Review of “Sway” by Kat Spears

Jesse Alderman, 17, is called “Sway” because he has a talent for getting people what they want, and then extracting favors or money in return. As one of Jesse’s friends explains:

Sway ain’t somethin’ you can define. A brother who’s got sway is the man – don’t have to try to be cool, just…is. … He’s so slick, he could convince you that I’m white, have you believin’ it like it’s gospel.”

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Jesse doesn’t seem to have any scruples about fulfilling requests, nor any emotional involvement in their consequences. His mother committed suicide, and his father is an alcoholic. Life seems simpler to him if he avoids feelings, or any closeness with anyone, and pushes people away, except those he needs for his “business.”

All this changes, however, when he is asked by a Neanderthal-like football player, Ken Foster, to make Bridget Smalley want to go out with him. Jesse succeeds as always, but finds, in the process of investigating what Bridget is like and what might impress her (to tell Ken), he actually gets to like Bridget a lot himself.

Bridget is called (deprecatingly by some) a “saint” – she volunteers at a center for the disabled, she visits her grandmother weekly at a nursing home, and in general, is a good person in addition to (or in spite of) looking like “an angel.”

Inadvertently, Jesse is changed by her. He gets to know Bridget’s brother Pete, who has cerebral palsy, and treats him just like he treats everyone else, which is to say, like a jerk. But Pete loves him for that, and Jesse actually gets to appreciate Pete’s company. Jesse also “adopts” a “grandfather” at the nursing home, so he can impress Bridget in that way also, but finds he comes to be quite attached to Mr. Dunkelman. Jesse also finds himself helping out people who have nothing to trade, just because Bridget likes them.

In short, Jesse’s soul of ice is starting to thaw. But now Bridget is dating Ken, and Ken has threatened to rip Jesse apart if he ever comes near Bridget. Worse yet, when confronted by Ken, Jesse denies he likes either Bridget or Pete, and Pete overhears this as well as the nature of the scheme that hooked up Ken with Bridget in the first place. It looks like Jesse’s “dynasty” is going to come apart, and he is about to lose everything: not only his “sway,” but what has come to be even more important to him: friendship, goodness, and redemption.

Evaluation: I didn’t expect to like this; Jesse is someone who seems very unappealing in the beginning of the book. But as the story unfolds, you get to know why he acts like he does, and what kind of person he really is inside. The dénouement was a little too Hollywood-ish, but it will probably please most readers.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by St. Martin’s Griffin, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan Publishers, 2014

Women’s History Month Notable Women Series: Rosa Parks

Most Americans think of Rosa Parks as just a poor seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama who one day made a valiant stand and decided not to move to the back of the bus (as was required for African-Americans), single-handedly taking on and helping to change the racist policies of the Jim Crow Era. (Technically, Parks did not sit in the white section at all; she sat in the front row of the “colored” section and refused to give up her seat to a white when the bus got crowded.)

Booking photo of Parks

Booking photo of Parks

This story of individual initiative is one of the ways in which a more threatening narrative of a minority-led social movement is watered down to conform to the myth of the American Dream, in which any hard-working, courageous person has an equal chance to make a difference and/or to succeed in the American society and economy.

Rosa Parks was certainly a heroic figure, but her story is quite different than the myth that surrounds her legacy.

In actuality, while Parks was indeed a seamstress, she was also one of the first women in Montgomery to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as its secretary. She also worked with the the NAACP youth division and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, she had been working for the desegregation of Montgomery schools. In an oral history of the American Civil Rights Movement (My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered by journalist Howell Raines), she explained: “I had almost a life history of being rebellious about being mistreated because of my color.”

Rosa Parks in 1955, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background

Rosa Parks in 1955, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background

Prior to Parks’ action on December 1, 1955, three other Montgomery blacks had been arrested for not giving up their bus seats, but Parks was deemed by the black leadership to have sufficient inner strength and respect of the community to serve as a rallying point for a boycott. In addition, the leadership thought she – humble yet dignified, would make a good impression on white judges. Planning for a boycott had been taking place since 1949. It required a significant investment of time and resources by the Civil Rights Movement. Word had to get out to the black community, leaflets printed and distributed, ministers asked to spread the word, negotiating demands drawn up,and most importantly, alternative transportation had to be put into place for all the blacks who relied on the bus to get to their jobs, doctor’s appointments, shopping, etc. Volunteer cars were needed, and volunteer drivers, for those who could not walk.

