first gig at a nearby reservation, the Flathead reservation. They meet Chess and Checkers Warm Waters, who eventually join the band. The guitar's magic helps them become semi-famous, playing off the reservation, and getting a call from a recording studio in NYC. However, like all Native American history, even though it starts to turn up, it eventually falls apart.

The story itself, a band trying to make it big, isn't unique. The characters, their personalities and their struggles are the embodiment of the same sort of stories found on reservations. Victor is a deadbeat, who mooches off his friend for most of the book, a drunk, and has deep seated anger and rage that has been boiling up in past lifetimes. He's mistrustful and mean, and uses sleeping with women as trophies. After the guitar talks Thomas into starting a band, the guitar finds itself to Victor, who becomes a powerful guitar player because of it.

Junior and Victor are best friends, though the reasons why are not clear until towards the end of the book. Junior drives a water truck and puts up with Victor's drinking (and partakes too) and crap. Junior embodies the Indian man that couldn't quite make it off the reservation but is almost functional on the reservation with his job and his friend. He flunks out of college, with reasons that are not revealed until 3/4 through the book.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire is the main character of the book, and the lead singer. He loves to tell stories. All the members of the reservation knows his stories and they are sick of them. He falls in love with Chess Warm Waters, who is a flathead Indian from the nearby reservation. He is not an alcoholic and is dependable, which are all traits that Chess desires in a boyfriend. Thomas dreams of making something for himself and since there are no opportunities on the reservation, they go off the reservation to see if their band could make it.

Chess and Checkers Warm Waters are sisters, who are plagued, like the other members of the band, by alcoholism and poverty. They fight fires in the summer, and hope that their money last them through the winter. Checkers Warm Waters falls in love with older men and later on, falls in love with Father Arnold, for better or for worse. Chess resents the white women who come onto the reservation, Veronica and Betty and whereas Victor uses them as trophies, Chess views them as women who take Indian men away from them.

Alexie uses prose wonderfully in this book, and the metaphor of Indian horses (and their mass murdering) is constantly referred back too throughout the novel. If I have to go back in the book to remind myself what "something" is (a person, an event, etc.), then the author didn't do their job of effectively making sure that I, the reader, didn't forget about it. The metaphor of the horses and Big Mom stuck with me and when Alexis throws a reminder of the screaming horses, I didn't forget. I knew exactly what he was talking about. The destruction of beautiful horses parallel the destruction of a people.

The sadness of the story is multifaceted but it's not overdone. He presents the reality of Native Americans through dreams, songs and stories, which seems to be the core of their cultures. It demonstrates the conflicts between characters and within themselves but the transition between all three within the larger context of the novel is seamless and it flows. What also flows within the novel is the reference of historical atrocities of Wounded Knee and other Indian wars. Alexie doesn't go into how these events drastically and systematically desimates Native American tribes, but the casual reference of them shows that they will always be apart of Native American history, but more importantly, Native American reality.

BAE has The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and after I work through some of my book stack, I will revisit Sherman Alexie. He is a very talented writer with a viewpoint that should be shared with the world.

Friday, July 17, 2015

One Night Stands with American History by Richard Shenkman and Kurt Reiger

My favorite part about history, and why I was drawn to the social studies, were the stories. History is incredibly valuable: people can learn from the mistakes of the past, as well as look to the best in order to form their own decisions. I'm sure there are a lot of other valuable information about social studies as well, like politics and military strategies, but man, oh man, I loved the stories.

What is also very interesting about history and a bit sad as well, is that history is mostly written by the victors. We see that all the time when we read history textbooks. It doesn't take much to actually alter history. Just a few words on a page and distribute it to youngsters.

I got this book while I was going through a retiring teacher's classroom. He filled his room up with books and as he retired, gave them all away. I got a few other books that I'm excited to read but I chose One Night Stands because I thought it would be a good pairing with my new position as a social studies teacher next year. Not sure if I'll ever reference the title of the book, though...

One Night Stands shares a plethora of stories about famous politicians that can either be confirmed or denied. The author guides you through U.S history, starting from the American Revolution all the way up to the 2000s. The author groups stories by eras with bulleted facts and figures at the beginning of each chapter. Most stories are about presidents, with a sprinkling of cabin members, first ladies and congress.

