Posts Tagged ‘New York’

breaking night     Breaking Night by Liz Murray

 Being the child of drug addicts makes for a life both frightening and weird. There’s no stability, the strangers in house can be anyone, including child sexual predators. And the parents themselves are pretty much checked out even while they’re checked in.

 Liz Murray tells her story of growing up this way. Her father was a drug dealer. He was making a lot of money selling prescription painkillers, but was caught. After that, he had no real means of supporting his family. And he was a drug addict himself, mainlining cocaine. During the day, he would roam the streets, looking through others’ garbage and collecting thrown-out objects that he considered useful gifts for his wife and two daughters.

 Meanwhile, Murray’s mother had been using drugs since adolescence. She was addicted to cocaine. She was mentally ill—schizophrenic—and it seems that she used drugs as a way of self-medicating. She is truly disabled, incapable of having a job. She receives welfare checks monthly, but with the cost of her and her partner’s (Liz’s dad) drug habits, the money is always gone in a week. Eventually, her habit causes her to contract AIDS.

 Murray discusses the love she has for her parents despite their serious failing. They also appear to love her and her sister, who vies with Liz for their parents’ affection and who plays mean tricks on her as a way of getting attention. At any rate, the child Liz often has to take care of her parents, and their roles are reversed. Her sister seems to be above the fray. She is capable of studying and going to school while the world is falling apart around her. Liz can’t manage that attitude.

 When Liz’s mom and sister leave the father, Liz stays behind. The apartment is crumbling and filthy. Eventually Liz finds herself part of the ‘system,’ living in a home for girls. She hates it and hits the streets, depending on a few friends and her new boyfriend, Carlos, to keep her safe. But Carlos is a hustler and Liz eventually realizes this. She is tired of asking her friends if she can spend the night and use the shower. She decides to go back to school. At seventeen, she has exactly one high school credit.

 Fortunately, Liz has the opportunity to enroll in a school for students whose lives have been rough. She has that second chance and takes full advantage of it. With the help of some excellent teachers, she gets a scholarship from the New York Times and heads for Harvard.

 High school housekeeping: I think most teens are really going to like this story. The ones who are fortunate will have the sense of their lucky breaks. (“But for the grace of God, there go I” as we used to say.) For those less fortunate, Murray’s tale offers hope and genuine evidence of a teen being able to turn things around. I did wonder why Murray preferred to live on the street or in cheap hotels (right next to a murder scene in one), rather than stay in the home for girls. She lacked privacy there, but there was food, shelter, and clothing. And, well, it wasn’t a murder scene. I wish Murray had given more information about her choice. But other than that, this is truly inspirational stuff.

Murray’s situation and the outcome made me reflect on the importance of teacher-mentors in teens lives. Here’s a little unasked for advice to teens: many good and excellent teachers care deeply about their students, but they can’t all mentor every student (like 160 per teacher?). They’ll connect deeply with a few. If you don’t connect with a particular teacher, it doesn’t mean that s/he is a bad person. But it does mean you need to reach out to another good teacher for help. Having a mentor can make all the difference in a life, as Murray shows us.


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Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick by Joe Schreiber 

As if it’s not bad enough that Lithuanian foreign exchange student Gobi isn’t the kind of girl Perry imaged sharing his senior year with, he is commanded by his parents to take her to the prom on the same night that his band, Inchworm, has the chance to play for an agent. When Gobi comes out of her room in a traditional Lithuanian costume and headscarf, the reader is sympathetic and amused.

But Gobija isn’t who she appears to be. She’s been staying with the family undercover. She’s an international, highly trained assassin, bent on revenge. This is one prom night Perry will never forget. This is crazier than having a date with Stephen King’s Carrie.

After stealing Perry’s dad’s Jaguar, and kidnapping Perry, Gobi demands to be taken to New York where she engineers captures and killings; scenes are exploding with machine guns and helicopters. Everything you can imagine would happen on a night out with an assassin ensues. This is violent, but it’s fantastical, the good guys v. bad guys over-the-top stuff of Hollywood that wouldn’t be logical or possible in life. Gobi is a sort of female (crazy European chick) Bruce Willis. You know she’s going to be the ‘good guy,’ but you have to wait to find out why she’s on this mission and how it involves Perry.

