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

Book Review: Border Crossings, Thaddeus Rutkowski

Book Review: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski

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Poetry Collection: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski

Border crossings are fraught with tension. Some, like India and Pakistan, or the Koreas, have standing armies. One stray move could start a war. Others are peaceful, but full of reminders that you are going from one country to another. Signs in multiple languages, customs inspectors checking your bags, sounds and smells of the exotic (to you) new stuff waiting once you get there. But the crossing itself has its own heartbeat, its own rhythm, its own combination of appeal and trepidation.

 

Thaddeus Rutkowski was raised in central, largely rural, Pennsylvania (Hublersburg, near Bellefonte). He now lives in Manhattan. His parents were Chinese and Polish Americans. His life has been filled with crossing borders: between rural and urban, between brown Americans and white Americans. And his poetry speaks beautifully to that tension between nations that expresses itself on the border, whether those nations are visible on a map or whether they are resident in the heart.

 

Rutkowski toys with language, playing with it, using metaphors and molding words masterfully. He has a fun, though sometimes dark, sense of humor. He invites the reader to play with him. Imagine skipping work and running amok through a restaurant, playing the bongos, and drawing a crowd together. Imagine going to the beach before a hurricane and riding the undertow. Look, as we paddle our canoe, it’s a pig…No, it’s a bear! He takes us on a trip to Hong Kong, choosing a bus, contemplating eating fried scorpions, surprising a vendor with his English. “‘English! I wondered what language,’ / and I wonder, what language was he guessing? / Korean, Japanese, Tagalog, French?” And suddenly, like that, we remember that he, the poet, is always crossing borders, with a face that is both Chinese and Polish and is neither one fully, an accent that is American, and a heritage that brings countries together into one person and yet still seems to feel a bit separated from them all.

 

Border Crossings is a delight. You always cross a border at your own risk, but this is a risk worth taking. Travel broadens you, and traveling with these poems is carrying a passport to a wide new world–or perhaps a passport to see home in a fresh way.

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Book Review: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski

Book Review: Storm Shelter, J.L. Delozier

Book Review: Storm Shelter, J.L. Delozier

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Mystery & Thriller: Storm Shelter, J.L. Delozier

Storm Shelter is a prequel novel to J.L. Delozier’s debut thriller, Type and Cross. Protagonist Persephone “Seph” Smith is a psychologist with the V.A. She also gets deployed during emergencies to crisis areas. A pending hurricane sends her from her home in Philadelphia to a shelter in Texas, but she quickly finds that the hurricane is the least of the problems facing the team and the evacuees.

 

Soon after the storm arrives, strange things begin happening. A volunteer with diabetes has a blood sugar crisis, despite wearing his insulin pump. At first this seems like a normal deviation for someone under stress, but the behaviors and emotions of both staff and evacuees seem off, more than can be explained by just the storm. Then, a cook is viciously murdered. As Seph and the other staff look for the murderer, they realize it is only the beginning. Something terrible is happening inside the shelter, and no one is safe.

 

Seph finds that it is difficult to know who to trust and who is affected by the mysterious problems. The team leader is a doctor with a hair-trigger temper. The head of security is a Bronx native without a lot of experience. The priest is a little too fascinated with women’s feet. With these allies, confronting the challenges posed by the evacuees is hard enough. The evacuees include two half-brother gangsters with Aryan leanings, a vietnam veteran with mental issues, a pedophile cowboy, and a hooker with a fondness for yellow. As you can tell by the descriptions, Delozier brings in a wonderful collection of secondary characters to add flavor to the story.

 

Storm Shelter is Delozier’s (and Seph Smith’s) second book, but it’s easy to see why the author recommends reading this one first. It takes place about a decade before the events in Type and Cross. Smith is younger, in a different place in her career, and in a different place in her life. She is less sure of herself, less experienced in trusting her gut, and less able to lead others to follow her. In Storm Shelter, though, she begins to find the toughness we see more fully developed in Type and Cross. Throughout the book we see her grow, become willing to step up when she is needed, and by the end take charge and become the leader her team needs.

 

Delozier’s own experience as a doctor helping in emergency situations shows in her writing. Storm Shelter  is full of small details that make the situation more real. The team suffers from exhaustion as the week progresses. The coffee is awful, the food is bad, and they can’t get clean. Their appearance suffers as their tiredness increases. People make poor decisions, tempers are frayed, and the characters reveal more about themselves in their exhaustion than they do when they are more in control of themselves. I suspect that this is reflective of reality in those situations–though hopefully without a similar body count!

 

Storm Shelter is not a long book, but it is a tight thriller with a dramatic conclusion. Seph Smith is a heroine worth following. I hope that Dr. Delozier has many more sequels–or prequels–to come.

