Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Is the Bar Half-Low or Half-High?

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong
New York : Anchor Books, a Division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2015.
1st Anchor Bks. Ed., September 2015.
518 p. ; 21 cm.

This book took me longer to read than I would have liked, and it is book that would be better to read in a few long sittings instead of over many short readings as I have done.  That being said, it is quite a read and worth spending some time with.

Reviewers have commented on the breadth of coverage and expertise of Armstrong - and those are impressive.  I think one of the most interesting things is my sense that Armstrong wanted to write a book debunking the idea that religion - in and of itself - has added to the severity of human violence.  I think she does a pretty good job of showing how in the place of religion, other secular ideologies (might one say idolatries?) such as rabid nationalism have proven equal to any of the barbarities committed with the sanction of religion. She also notes how within the major religions there have been tendencies that have sought to address and oppose systemic violence.  However,  I found it striking that in redeeming religion from the burden of being especially at fault for violence, her book in some ways indicts religion as being no better than any human/secular ideas and institutions.  Given that religion lays claim to being connected to power(s) far beyond those of mere human creations, it really is scandalous that religion's relation to violence has been no better than that of many human institutions. 

In essence religion comes out seeming like just another factor or tool in human struggles to amass power versus human resistance to oppressions by the powerful. At times, virtually all religions have been a force for decency and progress, while at other times they have joined and reinforced the most repressive and regressive policies of the powerful.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Made in Mexico - ¡Si!

Photographic: the life of Graciela Iturbide by Isabel Quintero + Zeke Peña
Los Angeles : The J. Paul Getty Museum, [2018]
95 p. : chiefly ill. ; 24 cm.

What a great little book! I love that this introduction to the photography of Graciela Iturbide is published by the Getty Museum.  Using the medium of the graphic novel (along with inserted actual photos by Iturbide - such as this phenomenal one of a woman with iguanas on her head) is a brilliant way to introduce a visual artist. 

I also appreciate the writing of this book.  The movement of the narrative is both informative and clear, but also dreamy and poetic. Take for instance this passage from page 18 - where Iturbide has taken her first photo while on a plane:

I become a bird in the heavens
and am filled with birds.
The camera awakens wings.
The wings give me new eyes.
And I will never stop flying.

It is also great that a book celebrates a living artist - a woman artist, and a Mexican artist, too! Wonderful!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Thumbs Up All the Way Down

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
New York : Atheneum, [2017]
306 p. ; 22 cm.

I'm a fan of Jason Reynolds, especially his When I was the Greatest, and somewhat of his foray into superhero fiction; this work did not disappoint.  I wasn't sure I'd like his novel in verse; when that genre fails, it reads like mediocre prose chopped into lines.  Instead, in this novel the poetry works.  The poems help to enhance the ghostly narrative of the work (the main character is visited by ghosts of friends and family who have been killed by guns), and Reynolds uses a lot of assonance, consonance and internal rhymes to keep the language snapping and tight.

The movement of Reynolds' story is also creative and satisfying.  Will, a young man is on his way to avenge the shooting/killing of his dearly loved older brother, Shawn.  Taking the elevator down from the 7th floor,  he is visited at each floor by the ghosts of various people he's known who have been shot.  These ghosts offer insights, challenges and experience to Will.

The novel manages to be moving, thought-provoking, and interesting.  It also doesn't end wrapped up and tidy.  I would definitely recommend this book.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Perfectly Not Perfect

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, [2017]
344 p. ; 22 cm.

I added this book to the library this school year after seeing it highly recommended in a review, and then seeing that it was a finalist for The National Book Award, I figured I had to read it.  I am very glad that I did. 

This book was great.  I was afraid that it would be a bit of a sentimentalizing or romanticizing look at a Mexican American family, but instead it was a book about the complex and difficult pains of loving and hating your family, of feeling trapped, of being poor, and of not fitting in.  It's not only a family drama, but is also a mystery of a death and unraveling the secret life of someone you think you know (or maybe I should say unraveling the secret lives of several people you think you know).  At its heart it's a thoughtful book about love.  It is a very tender book, but unlike Canales' The Tequila Worm, it has a lot of edge to it. 

The book follows the main character, high-schooler Julia, as she tries to grapple with several challenges: who really was her older, "perfect," recently deceased sister, how can she escape the limits of family and neighborhood to become the writer and intellectual she hopes to be, and how can she deal with the oppressive love of her grief stricken and overly strict parents?  Julia's trials over the course of the novel are interesting, sometimes surprising, often funny and worth the read.   Will I recommend this book? Absolutely


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Of Course It's a Mess

Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer
New York, NY : Dutton Books, [2016]
355 p. ; 22 cm.

