Kid Lit Review of “Leave Me Alone!” by Vera Brosgol

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This is a cute story for ages 4-7 about a grandmother who lives in a small house with a big family, and can never get her knitting done with all the interruptions. Increasingly frustrated, she packs up all her things and goes off in search of some peace and quiet.

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When she finally gets to be by herself, however, of course she is lonely, and ends up coming back home.

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This book will appeal both to children and adults, and you can just imagine it as an excellent choice for library kid-reading events. Each time the grandma shouts “Leave me alone!” all the kids will be shouting and giggling as well.

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The illustrations by Brosgol are hilarious, in a very subtle way. You have to study them to see all the funny bits. (Brosgol is a graphic novel writer and artist, and here she employs her talent for packing frames with lots of information and action.)

Rating: 4/5

Published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing, 2016

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Review of “Lola” by Melissa Scrivner Love

In the L.A. suburb of Huntington Park, Lola Vasquez, 26, is the de facto leader of the Crenshaw Six, a small-time gang helping to distribute drugs and collect cash for a larger, more powerful cartel. In theory, the gang’s leader is Garcia, Lola’s boyfriend, with the gang keeping the secret that the actual head is Lola.

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One of the members of the gang, to Lola’s chagrin, is her younger brother Hector, which creates problems for her when he messes up. Her life is also complicated by her mother, Maria, who pimped out Lola when she was little so Maria could get her fixes. Lola both hates her and loves her.

In one encounter, Maria mentions to Lola she’s watching her cholesterol. You can just see Lola gritting her teeth as she thinks:

“Growing up, she and Hector ate Spam and hot dogs and sugary fruit punch three times a day. They watched their mother shoot up. Lola did things with and to men, so Maria could shoot up. And now Maria’s concerned about her cholesterol.”

She knows it damaged her. As she muses when she goes on reconnaissance to an upscale gym:

“Is there another god present here that no one ever told her about, the god of self-worth and self-confidence and self-esteem?”

Lola defends what she does:

“…when she looks at white-collar industries – real estate, hedge funds, stocks – she can’t say they traffic in any product much different from her own. They are all of them looking to exploit, to squeeze pennies and dollars and power from people who need what they peddle.”

But mostly, she is tired of playing a role, of being the little unseen woman behind Garcia. She wants to be herself: “Lola Vasquez, up-and-coming queenpin.…”

She gets involved in a big mess though, coming between two different cartels. She ruefully observes that the only things she feels unsure of are which one will kill her and how exactly she will die.

Evaluation: I really liked the ways in which this book about gangs and gang violence had the gender roles upended. Lola did not shy away from violence and yet I found myself rooting for her all the same; I thought she was a great character.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, 2017

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Review of “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics for the work he did with his long-time intellectual partner, Amos Tversky. (Tversky probably would have shared in the prize had he lived.) Remarkably, neither man was an economist — rather, they were psychologists whose work had extraordinary economic consequences. In this outstanding book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman restates, summarizes, and popularizes much of their joint research. [Michael Lewis’s new book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds… is about their relationship.]

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A unifying theme of this book is that the human mind operates in at least two distinct and separate ways. The first way (the author calls it System 1) is instinctive, nearly instantaneous, efficient, very useful, but often misleading and sometimes downright wrong. The second way (System 2) is deliberate, ratiocinative, relatively slow, and generally more accurate than System 1. But, as Kahneman shows, System 2 also can be self-deceptive.

Kahneman begins by elaborating on the basic elements of the two-systems approach to making choices. He then explores why it is so difficult for us to think “statistically” rather than, say, associatively, or metaphorically. The third part describes “our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance….” [This of course has a lot of significance lately given all the speculation over why so many people adhere to “alternative facts.”]

In the fourth part, Kahneman addresses the standard economic model that posits economic agents act rationally. Kahneman’s work is significant for economics because he demonstrates that real people “are not well described by the rational agent model” that is the basis of the Chicago School and much other economic analysis. It is not that people are always or even mostly irrational, but that there are occasions where it is extremely difficult to be perfectly consistent in one’s beliefs.

Finally, he reviews recent research that introduced the fascinating distinction between “the experiencing self” and “the remembering self,” which, as he demonstrates, “do not have the same interests.” Which one will guide us, and which one will inform our determination of “well-being”?

Kahneman and Tversky influenced and were influenced by University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler. Together, they helped form a new discipline called behavioral economics. One of the more interesting consequences of their analyses is a departure from the strictly laissez faire approach to public policy advocated by Milton Friedman to the slightly more paternalistic approach advocated by Thaler in Misbehaving and by Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their best seller, Nudge.

