Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Dark Prophecy (The Trials of Apollo #2) by Rick Riordan

Riordan's narcissistic god, Apollo has been punished by Zeus and cast out of Olympus becoming a mortal making a storyline that is a great study in irony and unreliable narration. In his god-like form, Apollo is arrogant, immortal, abusive, handsome, a sun god, healer, seer, and musician. As a mortal, he's lost all of that. He's the reluctant hero that doesn't want to go on a quest, is a klutz, coward who thinks of himself first. He's not handsome or athletic. He can still sing, play instruments, give medical care, and shoot an arrow with deadly accuracy. However, he's fat and pudgy and must serve the belching, fashion-challenged Meg. He learns to care for her even though she annoys him most of the time. The two make quite a pair and their extreme character traits make them funny.

You'll laugh at the play-on-words, one-liners, and poking fun at pop culture and mythology. The rare mythical "yale" monsters are on the "endangered species list" and called, the "Harvard's," by Meg. Tofurky, frenemies, are just a few words that the author combines to draw laughs in stressful situations. His one-liners start from the get-go when Festus, Leo's mechanical dragon, burns down the Indiana flag. Leo scolds, "Whoa, buddy! ...We've talked about this. No blowtorching public monuments." The characters are opposite their myths which adds irony. For instance, Calypso who controls air spirits is afraid of flying. Apollo is opposite his god-like self as an unfit clumsy braggart who fears a mortal death. He gives specific mythical facts about yale creatures and admires their looks and capabilities thinking he'd take a video if they weren't trying to kill him at the moment, "I would have gotten millions of likes on Godtube!" It's corny. It's fun. It's entertaining.

Riordan tends to "tell" more than "show", which helps younger readers that might not always recognize the character development. This is written for young adults with a 16-year-old protagonist. There are not the usual mnemonics to remember the gods as found in his middle-grade Percy Jackson series. However, character development and motivations are spelled out and it allows for easier interpretation by readers who may not be as fluent as others.

In his other books, the characters are human and the point of view is similar where the gods are presented as so oblivious to the fact that they are so selfish, egotistical, and arrogant that it's funny. A human might touch their lives, but they do not change and they do not work on developing friendships with each other. This book shifts the point of view to a god that has the choice to change making for a strong character arc. Here, Apollo, pokes fun at the arrogance of the god characters and even shows he still thinks like them - at least in the beginning. As he puts it in light of his own experiences as a mortal, he slowly changes as he learns to make friends and fight for a cause. 

When he first becomes mortal, Apollo shows little compassion for others - he always put himself first. Even when he recognizes when the gods are unjust, he can’t quite embrace being human. When Britomartis says, “Being a goddess, my needs take precedence” it might as well be Apollo speaking. When she sends them on a quest to retrieve her griffins before she’ll help them take down Nero, Apollo shows some recognition, “Oh, the injustice!” But later he vows that if he becomes a god he will never send “a poor mortal on a quest. Unless it was really important. And unless I was sure the mortal could handle it. And unless I was pressed for time…or I just really didn’t feel like doing it myself. I would be much kinder and more generous than this net goddess was being to me.” He’s unreliable at best. He's starting to think about what it means to be human but drifts into his self-centered ways quickly. 

As a god, he thinks he’s better looking, has higher intelligence, and is perfect compared to humans. When in god form if he is bored, he kills people with no thought. He has to learn to value humans and not treat them as inferior beingsAs a human, he starts to mock the gods and how they treat heroes. He doesn't appreciate the goddess Britomartis sending them on an impossible quest. When he wants to abandon the quest, Calypso muses,  "Do heroes ever return empty-handed saying to the gods, we tried?" When Apollo is willing to sacrifice himself for Meg, we see he has embraced friendship and is starting to care for humans or at least one human. Guess he has to start somewhere. When Emmie calls him Lord Apollo and he says the title doesn't fit him, it shows his changing identity that is learning what it means to be human.

Riordan creates many diverse characters in his novels, some more successfully than others. In the Magnus Chase series, the brilliant character Alex Fierro, represents gender fluidity who is male on some days and female on others. Apollo is pansexual, which means his sexual choices are not limited by gender, and his thoughts are funny in his attractions he reveals for both males and females. His character is not as brooding as Alex but he does have flashbacks that show he once cared for the villain, Commodus, as a much as he could care as a selfish god. They both had overbearing fathers and inferiority complexes and he becomes a foil to Apollo.

The plot uses poetry throughout from good to bad haikus for entertainment: “four beheaded dudes / are too much for one nightmare/ Why me? Sob.Sob. Sob.”  In addition to haikus, there are limericks, acrostic, and sonnet poetry that are explained to the reader. Again an example of telling and not showing is here as the reader gets a lesson in what makes it that type of poem. There is usually some snarky comment that is funny and a bad example to add laughs to the situation. 

Commodus represents the self-centered gods who generates no light. Commodus's father, Marcus Aurelius's said to his son, "Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly. What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness" and Apollo now understands what it means. The knowledge he's gained as a mortal has taught him to find meaning in life that extends beyond himself and cares about others. Apollo realizes that "Commodus hated that piece of advice. He found it suffocating, self-righteous, impossible. What was proper? Commodus intended to live forever. He would drive away the darkness with the roar of crowds and the glitter of spectacle. But he generated no light. ...And Apollo, above all, was the god of light." This revelation or climax allows Apollo to regain his superpowers momentarily and blind Commodus with light, a symbol of his awakening to new insights and knowledge on being human. It also reminded me of the story of Paul on the road to Damascus who was persecuting the Christians, was blinded by God, and later converted to Christianity. Commodus has no enlightenment but maybe he'll appear in later novels as someone who changes. 

I turn to Riordan for a break in heavy reading. I know I'll laugh. I know I'll see diverse characters. I know I'll learn about some mythological character or creature I've never heard about and I'll see how he uses creativity and craft to make them his own. If you like his other books, you'll like this one.

5 Smileys

Monday, October 2, 2017

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El-Saadawi

Firdaus, is an Egyptian woman, who suffers violence from men in her role as a wife, prostitute, and office worker. The plot reveals Firdaus in different relationships with men that do not see her as a human being but as an object. She forces them in different ways to see her as a person and in the effort, fails to change anything but expose male hypocrisy and dominance in a patriarchal system that denies women freedom of choice. She uses her body to rebel against the status quo or violence done to her through prostitution, but even that independence is temporary as a man forces himself to be her pimp. Firdaus symbolizes oppressed woman with no real freedoms whose lives are negated and stymied intellectually and physically; where there is no respect or opportunity in life to pursue love, independence, or a career.

This book examines a peasant woman turned prostitute in Egypt after the post-colonial British occupation, how she is oppressed by a patriarchal class system that is an outgrowth of Western Imperialism, and how all women are duplicitous in accepting forms of subservience or oppression by being silent regarding social status or position that is abused by male violence or dominance. The historical context is not directly applied to the actual text but gleaned from the author’s interviews and imprisonment as an outspoken opponent of Anwar Sadat’s government during the 70s, known for jailing hundreds of intellectuals and critics. Arab literature often has the image of a prostitute that represents a nation that has “prostituted” itself to a Western nation in efforts to be modern and the author uses this notion on an individual level. Often, this type of Arab literature shows corruption against colonial aggression; however, this book shows aggression not in the objectification of women but in the sexual relationships between men and the woman, Firdaus, who cannot escape her class position in a rigid society that offers no freedom.

The novel starts with a female psychiatrist doctor, or the narrator, wanting to speak to Firdaus, a woman in jail, who is going to be hanged for murdering her pimp. At first, Firdaus refuses to see the doctor. Fridaus’s silence is all that gives her control over those in authority that have abused and oppressed her. The doctor is a part of a privileged class that accepts a system where men exploit women. The author’s choice of choosing a privileged female narrator removes the idea that the character is a victim, but that the reader is duplicitous in his or her silence as well. This seems like a good way to reach readers who are from industrialized countries and might just write Firdaus off as a victim. It might motivate the reader, regardless of country or socio-economic status, to speak out against the violence and oppression of females with a collective voice. 

