Category Archives: Books

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Banned Book Review)

I was required to take a contemporary literature course while in graduate school. I dreaded the class. I was a medievalist who dabbled in the Romantic period but contemporary literature was way outside of my comfort zone. That class proved to do what it was intended to – expand my literary horizons. And it was in that class that I read “Reservation Blues” by Sherman Alexie. A gut-wrenching,  brutally realistic tale of living on an Indian reservation. That book clung to me like a sweaty t-shirt. It made me uncomfortable and introspective and I was left emotionally rattled. To this day it sits on my book shelf taunting me to forget about it.

So when I started reading about books getting banned at local schools and that “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie had made the list, I was curious. I knew this man to be an amazing, thought-provoking story writer and so I was eager to see what his stab at youth fiction produced.

The book starts simply,  written in first-person from the perspective of a 14 year old boy.   By page 10 — yes, 10 pages in — we are hearing this young boy talk about poverty. But not poverty as some abstract idea, but the ugly, honest, difficult reality of poverty.  And no, it isn’t about going to bed hungry, it is about having to shoot your own dog because you can’t afford the vet bills. It is about living with the consequences of generations of poverty.

“Dad just looked down at me with the saddest look in his eyes. He was crying. He looked weak. I wanted to hate him for his weakness. I wanted to hate Dad and Mom for our poverty. I wanted to blame them for my sick dog and for all the other sickness in the world. But I can’t blame my parents for our poverty because mother and father are the twin suns around which I orbit and my world would EXPLODE without them. 

And it’s  not like my mother and father were born with wealth. It’s not like they gambled away their family fortune. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the first poor people”

And this is how the book starts and you know right away that this book is going to change you. Arnold, our 14 year old guide to life on the reservation, is a typical 14 year old.  He plays basketball, develops crushes on girls, is interested in the female anatomy, he cusses, and burps.  But he’s also smart, and is desperate to escape the poverty that threatens to consume him.

I cried for Arnold at the end. Not loud shaking sobs, but quiet tears that streamed down my face out of helplessness. The knowledge that there are thousands of kids like Arnold and perhaps we all choose to be blind to them.

As an English teacher would I use this in my classroom (now aware of the curse words, references to masturbation, and girls boobs)? A resounding YES. I absolutely would use this as a teaching tool in a classroom. Oh sure the kids could read “Oliver” if we wanted to teach them about poverty – but that tells a story about a reality that happened over a hundred years ago in a country that isn’t even our own, which would keep the idea of poverty removed and abstract.  No, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” brings poverty home. It strips us of all abilities to deny poverty’s existence and for that reason alone I would have every 14-16 year old I know read this book.

“Go Set A Watchman” – A Review

When my copy of “Go Set A Watchman” by Harper Lee arrived I placed it on my nightstand untouched — for weeks.  I circled it like a matador sizing up a bull. Did I want to read it? Was it best left a mystery? What if I read it and hated it? What if it forever changed my feelings about “To Kill A Mockingbird”?  And so the book sat. Eventually I concluded I could not consider myself a person of literature if I never read it and so like one of those Russian polar bear swimmers I plunged.

I wish I could say the reading went swiftly but it didn’t. I wanted to make sure I gave this book it’s best opportunity to shine so I read slowly, meticulously, and thoughtfully.  The chapters crept by and I took the time to reflect on the story, the language and the purpose of the author.

This is really two books that have been clumsily merged into one. The first half of the book is filled with Jean Louise’s memories of her childhood as she wanders through her hometown of Maycomb. We hear of familiar characters – Jem, Dill, Atticus and we meet some new ones – Aunt Alexandra, Dr. Finch and Henry. However, the first half of the book feels like a continuation of “To Kill A Mockingbird”. We see glimmers of Harper Lee’s unique style and the Southern tone that infects all of her writing.  This passage where she describes Atticus sang out as the Harper Lee voice we all know:

“Atticus Finch’s secret of living was so simple it was deeply complex: where most men had codes and tried to live up to them, Atticus lived his to the letter with no fuss, no fanfare, and no soul-searching. His private character was his public character. His code was simple New Testament ethic, its rewards were the respect and devotion of all who knew him. Even his enemies loved him, because Atticus never acknowledged that they were his enemies. He was never a rich man, but he was the richest man his children knew.”

Somewhere around chapter 7 the book shifts and we discover what Lee really wanted to tell us. And this second story, well, it has left me itchy.  During this time in our American history, when we struggle to make sense of race relations, or to discuss difficult topics respectfully,  this book seems particularly relevant and important.

Lee shows us a Jean Louise struggling to be comfortable in her own beliefs and the beliefs of others.  She comes back to Maycomb only to discover that she’s changed, or Maycomb has changed. In the end she realizes neither has changed but they are just seeing each other truthfully for the first time. And that stripped down nakedness is uncomfortable, enlightening and a bit disappointing.

