Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Rather Diverse Reading List

When it comes to books, one could conclude that I'm a bit of a playa. I get around. I read a bit of this and a bit of that, never staying too long in any one place.

My last book post was of a collection of travel memoirs I read all in a row. I was definitely going with a theme there, rare for me, but it was an intentional theme. I was doing research for writing my own travel memoir. I was fairly singular in my purpose at that time, but fear not; I am back to my regular scatter-brained self.

So without further ado, I present the books I have most recently read. I cannot recall in what order they were started, but this is the order in which they were finished.

The Freedom Writers Diary, by The Freedom Writers, with Erin Gruwell
I loved this book. I was really hoping I would. When I first saw advertisements for the movie in 2007, I was intrigued. Having been a public high school teacher in a gang-infested neighborhood, I am always a sucker for teacher movies involving disadvantaged kids. I've worked in a very well-to-do academic magnet school, too, with the brightest of the bright kids in the district, kids whose parents are highly involved in their education and among whom, 'settling' for a state university would be a terrible humiliation. That first group of kids, however, the ones for whom nothing comes easily, the ones for whom every victory has been hard-fought, the ones for whom a caring teacher is often the most stable figure in their lives, those kids grab my heart. I love those kids. Plus, as an English teacher, I was intrigued by the title. I couldn't wait to find out more about the movie.

What a thrill, then, to find that the movie was based on a true story, a story that took place at my own high school only a handful of years after I graduated! A meager ten year span separated my own high school graduation from that of The Freedom Writers. I rarely see movies in the theater--perhaps one every two years or even less--but I went to see this movie and I loved it.

Then, much to my surprise, a paperback version of The Freedom Writers Diary showed up in my local library's discarded book sale this past autumn. I suppose most rural Montanans don't get as excited about a story like this as I do. I happily bought the book and dug right in every chance I got.

Bottom line, I highly recommend it. It is rough, friends. The language is not always clean. The subject matter is often very disturbing. But it is gritty and real. It is the real lives of these kids, kids from whom nothing academic was ever expected, kids who might have, save for the influence of one naive, optimistic dreamer of a teacher, not even lived to the age of eighteen, let alone graduated from high school and gone on to college. Best yet, it is in their own words. Two thumbs, way up. Prepare to be inspired. Prepare to be frustrated, angered, even infuriated. Prepare to cry. Prepare to cheer.

Sacred Parenting, by Gary Thomas
I don't even remember how I came across this book. Did one of you loan it to me when I visited at your house? If so, speak up so I can return it. Perhaps I picked it up at a garage sale or in a free box somewhere. I just can't recall. However it came into my possession, I'm grateful. It is excellent. This is rare parenting book that doesn't focus on how to parent, but rather on what parenting does to us, how it grows and matures us, how it turns us--as adults--into more than we ever could have been without raising children.

Try this on for size, regarding the sense of inadequacy and guilt that parents so often feel, regardless of whether they are brand new at this parenting gig or are old hands:
...we shouldn't look at guilt as a parking lot but as a car wash. When guilt feelings keep us self-absorbed, destroy our motivation, and make us discouraged, guilt has become a parking lot--not a good thing. But when guilt reminds us that we are insufficient, and when this insufficiency points us to God--his forgiveness, his empowering Spirit, and his provision of grace--then guilt becomes a spiritual car wash. You don't camp out in a car wash; you just go there to get clean! You drive through the car wash and come out on the other end with an entirely new outlook. That's one of the healthy roles that guilt can play for parents: pointing us and our children to God.
This book is filled with little nuggets like that. Here are some chapter titles:

"Vicious Vulnerability: How Parenting Confronts Cowardice and Builds Courage"

"Burning Love: How Raising Children Teaches Us to Handle Anger"

"Leaving: How Parenting Teaches Us to Handle Control and Fear by Leading Us to Trust and Hope"

So many parenting books are geared very specifically to parents of very little ones or parents of turbulent teens, but this book would be relevant to any parent with kids at home of any age, in my opinion. I found Gary Thomas to be very insightful, with refreshing perspectives on a variety of topics.

Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens
I'm not sure how I've made it thus far in life without reading this book, but I have. When my husband took a risk and surprised me with a Kindle reader for Christmas, I knew the first books I would download onto it would be old classics, as they are in the public domain and available for free. Dickens came up in my search and I was reminded of this gaping hole in my literary experience, so I loaded it onto the Kindle for the machine's first test drive. Before I'd finished the first chapter, I had lost any previously held prejudices against digital reading devices. A book is a book is a book. The irony of reading a book published in 1838 as my first experience with a touch screen digital device was not lost on me, though.

