Book Review: An Unkindness of Magicians, Kat Howard

Book Review: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard

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Fantasy: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard

What if magic were broken? In Kat Howard’s novel An Unkindness of Magicians, magicians from the major houses in New York are competing, sometimes to the death, to become the leaders of the Unseen. Magic and magicians exist largely unseen and unnoticed by the majority of the population. Very few non-magic people are even aware of the magic that surrounds them. Most who are aware are from magical families, but they themselves were born with little or no magical prowess, able to perform only parlor-trick type skills like lighting a candle. Magicians, though, carry extraordinary power. Periodically the time comes to hold a contest among the leading magical families for ascendancy. When that time coincides with a period when magic randomly does not work, you have the potential for a crisis–and for a very interesting novel.

 

Kat Howard has written numerous award-winning short stories, and her novella End of the Sentence (co-written with Maria Dahvana) was named a Best Book of 2014 by NPR. Her first book, Roses and Rot, was nominated for the Locus Award for Best First Novel. An Unkindness of Magicians is her second book, and was named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR.

 

Howard’s magical world is populated by the magical equivalent of “old money.” The leading families are patriarchal, dominated by white men who are unused to sharing power. Crashing into this world is Laurent, a dark-skinned magician from a non-magical family who has come up through the ranks with talent, intelligence, boldness, and will. He is ready to start and lead his own house, declaring he belongs at the table of power along with the older and established families. To compete, though, he needs a champion, a magician of extraordinary power who can represent his house in the magical duels and, if necessary, die for him. Sydney applies for the job with an extraordinary display of magic in the heart of New York City. She has come to New York from…well, nobody knows. She is a mystery, a mystery with exceptional talent. Laurent hires Sydney, and together they upend the tournament and the establishment.

 

Magic has always been reliable. Predictable. Controllable. But soon after the tournament starts, things begin to change. Even powerful magicians sometimes struggle with basic skills–candles won’t light. Other spells go completely out of control. An early tournament contest ends in a dueler’s death when the spell he cast surges in power and consumes him. For some of the established families, this is an opportunity to lay the blame at Sydney’s feet. She’s a newcomer. She broke the magic. Sydney knows it was not her. She suspects a much deeper and darker force at play, one that has been building in power for decades.

 

An Unkindness of Magicians is full of magic, but like many fantasy books warn, this magic has a price. How much would one pay to do magic? As the book progresses we see what the cost of magic is, and we see who is willing to pay that price. We also see who is willing to force others to pay the price for them. Sydney’s background is revealed, and we see what magic costs in her life and in the lives of others. We also see what the lust for magic does for those who are less willing to absorb that cost themselves.

 

Sydney is a strong protagonist, a magician with extraordinary talent and strength of character. She is also not alone in her quest to confront the challenges facing magic. She collects allies along the way, men and women who have also become concerned about the toll magic requires. I love the way Howard’s characters relate. In her fiction, just like life, strong women and strong men make each other stronger. By the end of the book, Sydney has gone from being a loner to being part of a team. I don’t know whether a sequel is planned for Sydney, but whether her future is written or just imagined, we can anticipate it being supported by her friends.

 

I enjoyed An Unkindness of Magicians, and look forward to future books from Kat Howard. An Unkindness of Magicians is indeed full of unkind magicians! But it also is full of strong characters, an interesting plot, and solid writing. Fantasy lovers (even mature teen readers) will enjoy this book.

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Book Review: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard

Book Review: The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Book Review: The SelloutPaul Beatty

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Fiction: The SelloutPaul Beatty

The Sellout is not an easy book to read. It is not an easy book for me to review. It is brilliant. It is moving. It is funny. It is uncomfortable. It is painful. Throughout the novel I was reminded of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” an essay which satirically suggests Irish parents sell their children as food for the rich so that those children are not a burden to their parents. The Sellout does not tout the gastronomic and economic benefits of cannibalism, but that may be the one forbidden subject that Beatty leaves untouched.

