Monday, March 31, 2014

A Review of 'The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls' by Julie Schumacher

"I'm Adrienne Haus, survivor of a mother-daughter book club.  Most of us didn't want to join.  My mother signed me up because I was stuck at home all summer, with my knee in a brace.  CeeCee's parent's forced her to join after cancelling her Paris trip because she bashed up their car.  The members of 'The Unbearable Book Club,' CeeCee, Jill, Wallis, and I, were all going into eleventh grade AP English.  But we weren't friends.  We were literary prisoners, sweating, reading classics, and hanging out at the pool.  If you want to find out how membership in a book club can end up with a person being dead, you can probably look us up under 'mother-daughter literary catastrophe.'  Or open this book and read my essay, which I'll turn in when I go back to school."

I read this book in February.  I'm really glad that I did, because it helped me see the end of the tunnel: summer will eventually reach Minnesota and things will be warm and pleasant again.

I had seen this book floating around the blogosphere a really long time ago, but I had never borrowed a copy until recently.  Thank goodness for my county's digital library borrowing system.  I get the instant gratification of borrowing books without going outside to get them!  And I've been using my e-Reader more than I have before, so I feel good about that too.

And now, to the book.

I had a hard time with the characters.  They were fine at first, because that's how they are and you have to accept them to a certain extent.  It was how they were at the end of the book that bothered me.  It didn't feel like they changed.  I thought that they'd end up staying together for the most part.  But everything just sort of crumbled... that was disappointing.  I also feel like I needed to know more about each of the characters.  Julie Schumacher seems rather possessive of her characters by not telling us about them and not having them interact to the extent that they could.  It didn't seem like any of the girls (or the mothers, for that matter) formed any kind of a relationship with each other.  Not really.  The characters are pretty flat or if not flat, they have smoke and mirrors in front of them.  CeeCee was just ridiculous.  She didn't seem to care about anyone.  Not even Jeff, when he died.  She ground my gears more than the other characters.  Wallis never said anything, but she was still an attractive character because we don't know anything about her and her "friends" don't seem to know anything either.  I would have liked to hear more about Wallis and Jill, for sure.

Despite the characters, there is a sort of charm and wit to the writing.  I had to giggle with some of the ways different characters, especially Adrienne, phrased things and talk about things.  There weren't a lot of "ha-ha" scenes in the book (mostly because they spent quite a bit of time being bored and bickering), but I appreciated the humor of the writing.

It really infuriated me when things were going wrong and no one did anything.  When Wallis came alone to the meetings and even went so far as to bring toiletries (who knows what her plans were), she stayed with Adrienne for a couple of nights and then left.  Adrienne wasn't even a good sport about it.  She was downright crabby about the situation.  I was most bothered because no one really took her home or tried to figure out what was going on at home.  I thought that Wallis was homeless or that her mother was dead and she was taking care of herself.  Apparently neither of these things were true.  But then why keep everything a secret?  We find out that CeeCee is dyslexic.  Adrienne even tells her mother at the end of the book but no one goes and tells CeeCee's family.  CeeCee can't get away with having no strategy to get through reading of any kind.  She still has two years of school left, potentially college, and of course the rest of her life.  She needs help but no one even takes the step to get her the help that she needs.  Maybe it's just the teacher in me, but that's doing her a real disservice.  It's unacceptable.

Even though I had a number of issues with this book, I still found that I liked it.  It's a light read, and I'm glad to have had that change of pace, especially since school has started.  It's nice to have a break and have time to read the books that I want to read as opposed to just the books that I'm expected to read.

I give 'The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls':
Thanks for Reading!


Monday, March 24, 2014

A Review of 'She's Not There: A Life In Two Genders' by Jennifer Finney Boylan

"She's Not There is the story of a person changing genders, the story of a person bearing and finally revealing a complex secret; above all, it is a love story.  By turns funny and deeply moving, Jennifer Finney Boylan explores the remarkable territory that lies between men and women, examines changing friendships, and rejoices in the redeeming power of family.  She's Not There is a portrait of a loving marriage-- the love of James for his wife, Grace, and, against all odds, the enduring love of Grace for the woman who becomes her "sister," Jenny.

To this extraordinary true story Boylan brings the humorous, fresh voice that won her accolades as one of the best comic novelists of her generation.  With her distinctive and winning perspective, She's Not There explores the dramatic outward changes and unexpected results of life as a woman: Jenny fights the urge to eat salad while James consumed plates of ribs; gone is the stability of "one damn mood, all the damn time."

