Book Review: One Hot Summer by Rosemary Ashton


Author: Rosemary Ashton
TitleOne Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858
Narrator:  Corrie James
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This historical work recounts the summer of 1858 in Great Britain, specifically London, during a time defined by unprecedented hot temperatures that exacerbated the foul stench of the polluted River Thames.  The Great Stink, as it became known, motivated political action in Houses of Parliament and at the municipal level to clean up the river.  Ashton’s work also focuses on the outcomes of other legislation that year such as the legalization of divorce, new regulations for credentialing medical practitioners, and changes in the treatment of the mentally ill.

The core of this book though focuses on the lives of three major figures of the era with alliterative names: Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and Benjamin Disraeli.  In 1858, Darwin became aware that another scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had also devised a theory of natural selection, prompting Darwin to stop dragging his feet and begin to write and publish On the Origin of Species.  Dickens, meanwhile, is in the midst of nasty split with his wife due to an affair, while also falling out with fellow writer Thackery.  Disraeli is in the best position to address the Great Stink and uses his power to push through the Thames Purification Act, as well as working on other legislation such as no longer requiring Jewish MPs to swear by a Christian God.

The book is a snapshot of a single period, but it feels like a jumble that lacks a coherent theme.  And the stories of the three main protagonist by necessity venture far into their lives well before and after 1858.  A lot of the text reads as being gossipy, yet delivered very dryly.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

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Comic Book Reviews: Ms. Marvel (2014-2015)


I’ve heard good things about the Ms. Marvel comics and so I read the first four volumes of the collected comics.  Kamala Khan is a wonderful character who cares deeply and has a lot of humor and creativity, as well as being just plain adorable.  I also like the water color style of the comic art.

Author: G. Willow Wilson (Author), Adrian Alphona (Artist)
TitleMs. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal
Publication Info: Marvel (2014)
Summary/Review:
Rating: ***1/2

Kamala Khan is a teenager from Jersey City who writes fan fiction about her favorite superheroes (who in this universe really exist, not just in comic books), struggles with the strict upbringing of her immigrant Pakistani parents, and engaging with the wider American world as a Muslim girl.  On a night when Kamala sneaks out to go to a party, a mysterious fog envelopes the city and Kamala finds herself with the powers to morph her body and gain significant strength.  She adopts the persona of her hero Captain America – aka Carol Danvers – and begins protecting Jersey City from weird attacks and invaders.  This collection of the first five issues is not overly weighed down by origin story tropes as it depicts Kamala clumsily learning to use her powers while maintaining her ordinary life.


Author: G. Willow Wilson (Author), Jacob Wyatt (Illustrator), Adrian Alphona (Illustrator)
TitleMs. Marvel Volume 2: Generation Why
Publication Info: Marvel (2015)
Summary/Review: ****

The second collection features Ms. Marvel coming face to face with her first archival, The Collector, a hybrid of a bird and a clone of Thomas Edison (a delightfully-weird villain).  Wolverine becomes Ms. Marvel’s mentor for a time and Kamala has to balance fangirling over one of her heroes with the reality that she is in better physical shape to handle their adventure.  She’s later paired up with Lockjaw, a large bulldog with teleportation powers.  The story of the Inventor kidnapping teenagers to use them for their energy cleverly plays on the stereotyping and disposability of Generation Y in our capitalist system.


 

Author: G. Willow Wilson (Author), Takeshi Miyazawa (Illustrator), Elmo Bondoc (Illustrator)
TitleMs. Marvel Vol. 3: Crushed
Publication Info: Marvel (2015)
Summary/Review:

This collection includes another crossover story with a comical story about Loki ending up at Kamala’s school dance.  There’s also a crossover with S.H.I.E.L.D. as she teams up to save the school from alien infested cafeteria food.  The bigger story is that Kamala falls in love with a boy named Kamran, son of her parents friends, who not only shares a Muslim heritage and geeky interests with Kamala, but also has Inhuman powers.  It seems too good to be true, right?

Rating: ****


Author: G. Willow Wilson (Author), Adrian Alphona (Illustrator)
Title: Ms. Marvel Vol. 4: Last Days
Publication Info: Marvel (2015)
Summary/Review:

This is part of a larger Marvel story arc called “Last Days of the Universe” in which the big story is happening in Manhattan.  Kamala has to set up protection for Jersey City on her own while also trying to rescue her brother.  Then her biggest hero Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers arrives and they are able to spend some time working together.  It’s a bittersweet crossover as Danvers has little time to spare and Kamala has to recognize that there may be no tomorrow and reconcile with her family and friends.  My favorite part is when the people in the shelter Kamala sets up in her school decide that they will deal with the end of the universe in a purely New Jersey manner, with a dance party.

There’s also an issue of Spider-Man in which Ms. Marvel makes an appearance, which has nothing to do with the rest of this book, but it makes sense since Kamala Khan and Peter Parker have a lot in common.

Rating: ****

Favorite Passages:

“The young are seen as a political burden, a public nuisance. They are not considered worth educating or protecting.  They are called parasites, leeches, brats, spawn–

If you used the to describe any minority but children, it would quite understandably be considered hate speech.

