Saturday, December 3, 2016

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

★★★★

This book is written as a letter to the author's 15-year-old son, though I didn't find it particularly accessible. The subject matter is heavy, the writing itself at times poetic.

My rating is mostly a reflection of my belief that the content should be widely read, especially by people who might not spend a lot of time thinking about race. In this book, we have a first-person account of what it's like to grow up with no choice but to think about race, to think about race in every facet of life, and what that race means not only to your sense of identity, but how it relates to your very survival. As Coates explains, at the most basic level, a black person's greatest concern is his struggle to control what happens to his own body.

Part think piece, part memoir, the author puts on display the raw reality of growing up black in West Baltimore. There's a dichotomy between the streets and school, yet both institutions failed the author as equally unrealistic paths to achieving the American "Dream".

The author writes about "being 'politically conscious' - as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty." (p. 34) Coates's lack of religious faith is notable. He faced all the tough questions without being able to fall back on a "greater good" or "God's plan", forcing him to continually grapple with a search for answers and explanations. Though he struggled at first with finding a common narrative, a single truth, he learned at Howard University - his "Mecca" - to embrace the dialogue and debate as being worthwhile in themselves.

Early on, Coates states an important premise: "America believes itself exceptional... I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard." (p. 8) Clearly, an "exceptional moral standard" would preclude pervasive and institutional racism, and at the end of the book, the author poignantly urges his son to "struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca." (p. 151) I get wanting to pass the torch, but I did wonder if maybe it's a heavy burden to place on a 15-year-old.

I found the memoir portions of the book most engaging, for example, the complete revelation he had when he traveled internationally for the first time, and his incredibly profound coming-to-terms in dealing with a friend's death at the hands of the police.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Never Say Genius (The Genius Files #2) by Dan Gutman

★★★

Coke and Pepsi and their parents continue their cross-country drive from CA to Washington, DC. Even more than in the first book, this book has the children caught up in outlandish situations. In between, we learn all sorts of random facts. In a way, this books actually seems less about The Genius Files and more about spreading quirky facts about Americana!

Truth be told, I was disappointed not to find any ciphers directed at readers in this book. But, I did enjoy the big twist in the end!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Mission Impossible (The Genius Files #1) by Dan Gutman

★★★½

A fun read about twins named Coke and Pepsi whose cross-country drive with their parents is overshadowed by their recent discovery of being secret members of The Genius Files.

The third person narrator frequently employs author intrusion, speaking directly to the reader for comedic effect. There is humor throughout the book, mostly of the "safe" kid-appropriate variety.

It's worth mentioning, though, that there is prominent scatological humor involving the dumping of waste from an RV. And I was slightly bothered by a reference to boys not having feelings; it just didn't seem like a productive thing to put in a book that many young boys are likely to read. We also see a bit of talking back to teachers, and the word "retarded" is used. Though effort is made to point out that "retarded" is not appropriate language, it's done somewhat dismissively. Oh, and the kids were required to keep The Genius Files secret from their parents. I don't know, I get that the appeal of many children's books is that the kids are supposed to figure things out for themselves, but the whole don't-tell-any-adults thing in kids' books always rubs me the wrong way.

All that aside, this book reminded me a bit of the 39 Clues series, not only because of the brother-sister pair who try to figure out clues while on the move with dangerous individuals on their tail, but also because the brother in each series is the funny one with a photographic memory, and the sister in each series is the more emotional but clever one. Also, like 39 Clues, the reader has lots of opportunities to learn about real people and places as the sibling duo travels from place to place. Only, in this book, the places and things that kids can learn about are not always educational, but more like fun facts, for example, the existence of a Pez museum in California, or giant balls of twine in Kansas and Minnesota. There are drawings and photos that are entertaining, too.

The book was published in 2011, so it's a very contemporary read, with references to Facebook and Twitter. The author even suggests that the reader follow along with the family's cross-country travels by mapping out their route on Google Maps.

There are some kind of mature ideas in this book, including assassins and references to genocide, cannibalism, and 9/11.

