Here’s a review written by COHS student Jade:

“Dead Girls Don’t Write Letters” by Gail Giles gets five stars from me! If you’re in the mood for confusing but riveting mystery, this is a good book for you!

Sunny Reynolds’ older sister Jazz dies in a fire. Her mom is devastated–can’t eat or sleep, and has to be put on sleeping pills. Her father goes back to being a drunk. Sunny comes home one day to find a letter on the counter, and it said “from Jasmine.” It said she wasn’t dead, and she’ll be coming home on Sunday. Sunny tells her parents, and when Sunday arrives, jazz walks in the door.  But this girl….didn’t look like Jazz, and Sunny knows it’s not her sister… But if it’s not Jazz, then who is it?

Read it to find out!

December 14, 2009

Dracula by Bram Stoker

As vampire tales are so popular lately, I decided this summer that I would read one of the original vampire novels—Dracula. The author, Bram Stoker, created the character of Dracula by pulling together lots of myths and legends. Though Vlad the Impaler, a real man who lived in the 1400’s in Romania, was one of the inspirations for Dracula’s personality, there were others. In turn, Dracula as a vampire set the criteria for many years of vampire lore—can’t behold daylight, sleeps in a coffin, turns into a bat, has no reflection in a mirror, and preys on beautiful young women. Of course, he also has lots of sex appeal—and, very recently, this is the only vampire quality that survived in teen vampire literature. So—would you like to read a book about a vampire like Dracula? About potential victims who would prefer to die than be transformed into vampires? (So unlike that whining Bella of Twilight, who finally gets her wish. Think of it—now she can whine and throw temper-tantrums through eternity!)

My sense is that you might enjoy this read although there are things about the writing and the sometimes sentimental view of perfect Victorian angel girls that won’t appeal to you—you’ll probably speed through parts.

The greater measure of the book is written as journal and diary entries as well as letters. It begins with Jonathan Harker, an up and coming attorney, making a trip from London to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula and discuss Dracula’s purchase of some real estate in London. Several days into the trip, Harker knows that something is very wrong in the castle (seeing Dracula climbing the outer walls is a big hint), and that he is a prisoner. There are female vampires in the castle who attack Harker. This is pretty horrific stuff—the details aren’t as gory as those in current novels, but Dracula does give the women a baby to eat, and then when the mother of the child stands outside the castle demanding the return of the child, Dracula has a pack of wolves eat her. Harker manages to escape.

Once home, Harker will enlist others to help him rid the world of Dracula (who moves to London—remember the real estate deal?). The plot will involve Harker’s finance Mina and her friend Lucy who is engaged and has had two other suitors. All three are good men and risk their lives for the women, as does Harker. Poor Lucy has a pretty rough time with Dracula and needs several blood transfusions, direct form the bodies of her friends (never mind the science of blood type. . .). Professor Van Helsing, a vampire hunter, is there to conduct all this business. He knows medicine and he know vampire lore. Should all their efforts fail, the men take an oath that they will not allow Lucy to suffer the fate of being a vampire—they vow to do anything—cut off her head, drive a stake through her heart—to ensure her the peace of death. They take these vows out of love for Lucy. (How different from Twilight!) Mina, being female, is also under threat.

There is a lot of exciting action throughout the book. However, the roles of the women are a bit off-putting—as I said, they are Victorian angels, and can’t get a whole lot done by themselves, although Mina is very, very smart. Being bitten by Dracula has the same sense of sleeping around—not fair. Another thing that bothered me over the long run (and this is a long book) was Van Helsing’s too frequent and very long speeches. You wouldn’t find this kind of pontificating in a modern novel. Still for vampires that are true to legend, and for suspense, this is a good book to read. I know that Bram Stoker is on the ‘author list’ for the senior project here at COHS. He’d be a good choice.

By the way—if you need to read a biography and are looking for someone whose insanity and cruelty is riveting, you could try Vlad the Impaler, one of the models for Count Dracula.

December 11, 2009

1776 by David McCullough (Another title I read in keeping my promise to find good non-fiction.)

This is a great story written by a great storyteller. David McCullough has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (If this doesn’t mean anything to you, let’s just say this guy is among the best of the best American history writers.)

As a book about a momentous period of history, it’s short—under 300 pages excluding the endnotes—a factor that is often a deal breaker here at COHS. And its brevity is part of its success—it’s a tightly woven story of the trials and triumphs of George Washington and the Continental Army.  The reader meets many players in the American Revolution from both sides of ‘the pond’.

