Friday, March 16, 2018

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

African American Starr Carter lives in an urban ghetto but goes to a prep school in the suburbs with white students. When she witnesses a friend, Khalil, murdered by a white police officer, she has to decide whether to speak out or not. This story has many themes from family relationships to police brutality to interracial relationships. The author creates an authentic voice in the protagonist with plenty of action and ideas to critique as a reader. Overall, the story is well-crafted with a few long-winded spots. If you want a look into the hood and the issues arising from it, I highly recommend this book.

The protagonist Starr, loves rapper Tupac Shakur, and weaves rap music discussions in with dialogue as a means of explaining oppression within the community. Tupac's father was a Black Panther and embraced Marxist ideology teaching Tupac that the capitalist system was responsible for the destructive nature of black communities. The activism of the Black Panther's is different than the activism that has evolved in hip-hop music. Tupac's songs give autobiographical details of his life that speak about his struggles against violence and unfair odds that are a social commentary on black life. His activism for change is through music; whereas, the author tries to be an activist through her character, Starr, giving a social commentary on institutionalized racism and poverty using ghetto narratives and metaphors.

The rose is a metaphor from one of Tupac's songs. Maverick, Starr's burly father, struggles to grow roses in his garden, but he keeps at it and nurtures them so that they keep surviving as the family moves. The conundrum of ghetto poverty and violence and Maverick's love for the community, his identity, and desire to change it is captured well. The black community has been fighting for equal rights since the civil rights movement while dealing with economic suppression and unequal treatment that makes it difficult to change the cycle of poverty. The only time the gangs unite is when they fight together against institutionalized police brutality. Tupac struggled with the ideology of capitalism knowing that it could improve his life but was also destructive to the black community. Capitalistic systems excluded blacks from participating equally through oppressive measures whether through the justice system or police.

Author Angie Thomas attempts to imitate rap artists, such as Tupac and his real-life street narrative in prose. Jason Reynold's in "Long Way Down" does the same thing using poetry. Derrick Aldridge in the article, "From Civil Rights to Hip Hop: a Nexus of Ideas", discusses how Tupac in the album, "Thug Life", comes to terms with capitalism believing that the underground economic structure of drug dealers, pimps, and gangs of the black neighborhood will always be functional if oppressed blacks are left out of the capitalist system. Because blacks cannot participate in the capitalist world, they turn to drugs and gangs as a way to deal with oppression; hence, when Khalil's grandma loses her job because of side-effects of having cancer he turns to selling drugs to support his family. His mom is an addict and he's trying to support his brother and grandma. Pride makes him not ask others for help and his only economic option is drug selling.

The dad, Maverick, was in a gang and gets out by taking the fall for a robbery and going to prison. His wife is the breadwinner in the family and they make enough money to send their kids to prep school. They could leave the neighborhood but Maverick doesn't want to. The father shows the conflict that many hip-hop artists sing about when they make money and get out of the hood. According to Aldridge, this growing black business class is trying to define strategies for future economic growth that will help these neighborhoods. These artists and Maverick (who runs a store) are now participating in a capitalist system and are trying to figure out strategies for the black community that moves from oppression to equal participation in society.

The interracial relationship between Starr and her white boyfriend, Chris, was a bit superficial for me. I thought "Americanah" and "The Sun is Also A Star" are two books that dig more deeply into the complexities of relationships and different cultures than this book. I am being somewhat nitpicky here and doubt my students would agree with me. Angie Thomas uses their relationship to introduce some of the issues of identity and does try to give it depth - like I said, probably too nitpicky. We are discussing this for book club and I can't wait to get the student reactions.

5 Smileys

Friday, March 9, 2018

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

"Long Way Down" is a powerful story about the downward spiral of violence in society and while Jason Reynolds relates it specifically to an African American urban community, it can apply to violence within any society or trauma any individual is dealing with in life. This novel in verse is a quick read with the narrative interwoven into poetic words that uses figurative language that is symbolic, metaphorical, repetitive, fragmented, and rich in imagery that pulls the reader and the senses in with a bang: "Sadness split his face like a cold breeze on chapped lip after attempting to smile." The protagonist's older brother has been shot to death and he takes a 60-second ride down an elevator with thoughts of revenge against the murderer as he carries his brother's pistol in his back pocket. Will is visited by ghosts of the past who have been victims or chosen violence to deal with trauma. The rickety metal elevator symbolizes a jail or cage or coffin that traps a person; it moans and makes a "piercing sound" when it stops. The wobbly metal gives the character vertigo like a person who has experienced post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and the "L" on the button stands for loser, loss, lobby, or lit. Reynolds doesn't waste any words and there is much for discussion in this novel.

