Monday, June 11, 2018

American Psycho


American Psycho 
by Bret Easton Ellis

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis was a really hard book for me to finish….  Written at the height of the ‘yuppie explosion’ in urban centers – in this case, New York City – the novel is written in the voice of the main character, Patrick Bateman, an investment banker during the late 1980s.  Bateman is in his late twenties, living the life: dinners on the town, drinks (and drugs) at the clubs, and explicit and care-free sex as the AIDS epidemic is in full swing.  Bateman is pre-occupied with his ‘hard body/tight abs’, eating at the best restaurants, wearing the latest and greatest designer suits, and having a Harvard pedigree.  Everything about him shouts “white-privileged, ignorant slut”. He doesn’t care about women – they are an instrument for him to abuse, and he does. You quickly realize that he’s a sociopath.  Bateman first kills a colleague, then taxi drivers, street people, and even a boy at the zoo, but he gets the most pleasure from bringing women to his home (usually in duos), seducing them, drugging them, forcing them to have sex with each other (and then with him) and then mutilating them.  Yes, Easton Ellis goes into MUCH detail on both the sex and the way in which Bateman mutilates his prey.  Bateman is a sick man: by day, a successful banker (though he never really works), and at night preoccupied with what was on the latest morning talk show, 1980s pop music releases, and the art of killing.  As the book progresses, Bateman gets more delusional and the sex and killing becomes more torturous (cannibalism, necrophilia, torture, with his pet rat involved!)  He eventually tries to turn himself into a college buddy, with a phone message explaining the killings, but he is rebuffed by the friend saying he has no courage to do such a thing.  And the book ends with where it all began, a bunch of investment bankers out for drinks planning the next social gathering with a sign over the bar stating: "This is not an exit." A social commentary on American consumerism, how people are objects, and if you have the means (money and smarts), anything can be ‘gotten away with’.  I found this to be a really disturbing book…it was hard to understand the worth in the story, but it did communicate that we’d better be careful of what our society is creating.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Reign of Error


Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools 
by Diane Ravitch

Two days, two books about the ills of modern American society.  Housing yesterday, and today? Education for our youth.  NYU’s own Diane Ravitch scribes the book: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public. Ravitch presents a series of compelling arguments to fight the idea that we should move to privatizing our children’s school systems.  Her introduction offers a brief historical context of the public school system and how it appeared to get broken.  This is immediately followed by fifteen “claims” that support privatization and a counter “reality check” responding to each one.  Some of the issues she argues include: American public school test scores dropping while International test scores rise; our nation’s dropout crisis; declining graduation rates in college; the idea that test scores show a teacher’s effectiveness; merit pay for teachers improving achievement rates of students; abolishing tenure for teachers to help student success; the myth about Teach for America (which she debunks); the claim that Charter schools will revolutionize education; the idea that virtual schools for children will personalize the experience (and it’s cheaper); and finally parents seizing control of their school to make it better.  Well Ravitch has the data to prove that these claims are not accurate.  She has done her homework!  Like all good books that dispel myths, the author provides a series of recommendations to improve the system.  They are well thought out and make great sense, such as: provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman; make high-quality early childhood education available to all children; have a well-balanced curriculum (arts and phys ed included); reduce class size; provide medical and social services to the poor; eliminate high-stakes standardized tests; ensure teachers/principals are trained; all public schools having school boards; devise strategies and goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty; and recognize that public education is a public responsibility, not a consumer good.  What a well-constructed series of arguments presented with REAL data.  I love reading books by smart and prepared NYU faculty.  This is a must read for any parent who wants their child to not be “left behind”.  Great read to learn more about the future needs of the next generation.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City


Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City 
by Matthew Desmond

Time to leave the novels and enter a sociological review on the nature of poverty and the fight to keep a home in urban Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond is a post-doctoral study conducted on eight families, illustrating their struggles to find affordable housing, keep affordable housing, and battle in the court system (when they don’t pay their rent).  This book really resonated with me as my father, when he was alive, used to bring me to a few of his court eviction processes for those renters who failed to pay rent numerous times.  Desmond moved into the College Mobile Home Park where he was introduced to a number of the families he followed.  He also spent time following two of the landlords, the people who ran the trailer park, and also a black couple who become wealthy renting to people who they had confidence would pay rent.  Poverty, drugs, family complications, weapons, job loss, and the governmental system of how to support people without means are all topics explored in this ‘documentary’ of sorts.  Desmond ends his book with a series of recommendations to help fix the broken system.  A thoughtful look into a serious issue facing every urban center across America.  The characters in the book are real and the struggles they face are real.  An important issue in our society today.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Abarat


Abarat
by Clive Barker

Abarat by Clive Barker is a young adult fantasy novel.  I was really engaged by the story… and then I realized it was another series book (which you know by now that I am not a fan of). So yes, I was left hanging.  I listened to the story on tape but then received the book and couldn’t stop looking through the pictures of the various characters that graced the story. The story features a teenager, Candy Quackenbush, who sat in her classroom while being berated by Miss Schwartz for a class project she had completed.  The project was to write ten interesting facts about Chickentown, the town in which they lived.  Candy, after being sent to the principal’s office, leaves to the edge of town and notices a lighthouse. She meets John Mischief, a man who looks human except for the antlers on his head, and they go to the lighthouse for the ‘key’ that will help the 25 islands of Arabat, a land far away.  Securing the key is the least of their issues as they now have to fight off Shape, a henchman for the evil sorcerer known as Christopher Carrion.  But before they are captured, they escape the lighthouse on the wild seas to the islands of Arabat.  When she gets to Arabat, the journey begins with introductions to many quirky characters and another encounter with Shape. As most series books end, this one was pretty anticlimactic, leaving the reader ready for Candy’s next escapade across Arabat, learning new lessons on the island with the hope of returning home someday.  What a great project report that will be for Candy!  Not my favorite young adult journey book…too many complicated characters, but the pictures help. I recommend avoiding listening on tape.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Roads

Roads
by Joseph Spece

It’s a special read when a student offers you a book of poems written by his cousin.  Roads by Joe Spece is a series of short poems that provide great imagery on the journeys of others. The exploration of the various “roads” of the human experience, from renowned authors/poets such as Bronte, Dickinson, Woolf, Faulkner, Melville to characters from Greek mythology, Spece writes in short stanzas to convey his impressions of the journeys.  I happened to find a Youtube video that explains his approach to poetry – take a look:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b33SXGQBA-4. And to think he writes these reflections in one ten-to-fifteen-minute sitting.  This much talent should not be given to one person….  Writing is an art and I have so much admiration for poets.  The book is only 80+ pages long but should be read with multiple breaks to truly enjoy the mastery of his work.  Thanks to Tom for sharing this special read.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Absolutist


The Absolutist
by John Boyne

There is nothing like a well-written and compelling novel, and I have found another in The Absolutist by John Boyne.  The book is set in the time of World War I in Europe.  At age seventeen, Tristan Sandler decides to enter the war as an escape from his current situation, estranged from his family after being sent away for a ‘vile’ act (as defined for the time period): kissing his best friend, a male.  While in basic training, Tristan meets Will Bancroft, an eighteen-year-old, from another part of England and the son of a vicar.  While in training, the two young men develop a friendship that leads to something more – a physical connection and emotional connection.  The training leads to the battlefield where both men are challenged to survive and stay true to their values.  When Will captures a youthful German soldier in their area, things turn upside-down as his peer soldier kills him.  Will is enraged and felt the German youth should have become a prisoner of war.  Will decides to no longer fight in the war and looks to Tristan to support his claim to higher ranking officers.  The outcome pits the two friends against each other and leads to a surprising ending.  The book captures issues related to following your conscience, risk-taking, and the issue of homosexual relations during a time when men would be killed if they identified as gay.  The book follows the various points of struggle for Tristan from youth to being an eighty-year-old prize-winning author.  The author does an outstanding job of bringing the reader on a journey of life with a character who can never shake the decisions he makes in life.  Beautifully written and what a novel should be like.  Great read!     