Black Residents Walking, Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955

Black Residents Walking, Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955

Martin Luther King, Jr., just 26 years old and relatively recently appointed as resident pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was drafted as president of the protest committee, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Several thousand attended the first mass meeting of the MIA on December 5th, 1955 and King delivered an appeal for support of the boycott that demonstrated his ability to move and inspire:

And we are not wrong; we are not wrong in what we are doing. (Well) If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. (Yes sir) [applause] If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. (Yes) [applause] If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. (That’s right) [applause] If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to Earth. (Yes) [applause] If we are wrong, justice is a lie (Yes), love has no meaning. [applause] And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water (Yes), [applause] and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Keep talking) [Applause]”

Martin Luther King at First Montgomery Improvement Association Meeting to Organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott Holt Street Baptist Church, Montgomery Alabama 12/5/1955.

Martin Luther King at First Montgomery Improvement Association
Meeting to Organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott Holt Street Baptist Church, Montgomery Alabama 12/5/1955.

Between 30,000 and 40,000 fares were denied to the bus company every day. But even economic incentives were not enough to deter those blinded by racism; it took prolonged media exposure, political pressure, and most importantly, unwavering commitment on the part of the participants. The boycott lasted 381 days.

The role Rosa Parks played was significant, but it should not be examined out of context. The fact that it generally is provides a useful lesson in the political construction of social memories. The many protests that were the result of mass movements, involving a great deal of work, not to mention a large number of beatings and even fatalities, should not be reduced to a story about one brave self-effacing woman who knocked down almost a century of Jim Crow. We rightfully applaud and admire Rosa Parks, but her story is also a lesson in the political ends to which history is put.

Even carefully shaped narratives are often couched as “histories,” thus conferring a certain authority or legitimacy upon what is actually a specific set of values, norms, and perspectives that in turn changes popular reactions to events.

As historian James Young famously observed, “Memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives of history are never pure.” We would do well to remember this even as we honor a great woman in history, Rosa Parks.

Rosa Parks in 1956

Rosa Parks in 1956

Women’s History Month Kid Lit Review of “Women Heroes of the American Revolution” by Susan Casey

This set, as the subtitle reads, of “20 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Defiance, and Rescue” is a collection of stories for young readers about largely forgotten women who served in some capacity to help America’s cause in the revolution against British rule. Not only did these women take courageous actions in spite of grave dangers to themselves and their families, but they did so at a time in which women were discouraging from doing anything at all outside the home.

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The book is divided into four sections: Resisters, Supporters and Rescuers; Spies; Saboteurs; Soldiers and Defenders of the Home Front; and Legendary Ladies.

Those profiled include Sybil Ludington, the 16-year-old who out-rode Paul Revere to warn Patriots that the British were coming; Phillis Wheatley, the young black slave who became a published poet; Mary Katherine Goddard, who published a newspaper; Lydia Darragh, a spy for George Washington; Mary Lindley Murray, who threw a party to detain the British while the Patriots escaped; Deborah Gannett, who disguised herself as a man and fought in the Revolutionary Army for three years, and more.

Perhaps the most unsatisfying section was the one on “Legendary Ladies” because the activities and even identities of these women could not be verified. There were also some important omissions, like Mercy Otis Warren and Emily Geiger.

On the whole, however, this books makes an important contribution to the usual literature on the Revolution, which is almost exclusively centered on men.

Images, source notes, and a bibliography are included.

Published by Chicago Review Press, 2015

Review of “The Thousand Names” by Django Wexler

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Apparently this book falls into the sub-fantasy genre of “Flintlock Fantasy,” which means it has a Napoleon-Era-like setting and wars that are fought with muskets, bayonets, and artillery …and magic… But the biggest appeal of this particular book for me is that one of the protagonists in the war being fought is a female disguised as a male.

The book is basically a war chronicle, focusing on a ragtag colonial regiment in the desert region of a place called Khandar, where the most precious commodity is water, and the dangers presented by scorpions and snakes loom as formidably as confrontations with the enemy. As the book explains, service in Khandar was usually a “reward” for an ill-spent military career.