Previously, I had only read of King George III as a madman, and was surprised to find him pretty reasonable in this account. I learned why the leaders of the British Army and Navy made some costly decisions that, on the surface, appear blundering and foolish, but on closer examination, had merit. I understood why Washington ‘crossing the Delaware’ is so famous an event. I even learned about William Lee, the slave who served with Washington, always by his side and in the thick of things.

Though the success of the American Revolution depended on many people—and they are given credit here—George Washington is the star of the book. He takes the most ragtag, miserable group of diseased, undisciplined men, who several times flee from battle (you won’t read that in your history book!), and wins a war for independence. Success didn’t follow a straight line, and many important battles were lost along the way, causing Washington to despair and his second in command (Charles Lee) to privately question Washington’s ability to lead.

1776 began so badly for Washington that he wrote to Joseph Reed (an adjunct general):

“I have often thought how much happier I should have been if, instead of accepting of a command under such circumstances, I had taken my musket upon my shoulders and entered the ranks, or, if I could have justified the measure to posterity, and my own conscience, had retired to the back country, and lived in a wigwam.”

Reed, along with Charles Lee came to criticize Washington for indecision—which was, as 1776 shows—a valid criticism. But Lee is the worst sort of backstabber. In an encounter that seems like it should have come from a fictional tale of intrigue, Lee wrote a letter to Reed about Washington:

“[I] lament with you that fatal indecision of mind which in war is a much greater disqualification than stupidity or even want of personal courage. Accident may put a decisive blunder in the right, but eternal defeat and miscarriage must attend the men of the best parts if cursed with indecision.”

This letter was accidentally delivered to Washington, who opened and read it! Imagine if you were risking your life, your reputation and the future of the colonies for independence and then found out that your ‘second in command’ guy is doing this behind your back! You’ll be surprised to found out what Washington does. (And don’t worry, fate will eventually deal with Lee.) Persevering through these kinds of trials points to Washington’s greatness. As I read, this story was one of the most memorable in the book because my mind linked it to the stories of some politicians today who whine about being criticized and then throw in the towel (or their job as governor), moving on to write their own scathing criticism of those who don’t agree with them. Maybe they should be reading this book instead of having their own screeds ghostwritten.

The other scene that stuck with me was the story of Henry Knox and the movement of cannons from Fort Ticonderoga (New York) to Boston. That’s 300 miles in the dead of winter—horrific conditions—with 120,000 pounds of artillery. This was amazing in that it was brilliant and almost impossible at the same time. It’s the kind of thing that inspires true admiration. Read it!

December 9, 2009

I’ve said before that I love this series–The Ranger’s Apprentice. This is the sixth book. Will, the ranger’s apprentice of the series’ title, now has his own fief to protect. It is a cold northern area with little activity–at least in normal times–but it has strategic value as a gateway to Arulen. However, in the fifth book of the series, Will is fooled into trusting treacherous people. Now in book six, when the Castle of Macindaw has been overthrown, Will must save Alyss by recruiting the outcasts of the fiefdom, an apparent wizard, and his old enemies-turned-friends, the Scandians.

Lots of fun and magic tricks! I’m waiting for book seven, which I understand is the last of the series.

December 9, 2009

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen

This book was originally published in 1994 and was revised in 2007. I’d been thinking about reading it for a long time, but finally put it on the top of my list when I realized I should be reading more non-fiction because I had little to recommend to you.

And I do recommend this one! It challenged just about everything I learned in my history course (dinosaur days, yeah), and shows that not much has changed in the courses you are taking now—unless your own U. S. History teacher is challenging the textbook by sharing information with alternate points-of-view.

I’ve tried to have a clearer picture of American history by reading selections from Columbus’s journal (now, that was eye-opening—his own words prove him to be a vicious brute) and paying attention to alternate versions of wars and presidential policies. But Loewen tackles treatment of Native American (from Columbus forward) in detail; he dishes the dirt about American policies from the time of the Pilgrims forward. Did you know:

  • Christopher Columbus did not discover that the world is round (lots of people already knew this)? He, with the Spanish explorers he brought to the New World, hunted and murdered Indians for sport and dog food? That he had the hands of Indians cut off as punishment for disobeying the Spaniards?
  • Plagues had killed off so much of the Native American population before the Pilgrims arrived that those Pilgrims arrived to lands that were already cleared and ready to be populated (i.e., a lot of the hard work of ‘settling’ was already done)? That Squanto, famous for helping the Pilgrims, was not just an Indian traveler who happened to speak English, but had been enslaved twice by Europeans? That when he finally got home again, his tribe had been wiped out by a plague—probably a good reason for him to align himself with the Europeans?
  • That John Brown was not mentally ill and/or deranged?
  • That Abraham Lincoln, who was idolized when I was younger, and then demonized as a racist later (at least in some books I’ve read), was actually deeply thoughtful about race and country—and probably deserves much of the respect he receives (although for reasons more complex than textbooks allow)?
  • President Woodrow Wilson (whom I’ve always thought of as a decent man because of his championing of the League of Nations) was an open racist who removed African Americans from all levels of government?
  • Helen Keller was a ‘left-wing socialist’ who wrote extensively championing the common person?
  • That several U. S. history textbooks say the same thing, almost word-for-word, as if they’ve all been written by one person with one point-of-view? (Unless they are plagiarizing from one another and no one has noticed!)