Women everywhere should recognize Firdaus as a person of no authority or freedom who is stuck in a flawed social, economic, and political society that is patriarchal, but who is symbolic in her refusal to be dominated by men in spirit and mind. The book shows a woman exploited by men but because the men refuse to see the truth of a flawed system and gender relationship, they must silence the woman by killing her in the end. She is at point zero because even though she has no control physically, authoritatively, and suffers class oppression, she can control her mind and the truth of her situation by refusing to give into the system whether that means begging for her life to be spared, being silent, or speaking out. She chooses to speak the truth. Her end is tragic, but it is her choice and freedom lies in no longer physically existing. This is a short book with layers of meaning the reader can peel through.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

What a brilliant book. The moral ambiguity that seeps through all aspects of this novel adds richness and depth that allows for multiple interpretations. Nothing is at it appears. Nick’s unreliable narration tries to be “honest”; yet, creates a myth through selective narration that tells the story of Jim Gatz, a poor farmer who reinvents himself into the wealthy, James Gatz, to win back his wealthy girlfriend, Daisy. Nick’s boast that “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known” should make the reader suspicious of his narration as he or she meets Nick at the opening dinner party, learns from Daisy and Tom’s conversation that he is fleeing the Midwest because of pressure by family members to become engaged to a girl back home. Nick never tells the reader this directly, just as he selectively tells the reader Gatsby’s background creating the illusion of someone “great.” Lies. Illusions. Dreams. Impossibilities. Restlessness. Innovation. Self-invention. You name it. You can find contradictions galore. Even the author’s constant oxymoron’s of “elegant…roughnecks” to “ferocious delicacy” add to the paradoxes in the novel.

Irony abounds as Gatsby doesn’t quite get his masquerade as a re-made wealthy man right. He has amassed money through illegal means of bootlegging and shady bonds deals. His mansion has a fake fa├žade and he is the perpetual outsider, never getting the jokes leveled at him or fitting in with the elite crowd he so craves. There is a painful scene where Tom shows up on a horse and Gatsby thinks he’s accepted with this wealthy aristocratic group who are actually laughing at Gatsby behind his back. Gatsby’s parties have a mix of social classes that reveal his reinvention of himself that isn’t enough for Daisy who decides to stay with her immoral husband Tom, because it is safer to be with “her own kind.” The author captures this historical shift in society and tension where privileged white characters such as Daisy, Jordan, Nick and Tom and their family connections to old money are threatened by the lower-class Gatsby’s of the world who are self-made and can receive a promotion in the army based on meritocracy.

Times were changing in the 1920s with the economy turning toward consumerism and mass production and Scott Fitzgerald shows the contradictions and confusion in characters and national psyche. The materialism is captured in the cars, decadent parties, advertisements, and mansions that challenges established aristocratic families in powerful positions by those that have risen from lower economic statuses. The landscape is becoming mechanized and the resulting alienation can be seen in the character, Gatsby. Gatsby seems most at home behind a machine that he controls such as a hydroplane or car, rather than with others. At his own parties, he is aloof and off to the side or missing – ever the outsider. The rise of the flapper and jazz music was considered rebellious modern expressions by men and women wanting more personal and sexual freedoms mirrored in the infidelities of Daisy, Tom, Nick, Gatsby, and Myrtle.

Contradictions abound and are captured in the national psyche as well as the characters. The author questions the ambiguity of national myths that emerged from World War I and captures the war's effects on citizens through moral disillusionment, physical devastation, and loss of faith. The valley of the ashes is Manhattan or the war’s physical landscape that reflects the restlessness of people. The eyes of Eckleberg in the advertisement are those of an empty God. There is despair and “restlessness” in Nick’s narration that shows the American dream as a hopeful, optimistic, unattainable, limited, phony, or empty illusion. On the hottest day of the year, the five misfits go on an existential quest to find the meaning in life by going to the valley of ashes. There they find destruction and unfulfillment of dreams. 

The romantic idealistic Gatsby contrasted with the satirical detachment of Nick’s narration is one way the story is elevated in complexity revealing a questioning of established romantic forms and themes. Gatsby doesn’t let go of his youthful dreams. Gatsby tries to reinstate the past through an illusion and his “capacity to wonder” or create an entirely new life with a career and social position through old romantic ideals found in the Victorian society, not the modern one. He lives in the past and this contrast creates a dynamic tension between a man who is hopeful in a hopeless dream.

While the war has punctured the dreams of most it hasn’t affected Gatsby in the same way. Nick captures this at the end when he imagines how Dutch explorers felt when they first saw Long Island. Nick suggests that when the forests “made way for Gatsby’s house” and “…pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams” that people lost the “capacity to wonder” and while Gatsby made Daisy his impossible object of wonder, it captures his romantic ability to see life in its limitless possibilities whether that “green light” is a person or new country with possibilities for an ecstatic or “orgastic future.”

His character is contradictory embodying a country that says’s one thing but does another; that has myths that are not based in reality. The novels’ references to Horatio Alger’s myth that people can go from rags to riches by re-inventing themselves is false. The references to the Benjamin Franklin myth that ties in with the virtues of Poor Richard’s Almanack is false as well; it that says America is the land of opportunity where a person can make it on meritocracy. This is not the case for Gatsby. Fitzgerald pokes holes and shows the ambiguities of the American dream or myth; the reality is that people are affected by socio-economic status, ethnicity, geography, or family environments and it is not as simple as it seems.

Gatsby embraces the dream, but it is a false one. His counterfeit linguistic tic of saying “old sport” sounds like a re-invented identity. His rainbow-colored shirts and over-reaching to re-make the world in a creative, rebellious effort to reinvent himself by means of the American dream is over-the-top. In the end, he wants money, clothes, and Daisy but finds no fulfillment in this monolithic, obsessive illusion. He cannot fulfill his grand yearning and Daisy falls short of his dream. He has created an object in Daisy that is unattainable. She’s a dream that cannot be achieved or a desire that has been commoditized. He describes her voice as a direct metaphor and not a simile, “Her voice is money.” Gatsby can never attain his desire but only circle it repeatedly looking at it “across a bay” and unable to cross the distance to make it happen. He is from immigrant farmers and is never good enough for Daisy, but he just can’t let go of the idea that he will be in the same class as her and even though he recognizes on some level she can’t give him what he wants he still desires it obsessively. He is a doomed romantic who can’t survive in the modern world.  He has a vision for the future as being a self-made man; however, he is a con man.

America today is sort of like this with moral disillusionment in politics, public xenophobia, prejudices toward immigrants or marginalized groups, or institutionalized racism. But let’s face it - historically, issues such as this have existed in cultures over the centuries. There is something beautiful and optimistic about the unattainable American dream or ideal that is strained by reality and the realism of the ancient or modern world. While Fitzgerald captures a specific time brilliantly in his novel when mass production, industrialization, and rapid scientific advances were upsetting the status quo, it can be applied to other historical eras and is haunting in its contradictions of hope and hopelessness for an idealistic future that doesn’t exist. A brilliant book.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah's plot is driven by the overarching romantic relationship between the protagonist, Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love as teenagers, but are separated for fifteen years when she moves to America during college. Ifemelu is traumatized by an event in college that makes her no longer communicate with Obinze, but both have idolized their relationship over the years and think of it as pure, equal, and intellectually stimulating. Ifemelu has other serious relationships but they are lacking in some way and Obinze has married for convenience. The exploration of romantic relationships is portrayed in other characters but they are unequal, materialistic, unhealthy, or lacking in some way. Mixed in this overarching plot is social commentaries on racism in America, corruption in Nigeria, and xenophobia in Britain. Self-identity, mental illness, and cross-cultural experiences are explored as well. A bonanza of events and themes keep the pace hopping for the most part creating a thoughtful and worthwhile read.

Ifemelu goes to college in America and struggles with depression, employment, and making her way in an immigrant's harsh world. She gets a break nannying a wealthy couple's two children and starts a blog critiquing liberal white Americans that use charity to make themselves feel better, racism, and more. Ifemelu becomes friends with Kimberly, the wealthy white mother, who has false assumptions about immigrants and Africans; however, Ifemelu recognizes Kimberly as a decent, caring woman who is unhappy and unable to stand up to others. They become friends in spite of differences.

