Monthly Archives: May 2012

Books that Help Us Remember: Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States: our three-day weekend that often consists of BBQs, family, and the onset of summer, but – more importantly – provides us with the opportunity to stop and honor the men and women who have died serving in the Armed Forces.

I am fortunate enough not to have lost any of my own loved ones to war, and I am a book nerd. Because of this, I turn to literature to help me slow down and think about the cost of war and about those who serve and give their lives. Here are four books I’ve read this year that help me hold the fallen soldiers of America more clearly in my memory.

1. Doing My Part by Teresa R. Funke
(For ages 9-12, according to the book cover. WWII historical fiction. Set in Illinois.)
Helen is 14 years old, working on a factory assembly line over the summer to contribute to her family’s coffers and to the war effort. The story is elegant, realistic, and deeply entrenched in history. Helen is trying to prove how grown up and responsible she is, but doing the right thing consistently proves to be more complicated than she’d thought it.
During the book, she increasingly tunes in to what is going on in the war, especially as her cousin and her best friend’s older brother go off to join the fight.

Why It Helps Me Remember
Helen’s neighbor is Mrs. Osthoff, a German immigrant who has experienced deep losses and withdrawn from the world. Helen begins to connect with Mrs. Osthoff after accompanying her grandmother to deliver the news that Mrs. Osthoff’s son has died in the war.
Because of this direct brush of family and community with the death of a young soldier, this book aimed at young readers helped me sympathize with the many families in our modern era and in our past who are dealing and have dealt with just this sort of loss.
Doing My Part by Teresa R. Funke

2. Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King
(Young Adult literature. Fiction. Cybils Award Nominee for Young Adult Fiction (2011), Andre Norton Award Nominee for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (2011))

Lucky Linderman isn’t so lucky. In fact, he’s depressed, and he might be going crazy. He is the target of a particularly pernicious bully. His dad is never home and isn’t that present when he is: his restaurant is his life. Lucky’s mom swims, swims, swims and pretends things are okay. When he sleeps, Lucky visits his grandfather in a Prisoner of War camp in Vietnam. When he wakes from these dreams, he finds physical manifestations of them, which he then hides.
This is the summer where something changes. His mom takes him to stay with relatives (who have a pool) for a few weeks. Lucky makes unlikely friends and an unlikely enemy. He stands up for someone. Connects with his mom in a new way. Faces fears. Faces the ants that constantly mock him.
This books is part dream and part reality, but all excellently and intensely written.

Why It Helps Me Remember
Lucky’s grandfather fought in the Vietnam War, and he never came home. While this story is about much, much more, the Vietnam dream sequences and the impact of the loss of Lucky’s grandfather on him and his own father (the child of the man who didn’t come back from Vietnam) bring the cost of the ultimate sacrifice to life.
Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

3. Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness (book 3 in the Chaos Walking Trilogy)
(Young Adult literature. Science Fiction. Teen Buckeye Book Award Nominee (2012), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Young Adult Fantasy (2010), Carnegie Medal in Literature (2011), Publishers Weekly’s Best Children’s Books of the Year for Fiction (2010))

War dominates the final book of this trilogy, and many lives are lost.
Since this is book three in a trilogy, please go visit my review of the excellent first book. I don’t want to ruin any of Patrick Ness’s perfect storytelling for you.

Why It Helps Me Remember
While the war in this book happens on a fictional and very unusual planet in the future, Patrick Ness weaves a compelling and realistic story within that frame, and it is a story in which you care about people who are giving their lives in a war. Because of the quality of the writing, you connect deeply with the main characters and care about the people they care about. You see what is happening, how people serve, how they die. It impacts you. I have never been to war, but it is through books like this that I am most able to empathize for those who have lost someone and to see, dimly, what making the ultimate sacrifice might be like.
Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

4. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
(Adult. Fiction. Set in New Hampshire and Canada.)
Narrator Johnny Wheelwright’s life is shaped largely by the powerful voice of the tiny Owen Meany, his boyhood friend. Owen dies young, as he’d predicted as a boy, but the narrator never lets go of Owen’s memory. This is the story of their growing up together, of Wheelwright’s odd faith in Owen Meany, and of Wheelwright’s bizarre Canadian adulthood.

