Review of “The Best Kind of People” by Zoe Whittall

George Woodbury is a prep school science teacher in the affluent town of Avalon Hills and a hero in the town for having stopping a school shooting almost ten years earlier. But on the day of his daughter Sadie’s 17th birthday, the police come to arrest him for accusations of sexual misconduct with female students during a weekend field trip he was supervising. He is held in jail without bail until his trial date, which would not be for another eight months.

George insists he was being set up, but there were four different girls making the accusations.

The community’s judgment is immediate, as is, surprisingly, the family’s. The story takes us through the period leading up to the trial, as well as its aftermath. There are any number of tragic repercussions, as well as some unexpected twists.

As the author writes about Avalon Hills, this was a community that “seemed ripe for parody, with its perfect greenery, cafes boasting fair-trade coffee and chocolate, a yoga studio on every block, and its low high school dropout rate.”

Sadie was a reflection of the seemingly perfect families in Avalon Hills:

“Sadie was in the accelerated academic program, a group of well-regarded students who, barring a stint in the eating disorder wing or a trip to rehab for Adderall addiction, were all heading to prestigious universities. . . . They ate lunch in the student government lounge, because naturally they were the student government.”

After her dad is arrested, Sadie is worried about all kinds of things: how do you know if a person is really good or bad? What makes someone do something bad? What if criminal behavior is hereditary? Sadie was also plagued by not believing her own father. It was not that he ever gave any indication of the behavior he was accused of, but she was socialized – by her father himself! – to give victims the benefit of the doubt.

Sadie said to her brother Andrew: “Dad is fucked. We’re fucked. Hasn’t it totally shattered your image of him?”

George’s wife Joan, a nurse, looks for a medical explanation, wondering, what if George has a tumor that made him do it? What if he’s physically sick?

Both Sadie and Joan discovered that “. . . if someone puts the possibility of something terrible in your head – and people around you believe it – you can’t go back to thinking its completely inconceivable.” Because at some level, the very fact of the accusations had a persuasive effect.

Joan felt like “[s]omeone had taken Joan’s only confidant, the one person who actually knew her completely, and her best friend, and replaced him with a monster. The person she knew and trusted was gone.”

Only Andrew, who is gay, has some doubts, because he knows how malicious high school girls can be from his own experiences: He tells his mom:

“Some of those girls accusing Dad, they look just like the girls who spit in my face, who had their boyfriends kick out my car headlights and kick me into a corner and then piss on me as I huddled there. That’s all I can see, when I see those girls – the evil suburban menace, you know?”

Meanwhile, not only George, but the rest of the family is now subject to the judgment and shunning of their community. How could the wife have been oblivious? She must be guilty of knowing or at least suspecting and not reporting it. And as for Sadie and Andrew, they are tainted by association: Sadie finds obscene graffiti on her things – “whore” and “Sadie Woodbury sucks big dicks!” And Andrew is pilloried by the local press for being gay, the implication being that the whole family is “perverted” in some way.

Sadie goes to stay at her boyfriend Jimmy’s house to get away from the harassment. Along with Jimmy’s mom Elaine, also living in the house is Elaine’s boyfriend and frustrated author Kevin. Kevin keeps stashes of pornography and pot in the house, and Sadie starts stealing his pot, as well as accepting Kevin’s offers to join him in smoking when he is around. Pretty soon she is turned off by Jimmy and fantasizing about Kevin. Kevin is paying a lot of attention to her and she misinterprets it.

Sadie gets more into drugs and drinking, and even gets a “dealer.” She blames her father. “Fuck my dad. Fuck him.”

But then there is an unforeseen development at the trial, and the family’s life is turned upside down once again.

Discussion: At the end of the book, a number of questions were left unanswered. But maybe the process was the point – i.e., what happened to everyone involved regardless of what the truth of the matter was.

It struck me as odd however, that not only does almost everyone almost immediately assume George’s guilt, but no one appears to be much interested in finding out the facts. There is a lot of discussion about rape and victimhood, and “he said” versus “she said” situations, but as for what specifically happened on the field trip, it seems not even George’s family is interested in the details.

I felt the author was making a point about the way this community turned on the family and tormented them, but there was also no “meta level” discussion about why they would do that. Wouldn’t a number of them feel sympathy toward the family or at least the kids? And if not, why not?

Finally, there aren’t really many likable characters in this book, with the exception of Sadie’s boyfriend Jimmy, who is, however, so clueless and feckless there is a limit to how much a reader can identify with him.

