The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

Terrific book! Loved it. Lyrical. Captivating. Love story. Sad parts. Retelling of Classical stories before and during the Trojan War. Timely in that it describes a great love between two Greek princes, not unusual for the time period, but now on contemporary minds with the legalization of gay marriage.

Patroclus is born small, weak, and a disappointment to his father, a king. Achilles is the golden boy, son of the nymph Thetis and another king. Patroclus is sent to be fostered at Peleus’ court where Achilles trains separately to become the greatest of Greek warriors.

“The next summer we turned thirteen, him first, and then me. Our bodies began to stretch, pulling at our joints until they were aching and weak. In Peleaus’ shining bronze mirror, I almost did not recognize myself — lanky and gaunt, stork legs and sharpening chin. Achilles was taller still, seeming to tower above me. Eventually we would be of a height, but he came to his maturity sooner, with a startling speed, primed perhaps by the divinity in his blood.” (p. 58).

They are trained as young men by the centaur Chiron, high on the side of a mountain in a crystal cave. Later, they join the war to retrieve Helen from Paris and the Trojans.

“I ran, armor banging. My breath came thickly, and the ground shook with the pounding of feet, a rumbling roar growing louder. The dust kicked up by the charge was almost blinding. I could not see Achilles. I could not see the man beside me. I could do nothing but grip my shield and run.” (p. 237).

Winner of the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction.

If you like Game of Thrones or reading Greek mythology, you will enjoy this book.


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Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

Speaking of symmetry, at one point, I wondered in Niffeneger’s name was an anagram…Reggeneiffen? Too much Scrabble, I guess.

The first thing I learned was that Highgate Cemetary is a real place. It sounds so well described in the book that I suspected it might be real. Look at the pictures on the internet. Volunteers keep it in a state of “suspended decay” somewhat like the ghost town at Bodie, another place I like.

I love old cemeteries. I could not believe that I spent so much time in London and never heard of it. It will be on my definite list for my next visit there.

Back to the book, a set of twenty year old twins, still living at home, inherit an apartment from their aunt in London. The property has a gate from the garden into Highgate Cemetery. The conditions of the will state that the twins will need to live there for one year. After that they can sell it or do whatever else they want. They are not to let their parents enter the premises. There is plenty of money to go with the apartment so they don’t need to work.

One twin Julia is very outgoing and adventurous and immediately wants to move there. The other twin Valentina is more reticent and scared to leave home. They ask their mother about her sister and why they have not had contact with her. There is obviously some deep family secret concerned with their relationship. They also were twins.

They move into Elspeth’s apartment filled with all kinds of awesome antiques, vintage clothing, and adopt a little starving kitten they find. The more introverted sister is really into fashion design so loves the vintage clothes. The other sister takes her on long adventures on the Tube through London. Lots of window shopping, trying on Philip Treacy hats, and the like. They start out dressing exactly alike, always doing everything together, but eventually the quieter one starts trying to carve out her own life.

The two other major characters are the upstairs and downstairs neighbors. The upstairs neighbor is Martin, a man with OCD, hardly able to leave his apartment. He translates arcane languages for the British Museum and creates crossword puzzles for the newspaper. After a flood comes through the bedroom ceiling due to his washing the same spot over and over, Julia goes up to talk to him and eventually befriends him.

Robert was Elspeth’s younger lover. He is a volunteer at Highgate Cemetery. He is writing a Ph.D. thesis on the famous people buried at Highgate. “On these nights in the cemetery Robert stood in front of Elspeth’s grave, or sat on its solitary step with his back against the uncomfortable grillwork. It did not bother him when he stood by the Rossetti grave and couldn’t feel the presence of Lizzie or Christina, but he found it disturbing to visit Elspeth and find that she was not “at home” to him.” (p. 55).

It is a love story on several levels and a ghost story. I enjoyed it and wonder if there will be a sequel.


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The Boy in the Black Suit, by Jason Reynolds

This book won the Coretta Scott King Award. The scenes of the neighborhood reminded me of the film Fences. People sitting out on their stoop, reading the newspaper and watching neighbors walk by. Kids playing in the street. People’s lives being more out in the open for others to see than is the case in the neighborhoods in college towns that I grew up in.

