Sunday, August 30, 2009

Deadline by Chris Crutcher

I must confess that it is hard for me to be unbiased in discussing a Chris Crutcher book because he is just the most incredible writer for young adults (and adults, too). He speaks to teens as if he were one. On a visit to our school in 2005 he spoke extemporaneously to the students who laughed, cried, and were completely enthralled. He is a writer who has the power to change lives and I know that he has done that. Deadline is an extraordinary book to say the least. It has all the hallmarks of a Crutcher novel: frank language, intense life and death situations, exciting sports scenes, dysfunctional families, moral dilemmas, secrets, and a message of hope.

Ben Wolf has his routine sports physical before starting his senior year. But this physical was anything but routine when the doctor asked that Ben and his parents come in for a consultation. Ben arrives by himself and after pressuring the doctor to speak to him alone learns that he has a terminal blood disease. The doctor discusses treatment options, but Ben refuses to be a part of that or to tell his parents. He is, after all, eighteen years old and an adult in the eyes of the medical world. Ben decides that he will live the next year as normally as possible. I can't imagine harboring this secret as an adult, let alone a teenager. Ben will make the most of his year. He tries out for the football team despite being a very short and small person and with his brother, Cody, ends up a true her. To wait for his spring season sport of cross country would be just pushing his luck too far. He is determined not to die without making love and set his eye on Dallas Suzuki who has a secret as startling as Ben's.

There ancillary story lines, which piece together contribute to Ben's self -discovery and introspection. Father figures abound. There is Rudy, fan of Malcom X, battling demons of drugs and alcohol and a sordid past who is Ben's sounding board. Coach Banks understands Ben's home life and shows up with all the fixings for Christmas dinner. Ben's father is on the road but tries his best to be there for his son. And then there is Mr. Lambeer, Ben's government teacher who goes through the motions of teaching and is content to only teach what is in the biased textbooks. Ben's choice of Senior project puts Lambeer on the defensive and he obstinately fights Ben to the end as he tries to complete the research and implementation of the project. Armed with a copy of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Bill Bryson's
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Ben is determined to get the most out of his classes and he will not let Lambeer or any other teacher stand in his way. Guiding Ben along his fateful journey is his spiritual mentor and heart, Jesus, really pronounced Hay-soos. ( I couldn't help think of Crutcher's story of when his brother broke his prized "Jesus Saves" statue and he ended up with "esus Saves.")

Chris Crutcher's wit shines through Deadline. There are some scenes that are down right hysterical, not what you would expect from a book in which the underlying theme is death. I dare any reader not to be fully engaged with the characters and story of this book. It is emotional, touching, and dramatic. Thank you Chris Crutcher for another fantastic book!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy

Reading a Maeve Binchy book is like sitting down with a cup of tea and some old friends in a quaint little sidewalk cafe. It is watching the world go by and knowing that everyone you see has a story. Heart and Soul is quintessential Binchy. The novel opens as Clara Casey takes the job as director of St. Brigid's new heart clinic. As she staffs the clinic we get to meet all the main characters of the book, many of whom have appeared in Binchy's previous books. There is Fiona, a nurse whom we met in Nights of Rain and Stars, Brenda from Quentins and the Feathers from Scarlet Feather. Dr. Declan Carroll signs on as the cardiologist for the clinic and Ania, a Polish immigrant trying to start anew after her life is turned upside down, is hired to provide support where needed. We also get glimpses into the lives of Clara's daughters, Linda and Adi.

The lives of all these characters intersect and merge as Binchy weaves her tale of life in Dublin. It is a story of love, hurt, joys and of course, sorrow and tragedy. We witness self-proclaimed aristocrats treat Ania as nothing more than a servant as she and their son Carl grow closer together. Our hearts ache for Father Bryan Flynn as he tries to defend his reputation from hurtful accusations. Through her writing Binchy makes us care about these people. They are her friends and we come to think of them as ours.

The read is a fast one, but one that is also to be savored. Upon completion, you are filled with a sense of literary satisfaction much as that cup of tea satisfies that need for comfort in a hectic world.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Columbine by Dave Cullen

On 20 April 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold carried out a plan of murder and suicide as they terrorized the students of Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado. The story of the two disturbed young men and their 13 victims occupied headlines and was told and retold in newspapers and periodicals for the better part of the year following the shootings. Even today saying "Columbine" has become a reference to a school shooting rather than the name of the high school. It is an indelible mark that the two young men made on the minds, hearts and souls not just of the citizens of Colorado, but of all the United States.

Dave Cullen in
Columbine revisits the tragedy in a very erudite but accessible narrative. He has culled the reports of psychologists, FBI agents, Jeffco officials and interviews with students, parents and teachers. He reveals some of the myths and cover-ups that surrounded the reporting of this event and ensuing investigations as reported in main stream media. Cullen has relied extensively on the reports and investigations of FBI Supervisory Special Agent, Dwayne Fuselier and quotes him through the process of the investigation through the ensuing lawsuits. Cullen has an extensive section of notes at the end of the book that enlighten the reader as to where he had access to pieces of information. That section, the timeline of events, beginning in January 1997, the index, and acknowledgements give substantial credibility to this book.

In an interesting style, Cullen interweaves events before the tragedy with the actual events of April 20th and the months and years after that horrendous day. He takes a theme or an emotion and fully describes it in relation to the different time periods. In this way he allows the reader to understand more fully the cause, event, and effect.

