Saturday, February 24, 2018

CLOUD ATLAS is shady

Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004. ISBN 978067697494-2

Oh, my word! I thought I would never finish this book. I really enjoyed Mitchell's book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. There are turns of phrase in that book that I would give my left hand to have written. That's why I was sure I would heap the same amounts of praise on Cloud Atlas. As with Thousand Autumns, Mitchell deftly delivers masterful turns of phrase, such as - "a half-read book is a half-finished love affair", "implausible truth can serve one better than plausible fiction". In Cloud Atlas, these two phrases are insider clues to the reader. The book contains 6 narratives, 5 of which are started only to be interrupted in mid-stride, creating a cliffhanger for the reader. The central kernel of the story are the ruminations of a questionable storyteller living in a post-apocalyptic, primitive state. It is in this story that the idea of CLOUD ATLAS becomes a unifying theme that expresses the commonalities of human existence over aeons. After the central narrative, each of the stories picks up where it left off. What's particularly tricky is trying to remember the details of a story/passage read in the past. The stories almost demand that you go back through and read each as a whole, which is the way Mitchell first wrote them. My favourite voice was Robert Frobisher, an English musician living in Belgium in the 1930s. The wry wit and self-depricating humor of Frobisher's narrative was comical but rang true. I connected with this character more than any other. This book definitely has great literary merit (finalist for the Man Booker), as its awards and movie deal would indicate. However, I'm giving it a 3 because I had to flip back and forth too many times, it gets preachy in some places-too esoteric. And I felt like some of the dialogue was unnecessary. I'm glad I read it. I feel like anyone who gets through it has earned some literary chops; however, I'm also glad I've finished reading it.

Insider tip: if you are a fan of fictional expositions of Neitzsche, you won't be disappointed in this book.  All six narratives deal with the will to power in their own unique ways.  Likewise, if you are particularly adept at matching musical themes and motifs to plot and subplot, you will find quite a few elements of the stories appealing.  I'm not really good at either of the above, but I did catch what Mitchell had going on.  Like I said, just getting through this book gives a reader her chops.

Awards and further information:
Short-listed for the 2004 Man Booker Prize
The Guardian Book Club, 2010: read a wonderful series of interviews and insights into the novel from The Guardian.  Start here.

Other novels by David Mitchell:
  • Ghostwritten (1999)
  • number9dream (2001)
  • Black Swan Green (2006)
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010)
  • The Bone Clocks (2014)
  • Slade House (2015)
  • From Me Flows What You Call Time (2016, to be published 2114-yes, that's right)
More about the Future Library Project

Author Website:

    Monday, May 29, 2017

    #ReadingResistance - Part 2

    There has been a lot of back and forth between the US Executive Office and federal courts since the issuance of Executive Order 13759, signed January 27, 2017.  This first order which suspended US entries of citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.  In fact, various parts of the first order were enjoined by various district courts and courts of appeals, most noticeably in Washington State v. Trump.  So much confusion and public outcry led to a replacement of the first order to a second attempt, Executive Order 13780.  This order restricted nationals of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen unless they are lawful permanent residents of the United States, have visas that were valid as of January 27, 2017, or receive a case-by-case waiver.  Furthermore, Iraq was removed from the list of banned countries. Heightened screening and extreme vetting still require federal agencies, such as the State Department and the US Department of Homeland Security to develop strengthened screening procedures and criteria for populations warranting increased security.  Such immigration actions have caused decreased interest in travel to the US. Emirates Airlines has cut flights to the US by 20% because of the order and a recent ban on using electronics on flights from some ME countries, including Jordan. More importantly, tourism experts estimate that 4.3 million fewer visitors will travel to the US in 2017, resulting in a loss of $7.4 billion." The predictions for 2018 show an increased loss of $10.8 billion. (Cowger, Bolter, and Pierce, 2017. "The First 100 Days: Summary of Major Immigration Actions Taken by the Trump Administration," Migration Policy Institute Fact Sheet. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute).

    So, even though it has been 5 months, the immigration debate still rages on both sides.  It is confusing for those of us with MENA connections.  As far as interior enforcement of immigration laws, reportings on and arrests of noncitizens has increased, with several cities in at least 33 states have debated or enacted legislation preventing the enactment of such measures (so called, Sanctuary Cities). 

    All of the above is our concern as citizens of the world. I am all for taking immigration precautions, but I also know first-hand that the vetting process is already rigorous, having gone through the immigration process with my spouse.  Our story, as well as other's I know, is full of difficult meetings, intimidation and thorough examination of every aspect of our personal lives.  It is hard to imagine a more rigorous system than the already existing immigration process. 

