Archive for February, 2009

If I Grow Up by Todd Strasser

strasserViolent death in the projects is a fact of life – as real as poverty, teen pregnancy,  school drop outs, crime, hunger, gangs and hopelessness.   DeShawn knows the circumstances of his life – where he lives, where he goes to school, his family – stack the odds against him finishing school let alone living to see his 21st birthday .  As smart as he is and as determined as he can be, DeShawn’s choices eventually come down to what gives him the best chance of survival in his environment.

Strasser presents realistic characters struggling with bleak circumstances in which gangs and violence trump aspiration and independence.  A book that begins with a dead infant thrown from the 15th floor as an act of gang revenge is going to be an unsettling read, and IF I GROW UP delivers relentlessly.  DeShawn’s story is tragically familiar and despairingly sad.

Strasser was inspired to write IF I GROW UP after visiting a school in an impoverished urban neighborhood.  The students were disruptive and belligerent during his presentation.   Later he wrote:
And, perhaps they had a point. How much relevance do the messages “Keep trying and never give up,” and “be the best reader and writer you can be,” have in a world where more than half your classmates won’t even finish high school? Where a quarter of your friends will be dead by the age of 30, and another quarter will be in prison? Were the majority of kids not interested because they already knew that what I was saying would be utterly and completely irrelevant to their lives?

Like the HBO series, THE WIRE, this book is neither a cautionary tale nor a story that offers solutions.  It is a reflection of a reality that is impossible for youth to navigate with hope alone.
John S.    WLS

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February 26, 2009 at 5:56 pm Leave a comment

Days of Little Texas by R.A. Nelson (pub. 7/09)

texas

Sixteen-year-old Ronald Earl is an evangelical preacher who goes from town to town to heal and inspire crowds. He is the adopted son of Miss Wanda Joy, her elderly husband, Sugar Tom, and a close African-American friend named Certain Certain. At one meeting, Ronald tries to heal a young girl Lucy. Something goes awry and he fails. But, Lucy reappears to him as a spirit. She leaves a metal bar with the words “I love you” on it. The evangelical group goes to an old slave plantation for a revival meeting where many strange occurrences abound, including a midnight run through a tremendous storm where Lucy and Ronald canoe to an island and see a huge, 200-year-old gnarled tree covered with manacles and chains. Lucy, even though a spirit from the other side, has enough physicality for Ronald to fondle and kiss. Even before Lucy appears, Ronald has his first sexual encounter with the wife of the plantation owner. The experience makes him doubt his vocation and he regards himself as a sinner. Certain Certain strengthens Ronald’s faith by giving him his own valued totem, a slave tag to keep him safe from Satan and other temptations. Nelson mixes the fervor of evangelical preaching with heavy doses of ghostly contact and the stirrings of a young man. The result is a mishmash of religious convictions, an attempt to settle guilt over the curse of slavery, and a handful of underdeveloped characters that seem to have come from an earlier time, though the book is set in the present. Evoking Satan, snatching souls, discussing heaven and hell, are anachronisms to a modern reader. This book fails to make these issues relevant. Not recommended.

Lillian Hecker (Pelham)

February 25, 2009 at 6:01 pm Leave a comment

The Outliers: the story of success by Malcom Gladwell

outliersYou have probably heard about this bestseller sensation but may wonder what kind of book it is to be one of the most popular non-fiction titles ever. In one of the most fascinating books I’ve read, “success” was examined and analyzed in the most unusual way.  Outliers tries to demystify so called personal attributes such as talents, efforts or social-economic class to determine one’s success.  What do three most important figures in PC history, Bill Joy, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have in common? Surely they’re outstandingly talented but the answer will definitely surprise you.

Does IQ, hard work or family upbringing really play main roles in determining one’s success?  Or is it more the sheer luck of being born in the right time, the right culture and the right community in order to create a “genius” of our time? Chapter after chapter, the author weaves through compelling evidence of case studies and cultural analyses to show us the truth behind a success story. Amazingly insightful and ingenious, Gladwell takes the readers in for a treat to dissect the parts and pieces which put an individual or culture ahead of the curve. And by the same token, he found compelling reasons why certain individuals or cultures just couldn’t make the cut.  Chris Langan, world’s smartest man, whose IQ is above Einstein’s, is a quintessential case of why just high IQ is not enough to be an outlier.