As the story begins, the veteran Colonials are joined by an influx of raw recruits to combat an attempted coup d’état of the government by religious fanatics.

The story alternates among several points of view. One is that of Captain Marcus d’Ivoire: not brilliant, but conscientious and loyal. He was in charge of the regiment until the arrival of the head of the new recruits, Count Colonel Janus bet Vhlanich Mieran. Janus puzzles Marcus; Janus seems to have an irrational faith in their ability to confront the more numerous forces of the enemy. Does he have some tricks up his sleeve, or is he just crazy?

Another voice is that of Winter Ihernglass, a girl disguised as a boy, who is promoted to Sergeant – much to her own horror, but who acquits herself resourcefully and bravely, even as she constantly struggles to guard her secret.

As the story unfolds, so do the secrets of the characters. In addition, we observe vicariously the many ways in which desert battles depend on creativity, innovation, and of course, availability of water. But in this story, there is something more; the magic of “The Thousand Names,” about which we learn incrementally as the book progresses.

Discussion: I enjoyed this book immensely as a story about war. In this way it reminded me a bit of Norman Mailer’s 1948 The Naked and the Dead, one of my favorite books.

I could have done entirely without the magical elements, however. It was a bit too off the rails for me, although it did serve several functions in the plotline. And I suppose such things may be “necessary” when writing a “fantasy” even though I wished it were just a “regular” war novel. Nevertheless, I intend to follow up on this book; although it does come to an ending of sorts, it is the first of a continuing series.

Evaluation: Even if you think you might not enjoy a novel about the nitty gritty aspects of war, this story has lots of added interest, in my opinion, because of the inclusion of females in various guises who figure into the plot.

Rating: 3.5/5

A ROC Book, published by the Penguin Group, 2013

Review of “Shadow Scale” by Rachel Hartman

This fantasy novel is the sequel to Seraphina, which tells the story of Seraphina Dombegh, 16, who is one of the hated class of “ityasaari” or “half-breeds” – her mother was a dragon and her father a human. Seraphina rigorously ensures that her small trail of silver dragon scales stays hidden however, and she keeps her curious visions of grotesque beings in check by putting them inside a garden she has created in her mind. At the end of Book One, she discovered that these garden denizens are actually half-breeds like her; she met three of them in real life.

Seraphina’s tutor and mentor throughout her life has been her beloved dragon uncle, Orma, who also taught her how to control her visions. From his care of Seraphina, Orma developed a fondness for her, but such an attachment was frowned upon by dragonkind, and Orma was in danger of being sent back to the dragon homeland to have his memories surgically removed. While dragons stay mostly in human physical form as part of the peace treaty with humans, they are taught to eschew human feelings and adhere to the “correct” mental state of emotional distance. It isn’t easy, however, for all of dragonkind.

Thanks to Orma, Seraphina became an accomplished musician, and thus was able to get a job as an assistant to the court composer. Further, she was selected to teach the harpsichord to Princess Glisselda, called “Selda.” Seraphina became close to Selda, as well as to Selda’s cousin and fiancé, Prince Lucian Kiggs, and thus became involved in the politics of the royal court.

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As this book begins – a few months after the action in the first book concluded, the dragons are engaged in a civil war, with the Court taking the side of Ardagar Comonot, the (relatively) progressive dragonic deposed leader, against the conservative forces of the Old Ard, who want to end the peace with humankind. Orma has disappeared, presumably to hide from the Censors who would take away his memories and thereby strip him of emotions, but he left Seraphina a letter advising her to find the other half-dragons from her garden; it is believed that each of the half-dragons has a different mental power, and in combining them, there might be a way to defeat the Old Ard.

To that end, Seraphina sets out to neighboring kingdoms, with the blessing of Selda (now Queen) and Lucian, to find the other ityasaari and help the Kingdom of the Goredd regain peace. She is also desperate to find her uncle and make sure he is okay. But her plans are stymied by Jannoula, a warped and powerful half-dragon who can take over the minds of others. Seraphina has trouble going up against Jannoula; she knows from her visions that Jannoula has had a terrible life. But as one of the other ityasaaris advises her: “…do not make the mistake, Seraphina, of supposing that suffering ennobles anyone.” Seraphina has too big of a heart to learn that lesson until it is almost too late. And while she has never really known what her own power is, she must figure it out and use it if she is ever to combat the genocidal tendencies of the evil Jannoula.

