Tag: depressing


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

June 4th, 2014 — 11:26am

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and rightfully so. It is a beautifully written novel about Theo Decker and his life after his world is changed by an act of terrorism. The_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

When Theo was 13, he and his mother visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibition of Dutch masterpieces, including Theo’s mother’s favorite work, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. While at the exhibit, Theo gets distracted by a redheaded girl and her grandfather — he is mesmerized by the girl and follows her into a room away from his mother. It is then that a terrorist bomb hits the museum, killing many including Theo’s mother.

In the aftermath of the blast, the elderly man (Welton “Welty” Blackwell) gives Theo a ring and appears to point at The Goldfinch painting — Theo, in his confusion and panic, takes the painting out of the museum.

But depression wasn’t the word. This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game. Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms. Oh, isn’t he cute? Awww. Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hells await them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital. Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent. People gambled and golfed and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbors and pored over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organizations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S. Open and dined and travelled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try to make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were. But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten from top to bottom.

Theo went through some dark times after the death of his mother and his recovery from the bombing.

His father had abandoned Theo and his mother the year before, but Theo is determined to stay in Manhattan. He stays with a school friend, Andy Barbour, and his family. The Barbours are wealthy socialites with the typical WASPy problems — Mr. Barbour is medicated for a behavior disorder that is probably manic depression, Mrs. Barbour is cold and distant, the oldest son, Platt, who is away at boarding school and is a huge bully, Andy, Theo’s friend who is a genius with all of the social awkwardness that comes along with it, Kitsey, a snobbish princess, and Toddy, who is the youngest child. He gets along well with them, though he has nightmares from the post-traumatic stress disorder from the bombing.

Theo also returns the ring to the family of Welty — James Hobart, who goes by Hobie, and his redhaired granddaughter, Pippa. Pippa sustained a head injury in the bombing. Theo sits with her and his initial attraction to her grows. Unfortunately, Pippa is being sent away to family in Texas when she recovers from her injuries.

Unfortunately for Theo, his father, Larry, and his girlfriend, Xandra, show up to take him to their home in Las Vegas. Theo doesn’t want to leave the Barbours, but doesn’t really have a choice. Vegas is terrible for Theo — his father and Xandra are not good parents and his father’s source of income is not steady, since he mostly just gambles. Xandra has a Maltese puppy named Popper that is incredibly neglected, except for Theo’s attentions to him. (We’re talking super neglected, to the point where I almost felt worse for the puppy than for Theo at this point. Oops.) At school, Theo meets Boris, who is a Russian-Ukrainian immigrant and is not the best role model for Theo. Together, Boris and Theo drink a lot of alcohol, take a lot of drugs, and skip a lot of school.

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The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

Theo is haunted by The Goldfinch. He still has the painting, which was on the news as missing/destroyed in the bombing and is renowned for being one of the only works by Fabritius to survive a gunpowder explosion in 1654. He wraps the painting in bubble wrap and a pillowcase in an attempt to preserve it once he notices the wear that occurs when he looks at it. He is in constant fear of its discovery and the retribution he would face for its theft.

Theo’s dad starts getting friendlier with Theo and tells him he needs his social security number in order to open a savings account for him. He also tries to get Theo to put his money from his mother’s will in the account that Larry would have access to. Luckily, Theo’s lawyer is onto Larry and doesn’t allow for him to steal Theo’s money. It turns out that Larry is in deep with the gambling debts. In his despondency about not getting Theo’s money, he gets drunk and dies in a car accident. Theo knows that he will be sent to a state home, so he steals drugs and money from Xandra and leaves with Popper. Boris begs him to stay another day, but he leaves immediately for New York on a bus.

Once in New York, he sees Mr. Barbour on the street, but Mr Barbour is not on his medication and curses at him. The only other place Theo can think to go is to Hobie’s house, where he is pleased to find Pippa. Pippa tells him that she’s at a boarding school in Switzerland and is only visiting, much to Theo’s chagrin.

Hobie teaches Theo the art of antique restoration, and he eventually becomes a partner in what was once Welty and Hobie’s antiques business. The narrative skips forward eight years, where Pippa is living in London with a boyfriend (which tortures Theo) and Theo and Kitsey Barbour are engaged to marry. Mr. Barbour and Andy died in a boating accident, and Mrs. Barbour has pulled a Mrs. Havisham and has secluded herself in her apartment. Theo has also developed a prescription drug addiction. Theo and Kitsey have many relationship problems, the biggest of which is her continued love for her high school boyfriend, Tom.

Along with restoring antiques, Hobie enjoys creating pieces that are identical to antiques — which Theo has been selling them as legitimate pieces, unbeknownst to Hobie. One of the buyers of the fabricated pieces realizes what he has and attempts to blackmail Theo — he realizes that Theo and Welty were in the room with The Goldfinch and thinks that Theo and Hobie know the whereabouts of the painting. Theo is afraid of the financial repercussions of customers finding out about the fake antiques, the trouble he will be in when authorities discover he has The Goldfinch, and the guilt he feels in betraying Hobie’s trust.

Out of nowhere, Boris appears on the street of Manhattan. He has wealth and renown in the Russian neighborhood (which he does not explain), but he has a confession for Theo — while they were in Las Vegas, Boris stole The Goldfinch from Theo and replaced it with a textbook that was the similar size and weight; because it was so tightly sealed and Theo never looked at it, he had no idea. Over the years, The Goldfinch has been used as collateral to barter for various criminal activities and deals, but Boris feels guilty and vows to return it to Theo. At Theo and Kitsey’s engagement party, Boris approaches Theo with a planfor them to fly to Amsterdam and meet up with the men who have the painting in order to get it back. Theo is overwhelmed when the blackmailer arrives at his and Kitsey’s engagement party, and he agrees to go and leaves without telling anyone that he’s going — he leaves a note of love to Pippa.

Once in Amsterdam, Boris and assorted men take Theo to meet up with the men who have The Goldfinch, but they all have guns (besides Theo). At the meeting, they attack the men and steal the painting; however, agents fo the dealers finds them and there is a shootout, in which Boris is shot in the arm, Theo shoots a man, and the painting is stolen back.

Theo goes back to his hotel, devastated, and takes a ton of drugs. His cell phone is dead, so he can’t get in touch with Boris, he thinks he is going to be arrested for shooting and killing the agent, and he realizes that he doesn’t have his passport — he left it in the car with Boris. He contemplates suicide when, miraculously, Boris shows up at the hotel. He tells Theo that he has saved the day — he called the art recovery police on the agents, and they have been arrested and The Goldfinch has been recovered. Even better, Boris received a reward for the painting’s return and he graciously shares the reward with Theo.

Theo returns to New York and is greeted by a very upset Hobie. Hobie has been made aware of the sale of the fabricated antiques, so Theo confesses to everything, beginning with the day of the art museum and The Goldfinch. Hobie confesses that The Goldfinch was Welty’s favorite painting, too.