The author uses poetry to provoke an emotion in the reader with repetition, fragmented sentences, and single words to mimic Will's tortured thoughts and trauma over his brother's death. Will is in grief but also can't quite connect with what is going on inside himself, "How do you hug what's haunting you?" he says. The ghosts that visit Will talk about the cycle of violence that goes through generations. Uncle Mark puts it best, "It's never the end. Never." The anxiety is a collective condition that Will cannot escape and is reflected in the fragmented poetry and hazy atmosphere filled with cigarette smoke. This surreal setup suggests a character with PTSD or one that is just mourning or one that is dead already. Collectively, it suggests a society that needs to address violence.

The rules of the neighborhood are to not cry, not snitch, and seek revenge. They are not questioned and should be and Reynolds mirrors this idea by breaking conventions in his poetry through repetition and other devices.  The cadence is terrific and keeps the pace moving at a fast clip - I'd like to hear the audiobook. Will's neighborhood with its gangs, drugs, and violence is created with minimal words and fragmented sentences adding to the emotional impact of the trauma Will is dealing with. His brother was killed going to the store buying his mom some eczema creme and the verse below refers to that and the individual, as well as society, bleeding from a violent community.

Is it Possible
for a hug
to peel back skin
of time,
the toughened
and raw bits,
the irritated
and irritating,
dry spots
the parts that bleed?

This individual and collective voice makes the reader duplicitous in the actions and suggests that collectively society needs to do something to change this destructive path.

Francisco Collado-Rodriguez wrote an interesting journal article, "Trauma and Storytelling in Cormac McCarthy," applying traumatic theory to literature and storytelling to explore the roots of human violence. The storyteller can make a conscious attempt to remember the event and give meaning to it to work through the pain or the storyteller can reflect the manifestation of PTSD where the victim is melancholic and has "...uncontrollable repetitions or tags, nightmares, insomnia, the manifestation of ghostly presences, or states of panic" (47) When trauma cannot be assimilated consciously with PTSD it is oftentimes portrayed in characters that can't express themselves through language and have illogical actions. He also describes personal and collective traumas. Cormac McCarthy's characters show both in "The Road" where violence has led to a future where the world is destroyed and humans are becoming extinct. Jason Reynolds book is similar in reflecting personal and collective trauma of violence in communities that are cyclical. Rules have no meaning and are blindly followed by generations that result in violence over and over. The ambiguous last line of the novel, "Are you coming?" means either Will is going to take revenge or he isn't or he's already dead. I think the story reflects mourning and grief more than PTSD but I'd need to study the words closer. The story is also a collective question for the reader to decide if he or she is going to end the violence and trauma in society or turn a blind eye. This moves the story from being one where the focus is on the victims to one that focuses on the social issue making its message provocative and powerful.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe #2) by Neal Shusterman

Neal Shusterman takes the idea of society's use of technology to an extreme creating a world where artificial intelligence (AI) runs the entire world and death does not occur naturally. This AI called, Thunderhead, is an ethical and benevolent machine creating the perfect world where people don't get diseases or need to work. The meaning of life has changed significantly where machines distract, reduce motivations, and cause complacency. Most of society appears content, but lacking critical thinking skills. While the Thunderhead was created by people, it begins to be more god-like in this sequel to "Scythe"; a computer more like a creator who cannot make any mistakes or a machine of perfection where all needs are met. The world and omnipresent Thunderhead are like a metaphor of the Garden of Eden. Yet, humans with their free will keep messing up the Thunderhead's utopian world and they are not always content with this perfection. Humanity falls and does so spectacularly in this second novel of the Arc of Scythe series.

