A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier – Ishmael Beah

Last year I had watched the movie Invisible Children for the first time.  To say I was horrified is not enough. A few months after I came across Ishmael Beah’s book , “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier”.  I do believe, just as I believe in the power of the Invisible Children movement, that everyone should read this book and become aware of children who are being brainwashed everyday to fight as soldiers. Since 1991, the Sierra Leone region has been a place of political unrest. 

Many Sierra Leoneans have been killed as this civil war wages on. For many months, Ishmael lived in the forests avoiding detection of the rebels.  About a year into his displacement, he and his friends were caught by the government army. Ishmael was just a child, thirteen years old when he became a soldier.  At age 13, he was killing people.  For two years he fought for the army, committing horrendous acts of violence himself. The situation in Sierra Leone dictated what he was doing – it was either kill or be killed. 

UNICEF saved the day for Ishmael.  They came in and swooped up some of the child soldiers with the hope of rehabilitating them.  Ishmael’s rehabilitation journey was not an easy one.  During the years he was fighting, he was constantly hopped on drugs – marijuana and cocaine combined with gunpowder.  Weaning him off of that was not an easy task.  He was also suspicious of everyone, even those with the best intentions and was prone to random outbursts of violence.  Basically he had to learn how to live again, how to forgive and have hope.   Eventually his rehab was complete.  At its completion, he was visited to New York to tell his story before the United Nations.  It was a wonderful experience for Ishmael.  He met a lot of great people but one person that had the most effect on him was a storyteller named Laura Simms.  She was hired by the UN to work with the delegates. Unfortunately the visit to New York was short lived and he had to go back home.  About a year later when Freetown where he was living was overrun by armed forces, Ishmael felt that it was time to leave his country for good.  He contacted that woman he met on his trip a year before and Laura arranged for his safe transport to the United States.  Ishmael was saved a second time.  She is his “mom” or his “new mom” as he calls her. He says she gave him “a new life. Not many people get that.” 

There are some pretty horrible scenes in the book.  Ishmael is not describing them for shock value but to show what happened with a lot of kids over there.  Ishmael surviving as well as thriving and going on to tell his story is nothing short of a miracle.  He has a lot to say and people should really listen.  I admire him greatly and hope he continues with his activist goals of world peace and a making the world a safe place for the children in it.   He is true testament to the human spirit.

Peak by Roland Smith

My adrenaline was pumping as I read the book Peak by Roland Smith.  It is an action packed read from the first page that will hook in even the most reluctant reader.  I read it in pretty much one sitting – I couldn’t put it down.  In jest when I was younger, I said that I wanted to climb the tallest mountain.  Of course I would be invincible too and nothing would keep me from reaching the top.  Do you realize just how many miles you have to climb to reach the top?  I do now – over 29,000 feet.  Absolutely mind blowing.  There is an 18 yr old girl from California that now holds the record as the youngest foreigner to reach the summit but the youngest person of all times to reach it was a 15 year old Nepalese girl.  (Note to readers – these were girls who made it – talk about stamina and persistence.)

Peak Marcello has the climbing gene in his blood.  Both his parents were climbers in their youth but only his dad kept on going.  Peak and his mom lived pretty much in the wilderness before she got remarried and this gave peak many opportunities to climb.  Moving to the big apple, NYC with the new husband left Peak with no climbing opportunities, unless you are like Spiderman and can scale tall skyscrapers.  Well it turns out Peak and Spiderman have a lot in common that is until the night Peak got caught.  The judge wanted to throw the book at him. Enter stage left, Peak’s dad Josh, whom Peak hasn’t heard from in years, to the rescue.  A deal is struck and Josh agrees to take custody of Peak and whisks him off to Katmandu and the adventure of a lifetime (though he didn’t know that at the time).  You see even though Peak hasn’t spoken to his father in years, it seems that his exploits, the climbing of skyscrapers reaches Josh’s ears all the way on the other side of the world and he comes to the rescue, not as a concerned parent but  with someone with an ulterior motive.  Arriving in Chiang Mai, Peak assumes that he will get to know his father, go to school and perhaps climb a little but finds out on the very first day that his father has another as they catch a flight to Katmandu and Everest. 

One thing for sure, is that this is a thrilling adventure and along the way Peak will meet interesting people like Zopa and Sun-jo, a Nepalese boy about his age.  He will be tested mentally and physically as the teams climb the mountain range to the top.  Peak will have to concentrate on just the climb and forget everything else and at the same time know when to quit and not take a step higher. People will die on the mountain going up.  No one climbs the mountain thinking that they won’t make it down Who will make it? You can never tell who the mountain will allow and who it will not.  Peak may have hit the proverbial head of the nail saying at the end although you’ll find a divine view at the summit of Mt Everest; it is the things that lie below that are far more important. 

