“Our leader had taken advantage of our trust and loyalty to manipulate the whole country. This is the most frightening lesson of the Cultural Revolution: Without a sound legal system, a small group or even a single person can take control of an entire country. This is as true now as it was then.” page 266
Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji Li Jiang. Scholastic, New York, originally published 1997, my edition 1999. MG nonfiction, 284 pages. Lexile: 780L . AR Level: 5.0 (worth 8.0 points) .
A girl becoming a young adult during the Cultural Revolution adores Mao but is troubled by the practical realities of the drastic changes, especially when they start to impact her own family. She has to decide how to navigate high-stakes and nuanced situations – and ultimately whether her loyalty lies with the Communist Party or with her own family.
I was excited to pick this back up – much like The Arrow Over the Door, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, or many of Laurence Yep’s earlier works, I haven’t read through it in at least a decade. With some others, I misremembered major elements, so for this one I tried to recall what had stuck with me for over a decade.
It’s about one preteen/teen girl’s life in China between 1966 and 1968 as major changes occur to her family and community. But I must admit the most memorable aspect was the cover with her disembodied head over the flag, so encountering a used copy with that same 1990s cover was nostalgic. Newer versions have a cover more likely to be picked up by modern students.
“I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get – and never would get.” page 29
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon & Schuster BFYR, New York, 2014 (originally published 2012). YA novel, 360 pages. Lexile: HL380L ( What does HL mean in Lexile? ) AR Level: 2.9 (worth 8.0 points) . NOTE: This book is intended for mature teens despite the reading level.
Two loner Mexican-American boys meet at the local swimming pool and strike up a friendship in the late 1980s. Dante is secure, if not always happy, in who he is, and has many talents while Aristole (or Ari) is struggling with the secrets and silence in his family – including those around his brother in prison and those he’s keeping himself. This novel takes place over two years.
I’ve owned this book for at least five years now. It came highly recommended and has won many awards. The majority of reviews rave about it, yet I DNF’d it over and over. Finally read it all the way through… and still didn’t love it. So the poor thing went on my shelf of books that have been read but will be reread, reviewed, and generally dealt with later. Well “later” in this case is 2022, since clearing off that shelf is one of my main goals for the year.
So I had to reread it with an eye for why possibly this wasn’t the book for me, even if it was so clearly beloved by many other readers. Perhaps then a review could be useful even for those who adored this story. As there is already so much written about this novel elsewhere, I’m going to break from my usual formats somewhat and focus mainly on how this particular novel very much didn’t work for me – as perhaps that might help some people decide if it might be a good fit for them or not.
“Walter didn’t say anything as I explained the situation, but he had a strange, despairing look on his face.” page 120
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.
My edition Spiel & Grau, Random House, New York, 2019; originally published 2014.
Adult nonfiction, 354 pages.
Lexile: 1130L .
AR Level: not leveled
NOTE: The 2019 edition has a movie tie-in cover and extra postscript, otherwise I assume it’s the same as the previous version.
The story of Bryan Stevenson’s work with prisoners condemned to death, in particular the story of Walter McMillian – a man on death row for a murder he could not possibly have committed.
Several years ago, I read a report from Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative team that was insightful and searing. His personal book, Just Mercy, was already on my wishlist, but I wanted to prioritize reading it. Well, time went by, I even checked it out from the library and read a few chapters but had to return it due to another hold, and I had read so much about Just Mercy that I kept assuming that I’d read the actual book, until the new cover made me pick it up and realize somehow I’d missed it.
That happens in life sometimes, and luckily books are usually still around to find later. This time I purchased the book, and with a weekend mostly free, breathlessly read through the entire book. If I thought EJI report was well done, it was only because I had yet to experience Stevenson’s impressive narrative style.
“There is a whole series of events, along with some poor choices, that lead a person to Sing Sing. In some cases they never had a chance at a normal life from day one.” page 3
Refuge in Hell: Finding God in Sing Sing by Ronald D. Lemmert.
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2018.
Nonfiction/memoir, 186 pages.
The story of a chaplain at Sing Sing, New York’s infamous prison, over the 16 years he worked there.
I debated quite a bit over whether to review this one. Our church library has been getting quite a few of these Orbis books with the little red dots. They’re Christian, but cover a lot of social justice topics, which it’s nice to see people getting interested in locally.
