Reads ’10

I’ve made a commitment this year to keep track of the books I read.  Here’s where I’ll do that.  Keep checking back; I’ll update this every time I get to the back cover of a new work (or, at least, I’ll list the book; I may have to come back to do the review later).  As always, I welcome ALL of your comments!

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Title: The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story
Author: Diane Ackerman
Pages: 368
Published: 2007
My Rating: 2 out of 5

The first book I started – and finished – in 2010 was The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman.  The book was given to me by my mother-in-law and I was delighted to rip the wrappings from it on Christmas morning.

The book is written with three different purposes in mind.  It tells the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski – the eponymous zookeeper and his wife – and their struggles to survive in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation while at the same time introducing elements of the Polish resistance and the Nazi obsession with reintroducing extinct species to the primeval forests.

While I learned a lot of information I didn’t already know – about the Polish resistance, the rescue of persecuted Jews in Warsaw, and the Nazis’ desire to create “prefect” species of not just men, but animals, as well – I found the book to be choppy and difficult to settle into.  My low rating is due mostly to the fact that I didn’t get what I was expecting: I feel the book would have been a far more accessible – and memorable – work had Ackerman focused more intently on one of the branches of her research rather than trying to cover all three in one volume. I didn’t connect or identify with any of the people in the story, and I think that failure to connect kept me from truly engaging with the narrative.

I will probably use this book in a unit about the Holocaust in my classes, but I don’t think that I’ll ever pick it up again to read for myself. It was a good learning experience, but it didn’t affect me in the way many other books about the Holocaust have.

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Title: Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction
Author: Damien Keown
Pages: 148
Published: 2005
My Rating: 5 out of 5

This book delivers exactly what it promises; a very short introduction to Buddhist ethics.

This work is written for an audience that is already familiar with Buddhist philosophy; the author does not go into an explanation for example, of the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path; he assumes the reader has facility with these principles and instead focuses on explaining Buddhist ethics in such a way that a Westerner can understand. While Buddhist ethics are not comparable, apples-to-apples, to Christianity, that is the tradition that Keown uses to explain how Buddhists interpret their world in terms of ethical and moral questions. The issues of animals and the environment, war and terrorism, sexuality, abortion, suicide and euthanasia, and cloning are all addressed with the application of Buddhist philosophy, and the resulting explanations are very clear and easy-to-understand.  I finished this book in two before-bed sessions, and I recommend it highly to anyone who has a foundation in Buddhist philosophy and wants to find out more about how to apply that philosophy to moral issues.

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Title: Native Son
Author: Richard Wright
Pages: 544
Published: 1940
My Rating: 5 out of 5

This is one of those books that I felt like everyone but me read in high school (in fact, I’m often astounded by the number of “classics” I – holder of two degrees in English – have not read, but that’s a post for another time). Every time I mentioned it to someone, though, their eyes would get big and they’d say “OH yeah, I remember that; GREAT book!” so I knew I had to add it to my must-read list.

I read this book now because the Universe was in perfect alignment for me to do so; a few weeks before the start of the new school term, Carson posted an entry on his blog asking about the book, and I was working on putting together a thematically-arranged syllabus for my upcoming English class.  On Carson’s recommendation, I switched out The Autobiography of Malcolm X for Native Son and voilla!  Synergy!

My students will understand, right out of the gate, that I mean business in this class; this is not an easy book.  While the text isn’t at all complex – I can’t imagine that my juniors and seniors will find any vocabulary words they don’t understand in the novel – the story requires a lot – and I mean a lot – of critical thinking.  It brings up questions of individual responsibility, society’s responsibility for individuals, and what it means – and what is required – to be fully human.  It pushed the edges of my moral center and brought me to places moral, intellectual, and emotional that were entirely uncomfortable to visit, never mind requiring that I contemplate that some people actually live in those places.  The lead character is a difficult one to get underneath – he’s morally ambiguous, and that challenges our notions of right and wrong.  Everyone’s motives are questionable, and I felt always on my guard while reading this novel; I think that’s exactly what Wright wanted of his readers, and I think he succeeded in a masterful way.

I certainly don’t think this is a novel I would pick up to read for myself again, but I can tell you with absolute, iron-clad certainty that it will form a cornerstone of my teaching practice.  The kinds of thinking this novel requires and the kinds of conversations it will inspire are precisely the kind of work I want my students to be able to do.  (I read this novel twice; once on my own and once with my students.)

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Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Pages: 464
Published: 2009
My Rating: 5 out of 5

This is a beautiful novel.  I bought it in hardcover – something I rarely if ever do – because I was prodded into it by Carson.  He sent me a text message telling me that I needed to drop whatever I was doing and go out and buy this book, and damn the homework responsibilities I had to a class I was taking.  Even though that went against my tendency to be an over-achieving student, I heeded my friend’s urgent advice and dropped the cash for the hardcover.

I’m so glad I did.

The novel hooked me in the first few paragraphs.  It tells the story of suburban, well-to-do culture in Mississippi in the 1960’s and focuses a keen eye on the startlingly complex, unspoken relationships between white families and their black maids.  I felt while reading this book – connection and compassion, fear and frustration that inspired a very uncomfortable kind of dislike, and finally hope and relief.

Having lived my whole life in New England, I can’t speak to the authenticity of the voice in the story, but I have heard from people who grew up in the South that the novel resonated with them in the same way that Sarah Orne Jewett’s archetypical New England voice does for me – it feels real to people who live in the South.  Regardless of where you grew up, though, do yourself a favor and get this novel; you will devour it eagerly, and you’ll be better for having read it.

