28 September 2011

Flip by Martyn Bedford

Wendy Lamb Books

This book was awesome!  It’s the story of Alex who, one morning, wakes up inside Phillip “Flip” Garamond’s body.  He doesn’t know how he got there, but his body is in a coma and he’s not sure if the switch is permanent or if there is a way for him to return to his body.  Living someone else’s life is extremely complicated and as Alex tries to figure out if he should stay Flip or return to Alex he continually gets himself in trouble and can’t seem to keep his emotions or actions in check.  Eventually he meets someone who has had the same experience, which helps, but when he learns that his family (Alex’s) is thinking about removing life support, he is faced with a very difficult choice – figure out a way to return to his own body or spend the rest of his life as Flip.
I really enjoyed this book – it made me think about what makes my life good and what annoys me about life, and that's something I don't think teenagers think about very often.  Alex is asthmatic and clumsy, but Flip is an athlete.  Flip is quite the ladies man, Alex isn't.  So for a few months, Alex has the opportunity to life a life he wouldn't otherwise have.  But is it worth it?  The book attempts examines whether or not the grass is greener on the other side from a teenager's point of view.  Pre-switch, Alex had an OK life - it wasn't perfect and he was kind of a dork.  Once he switches and gets the life that all teenagers think they want, he realizes how much he loves his family and is able to see all the great things his life had to offer. When I think about the students I serve here in comparison to Alex, I wonder if they would have the same reaction.  If life weren't great, would you miss it when it was gone?  As a teacher, we see all kinds of life situations, and I wonder - if psychic evacuation (the term Bradford coins for what happens to Alex) were possible, would everyone really miss their previous lives, or would it be a massive improvement for some people?
I guess I'm just going to be thankful that I love my life enough to not want it to end.

I would definitely recommend this book to just about any middle school student.  The only caveat I have about this book is that it might be difficult for reluctant readers because Bradford English so some of the terminology would be difficult for them.  While this book hasn't made it on to my favorite books of all time list, it was definitely worth the read and I will admit that I stayed up late the other night just to finish it!

27 September 2011

Zoom by Istvan Banyai

Istvan Banyai
Penguin Books
What a fun book to read...er...not read.  Zoom is a picture book that does just that - repeatedly zooms.  Each image turns into another image on the next page.  And amazingly the image on the last page is completely different from the image on the first page, but if you "read" the entire book, there is a storyline there, and it's great.
This book was recommended to me by one of the elementary para-librarians that works in our district.  I took it home this weekend intending to read it on my own time, but some precious, unexpected time with my 7-year-old niece came up on Saturday, so I decided to read it with her.  Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I decided to make reading Zoom a game.  Once I figured out how the book worked, we would look at the page and look for clues as to what the next image would be.  Sometimes we were right, other times we were way off.
What I found in exploring the book with my niece is that her ideas of what would come next were worlds away from mine.  While many of my ideas were right or pretty close, her's were fun.  She simply ignored the obvious hints and made up her own fun ideas.
How I wish I could be seven again...

If you're looking for a trippy webpage that gives a great preview of the book, visit Istvan Banyai's homepage (linked above).  Wow.

26 September 2011

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

The Adoration of Jenna Fox
Mary E. Pearson
Henry Holt and Company
As a librarian, I often have to read books because I'm not sure whether or not they'll be appropriate for the level of students I serve - whether because of reading level, content or interest.  Sometimes I come across a book that I can't put down but I know my kids won't be interested in.  Sometimes I read books that I find completely annoying, but as I read I can tick off the students who will go completely gaga over the story.
The Adoration of Jenna Fox is a bit of a mystery to me though,  Intriguing story, pretty good plot line, acceptable ending, but, in my professional opinion, very blah.  It's the story of a girl named Jenna who wakes from a coma after a terrible car accident that took place over a year ago.  She can hardly remember her life before the coma, but things come back to her in flashes.  Her parents are loving and fiercly protective, but her grandmother is distant - Jenna can sense that grandma just doesn't like her.  As the story unfolds, you find out just how much Jenna's parents adore her, and what lengths her dedicated mother and scientist father are willing to go to keep her safe and alive.  Her parents have provided her with stalker-esque (can your parents stalk you?) videos for each year of her life in the hopes that it will help her remember.  However, as she watches the videos, she realizes that things don't quite add up.  First of all, a scar on her chin is missing, then she realizes that she's a few inches shorter than she was before the accident.  As you can imagine, the teenager in Jenna starts to rebel and all hell breaks loose.
The premise of the book really is excellent - how much of a person must remain in order for it to be the same person.  Is a soldier who loses his/her arms and legs in battle still a whole person?  What if all that could be saved of a person is half their brain?  A third of their brain?  Would they still be the same person?  The problem I have with the book is that, well, I can't explain it.  It was just blah.  Parts of the plot that were supposed to be mysterious ended up being confusing and/or weird, and the ending - you all know how I feel about weak endings.  The end annoyed me.  Talk about rainbows and unicorns.  Sheesh.
So here's my dillema - and let's be honest, it's not really a dillema.  A dilemma would be solving the health care crisis or the Middle Eastern Conflict.  This is more of a "whiney moment".  I'm not sure my students will like the book.  According to the reviews students have loved this book for years - heck the second book in the series The Fox Inheritance just came out (don't get me started on that one.  It is NOT on my reading list.  Oi.), but no students names popped into my head as I was reading it, and I don't look forward to book talking it (though, there are lots of books that I can sell like candy to kids that I'm not a fan of.  'Tis one of my talents).  To purchase or not to purchase, that is the question.

