Monday, September 25, 2017

Ban This Book - Alan Gratz

It's 2017 Banned Books Week!

Coincidentally, I just finished Alan Gratz's newest book (not to be confused with the other book he published this year; man, this guy is going to get Carpal Tunnel from typing so much), which happens to be about the subject: Ban This Book.  I've read a couple of Mr. Gratz's books so far this year, and I was particularly excited to read this one.  This book eschews his typical intense grayscale and red cover color scheme in favor of a teal set of lockers with some books hidden inside.  This was quite the departure from what I was used to.  Just when you think you get to know an author.

What made his other books so compelling, and Refugee is the first book to make me cry in a long time, is just how powerfully the characters are written.  Mr. Gratz knows how to make you feel for another person.  He's proven it.  Then, there's this book, which is so remarkably different in the premise.  I'll confess I was expecting a bit of a letdown.

I didn't get it.  Meet Amy Anne Ollinger, the oldest sister of three in a wild family.  She's in fourth grade, and her favorite book is From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  When a parent of a kid in AA's class convinces the school board to remove AA's favorite book from the shelves of the school library, along with other titles that are deemed "inappropriate," AA and her friends work to circumvent the unjust removal.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

I Am Brian Wilson - Brian Wilson

This book was lent to me by a great Pville family that loves music maybe even more than I do: the Grimes family.  It came to me somewhat out of left field, because although I was familiar with Brian Wilson and his work with the Beach Boys, I was powerfully unaware of the circumstances of his life.  I still don't feel like I've gotten a complete picture, even after reading this book, because I'm not sure how reliable of a narrator he is.  More on that later.

The Beach Boys, for anyone reading this who is extremely musically ignorant, were a band that existed almost as the American "yang" to the Beatles' British "yin."  Yoko might appreciate that comparison.  Maybe not.  They recorded songs during the period that was famously referred to in American music as the British Invasion, where rock, pop, and later punk music would all flow across the pond and wash up on our shores.  For contrast, the Beach Boys worked to craft a uniquely American sound.  In many ways, that's part of their enduring popularity.  For a country that prides itself on being a melting pot, or at least has prided itself on that at certain points in its history, the American identity of baseball, apple pie, George declining to lie about a cherry tree, and the lot, often includes the Beach Boys, and not just because of tracks like "Surfin' USA."

As one of the group's original members, Brian Wilson is known for his musical talent.  He's the lyrical and musical craftsman on many of their hit songs; what is less known about him (at least to me) was his enduring battle with mental illness.  At no point in the book does he ever confirm a diagnosis, but Mr. Wilson seems to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia.  At times, the music he created was his medication, his "valium," as he describes it.  Other times, he turned to other drugs to force the voices out of his head.  For all the wholesome imagery of the Beach Boys, the truth is actually quite darker.  It's somewhat like finding out that George did lie about the tree, or that baseball is plagued with drug scandals, or that apple pie is a caloric nightmare.  Americana looks better on the surface than it often actually is.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Serafina and the Twisted Staff - Robert Beatty

I had a feeling when I finished the first Serafina book that her story wasn't done.  That can be good or bad.  Sequels are typically difficult to equate with the originals.  Mr. Beatty is a talented writer, but I wasn't sure if this book would be as good as the first, which I read late last year and found surprisingly intense and exciting.

Luckily for me, this book didn't drop off a bit.  If you don't want any details from the first book spoiled for you, STOP READING NOW.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Barcode Prophecy - Suzanne Weyn

Did y'all know that dystopian fiction is in style?  It's true!

Unfortunately for me, this book, which is devoid of markings to indicate that it is, happens to be the third book in a series, a series which will remain unexplored by me.  For this to be book three, there is a gross abundance of exposition, characters meeting other characters, and setup for plots that don't ever actually happen.  This is the first book I've ever read by Suzanne Weyn, and I have to be honest and say that I didn't like it.

Here's the premise of the series, which actually isn't a bad premise: in the near future of the US, a multinational corporation (Global-1), which operates and resembles the famed Monsanto Corporation, has worked to gain a foothold in governments around the world.  According to characters who you'll meet fairly late in book three, they've literally bought governments of developing nations, and they have also bought (perhaps as a nod to the Citizens United jurisprudence...this was published in '12) representatives in the US Congress and installed a puppet in the White House.  Why, you might ask, would they do this?

It turns out that Global-1 is into genetic research, including plots (these may figure into previous books, but they're fully explained in this one too) to clone a young woman, which works; there are five of her clones in this book.  Other plotting by Global-1 involves passing a legislative requirement that all citizens over the age of 17 become barcoded with wrist tattoos.  Unbeknownst to the citizens, these tattoos also introduce "nanobot" technology into their bloodstream, which allows them to be genetically profiled, placed into a caste system, and even terminated remotely.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism - Naoki Higoshida

Why do we read books?

I've asked this question before, and I keep coming back to the same idea.  I read books because I want to learn about other people, especially the people I feel like I understand least.  The trouble for me is that I feel like the more I find out about people, the less I realize I understood about them to begin with!  English teachers, at least many of us, began as English majors, and we learned to observe others and their details.  I think that focus has taught us to recognize a need for empathy and its power.  It's why so many studies have linked increased reading with increased empathy...it's a natural conclusion!

As part of my career, I've worked to try to help students become better communicators, both in the written word and sometimes in the form of speech as well.  Therefore, some of the most challenging students for me have been those who naturally struggle with expression.  In particular, although I've studied to try to better understand it, autism and the challenges it presents for the students I've had who live with it, is a mystery to me in many ways.

The foreword to this book is powerful, so let me address it first.  In it, the gentleman who translated this book from Japanese to English explains his thinking and inspiration.  It's intense.  Essentially, the idea is this: most books about autism fall into a couple of categories: 1) textbooks, 2) books written by adults who have lived with autism, and 3) books about people who have lived with other people with autism.

This book is different: