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The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick  silver linings

Pat Peoples seems like the sweetest man on earth, but for some reason he’s coming home from a mental institution to live with his parents—in his mid-thirties—and he completely loses it when he hears Kenny G music.

Pat thinks he has been away for a few months. Actually it’s been four years. He thinks that he is experiencing “apart time” from his wife, and that if he can control his temper (‘it’s more important to be kind than to be right’), and stay on his rigorous exercise program and lose weight, he will win her back. Because, after all, his life is like a movie created by God. It will have the silver lining of a reunion with Nikki.

In trying to understand Nikki, Pat is reading all of the books that she teachers to her high school English classes. He’s surprised at how negative and depressing they are. As a former English teacher, I laughed at Pat’s comments on books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They don’t have the kind of silver linings Pat expects form life, the kind that ought to be examples for kids.

At home, the silver lining also remains hidden. Things are not going as Pat planned despite hours of daily weightlifting, regular visits with a psychiatrist, and all that reading, Nikki isn’t back on the scene. But another woman, who at first seems like a nymphomaniac but is grieving in her own dysfunctional way, is following him on his long runs. Meanwhile, the mood of the Peoples household, and particularly Pat’s father, swings with the fortunes of the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Pat’s dad is emotionally distant and unforgiving.

So where’s the silver lining? It’s not the one Pat was looking for, but it’s there. And I loved going on the journey with Pat to find it. Good, heartwarming stuff that embraces dysfunctional people of all kinds.

High school housekeeping: I’m always hoping that high school students will read adult books because they often (though certainly not always) juggle more issues, have more challenging vocabulary and less certain endings—like real life. I think Silver Linings Playbook is a good choice for moving into adult fiction. It’s just slightly longer than the typical YA fiction, but shorter than much adult fiction. It’s funny. You’ll like the main character, the story, and the pace. You’ll like that you can compare it to the movie. In addition, Matthew Quick writes YA fiction as well—and we have his stuff in our library. He was a high school teacher at one time, and has a good sense of what entertains and informs you. As mentioned above, The Silver Linings Playbook has a humorous vein about the books read in high school English classes. I really think it would be fun to have a ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ class and read this novel first, then read all the novels mentioned in it—and compare students’ reactions to the book to Pat’s reactions.

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When we think of summer reading, we think of books we choose because we like them—books for fun.

In the past I’ve read long lists of YA books over the summer and have encouraged you to read some of them as well. This year I think I need to feed my soul with some not-so-light adult books that probably don’t have wide teen appeal. I will also be reading some books about bullying—both the cyber sort and the in-person attacks. (I listed choices in a recent post.)

Since I think you should pick some fun reads for summer, I hope you’ll read some YA books that are soon to be movies. Reading the book before you see the movie provides a good opportunity for you to compare and contrast two works; it’s a great way to think at a higher level without even realizing that your brain is working.

 Win-win.

 So many good teen books are coming as movies in the next few years. Here are some that I’ve read and reviewed:

 2013:

Catching Fire

(Second book in the Hunger Games trilogy)

Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

The Great Gatsby

(OK, it’s an adult book, but teens read it in school, it’s short, and it’s great—

romance, betrayal, mobsters–all the stuff teens love)

2014 and possibly 2015:

Divergent

Graceling

The Knife of Never Letting Go

(first book in the Chaos Walking series)

Incarceron

The Maze Runner

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

The Fault in Our Stars

(Yea! It will star Shailene Woodley as Hazel. No word on Gus yet.)

Coming as movies soon, but I haven’t had the chance to read the books yet:

Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare

Tunnels by Roderick Gordon

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith (and Jane Austen, of course.)

Actually, I have had the chance to read this one,

but I didn’t like it, and I quit after a few chapters.

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Have a great summer reading on your own and at the theater!

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team of rivals

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I know this is a long shot, but I’m hoping

there’s a student who will take me up on this.

Summer reading for the truly motivated!

 While the focus of Team of Rivals is on Lincoln’s political acumen and on his relationship with his major political rivals turned advisers and friends, there is a lot of interesting discussion of their personal lives. This is a sort of group biography of the men who steered the country through the Civil War, and of the women who influenced them.

Many of the men discussed in Team of Rivals were prominent candidates for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1860. Several of them were better known than Lincoln, particularly William Henry Seward. None of them thought Lincoln would secure the nomination. Yet it was their own rivalries that made Lincoln’s victory possible, as delegates who didn’t want a certain prominent candidate to be nominated would throw their votes to Lincoln.

I admit to knowing little about the Civil war period. This book was a thoroughly enjoyable way to learn about the lives of Abraham Lincoln and the men in his cabinet, of their relationships to family members, and in turn the influence those family members had on the direction of this country. Even more interesting—and instructive—was seeing how Lincoln was able to take all these rivals of his (and of one another) and pull them together in his cabinet—a team whose diverse opinions were crucial to Lincoln as he navigated one of the worst periods in U.S. history.