While Boylan's own secret was unusual, to say the least, she captures the universal sense of feeling uncomfortable, out of sorts with the world, and misunderstood by her peers.  Jenny is supported on her journey by her best friend, novelist Richard Russo, who goes from begging his friend to "Be a man" (in every sense of the world) to accepting her as an attractive, buoyant woman.  "The most unexpected thing," Russo writes in his Afterword to the book, "is how Jenny's story we recognize our shared humanity."

As James evolves into Jennifer in scenes that are by turns tender, startling, and witty, a marvelously human perspective emerges on issues of love, sex, and the fascinating relationship between our physical and our intuitive selves.  Through the clear eyes of a truly remarkable woman, She's Not There provides a new window on the often confounding process of accepting ourselves."

Jenny Boylan has such a way with words, but I have to admit, this was a hard book to get through.  I found myself sobbing and relating with a number of the characters.  I had to put the book down at those moments.  On top of those times, I was really grateful that I was reading this book.  It's an honest account written by someone who has struggled with their gender for their entire life and everything that followed.  I was surprised by how... normal it felt.  I'm not sure if 'normal' is the proper word to use.  I guess I expected Jenny's family to have a different feel to it, since she was born a man and had transitioned into a woman while her family was growing up.  But the only sense of difference I felt was between Jenny and Grace-- Grace had a hard time as her husband turned into not her wife (because she was uncomfortable with Jenny being called her wife), but her sister.  That made me really sad.

When I was reading this book, I was mostly curious about what happens during and after the surgery.  The effects and how loved ones were feeling during this process.  Of course everyone was nervous, but in the end, everything was okay and the surgery that Jenny had turned out to be merely the last step in the process.  Not a lot of celebration, just recovery and moving on.

It was nice to have the word "transgender" explained to me by someone older than me and someone who had it together so that she could claim the life that was hers.  I loved that a chunk of the book was devoted to being happy with yourself and putting importance on paying attention to how you feel inside.

Jenny Boylan is very talented and seems to be a very patient and honest writer.  If you're confused about transexuality or want to know more about being transgender and what that's like, this is a great place to start.  It was very helpful for me and quite interesting.

I give 'She's Not There':
Thanks for Reading!


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Predeparture: Why the Netherlands?

The first time I ever left North America was when I traveled to France during my senior year in high school.  Now, as technically a junior in college, I will travel to the Netherlands where I will stay from late August to early January.  I recently read an article (although the article itself isn't very recent) called Why NOT to Study Abroad in Western Europe, but while the article offers a number of interesting points, here's why I'm returning to Western Europe and not feeling guilty about going:

  1. I want to learn Dutch.  It's been difficult trying to learn Dutch here when my school doesn't offer it as a language (not to mention that I came into college with my language requirement already taken care of).  No one I know speaks Dutch, so there's no one to teach me or to practice with.
  2. I want to be surrounded by a culture that I know very little about.  We learn a lot about particularly Western Europe in school when we learn about World War II in particular, but I don't remember hearing about the Netherlands at all because the Netherlands wasn't as instrumental in World War II as Germany was.
  3. This will be my first time going abroad not attached to a class (as in, I won't be traveling with anyone I know).  It'll be nice to go back to a region (Western Europe) that I've started to explore, but still have tons of things I haven't yet experienced.
  4. One of my absolute favorite books takes place, in part, in the Netherlands.  I've been inspired to go and see what this place looks like and feels like so that I can more fully own this book.
I think that the Netherlands will be a good place for me to spend an extended amount of time.  It has year-round weather that I can endorse (I've been following in the weather for the past year and I don't think I've ever seen the temperature (in Fahrenheit) fall below 30 degrees.  30 degrees is still cold, but compared to what Minnesota in the fall/winter can be like, I'll take my chances.  Besides, I'll be near water!  Super close to the seaside, in fact.

As my Count-Down clock ticks down and as I check more things off of my to-do list, I'm getting more and more excited.  I love Minneapolis/St. Paul and I know for a fact that I'll miss my family and friends, but I can't wait to get out of town and experience the rest of the world!

Thanks for Reading!  This won't be the last pre-departure post.