In searching for a high-quality non-fiction title for teens, I found myself extremely gratified with this groundbreaking book. Teens will be immersed with Gladwell’s refreshing ideas in a mission to find the factors that made one an “outlier”. Also try his earlier works “The Tipping Point” and “Blink” with the same kind of enlightening power.

Teresa Chang, Eastchester

February 25, 2009 at 1:04 am Leave a comment

This Full House by Virginia Euwer Wolff

wolffThe conclusion to the Make Lemonade Trilogy (Make Lemonade, True Believer, This Full House) closes the circle of famiy around LaVaughn and Jolly.  Virginia Euwer Wolff, who introduced the open prose poetry style of writing to YA literature, seems to have sculpted each word and sentence from a meditation on teen pregnancy and the challenges of being a single mother.  The stubborn perseverance of the characters as they work toward their goals – LaVaughn wants to go to college, Jolly wants her GED – is riddled with self-doubt and anger.  One of them has no idea who her mother was, one has a mother whose presence can be overbearing.

The novel is undermined somewhat by a coincidence that is almost jolting its unlikeliness  when it is introduced, but otherwise the story brings the trilogy to an emotionally satisfying conclusion .cy

When life deals you a bad hand, it takes some effort, skill and a bit of luck to draw to a full house.

February 12, 2009 at 7:23 pm Leave a comment

Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas (pub. 4/09)

furnitureBecause I am Furninture is simply written in poetry/prose, in a stream of consciousness style.  Although it is not text-dense, the story of Anke, a freshman in high school and the relationships between her family and friends resonates loudly.  Anke is trapped in a family with an extremely abusive father and although the abuse is discussed in the text it is never graphically described in detail; but then it doesn’t need to be because Chaltas’ well chosen words suggest the pain of this family’s horrible secret.

This book is not however, a tale of victims.  Anke  speaks of her home life and school life and the juxtaposition of the two.  Basically, she is a ‘normal teen age girl’ experiencing all of the normal pangs of growing up,  except for the secret of abuse.  Anke is actually almost jealous of her older brother Darren and sister Yaicha, the main targets of her father’s abuse, because at least he acknowledges their existence, albeit in twisted ways.  Anke feels like nothing more than a piece of furniture in her own home, very often flying under the radar with little recognition from either of her parents.

As she develops into a young woman in this story, she finds her own voice and strength and finally stops her father.  She is no longer afraid of what her siblings and mother will think of her or whether they blame her for the loss.  She takes a stance and the secret comes out and the healing process begins and she realizes that her voice is exactly what her family needed.  At last she is more than just furniture in her own home.

Highly recommended for grades 7-12.  Ellen McTyre, Mamaroneck Library.

February 9, 2009 at 3:00 pm Leave a comment

Nation by Terry Pratchett

pratchett1Terry Pratchett has taken a slice of Robinson Crusoe, a dollop of Lord of the Flies, and sprinkling of Treasure Island to concoct a deliciously rich and entertaining story.   Set on an island that has been wiped out by a great tsunami (while there is no direct reference, it could be Krakatoa – the story seems to occur in the South Pacific in an alternative late 19th century).  Only Mau, a young boy whose rite of passage to manhood was stymied by the great wave, and Ermintrude a British girl whose ship was flung into the island’s jungle, are alive on the island.

A motley cast of characters finds their way to the island to join them – a storyteller, a motherless child, a pregnant woman, a crazy tribal priest.  Together they must rebuild a way of life and a system of belief while they fight off the threat of mutineers, pirates and, yes, cannibals.

Pratchett asks big questions and always has cheeky answers.  This is a fun read.  It is not a part of the Discworld series, so can be read by itself.       John WLS

February 4, 2009 at 5:49 pm 1 comment

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

marchetta1 Have you ever turned on the radio and its in the middle of a new song and you like the song for all the reasons you like music: rhythm, beat, lyrics, voice… but you really don’t know what its about?  Like any of the songs from sgt.pepper, for example?  So you want to listen to it again thinking you will figure out how, say “Lovely Rita” relates to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” ? That’s what happened for me with Jellicoe Road.

I think when i read it again, i will break with affection for these characters. First time though, i liked them and felt for them, but i found it very challenging to map their experiences and relationships;  I felt always out of synch as a reader and it got in the way of the story, for me.

It is a remarkable story of love and grief and family and truth and the lengths we go to try to  protect those we love.  John  WLS

February 4, 2009 at 5:24 pm Leave a comment


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