Here’s my last book review of the year (more than my half-cannonball, less than a full), hope to hear from you in the new year!
I picked up Chaim Potok again this fall in order to offer an alternate text to students who had either already read, or were personally opposed to another book in my standard curriculum. As I did I remembered just how detailed and immersive a writer he is.
Covering the often tenuous uncertainty of friendship between an hasidic and a modern Jew in 1940s era New York City, Potok gives plenty of details about the cultural conflict between each sect. He also has an impressive ability to weave international incidents into the flow of a story with natural grace, giving the reader a sense of time as well as place.
But Potok’s best sense of immersion is at play in how he describes the people. Characters are rich and detailed, their behaviors motivated through histories both ancient and personal. Reuven, Danny and their fathers are beautifully crafted and sincerely engaging. They seem less like characters you’re reading about and more like people you’re sitting beside.
Before I prepared the quizzes and assignments associated with the book, I had described The Chosen as “a classic that captures friendship, feuds, growing up and growing old.”Re-reading it, I feel like I can shorten that again to “a classic”.
Hazel and Jack are best friends and live just down the street from one another. Until recently, they didn’t go to the same school, but after Hazel’s dad moved away, she had to change schools and now she’s in the classroom across the hall from Jack. Hazel doesn’t really fit in at school. None of the other kids were adopted from India and look completely different from their mum and dad. She only really feels like she completely belongs when she’s with Jack, and when he’s off playing with the other boys, she feels desperately alone.
Of course, there are worse things than your dad leaving your mum and you to manage by yourselves or your friend occasionally playing with others. Your mum could still be there, listless and uncaring, empty-seeming and no longer noticing much of anything, like Jack’s mum. Maybe that’s why he changes completely one day – becoming mean and distant the day after he had an accident in the school yard, when something seemed to pierce him in the eye? Suddenly he just wants to play with the boys, and ignores Hazel completely. Then he disappears. His parents say he’s off taking care of his elderly aunt Bernice, but Hazel’s known Jack her entire life – he doesn’t have an aunt Bernice. One of the other boys mentions having seen Jack going into the woods, with a tall, icily beautiful, fur-clad woman, like the White Witch of Narnia. But witches aren’t real, are they? Hazel knows that she needs to rescue her best friend, even if it means going off into terrible danger.
Taylor Markham is seventeen, and has lived at the boarding school by Jellicoe Road since she was abandoned by her mother when she was eleven. She’s just reluctantly accepted the post as leader for her house (boarding school dorm – think Harry Potter), which means caring for the well-being of the younger girls in the house, as well as masterminding the territory war between the town kids, the boarding school kids and the group of cadets who camp near the town for a number of weeks each year.
Hannah, the only grown-up that Taylor is really close to, just disappears one day, leaving behind the house she’s been slowly restoring over the years, and an unfinished manuscript, which tells the story of four teenagers who met on Jellicoe Road more than twenty years ago. No one wants to tell Taylor where she’s gone. Then she discovers that the leader for this year’s cadets is none other than Jonah Griggs, the boy who helped her run away years ago, but who also betrayed her by getting them found. Hannah’s disappearance and Jonah’s reappearance in Taylor’s life sparks a series of events that will finally lead to her discovering why she was abandoned by her mother, what really happened to her father, and what may be in store for her in the future.
This is one of my favourite books of the year so far – go to my blog to read my inadequate gushing as to why.
Green-haired alterna-girl Max MacCormack only goes to Colby Randall, a posh Hollywood prep school, because her mother is the principal. She’s full of scorn for the rich and spoiled around her, and especially loathes that her mother forces her to take part in extra curricular events like planning the spring carnival. Max needs to earn money, and her current after school job is not working out as well as she expected. When she is offered insane amounts of money to ghost write Brooke Berlin’s blog, she can’t afford to refuse. Now she just has to spend most of her free time with a girl she can’t stand, and convincingly channel her on the internet.
Brooke Berlin, Hollywood starlet and daughter of mega superstar Brick Berlin (think Arnie, Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise rolled into one) is convinced that she’s one step away from the stardom she deserves. A popular blog showing the world what an “It Girl” she is, will help launch her rising star, she just doesn’t have time to write it herself. So why not hire some creative writing nerd who will be grateful for any time she gets to spend with Brooke? Unfortunately, the only serious applicant to her ad is the spiky malcontent Max, Brooke’s half sister’s best friend. Can this girl be trusted to help jump start Brooke’s career?
This is a powerful debut novel by the young Mr. Meyer, centered on the socio-economic decline of a small former steel town in Pennsylvania, where a sense of hopelessness pervades all, from the two main characters to the satellite of supporting characters. Isaac English and Billy Poe are two unlikely best friends not long out of high school and already stuck in a dead end. Isaac, despite a gifted intellect, is trapped in the dying town to care for his unsympathetic invalid father while former high school football star Billy, now just trailer trash who ignored a chance to get out of town on an athletic scholarship to college, is staring down the barrel of defeat. His mother Grace is a sad case, saddled with a drunken lout and mostly absent husband while fantasizing about her off-again/on-again love affair with the lonely town sheriff while worrying about her son.
Isaac decides to chuck it all and ride the rails Kerouac-style all the way to California to start a new life, but he and Billy barely get to the edge of town when they encounter three tramps with malevolent intent against the boys. Billy is seized by the men but Isaac somehow manages to extricate them both, not before accidentally killing one of the tramps. Isaac heads for the road and Billy accepts the charge of murder out of loyalty to his friend, and is tossed into prison. The rest of the novel follows their separate fates but intertwined, jumping back and forth between their different points of view, as well as those of the sheriff, Billy’s mom Grace, and even Isaac’s guilt-ridden sister Lee, who fled the town and left her younger brother stuck with their father.
Meyer’s writing is effective, conveying the despair afflicting the inhabitants of this rust-belt town and, as a New York Times reviewer put it, their “disheartening sense that they have somehow wound up on the wrong side of history, sidelined in a forgotten industrial town in the shiny new information age of globalization.”
The book is not totally grim—there are enough hopeful and even light-hearted moments to keep the plot moving forward—but it offers a depressingly honest portrayal of the fate of blue-collar America.
Amal is sixteen, and about to start her second year as the only Muslim at a posh private high school, when she has an epiphany while watching Friends.She decides to start wearing the hibab full time, fully aware that this will attract all sorts of attention, and that it may be the most popular of decisions. Her parents, worried that it will give her too much negative attention, try to make her change her mind, but the more she thinks about it, the more resolved she is. Of course, when she shows up in school, the principal and a lot of the teachers think she’s been coerced into it by her parents, or religious leaders, and she has to be very firm about the fact that it’s her own choice, her own decision, and that they can’t prohibit her from her personal expression of her faith, no matter what the school regulations about uniforms state.
Most of her friends, while a bit puzzled at first, are extremely supportive. Only the mean girl clique try to bully her about it, but as Amal points out to herself and her friends, now they have something specific to tease her about. Amal is more concerned about the opinions of Adam, her lab partner, and one of the cutest and most popular boys in school. She has a massive crush on him, and would hate for him to see her as some sort of religious fanatic just because she chooses to wear a head scarf. More on my blog.
From the blurb, as it sums up the first impression of the characters quite well: She’s pretty and popular. He’s a nobody. She lives in the middle of Stockholm. He lives in a hole outside Gothenburg. She spends hours in cafes with her friends, he devotes all his time to dance. She’s fed up with sex, he’s a virgin. She gets called bimbo, he gets called fag. She hates her life. He hates his life. Her name is Ida. His is Sandor.