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Homegoing


Homegoing
by Yaa Gyasi
A very intriguing story of two half-sisters from the Fante people in Africa in the book Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.  The book goes back and forth between the journeys of the two children (and subsequent next generations) of Maame. The book begins when a fire is started by the enslaved Asante mother, Maame, who uses this as an attempt to escape from her current entrapment by Cobbe, the father of her child.  During the fire, Maame, in a hurry to escape, leaves her daughter, Effia, behind. Effia, without her mother around, grows up under the eye of her step-mother, Baaba, who does what she can to rid her family of the young girl.  She finds the opportunity through James Collins, the governor of Cape Coast Castle, who is appointed by the British to run the slave trade.  Collins takes the young Effia as a second wife, even though he has a family back in England.  In the next chapter, Maame returns home.  She gets married to “the Big Man” of the village and they have a daughter, Esi. Later, during a raid of the village, she is captured and sold into slavery.  Each subsequent chapter follows members of the two daughter’s descendants. Esi’s family settles in America – many chapters focus on slavery there (civil war through 1960s) and all the race issues involved throughout.  The chapters following Effia are set in the Gold Coast, known now as Ghana.  Each chapter reads as a self-contained story with no need to read in any specific order.  There were some chapters I enjoyed much more than others.  Thumbs up for stories that capture the struggles of survival for the African population throughout our civilization.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Cosmos


Cosmos
by Carl Sagan

I remember seeing this book sitting on my dad’s table at home when I was a teenager.  A best-selling book at the time, Cosmos by Carl Sagan was the “go-to” book on astronomy, science, and all things “outerspace”.   The book has thirteen chapters which correlate with a TV series with the same number of editions.  The book shares very complex scientific thoughts on the development of earth, the universe and human beings in our civilization. Sagan, a Professor at Cornell University, is known in his time as the Father of Science.  The success of the book was a result of its combination of the latest scientific knowledge with amazing pictures from space.  The planets, earth’s beginnings, the stars (my favorite chapter), the development of science over the ages, telescopes and what they see, the development of travel (and its impact on what we know), and travel in space (and each voyage to that date) are a few of the various, major themes in the book.  A bit dated but great to read what was known at that moment in time.  Some major books stay best sellers, even today!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Man Who Lived Underground


The Man Who Lived Underground
by Richard Wright

Fun to read a short story for a change… this one, The Man Who Lived Underground, is contained in the book Eight Men by Richard Wight.  Set in the 1940’s, a young black man, Fred Daniels, is forced, while under attack by three policemen, to sign a confession saying he was guilty of murdering a woman.  He escapes into the sewer system and sets off on a number of adventures, which eventually lead him back to the police station, bringing himself face-to-face with the men who held him and brutally beat him into submission.  The man is looking to find reality in an unreal world full of racism, poverty, and inequality…similar to what we still find today in society.  And seeing that Wright’s work from over eighty years ago is still appearing in today’s world is more than a tragedy! A somber view for us all to grapple with each day we live. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

