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Student Review: The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls (reviewed by Kitty M.)

The Glass CastleThe Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This non-fiction story recounts Jeannette Walls’ peculiar childhood. Like nomads, her family, consisting of her unconventional parents, Rex and Rose, and her siblings, regularly moved across the country looking for adventure and money. Her parents often neglected their roles as parents: her father could not keep a job and provide a reliable source of income, while her mother solely focused on art, instead of caring for her growing children. After years of recklessness, their family moves back to her father’s poor, welfare-funded hometown, where her life becomes more chaotic. Her father fell back into alcoholism and often stole from the family’s paychecks to fund his addiction. From a young age, Jeannette and her siblings learned to care for themselves and often resorted to distasteful tactics like stealing food. Despite the struggles of her dysfunctional childhood, Walls still portrayed her parents with respect and wrote of them with high regards. She often referred back to her father’s promise of building their family a glass castle, where they would be comfortable and content. She emphasized her father’s love for her to demonstrate that, although he had his faults, he was a great, loving father. Walls used the pain from her life to her advantage, as it created pathos to engage the reader. She is brutally honest about her dire conditions like using a bucket as a restroom, which creates pity. On the contrary, her happy ending of defying the odds and escaping from this oppressive town is uplifting and gives the audience a well-deserved happy ending. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and felt her candidness and life stories embedded into the story create a compelling book that just cannot be put down. I would recommend this book to everyone. ~ Student: Kitty M.

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Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s hard not to just repeat what John Green says in his NYT book review of Eleanor & Park, because as is usually the case, I am in full agreement. Rainbow Rowell has created a touching and luscious romance framed by the gritty reality of what it’s like to be both poor and heavy, or mixed-race and different, and in high school in Omaha in 1986. Eleanor is overweight, has lots of freckles and bright red, frizzy hair which she has to wash with dish soap because her family can’t afford shampoo. She dresses in an eclectic, clownish wardrobe in part to hide her size, but also because dressing from Goodwill requires creativity and a unique sense of style. She has just returned from a year of exile in another home because her alcoholic, abusive stepfather threw her out. She lands on the bus next to a “stupid Asian” Park, who despite his unfriendly reception to her unwelcome presence on the bus was the only kid willing to allow her to sit. Park is half Korean, half Irish and comes from a loving family with deep roots in their lower-middle class Omaha neighborhood. Park’s history grants him relative immunity from the relentless school bus bullying, but his love of comics and punk music and his sensitive nature isolate him. As Eleanor begins to take refuge in reading Park’s Watchmen comics over his shoulder, Park surreptitiously slows his page turns to accommodate her reading pace. This is the start of something beautiful, as their bond over comics, and later music, and much later over one another’s physical presence grows and intensifies. Rowell perfectly captures the earnest and breath-taking emotions of early first love and yanks the reader along with her characters for that perilous roller-coaster ride. The language in the book is sometimes graphic, but always true to the characters, the era and the situation. The writing is well crafted. My only complaint is that some of the dialog and manners of speech are scripted for today and not 1986 (e.g., things like ending a sentence with “right?” or emphasizing single words with periods like, “Prom. As if.” I was young in 1986. We. Didn’t. Do. That.)  Read this book if you want to know what it feels like to fall in love when you’re 16. It’s awesome. ~ Ms. Dimmick

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The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

The Glass CastleThe Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admit to being pretty late to the party on this memoir, which was first published back in 2006, so I doubt that I have anything fresh to say about it. In fact, once I finished I found myself trolling the web to see if there had been any revelations or exposés about the book’s veracity since it came out. I did this because the saga of Jeannette Walls’ upbringing is so appalling, and her reaction to it as a well-adjusted adult professional is so bereft of emotion or judgment towards the parents who inflicted it upon her that I found myself doubting her story. Jeannette Walls and her three siblings were raised by two brilliant but unstable and unreliable parents who led the family in a nomadic existence in the American South West, “skedaddling” out of each progressively more poverty-stricken town the moment the bill collectors, child welfare authorities or other trouble got too close. Jeannette’s mother, Rose Mary, is a highly narcissistic and probably bipolar artist who resents and therefore largely neglects the responsibilities of motherhood. Jeannette is closest to her charismatic father, Rex, who despite his considerable intellect is unable to hold down a job due in part to his raging alcoholism. As parents Rose Mary and Rex emphasize the importance of independence and self-sufficiency to a fault. The Walls are the antithesis of today’s helicopter parents, leaving their children to fend for themselves in consistently squalid and food insecure environments. After years of traipsing across the South West, the family ultimately returns to Rex’s home territory in a poor coal mining town in West Virginia where the reader gets a glimpse of what is likely the root cause of Rex’s damage. The book is well written and compelling, but I can’t let go of my incredulity. That Walls presents the story of her childhood so matter-of-factly without judgment, reflection or analysis left me with an uneasy feeling about her future. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading this memoir, and recommend it to those who want to read a true story about how much adversity a child can endure and still achieve success as an adult. ~ Ms. Dimmick

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Student Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie (reviewed by Nick M.)