One last thing to mention, lest it is overlooked by readers as it was by my children! Three times in the book, a cipher is randomly printed along the side of a page. In each instance, curious readers will find that the same type of cipher is given to Coke and Pepsi a few pages later, and then several pages later the kids decode the cipher. Motivated readers can turn back to the cipher given to the reader and decode a secret message. It's fun!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

It Takes a Village, Tenth Anniversary Edition by Hillary Rodham Clinton

★★★★

When this book was first published in 1996, I was in college and not at all interested in parenting or politics. Now, 20 years later, I'm all about parenting and politics!

In the introduction, Hillary Clinton makes clear that "parents are the most important influences on the lives of their children." (p. XII) However, since "no family exists in a vacuum" (p. XII), the well-being of all children also depends on the society in which they live. The "village", of course, is a metaphor for not just the neighbors and teachers and police officers in a community, but also the institutions like government, churches, schools, and medical facilities that all play a crucial role in every child's development. In matters of public policy, the bottom line should always be, "Is it good for our children?" (p. XVI)

Like her public persona, Clinton's writing style is not especially engaging, however, this book is dotted with personal anecdotes that I found relatable. It was especially fun to read about Hillary as a young mother, and Chelsea as a child.

While certainly not a "parenting book", I would readily recommend this book to first-time pregnant women and new parents. In discussions that reference studies and experts (many of which are further explained in the "Notes" section), Clinton explores what's best for children. Along the way, she provides not just information, but insights and suggestions that I think any new parent would find helpful.

Ultimately, the book is about public policy. For each issue discussed in this book, Clinton talks about her own experiences, lays out the conclusions of what studies show, and then describes existing programs that successfully address the issue at hand. A couple programs might be implemented at the national level, but for the most part, a lot of them are state-funded or church-run or even founded by community coalitions. The point is, people are already finding ways to fix problems, and we need those fixes to be prevalent in all areas where they are needed.

The book covers a wide range of issues including support for new mothers, vaccinations, nutrition, public safety, gun control, adolescent drug use, race, education, child care, and public service - and that's not even an exhaustive list! It even talks about faith and building good character. Clinton looks at every issue from the perspective of, "What is best for children, and how can we make that happen for all children?"

Even as a staunch supporter of Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, I do not agree with every position she took in this book. But her intentions are clear, and I have to respect that her motivation comes from a good place. Every issue from the environment to the global economy can be boiled down to whether or not a particular policy benefits children and/or the world in which children live.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The 39 Clues Roundup

A good series of historical fiction to motivate a reluctant reader!

All the books feature a young boy as the protagonist, and I do wish they could have equally featured girls.

The Sword Thief (The 39 Clues #3) by Peter Lerangis

★★★

Another book, another author! Despite the multiple authors, the style seems mostly consistent. If anything, maybe both Dan and Amy's personalities came out a bit more in this installment.

It's mostly more of the same, only this time in Asia. There're hidden underground tunnels, alliances, and betrayals. I still find it distracting that you just have to accept that other people have uncovered other clues in ways that are never explained. Like how did the Kabras get that antique coin? And I'm a little bothered by how Amy and Dan keep leaving important items in random places while trying to outrun someone in pursuit. It just seems like such a huge risk; I can't believe that they manage to get their stuff back, again. But I guess suspended disbelief is a pre-requisite for this series already, given the whole premise of two minors competing in a world-wide challenge to find a mystery prize of unlimited power!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

One False Note (The 39 Clues #2) by Gordon Korman

★★★

The world-wide search continues!

Where the first book had Amy and Dan Cahill learning about Ben Franklin in Paris, this book has them learning about Mozart in Vienna, Salzburg, and Venice. The brother and sister pair travelling to different places and learning about important historical figures reminds me of the Magic Tree House series, but of course this series is written for an older audience.

I'm enjoying the chase for clues, but I have to get used to only having Amy and Dan's perspective. The first book of the series made a point to mention that there are multiple paths that lead to the actual clues that need to be found. So we follow Amy and Dan, but along the way, they keep getting intercepted by other Cahills. Since we don't know how other Cahills are figuring things out, I keep wondering about things like: How did Jonah Wizard know to go to Vienna? How did Alistair Oh get the paper that he hid in his cane? I guess none of those things are really important, you just have to accept them.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

★★★

I am a staunch advocate for common sense gun control, but even I have to admit that in the first chapter, the author manages to describe a situation that could arguably be a case in which a 12-year-old child might be justified in using a gun. The shockingly eye-opening account went on to tell how that same 12-year-old girl got pregnant at 13 and married at 14 (her husband was 17). This girl eventually becomes the imposing matriarch of the Vance family - Mamaw - whose life and spirit were central to the book's themes.

