Friday, December 12, 2014

American Heroines: The Spirited Women Who Shaped Our Country

Hutchison, Kay Bailey. American Heroines: The Spirited Women Who Shaped Our Country. New York: Harper, 2004. Print.
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My Thoughts
This book is a collection of mini biographies. Kay Bailey Hutchison writes in the Forward, "The indomitable spirit of American women is the focus of this book" (xix). I like biographies, so I enjoyed reading about the forty-six women included in this book. Some I knew, many I didn't. Hutchison writes in the Afterword that by the time she entered sixth grade, "I had already read every biography in the entire [elementary school] library" (353). I can't claim the same, but I have read many interesting biographies over the years.

Each chapter highlights a couple of ladies who pioneered in a specific area, and then there is a modern day connection to women in the same area. "Through their stories I hope to show the contributions women have made to America, and some of the experiences and traits these incredible women possess, as well as what drove them to struggle through prejudice to do important work that helped move our country to become the most powerful on earth" (Hutchison xx).

The chapter titles are
  • Pioneers and Preservationists
  • Women of Faith
  • Education for Everyone
  • Saving Lives
  • The Voice of Her People
  • A Woman's Art
  • Conquering the Skies
  • Public Lives, Public Service
  • Renaissance Women
  • Women Look at the World
  • Setting Records, Making History
Hutchison interjects her own research process, personal experiences and thoughts into the writing. This allows the reader to learn about both the subject and the writer.

The modern section contains a "Q & A" format asking each person the same questions. I thought it was interesting that almost all of them had the same advice for negotiating.

In the Afterword, Hutchison writes, "My hope in writing this book is to increase the awareness of the impact women have had--and are having--on our country" (355). I am more aware.

Some things I marked in the book:
When writing about Margaret Chase Smith, Smith compares government to housekeeping: "'Women administer the home. They set the rules, enforce them, mete out justice for violations. Thus, like Congress, they legislate; like the Executive, they administer; like the courts, they interpret the rules. It is an ideal experience for politics'" (qtd. in Hutchison 222).

When writing about Margaret Bourke-White, White encounters nurse Wilma Barnes who always learns the patients' names if they are from Texas. "'It makes the boys pep up to know that somebody from their home state is taking care of them'" (qtd. in Hutchison 285). That made me smile. There is a kinship between Texans.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

I Lock My Door Upon Myself

Oates, Joyce Carol. I Lock My Door Upon Myself. New York: Plume, 1990. Print.
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My Thoughts
This book is only 98 pages and divided into three parts. Within these few pages are many elements of a good story. The book starts off with the narrator telling the reader that she didn't really know her grandmother. Then the story flashes back to tell the grandmother's story. The grandmother was born in 1890. Edith Margaret Honeystone (known as "Calla") lived an interesting, unconventional life. Calla was married, but it was a marriage of convenience, not love. She finds a (black) man she loves and does not let societal conventions hold her back from the love. She doesn't care what other people think. "I do what I do, what I do is what I wanted to have done" (Oates 37). She follows her forbidden love during a time the color of the man's skin was more upsetting than the affair itself.

What happens to this couple is shocking. Yet, the reader then understands why the narrator didn't know her grandmother. Her grandmother became reclusive, but I think there is a depth of why the grandmother locked "the door upon [her]self" and just existed. It fit her character (at least as the narrator described her).

What happens to this couple is also comical, at least as the rumors tell what happened. Chapter 29 begins the stories/lies of the "sightings" of the couple and what happened to them. The actual story of what happened doesn't surface until Part III of the book.

The title reference is on page 83.

Another story I thought about while reading Part III is "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. There are similarities with the women in the stories. There is also a direct description of Calla's wallpaper. Both stories bring up feminist issues and victims' rights.

I Lock My Door Upon Myself was a quick read and a good introduction to Joyce Carol Oates. I will make time to read more by this author.

Monday, November 17, 2014


Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.
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My Thoughts
For several years, this book has been recommended at my book club. It was finally chosen for this month's discussion. I was happy to have the deadline that made me actually pick up the book and read it. WOW! What a story!

Hillenbrand researched, interviewed and composed a great story. The book is not just a biography of  Louis Zamperini. It is a story of man's ability to endure. The writing is so descriptive that I often felt like I was experiencing Louis' trials. Hillenbrand also puts in footnotes to add value to the story.