Matt is in high school. He isn’t really engaged in school so it plays a very small part in the book. School is a morning placeholder where he gets out around noon and goes to his job at the funeral home. His mentor there is Mr. Ray who turns out to have been a professional athlete. After an injury on the court, he had to give up his dreams of a basketball career. But, he took over his father’s business and became a successful and compassionate community businessperson.

As the story opens, Matt’s mom has died of cancer. His father goes off on a drinking binge. Matt is left to himself to grieve. He feels he needs a job to help his dad. He is rescued from a job at the local greasy chicken place by Mr. Ray, a family friend who offers him an after school job at the funeral home. He sneaks in to watch a funeral and finds it therapeutic to focus on the person closest to the deceased. It helps to see how others are going through the grieving process.

He spends time with his long time friend Chris and eventually meets a girl he is interested in, first at the Cluck Bucket where she works and later at her grandmother’s funeral. It is a sweet story.

In the Acknowledgements, the author notes, “This is going to sound weird, but the only reason this book could be written at all is because my mother took me to a lot of funerals at a very young age. So…uh…thanks, Ma.”

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If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo

This was my first book about the life and thoughts of a high school age transgender teen. I was interested to read the author’s notes at the end.

“To my cisgender readers — which is to say, to those of you who are not trans: Thank you for reading this. Thank  you for being interested. I’m nervous about what you might think of this book, though maybe not in the way you might think I am. I am, of course, anxious that people might not like it, but even more than that I’m worried that you might take Amanda’s story as gospel, especially since it comes from a trans woman. This prospect terrifies me, actually! I am a storyteller, not an educator. I have taken liberties with what I know reality to be. I have fictionalized things to make them work in my story. I have, in some ways, cleaved to stereotypes and even bent rules to make Amanda’s trans-ness as unchallenging to normative assumptions as possible.” (275-276).

I was very touched by the story. Most teens are trying personas on, trying to figure out who they will become. Most teens are sensitive to bullying, opinion of their peers, and the fear of not fitting in with some social group. Think how difficult it would be to change gender and physical appearance in the midst of this all.

Some years ago, I was a teacher at a small Berkeley private school. A young man I knew as a freshman, hiking together at Yosemite and discussing cars, returned the next year to school dressing as a girl and asking to be called by a girl’s name. This caused quite a ruckus at the school. We wanted to be politically correct and sensitive. We also only had one bathroom for female staff and female students to share. A number of women didn’t feel comfortable having him/her use our bathroom. We finally settled on giving him/her a key to his/her own single stall bathroom. In the beginning, some of the girls seemed to think the person was changing assignment just to be able to more easily hit on girls. As time went on, and the person stuck with their new gender, despite intense disapproval from the father, students became more accepting.

The book emphasized to me the fear of Amanda, being attracted to a boy who seems to be attracted to her, but fearful that if she reveals her secret he will leave her or become violent.

I had a friend comment, “How many of your students will pick this book to read?” I hope many will read it. Even if somewhat simplified from what many trans people experience, it provided interesting insights and will make me more interesting in talking with trans people.

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Another Faust, by Daniel and Dina Nayeri

As I went on winter break from my high school library, I took home a stack of new books different from my usual reading tastes. I selected this book as the cover looked like a cross between a vampire book and a “Pretty Little Liars” type of book. As suspected from the title, it is a takeoff on the Faust theme of selling one’s soul to the Devil in return for some kind of advantage that doesn’t turn out quite as good as you imagined.

I also was interested that the book was written by adult brother and sister reflecting on intense competition at school during their high school years. My current high school has a 98% graduation rate and is the scene of intense studying and competition to gain admission to top colleges.

The time is present day. Children are enticed to leave their homes to gain some kind of advantage in a new “family.” They lose most memory of their earlier lives. Their “governess” is an exceedingly beautiful, tall, blonde woman. Their gifts include an ability to stop and replay time, athletic prowess, high intelligence, head turning attractiveness, but their is always something off. For example, the beauty attracts everyone’s attention, but when they get close to her, she gives off a putrescent odor. If they can ignore that long enough the person becomes “charmed” by her and finds it difficult to disengage.

As time goes on, the young people start to regain some of their previous memories. They begin to see that the advantages conferred by their governess are not all for which they originally were willing to give their souls. Is it too late to escape her influence?

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The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, by Anton Disclafani

This book is so different from what I expected and I loved it. I saw this book in our high school library and expected a sort of “I love horses and a halcyon vision of summer camp.”