 

Paul Beatty became the first American to win the Man Booker prize with the publication of The Sellout. The novel also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2015. The book itself is absurdly comic: a black slaveowning farmer in the heart of modern Los Angeles seeks to reinstitute official segregation, and his case goes to the Supreme Court. Yet Beatty himself denies that the book is meant to be funny or even satirical. I tend to agree with him (very generous of me, I know!). The themes of the book are deadly serious, and although the plot is absurd, simply labelling it a comic novel or writing it off as “funny” makes it far too easy to dismiss those themes and fail to appreciate how serious the book is.

 

I should warn: if you are easily triggered by any number of things, stay away. Beatty’s language is rough, vulgar, and direct. Words usually deemed racist are used constantly and casually. There are blunt descriptions of violence and sex. In the context of the story and the characters, the choices made by the author are appropriate, but they do not make it an easy read. Nor should it be.

 

The comic elements of this book are easy to see. Beatty’s descriptions of people are seldom flattering and often obscene, but can be hilarious as well. One character’s birthday party involves taking a bus up the 101 highway with the entire staff of a fast food restaurant, a porn actress, and several friends of the character. The party culminates with the bus parking right on the beach, waves lapping at the door, because LA city buses can handle anything. The protagonist raises watermelon, other fruits, and marijuana on his farm. His products are described as good in ways that I won’t repeat, but the comparisons are not ones typically made. From beginning to end, absurdity and strangeness abound.

 

But make no mistake: this is a serious novel about serious topics. The protagonist “owns” a slave. He does not want to, he did not choose to, and how this happens is described in the book, but the basic reason is that the “slave” wanted to be owned. He believed he was never free in white America, he believed that his blackness deserved to be punished, and the one choice he felt he could make was to be “owned” by his protagonist. Together, he and his “owner” come up with a plan to re-segregate their community. The reason is straightforward: their community is already segregated. Their local school is almost entirely black and Hispanic, their neighborhood is entirely black and brown (a very few Asians provide the diversity), so officially segregating the school was simply putting an imprimatur onto a reality. The law of the land may prohibit

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Book Review: The SelloutPaul Beatty

Book Review: Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse

Book Review: Trail of LightningRebecca Roanhorse

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Fantasy: Trail of LightningRebecca Roanhorse

Southwest tribes are known for their traditional weaving skills. I have no idea whether Rebecca Roanhorse can whip out a rug or a blanket on a loom, but when it comes to weaving together Navajo folklore, dystopian sci fi, and kickass adventure, her creation belongs on any fantasy-lover’s shelf. Trail of Lightning has it all: a great story, great characters, a well-constructed and consistent world, and a heroine that can send any monster back home to mommy. If that’s best done by sending them in pieces, so be it.

 

Maggie has issues. Killing is not one of them. She is good at it. When monsters threaten the Dinetah–the land of the Navajo–she is fearless. When it comes to sorting out her relationships, though, the monsters are not quite so easily vanquished. Her mentor, an immortal hero from Navajo legend, abandoned her a year ago. Sorting out her life has taken the better part of that year, but now a child has been taken by a monster, a creature without a name, and Maggie’s services are required.

 

I love books that take risks, that go in unexpected directions, that feature complex characters and especially that feature strong women. Trail of Lightning does all of that. The easy, traditional fantasy approach would take awhile to say, “Maggie battled the monster and won, returning the uninjured child to her grateful mother.” Not here. Maggie feels bloodlust and violently, brutally, viciously kills and decapitates the creature. And not to get too detailed lest I require a trigger warning for my own review, there is no rescue and there is no delivery of an uninjured child to her grateful mother.

 

This begins a journey through the Dinetah where Maggie searches to find the source for this monster and others like it which start to attack Navajo settlements. She is assisted by a young healer who is more than he seems, an old medicine man, and a bartender who lives on the edge of the reservation. During her journey Maggie must face characters from Navajo legend and story including the trickster Coyote, and must face her own demons that often threaten to take hold of her life and twist it out of control.

 

Rebecca Roanhorse is a Native American author and lawyer. A graduate of Yale, she has already in her young career won a Nebula award and been nominated for the Hugo. Trail of Lightning is the first book in a projected series, with a sequel already scheduled for publication next February. In other words, Roanhorse is a terrific writer at the very beginning of a series that promises to get better. The perfect time to jump in!

