Sunday, September 28, 2008

BB Review #1: The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

See that? #1? That implies a #2 will follow. Implies.

Because I have finally come to the realization that the books I'm trying to get published are controversial--and if they are ever published will likely be banned rather quickly by some parent groups--I decided I should make an effort to read and review banned books. If this sounds like an act of solidarity, it's not. Robert Cormier certainly doesn't need me to approve his books in order for him to continue to be, after more than 30 years, a beloved and successful author. And my readership of 3 won't make a difference in book sales anyway. I'm doing this review and hopefully others because I live in a country where it's my right to read whatever I want and then report on it, regardless of how small or large that audience is. God bless America.

My father opened a used bookstore more than 30 years ago. He was a high school history teacher in a public school at the time and had come to loathe not his job but the administration. When the administration wouldn't let him resign, he simply quit showing up to work so they had to fire him. Dad never looked back.

When I was in high school, I took a lot of pride in being the daughter of someone who could, in essence, say "screw it" to the entire "system," be it his administrators or local politicians or local religious leaders who thought my entire family was going to hell because our religion differed so drastically from theirs. Dad was a staunch conservative, a Reagan fan, and someone who firmly believed that banning books was destructive to society, not to mention just incredibly and ridiculously small-minded. I didn't always agree with his opinions, and agreed less and less as I grew older, but I was always proud of him for being willing to voice his opinion.

At the end of my junior year in high school, I made quick enemies of most of the junior and senior classes. I stood up in an assembly and spoke my mind when what I "should" have done was stay seated and let the status quo continue. The kids hated me, a number of the teachers weren't huge fans by the end of the meeting, and even one of my best friends slid away from me at the table as I spoke, trying to literally and figuratively distance herself from me. But I was George Givens's daughter, and I knew I had every right to stand up. So I did. I'm sure even now, 20 years later, most of my graduating class knows me as that girl who spoke her mind, trembling down to her toes as she did (though they may not have known that), and still find my sin unforgiveable.

So for many reasons--not all--I relate to Jerry in "The Chocolate War." Jerry is a freshman kid, just trying to make the football team and keep moving after the death of his mother the previous spring. But "The Vigil," an unofficial fraternity at his private Catholic school, has other plans for Jerry. His assignment is to refuse for 10 days to sell chocolates in the school's annual fundraiser. But after those 10 days are up, Jerry continues to refuse, thereby infuriating The Vigil as well as the teacher in charge of the sale. Things get really ugly and the story becomes a "Lord of the Flies" in blue blazers.

Throughout most of the story, Jerry is depicted as clearly the good guy. I say most because at the end of the book, he resorts to violence. Shame on him, of course. But I forgive him. He's 14, and the author doesn't let him win just because he literally climbs into the ring. That's not the message Cormier was trying to put across.

In the meantime, Archie (The Vigil assignment guy) and Brother Leon (the teacher) are clearly the bad guys. Their characterizations are so spot on they made me uncomfortable for the entire read because I knew they would wouldn't change. I was also uncomfortable because I knew Archie in high school, and I knew Brother Leon as well: the bullying student and a teacher who thought he was a bully but was nothing more than the student's pawn.

The message of the book seems to end up being "don't try to change things because you can't." This is what Jerry tries to tell Goober after the climactic fight scene. And that's incredibly depressing, right? But another message comes through as well, which is much more important and poignant. And that is this: if you don't back the guy who stands up for himself, you're a bully as well, even if you think you're just a bystander.

On Amazon, this book has, to date, 375 reviews, 44 of which are 1 stars. And the reason for most of those 1-star reviews is that the only message of this book is the first one. This book doesn't have a happy ending. But neither does high school for an awful lot of kids. In my opinion, what better message can we be giving our kids during those years than "stand up not just for yourself but for others as well"? I know it's what I tell my own children almost daily. And I hope to God, for my kids' sake, that other parents are telling their children the exact same thing--not just as a morality lesson for high school but for life.

And for those who may be curious, this book was banned for its use of profanity, sexual references, and violence.

Although, on a lighter note, I think some administrators and PTA moms banned it for this exchange:

"If it isn't chocolates, it's Christmas cards. If it isn't Christmas cards, it's soap.If it isn't soap, it's calendars. But you know what?"

"What?" Jerry asked, wanting to get back to his geography.

"I never though of just saying no. Like you did."

Considering the fact that we're entering only the 5th week of school and I've had 5 fundraisers sent home already, I'm all for starting a chocolate war myself.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Remembering . . . and forgetting

Ron is boarding a plane for Portland in about 45 minutes. He opted to take a taxi instead of driving to the airport himself--in part because it's cheaper than paying for extended parking and in part because he cut his hand last week and it's still pretty sore, so he prefers not to drive.