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Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Pages: 392
Published: 2006
My Rating: 3 out of 5

I read this once on my own and twice with my juniors and seniors.  I was intrigued by the premise, and though I found the story didn’t pull me along with the energy I was expecting, I didn’t begrudge reading the novel twice.  My students and I had some fascinating conversations inspired by this book which made the whole exercise incredibly worthwhile; we talked about feminism and what, exactly, that term means; the idea of religious rule and what that could mean for a society; questions of power and what “power” really is; gender and the expectations that come along with it; and we wrestled with the idea that a dystopian novel isn’t so much a prediction of the future as it is a critique of the present.  This book will stay firmly in my curriculum, particularly for upperclassmen.  It was an excellent spark.

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Title: The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Author: Muriel Barbery
Pages: 336
Published: 2008
My Rating: 5 out of 5


I adored this novel. The plot (such as it is) is driven by the dialogue, and what singularly gorgeous dialogue it is.  Madame Michel is a concierge at a tony Paris apartment building, and she works hard to embody the role on the outside – she’s dumpy and plain and so nondescript as to be nearly invisible – but she leads a rich and lush (and very private) intellectual life filled with profoundly moving experiences with art and literature and film.  When a new tenant witnesses her making an almost imperceptible flinch at a grammar mistake, her life begins to change in delightful, terrifying ways.

The language in this novel is delicious. If you geek out over a perfect turn of phrase, please do get this book. It’s not a swashbuckling page-turner, but if you’re anything like me in your love of language, this novel will be stuck in your head long after you turn the last page.

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Title: The Prestige
Author: Christopher Priest
Pages: 416
Published: 2005
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5



This novel is a treasure. My best friend bought the book for me a few years ago for Christmas; he’d heard that the film was being made and he wanted us to read the novel together before we went to see the movie together.

As I recall, I tore through the book in a few days, and I remember – clearly – being VERY grateful that Mr. Chili was in the bed beside me when I got to the end; not since The Shining had I been so creeped out by a book.

I remember thinking, as soon as the last line of the film was spoken, that I would own the DVD and would go about teaching the book/movie combination as soon as was professionally possible. While the plot lines of the two works – novel and film – were almost completely different (really, only the names of the characters and one or two minor plot points were the same), the themes of the novel were gorgeously, artfully carried over in the film.

I read the novel with my Writing Workshop this spring, and a number of the students had seen the film and resisted, kicking and screaming, a critical analysis of the book. By the time the credits rolled on the film, though, I was looking into the faces of kids who realized that the never really GOT the movie until they’d read the book. Several students, in their year-end assessments of our class, told me that the experience of The Prestige was instrumental in the progress they felt they’d made in their critical thinking skills.

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Title: Alex Cross’s Trial
Author: James Patterson
Pages: 416
Published: 2010 (reprint)
My Rating: 3 out of 5



One of my students recommended this book to me. He doesn’t come off as much of a reader, this kid, but it seems that he’d found the Alex Cross series and really, really enjoyed them. The impetus for me to read this book wasn’t so much his recommendation, though – I think our pleasure reading standards are quite different – but rather was because he made a compelling case in his assertion that he enjoyed this novel much more than he likely would have had he not had the experience of reading (and analyzing) To Kill a Mockingbird with me the semester before.

I read the novel in two pre-bedtime sessions and discovered exactly why this student felt such a connection to the book. The plot involves a white lawyer returning to his hometown in Mississippi to investigate, at the urging of President Teddy Roosevelt, a recent spate of lynchings in the state. While there, he discovers how much he’s changed from the boy who left the town, and how deeply racial violence affects everyone, not just the victims. My student was right about his assessment of the similarity of the themes in this book and TKaM, and I was delighted to share this reading experience with him.

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Title: The Golden Compass
Author: Philip Pullman
Pages: 399
Published: 2001
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5



I picked up Pullman’s His Dark Materials series at the urging of a colleague of mine at Local U. I had asked him about his recommendations for novels that had a strong coming of age theme, and he said, “this would be a crazy set of books to tackle, but could make for a way cool class. This one trilogy deals with Religion and science, mythology and theoretical astrophysics. It is a bit heavy by times, but has an awesome adventure story with a female lead, talking bears, lighter than air aircraft, and souls that take the form of familars and fight to protect you. If you don’t know it, check it out. It borrows from more places than the Potter series and digs deeper into the intellectual realm than Rawlings ever even tried.

He was right. While it took me a while to get through this first installment of the trilogy – I was busy and didn’t have much time or energy to spare for reading at the time – it was never far from my thinking. I love the female main character, and the combination of spiritual, political, religious, and scientific is deft and exceedingly well done. The plot is fast-paced enough to be exciting, but the writing is tight enough to never leave the reader confused about what’s going on (and without talking down to the reader or leading us by the nose, either).

These are considered young adult novels – you’ll find them in the kids’ section in the back of Barnes and Noble – but trust me; they’re substantial enough for adults, too. Go get them (or go steal them from your kids); you won’t be sorry.  (I read this three times; I blew through it once for myself, then went back and read it more carefully, taking notes as I went.  Then, I re-read it as my students were reading, just so I could be up-to-date for class discussions.)
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Title: The Subtle Knife
Author: Philip Pullman
Pages: 352
Published: 2010 (reprint)
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5


 

I TORE through this novel in a weekend (ignoring both housework and grading in the process). The plot of the story is intriguing, there’s enough action to keep the story moving and enough intellectual heavy-lifting required to make this novel one in which I was able to completely lose myself. The ending was what really got me, though; it was a true cliffhanger, and I could not wait to start the Amber Spyglass, the third novel in the series (which hooked me from the third page – check back for the review on that when I get to the end!).