A bloody mess actually, because what else would you expect when living people suddenly (or should I say spontaneously) explode into a mess of liquefied body parts and fluids?   

The beginning of Spontaneous reminds me a bit of Gone by Michael Grant, in that an ordinary day at a high school becomes anything but normal with a shocking turn of events.  In this case it's when one the seniors in the school spontaneously combusts during a class.  When this is followed by many more single and multiple combustions over the course of the novel things get very crazy, and very disturbing.

I liked the first three-fourths of this novel pretty well.  The premise is a real hook for readers and by telling it all from the viewpoint of one of the smart and grim-humored characters - Mara Carlyle - the novel moves along at a raucous, albeit grotesque pace.  Of course, the government gets involved, theories of causes emerge, the town in New Jersey where it happens is first the scene of a media frenzy, and then quarantined - all the while the hapless senior class that is being afflicted by this tragedy is trying to figure out how to keep living and keep finding meaning in life.  Part of that search revolves around friendships, family, and the sweet romance between the main character and the quirky but nice young man, Dylan.

The challenge of this novel is where to go with it.  And in that I found it not as good as I hoped.  There is a bizarre character, FBI agent Carla Rosetti who by the end of the novel has gone strangely rogue.  There is a friend who's fate is a mystery - was her end a dream or did she escape or something else? There are many unanswered questions.  I didn't expect the novel to tie up all its loose ends, or have a happy ending, but it felt to me like the storyline simply got the best of the author who couldn't figure out a satisfactory ending and so let it just kind of fizzle out.

All in all, I'd recommend it to a student who wants a bizarre story and who won't mind finishing a book while still having a lot of unanswered questions.  Besides, the writing is fresh and interesting and the novel conjures up a lot of questions about mortality, meaning and how one should live in the face of imminent dangers - a parable for our own dangerous times, perhaps.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Insanely Plotted, but Complusively Readable

A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis
New York, NY : Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.
376 p. ; 22 cm.    

There is a lot to like about this revenge tale of murder and mystery set in the late 1800s.  The writing is smart, the characters are interesting and the novel has a dark edge that will appeal to readers who don't like their plots sweetened with syrupy romances and neat, happy endings.

The main character, Grace, is a striking figure - a young woman of a wealthy, influential family who is imprisoned in a Boston insane asylum because she has become pregnant.  The author has done a bit of research into the treatment of the "insane" and of women declared insane and developed a disturbing and satisfying novel out of the material.  If you want to see the benign asylum where Grace escaped to in Ohio, you can check out this page from Ohio University.

A lot of the plot springs out of the fact that Grace is an incest survivor who - having escaped Boston - wants to protect her younger sister from the perpetrator, and wants to exact revenge on him.  Did I also mention that she works undercover with a doctor in order to solve (by profiling) murders, particularly a murder involving a serial killer.  Her victimization, escape, hopes for revenge and protective zeal for her sister all come together in a dramatic conclusion that strains credibility, but is satisfying nonetheless.

Overall, I wasn't crazy about A Madness, but I will recommend it - with its historical background, strong female characters, and grim storyline it has a lot to offer a reader.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Reduced to Tears

Tear Gas by Anna Feigenbaum
London ; Brooklyn, NY : Verso, 2017.
218 p. 22 cm.

This is a disturbing book and it should be.  It tells the history of how pain and distress inducing poison gas went from the less-than-lethal gas (yet still condemned by decent people) used against soldiers during WWI  to the go-to poison used by police and military forces of governments around the world to squash protests that they deem threatening to their order - no matter how unjust or unpopular.

The really interesting back story is how US marketing in the 1920s eventually triumphed in reshaping the perception of tear gas from a painful and uncivilized poison used against mostly-unarmed people to being considered a non-lethal alternative to more violent repressive tools of the state.  This book does a great job of showing that though tear gas - when used in moderation in an open-air environment - is not generally lethal, it's use by government forces throughout history has been such as to intentionally harm, maim and kill people.  This has been done by firing canisters and grenades directly at protesters (often at close range) and by using it in enclosed situations such as houses, prisons, cars, tunnels and buses.

The author also does a good job of showing how the use of tear gas rises when economic injustice is greater - during depressions, food shortages, violent occupations, etc.  Tear gas has been a crucial tool in unjust governments attacking protesters and destroying movements instead of addressing underlying inequities.  She also does a thorough job of showing how tear gas has been an integral part of the increasing militarization of police forces around the world (and showing how profitable this has been to suppliers).

For anyone interested in the history of this poisonous gas and learning how it has come to be so commonly used by all types of governments, I would highly recommend Feigenbaum's Tear Gas.