Teddy Roosevelt is quite an exciting person who met his challenges with gusto throughout his life. However, he is a product of his time and backed up a "scientific" book about the inferiority of black people. Yikes. Not cool, Teddy... not cool.

George Washington is a folk hero and a legend in American history, including how lucky he was to not have been shot. John Adams, the poor sod, who is so brilliant but at the end of the day, everyone hated him. I also loved how he was vehemently against the Bald Eagle and wanted a good solid bird to be the nation's mascot... the turkey.

Side note, why is Andrew Jackson still on American money? He's such a jerk and wasn't a good president. Even though I mentioned that Teddy Roosevelt was a product of his time, Andrew Jackson was a jerk. He hated Native Americans and there was this one story about how he was stopped somewhere where the agents wanted to check his papers for transporting slaves. Not one to be told what to do, or have his slaves being taken from him, he uncuff his slaves, gave them weapons and walked through the town. When they made it through, he took the weapons away, put them back in chains, and then sold them. Just... wow.

I thought the most interesting thing was the fact that Hoover's veep was part Native American. Charles Curtis's mother was Native American (Kaw, I think) and his father was white. There are a few sad stories about his childhood and how when his maternal grandparents were forced to moved reservations, they told him to stay with his paternal grandparents to in order to have the opportunities. Apparently he rode horses as well.

Even though I enjoy studying WWII history, Ike Eisenhower was... an interesting individual. Apparently, he didn't like intellectuals. There was also a tidbit about a satirical journalist rewriting Lincoln's emancipation proclamation in Ike's language. He does not sound very good.

The first presidential library I ever visited was the LBJ museum in Austin, Texas. Johnson was a great personality and practiced some of the old politics of intimidation and "wearing you down." There was also a story about how he whipped it out for journalists in China!

The book only goes up to the George W. Bush, and after reading the Bushisms, I'm depressed he was ever elected. 

I would love this book to be updated with stories of Obama.... But who knows if they'll do that. Oh, I especially loved the Clinton stories... Who knew he would become even more popular after his scandals?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Which is better? Book Thief

I read The Book Thief last year. I don't remember how I acquired the book but I remembered that it was a great, big deal. I think BAE got me a copy of the book from Perry Hall? Or was it from the Independence's book closet? Anyway, I read the book last summer and a few days ago, I finally got around to watching the movie.

Man, oh man, I liked both the book and the movie. However, goodreads reviews always makes me second guess myself. Some of the reviews aligned with my opinions on the book, was that it was very good, albeit, dense. However, some of the reviews rip the book apart, which makes me think, 'oh, do I not have good taste? Am I not critical enough of books?'

But you know what? Sometimes we read for entertainment. Not every book we read has to enhance our lives for the better, or make us think of how to improve the world. Also, we don't have to constantly criticize whether the book will move the world or whether it makes the reader aware of what is out there. When people put themselves under that kind of pressure to change themselves or to change their universe, not only are they burned out, but nothing ever gets done. You don't change your life because every little thing you could change isn't enough... and if you want to improve the world, every little thing you do is also not good enough.

Anyway, I liked the book. I was confused in the beginning with the character of Death and the omniscient 3rd person perspective. Or was it 1st person when he was speaking? I honestly don't remember and I gave the book back wherever I borrowed it from. The Book Thief is marketed as a young adult book, but honestly... I don't see how. It's a dense book with colorful prose and a plethora of metaphors and other literary devices, some quite sophisticated. If it is, then I'm not sharp of a reader I perceived myself to be!

Back to "The Book Thief" movie. Like I said before, I liked both the book and the movie, and the movie goes well as a companion to the book. What I noticed about the movie was that they took scenes and events from the book and lifted them off the page. The introduction with Death and the death of her younger brother is exactly how I pictured it. She picks up The Grave Digger Handbook and starts her journey as a book stealer.

The movie was very well casted. They chose superb actors and actresses as well as the children to play Liesel and Rudy. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson's performances as Hans and Rosa actually gave context to how much Liesel meant to them in the book. In the book, Hans was very reserved and his love for his foster daughter came out in very subtle ways which needed to be translated for the screen. Rosa was a very difficult character to play and she nailed it. Everyone's on screen chemistry was excellent.

Now, the downsides to The Book Thief movie. The character of Death, which starts off as a narrator but turns into more of a character as the book goes on, is lost in the movie. His monologues are cut down to practically one liners. He has stirring lines at the end of the movie as he wraps up Liesel's story, but he doesn't really amount to anything other than a narrator.