Why It Helps Me Remember
The narrator is obsessed with the Vietnam War, and it is because of this book that I have a sense of the scope of lives lost by American soldiers in that war. As odd and imperfect a narrator as Wheelwright is, it is through this book that the costs of that war came to life in my mind in a way they never had in text books or political discussions. Irving has his narrator obsessively tracking the increasing body count as the war goes on and the boys get closer to and past draft age, and that combination of true data mixed with a unique, compelling narrative hit a nerve for me and helped me see the lives lost in that war.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving


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The Plot that Will Never Let You Go

Apparently, creating a Pinterest board for all of my 5-star books leads to writing lots of reviews. Here’s another.

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking, #1)The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Love great writing? Read it.
Love a great plot? Read it.
Love stylized writing? Read it.
Love action? Read it.
Love suspense? Read it.
Love science fiction? Read it.
Hate science fiction, but love dystopian books? Read it.

Basically, just read it.

It’s hard to talk about without ruining it.

Wait, you’re still there? You want to know what HAPPENS? Well, fine. I’ll try to share something, spoiler-free.

The narrator is a teenage boy. He is the youngest of 146 men in Prentisstown, on a colony planet.

His world is loud: every thought of every creature and all the men can be heard. Walking through town can give you a headache.

They are all that is left on the planet, having killed off the native aliens (Spackle) and lost their women (his ma included) to disease in the war.

That’s just the beginning, though. Something happens that unravels his world, and he is sent off on a journey he could never have imagined. At every turn, it appears that some fact is not as it had seemed…

The epic journey at the center of this book rivals many others, but the speed and danger of it – combined with Ness’s pitch-perfect writing – reminds me most of Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

Ness, however, is much much more YA friendly, and his plot hooks you and drags you along bleeding and gasping behind it through every artful page.

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Three Months Later, I Finally Review THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Upon finishing this book, I couldn’t rest until I’d found its next reader. I passed it on at 11:30pm, about 30 minutes after finishing it.

Every time I see it on my five star list, I think to myself, “Does that deserve 5-stars?” Then, I start remembering it. “Oh. Right.” I think, “It does.”

Here’s my review, at least three months after reading it. I didn’t even Google anything, although I usually do to get the details right…This book is so amazing for me that it just comes flowing back.

The book is about Hazel. She’s a teenager. She’s dying of cancer. She wants to avoid being a “grenade” – she doesn’t want people to hurt because of her when she dies. To minimizing the casualties, she avoids everyone but her parents and the cancer support group she attends.

Beyond her parents, there is one other thing she cares about. It’s a book, by a Dutch author. She feels like he, through his book about death, is the only one who “gets” her and what she’s going through. (This is the book within the book. There is no such book or author, although Green quotes the book a fair amount in his book. I love that.)

Then, she meets a boy. He’s beautiful. He’s in remission.

Against all of her best judgment and running counter to her rules for coping with her impending doom, she forges a connection with him. She shares the book, and he shares her enthusiasm for it. There is love.

Then, there is the necessary external conflict that drives the plot forward. It is wonderful and only partially predictable, and I refuse to give it away.

The reviews I read of this book said that it was John Green at his best, and that his specialty is a highly-intelligent but detached teenage protagonist, but in this book everything is pitch perfect. I’ve only read one other Green protagonist (one of the Will Graysons in Will Grayson, Will Grayson), and while I really liked it I agree that he has taken his strengths to the next level in this intense, emotional, intelligent and highly literary book.

A must read for deep and thoughtful teenagers everywhere, and delicious and poignant for the rest of us. Bravo.

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Today, I had a realization.

I used to ask school to be practically everything in my life. Then, when I graduated, I asked that of my job. Only after I lost my job was I able to learn some of the essential and (for most) easy and obvious lessons about how to be a person, beyond school or work.