    Again, how could I help?  I know books and authors.  I believe reading helps us understand the narratives of others.  The process of compiling #LIISSSY resources has given me a glimpse of the hardships that each country faces - exile, famine, persecution and death. It has helped me develop empathy. If you are afraid of the unknown, the only way to conquer that fear is to uncover what is unknown to you.  Reading is a safe way to learn about "the other."  Hopefully, in that process, you will also learn more about yourself.  

    Enjoy the rest of the #LIISSSY lists.

    Tuesday, January 31, 2017


    It began on Sunday, 28 January, when I read a post on one of my favorite blogs, Arabic Literature (in English) by M. Lynx Qualey: "Resist the Bans: Support Writers from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen."  This particular post was in reaction to harsher vetting for travelers from the named countries, a perceived prejudice of one religion over another, and overall misinformation about the facts.  Qualey shares how authors from Muslim-majority countries have not been granted visas for literature festivals and conferences, or how Skype "Authors in Residence" have been an alternative to complicated visa processing for some time now. 

    Her post challenged me to take my own private stand in the very small world of IB School Libraries against recent changes in the US White House Administration. In particular, I was inspired by her thoughts:  
    "The violence of such an executive act cannot be countered solely with art, or translation. Still, as Samah Selim notes, translation can be “a form of radical knowledge production.” We can also collaborate with, and listen to, literary voices, as well as forging supportive, enriching, properly compensated connections between writers and literary communities, thus resisiting the ban."
    "Listen to literary voices" as a form of resistance? That is in my power to do.  As a librarian, I have found that reading books from other cultures and non-Western writers, most of them translated works, has made me more informed about global issues, more understanding of other narratives, and generally more empathetic toward members of the human race.

    Now, reading is a form of resistance.  Once you have internalized something through reading, you cannot "unknow" it.  Whether it is love or hate, justice or prejudice, as William Wilberforce said:
    “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” 
    Thus begins #ReadingResistance.  Every day, I will curate and share with students and colleagues writing which is either translated or a re-telling of a personal narrative by each country on the #LIISSSY list. It's my very small contribution, my own act of resistance, in my library, in my school, in my world.  If you read one of these books or have a favorite, post it on Twitter with #ReadingResistance @Katsby90.

    I begin with Libya.

    The circle of friends around the White House is tightening, journalists are being attacked for asking the questions on the minds of a majority of Americans.  We have now been given a new newspeak for misinformation (alternative truth). I am reminded of a quote I read a long time ago, in a college course entitled, "Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry," a course I reckoned would be of interest to only a very few literary snobs and of relevance to none. The readings, as it turned out, are timeless and highly relevant. In an address to a newly-seated, populist Parliament, John Milton, somewhat an apologist for the Revolution, surprisingly delivers Areopagitica, with this being his final point of argument.

    "Last, that it [censorship] will be primely to the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of Truth, not only by disexercising and blunting our abilities in what we know already, but by hindring and cropping the discovery that might bee yet further made both in religious and civill Wisdome."

    In other words, words and books are not to be feared. They should not be silenced, for they sharpen our ability to think, to discover, and learn new ideas. When one reads, she invites a conversation into her mind. She has a dialogue that can and should make her a better person by challenging her acceptance of the status quo, of her own point of view, allowing her to enter into the sufferings of others with sure understanding.  #ReadingResistance is personal growth. #ReadingResistance is knowledge.  And as any good child of the 70s and 80s knows, "knowledge is power."

    Monday, October 17, 2016

    A Piece of Meat Is Not Sexy

    Al-Ahdal, Wajdi (2008). Trans by W.M. Hutchins. A Land Without Jasmine. London: Garnet, 2012.

    Many reviewers state this book is sexy.  No. It's not. Jasmine is a young woman, striving to live in a society that represses femininity, where men are either lecherous or clueless, when it comes to what a female wants. Jasmine describes herself as a piece of meat.  That is not sexy.

    The plot surrounds the disappearance of Jasmine and the subsequent investigation by police.  Each chapter in the 82-page novella is told from a different point of view.  In addition to Jasmine's first chapter, there are 5 men who comment on her character and each reveals a bit more into the mystery of her disappearance.

    Many reviewers have stated this book is a comment on coming of age in Yemeni society, and it is for Jasmine and Ali, whose childhood friendship was abruptly ended when Jasmine's father forces her to wear a veil after he discovers she has played soccer outside with neighborhood kids.  This interpretation seems a bit forced, especially when one considers that the author is a male.  I trust him to represent the male narrators in his book, but I don't trust any male author to authentically portray a woman's own knowledge of herself.  It's problematic.