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Title: The Amber Spyglass
Author: Philip Pullman
Pages: 518
Published: 2000
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

This novel hooked me by about page four; it did a lovely job of carrying the momentum that I’d built up with The Subtle Knife, and I fairly flew through its nearly 520 pages with eagerness and excitement.

This series is shelved with children’s books – or, if the bookstore is big enough, in the young adult section – but I assure you that they are well worth the time of anyone over the age of about 12 (though I will contend that most 12-year-olds will miss much of what makes these novels so gorgeous.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that *I* missed a significant number of the connections, too, which is why I”m re-reading The Golden Compass with my reading group).  The protagonists in the story are 12, in fact (or thereabouts, which may be why the books are categorized the way they are), but the plot is so complex and the details are so rich and the twists are so delightful and the story borrows from so many classical sources that it would be a shame for a grown-up to dismiss the experience because of the books’ locations on the shelves.

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Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Pages: 240
Published: 2007
My Rating: 5 out of 5

I made my way through this novel in a few hours (spread out over two days, but still), and I plan on using it in my English classes this coming term; I’ve not decided at which level the book will be put to best use,  but I can’t not use it.

Written in a journal-entry format and liberally interspersed with some really terrific drawings, the book tells the story of a high school freshman navigating two different cultures, and it grabbed me literally from page one. The narrator has a strong, clear voice that is absolutely believable, but what really struck me was the way in which he articulates the things he observes. On one page, we’ll be treated to a laugh-out-loud declaration that our quirky guide would be chosen number one in the draft for the masturbating team, and then we’re brought up short by the boy’s realization that most of his friends on the reservation never get enough to eat, and this sort of thing happens all through the novel; we get awkward teenage boy questions about love and acne and guy friends, then we’re hit full-on with tragic death, and not a bit of it feels contrived. The clarity with which the boy sees – and the stark honesty with which he relates those observations – makes this book a must-read for everyone.

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Title: The Good Thief
Author: Hannah Tinti
Pages: 336
Published: 2008
My Rating: 4 out of 5


This novel was thrust into my hands by the community outreach coordinator at my local Barnes and Noble. I love Sally for a number of reasons, but mostly because she has a passion for books that I respect. Not one to fall to trends or fads (unless they deserve it), she calls them like she sees them. Her honesty is something that I have come to trust; I believe her both when she says that a books a clunker and when she says she didn’t sleep last night because she couldn’t put a book down, so when she told me I had to read this one, I put it in my pile and headed to the checkout.

The novel felt very much like Dickens to me; the characters had a sort of dirty charm to them that appealed, the story was complex and just outlandish enough to be believable, and the dialogue was delightful (I’m especially fond of the way the mousetrap factory owner’s words were written; I could hear the thick Massachusetts accent “I’m ganna make ya remembah” in every scene of his.  Love it).  By the last page, all the crazy ends are gathered together in a neat not-quite-a-bow, and I left the novel feeling like I’d been taken on a very fun ride. This is another young-adult novel, but if you’re in the mood for some light and fun adventure, you won’t be sorry you picked this one up – Sally and I promise.

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Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Pages: 290
Published: 2009
My Rating: 5 out of 5

(I wonder what you’re going to think of me that so many of my book reviews earn five-out-of-five ratings…)

I came a little late to this party. I’ve been hearing nothing but good things about this novel for a while now, and on the strength of those recommendations, I bought the book some time ago, but it sat on the pile unread until now. I am glad I got to it; it was a delight.

The novel is set in London and a Channel island in the days immediately following the close of the Second World War. It is most unusual in that it is written as a series of letters and telegraphs between characters, and one of the things that I loved so much about the book is that I was able to discern each individual voice, despite the fact that many of them all seemed so similar. Let me say that a different way; each of the characters was part of a mostly closed, close-knit community and, as such, had similar ways about them. Despite that, each of their own individual voices came through in the writing which, to my appreciative eye, is the mark of some really skillful craft. The story didn’t go for the cheap and easy telling, either; there’s some genuine tragedy and heartsickness tempering the quirky hilarity, and I think it’s this balance that makes it all work so incredibly well. I honestly didn’t want to get to the last page of this novel, and I’m here to assure you that all the hype this book has received has been well-deserved. If you haven’t picked this one up yet, please do.

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Title: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Pages: 355
Published: 2005
My Rating: 4 out of 5

I picked this book up on the recommendation of one of my Writing Workshop colleagues, and I think it may end up on my junior syllabus for next term.

The novel tells the story of Oskar, a nine-year-old boy who embarks on a journey through the five boroughs of New York to try to make sense of his father’s death.  Along the way, he encounters a number of people who have suffered their own kinds of loss, and discovers that we never really lay the dead to rest.

Interspersed in the sections where Oskar is our narrator are the voices of other characters – some existing in other times – and I found that the writing style most often reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I have no idea if nine-year-olds’ thought patterns run in the way that Foer writes, but I found the voice in the novel was sometimes a distraction from what I discerned the focus of the passage was intended to be.  I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, mind you, but I am certain that this is a book that I would have gleaned much more from had I been able to read it with a community (hence my thinking of adding it to the junior reading curriculum next year); I think I need to have others talk about their perspectives on the novel before I can feel like I really read it.  I will tell you, though, based on my experience of this novel, I’m interested in picking up Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, as well.