Evaluation: This would be an excellent book for book clubs. There are so many topics to discuss, from the specifics of the reaction of this family and community to the accusations, to the whole question of sexual misconduct accusations generally. One could also have a lively discussion about what different readers thought happened at the end; I would love to be in on that one!

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2017

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Review of “Never Go Back” by Lee Child

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Yes, all the Jack Reacher books are formulaic, but they are still fun and entertaining. The books are also easy to review since they have so much in common with each other!

Never Go Back is the 18th Jack Reacher novel. (This is not the most recent book; as of this date there are 22 primary works and 30 total works in the Jack Reacher Series.). Jack Reacher, according to the author, is 6’5” and 220-250 pounds, with a 50” chest. [You may wonder why he was played by Tom Cruise in the “Jack Reacher” movies. Apparently this had something to do with Tom Cruise having the money to finance the films.] In any event, Reacher served in the Army 13 years, and mustered out at age 36 with the rank of major. Now he just roams around the United States investigating suspicious situations and usually killing people – but only bad guys.

This one begins by Jack calling his old 110th Military Police unit, having found [in the previous book] that he likes the sound of the voice of Major Susan Turner, who has taken his former position as head of the department. Reacher then decides to hitch a ride from North Dakota to Virginia to meet her, only to discover that Turner has been arrested on bribery charges. To his surprise, he himself is also arrested for crimes he allegedly committed many years ago.

Jack, being Jack, fairly easily breaks out of confinement. He also secures Turner’s freedom by enlisting the aid of one of the U.S. Army’s competent and honest sergeants, who trusts Reacher because of his reputation and trusts Turner because she (the sergeant) has worked with her. Reacher and Turner set out to clear their names with the Army in hot pursuit.

Along the way Jack encounters (as he usually does) a couple of large men who challenge his manhood, much to their ultimate discomfiture. Jack actually fights them with his hands behind his back, surprising the first with a few well placed kicks and the second with a head butt. All in a day’s work.

Jack and Turner ultimately discover the slimy, high-ranking plotters behind their arrests — this is not a spoiler because Jack always gets his men — but it isn’t easy.

Evaluation: The Jack Reacher books by Lee Child tend to be easy and pleasurable books to pass the time, even if predictable.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Published by Delacorte Press, 2013

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Review of “The Inexplicable Logic of My Life” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This novel for young adults is chock full of “issues” but it seems realistic enough. The main protagonist is a Caucasian teenager named Sally (Salvador) Silva, raised by a Mexican-American family, who is experiencing changes in himself he doesn’t understand. He is 17, and as the story begins, it is the first day of his senior year at high school in El Paso, Texas.

After his mother died of cancer when Sally was still a toddler, he was adopted by Vincente, a (Mexican) gay artist, whose gender identification brings out the bullies against Sally at school. Sally’s female best friend Sam (note the gender reversal of the names) has a drug-addicted mother, so she practically lives at Sally’s house. His male best friend Fito has “the most screwed-up family on planet Earth,” and he too ends up needing a place to live. Vincente, a generous and compassionate guy who “could have been a counselor” ends up fathering these three seventeen-year-olds.

Turmoil ensues when Sally finds out his beloved grandmother Mima is dying of cancer; Sam almost gets raped by a date; and an old boyfriend shows up in Vincente’s life. On top of all of this, Vincente picks this time to give Sally a letter his mother left for him before she died. Sally is afraid to open it. All of the sudden Sally, formerly a mild-mannered, good-hearted kid, is consumed by fear and anger over all these disruptions in his life, and begins lashing out with his fists.

For the first time, Sally starts to wonder about his biological father. What was hiding inside him? Did he inherit pugilistic tendencies from him? “Maybe the kind of guy I was, well, maybe I was like someone I didn’t know. You know, the guy I’d never met whose genes I had.”

As Sally obsesses over this, Sam and Fito go through their own family crises, and all the kids have self-esteem problems and need support. Vincente’s family, as near to saintly as any family can be, provides it. As they keep telling all of the kids, it’s not where you came from that matters, it is where you are going.

Eventually, Sally comes has the realization that anger didn’t make him a “bad boy” – it just made him human:

“There was nothing wrong with getting angry. It was what you did with that anger that mattered. All this time I’d been so scared that I was going to turn out to be like a biological father I’d never met. I’d underestimated myself. In the end, wasn’t it up to me to choose? Didn’t we all grow up to be the kind of men we wanted to become?”