During her time nannying, Ifemelu dates Kimberly's cousin, a wealthy man named, Curt, who actually cares for her but he represents a privileged class that makes Ifemelu restless with him. While he genuinely cares for her, his use of privilege and entitlement creates gaps in their relationship. For instance, he gets her a green card manipulating the process to speed it up because he is wealthy while Ifemelu's other friend works three jobs trying to get his visa. Curt also turns the story of Ifemelu's experience with a carpet cleaner, who is disgusted and angry when he mistakenly thinks Ifemelu owns Kimberly's mansion to acting relieved and nice when he discovers that she's just than nanny, into a funny anecdote with his friends versus a dehumanizing experience. Even while dating Curt she thinks of Obinze and idolizes their romance. Ifemelu's blog becomes successful and she dates another man, Blaine, but again does not connect with him. She decides to leave America and go back to Nigeria. While there she tries to write fluffy pieces for a magazine that caters to rich Nigerian women but cannot do it. Each move she makes gives her more peace with who she is and what she wants in life. She decides to fight the corruption in Nigeria and becomes active in a cause. She couldn't do this in America because of the lack of cultural history but she can in her own country. She rekindles her relationship with Obinze.

The notion of being an outsider in a new culture, Ifemelu's internal restlessness, and characters searching for self-identities kept my interest more than the unequal romantic relationships - although I did find the tension and misunderstandings in cross-cultural relationships fascinating. The story addresses false assumptions that people have in different cultures not realizing that they are embracing stereotypes or racist attitudes. Africa is not a poor country that needs to be rescued by white people, black women don't need to wear their hair straight like white women, and women don't have to marry just for wealth, to name a few. The author provides a different narrative that looks at the history of America that lacks the post slavery anger and outrage. She also shows through characters such as Ifemelu's mother and a co-worker the dangers of being blinded to truths through religious fundamentalism. Adichie does not become preachy or single out any country and while Ifemelu could become too judgmental or point the finger, she retains empathy for others making her statements thoughtful. All places have issues and all have good aspects too. By having the protagonist be a successful blogger, the author is able to create snippets of biting, light, heavy, and humorous commentaries that add depth to the plot.

One of Ifemelu's blog posts examines cultural aspects of race that are not existent in Nigeria: The post's title is, "To My Fellow Non-American Blacks, in America, You are Black, Baby: Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I'm Jamaican or I'm Ghanaian. America doesn't care. So what if you weren't black in your country? You're in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the society of former negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad, when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up." Ifemelu doesn't consider race until she is forced to by complicated racial politics ingrained in American society.

When Ifemelu is dating Blaine, an African-American professor from Princeton, the cultural misunderstandings on race become even more pronounced. Blaine is outraged when the University of Princeton's police accuse a black man of drug dealing through racial profiling and organizes a protest. Ifemelu skips the protest; she can't relate to the history of oppression that makes Blaine so angry. This along with other incidents such as Blaine's sister Shan and his friends show the gap in her and Blaine's relationship revealing why they could not connect on a deeper level and move beyond dating.

The hair salon is an important symbol and foreshadows or reveals the struggles immigrants face dealing with white privilege, fitting-in, and racism. Ifemelu doesn't mask her Nigerian accent and the women look down on her for it. She used to speak with no accent but felt it was false and made her want to fit into America's definition of being a citizen. She watched her aunt and friend try to assimilate like this and didn't like that they were not being true to themselves. She develops her own American identity and later a Nigerian one. She grows more mature along the way and by the time she meets up with Obinze she knows what she wants and who she is. She also wants her hair natural, not artificially colored or flattened. Her identity crises are symbolized in her hair choices and the setting of the hair salon frames the story in a well-crafted way. I've only touched on a few themes and messages in the book that is ripe for many different kinds of discussions. A terrific story.

5 Smileys

Monday, July 3, 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Image result for exit westMohsin Hamid's, "How to Get Filthy Rich in Asia," imitated the style of a self-help book using the rarely used in fiction second person point of view. In "Exit West," Hamid again shows his willingness to take risks in a realistic story that uses metaphors and imagery that gives magical setting transitions a slightly surreal flavor. The magic places the readers' focus on the before and after flight of two immigrants fleeing a Muslim country in an unnamed war to countries that are hostile toward them upon arrival - it eliminates an exploration of the immigrants' journey. This heightened the psychological exploration of the immigrants for me, but some readers might not like the author's splat of magical realism. I listened to the audio book and Hamid's use of repetition and the excellent narrator made it memorable and easy to understand. "Exit West" is layered with many themes and timely as it reflects the current globalization, countries slant toward nationalism, and displacement of people from wars, to name a few. Some might like the romance, or the independent spirit of the female protagonist, different characters' struggles for self-identity, and a myriad of other topics. 

Saeed and Nadia, live in a Muslim country being overtaken by militants. They are progressive and enjoy modern technology until their city becomes overtaken by militants. Day-to-day living is replaced by anxiety and fear causing the retreat of people from public to private spaces to the point that they are afraid to go to funerals. When Saeed's mother is killed by a stray bullet people are afraid to come to her funeral and his father insists that Saeed and Nadia leave the city. Saeed's father will not go with them for he knows he will slow them down and he wants to remain where he's lived his whole life. He recognizes that his son has no future in a city were drones, killings, and bombs oppress everyday living. However, the father feels the past and its memories offer him more than the future and so he stays. The father and son know they may never see each other again.

When Saeed and Nadia immigrate through magical doors (literarily) to a refugee camp in Greece, then London, and the U.S., they encounter hostility from mobs of people who are "natives" that use violence against the newcomers. Saeed and Nadia are oppressed in their new homelands. They try to make their way and find an identity but it is difficult as an outsider. Their experiences show Saeed drifting to people like himself and how he finds comfort in their shared experiences and religion; whereas, Nadia drifts towards diversity and tries other clans. The two experiment with finding their identities. The end of the story shifts toward a romantic narrative and the previous plot tension gets a bit lost as the two go their own ways.

While the story is about migration and marginalization for Saeed and Nadia, it also reveals that people who live in the same place can feel like foreigners in their own city as well. Their home changes around them as can be seen in Saeed's father's lifetime. His city was mostly free and safe before militants started killing civilians and disrupting government operations. Two minor characters who fall in love at the end of the novel show a blending of those who migrate and those who stay in a city their entire life. Even though the immigrant does not know the language, he communicates through hand gestures with the man who has lived there his whole life. They fall in love and are happy revealing positive futures are possible where diverse people can coexist side-by-side without fear and hatred. The suggestion is that society is better or enriched when people can choose to live where they want and call home in whatever country they live. Fear and anxiety stunts not only the potential for an individual to live a full life, but also an entire society's.

Magical doorways are a metaphor for migration, globalization, and technology. The two people pass through doorways to Greece, England, and California. The author doesn't focus on the immigrants' journey; instead he examines where the protagonists came from and what happened after they arrived in their new countries. This exploration of displacement allows the author to focus on the psychology of what the characters are going through as they migrate. Not everyone will like the technique, but I thought the surreal moments enhanced the characters emotional turmoil of adapting to new situations and represented the unnameable displacement a person feels when uprooted from his or her home country. It's a bit like wading through a thick cultural fog.

The magical doorway metaphor reminded me of Skype and how I can live thousands of miles away from my loved ones and yet can see them on a computer and chat, just like a magic mirror in a fairy tale. For me, his book captures the international displacement I feel traveling the world. I haven't been home in twelve years and that seems to be a major point in the book. Not to mention, with technological advancements in computers, transportation and more, migration in today's global world is much more rapid than thousands of years ago.

Doors can also symbolize open and closed nations. Nations can close their borders by fear and wanting to live in the past like Saeed's father. Opportunities are open or closed to immigrants like Saeed and Nadia when they arrive in their new countries. Windows are another metaphor that the author uses that express the future as one with possibilities or not. The window in Nadia's apartment has beautiful views only to have to be covered as the threat of bombs sending shattered glass throughout the apartment grows. She describes the changes from a light apartment to one that is dark and where she and Saeed cower away from the window. There is quite a bit going on in this quick read and I've only touched on a few. I highly recommend it.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles

This audiobook was a bit of a slog. After twenty plus hours, I kept upping the audio speed so that by the end the reader sounded like he was auditioning for Alvin and the Chipmunks. Guess I lost interest in Custer's life. He's a contradiction. He was actually a good strategist during the Civil War and thought to have been lucky because he avoided death in so many battles. He was also arrogant, insecure, brash, and racist. The book is well-documented and well-written. I just thought it got long. Perhaps the book would have been better. The end describes the battle and the controversies surrounding it as well as the army investigation into the massacre. Obviously, Custer's usually solid military strategy failed at the Battle of Bighorn, but Stiles reveals the issues he had with his superiors and facts that led to the confusion during the battle. A fascinating look into history. 