Lemmert himself is not diverse within his own context. But the people he works with definitely are, and can be counted among the most disenfranchised in America. So in the end that tipped the scales in favor of reviewing this book, especially since I had several other books on imprisonment to read and review. Continue reading “Review: Refuge in Hell”
“I read somewhere in an anthropology book that we Sioux ‘thrive on a culture of excitement.’ During the years from 1973 to 1975 we had more than enough excitement for even the most macho warrior, more than we could handle.” p. 192
Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes.
HarperPerennial, Harper Collins, New York, 1990. Originally published by Grove Weidenfeld.
Adult autobiography, 264 pages.
Lexile: 970L .
AR Level: not leveled.
The life story of Mary Crow Dog, especially her time with the American Indian Movement and at Wounded Knee.
Every so often I stumble into a book with no expectations. I wasn’t familiar with this title when I got it and started reading with only the basic knowledge that it was a Native American woman’s autobiography. However, instead it was an education!
“His patients believed they were being treated for blood ailments. The tonics the hospital administered, however, were merely sugar water.” p. 124
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
Anchor Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.
Adult fiction, 313 pages.
Lexile: 890L .
AR Level: not yet leveled
Cora is a young woman on a Georgia plantation when a new arrival asks her to run away with him. Only one slave has ever successfully escaped the Randall plantation, but Caesar believes that if they run together, they’ll make it to the elusive Underground Railroad.
It took me a good while to get to this one. I’d seen a lot of mixed reviews, and in general I’m not a fan of magical realism (which is what most people were calling this). Finally I saw this at Target and decided to use it as one of my targetpicks selections.
Going into the read with low expectations definitely helped this novel blow me away. It’s a very difficult book to classify. Whitehead uses elements of many different genres, including historical fiction, adventure, science fiction, magical realism, and realistic fiction.
“For now, both teenagers are just taking the bus home from school. Surely it’s not too late to stop things from going wrong. There must be some way to wake Sasha. Divert Richard. Get the driver to stop the bus. There must be something you can do.” p. 5
The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater.
Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, New York, 2017.
YA nonfiction/true crime, 305 pages.
Lexile: 930L .
AR Level: 6.5 (worth 8.0 points) .
In November 2013, two teens were on the same bus for just eight minutes. Agender senior Sasha fell asleep on the long ride home from fir small private school. Sixteen-year-old Richard was joking with friends as he left his large public school. Then Richard held a lighter to Sasha’s skirt, forever changing the course of both their lives.
This unique, well-written exploration of one particular incident evokes much more. Richard’s struggling (but loving) young mother took in two nieces after her sister was murdered. He grew up in a rough neighborhood, where 4 of his close friends and family members had been murdered before he was 16, and he was mugged at gunpoint only a week before the fire. And Richard was African-American, possibly ADHD, and definitely traumatized. He spent time in a group home because of fights before, but didn’t start them – he was a follower.
Sasha is white, middle class, an only child who had struggled with fitting in before – autistic and agender, with a major passion for public transport. Fi is shy, so fir parents were surprised when fi started wearing skirts. However, they took great joy in seeing the child a psychiatrist told them to lower their hopes for blossoming into a confident, thoughtful teen.
An unnamed little girl describes her favorite day of the month, when she and her grandmother visit her father in prison.
If you had to visit a prison, it probably wouldn’t be your favorite day. But what if your very favorite person was in prison? What if your Daddy that you loved more than anyone in the world was a person you only got to see once a month? For this little girl and her grandmother, Visiting Day is a celebration that causes them to wake up with a smile, and sadness only comes when they get off the bus home, alone without Daddy.
This book is full of vivid imagery that engages all the senses as grandma passes peppermints and kisses. Teeth are brushed and hair done in preparation for the visit. Woodson’s writing is, as always, lyrical and beautiful. Although it’s not presented as poetry, this book would also make a wonderful poem.
“The barbed-wire fences, the guards, and the surrounding wasteland were always there to remind the detainees that they were exiled, incarcerated Americans, who didn’t know whether they would ever be allowed to return to their former homes.” page 71
Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II by Roger Daniels. (Revised Edition)
Hill and Wang, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2004. (Orig. pub. 1993)
Nonfiction, 162 pages including index, appendices, and further reading.
An overview of the unlawful imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII, including anti-Asian prejudice before the war, and eventual reparations 50 years after the camps.
Every American should read this book. Daniels distills decades of scholarly research on this and related topics into a succinct and incredibly readable overview. Nonfiction normally takes me much longer than fiction, but I suspect that I could have read this in one day had other obligations not interfered.