Deadline – Chris Crutcher

Let’s say you find out in a routine physical exam that you have a rare disease and will only have approximately one year left to live.  What would you do?  Would you get treatment to prolong your life even if it’s just for a little while or would you refuse treatment and just live out the rest of your days as a normal person?  Tough choice; I am not sure what I would do. 

Ben Wolf is faced with this dilemma in Chris Crutcher’s newest book, Deadline.  He finds out in the beginning of his senior year that he has leukemia.  Not only does he refuse treatment but he also decides not to tell anyone about his condition either which means that his family and friends are all in the dark until almost the very end.  Why did he decide to do things that way you might wonder?  I get why he decided not to tell anyone at school.  They would treat him as if he was fragile like glass, or like the town leper. Normalcy is something you strive for when things in your world are turned upside down.  I would’ve told my family though because they are my family through better or worse. I hate lying to them.  Ben didn’t see it as lying at first.  He just saw it as hiding the truth which in reality is the same thing. 

Being sick made Ben do and see things that he never would have done before.  Instead of coasting through his senior year, he used the year to find information, read everything he can and speak up and push his teachers so he could get the most from his education.  He also decided to switch sports and play football instead of running cross country.  And finally he got the girl too.  Courageous or foolish? You decide. Eventually though, reality does set in…..

The Confessional – J.L. Powers               

My family came over from Russia and Poland at the turn of the century. I an American even if I have Russian or Polish or whatever blood running through me. Many people from other countries have done the same for centuries. We have Cuban Americans, Russian Americans, Greek Americans, and Hispanic Americans etc. It’s a swirl of colors, beliefs and languages – a true melting pot. Unfortunately an act of terrorism can make you cast a net of suspicion over anyone that is different from us. It is either us or them. 
      In reading Confessional by JL. Powers I came to understand what living on the border, straddling two places is really like. The book opens up with a letter from a letter from a Mexican man; bitter because he is treated liked a terrorist when he stopped by border control crossing the river to go to work. Granted, he is working illegally but he is working. He is also bitter because his wife a maquilla worker was found dead. She is not the only one – many women have been found dead in the desert He wrote letter after letter to our government for help but to no avail. He even lost 2 days wages in hope of getting someone to pay attention to the situation. Nada! So he got their attention – he blew himself up, on the bridge that connects Mexico to the United States, killing himself and 32 other Americans on Cinco de Mayo. A year later, Mackenzie Malone, a student at a Catholic High School, writes an editorial considered controversial to the local newspaper. He doesn’t feel that Cinco de Mayo should be celebrated, that it is too soon and a moment of silence is just not enough for those that died. His classmates think he is a racist for his words. Tensions mount between the Americans, Mexican Americans and Mexicans during the week. Mac gets into a fight with a Mexican classmate and basically beats him to a bloody pulp. Tension mounts some more. By the end of that night, Mac is dead, stabbed to death. The rest of the story is told in alternating chapters by 5 of his classmates, his friends. Secrets are revealed as well as some fear and insecurities. Everybody is a suspect but who really did it, you will find out in the end.  

Echo – Kate Morgenrath          

Mark is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The anniversary of his brother’s death is nearing, a death that he witnessed and Mark is suffering greatly – very angry and also emotionally disconnected from his family. At school, his friends are no longer his friends and he frequently gets in trouble. The day of the anniversary starts like any other day for Mark except his anger almost at a boiling point guided by an internal voice (or so you think) will have a run in with both his former best friend and girlfriend.

Every chapter starts off the same way with him getting ready for school but with each chapter you find out another piece of what transpired on the day of the run in. After awhile I think in the third or is it fourth retelling of the day, did I finally start to catch on to what “really” happened that day. The book was impossible to put down, because you just wanted to get to the truth. Great book for reluctant readers.


Other great “guy” reads

Curious Incident of the Dog at Midnight – Mark Haddon

Slam – Walter Dean Myers

Any book by Chris Crutcher

Three Clams and an Oyster – Randy Powell

Right behind you – Gail Giles

You don’t know me – David Klass

Outsiders/That was then this is now – SE Hinton

Paranoid Park – Blake Nelson

It’s kind of a funny story – Ned Vizzini

Black and white – Paul Volponi

Face – Benjamin Zephaniah

Friday Night Lights