I wouldn't recommend this book to students younger than 7th grade, but I think the majority of middle school students can handle it.  If you're looking for a quick read that is somewhat thought provoking, I'd recommend it, but don't expect literary grandeur.

09 September 2011

7 Books that Changed the Way I See the World

After reading this post on Bobbi Newman's blog, and then reading the original post on The Happiness Project, I decided to create my own list.  Only it turned out not to be as easy as I thought it would be.  Answering the question "What is your favorite book" is difficult because I love lots of books.  But answering the question "which books have changed the way you view the world" is different.  It doesn't mean I had to like them - they had to change how I saw the world around me.  So here my list in no particular order.

1. The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay:  I know, you're probably thinking get over this book already lady!!! But it really did change the way I viewed myself, the world, and reading.  PeeKay doesn't set out to change the world around him, but he does.  I learned that all of our actions have an impact on the world around us - an impact that often we can't control.  I also learned that the only way to accomplish anything is to be yourself.  And, as I stated in this other post, I fell in love with reading through this book.  This was the first book I ever read multiple times, and it is one of the few books that I will continue to read throughout my life.

2. Lamb by Christopher Moore:  Though I read this book long after my view of the church and God had gone through some major changes, I loved this book.  To me, this is what Jesus' life would have been like - kinda.  I don't think Jesus did it all by himself - I think He had friends who supported, helped Him, and challenged Him when He wrote the beatitudes (my FAV part of the book).  And by friends, I don't mean the Disciples.  I mean He had a BFF like Biff.  The truth is, no one knows what happened during the 30 years of Jesus' life when nothing is written about Him, but I like Moore's take on it - that He struggled, whined, got annoyed with the Disciples and eventually came to His senses and did what needed to be done.  Though this book is completely irreverent, I loved it, and it helped me see Christ in a more human light. 

3. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess by Leonard Shlain: another book that challenged what I believe.  This book was given to me by one of my mother's childhood friends.  I grew up seeing her not often, but always enjoying being around her even though I thought she was a kooky feminist.  Before I read this book, I'd never considered the differences between how men approach the world, problems and issues versus how women do, and I'd never considered that there could be factors in society that would shape the way we view women.  When I started reading the book, I wanted to disagree with it, hate it and dismiss Shlain's claims as "kooky" and, well wrong.  But man he makes a compelling argument and it makes sense.  I've never viewed feminism or reading in the same light.

4. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera:  this was one of the first books I picked up of my own accord and absolutely positively hated.  Ugh, it was awful.  It depressed the crap out of me, and I felt like the characters in the book were truly miserable and just wanted everyone to be miserable with them.  I don't want anyone to be miserable, but most of all I don't want to be miserable.  I knew after reading this book that life is entirely too short to ignore or not deal with depression - a piece of wisdom that has served me well in life.

5. A Dog's Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron: have you ever read a book that makes your soul smile?  What an amazing book.  I am a dog lover, and I've read just about every book written from the point of view of a dog (including The Art of Racing in the Rain and A Dog's Life), but none of them even come close to this book.  We all know the human reasons for having a dog, but this book made me see the world from my dog's perspective - why are dogs such great companions?  And why can't they put the damn ball down?!?  I look at dogs differently now and, honestly, I love them more after reading that book.

6. Die Entdeckung der Currywurst by Uwe Timm: this was the first book I read in German that was not translated from English.  When I lived abroad, I felt that it was important to immerse myself in the language - including in my reading.  But reading original German texts was difficult because every culture has its own accepted writing style (anyone who has read The Girl with the Dragon Tatto knows that in Sweden, starting a book of with 80-100 seemingly pointless boring pages makes for a best seller), so I found myself reading tons of Nora Roberts books because the layout was already second nature.  When I read Die Entdeckung der Currywurst (the discovery of the curried sausage), it was like the language - and to some degree - the culture clicked in my head.  I wasn't stumbling over passages anymore, and I began to see how the culture is reflected in the writing style, but that's another post for another day.

