Saturday, March 21, 2015

New blog!

Thank you for visiting, but these posts have moved. Check out my recent reads at my new blog!

Sunday, March 1, 2015


Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide –Andrea Smith

In her book, Smith draws attention to a multitude of hegemonic practices that contribute to the destruction of Native communities. She frames these practices from the perspective of rape culture, demonstrating how colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, and other oppressive structures facilitate sexual violence against Native communities in general and Native women in particular. Starting with the history of violence against Native populations, Smith goes on to describe boarding school abuses, environmental degradation, negligent healthcare practices, cultural appropriation, and other devastating structural practices that have marginalized, minimized, and maligned Native populations. For each case of misconduct, Smith provides specific, often graphic, examples detailing the horrific practices. She also suggests alternatives by profiling individuals, groups or communities that have discovered entirely innovative approaches for addressing the intersectional impact of sexual violence, or offering her own recommendations on how communities can resist and restructure systems of oppression. Despite the grim reality she reveals, she does so from the firm conviction that the situation can and will change.

I say that Smith frames her writing from the perspective of rape culture because certainly not every example she provides falls within the definition of “sexual assault.” Rape of the land is not the same thing as rape of another person, though both exist and reinforce the other in systems of colonial, patriarchal oppression. Reading from this perspective also helped my own understanding of the book because even though it was easy to follow her arguments into minutia, stepping back and reframing it as part of rape culture provided broader context for the details. Parts of her writing are hard to stomach, and I sometimes found myself in disbelief at the accounts of violence she shared. Despite the violence, and also because of it, Smith’s book is shocking, revelatory, and all the more important to read because of the history and interconnections she elucidates.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief – Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson doesn’t quite fit in at school. ADHD, dyslexia, and a record of being kicked out have him certain that his future holds more of the same. All of that changes in the summer after 6th grade. After losing his mother during encounter with a Minotaur, Percy finds himself at Camp Half-Blood, the residential camp for children with one mortal parent and one Olympian parent. Shortly after arriving, Poseidon claims Percy as his son and sends him on a quest. Storms, and the possibility of war, have been brewing over the past several months because Zeus’ master lightning bolt had been stolen, and time is running out. In a matter of days, Percy sets out on a cross-country adventure to find and return the master bolt with help from his friends Grover, a satyr, and Annabeth, daughter of Athena and rival of Poseidon. Together, they defeat monsters and assist gods while traveling from New York to Los Angeles to uncover the mystery of the missing bolt. With no time to spare, Percy returns the master bolt to Olympus, but uncovers a much more sinister and powerful conspiracy to upset the temporary calm.

“Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” is the first in a young-adult fantasy series by Rick Riordan chronicling the adventures of half-blood children. Perhaps the strongest aspect of Riordan’s writing is how he aptly matches his characters with his target audience. Riordan creates in Percy a flawed and relatable hero, bringing together the contradictions in human behavior, ability, and relationships with others. Percy does not excel in school, but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn. He struggles to come to terms with his relationship with his father, but still seeks to make peace with the arrangement. Riordan also pays tribute to the desire to bring fictional world to life. Early in the first chapter, Riordan acknowledges Percy’s belief that he had been normal, ostensibly suggesting that other young adult readers might one day find themselves at Camp Half-Blood as well. Contained within the boundaries of the camp and the time frame of the summer, the alternate reality of Camp Half-Blood invites adventure, danger, and excitement. Everything about the story seems to be perfectly feasible, and a perfect escape.

First, kudos to Riordan for conveying such a thorough knowledge of Greek gods and goddesses in such an exciting story. The combination of education and entertainment sets the book apart from others in the young adult fantasy genre. However, in his quest to thrill readers, I felt that the plot moved along so quickly nothing else mattered. It jumped from one adventure to the next with minimal reflection and integration into a deeper story line. This called for an unavoidable comparison with Harry Potter. I remember certain big events in the first Harry Potter, but don’t recall the entire first novel being a continuous series of life-threatening situations. Overall, though, it was a very enjoyable novel. I’ll probably read the second one. Eventually.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey

After years of watching patients come and go, though most come and stay, Chief Bromden understands and relies on the routines of the psychiatric hospital that also serves as his home. He keeps to himself, sweeping the hallways and struggling constantly against the Combine, the machinery that Nurse Ratched uses to run the psychiatric ward and slowly turn patients into automatons. This steady system is suddenly and irreversibly upset with the appearance of McMurphy, a man who lives excessively and earned his spot in the psychiatric ward for fighting in a prison work camp. McMurphy immediately sets to disrupting the hospital routines, intentionally provoking Nurse Ratched, and imbuing the patients with an unexpected vitality. After years of constant struggle against the Combine, Chief Bromden finds himself more engaged with the world than even he thought possible. However, McMurphy’s behavior lands him locked in a power struggle with Nurse Ratched. Although he is aware of the extent of her power, he continues to try to thwart the system, threatening her carefully procured routines, systems, and appearances. While Nurse Ratched holds ultimate authority on the ward, McMurphy’s raucous approach to life proves insidious and pervasive, undermining Nurse Ratched even as she seems to have won.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey is a powerful, challenging, and all-around disruptive story of life on a psychiatric ward. Kesey’s choice of Chief Bromden as the narrator provides a dual perspective of life on the ward because he speaks as both an observer and a participant. Throughout most of the novel, as in most of Bromden’s life, the reader loses awareness of Bromden as a primary character, only to be surprised by his independence during lucid moments in which he is free from the influence of the Combine. Bromden’s schizophrenic reality offers an exaggerated yet incisive critique of society, which can be both safely condoned and safely discarded because he is a patient on a psychiatric ward. In the character of McMurphy, Kesey creates neither a hero nor an anti-hero, but an opposition to Nurse Ratched and everything good and bad in the system of the psychiatric ward. For every bold play by McMurphy, Nurse Ratched exerts her authority with an equally powerful yet restrained response. The novel is imbued with complexities, nuances, and strong yet subtle challenges to conventional thinking.

I love this story. Well, I love parts of this story. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is uncomfortable and unsettling because it operates in shades of grey. No single character or plotline in the book is entirely good or right, and neither is there anything that is entirely bad or wrong. Kesey brings in countless significant themes that require thorough contemplation before coming to any kind of conclusion, which, at best, results in more shades of grey. Mental illness, institutionalization, self-determination, stigma, violence. This novel has a lot of heavy stuff to wrestle with, which makes for fabulous reading. I feel like I could analyze this book for days.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Continual Condition

The Continual Condition – Charles Bukowski

I’m going to add poetry to the short (and apparently growing) list of writing that I don’t know how to review so I’m not even going to try. So I’ll keep this short. In this collection of poems, Bukowski writes with a cynical realism, reflecting on his excesses with gambling, drinking, and sex. He seems to have a distaste for life, but finds satisfaction among the problems, hardships, and frustrations. Less appealing than the world, though, are the people that inhabit it. Whatever his interactions indicate, his thoughts reveal an impatient apathy for how other people try to participate in his life. Again, he offers this up for reflection and scrutiny, accepting it for what it is without passing judgment, dwelling, or disregarding the unfavorable aspects. Take that with a grain of salt, though. The bigger reason why I don’t know how to review poetry is because I’m not quite sure how to read poetry. Bukowski certainly has some gems throughout the collection, and certain pieces made me stop and think twice (or three or four times), but I often found myself asking “what was the point?” The good thing about his poetry is that it comes in bite-sized pieces, so the length, if not always the content, is accessible.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution

Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution – Derrick Jensen

With the right perspective, education happens everywhere all the time, but in this book Derrick Jensen takes the opportunity to focus on formal education in the school setting, and in particular the intersection of education, teaching, and writing.  We as the reader are guided through his rules for writing (primarily, don’t bore the reader) and allowed vicarious participation in standard classroom activities like lengthy philosophical questioning and discussion, expressing and addressing intense emotions, and high-stakes games of capture the flag and hide-and-seek. What Jensen emphasizes in each of these stories/chapters/essays is the connection between education and culture. In a society that values standardized production, schools provide “industrial education” that, rather than contributing substantive value to the individual receiving the education, leads the student away from him or herself at the steep cost of personal hopes and dreams. Jensen rejects this system of education and instead offers his approach, cultivated in years of classroom trial and error, of using education as a tool to guide students to discover who they are, what they love, and how they can use that in the future. All of which turns into a writing exercise, of course.