One of the more poignant sections of the book comes when Jean Louise is challenged to define the word bigot and realizes that perhaps even in her enlightened state she too is a bigot – a person incapable of even entertaining or considering an opposing opinion or belief.

“Jean Louise rose and went to the bookshelves. She pulled down a dictionary and leafed through it. ‘Bigot’, she read. ‘Noun. One obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion.’ Explain yourself, sir.’

“I was tryin’ to answer your running question. Let me elaborate a little on the definition. What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenge his opinions?” He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out…”

As the reader I sat there stunned by the accusations being laid at my feet. My Facebook feed is filled with opinions so strong, so staunch so contrary to each other that we are all bigots. Every single one of us and Lee forces us to face that in ourselves.  This country is young – like Jean Louise – and before we reach adulthood we must face the bigotry inside of all of us and only then can we mature.

In the end, I’m glad I read the book. Harper Lee has once again provided us with an avenue to talk about race relations. She has shown us the power of humility and the importance of respect.  And it feels like we needed to hear this more today than ever before.


Bedtime & Books

Frankly, I don’t enjoy the reading of “Goodnight Moon” or “Who Loves Baby” or any of that toddler junk that kids like to hear when they are under five years old.  I know that most people stop reading to their kids when the kids can read to themselves, but in my opinion that is when the books finally get interesting.  As a result, the kids and I read together every night. I have two rules.  First, I get to pick the book and it can’t be a book the kids could read on their own. My second rule is that they can’t interrupt the reading with questions that are unrelated to the story.  It has taken awhile for these rules to settle in but we have a pretty good rhythm now and I’ve used this opportunity to read children’s books that I never had a chance to read as a kid.

OH MY GOODNESS!! Okay, I now understand why children’s literature is an actual major.  These people are messed up – these “children’s” stories are written by deranged individuals.  Have you read anything written by Roald Dahl?  Drugs. It is the only explanation.

The best part is having the kids recognize the differences between the movies and the book.  For example, did you know the “Wizard of Oz” movie is hardly anything like the book and the book has a horrible ending.  Seriously, Lucy and I complained for days about the terrible ending. “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” – the movie not even remotely anything close to the book except there are penguins and a guy named Mr. Popper.  This is quite possibly the best book club I’ve ever been a part.  The kids and I look forward to our time with a good book and I love hearing them plead “one more chapter”.  Well, Lucy pleads, Max usually falls asleep after the first chapter is read. I thought I would share a list of our favorites:

1.) The Wizard of Oz

2.) Mr. Popper’s Penguins

3.) Charlie & The Chocolate Factory

4.) The Twits

5.) The Secret Garden

6.) The Fantastic Mr. Fox

7.) The Littles (several volumes)

8.) Peter Pan

9.) Winnie The Pooh

10.) Alice In Wonderland

11.) Charlotte’s Web

12.) The Wind In The Willows

We stopped reading “Ella Enchanted” because it was God awful slow and neither Lucy nor I could ever get into “Little House on the Prairie”.  We are definitely open to recommendations so please leave suggestions for books that you and your kids have enjoyed reading together.  The next couple on our list include:

1.) Tom Sawyer

2.) Through The Looking Glass

3.) Mary Poppins

4.) Jungle Book

5.) Swiss Family Robinson


Summer Reading? No, Summer Lovin’

As part of my strategy to regain some peace in my life I have made a conscious decision to spend less time online (shocking, I know) and more time reading (even more scandalous).  Realizing that I’m also teaching over the summer I’ve kept my summer reading goals modest this year.  I haven’t purchased stacks and stacks of books but instead picked only a couple that I felt I could get through pretty quick.  I wanted to LOVE  what I was reading and not feel like I was back in school with a self-imposed assignment.  So, here is what I’ve got on my nightstand:

“The Bottoms” by Joe Lansdale

This was a recommendation from a fellow professor and I have to say I LOVED this book.  It was a complete page turner and I blew through it in three days.  Set in East Texas during the 1930’s it tells the story of a young boy who stumbles across the murdered body of a black woman.  The family and city turmoil that ensues is reminiscent of “To Kill A Mockingbird”.   Lansdale does a great job of capturing the feel of East Texas and the naked atrocities of racism during the 30’s.  I will be using this book in my class this summer and I cannot wait to lead class discussion – so many rich themes, so many great characters.  I highly recommend it.

“Eat, Pray, Love” by Michelle Gilbert

Okay, I admit I’m late on this one.  I know this book has been around for years and is now being made into a motion picture starring Julia Roberts.  However, I think books come to you when you need them most and right now I needed a book that reminded me of the importance of doing things that I love and relying on faith.  I’ve just started reading it and so far it has struck a real chord with me.  I’m eager to devour it.