We are simply taking this loathing to its logical conclusion.” – The Inventor

“Friendship is not a zone, you idiot! Friendship is something real and good and anybody who doesn’t understand that needs a dictionary.” – Bruno

“It’s always the same.

There’s always that one group of people who think that they have special permission to terrorize anybody who disagrees with them.

And then everyone who looks like them suffers.’

Book Review: American Amnesia by Jacob S. Hacker


Author: Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
TitleAmerican Amnesia 
Narrator: Holter Graham
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

Two political scientists discuss the history of the “mixed economy” in the United States, how it was dismantled, and why our current political and economic malaise is due to it’s absence.  The mixed economy was ascendant in the United States from roughly the 1910s to the 1970s and at it’s height received wide bipartisan support and was recognized as unchallengable norm by even the most right-wing Republicans.  Mixed economy is defined as one in which corporations have wide ranging freedom to control the means of production and accumulate capital but the government has strong powers of regulation while also providing extensive public services.

During the long progressive period when the US was under a mixed economy, government was generally looked upon in a positive light.  The “American amnesia” is the state we are in today where most Americans are anti-government and have completely forgotten our ancestors’ admiration for government.  This is due to a five decade campaign spearheaded by individuals such as the Koch Brothers and corporate interests like the Business Round Table and the Chamber of Commerce whose Randian ideology of free market libertarianism required debasing and then dismantling the government and the mixed economy.  These views soon were adopted as the Republican Party platform and by the 1990s, even Democrats echoed anti-government sentiments.

This book is important work of political science, economics, and history that shows where Americans once were in a time of more generally widespread prosperity, how we lost that, and what we can do to regain it.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson


Author: Joshilyn Jackson
TitleGods in Alabama
Narrator: Catherine Taber
Publication Info: Hachette Audio (2005)
Summary/Review:

This is a novel I saw highly recommended but didn’t know too much about going into it.  And since it jumps among many genres – romantic comedy, mystery, Southern gothic – it kept me guessing what would happen next (in a good way).  The narrator Arlene Fleet leaves her hometown in rural Alabama after a “miracle,” and promises God three things: never to lie, never to fornicate, and to never return to Possett, Alabama. 10 years later, an old classmate from Possett appears in Arlene’s life and forces her to make the decision to break all three promises.

Accompanying Arlene on her journey back to Alabama is her African-American boyfriend/potential fiance, setting up a confrontation with Arlene’s racist relatives. Arlene also has to contend with her strong-willed Aunt Florence, who raised her when her own mother suffered mental illness.  And she has to contend with the legacy of the popular high school quarterback, Jim Beverly.  There’s also an unsolved murder.  The murder is mentioned early in the book, so this is no spoiler, but the how and the why of the murder unfold over the narrative.

It’s an interesting and entertaining book that shifts from funny to dark on a dime.  I think it gets a bit too contrived toward the end, but by that time I was too invested in the characters to be bothered too much.  Of course, not knowing what exactly type of book this is helps in not anticipating its many twists.

Recommended books:

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote, Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price, The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann,  and Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell


Author:W. Kamau Bell
TitleThe Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell
Narrator: W. Kamau Bell
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

W. Kamau Bell is a stand-up comedian, podcaster, and television host.  I’m aware of him through his terrific Politically Re-Active podcast with Hari Kondabolu (currently on hiatus).  I liked him enough from that to want to read his book.  Much of The Awkward Thoughts is straight memoir.  Bell’s parents divorced when he was young and he grew up in Boston attending predominately white private schools.  He describes himself as a “blerd” or Black nerd and distanced from the identifiers of Black culture. Since Bell and I were born in the same year, I found I could relate to a lot of the pop culture events he recounts.

As a teenager he moved to Chicago at a time when Harold Washington was mayor and Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey were beginning their reign as world changing Black super-celebrities.  Bell attended University of Pennsylvania, but dropped out, and then moved to San Francisco in the 1990s to attempt  to break into the stand-up comedy scene right as the big stand-up boom of the 70s and 80s went bust.  He finds his niche in a one-man show in which he made comedic observations on the state of racism in America.  This lead to work on television, hosting Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell on FX and then United Shades of America on CNN, as well as many, many podcasts.

Among the memoir bits, Bell reflects on many topics including sports (and why he doesn’t enjoy them), Denzel Washington as the greatest actor of all time, the significance of Doc McStuffins, and the Rocky movies.  He also worries about racism in America and the very real threat of a Black man like himself being killed by police or a vigilante.  He details a significant incident when he was harassed by the staff of a coffee shop in his hometown of Berkeley, CA when he stopped to talk to his wife (who is white) and her friends at the sidewalk cafe.  As a white reader, I was grateful that Bell takes the time to address what white people can do to confront racism (and give us a pep talk in the process) while relating his own experiences of what definitely does not help with racism.

This is a funny and insightful book, and the audiobook is extra special in that Bell reads it in his warm voice.

