A Book Review that is Mostly Questions

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Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy
400 pages; literary fiction

Quick Summary: Tess Durbeyfield and her family are poor, so her parents decide to send her to Alec d’Urberville to claim kinship and therefore receive some financial aid. The plan is disastrous; Tess comes home, but finding her home life unbearable, she decides to move and work at a farm. Years pass, and Tess falls in love with another man, Angel Clare. However, she is unable to marry him due to the secret she is keeping.

Discussion (Spoilers ahead):

So I read this book because I am teaching it to my AP classes in October. Otherwise, I probably would have thrown the book across the room halfway through. Alec is terrible person, and ends up raping Tess after drugging her. Because this is England and because it’s the 1800’s, Tess is suddenly not pure and hates herself. When she falls in love with Angel, she doesn’t want to marry him because she is not a virgin and this will reflect bad on her/him for marrying her. Still, they get married and on their first night as husband and wife, he tells her he’s not a virgin, she tells him the exact same thing, and he flips his shit. He goes to Brazil to try farming and basically is a terrible husband who never talks to his wife. The ending is even weirder, but I’ll save that for those who want to read it.

So the first thing I was angry about was that a white man was writing about a woman getting raped. Is he writing to help women gain sympathy? Is it trauma porn? One time in a college class of mine, my professor asked us this: “If you write about an experience, are you automatically aestheticizing it?” Unfortunately, we didn’t get to talk about it in class, but the question lingers.

I think this reminds me the most of slam poetry. I remember Andrea Gibson saying something along the lines of “No girl grows up dreaming about writing poems about sexism,” but she said it had to be done. But the question is still valid: if we write about sexism, if we perform our poetry about it, are we trying to make an ugly thing beautiful? Obviously this applies to other types of art as well, and no clear lines have been drawn. Obvious, too, is the fact that writing can be healing.

I’m going to sidetrack here to a story from a friend.

So a teacher is starting his first year teaching history. He’s super woke, so he plans an entire curriculum talking about racism and sexism and how all these terrible things happened in the past. He thinks it’s going great. Then, one day, a few weeks into the semester, two young black girls approach him after class. “Mr. ______, we appreciate what you’re doing here, but do you always have to be so negative?” Why, they were asking, couldn’t he also focus on the achievements of people of color, and not just the trauma they experienced?

Another side note: the podcast Another Round discusses the idea of coming of age movies. What they found was that the white characters get to have a life-changing event (think Stranger Things where the girl is sacrificed) but come out ultimately okay, whereas the black characters and black girls in particular have stories focused around trauma, stories where they don’t get to be teenagers or adolescents at all, but rather skip from children to adults.

I wonder that about poetry, about stories, about writing. If young women grow up only hearing stories and poems about rape, sexism, and fear, how much will they think is available to them? How does one strike a balance between acknowledging victim-status and also acknowledging autonomy, power, and pride? 

Is it okay for Hardy to write about rape, even though he’s a man? If it’s to inspire empathy? Is it just voyeurism? If we write about an experience, are we automatically aestheticizing it? How do we write stories that are both true to life and uplifting? Or rather, how do we write stories in which all paths are available to all people? Where minorities are not defined by their traumas, but neither are those traumas ignored?

Book Review: The End of Absence

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The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection
by Michael Harris
210 pages; Non-fiction

Quick Summary: Harris examines what it means to be part of the generation that knows what life is like both with and without the internet. Through discussions of different technologies, brain studies, and sociology, Harris looks at what life with the internet will mean for future generations that don’t know anything else. He also argues that we need more “absence”: more silence, more time to ourselves, more time to let the mind wander.

Pros: Well-researched
Every chapter starts with a well researched historical event or internet-breakthrough, and he has dozens of sources and interviews for each piece.

Pros: Feminist
Overall I found his approach to be socially-aware.

Pros: Queer
Harris is gay, which seems unrelated, and is for most of the book. I did like, however, that he talked in particular about how gay communities were using the internet.

Pros: Is not “Mightier than Thou”
I think with a lot of these types of technology discussions, it’s very easy to just say “kids these days” or pretend that the internet is making us dumber. I like that the author took both sides into account in every chapter, and also admitted that he is reliant on technology as well.

Cons: Not enough exploration
This might be a personal tick with this book, but I wish he had given more concrete examples about what a more technologically-aware or absence-filled life might look like.