Once Lincoln had established his cabinet, William Seward, as secretary of state, thought that he would be running the country, with Lincoln as his puppet. But over time, he understood Lincoln’s political genius. The two became great friends. So, too with Edwin Stanton. Stanton had disrespected Lincoln when he was a lawyer working in Springfield, refusing to meet with or even talk to him after engaging him to work on a trial in Cincinnati, and calling him a ‘long-armed ape.’ Yet Lincoln later made Stanton his secretary of war. Stanton became a good friend and is the man who said, on Lincoln’s death, “Now he belongs to the ages.” In addition, the escaped slave, abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass came to respect Lincoln after meeting him to discuss freeing slaves.

Unfortunately, Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, could never put aside his jealousy of the president. Chase seemed to have no loyalties to friends and people who had helped his career (so it wasn’t just Lincoln), but he did stay loyal to anti-slavery platforms. His behavior appears to be wholly motivated from a desire to be the president—even at the expense of Lincoln’s policy and reputation. He always felt that he was more deserving of the presidency than Lincoln, and he let others know it. He was fond of submitting his resignation when he didn’t get what he wanted, but was surprised on the fifth submission that Lincoln accepted it. However, Lincoln later appointed Chase to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. According to Goodwin, Lincoln had a “singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness.” It is this as much as anything else that makes him a great man.

Another man who comes off poorly is General George McClellan, who couldn’t take action in leading Union troops into battle, yet blamed all his faults on others, and particularly on Lincoln’s leadership.

Deeply revealing of the political climate of the time is the role of the women in these men’s lives. I enjoyed Francis Seward’s abolitionist stance and the letters she wrote to her husband and friends about what brought her to the cause (the immorality of slavery, the pathetic situation of slaves that she saw as she traveled). Not all whites sympathetic to slaves held these same views. Many Northerners and Republicans (the party of Lincoln) held that slavery would naturally end as society became more urban and industrialized.

Kate Chase, daughter of Salmon Chase, was the beauty who was at the top of the social pecking order, the girl everyone wanted to admire or court. She was so popular that Mary Lincoln was sometimes jealous of her. And yet her marriage and subsequent life was tragic.

Mary Todd Lincoln sounds better in Team of Rivals than in the few sources I’ve read before. She appears to have suffered terrible migraine headaches, and this affected her responses in social situations. She does hold more grudges than Lincoln, but to be honest, just about anyone in the world does. (His ability to let go of past hurts is nearly superhuman.) Team of Rivals also discusses the over-the-top spending habits Mary is now so famous for. However, Goodwin also catalogs the necessary improvements she made in the White House, which had been left to fall apart. Mary wasn’t very good at controlling her image in the press—she did much good, such as regularly visiting hospitals to care for wounded Union soldiers. Her work went unnoticed while the wives of other Politicians were lauded for the same activities. And, of course, her grief over the loss of her children—eventually three of her four boys—had to be a major factor in her bouts of depression.

While this point may seem just a sidebar in the evaluation of the book, I think it’s valuable. The deep grief suffered by so many of these ‘major players’ on the national scene changed all of them, for better and for worse. Lincoln suffered the deaths of his mother, his much-loved sister, and two of his sons (another died after Lincoln was assassinated). Chase lost several wives and became dependent on his elder daughter to be his social coordinator. The Sewards lost a daughter. Others close to the Lincolns lost their sons and husbands in the war. That the death of young wives and children was so commonplace in the mid-nineteenth century is important to remember. People learned compassion or they learned to be unnecessarily mean.

Since Team of Rivals covers such an important period of the country’s history, it includes insights on many of the significant issues and legislation of the day, particularly legal wrangling over slavery—the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and more. Some of the events are shocking. Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, while railing against the expansion of slavery, verbally attacked senators who supported it. Congressman Preston Brooks later physically attacked Sumner, feeling that he was defending his relative’s honor. The idea that one man could cane another, nearly to death, right on the Senate floor, boggles the mind. Interestingly, this beating rallied the anti-slavery forces in the country.

This is such a great book on every level—the political, social, historical and personal. Not only that, but it includes many of the funny stories Lincoln was always telling—full of folk wisdom and often making his adversaries see the value of his point. The only thing that will keep you from reading it is the length—over 900 pages. While about 150 pages are endnotes and indices, that still leaves 750 pages. Even students who are good readers and enjoy history may not be able to find the time for such reading, especially if they are memorizing thousands of facts for AP tests!

Would you be willing to read this one over the summer? You won’t be disappointed. During the school year, you might make a deal with teachers who require about 200 pages of outside reading per quarter. Ask them if you can use Team of Rivals for biography as well as other nonfiction, and then as a free choice. That will cover at least 600 pages. I think any teacher would love the idea that you’d choose to read this book and enrich your education. By the time you get to Lincoln’s death, you will be so moved by his story that you’ll be hoping it won’t happen, even though you know it’s a historical fact. You can’t ask for more from a work of nonfiction.

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beautiful creatures  Ethan’s family has lived in Gatlin, South Carolina, “the epicenter of the middle of nowhere,” for generations. The town is full of history and superstition, as Ethan believes can only happen in the South. The neighbors are obsessed with the Civil War, which they call (like many Southerners) “The War of Northern Aggression.” His dreams of a mysterious girl become reality when he begins his sophomore year at Stonewall Jackson High and sees Lena for the first time. And this new girl is special—not only is she a break from the extraordinary boredom of the town (finally!), but she has extraordinary powers.