Recommended booksNerd Do Well by Simon Pegg
Rating: ****

Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury


AuthorRay Bradbury
Title: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Narrator: Jerry Robbins and the Colonial Radio Players
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2007)
Summary/Review:

This is a book a read as a child and I revisited it through this dramatization by the Colonial Radio Players.  All I could remember was a mysterious carnival and a dust witch (which is different from a sand witch).  The material lends itself well to dramatization with the exception of characters constantly having to describe what they’re seeing.  The story captures that frightening feeling in a child’s life when they know something is wrong and for the first time realize that the grownups can’t fix it.  I also really came to appreciate the father and son relationship of Charles and Will Holloway, and how Charles tries to do his best despite not knowing the answers.  The story works well at maintaining a sense of dread and horror which is then released with laughter and joy.

Recommended booksThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Rating: ***

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


AuthorAnthony Doerr
TitleAll the Light We Cannot See
Narrator: Zach Appelman
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2014)
Summary/Review:

This novel set in World War II and the years immediately preceding the war focus on the parallel lives of two individuals.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, who loses her vision as a child, evacuates from Paris to her shell-shocked uncle’s house in Saint-Malo once the war begins.  Werner Pfennig is a German orphan in the country’s mining region who learns to repair radios and whose talent with circuitry earns him a spot in an elite but draconian Nazi training school.

Marie-Laure eventually ends up helping her uncle broadcast messages to the French Resistance using a secret transmitter, while Werner ends up working in a military unit that tracks  illegal radio transmissions and shuts them down.  Their paths are obviously set to converge from the earliest pages of the book, and when they do it is a wonderful and unexpected encounter.  There’s also a story about a precious gem intertwined with their stories, but it seems a bit of a macguffin to me.

This is a wonderful novel that illustrates very personal stories of war, and especially the effect of war on limiting the options of children and forcing them to make choices they’d not otherwise be ready to make.  The characters, even the minor characters, are very well-developed and I enjoyed spending time with them.  It’s a beautiful book and likely to make one cry a little bit.

Recommended booksThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson


AuthorErik Larson
TitleThe Devil in the White City 
Narrator: Scott Brick
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2003
Also Read By the Same Author: Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, and Isaac’s Storm
Summary/Review:

I revisited one of my favorite books with this re-read of The Devil in the White City. The book tells a lively and engaging history of two concurrent events in late 19th-century Chicago: The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the chillingly efficient murders of numerous people in a purpose built hotel by a man calling himself H.H. Holmes.  It reads as a preview of the 20th Century, a time when visionaries changed the world through new technologies while at the same time unprecedented horrors inflicted bloodshed worldwide.

Having read some of Larson’s other books and not being as impressed, I was wondering if this book would hold up, but it turns out it is still Larson’s masterpiece.  I admit that the part about the fair is my favorite as I’d admire the work of Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted and others who contributed to the fair.  I also enjoy the anecdotes about about various incidents and peoples’ experiences at the fair.  Larson often uses literary license in the Holmes’ parts of the book to make a compelling crime drama.

So this remains among my favorite books of all time.

My review from 2003:

This is a great historical work about America’s dreams and America’s nightmares both of which came to a head during Colombian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Great visionaries like Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted present all that America could be at the fair. Nearby Henry Holmes sets up a gruesome factory of death to murder unknown numbers of young women. I have to say that I was more taken with the history of the fair than the salacious details of a mass murderer, but both stories do tie together well, and the narrative is well-written.

Recommended booksThe Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester,  The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Rating: *****

Book Review: Spinning by Tillie Walden


Author: Tillie Walden
TitleSpinning
Publication Info: First Second (2017)
Summary/Review:

Walden’s illustrated memoir tells of several years in her childhood when she was a dedicated figure skater and synchronized skater which involved rising early to get to the rink, extensive travel to tournaments, and a discomfort with the performative femininity expected of her.  Outside of skating, Walden moves from New Jersey to Austin, TX and has to adjust to a new school, deal with a bully,  and come out as a lesbian.  It’s an insightful and meditative look back on the choices made in childhood and their long lasting effects.

Favorite Passages:

“I’m the type of creator who is happy making a book without all the answers.  I don’t need to understand my past fully in order to draw a comic about it.  And now that this is a book that other people will read, I feel like it’s not really my turn to answer  that question.  It’s for the reader to decide, to speculate, to guess.  It reminds me of how in English class in high school we would always talk about the author’s intentions in every moment.  And I used to always wonder if there was ever an author who really didn’t mean any of it, and the meaning found its way in by accident.  I think I’m that author.”

Recommended booksFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher


AuthorCarrie Fisher
TitleWishful Drinking
Narrator:  Carrie Fisher
Publication Info: S&S Audio (2009)
Summary/Review:

Based on her stage performance, the delightful Carrie Fisher wryly reflects on her celebrity upbringing, her marriages and relationships, her mental health problems, and substance abuse issues.  An interesting memoir for fans and non-fans alike.