5 Smileys

Friday, May 5, 2017

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

While this book sheds light on a system that discriminates against those who can't get government assistance, it was a bit of a slog listening to 8 families living in poverty in Milwaukee. While I like narrative nonfiction and the research was extensive, I thought the stories got repetitive and confusing as the author liked interweaving their stories switching from one to the other in the middle of chapters. The audio book was not a good choice for me.

The vicious cycle of drugs, bad laws, slumlords, discrimination, health issues, and a host of problems bombards the listener. Only one of the eight individuals followed by the author breaks out of poverty and finds a stable job, but he had a professional job before succumbing to drugs; I thought his chance of finding stability was higher than the others. The other families and individuals seemed to have more obstacles to overcome from violent upbringings, low-wage jobs that weren't stable, physical disabilities, and mental issues. All of the families had multiple evictions and the majority tossed out of their homes were women and children.

A common stereotype is that people in poverty have only themselves to blame: they spend too much money, they are uneducated, they lack skills or intelligence to break out of the cycle, etc. Matthew Desmond hypothesizes that the problem with poverty is that it is profitable. The owner of a trailer park, that was barely habitable for tenants, makes $400,000 a year in profits. Another landlord drives her sports car and travels to Jamaica making a good profit on her tenants. Desmond shows the injustice of a system that denies people the right to live in a house and the social costs to communities. He argues that it is destructive and more costly to society in the long run than if a home and a stable community is established for those in need. He is not opinionated but lets the facts speak for themselves. This book reminds me of Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo who looks at those who profit from the slums of India.

This book is better read than listened too. The abundance of details can derail the casual listener. I kept shoving the earbuds deeper into my head so I could drown out the usual background gym noise. But some things stand out. While black men are ending up in jail as revealed in The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, this book shows how black women are being evicted at extremely high rates. One out of five black women is evicted, as opposed to one in twelve white women. Desmond shows time and again how the main thing holding poor people back is rent. He also shows how government funding programs meant to help the poor end up in the pockets of the landlord. At the end, he argues for more public housing vouchers as one way to address the issue. This is an important dialogue and while it made for dense (and sometimes confusing) listening, it was worth the effort.

5 Smileys

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Students chose this for book club and the snappy dialogue and defined characters make it a well-done interracial romance novel. Set in New York City, Natasha Kingsley, is being deported to Jamaica and trying to find a way to stay in America by contacting the US immigration office. Korean-American, Daniel Bae, is on his way to a college interview for Yale when their paths cross. When the two teenagers meet, the poetic Daniel tries to convince the logical Natasha that love at first sight is possible by asking a series of scientific questions. The author adds historical context that engages the reader whether it is an explanation of why so many Koreans own salons that cater to African Americans, immigration facts, scientific paradoxes, facts, theories, and more. 

Natasha is smart and has a clear view of the world. She won’t be patronized by adults and she’s blunt with people. At the immigration office, an adult tries to tell her the future will work out. “Don’t tell me I’ll be all right. I don’t know that place [Jamaica]. I’ve been here since I was eight years old. I don’t know anyone in Jamaica. I don’t have an accent. I don’t know my family there, not the way you’re supposed to know family. It’s my senior year. What about prom and graduation and my friends?” When Daniel meets Natasha he appreciates her direct, no-nonsense quality. Natasha is so science-driven that she explains the scientific chemicals that are released in the brain when a person falls in love trying to remove all the unexplainable romantic elements. 

Most of the alternating points of view are Natasha and Daniel’s, but there are side characters interspersed to round out the themes of self-identity, culture, love, science, and racism, to name a few. The poetic Daniel describes meeting Natasha and his love-at-first-sight is as follows: “It’s like knowing all the words to a song but still finding them beautiful and surprising”. While Natasha thinks of meeting him as definitely connecting with Daniel, but her practical side sees the moment and distrusts the “poetic heart”. “They’re not talking about the real heart, the one that needs healthy foods and aerobic exercise. But the poetic heart is not to be trusted.” Natasha doesn’t want to fall in love with Daniel.She will be deported in 24 hours. When Daniel saves her life and breaks her pink head phones that she's owned most of her life, it symbolizes her break with the past and all she has known. Her new cultural identity now involves interracial love and living in a new culture. 

While Natasha and Daniel don’t have a problem with their different cultural backgrounds, their family members do. Both struggle with self-identity, while at the same time being self-confident and happy with themselves. They must learn to deal with parental expectations intertwined with different cultures. When Natasha's dad first meets Daniel, his face shows his displeasure. Her dad wants to be an actor but is rejected for roles because of his ethnicity making him insecure and depressed. He misses his home country to the point that he tells a policewomen he is an illegal immigrant. He says that he doesn't know why he did that but it is obvious that he subconsciously wants to return to his home country. 

Similarly, Daniel is dealing with parents who expect him to speak Korean and marry an Asian girl. When Natasha first meets his brother, Charlie, and his dad they make racist comments. The brother brings up the stereotypical African American that shoplifts and the dad tells her to buy some relaxer because her hair is too big. Natasha responds that she likes her big hair and Daniel responds to his brother by giving him the finger. Both Natasha and Daniel are confident with themselves even though life is uncertain; whereas, the parents of both have to deal with disillusionment and unhappiness.  The feelings of alienation for immigrants is captured in the complexity of finding not only self-identity but an American or Korean or Jamaican identity as well.

Another motif explored from Daniel’s point of view is names. Daniel’s mom ponders that America names signify the individual; whereas, Korean names point to the importance of family ancestry. Daniel’s mother “agonized” over what to name her children showing her struggles with cultural identity. She decided on both American and Korean to show them where they’d been and where they were going. Daniel’s brother Charlie, however, with all his intelligence doesn’t understand the power of his past and tries to erase all that is Korean in him. He’s on probation from Harvard college and Daniel reveals that when he is grown-up and has a good job he goes by Charles Bay not his given, Charles Jae Won Bae. He refuses to speak Korean, eat Korean food, or date a Korean. This prevents him from finding true happiness in life because he doesn’t like himself and is rejecting part of his cultural identity. The result is a shallow, alienated, and self-absorbed character who is unable to have a close relationship in marriage or with family members. 

The ending is a bit convenient or forced regarding how the two meet, but it will satisfy the romantic heart. Or should I say, "poetic heart". I particularly like how this author puts words together. The cadence and rhythm of the chapters make it fast-paced and the back-and-forth dialogue between Daniel and Natasha is funny and smart. I did try the audio tape first but sort of lost track of who was speaking. I switched to the book and got more out of it in the end. But since listening is my weakest learning style, I'm biased. A fun, well-written, and enjoyable book. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

A well-documented book with great information, but the author's tendency to break up stories with subplots was clunky at times and slowed the pacing. The book follows the stories of four African-American women influential in mathematics and engineering while working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and later as the women's jobs were transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) after the NACA became defunct. Their battles with segregation and upward mobility were uniquely stymied and enhanced by the organization and individuals they worked for and with at NACA and NASA. A fascinating look in time, the book's pacing is slowed by the shifts from one character to another during action scenes.

The author interviewed some of the women in this book and those quotes add color and strength to the story. I tend to like nonfiction that is more descriptive creating characters I can easily visualize. This author tends to use too many platitudes that make sections wordy and dry with the character descriptions become lost while the pacing slows. The personal story of Katherine (Coleman Goble) Johnson helping her son with his soapbox derby car and being the first black kid to win the national contest is inspirational; however, the author starts with the story then adds a subplot on another character and her sorority before going back to the race. She does this multiple times throughout the book and I found it irritating because it was like hitting the brakes midway while racing down a steep hill. She does it again and again.

The resilience of these women and the facts surrounding their careers are fascinating. The author does a great job showing the historical context of what they had to deal with during the Jim Crow laws and how they fought small battles whether it was in a segregated cafeteria or using a segregated bathroom. The 2017 movie, "Hidden Figures", is excellent and I actually liked the tighter focus and character development better than the book, but the book fills in gaps the movie doesn't explain well. It also condenses sections and I'm glad I read and watched both.