Lena’s big problem seems to be that she is old man Ravenwood’s niece. As the relative of a shut in who makes ‘Boo Radley look like a social butterfly,’ she is prejudged as a social nobody. She plays the haunting song of Ethan’s dreams “Sixteen Moons.” She also comes to school in a hearse. But much worse is in store for Lena than being shunned by the cheer squad. She’s a Caster (think ‘witch’) and has no control over whether, on her sixteenth birthday—coming soon—she will be changed to dark or light, good or evil. If she goes dark, she won’t retain any compassion or love for others (that, of course, includes Ethan). It’s what happened to Lena’s cousin, Riley, a year earlier. And Riley is one scary witch.

Ethan is energetic, funny, and escapes the boredom of his town life through books. If he were a girl, you’d call him sassy. I related to him immediately. It’s fun that he narrates the book because Gothic romance almost always has a female narrator.

I’m pretty late in realizing that Beautiful Creatures was becoming a movie. I ran out and got a few more copies for each of my schools, and then read it as quickly as possible. I usually have complaints about Gothic/fantasy books because they repeat themselves so often, but not so in Beautiful Creatures. It’s a long book, but we regularly get new information and the story moves along. It’s true that a few big scenes are pretty straight steals from Stephen King’s Carrie (another big dance gone wrong!) and the “Harper Valley PTA” song, but I enjoyed the writing, the characters, and the setting. When people act out of character, there is a reason, revealed in the book’s climax. The fact that it’s multigenerational—information about Casters and Seers comes from aunts, uncles, grandparents—adds to the fun of the mystery and gives us more people to worry about when the spells and supernatural evil starts flying.

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Knowing that the Jack Reacher movie was coming out, I decided to try one of the novels—Worth Dying For—just to worth dying forsee if it was something our students would like.

I’d never read a Jack Reacher book before and was a bit surprised that he is 6’5” and Tom Cruise is playing the part. Having only read the one book, I don’t know why Reacher, former cop and war veteran, is a one-man vigilante, bound to seek justice for the little guy (and gal). Whatever the reason, he is certainly good at it. I guess this was sort of Die Hard in a book.

In Worth Dying For, Reacher finds himself in a very small town in Nebraska where the Duncan family plays a local, minor mafia. When Reacher sees that Eleanor Duncan, the wife of one of these bad guys, has an unstoppable bloody nose, he realizes that her husband, Seth, beats her. So he finds Seth and breaks his nose just to give him an idea of what it feels like.

But more trouble is afoot—the Duncans are not only abusive, they are criminals who force the local farmers to use their trucking company to transport their crops. And they seem to have been involved in the disappearance of an eight-year-old neighbor girl 25 years earlier. But why? And where did Seth Duncan, the adopted son of one of the three Duncan brothers, come from? No one is allowed to question them. The Duncans employ former Nebraska Cornhusker football players as henchmen. (I have a feeling that Cornhusker alumni don’t like this book much.) Everyone in the town is so afraid of the Duncan family that they have formed a phone tree to always let one another know what the Duncans are doing.

When Reacher starts snooping around, the Duncans need to have him taken out. As he is too much for the former football players, they seek help from their criminal contacts all the way from Las Vegas. Everyone gets in on the plan to kill Reacher because they all depend on illegal shipments by the Duncan family trucking business. What these shipments are is one of the mysteries for the reader to figure out.

I can understand why some readers would like Jack Reacher novels. Honest. But I hated this one, so it’ll be my last Jack Reacher novel. He gets out of trouble way too easily for me. I wish the author would have allowed him to have a few big fails—the kind that make readers worry about the protagonist and become invested in him.

The other thing about me is that I can only take so many descriptions of how to break noses—and even fewer on how to pop them back into place. Only so many descriptions of kicking and blowing things up—at least ones that include exact measurements of the sizes of all equipment and all body parts involved. How many centimeters between the bridge of the nose and the center of the forehead? I really don’t care.

I also don’t like it when the writing tends toward this sort of thing: ‘A car was coming down the road. It was red, but you couldn’t tell in the dark. It looked blue or gray or black—something not light, like white or yellow. Reacher knew that the car could turn left away from him. He knew that it could turn right toward him.’ (No—not a direct quote, just close.) Honestly, as much action as there is in this book, as much repetitive and gratuitous violence, it was surprising how it just seemed to drag on and on because of the monotony of the descriptions (including all those measurements.) I thought it would never end, but I stuck with it because I had invested so much time in it. By the time I finally finished, the movie had already been out for several weeks.

The end of this book, the disappearance mystery, the revelation of illegal product that the Duncans are transporting—that was very good. And the description of victims is the most understated, best writing in the entire novel. It worked beautifully, and made me wish the rest of the book had been written that way. Good as that ending was, it just took me too long to get there to want to try another book in the series. But, my taste in this matter is probably in the minority. High school guys may like the Jack Reacher books in the same way that they like violent action films. If so, there are many titles in the series available at our local public library.

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