The bulk of the story is Louis' time in a Japanese POW camp. I realized that most of my knowledge of WWII concerns Europe and the Jewish Holocaust. I did not know that such horrible treatment of people also existed in Japan. "Historians estimate that the Japanese military murdered between 200,000 and 430,000 Chinese, including the 90,000 POWs, in what became known as the Rape of Nanking" (Hillenbrand 88). After reading the treatment of Louis at Omori, I wanted to kill The Bird myself. He was a horrible man.

Louis' mother never doubts that her son is alive. "A fierce conviction came over Louise. She was absolutely certain that her son was alive" (Hillenbrand 139). This is after he's been missing for quite a long time. She never wavered. 

The book is divided into five parts. Part Five was the most compact section. Without giving away the story, I will say this part of the book was also the most rushed for me as the reader. She does include an epilogue as well.

One complaint I do have about the book is the switching back and forth between names. Sometimes I had to stop and remember who she was writing about because she flipped between using the first and last name.

I flagged many things in the story, but I think to appreciate the story, one must read it and let the experiences, suspense and shock come as the story unfolds. I hope the upcoming movie does the story justice.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Impossible Knife of Memory

Anderson, Laurie Halse. The Impossible Knife of Memory. New York: Viking, 2014. Print.
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My Thoughts
"Because you can only be brave if you're scared" (Anderson 390).
Hayley Rose Kincain has led an unconventional life. Her dad Andy is a war veteran who suffers from PTSD, depression, mood swings, and alcoholism. Hayley's mom is dead [The reader will find out what happened, at least according to Hayley's memory, at page 247.]. For much of her younger life, she bounced from place to place with dad until he decides they need to settle down in the town he grew up in and Hayley will go to school there. She hates it. She hates the "zombies" that surround her. She hates the superficial teenagers. She hates that her guidance counselor won't leave her alone. Then she meets Finn Ramos. Finn is not a "zombie" and they develop a great friendship that leads to a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship.

Hayley tries to hide and protect her dad, especially on "bad days" when he goes into a dark place mentally. However, life is funny, and ultimately, in protecting her dad, she is the one needing protecting. I worried that Hayley might be experiencing her own PTSD.

I liked some of the lessons Anderson writes through Hayley. When Hayley must walk home, she fakes listening to music. "I needed to hear the world but didn't want the world to know I was listening" (Anderson 5). When Hayley's guidance counselor is prying, Hayley says, "The trick to surviving an interrogation is patience. Don't offer up anything. Don't explain. Answer the question and only the question that is asked so you don't accidentally put your head in a noose" (Anderson 21). After Hayley and Finn meet, she realizes that she doesn't know "The Rules" of dating (Anderson 146). I laughed when she was looking up college entrance essay prompts. "How could filling in a bunch of blanks and writing a fluffy essay about the 'moment of significance' in my life let them know if I was good enough to go here?" (Anderson 209).

I always am tickled when I see connections between the words on the page and my life. In this book's case, one very important episode occurs at Halloween. I'm read this book during the month of October. Creepy timing.

I was surprised that Dad's friend Michael didn't turn out as bad as I predicted.

I also wondered about the reliability of the narrator (I'm always an English teacher :) ), especially when Hayley seemed to start "cracking" after dad's ex-girlfriend Trish reappears. "I couldn't stop the pictures in my head, explosions like a flash-bang grenade was going off behind my eyes: carnage in the street, bodies on the floor of a pizza shop, a movie theatre, the county fair...if someone, somewhere was pushing the button that would detonate an explosion. Lining me up in his sights and pulling the trigger" (Anderson 323). This sounds more like what her dad would experience.
I liked the believable resolution of the story. I liked thinking about how our brains do work and how one episode can have many memories.

I'm super excited that I got to meet (and get my picture with) Laurie Halse Anderson at  TLA. She even signed this book, which I will be keeping to reread.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Nanny Diaries

McLaughlin, Emma and Nicola Kraus. The Nanny Diaries. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. Print.
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My Thoughts

OH, this book made me laugh!

In the "note to readers," the authors state that they've worked for over thirty NYC families and the story was "inspired by what they have learned and experienced" but the book is a "work of fiction" and "any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is coincidental" (McLaughlin and Kraus).

The book is divided into three parts: fall, winter, & spring. It is in the fall that "Nanny" first meets and starts working for the Xs. Mrs. X is a socialite and so busy taking care of herself and her husband's business parties that she can't take care of her own child. Ironically, Mrs. X is very active in the Parents League and has several recommendations for others about how best to handle children (when she, herself, doesn't!). Nanny doesn't even meet Mr. X until two months have passed. Once she meets him, he is more interested in the newspaper than the person TAKING CARE OF HIS CHILD!