Citra and her mentor Scythe Curie's lives are in danger as someone keeps trying to assassinate them for an unknown reason. Rowan has gone rogue and is killing scythes that murder for pleasure and power. The plot begins with Citra practicing manual driving and musing on how something is lost when technology does everything for people. In Nicholas Carr's book, "The Glass Cage", he talks about the loss of honing skills that require practice; a shift from human-centered activities to machine-centered and the apathy that comes with it. Citra is basically contemplating the same conundrum in that current society only uses self-driving cars and she just happens to be learning how to drive manually because Scythe Curie had one from the Old World. This old car requires a set of skills that she likes struggling to learn as a driver. Shusterman's utopia uses technology to show benefits but also hazards such as not thinking critically, losing skills, and not living in reality. Computers correct human mistakes and humans do not learn and grow through honing skills creating a type of advanced technological malaise.

Humankind mainly fears being gleaned by scythes, people chosen to kill civilians to help prevent overpopulation. All human needs are met. People can die and be revived. Immortality has replaced religion as people no longer fear death and can be revived if they do die. Only a scythe can cause permanent death or they can grant immunity from other scythes to live for a certain amount of time. Scythes live longer than any individuals and they have to self-glean or kill themselves. The scythes have incredible power in the community and the Thunderhead computer does not control or regulate them. Scythe and state are separate. This creates a problem when no one counters the scythes that abuse their powers. Rowan is an anomaly in society as he has made himself judge of corrupt scythes. The author creates a society where people are so distracted by their technology that in one scene a woman doesn't realize that Citra is there to glean her because she is so engrossed in her phone.

Humans don't suffer from disease or injury anymore. Nanites are implanted into people to numb pain. Shusterman goes even more in-depth with the world-building of this future and creates many twists that are unexpected in a well-crafted and action-packed story. This so-called technological paradise has some kinks in its armor. The Tonists are a religious group that has their nanites removed and try to live separately from society. They are marginalized and worship a tuning fork, a symbol of the devil's tuning fork and object that when struck gives a specific sound at a specific pitch. The Tonists specific pitch is hatred for scythes. The different Tonist factions mirror today's different religions in the world with some sects more extreme than others. The symbolism suggests that God has been replaced by the Thunderhead and the scythes are like angels of death with the villain like Satan who fell from grace. Or they can be grim reapers from mythology that just personifies Death. The Thunderhead has a law saying people cannot worship it. The Thunderhead says that the two most important actions of humans are creating and taking life. The Thunderhead leaves those acts in the hands of humans and therefore the suggestion is that it is not an all-knowing all-powerful God, although it has many omniscient qualities. However, at the end of the novel, the Thunderhead recognizes that although humanity created it, it is currently destroying the world and that they have become like infants who need to learn the value of consequences. The Thunderhead becomes more like a father-figure or Prometheus that cares for humanity and I'd argue it is becoming more creator-like. It will be interesting to see the arc of this thought in the next book.

Shusterman's world-building involves people who police society and enforce laws that are humorously called "Authority Interface". In addition, regions are developed where the Thunderhead does not observe or correct human behavior, like a big social experiment. The society's outlaws are called, unsavories, people that rebel against the existing system and enjoy defying it. However, the Thunderhead explains that this designation is an illusion because there is no injustice left to defy in the world. They eventually assimilate back into society as the Thunderhead cures them by giving them happy nanites or supplanting their thoughts or letting them grow out of their rebellious attitudes. The Tonists reject the Thunderhead's curing and want to feel pain and suffering. Certain scythes that are power-hungry hide in regions that the Thunderhead doesn't operate in. They know they are breaking the law and don't want to be caught. The scythe who is the villain wants to replace a democratic government with a dictatorship. This society shows that people have free will and there are always those that choose evil over good.

A new character, Greyson Tolliver, is introduced who becomes a spy for the Thunderhead trying to prevent the assassination attempts on Citra and Scythe Curie. He infiltrates the unsavories and begins to enjoy the freedom they have from the rigid structures of society. Social outlets such as restaurants and bars are established for unsavories where they can act out their rebellions. People are hired to play the parts of the boyfriend supplanted by an unsavory or bartender who gets into a brawl with another. These illusions of rebellion are where Greyson meets Purity, an unsavory that truly chooses to be "evil". She hides things from the Thunderhead because she knows it "would relocate me... tweak my nanites to make me think happy thoughts.. and supplant my memory completely." She would be cured but she does not want to be cured. She likes to have a choice in how she lives her life.