As I waved goodbye to him from the front door, the driver came around to the side of the taxi to ask Ron if he had any other luggage. I noted then that the man was Middle Eastern and my first--and only--thought was, "Hm. I need to take a taxi to the airport next month. If my driver is Middle Eastern, too, will he feel more comfortable if I sit in the back instead of the front like Ron always does?"

Skimming through some of my favorite blogs this morning, I opened up Janet Reid's and she has a picture of NYC, the reflection of the twin towers in the water. Her heading for the post was "What It Means When We Say We'll Never Forget." It was a powerful image, and the thought of 9/11 still moves me in so many ways.

I was at the gym when the planes hit the buildings. Like everyone around me, I had a hard time at first believing what I was seeing. I got off the treadmill, called Ron, and told him what was happening, as I knew he was at work and not in front of a TV screen. Then I went home to watch the news, and there I sat crying for the next hour or so, thinking, "What am I doing bringing another child into this world?" E was on the way, only about 6 weeks along, and I was terrified for her, for S, for O, for all of us. I finally got it together enough to go pick the boys up from daycare and bring them home to me. The other parents all had the same idea, as I wasn't the first there nor the last.

I've realized, finally, after 7 years, that remembering doesn't mean being afraid. It doesn't mean racial profiling. It doesn't mean assuming the worst every time 9/11 rolls around. It doesn't mean fearing for your husband's life as he gets into a taxi driven by a man from the Middle East. Spending four and a half months in the Middle East was the final step toward that realization for me.

As for what remembering does mean? For me, it means staying--or getting--involved in politics. It means caring about the people that died that day and caring about why they died. It means paying attention to current affairs more than current fashions. It means acknowledging what is wrong with our country and being grateful for all the things that are right with it.

What does remembering mean to you?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Back by popular demand

Okay, so it isn't popular so much as a modest or reasonable demand. And it really wasn't a demand so much as a mention of my blog on a friend's blog. But we'll just call it an excuse or simply mild justification for me to pick this up again.

We're in Chicago now, and it's a rainy, cool evening, which means I could finally bake some cookies. That's what a home is to me: a place where I can bake some chocolate chip cookies . . . and then eat as many as I want before having to face a neighborhood full of avid exercisers and moms whose wardrobes consist solely of short running shorts, spandex, and Starbucks coffee.

I say Chicago, but the name of the town is La Grange, and it's right smack dab between Midway and O'Hare, landing us about 25 minutes by car from downtown Chicago: home of Harpo studios, The Second City, and Al Capone. And I just found out that Chicago has the greatest number of ghosts of any American city, probably thanks in large part to Al Capone and not Oprah, although some would argue otherwise. Don't know how the experts managed to count the ghosts, slippery little spirits they, but who am I to question authority?

All I know is that my house is not haunted. It's not, it's not, it's not. And I know this because I explained to the powers that be some time ago that if they didn't send any spirits my way, I would never intentionally send any their way.

But our house is old enough (built in 1907), as is our neighborhood, that history abounds. This is the 3rd house we've owned (and we've only owned 3, so this is a pretty significant statistic) that was built prior to 1925. We live in the "historic district," which means very little, I think, except that we need permits to do everything from putting on an addition to doing electrical work to rearranging our furniture. Okay, maybe not that last one, but we are looking into remodeling our 3rd floor and have been told that if we don't hire an architect to draw up the blueprints, then the village will make things very difficult for us. What "very difficult" means exactly, I don't know. Sounds kind of haunting in and of itself, doesn't it? So unless Ron finds away around it, which you all know he'll spend hours and hours trying to do, we'll be paying someone a couple thousand dollars to draw up plans for us to put in an itty bitty bathroom and new drywall.

We live four blocks away from downtown La Grange, and the houses get older as you get closer to town and the train station--except for the little houses squeezed in on lots that were split in the 50s and then built upon. Downtown La Grange consists of quite a few businesses, including a Border's (Don't Shop There! Shop Independents!! But feel free to browse), a Trader Joe's, a National City, a movie theater, and quite a few restaurants and antique shops. Okay, so there's a McDonald's there as well, lest you think we're too quaint. The library and the kids' schools are also in walking distance, so my car rarely leaves the garage.

All in all, we're happy here, although, dang it, we miss Pittsburgh a lot. We're homesick for good friends and idle chatter and the comfort of hanging out in neighbors' yards until they kicked us out when they got home and looked into a restraining order.

We had a great 11 years there, especially the last 3 and a half when we learned what a neighborhood can really be at its best.

Off to finish off that batch of cookies while I weep and look through photo albums. Or weep and watch the convention. Either way, cookies will have to be involved.