Discussion: I loved the first book. As I wrote in my review of it, both Seraphina’s interior and exterior worlds were so richly imagined, and so remarkably creative, that I couldn’t compliment the author enough. In addition, the characters were uniformly complex: by turns heart-warming, amusing, heart-breaking, fragile, stronger than they knew, full of hurt, but full of hope. I also loved the fact that Seraphina, while suffused with the self-hatred she absorbed from her culture, nonetheless bravely persevered in engaging with her society to do what she thought was right.

Although the world-building involving the dragons is stellar, I appreciated the metaphorical aspects of the divide between dragonkind and humankind. The prejudice, misinformation, fear, rumor-mongering, and acts of intimidation and terrorism were reminiscent of – well, humankind all by itself!

In this book, however, Jannoula hijacks the plot. Jannoula is pretty evil, seemingly invincible, and extremely unlikable. Seraphina was able to muster up sympathy and pity for Jannoula, in part because she well understood the shame and punishments in store for those known to be half-breeds. I understood how the emptiness of Jannoula’s soul served to reflect the largeness of Seraphina’s, but I still hated how she took up so much plot-space, when there were so many other wonderful characters with whom I would have rather spent my time.

On the positive side, the permutations of love also play a starring role in this book as with the first book. And there is a wonderful twist at the end that almost redeems my disappointment over the dominance of Jannoula in the story.

Evaluation: Hartman is an excellent writer. I rated this book in relation to her first book, but I don’t want that to reflect on its quality.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, LLC, 2015

Review of “The Duff” by Kody Keplinger

At a dance club with her friends, seventeen-year-old Bianca Piper finds out, from the “man-whore” Wesley Rush, that she is known as the “Duff” – the Designated Ugly Fat Friend – vis-a-vis her two BFFs Casey and Jessica. Wesley tells her this by way of asking her help to hook up with her hot friends. As Wesley explains:

‘Hey, don’t get defensive. It’s not like you’re an ogre or anything, but in comparison…” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “Think about it. Why do they bring you here if you don’t dance?”

Wesley is everything Bianca hates: he is, she thinks, “the most disgusting womanizing playboy to ever darken the doorstep of Hamilton high . . . but he was kind of hot.” After Wesley explains that girls find it “sexy” when guys “socialize with the Duff” and by talking to her he is doubling his chances of getting laid, she throws her coke all over him, calling him a “disgusting, shallow, womanizing jackass…” and a “self-absorbed son of a bitch.”

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Bianca wasn’t unaffected by the insult, and brooded over this new revelation that she was thought of as “The Duff” even though she couldn’t believe she was worried about “such stupid, pointless, shallow bullshit.” But she wasn’t as invulnerable as she wished, and she did obsess over it.

And that wasn’t all that was worrying Bianca. Her mother kept taking longer and longer trips, and her father was getting more and more upset. He used to be an alcoholic, and Bianca was scared he would relapse. She desperately needed her own distraction, and the next time Wesley approached her at the dance club, she lunged at him and kissed him fiercely, a kiss he returned just as passionately. Then his hand traveled over her body, and she shoved him away, slapping him. But she couldn’t stop thinking about that kiss.

Nevertheless, Bianca managed to avoid Wesley until their English teacher made them partners for writing an analysis of The Scarlet Letter. She said he could come to her house, but in the interim, her dad got served with divorce papers and went on a drinking binge. The house was littered with broken bottles, so Bianca called Wesley and said she would go to his place instead. They talked briefly about Hester Prynne in the book, and it occurred to Bianca that Hester slept with Dimmesdale because she needed distraction, and that seemed like a pretty good strategy to Bianca. She turned to Wesley and kisses him, and before long they were having sex:

I might have hated Wesley Rush, but he held the key to my escape, and at that moment I wanted him . . . I needed him.”