I found Hillbilly Elegy to be compelling and informative. It provides ample context for discussion of race, poverty, socio-economics, education, and politics - especially in light of the 2016 presidential election. Still, this book is first and foremost a memoir. It's one man's family history, told in a conversational narrative voice. It's approachable and easy to read, though I sometimes got tripped up by some of the author's turns of phrases. From time to time, there are brief academic discourses, with references to sources and studies, but social commentary and analysis are not focal points of this book.

As a memoir, I might have given the book 4 stars. However, I think my enjoyment of the book was affected by my own misplaced expectations. I know that's probably not fair, but it was part of my reading experience, so I'll explain.

The reason I picked up this book is because I read some fascinating interviews with the author (including this one). These articles discussed two main ideas that struck me: 1) how poor, uneducated, working class white people (like hillbillies) make up the base of Trump supporters, and 2) the importance of "individual agency," i.e., the idea that whether or not you think the government is doing too much or too little to help the poor, poor people themselves still need to take responsibility for their own life decisions.

Reading this book, I was hoping to have a revelation to help me understand why Trump has garnered so much support, but I don't feel I got that. The book does not mention Trump at all, which, I realized while reading the book, is understandable since it was probably written before Trump burst onto the national political scene. The book does briefly discuss how white conservatives distrust Obama, actually doubting his citizenship and faith, but the author only acknowledges that some people think racism is a factor, and then quickly moves on to other possible explanations.

As for "individual agency" - the concept is exemplified in many anecdotes throughout the book, but the idea wasn't fleshed out in a comprehensive way like I had hoped.

The interview linked above also mentioned the idea that hillbillies, i.e., poor "white trash", are the only group of people that Americans are unashamed to look down upon. It would be unacceptably racist to openly disparage poor blacks, but somehow, thinking less of poor whites is okay. This book had a lot of potential for in-depth discussions of race, but it largely avoided the topic. In fact, the author's wife has an Indian-sounding name - Usha - but her ethnicity is not revealed in the book. Not knowing for sure, but assuming she was Indian, I found myself wondering how the author's family, given their deep white roots, might have reacted to Usha's non-whiteness, or how the author might have felt marrying into a non-white family. (Being in a mixed-race marriage myself, my experience is that race is not a non-issue.)

One completely random but interesting side note. The author credits his Yale professor Amy Chua - of Tiger Mom fame! - for giving him good advice and encouraging him to write this book. Just seemed like a small world type connection - perhaps an example of the kind of elite networking the author describes in the book!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Maze of Bones (The 39 Clues #1) by Rick Riordan

★★★★

I really enjoyed this book! It's like the movie National Treasure; there's a series of clues that are buried in time and based on history (so there's even some educational value beyond the reading itself), and it all leads to some kind of mystery treasure. Except this book has more teams competing to find the treasure, and a couple of the teams include kids. Lots of over-the-top espionage and action, but if you can commit to the suspended disbelief, it's a lot of fun. There's a good deal of chuckle-worthy humor, too, especially in the form of random kid-typical comments from Dan.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Friendship Matchmaker by Randa Abdel-Fattah

★★½

I had a shaky start with this one. Lara Zany is the official "friendship matchmaker" at her school. She comes across as sincerely wanting to help others make friends, yet she's got a misguided list of "rules" about how to make and keep friends in school. She's not very likable at first, but I have to admit, by the end - when she learns a thing or two about how to really make friends - I was glad everything worked out for her.

I'm always on the lookout for diversity in books, so I'll mention that this book happens to have a character named Emily Wong. She is the new girl in school who just happens to be Chinese. She is an independent-minded individual and is immediately skeptical of Lara's "rules". Again, she was strangely not entirely likable. I liked her confidence and sense of self, but she kind of bordered on impertinent.

Finally, I was a little put off by how the characters in this book were meant to be 7th graders. They actually seemed to behave more like 5th or 6th graders to me. It's weird, because I just read another book about 5th graders who seemed more like 7th graders to me!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Auggie & Me by R.J. Palacio

★★★★½

Auggie & Me consists of three separate stories, each previously published as an ebook. Wonder left me downright yearning to read Julian and Charlotte's stories, so I was eager to read this collection that includes both Julian and Charlotte's perspectives.

