The Trouble in Me….with a chainsaw

Hello Readers,

I saw something come across my Twitter feed today that made me smile.  It was a retweet of a Facebook post that I assume has been making the rounds for a while now, I tend to be a bit behind the trends.  It was a note that said, add “with a chainsaw” to the last book title you read.  For me that would be The Trouble in Me… with a chainsaw!

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It’s almost funny read that extended title and then think about that rotten Gary Pagoda and all the trouble you can get yourself into with an amped up chainsaw.

So I tell you this little anecdote to lead you into another book review as I finished The Trouble in Me last night.  The book has all sorts of ominous warnings on the cover that I just glossed over, ready to read another memoir by the great Jack Gantos.  I mean there is literally a gas can on the cover with the words “Keep out of the reach of children” printed right there in bold yellow font.  I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this little book might make a few librarians and educators a bit nervous.  I actually love that this book comes with a warning label.

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The Trouble in Me is Jack Gantos plumbing his sordid young life again, this time going back to his earlier childhood and delving into the question “where did I go bad, and why?”  The book is a short little biography, just really covering one summer in Jack’s mid teen years.  In this summer Jack’s family move to south Florida, Jack’s dad takes yet another job and Jack’s mother is pregnant.  With all of these family dynamics swirling above Jack’s head like so many juggling balls, Jack meets his new next door neighbor, the wonderfully named Gary Pagoda.  Gary is a villain and ne’re-do-well of the highest order, but like all good antagonists he is alluring, interesting, frightening and complex.  He is the embodiment of every crime show character on TV, reality or scripted.

Gary is bad to the bone and it is not long before the naive young Gantos is drawn in like a moth to a flame.  Oh, and fire plays a really big role in this story, hence the gas can on the front cover and the burnt matches on the back.  Soon enough Gary has Jack competing in the Pagoda Olympics, a series of student that almost read as fiction.  I still don’t know if I truly believe Jack was launched over a house by a sling shotting tree and was able to land in a swimming pool and walk away without even a scratch!

The story seems to be one bad idea and foolish mistake after another and I’m pretty sure that was Gantos’ whole point.  He was looking for the source of his downward spiral and it seems this summer ended up as his ground zero.

It’s strange for me to read The Trouble in Me and Hole in My Life because I was fortunate enough to meet Jack Gantos a few years back and he is a delight to hear speak, and he really is a funny and kind guy.  He told me the next time I was in Boston to let him know and he would get me into the private, upstairs parts of the Boston Athenaeum, I was only able to check out the small rooms open to the public when I visited.  So knowing the man Jack Gantos some and reading the character Jack Gantos confused me from time to time.  How could this nice kid’s book author be a juvenile delinquent who decides to smuggle drugs into New York City and does hard time in the federal prison system?

Wild how folks can change.

I really like Gantos as a story teller and his voice will always be in my head when I read his work.  This story is another fascinating life story that will shock you throughout.  I also sort of enjoy the idea of the controversy this book could stir up in certain circles.  It contains some salty language and no shortage of horrible and terrible stunts that would make just about any teacher of parent throw the book in the nearest dumpster.  To me censorship at that level is an interesting dance.  On one hand the teacher and the parent want the student to read, on the other they complain the story will be a bad influence.  I don’t know if literature influences kids or not?  I don’t know if kids copy what they read in fictional or autobiographical tales?  I can’t say I’ve seen it.  I can say that sometimes kids like to peek over the fence and watch the naughty kid on the other side, not as inspiration, but as an interesting case study.  Sometimes kids want to read about other kids who don’t look, or act, or love, or believe like them.  So I would never tell a kids don’t read Jack Gantos’ memoirs or Sherman Alexis’s stories or Lauren Myracle’s works.  I just tell kids to be ready for a heaping does of life, and if that reality is too much, put it down, walk away, pick up something else (Archie comics always worked for me, they helped me get through the Aliens movie), but always keep reading.  There is always something to read, sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s way above your level and sometimes it’s way below, but there is always something to read.

Read On,

Mr. H

 

Most Dangerous Review

Hello Readers,

So here we go again, I knew this would happen, I finish a book review and then finish reading another book a day later.  Well let’s see just how far I can push this New Year’s resolution.

The book I just finished was Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin.  I came to this book two ways, just like Death by Toilet Paper, those two ways were vastly different though.  First I had read a few other works by Sheinkin, Bomb and his submission to the nonfiction Guys Read anthology.  Both these works I really enjoyed, so when I heard that Sheinkin would be book touring for Most Dangerous and stopping by my local indie bookshop I had to pick up his latest.

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If you ever get the chance to hear Sheinkin speak, I suggest you jump at it.  He is so intelligent and interesting and fun to listen to, I could have listened a lot longer than he was able to talk.

