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

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Hoose, Phillip. The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Petersen and the Churchill Club. New York: Ferrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2015.

I read Lois Lowry's NUMBER THE STARS a long time ago, so I had forgotten her story takes place in Denmark. So does THE BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER: KNUD PEDERSEN and the CHURCHILL CLUB. The only difference is that this is a true story about a group of teenage boys who began the Danish Resistance Movement when German troops stage a peaceful overthrow of the Danish Crown in 1940 as part of their offensive in Europe. While some Danes, didn't mind, the boys thought their country was cowardly, especially when they considered how the Norwegians were fighting. They heard of massacres and deportations in Norway and wondered how this could be right. The boys began meeting on a regular basis to plan ways they could simply sabotage the German troops stationed in Denmark. Using bicycles and operating in broad daylight, the group pestered the troops to the point that the Danish police were looking for the perpetrators. This is the story of some crazy and courageous effect the Churchill Club had on their countrymen. The story was quite readable, and quite appropriate for a YA audience. The boys in the book transform from innocent children to teenagers older than their age because of the events that take place. Still, there is humor and intrigue running through the story. The research is quite solid, and the book is based mainly on interviews with Knud Petersen, who founded the club with his brother, Jens. It is a perfect non-fiction piece to accompany NUMBER THE STARS or HITLER YOUTH by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. I could definitely see this book as a supplementary text in Global Studies, World History, Journalism. The author includes a selected bibliography for readers who want to learn more. It's an unbelievable story. Reading it has made me more aware of the world.

Book Trailer

Reviews and Awards
Booklist Editors’ Choice • A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year and Best Teen Book of the Year • A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year • A New York Public Library Notable

“An outstanding addition to the WWII canon . . . Hoose brilliantly weaves Pedersen's own words into the larger narrative of Denmark's stormy social and political wartime climate.” —The Horn Book, starred review

“Often reading like a thriller, this title puts a human face on the often-overlooked Danish Resistance . . . Captivating.” —School Library Journal, starred review
“Their story is one of bravery in the face of constant danger and of increasingly meaningful acts of sabotage . . . An important and unforgettable book that adds a significant chapter to the history of WWII.” —Booklist, starred review
Teacher's Guide 
Author's Website

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


This is a graphic novel that was banned in Egypt in 2008, so only an English translation is available for purchase.  It's loosely about some poor people who decide to take their rights through violence and corruption in a violent and corrupt city.  They get a bit hurt in some demonstrations, and there is a love interest for the main character.  The copy of the book I received from Metropolitan Books (New York: Henry Holt and Co.) is very difficult to read.  It seems to have been photocopied or printed in gray scale.  It would be much better if the panels were in a stronger black and light.  The story in fairly interesting.  The title METRO reflects how the story is told from one part of the city to another.  I am giving this 3 stars because it was dangerous for El Shafee to create this novel and put his name to it.  As far as the actual story, it was written in 2007 before the Arab Spring, so it is very prophetic and gives a voice to the Egyptian people before Arab Spring, perhaps giving credence to the events that took place in 2011. It would be a great resource for classroom teachers to use if discussing events that led up to Cairo 2011.

El Shafee, Magdy. Metro: a Story of Cairo. Trans. by Chip Rossetti. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Comic Relief: a review of Joe Sacco's PALESTINE

Sacco, Joe. Palestine. London: Jonathan Cape. 2003. Print.

I am not a fan of Sacco's style of illustrating. The pictures and people look ugly. That being said, he knows what he is doing. His graphic collection is a hard and honest glimpse into the lives of Palestinians living in camps and elsewhere in the occupied land. It's tough. The stories are tough, and he truly portrays the realities of life there. It's nothing to be shot, go to prison, be beaten, have two sons killed, to have your olive trees cut down because a soldier thinks someone threw a rock from your field. Speaking of rocks, there were plenty in this book and in the stories. Sacco manages to portray through his settings, the realism of harsh landscape, pitted roads, no sewage, and above all, the intensely dense flurry and fury of overcrowding and overpopulation. And still, there is a balance between horror and hospitality, homelessness and home. Sacco never lets the reader forget he is an outsider, as he clearly identifies himself as a reporter looking for the story. As a good journalist, he actually delivers a balanced POV and reliable feature narration. Even though I don't like his style, I'll read more of his work. It's interesting and necessary. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to be better informed about crises, current and past, in the Middle East.