4 Smileys

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Uprooted: The Japanese American Experience During World War II by Albert Marrin

When I finished this I wanted to turn around and reread it again. I really liked author Albert Marrin's turn of phrases and found myself wanting to write them down. I read it on the elliptical machine and writing notes wasn't in my wheels - I'm not that skilled at multi-tasking. The overall message is that racism exists all over the world and that people need to learn from the past or they will repeat it. The framework of the book begins with racist views promoted by the Japanese during World War II in Japan, a bit of China, Germany, and last America. The views in America and the questionable decisions by leaders to incarcerate Japanese Americans without due process during WWII is brought to light. Marrin puts the issues in historical context and shows how the actions by leaders and the justice system as well as the use of media influenced and later changed the public's mind to overturn the unjust laws infringing on civil rights. He points out leaders that had racist views and shows how it mirrored the national or global dialogue at the time. He argues that racism harms countries and the civilians leading to poor decisions and harmful consequences. A well-written and thoughtful book that I highly recommend.

5 Smileys

Monday, March 27, 2017

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

This helped me understand some things I didn't really get in the books, "The Sellout," "Between the World and Me," and "The Underground Railroad." Living overseas for 12 years has put me out of touch with issues in the U.S. I've watched at a distance the debates on police brutality and racial profiling in the news, but haven't looked at it closely. Michelle Alexander's book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," explains how the War on Drugs initiated a crackdown that devastated the urban poor black community through laws and policies too punitive resulting in mass incarcerations creating the largest prison populations worldwide in the U.S. Case studies reveal how racial profiling is happening through the police and justice system and targeting low-income African Americans. While scholars have studied race and the justice system for many years, there is a new group that is comparing it to the Jim Crow laws of old and slavery. Michelle Alexander offers an exhaustive and well-documented look at how the current justice system does not work for poor people and needs to be restructured. 

The author effectively argues how court cases and policies have stigmatized convicted African American offenders limiting their rights as citizens. She sheds light on unjust laws and policing that tears apart families in unfair and unjust ways. While the Jim Crow analogy gets the public's attention it is problematic as argued by Yale Professor James Forman Jr. While Forman agrees with Alexander's assertion that the harsh systematic approach to mass incarceration needs to be restructured, he would like to see all minorities included and violent crimes examined, in addition to drug offenders, and inclusion of local prisons, not just federal prison populations that Alexander examines. He also thinks that the black middle and upper class that didn't exist during Jim Crow and slavery days makes for a flawed analogy. He presents an excellent counterpoint to the debate. 

5 Smileys

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Arena (Arena, #1) by Holly Jennings

In the year 2054, virtual games have become like reality TV. Society escapes the horror of the days by watching RAGE tournaments where elite gamers compete to the death in a game. Kali is the only female captain of the game and her manager exploits her and the other four on her team to make money. A side effect of gaming is addiction that is kept from the public and not treated by the industry. When Kali's teammate overdoses she starts to question the industry and its goals. If you like action, want a quick read with a Chinese-American protagonist, then give this a go. The writing and craft are bad on many levels.

The world building doesn't show much as to why the population embraces this form of entertainment. Kali mentions briefly that the other virtual games are too realistically violent and that is why their form of gaming gets the most viewers. The author doesn't create authentic characters. Kali spews platitudes from Taoism and Rooke calls her wise but she doesn't show much wisdom. There are some cringeworthy dialogue and descriptions. The first person point of view is choppy with a drumbeat of too many "I's". The gaming world is only from the view of escapism and addiction is something well-known. Why the media wouldn't talk about it because they were afraid they'd lose viewers is a weak premise. Kali's problems and overcoming them lacks depth. The romance between her and Rooke is stereotypical with the beautiful man and woman, resembling gods and goddesses, falling for each other. This author tells and doesn't show which makes it too superficial for my liking.

2 Smileys

Thursday, March 16, 2017

We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler by Russell Freedman

My interest in World War II youth resistance groups started when I read, "The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club" by Phillip Hoose. I can add this to another terrific children's book on a little-known topic. Or at least, little-known to me. Hans and Sophie Scholl were members of the Hitler Youth organization before they became disillusioned with the anti-Semitism and rigid group's ways. They organized a resistance group at the University of Munich and decided to protest totalitarianism through nonviolent means. They handed out leaflets encouraging the masses to rise up and condemn Nazism. When they were caught the two received admiration from the Nazi guards with how they handled themselves. The guards broke protocol to let them speak with family and each other before their executions. This inspirational story will have you doing more historical research on your own.

The nonfiction elements are well-documented and the story is a quick read of over one hundred pages. It is inspirational and combats the stereotype of a Hitler Youth movement where all German youths willingly joined and brainlessly spouted Nazi slogans. The brave students could not remain silent as the war progressed and they consciously resisted National Socialism for cultural and differing ideological reasons. A good historical book makes the reader want to find out more information on the topic and Russell Freedman did just that for me. The language is simple and nothing graphic; however, the gruesome execution of the youths is disturbing and might require discussion with younger readers.

Daniel Horn wrote an interesting article that overviews German youth resistance during WWII (I reference it below if you are interested in the article on JSTOR). Horn lumps German youth resistance into three groups from various economic and social backgrounds but fighting for basically the same thing: freedom of choice, dissatisfaction with a regimented Nazi youth system, and self-fulfillment. The working class and bourgeoisie youth resistance members formed different groups from the asocial gangs such as the Edelweiss and Kittelsbach Pirates with violent aims to overthrow the Nazi government, to the politically opposed groups such as the Munich and Hamburg White Rose students that used print to express their displeasure with National Socialism, and the liberal-oriented individuals of Swing youths who wanted self-expression and individualism rather than the regimentation and repression of culture such as dancing and Jazz music.

Youth Resistance in the Third Reich: A Social Portrait Author(s): Daniel Horn Source: Journal of Social History, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Autumn, 1973), pp. 26-50 Published by: Oxford University Press Stable URL:

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Queen of Blood (The Queens of Renthia #1) by Sarah Beth Durst

The Queen of Aratay controls spirits that want to kill humans who invade their forests, air, land, and water. When Daleina's village is destroyed by wild spirits as a child she discovers she has the ability to control them. As the only survivor, along with her sister and parents, she goes to an academy to get trained in her new powers. The academy trains girls to protect the citizens in different military capacities; however, only one girl will replace the Queen when her powers wane. Daleina makes good friends with her classmates and learns her powers are meagre at best. Her determination, hard work, empathy, and perfectionism are what allow her to pass but she has quite the inferiority complex as she is unable to work the more powerful spirits.

The point of view switches from Daleina to a warrior who serves the Queen keeping rogue spirits in check. When he notices a pattern of villages being attacked by spirits, he questions if the Queen is losing her powers. Usually this is a sign and the Queen dies. The Queen denies her loss of power and banishes him for suggesting it. When the warrior's heir that he trained is murdered he decides to go to the academy and choose a girl to mentor. Daleina stands out not because of her skill, but for her mindset. She knows that the goal should be to protect the people and put them above herself, not to rise to a throne for the power only.

The strength of this novel is the main character's development. The plot can be shaky at times and predictable. Daleina is plagued by doubts and confidence. She is not as skilled as the other students vying to be heir to the throne. Her strength lies in her compassion and cooperating with spirits rather than controlling them. She's flawed and more interesting than your usual archetype heroine who excels at everything. She understands what it means to be a team player and uses that strength. She's a reluctant hero and layered in complexities.

The fantasy setting is well-done and the world is easy to visualize using elemental spirits that act like Norwegian beserkers when not controlled by humans. The plot reminded me of Harry Potter, the Ranger's Apprentice, and Norse myths. The academy part is not overly long but shows her creating friendships and adds a humorous break in the dark plot line. The mentor part shows an adult pushing her to reach her potential and showing her how to use what she sees as failings, as strengths. She can sense and redirect spirits with more power than the other students. He helps her not focus on her weakness. People live in the trees and while there is no one great tree like Yggdrasil, there is a tree kraken that is more like the destructive serpent in Norse myths. The name, Midforest, in Aratay is similar to the Norse Midgard, the name for Earth. The spirits fight like the Viking beserkers.

When the warrior refuses to see what's happening with the Queen, it gets dragged out too long. The author tries to show him blinded by love, but it's a weak plot device for moving the story forward. The romantic parts are abrupt and felt tacked on rather than worked into the plot seamlessly, especially Andare. Some of the plot twists were interesting and the blind incident worked well into the theme of power and its effects on people.