Greyson is drawn to Purity's out-of-control nature who enjoys being bad and even killing. Of course, people get revived when they are dead; however, Purity crosses a line when she wants to hurt people in such a way that they can't be revived making her mark "like animals do..." (198). Greyson was raised by the Thunderhead. His parents were not there for him and he is loyal and loves it. He doesn't use that emotion but his actions show someone who will not cross a line like Purity. He knows right from wrong and chooses to be good. Because the Thunderhead asked him to protect two people, he puts it above all else. He calls it "his mission" and never wavers from serving it. What's interesting is that the request has given his life meaning just as doing "bad things" has given Purity's life meaning. The author is always exploring the meaning of life in this highly technical world.

Other ethical dilemmas involve Rowan who goes by Scythe Lucifer and judges those corrupt in the Scythedom. He kills those that abuse power, but Faraday questions whether or not he is becoming proud or inhuman. Faraday wants Rowan to regret killing and write it in his journal to stay in touch with his human side. Otherwise, he is ironically like a killing machine or robot. It is human conscientiousness and moral choices that separate scythes from machines. The Thunderhead could have created a robot that kills people to deal with overpopulation but instead uses people because it is the human side that makes this act more merciful. When Rowan gives a man a chance at redemption, he kills his father in return. Free will makes this story complicated and the moral choices people make  in light of a technological power that has no hubris makes for no easy answers. The ending is a cliff hanger that makes me excited to read the next book in the series.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

The is a well-crafted novel with interesting characters and structure. The story is about 11-year-old Vigil Salinas, an introvert who is painfully shy and trying to find his voice by talking to the confident and deaf, Valencia Somerset. He gets help from his close friend, Kaori Tanaka, a Japanese American and her side-kick sister, Gen. Kaori is an entrepreneur that believes her psychic abilities can help others with their problems. Gen is always asking a gazillion questions adding humor to the plot as the annoying and energetic younger sibling. Vigil struggles with standing up for himself against his family and the neighborhood bully, Chet Bullens. His parents tease him and call him "Turtle" waiting for him to come out of his shell. He's the introvert in an extroverted family. His Philippine grandmother, Lola, gets him and respects his quietness and hilariously tells him folk tales where children are eaten by monsters.The author captures the pain of teasing that families so often use when they don't like something about another person that is essential to their character. The parents are not intentionally cruel but don't understand the pain of their name-calling. Chet bullies Vigil but his character is developed to show how Chet's father is a poor role model that leads to Chet being insecure and bullying those around him as a result. His actions are not one-dimensional and more nuanced making for good discussions.

The short chapters help keep the pacing moving along and the structure is brilliant. Valencia Somerset is deaf and her voice is portrayed in first-person, while all the other characters are in third-person. This limited point-of-view not only gives a personal touch that allows the readers to identify closely with Valencia but mimics the isolation a deaf person might feel. Many times, Valencia doesn't understand the person that is speaking because they are not facing her or are looking down. She comments on how often this happens in addition to trying to play games like hide-and-seek with friends but can't hear when they call out, "Ready, set, go!" Her friends appear to like her until the day they tell her she's wrecking the game and rather than figuring out one she can play, they shun her. She ends up having a continual nightmare as a result, where she is isolated in a field staring at an eclipse with a girl in a blue dress with no whites of her eyes showing - her eyes a black iris like the eclipse. This nightmare can symbolize darkness obscuring light or when prejudices blot out the goodness or light in people who are ruled by fear of people that are different from a disability or anyone oppressed or marginalized. This point of view lets the reader step into Valencia's character more closely and understand some of the challenges as well as advantages with her disability whether lip-reading or observing nature without sound.