Of course, our protagonist has to grow, and Perry changes a lot on this night out. He has always been under the thumb of his high-power lawyer dad, and Gobi thinks it’s time he manned up. Perry’s dad wants him to attend Columbia University (very prestigious) and Perry is on the waiting list. Schreiber cleverly structures this novel by beginning each chapter with an essay question from an application to a prestigious university. Then the wild action in the chapter—each chapter an event from the night in New York—answers that question in an unexpected way.

Just wild, crazy, outlandish adventure for mature readers. To guys who have a hard time finding a book they want to read—read this.

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A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

The Gillette murder case: In 1906, Grace Brown was a worker in the Gillette Skirt Factory (New York State) and was murdered because Chester Gillette, nephew of the owner, didn’t want to marry her after impregnating her. Chester wasn’t wealthy himself, but he wanted to marry a rich girl and have a better life. So, on the pretext of taking Grace away from home to elope, he took her to the Adirondack Mountains (also New York), checked into a hotel under an assumed name, and, took her out on a lake in a canoe. After hitting her in the head with a tennis racket, he tossed her over the side and she drowned. This might have appeared to be an accident, but Grace’s desperate letters to Chester were later found and helped to convict him, although he claimed that Brown had committed suicide. He was executed by electric chair. The murder was one of the most sensational events of the period, with a lot of media coverage, and a very famous novel was written about it about 20 years later (An American Tragedy by Theodore Dresier).

Though no one is out to murder Mattie Gokey, Mattie’s story interweaves with Grace Brown’s. As the novel opens, she is working in the Glenmore Hotel where Grace and Chester (‘Carl”) had stayed. Before Grace goes out on the lake with Chester, she hands Mattie all her letters and asks Mattie to burn them. (This is a fictional aspect of the story.) Mattie can’t sneak to a fire without someone seeing her, so she is stuck with the letters, which she begins to read.

Mattie is also a girl with few options. A top student at her school and a good writer, she earns a scholarship at Barnard College in New York, but there seems to be no way to go. A year earlier, her mother died of breast cancer, and then her only brother ran away from home after a fight with their father. As the oldest girl, Mattie has to take care of the other children and help on the farm. Family farm life is terribly difficult. The work never ends, there are no holidays and no vacations. And without their mother at home, their father can’t go away for extra work and extra money. The Gokeys live on the precipice of poverty, and anything—a serious illness, a bad crop, the death of their cows—could ruin them. The family is grieving, hungry and angry.

Mattie is smitten with Royal Loomis, her neighbor. At least physically. But the reader can see that although Mattie has the hots for Royal, these two would make a terrible match. Royal will make a good farmer, but he can’t understand why Mattie bothers to read, which he regards as a waste of time. Mattie senses the disconnect, too, but can’t see her way out.

I hope students don’t pass up this book because of the era. It’s a great story about the place of women at the turn of the twentieth century and a clever defense of feminism. The scenes when Mattie learns about some of the realities of life are more honest that any YA books I’ve read about the same topics.

Mattie’s best friend, , a married teenager, has twins within a year of her wedding. She almost dies in childbirth because one of the babies is positioned feet first. Though no one ever discussed sex with the girls, afterward,  confines in Mattie that having to care for the babies as well as feed farmhands is wearing the life out her. Her house is filthy. She wishes she’d never married, and she is sick of her husband always ‘at her’ about sex because she is afraid she will get pregnant again. She nurses the twins because she’s told it will keep her from getting pregnant, but her breasts are raw, sore and cracked. She’s gaunt, depressed and exhausted. Mattie is shocked since these realities had always been hidden from her. It’s not the life she wants for herself.

One of the biggest influences in Mattie’s life is her teacher. She appears to be a very independent single woman. Yet she has a secret, and her husband is tracking her down and threatening to put in a mental hospital if she doesn’t behave within her prescribed gender role. And legally, he can do this, just because his wife published poetry.

Donnelly also does a good job in giving the reader a sense of class and race issues. Weaver, Mattie’s best friend, is the first free-born child in his family. He, too, is very smart, and the friends often play word games. He plans on going to college and becoming a lawyer. His chances look good, as his mother is always adding to his college fund. But his refusal to put up with names, with the ‘n word,’ keeps the reader in constant tension, knowing that drunken loggers will seek revenge on him. In fact, all of the secondary characters are interesting, three-dimensional folks. As a bonus, the writing is beautiful. The reader sees, hears, smells and tastes life in the country, and identifies with Mattie’s desire for creativity and the education that will give her the opportunity for it.

I highly recommend this one!

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