Monday, April 29, 2013

The Freedom Writers’ Diary with Erin Gruwell

­Dedication that Makes a Difference (Teacher Appreciation Week)

The Freedom Writers' Diary with Erin Gruwell is a compilation of diary entries of approximately 150 students in a Los Angeles school. Ms Gruwell, a first-year teacher, steps into a world of despair, hatred, and anger and ends up teaching her “at risk” students more than English. Through imagination, enthusiasm, and determination Ms. Gruwell begins an education of tolerance and acceptance in a world where high school students carry guns for protection, where racism and hatred is deep and suffocating.  She exposes the kids to the atrocious intolerance of the Holocaust and the Bosnian War with books like Night by Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo.  Through these books their eyes and minds are opened.  Like Anne and Zlata, Ms Gruwell assigns the students to write their own diaries.  This book is the result of four years worth of selected diary entries that takes the reader through the mindsets of the students and Ms. Gruwell as they all journey from disparate strangers to a “family.”

I saw the “Freedom Writers” movie years ago when it first came out and thought it was inspiring.  Anyway you look at it, Ms Gruwell is amazing.  This teacher put everything she had into making a difference. She worked tirelessly as a teacher, then worked another job to take students on field trips or bring key speakers right to their classrooms. The movie, however, only focused on a few of the students, whereas the book gives us a glimpse into so many more students’ lives—lives I cannot imagine.  Each person has a story to tell whether it’s about abuse, hunger, shootings, being overweight, or having cystic fibrosis. Most live in a war zone; an undeclared war that tear their lives apart. Drugs and violence are prevalent.

Though the conditions and situations the students live with are depressing, the book is uplifting.  It’s a lesson for all to overcome adversity and plow forward, to educate ourselves and move in a positive direction. If these kids can block out the negativity of the surrounding world and focus on accepting others for who they are while concentrating on their future in a positive way, even striving to go to college, then we, who don’t have such obstacles, should be able to soar.

“They say America is the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave,” but what’s so free about a land where people get killed?”
Erin Gruwell and Students of Woodrow Wilson High School, The Freedom Writers’ Diary, (New York: Broadway Books, 1999), 78.

“I have learned that it doesn’t matter if your inspiration in life comes from negative or positive events. The most important thing is to learn and go on.”
Erin Gruwell and Students of Woodrow Wilson High School, The Freedom Writers’ Diary, (New York: Broadway Books, 1999), 264.

Mrs. Marie Vento
Good teachers can make such a difference. I, too, had an amazing teacher once.  Her name was Mrs. Marie Vento.  She was my first grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary School in Las Vegas.  I was in awe of her.  I thought she was so beautiful.  I remember her as tall, thin with dark hair like Elizabeth Taylor used to wear.  She had these dark, warm eyes that exuded a kindness I will never forget.  Mrs. Vento taught me English.  Well, she gave it a good go, anyway.  I moved to the United States (permanently) in the second half of the first grade.  The only English I knew was the dinner table variety we learned shortly before leaving Germany.  Käse= Cheese.  Brot = Bread. Gurke = Pickle (not too appetizing since a Pickel is a pimple in German), but you get the point. It was food talk, not street talk.  Thank goodness for Mrs. Vento. Every day after school, Mrs. Vento would
stay and teach me English.  We read things like “A pig can jig,” a virtual tongue twister back then.  Mrs. Vento didn’t get paid extra for this.  I’m sure she had many better things to do.  She could have been grading school work, or grocery shopping, or even reading a book.  Instead she took time with a shy, little German girl after school and patiently taught me how to read and pronounce those foreign words. 

She did a great job, too.  I can proudly say after four(+) decades I’m reasonably proficient in English now.  In fact, my German has sadly rusted in a corner.  It’s falling apart and I can hardly speak it anymore.  Every once in awhile I’ll try to exercise my brain by translating sentences from English to German in my head.  Even in my head they sound horrible.  I have forgotten so many vocabulary words.  I get things mixed up.  I still have to think twice before saying Fahrstuhl or Rollstuhl.  One means elevator and the other wheelchair. If I’m not careful I’ll say something like “My sister just got a new purple elevator and it is really lightweight.”  

But back to Mrs. Vento. If there’s one teacher who deserves an award, it was her. I’m not sure if she ever knew how much I appreciated that she took her own time to teach me English. I don’t know if she’s alive anymore.  If she is, she must be way up there, since I’m not a spring chicken myself anymore. But if she or her kids are alive, I hope they somehow find to reading this and know how grateful I am. Thank you, Mrs. Vento! You made a difference.  You were a great teacher!

Teacher Appreciation Week starts May 6th.  Is there a teacher that made a difference in your life? Enter a comment or email me at and I will post your answer.