 

The world envisioned for Trail of Lightning is a difficult and dark one. The United States is essentially gone, devastated by climate change and by the New Madrid fault splitting the nation and allowing the ocean to cover most of the interior. These physical changes also opened doors for ancient beings to resurface, and the old gods and devils, heroes and monsters, are once again participating in the lives of the “five fingered ones,” i.e. humans. Their release, though, has also awakened powers long latent in the Native people, powers which allow humans to compete more evenly with these ancient beings. Roanhorse is in many ways reinterpreting Navajo folklore for a new generation along the lines Rick Riordan has done with Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian folklore–though the high gore and body count in Trail of Lightning should keep it off of the YA shelves at your local library.

 

Not a criticism, but it is fair to warn sensitive readers that if you are triggered by horror blood and gore, this is not the right book for you. If you like your fantasy with a touch of horror, if you enjoy seeing a different culture expressed in literature, if you enjoy a heroine who knows how to use a blade, Trail of Lightning delivers a rich tapestry to anyone who buys it.

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Book Review: Trail of LightningRebecca Roanhorse

Book Review: A Book Without Dragons, Olivia Berrier

Book Review: A Book Without DragonsOlivia Berrier

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Science Fiction: A Book Without DragonsOlivia Berrier

The year is 2054, and the world is falling apart. All technology has become dependent upon the “Unitime” satellites. Clocks, GPS, cell phones, the Internet, even the thermometers in smart coffee cups rely on the Unitime satellites for their accuracy and coordination. And the Unitime satellites are failing. Clocks no longer are synchronized, GPS is inaccurate. Cell phones and the Internet are down. And the blasted smart coffee cup can’t even tell the temperature of the beverage! Worse, a world dependent on their technology doesn’t know how to react. Business are closing. Looting is rampant. Violence is increasing. Chaos is spreading. And poor Cider, a very good dog, is locked out of his house.

 

But, true to the title, this is A Book Without Dragons. At least none of the scaly, reptilian, fire-breathing sort. So although everything else is going wrong, people (and dogs) do not have to deal with dragons.

 

When I first saw the title of this short (244 pages) novel, I was immediately intrigued. Dragons are cool. Dragons are popular. Dragons are “in.” Being sometimes a contrarian and a curmudgeon, though, I liked the boldness of the title. By the time I got to the end of the book and the story explained the title, I realized just how bold.

 

 

I met Olivia Berrier at the Central PA Book Fest. She is a local author from Carlisle, PA (near Harrisburg), and is just getting started in her writing career. You may not have heard about her. That needs to change! A Book Without Dragons. is creative, engaging, and fresh. Early on, there are some apparent discrepancies in things that make most English teachers twitchy: tense, perspective, shifts in person from “you” to “her” to “I.” As the story develops, Berrier makes it clear that these are intentional. They are features, not bugs. Once that “Aha!” moment comes, the entire story takes on new life.

 

The story shares the perspective of several people and one dog in the small town of Chagrin Heights, ID. (Something about the name of that town makes me chuckle, but that’s not particularly relevant to this review.) When the crisis with Unitime begins, each of these characters is living his or her separate life. The book draws these different characters together. Some of them had a history with each other which comes out through the narrative, but the response to the challenge posed by technology’s failure brings them together in unexpected, sometimes delightful, sometimes disturbing, ways.

 

Berrier’s characters are terrific. Early on she introduces her main characters with titles: The Police Chief with No Stories, The Wife Who Answers Phones, The Waitress Who Failed to Be a Nurse, The Dog Who Is a Good Boy, The Scientist in Charge of Unitime. Other characters are also important: the FBI agent guarding the scientist, the husband/college professor, the angry and vengeful brother of an accident victim. Berrier, though, does not leave her characters stuck in their introductory descriptions. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that the police chief finds he has more stories than he remembers, the wife is much more than a mere receptionist, the waitress is not a failure…but the dog is indeed a good boy. More than just a cute presence in the story, though, Berrier uses Cider as a tool to further the action in a very natural way. Just by the dog being a dog, doing what good dogs do, Cider’s presence in the novel is valuable. The book may not have dragons, but I prefer dogs anyway.

