Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for June, 2006

The Monster’s Ring

Posted by nliakos on June 29, 2006

by Bruce Coville.

This appears to have been written with younger readers in mind, compared with Jennifer Murdley’s Toad. The protagonist, Russell, is only in fifth grade. The book begins predictably, with runty Russell being pursued into his beloved swamp by bullies, finding himself in a part of the swamp–and then a part of his hometown–which he does not recognize, and discovering S. H. Elives’ Magic Shop, where he acquires a magical ring which transforms him into a monster. It happens to be Halloween, so Russell uses the ring to “dress up” for the school Halloween parade, with startling results. But he has not bothered to read Mr. Elives’ directions very carefully, so he gets into a lot of trouble and is almost stuck in his monster’s guise forever. He has to find the Magic Shop again and seek Mr. Elives’ help, but even the old magician cannot completely undo the harm Russell has done by not following the directions he was given: a cautionary tale for 5th graders!

This is the shortest, and for both me and my 13-year-old, the least satisfying, of the four Magic Shop series books.

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Small Island (finished)

Posted by nliakos on June 18, 2006

I completed Small Island this afternoon, reading fast. The last part is mainly taken up with the point of view of Queenie’s given-up-for-lost husband, Bernard. It explores the evils of war, military life, and (as always) racism. When Bernard finally turns up on Queenie’s doorstep unannounced, and the four characters find themselves face to face, Gilbert says, “You know what your trouble is, man?” he said. “Your white skin. You think it makes you better than me. You think it gives you the right to lord it over a black man. But you know what it make you? You wan’ know what your white skin make you, man? It make you white. That is all, man. White. No better, no worse than me–just white….Listen to me, man, we both just finish fighting a war–a bloody war–for the better world we wan’ see. And on the same side–you and me. We both look on other men to see enemy. You and me, fighting for empire, fighting for peace. But still, after all we suffer together, you wan’ tell me I am worthless and you are not. Am I to be the servant and you the master for all time? No. Stop this, man. Stop it now. We can work together, Mr Bligh. You no see? We must. Or else you just gonna fight me till the end?”(p. 435)
It’s a grand speech–even snobby Hortense suddenly realizes when she hears it that Gilbert is “a man of class, a man of character, a man of intelligence.” Too bad Bernard can’t understand what he says. Dialect comes between them like a wall.

Levy ties up the story neatly at the end (a little too neatly for some: see http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/2005/03/small-island-review.html). I thought it a good book with much to offer. It is always valuable to see the world through the eyes of another.

Times Online review: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2102-1013563,00.html

BBC review by Susannah Cullinane: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts/4148921.stm

Links to more reviews of Small Island: http://www.reviewsofbooks.com/small_island/

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Small Island (continued)

Posted by nliakos on June 17, 2006

I’m on Chapter 30 now, more than halfway through the book. The book depicts English and American racism during the 1940s, as seen through the eyes of Jamaicans Gilbert and Hortense and also from the perspective of the Englishwoman, Queenie. It is appalling to imagine (yet I know it still exists today, albeit more hidden). Take this excerpt from Chapter 30, where Gilbert describes his fruitless hunt for a job in London:

I yearned for home as a drunk man for whisky. For only there could I be sure that someone looking on my face for the first time would regard it without reaction. No gapes, no gawps, no cussing, no looking quickly away as if seeing something unsavoury. Just a meeting as unremarkable as passing your mummy in the kitchen. What a thing this was to wish for. That a person regarding me should think nothing. What a forlorn desire to seek indifference. (p. 260)

It makes me wonder how Gilbert could preserve any sense of self-esteem at all, yet he continues to believe in himself and to describe his experiences with humorous irony. How realistic is this? And what about people who, unlike Gilbert who grew up in a majority black culture, were raised in a racist white world (as in the U.S.)? What happens to their sense of themselves?

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Jennifer Murdley’s Toad

Posted by nliakos on June 13, 2006

by Bruce Coville. Minstrel (Pocket), 1993.

One of four books in the author's "Magic Shop" series, this novel tells the story of a kind but homely girl, the victim of bullying by her peers, who is given a magical talking toad named Bufo. Things become more complex when Bufo kisses Sharra, Jennifer's principal tormenter, thus turning her into a toad as well. From then on, whomever the "new" toad kisses turns into a toad, while the kissing toad reverts back to human form (except Bufo, who is a real toad, despite the fact that he can talk, and remains a toad). However, if one stays a toad for more than ten hours, the transformation is permanent, lending a certain tension to the situation. Before the book ends, Jennifer has to make some difficult decisions which require her to think about the kind of person (or toad) she truly is, and wants to be.

My daughter Vicki read this book to me. I enjoyed it, albeit not as much as I enjoyed another in the same series, Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. It has some very funny moments, and Vicki and I had some good laughs while reading it. At the same time, it includes some serious subject matter: the issue of bullying, and the value of physical beauty.

Favorite quote: "Hey!" yelled Brandon (Jennifer's 4-year-old brother). "How come you get to eat bugs? Everyone yells when I do it."

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Small Island

Posted by nliakos on June 12, 2006

by Andrea Levy. Picador 2004.

I am reading this novel for my book discussion group at the Quince Orchard Library (Gaithersburg, Maryland). It is the story of Jamaican immigrants in London, told from the viewpoints of two immigrants (Hortense and her husband Gilbert) and their landlords (Queenie and her husband Bernard). I have read 14 chapters so far (out of 59!), and I have not yet met Bernard. So far, I have enjoyed the book, although I can easily put it down for a few days. There are some very funny passages (e.g., the aftermath of Hortense and Gilbert's wedding, when he not unreasonably expects to have sex with his wife, and Gilbert's experiences with racist American military personnel [the novel is set during World War 2]).

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Musings on today’s workshop

Posted by nliakos on June 12, 2006

Today I took a workshop on classroom applications of blogging at the University of Maryland (where I work). The instructor, Sharon Roushdy, used WordPress to demonstrate the possibilities and had us create a WordPress blog; so this is mine. I have three other blogs on Blogger, so now I am set to explore WordPress. I’d like to see which host would be better to use for class blogs with students next year.

Here’s what I wrote at the workshop:

“I’m really excited about blogging… and it’s easy to see that Sharon is also! She exudes excitement about it. Her enthusiasm made her talk really fast, so sometimes it was a challenge to follow, even though I have been blogging for a few months already. I am still confused about RSS feeds, but I am less confused than I was, which is good. This is definitely something I want to pursue! I like the features of WordPress and think I just might go with it in the fall, rather than using Blogger again.”

However, I’ve been playing around with the blog and am finding it less intuitive than it appeared when Sharon, who knew what she was doing, was demonstrating it! Well, it’s too early to give up on it, so I will keep trying.

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