Monday, March 17, 2014

A Review of 'Al Capone Does My Shirts' by Gennifer Choldenko


'I want to be on Alcatraz like I want poison oak on my private parts.  But apparently nobody cares, because now I'm Moose Flanagan, Alcatraz Island Boy-- all so my sister can go to Esther P. Marinoff School, where kids have macaroni salad in their hair and wear their clothes inside out and there isn't a chalkboard or a book in sight.

'Good Moose.  Obedient Moose.  I always do what I'm supposed to do.'

When Moose's family moves to Alcatraz Island so his father can work as a guard and his sister can attend a special school in San Francisco, he has to leave his friends and his winning baseball team behind.  But it's worth it, right?  If his sister, Natalie, can get help, maybe his family will finally be normal.

But on Alcatraz his dad is so busy, he's never around.  His mom's preoccupation with Natalie's condition (today, it would be called autism) is even worse now that there's no extended family to help with her tantrums and constant needs.  And of course, there's never enough money.

When Moose meets Piper, the cute daughter of the warden, he knows right off she's trouble.  But she's also strangely irresistible.  All Moose wants to do is protect Natalie, live up to his parents' expectations and stay out of trouble.  But on Alcatraz, trouble is never very far away."

This is a great book.  I expected it to be more about Al Capone, but it's mainly about Alcatraz and life on the island.  It's also more about the time period.  So I wasn't disappointed that Al Capone wasn't a huge presence in the book.  I liked that instead, Moose and the relationship he has with his sister Natalie is a bigger focus.  To me, it's admirable.  He understands his sister in a way that even his parents can't.  Natalie has a form of Autism, although no one during this time period has matched that word with Natalie's symptoms yet.  I thought it was really sweet that Moose was the only one that could calm Natalie down, even if he wasn't physically present.

Moose's mother's advocacy for Natalie was amazing.  For years, she lies about Natalie's age knowing that the younger Natalie is, the more likely that she'll be able to get into a good school that will help her learn to have a life of her own (namely, the Esther P. Marinoff school).  She goes back to the school a number of times and makes countless phone calls, takes up giving piano lessons so that Natalie can get the therapy that will help her and that will also help her get the schooling she needs.  I can only hope that I can be half as good of a parent as her.

I do wish that I had heard more from Scout and from Moose's father.  These characters felt like they could use a bit of work.  Piper could also use a little more work.  The synopsis on the dust jacket made it sounds like she was a big part of the story and I didn't feel like she was big or round enough to be included in the main cast of characters.  She didn't quite live up to what I was told she would be.

I apologize, I'm talking mostly about characters this time.  It's a very character-driven book, which I absolutely love.  If you also like character-driven books, this is one that a variety of ages can read and enjoy!

I give 'Al Capone Does My Shirts':
Thanks for Reading!


Sunday, March 16, 2014

In Which I See Things Bigger Than Me

On Saturday, my dad and I decided to go to the Science Museum of Minnesota.  We went and saw the new exhibit called Ultimate Dinosaurs.  The Science Museum has a permanent dinosaur exhibit, but this exhibit had some new, relatively recently found and put-together skeletons of dinosaurs (and sauropods) that I had never heard of before.

It was interesting to walk into the exhibit and come face-to-face with a video of how the world has changed over 200 million (plus) years.  I was familiar with Pangaea, which is what the super continent was called (basically, all of the continents that we know and love today were mashed into one giant land mass), but once the gigantic land mass spread out a little and formed Gondwana and Laurasia, and eventually into a world that resembled more of the layout we have on earth today.

The exhibit is laid out roughly in the order the dinosaurs existed, starting in the Triassic period, going through the Jurassic period, and ending in the Cretaceous period when something wiped out the dinosaurs.  It was neat to see how dinosaurs changed over the years-- arms got bigger or at least became functional, some dinosaurs turned from scavengers into gigantic creatures of death that we know and love.

They had some really neat technology in this exhibit.  When you went to the last part of the gallery to see Gigantosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex, there were screens in front of the skeleton.  When you poked the screen and moved it around, you saw an animation of the dinosaur you were in front of as they might have looked all those millions of years ago.  It was really cool!


Tyrannosaurus Rex

If you love dinosaurs and if you happen to be near St. Paul, MN, I would recommend going to see Ultimate Dinosaurs at the Science Museum of Minnesota.  It's definitely a day trip, but it'll be a really cool experience.  Go and look before the exhibit is no more in a few months!

Thanks for Reading!


Monday, March 10, 2014

A Review of 'Frindle' by Andrew Clements (Audio Book)

"Is Nick Allen a troublemaker?