Theo travels the world to buy back the fabricated antiques. Pippa has told him that though she loves him, they can never be together because their character flaws and their shared experience of the bombing makes them too similar to be a safe and effective couple. Theo wonders how much of his experiences are due to fate and how much are due to his character.He realizes that “we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

The writing of The Goldfinch is beautiful. I read this book over Christmas break but have not been able to stop thinking about it. The story can be described as a bildungsroman, but it is so much more than that. The novel discusses the preservation of beautiful things, both items and people, as well as how much power fate has — as well as the power of our parents and their presence (or lack thereof) in our lives. Theo loses his mother early in his life and fourteen years later he observes that “things would have turned out better if she had lived.”

There are plot points that are eyeroll inducing (especially the deus ex machina in the climax — Boris called the cops, really? Really, that’s how it’s resolved after an epic shootout) but the story of Theo’s decline into teenage delinquency and his fight out was mesmerizing to read. I’m also a sucker for a good mom story. I’m very close with my mother and even the thought of losing my mother, even as an adult, makes me slightly hyperventilate.

Comment » | modern

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

October 24th, 2013 — 10:05am

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley was published in 1818, when Shelley was 21 years old (if you want to feel awful about your life accomplishments). Shelley began writing the book, about scientist Victor Frankenstein and his horrific science experiment, after a dream she had and as the result of a competition between her, her husband Percy Shelley, John Polidori, and Lord Byron to determine who could write the best horror story. Best. Contest. Ever.

Frankenstein_1818_edition_title_page

Frankenstein is written in the epistolary form through letters from Captain Walton to his sister. Captain Walton is sailing around the North Pole in hopes of acheiving fame. One day, he and his crew see a giant figure commanding a dog sled, and a few hours later, discover a frozen and malnourished man named Victor Frankenstein. The crew bring him onboard the ship and he stays with Captain Walton as he recovers. Victor tells Walton the story of his life as a warning against being overly ambitious and doing dangerous things in pursuit of academic fame.

As a child growing up in Geneva, young Victor is fascinated by science — at a young age, he witnesses lightning split a massive oak tree in half and becomes fixated on the power of electricity. He has two younger brothers, Ernest and William, and his parents take in an orphan, Elizabeth Lavenza, with whom Victor falls in love. Victor begins to study the science of natural wonders, and as he prepares to go to Germany to attend the University of Ingolstadt, Victor’s mother dies of scarlet fever.

When he gets to the university, Victor begins his studies and embarks on the experiment to create life. He visits graveyards to collect body parts and creates a human body; though it is an oversized body, as he decides to make the body eight feet tall in order to compensate for the minute body parts that are difficult to work with. He is disappointed that his creature, which he envisioned to be beautiful, is actually hideous — after bringing the body to life, Victor is repulsed and horrified by it and runs from the room. When he returns to the room later, the monster has disappeared.

His fear of the monster and the realization of what he has done overwhelms him and Victor falls ill. His childhood friend, Henry Clerval, nurses him back to health. After a four month recovery period, Victor is summoned home when his younger brother, William, is found murdered. William’s nanny, Justine, is found with William’s locket and is found guilty of his murder, though she and Victor maintain her innocence — Victor is convinced that his creature killed William. Justine is hanged for William’s murder.

Victor blames himself for both William and Justine’s deaths, and he goes camping in the mountains to reflect and keep harm from others. The creature finds him in the mountains and tells him what has happened to him since Victor left him abandoned in the science room. Victor is surprised to find that the creature is articulate and well-spoken, which is from his observations of humans.

When he left the laboratory, the creature was afraid of humans and found an abandoned cottage secluded from the surrounding village. A family, the DeLaceys, lived in a neighboring cottage, and the creature was drawn to them and became obsessed with watching them. He listened to them speak and found books and taught himself to read and speak. He eventually works up the courage to speak to the DeLaceys and begins with the old man who is blind. He speaks with him and gains his trust, but when the younger DeLaceys see him, they are repulsed and chase him away. The creature sees a reflection of himself and realizes that he doesn’t look like other humans that he has seen and is, in fact, monstrous in appearance. So he burns down the DeLaceys’ house. As you do.

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The creature tells Victor that, as he is responsible for the existence of the creature, he is responsible for his happiness. He demands that Victor make a companion for him, so that they may live together away from other people and be happy. He tells Victor that if he makes a female companion for him, that they will go to South America and never bother him again.

Victor agrees out of fear for himself and his family. One night, Victor has a dream that when he creates the female creature, they breed creatures that take over mankind. He creates the female creature, but destroys her after he catches a glimpse of the creature watching him through a window.

BIG MISTAKE.

The creature channels his inner mob boss and tells Victor that he had better spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder and vowing that he will be there on his wedding night, and not to enjoy a piece of wedding cake. The creature leaves and Victor, understandably shaken, goes to visit Henry Clerval; when Victor arrives on the Irish beach, he discovers Henry’s corpse and is accused of Henry’s murder. Victor is imprisoned for the murder and when he is acquitted, his father takes him back to Geneva to recover from his mental breakdown.

Elizabeth, the Frankensteins’ ward, marries Victor when he returns home. That night, Victor tells Elizabeth to stay in their room while he goes out to confront the creature, but he can’t find it. He returns to the house when he hears Elizabeth scream and he realizes that the creature did not intend to murder Victor at all. He sees the creature through the window and, as he approaches the window, the creature points at Elizabeth’s lifeless body.

At the shock of Elizabeth’s death, as well as the deaths of William, Justine, and Henry, Victor’s father dies. Victor has now lost everyone close to him and vows to devote the rest of his life to finding and destroying the monster. He follows him to the North Pole, which is where he was rescued by Captain Walton.

Walton next writes that he believes Victor’s tale and wishes that he had known him in his better days, as he is now a wreck of a man. A few days later, the ship is trapped in ice. Victor dies right before the ship is to head back to England and Walton hears a strange noise coming from Victor’s room. Investigating the noise, Walton is startled to find the monster, as hideous as Victor had described, weeping over his dead creator’s body. The monster begins to tell him of all his sufferings. He says that he deeply regrets having become an instrument of evil and that, with his creator dead, he is ready to die. He leaves the ship and departs into the darkness.

There have been many interpretations as to the meaning of Shelley’s work — is Frankenstein a commentary on the dangers of science or the importance of parenting? Mary Shelley had experienced a difficult miscarriage before writing this book, and would experience life-threatening marriages after its publication. Her husband/baby daddy, Percy Shelley, was not very sympathetic to her maternal woes, especially as he had several affairs (including an affair on his first wife with Mary, oops), leading scholars to believe that the purpose of Frankenstein was to highlight the importance of raising the children/monsters that you sire. There is a responsibility of parents to make sure that their children and fed, clothed, and not terrorizing villagers and setting their houses on fire.