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Title: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope
Author: William Kamkwamba
Pages: 288
Published: 2009
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I’m not a huge fan of memoir, but I enjoyed this book (enough to finish it, and that’s saying something).  The author’s voice is charming and engaging, and I particularly liked that he occasionally addresses his reader directly (at one point, he says something to the effect of “You’ll be surprised by how much you’ll learn about maize by reading my book”).  The story is Kamkwamba’s account of his boyhood in Malawi, about the farming village where he lives, and about the very real hardships profoundly poor people face.  His retelling of the famine he and his family (and his country) endured was vivid and moving, and the incredible difference a little bit of something can make in the lives of people who have a whole lot of nothing struck me.  For me, this story was less about the windmill he builds from junkyard cast-offs and more about the idea that one person can make a difference.

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Title: Push
Author: Sapphire
Pages: 178
Published: 1997
My Rating: 4 out of 5


This is a heartbreaking, yet strangely hopeful book.  Told in the first person by a young woman who’s lived her entire life under the oppression of horrific abuse, Push chronicles Precious Jones’s attempt to lay claim to at least some part of her own personhood.  Though education and the relationships she forms in her experiences in school, Precious begins, however tentatively, to find her own way in the world, despite every terrible thing that happens to her.

I read this book like a train wreck; I didn’t enjoy it in the usual sense, but I left the novel feeling hopeful.  I continue to stand firm in my belief that education is the silver bullet, the magic pill that will cure 99.9% of all the world’s ills.  This story takes steps to confirm that belief for me.  Through learning to read and write – and being able to share those experiences with others – Precious learns that the life she was given is not the life she has to settle for.  She starts thinking about the future.  She starts wanting better for herself.  She begins to process her past and to move forward.  I left the book thinking that she was going to be okay in the end.

Push is a difficult novel to read, there are no two ways about it, but it’s well worth it.

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Title: The Reader
Author: Bernhard Schlink
Pages: 218
Published: 1999
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5

I did not love this novel, and that surprised me, because I was expecting to.

The story revolves around the relationship between a young man, Michael Berg, and Hanna, an older and, to Michael, entirely inscrutable woman that takes place just after WWII in Germany.  It is in the context of that relationship that Michael struggles with the idea of whether – and if so, how – to love people who committed atrocities in that war.  He ruminates on how his generation – too young to fight or to have any part in the horrors that the Nazis perpetrated – are to feel about their elders, their government and their country.

I felt as though this novel tried to do too much and, as a consequence, did none of it well enough to be satisfying.  I found the relationship between Michael and Hanna to be contrived and unbelievable, and his obsession with her, while perhaps an accurate portrayal of a young man’s capacity to be overcome by one woman for the rest of his life, felt forced and difficult to me.  The realizations he makes along the way were profound and meaningful, but he didn’t really do anything with the knowledge he gains though, I suppose, that may be part of the point; the crippling inability to move forward though the trauma of the Holocaust – and all the collateral damage it caused – is something with which I am familiar.  I am friends with a gentleman who, as a very old man, is still struggling with how to feel about his father and the part he played as an executive in I. G. Farben when my friend was a young boy.  Perhaps the questions the novel raises have no answers, but I still feel that they could have been wrestled with in a way that would be more satisfying in a novel.

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Title: Walking to Gatlinberg
Author: Howard Frank Mosher
Pages: 352
Published: 2010
My Rating: 3 out of 5

I was strangely disappointed by this novel.  It was strongly recommended by the outreach coordinator for our local Barnes and Noble; Sally had loved the book – loved it! she said – and I had to read it.  Trusting this woman’s good instincts (she’s been right more than she’s been wrong), I bought the hardcover and put it near the top of the “to read” pile.

The story was enjoyable, but it wasn’t the compelling read I was expecting.  Morgan Kinnison of Vermont is called by his spirit to find his brother Pilgrim, missing after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Along his journey south, he encounters all manner of curious people, runic symbols, and murderous adversaries.  There’s an elephant and a woman who lives in a tree and a haunted flour mill, and Morgan even manages to fall in love along the way.

I felt that there should have been more attention given to the aforementioned murderous adversaries; I wasn’t convinced that the conflict between them and Morgan was sufficient to explain the drive of the action.  I think that was the main trouble I had with the novel; I couldn’t quite suspend my disbelief enough to allow myself to be completely engaged in the story.  I’m not sorry I read the book, but I do feel that I would have been content having borrowed it from the library.

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Title: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Author: John Boyne
Pages: 224
Published: 2007
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I loved this book.  In fact, I loved it far more than I ever expected to.

The truth of it is that I come to most fiction about the Holocaust with a distinct sense of incredulity and caution.  Being a Holocaust scholar has put me in contact with a lot of people who are hyper-sensitive about the messages that get put into the public around the Holocaust, especially in the forms of fictional novels and movies, and a lot of that sensitivity has rubbed off on me.  I am conscious of my responsibility to educate and inform, and turning the Holocaust into the subject of something intended to entertain goes sharply against the mission of every Holocaust outreach center there is (and, really, common decency).