[Um, no, not necessarily. And how did he come to this epiphany? It seems the opposite of what he might have concluded when he finally found out about his biological father.] But in any event, Sally recognizes that his “real” father is the one who raised him, and that’s the only one he has to worry about. And obviously he could have no better role model, since the guy is universally considered to be just about perfect.

Discussion: Generally in order to get absorbed in a book, I don’t need it to tell a story from the perspective of the same race or culture I am from, or by a character who is the same age, gender and/or has the same gender preference. But I had trouble relating to this story. My best guess as to why is the author’s writing style, which is simplistic (albeit in a somewhat poetic way), and doesn’t reveal much “underneath” the characters.

Sally has a great heart, and is generous in spirit, but isn’t all that bright or sophisticated. He keeps saying he feels he acts more like a little boy than a man, and I have to say I felt the same about him. There is no doubt he is a good boy, but his character just seemed off to me since he was, after all, 17. Even his father talks to him as if he were much younger. And with all his wondering about who he was and why he acted the way he did, he didn’t gain much insight about it, and I didn’t get much either.

There are a number of good messages in this book, but I didn’t feel their emotional heft. There are also some issues unresolved at the end, but we are left with the idea that all the characters are now on the right track, and learning to deal with the inevitable losses of life that ultimately cannot be controlled. Rather, Sally decides, there is “an inexplicable logic” to life, which can be not only terrible but beautiful.

Evaluation: This is probably meant to be a coming-of-age story, but the lack of depth of the narration just didn’t fill in the blanks for me too satisfactorily. “Philosophical” questions get resolved sort of by fiat by the narrator rather than by an evolutionary process evident to the reader (or to this reader, at least). But I really liked some aspects of the book, such as the celebration of Mexican-American culture, and the loving portrayal of a family headed by a gay man.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “She Persisted” by Chelsea Clinton

The title of this book for children by Chelsea Clinton comes from the statement made by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in February 2017 about Senator Elizabeth Warren that soon went viral. In trying to silence Warren, McConnell said: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Women responded in outrage all over the social media, using the hashtags #LetLizSpeak and #ShePersisted.

Clinton decided to adopt that phrase for the title for her collection of short vignettes about 13 women throughout American history who changed the country through their persistence. Obviously there are a plethora of women who could have been featured in this book. In an interview, Clinton explained she chose women who have inspired her over time, the challenge being to narrow down that list. She decided to include a mix of people who were well known and those not so well known, in the hope those in the latter category would become as familiar as those in the former.

The thirteen, most of whom engaged in social activism to bring about a more just world, include Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Clara Lemlich, Nellie Bly, Virginia Apgar, Maria Tallchief, Claudette Colvin, Ruby Bridges, Margaret Chase Smith, Sally Ride, Florence Griffith Joyner, Oprah Winfrey, and Sonia Sotomayor.

Clinton writes:

“Sometimes being a girl isn’t easy. At some point, someone probably will tell you no, will tell you to be quiet and may even tell you your dreams are impossible. Don’t listen to them. These thirteen American women certainly did not take no for answer. They persisted.”

Illustrator Alexandra Boiger uses watercolors that will appeal to the young audience for whom this book is intended.

Evaluation: In my own childhood, I heard all those same discouraging statements said to me as Clinton wrote in the quote cited above. I hope this book and others like it help teach young girls that obstacles can be surmounted and aspirations realized, if only one persists.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Philomel Books, an imprint of Random House, 2017

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Review of “Reading with Patrick” by Michelle Kuo

This is a lovely memoir about a mutually transforming friendship between a teacher and a pupil, but also an indictment of the state of education, the justice system, the health system, and the social support system in the largely forgotten impoverished areas of the black South.

Michelle Kuo, a volunteer for Teach for America at age 22 in 2004, was assigned to Helena, Arkansas, a poor, mostly black city in the Mississippi Delta. Her original goal was to teach American history through black literature. She had the romantic notion, as she herself characterized it, that she could change the lives of her students through books. She was sent to a school named Stars, where the local administration placed the so-called bad kids: “These were the truants and the druggies, the troublemakers and the fighters who had been expelled from the mainstream schools.”

Moreover, this area of the Delta was:

” . . . a place that you cannot leave, where you can’t travel or work if you can’t afford a car, where land is endless space that’s been denied you, where people burn down their houses because the insurance money is worth more than the sale price, where the yards of shuttered homes are dumping grounds for pedestrian litter, where water is possibly polluted by a fertilizer company that skipped town….”