"The Boys." PALESTINE, pp. 190-191

For more about the author, check out his author page.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Early Signs of Genius: a review of MARGARET ATWOOD, SELECTED POEMS 1965-1975

As the title clearly states, this is a selection of Atwood's poetry from her early years. It includes selections from previously published works, THE CIRCLE GAME (1966), THE ANIMALS IN THAT COUNTRY (1968), THE JOURNALS OF SUSANNA MOODIE (1970), PROCEDURES FOR UNDERGROUND (1970), POWER POLITICS (1971) and YOU ARE HAPPY (1974). 

The first few books were a bit too intimate for me. Many of the poems seemed like they are direct comments on her relationships with men, and it was just a bit too revealing. It made me uncomfortable, but that's what good poets should do. She does quite clearly establish herself as a feminist writer, themes which are soon to emerge in many of her novels.

The pace started to pick up a bit in THE JOURNALS OF SUSANNA MOODIE. I was pleasantly surprised that she had essentially written a verse novel. And this might be one of the earliest examples of this narrative structure. The voice of the poems progresses over time, as Susanna encounters life in new and unexpected ways. 

My favorites were the last two series of selections, ARE YOU HAPPY, being one of the best. Perhaps I was influenced because I've recently read THE PENELOPIAD and loved it. The last cycle in the book is a series of "Circe/Mud Poems". I was fascinated to read all the themes and foreshadowings in these poems that quite clearly informed her interpretation of THE ODYSSEY. 

Having familiarized myself with her novels, it was a joy to read her early work. The best thing about reading it was getting to know her in another context. It's quite clear that she has matured as a writer and developed her ideas into her body of work over time, while remaining true to herself and the beliefs she holds dearly.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Desert Stories for Today

Al-Koni, Ibrahim. The Puppet: a Novel. Trans. William M. Hutchins. Austin, TX: Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 2010.

At 113 pages, The Puppet should be listed as “a book you can read in a day,” but it’s not. The book is the second book in The Saharan Oasis trilogy by Libyan writer Ibrahim Al-Koni. The New Waw, the first of the series, has garnered the American Literary Translation Association’s 2015 National Translation Award for translator William H. Hutchins, and Al-Koni has been longlisted as one of only 9 for the 2015 Man Book Prize. The Puppet is the second, and The Scarecrow ends the series; however, the books do not need to be read in order to make sense.

Al-Koni writes in a stream of consciousness style that is influenced by his Tuareg heritage, his university years studying comparative literature in Russia, journalist years in Poland, and finally his settling down in Switzerland. The Puppet is a unique blend of ancient story that draws on motifs that are quite applicable to modern times. Al-Koni explores the values of nomadic life against the dangers of complacency once a people decides to settle for life in an oasis. A world of duality and irony ensues, where both sages and vassels are willing to sacrifice personal freedom and wisdom for gold and commerce that ultimately enslaves them. Intertwined with their political maneuverings, a love story between a vassal and a beautiful maiden tells a story older than time, between men and women, between the desert and its people, revealing the chthonic duality of passion and annihilation, life and death.

When the people demanded a leader, I was reminded of the warning Samuel, the last judge of Israel, the last mouthpiece direct from God, gives to the Israelites when they demand a king. Life will change. You don’t know what price you will truly pay in asking for a human ruler. The divine will have its day.

I was reminded of The Sibyl by Swedish writer Par Lagerkvist who had a lifelong interest in gods and the relationship of the human to the divine. I was also reminded of Hesse who explored the duality of human nature, how as man moves further away from nature, he moves further away from himself.

Al-Koni eloquently captures the ease of surrender to nature, “You must relax and give your body totally to the water if you want to stay afloat. In the desert, too, arrogant people who act obstinately succumb. In the dessert those who think they have been granted enormous knowledge and who therefore debate and resist will perish. The desert takes vengeance on this group with its labyrinth. The other group, those who surrender control to the wasteland and seek the desert’s protection against the desert, survives.”

Al-Koni’s storytelling is particular to his time and tradition, but applies to any traveler, any people. Should we fight? Should we succumb? Should we live ethically? These questions are not answered. Only what must be considered. No, the book is not a short read at all. It demands another.