And of course, as things get worse for Bianca at home, she finds she needs the diversion of sex with Wesley more and more. Bianca is upfront that all she wants from Wesley is “distraction,” but as the liaison continues – free of artifice and with occasional moving forays into deeply honest communication – it inevitably changes, and so do Bianca and Wesley.

Discussion: There is plenty of sex (albeit safe) and “language” in this story, but it feels quite authentic, and the heart of the story isn’t actually about sex at all. Rather, it delves into issues of self-image and sources of self-esteem, as well as the need for authenticity and being true to oneself.

But the relationship between Bianca and Wesley makes a very good story by itself, even without the other plot elements. Ironically, by the end, I liked Wesley a whole lot more than Bianca. But Bianca is still a good character: she is fighting a whole lot of demons, and has a lot of lessons to learn, some of which take her a really long time, and some of which she never does really get. But that felt real as well.

Evaluation: This is a good book with a commendable ending that I would recommend to anyone who doesn’t have objections to high school sex and “language.” (I know many adults do have such objections, but I believe all that means is that they haven’t been around high schoolers, or honest high schoolers, lately.)

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Poppy, an imprint of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2011

Note: The author wrote this when she was 17 and it was published when she was 19. The film adaptation, starring Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, and Ken Jeong, was released on February 20, 2015.

You can watch a trailer for the movie below.

Women’s History Month Notable Women Series: Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks, born in 1917, was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—the first black woman to hold that position—and selected to succeed Carl Sandburg as Poet Laureate of the State of Illinois.

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At age 13, she published her first poem in a children’s magazine, and by the time she was 16, she had published some 75 poems. She started going to poetry workshops, and in 1943 received her first award for her work.

Her first book, A Street in Bronzeville, was published in 1945 to wide acclaim. With her second book, Annie Allen (1950), she became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Brooks’s work became more political as she got older, displaying what National Observer contributor Bruce Cook termed “an intense awareness of the problems of color and justice.”

She wrote in 1972:

There is indeed a new black today. He is different from any the world has known. He’s a tall-walker. Almost firm. By many of his own brothers he is not understood. And he is understood by no white. Not the wise white; not the schooled white; not the kind white. Your least pre-requisite toward an understanding of the new black is an exceptional Doctorate which can be conferred only upon those with the proper properties of bitter birth and intrinsic sorrow. I know this is infuriating, especially to those professional Negro-understanders, some of them very kind, with special portfolio, special savvy. But I cannot say anything other, because nothing other is the truth.”

You can see a difference in tone between these two poems, the first published in 1959, and the second in 1980:

We Real Cool (1959)

THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.”

Primer For Blacks (1980)

Blackness
is a title,
is a preoccupation,
is a commitment Blacks
are to comprehend—
and in which you are
to perceive your Glory.

The conscious shout
of all that is white is
“It’s Great to be white.”
The conscious shout
of the slack in Black is
“It’s Great to be white.”
Thus all that is white
has white strength and yours.

The word Black
has geographic power,
pulls everybody in:
Blacks here—
Blacks there—
Blacks wherever they may be.
And remember, you Blacks, what they told you—
remember your Education:
“one Drop—one Drop
maketh a brand new Black.”
         Oh mighty Drop.
______And because they have given us kindly
so many more of our people

Blackness
stretches over the land.
Blackness—
the Black of it,
the rust-red of it,
the milk and cream of it,
the tan and yellow-tan of it,
the deep-brown middle-brown high-brown of it,
the “olive” and ochre of it—
Blackness
marches on.

The huge, the pungent object of our prime out-ride
is to Comprehend,
to salute and to Love the fact that we are Black,
which is our “ultimate Reality,”
which is the lone ground
from which our meaningful metamorphosis,
from which our prosperous staccato,
group or individual, can rise.

Self-shriveled Blacks.
Begin with gaunt and marvelous concession:
YOU are our costume and our fundamental bone.
      
All of you—
you COLORED ones,
you NEGRO ones,
those of you who proudly cry
“I’m half INDian”—
those of you who proudly screech
“I’VE got the blood of George WASHington in MY veins”
ALL of you—
you proper Blacks,
you half-Blacks,
you wish-I-weren’t Blacks,
Niggeroes and Niggerenes.

You.”

Brooks died of cancer at the age of 83 in 2000.

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