I  don’t think that this novel was intended for entertainment, however, and I loved how the author chose to ask the very difficult questions of his reader that he chose to address.  The story is told entirely from the perspective of an innocent 9 year-old.  He looks at the world in exactly the way I would imagine a 9 year-old does; he’s petulant when he has to move from his home because his father (“the Commandant”) is reassigned.  He misunderstands Hitler’s title as “the Fury” (that alone makes for some gorgeous contemplation).  He has no frame of reference through which to interpret the concentration camp he can see outside of his window (which he calls “Out With,” which is another beautiful conceit), and does the best he can to make sense of it for himself.

I’ve heard people complain that the ending of the story was too contrived.  I don’t think I could disagree more, and the fact that the author just put the situation in front of us and lets us do with it what we will is something that makes this novel such a treasure.  There is no heavy-handed pontificating, no hand-holding; we get what we get and we’re left to deal with it on our own terms.  I can’t wait to use this novel in the classroom, and it’s one that I’m sure I’m going to enjoy again and again.

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Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Pages: 374
Published: 2008
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I was told, again and again, that this is a book I HAD to read, so I went out and picked up the first of the trilogy and read it during vacation. I have to say that I enjoyed it very much, but what I’m really looking forward to is reading it with my students.

The novel is set in a dystopian society where two young children from every community are chosen, via a lottery, to compete in a televised death match. What is wonderful about this book is that the narrator, a young woman who volunteered for this “competition” when her younger sister was chosen in the lottery, is someone who is very astute and observant, not only of her surroundings, but also of how she feels about what’s happening to her, and of how people behave and interact.

This novel is on my freshman reading list, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how my reading of this novel is made richer for having read it with my students.

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Title: Echo in the Bone
Author: Diana Gabaldon
Pages: 814
Published: 2009
My Rating: 5 out of 5

Anyone who’s read me for any length of time knows that Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is my immediate and certain answer to the “what books would you want with you on a deserted island” question.  I am unrepentant in my love of this story, and I have no doubt whatsoever that I’ll continue to read these novels for as long as my sight holds out.

What astounds me about these books is the unflagging strength of the storytelling and this, the 7th in a ponderous series (none of the novels is less than 800 pages), doesn’t disappoint.  I was transported back into Claire and Jamie’s lives as if I’d never left, and the truthfulness of the dialogue, the consistency of the characters, and the believability of the plot left me turning the pages in awe of the writing; this is one talented author.

What delighted me most, I have to tell you, is that this is not the end of the series.  Barring any unforeseeable tragedy, Gabaldon must intend to write at least one more tome – there’s no way she would leave the story where it ended in Echo.  I know it’s going to be a long time in coming, though – there’s nothing on her website about an impending publication – but I’m already looking forward to the next novel.

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Title: The Lace Reader
Author: Brunonia Barry
Pages: 416
Published: 2009
My Rating: 4 out of 5

I picked this book up on the advice of a girlfriend whose opinions about books I trust, and she didn’t let me down this time, either.  The Lace Reader was a delightful read; the story was involved enough to be interesting but straightforward enough that I could read it in just a few sittings and not lose the thread.  Barry lives in the area in which she writes – an area with which I am intimately familiar – and that comes through very clearly in her writing; I recognized real people in her characters, and I loved being able to see the some of the landmarks she references in my mind’s eye.  The ending was a delightful twist, and one that I’m still thinking about a few days after turning the last page; I can see this story being turned into a film like The Sixth Sense or The Book of Eli where viewers will immediately want to go back and watch it again to see if they can pick up the clues they missed the first time around.  Really; this novel was a lot of fun.

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Title: Siddhartha
Author: Hermann Hesse
Pages: 122
Published: 1957
My Rating: 4 out of 5


I was sure I’d read this work before, but as I got deeper and deeper in to the text, I realized that either this was my first time though it or I’d forgotten the entire experience of reading it the first time.  Either way, while the work was new to me, the message was decidedly not.

The novel tells the story of Siddhartha, a young man who is restlessly seeking his path to enlightenment.  Along the way, he encounters a number of different people following a number of different traditions – he prays with the people of his village, he leaves home and tries the way of the ascetic, he spends some time with Buddha and his followers, he enters the world of business and becomes a wealthy merchant with a beautiful courtesan lover, he settles with an old, solitary ferryman and listens to the river – and each of these experiences brings him to his realization that, even if the world IS illusion, we are part of the world and our purpose here is to be fully and mindfully engaged in it.

More than anything else, I think, the novel advocates balance.  Siddhartha is never happy or satisfied when he’s following one tradition to the exclusion of others; he needs to tend to body, mind, and spirit in order to feel as though he’s making progress toward his own kind of understanding of God and his Inner Self (which, Siddhartha realizes early in the novel, are one and the same).  His loving acceptance of all paths – whether or not the people in question are living mindfully or seeking their own enlightenment – is an important part of the novel, and something that I wish I (and a lot of other people) could do better.  Who are we to say that we have THE answer for anyone but ourselves?  Who are we to say that anyone else should be doing or thinking or living the way we say?  I think that if we focused more on our own personal journeys and worried less about how wrong everyone else was doing it, the world would be a much happier, much more productive, and much safer place.  Would that it could be so.

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Title: The Giver
Author: Lois Lowry
Pages: 179
Published: 1993
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5


I started this book about two years ago, but I never finished it.  I remember it being a very easy read – I practically flew through the part of the novel that I read, so I really do wonder why it was that I never got to the end – and I remember liking what I read.  I picked it up the other day because I wanted to see if it was a reasonable thing to put on my freshman syllabus, and all my memories of the book were reinforced in my second reading.