Recommended booksFuriously Happy by Jenny Lawson, Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, and You’re Never Weird on the Internet by Felcia Day
Rating: ***

Book Review: Black Panther. Vol. 1, A Nation Under our Feet by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, and Chris Sprouse


Author:Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze (Artist) and Chris Sprouse (Artist)
TitleBlack Panther. Vol. 1, A Nation Under our Feet
Publication Info: New York, NY : Marvel Worldwide, Inc., a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, LLC, [2017]
Summary/Review:

This collection includes the first four issues of this Black Panther series.  The illustrations are amazing, and Coates’ sparse, meditative text makes one thing.  I do find it hard to identify all the characters and keep up with the story, but that may just be a me problem with inexperience reading comics.  The collection also includes a reprint of Black Panther’s 1960s debut in a Fantastic Four comic when he apparently was a villain.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: How to Stop Time by Matt Haig


Author:Matt Haig
TitleHow to Stop Time
Narrator: Mark Meadows
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

The narrator of this novel Tom Hazard has a genetic condition that makes him age physically at a significantly slower pace than the typical human.  In the present day he is over 400 years old but only appears middle-aged.  The narrative switches back and forth from Tom’s present day attempt to make a normal life for himself as a history teacher in London and memories of his past.  These include the horrors inflicted upon him by superstitious people, his one true romance with his wife Rose in Elizabethan England, and his recruitment into a club of similar people who age slowly in the late 19th century.  It makes for a charming mix of historical fiction and a contemporary romance.  Haig is good at filling in the details of what it would be like to live, work, and love over the time of centuries, accumulating memories and experiences.

Recommended booksThe Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Time and Again by Jack Finney
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Dig if You Will the Picture by Ben Greenman


AuthorBen Greenman
TitleDig if You Will the Picture
Narrator: Peter Berkrot
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc., 2017
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program (although I ended up listening to an audiobook from the library)

Greenman’s book is the story of Prince’s career largely told through Prince’s music with a focus on his role as a cultural icon and sometimes generous/sometimes rocky relationships with other musicians.  Prince’s biography is in there too, but it’s more of the details fall into place around the examination of his music.  Greenman is a devoted fan of Prince so his own experience as a Prince fan emerges several times in the book, but unlike Rob Sheffield who makes the fan’s experience a window into a greater understanding of an artists, Greenman’s personal reflections seem more an intrusion.  Nevertheless, it’s overall a great attempt at understanding the life work of someone as mercurial and hard to define as Prince.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: When Grit Isn’t Enough by Linda F. Nathan


AuthorLinda F. Nathan
TitleWhen Grit Isn’t Enough 
Publication Info: Boston, Massachusetts : Beacon Press, 2017.
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Linda F. Nathan is an educator and founder of the Boston Arts Academy (BAA).  Like most public high schools in Boston, the student body of the BAA is largely children of color from low-income families, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants. Reflecting on her years as headmaster of the BAA, Nathan recalls her pride in promising students “college for all,” and was seemingly successful as the BAA has high graduation rates, high college acceptance rates, and a higher than usual rates of students going on to graduate college.  But she also questions whether high schools are properly preparing students for college, or if “college for all” is even the promise they should be making.

Much of her data who comes from former students who struggled to complete college and usually not because they couldn’t handle the academics.  Instead colleges create many barriers to students based on their race and socio-economic status that make it hard for her student to fit into the college culture, get the support they need, and keep on top of all the costs of attending college.  And yes, they make mistakes – failing to fill out a form, missing a meeting with a supervisor, not keeping the grade point average up – but while these things are just road bumps for more privileged students, they can end a college career for Nathan’s students and others like them.  Not only that, but low-income students are often left with crippling debts for the course they did take, but not able to transfer those credits.  Even community college, often presented as a good alternative or preparation for a four-year college, has it’s own problems and can be exploitative of low-income students.

Nathan also investigates the “no excuses” philosophy common in many charter schools that claim to be preparing poorer children of color for college.  While Nathan is very careful to withhold judgment of charter school teachers’ emphasis on strict discipline and rote behaviors, it’s hard not to read about what Nathan witnesses in this schools and not see it as abusive and ultimately more geared to the needs of adults than the education of children.  Again and again, Nathan reveals the idea of “grit” being used to pin any failures of children on their own character rather than question the reality of poverty, racism, and inequality.

Grit is Not Enough is important read for understanding the realities of public education today.  Nathan and her former students, as well as present-day students, are voices that need to be heard more in informing our nation’s public policy regarding education.

Favorite Passages:

Deeply held beliefs frequently go unchallenged in societies.  They are how we explain phenomena or culture or history. They are often false, yet persist.  I believe that these assumptions, or what I’ve come to call false promises, persist in public education because we hold so tightly to the American ideal of equality.  It is this belief that I and many Americans desperately want to be true.  It is this belief that we fight for.  But it is also this belief that we must fully unpack, deeply understand, and interrogate if we are to uphold our fragile democracy.” – p. 6

“It is the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ ethos to which so many generations of Americans adhere.  Yet data repeatedly show hoe poverty, social class, race, and parents’ educational attainment more directly influence an individual’s success and potential earnings than any individual effort. We clearly do no yet have a level playing field, but this belief is all but impossible to challenge. Whenever we hear of another bootstraps story, we want to generalize.  We disregard the fact that luck often plays a major role.  And in generalizing and celebrating the individual nature of success, we disregard the imperative to rethink social and economic policies that leave many behind.” – p. 8