The sinister owl spirit does not represent today's wise owl, but is more the shady Middle Ages owl associated with witches. The owl that was active at night but blind during the day. This owl is blinded by hate and wants genocide. While the Queen is shown in her complexity, the owl spirit is a one dimensional villain that cannot be reasoned with even though Daleina tries on several occasions.

This book is violent with more deaths than usual. The minor characters are not developed enough for me for their deaths to have much impact. I never get to know most of them in depth; therefore, the deaths stand out as a plot technique to try and draw emotion from the reader and doesn't work. The author does go into depth with the protagonish and shows how the deaths affect her and her relationships with others. This is well-done. She suffers and feels responsible at the end emphasizing that she has the potential to be a compassionate and wise leader. I'm not sure I'll remember this book. I think the character will stick with me because she is not your usual invincible superhero, but the plot could have been better.

3 Smileys

Daughter of the Pirate King (Daughter of the Pirate King #1) by Tricia Levenseller

This pirate adventure tries to use an unreliable narrator, but it doesn't work on several levels. I like unreliable narrators because it means a fun plot twist; however, if the reader guesses the twist the fun feels like a dampened conversation. Readers will recognize familiar pirate characters in this tale: cruel, brutish pirates, humorous pirates, or rogue ones that follow a code of honor. "Bloody Jack" by L.A. Meyer has a woman pirate who uses her wits against men because she knows she can't compete in the area of strength. This story has a woman pirate, Alosa, who seduces and uses her inhumane strength against men. Yep, this petite kickass woman can subdue three men twice her size. Alosa's super speed, flexibility, and physical power in several plot situations let me guess her true nature pretty quickly.

Seventeen-year-old Alosa is on a secret mission to find a blimey treasure map for her father, the universally feared King Pirate, who other pirates pay tributes to for safe sea passage. Alosa lets herself get captured aboard a ship whose cruel Captain, Draxen, represents the brute pirate archetype while his brother and second-in-command, Riden, has a sense of honor that keeps bro in check. Riden is the brains of the twosome and becomes attracted to Alosa when she is held captive aboard their ship. Alosa's regular cell guards represent stupid pirates that add comic relief. Alosa seems overly-confident that she can control the men in authority and have a successful mission. Failure is never an option when it comes to her father. When things fall apart, she must align herself with her enemy.

The character development can be contradictory. Alosa, is an assassin who can kill without hesitation. She also has a code of honor where she lets people live if she respects them or they've shown her kindness. Sometimes she's noble, other times base. The background story reveals that her father has tortured and trained her to be a ruthless pirate. She has more strength than several men combined and she fears her father. The complexity of this trait is not really captured in an authentic way making her lacking depth and superficial. She'd be tough, manipulative, seductive, and hard-core sometimes and soft, sentimental, naive, and educated other times. I would have liked more internal struggles and less romance.  The unreliable narrator works against the plot because her actions are implausible and her edginess came and went like the tide. Plus, if she was so superior to others, why wait to break out from under her tyrannical father? The motivation given is money related, but she has her own ship and crew. Seems like she's already come into her own; hence, the premise seems weak.

The romantic subplot dominates the pirate plot and works against it with quite a bit of sexual banter between Alosa and Riden with characters mainly being motivated by love. Romantic novels are often interpreted as either showing women challenging societal norms or upholding them in a patriarchal society (Linda J. Lee, "Guilty Pleasures: Reading Romance Novels as Reworked Fairy Tales"). Common tropes are sexual desires, danger, violence, gender dominance, to name a few. Romance stories in the 70s and 80s by authors such as Kathleen Woodiwiss used captivity and rape motifs in a historical setting. I thought perhaps the author was trying to mock these motifs because the protagonist, is never afraid in captivity of being raped even though the threat is there. She lets herself become a captive and she knows that a man can't rape her. She is so sure of her power over men and claims to always be in control of them (which gives away the unreliable narrator) that the danger is not imminent. Later, when she is dominated by men, it is her love interest that frees her. While the protagonist seems strong and independent she is ultimately saved by men supporting the romance that Lee describes; the plot that upholds societal norms rather than challenges them.

Lee points out that the 90s romance novel shifted where women enjoyed their sexuality and were more equal with men versus the traditionally timid women conquered by a domineering man. Alosa represents the modern heroine who knows how to manipulate mens' desires but can't manipulate her father and is afraid of him. Alosa has her own ship, she's more powerful than the men around her, but she is always seeking her father's approval. She plans to be the pirate queen and the current mission of finding the treasure will help her do this; however, she seems to lose that focus near the end. I thought she needed more internal dialogue on her goal of being free from her father which gets lost in the romantic subplot. The end made it seem like she'd forgotten that goal and instead, she is dominated by fear of what her father will do to her if she doesn't accomplish the task at hand and saving her love interest.

The romance subverts the message of Alosa looking for power over a social system that denies women to be female pirates. She has her own female ship and crew; yet, is under her father's rule. The romance seems to confine the ability to hash out this theme and the overarching message blurs. I would have liked more backstory. Sometimes first person point of view makes the readers view too narrow and mucks up the protagonist's motives.  The story shows a woman who appears to be fighting the status quo to be her own person, but succumbing to her father. She wants to challenge the existing social structure but doesn't succeed. Her plan of what to do with the treasure of money is not worked enough into the plot to show where the story her ambition. Instead, she has fallen in love and seems more interested in Riden than freedom.

Many romance novels hearken not only to Victorian authors, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, but to the more ancient fairy tale genre. I wondered if the author was going to go that route with her plot and she does not work in those motifs in any depth. The abrupt ending left me wanting more and there is definitely a sequel for readers. Maybe the next book will show more character and plot development. This story just came up short for me.

2 Smileys

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

This story echoes "To Kill a Mockingbird," but the plot takes unexpected turns and the author makes it her own tale. Beautifully written with a strong rural setting, it shows the complexities of human nature and the moral choices people make that are damaging or healthy. The choice of lying versus telling the truth. The choice of judging others based on public news or factual information. How mob mentality can be manipulated by lies and more. The layering of themes, excellent character development, and the well-crafted plot makes this an intense worthwhile read.

Twelve-year-old Annabelle, the main character, tells the reader that she has learned to lie in the summer of 1943. When Betty, a city girl with troubles, arrives at her grandparent's house in Wolf Hollow, Annabelle has to deal with her as a bully. She is physically and verbally abusive to Annabelle until she's defended by Toby, a war veteran that is an outcast in society; a lone wolf in the novel. Annabelle learns to deal with the bullying until it takes a dark turn with Betty upping the stakes and attacking others. Annabelle doesn't tell anyone right away because Betty threatens to hurt her younger brothers. When she starts to hurt them anyway, then she tells her parents. I skimmed this part. This is a common plot device to move the story forward and I thought it slowed the pacing a bit. But it's a brief bump on the tar and the rest is unpredictable and twisty.

When Betty can't bully Annabelle she devises a nasty way of directing blame for a serious injury she causes toward another student by accusing Toby of the deed. Betty tries to prove him right but circumstances work against them. Wolf Hollow got its name because wolves were shot and killed sometimes because of their appearance only and other times because they killed livestock. Characters in the story are like wolves: killed for appearances, preying on others, or protecting the wolf pack. All these patterns can be seen in Annabelle, Betty, and Toby. This is a hard book to write about without giving away the plot. Suspenseful and layered, it's easy to see why it won a Newbery Honor in 2017.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Ghost (Track) by Jason Reynolds

Castle Cranshaw, nicknamed Ghost, sleeps by the door so he can quickly exit his house, need be. He has been running most of his life from a haunting past. His mom works in a hospital cafeteria while trying to get a nursing license at night. Other students at school tease him because he lives in a poor area and doesn't have brand name clothes. His simmering anger makes him want to "scream" and he gets detention so often that it is more like a class than punishment. One day he watches a track club team practicing and is angered by the fast, but cocky albino boy. He pops onto the track and races him in an indecisive close finish. The track coach recruits him and Ghost finds an outlet for his anger as well as some close teammates.

Jason Reynold's has a terrific start. Ghost is quoting from the Guinness Book of World Records spouting a bunch of weird facts. He'd like to be the best at something, instead of invisible. He eats only french fries at school so he can save a dollar and buy sunflower seeds, a habit that he picked up from his father. While Ghost's father has some serious issues, Ghost misses him and loves him. He is angry with him and this leads to problems at school for Ghost who uses his fists instead of words.

