Posts tagged ‘Social Issues’

Swing Sisters

Swing SistersTitle: Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm
Author: Karen Deans
Illustrator: Joe Cepeda
Pages: unpaged
ISBN: 9780823419708
Publisher/Date: Holiday House, c2015.

Dr. Jones loved music and wanted the children to love it too. In 1939 he started a school band that was just for girls, and he called it the Sweethearts.

Started as an fundraiser for a African American orphanage founded in 1909, the Sweethearts soon became something more. They played in the beginning for schools and church groups. When the musicians aged out of the orphanage, they stayed together, playing all over the country, including at the Howard Theater in Washington to an audience of 35,000 people and overseas in Europe for the troops during World War II. For years they quietly broke Jim Crow laws, allowing any women who could jump, jive, and swing on an instrument to join their band. This caused problems with some folks, forcing some of their members to sneak out of their bus and head to the train station via taxi rather than getting caught by the police in the company of African Americans. Eventually, the group disbanded as the women pursued other goals and interests, like other jobs or families.

It’s interesting to learn about an African American orphanage during the 1900s that taught literacy skills to children many saw as underprivileged, when so many African American children weren’t taught how to read or write. With sparse writing that conveys just enough information for younger readers which the book is geared toward, it’s a welcome addition that websites, books, and documentaries are available for those who would like to learn more, including a NPR broadcast and a Smithsonian feature from a few years ago. While just a blip in music, women’s, and African American histories, these trail blazers have not been forgotten, even if — as one interview remarks — few recordings of their work are still around.

The illustrations are multicolored and textured, and the oil and acrylic paintings lend a texture, similar to cracked paint, that encourage a lingering look and give it an old time feel. The crowd scenes are equally impressive as many of the people have distinguishing characteristics and skin tones, and the period clothing is quite colorful. The closing scenes of a silhouetted band playing in front of a sunset orange and yellow hued background, paired with an older women passing along a trumpet to a younger girl, reflect the closing sentiments of the book. “Those Sweethearts didn’t know it at the time, but they helped open doors for women of all backgrounds.” (unpaged)

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Last Stop on Market Street

Each month for my job, I write a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ll be expanding that idea to the blog in a new feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Last Stop on Market StreetTitle: Last Stop on Market Street
Author: Matt De La Pena
Illustrator: Christian Robinson
ISBN: 9780399257742
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, published by the Penguin Group, c2015.
Published: January 8, 2015

CJ and his grandmother ride the bus across town to Market Street after church. Along the way, CJ questions why they have to wait in the rain and ride the bus when other folks get to drive in cars. Nana emphasizes the positives, like listening to music and meeting new people, which helps CJ realize all the good things that surround him. Sappy, yes. Didactic, no. Nana has a no-nonsense persona, and the smiles on everyone’s faces places CJ questions at inquisitive instead of impertinent. Chain link fences and litter in the street allude to where they are, but the soup kitchen destination is mentioned only once, and the ending is a small twist showing that no matter how little you think you have, you can always give something. A nice introduction to the concept of giving back and volunteering.

The Last Great Walk

Last Great WalkTitle: The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk From New York to San Francisco, and Why It Matters Today
Author: Wayne Curtis
ISBN: 9781609613723
Pages: 236 pages
Publisher/Date: Rodale Inc., c2014.

I first came across a mention of Edward Payson Weston about twenty years ago. […] I happened upon a brief wire service story about a man’s cross-country journey on foot in 1909. I skimmed enough to get the gist — a seventy-year-old man was walking about forty miles a day for a hundred days en route from New York to San Francisco. Good for him, I thought, and then I scrolled ahead in search of the page I needed.
A few minutes later, I had another thought: Wait . . . what? Forty miles a day? A hundred days in a row? At seventy years old? (Introduction, xii)

Wayne Curtis probably describes his book best when he writes his introduction:

Part of my goal in this book is to explore, revive, and expand on the message that Weston was intent on publicizing — advocacy for the long walk, once common and now rare. As such, this book is only in part about a single man and his obsession, and just as much about mobility, about how we choose to get around and how that impacts the health of our bodies and our minds. Above all, it’s about what we lost when humans, starting roughly a century ago, opted to stop using their legs to get from here to there and instead chose to regularly climb into a metal box harnessed to a series of small explosions. Some of what happened in the intervening century you might easily guess, but much of it you might not. Walking is more complexly knitted into our bodies and minds than you might think. How we move can determine our relationship to the land and people around us and even, to some degree, how we understand ourselves.
Not walking, I believe, is one of the most radical things we’ve ever decided to do. Here’s why. (Introduction, xviii)

To say that Curtis has an agenda is an understatement. We seem glimpses of Weston’s walk framed by free-ranging commentary involving the evolution of humans (both physical and mental), urban planning, technology, pedestrian patterns, and societal statistics such as number of hours spent watching television and walkability ratings for neighborhoods. But people who pick up this book are more than likely looking for just this sort of justification for walking and slowing down, assuming an almost existentialist philosophy towards the task. Just as people who dislike witchcraft aren’t going to read Harry Potter, people who dislike walking aren’t going to read this book.

However, it’s also the sort of book that may provoke thoughtful discourse between like-minded individuals, compiling fodder for future conversations. For instance, I’ve had a long personal belief about how long I’m willing to drive to get to a destination. Turns out this may be influenced by prehistoric habits. Curtis presents research by Cesare Marchetti that proposes humans have been willing to spend about an hour in unsheltered transit before retreating from the threat of being exposed to possible threats like enemies and the elements, and that constant has maintained itself, simply expanding as we are able to travel faster and farther in the same amount of time. The 2009 US Census Bureau data supports this philosophy, reporting the mean one-way commute is about 25 minutes (so an hour both ways). A Gallup poll confirms this by reporting the average American spends 190 hours a year (about 30 minutes a day) commuting. Although, Curtis also quotes an unnamed study that hours in delayed in traffic has increased from seven hours annually in 1982 to twenty-six hours in 2001. (131-133, 53)

The book is filled with those type of statistics that you’ll kick yourself for never fully remembering, but always remember the impact that they allude to. A few more to whet your curiosity:

  • Melvin Webber “noted that one’s perception of what constitutes a mile varies depending on the speed of travel. So it turns out it’s not just the actual exertion of walking a mile that dissuades many from taking to foot, but that they have also developed the belief that a given trip is far longer than it actually is.” (drivers thought distances were twice as much as what they actually were, whereas walkers and bikers were much more accurate) (109)
  • “In 1969, about half of all schoolkids still walked to school; 41 percent of all students lived within a mile of their school, and 89 percent of these students walked. […] Today, only 13 percent of America’s children walk to school.” (54)
  • “According to a 2009 Nielsen survey, the average American watches about 151 hours of television a month, or about 5 hours every day.” (52) “after the age of twenty-five, every hour of watching television reduced life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.” (54-55)
  • “While different studies arrive at moderately different conclusions via various routes, the recent research of dozens of scientists more often than not converges at a single intersection. And that consistently suggests that if you exercise, your brain will be fitter than if you don’t.” (97)
  • The same can also be said towards physical health, as skimming over study results yields benefits by reducing the risk of coronary disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, gallstones prevention, immune dysfunction, adult-onset asthma, arthritis, and osteoporosis, and cancer. (68-69)

For a book covering an actual walk, I was more intrigued by the above mentioned statistics and studies and the historical, psychological, and physical evolution brought about by walking than I was about Weston’s vague (and more than likely biases) reports regarding weather, landscape, reception, and conditions in general. I was somewhat surprised that there were no images. No maps of Weston’s route, which is described with varying degrees of precision and details, no pictures of Weston, and no charts to support the multitude of statistics presented in the pages. For all of that (minus the charts), you’ll have to visit the website. Upon arrival, you receive an interactive Google Map with individual points plotted based on newspaper articles. Sources are broken down by chapter on the website. While I understand he was making the book more approachable for the general public, I wish footnotes and a full source notes had been included in the printed copy, so as to better guide further research into various quoted statistics. There seems to be an influx in interest in walking and voluntary isolation (Wild, Into the Wild, Castaway, to name a few) and this book supplements all those introspective self-reflections with science. It’s a worthwhile, thought-provoking read for meandering minds and bodies.

The Impossible Knife of Memory

Impossible Knife of MemoryTitle: The Impossible Knife of Memory
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Narrators: Julia Whelan and Luke Daniels
ISBN: 9781480553569 (audiobook)
Pages: 391 Pages
Discs/CDs: 8 CDs, 9 hours 13 minutes
Publisher/Date: Brilliance Audio, c2014.
Publication Date: January 7, 2014

Hayley Kincain is starting school for the first time in years in her father’s home town, after spending time on the road with him. Both Hayley and her father suffer memory issues, her father from PTSD after serving time in Afghanistan, and Hayley from the traumatic events following his return. Hayley knows that her unpredictable father is just one small step away from the breaking point, but she’s never quite sure what will set him off. One day he’s shooting hoops, the next day he’s shooting his gun at the television. She hides her situation from everyone, trying to avoid the pitying looks and their inevitable separation. But when a classmate begins showing an interest in her and her circumstances, Hayley wonders if there is a future, or if it’s just one more complication in a world causing her and her father so much hurt.

As always, Laurie Halse Anderson weaves readers into a spell of a story. On more than one occasion I found my heart in my throat as we see Hayley struggle to stitch her life together. You can see that Hayley and her father aren’t bad people, but don’t know how to handle their situation. The title is applicable, as Hayley continuously refers to memories as slicing through her system, and her father would probably describe them in the same way as they spring upon both of them unbidden, altering how they look at the world. You get the sense that they are balancing on a knife point, just waiting for their family to get sliced in half.

A slight spoiler, but Hayley’s classmate Finn has entered my top five list of perfect boyfriends. He pushes for more information, and comforts and aids Hayley as he can, but he recognizes that they are both in over their head at the climatic ending. Their sarcastic, witty back-and-forth banter is the comedy relief that such a serious topic needs, and you anticipate their relationship long before it is formalized. There’s an ongoing gag about their involvement with different covert operations and Finn’s slow driving and derelict car. Hayley’s jaded voice is offset by Finn’s down to earth disposition. His persistence pays off, and their first date is swoon worthy. With all the complications that their families bring to the table, they struggle, and the real question is if they will stay together or not. Can I bring him to life?

Julia Whelan does an excellent job bringing Hayley’s anguish and uncertainty to the narration. She does an admirable job distinguishing voices, and listeners will get caught up in the story. Luke Daniels adds some intermittent insights into Hayley’s father’s head. While I wish there were more, I can understand what the author is doing. We never get a full picture of what is going on in a wounded veteran’s head, so it’s unfair that we would get more information than Hayley has on her own father. The slow drawl and anguished distance that Daniels conveys through those short interludes is terse, tense, and timely to the plot. I’m glad they choose to have two narrators.

How to Save a Life

How to Save a LifeTitle: How to Save a Life
Author: Sara Zarr
Narrators: Ariadne Meyere and Cassandra Morris
ISBN: 9780316036061 (hardcover), 9780307968722 (audiobook)
CDs/Discs: 8 CDs, 9 hours 54 minutes
Pages: 341 pages
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown, and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., c2011.

“Don’t, Dylan. Don’t ‘ever since your dad died’ me.” The ice scraper falls from my numb hands. I pick it up. “I haven’t changed. I’ve always been this way.”
“No, you haven’t.”
“Okay, well, I don’t remember that Jill.” I hold my hands to my face to warm them up, to press back tears. “I don’t remember. I’m sorry. And I can’t be her now, and I’m never going to be her again,” I say, my voice rising. I realize it, finally. This elusive old Jill I’ve been chasing isn’t someone who can be found. Short of my father coming back from the dead, it’s not happening. Which doesn’t mean I can’t change, just that I can’t change back. (302)

Jill is dealing with a lot of change. In the last year, her father died in a car accident, she’s lost her friends and on-again off-again boyfriend while trying to deal with her grief, and now her mom is adding a baby to the mix. Mandy is the pregnant, unmarried teen who has struck up a tenuous deal with Jill’s mother through emails and has come to live with them until delivering the baby. Their backgrounds are drastically different, but their fears all revolve around this unborn child and how the birth will impact their lives. But can these two girls learn from each other, or will their differences push them further apart from the love they both need?

I think depending on where readers are in their life, different people will get different things from this book. Both girls have their own attitudes, problems, and flaws, making them each extremely relatable in their own way. Mandy has led a hard life, dealing with neglectful mother whose ideas come from real-world experience rather than ideals. She comes across as naive because while she knows life is hard and that she wants a better life for her child, Mandy doesn’t plan very well for her own future because she’s never had that ability before. By contrast, Jill has a primarily sheltered idea of the world and comes across as spoiled, never questioning her ability to plan a gap year and follow her father’s nomadic footsteps. Isolating herself from her friends and family in an attempt to deal with her grief privately, Jill is starting to break out of her shell again and yearn for the time before her father’s death. But as the quote above (which I absolutely love) recognizes, it’s nearly impossible to go back.

Yes, I’ll admit that the self-reflection might get a little corny for some, but it isn’t overdone or too preachy, as this is an emotional book, and it’s beautifully written and read. Ariadne Meyers and Cassandra Morris make this book come alive, with inflection that makes you feel like you’re a fly on the wall listening to these conversations. There’s a reveal that’s alluded to that makes Mandy’s attitudes all the more realistic. Jill and Mandy’s opinions are understandably conveyed best, but the minor characters are in no way background. Jill’s mother has her reasons for doing what she’s doing, Jill’s boyfriend Dylan and Jill’s friends are frustrated, confused, and clueless on how to help her work through her grief. Someone from the past also enters the picture, slowly but surely becoming more and more involved in the present day events. Attitudes change gradually, regressing and advancing, ebbing and flowing as second and third thoughts continue to encroach upon everyone.

In Real Life

In Real LifeTitle: In Real Life
Story: Cory Doctorow
Art and Adaptation: Jen Wang
ISBN: 9781596436589
Pages: 175
Publisher/Date: First Second, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2014 (Adapted from a story by Cory Doctorow called “Anda’s Game” first published on Salon.com in 2004)
Published: October 14, 2014

“I’m a gamer and I kick arse. No, seriously. I organize a guild online and I’m looking for a few of you chickens to join me. This is Coarsegold Online, the fastest growing massive multiplayer roleplaying game with over 10 million subscribers worlwide. You might’ve heard of it. This is my avatar. In game, they call me the Lizanator, Queen of the Spacelanes, El Presidente of the Clan Fahrenheit. How many of you girls game? And how many of you play girls? See that’s a tragedy. Practically makes me weep. When I started gaming online there were no women gamers. I was one of the best gamers in the world and I couldn’t even be proud of who I was. It’s different now, but it’s still not perfect. We’re going to change that, chickens, you lot and me. Here’s my offer to the ladies: if you will play as a girl in Coarsegold Online, you will be given probationary memberships in the Clan Farenheit. If you measure up in three months, you’ll be full-fledged members. Who’s in ladies? Who wants to be a girl in-game and out?” (8-10)

With the words of a school visitor, Anda is hooked on the online game Coarsegold. And she makes an impressive start, so much so that she is invited by a fellow clan member to go on some missions. These missions aren’t for game gold though, they are for real world cash. The missions involve hunting down players who are only there to mine gold and then sell it online for real cash, and Anda is getting paid to take out the competition by other gold hunters doing the exact same thing. She thinks it’s to maintain fairness, since other players invest the time and energy and practice to acquire their items and skills themselves rather than paying for them. Then she meets Raymond, one of the gold farmers who gives her a whole new perspective about the real world. Will Anya’s efforts to equalize lead to more trouble in both worlds?