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The most famous of the movie adaptations is arguably the 1931 Boris Karloff movie, as well as it’s subsequent sequels, spin-offs, and parodies. While it is loosely adapted (Victor’s name is changed to Henry, the monster is given a criminal brain due to the incompetence of his assistant, the monster goes on a killing spree, including killing a little girl who’s throwing flowers into a lake or something, I don’t know, just a lot of killing and villagers storming the laboratory with pitchforks), it is what the general public thinks of when they think of Frankenstein — greenish skin, bolts on the neck, flattop haircut, lots of grunting. Also part of the pop culture — referring to the monster as Frankenstein. It’s wrong and you shouldn’t do it. I mean, you can do it, but you might be mocked and/or thrown into a lake.

Comment » | classic books, Uncategorized

Module 14: Tricks by Ellen Hopkins

December 9th, 2012 — 11:52am

Tricks by Ellen Hopkins is a free verse novel told through five teenaged narrators, all of whom are struggling with various sexual and drug related experiences. It was published in 2009.

SUMMARY

The book follows the experiences of five teenagers and is told through free verse poetry:

Eden — Eden has been raised in a religious family, Pentecostal, by extremely religious parents. She is in love with a boy named Andrew, but she knows that her parents will not approve; not only that, but her parents won’t allow her to date until she’s ready to be married. She dates him secretly — she’s sixteen and he’s nineteen, and she knows that her parents won’t hesitate to press statutory charges against him if they find out. Andrew and Eden go out one night and Eden tells Andrew that she loves him. Andrew tells her that he loves her as well, so much so that he wants “to take from you what I’ve no right to take.”

Eden’s parents find out about the relationship and assume that Eden is being possessed by the Devil. I mean, obviously. They send her to a camp called Tears of Zion for wayward youth. It’s not a very great place and she is mistreated through work and being kept in captivity. She begins having sex with a worker named Jerome in exchange for food and shampoo, and in hopes that he’ll eventually help her escape.

She manages to escape with Jerome and while at a gas station, she ditches him. She prostitutes herself to truckers for money and rides until she gets to a youth home that serves as a refuge for kids in similar situations. She emails Andrew’s mother and Andrew is glad to hear that she’s alive, as no one has told him anything about where she’s been.

Seth — Seth is a closeted homosexual; he has always known that he’s different, but he can’t come out since his mother died of cancer a year previously; his mother also had very conservative views of sex, having once said that his sixteen year old cousin who got pregnant was “a whore.” His father has said homophobic things in the past, so Seth lives with his secret: not only is he gay, but their priest had taken advantage of him as a child.

However, Seth is lonely and a hormonal teenager, so he posts on Internet personal ad and drives to Louisville and meets Loren; he wasn’t looking for a hookup, but gets to know Loren and falls in love with him. Loren introduces him to a cultural life that Seth doesn’t experience in Indiana.

However, Loren ends his relationship with Seth at around the time that Seth’s dad finds out that Seth is gay and kicks him out of the house. He ends up moving in with Carl, a man he’d met at a bar, and moves to Las Vegas with him. While in Vegas, Seth hooks up with a guy that he met in the gym; shortly after Carl reveals to Seth that it was a test — he paid the guy to act as bait to see if Seth would fall for him and he kicks Seth out. Seth resorts to escort sites on the internet to find new guys to live with.

Whitney — Whitney lives completely in the shadow of her sister, Kyra. She acknowledges that her mother loves her sister more and that Kyra does everything better. Needless to say, Whitney and her mother don’t get along. They live in Santa Cruz, California, and Whitney’s father works in San Francisco. Her family is mostly absent in her life, and she therefore seeks attention and affection from anyone who will give her the time of day.

Whitney is dating a boy, Lucas, who she’s in love with but has remained abstinent, due to the fear of venereal diseases and possible pregnancy. Whitney and Lucas meet at Kyra’s school choir concert and bond when he is the first person to ever tell Whitney that Kyra is a bitch. Lucas is three years older than Whitney — eighteen to her fifteen, and he introduces her to pot and kissing.

Whitney sleeps with Lucas and, in typical teenage boy fashion, he dumps her soon after. She moves with a friend, Bryn, to Las Vegas with his family, and soon starts sleeping with him. However, it’s soon revealed that he deceived her in order to get her to fall in love with him and starts using her for sex, forcing her to have sex with other people while he records it, and introduces her to harder drugs, to which she’s soon addicted. Whitney overdoses and lands in the hospital; her mother, father, and sister come to visit, but they’re still self-involved and don’t understand their roles in her problems.

Ginger — Ginger’s mother (though she insists on being called Iris) has had many boyfriends during Ginger’s life because of what she calls her “womanly needs” by what Ginger refers to as an “overinflated sex drive.” Iris has six kids by five different fathers and is addicted to all sorts of drugs — booze, pills, whatever. Iris supports her children through prostitution, which Ginger knows about. They’re living with Iris’s mother, Gram, for now, who is more of a mother to the kids than Iris.

One of Ginger’s brother is in a motorcycle accident and is in the hospital. While Gram goes to visit him, one of Iris’s boyfriends rapes Ginger — Ginger finds out that Iris is selling her to these men; not only is Iris prostituting herself, but her daughter now, too. This is the final straw for Ginger: she steals Iris’s money and runs away with her friend, Alex, to Las Vegas.

Alex’s aunt, Lydia, gets the two of them jobs as strippers, which soon turns to prostitution in order to make more money to survive. The Vegas police bust them and send them to a youth refuge home. Ginger calls Gram, who tells her that Iris is dying. Ginger goes home to care for her siblings while Alex stays in Vegas; when she gets home, she discovers that she’s pregnant, and she vows to be a better mother to her child and siblings than Iris or Alex’s mom were to them.

Cody — Cody doesn’t know who his real father is — he suspects that he might have raped his mother, since she’s such “a prude.” He, his mother, stepfather, and half-brother have moved from Witchita, Kansas, to Las Vegas. He lives a normal teenage life, going to school, working at GameStop, the usual. He’s always fooled around and partied under the radar, nothing too out of the ordinary for teenagers, right?

However, Cody’s stepfather, Jack, becomes sick and Cody’s brother starts getting into major trouble, and Cody’s drinking intensifies. It turns out that Jack has cancer — after he dies, it is up to Cody to help support the family. He begins online gambling and his drinking spirals into out of control territory.

Desperate for ways to make money, Cody meets Lydia, who helps set him up with men who will pay him for sex; he’s pretty sure he isn’t gay, but he’s also pretty sure that they have a lot of bills. Many of the “dates” involve Misty, as the men are interested in threesomes. During one of these nights, Misty’s boyfriend finds them naked with a client — the boyfriend is less than pleased, as he wasn’t aware of Misty’s job, and he attacks and beats them. When Cody wakes up, he’s in the hospital and is told that Misty and the client are dead. He hears his mother’s voice, begging him not to leave her, but he isn’t sure if it’s real.

IMPRESSIONS

Um. Wow. This book is nothing if not intense. It was difficult to read, for sure — I’ve been a teacher in two different schools with kids with less than desirable lives; many of the foster kids had stories similar to some of these children, especially Ginger’s.