    To restrict the book to a social commentary on the repression of women in Yemen is to miss some larger issues.  The book can be seen as a political commentary on the state of war in Yemen. If one considers Jasmine as the embodiment of the mother country, especially given her interest in Balquis and the ancient culture of moon worship, this book can be read as a commentary on the various political factions, tribes and wars that are ripping up the very fabric of what was once a beautiful country. The men each desire Jasmine to achieve their own personal ends, which may also be argued regarding Yemen's political situation in 2008-the original Arabic publicatin date.

    In another way, the book can be read as a social commentary on the purity of Islamic worship.  It seems that Al-Ahdal could be attempting to portray allegorically how human beings, men in particular, have a tendency to use religion (embodied, once again, by the pure Jasmine) to achieve their own ends.  Whenever humankind uses a body, a country, politics or religion to achieve their own ends, the body itself falls apart, perhaps disappearing in its purest form, to never be found again.  Maybe this is what happened to Jasmine.  The book has many possibilities.  Don't limit it hijabs and women's rights.  Women mean so much more.

    I typically recommend "coming of age" novels to YA readers.  Not so with this book.  This is definitely for adults.

    Winner of the 2013 Said Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation

    Saturday, August 20, 2016

    Laird, Elizabeth. The Garbage King. Oxford: Heinemann, 2003. ISBN 9780435130541

    I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Laird's writing. Her YA Novels are set in various third-world countries (where she has herself traveled) in which her protagonists often face the challenges of poverty, illiteracy, and injustice whilst coming of age. Their struggles against antagonists are very real, based on stories Laird has gathered in her travels. THE GARBAGE KING is set in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and weaves together the stories of Dani, a somewhat pampered rich kid, and Mamo, a runaway child slave who takes Dani under his wing. Together the boys join a street gang to earn their living as godana, street beggars. As the boys begin to bond, they learn to respect each other and themselves. The characters they encounter and the settings they inhabit are expertly described and take the reader to the heart of the story. Laird's work teaches us about the differences in the world, but also about human nature and the power to overcome, which are the same wherever you go.  Teachers and librarians, you will not go wrong recommending any of her books to students.

    Recommended Grade: 8-9

    Scottish Arts Council Children's Book of the Year
    Stockport Book Award
    Carnegie Medal Shortlist
    Stockton Children's Book of the Year

    Author Website
    Laird has collected more Ethiopian folk stories in a project.  From her website, you can read even more about Ethiopia and its culture.

    Other Books by Laird to Recommend:
    Jake's Tower
    Red Sky in Morning
    Oranges in  No Man's Land
    A Little Piece of Ground

    Thursday, June 9, 2016

    Biography is NOT my genre: a review of three biographies

    Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer had integrity. Metaxes has written his biography to reflect that integrity.  As most critics have said, this is a definitive biography.  Here comes my personal prejudice.  I just don’t like biographies that detail the historical context and then afterward talk about the person.  I don’t want a 50-year history of Germany.  I just want to know about the major events in a person’s life.  Therefore, I skimmed through the first half of the book because I was interested in Bonhoeffer’s war activity. However, as I skimmed through the pages, I began to see a connection between Bonhoeffer as a theologian and his personal choices.  It was interesting to learn just how well-educated, well-connected and well-respected he was as an intellectual.  I was not aware of the extent of his personal struggles to encounter grace, to conquer depression, to live boldly and act boldly in an evil world.  I didn’t realize how much his spirituality had meant to him.  His decisions to first, support the Jewish people, and later to become involved in the German counter-intelligence movement ran deeply, and he acted with great conviction that what he was doing would further the kingdom of God here on this planet we’ve been given.  When I had this epiphany, the book and the events to which Metaxes lent narrative came together. My first thought was that this book is a must-read for anyone interested in theology and/or authentic Christian living. My second recommendation would be for historians who study Germany between the wars.  The lives of the upper-middle class and German aristocracy led by families such as the Bonhoeffers are not told often enough. The feelings of the German people as a whole are often overshadowed by Hitler’s evil deeds.  It is somehow comforting to know that many thousands of Germans were not satisfied and did not welcome him as the leader of their country. It’s comforting that many of them were pro-active from the inside in trying to stage a coup. The extent Bonhoeffer’s personal involvement in Valkyrie will never be known, but since he was implicated and killed for it, I’m sure there are many brave deeds and sacrifices the reader will never know.  I would not have come to this opinion had I not read this book. Knowing Bonhoeffer was ready to die for his convictions still doesn’t make up for the earthly contributions he could have made to Christianity had he lived. I don’t think he would like to be idolized or made a martyr by those he left behind.  I think his legacy would be for each of us to work out the gift of salvation on earth with genuine acts of devotion and compassion.