It was an amazing job that helped me grow so much as a person and a professional. I am so grateful for the work I was able to do and the people I was able to work with for those nearly four years. Now, I’m grateful that I got a chance to leave and learn to be “me” without a job. I am so much stronger and more well-rounded, as a person and as a professional.

I hope I can keep this realization in mind moving forward into the next phase of my career. It is vital that I take care of myself if I’m going to do the good I hope to do in the world.

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Inspiring Quote!

Imagine the progress we could make in all matters of challenges, if when we had a different take on something, we began with, “Here’s my point of view, and here’s why. Help me understand where you’re coming from.”

~Dena Lambert Hellums

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May 21, 2012 · 8:28 am

The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict SocietyThe Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Plot: Four child prodigies are recruited to help save the world.

Who needs more than that?

I love puzzles, precocious children with immense responsibility, and good, fun writing, so The Mysterious Benedict Society was definitely for me. How about you?

Trenton Lee Stewart says on the jacket that the idea for the book came from a chess riddle he thought up on the way to a restaurant. By the time he got there, he knew he had to write this book. (And I’m so glad he did!)

The characters are smart in different ways. Each one on his or her own would not have the power to save the world, but – together – they just might. I appreciated Stewart’s depiction of different kinds of brilliance.

This is ever so slightly a spoiler, but you’d know who the four heroes are by the end of the second chapter anyway and I want to demonstrate how marvelous and varied they are. I love that (and the fact that Stewart managed to surprise me a time or two in the ending!) about this book.

*Kate is capable of feats of physical prowess and spatial reasoning
*Sticky remembers everything he’s ever read and reads rapidly.
*Constance is incredibly precocious and outrageously stubborn.
*Reynie – our main character – is a puzzle solver, who sees how things fit together.

They are all geniuses, all different, all sad, and they form a deep bond.

If it is right for you, I hope you enjoy this silly, serious story.

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All the Right Stuff to get me thinking about philosophy…

All the Right StuffAll the Right Stuff by Walter Dean Myers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the phenomenal Walter Dean Myers’s book All the Right Stuff arrived in my mailbox, I had no idea I was about to be schooled in the philosophical idea of the social contract.

I’m used to Myers’s thoughtful but action-packed stories – this one was a beautifully, humanely written contemplation of the systems that can help us or hurt as as we go through life, and the messy combination of injustice and opportunity we all face to varying degrees.

I don’t dig philosophical writing, generally. I’ve read some – mostly old. I’ve enjoyed more contemporary considerations of specific topics, of the sort offered on the radio program Philosophy Talk or in bell hooks’s writing. This book, however, read like a contemporary take on a Greek philosophic text. Myers has characters who literally debate their varying view points, and the youth in the center who is gradually forming his own opinion.

The two opposing views come from Elijiah, who makes homemade soups for seniors at his “Soup Emporium,” and Sly, who has a shiny car, a bodyguard, and a new business venture of his own, also with the espoused aim of helping the Harlem community they all live in. Both men are highly intelligent and gifted speakers who have gathered a following of sorts.

Then, we have the chorus – four of the seniors from Elijiah’s emporium, and four hard luck cases Sly has befriended. With this format, Myers has brought a Greek-style philosophical dialogue into Harlem and brought it to life with modern examples and counterexamples that are perfectly, empathy-inspiring-ly real.

Meanwhile, Paul DuPree is the teen protagonist at the middle of it all, mentoring a teen mom on her basketball game and dealing with the death of his father and his relationship with his mother.

I was spellbound by it, and by the end I was thinking hard (although maybe not as hard as the impressive Paul DuPree). I was thinking about life, and how what this book had to say aligned with “ah-hah” moments I’ve had via psychology, or what I’ve seen as an organizer when I heard people’s stories and we worked together to make something change.

I was also thinking about who I’d give it to. It’s not for everyone, but I came up with a good list of people who I know are searchers and are open to philosophical ideas applied in their daily life.

Oh, and I also have some good soup and stew ideas now, too. šŸ™‚

I received this book for free through Goodreads First Reads.

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