In researching this book, I read an interview with Ellen Hopkins, who said that she wrote her books (including her prose novels about teenagers with drug addictions) to encourage teenagers to make good choices and seek help if they have problems out of their control. Many of my students saw this book on my desk and made sure to tell me how great Hopkins’ books are, so hopefully her message is working. I’m just not sure if the graphic nature and desperate circumstances are almost too unbelievable to seem real to some children.

The prose of the novel made it interesting and easy to read — at 640 pages, when I first got the book it seemed daunting, but it was a fast read. It also gave the narrators five distinct voices and poetic styles.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Five teenagers from all over the U.S.—three girls, two boys, some straight, some gay—end up as prostitutes in Las Vegas in this multiplevoiced novel in verse. Among the different stories are a preacher’s daughter breaking free from abuse, a closeted gay young man who hides his love life from his widowed and homophobic father, and the lesbian daughter of a prostitute. Hopkins has never shied away from tough subjects; descriptions of sex, while not overly graphic, are realistic and will likely provoke controversy. A master of storytelling through free verse, she uses multiple poetic devices to construct well-defined, distinctive voices for the five teens. Like E. R. Frank’s Life Is Funny (2000), the multiple protagonists are easy to identify and their stories compelling, especially when they begin to intersect. Teens will queue up for this one—some, admittedly, for the sensational subject matter—and find Hopkins’ trademark empathy for teens in rough situations.
Booklist

Five teens desperately seek to find their way through the darkness in Hopkins’s latest epic novel in verse. Eden flees an evangelical household; Cody blocks out a family illness with gambling and sex; Whitney gives up her body in exchange for the love she finds so elusive; Seth struggles to define himself as a homosexual; and Ginger comes to terms with an awful truth about her neglectful mother. Burden after burden piles on the teens’ shoulders until they resort to the unthinkable in order to survive. As they near rock bottom, their narratives begin to intersect. It is only when their paths converge that a glimmer of redemption appears out of the hopelessness. From the punch delivered by the title, to the teens’ raw voices, to the visual impact of the free verse, Hopkins once again produces a graphic, intense tale that will speak to mature teens.
School Library Journal

LIBRARY USES

This one is difficult. I don’t see myself using this as a booktalk, as the backlash from parents might be negative and overwhelming. However, it could be used in a display, perhaps for suicide prevention or another awareness campaign.

REFERENCES

Carton, D. (2009). Tricks. Booklist, 105(22), 62.

Hopkins, E. (2009). Tricks. New York, NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Maza, J. (2009). Tricks. School Library Journal, 55(10), 128.

Comment » | SLIS5420

Module 13: Maus by Art Spiegelman

December 2nd, 2012 — 10:08pm

Maus is a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. He tells his father’s story of his experiences during the Holocaust through animals — the Jews are portrayed as mice and the Nazis as cats. Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

SUMMARY

The novel begins with a flashback from Art’s childhood in Rego Park, NY, where Art and his friends are rollerskating. Art falls down and his friends all leave him. When Art goes back to his father, crying that his friends left him, his father replies ominously, “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what it is, friends!”

The narration then cuts to 1978, where Art is interviewing his father about his experiences in the Holocaust for a book that he’s always wanted to write. The story includes both Art’s visits with his father, exploring the strained relationships between Art and his father, Vladek, and Vladek and his second wife, Mala, whom he married when Art’s mother, Anja, committed suicide in 1968, and Vladek’s memories of his life in Poland in the 1930s and 1940s. The book begins with Vladek courting Anja and marrying into her wealthy family and ends with he and Anja arriving at Auschwitz (a second volume, Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, tells of their time in the barracks of Auschwitz to the bungalows of the Catskills).

Vladek and Anja married and had a baby, Richieu, but Anja, who has always been an “emotional” sort, has an emotional breakdown (what we would today probably recognize as postpartum depression) and she and Vladek go to a sanitarium until Anja is better. When they come back to their town, they discover that the Nazis have taken over. Vladek is drafted into the Polish Army and is sent off to fight the Nazis, but is taken as a prisoner of war.

When he is released from POW camp, he has to sneak across the German controlled land to reunite with his family. The city has been turned into a ghetto, and in 1943, they’re taken to a work camp. Vladek and Anja send Richieu off with Anja’s aunt when the Nazis begin rounding up and transporting Jews, hoping that he will be safe with her; however, they find out after the war that when Anja’s aunt was in danger of being taken by the Gestapo, she poisoned her three children, Richieu, and herself, killing themselves before the Gestapo could take them to an extermination camp to die.

Vladek and Anja manage to escape the ghetto and avoid the Gestapo, hiding with random Polish friends that they bribe with the last of their money and jewels for safekeeping. They arrange with smugglers to be taken to Hungary but are betrayed by the smugglers — they sell them out to the Gestapo, and Vladek and Anja are taken to Auschwitz. Vladek mentions that Anja kept diaries while in Auschwitz and that these are the only accounts of her experiences in Auschwitz, but when Art asks to see them, reveals that he destroyed them after her suicide. Art is furious, and the book ends with Art calling Vladek a “murderer” as he walks away.

IMPRESSIONS

The book is horrifying. The anthropomorphized characters do nothing to make the tale of the Holocaust less severe and heartbreaking. It’s always difficult to read about the brutalities that people inflict on each other and this is no different.

The narration, with the side by side stories of “present day” Art and Vladek that melt into Vladek’s memories, is very effective. I was never confused about that was going on and it made the storytelling aspect make sense, especially as told in Vladek’s broken English.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Told with chilling realism in an unusual comic-book format, this is more than a tale of surviving the Holocaust. Spiegelman relates the effect of those events on the survivors’ later years and upon the lives of the following generation. Each scene opens at the elder Spiegelman’s home in Rego Park, N.Y. Art, who was born after the war, is visiting his father, Vladek, to record his experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland. The Nazis, portrayed as cats, gradually introduce increasingly repressive measures, until the Jews, drawn as mice, are systematically hunted and herded toward the Final Solution. Vladek saves himself and his wife by a combination of luck and wits, all the time enduring the torment of hunted outcast. The other theme of this book is Art’s troubled adjustment to life as he, too, bears the burden of his parents’ experiences. This is a complex book. It relates events which young adults, as the future architects of society, must confront, and their interest is sure to be caught by the skillful graphics and suspenseful unfolding of the story.
School Library Journal

“Maus” represents Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Americans as dogs, Poles as pigs and the French as frogs. Mice and cats summon up the sort of conflicting associations that help to give the comic strip its metaphorical weight. Mice can be either adorable, like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, or the vermin to which the Nazis likened Jews. By exposing his characters to a range of interpretations, Mr. Spiegelman rejects precisely the caricatures that are supposedly a drawback of the comic-strip form.