Verdict: Recommended.
I found this book super interesting, although I wish the ending had taken a slightly more active approach. Other than that, it gave me a lot of think about and made me examine my own relationship with the technology that I (almost) grew up with.

Book Review Friday: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

HP15_Q4_Square_LS_PottermoreHarry Potter and the Cursed Child, by JK Rowling
308 pages; Fantasy/Drama

Quick Summary: 19 years later, Harry is sending his son Albus off to Hogwarts for the first time. Time rushes past, and soon Albus and his best friend at Hogwarts find themselves in a whole lot of trouble. They’re in danger–the whole wizarding world is in danger, in fact, and they have to figure out how to save it.

Pros: All of our favorite characters are back!
Ron is probably my favorite of them, having turned into a total dad-jokes kind of dad. Ginny has a lot of insight, Hermione is great too…although I feel like she appears less than I expected, or, at least towards the end.

Pros: Honestly heart wrenching
There are parts of this book–I’m trying not to give a lot away!–that make you think “what if?” and then realize how bleak that other universe would be. It’s really just playing on the “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone” theme, but I still found this really powerful.

Pros: Great lines and lessons
It’s a tad bit corny, but there are some great lessons in this book, like always.

Pros: Surprising plot twists
!!! Really that’s all I can type about that one.

Pros: Quick Read
It’s a play, so you don’t get as much description, but I didn’t mind that. I read this all in a day and it was nice to be able to finish it quickly.

Cons: Sappy
The very last scene I was a little indifferent too, just because of the corniness of it.

Verdict:
110% Recommend. I’d like to mention that I was extremely skeptical of this book! First, it’s a drama; second, it’s not entirely written by J. K. Rowling. I was actually against reading it for a while, but some tweets intrigued me and once I started, I knew I was hooked. Seriously, don’t worry about the format and just read it. It’s fantastic.

Book Review: Akata Witch

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Akata Witch
by Nnedi Okorafor
368 pages; YA Fantasy

Quick Summary: Sunny, a 12 year old albino girl in Nigeria, discovers she is a “free agent.” She soon realizes she must keep her powers from her family while simultaneously working to defeat a child-kidnapper.

Pros: Feminism
I liked the magic system in this book, and thought it was very pro-women. It brings up some interesting points about how we view people in power.

Cons: Not feminist
That being said, the mentor who helps coach Sunny and her friends, is a man. For some reason, this character just didn’t impress me.

Cons: Predictable, with flat characters
I think what bothered me most about this book is that the characters are used for nothing but as a conduit for the plot. Sunny has three friends, with whom she forms the quartet, but I don’t feel like I really knew any of the characters. I didn’t have a good understanding of their unique personalities, so I found myself more frustrated than engaged for a lot of the book. I also thought a lot of the magic elements were cliched (“The wand chooses the wizard, Harry” is a plot point that is repeated almost verbatim in this novel) and the ending was very predictable.

Verdict:
I don’t recommend this book. I’m not against trying other books by this author, but honestly I was mostly confused about why everyone else liked this book so much.

 

What are your thoughts? Did you like this book? Why or why not?

Book Review Friday: Arcadia

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Arcadia by Lauren Groff
289 pages; Literary Fiction

Quick Summary: Bit is raised on a commune in Western New York, where he grows up surrounded by loving parents, slightly troubled friends, and the natural beauty of the fields and woods. The book follows him from childhood, to adolescence, and finally to adulthood, when he must face the outside world.

Pros: Setting
One thing you’ll notice about this book is how the commune, Arcadia, comes alive. It starts with a slightly folk-y tale of Bit’s birth, and the setting only magnifies and becomes more majestic from there.

Pros: Male characters
I loved Bit’s character. He’s a small, soft, loving child and man, and I especially loved the times where he was so full of love, about to burst. These descriptions of men aren’t often found in the literature I read, and I appreciated seeing a guy be open and emotional throughout the novel. His father, Abe, is also a great example of this.

Cons: Ending dragged
The first two thirds of the book went quickly, but I found the momentum slowed after that. However, this might just be my reading schedule this summer. It’s hard for me to finish books when the weather is so nice.

Verdict:
Recommended! Good for: people who want beautifully written books, readers who want strong and loving male characters, and those who liked Fates and Furies. I think this is also a great book club pick: there’s lots to talk about when it comes to community, power, sex, feminism, leadership, etc. 

 

Have you read Arcadia? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!