I should have read this book ages ago. I loved it. Dickens' typical dry wit does not disappoint from beginning to end and his mastery of irony is, as usual, brilliant. The characters are complex and intriguing for the most part--except that the women tend to be a little simplistic and the relationship between the Bumbles served only as an unnecessary distraction, in my opinion. The plot takes several intriguing twists and turns, but certain mysteries and previously unknown details come together all too easily in the final chapters and the typical terrible fevers and fainting spells are a little overdone. These things are all characteristic of the era in which the book was written, though, so they are easily forgiven in my opinion. The racist attitude toward Jews is truly disturbing by modern standards, and is very telling of the times to be included in a novel attempting to show compassion for the outcast and the downtrodden.

I expected the book to be a social commentary on Victorian England and a philosophical treatise on the controversy of nature vs. nurture. Oliver Twist was all those things, but it was more, too. The startling last sentence confirmed the suspicion I had throughout the reading that the book was very focused on God's mercy being made available to all, regardless of their station in life either by birth or bootstraps. To me, the book was less about the conditions one was born into and more about how one responds to God's mercy and provision. I highlighted a few favorite passages as I read--something I would have never done with a traditional book because I wouldn't have wanted to mar the pages in any way--so I will share two of them here:
Men who look on nature, and their fellow-men, and cry that all is dark and gloomy, are in the right; but the sombre colours are reflections from their own jaundiced eyes and hearts. The real hues are delicate, and need a clearer vision.

The sun--the bright sun, that brings back, not light alone, but new life, and hope, and freshness to man--burst upon the crowded city in clear and radiant glory. Through costly-coloured glass and paper-mended window, through cathedral dome and rotten crevice, it shed its equal ray.

Although some will say that Oliver Twist is a simplistic introduction to Dickens' other works, I found it to be deep and insightful, and have pondered it at length since finishing it several days ago. I would encourage anyone else who, like me, has missed it over the years, to give it a spin and see what they think. The time spent is not wasted and the witty wordsmithing had me laughing quite literally out loud on numerous occasions.

Oh, and reading this book, I have finally figured out where my own peculiar style of punctuation has come from. Somewhere, somehow, in some strange way, I seem to have learned to throw around commas, parentheses and dashes from none other than Mr. Charles Dickens himself. I felt right at home with Mr. Dickens' writing and consider myself in good company--no longer baffled at my less-than-fashionable, overly-punctuated ways.

South, by Sir Ernest Shackleton
The final book I will mention in this lengthy post is the one I am still finishing, but I have gone far enough in this autobiographical account to have formed strong opinions already, strong enough to risk a premature review.

Wow. What an amazing account. I fear that I am forever spoiled for any fictional adventure story, as it will pale in comparison to the real-life endeavor of Shackleton and his crew of steel. I have on far too many occasions stopped my family in whatever of their own activities they are busy pursuing, and forced them to listen to passages from this book instead. Finally my Ellie, age 11, concluded, "I think if this same adventure happened to modern day people, they would have all just died." She is so correct. The misfortunes that these men went through, the courage which they were forced to exercise, the barest thread of survival that they had to cling to again and again are more than any of our 'reality' TV starts have ever dreamed of. And yes, Bear Grylls, I'm talking about you. I've seen you have to reach for the hand of a cameraman. Shackleton's crew didn't have such luxuries. This is an incredible tale and never in the history of seafaring has a ship been more aptly named than The Endurance.

Sir Ernest Shackleton is the consummate Englishman, completely in control of his mental faculties and emotions, even when completely out of control of his circumstances. As a sea captain, he feels responsible to communicate the latitude, sea depth and barometric readings, as well as geographical details and lists of rations and the like, far more often than would concern a landlubber like myself, but his unintentional mastery of understatement reads to a modern observer like me as wit. In the midst of the most stressful and suspenseful true account I have ever read, I have laughed again and again at such simple statements as, "The cold temperatures caused us discomfort," or "We were tired." If there were a prize for the opposite of melodramatics, certainly Sir Ernest would win it, even now, posthumously.

I have heard from others that there are simpler and shorter accounts of this expedition. I'm sure they would be worth checking out, but I am a sucker for an autobiography, so I decided to trudge through this one, knowing full well that it was written by a man who never set out to be a professional or even amateur writer, and relied on his own journals and memories, rather than employing a ghost writer. He is a sea captain and an adventurer, and his writing reflects his training and experience. But if he can patiently carry on in the horrific conditions he and his crew faced, I can certainly show just the little bit of endurance that is required to follow along with his story. For the patient, I would recommend Shackleton's own account. For the less patient or the young, I would recommend an easier version of this tale--one that skips most of the depth soundings and sticks to the overall plot.

I will recommend, also, that you do not plan a day out on a frozen lake with family and friends, playing and picnicking with dozens of people only a few mostly solid inches from an icy body of water, when you are in the midst of reading this book. It adds a bit of stress and distraction to the planned day of fun, for certain.

So, there you go. That's what I've been reading lately. How about you?

1 comment:

Sharla said...

I loved the Freedom Writers Diary too. I don't know how I've never heard of "South"...sounds so interesting!