His imagery is inextricably bound up with his text. But it is the text that ultimately propels “Maus” and sticks in the mind. If in several of the sketches the artist approximates German Expressionism, in the finished scenes he almost entirely avoids such obvious devices, opting for a simplified style remarkable for being so unremarkable. As much as possible, both visually and linguistically, Mr. Spiegelman allows the painful facts of Vladek’s life to speak for themselves, with a minimum of melodrama and sentimentality. It is not meant to take away from the undeniable power and seriousness of “Maus” as literature and history to say that Mr. Spiegelman’s manner of drawing is the least memorable aspect of his achievement.
New York Times

LIBRARY USES

This would be a great addition to either a Holocaust display or to a graphic novel collection. It would also be a good addition to a school library for teachers to access to showcase how memoirs can take different forms.

REFERENCES

Keeler, R. G. (1987, May). Maus. School Library Journal, 33(9), 124. Retrieved from http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/5795317/maus-book-review

Kimmelman, M. (1991, December 27). Examining how ‘maus’ evolved. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/27/arts/review-art-examining-how-maus-evolved.html

Spiegelman, A. (1986). Maus. New York, NY: Pantheon.

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Module 11: Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

November 14th, 2012 — 10:48am

Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow is an informative book by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. In it, she has researched the Hitler Youth and details the lives of several teenagers growing up in Nazi Germany.

SUMMARY

The book follows the timeline of the formation of the Hitler Youth, starting with Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and ending with the aftermath of World War II and the unification of East and West Germany as a democratic state in 1990. Within the information, the author uses the examples of several members of the Hitler Youth. Membership in the Hitler Youth (called Hitlerjugend for boys and Bund Deutscher Madel for girls) was compulsory for the young people of Germany. Many of the youth believed that what they were doing was for the betterment of Germany because that was what they had been taught and told for years. However, some teenagers disagreed with what was required of them and what Hitler was doing and put up active resistance, printing and distributing pamphlets telling about Hitler’s lies and the true work of the Nazis and the concentration camps. The author used both diaries and personal interviews to share the experiences of the variety of young people in Germany in the 1940s.

The book focuses solely on the events of WWII as it pertains to the Hitler Youth. It paints a grisly portrait of youth taken advantage of by their government and their leader. Hitler said about his Youth, “I begin with the young…We older ones are used up…But my magnificent youngsters! Are there finer ones anywhere in the world? Look at all these men and boys! What material! With them I can make a new world.”

IMPRESSIONS

The Hitler Youth was a topic that I’d never explored; I’m pretty sure I only knew they existed from watching Swing Kids. But this book was fascinating. I saw parallels between then and now — I’ve often wondered how young people in our society can be closed-minded and prejudiced, and this book showed that children are especially susceptible to propaganda and the direction and influence of adults. I say adults and not their parents because in a few instances, the youth were so entranced with Hitler that they turned in their parents to the Nazis for saying “unpatriotic” or disparaging things about Hitler or the Nazi Party. It was very 1984, where adults feared their children.

The inclusion of the interviews and personal anecdotes made the book read more like a narration and less like a textbook. It was very well put together, though at times I lost track of the timeline of the events and what was happening elsewhere in the world. The chronology was loose in the book, but it didn’t keep the information from being effective. There was also a plethora of pictures — pretty much one or two on every page — which also distracted from the chronology of the story.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Hitler’s plans for the future of Germany relied significantly on its young people, and this excellent history shows how he attempted to carry out his mission with the establishment of the Hitler Youth, or Hitlerjugend, in 1926. With a focus on the years between 1933 and the end of the war in 1945, Bartoletti explains the roles that millions of boys and girls unwittingly played in the horrors of the Third Reich. The book is structured around 12 young individuals and their experiences, which clearly demonstrate how they were victims of leaders who took advantage of their innocence and enthusiasm for evil means. Their stories evolve from patriotic devotion to Hitler and zeal to join, to doubt, confusion, and disillusion. (An epilogue adds a powerful what-became-of-them relevance.) The large period photographs are a primary component and they include Nazi propaganda showing happy and healthy teens as well as the reality of concentration camps and young people with large guns. The final chapter superbly summarizes the weighty significance of this part of the 20th century and challenges young readers to prevent history from repeating itself. Bartoletti lets many of the subjects’ words, emotions, and deeds speak for themselves, bringing them together clearly to tell this story unlike anyone else has.
School Library Journal

What was it like to be a teenager in Germany under Hitler? Bartoletti draws on oral histories, diaries, letters, and her own extensive interviews with Holocaust survivors, Hitler Youth, resisters, and bystanders to tell the history from the viewpoints of people who were there. Most of the accounts and photos bring close the experiences of those who followed Hitler and fought for the Nazis, revealing why they joined, how Hitler used them, what it was like. Henry Mentelmann, for example, talks about Kristallnacht, when Hitler Youth and Storm Troopers wrecked Jewish homes and stores, and remembers thinking that the victims deserved what they got. The stirring photos tell more of the story. One particularly moving picture shows young Germans undergoing de-Nazification by watching images of people in the camps. The handsome book design, with black-and-white historical photos on every double-page spread, will draw in readers and help spark deep discussion, which will extend beyond the Holocaust curriculum. The extensive back matter is a part of the gripping narrative.
Booklist

LIBRARY USES

This, like Between Shades of Gray, would be well used for Holcoaust Memorial Day. It would also be a good booktalk for middle school students. In a school library setting, this would be a good companion piece to a class reading The Diary of Anne Frank; reading excerpts from this book and showing the pictures would help pique interest in the era.

REFERENCES

Bartoletti, S. C. (2005). Hitler youth: Growing up in hitler’s shadow. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Medlar, A. (2005, May 30). Book of the week: Hitler youth by susan campbell bartoletti. School Library Journal, 176. Retrieved from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA604629.html

Rochman, H. (2005, April 15). Hitler youth: Growing up in hitler’s shadow. Booklist. Retrieved from http://www.booklistonline.com/ProductInfo.aspx?pid=1180952&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1

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Module 9: Double Helix by Nancy Werlin

November 10th, 2012 — 12:40am

Double Helix by Nancy Werlin is a mystery novel for young adults. It was published in 2004.

SUMMARY

Eli Samuels is a high school senior who is not going to college after graduation — instead, he has applied for a job at Wyatt Transgenics and is planning on working for a year before going to college. He has a girlfriend he adores, Viv, and a strained relationship with his father. His mother, Ava, was an economics professor at Harvard before becoming stricken with Huntington’s disease. Eli had found a letter from Dr. Wyatt, the head of Wyatt Transgenics, which inspired him to apply for the job.

In his job at Wyatt Transgenics, there a few things that strike him as odd — Dr. Wyatt takes a keen interest in him and invites him to his house to meet a young lady, Kayla Matheson. Transgenics is the act of transferring genes from one organism to the other, which this company is doing through proteins in rabbits milk. Or something, that part was confusing, but it’s Eli’s job to take care of the rabbits.

