Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “scruffyrube”

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review Supplement (#s 27-43)

In all of my reading and writing it would be easy to say that I’m thinking too much about books that are meant to be little dollops of entertainment. That may well be true, books may just be meant as minor diversions for over-stimulated minds. But through the past year I realized how the various reading role models I have had in my life taught me how to read, how to love reading and how to use reading to think.

So, after I finished my half-cannonball back in August I kept right on reading and thinking. Balancing all that work with the job I’m paid to do was a little difficult and I only just finished reviews for all of the books read in that span. Rather than reprinting some or all of those reviews here, I wanted to give any readers of this site access to my other site where they can read the complete reviews of various books that might interest you. (If you or someone you know–particularly an administrator–believe this is in someway a misuse of the Cannonball Read site, I sincerely apologize and will remove it ASAP.) Take a look, click around and see what you think of everything else I managed to read this year.

All reviews (plus other older reviews and fancy blog style shenanigans at The Scruffy Rube

Post 1 Book Club Books:

#27–The Unbearable Bookclub for Unsinkable Girls, by Julie Shumacher (2 stars)

#28–Frozen by Mary Casanova (3 stars)

#29–Matched by Allie Condie (2 stars)

#29.5–The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind  by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer (illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon) (2 stars)

#30–A Strange Place to Call Home by Marilyn Singer (illustrations by Ed Young) (4 stars)

Post 2: Mock Caldecott Award Candidates

#30.25–Oh No, by Candace Flemming (illustrations by Eric Rohman) (4 stars)

#30.5–Words Set me Free, by Lisa Cline-Ransome (illustrations by James E. Ransome) (4 stars)

#30.75–House Held up By Trees, by Ted Koosner (illustrations by Jon Klassen) (2 stars)

#31–Extra Yarn, by Mac Bennett (illustrations by Jon Klassen) (5 stars)

Post 3: Mock Newberry Award Candidates

#32–Mighty Miss Malone, by Christopher Paul Curtis (3 stars)

#33–Glory Be, by Augusta Scattergood (1 star)

#34–The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate (4 stars)

#35–Wonder, by RJ Palacio (5 stars)

Post 4: Mock Printz Award Candidates

#36–Never Fall Down, by Patricia McCormick (4 stars)

#37–Code Name: Verity, by Elizabeth Fein (1 star)

#38–Year of the Beasts, by Cecil Castelluci (art by Nate Powell) (5 stars)

#39–Every Day, by David Levithan (4 stars)

Post 5: Books with lessons of the year

#40–Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (5 stars)

#41–Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor (5 stars)

#42–A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster (5 stars)

#43–Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (5 stars)

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The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #26 Spiral Bound

I expected (when I was my student’s age) that I would settle for nothing less than a life on the stage or screen. That creating characters and delivering speeches was the only way to make me come alive. I thought that it was all about the art.

That’s one reason I so enjoyed the brief collection of stories and poems collected in Spiral Bound by Minnesota Hip-Hop Icon Dessa. My wife adores Dessa and really all of Doomtree and it was through her that I found and fell for their whip smart lyrics and whip crack beats (yet another thing that I love about my wife). Spiral Bound isn’t the foundation for any album, but it’s still a great glimpse into the life of an artist as she muses on the stories and images that have made her career what it is.

There are intimate personal stories as she recounts being trapped in the hold of a creaky boat with her father, or hot footing her way around South America on the Hippy Highway, or just living with a little brother. Each of these mini-memoirs, these personal reveries, comfort and combine her life with the audience’s, hitting common experiences with deft word choices and beautiful imagery. Her other pieces (including poetry and poetic prose on removing your mind from yourself or trying to fall asleep) showcase other skills, encapsulating complexity and complicating simplicity.

At a slim 66 pages, the only complaint is that you wish she had included more, that you could hear her read the poem rather than seeing the art confined to black and white of a page when it could be sung, or rhymed, or shouted from a stage. Still, Dessa’s done a marvelous job of capturing the essence of her art, and taking the reader along for the ride. It’s a beautiful experience that leaves you eager for more.

To want more art, to want to live IN art, is an amazing feeling. And it’s a feeling I get, not just from the rush of acting or the pride of writing, but from the moment to moment thrills of teaching. I’ve said before that teaching is less a job and more of an art. I love the challenge of it, the creativity it allows/demands and the people I interact with throughout it.

(With that I hereby finish my half cannonball. I may try to include reviews of other books I read this year…assuming my negative reviews of George RR Martin and Veronica Roth haven’t yet rendered me persona non grata among my fellow cannonballers.)