“In middle- and upper-middle-class families, an invisible safety net typically surrounds young people planning to go on to college.  There is usually a family member or friend who will step in and remind a student about the intricacies of student loans and deadlines, or the m any requirements for staying registered once enrolled, or issues that can arise with housing.  However, if you are a lower-income student and you miss one or two e-mails or have a change in your adviser, you may find your dreams derailed.  It may be tempting to dismiss the examples above as ineptitude or carelessness on the part of individual students, but why must there be different rules, expectations, and outcomes for low-income versus middle- or upper-income students?” – p. 23

“If we allow an assumption like ‘race doesn’t matter’ to prevail, racial issues can be conveniently explained or excused as singular matters to be solved by individual intervention.  Singular responses allow us to avoid the actions needed for racial and socio-economic equity and a path toward a healthy and vibrant society and economy.” – p. 73-74

“What all the talk about grit seems to miss is the importance of putting children’s experience front and center.  In other words, when the emphasis on grit ends up as a stand-alone pedagogy, the context of student’ life and family circumstances is ignore.” – p.76

“We want to allow for growth mindsets in a way that might equalize the playing field, yet we continue to entrap so many of our young people with the assumption that if they just play by the rules, do the right things, they will be successful.  Achieving high test scores has become the only way to measure success or to prove that students have learned grit.  Equating better test results with healthy learning has reduced many schools to a narrow understanding of learning.” – p. 106

“Imagine if American high school students knew that they could study careers in music or finance in a vocational school as either an alternative or precursor to college.  Imagine if our community colleges could truly reinvent themselves and be places where students enter the allied health professions or even design professions.” – p. 133

“School can be the place where you practice how dreams are realized.  School can be where you can build a strong sense of self – an identity that you can belong to a special tribe, like artists, or change-makers, or mathematicians or inventors.  To ensure that schools incubate future dreams and dreamers, curriculum, structures, and pedagogy must encourage deep engagement both with teachers and with community members.  The walls between school and community can and should be permeable.” – p. 161

Recommended booksTinkering toward Utopia by David Tyack  and Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch

Rating: ****

Book Review: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Ghana

Author: Taiye Selasi
TitleGhana Must Go
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2013)
Summary/Review:

I was surprised that my Around the World for a Good Book selection for Ghana turns out to have a good portion of the narrative set close to home in the Boston, Massachusetts area.  Selasi’s novel is a story of immigration, family, the long term ramifications of choices made, and an attempt to peer beyond the stereotypes of Africa and Africans.

The novel is set around the family of Kweku Sai, long isolated from one another, coming together in Ghana for his funeral.  Kweku immigrated to America where he became a celebrated surgeon, but after being unjustly fired, the great shame causes him to leave his family and return to Ghana.  His wife Fola was a law student who gave up her career to support Kweku, and faces difficult choices when forced to raise 4 children on her own.  The eldest son Olu follows his father into medicine, but his father’s abandonment leaves him fearful of commitment.  The sister-brother twins Taiwo and Kehinde bear the scars of being sent to live with Fola’s brother in Nigeria after Kweku’s departure and the sexual abuse they suffered there. The youngest child Sadie didn’t know her father at all and until shortly before the main narrative begins had been very close with her mother.  All of their stories are told in extended flashbacks intertwined with the present day story.

This is a heartbreaking and harrowing novel and should come with a big trigger warning.  It unfortunately tends toward the melodramatic although there is honesty in the family dynamics portrayed.  Thankfully, this is also a story of redemption and healing, although it is still hard to not feel unsettled after reading.

Recommended booksThe Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri  and Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: This is an Uprisingby Mark Engler


AuthorMark Engler
TitleThis is an uprising : how nonviolent revolt is shaping the twenty-first century
Publication Info: New York : Nation Books, [2016]
Summary/Review:

This book is a comprehensive evaluation of the tools and strategies used in nonviolent movements, whether they be to overthrow dictators or to advance social change in representative democracies.  Much of this book is based on the work of Gene Sharp (who actually passed away during the time I was reading this), who published his theories on nonviolence in 1973’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Engler illustrates nonviolent movements in action through cases of the satyagraha movement that lead to India’s independence from Great Britain, and the tactics and campaigns of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Congress of Racial Equality, and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the American Civil Rights Movement.

Two other figures are also examined for their contributions to the theory and strategy of nonviolent movements.  The first is Saul Alinsky, whose book Rules for Radicals (1971), served as a guidebook for organizing community organizations along nonpartisan and ideologically diverse lines towards pragmatic results achieved over the long term.  A countering theory comes from France Fox Piven, who along with Richard A. Cloward published Poor People’s Movements (1977), which argues that the most vulnerable communities lack the resources to manage long-term campaigns or gain political influence without using disruptive tactics such as boycotts, sit-ins, traffic tie-ups, and strikes. From Piven’s point of view, the organizations created by Alinsky’s organizing can become too complacent or risk averse once they’ve established themselves and made ties with political leaders.  From Alinsky’s point of view, the disruptive movements championed by Piven often fail to make lasting social change and run out of steam.