There is little about this book that isn’t wonderful.  It’s aimed at middle-school readers; the story is easy to follow and the language is not at all complex, but the themes that the story grapples with are anything but simple.  Most of my kids have told me they read this story in 7th grade; I think they’re going to be surprised to read it again in our class and they see all the amazing things they missed the first time around.

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Title: Atonement
Author: Ian McEwan
Pages: 351
Published: 2001
My Rating: 4 out of 5


The only reason this doesn’t get five full stars is that I found it a little hard to get into.  I remember thinking, in the first hundred or so pages, that the language seemed overwrought and conspicuous, and I felt like that kept me from fully submerging myself in the text.  As I think more about it, though, after having finished it a few days ago, I wonder if that heavy use of language wasn’t part of the point.

The story revolves around a young girl and the innocent – and terribly wrong – assumption she makes about something she observes between her older sister and the former gardener’s son, a young man who, for all intents and purposes, is considered part of the family.  Her misunderstanding about what she sees – and her eager willingness to share her incorrect impressions with others, sets in motion a series of actions that ripple out far beyond her young self – the effects of which haunt her for literally the rest of her life.

I’ve decided to put this novel in my seniors’ English syllabus, and I’ve got to say that I’m looking forward to re-reading it with that group.  The book, for all its description and language, is able to convey agonizing subtleties – not only in the characters’  behavior, but seemingly in their energy, as well.  I’m eager to see how the book holds up to a second reading.

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Title: The Secret Life of Bees
Author: Sue Monk Kidd
Pages: 302
Published: 2002
My Rating: 5+ out of 5


I love this book.  In fact, this novel is one of my most favorite, though I love it for entirely different reasons than those that put the Outlander series in a top spot on my list.  Bees is so profoundly and personally meaningful that I worry that I won’t be able to adequately express why I love it as much as I do, but I’ll give it a try.

The novel tells the story of 14-year-old Lily.  Lily lives in South Carolina in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, and she spends her days in an uneasy company with her emotionally unavailable father and the stinging memories of her dead mother.  Lily gets by until a decision she makes one day in the face of injustice propels her into a world that she never even imagined could ever exist.

At its heart, The Secret Life of Bees is a story about stories; the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, the stories we rely upon to make sense of the world, and the new stories we create when we realize that everything we thought we knew – about ourselves and each other – might just have been wrong.  It’s about authoring your own story, and about the connections that we make that make those creations possible in the first place.

The characters in this book touch a tender spot in me, and I find myself approaching each new reading of this novel with the hope of a child wanting to be found worthy of love.  I’m reading this book with both my juniors and my Film and Literature class this year, and I have to tell you, I’m a little nervous about showing them the movie; I’m going to have to warn them ahead of time that I WILL cry.  Bees is a singularly gorgeous coming of age story, and it bears an incredible amount of emotion, tenderness, and hope in its few pages.

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Title: The Client
Author: John Grisham
Pages: 496
Published: 2005
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I read this  novel with my Film and Lit class (after having read it years ago when Mr. Chili and I were on a huge John Grisham kick).  I have the sinking suspicion that one kid and I were the only ones in the class who got to the back cover.

I enjoyed this novel quite a lot when I first read it, and I enjoyed it again on rereading, especially after having seen the film with my students and being able to compare and contrast the way the characters were portrayed in the film with how they were developed and articulated in the novel. The distinctions between the characters in the different media were pretty stark, and even though my students likely didn’t get the full effect of those differences, I was able to expend some critical thought to the problems and possibilities of translating a piece of fiction from the page to the screen.

I tend to prefer books to films; for as much as I think that a good filmmaker can do admirable justice to a novel, I am, at my heart, a reader. That being said, I think that there were places in the narrative where the film exceeded this novel in power and implication – I imagine that is due in some part to the skill of the actors involved. There was a fair bit more nuance in the novel than the film, though, and for that reason, I give the book a good rating. It’s not exactly high art, but it is an entirely enjoyable read.

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Title: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Author: Ray Bradbury
Pages: 304
Published: 1962 (republished 1998)
My Rating: 5 out of 5


I loved this book.

I had always wanted to read it, but never got the chance.  My only Bradbury experience in high school was Fahrenheit 451, which is a shame; I think that this book is MUCH more accessible to young people and I wonder why 451 is the go-to novel from this author.  Anyway, I was always intrigued by the premise of this novel, and I kept it in the back of my mind’s “must read” list.

I decided to teach it to my freshmen this semester under our “coming of age” theme, and while they struggled a bit with the language – this novel is a gorgeous example of lush and vivid detail – I think that, once they got a bit of the hang of it, they really liked it.  Several kids told me that the novel infiltrated their dreams, and one girl told me that she had a visceral reaction to one of the chapters; “Mrs. Chili!” she breathed, “the chapter where Mr. Dark comes into the library gave me actual goosebumps!”  Me, too, Sweetie; me, too.

This novel has a delicious edge, and it’s not hard to imagine that this story inspired Stephen King to some of his more nuanced creep.  The story has a wonderful message to it that is just as relevant to us today as it was when it was penned; we have a choice between joy and despair, and the energy we choose will determine our fate.  Go.  Read.  (I read this novel twice; once for myself and once with my freshmen, taking notes as I went.)