Lies My Teacher Told Me discusses lots of the stuff history book publishers are afraid to let you know about our history because they are afraid you won’t be able to take it—you’ll be unoptimistic about your future. (Hum. . .) The thing is—as bad as some these facts are—they are incredibly interesting. Loewen argues that if the facts were in your history books, you’d like the subject a lot more—and people of all ethnic backgrounds as well as both genders would have role model from the past.

There are people who won’t like Lies My Teacher Told Me. I read a review on it that stated, “To account for the deplorable situation, [Loewen] offers this quasi-Marxist explanation: ‘Perhaps we are all dupes, manipulated by elite white male capitalists who orchestrate how history is written as part of their scheme to perpetuate their own power and privilege at the expense of the rest of us.’” (Gilbert Taylor) These words are taken out of context as Loewen is asking a rhetorical question, and then answers that, no, it’s really unlikely that this is the case. Ironically, this is just the kind of ‘tweaking’ that Loewen is decrying.

Read it. You may be disgusted by the facts, but you’ll be fascinated as well.

December 8, 2009

Endgame by Nancy Garden

Here’s a new one,and I admit I haven’t read it yet, but it intrigues me. Here is the blurb from the book jacket.

A new town, a new school, a new start. That’s what fourteen-year-old Gray Wilton believes as he chants, “It’s gonna be better, gonna be better here.” But it doesn’t take long for Gray to realize that nothing’s going to change–there are bullies in every school, and he’s always their punching bag. Their brutal words, physical abuse, and emotional torture escalate until Gray feels trapped in a world where he has no control, no support systems, and no way out–until the day he enters the halls of Greenford High School with his father’s semiautomatic in hand.

December 8, 2009

“Girlfriend Material,” “The Waters & the Wild,” “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landu-Banks”

I’ve mentioned before that we purchase books from the Junior Library Guild because they make great choices. Here are recent purchases that looks good:

Excerpted from the Junior Library Guild Reviews:

Girlfriend Material

Kate had been looking forward to a fun summer at home in Utah taking a fiction writing class, playing tennis, and hanging out at her best friend’s pool. Instead, she is on her way to Cape Cod with her mother. The only saving grace for Kate is the chance to renew her friendship with Sarah, the daughter of her mom’s friends. But two things soon become clear to Kate: Sarah never considered Kate a friend, and Kate’s mom isn’t just spending time away from her husband; she is considering a divorce. Could anything save this from being the worst summer of Kate’s life?

JLG Reviewers Say: Although filled with references to the literary classics Kate adores (Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, and Agatha Christie), Girlfriend Material has all the trappings of a great beach read, including a fast-paced storyline, relatable characters, and a setting one can get lost in. Through Kate, readers are transported to idyllic Dryer’s Cove, where well-to-do New Englanders summer in spacious homes situated along the bay. Readers join Kate as she explores her relationships and picturesque surroundings.

The Waters & the Wild

Bee believes she is a changeling. Always feeling somewhat awkward and out of step with other kids her age, Bee finally finds her place in the world when she befriends two other outcasts, one a self-professed alien and another who insists she is a reincarnated slave. Their friendship works a magic that lets Bee feel as if she can do anything—except stop her shadowy double from haunting her.

JLG Reviewers Say: As spiky and otherworldly as Bee herself, Francesca Lia Block’s slim novel, The Waters & the Wild, gives readers a visceral sense of the hazards of adolescence through the imagery of magic and fairy tales. With language both ethereal and sparse, Block brings to life the feelings of what it is like to be young and strange with all the energy and immediacy that accompanies it. “And then with the curse, or, in this case, blessing, of the unpopular, the unathletic, the overweight, the strange, they vanished like shadows into the spring night.”

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

JLG Reviewers Say: Frankie Landau-Banks, a sophomore at the prestigious Alabaster Preparatory Academy, thought she had her school’s social dynamics figured out. But when she begins dating the gorgeous and witty senior Matthew Livingston and hanging out with his rich, popular friends, Frankie senses there’s something that they’re not telling her. She soon discovers that they are members of an all-boys secret society. Frankie lets them keep thinking she’s just a cute, clueless girl, all the while implementing a plan with a seemingly impossible goal: to take over the Loyal Order of the Basset Hound. A 2009 Printz Honor Book.