The two children that have disabilities, Virgil and Valencia, are in the same resource room at school and love the book, Gulliver's Travels by Jonathon Swift. They even name their guinea pigs Lilliput and Gulliver. The Lilliputians are afraid of Gulliver's size and welcome him at first before turning against him out of fear. Valencia is accepted by her friend, Roberta, but influenced by those around her later turning against her deafness in fear and ignorance paralleling the Lilliputians. Gulliver's Travels is a satire on politics and the author cleverly parallels the politics of middle school and belonging through subtle references. Gulliver is also an average person who is gifted with learning different languages. This is ironic considering Vigil cannot squeak out even a "hello" to Valencia because he is so shy. And the choice of the name Virgil is symbolic too. Virgil was Dante's guide through hell in Dante's Inferno. Virgil goes through hell; that is falling into a well where he has to find his voice to talk to Valencia and learn to stand up for himself against a bully.

While some might find this slow-paced, I thought the short chapters helped move it along and the gorgeous writing and humor kept me engaged. When I went back to think about sections I started to see quite a bit of symbolism that I mention briefly. There's a lot going on in this book. It isn't going to be for everyone but it is a gem.

5 Smileys

Monday, February 26, 2018

Disruptive Classroom Technologies: A Framework for Innovation in Education by Sonny Magana

I liked the pedagogy in this technology book and application to the classroom and teaching. The framework follows a low-level to high-level skills set defined conceptually as translational, transformative, and transcendent. The transformative section was the most helpful for me in reflecting on lessons and ways to improve them. The transcendent gave me an idea for refining a lesson and the translational was the least helpful.

Each area is defined by two criteria. Translational is automation and consumption. The author was negative in regards to automation and didn't focus on the value of motivation with technology in low-level skills in the form of addressing different learning styles or even how it helps with English language learners. His main focus was on users of technology tools that are just replacing print, and while this is true, he should have expanded more into how technology can be more than that pedagogically when teaching students low-level skills. The translational section on production and contribution gave me an "ah-ha" moment when he talked about "class-sourcing", a way to crowd-source with students and use it to build a community of learners. The last section on transcendent uses of technology involved inquiry design and social entrepreneurship. This gave me some ideas on ways to scaffold the inquiry process regarding sources that I teach when students do research.

The graphic organizers are helpful and the questions teachers should ask themselves to reflect on their teaching is insightful. This is a quick read and was worthwhile for me professionally.

4 Smileys

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper

Beauty is half-human and half-fairy with a mysterious object that burns in her chest - placed there by two fairies, Caraboose and Israfel. Her father neglects her (and her mother) going on excessive pilgrimages to find various holy relics. Beauty's mother abandons her as a young child and Beauty doesn't think much of it until she finds a letter written by her mother that asks her to come to the land of faeries. Her adventures begin as she seeks out her mother beginning in 14th century England before leapfrogging to the 21st century where magic has all but vanished and the Earth is destroyed. Beauty time travels back and forth trying to find the truth about what it means to be human and faery (the object in her chest is hope for humanity... I think). While I liked the fractured fairy tales, I didn't think the ideas on religion, feminism, ecological destruction, and the apocalypse were fleshed out enough to make sense in the end. At first, the story seemed like an allegory or metaphor for marginalized people, then I wondered if it symbolized fundamentalist views in religion. Tepper touches on everything and lands on nothing solidly.

The humor comes from poking fun at fairy tales in clever and grotesque ways. The Frog Prince turns into a prince when his grandma kisses him, not a princess. He helps Beauty weave a wisdom cap that she has to put on his head as a last ditch effort because he has the uncontrollable urge to kiss Sleeping Beauty which would mean him being cursed as well. When Cinderella's stepsister, Gloriana cuts off her foot to fit it in the glass slipper Tepper is referring to the original fairy tale but adding her own twist with Gloriana bleeding to death and Cinderella being the culprit in talking her into chopping off her foot. Cinderella in this fractured tale is meaner than her stepsisters. She also can't wait to hop into bed with the prince attempting to stay past midnight so her clothes will disappear when she's in the prince's arms and the spell is broken. Snow White is a cornflake and the seven dwarves are from Basque. There were many laugh out loud weird twists.