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Title: My Name is Asher Lev
Author: Chaim Potok
Pages: 369
Published: 1972 (republished in 2003)
My Rating: 5 out of 5


I’m telling you, I picked a bunch of really great books for my students this year.  I read this for my junior class ahead of them (then read it again with them), and I thought that they were going to love the story – we’re an arts school, after all – so I was surprised when their response was lukewarm (of course, it should be remembered, we’re talking about teenagers; I should be grateful for lukewarm).

The story revolves around a young Hasidim named Asher Lev, growing up in the closed community of Crown Heights in Brooklyn.  Asher discovers, at a very young age, that he’s been given a gift; he is a very talented artist.  This causes a great deal of trouble in his traditional community, not the least of which is his father’s utter inability to comprehend that his son should do anything but follow in his footsteps (as Father himself did, and this is where we suspect his trouble with his son originates; did Father give up his dream to fulfill his own father’s?).

We follow Asher’s apprenticeship under an artist the Rebbe appoints as his mentor and watch as he navigates, mostly unsuccessfully, the wide expanse between his Jewish life (which he dearly loves and can’t reject) and his artistic (which he dearly loves and can’t reject).  The climax of this novel is heartbreaking, visceral, and perfectly rendered, and I was sad when I turned the last page.  This is a sublime piece of writing which treats its topic (and its reader) with a great deal of respect.  I highly recommend this book.

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Title: A Long Way Gone
Author: Ishmael Beah
Pages: 229
Published: 2008
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Of all the books I chose for my classes this term, I think this was my least favorite, though several of the students in the senior class told me they couldn’t put it down.

The book is the memoir of Ishmael Beah, who survived being a boy soldier in Sierra Leone. In it, Beah recounts his life before the civil war reached his village, how that war forced him into the forest looking for a safe place to sleep, how he was manipulated into “enlistment” in the army, and finally, he writes of his rescue, recovery, and redemption.

Beah’s writing is spare and simple; he tells his story as if he’s sitting right next to you and from the perspective of a young boy who understands nothing of politics, but knows what it means to do what has to be done to stay alive. He has a strong sense of his audience; I think that his style was exactly right to hit at the hearts of his peers who have never known the kind of fear, brutality, and depravity he experienced firsthand, and the effect is stunning.

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Title: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Author: Jamie Ford
Pages: 304
Published: 2009
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

This is a lovely novel.  Heartbreaking but, in the end, lovely.

The story opens right around Pearl Harbor day and revolves around Henry, a young Chinese-American boy growing up in Seattle.  He befriends Keiko, a Japanese-American girl who goes to his mostly-white school, just before the U.S. government begins rounding up families like hers for “resettlement” away from the coastal areas.

Through the story, Henry struggles with his identity.  He’s an American – he and Keiko were born in the same hospital right up the street.  His parents insist that he speak only English (of which they themselves know almost nothing), they make him wear an “I am Chinese” button on his lapel whenever he is out of their apartment,  and they are incredibly proud of his “scholarshipping” at the mostly White school in the city.  For all that they want him to integrate into American society, however, his father is determined that he is going to “go back to Canton” to finish his schooling when he is of age.

The resettlement of the entire Japanese section of town changes Henry’s perspective in ways that even he doesn’t quite comprehend, these shifts in how he sees himself and his environment compel him to make some difficult and important choices in his life.  We follow Henry through most of those choices, and come to understand that one of two of them still haunt him, lo these forty years later.

This novel is sweet and heartbreaking and thoughtful and ultimately hopeful (I’m going to admit here that it wrung a tear by the last chapter).  We tend not to talk much as a culture about that shameful period in our collective history, and I think that this novel may comprise an important part of a future class that focuses on the Holocaust and the lessons we have to learn from it.

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Title: The Devil’s Arithmetic
Author: Jane Yolen
Pages: 176
Published: 2004
My Rating: 5 out of 5

This is a novel I’ve been meaning to read since I first heard about it.  As I was considering what material I would include in an elective on the Holocaust in literature, I decided that I would buy it along with a bunch of holiday gifts I was buying from Amazon.  It came on a Saturday morning and I finished it, between errands and one of Punkin’s flute recitals, in a few hours.

The novel tells the story of Hannah, a young girl growing up in a Jewish family in New York in modern times.  Like any teenager, Hannah is disenchanted with her family; she doesn’t understand all the “remembering” that they insist on doing and doesn’t understand how any of all that stuff that happened in the past has anything to do with her.  She doesn’t understand her family’s traditions and is often confused and embarrassed by her grandfather’s outbursts.

One Passover Seder, Hannah is invited to open the door for the prophet Elijah.  What happens when she opens that door is what propels this incredibly compelling, difficult, and heartbreaking novel.  Through this incredible experience, Hannah comes to understand much more about her family and those seemingly incomprehensible traditions than she ever imagined.

This little bit of a novel packs a formidable punch.  As soon as I can get this book stocked in our book room, I am certain that it’s going to be a cornerstone in my freshman curriculum.

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Title: Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands
Author: Susan Carol McCarthy
Pages: 276
Published: 2002
My Rating: 5 out of 5

I don’t remember where (or when) I bought this book.  I don’t think that anyone recommended the book to me; I may have picked it up on spec, but I’m REALLY glad I did.  This is a singularly gorgeous and engaging novel, and I’m planning on adding it to my curriculum as soon as I can get my hands on 20 copies.