Add comment December 1, 2009

“The Best American Short Stories 2008″

The Best American Short Stories 2008 edited by Salman Rushdie

More great short stories! I had to buy this book for a class I was taking—then I lost the book and bought another one—then I found the first one—so, I donated one of my two copies to the COHS library. I’ve read many of the stories and they really are the best!

Some stories such as “Man and Wife” will shock you by taking as very ordinary situations that are taboo. Others speak to the difficulties of growing up, such as “Virgins.” Still others deal with the supernatural as a part of ordinary life as in “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” (By the way, the author of “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”—Karen Russell—also has a great short story in the 2007 Best book—about girls raised by werewolves. You’ll love both of these stories!)

If your teacher assigns short story reading—or if you just like to read them—you can’t go wrong with this volume. In addition, if you are an emerging author yourself, you may like the contributors’ notes at the end, in which the authors discuss the inspiration for writing the story.

Add comment December 1, 2009

“The Worst Hard Time”

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

Here’s another book I enjoyed reading while I was looking for non-fiction I thought you’d like. The Worst Hard Time is about the Dust Bowl—the southern Great Plains, particularly the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and Kansas—during the Great Depression.

I think you’ll like it  just because it’s hard to believe the sheer enormity of the Dust Bowl—the idea that dust storms could roll in like 10,000-foot high mountains and suffocate all the farm animals (and people stuck outside) in their paths. That people could lock themselves inside on a regular basis and tape around all the window and door seams, drape wet sheets over all, and still come out coughing and spitting up black muck, could die of the ‘dust pneumonia’ that these “black blizzards” caused. (The animals outside would die because their lungs were so full of dust that they literally suffocated, unable to breathe air.)

Egan tells us many times that the environmental disaster was manmade. Settlers who came in and tore up the grasslands—which had been intact for thousands of years—created the perfect ingredients for a plague of Biblical proportions once a drought came. And ‘plague’ isn’t hyperbole—the loss of farms and livelihoods led to hunger and even starvation. The loss of arable land, the constant streams of dust led to other plagues—of rabbits, clubbed and killed in the thousands in Sunday recreational round-ups; of grasshoppers in the millions, eating everything in their paths; of centipedes crawling through the walls of houses.

It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could have managed to stay through years of the dust bowl conditions, but some people did. Egan makes the book interesting by following them from the early days when the land was plowed and wheat was planted through the 1930s when all their dreams were shattered.

Add comment December 1, 2009

“Queen Bees & Wannabes”

Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman

Although this book is directed to parents of girls, it’s a great book for the girls themselves to read (as it is for anyone who deals with girls such as teachers and counselors). It is the basis for the movie Mean Girls; in fact, the Queen Bees in the book are sometimes referred to as the RMG (Really Mean Girls).

I’m afraid that the introduction to the book—in which Wiseman establishes her credentials as someone who is a natural to author such a book (she’s spent years teaching classes for girl and started Empower, an organization for girls)—will be a bit off-putting. But keep reading. You’ll recognize yourself and your friends (both true friends and those that you are afraid will ostracize you). You’ll recognize the roles that girls play in their cliques (although they many not call them cliques)—The Queen Bee, the Sidekick, the Wannabes, the Messenger, the Banker, the Torn Bystanders, the Target. And you’ll get a lot of good advice about how to navigate these shark-filled waters of teen girlhood, about recognizing the patterns of behavior in cliques.

Wiseman also discusses boys, boyfriends, parties, drugs, sexuality, and homosexuality. She also has a chapter on the roles of guys in their cliques (again, they’d never use the word ‘clique,’ even though that’s what they are). She shows how easily something can go wrong for a girl, wrecking her reputation or putting her on the bottom of the social ladder. She quotes many teen girls and points to parenting styles that work and don’t work. (The best style of parenting teens is “The Loving-Hard-Ass Parent.”) Finally, she talks about getting professional help for girls when it is needed.

I picked this book because I wanted to read some non-fiction that I might, in turn, recommend to you. It’s amazing how quickly it brought me back to the days of Queen Bees and the struggles to be happy when the RMG’s are calling all the shots, deciding who they will invite to parties, who will be able to sit with them in the cafeteria, who will be the Target and isolated at any particular time. The good news is that the social hierarchy of teen girls loses all power in adulthood. It’s very rare to find an adult Queen Bee, and if you do, you’ll probably be able to ignore her. But in the meantime, Queen Bees and Wannabes will help you to stand up for yourself without leaving you to stand alone.

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2 comments November 30, 2009

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