There are obvious beneficial ideas and strategies that can be drawn from each theory, and Engler argues that a hybrid approach was successful in India, the Civil Rights Movement, and more recently by Otpor!, the Serbian resistance to the tyranny of Slobodan Milošević.  Otpor! was a decentralized movement which made it more difficult for the Milošević regime to target leaders for retribution, or for leaders to become too comfortably entangled in the government to the point that would not want to risk taking action.  Despite the decentralized approach, Otpor! maintained strict guidelines on action known as frontloading that helped maintain consistency on message and strategy.  Many Otpor! actions came in the form of satirical street theater performances which doubled as recruitment by inviting interested passersby to attend intensive training on nonviolence.

Engler also relates cases of how nonviolent movements are working in the contemporary United States.  Marriage equality became reality in the United States not because of a Supreme Court decision, but because an organized movement worked for decades to shift public opinion.  Movements can be divisive by design with ACT UP presented an example of a group who used provocative and polarizing  direct actions that brought attention to people suffering from AIDS that could not be achieved by more pragmatic organizations who feared losing the few gains already achieved by the LGBT community.

This is an important book that summarizes the history of nonviolent movements, breaks down key tactics and strategy, and serves as a blueprint for future nonviolent revolutions.  I think massive nonviolent movements will be vital to address the severe social and political issues we’re facing in the 21st century and recommend that everyone read this book to get a sense of what needs to be done.

Favorite Passages:

This book is concerned with a specific phenomenon: momentum-driven mass mobilization. It contends that those who have most carefully studied these mobilizations—examining how to construct and sustain scenarios of widespread protest—come out of a tradition of strategic nonviolence. It argues that political observers watching the democratic upheavals of the twenty-first century should incorporate this tradition’s insights into their understanding of how social transformation happens. Those wishing to bring such upheavals into existence, meanwhile, do well to marry these insights with their existing approaches to leveraging change. – p. 3

Nonviolence is often written off as obsolete, an idea that has been mostly forgotten and is largely irrelevant in global affairs. Yet, every time it is cast aside, strategic nonviolent action seems to reassert itself as a historic force. Without taking up weapons, and with little money and few traditional resources, people forming nonviolent movements succeed in upending the terms of public debate and shifting the direction of their countries’ politics. Nonviolence in this form is not passive. It is a strategy for confrontation. – p. 3

Gene Sharp documented how unarmed uprisings could produce remarkable and sometimes counterintuitive results. Whereas violent rebellions play to the strengths of dictatorships—which are deft at suppressing armed attacks and using security challenges to justify the creation of a police state—nonviolent action often catches these regimes off guard. Through what Sharp calls “political jiu-jitsu,” social movements can turn repression into a weakness for those in power. Violent crackdowns against unarmed protests end up exposing the brutality of a ruling force, undermining its legitimacy, and, in many cases, creating wider public unwillingness to cooperate with its mandates. – p. 6

Walker and Cotton were not trivializing the violence of the police dogs. They took the risks of the campaign very seriously. As King had contended, the point of creating a public crisis in Birmingham was not to introduce Connor or other authorities to violence. Rather, it was to expose the violence routinely inflicted upon the black community under Jim Crow segregation. “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” King wrote. “We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”54 Walker and Cotton knew that the attacking police dogs would serve as a choice representation of the much more pervasive violence that flourished in the city. In his tactical foolishness, Bull Connor had become an ally in exposing the brutality of white supremacy. And he was just beginning. – p. 22

But in democratic countries with representative institutions, the conventional wisdom is that the process of altering the status quo looks very different. It means working through officials in high office. It requires prolonged and often painstaking back-room negotiations between various interest groups. And when reforms are achieved, they are never so stark or dramatic as a dictator’s fall. Or are they? As it turns out, this accepted vision of how political change occurs has serious flaws. At best, it presents an incomplete picture of how progress in our society is won. At worst, it is a wrong-headed story that stubbornly conceals the way in which many of the most significant gains of the past century have been secured, from women’s suffrage, to labor laws, to civil rights. It misses how people with few material resources and little access to conventional powerbrokers have sometimes been able to bring about transformations that mainstream politicians consider to be absurd and impractical—right up until the moment when these changes become common sense. – p. 87

In a democratic nation, monolithic thinking likewise trains citizens to focus on the top. The vast majority of people are taught early on to hold this view. Most history books chart the rise and fall of business tycoons and ambitious politicians. The message is further reinforced when the bulk of our political reporters spend their time writing about the activities of these same actors. Legislative victories are credited to the policymakers who sign the final bills into law rather than to any movements that might have made passage of the bills possible in the first place. The public absorbs this bias, conflating the process of democratic reform with the decisions of charismatic leaders who manipulate the course of the nation’s affairs. – p. 95

If there is a common trait in the most prominent movements of the past century—whether they involved efforts to end child labor, redefine the role of women in political life, or bring down an apartheid regime—it is that they took up causes that established powerbrokers regarded as sure losers and won them by creating possibilities that had not previously existed. As the pillars give way, barriers long seen as too daunting to be overcome suddenly appear surmountable. – p. 114