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #25 Columbus Slaughters Braves

Columbus Slaughters Braves is another in a long line of baseball books that I’ve read. But it goes beyond the box scores, beyond the paeans to “America’s Game”. Instead it focuses on the relationship between two brothers: CJ and Joe Columbus. The former is the fastest rising star on a late-nineties Cubs team that was going nowhere (as Cubs teams are wont to do), the latter is a little older and much more cynical, bitter and cruel.

With Joe Columbus as our narrator, we’re subject to all the pangs of primal self-doubt as every overlooked brother since Cain. It’s not the most comfortable feeling in the world (especially if, like me, you can think of several dozen ways in which your real life brothers are superior to you), but few of us would go inf or the kind of cruel and silent psychological warfare that Joe perpetrates on his little brother.

What keeps the story readable is Joe’s honesty in the narration. The childhood jealousy and immature disdain is not excused or qualified, it simply is, the way that childish behavior simply is childish. As the book goes on there is no miraculous change. Like an actual person, Joe acknowledges his failings but is torn between the easy act of ignoring it and the more problematic act of changing himself.

You might not like Joe (as a narrator he seems to suspect as much), but you have to respect the honesty of the character as well as  the unflinching commitment of author Mark Friedman to writing a work like this. Though the plot hits some familiar and occasionally melodramatic notes, accomplishing the tricky task of a difficult but compelling protagonist makes it notable.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #24 Bobby Fischer Goes to War

the real problem with protagonists runs much deeper than just whether or not he seems heroic, often times he might not even seem likable. The authors of Bobby Fischer Goes To War confront that very problem in the non-fiction treatment of the most famous chess game ever played.

Few countries offer a better host of bad guys than Russia. If given a choice between running into gang members in a dark alley or President Vladmir Putin in a well lit area…I’m really not sure which seems safer. And when it comes to the cerebral battlefield of the space race, the art race and the chess race, America languished behind for a long time.

Then into the fray leapt chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, a kid from New York whose skill was outmatched only by his fierce competitiveness. At the time that Bobby Fischer Goes to War begins, Fischer had become the tantrum throwing bad boy of the international chess circuit, even though he seemed like a straight from the Comicbook “CHESSMAN” superhero to Americans. Edmonds and Eidnow chronicle every lat drop of strategy that brought Fischer to the inhospitable climate of Reykjavik to battle then world champion, Soviet, Boris Spassky.

The authors first embrace the match as a metaphor for Cold War gamesmanship and then seek to complicate the scene by knocking down the superhero and building up the “dastardly” Soviet. But the overt recasting of these parts in later chapters seems irrelevant when the first chapters show it plainly in both men’s characters. Fischer seems unhinged at best, diabolical at worst; Spassky rises as an iconoclast uncomfortable within the Soviet regime, seeming downright American in his fiercely independent nature. Indeed, the only people who seem to need convincing that Fischer wasn’t the hero are the authors themselves.

The authors’ dedication to probing their characters comes at the expense of chess explanations. Those without a cursory knowledge of the game may feel lost. Even those who know enough to visualize the board at key moments may be frustrated by the maddeningly condescending accounts of “howlers” and “blunders” that are named, but never explained. The author’s clearly love chess, so too do the people who made the match the most popular chess spectacle in a century. But the fixation on Fischer, and attempts to complicate a person who is obviously, maddeningly complicated already, gives the reader fewer opportunities to learn to love the game.

Love you Vladdy!

Things have obviously changed since the Fischer/Spassky match in 1972. And though we’re still tempted to think of Russians as the bad guys and Americans as the good guys, the days of Rocky Balboa V.s. Ivan Drogo have been replaced by an appreciation of our shared human complexity. I still might worry about starting a brawl with President Putin, but beyond that Russia’s Rogues Gallery is running thin (though we could always posthumously loan them Fischer)

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #23 The Scarlet Pimpernel

Few characters have the heroic cache that The Scarlet Pimpernel does, heck I first heard about the character when I was about 7 and watching Looney Tunes.

As time has gone on, I’ve seen and heard a lot more about the mythical and dashing: Scarlet Pimpernel. So when I found a tattered copy of the original 1905 novel by the Baroness Orczy, I was excited to give it a shot and see how the reputation stacked up to reality.

It’s a lot of fun to immerse yourself in the giddy fantasy of a swashbuckling hero. Kids do it every day, I did it, my brothers did it, I’d wager some kid is doing it right now. A lot of that same glee is apparent in the first pages of The Scarlet Pimpernel. As a mysterious hero scampers about the French countryside rescuing French aristocrats before the Reign of Terror’s guillotine can dispatch them. The tales of his derring-do are legendary throughout the sympathetic English nobility.

