Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Anahita's Woven Riddle, by Meghan Nuttall Sayres

Consider yourself forewarned. This book--the last of the 2007 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults that I am reading for this project--is hard to find. I looked for it at my public library, which is typically well-stocked with young adult literature, but I couldn't find it. Likewise, I couldn't locate it in independent and chain bookstores, either. I had to order it through a local bookseller to get it in my hands.

Anahita's Woven Riddle tells the story of a young nomadic tribeswoman, Anahita, and her quest to exert some influence over the process of selecting a husband in turn-of-the-century Iran. I say "exert some influence over" because in Anahita's culture women traditionally had little or no choice over whom they would marry. Typically, the family made all of the marriage decisions and arrangements.

Anahita, however, is an independent spirit--in part because she has been raised to be so by her father, the leader of her tribe--and so she rejects her father's first choice for her future husband. For mainly political reasons, Anahita's father wishes her to marry the local khan, a powerful, monied, elderly, but slightly odd figure--he has a cat fetish--with a checkered past (his first two wives died for reasons that are not entirely clear).

Anahita and her father have a tradition of trading riddles with one another; sensing that her father has some misgivings himself about the proposed marriage to the khan, Anahita requests that she be allowed to weave a riddle into her qali, or wedding carpet. Instead of having an arranged marriage, Anahita suggests that she be allowed to invite suitors to guess the answer to her riddle. The winner of the riddle contest will then win her hand in marriage.

Like Samurai Shortstop, Anahita's Woven Riddle presents a great deal of useful historical and cultural information about life at the turn into the 20th century. At times, Sayres's writing is just beautiful--much like the Persian carpets she describes in this book. Readers learn a great deal about the internal political, religious, and cultural systems in Iran, as well as the issues that were emerging as a result of increased economic development and interactions with Western cultures and customs. The insights into the complex negotiations of these issues is pertinent to any reader today with an interest in events in the Middle East--especially young women.

Teachers with an interest in exploring these issues and negotiations--perhaps in a middle school social studies course, or a unit on world cultures--will find this book of value. Because of its Cinderella-like qualities, the story itself is likely to appeal to younger teenage girls or even girls in 4th or 5th grade. Older adolescents may find the plot somewhat predictable and tedious. But the occassionally brilliant writing, and insights into Iranian culture make this a book well-worth reading.

If only you are lucky enough to find a copy.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Online Chats with YA Authors

The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents (ALAN) is a sub-group within the National Council of Teachers of English. This group is devoted to young adult literature, and sponsors a two day workshop on young adult literature each year, the Mon. and Tues. just before Thanksgiving. ALAN is a great organization, and I highly recommend the group to any and all fans of young adult literature.

Recently, ALAN has begun to host online chats with young adult authors. The next chat will involve Carl Hiaasen, the author of HOOT and FLUSH. The chat will take place next Wednesday, 27 June at 9:00 pm Eastern time. Just sign on to the ALAN website and follow the directions to enter the chat room. You will be asked to provide a screen name but do not need a password. Please note that you do NOT have to be a member of ALAN in order to participate in the chat (though by all means, please go ahead and join--I am a member myself. They put out a great journal on young adult literature 4 times a year).

If you haven't read Hiassen's novels, for teen or for adults, I highly recommend them. They are great fun, contain lots of humor, and usually bold and audacious language and plot developments (especially the adult oriented novels). If you have ever wondered what makes Florida tick, and what the term "eco-terrorism" means, check out Hiassen's books. You'll probably find it hard to read only one.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Twisted, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Like the main character in Twisted, Laurie Halse Anderson's new book, I have experienced a conflict lately between what I want to do, and what I need to do. Hence the delay in writing to this blog.

However, my sojourn as a summer school teacher has ended (at least for the moment), and so I am once again able to do what I want to do: write about young adult literature.

Like Nightrise, Twisted is a novel not on my self-selected list of literature for this project. It's a book published in 2007 that I saw recently in a bookstore and couldn't resist purchasing and reading. Laurie Halse Anderson is a terrific writer, best known for her now classic novel Speak. Anyone who has read anything before by her probably needs little encouragement to pick up this new work.

Fans of Speak and Laurie Halse Anderson will be pleased, for the most part, with Twisted. It tells the story of Tyler, a rising high school senior and his pursuit of Bethany Milbury, a very cute, very wealthy, very popular girl in his class. Unfortunately for Tyler, he is anything but popular; when we meet him, at the start of the novel, he is just finishing up a summer job working with the janitors at his public high school. Tyler did not choose this job; rather, he got stuck with it as a punishment for defacing school property at the end of his junior year.

Tyler has other issues to deal with, too: his father needs an anger management course and would benefit from a seminar by Stephen Covey; his mother has passivity issues and a strange affection for family photographs at Christmas; and his best friend Yoda, a happily un-self-conscious dork, is in love with his younger sister, Hannah. All of this--plus the fact that Tyler has always been extremely unpopular, unattractive, and the victim of various bullies--creates significant obstacles for him to surmount if he is to hook up with the exciting, vivacious, Bethany Milbury.