It turns out that Eli’s parents knew Dr. Wyatt because they went to him when they knew that Ava was a carrier for Huntington’s but they still wanted to have children. Dr. Wyatt harvested her eggs and performed gene therapy to be sure that Eli didn’t have Huntington’s. Unbeknownst to the Samuels, however, Dr. Wyatt kept the other eggs he harvested from Ava and had been performing genetic experiments on them; Eli finds out through seeing a picture of her mother as a teenager that one of those eggs grew up to be Kayla Matheson, and while Eli was bred specifically to be clear of Huntington’s, Kayla has not.

Eli and Kayla sneak into a basement office where Dr. Wyatt had been performing tests on the children he’d made from Ava’s eggs (the experiments were nothing of the Dr. Mengele variety, just checking their growth and how they were developing thanks to the genetic enhancements they had as zygotes). They steal all of his files and Dr. Wyatt mysteriously vanishes after Eli and Kayla call the FBI; the epilogue reveals that the company is now called General Transgenics and Eli is enrolling in school to become a bioethicist to insure that no one else can perform genetic experiments on eggs.

IMPRESSIONS

I did not particularly enjoy this book. I found the mystery aspects to be weak. The foreshadowing in the beginning is not a shadow as much as a fore-boulder that rolls through the town, smashing everything in its path. There is nothing subtle in the set-up. Eli was also a particularly unsympathetic character to the point that I wanted to stop reading the book before I was halfway finished. This is not one I’d recommend to my students, unless they were particularly interested in biology and genetics.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

In this mesmerizing novel, Werlin (The Killer’s Cousin) adapts the medical mystery genre to explore the bewildering, complex issues surrounding experimental gene therapy. Narrator Eli Samuels, about to graduate from high school, has fired off an e-mail to Quincy Wyatt, a world-famous scientist and head of a genetics research corporation–stunningly, Wyatt summons Eli and offers him a job. Eli is thrilled, but the news horrifies his father, who, without explanation, asks Eli to turn it down (Eli takes it anyway). Eli’s father’s silence on the subject of Wyatt has many precedents within Eli’s home. Eli’s mother is rapidly deteriorating from Huntington’s disease, a hereditary illness. Eli has not told his girlfriend, Viv, about his mother nor even introduced Viv to his father. Eli has talents he hides, but somehow Wyatt knows of them and even takes pride in them. Meanwhile Eli knows that his father conceals other information–and that Wyatt has somehow been pivotal to his family. The characterizations feel somewhat incomplete, but the plot moves at a tantalizing clip, with secrets revealed in tiny increments, and hints and clues neatly planted. Werlin distills the scientific element to a manageable level, enough for readers to follow Eli as he ponders Wyatt’s work and his mother’s illness. As the author tackles bioethical issues, the story’s climax appeals to reason and love for humanity without resorting to easy answers. Brisk, intelligent and suspenseful all the way.
Publisher’s Weekly

Eighteen-year-old Eli Samuels, whose once-vibrant mother is losing her long battle with the ravages of Huntington’s disease, is hired at the Wyatt Transgenics Lab. Eli’s father is dead set against the job because of a secret he harbors concerning the lab’s owner, Dr. Quincy Wyatt, and Eli’s mother. Shortly after starting work, the teen meets Kayla Matheson, a beautiful girl who eerily reminds him of a photo of his mother when she was young. Slowly, Eli uncovers one layer after another of the shocking truth about Dr. Wyatt’s genetic-engineering experiments and their connection to his parents, Kayla, and himself. With the support of his longtime girlfriend and soul mate, he confronts Dr. Wyatt in a taut climax to the story. Werlin clearly and dramatically raises fundamental bioethical issues for teens to ponder. She also creates a riveting story with sharply etched characters and complex relationships that will stick with readers long after the book is closed. An essential purchase for YA collections.
School Library Journal

LIBRARY USES

This book would be a good book for a book talk, perhaps with other science fiction/medical books (Frankenstein or Unwind come to mind) or cross-curricular to introduce a unit on genes in a biology class. It could lead to great discussion about medical ethics and whether parents should be able to decide what genes their children have.

REFERENCES

DOUBLE HELIX (Book). (2004). Publishers Weekly, 251(7), 173.

Forman, J. (2004). Double Helix: A Novel (Book). School Library Journal, 50(3), 222.

Werlin, N. (2004). Double helix. New York, NY: Dial Books.

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Module 7: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

October 28th, 2012 — 7:46pm

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson is a book of realistic fiction. Published in 2009, it details the horrifying world of eating disorders.

SUMMARY

Lia Overbrook is an eighteen year old senior in high school. The opening of the novel is a breakfast scene, where she avoids eating while being told by her stepmother that her best friend has been found dead in a motel. Lia lives with her father, stepmother, and stepsister. Lia has also been suffering with anorexia since she was in eighth grade.

The story is told through flashbacks and current day. The flashbacks detail how she and Cassie made a New Years Resolution/pact with each other to be the thinnest girls in the school — Lia accomplishes this by anorexia, Cassie by bulimia. They are best friends until one day their junior year, when Lia is driving them in a car and she passes out because her blood sugar is low. Lia is subsequently hospitalized for her eating disorder and she she is released, Cassie blames Lia for encouraging her own eating disorder, and they become estranged.

Lia attempts to figure out the details of Cassie’s last few days. Her body was found in a motel and she had called Lia thirty-three times on her cell phone the night she died, but Lia didn’t answer. When Lia went to the motel, an employee named Elijah asked her if she knew anyone named Lia, because Cassie had left a message for her. Lia begins to see Cassie’s ghost, who becomes more and more angry as she encounters it.

Lia has to be weighed every day by her stepmother, Jennifer, but Lia has rigged the scale and wears a robe that has weight sewed into the pockets. Her weight drops from 101 to 93. Lia’s mother, Dr. Marrigan, sees her at Cassie’s funeral and is concerned by her appearance. Lia has become estranged from her mother due to what she sees as her mother trying to control her. However, when Lia’s young stepsister, Emma, walks in on Lia cutting herself on her chest and sees Lia covered in blood, Lia’s parents agree that it would be for the best for Lia to stay with her mother for a while.

While staying with her, Lia’s mother makes a deal with her — she’ll tell Lia details of Cassie’s death if Lia eats. Cassie’s autopsy revealed that she died from Boerhaave syndrome — a rupturing of the esophagus due to repeated vomiting. She had gotten the motel room after a fight with her parents, drank a copious amount of vodka, and died when her esophagus ruptured.

Lia tells her therapist that she has been haunted by Cassie’s ghost, and her therapist tells her that this, along with her weight loss, makes her need to be hospitalized in the psychiatric institution again. Lia goes to Elijah, who she’s become friends with, and tells him she wants to run away with him when he leaves town. He tells her that she can go as long as she tells her family first — when she refuses, he tells her how lucky she is to have a family that cares and tells her that it seems like her family is trying to help her. She falls asleep and when she wakes up, Elijah and her money are gone; he’s left her a note that tells her she needs to stay and get help.