 

I love the way A Book Without Dragons ends without forcing conclusions or final answers upon the reader. It explores interesting questions: what kind of people are we becoming in our tech-dependent world? Could we survive without all the tech? Would we possibly even be better? Does technology bring us together or drive us apart? Berrier does not really answer those questions for us. She poses one set of possibilities…then takes them away and leaves the reader to answer whether anything was ultimately gained or lost in the transaction. Some of the characters are arguably better off in the end. Others are undeniably worse. And some are just in a different place. Whether society is better or worse, though, is something the reader will have to decide.

 

Ultimately, we all live in A Book Without Dragons. We can’t rely on mythical creatures or even creative authors to come in and save us from ourselves. Olivia Berrier’s book reminds us that we are more than just homo technologus. What we do with that reality is whatever we choose.

 

It may go better, though, with the help of a very good dog!

 

One final note: although this is not a YA book, I think younger readers who like SciFi would enjoy it. The writing is accessible, and even young teens would relate to the characters. There is one intense scene near the end, but it is handled well. Again, it is a book about adults and one that adults would enjoy, but not one to be afraid of giving to your younger science fiction fan.

 

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Book Review: A Book Without DragonsOlivia Berrier

Book Review: There There, Tommy Orange

Book Review: There ThereTommy Orange

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Fiction: Book Review: There ThereTommy Orange

 

I have never read anything like There There before, and I am not the same person I was before reading it. There There is breathtaking. Shattering. Compelling. Devastating. Tommy Orange rips into American life with a ferocity built through centuries of oppression. I am literally shaking as I write this review; this book ripped me apart and it will take awhile for me to pull myself back together.

 

There There tells multiple, intertwined stories about Native Americans living in Oakland, CA as they prepare for the Big Oakland Powwow. These stories are raw. We meet a woman raising her three great-nephews on a mail-carrier’s salary. Her sister, the boys’ grandmother, who left the family before they were born. One of the kids, a teenager, who learned “Indian dancing” from YouTube videos. We meet gangsters and their hangers-on. We meet drunks and abusers, thieves, an aspiring videographer, a struggling programmer, and person after person whose life is a challenge. None of these characters has made it. Most of them won’t. They survive, they struggle, they fight, they persist. They scream in frustration at a world that seems to hate them. And in a shocking climax, we are left hoping that at least some of them will be able to continue screaming for another day.

 

I am white. Middle class. Decently educated. Male. Privileged. I will never know the pain of racism in the way that people of color experience regularly. Reading There There brings this separation home acutely. Poverty, crime, lack of opportunity, hopelessness, despair, substance abuse, suicide, abandonment: There There looks it all squarely in the face. There are no Ward and June Cleavers in this book. The suburbs might as well be on Mars. From my comfortable home in my semi-rural college town, the Oakland that Tommy Orange describes is as foreign as Mumbai or Kinshasa. Yet the power of Orange’s descriptions lets me close my eyes and see that Oakland. It’s a challenging view–but one I need to see.

 

Tommy Orange grew up in that Oakland. He is part of that Native American community. And he writes with passion and aggression, telling stories of his town and his people with rage and resentment and righteous anger. So you think you know that Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland, “There is no there there”? Orange claims that as the title of his book, and puts the quote in context: “she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore.” Orange seizes that quote, then goes on to say “for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”

 

What do you do with writing like that? And that passion, that rage, continues in beautiful, haunting, mesmerizing prose page after page, chapter after chapter, turning you inside out and ripping out your heart. Orange quotes Teddy Roosevelt: “I don’t go so far to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” That is not a quote I remember from my history classes. I looked it up: it was from a speech Roosevelt gave before becoming president. It’s not a quote I am now likely to forget.

 

Throughout There There, Orange tells of alienation. Oakland has become a home for Native Peoples from all over America. But as this disparate, displaced diaspora gathered, much was lost. People without tribes, without even knowing what tribes they were from. Families coming together from different tribes, losing identification with anything other than a vague “Indian” understanding. As an outsider attending the occasional powwow, I could never appreciate how a seemingly artificial event could have any meaning. For a person who is struggling to find some power and community in their history, though, those gatherings are a liferaft. I was wrong and shallow before, failing to understand how vital the slenderest threads of belonging are to those who are buried in a culture built on their ancestors’ bodies. I look forward to seeing my next powwow with new eyes.