Update 5/22/15:  I just read the most amazing story of Miss Nelson, a teacher who shaved her head for one of her students.  What a touching story. What an incredible woman.  Click below to read. 

Happy reading!


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Friday, April 26, 2013

A Void by Georges Perec

The Case of the Missing Man & Letter “E”
(Not Your Ordinary…Novel)

A Void by Georges Perec is not your ordinary novel.  It’s a lipogram, a literary work that omits a particular letter or word. This book is entirely “void” of the letter “E.” That’s right, you will not find the letter “e” anywhere (except the author’s name).  Imagine not using the letter “e” in even a paragraph, let alone an entire book. In the previous sentences I've already used the letter “e” thirty-five times. But it gets more amazing than that.  This book was originally written in French then translated to English!  I’ll say it again. It’s amazing!  The story is about a group of friends who try to solve the disappearance of their friend, Anton Vowl.  I grant you, it can be a tad confusing and hard to follow at times. But the book itself is such an accomplishment, I think it’s worth checking out. 

Author, Georges Perec

Do you have to be crazy to write a book like this? Probably not, but maybe it helps.

“An involuntary convulsion shook his childish body, causing him not only to burst into sobs, but soil his pants.”
Georges Perec, A Void (Paris: Editions Denoël, under the name La Disparition, 1969; reprint, London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1994), 133.

“But dragging his limp body forward with a strain that’s almost inhuman, grasping, choking, sobbing, sobbing as an infant might sob, and cursing his long, stubborn opposition to submitting his body to mithridatisation, his chums constantly told him to do, Amaury finally crawls out again into a dark corridor.”
Georges Perec, A Void (Paris: Editions Denoël, under the name La Disparition, 1969; reprint, London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1994), 203.

Happy reading, perusing book scanning!


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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Le Cirque des Rêves (Not Your Ordinary…Circus)

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is about an unusual circus that opens at nightfall and closes at dawn.  This is not your ordinary circus.  Instead of a red white striped big top, you’ll find everything is either black or white.  Instead of one giant tent, there are many tents, each with unique and amazing acts or interactive displays you’re not likely to find at the Ringling Brothers.  There is the ice garden, an enchanting place with sparkling frozen trees and blossoms. There’s a labyrinth with a bizarre network of rooms: stacks of suitcases, floating feathers, an albino sphinx, and snow. There’s a tent with a sign that states “Please enter cautiously and feel free to open what is closed.”  Inside jars and bottles in all shapes and sizes line a table. They contain sensations, sounds, and evoke images. But the spectacular circus itself is just a sideshow to the main storyline.  Two men make a wager.  They each train a protégé to become the greatest magician of all time.  Marco and Celia spend a lifetime learning their trade, each taught in contrasting styles. They know they are in a competition, but they don’t know the rules or the prize.  It’s all mysterious.  

What enfolds is an intriguing tale of imagination and surrealism, which was well received with my book club. The only small criticisms of the book included that it was slow at times and could be a tad confusing, especially with regards to Celia’s father’s condition and even the ending. Most of us agreed that it is not a book we might have chosen to read on our own, but turned out to be intriguing. I loved this book!

Don't miss another unforgettable book about the circus:  Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

Happy reading!


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Monday, April 22, 2013

The Giant’s House: A Romance by Elizabeth McCracken

A Big, Unforgettable Friendship (Not Your Ordinary…Romance)

The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken is about a librarian who forms a friendship with an overly tall boy.  She calls it love, and it is a love story.  But a different kind of love. It’s not the sordid sort that makes you cringe.  It’s not about an older teacher-type woman taking advantage of a younger student.  This is a touching tale about Peggy Cort and James Sweatt.  Peggy is a single woman others would call a spinster.  But that word conjures up images of a bitter, lonely woman, which she definitely is not.  Peggy doesn't require companionship with many friends or even a husband to make her life feel full. Instead, she opens her heart to this unusually tall boy.  James first came to her library when he was a 6’2” eleven-year-old; she was twenty five; it was 1950. Slowly she helps him not only in the world of books, but in general.  She becomes a caring friend, and he becomes a precious gift to her. Miss Cort narrates the story looking back on her life, and it “McCrackles” with a blunt, honest, and dryly humorous tone. Her voice is luring. It flows easily and lightly.  I could “listen to her” all day long.  I think this book is one of those treasures that will stay with me a long time. Peggy and James are unforgettable. This book was a nice, giant surprise and shot right up there on my list of favorites.

**On a side note, it saddens me to say that my mother did not care for the book as much as I did.  She stopped reading it--said it didn't grab her.  There was too much talking, not enough action.  :(  So, who's right, me or my mom? Anyone?