The story is told from the perspective of a teenage girl growing up in central Florida in the early 1950s, just about when race relations started getting out of hand (or, probably more accurately, when the rest of the country started taking notice of the race relations in the South).  The child of Northern and progressive parents, Reesa starts her tale with the murder of her black friend Marvin at the hands of the local Klan.  The tale progresses through the realization that their neighbors are responsible for this death, and she struggles with the fact that no one seems to care.

This coming of age novel glides by like silk.  It is practically effortless to read, but the punch it packs is substantial (much like the above-mentioned Native Son, but with a much softer edge).  There were several moments of artistry in the language, and the characters, even the ones we only meet briefly, are well-rounded and vivid.  We find out later that the story is based on events in the author’s own childhood, which accounts for the love and care she puts into the telling, and I think that this will be a gorgeous launching-off point for a lot of really fruitful class conversations about who we are, how we got here, and what we still have to learn.

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Title: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Pages: 331
Published: 2006
My Rating: 4 out of 5


I have to admit that I didn’t read this whole book; I listened to a significant part of it.  I had gone to my public library looking for some audio books for my students and came across the unabridged CDs of this novel, which I had bought last summer at a used book sale and never managed to get around to.  I had a long trip in the car coming up, so I checked the audiobook out and started listening to it on that trip, and on subsequent car rides to and from work and the market and such.  Nights, I’d take the book, find where the CD left off, then read until my eyes crossed.  The next morning, I’d skip ahead on the CDs to the place where I’d stopped reading, and so it went until I finished the book in bed on a Saturday morning.  It was the first time I’d ever experienced a book in this way, and I found it entirely enjoyable.

This novel is set in the Depression and follows the life, through reminiscence, of a veterinarian who catches a ride on a circus train.  As we pass back and forth between Jacob as a young man, suffering the upheaval of his life, and the old man waiting for a family member to come and take him to the circus that’s set up in a lot within sight of the nursing home where he’s living after breaking his hip, we’re introduced to a number of well-written, vivid characters (who are all well-represented by the voice actor who reads the younger Jacob’s parts).  There is an edge to this novel; it’s almost all behind-the-scenes stuff that is most often gritty, dirty, and rough, but it’s also incredibly compelling.

I’ve never been much for the carny scene; in fact, the only circus I’ve ever seen (or, perhaps more truthfully, the only ones I ever remember seeing) are the artistic Cirque variety.  While this novel didn’t do anything to change my mind about classical carnival, it did keep me engaged from the opening line to the final, wholly satisfying scene, whether I was listening or reading.  It’s a ponderous read, but well worth your time and effort.

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Title: The History of Love
Author: Alison Krauss
Pages: 252
Published: 2006
My Rating: 3 out of 5

I enjoyed this book, though I didn’t tear through it with the “I can’t wait until I can go to bed so I can read” enthusiasm that I was expecting to have for it.

The novel follows several strands of story, each connected to the other in delicately tenuous ways, and wraps up in a way that is entirely satisfying. The chapters switch voices, and each narrator is clear and distinct and so is easy to identify. I found myself really enjoying the voice of Leo Gursky in particular; his mannerisms and ways of speaking were delightful, especially in the scene where he’s trying to cover himself in a difficult social situation by speaking Yiddish, which he knows no one in the room can understand. The language and the pacing of the book were delightful, and the delicacies of the emotions the book strives to portray are intricate and vivid.

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Thus ends the list of books that Chili has read in 2010! I’ve begun In the Shadow of Gotham, but it’s December 29th as I write this and I know for sure that I won’t finish it by the weekend, so that will be the first title of my 2011 list. I’m looking forward to another year of voracious reading, and I wish you all the same!

9 responses to “Reads ’10

  1. Pingback: Quick Hit: Keeping Track « A Teacher’s Education

  2. I read a lot and have been asked about Native Son before (as in, have you read it). I haven’t but will add it to the running list I keep of books to read. Sounds like I should.

  3. So it looks like you have great experiences with 2 of your first 3 reads of 2010? That’s not bad! Sorry you didn’t love Zookeeper’s Wife, though.

    • I didn’t love it, Lily, but I didn’t hate it, either. The way I explained the experience to a friend was like this; I went in expecting Coca Cola, but I got root beer. I LIKE them both, but I didn’t get what I was expecting.

  4. Laurie B

    Wow. I loved that the book report back in September in ’69 included summer reading of 100 books. Time off to read was part of the family expectation.

    This list is awesome. I’ve read a few and will search out the others. No great promises. Will try though.

  5. Pingback: Nearly Wordless Wednesday « The Blue Door

  6. maleesha

    I read several of these this year too. I liked Boy in the Striped PJs…what a chilling ending. I loved The Help. I have always loved The Giver. Hunger Games is on my list too. Cool list!

  7. So many books on this list that I want to read and so many that I’ve read. Thanks for the review of The Zookeeper’s Wife. It looked interesting but there are so many books I want to read that I’d hate to waste my time on a “meh” book.

    I started to comment on the other books in your list and then realized it would be a blog post until itself. So, I have some reading for you for 2011.
    Half of a Yellow Sun by Aidiche.
    Kindred by Octavia Butler
    House of Stairs by William Sleator. It’s a YA novel but I re-read it every now and then.

  8. What a wonderful list. I think “The Help” was one of my favorite books of 2010. I simply loved it. Have you read “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle? That was hands down another favorite. I like you idea of keeping track and reviewing each book. I might try that. P.S. I found your blog from Kizz’s blog 117 Hudson. I will defintiely be back to keep up on what you are reading in 2011! Happy Birthday today by the way!

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