Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Angry Management by Chris Crutcher

Although I was already a fan of Chris Crutcher's work, this book shot to the top of my TBR pile when it was challenged by a parent in South Carolina.  Because of Crutcher's willingness to take on a host of societal issues, his books are often challenged--and teens love them.  I'm not generally a huge fan of short stories, but I enjoyed this collection of three novellas and the chance to revisit characters from several of Crutcher's previous novels.  Highly recommended.

The characters in the three stories are loosely bound together by Mr. Nak's Angry Management group.

"Kyle Maynard and the Craggy Face of the Moon"  features Sarah Byrnes and Angus Bethune.  Sarah bears her burn-scarred face like a shield to protect herself from becoming too involved with anyone and Angus uses his girth and his sense of humor in a similar way.  The teens become closer as they embark on a road trip to find Sarah's mother, who abandoned her to her abusive father.

In "Montana Wild," Montana West writes the kind of stories for her school newspaper that never get published, thanks to conservative administrators backed up by the right-wing head of the school board who happens to be her adoptive father.  When her latest story, about medical marijuana, gets shot down, she is asked to write a human interest piece on a football player.  Trey Chase is not a stereotypical "dumb jock" and Montana is drawn to him right away.  His grandmother, Mari, is dying of cancer and uses marijuana to ease her pain and nausea.  Mari suggests that Montana not give up on her medical marijuana article.  Even knowing that the school paper won't publish it, Montana decides to push the issue and get it before the school board.  Mari says, "You don't have to win to win.  Just keep putting it in front of them.  The truth rises."  The showdown between Montana and Maxwell West is inevitable.

The third story, "Meet Me at the Gates, Marcus James" was my favorite.  Marcus is the only African American student at his high school, which is run by football-obsessed bigots.  Not only is Marcus whip-smart and outspoken, but he is also gay.  When he strolls into Mr. Simet's U.S. Government class wearing the pink noose that had been hanging on his locker, no one misses its significance.  Mr. Simet is supportive, but cautions Marcus about the statement he's making by wearing the noose.  When the school administrators call an assembly to "address" the bigotry, Matt Miller, a devout Christian calls them out for appearing to address the issue, while making it impossible to resolve.  I love this character, who embodies the best Christian behavior, rather than the holier-than-thou brand of Christianity that permeates American culture.  He stands up and tells the truth, which unleashes an unforeseen shitstorm and connects him with Marcus forever.  Marcus' father is another interesting character because, even though he understands what it's like to be hated for something he can't control (his race), his initial reaction to learning that Marcus is gay is anger.  He eventually accepts his son and has this to say, "You know, teacher man, bein' homosexual isn't somethin' my boy chose.  He just was.  Somebody's readin' the good book all wrong.  You ask me, God creates it, God loves it.  Simple as that."  Amen.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Set in the fictional town of Bayonne, Louisiana in the late 1940s. Two African American men, proundly different, are both struggling to be men in a racist society.

Uneducated Jefferson witnesses the murder of a white storekeeper during a robbery. The perpetrators are also killed, and Jefferson is put on trial for murder. In Jefferson's defense, his lawyer says not that Jefferson is innocent, but that killing him would be like slaughtering a hog. The all white jury is not swayed by this argument and sentences him to death in the electric chair.

Jefferson's godmother, who raised him, asks a black school teacher, Grant Wiggins, to visit Jefferson in jail and help him to face his death with dignity.

Grant longs to leave the South and is unwilling to take his task seriously. He really doesn't believe it will make a difference. After all, though he is well-educated, he still feels bound and limited by the same racist attitudes that resulted in Jefferson's conviction and death sentence. Eventually, however, the two men form a bond that transforms them both.

Heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. A MUST READ.

Monday, December 22, 2008

When the Legends Die by Hal Borland

Thomas Black Bull and his parents return to the wilderness to live in the old way after Thomas' father kills a man. When his father dies in an accident and his mother follows as a result of illness and grief soon after, Thomas is left alone. He has no desire to return to the white man's world and lives peacefully on his own for several years, befriending an orphaned bear cub along the way and renaming himself Bear's Brother.

Eventually, he is discovered and forced to attend school in town, where he is miserable. The teachers and officials at the school, some well-meaning and some not, try to "help" and "civilize" him. In the process, they make him ever more angry and miserable as they take away his connection with the old ways.

I loved the first and last parts of this book, but the middle, where Thomas becomes a brutal bronco rider known as Killer Tom, lost me. Readers who enjoy action may well like this part, but I was appalled at Thomas' brutality and had a hard time feeling sympathetic towards him.

In the end, Thomas is redeemed and manages to recapture his connection to his past. While the "happy" ending may be perceived as a bit too neat, I like to believe that this is how life is--that we all have the ability, however deeply it hides inside of us, to be true to ourselves.

Overall, I highly recommend this book.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Redwall by Brian Jacques

Book one in the Redwall series.

I picked this up on a whim the other day and was immediately drawn into the beautifully detailed world of Redwall and its animal inhabitants.

Redwall, the home of an order of peaceful mice, is threatened by Cluny, an evil rat who sets his sights upon Redwall Abbey. Young Matthias, an awkward young novitiate, is sent on a quest to recover the lost sword of Martin the Warrior (also a mouse). This sword is Redwall's only hope for defeating Cluny and his horde of mercenaries.

Through his quest for the sword, Matthias finds allies in unlikely places and forms bonds of friendship with a wide variety of creatures, each with a distinct personality, who help him to defeat Cluny.

Marvelous, highly detailed, and packed with action. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for readers of all ages!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Maus I and II by Art Spiegelman

If you read nothing else this month, check out Art Spiegelman's marvelous graphic novel / memoir. In Maus, published in two parts, he recounts his father's experiences as a Jewish survivor of the Nazi concentration camps during WWII.

Intertwined with the horror of the Holocaust is the story of the troubled relationship between father and son. Set against the backdrop of contemporary modern life, the events of the Holocaust seem even more terrifying.

A MUST READ for all!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Maus I by Art Spiegelman

Part one of two.

Art Spiegelman interviewed his father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor. Vladek's story is told in comic book format, with the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats.

The graphic novel approach brings a new perspective to this moving memoir. I especially liked the way that Vladek's Holocaust memories were interwoven with the present relationship between the father and son. Not only do we get a glimpse of the horrors of the Holocaust, but we also see the profound and long-lasting effects on the survivors and the generations that followed.

A MUST-READ (don't forget part two)!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

I have said before that I am not a huge fan of graphic novels, but this is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Three different stories, each featuring characters who are unhappy with who they are--Jin Wang, a lonely boy who wishes his classmates would accept him, Monkey King, a Chinese folk hero who sacrifices much in his quest to be accepted as a god, and Danny, an American teen who is tortured by the yearly visits of his stereotypically annoying Chinese cousin--intertwine in this clever and moving gem of a book. Readers of all cultural backgrounds will find common ground with Jin Wang and his struggles to fit in.

Highly recommended.