Momentum-driven organizing necessarily places a greater focus on the symbolic. In their mass mobilizations, activists in this tradition need not abandon a push for concrete gains entirely. But instead of measuring their results only by incremental wins at the bargaining table, they use other metrics as well: movement in opinion polls, growing numbers of active participants, the ability to generate resources through grassroots channels, and the responsiveness of different pillars of support to their mobilizations. Organizers of civil resistance cannot be content with empty declarations of victory or with merely “speaking truth to power.” They must be hard headed in assessing their progress in winning over advocates and sympathizers from outside their immediate networks, always guarding against tendencies to become insular “voices in the wilderness.” – p. 140

Practitioners of nonviolent conflict have regularly shown themselves willing to be intentionally divisive, making use of a complex yet critical phenomenon known as “polarization.” In doing this, they grapple with an undeniable tension: broad-based support is vital if campaigns of civil resistance are to prevail. And yet many of the tactics of nonviolent disruption tend to be unpopular. People prefer calm speech and reasoned dialogue to the ruckus of confrontational protest. In many cases, creating a galvanizing crisis around an issue involves inconveniencing members of the general public, potentially alienating the very people that advocates want to win over. Moreover, when a vocal minority speaks out, it can inspire its most ardent enemies to begin organizing in response. Notwithstanding these dangers, the experience of social movements—from the civil rights movement in the 1960s, to ACT UP in the 1980s and 1990s, to the immigrant rights movement in the new millennium—shows that polarization can also be a powerful friend. By taking an issue that is hidden from common view and putting it at the center of public debate, disruptive protest forces observers to decide which side they are on. This has three effects: First, it builds the base of a movement by creating an opportunity for large numbers of latent sympathizers to become dedicated activists. Second, even as it turns passive supporters into active ones, it engages members of the public who were previously uninformed, creating greater awareness even among those who do not care for activists’ confrontational approach. And third, it agitates the most extreme elements of the opposition, fueling a short-term backlash but isolating reactionaries from the public in the long run. – p. 199

With the passage of time, successful movements are often celebrated as heroic and noble. But, while they are still active, their tactics are never beloved by all. Accepting that reality is part of using conflict and disruption as tools for change. – p. 224

The need for disruptive movements to reignite on a persistent basis raises the question of how even very committed people can sustain their efforts over the course of decades and generations. One way to do this is to build communities that reach beyond the realm of traditional political struggle. Although the building of alternative communities and institutions can be a potent force in social movements, it can also present challenges. Activists have long debated the question: Should we fight the system or “be the change we wish to see”? Should we push for transformation within existing societal structures, or should we model in our own lives a different set of social and political relationships that might someday form the basis of a new society? Going back centuries, different movements have incorporated elements of each approach, sometimes in harmonious ways and other times in ways that create conflicts between groups. – p. 271

Recommended booksNobody by Marc Lamont Hill, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Do It Anyway by Courtney E. Martin, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, and Becoming a Citizen Activist by Nick Licata
Rating: *****

Book Review: The Princess, The Scoundrel, and The Farm Boy by Alexandra Bracken


AuthorAlexandra Bracken
TitleThe Princess, The Scoundrel, and The Farm Boy: An Original Retelling of Star Wars: A New Hope
Narrator: Rebecca Soler, Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group , 2015
Summary/Review:

The is a new novelization of the  original Star Wars film adapted for younger audiences (albeit the original novelization is something I enjoyed as a kid and this is something I enjoy as an adult so those specifications are rather loose).  Bracken uses the movie script, the 1981 Star Wars radio drama, and her own imagination to retell Star Wars: A New Hope in three parts: first from Leia’s point of view from her capture by Vader to the destruction of Alderaan, the story picks up with Han from the cantina to their escape from the Death Star, and Luke holds the point of view for the final third of the movie.

Since everything is seen from the point of view of one of these three characters, scenes from the movie such as those involving R2-D2 and C-3PO and Darth Vader and other imperial leaders are left out, while the part of Luke’s story from the early part of the movie is only told in conversations and Luke’s memories.  But what is lost is made up for by the rich detail of each character’s inner life and perspectives, as well as scenes that aren’t in the movie (my favorite involves Luke going through an X-Wing simulator test with Wedge Antilles).

I can’t imagine that there are many people who would come to this book with no previous knowledge of Star Wars but I think it would be a treat for that reader, while stilling allowing a lot of surprises if they eventually see the movie.  The audiobook is enhanced by familiar John Williams music, sound effects, and voice acting by the narrators Soler and Thompson.  This would make an excellent accompaniment to a long family road trip.

Recommended books: Star Wars by George Lucas and Star Wars : Before the Awakening by George Rucka

Book Review: Time and Again by Jack Finney


Author: Jack Finney
TitleTime and Again
Narrator: Campbell Scott
Previously Read by the Same Author: From Time to Time
Publication Info: Simon & Shuster Audio, 1995 (Abridged)
Summary/Review:

Having recently reread The Time Traveler’s Wife, I felt compelled to revisit another time travel romance on my list of 100 Favorite Books. The story tells of Si Morley, a commercial artist recruited to join a secret government experiment.  Unique among time travel stories, there is no time machine or magic involved, but Si and his fellow travelers simply use self-hypnosis to open themselves to the past that exists intertwined with the present.  Si travels to New York City in 1882, and one of the great aspects of this novel is the detail that Si provides that really creates a vivid image of time and place.

