The Hundred-Foot Journey

HundredThe Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais is the latest book club pick, due mostly because of the movie that just came out.  I’m always a little hesitant to read a book just because there’s a movie about it.  Especially since no one in my book club has seen it.  But it’s not a long book and it’s about cooking and the clash of cultures in Europe, so I figured there was going to be something I’d like.  And I was right.

The book is basically a mash-up of Slumdog Millionaire, Julie & Julia, and My Life in France.  So if you liked the movie or the books the latter two were based on then chances are you’ll like Hundred-Foot Journey.  Morais is a great story-teller.  Even though there were characters I couldn’t relate to, or plot points I thought were pointless, the story that holds it all together made me suspend my criticism and just keep reading.  The narrator sounds like he’s actually talking to me and I want to listen.

The story begins in Mumbai with the Haji family, but after a tragedy the Hajis moves to London, where relatives help them establish themselves and adjust the Western World.  Ironically, the part of London where they live is a Southern Asian ghetto, so they don’t have to change all that much.  But due to a conflict between the two families, Papa Haji takes his six children, his mother, and sister and brother-in-law on a continental tour, ending up in alpine France.  They remain here for most of the book and this is where the cooking part of the plot picks up.

They live across the street from a lady who runs an inn and is a two star Michelin chef.  The Hajis decide to convert part of their house into an Indian restaurant and this upsets the chef who is very much into haute French cuisine.  I won’t give more away, but the conflicts, resolutions, and coming-of-age are all very interesting.  There’s a lot about French culture I didn’t know that I learn from the book.

I’d recommend this book to any one who likes to travel or cook because there’s a lot of both throughout.  This book would be perfect to read on a trip, in fact.  It’s not too complex that it’s going to tax you to get through it, but it’s entertaining enough to make the time go by.

Ultimately, what readers may take away from the book is that we sometimes make life more complicated than it needs to be.  We need to remember to stay true to our foundations and be great at what we excel in.  Forget all the drama and superficial things we sometimes get caught up in.  Life is too short to focus on all of that.

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In Darkness

In Darkness by Nick Lake won the Printz award in 2013.  Since I’ve been on a kick to read through the Printz award winners and nominees this one was at the top of the list.  The book’s subject is Haiti. Both the Haiti of Toussaint l’Overture and of the 2010 earthquake.  Lake is from England so I was curious how a writer from England was going to handle a former-French colony in the Caribbean.  Overall, I think he did a good job.  But the connection between the two Haitis is thin at best.

DarknessLake starts the book by introducing us to Shorty, the 14-year-old protagonist of the contemporary section of the novel.  He was in the hospital the morning of the earthquake and is trapped under rubble.  While he’s awaiting death and/or rescue he’s flashing back on how he got there, describing his life in Site Soley, one of the worst slums in the world.  What’s interesting about this section is that Lake has clearly done his research.  He introduces us to the politics of the slum including the UN and world humanitarian efforts (aka mismanagement) of relief efforts as well as some of the well-known gang leaders who take over where the government does nothing.  While Lake doesn’t get too sentimental and down play the violence and crime, I think he does a great job of giving reasons why people are forced into the actions that make them more monsters than humans.  If you were living in a place where your staple was mud pies, you’d probably agree to do some pretty dark things too.

At the same time as we are meeting Shorty, Lake takes us all the way back to the time of the Haitian revolution and Toussaint l’Overture.  Again, Lake has done his historical research.  He takes the major instances of Toussaint’s life and gives them a nice narrative feel to them.  We get into Toussaint’s head and hear the story from his perspective.  I’m curious to read more about Toussaint and the Haitian revolution.  I didn’t know this, but it was the first slave rebellion to successfully establish a nation.  And it set a precedence throughout Europe and the Americas.  The sad part is, the French tricked Toussaint into trusting them, hauled him to France, and let him die in a prison.

Toussaint’s experience in the prison and Shorty’s “imprisonment” in the rubble of the hospital is Lake’s connection between Haiti’s past and present.   I’m venturing to guess that the point is that Haiti began in a dark place-slavery, depredation, fighting for survival, and it’s still happening today.  While not physically enslaved, many Haitians are economically enslaved and it’s one of the poorest countries in the world.  So I give Lake credit for his intent but I’m not sure the execution came out in the end.

There was a lot of swearing.  A lot.  I think it’s because most of Shorty’s friends listen to American hip-hop and rap and, like most second-language learners, the swear words sound cool to them.  So they end up overusing them.  Again, I get the intent, but after a while it’s overdone and it just seems like bad writing.  Another word of caution, there’s a lot of voodoo in the book.  It’s done is a socio-historical context, as voodoo is an official religion in Haiti, and while it’s not something I’m interested in or enjoy reading about I thought Lake handled it honestly and tastefully.