Book Review Friday: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
N. K. Jemisin
412 pages; Fantasy

Quick Summary:
Yeine is summoned to the capital, Sky, by her grandfather, shortly after her mother’s death. There, she is named as an heir to the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, along with two of her cousins. While preparing to fight for the throne, Yeine must figure out who she is and who she can trust.

Pros: 19 year old, PoC protagonist!
It’s so hard to find fantasy books with people of color as their protagonists, so I was psyched to find out that Yeine isn’t white. I also love love love that Yeine is 19. I hardly read any books with protagonists who aren’t either high school age or in their mid thirties (so if you have any recs for 20-something year old protagonists, let me know!).

Pros: Feminism!
The feminism in this book is not as obvious, perhaps, or outright as it is in other books I’ve reviewed, but I do think this qualifies. Yeine is a strong character who takes control of her situation. I found the female characters to be fully fleshed out and dynamic.

Pros: Mystery
A lot of this book is dedicated to Yeine trying to figure out who killed her mother. I usually don’t read mysteries, so I was surprised to find I really enjoyed this element of the story.

Pros: Page Turner
It’s worth mentioned that I…could. Not. Stop. Reading. This. It also went so quickly!

Pros: Villains
I absolutely adored Scimina’s character, and thought she was so well written.

Pro or Con: Sex/Romance Elements
Just wanted to mention that there are sex scenes in this book! They don’t overpower the narrative, but if they aren’t your thing, keep this in mind (and maybe read this book before recommending it to any young adults in your life).

Cons: Very Confusing
While I enjoyed the mystery element of this book, I was also very confused about what was happening sometimes. I had to go back a few times just to get everyone straight, and some parts, especially when they talked about the contest, were unclear to me because not enough of Yeine’s thinking was revealed. The confusion is also exacerbated by the breaks in the narrative where Yeine is talking to someone; I found these parts too disjointed and unnecessary. 

Cons: Ending kind of dragged
Honestly, this mostly is due to my confusion about what exactly was happening. As I mentioned, the contest and what would happen during it were unclear, so the ending was a long stretch of me trying to figure this out. Even after finishing, I was pretty sure I understood…but not completely sure I caught everything I was supposed to. It was frustrating for me, but may not be for people who are more used to reading fantasy.

Verdict:
Even though I’m not sure I fully understood the ending, I enjoyed the process of reading this book, and was so engaged with it for 90% of the time. I’d definitely recommend it to fantasy and sci fi lovers, or mystery lovers, but maybe not to people who want just fantasy with no romance involved. Also be prepared if, like me, you have a hard time following mysteries, to be really attentive. 

 

Has anyone read this book? Did you think it was a feminist novel? Did you like or dislike the romance element? 

Book Review Friday: Adios, Cowboy

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Adios Cowboy 
Olja Savicevic
240 pages; Fiction

Quick Summary: Dada is called back home to help her sister care for her aging mother. While there, she begins to unravel the mystery of her brother’s death. Set against a backdrop of post-war Croatia, Dada finds herself in alleys, back gardens, and graveyards as she tries to put the pieces together.

Pros: Beautifully written
So I picked up this book originally because I had read Girl at War earlier this year, and I wanted to read more Croatian books. I kept reading it though, because of how poetic the language was.

Pros: Diverse and well drawn characters
I won’t say too much about this to avoid spoiling anything, but I loved how all the characters were written. The specific quirks of each were really well done, and pieced together, formed a wonderful portrait of a family at odds with the world around them.

Pros: Quick read!
It’s worth noting that at 240 pages, and with language that pulls you along swiftly, this makes for a very quick and generally easy read.

Cons: A little repetitive
I realize this is part of the writing style, but towards the end I wasn’t quite sure why some ideas were being repeated, and it dragged a tiny bit.

Verdict:
Definitely recommended! Good for: those who love beautifully written books, people who want a unique setting and/or want to learn more about Croatia, and those who are looking for a compelling but quick read.

Book Review Friday: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution

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Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution
Shiri Eisner
352 pages; Non-fiction/Queer Theory

Quick Summary:
Shiri Eisner, a bisexual genderqueer person, writes about how bisexuality can be subversive, and how it can combine with other movements to destroy monosexism and the patriarchy. She calls not for assimilation into the straight, hetero, white world, but a re-thinking of the very ideas that make us want to assimilate in the first place. Throughout the course of this book, she includes many other writings, theories, and references to history, to provide a wide-scope picture of the issues at hand.