The Book Thief book is also much more complex (which is why I'm still befuddled to why it's considered young adult) with much more events occurring in Nazi Germany with Liesel and Rudy, Max, the Hubermanns, Nazis and the Steiners. I completely missed that the father enlisted so that Rudy didn't have to be part of the Nazi Youth leadership because it seemed to be a 5 second scene. The movie alluded that Hans was not in favor of the Nazis, but the book really goes into Hans history and then how his actions lead to him getting drafted. There were also many other characters in the book that the movie did not cast, which characterized Nazi Germany as much more multifaceted than it did in the movie.

The movie largely focused on Liesel's story, but in the book there was Rudy's story, the Steiners, Max, the Hubermanns, and the mayor and his wife and through those stories showed the spectrum of living under a tyrannical government.

Overall, I highly recommend reading the book and watching the movie. They are both great stand alones, and one doesn't have to choose to either read or watch. I would recommend that students who read the book should also watch the movie in order to better understand the plot and Nazi era Germany. I agree with most of what the movie cut and adapted the premise of the book wonderfully.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Snow Drop by Kyung-ah Choi Vol. 6, 7 & 8

I first became interested in anime in middle school. My friends, Lara and Capella, were super into Sailor Moon, and because I wanted them to like me, I was super into it as well. We wrote fan fiction (really) and we also assigned our entire group of friends different Sailor Scouts. I think there was some beef between Lara and Hillary because Lara wanted to be Sailor Moon, and Hillary thought that was ridiculous. Oh, middle school. How we (read: I) were hormonal and crazy. I think at that time Hillary introduced me to some other anime and even showed me how to draw some characters. It was also when I learned that manga were the Japanese comic books, where as anime, was the Japanese tv shows and movies. 

Even though our big group of friends drifted apart in high school, I still was interested in anime. I attended Dulaney's anime club a few times... but I felt like I couldn't connect with any of the members. I also went to Otakon a few times (the first time I went, it was 35 bucks!). I sought out some shows like Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Hellsing. I perused the manga section at Barnes and Nobles and splurged on a few series. 

Nevertheless, 10 dollars for a manga that I quickly read in 20 minutes became a hard pill to swallow and the DVDs were 25 bucks a pop in kitschy novelty stores. Eventually, I phased out. I became disillusioned with the Otaku culture. It was hard to make friends, it was hard to acquire and above all, it was damn expensive! 

I'm not sure where I acquired Snow Drop. I believe it might be back when I still visited Barnes and Noble, but Snow Drop is very different than my other manga. First of all, it's Korean, so it's called a manhwa. Maybe I found it at a convention and they were on sale? I know it's how I found vol. 9&10 and possibly even vol. 3&4. 

Anyway, I had vol. 1, 2, 3 & 4 along with vol. 9&10 of this series since high school. I lugged around this series along with my other mostly incomplete sets of manga. When I moved back to Baltimore from Frederick, I had a summer free before grad. school started... so I decided to acquire the rest of the Snow Drop series. I stopped off at volume 6 (wouldn't you know... amazon had the series cheaper than B&N...) but when I started going through my books in preparation to move, I decided to read the rest of the books that I bought and buy the remaining 2. 

What always drew me in to Snow Drop was the art. First off, the covers are magnificent. Each cover is uniquely drawn in this sort of fairy tale, dream like theme. They pulled me in right away, which is probably why I purchased them to begin with. Also, the illustrations and art work throughout the books are also beautiful. I'm not sure what other mahnwa looks like, but this strikes right balance between art and graphic novel. I enjoy reading them largely because of the art. 

I started and stopped this series twice before finally making the commitment to finish them (and this blog holds me accountable). Before I picked them up again, I wondered why it has taken me this long to finish them. Now that I've read 3 volumes, I understand completely. The first time, it was probably due to expenditures. Manga is expensive, no one else was reading that series and I'm not good with the library. I assume the second time I stopped reading the series was due to the 'ride or die' mentality of the characters. I had a horrible break up 6 months prior that also started with a swoony romance depicted in the novel. I was very sensitive back then to relationships like that. I perceived things in a certain way, even if it wasn't meant to. 