 

There There is a novel. It does not provide solutions. It tells a story. The only chance we have to know anyone else is to listen to their stories. There There is a story that must be heard.

 

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Book Review: There ThereTommy Orange

Booklist: Beach Reads for Kids, Shared Reading with Children

Booklist: Beach Reads for Kids, Shared Reading with Children

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Booklist: Beach Reads for Kids, Shared Reading with Children

Planning a trip to the beach with your family? Be sure to pack a few of these beach read books for the day.

Beach reads are typically those books from your to be read pile that you save for down time on vacations. Some favorite beach read genres are adventures, romances, and other light reading that takes you away from your daily routine. Beach reads to share with your children are beach and ocean themed books. Read these books together to build family traditions, enhance travel time, and/or create a knowledge base for young children. Most of all beach reads for shared reading are fun books for your family. Use these beach reads to start conversations with your child.

Before you leave on your trip be sure to share with your children Elise Parsley’s If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano to the Beach, Don’t!  This book is sure to ease the inevitable negotiations on what to pack and what not to pack for your family’s day at the beach. Just be sure to pack a few extra large zip top plastic bags for safely transporting your books!

Before Shared Reading with Children

For young children, reading a book about a trip to the beach can provide them an introduction to a new experience. Even if your family does not visit a beach, a book about playing on the beach can provide ideas for sandbox play, water play, and spark creative use for other sensory materials like sea shells or boat and float toys.

During Shared Reading with Children

Talk with your child during the shared reading. When talking with young children use Child Directed Language (CDL). Child Directed Language includes raising the pitch of your voice and having a rhythmic cadence for your speech while maintaining eye contact with your child. It also substitutes simpler vocabulary or even recognizable sounds for more difficult or longer words. Examples include onomatopoeia — “tick tock” for the word “clock” or “time” and using fewer syllables or more descriptive phrases — “train” or “choo choo” instead of “locomotive engine.” Most of all, Child Directed Language builds in expectation and time for responses from the child. There is a give and take. Make it a two-way exchange of communication with your child, like a volleyball passing from team to team instead of a batter hitting a ball to a fielder. This way a foundation for shared communication is built instead of merely a quiz situation between the adult and child.

Child Directed Language by Age Groups

For babies, when reading use the “point — label — pause” technique. This will provide a pattern, so when your child is able to vocalize and/or repeat single words they will have a structure for learning new vocabulary from the pictures.

For toddlers, point out the sequence of events for the story. This will build the awareness that stories have steps that they follow that are logical and time-ordered. You can do this by reviewing what just happened on the previous page(s) — predicting what might happen next — then discussing if the prediction was correct.

For preschoolers, point out cause and effect in stories.  Preschoolers are learning how to understand plot. They can work on identifying how the character’s actions affect the story — bringing a piano to the beach creates problems that are not fun.

Older children can bring in prior knowledge and experience to conversations about the books by adding facts or background experiences to the story (“remember when we …”). Older children can also compare and contrast observations of characters’ actions, intentions, and actual outcomes in the story.

After Shared Reading with Children

For children with experience visiting a beach, books can be a way of remembering activities. Their prior knowledge with a real beach can enhance discussions on pictures and activities in the books. Use your child’s experience on a beach to compare what is the same and what is different between what they remember and what is shown in the book.

Keep the concepts about beaches and oceans at the forefront of your child’s memories. Reread your child’s favorite book. Then add on other books or experiences to keep the theme going — create crafts/art projects with sand, sea shells, or photos. Create a small scrapbook with mementos to help your child remember their trip to the beach.

Booklist: Beach Reads for Kids, Shared Reading with Children

Nostalgic Beach Reads

The first few books on the list are old fashioned picture books with a beach theme. Parents and grandparents may remember these books from their childhoods. Establish a tradition — now’s the time for the next generation to share in the reading experience.