7. The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Polan: I love food.  I love eating it, sharing it with loved ones and preparing it.  This book changed the way I view what I put in my body and how it affects the world around me.  I won't even attempt to claim that I am now a locavore who despises all things fast food (thank you to my dear sister who cured my doldrums today with a Wendy's lunch of awesomeness...sorry Mr. Polan), but I will say that I am more food conscious now and I make more of an effort to buy local and stay home and prepare fresh meals when I can.  The saddest part about reading this book is my changed view of corn - it's no longer an exotic vegetable that I only get in the summer when my favorite Olathe sweet corn is in season.  It's everywhere, all the time in everything.

Which books have you read that have changed your world view?

06 September 2011

I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali

I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui
Translated by Linda Coverdale
Three Rivers Press

I like to think of myself as a strong, independent woman.  However, reading a story like Nujood's, I find myself wondering what I would do if I were in an arranged, abusive marriage.  I'd like to think I'd have the courage to step up and walk away, but I also know that a great portion of my strength comes from my family, so I think if I were in an abusive marriage that was arranged by my family, I'm not sure I'd be able to walk away without their support.  But I think I'd be able to do it.  My family isn't the only community I have, so I think it would be painful and it'd take a truckload of prayer and support, but I'd be able to do it.

Having said that, I'm 33, employed and live in a country where my voice is heard regardless of my gender.  When I read the story of Nujood - the ten year old girl in Yemen who walked into a courthouse one day and demanded a divorce - I realized that while I might think I'm strong, I can't imagine the strength and courage this young woman has (when you hear her story, you'll understand why I find it hard to think of her as a little girl).  Nujood was only ten years old when her father married her off to a man three times her age and sent her to live with her new in-laws far away from the only family she has ever known.  Her new family will not allow her to go to school, and though her new husband promised not to touch her until she was old enough (the accepted age in Yemen is thirteen.  THIRTEEN), he forces himself on her regularly.  Though she doesn't have much understanding of how the world works, she knows that a judge can help her, so one day she pulls together all her courage and enough money to ride the bus to the courthouse and finds a judge and asks the judge for a divorce.  Wow.

The book is a quick read that is expertly written - Delphine Minoui does an amazing job of balancing Nujood's strength and character with the simple fact that she is just a little girl.  In one scene she walks into the courthouse demanding a divorce in a country where women are often ignored altogether, and in the next, she is thankful that she has made new friends (the children of one of the judges who agrees to help her) and that she can play with dolls instead of being scared to sleep.  You want to feel sorry for Nujood, but you just can't - she doesn't want people to feel sorry for her.  She wants people to learn from her story and help others.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in what life is like for women in the Middle East.  I've read books about life for women in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and now Yemen.  Some of the accounts are terribly frightening and depressing, and some show hope - much like Nujood's.  And I know that stories like this are not limited to "other places" - terrible things happen around the world, in every country, every day.  Luckily, we have stories like Nujood's that inspire us and remind us that it's important to look out for each other and to do what we know is right - even if the societal norm has been/is contrary. 

If you want to read more about Nujood without reading the book, here is Glamour Magazine's article naming Nujood and her lawyer as 2008 Women of the Year.

If hearing stories like Nujood's gets your helping genes racing, I'd recommend Vital Voices as a wonderful organization to support.

05 September 2011

Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

Small Town Sinners
Melissa Walker

Do you remember when exactly you started to realize that your parents didn't know all the answers and weren't always right?  Do you remember when you started to form your own opinions that differed from those of your parents?  I do, and I don't.  I think all parents try to raise their children to the best of their abilities, teaching them what is helpful and what can be harmful (I hate the words "good" and "bad"), and I think that for all parents, the time when their children start making choices of their own - whether helpful or harmful - is extremely difficult (I'm kinda guessing, as I have no children of my own).

Small Town Sinners is an amazingly crafted novel that examines this phenomenon from the point of view of the child.  Lacey Ann has grown up in West River - a small, God fearing community.  Lacey Ann's dad is the youth pastor at the church, and every year the youth put on a production called "Hell House" - a house of sin production aimed at bringing souls to Christ.  The book begins when Lacey is finally old enough to audition for a main role, and Lacey wants to be Abortion Girl.  Lacey knows that her performace will show people the truth as she knows it:  that abortion is wrong and that Christ is the answer.