 

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Book Review: Storm ShelterJ.L. Delozier

If you like this post, see —

Book Review: Type and Cross, J.L. Delozier

Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

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Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam Trilogy: Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the FloodMaddAddam

 

What can be said about Margaret Atwood that has not already been said? Winner of the Booker Prize, perennial finalist for the Nobel Prize for Literature, author of poetry, fiction, non-fiction. Margaret Atwood is one of the greatest living writers in the world today. With current television series inspired by her works The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace airing on Hulu and Netflix, she may be more well-known and well-loved than at any previous point in her amazing career.

 

Her MaddAddam Trilogy takes place in a future dystopian world that is vividly drawn and frighteningly believable. Many of the characters are in all three books, but the books are not set sequentially and the stories stand very well on their own. Oryx and Crake tells the story of Snowman. Known as “Jimmy” before the plague that destroyed most of humanity, Snowman thinks he may be the last human left alive. He has been put in charge of watching over the “Crakers,” a group of genetically modified humans who were designed by his friend, Crake. The Crakers are a simple people. They know they were created by Crake. They remember their first teacher, Oryx. They know that Snowman is their friend, sent by Crake to tell them stories. But Crake designed them with limited intelligence, believing that high intelligence was one of the problems of humanity. The story unfolds in two ways, with Snowman telling the Crakers a version of history that they can grasp, and with Jimmy remembering his life and his relationships with his best friend Glenn–later known as Crake–and the woman they both loved who took the name of Oryx. Crake and Oryx is unsparing. Jimmy does not look at his life heroically. He is an indifferent student, his family stinks, and he is emotionally distant and cruel toward women. Glenn/Crake is brilliant but cold, dismissive toward most people and disgusted with humanity as a species. The story of how Jimmy became involved with Crake’s experiments is revealed gradually, as Jimmy reflects on his own childhood and adolescence, as he tells fanciful tales to the Crakers, and as he prepares to leave the Crakers in search of food and supplies that he needs to stay alive. Through most of the book we are uncertain whether Jimmy/Snowman is the last remaining human. The book ends, though, with Jimmy learning that a small group of other survivors passed through the Crakers’ village while he was away. He follows their trail, uncertain whether these fellow survivors may be a threat to the Crakers.

 

The Year of the Flood is set in the same world, but is a very different book. Told from two perspectives, it jumps back and forth between characters and time, each section introduced by a sermon and a hymn from the “God’s Gardeners” religious sect that flourished shortly before the plague began. Ren is a dancer and prostitute in a men’s club. She spent part of her childhood with the God’s Gardeners sect, where she became friends with Amanda. At different times both she and Amanda dated Jimmy, the protagonist of Oryx and Crake. Toby did not completely buy into the doctrines of God’s Gardeners, but she appreciated their help rescuing her from a dangerous situation and became one of their leaders. Ren and Toby’s stories intertwine, and also connect them with Snowman/Jimmy, Crake/Glenn, and the events introduced in Oryx and Crake. Their perspective, though, is different. Pre-plague society stratified into wealthy compounds inhabited by employees of high-tech companies and the “pleeblands,” inhabited by ordinary people. The pleeblands were poor, gang-riddled, and dangerous. Jimmy and Glenn grew up in the wealthy, high-tech compounds. God’s Gardeners were in the pleeblands, as were Toby and Ren through most of the story. There were some limited opportunities to move between the two strata, and Toby and Ren do spend time in both, but the perspective of this book is clearly a view from the bottom. When the plague strikes, both are fortunate to be isolated and avoid infection. Eventually they find each other and go after Amanda, who has been captured by some ex-cons who also survived the plague. They find her with her captors at the same time as Jimmy shows up. We learn then that this was the group Jimmy was pursuing also, and realize that they are indeed a threat to the Crakers and to any other survivors they might prey upon.

 

MaddAddam moves the story forward in time. Toby is the main character, but we also learn the story of her companion, Zeb, and the story of the beginnings of God’s Gardeners. Zeb was also one of the leaders of God’s Gardeners, and through his story we learn more about the group and its founder, Adam. MaddAddam revisits much of the same time period as the previous books, this time through Zeb’s story, but it also moves forward as a band of humans and the Crakers come together to create a new type of community. Toby also takes over for the injured Snowman/Jimmy as the narrator of stories for the Crakers. This book has a great deal more humor in it than the other two books, as Toby finds her way through telling stories to people who like to interrupt with questions, songs, and other challenges.