“I loved him because I wanted to save him, and because I could not.”—Peggy
Elizabeth McCracken, The Giant’s House (New York: Avon Books, 1997), 89.

“My parents were frugal and did not even give me a middle name.”—Peggy
Elizabeth McCracken, The Giant’s House (New York: Avon Books, 1997), 86.

“I am happy with my life largely because it is my life. How many regrets can I have?”—Peggy
Elizabeth McCracken, The Giant’s House (New York: Avon Books, 1997), 144.

1. Why did or didn't you like this book?

2. Did you consider it a real romance or just a friendship?

3. Did you think the ending rounded the story out nicely or cheapened it?

What did you think of this book? Post a comment or email:

Happy reading!


Friday, April 19, 2013

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

A Thankless Job (The Brontë Sisters Week)

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë is about a governess who has to deal with two sets of bratty kids and arrogant parents in the nineteenth century, namely the Bloomfields and the Murrays. Her job as governess is a thankless one, but the only one poor Agnes can get. The kids are unruly and spoiled; the parents are difficult; and everyone is demanding. Even Mary Poppins may have been exasperated with these uppity characters. As governess, she doesn't exactly have a great social life either since she’s stuck way out in the boonies.  Eventually, one interesting man finally enters her life, but it’s not all smooth sailing.  

I really liked this story. I was saddened at the harsh oppressive world of a governess in the Victorian Age, and more so when I learned that this book is based on Anne’s own experiences. Unlike the heroine Agnes, however, Anne’s life didn't have a happy ending.  Like four of her siblings before her, Anne Brontë contracted tuberculosis and died at the early age of twenty-nine, just after publication of her second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was particularly controversial as it is the story of an abused woman who eventually flees with her son. It had a taboo feminist ring to it. But even then, audiences were drawn to the notorious theme and it flew off the shelves. Both Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell have been in publication for over 150 years now, so even though Anne Brontë is the least known of the three literary Brontë sisters she didn't do so bad for herself after all.

Happy reading!


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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Withering Hopes (The Brontë Sisters Week)

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is a doozy.  I say that not because it’s long; it only seems that way but, in my opinion, those two hundred and twelve pages overstayed their welcome. It really falls into the doozy category because it’s a rough read.  This is a story of some pretty mean people, starting with Heathcliff and Catherine and ending…well, with everyone else. I’ve seen it referred to as a love story, but I failed to see tender love or romance.

Heathcliff is adopted by the Earnshaw family and falls in love with his stepsister Catherine.  Hindley, Catherine’s blood brother, is jealous of the attention Heathcliff is getting from his father, and a nasty little wedge is formed in the family unit. The book is full of feuds and drama and “vinegar-faced”[1] people who yell at each other, degrade one another, slap heads, box ears, and threaten bodily harm with knives.  They’re real downers who got under my skin.  The more I read, the more I wanted to escape from this bitter band of malcontents. I think that even if Justin Timberlake danced, danced, danced into their lives with sunshine in his pockets, it wouldn’t crack their vile veneers.

What further soured me was that the storyline can be very perplexing at times, because it spans a couple generations and in those times they named their kids with the same first names as their parents or other relatives, or they used last names as first names. And since Heathcliff only has one name, it gets even more confusing.  There’s Heathcliff and a Linton Heathcliff, and an Edgar Linton, Catherine Earnshaw Linton, Catherine Linton Heathcliff. See what I mean? Print out a family tree before you get going on this one.

Supposedly Emily was the shyest of the three famous sister authors.  Still waters run deep.  I wonder if she wasn't repressing a lot of anger. I’m not saying I hated the book.  I reserve hate for only one book so far (and I’m not revealing which one because I don’t want to draw any attention to it).  But this was definitely my least favorite of the three Brontë Sisters' books I've read: Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and Jane Eyre, which I loved. On the other hand, I did like the writing style.  I could pick out handfuls of quotes I like.

I would really like to know if I’m the only one who felt like this.  Were others as confused and disheartened as I was? What’s that?  I didn't hear you.  Post a comment or email me at and let me know what you thought about the book.  Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for the story, either time. That's right, I read it twice and my hopes for liking it any better the second time withered quickly. Sure, it happens once in awhile and, unfortunately, that’s how good books get bad reps. I started The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck once and put it down because I just found it boring.  Years later I picked it up again and, waddayaknow, I loved it. But after reading Wuthering Heights twice, well it didn't pass that test.

On another note, I want to give kudos to my mother who chose this book as her first English reading selection.  English is her second language and she conquered a challenge with this one! Go mom!