With every incident of school shooting in the United State, the public has grappled with what motivates a shooter. Certainly, there must be a profile. Cullen concludes with studies from the FBI and Secret Service (p. 322) that there is NO profile. The only common trait to the time of the study was that the shooters were 100 % male. They were not loners, nor did they "snap."

In April, at the school from which I retired, we embraced the ideals of Rachel's Challenge, named for the first victim of the Columbine shootings. As a school community we committed ourselves to work together to keep such a tragedy from occurring here. It is imperative that we listen to each other and not be afraid to voice concern when students may be troubled. Dylan and Eric were masterful at saying and doing the "right thing" when in counseling or dealing with their parents and friends. Teachers, counselors, and friends need to be vigilant to be able to read through this fa├žade.

This is a powerful book and recommended to adults and students alike. May we never have to bear witness to another such tragedy.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Just Take My Heart by Mary Higgins Clark

Definitely needed something on the lighter side after Wintergirls. Mary Higgins Clark's Just Take My Heart filled the bill. Clark is one of the most prolific mystery writers, publishing a new novel each April. This is classic MHC with the parade of characters that enter and exit through the novel. In Just Take My Heart there are really two story lines, one involving the murder of Natalie Raines and the subsequent trial with prosecutor Emily Wilson and the second, the psychotic stalking of Emily by her next door neighbor, Zach, whom we learn is a serial killer.

Natalie has been dead a little over 2 years when evidence surfaces that Gregg
Alldrich, her estranged husband and always a person of interest in the case, is actually the murderer. The evidence is purely circumstantial, but deemed credible. Emily is assigned to try the case by DA Ted Wesley who is in line to become a high-ranking official in the Federal government. As she prepares her case and throughout the trial, the reader learns more about the private life of her. She has been left a widow when her husband Mark was killed in the Iraq War and she has had a heart transplant. As she prosecutes the case we see that the most and only compelling evidence comes from a career criminal/burglar, Jimmy Easton, who testifies that Gregg hired him to kill Natalie.

At the same time Zach has been finding ways to get into Emily's house. He has set up a microphone to hear her in the kitchen and has offered to watch out for Bess, Emily's dog, while she is preoccupied with the trial. We know what he is planning and can only hope that she figures it out quickly.

The novel is enhanced by two television shows
Courtside TV and Fugitive Hunt. They both have a role in the climax and conclusion to the novel. As I was reading this book and knew very early on how it was going to end, I became frustrated with "too easy to solve" mysteries. I have always enjoyed MHC books, but it seems that they have become more easily solved lately. I don't know if this is because I am so familiar with her writing or she has become a bit more formulaic. I have concluded that maybe I should not look at the books from the viewpoint of trying to solve the mystery, but instead trying to figure out how the protagonist will solve it. That adds a bit more to the reading of the book. I enjoy her stories and will continue to read them, but definitely with a different perspective now. Just Take My Heart is a good read when you want a light summer book.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson is without equal when she writes about teenagers and the angst that so often overtakes their lives. Speak and Twisted are two of her previous books that leave the reader emotionally drained. Wintergirls is a remarkable addition to this genre. As a professional educator who has worked with teenagers for the last 35 year of my life and as a mother, this book is frightening and leaves you with a knot in your stomach as if you had been punched. Anderson is in the minds of her protagonists and she opens those minds to her readers.

Wintergirls opens as Lia has been informed about Cassandra (Cassie) Parrish's death alone in a motel room. The two girls were best friend from grade school to just a few months before the onset of the novel. They are "wintergirls", stuck between two worlds- life and death. Lia declares that she and Cassie were no longer best friends and then is haunted by the fact that on the night of her death Cassie tried calling her 33 times. What ensues is the struggle that Lia faces every minute of every day, every time she tries to eat. Her mind can only see the calories that each morsel contains. The reader sees her falling so fast into a chasm from which she will be hard to rescue. She has had two in-patient treatment hospitalizations for her disease. She learned not how to cope and overcome her disease, but only how to play the game to appease those who are trying to help her. (She has sewn quarters into the pocket of her robe so that it will appear she has not lost weight for her Tuesday weigh-ins that her stepmother does according to her discharge instructions.) But, she is determined to win the challenge even if it threatens her life also. There are always five more pounds to lose and another person to deceive, including herself. Her coping mechanism of cutting adds to her desperate state and the pain we feel for her.

The relationships in the book are complex. Lia lives with her father, divorced from her mother who is a very successful
surgeon, her stepmother, and her stepsister, Emma. Each impacts her life in positive and negative ways, but it is Emma who is always on Lia's mind. Elijah, the young man who finds Cassie and who works at the motel where she died, provides an outlet for Lia. With him she can be herself, but that platonic relationship just is too good to be true. We as readers keep hoping that someone will be able to relate to Lia and finally help her.

Halse Anderson allows readers into the mind of Lia with the way the type is set in the book. We are privy to Lia's real thought as they appear with a line scratched through them. And we are reminded constantly of the 33 times Cassie tried to call Lia. Then there is the incredible chapter 04:00 the consists entirely of Must.Not.Eat. repeated over and over, but the last words on each line are always Must.Eat.

This is a disturbing book, but it is a book that cannot and should not be put down. There has been a concern that for those who are battling disordered eating diseases, the book may be a trigger and should be withheld - censored - from them. But it is one of the few books that can really speak to someone who suffers from anorexia or bulimia. If it can help one person realize that help is available and there are people who truly care about them, then the risk is worth it. And even when you do finish the last page, close the cover, and put the book back on the shelf, I guarantee that it will never leave your heart.