When Breath Becomes Air


When Breath Becomes Air 
by Paul Kalanithi
I may have found this year’s best read in When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. When a reader connects to a story, either through great writing and/or connection to the topic, that’s a success.  The book is the real-life story of the author, a neurosurgeon trained at Stanford and Yale, who experiences the most tragic of fates as he serves his residency at Stanford University: learning that he has terminal cancer at thirty-six years old.  The story opens my own family wounds, losing my sister to cancer just a few years ago.  Linda was at the top of her field as a tile maker, in many ways similar to the skills needed to be a surgeon: precise and tactical in approaching the work.  Dr. Paul, only a year from completing his residency, is a workaholic, gaining accolades for his work.  After learning of his diagnosis, Paul decides to use the disease to teach himself and others the struggles one faces with each step of fighting cancer, including the decision of whether he and his wife should have a child (which they do). This is a book that teaches the lessons of life, a life no one wishes on anyone.  Life is never what we think it will be and reminds us how fragile life can be and that we should do all we can while we are able.  Each decision, the highs/lows and the importance of a support system (family/wife) are captured. Cancer is ugly, no matter the fighter and no matter the outcome as the unknown always sits in the mind of the patient.  How courageous that Paul leaves us with the gift of “how to determine” what makes a meaningful life along the way of his battle.  Family, work, life and death all rolled into one truly thoughtful and reflective book.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Love, Stargirl


Love, Stargirl
by Jerry Spinelli

A heartwarming older children’s book in Jerry Spinelli’s Love, Stargirl, the sequel to the original.  A year after leaving Arizona, Stargirl, a.k.a. Susan, is now a 16 year-old living in Pennsylvania (parts unknown).  Stargirl spends her year planning the next winter solstice by writing daily entries (January 1st through end of December) in the form of a letter to Leo sharing her “love” for him.  In her new town, she meets a six-year old, an older woman who is an agoraphobe, her pet rat Cinnamon, the ‘harem girls,’ Alvina (the grumpy eleven-year-old), the old gentleman who visits his wife’s grave every day, and Perry (the mystery boy who may take Leo’s place).  Stargirl is unique and different from most girls her age – she is creative and lives to see the best in others while she is being homeschooled by her mom. The year of the LONG letter to Leo is reflective, speculating whether or not he still has feelings for her, and asking if they will ever meet again.  Her weekly preparation for the winter solstice brings her to a place of contemplation and speaking to Leo as if he were there.  The book ends with her big event – bringing all of the people she has met over the year to the early morning sunrise where lots of questions are answered: who is Perry really and will he replace Leo? Will Alvina stop being an angry youth? Who is Neva? And will Betty Lou finally leave her home?  With a surprise visit from the old sage Archie from Arizona, answers are found in a secret letter from Leo.  Asking questions and a willingness to listen to them can bring surprising answers.  Kids’ books carry such good lessons.  We need to listen to them more.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Captain of the Sands


Captain of the Sands
by Jorge Amado

What happens when the weather on Memorial Day weekend isn’t very good?  Time to read more #RAFavBooks – one each of the past six days!  There are three more days in May, so we will see if it continues!  This time a young-adults book written by a Brazilian author, Jorge Amado, called Captains of the Sands.  The book explores a young group of homeless / orphaned kids, aged seven to thirteen, living on the streets of Bahia Brazil.  The ‘gang’ go by the name Captain of the Sands and are aptly led by Pedro Bala to steal, gamble, and beg, always barely escaping the city police.  Each chapter features one of the boys and their individual stories, from falling in love, to coming down with smallpox, to deciding to join the priesthood under the leadership of Father Jose Pedro (who befriended the boys).  Later in the book, Pedro falls in love with Dora, also an orphan youth, who is captured by the police during a raid on the boys.  Pedro is jailed while Dora is placed in a reformatory and slowly becomes ill while the two are separated.  Pedro escapes but not in time to save Dora.  The chapters conclude with the group growing apart and moving in their various directions in life.  A great series of stories capturing the tales of delinquent youth who rely upon each other to make it when their lives would otherwise be nothing but despair.    