This is definitely part of forgotten America. This subset of the American population bears an unequal burden of hardships. Helena specifically is the seat of one of the poorest counties in the country. During the time Kuo was there, there were few jobs and many of the residents had no skills in any event. In the schools, the feeling of having given up, shared by both by students and administrators, resulted in a lack of education or interest in learning.

In addition, Helena not only ranked last in the state in public health, but its teenage birthrate was higher than that of ninety-four developing countries. Many residents had disabilities or emotional or mental disorders. And if someone got in trouble, the police were the last people they would call: as Patrick put it:

“Naw, naw, ain’t no one call the police. The police here ain’t no police.. They out smoking weed and dealing drugs. How they gonna come to your house?”

Kuo astutely observes that while a lot of attention is given to blacks who left the South in the “Great Migration,” not so much is devoted to those who stayed, often not having had the means to leave. They had no money, or no connections up north. Or they could not read or write. Or they were afraid of reprisals against family who did not leave. And naturally there was a fear of places unknown and unfamiliar; how would they support themselves? What if they couldn’t? The ones who stayed, Kuo points out, were likely among the most destitute, the ones most accustomed to defeat.

Kuo found she had to modify her grandiose dreams. The students she encountered in her eighth grade class had limited vocabularies and a circumscribed grasp of history. She reports that “they hadn’t known, for instance, when slavery ended or recognized the vocabulary word emancipation..” They were only vaguely aware of the legacy of violence against blacks, and only knew that Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead, not so much who he was or why he was important. In any event, she found, they didn’t want to think about all those painful things; they wanted school to be a refuge.

Kuo began to bond with Patrick Browning, who was 15 when she first met him. He seemed kind and mild-mannered, and when he stopped attending school, she went to his house to talk to him. She promised him to work hard for him, if he would work hard too.

Thus began a relationship that lasted not only until Kuo left for law school, but afterwards. She visited him intermittently, but then a couple of years after she had stopped teaching in Helena, she found out Patrick was in jail for murder. She felt bad for him:

“Now you see Patrick in jail, Patrick alone, Patrick not expecting anything of you or anybody – Patrick blaming himself, Patrick not knowing what he was charged for, Patrick not even knowing how many times he stabbed a person, just knowing he took away a life.”

Kuo decided the only way she could live with herself was to return to Helena and help Patrick. She also contacted a public defender on his behalf – there were only two in Helena, and both had to do other work on the side because of low pay. Not only were their salaries inadequate, but they had to buy many supplies out of their own pockets. They also had zero funds for investigating cases, and over a hundred clients each.

Kuo bemoans the state of criminal justice in the South, excoriating the long sentences for drug-related crimes, lack of legal aid, and resulting mass incarceration. She contends that measures targeting the black poor were part of a massive backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. She cites historian Elizabeth Hinton who pointed out that as overt racism became less palatable, “crime” became the politically acceptable way for politicians to make statements about race. Money was allocated to combat crime, but not to improve the education, employment opportunities, or housing, the lack of which helped contribute to that crime rate.

Back in Helena, Kuo visited Patrick almost every day in jail, bringing him books that they reviewed and discussed together. They read everything from Derek Walcott to Richard Wright to Emily Dickinson. Kuo was heartened that Patrick noticed things and made connections, and that his own writing improved so much. He was especially moved by James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew, saying to her, “It’s real.”

James Baldwin with his nephew

After seven months, Kuo had to leave to take a job to which she had previously committed. She noted how far Patrick had come: “. . . it frightens me that so little was required for him to develop intellectually – a quiet room, a pile of books and some adult guidance. And yet these things were rarely supplied.” But she thought it was time for her to go. Did she change his life, she wondered? Could she? She mused:

“I met Patrick when he was fifteen. He’d watched dope deals at age five, accidentally set himself on fire at eleven, and seen a lot that I can’t know. It may seem crazy to believe that I, or any educator, could have decisively reversed his fate. In the complex portrait of a person’s life, it’s possible that a teacher is just a speck.”

And yet, it’s clear she did change him, perhaps in ways which she isn’t aware of herself. I know in my own life, I was deeply influenced by a teacher. Yes, the teacher couldn’t change the basic trajectory of my life that came from other factors, but my internal world – my capacity to see and hear and appreciate, was radically altered thereafter.

Evaluation: This excellent book is so thought-provoking; it would make a great choice for book clubs. It sheds a great deal of light on “forgotten America”; follows a woman’s journey to realize her own identity; and interrogates the efficacy of trying to make a difference in someone’s life through the beauty and power of words, and the career path of teaching.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House, 2017

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