As the novel continues that’s pretty much all we hear of the Pimpernel: tales. As the Reign of Terror’s agents attempt to get at the hero through a former revolutionary ally now living among English nobility, we hear stories about his genius. As the trap is set and evaded and set again and evaded again…we hear about it, but never see it. And as the action builds to a potentially riveting climax, we hear about the events…but don’t see them happen.

Imagination and legend were good enough to turn The Scarlet Pimpernel into the prototype for all the  swashbucklers who would come after. But after a century worth of his successors, the story’s aren’t enough any more. After all, few kids dream of being the Scarlet Pimpernel any more (besides, why duel with real sabres when light sabres make that cool vwing sound?), and for the record, if the Pimpernel was secretly a cartoon duck, that might be a worthy twist.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #22 Kindred

There’s something captivating about the first few pages of Butler’s book. Within moments, just as you get comfortable with the characters and 1979 Californian setting, you are hurled (along with the protagonist Dana Franklin) across time and space to an antebellum riverside where a young boy’s life is in jeopardy. Despite the inexplicable and jarring nature of this time travel, both the audience and the character must commit to the circumstances of this situation: hoping to save a life because our natural human impulses command it.

But Kindred has more than just a clever opening. As the story unfolds, Dana must consider the complex interplay of love for family and social justice. For a twentieth century African-American citizen to dive into the world of slavery with perpetual fear and palpable anger in every heartbeat–all for the sake of her white, slave-owning ancestor–is to experience history afresh. Butler manages to not just present or explore an often silently accepted splotch on our American history, but to live it, to battle it and to grudgingly appreciate parts of it.

Few authors have the skill to make this rigorous inhabitation of history (mixed with a healthy-dollop of science fiction) work, but Butler makes it seem effortless. Despite the extraordinary circumstances, the characters (both historical and contemporary) seem grounded in genuine humanity and they are easy to relate to, regardless of your own ethnicity. Our emotions are as conflicted as Dana’s, our experience as complex and uncomfortable. The deeper we dig into the book the better we can appreciate issues not just of race, but of honesty and ignorance, violence and love. That’s precisely the kind of work that both my students and I can sink our teeth into with relish.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #21 Divergent

Maybe I was in a bad mood. Maybe I was in a cynical one. Maybe reading it while looking out over the pristine reflections of Glacier’s Lake MacDonald as part of a nerdy quartet of readers (including my wife, and a friend I’ve had since Pre-School), but for whatever reason I felt supremely let down by Divergent.

Try as I might, I could not shake the sensation that I was reading a mash-up of popular other works. It was as if author Veronica Roth took the influences of The GiverHarry Potter, and The Hunger Games and squeezed them all into one volume: children assume career roles at a young age (in this case based on the apparently exclusionary values of selflessness, honesty, friendship, intelligence or bravery), a sorting ceremony defines their lives, they are banned from association with rival factions, they must train and be ranked, friendships lead to dangerous adventures and to be unlike the others is to risk everything. I never managed to fully suspend my disbelief and appreciate the story for the fun of it, it was like looking at the blueprints of Versailles and never the building itself.

More problematic is how vague and undefined the heroine is. (While writing this I had to google her name.) Beatrice Prior seems to hold the fate of her world in her hands, but is plagued by far more doubt than her Fantasy-world predecessors (Hermione and Katniss). But that doubt is never really dealt with or examined as indicative of her character. Instead her reflections offer a superficial glimpse at her point of view before throttling ahead to dwell on another action-packed training sequence. And as the story breaks from education and training into full scale rebellion, the action blurs together so quickly that what happens (and why) isn’t altogether clear.

I can see how a lot of readers can latch on to the story (hopefully it’s pulled a few students away from the Xbox this summer): the action, the subtle growth of romantic affection (even if the foreshadowing gives away the endgame early on) and the feeling of partisanship and ideological entrenchment all too common in today’s society. Except I don’t buy that entirely either. Roth’s characters seem to willingly accept that they must be beholden to one value and living in accordance with that value at all costs (even the heroine Beatrice, is told early on that she could be smart or brave or selfless, the idea of being ALL isn’t even considered, Beatrice herself sees this as a flaw not an asset). To be sure there are ecological mavens and right-to-life die-hards, but I also know eco-fiends who get a giddy thrill out of Monster Trucks and fundamentalists who cordially engage with people of all faiths and walks of life. Taking the “which faction do you belong to quiz” at the back, I could not possibly limit myself to one. Philosophy is not a black-and-white affair, nor does the silent majority in our world live that way. Even in the future, I have to believe that our human will to individuality would rapidly explode any such utopian suggestion before it could go wrong.