First, Jan Wang’s artwork is STUNNING! The real world is primarily portrayed in hues of olive-green, browns, and oranges, while the virtual world is brightly rendered using reds, yellows, and vibrant blues. By the end of the novel, you can tell Anda’s time in Coarsegold is affecting her because the colors begin to bleed into the real world spreads. The characters are also portrayed in a variety of shapes and races, some less humanoid than others. This novel packs a lot into the tiny size, and it does it without being didactic or patronizing. Anda’s parents’ concerns about her involvement in an online community, the lack of female gamers, the practice of gold farming, working class dynamics, and different cultures trying to relate to each other are all presented in ways that are relevant and necessary for the story. Doctorow addresses most of these ideas in his introduction, urging readers to consider activism and how the internet may aid in activism efforts. “Those risks are not diminished one iota by the net. But the rewards are every bit as sweet.” (xii)

One item that isn’t even mentioned is Anda’s weight, which is so refreshing because although she is on the “bigger” side, it’s not relevant to the main plot and there is no dissatisfaction with her size. It isn’t even a subplot! Based on a short story originally published by Doctorow, Wang took some liberties there, which I think strengthened the focus of the story. Other liberties include shortening the time line, changing the ending slightly, and really focusing on the economic and social aspects of the story. However, whole portions of dialogue were lifted from the original and judging by how much I liked this book, it’s a sure sign that I need to read more of both Jen Wang and Cory Doctorow’s creations. Containing smart, insightful, cultural commentary on a number of issues in an engaging plot, this book will make you think without even realizing it. Give this one to gamers, social activists, feminists, or as an introduction to someone new to the graphic novel genre.

Counting By 7s

Counting by 7sTitle: Counting By 7s
Author: Holly Goldberg Sloan
Narrator: Robin Miles
ISBN: 978162406902 (audiobook)
Pages: 380 pages
Publisher/Date: Penguin Audio, c2013. (audiobook)
Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., c2013. (print book)

I’ve got some toddler memories, but my first sequence recall is kindergarten; no matter how hard I’ve tried to forget the experience. […]
I can still hear Mrs. King, spin straight and shrill voice booming:
“How does this book make you feel?”
She then made a few exaggerated yawns.
I recall looking around at my fellow inmates, thinking: Would someone, anyone, just shout out the word tired? […]
So when the teacher specifically said:
“Willow, how does this book make you feel?”
I had to tell the truth:
“It makes me feel really bad. The moon can’t hear someone say good night; it is two hundred thirty-five thousand miles away. And bunnies don’t life in houses. Also, I don’t think that the artwork is very interesting.” […]
That afternoon, I learned the word weirdo because that’s what I was called by the other kids.
When my mom came to pick me up, she found me crying behind the Dumpster. (16-18)

Willow Chance, adopted into a loving family, has an obsession with the number seven, medical conditions (particularly skin disorders), and plants. She is analytic, reserved, and highly gifted and lacks social skills, which makes it difficult to make friends but easy to memorize complex languages and scientific concepts. She finds an ally in older student Mai, who visits with her brother Quang Ha the same slacker school counselor that Willow is forced to see after being falsely accused of cheating on a test. These three unlikely companions, along with Mai’s mother and brother, are thrust together upon the sudden death of Willow’s parents. Forming a bond from secrets, everyone’s lives begin to change as they struggle to help Willow. What will come of quiet girl who has now lost her family for a second time?

Full disclosure: I have not yet read Wonder R.J. Palacio, which everyone I’ve talked to keeps comparing this book too. I will soon, I promise. I found myself comparing it to Rules by Cynthia Lord or Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. In any case, Willow is an instantly intriguing character. Narrated by Robin Miles, Willow’s voice is given the subtle nuances that it deserves. She is self-assured when dealing with numbers, details and scientific facts, but quiet and reserved when faced with making decisions affecting her own life and social interactions. Miles distinguishes between the characters well, even realistically portraying the counselor Dell Duke’s stutter, but it’s Willow who readers are understandably drawn to, as she tries to make sense of things.

Mai’s brother Quang Ha is understandably upset by the new living situation, as the family has few resources to begin with and they are essentially taking care of a stranger. There’s little explanation behind Mai and her mother’s immediate acceptance of Willow’s circumstances and instant claim to her, and I find Dell Duke’s passiveness and eventual involvement in the lies hard to reconcile, but the whole situation changes everyone for the better. This is a story of a whole community coming together to aid in a girl’s recovery, and becoming a very nontraditional family in the process. I don’t think this would be the outcome in real life, but if readers are willing to suspend belief they will be richly rewarded with this engrossing tale.

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