Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry / 158 pp.

Misty of Chincoteague is a classic children’s book that holds up well over time. I read this aloud to someone, and it was a joy to do so as the sentences flow nicely. While there is some regional dialect (e.g. horse = hoss), it’s pretty easy to read aloud.

A brother and sister save up money to buy a pony in the annual wild pony roundup. However, they want Phantom, a mare who has eluded capture every year. This year the brother will be old enough to ride along with the men. Will he capture the phantom for him and his sister? (Hint: Yes, he does.)

This is a good book for young or young-at-heart horse lovers, and is one of the rare horse stories where no horses die.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Girls at War and other stories/Chinua Achebe/120 pp.

A group of short stories by Nigerian author Achebe. The collection includes some stories that take place during the Biafran War era, and others that take place in pre-war Nigeria. Many of the stories end, not with a resolution of the problem, but rather with a situation that acts more like a moral, making them seem like a native folktale. (In fact, some of the stories include the native gods of the region.) My only caution is that it is easier to follow the stories if you know a little about Nigeria and the Igbo or Ibo ethnic group that inhabits the region. Having read a book in the past year that deals with the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria made it a bit easier for me to understand some of the unusual figures of speech and the cultural and religious differences.

Secretly Inside/Hans Warren/99 pp.

Ed, a Jew in Nazi-occupied Holland, goes into hiding at a farm in the remote province of Zeeland, and gets entangled in the intrigues of the family that hides him.
The story that is there is well-written, but I just felt like it was incomplete, like this very short novel was actually the first part - the lead-up, if you will - to a longer work. The author does such a good job of creating these in-depth characters, and then all of a sudden the climax of the story is here, and the story is over. I enjoyed what was there, and the introduction, which tells of the author's own war-time experiences, makes me want to read more of his work.

Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon's First Years / Dr. Michael J. Collins / 320 pp.

Hot Lights and Cold Steel is the story about a Chicago construction worker who decides to go back to school and become a doctor. He ultimately excels in med school, gets matched to a residency in Orthopedic Surgery at the Mayo Clinic, and becomes Chief Resident.

But the story isn’t about that.

The story is about this unconventional and bright minded doctor in the making who wrestles with all the issues that medical students face, that newly minted doctors face, and that family men face (the author supports a family of five while completing his education).

Each chapter shows more growth and maturation in this professional’s career and making sense of it. Luckily for the reader, his insight is keen and a riot to boot! You’ll laugh out loud in several chapters, and cry in several more.

There’s the chapter on how the author meekly went into his first surgery as an observer, and left the surgery cathartic about a surgeon’s ability to heal, and to make better.

There’s also the chapter on how he battled and beat himself up for removing the cancer-ridden leg of a 17 year old girl, and how profoundly it affected him when she smiled and expressed her gratitude for saving her life.

And I’ll spare you all the fun encounters he ran into with his inebriated patients!

Our orthopedic surgeon writes his story in a way that engages and compels the reader to continue on. The ending came too soon, and had the book been three times the volume with the lessons he learned along his amazing journey, I would have tuned in just as attentively. I found this book through serendipity and wish I could retrace my steps to find other jewels that I may have missed along the way.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bossypants/Tina Fey/275 pp.

Tina Fey is one of the best writers Saturday Night Live ever had, the producer of the hit NBC show "30 Rock", a seasoned improv actor, and my friend Katie's secret lesbian crush. (OK, it's not really a secret; Katie told her husband she had a crush on Tina from the first time she saw her on SNL.) Bossypants is Fey's funny memoir of her childhood, her first forays into improv comedy, her stint in Second City and her run on SNL, how she got her own Emmy award-winning show, and (most importantly for her) the story of the birth of her daughter. She relays some of the wisdom she received from Lorne Michaels, executive producer of SNL, and answers some of the hate-mail she's received online. She explains how the whole Sarah Palin impression thing got started, and gives us behind-the-scenes glimpses into how SNL gets put together each week. All throughout, she maintains the quirky sense of humor that has made her such a success.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Favorite Game/Leonard Cohen/245 pp.

I've always thought of Leonard Cohen as a songwriter and poet first (Every time I hear his name I get his song "Hallelujah" stuck in my head) so I was surprised to see that he'd written a novel. The Favorite Game was actually written and published clear back in the early 1960s, so it's not like Cohen just recently turned away from poetry to start writing straight prose. And, to be honest, in a lot of ways this book reads like poetry. Cohen's descriptions of scenery, a lover's body, even scenes of laborers in a brass foundry, are almost musical.
The Favorite Game is the story of Lawrence Breavman, a young Jewish-Canadian poetry writer who resembles Cohen in many ways. He avoids crowds and social situations; he wins a scholarship for his writing, but turns it down to work in the brass foundry at menial labor. He has trouble committing to one lover; when he finally finds a woman who not only arouses him physically, but also intrigues him emotionally, he leaves her to return to Canada to visit friends, and breaks up with her over the phone. Breavman's problem is that he creates ideal backgrounds for the people in his life; when the everyday or mundane intrudes on that ideal or fantasy it destroys his interest in the people and he separates himself from them. This book is partly about Breavman's struggle to realize that the ideal and mundane are both part of what makes up these people.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Want to Go Private? | Sarah Darer Littman | 336p.

This book made me understand the decision that my parents made to put monitoring software on the computers/laptops when I was in junior high and high school--something I resented at the time (and convinced my tech-saavy cousin to remove from my computer when I was a junior). When I first heard about WTGP?, I knew that it was going to be an intense read--and let me tell you, it most definitely was.

Abby is such a normal freshman high school student, from her friends to her grades to her insecurities.  But she's lonely--a feeling exacerbated by her shyness and her fear of disappointing those around her.  When she meets Luke online, he makes her feel special.  They have the same tastes in music, they share opinions, and Luke always backs up Abby when she's upset with her friends or family.  She finds herself falling for this man that she barely knows but feels this very intense connection to.  When he asks her to meet him, Abby's upset with her parents so it's an easy decision--of course she'll meet him, if only to get back at her parents.

Abby is an incredibly relateable characters, which makes this story all the more realistic and terrifying.  She's very introverted, quite unlike her best friend, Faith, and she feels like her life is changing too much and falling apart at the seams.  It's easy to see how she might fall prey to a man like "Luke."  Watching her downward spiral into what strikes me as a co-dependent relationship with this online man is heart-breaking.  She has so much going for her in real life, but she can't see it through the fog of her loneliness and (self-imposed) isolation.

This book succeeds in showing what an intense situation this can become for a girl like Abby--how quickly one can become a victim without even realizing it.  However, what it really hits home is how much a decision like the one Abby makes affects everyone else--her friends, her sister, her parents.  Their grief, despair, and anger show the reader what it's like on the "other" side--how those closest to the victim suffer right alongside her in their own way.

After Abby's return to her family, the aftermath of her decision comes to full light for her.  She sees how it affects those around her and she has to deal with the incredibly unfortunate consequences that it has on her personal life.  I appreciated that Ms. Littman doesn't let the situation fade to black but shows us all the shocking details.  This is a book that I don't think I'd recommend that most teens read alone but WITH their parents. It's a book that I would recommend that parents of teenagers, teachers, librarians--anyone who works with teens on a regular basis--read because it's message is important.

There are fabulous resources that go alongside this book that I definitely recommend checking out if you're an adult who is going  to read this and share with teens (something I HIGHLY recommend doing, in case you didn't catch it).