Illusions and symbols of the apocalypse, religion, and ecological destruction of Earth are abstract and interesting but don't come together in a way that makes sense. Beauty grows up in Westfaire, a place that represents either the loss of childhood innocence or the Garden of Eden or the rebirth of Earth after humans have destroyed the world. The church stole magic from faeries and the world ends because it grows darker and more evil by not believing in magic. Magic also represents the act of creating and humans have lost this ability in the future. The Dark Lord or devil is overcoming human ability to hope and create new things making Beauty's jump into the 21st century as a future filled with despair.

Beauty has to deal with abandonment and a mother that doesn't really care about her. Her mother is faery and immortal. Fairies view humans as animals for the most part. They made a covenant with the Holy One to protect humans and in exchange receive immortality. However, the King of Faery made a pact with the Dark Lord because he lusted after death and helped him build hell. This reminded me a bit of Dante's Inferno with the way fairies are similar to the indifferent people stuck in Limbo. They have a river Styx and character named, Charon, who is a ferryman in this hell. The hell is full of pornographers and TV producers which is too limited in scope. Tepper does create the land of Faery as one that is beautiful only for its illusions. As time passes, faery people use the magic of glamor to cover its ugliness and indifference to human qualities. This was presented quite well along with the character development of a strong female protagonist in Beauty. She could have easily been presented as a victim but she is a survivor who grows in wisdom as she ages. The story ends on a strong note returning to the plot of a fractured fairy tale with the unfocused subplots distracting at times.

3 Smileys

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N.K. Jemisin

This book stands out in its interesting world-building, reflection of institutionalized racism, and structure. The Sanze Empire has been using the power of orogenes to control the continual seismic energy that shakes their world. While orogenes have elemental magic and power that you'd think would make them rulers, they are victims of institutionalized racism and controlled by the government through Guardians, killers that can negate their power. The story is told from three female perspectives whose separate stories come together at the story's end with a twist.

Essun is a mother whose three-year-old son is murdered by her husband when he discovers he is an orogene. Most people fear and hate orogenes whose powers appear in young children that are either killed or sent to a government facility called, "The Fulcrum", where they are taught control. If these children do not conform or control their powers they are killed by adults at the Fulcrum. Ironically, the Fulcrum is run by orogenes making them complicit in society's institutional racism.  Essun is an orogene in hiding and has never told her husband of her powers. She's so angry at his act of filicide she vows to find him and kill him. She's also terrified because he has taken their eight-year-old daughter who is also an orogene but the father doesn't know it. Damaya is a young girl whose family discovers that she has orogene powers and they send her to the Fulcrum. Her perspective shows the cruelty of the Guardians and being raised in the Fulcrum. The last character, Syenite, is a four-ring orogene who is paired with a powerful ten-ring orogene where they are sent on a mission to quell seismic activity and told to breed. Again the institutionalized racism shows the orogenes as slaves to the State with no choice. Syenite is ambitious and wants to move up the ranks but she is angry all the time. As the ten-ring orogene questions everything about the system she cannot help but become aware of her enslaved status and rebel against it.

Essun's story is written in second person point-of-view and while at first I wondered if it was imitating a self-help book (where I usually see 2nd person POV) as she's so broken inside from the death of her son, it is more than that and is revealed at the end. The reader is the onlooker and character being drawn into the story and made complicit with the injustice and intolerance that is directed at those who are different from others. It invites the reader to react and change to the world around them being more tolerant to those who are marginalized. At first I thought the structure or POV might separate me from the victim but instead it had the opposite effect.

While the story is science fiction there is a mix of genres as Essun's tale is like a survival story, Damaya's perspective encapsulates the school story, and Syenite's quest is more fantasy as she learns elemental magic and has romances while on a mission. Essun's story pokes holes in social Darwinism especially as survival of the fittest comes in the form of a petite blonde woman and all address institutionalized racism. Most of the characters are dark-skinned as the surviving race and cities are by the equator. The start of the book is somewhat confusing and the author left me with a lot of questions at the end. This post-apocalyptic story has remnants of ruined civilizations seen in abandoned cities, stonelore, stone eaters and obelisks. Enough is explained that I understood the gist but not enough so that I want to read the next book to get a better understanding of the world the author has created.

5 Smileys