Pros: Fantastic writing, and yet still easy to read
I first want to point out that I feel a lot of people don’t read non-fiction/theory books because they’re afraid it will be dense or too complicated. Eisner’s book is neither; it’s ridiculously well written and easy to read, yet challenging enough to make you think. I was surprised at how fast I got through this book.

Pros: Relatable
In the first couple chapters, Eisner discusses biphobia and stereotypes, and the process of “coming out to oneself” that can be incredibly difficult. I related to a lot of this, and it was nice to have language to put to my experiences.

Pros: Theory!
There’s a lot of theory and research behind this book, but it’s incredibly well-integrated and never overwhelming.

Pros: Intersectionality
Not a lot to explain here: The book really delves into intersectional identities and how they play out.

Cons: Literally None
I have absolutely nothing to complain about!

Verdict:
110% recommend. I loved this book, and it’s something I’ll be thinking about and writing about long after I finished it. Good for: People who want to learn some theory but don’t know where to start, people who want to learn about bisexual politics.

Has anyone else read this book? What pieces stuck out to you? Did you agree/disagree with any of Eisner’s connections or theories?

Book Review Friday: The Bone Clocks

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The Bone Clocks
David Mitchell
656 pages; Fantasy

Quick Summary: Holly runs away from home at 15, following a fight with her mother. Her plan turns out to be less than ideal, and she soon finds out her younger brother has gone missing. As a young girl, she heard voices, and throughout the novel, you learn just who and what these voices are–and what they want to be.

Pros: Weird Fiction
I love weird fiction. This book often felt like a puzzle, and seeing the pieces fit together was super satisfying.

Pros: Diverse
I didn’t expect this, to be honest, but it’s great. At one point at a train station a driver asks, “YOU’RE the doctor?” And the doctor thinks, “Is it because I’m black? Or a woman?” Up until then, I had been imagining this person as a white man. The unmarked state! I was wrong! And being wrong was so nice.

Pros: Good Storytelling
David Mitchell is definitely a talented writer. The tension rose and fell, the characters were complex, interesting, and humorous, even when they were terrible people, and the setting was well-drawn, no matter where the characters found themselves.

Cons: Very Long!
To be honest, it was little hard for me to plow through this in one go. I can see why it was so long, but I took a break mid-book to read something lighter (Lumberjanes! Which was also great.)  

Verdict:
I recommend it. Good for: fans of Haruki Murakami, mystery, weird fiction, fantasy, world building.

How to Teach Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.”

  1. Teach James Baldwin
  2. Teach Claudia Rankine
  3. Teach bell hooks
  4. Teach Assata Shakur
  5. Teach Ralph Ellison
  6. Teach Zadie Smith
  7. Teach Octavia Butler
  8. Teach Joy Degruy
  9. Teach Alice Walker
  10. Teach Angela Y. Davis
  11. Teach Chimamanda Adichie
  12. Teach Zora Neale Hurston
  13. Teach Maya Angelou
  14. Teach Toni Morrison
  15. Teach Zadie Smith

These are names from the top of my head, authors I’ve read this year, and books sitting in front of me on my To-Be-Read list. It is not all inclusive.

Last year, I did an activity with my juniors. This is how it went:

  1. Get out a pen and a paper.
  2. Write down as many white authors as you can think of. From school, outside of school, anywhere.
  3. Write down as many black authors as you can think of.
  4. And so on, including Asian authors, Native American authors, LGBTQ+ authors, etc etc.

Then I asked them to mark the male and female authors. The activity continued.

  1. Stand up if you have more male authors than female authors.
  2. Everyone sit down.
  3. Stand up if you have at least one black author list.
    1. Stay standing if you have two written down.
    2. Stay standing if you have three written down.

Continue for EVERY group of authors.

It’s clear to see what’s happening.

Curriculums have been whitewashed. Purposely.

If my students read a majority of white authors in every school, every grade, and every class they’ve been in, why shouldn’t they read solely authors of color in my class?  

 

Just a side note: I realize schools vary greatly on the amount of freedom teachers are given. I was lucky enough to have some freedoms in the schools I taught at this year. I don’t know what will happen next year. This post is not meant to place blame on any one person or school system. It is meant to open the door: these conversations need to be happening, with teachers, with students, within departments, within schools.