Grayer X is the charge. He is a rambunctious, over scheduled, coddled child that Nanny adores. He is four or five years old. His mother is concerned about him getting into the "right" school. When her first choice doesn't make, she states that "we're just going to be left with his safeties and I'm not enthusiastic about the college placements at those schools" (McLaughlin and Kraus 175). Did I mention he's FOUR years old?

Nanny describes there are three types of "gigs" and mothers: types A, B, and C.  Type "A" is a few nights a week to give "couple time" and the mother relates to the nanny as a professional. Type "B" is "sanity time" for a mother who mothers most days and nights. Type C is when the nanny "is brought in as one of a cast of many to collectively provide twenty-four/seven 'me time' to a woman who neither works nor mothers" (McLaughlin and Kraus 26). Mrs. X is a Type C. She absolutely is the comic element in this story. Her reality and expectations are so skewed! When Nanny wants to attend her own graduation at NYU, Mrs. X seems put out because it might delay their trip to Nantucket and actually says, "I don't think we can delay our departure on your account" (McLaughlin and Kraus 236). REALLY?! There are so many more examples of Mrs. X's absurdity, and that's what made the book funny to me.

I love the closure that Nanny gets after the Nantucket trip. I was cheering her on and she talked to the nanny cam bear. She was rightfully mad at the situation. I'm glad she saw Mrs. X's calendar, but I couldn't believe that Mrs. X wrote "N's behavior is unacceptable. Completely self-centered. Providing poor care. Has no respect for professional boundaries. Is taking complete advantage" (McLaughlin and Kraus 301). Oh, my! If that isn't the pot calling the kettle black.

I appreciated the allusion on page 136 to The Scarlet Letter. So witty!

Overall, this was a delightful book.

Monday, October 6, 2014


Meyer, Marissa. Scarlet. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2013. Print.
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My Thoughts

This is the second installment of The Lunar Chronicles. The story's main character is Little Red Riding Hood, keeping in the fairy tale retelling, and Cinder (from Book 1) plays a large part in the story as well. I can see the two story lines coming together and setting up for the third and fourth books (Book Four drops in February 2015). Some new characters, besides Scarlet, are introduced (Wolf, Michelle Benoit), and some more information about characters we've seen (Prince Kai, Levana) is given. The book is divided into four books. I liked the transition quote that each book's title page included. This helped give the feel of the original "Little Red Riding Hood" story.

I liked that I didn't have the story figured out in the first chapter. In fact, there were several "red herrings" that made me question what I thought I knew. Meyer kept the intrigue and suspense for me. I thought I knew who the princess was, but about halfway through the book, I began to question that knowledge. I was glad to see some of the "holes" in Cinder's story were filled in with Scarlet's story.

Even the new character of Wolf was not as he seemed. He starts out as the tough guy, loner, likes to fight. Through the story, Wolf turns into a sensitive, caring, potential suitor for Scarlet, only for the reader to learn that he is a "Lunar Special Operative" (Meyer 282). But, I won't tell you how his character keeps evolving. Once the reader learns of this Lunar connection, there are still 200 pages of story!

As part of the story talks about Cinder being burned (Meyer p. 324), it reminded me of the J.R. Martinez book I just finished. I thought the timing was a little weird.

Even though I liked the story, just picking up the book seemed to be a chore. Once I started reading, I was good, but the story wasn't compelling me to stop everything and read. I will read the next two installments because I do want to find out what happens with Cinder and especially Queen Levana. I just might wait until a few other books off my pile are read.

By the way, Marissa Meyer autographed my copy of Scarlet at TLA, but I can't find the picture.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Full of Heart

Martinez, J. R. Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength, and Spirit. New York: Hyperion, 2012. Print.
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My Thoughts
J. R. Martinez was a keynote speaker at the Texas Library Association conference in 2013. His story is remarkable, and I was excited to buy his book. Here's me getting the book autographed.
I liked how honest he was in telling his story. I thought about what he told us at TLA and how similar to the book (minus the cussing) his presentation was. Also included in the book are pictures. (He may have shown some of these in his presentation, but I can't remember now). His childhood was not idyllic, and he makes no excuses.

When he was in high school, all he wanted to do was play football. "While I'd never been the most talented on the football field, I had a tremendous amount of self-assurance and a strong work ethic" (Martinez 54). He moved before his senior year to Dalton, Georgia. There, he made the football team. His coach told him making the team had "'nothing to do with your ability and everything to do with your attitude'" (qtd. in Martinez 55). He was "full of heart" (title reference here!) and became "J.R." instead of "Jose Martinez" to start a new beginning (Martinez 55).