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Reyita: The Life of a Black Cuban Woman in the Twentieth Century


Reyita: The Life of a Black Cuban Woman in the Twentieth Century
by Maira de los Reyes Castillo Bueno

As the student staff at NYU continues to diversify, I am reading more and more “heritage books,” historical biographies of the lives of people from homes of their ancestors.  Race, ethnicity and culture have been the foundation of many of the books in the past few weeks.  Today is no different. I venture to Cuba through the book about and written by Maria de los Reyes Castillo Bueno titled: Reyita: The Life of a Black Cuban Woman in the Twentieth Century. Reyita tells her life story to her daughter, Daisy.  As a 94 year-old Cuban woman, Reyita describes growing up in a turbulent Cuba.  The stories go deeply into family (grandmother’s struggles as a slave, her mother fighting for independence), and then into the political movements within Cuba – the deaths during the massacre of 1912, her life on the plantation, the dictatorships of Cuba, and the national rise of communism.  Reyita’s personal struggles as a black woman and her desire to marry a white man (which she eventually does) play to the core of this story.  As she notes, "I didn't want a black husband, not out of contempt for my race, but because black men had almost no possibilities of getting ahead and the certainty of facing lots of discrimination."  Reyita struggles with living in poverty, family battles, and plain-old discrimination. Through it all, she illustrates the importance of commitment to her faith in God and is seen by some as a “visionary,” where she ‘sees’ images and can predict future behavior. The book captures the role of women in Latina society as the cornerstone of the family.  Reyita stays faithful to her husband and lives a long, long life with family at the center. Interesting to note the importance of a text like this in understanding the culture of gender, race, ethnicity, and religion, all of which play a role in Cuban society.  This is a quick read and celebrates not only Reyita’s life but also the 118 people, including great-great grandchildren, in Reyita’s family. A tell-all tale of the secrets within a mother’s heart.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States


A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States
by Gordon Hirabayashi

As the bombs hit Pearl Harbor, the United States leadership holds Japanese Americans responsible, fearing they will turn on US Mainland.  What happens next is the tale of one individual who refuses to quietly accept the fate of being stuck in a place, yet he is unable to change his heritage as an American with ancestry from Japan.  Gordon Hirabayashi is studying at the University of Washington when he and his fellow Japanese family and friends are forced to go home and stay inside each evening at 8pm.  Gordon refuses to accept the removal of rights he had as outlined in his story:  A Principled Stand – The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States.  The story captures his life: marrying a Caucasian woman, refusing to accept discrimination, and fighting back through the courts, an effort which ultimately lands in the Supreme Court.  He is jailed for ten months and it isn’t another forty years until he has this historic case overturned in the Supreme Court.  The fear of a group of people can lead to some pretty extraordinary behaviors.  Gordon, a brilliant young man committed to peace and non-violent response, was stuck in the crossroads of “McCarthyism” at its best.  Hirabayashi’s book is a very important tale to be told so we hopefully don’t have to repeat history…but aren’t we starting to have that with our current political leaders in DC?  Pick this one up.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Afeni Shakur - Evolution of a Revolutionary


Afeni Shakur - Evolution of a Revolutionary
by Jasmine Guy

Born Alice Faye Williams and later known as Afeni Shakur, Jasmine Guy’s book Afeni Shakur – Evolution of a Revolutionary reviews her life.  Guy meets her later in her life, after the very public death of her famous son Tupac and develops a relationship.  The book is a series of meetings between the two women in which Guy asks permission to capture her story.  Afeni agrees, and the book is published.  Afeni, a one-time Black Panther, endured marriages, drug abuse, an abortion, recovery from addiction, and matriarch of her family.  The story is a gut-wrenching tale of how early abuse led a woman to the brink of despair, yet she survives.  The reader learns much about a culture of poverty, abuse, and family fame – which was cut short by murder.  Guy has presented the gritty and hard-core life of a survivor who makes her way to redemption, and we learn how through her early years of life.  Not what I expected but glad I read it.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Passing