The book is not perfect.  Despite being published in 1970, Si seems pretty old-fashioned in a casually paternalistic way not all too different from his 1882 compatriots. Neither of his love interests, 20th-century Kate and 19th-century Julia, are all too well-developed, and Si doesn’t seem to have much concern about ditching one for the other.  Si also romanticizes the 1880s while comparing it to the horrors of the 20th-century while overlooking the inequality, crime, disease, and war of that period.

This audiobook version is abridged and leaves out some important parts of the books.  Most significantly, it obviously lacks the collections of vintage photographs of New York that make up Si’s photo essays of 1882.  But there are also a couple of memorable scenes excised, including one where Si draws an abstract portrait much to the confusion of his companions at the boarding house and another where Si’s romantic view of the 1880s is briefly pierced by observing the hardship of a horse-drawn streetcar driver enduring the brutal winter weather.

This book is not as quite as good as I remember from my previous read, but it’s still a rousing time travel adventure and mystery and one of the best examples of its genre.

Here’s my brief review from 2002:

A fun time-travel adventure where the means of time travel is merely self-hypnosis that takes the modern world away. A lot of the novel is fairly plotless as we follow the protagonist Si Morley through the streets of New York in the 1880’s. My favorite part is when Si observes a streetcar operator in the snow and the romantic bloom of a “simpler time” drops away. I think this book could be adapted into an entertaining film.

Recommended booksDoomsday Book by Connie Willis, The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and Dreamland by Kevin Baker

Rating: ****

Book Review: Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett


Author: Terry Pratchett
TitleMonstrous Regiment
Narrator: Stephen Briggs
Publication Info: Harper Collins Publishers, 2004
Previously Read by the Same Author: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (with Neil Gaiman)
Summary/Review:

I’ve been wanting to find a way into the Discworld series but not knowing where to start, I asked folks on library Twitter, and this book was recommended as an entry point.  This novel follows Polly Perks as she disguises herself as a man and joins the army in order to find her missing brother.  Her ragtag regiment has a lot of individuals not ready for war as well as a vampire, troll, and an Igor.  It turns out that Polly is not the only one in the regiment with a secret.  Spoiler: It turns out that pretty much every member of the regiment is a woman. This leads to a comical plot where they go undercover disguised as washer women.  This is a funny and sharply satirical book, and it does make me want to read more Discworld (recommendations welcome).

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger


Author:  Audrey Niffenegger
TitleThe Time Traveler’s Wife
Narrator: ‎ Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books
Summary/Review:

It’s worthwhile to sometimes go back and reread one of the books that made my list of Favorite Books of All Time.  It’s been 14 years since I’ve read this book, and I’ll append my original review at the end of this post.

A lot of the things that made me love this book in the first place are still quite appealing.  I love stories of time travel, and that this one has a protagonist whose travel through time is uncontrollable and unexplained makes an interesting twist and creates a great structure for the book.  I also like that he’s a librarian who likes punk rock, because you know, that’s like me.  There were a number of things I forgot from my previous reading as well, most importantly Kimmy, Henry’s childhood landlady who acts a surrogate mother and is an absolutely wonderful character I’ll never forget again. Having become a fan of Doctor Who in recent years, it’s interesting to revisit this book and see how it influenced the story of River Song and the Doctor.

Of course, there are a lot of creepy things about this book, such as an adult man visiting his future wife as a child and establishing a relationship with her (arriving naked to boot).  I do credit Niffenegger for taking a direct approach to these uncomfortable issues rather than shying away from it.  Another thing I realize now that I must’ve been clueless about as a younger reader is that it plays with the romance novel genre as well.  But that’s one of the things that keeps this on my favorite books is that it works on so many levels, science fiction and fantasy, realism and magic, romance and for lack a better term “manliness.”

The voice performances of Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole as Henry and Claire add a lot to this audiobook version of the book as well.

Ok, here’s my short review from 2004:

This book reads almost as if Jasper Fforde took a serious turn. Almost. Complements to Niffenegger for adroitly managing the timeline, both in the story world and how she presents it to the reader. I also admire that she made Henry real by not always having him likable. Yet you can sympathize with him for what he has to do to survive with his chronological problems. I find it interesting that he travels in both time and in space, yet he never seems to travel too far from Chicago or Clare’s childhood home. Curious also that he always bounces back to the “present,” never jumping onward to another time or just staying there for a long time. But I’m quibbling, not with the book, but with the thoughts that occur as I ruminate this brilliant novel. Over 500 pages and I read this in less than a day.

Recommended books:

Time and Again by Jack Finney, Q : a novel by Evan J. Mandery, Every Day by David Levithan, and The Little Book by Selden Edwards

Rating: *****