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Just Grandma & Me, words and pictures by Mercer Mayer is a picture book for preschoolers,  ages 2-5. Little Critter, goes to the beach with his grandma – a happy day, a few small adventures, and a delightful relationship. Young parents may remember having this book read to them when they were preschoolers.

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Margaret Wise Brown’s The Little Island, Leo Lionni’s On My Beach There are Many Pebbles, and Kathy Jackson’s A Day at the Seashore are nostalgic picture books. Some grandparents of young children may have had these titles read to them the first time they went to the beach. These books are great before a short nap under a beach umbrella or after a day in the sun. The retro colors of the pictures are soothing and calming after bright sunlight and exuberant colors found at a day at the beach.

 

Baby & Toddler Board Book Beach Reads

Sturdy board books to share with your baby or toddler at the beach.

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Neil Gaiman & Adam Rex’s Chu’s Day at the Beach.  Follow Chu’s fun and frolic at the beach.

Karen Katz’s Where’s Baby’s Beach Ball has lift the flaps for babies to explore.

Adam Gamble’s & Cooper Kelly’s Good Night Beach. A great way to end your day at the beach is to transition to your night time routine. Read a about a family watching sunset on the beach.

 

Favorite Characters for Preschooler Beach Reads

Preschoolers enjoy sharing books with favorite characters.  It provides them with a sense of familiarity and stability. Preschoolers will also enjoy that the characters in the book do the same things at the beach that they do, such as play in the sand and play in the water.

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In Daniel’s Day at the Beach, Daniel Tiger goes to the beach with his family and friends from PBS’ Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Toddlers who enjoy learning social skills from this show will recognize the play and learn format from the videos.

Biscuit’s First Beach Day— words by Alyssa Satin Capucilli, pictures by Pat Schories, will be familiar to preschoolers and early readers who have shared reading experience with any of the other Biscuit adventure book.

In Amy Slansky’s These Little Piggies Go to the Beach the piggies from the childhood finger play “This Little Piggie ____” star in this picture book.  With naked toes at the beach this book will be a happy break from playing in the sand.

 

Beautiful Books for Beach Reads

The following books have gorgeous pictures. Children of all ages will appreciate the artwork when they need a bit of break or  quiet time on the beach.

 

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David Wiesner’s Floatsam is a Caldecott medal, wordless picture book. The pictures tell a complicated story of a boy finding a camera on a beach and discovers the camera has recorded its travels around the world and deep under the ocean.

Suzy Lee’s Waveis another wordless picture book. The pictures show the story of a little girl be friending and playing with an ocean wave at the beach. Similar to the opening scene of Disney’s Moana.

Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach is also a Caldecott winner. This picture book shares the story of a city family spending time together on the roof top of their apartment building, pretending that it is their tar beach.

 

Science Beach Reads for Learning and Doing

For elementary aged children, here’s a pair of science themed books for the beach.

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The Magic School Bus on the Ocean Floor, the words are by Joanna Cole and the pictures by Bruce Degan. Teacher extraordinaire, Ms Frizzle takes her class on a field trip to the beach which of course turns into an exploration on the Ocean floor.

Lessons from the Sand: Family-Friendly Science Activities You Can Do on a Carolina Beach (Southern Gateways Guides) — combines science and science activities for families to enjoy together while visiting a beach.

 

Beach Read Explorations

Sand, rocks, surf, and tidal pools – beaches are great places to explore. Discover a little more territory with the following adventures.

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In Frane Lessac’s My Little Island, a boy explores a Caribbean island with his friend.

Scott O’Dell won the Newbery award for Island of the Blue Dolphins. In the novel, Karana, a native American girl, survives and thrives on an island all by herself for 18 years. An exciting read for children ages 7 – 10 or grades 2 – 5.

Booklist: Beach Reads for Kids, Shared Reading with Children

Quote: One benefit of Summer was that each day we had more light to read by.