Most Dangerous tells the story of Daniel Ellsberg, a studious young man that finds himself knee deep in the politics surrounding the Vietnam War.  Ellsberg was an interesting teen, he was said to wear suits to high school and carry his books and papers around campus in a briefcase.  Can you imagine that kid walking around your school?  No surprise he went to Harvard for college, big surprise, he enlisted in the Marines upon his graduation.  From his military service he finished a PhD in economics and began working for the Rand Corporation in Washington DC.  The Rand Corporation worked closely with the Pentagon.  It was on his first day of work at Rand that hostilities in Vietnam escalated.  Ellsberg’s life then slowly morphed from an analyst working to further the war effort to an anti-war advocate and President Nixon’s biggest target.  Why was this simple analyst such a big target?  It all comes down to an ancient photocopy machine.  You see Daniel Ellsberg had access to Top Secret Pentagon documents including what would come to be known as the Pentagon Papers, a huge document detailing American involvement in South East Asia over the tenure of four or five presidents.  Much of the Pentagon Papers proved lying and deceit on the part of the American Government and Daniel Ellsberg took it on himself to “borrow” the document and photocopy it.  He then released the copies to journalist around the country and boy did it get him into some hot water.  At this point Daniel Ellsberg was firmly against the Vietnam War and saw what he was doing as his patriotic duty.  Nixon and his team saw Ellsberg’s actions as treason.  Ellsberg then becomes the target of some pretty elaborate schemes to smear and discredit him.  In one ploy the government agents thought about slipping LSD into Ellsberg’s soup at a dinner lecture he was giving, and then then letting the hallucinogenic drug disrupt Ellsberg’s train of thought.  The government could then point to the speech as proof that Ellsberg was a drugged up loon.  Luckily the timing didn’t work out and the plan was never acted on.  This all lead to Ellsberg going on trial in California and Nixon on ‘trial” in DC.  Ellsberg case was thrown out and Nixon resigned the presidency.  Crazy Times!

Now to my feelings on Most Dangerous.  For this review I will need to look at the story through two different lenses.  First the social studies teacher, history buff and general lover of building new knowledge.  For me, in that lens, I loved Most Dangerous.  I knew some of the highlights from this time in American history, but many of the details were unknown to me.  For that I thank Mr. Sheinkin for taking me on such an interesting journey through the tangled web of the Vietnam War.

But…

From the teacher of middle school children, the book poses a bit of a challenge.  I found it difficult, as a 40 something teacher, to keep all of the names and details strait, I can only imagine a 7th grader’s eyes just glazing over at times.  Unless I knew the student was a huge history, or nonfiction lover, I would steer them toward Bomb and away from Most Dangerous.  It didn’t read with the pace or the excitement of Bomb, but it does end with a very interesting comparison to our modern day.  What Ellsberg did at that photocopy machine in the early 70’s is generally seen today as a heroic act.  Sheinkin compares Ellsberg’s act to the leaking of classified information about government surveillance by Edward Snowden.  That question of right and wrong could be a very tasty dilemma for a 7th or 8th grade social studies classroom to chew on.

So in the end Most Dangerous is a good read and will not disappoint, if you are looking for a detailed account of government shenanigans and dangerous photocopying action.

Read on,

Mr. H

ps. This morning Most Dangerous was awarded the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.

 

Death by Toilet Paper Review

Hello Readers,

I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions, I’ve never had much luck with them, so what really is the point?  But this year I just happened to finish a book right at the end of the year and it got me thinking about something I’ve wanted to really try for some time now… I want to try and write more book reviews.

Now according to my recent Reading Challenges on Goodreads, I read between 50 and 60 books a year, I can’t promise full reviews on everything I finish, but I do certainly want to give it a go.

So without further ado I give you my first review of 2016, Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart.  I came to this book two ways, first it was available in my latest Scholastic Book Order, one of my go to avenues for affordable titles, which reminds me, I think I owe them for my last order?  The second path to this book was, of course, the title.  How could you not pick up a middle grade novel that looks like this?

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I needed a new title for my middle school Guys Read book club to tackle and a book called Death by Toilet Paper for $4 bucks in the book order really seemed to be perfect.

I thought I was in for a zany, madcap sort of story, and it is funny for sure, but I wasn’t ready for what the story turned into.

The story begins, and is peppered throughout, with a correspondence between Royal-T toilet paper company  and our main character Benjamin Epstein.  These letters will become an interesting thread though the story as they are used to break up the action and it gives Ben the chance to talk to someone outside of his situation.  The letters between Ben and the TP company act as a sort of counseling session where Ben can get a few things off of his chest.

Why might a seventh grader need counseling services, well there is where this book caught me off guard.  The title and the cover art promise laughs and silliness.  The whole opening scene deals with Ben’s best friend and his chef father creating a horror scene for a home movie, with fake blood (salsa) covering everything in the kitchen including the cat!  But what we soon learn is that Ben’s father has just passed and his mother is struggling to make ends meet.  Soon Ben’s grandfather shows up unexpected and quickly shows signs of memory loss.  All of this cast a pretty heavy tone over what I was thinking would be a goofy and lighthearted little story.  Ben and his mom, along with grandpa are now just days away from eviction and also just days away from Ben’s mom passing her CPA exams and getting a job that would save them from all of their financial woes.  In the end Ben hatches a few ingenious schemes and everything works out.

I really enjoyed Death by Toilet Paper and here are a few of my highlights.

First the chapters are headed with random toilet paper facts.  These facts are often hilarious and make me want to do more research on toilets and toilet paper history.  Next, Ben’s friend, Toothpick, has a wonderful pension toward making horror films.  I am already cueing the rabbit scene from the movie Summer School and Googling recipes for homemade scar wax.  The lads of SMS Guys read will have some fun with that idea for sure.  Toothpick also always goes to the Mutter Museum for his birthday.  Just take a look around their website to see what kind of fun you could have there on a birthday excursion.  Finally the grandfather, or Zeyde, as he is referred to in the story adds humor, struggle, heart and heroism to a story that basically is a story about the struggles of family.  I dare you to not laugh out loud or pitch your cookies at the scene on page 82 dealing with Ben drinking a glass of water being used by Zeyde.  I read it four times to my classes and it still gets me!

I do have to say that my one criticism is that the story is simple in plot and fairly predictable in resolution, but I really did enjoy the read and look forward to some fun Reading Challenges with my Guys Read book club.

So there is my first review of 2016, I hope many more to come.  I am just pages away from finishing Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin, so look for that review in the coming days.

Read on,

Mr. H