President Obama awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Daniel Kahneman, Dec, 2016

President Obama awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Daniel Kahneman, Dec, 2016

The book is dedicated to the memory of Amos Tversky, who died in 1996.

Evaluation: Thinking, Fast and Slow is extremely stimulating and very lucidly written. It is considered to be a “landmark” in economics and an intellectual tour de force.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011

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Review of “All the Birds in the Sky” by Charlie Jane Anders

In the “Acknowledgments” at the end of this fantasy book, the author writes:

“I really hope you guys enjoyed this book. If you didn’t, or if there was stuff that didn’t make sense to you or seemed too random, just e-mail me and I’ll come to your house and act the whole thing out for you. Maybe with origami finger puppets.”

I am one of those who would need her to visit with her puppets. Much of the book didn’t make sense to me. The parts that did, I didn’t like so much. Bullying and the abuse of kids is not one of my favorite subjects. The author portrayed these not so much as tragic but almost flippantly.

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The story begins when the two main characters are in middle school. Patricia is a witch, and Laurence is an engineering genius. Both of them are treated as outsiders and hounded mercilessly, by their families as well as by their schoolmates. They remain somewhat oblivious to their ill treatment, however, except by withdrawing further into their odd niches. When they meet each other, they sense they can serve as allies to one another, although Laurence is a little freaked out by Patricia’s powers.

Laurence leaves for science school and Patricia for witch school; eventually they meet up again ten years later in San Francisco. Although they were supposed to be enemies – “science versus magic” – they ended up feeling bound together instead. But the apocalypse arrives, started in part by increasing environmental disasters, and it threatens not only their relationship, but the survival of the entire Earth (somehow equated in level of tragedy in this book).

Discussion: In some ways this book reminded me of The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins, in terms of being creatively different, but also with very appalling imagery. It also had a similar mix of fantasy, horror, science fiction, alternate history, and social satire, with some romance thrown into the mix. But the writing in this book often seemed sophomoric or juvenile. A variety of plot threads are abandoned mid-stream. And none of the characters were developed with enough dimension to let the reader (or this reader) feel close enough to care. As for the ending, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Evaluation: I’ve seen a lot of praise for this book, and the blurb by Michael Chabon was astoundingly complementary. (In truth, however, it sounded to me like he was describing one of his own books rather than this one.) The author explored some interesting ideas, but I had to push myself to get through the book.

Rating: 2.75/5

Published by Tor, a trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, 2016

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Kid Lit Review of “Thunder Boy Jr.” by Sherman Alexie

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Sherman Alexie, who won a multitude of awards for his young adult book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, here enters the children’s market with his first picture book. He explained to Ron Charles of The Washington Post that he wanted “to help correct an ongoing problem: the lack of brown-skinned kids in literature.”

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Alexie’s sense of humor comes through in this fun story about a young boy who is a “junior,” named after his father. While the boy loves his dad, he wants an identity of his own, and throughout this story, proposes all sorts of alternate names. He wants a name that, as he says, “celebrates something cool that I’ve done.” He then lists some of these cool things, such as the time he touched a wild orca on the nose, or climbed a mountain.

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As with his book for young adults, a lot of the humor is self-deprecating. For example, he confesses that “I learned to ride a bike when I was three, so maybe my name should be ‘Gravity’s Best Friend.’”

The names he comes up with are quite humorous, but some Native American readers have expressed the worry that the book will provide ammunition for those who wish to make fun of Native Americans for the whole “Indian names” issue. I can see their point, but in my experience bullies don’t really need outside help; they are plenty able to be nasty with or without guidance. And when they can’t assemble facts, they merely adduce “alternate facts.” So why should we give up the positive aspects of the book for something that could happen in any event?

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On the contrary, I would like to think that young children exposed to diverse cultures might learn to appreciate them in a positive way.

Illustrator Yuyi (pronounced “ZHOO-zhee” ) Morales is a 2015 Caldecott Honor winner, as well as the recipient of several Pura Belpré Awards. In this book she clearly had fun putting the text into pictures. She also employed speech bubbles, based on what was already in the text, making them part of the illustrations.

The author told NPR what he hopes kids will take away from this book:

“The idea that, you know, you don’t have to be like your family to be a part of your family; that in fact you can extend the borders of your family. As one person, as one member of a family, you can make your unit larger with your ambitions and your ideas about yourself.”

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Evaluation: This is a delightful book that one hopes will mitigate the negative elements of the current environment in which non-white cultures are disparaged. With proper guidance, the story in this book can be used in a positive way to illustrate the diversity of American culture.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2016

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