The Julian Chapter ★★★★

I started out not really liking this story, with Julian's actions basically being explained away with excuses. Still, it made sense from Julian's perspective, and I could understand Julian's parents being blinded by love for their son; it's hard for any parent to believe that their child could actually be the bully.

The school administrators, however, were another story. Mr. Tushman and Dr. Jansen were in a position to do more for both Julian and Auggie. Why didn't they arrange some kind of mediation between Julian and Auggie to address the issues between them? In this book more so than in Wonder, it was clear that the administrators all knew there were problems, but instead of stepping in to help with the root cause, they just took disciplinary action after events unfolded. Yes, Julian was responsible for his own behavior, but I felt the school should have done more to help diffuse the situation.

It wasn't until Julian went to visit his grandmother in Paris that things started to fall into place. Grandmere and Mr. Browne were finally able to identify the root problem - which, again, should have happened much earlier - and Julian finally received some empathy and understanding as Grandmere told him a rather incredible story of her own with a similar theme, and a worthy lesson.

Pluto ★★★★★

This story surprised me! I wasn't at all curious to know more about Christopher when reading Wonder, but I really enjoyed his story. His perspective was honest and sweet, yet still believably realistic. Suddenly, Christopher is one of my favorite characters from Wonder!

Shingaling ★★★★★

One of the things I liked about Pluto and Shingaling is that both stories felt down-to-earth, more realistic. Nothing too over-the-top.

My one complaint about Shingaling is that, like Wonder, it had a lot of relationship dynamics that I think are more typical of 7th graders than 5th graders.

Putting that aside, I think Charlotte's story was more representative of how most kids would deal with someone like Auggie. Charlotte put it well at the end of her story - she was "nice", but Summer was "kind", a more genuine and meaningful sort of friendliness. Could Charlotte have been kinder to Auggie? Sure. But Auggie just wasn't a high priority for her. She had her own troubles, mostly worrying about changing friendships - which she cleverly outlined in Venn diagrams. When she wasn't trying to figure out middle school relationships, she had a dance performance to rehearse, regular school work to attend to, not to mention the mystery of the accordian-man to solve.

This book includes a little recap of the different-books-for-different-perspectives style of writing that is used in these Auggie books: On page 280 of my edition, Charlotte says, "Funny how all our stories kind of intertwine. Every person's story weaves in and out of someone else's story." And that's just it. Every single person has a rich and complex life that can't be understood solely through their interactions with just one other person. Through Charlotte's story, we see how Ximena - just a marginal character in Wonder - was much more fleshed out in this book. We can imagine that even Charlotte's friend Maya must have a pretty compelling story of her own, if we just took the time to get to know her, too.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

★★★½

A bold graphic novel about racism, identity, and acceptance.

Being Chinese-American myself, my personal experience definitely played a role in my reading of this book.

American Born Chinese consists of three separate stories that eventually tie together in a meaningful way. The first involves the Monkey King, a well-known character in Chinese folk tales. I don't know enough about Chinese folk tales to know which parts of this story were authentic to Chinese legends, and which parts were made up by Gene Luen Yang. But I know just enough about the Monkey King so that this character felt very familiar to me, giving me an instant feeling of connection with the book.

The second story involves a Chinese-American boy named Jin who has trouble fitting in, mainly because he's the only Chinese boy in school. While my personal experiences were not quite as extreme as Jin's, his story was something of a mirror of my own childhood, and so I identified with him immediately.

The third story is presented as if it were a sitcom. A boy named Danny is mortified when his cousin Chin-Kee comes to visit. Yes, that's right, Chin-Kee like "chinky". This story line was cringe-worthy in its depiction of racist Chinese stereotypes, even as it was obviously meant to be a wild caricature of the worst of Chinese representation in American popular culture. (Think Breakfast at Tiffany's.)

The three seemingly unrelated stories come together in the end to help Jin deal head-on with his self-loathing and finally come to terms with the Chinese part of his identity. It was a satisfying ending, but I sort of felt like the final resolution came about a little too quickly.

There was one other thing I found interesting, and I wasn't sure what to make of it. In the Monkey King story line, there is an all-powerful creator named Tze-Yo-Tzuh. A lot of his lines sounded reminiscent of Christian Bible verses, and it was another review that tipped me off to the fact that some of his lines were actually variations of Proverbs 139.