Enter the mysterious Ty.  Lacey has never met anyone like Ty before - his smile melts her resolve, but more importantly, she can talk to him like she can't talk to her parents or her best friends.  She can talk to him about her doubts and worries when it comes to the church, her friends and the things that happen in West River.  However Lacey's parents don't approve of Ty, and when "bad" things start happening to Lacey's friends, she finds it easier to talk to Ty and more difficult to talk to her parents.  All of a sudden, Lacey finds herself questioning what she believes and how she has been raised and wonders if she'll be able to resolve the two.

I know there was a time that I realized that my parents - and some of their views - were wrong.  I also know that my own personal faith/values journey has been more extreme than that of most.  In my lifetime I've been on the extreme ends of many ethical/religious arguments.  And I think I've come to a pretty happy place in who I am, what my values are and what I believe.  While reading Small Town Sinners I heard my own voice and my own thoughts echoed in what Lacey Ann was going through.  I remember times where I was so angry at my parents because I didn't think they could hear me (and sometimes, honestly, they couldn't) and other times where, in hindsight, they could hear me, but their wisdom was beyond my understanding.

Walker has created a wonderful cast of characters who are more honest than many teens think they can be - with themselves, each other and the adults in their lives - who I think will both speak to and encourage young people struggling with who they are and what they believe.  I also love the way she portrays West River!  It is a christian community that is wholly human - they make mistakes in their pursuit of the Kingdom of God, but for the most part, the people don't forget that they are merely human.  Often times people outside of the christian community don't understand the "zeal" of "believers" and see them, as, well crazy zealots.  And, admittedly, some people - regardless of faith tradition - are crazy zealots.  Walker clearly and plainly brings humanity, respect and dignity to the "zealots" in her book, allowing the reader to disagree with their beliefs, but still respect them for their dedication.  It's amazing.

I would recommend this to anyone who has a friend or family member they consider a "religious zealot".  I would also recommend this to parents whose children are starting to stretch their own wings and figure out who they are, as well as the children (pardon me...I mean teenagers - they HATE being called children) starting to realize their parents don't have all the answers.  It's an excellent book that shows the many perspectives of any given issue and how to love those around you regardless of their perspective.  I will say, I'm not sure it's appropriate for middle grade

01 September 2011

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Laura Hillenbrand
Random House

Check out the label cloud over there on the right.  See how relatively small the nonfiction label is?  Yeah, it's pretty small.  That's because I like fiction.  Lots.  But every once in awhile an excellent nonfiction book works its way into my stack.  How thankful I am that Unbroken made its way into that pile.  And as rare as it is for me to read nonfiction, it's also rare for me to read a book that immediately makes me think "Wow, my dad would love this book!"  See, my dad is my inspiration for reading (see my post What Type of Reader are You? to understand why), and in the nearly 30 years we've both been readers, our reading tastes have starkly diverged.  On the rare occasion that I come across a book my dad would love, I get extremely excited and can't wait to recommend it to my Papa.*

Unbroken is the story of Louis "Louie" Zamperini.  It follows him through his entire life, starting with his troubled childhood in Torrence, California.  It then follows his quest for Olympic gold in the 5000m and his attempt at being the first man to run a 4-minute mile.  Then it follows him as he serves the Army Air Forces as a bombardier - crashing in the Pacific, surviving on a raft for over 40 days, and ending up as a POW in Japan. THEN it follows his post-war life as he tries to destroy himself and ultimately reinvents himself yet again in a way that I did not see coming.

Oh, and it's about 400 pages, not including 50+ pages of notes and the extensive index at the end.

Truthfully, the length didn't bother me at all.  It was so good, I cranked out about 200 pages in a day - one of those blissful days that involved little more than a comfy blanket, some ice cream, the occasional bathroom break and a good book.  Much like my favorite book The Power of One, this book reminded me of the power of the human spirit.  It reminded me that some of us - not all of us - have within us a resilience that allows us to take just about anything life throws at us and make it our proverbial b!tch.  Louie never claims to be super-strong or amazing, but those around him always knew that he was exceptional.  He, much like my favorite character every PeeKay, simply went through life putting one foot in front of the other, doing whatever was needed to survive.  And I suppose that is all that most of us do - some of us are just required to stretch much further in order to survive.

In the end, this book gave me yet another perspective on WWII.  And it gave me yet another reason to thank those who serve and fight for us.  What they go through for our freedom is unbelieveable.  Wow.

As a librarian, I would recommend this book to just about any adult interested in nonfiction, survival stories, or well-written books in general.  I would not recommend this book for younger readers - it's pretty intense.  High school would most likely be OK, but definitely not middle school.

*Fun story:  As soon as I finished the book, I met up with my dad and said "Dad, you absolutely have to read this book!" His response?  "I already read it.  Man, how much can one guy go through?" Foiled again!