Lia is alone in the motel and is near death. Cassie’s ghost appears to her again and Cassie tells her how excited she is that she’ll be joining her soon; they also talk about the good parts of being alive. Lia manages to harness her energy to make it to a phone and calls her mother and tells her to come get her.

The last chapter opens with Lia in the hospital again. The difference this time is that Lia wants to be healed and is working toward recovery both on herself and with her relationships with her parents. The novel ends with a message of hope for Lia’s recovery and the message that help is always there for you if you can accept it.

IMPRESSIONS

This is a very powerful book. I’ve had friends struggle with eating disorders and it was heartbreaking to think that this resembled their struggles.

This is Lia’s explanation for her eating disorder:

Why? You want to know why?

Step into a tanning booth and fry yourself for two or three days. After your skin bubbles and peels off, roll in coarse salt, then pull on long underwear woven from spun glass and razor wire. Over that goes your regular clothes, as long as they are tight.

Smoke gunpowder and go to school to jump through hoops, sit up and beg, and roll over on command. Listen to the whispers that curl into your head at night, calling you ugly and fat and stupid and bitch and whore and worst of all “a disappointment.” Puke and starve and cut and drink because you don’t want to feel any of this. Puke and starve and cut and drink because you need an anesthetic and it works. For a while. But then the anesthetic turns into poison and by then it’s too late because you are mainlining it now, straight into your soul. It is rotting you and you can’t stop.

Look in a mirror and find a ghost. Hear every heartbeat scream that everysinglething is wrong with you.

“Why?” is the wrong question.

Ask “Why not?” (Anderson 2009)

I don’t know a single person who doesn’t struggle with image issues. Every person, men or women, has something about their appearance that bugs them. I am no stranger to an image issue and a certain amount of obsession with my weight.

However, the book ending on a hopeful and positive note was refreshing. Though Cassie died, Lia was able to survive, though there is an admittedly difficult road ahead. Another aspect of the book that I enjoyed was that her family was there, whether Lia wanted them or not, the entire time. The relationship with the mother was also very real. What teenaged girl doesn’t think their mother is trying to control their lives? As well they should, because I’m around teenagers all day long at school and they are like naked moles. Hormonal, emotional, naked moles.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

At times Lia’s narrow, repetitive mind-set makes her a frustrating narrator. Certainly her obsessional behaviors (counting calories, ritually berating herself) are central to the illness, but at such times Lia can feel more like a concatenation of symptoms than a distinct person.

This very quality, however, may make Lia recognizable to many teenagers. One issue the author must have confronted is the potential of “Wintergirls” to be a “trigger” for anorexia, as psychologists term it. Can a novel convey, however inadvertently, an allure to anorexic behavior? While to my mind there is nothing in “Wintergirls” that glamorizes the illness, for some the mere mention of symptoms is problematic. “It’s about competition,” an anorexia sufferer once explained to me. “Sometimes all it takes to get triggered is to read about someone who weighs less than you do.”

We recognize Lia, but it’s sometimes hard to relate to her. Withdrawing, she sees life as if it were a series of meals to be gotten through (“I bit the days off in rows. . . . Bite. Chew. Swallow”). Parts of her story are hurried, telescoped, and this can make it hard for the reader to feel much about what is occurring.

Yet the book deepens. Where Lia had been hiding the extent of her illness before Cassie died, pretending to eat, playing the part of the “good girl,” increasingly, as her self-destruction gathers force, the truth emerges; the surface placidity of her life begins to crack.
Feinberg 2009

The intensity of emotion and vivid language here are more reminiscent of Anderson’s Speak (Farrar, 1999) than any of her other works. Lia and Cassie had been best friends since elementary school, and each developed her own style of eating disorder that leads to disaster. Now 18, they are no longer friends. Despite their estrangement, Cassie calls Lia 33 times on the night of her death, and Lia never answers. As events play out, Lia’s guilt, her need to be thin, and her fight for acceptance unravel in an almost poetic stream of consciousness in this startlingly crisp and pitch-perfect first-person narrative. The text is rich with words still legible but crossed out, the judicious use of italics, and tiny font-size refrains reflecting her distorted internal logic. All of the usual answers of specialized treatment centers, therapy, and monitoring of weight and food fail to prevail while Lia’s cleverness holds sway. What happens to her in the end is much less the point than traveling with her on her agonizing journey of inexplicable pain and her attempt to make some sense of her life.
Edwards 2009

LIBRARY USES

I would anticipate this book to be used in a booktalk with a teenaged audience, but I think that it’s very important to introduce this book for parents to use to have discussions with their teenagers. This book would be a good conversation starter for parents.

REFERENCES

Anderson, L. H. (2009). Wintergirls. New York: Viking.

Edwards, C. (2009, January 14). Wintergirls by laurie halse anderson. School Library Journal. Retrieved from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6628521.html

Feinberg, B. (2009, May 8). Skin and bone. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/10/books/review/Feinberg-t.html?_r=0

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Module 7: If I Stay by Gayle Forman

October 21st, 2012 — 11:27pm

If I Stay by Gayle Forman is realistic fiction about a girl, Mia, who is in a horrific car crash with her parents, who die on the scene, and her younger brother, who dies in the hospital. The story is told through flashbacks as well as the present, where she is witnessing the events from outside of her body and deciding whether she wants to stay alive or die with the rest of her family.

SUMMARY

Mia is 17 and a senior in high school; she is also a star cellist, who has auditioned for and is awaiting acceptance to Julliard. She has super cool punk rock musician parents, an adorable younger brother named Teddy, and a rock musician boyfriend, Adam. All is going swimmingly in Mia’s life until her family decides to drive to visit their family friends, Henry and Willow and their new baby, and are hit by a four-ton pickup truck. Mia is amazed to see herself standing on the side of the road, witnessing the devastation of the car and the carnage — pieces of her father’s brain are on the asphalt, her mother died of internal bleeding that has caused her eyes to turn red, and she’s horrified to see the hand of what she thinks is Teddy but soon realizes is her own hand. She’s in a coma and is having an out of body experience.

She’s taken to the hospital and operated on, and she watches the nurses and surgeons interact. She watches her grandparents arrive at the hospital, which is when she realizes that Teddy has died as well. She watches as her best friend, Kim, arrives with her mother, and finally, who she’s been waiting for, Adam arrives. He tries to get to her room but one of the nurses stops him. He and Kim come up with a plan to cause a distraction with the lead singer of the famous band that Adam’s band is opening for on their concert tour, but nothing works until Willow, her family friend that works for the hospital, gets them to allow Adam to visit Mia.

All of this is interspersed with flashbacks detailing Mia’s childhood, her relationship with her parents, her relationship with Kim, playing the cello and excelling, auditioning for Julliard, her relationship with Adam, the difficulties of falling in love as a teenager and having life take you in separate directions.

