Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Fun, but Tangled Web

Miles Morales, Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds
Los Angeles : Marvel, 2017.
261 p. ; 22 cm.

Jason Reynolds is a talented writer (I really enjoyed the last book of his I read) and this story bears that out. It's a fun, clever and fleshed out novel that takes the Brian Michael Bendis' reboot of Spider-man as its jumping off point.     

The fun and attraction of Reynold's novel is the way it just treats as totally believable the idea of a late middle-schooler from Brooklyn having Spider-man-like super powers and runs with it.  Think of the problems and dilemmas having such powers would be while trying to navigate middle school and adolescence.  Add in the pressures of racism on our young African American superhero and you have a great recipe for storytelling. 

I was with Reynolds for all but the villainous (and somewhat mystical, magical mythical) role played by the Chamberlains of the novel.  This character(s) seems to represent the embodiment of White Supremacy and though interesting, I think it ultimately becomes too magical and unresolved.  Does this ruin the novel?  I don't think so.  I still enjoyed the read - great characters, great descriptions of the Brooklyn setting, and some action packed episodes of Spider-man adventures.  However, I would have liked it better if the racism and set-backs were just the usual racism and discrimination that Miles Morales would have experienced - instead of it being in the shapeshifting, creepy incarnation of Chamberlain.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Tyranny and Butterflies

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1994.
325 p. ; 23 cm.

I'm not sure why I decided to read this book now, but I'm glad I did.  I think I was feeling a little unenthusiastic about the lightness of some of the YA fantasy books and wanted something with more substance.  I also had not read Alvarez yet and wanted to, so it seemed like a good a time as any. 

In the Time of Butterflies is the fictionalized account of four Dominican sisters - three of whom (along with their driver) were murdered by Trujillo, the horrid dictator of the Dominican Republic.  The novel is a beautiful retelling of the lives of the sisters and their families and how they became involved in revolutionary politics. For a novel that involves imprisonment, beatings, and political assassinations - it is really a tender and beautiful book. Alvarez seems determined to demythologize the heroics of the characters and instead show how human, humane and complicated it is for people to get involved in clandestine, violent political work.  Of course one can't read Alvarez' book and not think of a later novel set in the Trujillo dictatorship, Junot Diaz' 2007 masterpiece - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Both are fantastic books, and offer unique angles on life under dictatorship ( and immigration in the case of Diaz).  I would recommend them both.

If read over a long period, the novel can get a little confusing (which sister is which and is married to who and what year is it?) but still manages to be engaging and moving.  I found reading the last chapter of the book to be a very emotional experience. Alvarez manages to not only tell the story of repression, revolution, and family, but she makes you, the reader, feel like it is your story, your family - and that the loss is your loss, too.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Crazy as a Video Game

Tetris by Box Brown
New York : First Second, 2016.
253 p. : chiefly ill. ; 22 cm.

Is there anyone who has never seen or played Tetris?  I'm sure there are, but for the rest of us this book is a fascinating retelling of the story of Tetris' creation and eventual conquest of the world of handheld game devices.

Things that surprised me were the fact that the game was developed in the Soviet Union by a programmer who was especially interested in human behavior around gaming, that the inventor of Tetris never realized the income he deserved, and how corrupt and complicated the development and acquisition of rights to the game were in the West (including Japan).

The convoluted and competing and high stakes plays and theft of the game by the big game companies of the time is interesting.  Involved were Sega, Nintendo and Atari.

It was a fun book to read since I so vividly remember the first time I played Tetris was in the late 1980s and it was on a Gameboy device that a coworker had.  I recall that because, as this graphic novel so truthfully conveys - the game was irresistible once you started playing it.

It's a fun, fast read that I would definitely recommend to students, especially those interested in computer gaming and in programming.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Forgotten No More

The Forgotten Fifth by Gary Nash
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2006.
ix, 235 p. : ill. ; 19 cm.

I almost forgot to put up a review of this book that I read toward the end of the summer vacation, but it is a wonderful history book.  The subtitle of the the book explains what this history is about: African Americans in the Age of Revolution.      

The book grew out of a distinguished series of lectures given by Nash at Harvard University and fills in a lot of the missing history of African Americans and their fortunes and activities during the American Revolution.

The book really conveys how unfortunate the Revolution and its outcome was for so many African American slaves, and how the rise of even more vicious White Supremacy and racist hatred affected African American patriots of the Revolution.

