Book Reviews

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What are your “greatest hits?” What are the best moments of your life that you would like to relive over and over and over again? You might have a few that pop directly to the surface, or you might have an oddball moment that came out of nowhere.

This is what it’s like for Samantha Kingston as she dies tragically in a car accident at the age 17. Instead of her life flashing before her eyes, she remembers an odd day from middle school. But instead of going peacefully, Sam wakes up to relive her last day on this earth over and over and over again. Would you do anything differently if you had another chance?

In Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, Sam tries to fix the mistakes she made on the last day of her life, hoping it will change her fate.

By her own account, Samantha is your typical, snotty, popular, self-absorbed teenager. Many girls in her high school are jealous of her attractive boyfriend, her best friends are just as popular and snotty, and she gets away with whatever she wants.

Aunt Polly

For a brief shining moment in the spring of 1969, I was Aunt Polly. The 8th grade class of St. Peter’s enacted a little play based on some scenes from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We all got to choose parts, and I petitioned long and hard (it seemed so, for there was heavy resistance) for the part of Aunt Polly.

Who in their right mind would want to be Aunt Polly, you might ask, and me a boy as well?

But I looked on it as a challenge – could I, a 12 year old boy, bring off this crotchety old maid? I felt I was up to the challenge. Besides, I had the outfit already. On the Halloween prior, I decided that I wasn’t going to get dressed up in any of the more typical outfits – superheroes, skeletons, ghosts, the characters in the YMCA song – no, I was going to paint Dorchester, MA, red as an old woman.

And so, when it was announced that we were going to perform some scenes based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I figured, “I got the outfit, I’m gonna play the part of Aunt Polly.” As it turned out, I had no such aunt, and my mother had nothing about Aunt Polly about her, but Sr. Joseph Helen, our 8th grade teacher, known to all the students as “Jake” had a lot of Aunt Polly about her, and so I modeled myself on “Jake” and tried to channel Aunt Polly, with a little Jonathan Winters’ Maude Frickert thrown in.

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth book cover

In The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Alexandra Robbins recounts the lives of six high school students and one new teacher. It's hard to decide which one of the students I grew most fond of: Danielle, the loner; Noah, the band geek; Eli, the nerd; Joy, the new girl; Blue, the gamer; Whitney, the “popular bitch;” or Regan, the weird girl.

Each one, in his or her own way, is a smart and creative individual. With passion for their interests and strong inner feelings, these seven individuals have much to offer.

But in spite of, or maybe because of their talents and individualism, they exist in the “cafeteria fringe.” Even Whitney, who is part of the in-crowd, feels that she has to continually prove herself and fights daily to keep her spot in the party car.

At times I was shocked at the cruelty with which kids treat each other. For years, shy and quiet Danielle has yearned for friendship only to be continually rebuffed. Having just about given up, she is begged by several kids to join a club. Danielle is hesitant, but could not say no to what she thought was a gesture of friendship. Only after she joins is she informed that it's a "hate Danielle" club. She is duped into becoming a member of a club formed to hate her.

One of my favorite quotes is: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That statement from Faulkner’s 1951 novel, Requiem for a Nun, could be said of all of Faulkner’s writing, and for Absalom, Absalom! (1936) especially.

Oh, Tom Sawyer! Rascal, liar, ladies-boy, wicked heathen … be still my heart. I can still remember my very first encounter with Tom – from my much loved collection of Great Illustrated Classics (my first personal library, maybe?).

I can still picture the cover – Tom strolling regally down the road, barefooted, fishing pole in hand, behind the gingham-clad, blushing Becky Thatcher, steamboat in the background.

Nothing may have influenced my childhood more than the time spent poring over Tom’s adventures. It may even be the first chapter book I put my mind to. Well, that, or The Baby-sitters Club.

Still. Tom and Becky, Injun Joe, Amy Lawrence, Huck, Aunt Polly – from childhood, my conception of classic Americana owes a great debt to these characters. Every woman in a high collar and bun could be a Polly; every straw-hatted little boy becomes Tom. They inform my perception of everything from the idea of running away from home to roadside attractions (for who but a Tom-like character could conceive of charging $13.50 a carload to see giant cement busts of presidents?).

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