It’s sad that after so much time, a lot hasn’t changed about Haiti.  I wonder what Toussaint would actually think if he were to see Haiti today.  I think he’d be happy the nation is still independent and that there is no slavery, but I think he’d be saddened that the people’s lives aren’t much better than they were when he was alive.  I think Lake is challenging us to remember that while we see violence and corruption on the tv, we should be careful of dehumanizing the people.  As one of the characters says in the book,
“once you hold a gun, it’s easy to let the gun do the thinking.”

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

I’ve been on a quest to read more current young adult literature to augment the classic literature I hand out in class.  Basically, I need to find more modern and contemporary pieces that I can recommend that are outside of the typical “classic literature” cannon.  So I turned to reading my way through the Printz awards.  Many of the well-known young adult authors got their starts from the promotion of this award and I haven’t read a book from this list that I didn’t like.

AristotleOne of them that caught my attention was called Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz.  The title alone made me wonder what it was about plus it’s won several other awards including the Stonewall and Lambda awards, both of which are awards for LGBT young adult literature.  I wanted to dig a little deeper since the summary on the back of the book mentioned only a friendship between Aristotle and Dante, yet it had won awards from the LGBT community so I figured there must be a character who comes out in the book or both characters are dealing with coming out or something along those lines.  I haven’t read any literature featuring LGBT young people and I want to have a good piece of literature in case any of my students do come out or are looking to understand a new perspective due to a friend or relative coming out.

I’m the sort of reader who likes to guess the ending of the book without actually jumping ahead and reading.  It’s a game I play with myself to keep me reading and engaged with the text.  So knowing that one of the boys in the book was going to come out, I was constantly on the look out for any clues that would let me guess which one.  I won’t give anything away, but I’ll tell you I wasn’t able to guess but I wasn’t shocked when it was revealed.  The author was very careful to avoid stereotypes and yet not go the other extreme and have a character that was unbelievable as a gay teen come out.  Instead, the author uses his almost poetic style to bring the reader into the minds of the characters and the circumstances of the plot so that we are there with them.  Saenz excels at showing not telling.

I can’t say much more without really spoiling everything but what I will say is that until the very end I was really, really into the book.  Like I read it all in a Sunday afternoon.  Ignored the grading, the football games, my football picks, and getting dressed for the day.  It was that good of a book.  And what I appreciated about the book wasn’t that it wasn’t all about homosexuality.  There were a lot of conflicts that made the characters real and keep the plot moving forward.

But I didn’t like the ending.  It wasn’t bad from a writing sense.  And he doesn’t lose steam from a plot sense.  But I think he betrays the characters a little bit and panders to the audience.  And that was really disappointing. Disappointing because it could have gone to a place that would’ve reached a wider male audience but I’m pretty sure most teen guys, those at least who give it a chance knowing there might be a gay teen in it, might feel a little betrayed by the ending.  Betrayed in the sense that the book made readers (i.e. me) think we had figured everything out but suddenly we get to the ending and blam!  It turns a 90 degree corner and we end exactly where I didn’t see us going.  Or maybe this is me and I missed the signs the whole way.  Ultimately, the ending didn’t sit well with me.

I’d still recommend this book for the writing and story.  I think it’s a good example of how good writing and an honest story can transport readers into a book and they lose themselves to time and responsibility.  Isn’t that what good reading’s supposed be?

Spartan Up!

I sometimes get these crazy ideas in my head.  So far they haven’t killed me.  Yet.  One of the craziest I’ve had was to run the Tough Mudder race in Michigan in July 2014.  Yeah.  I’m still wondering what drove me to that decision.  Especially since I didn’t really do much to train.  But the idea of pushing myself to be the best has always been part of who I am.  Had I gone to a public high school and/or college I would’ve tried out for any sports team.  I like making myself better and competing at the same time.

SpartanSo that’s what brought me to Joe De Sena’s Spartan Up!.  I was browsing the “New Nonfiction” section at the library when the title caught my eye.  While I think the Spartans were way too into the whole military thing.  They certainly knew how to be winners and how to foster that in their culture.  De Sena, though, is not a Spartan.  He’s just the founder of the Spartan and Death Races.   I thought this was going to be his autobiography/philosophy of why he started the Spartan race in the first place.  And it sort of was.  With a commercial annoyingly buzzing in the background.

At the very least I think De Sena intended this to be his manifesto of why he started the Spartan Race and that’s where he shines.  But he can’t help himself from plugging the Spartan Race EVERY CHANCE HE CAN!!!!!!  I kept thinking.  I get it already.  We know about the Spartan Race.  Now get back to your point.  And he keeps making very weak logical statements about how the Spartan Race can make you a better person.  I disagree.  I think preparing for the Spartan Race can make you a better person.  The exercise and discipline are great skills that should be fostered all our lives.

But he can’t resist telling an anecdote about someone who’s 300 lbs overweight who signed up for the Race and who now is doing triathlons and the like.  Which was ok the first two times he did it but by the end it felt like he was following the same pattern for each chapter.  By the end you could almost skim the paragraphs because you already knew what information was going to be there.