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in HeavenThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, the reader is brought into the world of the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State. Through a compilation of short stories, Alexie shows the reader the hardships of the forgotten, neglected tribes that used to populate the United States. This collection illustrates the struggle faced by Native Americans accurately, but its change in narration and inconsistent timeline make it very hard to follow. At many points in this book, it is very unclear as to who is narrating and when the event took place in relation to the other stories. In addition to the narration and timeline being unclear, the text in general can be quite confusing. Sherman Alexie’s collection focuses on the guised meaning rather than the literal meaning of the text. These subtleties and lack of storyline deterred me and made it highly difficult for me to relate to the main characters, Junior and Victor. Themes also play an immense role in shaping the various storylines written throughout the book. Two of the main themes include alcoholism and identity, each represented within the two main characters, Victor and Junior. The world surrounding Victor becomes so bleak that he reverts to alcohol, as a way of escaping reservation life. Even as a child, Victor struggles to fit in, wearing “horn rimmed” “U.S. Government glasses”(171) and having the “other Indian boys [chase] [him] from one corner of the playground to the other.” (171) Junior also experiences similar struggles, finding his identity, and breaking an awful drinking habit. Both Victor and Junior fall in love with white women, and are both left by these women. Both try to embrace the world outside the Indian Reservation and fail, exemplifying the struggle Native Americans have in finding an identity. Ultimately, I do not recommend to book to anyone. The lack of plot and storyline make the stories very difficult to follow and comprehend. If you enjoy over analyzing ambiguous text and spending more time interpreting rather than reading, this book is for you. ~ Student: Nick M.

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Student Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie (reviewed by Matthew M.)

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in HeavenThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In this compilation of short fiction stories, Sherman Alexie shows the sempiternal hardships and difficulties that Native Americans endure. The Native Americans in this book are located on Spokane Reservation, Washington State. Through the book’s depiction of this multi tribal society, the reader is presented with the conflicts and strife the Spokane people face. Alcoholism and discrimination run rampant in the lives of these Native Americans, who endlessly try to find their identity amidst a nation that wants to take it away. While The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven thoroughly illustrates the difficult lives of those living on the reservation, I did not enjoy the book. The narration is neither clear nor systematic, and the stories are not placed in chronological order. This makes it difficult to follow each character’s sequence of events. Alexie also focuses more on themes and symbols than building a storyline, which sometimes left me wondering about the specificity of each character’s events and actions. While Alexie’s style grants an ample opportunity for profound analysis, it does not yield to an emotional connection with Alexie’s two central characters, Victor and Junior. From beginning to end, these two characters battle with identity, a profound theme in the story. Toward the beginning of the book, Victor moves into Seattle to try and adapt to American society. In the end, he moves back to Spokane Indian Reservation after constantly being judged through stereotypes of a typical Native American. Junior also experiences problems fitting in with society. After having a child out of wedlock with a caucasian in college and being discriminated against by his teacher, he does not know where he belongs. When choosing between school and the reservation, he states, “It’s a matter of choosing my own grave” (242). Victor and Junior struggle to find their identity because they do not fit any societal norm. As a result, they live in perpetual exile. While this book effectively uses these two characters to convey the theme of identity, the lack of plot, action, and structure is my reason for giving it two stars out of five. Unless you want to deeply examine and analyze a book with profuse, opaque content, I suggest you leave this one on the library’s bookshelf. ~ Student: Matthew M.

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Student Review: A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway (reviewed by Andrew H.)

A Farewell to ArmsA Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a vivid story of drinking, sex, love, murder, and loss, set in a country torn apart by war. Frederick Henry is an American ambulance driver in the Italian army during the First World War. He and his friends spend their days drinking, picking up prostitutes in the town, poking fun at the local priest, and collecting the dead and wounded after a battle. They live the indulgent lives of real men, against the backdrop of death and suffering. Henry’s central struggle begins with his love affair with Catherine Barkley, a beautiful English nurse. Henry continually tries to bid “a farewell to arms” to be with Catherine but he is always dragged back into the war. Day after day of slaughter and terror drive the men into brutality and despair, and they turn on each other. Only Henry’s passion for Catherine keeps him sane, though their “love” is ill fated. I only withhold the 5th star because Catherine’s weak, submissive portrayal ruined the relationship. She would always ask, “you do love me don’t you, and you never loved anyone else?” I never believed the main characters were in love. I recommend Farewell to lovers of the indulgent party life, for Hemingway’s vivid portrayals of joking and drinking with the soldiers, and of “loving in the hot night in Milan.”  I also recommend the book to anyone who liked Lord of the Flies, or similarly gritty books where ugly human nature is exposed by violence. I heartily recommend the book for its vivid, natural prose: when you open the book, it’s like walking through a door into a room of real people. The words transport you. ~ Student: Andrew H.