Now, third time's the charm! It might be because I'm much older than their targeted audience, but... what is with the androgynistic men in the books? I read somewhere that younger girls, tweens like men that are "pretty" and look more feminine because they are less threatening than adult men. That theory makes sense to me... because it is in full swing in these novels. However, even though feminine looking men is not my preference, I leaned into it and read into the saga between So-Na and Ha-Gi. 

It's a classic Romeo and Juliet story. It starts off with both main characters in high school. She's the daughter of a wealthy politician and he's from the wrong side of the tracks (even though he has money due to his successful modeling career in Korea). There are all kinds of antics from all different sides to break them apart (including other boys and girls). At one point they defy their families and run away, only to almost be killed when the girl's father's croonies find them. 

It's very passionate and very, very dramatic. Once you realize that it's a Korean drama with teenagers... it's easy to lean into and just come along for the ride. There are some twists and turns to the storyline that the reader doesn't see coming, which is an unexpected treat. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception by Eoin Colfer

I was right. I didn't really need to read The Eternity Code between The Artic Incident and The Opal Deception. Conveniently, Artemis' mind was wiped from the events that occurred in the 3rd book and one of the plot points was remembering what happened during that adventure. It appears that each Artemis Fowl book operates as a stand alone book, which is just smart marketing in case readers like me can't be bothered to obtain the books in order.

The backstory for this book is just like the other one: it was 1 dollar from the book fair. The next book fair is in September, I think, and BAE and I are already talking about it. I wonder what prizes I will find! Will books by my girl PG be there? Who knows? Ok, back to Artemis Fowl.

I think if I had started reading this books when I was 10 or 11, I would have totally dug them and maybe even fashioned myself an evil genius (that eventually turns good) just like Artemis Fowl. His name is even cool. Sure, Jordan is mythological (excuse me, biblical) and androgynous but Artemis is so badass. Jordan is just a name of a river. Although famous (pretty heavy hitters were baptized in the Jordan River), it is also apparently a dirty river. Artemis is named after a fierce huntress!

Ok, back to the actual story. As it is, I read them while I'm in my late 20s. I keep in mind that they were written for kids much younger than me (and actually I'll probably be teaching the appropriate age group this fall). It's a unique concept and it celebrates the idea of a boy using his intellect to solve problems. What is also powerful about this book is that Artemis actually thinks. He brainstorms more than one plan and then after analyzing them, chooses the one that will be the most successful. Artemis Fowl takes his time, and knows that intelligence doesn't actually mean quickness. Being super smart doesn't necessarily mean that one gets the right answer immediately.

It's a powerful concept to learn and more students, especially those who struggle with academics, could stand to read about someone like Artemis Fowl. Sure, it's science fiction, but what is great about science fiction is that it's often much more based in the human condition than fiction is. Science Fiction dreams up powerful high technology and different species, but ultimately goes back to how the human race reacts to these themes.

Artemis Fowl is an optimistic focal point of the human race. Eoin Colfer shows intense character development with Fowl. He starts off the series as the books' anti-hero. He faces off with The People in order to obtain some fairy gold. Then in the next book and sequential books, he develops a relationship with Holly Short and becomes the series protagonist. After doing some research on the Fowl books, he actually goes back in time to deal with his younger, more evil half in order to save his mother. He's actually going back in time to right the wrongs he committed when he was an angry, lost boy.

Development. Stephanie Myers could stand to learn something. I kid, but not really.

I even like the series' villain, Opal Kobai. There are a lot of geniuses in this book series, and all of them work extremely hard and are extremely ambitious, in their own way, in order to be the greatest.

Now onto the book itself. I realized that because it's a YA book, and maybe even a bit younger than YA, it's not geared towards me. The book takes me a bit to get into. I found myself only wanting to read a few pages a night, which is a sign that I am not into what I'm reading. Thank goodness for this blog, my leaning tower book stack and my moving, right? Who knows when I would have been done this book?

I'm not interested in fantastical high technology and heist narrative but unfortunately, most of this book was centered on side quests before getting to the real thing, which is defeating Opal. I love Holly and Artemis' banter, which was lacking until Fowl regained his memories.

Many characters made a reappearance, including Butler and Mulch. Julius Root unfortunately sails off into the night, and I commend Colfer in dealing with death with such a "young crowd." Characters also cease to develop without major changes in their lives, including death.

Overall, a solid read. I wish I found these books when I was younger, but I'll settle for 1 dollar at used book fairs.