    Awards and Reviews

    ''In Hitler's Germany, a Lutheran pastor chooses resistance and pays with his life. . . Eric Metaxas tells Bonhoeffer's story with passion and theological sophistication, often challenging revisionist accounts that make Bonhoeffer out to be a 'humanist' or ethicist for whom religious doctrine was easily disposable. . . Metaxas reminds us that there are forms of religion -- respectable, domesticated, timid -- that may end up doing the devil's work for him.” --Wall Street Journal

    ''In this weighty, riveting analysis of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Metaxas offers a comprehensive review of one of history's darkest eras, along with a fascinating exploration of the familial, cultural, and religious influences that formed one of the world's greatest contemporary theologians. . . . Abundant source documentation brings to life the personalities and experiences that shaped Bonhoeffer . . . Insightful and illuminating, this tome makes a powerful contribution to biography, history, and theology.'' --Publishers Weekly

    ''A welcome new biography of one of the twentieth century's leading lights. Metaxas magnificently captures the life of theologian and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), who 'thought it the plain duty of the Christian-and the privilege and honor-to suffer with those who suffered.'  Metaxas rightly focuses on his subject's life, not his theology, though readers will learn plenty about his theology as well. The author makes liberal use of primary sources, which bring Bonhoeffer and other characters to vivid life.” --Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

    Sheinkin, Steve. Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War. New York: Roaring Book Press, 2015.

    Of the historical biographies I've been reading lately, this one is the best.  The writing is direct and clear, and the focus is on the events of Ellsberg's life that specifically led up to his involvement in the leaking of the Pentagon papers. Of course, everyone has heard of Watergate, but I did not know exactly what had prompted that investigation.  I had no idea it was related to the Pentagon Papers.  It was a fascinating story, and it does read a bit like a spy novel because there was actually real spying going on (duh!) The story is told in a way that reminds the reader of the government's accountability to the people as well as the protection of First Amendment rights.  The book is biased toward the liberal side of the argument, but this is most probably because it is about Ellsberg who was, indeed, a liberal.  There was some thought put into representing the conservative viewpoint, as well, in the inclusion of direct quotes from Nixon, Kissinger, etc.; however, the government covert operations and the persons involved do not come across as "good guys" in this story. The addition of the story of a US POW, Alvarez, added to the intensity of the story.  By sharing a personal account, readers are able to feel the urgency of putting an end to the Vietnam War and its atrocities.  The idea of Civil Disobedience, the role of Journalism and First Amendment Rights, government checks and balances are all teachable concepts inherent in the book. It is thoroughly researched, containing 9 pages of Works Cited and 25 pages of source note.  The epilogue makes asks the question of Edward Snowden--is he a hero or a traitor?  Sheinkin notes that Snowden is not the original government whistle blower--Ellsberg was.

    Awards and Reviews
    Finalist for the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature
    National Book Award Finalist 
    Selected for the 2016 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People List
    Winner: YALSA Award for Nonfiction for Young Adults

    “Lively, detailed prose rooted in a tremendous amount of research, fully documented. . . Easily the best study of the Vietnam War available for teen readers.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

    “Sheinkin has done again what he does so well: condense mountains of research into a concise, accessible, and riveting account of history. . . [This book] will keep readers racing forward.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

    “Powerful and thought-provoking.” —Booklist, starred review

    “Fast-paced and fascinating. . . backed up by meticulous research.” —VOYA, starred review

    "Thoroughly researched, thoughtfully produced, and beautifully written . . . a timely and extraordinary addition to every library." —School & Library Journal, starred review

    Teaching Resources
    PBS Documentary Page with links to Lesson Plans for Educators
    Teaching the Vietnam War (Zinn Education Project)

    Anderson, M.T. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2015.

    I read until page 97, and then I had to stop.  I came back to the book this morning and spot-read a few more passages, to give it one last chance. This is a comprehensive book about Shostakovich, but there are long passages that deal with history, not mentioning Shostakovich at all.  Thank you for the detail and the hard work, but the biographies I find more appealing don't bother with the historical context.  Even though I am sure the point of including such information is to inform the reader of how closely-related historical events shaped the subject's life and work, too much is still too much.  I also find that when Shostakovich becomes the subject (after the historical background has been laid), the biography take the form of a daily, almost hourly account of his activities.  Again, I'm not interested in all of that.  As a reader, I just want major events in a person's life that contributed to his or her work.  I had the same experience when reading Jon Anderson's CHE GUEVARA: A REVOLUTIONARY LIFE. Exhaustive biographies are just...too...tedious for this reader.  If you happen to like biography as a genre or long books about history, this book is perfect.  There are only a small handful of students at my school to whom I would suggest this title.