I give credit to Roth for capturing the interest of readers around the country, for inspiring conversations and fandom a new. Any book that can inspire this much passion among fans (and detractors like me) is notable. But a popular mash-up does not a classic make.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #20 November Blues


I have already read and reviewed Draper’s Tears of a Tiger, this time I moved on to the author’s slightly thicker series The Jericho Trilogy hoping for something that might be as challenging as Tears of a Tiger was engaging.

November Blues jumps in on the middle of the story as November Nelson learns that she is pregnant. Unfortunately, the father is out of the picture and November has to struggle first with the secret of her pregnancy and then with the facts of delivering a baby to term. Her friends and family weave a web of story lines around her, so that while her drama is front and center in the book, there’s a lot of other story lines (backstabbing, drug dealing and a football season) to digest at once and while some might feel like these story lines come from another world, there’s something for practically everyone to connect to.

Draper’s great at capturing the cadences of a teenage conversation: nobody is staggeringly erudite, and dumbfounded silences are a natural fit amid awkward adolescence. Most notably, unlike Tears of a Tiger where characters kept their feelings masked from readers through the shifting narrative perspectives and diverse styles of writing, November Blues digs in to the heart and mind of people attempting to survive a life shaking event.

While the complexity of the writing won’t provide much challenge to teenage readers (or adults) and the story telling style is far more simplistic than the interweaving perspectives of TearsNovember Blues is still a book that I would  bet on as a sure fire success among uncertain readers.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #19 Bamboo Among the Oaks


Bamboo Among the Oaks certainly offers a wide array of talented, but lesser known authors in the emerging Hmong literary scene. With its rapid expansion throughout the upper midwest there are many assumptions and stereotypes about the Hmong people and Bamboo Among Oaks does its best to confront them through an anthology of short stories and poems that capture the experience of first generation Americans caught between an intensely traditional culture and a rapidly evolving America.

The works within the anthology are wildly uneven. Some offer gorgeous retellings of personal experiences, others simply dwell on stereotypes in unexplained native dialects. Though all the authors have grown up with the challenges of life as Hmong-American kids, their writing often adopts the tone of paternalistic or lecturing adults (a sure-fire way to frustrate current teenagers). As befits a group of “young writers” the style of most pieces is still developing, soon to be great, but still a little way off from that.

Still there are some great individual sections particularly Va-Meng Thoi’s scathing satirical skit “Hmoob Boy meets Hmong Girl” and Ka Vang’s great short story “Ms. PacMan Ruined my Gang Life”. These stellar selections are great glimpses into a vital new voice in what some scoff at as “the bland mid-west” and I look forward to seeing more from Hmong writers in the years to come

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #18 Tears of a Tiger

This entry marks the last step in my search for books that would fit my students request for “stuff with more DRAMA” (emphasis theirs)

By the end of this last year, after a lot of pondering (and some pretty blunt student responses) I realized that DRAMA meant intense, life-altering events or emotions that revolve around relatable, personal issues.

Sharon M. Draper may be the best provider of DRAMA today. With multiple series and two powerful trilogies, she has managed to create tangible communities that captivate young readers. In the process she’s racked up awards, becoming a perennial favorite for Coretta Scott King awards

Tears of a Tiger offers a DRAMAtic story through a hodgepodge of sources. Letters, English class assignments, phone calls and newspaper articles, each take a turn in telling the story of a young athlete named Andrew Jackson, whose drunk driving accident killed teammate and friend Robert Washington. His friends look on as Andrew attempts to control himself and cope with his grief, but a culture of stoic silence allows emotions to boil up just behind the words we read until another explosion is bound to occur.

As a protagonist, Andy shows a quiet depth to his friends and remains somewhat unknowable even to the readers. He doesn’t want to come out and emote all over the page with his angst and sorrow, but a practiced eye can see his problems and connect. The unique style of storytelling gives readers a number of ways into each character’s emotions. Without devolving into maudlin monologues, the author sets up the character’s feelings and uses familiar “teenager lingo” to communicate the plot. All this enables Draper to spin our focus off of “imagery” or “figurative language” and back to issues of depression, alcohol abuse, as well as the social pressures and expectations placed upon young black men.

There are times when Tears of a Tiger‘s concentration on “teenager lingo”and abandonment of typical novel imagery work against it (especially since the teenager lingo in question dates back to 1994). The style of writing is a nice contrast with typical English books, but doesn’t seem to provide the same rigor that other books might. Impressed as I am with Draper’s thematic work and creation of DRAMA, I may keep looking for more complex texts to include in the curriculum.

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