The character development is where the author shines the most. The complex relationships and trauma Ghost has had to deal with along with living in poverty, makes it more difficult for him. When he cuts off his high tops so he can run in comfort, gets teased, and then steals some shoes, it is understandable why he made a bad choice at the end of the day. When he has to correct the problem, he grows as a person and learns to deal with different challenges in a healthier way.

I like off-the-wall characters, but I thought the track team with all its unique issues was a bit far-fetched. Diabetics don't usually lose both legs and a person dying in childbirth is rare. The Olympic champion, now taxi-driver, who can take a half a day off work to deal with a delinquent didn't seem probable either. The plot seemed a bit forced in spots but this doesn't detract from touching scenes and compassionate characters the reader can empathize with in the end. The abrupt, cliff-hanger ending sets up for a sequel.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Watership Down (Watership Down #1) by Richard Adams

I tried to read this book as a kid. Then I tried as a young adult. Now I'm reading it in my middle-aged years and I still find it slow going, although I appreciate the good writing. I'm not a fan of anthropomorphic tales. I find it hard to identify with the characters when they are fuzzy, cute creatures that nibble grass. In all fairness, these rabbits change into warriors by the end, but not until much later in the plot. My other problem is the pacing. It's too slow for me. The in-depth details spent on describing the setting and animals is at such lengths that I can easily visualize a field dotted with rabbit holes and a brook where watercress, ragwort, and kingcups grow in abundance. I just figuratively kept falling asleep in the breeze under the oak tree. I've read other authors that use nature prominently in their stories. In "The Secret Garden," the author describes nature on the moors and in the garden in great detail. Why do I love that book and struggled with this one's pace? Perhaps it's my personal bias. I don't know. I finished "Watership Down," so I guess that says something even if I was skimming along the page surfaces like a whirligig beetle by the end.

The rabbit, Fiver, who can predict the future, has a vision that the warren he lives in will be met with a catastrophe. He tells his brother, Hazel, who goes to the Chief Rabbit, but the vision is unheeded. Hazel leads a group of rabbits, who believe in Fiver's seer-like abilities, to leave the warren in search of a new home. They have adventure-after-adventure before establishing their own home; however, they don't have any does to mate in their warren. They know of an overcrowded warren nearby and ask the Chief Rabbit if some does can come live with them, but they are refused. The Chief Rabbit is a tyrant and the rabbits decide to trick him out of their does. A war ensues before they can find happiness.

The tyrannical Chief Rabbit who runs his warren like a totalitarian government is allegorical. The author was a soldier in World War II and the similarities are evident. Bigwig is a hero who will sacrifice himself to save his comrades. He is courageous and brash. Hazel makes decisions while Blackberry is the brains of the operation. Each rabbit has unique skills it contributes to the group making them strong and loyal as a military unit. When faced with fighting for their lives, they know how to cover each other's back.

Humans are at odds with nature for they break rules like killing for just the sake of it, instead of necessity. They wipe out large populations of animals just because they want the land for a building or their own habitat. The rabbits do not kill for sport like the humans and they do not understand the destructive nature humans display. At the end, when a girl saves the life of a rabbit, it shows that humans have the capability to destroy or protect those around them. While this was written in the 70's, its universal themes apply in today's world as well.

4 Smileys

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe #1) by Neal Shusterman

This utopian novel is a study of contrasts where the future reveals artificial intelligence as benevolent instead of its usual trope, evil. Where diseases have been erased and people live in peace. Where immortally is the norm, unless people are gleaned by Scythes who must meet yearly quotas to combat overpopulation. What would the world be like if people lived for hundreds of years, could be brought back to life, had implants that numbed their pain and emotions, and could reverse the aging process to always look like or produce offspring in their 20s or 30s even though they are hundreds of years old? The moral and ethical questions that arise from this utopian society are what make this story multi-layered and rich for discussions.

The Thunderhead is an all-knowing artificial intelligence that has erased all need for money, food, disease, and death creating a world where the only major issue is overpopulation. A Grim Reaper organization called, Scythes, kill people with governmental and social acceptance by the populace. The honor of being a highly trained assassin comes at a price and not all scythes are honorable, instead murdering in unethical ways and abusing their powers. The Thunderhead controls all aspects of society except the Scythes which makes them untouchable and unchecked. Times are changing as new blood in the Scythdom want to break from traditions and rigid codes of conduct; however, their tactics show the greed for power and cruelty. Has humanity put too much trust in technology?

Death and meaning in life are two tightly connected relationships that people have contemplated in many different subjects for thousands of years. Death can make life meaningless or meaningful and technology is one subject where people try to conquer death through genetic engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence, and more. So what if death is conquered like the utopian world that Shusterman has created? The Thunderhead, a computer with a conscience, realizes that humans must administer death in order to keep their humanity which is why the organization of Scythes was formed; however, what happens if some Sythes begin to think they are gods and abuse the power of their positions? The Thunderhead cannot do anything about it. Or can it?

Citra and Rowan are seventeen-year-old teenagers chosen to be apprenticed to Scythe Faraday, a man of principles who is traditional in his following of Scythdom rules. Faraday (fair-a-day) tries to be merciful, compassionate, and yes, fair to those people that he gleans. The moral dilemma of his job is captured by the author well. Interspersed with the action are small excerpts from Scythes' journal entries giving insight into the traditions and conflicting thoughts of different characters. This adds to the world-building although some might find it slows the action too much. I've had some students complain about them. I thought they were short enough to not take away from the main flow or pace of the story. There's plenty of action, plot twists, and violence. While the violence could have been gratuitous, Shusterman does a great job injecting characters thoughts with internal struggles of their profession while dealing with a celebrity-type status.

The first few chapters reveal that Citra and Rowan are compassionate, intelligent, and reflective people that make them good candidates for the Scythdom. When they are chosen to be Scythes they never guessed all the politics that they'd be exposed to at the Scythe meetings, or the victimization they'd be a part of during their apprenticeship. When the Council of Scythes agrees to a very bad suggestion, the two realize that corruption is a problem and work to survive in a system with human flaws. An interesting look at how laws are distorted and interpreted in self-serving or selfless ways.

5 Smileys

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

In pop culture, witches represent good or evil, light or darkness, all-powerful or outcast, to name a few. They show up in fantasy, fairy tales, folk tales, the Bible, and legends, and have been around for thousands of years. In history, witches haven't fared so well, most of them women accused of witchcraft and oftentimes because they were outside the social norm. Many were victims of prejudice and injustice suffering at witch trials that brought false charges just because they were unconventional. Kelly Barnhill has two witches in her book. One appearing to be good, but with dark intentions. The other appearing to be evil, but with good intentions. One accepted, the other a pariah. The evil one (that seems good) is presenting false stories to the public as a way to control them and spread fear. "Fake news," is what we'd call it today. The propagandist stories have a power of their own; they can empower or enslave the listener or speaker. These stories can be muddied by superstitions, hate, and fear, revealing that people will lie to serve their own purposes and retain their position of power. On the flip side, these stories empower people to question the facts and find answers to their questions instead of blindly accepting the status quo.

Antain is apprenticed to his uncle, the Grand Elder of the Council of Elders. One of the Elders' jobs is to collect a baby every year to sacrifice to a witch on "The Day of Sacrifice." Their village, called the "Protectorate" or "City of Sorrows" is shrouded by clouds, sadness, and fog with a dangerous forest on one side and a bog on the other. The road is the only way in and out of town and the Elders control it and the people. When Antain goes with the Elders to collect the sacrificial baby from the selected family with his Uncle, he is disturbed by the ritual and has questions no one will answer. The baby is left in the forest and Antain doesn't know if animals or the witch got to it first. He wants to wait but is admonished for his questions. He regrets not taking action against the Elders.

A Witch comes to collect the baby as she does every year. She lives in the forest with a monster and miniature dragon. When the Witch collects the babies, she feeds them starlight and finds them adoptive homes in the Free Cities on the other side of the forest.  She accidentally feeds the woman's baby (that Antain witnessed being taken by the Elders) moonlight instead of starlight and fills the infant with magic. She can't send the baby to another family because a magical child will need a special upbringing. The witch decides to adopt the baby naming her, "Luna," and teaching her magic. This causes all sorts of problems when the toddler humorously starts changing people into bunnies and bedclothes into swans.