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The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell from the SkyThe Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the family falls from the roof of his Chicago tenement building, Jamie mistakes them for birds and rushes out to identify him with his bird book. Greeted instead by a tragic scene of broken bodies, Jamie discovers that the beautiful girl with fuzzy hair and electric blue eyes is the lone survivor. Rachel is moved to Portland, OR to be raised by her grandmother and aunt while Jamie is haunted by his grisly memories of the event that took her away. Rachel’s Danish mother has apparently sacrificed her family, her African American father has abandoned her, and her grandmother is left to teach Rachel how to be Black. Grandma’s Black is Southern and gospel and not at all like the Black that defines the kids at Rachel’s school. Rachel’s blue eyes, European education, proper diction and book reading habit only serve to set her farther apart. Jamie and Rachel’s interwoven stories, along with of those of other important characters, are told in alternating chapters, as the two slowly come of age in separate parts of the country. Their turbulent paths to adulthood and toward eachother reveal the bitter truth of racial prejudice and social injustice that permeates American society in the 1980s. Hauntingly told, the pieces of this well crafted puzzle fall into place as Rachel ultimately discovers the truth of her past and the potential of her future. This is a heartbreaking story about racial identity and coming of age that is sure to grab you from the first page and never let you go. ~Ms Dimmick

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The Talk Funny Girl, by Rolund Merullo

The Talk-Funny Girl: A NovelThe Talk-Funny Girl: A Novel by Roland Merullo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Majie Richards (MAY-gee REE-shard) is being raised in a shack in the deep woods of New Hampshire by ignorant, isolationist and abusive parents. She didn’t go to school until someone reported the truancy to the authorities when she reached the age of 9. By then the back woods English dialect she spoke was so engrained that her language and learning skills appeared irredeemable, and she was shunted into low level classes despite her true intellect. At the age of 17 Majie is forced to seek work in their depressed town to supplement her father’s meager disability check. It is here where Majie gets glimpses of a different sort of existence than her own, and this simultaneously tantalizes and frightens her. Be prepared to hold your breath as Majie walks the long miles to and from town each night, knowing that a local serial killer has been abducting teenaged girls from the area. Grit your teeth as she endures the twisted “penances” her parents and their demonic minister have dreamed up for their rural congregation’s wayward children. Feel your hopes soar as Majie experiences the kindness of Sands, her new boss, and the love of her Aunt Elaine, who so desperately wants to save her. This is a thoroughly engrossing and all too believable story that will grab you up front and whisk you to the bittersweet final page in no time. ~Ms. Dimmick

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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an amazing, epic story of a life of mischief, achievement, endurance, deprivation and survival. It is this sort of narrative nonfiction story telling that can convert even the most ardent of fiction loyalists, because sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Louis Zamperini spends his young life as a trouble-making but beloved son of poor Italian immigrants in California. When his older brother successfully channels Louis’ wayward energy into competitive running, Zamperini ultimately qualifies for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This is where an ominous brush with the Nazis presages future encounters with evil in the imminent war. Zampirini is forced to abandon his Olympic career prematurely as the US is pulled into WWII, and finds himself a reluctant bombardier flying over the Pacific (he hated planes). This is when the book gets really exciting, as the reader is taken on harrowing missions in unreliable B-24s with Zamperini and his committed crew, until they finally crash in shark infested waters. From here things go from bad to worse, as Zamperini endures unspeakable deprivation and abuse, first as a starving plane crash survivor drifting endlessly into enemy territory, and then as a Japanese POW who becomes the target of a psychotic prison warden. How anyone could have survived all of this and remain “unbroken” by it is a wondrous mystery that can only be revealed by reading this biography. While I agree with the critics who say that despite her clearly meticulous research, Hillenbrand may have relied too heavily on embellished or selective memories provided to her by Zamperini himself, I must say that it only added to the power of the story for me. ~ Ms. Dimmick

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Student Review: Burned, by Ellen Hopkins (review by Colleen C.)

Burned (Burned, #1)Burned by Ellen Hopkins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Burned is a powerful novel about being a girl raised in a religious but abusive household. Ellen Hopkins speaks through Pattyn Von Stratten on a Mormon teen’s thoughts about God, sex, love, and a woman’s role:“in a woman’s womb. another chance. to make the world better.” Pattyn falls in love with a non religious boy while she is at her Aunt’s house for the summer and finds “salvation” and God’s acceptance but instead finds love that will haunt her forever. Pattyn returns home to an abusive alcoholic father and finding out she is pregnant. Scared, alone, and lost she attempts to run away with Ethan where everything falls apart. This story is powerful and heartbreaking and once you pick it up, you will not want to put it back down.–Student:  Colleen C.

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