On page 80 of my edition, Tze-Yo-Tzuh says, "I have searched your soul... I know your most hidden thoughts. I know when you sit and when you stand, when you journey and when you rest. Even before a word is upon your tongue, I have known it."

The corresponding verses in Proverbs 139: "You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise. You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down... Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely."

Later, the Monkey King is seen having gone on a "Journey to the West" to bring gifts to Baby Jesus. It was a strange blending of Christian tradition and Chinese folk lore. Was the combining of east and west philosophies a metaphor for how Chinese-Americans must intertwine their Chinese and American identities? Or was it a statement meant to show that east and west philosophies aren't really so different? Or is the author himself Christian, and simply wanted to interject his faith into the story?

This book definitely has a place in helping to define the Asian-American experience - yes, it is actually a realistic portrayal of how many Asian-Americans feel - and I imagine it would serve as an effective window for non-Asian-Americans.

Btw, here's an interesting anecdote unrelated to my actual review... When I first read this book, there were 16 pages towards the beginning that made absolutely no sense to me. The illustration style was completely different, and I had no idea what was going on. I read the entire book, feeling a little confused all the time, never quite understanding how those 16 pages fit in. When I went to write my review, I took a peek at some other reviews to see if they could shed light on the mysterious 16 pages. Nothing I read mentioned anything like those 16 pages, but several reviews mentioned things that were definitely not in the book that I read! After some online sleuthing, I finally figured out that the copy I had read - borrowed from the library - actually included 16 pages of another book, Missouri Boy by Leland Myrick, spliced in!! They completely replaced the 16 pages that ought to have been in the book.

I got myself another copy of the book, and thankfully the second one was fine. I re-read the whole thing to make sure I got the proper experience start to finish. When I return both books to the library, I will definitely let them know about the mistake in the first copy!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

I Survived the San Francisco Earthquake, 1906 by Lauren Tarshis

★★★

This is my fifth I Survived book, and I'm still wondering why the protagonist is always a boy. I get that this is a great series for boys, but maybe that's all the more reason to throw a brave young girl into the mix - to show young boys that girls can be survivors, too.

Anyway, as usual, Lauren Tarshis gives us a pretty good impression of what living through the earthquake must have been like. I've come to expect happy endings, and this book did not disappoint in that regard.

It was interesting to think about young orphan boys living entirely on their own at the turn of the century. Was that really common back then? Or was the author purposely trying to shine a light on homeless youth? It was a little odd how Fletch and Wilkie were no-good troublemakers who lived on the street, while Leo and Morris were more like boys who just happened to live alone. They even had jobs.

It was clear that Leo had recently lost his father, but what about his mother? She was never mentioned at all, and the total omission kept me wondering.

I wasn't crazy about the story that brought Leo, Morris, Fletch, and Wilkie together. It was all a bit too convoluted... I mean, impersonating a ghost?! Like, really? Unlike the other books in this series that I've read so far, this one seemed to put more weight on the personal stories of the characters than on the event itself.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

I Survived Roundup

A good series of historical fiction to motivate a reluctant reader!

All the books feature a young boy as the protagonist, and I do wish they could have equally featured girls.

I Survived the Sinking of the Titanic, 1912 by Lauren Tarshis

★★★★★

I really enjoyed this one! Characters are fleshed out, and I teared up. I especially liked the way a couple different pieces came together in the end.

Even though the whole series is about disasters, when I first started this book, I was afraid that the description of the actual sinking would be too much, too awful for young readers to imagine. But Lauren Tarshis has really found a method that works: The first chapter describes the most terrifying part of the disaster that is experienced by the main character. Just when you think it might be too difficult for young readers to handle, the chapter ends. The second chapters goes back in time and sets up the characters and the context. Towards the end of the book, after the worst of the disaster has passed, Lauren Tarshis pulls back from the story, like a fade to black in movies. The next chapter opens in a calming way, after much of the immediate aftermath has already passed. Some details are retroactively explained, and we see our main character in a good place. As far as I can tell from the books I've read so far, the author always gives us a happy ending. I like that. With so much death and destruction embedded in each story, it's nice to imagine that maybe, just maybe, some people came through alright.