After high school, J. R. joined the army and was sent to Iraq. While on patrol, his Humvee hit a roadside bomb. (This happens on page 93 of the book).  I appreciate the honest description of his time in the hospital. He was mad. He was in pain. He thought his life was over (he was only 19 when the accident happened). There's a good portion of the book dedicated to both the physical and emotional rehab that J.R. went through in order to heal. As a reader, I felt like part of me was sitting beside his hospital bed. I understood his mother's concern and was so proud of the town of Dalton rallying around this family.

I marked a part in the book that I kept thinking while reading.
"One thing about being in the spotlight is having people come up to me because they've heard my story or read an article about me or watched me on television. Almost invariable, they say, 'I don't think I could've gone through that at age nineteen.'
And almost invariable, I say, 'With all due respect, what makes you think I was ready to go through that?'" (Martinez 226).
Martinez then goes on to explain why he wrote the book. "People need to understand and accept that everything we go through in life will prepare us for our own big explosion....No matter what, we are all going to face the unexpected (and unwanted) challenges in our lives, and what matters is the way we cope" (Martinez 226).
Reading this book stayed with me. It's been several weeks since I finished, but I still think about how this man became an inspirational speaker. He shouldn't have. Not to sound rude, but he should have just been another guy that only his family and friends would know.  It was interesting to me how he ended up becoming a household name. He was on a very popular soap opera. He was a "Dancing with the Stars" winner. He speaks to large groups. How did this kid from all over and nowhere accomplish this? I think this book is inspiring!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Burned & Smoke

Hopkins, Ellen. Burned. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2006. Print.
Hopkins, Ellen. Smoke. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013. Print.
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My Thoughts
I decided to write about both of these books together, as they are a series, and I read them as a continuing story. I thought these would be books about a burn victim. I was wrong.

Burned is the story of Pattyn Von Stratten, a Mormon girl who tries to reconcile her church's doctrines with her abusive father's behavior. The church seems to turn a blind eye to the abuse, but Patty can't. Patty sees her mother's life and knows that's not what she wants for herself, but she also doesn't see other options. Patty is smart, funny and insight and much like other teenagers, she is seeking the answers to the "big" questions of life.

When her father finds her in a "compromising" position with a classmate, Patty is sent to live with her Aunt Jeannette (Aunt J) across state. Aunt J hasn't seen the family in years, but is the only one who agrees to take Patty in after her "sinful" actions.

This is just the medicine Patty needs. At Aunt J's, Patty learns independence and has freedom and learns another side of her family's story. She also learns how to ride a horse and actually falls in love with Ethan.

Burned ends with Patty back at home, but she is making plans for her escape. Once she's realized there's more in the world than her super-strict, abusive father's ways, she's ready to go. She feels bad for her younger siblings, but she cannot stay in that house with her meek, delusional mother and her ever drunk, angry father.

This is where Smoke begins. This book alternates between Patty's story and her sister Jackie April Von Stratten. Boy, the sister's story of being left behind is worth reading.  At the beginning of this book, Patty has left her family and is on the run. Not all events, however, are as they appear. Without spoiling what happens here, I will say that I'm happy Hopkins decided to pick up Jackie's story and propel Patty's story with the alternating scenes. I liked seeing what was happening with both girls during the same time.

As we read Jackie's story, though, I was DISGUSTED by the mother's actions (or absence of actions). How could she reason that her decision was really "best" for Jackie? I was so proud of Jackie for pushing forward and using her brains to figure out a way to get back at those who hurt her. She is a strong character.

One of my favorite chapters is "The Library."
It was a safe haven. Not sure if it's the same in every school, but here, the stacks are fortresses. I love the smell of books, even old ones, as most of these are, at least the nonfiction. Ms. Rose [the librarian] collects young adult novels, so there's a wide selection of fiction. Everything from vamps to vampires, she likes to say, and that's an apt description. Pattyn's a huge reader, and she passed that passion on to me. Books were her escape, and they are mine, too. The best, I have to hide, or at least I did while there was any chance Dad might find them (Hopkins 178).
I hope my students feel the same way about my library. I hope it is a fortress and a refuge (even though I hope they are not dealing with the same things that Patty & Jackie are).

These two books are not as gritty as the Crank series, nor as graphic as Tricks. That's fine with me. I enjoy that Hopkins writes compelling stories about characters that, fortunately, I cannot identify with, but I do have empathy for while bringing awareness to experiences that are very real.