I especially wanted to post a review of the book because of the current rising power of White Supremacy in the US.  I also wanted to be sure and mention that this book makes a great companion to the book - In the Shadow of Liberty.

I would definitely recommend this book.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Love This Hate

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
New York, NY : Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, [2017]
444 p. ; 22 cm.   

It is hard to imagine a better novel being written for young adults on the topic of police killings of unarmed black people.  Thomas has a remarkable gift for dialogue and characterization that pulls the reader into the world of her main character, Starr, a black high school student who is with her friend when he is pulled over and killed by a police officer.

Starr straddles many worlds - lives in a struggling, black section of town but goes to an exclusive mostly white school, has a dad who has done time in prison and a mom who is a successful professional, sees the harsh and lethal behavior of the police toward black people, but has a dear relative who is a cop.  With such a character, Thomas is able to create a work that has hooks for all kinds of readers, and allows conflicting viewpoints to get a hearing.  It's really quite an accomplishment.  Additionally, with a story that is really dramatic and interesting and characters who are fascinating, you can see why this is such a popular novel.

Since police killings of unarmed citizens and police brutality continue to make headlines, I imagine that The Hate U Give will be in demand for a long time.

The only critiques I have of the book are that it gets a bit complicated as far a characters go - there are a dizzying array of friends, relatives and acquaintances and secondary characters to keep up with.  Lastly there are a few scenes - especially with Starr's father - where his dialogue feels staged for the sole purpose of detailing the politics and ideals of the black power movement.  But those are minor criticisms.  Mainly I was really pleased with this book.

Recommended?  Definitely!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Shining a Light on the Shadows

In the Shadow of Liberty: the Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives by Kenneth C. Davis.
New York : Henry Holt and Co., 2016.
xvii, 286 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.

I was interested in this book as soon as I saw a review of it.  The Shadow of Liberty seemed like a great addition to the limited resources that we have on the period of the American Revolution and early history of the republic - and one that students might actually pick up and read.  As the book's subtitle indicates, it also might have a nice resonance with the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. But what finally motivated me to read it this summer was seeing that one of our history teachers launched a Donors Choose page in order to get enough copies of the book for his class so he could use it as a central text.

This is a great young adult history book.  It's very interesting, has succinct chapters, and relates a history that is rarely told - the role of several of the first US presidents in keeping people enslaved.  It's also great in that it does not in anyway minimize the criminality and cruelty of enslaving people, but it also tries to wrestle with the complicated relationships that developed within that awful system.  Davis often just lets the actions of people speak for the conflicted loyalties, humanity and inhumanity that resulted from slavery.  He allows us to hear from former enslaved people when such texts exist, and lets us reach our own conclusions about why some enslaved people escaped when the opportunity arose and why some did not when the same circumstances existed.  He also tries hard to contextualize comments positive and negative that enslavers and the enslaved made.

I also really appreciate his introduction where he lays his own moral judgements on the table, and where he explains why he is so careful to use the word enslaved to describe those held in bondage instead of the word "slave." It is a powerful semantic tool, one which another writer on the history of slavery in the US also uses to great effect.

I'm glad that I read this book.  I'm pleased that it is going to be taught in our school.  I will definitely recommend it.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Talent and Ego

Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple
New York, NY : Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, [2015]
338 p. : ill. (chiefly col.) ; 23 cm.

I added this book to our collection this year since it had received such glowing reviewsBooklist in a starred review stated, "Jaw dropping, awe inspiring, and not afraid to shock....There's no one else like her; prepare to be blown away by both the words and pictures."

I was not so taken with this memoir.  Crabapple is a talented and hardworking artist, and she does have a lot of daring and moxie as she jumps into risky adventures of international travel and pushes and pushes to have her intense drawing-based artworks accepted in the competitive New York art world (and she works constantly at improving her drawing and painting skills). So far so good, but her tale is also one of a massive ego, and also one of ethical contradictions where she is both entranced with the debauched world of the super-rich, while at the same time disdainful of it.  It's interesting, but problematic.  

There is also her use of her conventional attractiveness to both support herself and gain access to the exclusive realms of the super rich.  She works as a nude model, works with strippers and burlesque performers - and writes about the interesting, hard, exploitative and dangerous work that entails, but also seems to accept and at times endorse the sexualization and commodification of women.  Again, it makes for interesting reading, but it is troubling in that it goes largely unchallenged.

So would I recommend this memoir?  Well, I'd definitely mention it to someone curious about contemporary bohemian life and about ways that people make it in the art world.  Did I find it inspiring or wonderful?  Not so much.