The story is laid in the South and moves to the Smokey Mountains. The young woman character is raised in an isolated setting where her closest companions are are brother and a male cousin. She begins an intimate relationship with her cousin and her brother attacks the cousin. The cousin is badly injured and she is sent away to an exclusive camp/school for girls in the Smokey Mountains.

At first she thinks she is only there for the summer. She meets all kinds of girls there for different reasons as the Depression gains momentum. She does love horses and that is one of the things that keeps her going during her enforced stay at the camp.

If I told you more, it would give too much away. A compelling read and a view into a very different time and world, when girls were sent away from home for suspected pregnancies and other “bad behavior.”

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Iron Jawed Angels, film

This is a moving film on the fight for Women’s Suffrage in the United States. Iron Jawed Angels stars Hilary Swank, Julia Ormond, Angelica Huston, and Frances O’Connor. Just after the Presidential Election, it is being shown in classes at our high school. We have had the right for women to vote since 1920 and it was a long, bitter fight getting to that point. We owe a debt to those women who fought for equality under the government.

Love the line where they are talking about the President with reporters. One male reporter says “he…or she.” Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) says something to the effect of “Wonderful, give that man a cookie.” When the government votes you see a man receiving a telegram from his mother. He switches his vote at the last minute in favor of women’s right to vote.

Inspiring film. Parental Warning: A few scenes might be hard on children younger than high school (force feeding in the jail, etc.).

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Getting In, a novel, by James Finney Boylan

“Dylan looked at the other students and knew that he had no chance of getting into Yale. These other students were obviously better than he was: smarter, richer, braver. Yale was for people like this Polo here, someone who wanted to study semiotics and linguistics, whatever they were. Of for Allison, who wrote her songs. Dylan getting admitted to Yale was about as likely as getting Allison to take a second look at him. If you thought about it, girls and college were a lot alike: there was Early Decision, Regular Admission, and Wait List. The only difference was that with college you took SATs whereas with girls there were all these other secret examinations you took and failed without even knowing it. It would be nice, actually, knowing what your scores were in life. That way you wouldn’t keep trying to ask out Stanford when in all probability you’d wind up married to someone like the University of Las Vegas.” (p. 14).

A bunch of kids and their parents end up on a Winnebago, driving from college to college for their interviews. Outwardly about trying to get into college, the book is also about chance, fate, how lives connect and diverge, secrets, relationships with parents, and the feeling that you are never good enough.

Having been a college interviewer for one of these colleges for more than 25 years, I find the interview sequences quite funny. Here’s to many great students I have interviewed. I hope they all found their place in the world.

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Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Excellent book. I have recommended to a number of my high school students. Our school students perform yearly at a Consent Assembly. We will have a discussion on the true stories presented at the assembly.

This novel is about a high school freshman who is raped at a summer party. She calls the police who arrive and break up the party. She is too embarrassed to tell the police she was raped so she runs home. She becomes a pariah at the school because she has not told anyone about the rape. Finally, she has the courage to relate her experience.

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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson

Several people I told about this book already had heard of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a supposed doctor who built a murder hotel in Chicago near the World’s Fairgrounds. He preyed on young women with few other family members. Estimates of the number of people he killed range from about 22 to almost 200, including young women, children, and at least one man. He had an operating room in the basement to partially dissect the bodies so they would not be recognizable. Then he would sell them to an “articulator” who removed the rest of the flesh and articulated the skeletal remains for medical schools, doctors, and others who needed a skeleton.

I found it surprising that no one got the police involved earlier when family members went to Chicago and disappeared. We have a book by one of the investigators which presents many interviews from people involved in the final cases.

One of the fascinating things about the book is how the author writes one chapter on how the Chicago World’s Fair was designed and built by the best architects and the best landscape architect in the United States. The next chapter will be on Holmes and the stories are parallel, but intertwined to a certain extent.

The story of the evolution of the Fair is almost as amazing as the stories about Holmes. It is interesting how vested Chicago’s population was in having a world-class Fair in Chicago after a successful fair in Paris. An engineer succeeded in building the first Ferris Wheel which was huge in record time. Over 2000 people would be circulating in cars at a time. Amazingly, it succeeded. All the measuring and modeling was done by hand and pencil and paper, before computers. It was more accurate than much of the work when we recently rebuilt part of the San Francisco Bay Bridge!

I was surprised at how addictive this book became to me. I stayed up much too late at night reading it! There are extensive author notes and citations provided.

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