 

Margaret Atwood describes her work as “speculative fiction,” differentiating it from “science fiction.” Her distinction is controversial, but very important to her. Science fiction (to her) involves stories about things that can’t happen yet. Interstellar travel, time travel, or aliens may or may not ever be possible, but they are not possible yet. Speculative fiction, by comparison, involves stories of things that actually could happen. Climate change is happening. Pollution is happening. Plagues have happened, and genetically engineered plagues (and animals and people) are real possibilities based on current technology.

 

I am not convinced there is a bright red line distinguishing “science fiction” from “speculative fiction,” but if she is writing about a world that might happen, it is chilling. The world of MaddAddam is terrible before the plague. Much of the world has been altered through global warming, with major coastal cities flooded and large swaths of agricultural land desertified. Pollution has made air in many cities almost toxic. Greed and corruption have sharply separated the haves and have nots. The plague does indeed clear pollution from the air rather quickly, but survivors struggle to find food. Not every human who survived the plague is willing to work together–those who were criminals before do not change their character after. This is a dark and dangerous world, and the trilogy does not end with “and they lived happily ever after.”

 

Not everyone will enjoy this trilogy, but it is well worth the time to read it. Margaret Atwood has an extraordinary gift with language. Her prose is often beautiful but can also be spare and blunt when it needs to be, utterly hilarious in one chapter and wrenchingly painful in the next. Each of the three books is different enough that they could be mistaken for works from three authors, yet they are also seamlessly woven together into one inseparable story. The story itself is frighteningly realistic. Atwood may not write about aliens, but her monsters are all the more real because they are the monsters we rightfully fear the most: those that dwell in the hearts of humans.

 

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Book Series Review: MaddAddam Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

Book Review: The Dispatcher, John Scalzi

Book Review: The DispatcherJohn Scalzi

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SciFi Mystery: The DispatcherJohn Scalzi

 

Part fantasy, part science fiction, part mystery, and all Scalzi. The Dispatcher is set in a near future when the rules of death have changed. People no longer die violently. For reasons no one understands, with no warning or preparation, violent death just stopped.

 

Tony Valdez is a “dispatcher” in Chicago. If someone is nearing death from natural causes, it is his job to kill them. Quickly, violently, and legally. When someone is killed like this, 999 out of 1000 times their body disappears from the site and they immediately wake up naked in their own bed. Death is still possible from natural causes and from suicide, but murder is next to impossible. Shoot or stab someone and their body resets to the state it was in roughly twelve hours before–and they find themselves at home, memories intact, in need of new clothes.

 

Dispatchers legally work in hospitals and limited other venues. If an operation goes wrong, the patient is killed by the dispatcher and wakes up at home. However, there is a demand for their services as well in less legal settings. Fight clubs now feature deadly weapons; dispatchers make sure that the severely injured are reset to fight another day. Young rich men have started dueling again, using swords to maim each other for real and perceived slights. Rather than face lifelong crippling injuries, the dispatcher makes sure that the healthy walk home, and the wounded…wake up at home. No one knows how this works. No one knows why this works. But it works almost every time.

 

Valdez is called in to help the police solve a mystery. A fellow dispatcher has disappeared. Clearly he has not been murdered, as his body has not reappeared at home. But equally clearly, something has happened to him. Police found signs of a struggle at his home, along with some blood. The only lead they have is his occasional involvement in services on the grayer side of the law. Valdez may have been the last person to speak with him before he was taken, and his knowledge of the ins and outs of dispatching on both sides of the law makes him valuable to the police detective working the case.

 

In this short (130 pages) novella, Scalzi raises a number of interesting questions about life and death. How does police work change when murder is no longer easy? How does crime change? If violence does not result in death, is killing someone who is about to die from natural causes giving them a second chance? At what point should we let someone go? And if you cannot murder someone in the old fashioned way, how can you successfully murder someone? These questions challenge us in these days when violence easily leads to death, but the questions and the answers both change when death is no longer a natural consequence of violence.

 

Another reason to read Scalzi: characters representing different populations. Tony Valdez is an urban Chicago hispanic, not a group typically chosen for the protagonist of a science fiction story. Detective Nona Langdon is an African American woman. Although their personal characteristics are not central to the story, it is refreshing to see characters in books that reflect the reality of our multi-ethnic society. The easy choice for an author is to write characters that look and sound like her or him. John Scalzi often chooses to take the more difficult and rewarding choice of populating his fictional worlds with the same type of people we see in the real world. This adds a layer of realism to a book with a very fantastical premise.

 

The Dispatcher is a quick read. Although it is short, it is packed tightly with plot, characters, dialog, and intriguing ideas. I easily read it in one afternoon, but I suspect story will come back to my thoughts again and again like a dispatched character from the story. 

 

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Book Review: The DispatcherJohn Scalzi