“It Starts At Home” by Kurt Brooner and Steve Stroope

Finally, not a novel but a book to make me a better parent and wife.  David and I made the decision to pull Lucy out of private school and put her into public.  We have a great public school here in Texas and I can’t really say I’m necessarily concerned about the quality of her education.  However, I don’t want her to lose the faith-based foundation she was building in private school.  As a result, I picked this book up to help give us some ideas and direction on how to incorporate our faith into our daily lives.

“Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller

This was a recommendation from David’s cousin Emily (thanks Em!).  This was also a rather fast read.  I read the entire book in about a week.  Written in a free-flowing journal style Miller recounts his personal journey of faith touching on both his doubts and his sources for inspiration.  It is a rather different look at Christian faith since Miller is both a proud Democrat and liberal and summarily rejects the traditional “Christian Conservative” movement.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

This is my heavy hitter for the summer. I’ve tried reading this before and failed miserably.  However, my sister-in-law has also taken up the mantle and so I’m feeling empowered to get through it with a reading partner by my side.  I’ll let you know if we succeed.

I have a second stack of books if I somehow complete all these and still have time. That second stack includes “A Good Earth”, and another Lansdale novel.

I’m open to suggestions though and if you have something sitting on your nightstand that you think I would enjoy please leave me a note. (Please do not recommend ANY book in the Twilight series. Unless you are interested in hearing my well rehearsed lecture regarding the quality of Stephanie Meyer’s writing)

A Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife

time-travelerI’ve had several people ask me recently what I thought about “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger.  The easy answer is that I liked it.  I devoured the love story and characters as if it were a rich mousse waiting on me to slowly savor each bite.  Niffenegger does a fabulous job of developing these wonderful people with whom you can easily identify and who’s lives you want to know more about.

However, the quality that impressed me the most was the organization and structure of this story.  Yes, I’m an English teacher and at times I cannot separate the reader from the teacher and this story was a tour de force in structure.  It is mind-boggling how much forethought and planning must have gone into this story before she wrote a single word.  The time traveling and often times, overlap between the two characters could have been clumsy, confusing and awkward for the reader.  Instead,  Niffenegger seamlessly takes her reader back and forth from present to past to future without ever losing the fluidity of the story.  I applaud the monumental effort that must have been put forth to make this story work on a purely organizational level.

My only disappointment was in the ending, which felt weak and almost like an after thought.  Was she intentionally leaving loose threads so a sequel could be written? Oh, I hope not.  The book seemed to end suddenly with so many unanswered questions that I felt betrayed at the end.  I also at times felt the main characters struck me as a bit cliche.  She’s an artist, he’s a librarian, they live a bohemian lifestyle in Chicago that seems perfect for Hollywood to take and turn into a movie.  For my more conservative readers, this book has some very vivid sex scenes.  The multiple sexual encounters of the two main characters are described ad nauseum at times and in detail that I felt was unnecessary.  Call me a prude.

Overall though I felt it was a fabulous book, that was well written and crafted. I most definitely will be seeing the film in the fall and would recommend this book as a great summer time fling.

Long Live The Book

In 1996 a large technology firm recruited me to work in online media. It was a new and exciting field and everyday people were making predictions about what role the Internet would play in our future lives. One of those predictions was that the dawn of the Internet signaled the death of the book. I remember thinking that it was a ridiculous prediction. With a graduate degree in literature and a book addiction that would rival any heroin junkie I knew this would never happen. “Non-book” people thought I was foolish, and ignorant. But it was they who were ignorant. It is they who know nothing about the love and passion that a book addict has towards their precious tomes of knowledge.

The most obvious reason why technology will never replace the book has to do with WHERE we read – in bed. Many people read in bed or on a couch and a laptop just isn’t as comfortable as a paperback. Indeed, when I was a sophomore in college my Shakespeare professor insisted that we buy all of Shakespeare’s plays in paperback instead of an anthology because he recognized this very factor. You can hold a paperback with one hand, lying down, doing yoga, breastfeeding, cooking dinner, changing diapers, etc.

Some people might suggest that Amazon’s Kindle is a replacement for the book because it is small, and can be taken to bed or read on a couch. However, you can’t write on a Kindle. Like so many bibliophiles, I write in my books. Nothing pleases me more than revisiting an old book and finding my notes, thoughts or reflections scrawled out in the margins, or even better the thoughts and ideas of somebody else.

True bibliophiles are not just interested in the stories and adventures discovered between the pages. Oh no, a true bibliophile yearns for the smell of the bookstore. They languish in the soft tranquility of the library. It is the soft touch of the pages and the visual beauty of the words. It is the smell, the feel, and the very act of holding the book that is part of the attraction. As I am typing this, books surround me. On my right is a stack of western literature textbooks and on my left paperbacks that I plan to read over the summer. My books are my adult security blanket. They provide me with the comfort of knowledge, wisdom and the answers to any question I might ever have.

I’m sure there will always be a market for e-books and for technology like the Kindle, but for me, well I’ll stick with my paperback.