He really just likes to liven things up at school-- and he's always had plenty of great ideas.  When Nick learns some interesting information about how words are created, suddenly he's got the inspiration for his best plan ever... the frindle.  Who says a pen has to be called a pen?  Why not call it a frindle?  Things begin innocently enough as Nick gets his friends to use the new word.  Then other people in town start saying frindle.  Soon the school is in an uproar, and Nick has become a local hero.  His teacher wants Nick to put an end to all this nonsense, but the funny thing is frindle doesn't belong to Nick anymore.  The new word is spreading across the country, and there's nothing Nick can do to stop it."

I remember reading this in third grade.  It was in my least favorite teacher's class and I remember that it was the class where I was sent to break (essentially time-out) for the first time in my school-attending life, but I remember that we read several books that I remember to this day.  Frindle was one of them.  So when I was volunteering at a school all January long, I got to pick the books my reading groups would read and I was excited to find this and also to find that it was a book at four boys' reading levels.  It worked out, although half of the boys didn't care for this book.  Oh well, to each their own.

I think the reason why I like it so much now is because this book is primarily about the connection between a boy (a fifth grader) and his teacher.  It's an interesting bond (in the best way possible), for sure.  The ending got to me the most.  It's really easy to think that the most strict teachers just don't care about their students and the "fun" teachers care a lot.  That's not a fair distinction.  One of the top reasons why people become teachers is because they want to make a connection and make a difference in the lives of young people.  If that doesn't sound like caring, I don't know what does.  Teachers are making the effort to become the best they can be even before they meet the kids they'll be teaching.  That seems pretty selfless.  I'm sure Ms. Granger had no idea what she was getting herself into when she was taking her education courses in college.  She couldn't have known as she was busy taking her licence exam and applying for jobs.  That's where I am right now.  I've practiced by volunteering and working in classrooms, so I'm excited for whatever will come my way, but even I don't know what my life is going to be like when I have a classroom of my own.  I don't know who my kids will be or what kind of needs they'll have.  But I know that teaching is what I want and what I'll spend the rest of my life doing.

My point is, to have a realization like this revealed at the end of the book, it's really nice.  Ms. Granger was on Nick's side the entire time.  He had this crazy scheme that he came up with to spite her, but it didn't work because she cared so much.  She wanted Nick to succeed and she continued to want that for him even after he left fifth grade and made his way through school.

Frindle is a short read, but you'll be amazed by what you read.  Andrew Clements continues to be one of my favorite authors to this day.  His books are for all ages.

I give Frindle:
Thanks for Reading!


Monday, March 3, 2014

A Review of 'From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler' by E.L. Konigsburg

"When Claudia decided to run away, she planned very carefully.  She would be gone just long enough to teach her parents a lesson in Claudia appreciation.  And she would go in comfort-- she would live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  She saved her money, and she invited her brother Jamie to go, mostly because he was a miser and would save money.

Claudia was a good organizer and Jamie had some ideas, too; so the two took up residence at the museum right on schedule.  But once the fun of settling in was over, Claudia had two unexpected problems: She felt just the same, and she wanted to feel different; and she found a statue at the Museum so beautiful she could not go home until she had discovered its maker, a question that baffled the experts too.

The former owner of the statue was Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Without her-- well, without her, Claudia might never have found a way to go home."

This is one of the books that I read with the fifth graders I volunteered with.  The group reading this book turned into a giant group, so I'm not positive they got a lot out of the book, but if they got anything out of it, I'm happy.  I just want them to get some enjoyment out of reading.

This book started out pretty slowly and I was really afraid that I would lose interest.  If I lose interest, the kids in the reading group are definitely going to lose interest.  But I'm really happy to say that it picked up less than a third of the way through the book.

I love that this book took place in a museum that actually exists.  I found it exciting and interesting to figure out which parts of the book were taken from real life and which were fabricated and I think it helped to have these kids reading about an actual place to grab their attention.  There is a map located in the book and we spent about ten minutes looking over the map and imagining going through the museum, choosing which exhibits we would seek out first (a lot of them picked Egyptian art).

This is a great book to teach.  There are a lot of materials at your disposal (including a magazine from the Met that was created after a lot of kids visiting the Met asked about seeing Michelangelo's art.  My fifth-graders liked the mystery surrounding it and hearing about the different exhibits.

I give give From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler:
Thanks for Reading!