One of the nurses tell Mia’s grandparents that they need to give Mia reasons to want to stay here, that it is all up to her, so her family and friends come to talk to her. It is finally Adam who plays cello music in her room and speaks to her:

“If you stay, I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll quit the band, go with you to New York. But if you need me to go away, I’ll do that, too. I was talking to Liz and she said maybe coming back to your old life would just be too painful, that maybe it’d be easier for you to erase us. And that would suck, but I’d do it. I can lose you like that if I don’t lose you today. I’ll let you go. If you stay.”

Then it is Adam who lets go. His sobs burst like fists pounding against tender flesh.

Mia finally makes her decision and feels all of the physical and emotional pain of her body as she wakes up. The novel ends with Mia squeezing Adam’s hand and Adam saying, “Mia?”

IMPRESSIONS

I enjoyed this book, but it wasn’t the best thing I’d ever read. My students would enjoy this book, however. Mia’s life seemed just a bit too perfect for me: she has the coolest parents, her boyfriend is a rock star, she’s a musical prodigy on the cello, she and her boyfriend are so in love, blah blah blah. The writing was good, and I appreciated all of the musical terms that were included in different aspects of the book — the car doesn’t just crash, there’s “a symphony of grinding, a chorus of popping, an aria of exploding, and finally, the sad clapping of hard metal cutting into soft trees.”

The book raised some very interesting questions, most importantly, “what do you live for?” I can’t imagine losing my entire immediate family at once. However, I was glad that Mia decided to stay, because she and I were going to have some strong words if I read the entire book and she decided to die. Strong words.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Forman creates a cast of captivating characters and pulls readers into a compelling story that will cause them to laugh, cry, and question the boundaries of family and love. While out on a drive with her family, 17-year-old Mia is suddenly separated from her body and forced to watch the aftermath of the accident that kills her parents and gravely injures her and her younger brother. Far from supernatural, this shift in perspective will be readily accepted by readers as Mia reminisces about significant events and people in her life while her body lies in a coma. Alternating between the past and the present, she reveals the details and complexities of her relationships with family and friends, including the unlikely romance with her punk-rock boyfriend, Adam. An accomplished musician herself, Mia is torn between pursuing her love for music at Julliard and a future with Adam in Oregon. However, she must first choose between fighting to survive and giving in to the resulting sadness and despair over all she has lost. Readers will find themselves engrossed in Mia’s struggles and will race to the satisfying yet realistic conclusion. Teens will identify with Mia’s honest discussion of her own insecurities and doubts. Both brutal and beautiful, this thought-provoking story will stay with readers long after the last page is turned.
School Library Journal

When snow cancels school, Mia and her family pile into their beat-up station wagon for a drive. Unlike most 17-year-olds, Mia is secretly enjoying hanging out with her quirky family until an oncoming driver shatters their lives, leaving the gravely injured Mia with the ultimate decision: Should she stay or go? As a spirit-like observer, Mia narrates the next 24 hours, describing how her medical team, friends, boyfriend and extended family care for her each in their own way. Woven into her real-time observations are powerful memories that organically introduce Mia’s passion for classical music, her relationship with her boyfriend and her bond with her parents and brother. These memories reinforce the magnitude of Mia’s decision and provide weight to both sides of her dilemma. Forman excels at inserting tiny but powerful details throughout, including the realistic sounds, smells and vocabulary of a hospital, which will draw readers into this masterful text and undoubtedly tug at even the toughest of heartstrings.
Kirkus Reviews

LIBRARY USES

This book would be good for a book talk with teenagers; it would also serve as a good display for warnings against drunk driving or safety while driving.

REFERENCES

Forman, G. (2009). If i stay. New York, NY: Dutton Books.

IF I STAY. (2009). Kirkus Reviews, 77(7), 382.

Rashid, L. (2009). If i stay. School Library Journal, 55(5), 106. Retrieved from http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/39142151/if-stay

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96. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

May 10th, 2011 — 2:04pm

Spoiler alert: This is quite possibly the most depressing book imaginable. Oedipus Rex has more laughs than this book. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, then you should turn back now.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron was published in 1979. It is narrated by Stingo, a Southerner working in publishing in new York City, who befriends an extremely screwed up couple. It takes place in 1947.

The Sophie in question is Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish-Catholic survivor of Auschwitz. Throughout the book, she tells Stingo about her past — both of her parents were professors, and Sophie was married at a young age to a mathematics scholar. One day, the Germans came and took Sophie’s father and husband away to a concentration camp and shot them on New Year’s Day. Sophie was taken to Auschwitz when she smuggled ham to her dying mother. While at Auschwitz, she worked as the stenographer to Rudolf Höss and tried to convince him that her son, Jan, should be taken from the camp and put into the Lebensborn program and be raised as a German orphan because he has blonde hair and blue eyes and speaks fluent German, but Höss refuses.

Sophie (Meryl Streep) living with her Choice.

The final piece of Sophie’s story from Auschwitz is about when she and her two children first arrived at the camp. She has two children, her son Jan and her daughter Eva. On the night they arrived, a doctor makes her choose which of her children will be sent to the gas chamber that night and which one will live.When she is unable to choose, a Nazi officer said both would be sent to die so Sophie chooses Eva to die that night, because she figures that Jan would have a better chance of surviving the camp. However, after she and Jan are separated between the adult and children camps, Sophie never finds out what happened to her son; she gets a letter saying that he’s been moved from the Children’s Camp and she assumes that he was killed. She has been living with overwhelming guilt and mourning ever since the day she arrived at Auschwitz.

You can start crying now. It’s okay. I’ll wait.

Sophie moved to America immediately after the war and met Nathan, who took care of her when she was sick when she first arrived. Nathan is crazy (he’s an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic) and is abusive to Sophie when he has one of his outbreaks; it doesn’t help that he’s self-medicating with cocaine and prescription drugs that he gets from his job at Pfizer.

Unfortunately, Nathan sets his crazy on Stingo and Sophie, who he accuses of having an affair together and he attacks Sophie and tries to kill her. Stingo takes Sophie away to Virginia, where Sophie tells him the story of her children. Stingo tells her that he’s in love with her and Sophie takes Stingo’s virginity. The next morning, Stingo wakes up to find a note from Sophie; she has gone back to Nathan. Telling the story of her children has overwhelmed her with grief and she has gone back to commit suicide with Nathan, who is on his own suicidal crazy-train. Stingo returns to Brooklyn and discovers that Sophie and Nathan have poisoned themselves with cyanide.

DEPRESSING.

There are a lot of nuances to the book — the way that the narration is told in both third and first person, the jumps in time, the comparisons of the Holocaust to the American South, the focus of a Holocaust survivor who isn’t Jewish — but who cares? Not when you compare it to the heart-wrenching choice of knowing that you are responsible for the death of your child. I don’t have, much less want, children and I felt like my heart was being torn out of my chest. I didn’t think anyone could find a way to make the horrors of the Holocaust even worse, but congratulations, William Styron, you did it.

The apocryphal story of the film version of Sophie’s Choice has Meryl Streep as Sophie only being able to do one take of the “choice” scene, as she found it too emotionally draining and painful. Preach, Queen Meryl.

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