Oddly enough, I did like Emily’s writing style.  I could pick out handfuls of quotes I liked. Here are some of them.

“I have to remind myself to breathe—almost remind my heart to beat!” (Heathcliff at the end seeing Catherine everywhere.)  
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; reprint, New York: Random House Publishers, 1943), 204.

“…I joined an unsociable meal, seasoned with reproofs on one side and sauciness on the other.”
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; reprint, New York: Random House Publishers, 1943), 34.

“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same..." (Catherine about Heathcliff) 
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; reprint, New York: Random House Publishers, 1943), 50.

Happy reading!


[1] “Vinegar-faced Joseph projected his head from a round window of the barn.”
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; reprint, New York: Random House Publishers, 1943), 5.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Fun With Ed and Jane (The Brontë Sisters Week)

The stage is set. A soft rendition of “We Are Family” is playing in the background. Drum rolls, please! Now let’s give a big round of applause for the brainy, bodacious, and brilliant Brontë sisters! Curtains! Enter the literary trio: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë.

This week I’m going to take a look at the works of these remarkable sisters.  The three Brontë sisters were exceptional writers who churned out amazing classics in their short lives.  Tragically, all died before the age of forty. We start with Charlotte, born in 1816. She was, in fact, a middle child in a family of six siblings.  At the ages of ten and eleven respectively, her sisters Elizabeth and Maria died from tuberculosis. This left Charlotte the eldest with brother Bramwell, Emily, and little Anne following behind her. When Anne was not quite two years old, their mother died of cancer.

All siblings were blessed with creative juices flowing through their veins.  Bramwell proved to have a knack for art and became a portrait painter. After Charlotte and Emily’s plan to open a school failed, they, along with Anne tried their hand at writing which had always been their hobby anyway.  It was an accidental discovery on Charlotte’s part that got the ball rolling.  Charlotte found Emily’s secret poems she had written—ones she had not seen before.  She was impressed.  Soon after, Anne revealed that she had also been writing on the sly. Charlotte thought, “What the hecketh, let’s publisheth all our writings in one book. What have we got to lose?” The 1800s being a man’s world and all, the clever sisters decided to use the male pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, the first letters of their real names corresponding to the masculine pen names. The book was published at their own expense and sadly was not the runaway best seller they thought it might be. Two copies were sold (or three depending on your source). Dismal either way. But the sisters were nothing if not determined and decided to plow forward.  In 1847 all three of the sisters published their own masterpieces.  Anne unveiled Agnes Grey, Emily debuted Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte gave birth to Jane Eyre, which was the most successful of the three.  

Just as they were still celebrating their good fortune, tragedy struck.  Bramwell, who had in the meantime become an alcoholic and addicted to laudanum, succumbed to tuberculosis in September of 1848. Just three months later Emily, too, passed away from the same illness. And if that wasn't enough, five months after that Anne became the fifth victim of the dreaded disease in their family. Bramwell was thirty-one, Emily was thirty, and Anne was just twenty-nine years old. 

That left Charlotte the last woman standing. She valiantly carried on and continued to write. She became a bit reclusive.  Finally one man managed to win her over, and in 1854 Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls. At last she had found happiness. And as a bonus helping of joy, Arthur and Charlotte were to become parents! But Brontës’ lives were destined to be more tragic than a novel, and nine months into her marriage, Charlotte died of complications from her pregnancy (or tuberculosis, depending on which source you believe).  She was thirty-eight years old.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is my favorite of the Brontë sisters' books.  This novel is the long, harsh account of an orphan girl who grows up to become a governess and eventually finds love.  Throughout her challenging life, Jane overcomes as many obstacles as Wonder Woman deflects bullets. First she is abused by the aunt who takes her in after her parents die. Then she’s shoved off to Lowood, a school that puts boot camps to shame. Heat, proper meals, and decent clothing are luxury items. So is dignity. Jane is singled out and further humiliated in conditions that would garner lawsuits, or at the very least a book deal, in this day and age.  She deserves a T-shirt that says “I Survived Lowood.”  Finally, after eight arduous years as a student and later a teacher, she sets out on her own as governess to Adèle Varens, ward of the formidable Mr. Edward Rochester.  She falls in love with Mr. R., which is of course, totally inappropriate given her place in the household as well as the fact that she’s kind of homely compared to his upscale friends. Will they or won’t they get together—that’s the question. And I’m not giving the answer.  I can say, however, that you may find a surprise or two along the way.  This was definitely a memorable book, which I continue to hold close to my heart many years after having read it. Go, Jane!

"My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for His creature: of whom I had made an idol." 

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1848; reprint, Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1984), 247.

Next up, Wuthering Heights—and it’s a doozy.

Happy reading!


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