Quote: One benefit of Summer was that each day we had more light to read by. Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle

“One benefit of Summer was that each day we had more light to read by.” ― Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle
Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle

Quote: One benefit of Summer was that each day we had more light to read by. Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle

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For summer reads, see

Booklist: Beach Reads for Kids, Shared Reading with Children

Book Review: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body, Armand Marie Leroi

Book Review: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human BodyArmand Marie Leroi

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Nonfiction Science: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human BodyArmand Marie Leroi

 

Mutants is probably not your first choice for a beach read unless you are a geneticist or medical professional. It is a fascinating book. It is educational both for its genetic insight and for its historic perspective. Mutants is comprehensive and unafraid to explore challenging questions of ethics, bias, racism, human experimentation, and other controversial subjects. Although it is written for a general audience, it assumes a great deal of previous knowledge for its readers (or easy access to a large dictionary).

 

Armand Marie Leroi is a professor in London, and the subject of Mutants became a television documentary after its publication. Throughout Mutants, the author stays true to his teaching roots. We learn about different mutations, the causes and possible reasons they persist in our species, the genetic changes that underlie mutations, and the historic and medical responses to these mutations. More than that, however, Leroi introduces us to people who have lived with these mutations. He does not allow readers to forget that real people with real lives are the subjects of this book. Some of them are victims: most mutations are harmful and many are fatal. They can be debilitating, disfiguring, and painful. But regardless of their circumstances, people, with families and friends, with lives of their own, are the subjects of this book. “We are all mutants,” the author writes, and he makes that point using examples and stories throughout the course of the book.

 

Leroi is clearly fascinated by what mutation teaches us about human development. He poses questions that I suspect most of us never considered. Several of these relate to conjoined twins. One question that cannot be fully answered is whether the conjoining is an imperfect separation of identical twins, or whether it is a merger of separated twins who grow back together. Another question deals with the internal organization shared by most humans. Conjoined twins are typically organized internally the way most of us are. The exception is when they are conjoined side by side. In those cases, organs in one twin are often reversed: the heart on the right side instead of the left, with similar displacement of other internal organs. In extremely rare cases, individuals who were not twins (conjoined or otherwise) have similar reversal of their internal symmetry. Given the rarity of this phenomena, it seems that the usual placement of the organs confers an evolutionary advantage that is not immediately obvious. Mutants does not find the answer, but it asks the question: why? Why should it matter that the heart is on the left side? I honestly had never thought about it before–it was where it was. But the fact that it is so extremely unusual to find this reversed, and then almost always only when there is a disruption in development as significant as conjoining twins, makes me quite curious to learn the answer. Hopefully, someday, we will.

 

Some mutations remain isolated, rare, but clearly heritable. Some families are known for generations of members who are literally covered in hair, including foreheads, cheeks, and other areas where virtually no hair grows on the rest of us. Arguably, red hair is a mutation of that sort, with a relatively few people from specific European countries exhibiting that coloration. Other mutations also span generations but create more physical challenges than cosmetic differences. Leroi cites examples of families with “claw shaped” feet. And some mutations, like Huntington’s disease, are deadly, but the effects do not appear until middle age so they do not directly impact the reproductive success of its victims. This example is part of an intriguing chapter that questions whether ageing is itself a type or series of mutations–and if so, whether it is something that can be treated or even reversed with advanced medical care in the future.

 

Leroi clearly accepts that humans are one species. Mutations may make the Afe (Pygmy) tribes smaller than the average people, they may make the Dutch taller than average people, they may make Europeans in general more prone to baldness and may make Africans in general less susceptible to malaria (than are Europeans), but those mutations do not change the basic humanity of us all. Indeed, there is on average more genetic diversity within any given people group than there is between any two groups of people. That being said, though, he does believe that more research into the differences between “races” should be done. Given the terrible history and awful political applications which accompanied such research in the past, though, I am wary of this suggestion.

 

Mutants is a sensitive, detailed, challenging book. It is not for every audience, but readers with an interest in genetics and human differences will find it fascinating. Fundamentally, it is a celebration of how intricate our bodies are, how easily that intricacy can be undone, and how resilient humans are even in when facing amazing challenges.