In “Walking on Water,” Jensen challenges conventional thinking on the method, impact, and purpose of education. Though most of the book recalls his experiences teaching in a university classroom, he also draws on his time teaching writing at a prison to compare and contrast the settings, pupils, and lessons. Despite mixing examples from the classroom with the prison, and connecting each with personal experiences and nuanced musings, the whole book flows smoothly so that by the end, it hardly feels like a learning experience. To be sure, he teaches several lessons in this book, the most basic of which being his rules for writing. Although his statements, questions, and examples are often provocative, they evoke serious consideration and reconsideration of often fundamentally held beliefs. Sometimes this process leads to new conclusions, and sometimes it reinforces those same ideas, now strengthened after having been held up for scrutiny. In his teaching and his writing, Jensen respects the student (and the reader) as a person, encouraging full expression and understanding of varied opinions. Even as the reader, the process is fun and interesting, and leaves a one with a greater sense of certainty in what you know to be true and curiosity as to whether that is really case.

Needless to say, I absolutely love this book. This is partly because I generally enjoy anything that goes against the grain, but more so because the book is so engaging.  Jensen very clearly models his teaching style in the way he writes this book, and though I don’t get to participate in all the activities as a reader, I still reap the rewards of critical thought and examination. Even, or especially, when I disagree with his points. He references violence more frequently than I remembered from my first reading, which I don’t appreciate, but I feel good about reading the book having questioned the validity and necessity of such statements. This is a must read.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Pianoplayers

The Pianoplayers – Anthony Burgess

Ellen Henshaw, now entering the later years of her life in a stately fashion, decides to share the story of her father as a way to recognize and remember his accomplishments in life. Ellen’s father was not a pianist or a piano player, but a pianoplayer. Early in his artistic years, he accompanied silent films at local pubs, offering musical interpretations and embellishments to the action on the screen. However, he frequently patronizes local pubs as well, and his penchant for beer consumption tends to interfere with his good judgment. Due to unfortunate circumstances, often of his own creation, he loses a string of jobs and finds himself in a unique position to play piano for a “marathon” of 30 days straight, which also comes to an abrupt end. While he carouses, Ellen finds her own form of expression. Dropping out of school at the earliest opportunity, Ellen finds herself in a special school that trains exceptional ladies in the skills of Entertainment. After several years entertaining for several years, she then becomes a Madam, opening her own schools across the globe. As she looks back on her life and the life of her father, she focuses on the moments that epitomize the accomplishment of grand dreams, finding satisfaction with everything that brought her to where she is today.

“The Pianoplayers” by Anthony Burgess is written as if narrated, which is part of the premise of the story (Hellen speaks her story into a tape player to be transcribed by a wandering author). The result is an entirely accessible story with quirky and intentional misspellings, colloquialisms, and verbal tics. While this is somewhat confusing until it becomes apparent that the story is a “verbal transcription,” it also allows for unique understandings that cannot be fully conveyed in a typical literary vocabulary. It also brings in wry humor, particularly when Helen lists the name of songs her father performs as a pianoplayer according to phonic spelling rather than proper spelling. Burgess displays musical knowledge both by appropriately referencing musical terms and also intentionally mixing up musical references. He also builds a concrete and intricate setting, skillfully reconstructing English pub life in the 1920s and 30s and bringing to life the context of the story.

Although I really appreciated certain aspects of this story, which includes pretty much anything relating to music, Burgess lost me at the ending. Helen makes a clear connection for herself about generational transmission of talent from her father to her son, and somehow brings her own story into it, but the majority of the book focuses on her father, which causes the section about her son feels tagged onto the end and does not seem to fit clearly with the rest of the book. The narrative tone of the story was fun once I figured out how the author/narrator used the word “like.” The book has its moments, but overall, I have a “take it or leave it” feeling about it.