Between these two stories is a third point of view in italicized chapters where the narrator, who can be different people in the village, is telling a story to an unknown listener. These chapters represent oral storytelling and show how stories can grow and change as people embellish the truth. The stories are used to scare children, keep people from breaking societal norms and give the town's history and some of its rituals. Among the symbolism and themes, is a nod toward creation stories and how myths are used to explain science. The reason for volcanoes erupting and babies disappearing is related to some god or witch. This ties in with Antain and Luna's story as they both search for truth amid myths and try to find answers to norms that don't make sense - such as sacrificing babies to an unknown or vague witchy source like some pagan ritual.

Ethyne's mother is one of the people that tells stories in the italicized chapters and she is scarred from having to give up her son to the Witch many years earlier. Her stories have become embellished over the years and she doesn't know the changing nature of them. She eventually becomes lost in them and loses touch with reality. Ethyne's mother says, "I only tell true stories", but the reader knows that they might have an element of truth but are also full of lies or mythical in nature.

When a madwoman, Luna's mother, claims she knows the story of the Witch with a tiger heart and claims it to be Sister Ignacia, the Sister refutes it claiming she started all the stories and the Tiger-Heart-Witch story is fake. The story is critical of Sister Ignacia as a person causing her to not like what she hears. Today, "fake news" is flooding the media and press credibility is suffering. Fake news is false information or propaganda published and masked as truth. President Donald Trump has accused journalism institutions of creating "fake news" for criticizing him and his administration and he has restricted free access by the media to briefings, something never done in U.S. history that is troubling. Historically, despots remove critics and control the press so they can serve their own interests. However, fake news also reflects the loss of gatekeepers who check facts as people use the Internet and social media to post true or false information for different motives. It is easy to see why the media is under attack because of false information. It's not exactly Yellow Journalism, but it will be interesting to see how the media responds to the times. This 2017 Newbery winner reflects the current national debate giving it one distinguished element in a repertoire of many.

Symbolism abounds in the novel with references to lunar deities in mythology. The moon goddess worshiped by the Celts, for instance, was associated with the lunar cycles and is reflected in Luna's name. The crescent birthmark on Luna's head symbolizes not only the crescent moon but more importantly, in Latin the meaning, "to bring forth or grow and thrive." A theme or message is about reaching one's potential or falling short. The Grand Elder has hardened his heart to the point where he will sacrifice his nephew to retain his power. Even when he is stripped of his power and has the option to change his ways, he doesn't, living in misery. It reminds me of the Chronicles of Narnia where certain characters fall short of their potential to live a happy life. It is the choices people make that define who they are in life.

Luna's magic is creative as a child, so much so, that the Witch, Xan, binds her magic so it cannot be used until her 13th birthday. A consequence of this binding is that Luna cannot hear or talk about magic. Whenever anyone brings it up she zones out like she's having a seizure. Her memory loss is a theme that is prevalent in many of the characters. Xan has lived for five hundred years and has chosen to not remember her past suffering; yet, if she had remembered it, then she would have looked into why the villagers were leaving babies in the forest. Sister Ignacia blocked her suffering and chose to ignore it making her feast on other people's grief. Xan realizes that to block out memory means to not learn from the past, which can lead to people blindly following ways that might be harmful.

The bad Witch, Sister Ignatia, suppressed her memories resulting in her becoming not only a symbol of sorrow but one who preys on others sorrow, eating it in a figurative way. She's called, "The Sorrow Eater." At the end, Luna sees the loss that Sister Ignacia suffered and how she "...walled off her heart, again and again, making it smooth and bright and unfeeling." Luna gains an understanding of Sister Ignacia's choices and thinks of how awful it is to be cut off from memories. Luna uses magic to make Sister Ignacia remember what it is like to love. Because Sister Ignacia does not address her grief, it stunts her from living a full life at her potential. Xan, along with Glerk, realizes that it is important for her to remember the past even if it makes her sad. Xan chooses to not wall off her heart like Sister Ignacia. Truth is masked by many characters either suppressing memories or lying. There are many different lies from Fyrian, the miniature dragon, pretending he is large, to Xan and Luna not talking about Xan's deteriorating health, to Sister Ignacia pretending she is doing the right thing for the townspeople. All of them have different motives and some lies are delusional while others are malicious.

The women are empowered in this story making good and bad choices. The bad Witch has an all-female military. They make choices at the end that support one of their own, Ethyne, who left the order to move into civilian life again. Ethyne, becomes a force in the story choosing her own destiny and fighting against the societal norms to do what is right. Antain, her husband, decides to fight against it as well, but he goes through much suffering before reaching this decision. Luna's mother is a victim of the system but even she breaks free as symbolized in her paper birds that come alive and magically do things for her. The characters and townspeople must learn to hope in order to move forward in life and find happiness despite their oppressive governmental leadership. Ethyne and Antain also realize that blind allegiance is not a good thing. Sometimes a person must take a stand against existing norms.

Many characters grieve. Luna's mother goes insane when her daughter is taken from her as an infant. She seems to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Xan must deal with losing her magic to Luna and eventually her life. The dragon is grieving the loss of his mother. The plot explores what it is like to be an orphan and adopted; grieving the loss of biological parents. The babies sacrificed each year that Xan has found homes for are adopted and described as having more light than other people. They have been fed starlight, a symbol of love. Later Luna comes to terms with learning about her biological mother and knowing the love of her adopted mother, Xan. When Luna starts to draw, she starts to wonder about who her biological parents might be. The instances of light and darkness symbolizing love and hate in characters and the village abounds throughout the pages. Light bends toward Luna and other orphans. The city is ironically called, "the Protectorate," because the villagers think the government protects them, but it is shrouded in fog, sorrow, and darkness as they can't see the oppressive circumstances of their lives. The other cities are called, "the Free Cities," in contrast.

Birds also symbolize flight from entrapment, predators, and freedom. The paper birds struck me as a metaphor for writing and loneliness. Like the "Lady of Shalott," the madwoman is cursed to remain in a tower day after day trying to write and communicate with the world outside. The paper birds cut skin. They hurt. They are beautiful. They take flight. They prey. The paper birds cut Antain and scarred him just like the incident he witnessed so many years before. His wounds from the paper birds fester just like his psychological wound of not acting when the Elders' took away the madwoman's child (Luna's mom) on The Day of Sacrifice. He says his scars always hurt, " [the] dull ache of something lost." When he does get the chance to act again, he does not miss the chance. The madwoman becomes free when she flies away on her paper birds. Birds of prey are symbolized in the form of falcons and hawks. Interestingly, at the end, Xan transforms into a sparrow which is known to be eaten by birds of prey. She will be consumed by Luna's magic and Antain's revenge. When the madwoman sends a paper bird that is a falcon the words on it say, "Don't forget" and the other side says, "I mean it." Remembering the past is woven through the entire plot.

The madwoman in the tower symbolizes the solitude of writing. She can't remember names for they had "flown away, like a bird." She only thinks of paper. The madwoman's thoughts could equate to a writer bogged down with cranking out 100,000 plus words for a book: "She dreamed of a paper moon hovering over paper cities and paper forests and paper people. A world of paper. A universe of paper. She dreamed of oceans of ink and forests of quills and an endless bog of words. She dreamed of all of it in abundance." The madwoman tries to send Antain a paper bird in the form of a hawk that says her daughter is alive, but it falls at his feet with a broken wing. The lame paper bird is crushed under Antain's foot. He cannot see that those in charge are preying on the populace of the Protectorate, he's ashamed of his past inaction, and he is angry at being attacked by the paper birds.

The story deals with death of a grandparent and the author's writing is beautiful and lyrical. The creation story surrounds the bog which first came into existence with Glerk the monster emerging from it. Glerk loves poetry. He sings it. He repeats lines and stanzas adding to the cadence and rhythm of the sentences. Ancient Sumarian texts use poetry in the form of hymns and it was also a way to remember oral history. Again, this is just one of many elements that make this book distinguished. The author gives a nod toward history while creating her own unique style. I've read several books this year examining changing narratives. "The Underground Railroad," examines changing narratives in history and how to break out of oppression, while "The Sellout" looks at narratives and reveals that they haven't changed, but needs to through self-awareness. This one looks at the narrative and tells readers to not take it at face value and blindly follow the status quo, but question what is true or false.

5 Smileys