    Reviews and Awards
    YALSA Nonfiction Award for Excellence, 2016
    Horn Book Honor Book, 2016

    “Gr 9 Up—The compelling, well-researched narrative relates what is known of Shostakovich's story, what is speculation, what is revisionist history, and what new sources have revealed. The chilling details of the Stalin regime and the plight of the Russian people even before the Germans arrived will be eye-opening to many teen readers. The book has all the intrigue of a spy thriller, recounts the horrors of living during the three year siege, and delineates the physical oppression and daunting foes within and outside of the city. This is also the story of survival against almost impossible odds. Through it all, Anderson weaves the thread of the composer's music and the role it played in this larger-than-life drama”—Luann Toth, School Library Journal

    “The storytelling is captivating, describing how Shostakovich began composing the symphony under relentless bombardment in Leningrad and later finished it in Moscow, its triumphant performance in Leningrad during the siege, and how it rallied worldwide sympathy for Russia's plight. Music is at the heart of the story. As Anderson writes in the prologue, "it is a story about the power of music and its meanings," and he communicates them with seeming effortlessness in this brilliantly written, impeccably researched tour de force. A triumphant story of bravery and defiance that will shock and inspire.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

    “In a gripping narrative, helped along by ample photos and shockingly accurate historical details, Anderson offers readers a captivating account of a genius composer and the brutally stormy period in which he lived. Though easily accessible to teens, this fascinating, eye- opening, and arresting book will be just as appealing for adults.”—Booklist (starred review)

    Teaching Resources
    Teacher’s Guide from Candlewick Press

    Sunday, June 5, 2016

    Teaching Disasters: a Review of DROWNED CITY: HURRICANE KATRINA AND NEW ORLEANS by Don Brown

    This graphic novel is fantastic.  I enjoy graphic novels because the experience of "reading" pictures is sometimes much more powerful than reading words alone.  Such is the case with Brown's book.  He takes a story that students may not be interested in, but portrays it in a way that humanizes the after-math of Katrina, focusing on the plight of the people instead of the muddled politics.  It's very digestible for Grades 5 and up and is a great suggestion for students and teachers who are researching "natural disasters". A big bonus is that the font chosen (CC Tim Sale Brush) is consistent with the style of the art panels, giving unity to the graphic appeal of the story. Also included is a very thorough bibliography of sources and materials for further study.

    Reviews and Awards:
    Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, 2015
    Kirkus’ Best of 2015 list
    School Library Journal Best of 2015
    Publishers Weekly’s Best of 2015 list
    Horn Book Fanfare Book
    Booklist Editor's Choice 

    "An excellent chronicle of the tragedy for a broad audience; children, teens, and adults will all be moved."
    Kirkus, starred review
    "Lively, dynamic sketching gives the artwork a sense of urgency and immediacy. It is as important to tell the story of a nation's failures as it is to record its triumphs, and this is a crucial contribution."
    Publishers Weekly, starred review

    "Emotionally resonant, this outstanding title will appeal to graphic novel and nonfiction readers alike."
    Booklist, starred review

    "This astonishingly powerful look at one of America's worst disasters is a masterful blend of story and art."
    School Library Journal, starred review

    "If a book's power were measured like a storm's, this would be category five."
    Horn Book Magazine, starred review

    "This book could almost make its point on the powerful illustrations alone, but Brown’s precise language secures the historical details in an unforgettable way...‘Drowned City’ delivers a brave treatment of important and uncomfortable details.”
    —The New York Times Book Review

    Ideas for Teaching:
    The NEA has a website with lesson plans available about Hurricane Katrina, complete with images maps and graphs and unit plans.  Hurricane Katrina

    Teaching the Levees is a site concerned with supporting democratic dialogue and civic engagement. The site includes a free, downloadable PDF Curriculum Book. 

    The Times-Picayune (New Orleans) houses a "Katrina" archive that is still maintained and updated on a regular basis.  These are primary documents, including the newspapers, Pulitzer-prize winning coverage.  Brown's book is reviewed here.

    Vital Stats:
    Brown, Don. Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. Ills. Don Brown. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. ISBN: 9780544157774