Friday, October 7, 2011

And yet it redeems itself . . .

So last post, one of the books that disappointed me was the 3rd book in the Ember series by Jeanne DuPrau.
Fortunately, the other 3 books in the 4 book series were pretty good.

The first, The City of Ember, chronicles the problem of a city built deep underground.  As the generator that keeps the city alive threatens to die for good, 2 young teens, Doon and Lina, take it upon themselves to find a way out of Ember.  And they do!
In The People of Sparks, the Emberites make it aboveground, only to find that there is almost nothing left.   Society was destroyed at the time that the original people of Ember were led underground.  Of the few villages left, Sparks is one of the best surviving and takes the Emberites in.  This 2nd book chronicles the problems that arise.

Skip the third book.  Seriously.

The 4th book, The Diamond of Darkhold, 
has Lina and Doon traveling back to Ember to find something to help their villages and save them all from starvation.  What they find is something the "builders" left for them long ago that does indeed help them and also spur them back into creating a more "modern" civilization again.

If you ignore the reference to aliens at the very end of the last book, these are really good.  They're clean, they're interesting, and I think my favorite part about them was that they are realistic.  

Many "end of the world" books are all doom and gloom.  And when the world finally does end -- that's it.  We don't know what happens next.  DuPrau instead has the end of the world already over.  These books are about after -- survival, humanity, and hope.  I really enjoyed the feeling that it's not a scary thing to start over. Hard yes, confusing certainly, but not scary.

And I love her insights into things.  I think my favorite lines from all 4 of the books were these:  "And yet, she reminded herself, look at all the remarkable things she and Doon have done!  It wasn't because they had extraordinary powers, really, but because of how well they used the ordinary powers everyone had: the power of courage, the power of kindness, the powers of curiosity and knowledge."

And I thought -- that is what I want to teach my children.  To be courageous, kind, curious, and knowledgeable.  And if more children were taught these things, the world WOULD be a better place.

Read these books -- they're worth it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Books that Disappoint Me

Usually when I find that I don't enjoy a book because of sexual or language content, or I'm simply not getting into the story, I just put it down.  I have too many others things I want to read to waste my time on a book I don't like from the beginning.

But every now and then, one slips through the cracks.  And I hate that feeling of coming to the end of a book and thinking, "I can't believe I read that".  But how does it slip through the cracks?  Well, usually it's because I THINK it's going to go somewhere and it doesn't.  Two examples:

Brisinger is the 3rd book in Paolini's Eragon series.  I read Eragon and liked it, can't remember much about the 2nd, but when I got to the third there was SO MUCH extraneous information.  I wanted the story to just get a move on.  And originally, this was supposed to be the last book.  As I get closer and closer to the end I'm thinking "how is he going to wrap this up in the pages he has left?"

He didn't.

I finish the last chapter, turn the page, and find a note to the reader information me that he had so much to tell he's decided to write a 4th book.  I think I threw it across the room.  I will NOT be reading the 4th book because I felt like the 3rd was a phenomenal waste of time.  I do not need to know the entire history of every race of creature that populates this world.  Just tell me the dang story!

The other one is The Prophet of Yonwood -- 3rd book in the books of Ember.
I like the first two (I'll post about them later) and was really looking forward to this one.  First of all, the cover art is awesome.  Secondly, it takes place BEFORE the first book and I was eager to see how the city of Ember had come to be.

Big disappointment.

The entire story was completely irrelevant.  Oh there were bits and pieces that could have led to something great but essentially it's the story of one of the girls who eventually goes into Ember.  But there's nothing to do with that until, again, the last chapter.  It was a pointless story about a teenage girl and a random experience she had in a town called Yonwood.  That's completely how I felt about it.  Such a waste of time.

Now I need something glorious to redeem it all.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Still a Favorite

Everyone has that list.  You know, the one that has all the books you would have to have on a deserted island?  I know that sometimes the list changes, but I love it when you come back to an original favorite and realize that it still has the stuff.

Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is like that for me.
I'm waiting to get some other books from the library right now (more on that later), but I HAVE TO HAVE something to read in the meantime!  A few months back we got some "new" bookshelves from some friends that made room on my existing bookshelves for me to pull out all the books that I had packed away.  Most of those were young adult literature and I spent a great deal of time not just putting them on the shelves but reminiscing about each one.  And this one was one of my absolute favorites.  I'm not sure how many times I read it as a girl but I loved it every time and still do.

It's the story of a very proper 13-year old girl who is making the trip from England to America alone in the 1830s.  She ends up on a ship with a captain and crew who hate each other -- the crew has vowed revenge on the captain for a crime of a former journey and the girl must decide where her allegiance, and her sense of right and wrong, will lead her.

It is an awesome book -- well written, exciting story with great plot twists and somewhat of a surprise ending.  It's one of my all-time favorites and after reading it again after years and years, I think it's going to stay on my "deserted island list".  Definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

An Exploration of Government

I just reread a "trilogy" of the books where the first one is often taught to middle school students.  But there's the reason for rereading -- after finishing all three right in a row I had some major ideas that I wish I had had when I taught the actual books.  Maybe someday I can go back and use this!

The "trilogy" is by Lois Lowry.  The first and second books are companion books (that's why there are quotes around trilogy) and then the third book finishes the other two and brings them together.  In order they are: The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger.

Of the three, you can ignore Messenger.  Isn't that terrible?  Unless you want to see what happens.  But I thought that Lowry had some fantastic ideas and the plot was very interesting and then the ending just was a cop out -- a kind've I-don't-know-how-else-to-resolve-this-so-I'll-just-do-it-quick kind've thing.  I was really disappointed.

But the other two.  Oh my.

So both The Giver and Gathering Blue are set in the future and feature very different societies from ours.  The Giver's society is more advanced in many ways but has worked to create a state of "sameness" -- total equality and no differences.  In Gathering Blue, the society has regressed to more primitive times and there is a great disparity among the people and the small group that controls and rules over them.

The books are geared towards middle school readers but I decided that it would be particularly fascinating to read them either with students who were studying the formation of American government or who were studying the workings of governments in general.  Why do we separate literature from everything else?  I think that you could have some fascinating conversations with high-schoolers about these societies and how they mirror or own --and how they don't.  In fact, there are some key points to explore and questions to raise in the teaching.

1.  Both societies have a ruling group that controls the people's access to knowledge.  How is that reflected in our society today?  How difficult would it be to take what we have currently and impose the society the exists in the books.  
2.  What do you think were the original intentions of the founders/creators of each society?  In what ways does it appear that those intentions have been warped? (This is a particularly interesting question with all the debate NOW about our founding fathers and the government they intended to create vs. what we have and where it's going.)
3.  Both books feature a main character that has been singled out due to a specific talent or gift.  How do we celebrate or hinder those with gifts in our society?  What gifts or talents are honored in our society?
4.  In The Giver, the main character leaves his society in order to change it.  In Gathering Blue, the main character stays in order to do the same thing.  Compare and contrast these decisions.  What kinds of problems might we face today that need similar reactions?

If I were teaching this today, I would start the kids reading the books before we even talked about government.  They're short, easy reads so it wouldn't take long I think but I would read them one at a time and discuss them individually before approaching them together and in conjunction with modern day government.  In my head, I believe that students would find this approach to government relevant and interesting.  In reality, I know that's always up in the air.  But it's worth a shot.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Who Knew?

roebuck (noun):  a male roe deer -- which I also had to look up (sheesh) and found out that a roe deer is a small, agile, Old World deer (I think Old World as in old Europe?)

But then that spurred me to look up sear (noun): a pivoted piece that holds the hammer at full or half cock in the firing mechanism of small arms.  OR (verb) to burn or char the surface of.

Why did I look these up?
Because of Sears and Roebuck.  Of course now it's just Sears and it probably doesn't have ANYTHING to do with the above definitions but now I will always think of guns and deer when I go to buy clothes.  Or appliances.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Bevy of Books

bevy (noun): 1. a group of birds, as larks or quail, or animals, as roebuck, in close association.  2.  a large group or collection.

I didn't know definition number 1 -- and now I have to look up roebuck.  But I love the word "bevy" and although the books I'm talking about today probably don't quite constitute a bevy, I wanted to do them all in one post rather than break them up.  For no good reason.

So I've read two books about thieves and they were both good, but also a little odd.
Cornelia Funke is also the author of the trilogy Inkheart, Inkspell, and Inkdeath which are good in and of themselves.  Apparently she is very popular in Europe, particularly in Germany.  For The Thief Lord her setting is Venice, Italy.  And although it could probably fit in the realm of fantasy -- there is very little fantasy about it.

The main story centers around a pair of young boys who have run away from their aunt and teamed up with several other youngsters (wow I sound old -- I couldn't get a better word there though) to survive on the streets.  Although for street survival, they are a good and honest bunch.  Throw in a detective, an eccentric photographer, and a merry-go-round, and you have an easy to read, slightly strange, young adult novel with a message at the end (ok maybe not -- the English teacher in me reads a message!).  It was quick, it was interesting, it WASN'T my favorite of hers, but it was good.  Don't I sound cryptic?  It gets worse.

So this second book:
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak has won several book awards.  That's why I initially picked it up -- I didn't know anyone who had already read it.  It is a World War II story that revolves around a young German girl and the Jewish man her family hides in the basement.  But it is about so much more than that.  The story is told by Death himself and the style was very different to me.  He jumps ahead and then goes back to clarify, he interrupts his own story to summarize rather than show.  I didn't have a hard time following the storyline at all, it just was different to read.

Honestly, it started slow for me and I had to keep reading through almost the first 1/2 of the book.  But then I got really hooked and attached to the characters and when the book ended, I wanted to know more about what they had done with their lives.  I wanted a Christmas letter.

But I didn't get it.  I cried a few times and I kind've laughed  But this really was the type of book that afterwards I wanted to sit down and discuss it with a group.  Or even a class.  Because even a class of high-schools would find plenty to discuss -- some difficult and abstract -- some pretty obvious.  It's a great book for schools.  Too bad most schools will never see it.  Oh yeah, the language is atrocious by the way.  And that's probably one of the reasons schools will never see it.  Which is a shame -- I think kids would really drink it in.

Last but not least -- last week for our playgroup was the letter "Q" so of course we had to go royal and talk about queens.  The Queen of France by Tim Wadham
is ridiculously cute.  Rose has an imagination about the size of France and feels "royal" for the day.  I loved that because it reminds me of my own little princess running around.  I also loved how her parents reacted to her and I loved the illustrations.  They are so oddly normal.

Another "children's book" that I actually learned something from is When Royals Wore Ruffles.
This is a very delightful alphabet book about fashion.  I learned the names of those pointy princess hats (which I can't remember and the book is in my 3-year old's room where she is sleeping and I don't dare go in there!), great stuff about corsets, bustles, high hair, even modern-day fashions.  Really fun.  My only beef?  I hate the illustrations!!  I think you could have really gone to town with this and done elaborate, awesome illustrations interspersed with actual pictures.  But no, they are what you see there above -- kind've crayon-y if you ask me.  Disappointing.  But awesome for the info.

And that's my bevy for today.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Books That Just Sound Interesting

'Tis the Season of Catalogs!

As the holidays get closer and closer, the catalogs get stranger and stranger.  I laughed out loud several times while looking at Bas Bleu: Bookseller-by-post that came in mail (somehow -- not sure) yesterday and thought some of these titles were worth sharing just for the laugh of it:

Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry
Enough said.  There were plenty of modern poems that I only taught because I had the teacher's key to help me figure them out . . . 

The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Villifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth
Now that's a title!

The Philosopher's Diet: How to Lose Weight and Change the World
Hmmm, does he back up his ideas with research into the size of such people as Aristotle and Plato?

Anyway, none of these will end up under the tree for me, but they did make me laugh.
Happy reading!