Overall I liked the philosophy but thought the delivery was bad.  I think a good editor could’ve helped him avoid the apparent self-promotion.  He has an interesting story to tell and his philosophy is intriguing.  But he needs to keep the race separate.  It just muddies the water.  Pun intended.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union has been on my to-read list for a while now.  I finally picked it up when I came across it browsing for another book.  I decided, what the hey, why not read it now?  I wasn’t sure what to expect because the summaries on the book were somewhat vague, but I was interested in the story because it’s an alternative history whodunnit murder mystery.

In this world, the United States created a Federal district in Sitka, Alaska to house the Jews fleeing Europe during and after WWII.  And when Israel fails in 1948, those Jews also evacuate to Sitka.  So the population of Sitka hovers around the 3 million mark.  It’s not a state and it’s not permanent.  They aren’t even granted U.S. citizenship.  This becomes one of the themes the author deftly develops throughout the novel: Where do we belong?

indexThen we have the protagonist who is struggling to over come some rough experiences in his life while trying to the be the awesome cop that he is.  A recent murder in his long-term hotel (his home for the time being) sets him up for a quest into the under-belly of Sitka and right-wing Jewish religious politics.

10 hours after finishing the book I still don’t know whether I liked it or not.  It’s almost the same feeling I had after reading the Game of Thrones quintet.  Part of why I hesitate to shout my praises from the roof top is due to needing a lot of cultural context to read this book.  Because this is a Jewish district populated by mostly European Jews, Yiddish is the language of the district.  Because Israel failed, Hebrew is basically extinct expect for in the synagogue.  Throughout the book there’s a lot of Yiddish used but no translation given.  Having read Chaim Potok, Jonathan Safran Foer, and studying both Yiddish and German, I didn’t have too many problems.  In fact, the geek in me was excited when I recognized several words and phrases (See!  being a language geek does pay off.  Sometimes.)  But someone who doesn’t have this background may get frustrated or miss out on some of the nuances of the text.

Then there’s the Jewish religious culture.  Not all of the Jews of Sitka are religious.  Those that are religious represent the major sects of Judaism, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic.  Again, though, being familiar with Judaism helped me understand the plot and context because no explanation was given by the author.  This is what led me to wonder if the author wasn’t writing for a Jewish audience.  Or maybe he figured that if you were interested in the book you might be, like me, familiar with Judaism and Jewish culture.  Or maybe you just wanted to jump in and try your Yiddish and get your Kosher on.  Who knows?

Nu, what I do know is that every day at work I looked forward to jumping back into this world while I read at lunch.  And I couldn’t wait to race home at the end of the day to see what updates there were on the murder case.  And when I read, I got lost in the world.  I’d find that I had read 25-50 pages without really knowing I had gone that far.  For an author to get me so absorbed into the book that I don’t notice when I’ve crossed over into another chapter, it’s good writing.  So while I had to struggle through all of the yiddishkeit, I’m going to give the author props for drawing me into the world and introducing me to characters and a story I’m going to miss.

Readicide

ReadicideI’ve been working my way through Kelly Gallagher’s cannon and this is my latest read, Readicide: How Schools are Killing reading and What You Can do about It.  It’s a great analysis of the reasons why reading scores have fallen even though a lot of legislation has gone into trying to make the U.S. more competitive on the global education scale.  In fact, much of Gallagher’s reasons harmonizes with two books I’ve already read and reviewed, so it wasn’t too much of a shock the reasons he gave for our dismal performance when compared with Asia and Europe.

What Gallagher focuses on is the lack of authenticity in our school systems and the tools that we continually use that are supposed to “help” those students who don’t achieve inauthentic goals.  Instead of letting students read self-selected texts we have them complete worksheets, inundate their books with sticky notes that distract the reader from the flow of reading.  Ultimately we are keeping students from reading and when they don’t perform as readers we take them further away from reading by giving them shorter works to read and more worksheets.  When you think about that, there’s no wonder that why we fall further and further behind other countries.  It’s like having students watch movies and read books about running, but only give them a chance to run on the day of the test.

What I appreciate about Gallagher is that he takes the conversation into the high school classroom.  The two other books that I’ve read were based in the middle school realm.  While there’s a lot that can be adapted from middle school, it’s nice to have a voice that represents my everyday situation.  Gallagher believes, like I do, that there’s something valuable in having the whole class read a novel.  He and I both agree that there is something to be said for cultural literacy meaning that I think it’s important that we as a culture can discuss works such as Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby no matter what high school you went to.  But I think too many times we’ve beaten students over the head with these great novels and by the time students leave high school they never want anything to do with literature again.

So while I’m sobered by the fact that as a nation we haven’t figured out how to actually educate students to love, I’m encouraged that there are some educators that are doing what they can to make a difference in students’ lives.  As English teachers, specifically, it’s our responsibility to foster a love of reading and to be there to guide students through the “classics” rather than to beat them over the head with them.