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Book Review: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human BodyArmand Marie Leroi

Book Review: The Art of Reading, Damon Young

Book Review: The Art of Reading, Damon Young

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Nonfiction: The Art of Reading, Damon Young

At first glance, The Art of Reading, can be deceptive; this slim book looks like you can easily slip it in your to be read pile and finish it over the weekend. However, if it is your personal copy, you should attack the book armed with highlighters, post-its, and sticky flag bookmarks. The Art of Reading is a dense and deep book. The kind of book you should savor a few pages at a time, and then think about it for a day or two before reading the next section.

Writers will find interesting quotes as well as concepts to help shape their writing towards their readers. Educators will find illustrations that connect theory to popular media that they can use in their curriculum. Undergraduates can chase down literary theory references. Graduate students can discover ways to share academic prose with readers in an accessible way that does not isolate scholars in their ivory towers.

The Art of Reading will not appeal to everyone; it is not a light beach read.  Rather the eight essays/chapters in the book provide a meaningful dialog with the reader on the underlying concepts of reading in an almost metaphysical and lyric manner. If you enjoy reading it will make you think about the process of reading and why reading is indeed an art.

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Book Review: The Art of Reading, Damon Young

Book Review: Violent Outbursts, Thaddeus Rutkowski

Book Review: Violent OutburstsThaddeus Rutkowski

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Nonfiction Essay Collection: Violent OutburstsThaddeus Rutkowski

I love reading authors who live and write in the margins. Don’t get me wrong. I’m down for a Patterson or Baldacci or Grisham any day of the week. But the authors and books that excite me are those that open a new door, that reveal a new truth, that show me worlds I would not have seen on my own.

 

Thaddeus Rutkowski is one of those authors. He grew up in the margins. A mixed-race kid in Central Pennsylvania, he grew up before Asian faces were common here. Despite its proximity to State College and Penn State University, Rutkowski’s hometown of Hublersburg (near Bellefonte) is to this day a town with mostly white residents. I do not intend to presume. I love Bellefonte, and my own (Asian-American) wife has always been very warmly received by everyone there that we’ve met. But I can imagine that as a child who looked different, there might have been a sense of “otherness” growing up.

 

His 2015 book Violent Outbursts is a collection of short writings. Violent Outbursts is hard to characterize, mostly because it is a book written in the margins of categories. Rutkowski has a flair for language. He plays with words, morphing them and putting them together in new ways. One example is an entire essay in homage to McDonalds, stringing words together that start with the letter “M.” He may be the first to describe a fast food cook as a McMaestro. Although the writings are probably considered “prose,” the craft certainly is on the margins between poetry and prose. It is also in the margins of fiction and non-fiction. Some of the poetic essays seem to be autobiographical: one tells of he and his siblings running up and down staircases in a new family home. Another tells of his first experience smoking. Perhaps the most painful was one talking about cousins who boast of being 100%, compared to his 50% and his daughter’s 25%. As part of a biracial family, that one hit very close to home.

 

Others are clearly fictional. At least, I am assuming he was never personally a dung beetle, despite the first person narrative of the essay. But the beauty of poetry, even poetic essays, is that truth is greater than the facts. People living in the margins often have to make the best of what they have, and they often create beauty from those discarded remnants. A dung beetle may have every right to celebrate what he is able to do, to revel in that which others find disgusting, and to make it his own.

 

Rutkowski’s Violent Outbursts is at once defiant and celebratory, poignant and triumphant. The writings express a desire to belong–learning to smoke “the right way,” wanting to fit in, wishing for the right clothes and haircut and car. They recognize that otherness will never change, that the writer will never be 100%, the dung beetle will never be accepted by the other animals. They sometimes revel in their otherness, wanting to be the hick with the shotgun going after the rat in the apartment, enjoying and hating being the rural kid with the outhouse while being surrounded by rich city kids. And they acknowledge that fitting in will always come unnaturally, requiring a surrender of some desires and the recognition that there will always be a separateness.

 

Violent Outbursts is short, and none of the essays are more than two pages long. It can easily be read in one sitting, but it is worth taking longer and reading one or two, then coming back to it later. When you’re probing the margins of society, sometimes it’s best to push at them a little, then come back at them again later. Rutkowski’s Violent Outbursts does this very well, and that might be a good way for the reader to do it, too.

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Book Review: Violent OutburstsThaddeus Rutkowski