Anderson is the master of the problem novel, and she presents problems galor in this work. But the pacing of Twisted is uneven. The plot unravels without much clear direction through the first 2/3 of the book, and only turns toward the end into a focused and compelling cliff hanger. Nevertheless, Anderson offers surprising and important insights into the thinking of teenage males and especially the dynamics of suburban American culture. I expect Twisted to be named a Best Book for Young Adults in 2008, and maybe even a Printz Honor Book as well.

Eighth graders and high school students will love this book; however, parents of younger adolescents might want to advise their children to wait just a little bit before jumping in. The situations tend to be oriented toward older adolescents and topics such as drinking, driving, sex, and suicide. A note on the inside cover of the novel says "THIS IS NOT A BOOK FOR CHILDREN." While this is part marketing gimmick, it also is very true.

My guess is that teachers will not incorporate Twisted into their high school curricula in the same way that they have Speak. The flaws in the plot structure make it less appealing, and it gives voice to some very disturbing interior thoughts and subject matter. However, Twisted's insights on youth culture, family relationships, and communication issues make this an important book, one that ought to be read by young adults of all ages.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Suicide in Japan and Samurai Shortstop

Last week, I wrote about a fine novel called Samurai Shortstop, by first time YA novelist Alan Gratz. Coincidentally, the day before I posted my review, a Japanese government official committed suicide. The same day that I got my review of Samurai Shortstop up on this blog, another Japanese executive did the same.

Samurai Shortstop begins with a shocking scene where a young boy named Toyo watches and assists his uncle, Uncle Koji, as he commits seppuku, a form of ritualized suicide. Toyo's family is a part of the samurai warrior tradition, and Uncle Koji enacts his seppuku as a way of obtaining honor for himself and his family after having opposed the authority of the emperor of Japan.

Although Uncle Koji's seppuku is represented within the historical context of late 19th century Japan, the scene has a lot of resonance today. On the one hand, the samurai tradition, upon being repressed by the Japanese monarchy, slowly evolved into a business and professional class that continues to produce many business and political leaders, like the ones discussed above (in fact, Toyo, in Samurai Shortstop, is very aware that a business or political career is in his future). On the other hand, the positive spin on suicide facilitated by the samurai warrior tradition continues to exert an influence on contemporary Japanese thinking and behavior. Many commentators suggest that the high rate of suicide among Japanese today is an outgrowth of the samurai tradition and other cultural influences.

As much as I was shocked by the seppuku depicted in Samurai Shortstop, I was even more surprised to discover that suicide is higher in Japan than in other developed countries throughout the world. In fact, Japan's suicide rate was at an all time high about four years ago, rising significantly from lower levels in the 1970's and 80's.

Though set over 100 years ago, Samurai Shortstop speaks clearly to the current age. It poses relevant questions such as: What complex cultural factors and forces produce suicide? What is the relationship between suicide and gender? Why is suicide rising suddenly in various parts of the world and among certain sub-groups? More importantly, what can we do to diminish the occurence of suicide, both in Japan and elsewhere in the world, including the United States? By no means will reading Samurai Shortstop end the suicide phenomenon; however, it might help both teens and adults to understand the complicated roots of and motivations for suicide, as well as the interventions necessary to help people contemplating suicide to move in new directions.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Nightrise, by Anthony Horowitz

Forgive me, but this review is a little off the beaten track, in two ways:

1) Nightrise, by Anthony Horowitz, is not on the list of books that I am supposed to be reading for this project.

2) The content of Nightrise is pretty unusual; basically, the plot entails an encounter between two twin, telepathic brothers and an international corporation called Nightrise. This corporation seeks to spread chaos across the globe and restore to power hugely evil "Old Ones," conceived centuries and centuries ago, who promise to suck the life out of all humankind.

Pretty far out, huh?

Even though Nightrise is a little out there, it is an excellent book, by one of my favorite authors. When I saw it recently in a bookstore, I couldn't resist purchasing it, especially since both of my sons have read the first two books in the series (The Gatekeepers in the US, the Power of Five in the UK) and we are all nuts about it.

If you are looking for something beyond Harry Potter, something a little more edgy and sensational, Horowitz is a good choice. His compelling action plots, strong writing, and intermittent commentary on the contemporary world make his books a favorite with many teen and adult readers.

This is my favorite passage in the book. It involves an explanation of the political context in which the novel unfolds:

"'The current vice president and the chief of staff both used to work for Nightrise before they went into politics. When they leave the White House, whoever wins the next election, they'll go back on the board. Nightrise has about three hundred companies around the world and many of them do work for the U.S. government. There's one that manufactures bombs. The bombs are dropped. Then there's another one that's hired to rebuild the cities that the bombs destroyed. You see what I mean? Business and politics go hand in hand.'"

Does this sound like a U.S. vice president and larger political situation that you know?

My obvious political bias aside, this is a great thriller, one that teachers will abhor, but teens and early adolescents--especially boys--will adore. The book is only available in hardback right now, but expect to see it in paperbook soon, and on the list of best books for young adults next year.