Passing
by Nella Larsen
Went on a road trip up north listening to Passing by Nella Larsen, which is a quick listen – only four hours.  This is a powerful novel written at a time of significant racial discord in our country.   The main character is Irene Redfield, a mixed-race woman who lives in Harlem.  The book is broken into three parts. The first is the "Encounter," opening with Irene receiving a letter from a former friend, Clare Kendry, whom she met again at a restaurant while visiting her hometown of Chicago. The two women had grown apart when Clare moved away after her father died.  During their meeting, Irene learns that Clare "passes" for white and is married to a white man, who is unaware of her being half-black.  The meeting leaves Irene shaken and wanting to avoid Clare, but with further outreach from Clare, they have other meetings. In the next encounter, Clare’s white husband, John Bellew, shows up. Irene and two of her other friends are shaken by John’s racist remarks but do not let him know that Clare is also black.  The women want nothing to do with Clare, fearing for themselves and Clare. Clare later sends an apology letter to Irene, which she destroys.  In the second part, "Re-encounter," Irene receives another letter from Clare, which she at first ignores, but Clare then shows up at her home.  Clare gets involved in Irene’s committee work at the "Negro Welfare League" (NWL) by showing up at an event, which leads to a rebuilding of the friendship.  In part three, we find Irene’s relationship with her husband is strained and she is suspicious that her husband and Clare are having an affair, which leads Irene to not warn Clare that her husband (Jack) has become aware of her race.  In the final scene, there is an encounter where Jack shows up at a party among Irene’s friends and confronts Clare, calling her a "damned dirty nigger!" At that moment, Clare, who is near an open window falls out from the top floor of the building where she is pronounced dead. It is unclear if she has fallen, jumps, or is pushed by either Irene or Jack. Clare’s anguish ends the book.  Wow, what a story!  Irene’s dire fear is real and leads her to question her own decision making.  Compelling read which captures the hidden experience of light-skinned black people in the 1940s.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Diviners


The Diviners
by Libba Bray

What happens when you play with an Ouija board? You awaken a spirit!  And this time it is “Naughty John” who comes out of the board and creates mischief in NYC during the 1920s.  This is how the story of the The Diviners by Libba Bray begins.  Evie O’Neill, a seventeen-year-old growing up in a rural city in Ohio, is dispatched to her uncle’s home in NYC after she creates havoc among her friends and her mother grows weary of her antics.  Evie is overjoyed and begins her ventures by exploring the “underbelly” of the city (drinking and cavorting with the burlesque shows) until her uncle Will, an educated professor and curator for the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, threatens to send her back home.  Will is called upon by the NYPD to assist with a series of mysterious murders which appear to be connected to the occult.  Evie shares her special powers (the ability to see the memories of others’ lives when she touches an object of a deceased person) with her uncle and she joins in the search for the serial killer.  Evie’s desire for the headlines causes problems for Will and her ability to help effectively.  In the end, Evie is able to assist her uncle with foiling the destruction of the world by the evil spirit “Naughty John”…but, bad news for readers: this is a serial book.  Ugh!  Yes, more books after this one and the story doesn’t end.  While I really enjoyed the book, I’m not a fan of the never-ending storylines.  What happens to Evie’s supernatural abilities?  Will she fall in love with the half-man, half-robot of Jericho, a young man whom Will has adopted?  What about Sam Lloyd, the man who robbed Evie when she first arrived to NYC but later teamed up with the group to defeat the evil serial killer?  And Evie’s friend Mabel?  I hope all of these get answered in future books…but, if not, just read the first book.  Evie is a great character and worth the read.  One of the best lovable heroines in a long time!

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Empathy Exams



The Empathy Exams
by Leslie Jamison

I had to check with my wife on whether she had ever heard of a “standardized patient” (an actor who plays the part of an ill patient for the benefit of training doctors), and she confirmed there is such a role.  Enter into the book The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison, a series of short essays all focused on attempting to understand empathy.  Jamison’s essays explore: the medical practice rooms; a study of people who claim to have a disease called Morgellons (a controversial condition involving skin lesions and the belief that the skin is infected by bugs and other objects, like string); living on a dangerous border-section of Mexico; falling in love with a jailed murderer; and women and pain.  Can we feel someone else’s pain?  Jamison’s essays certainly show that we can.  Depth, clear writing, and fragility, all captured in this well written series of essays.