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Book Review: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz

January 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Review: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah MoskowitzSummary:
Etta is tired of dealing with all of the labels and categories that seem so important to everyone else in her small Nebraska hometown.

Everywhere she turns, someone feels she’s too fringe for the fringe. Not gay enough for the Dykes, her ex-clique, thanks to a recent relationship with a boy; not tiny and white enough for ballet, her first passion; and not sick enough to look anorexic (partially thanks to recovery). Etta doesn’t fit anywhere— until she meets Bianca, the straight, white, Christian, and seriously sick girl in Etta’s therapy group. Both girls are auditioning for Brentwood, a prestigious New York theater academy that is so not Nebraska. Bianca seems like Etta’s salvation, but how can Etta be saved by a girl who needs saving herself?

Review:
Etta is a character I wish I had been able to find in fiction when I was a teenager. She’s unashamedly herself, even when it hurts or it involves some floundering. She’s from a small town with dreams of the big city. She just doesn’t fit in her small town. She is so very real because she is so many intersectional elements at once. Most important to me is that she’s bisexual (and she actually SAYS the word), but she’s also female, black, and suffering from Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOs), where the name of the book comes from.

What’s so great though is that, even with being all of these things, her main point of conflict actually has nothing to do with any of them. She desperately wants to live in NYC, and she sees a contest to get into a musical theater high school in NYC as just the chance to do that. She has a huge dream, and that is something any YA reader can relate to. So even if the reader happens to not relate to Etta on anything else (and honestly, who cares? kids like Etta have to reach really hard to relate to most of the literature out there so it’s about time the mainstream kids have to as well), but even if they don’t relate to her on anything else, they should be able to relate to her on this adolescent experience of The Big Dream.

I loved that Etta is allowed to be the person she is without speaking for All Bisexuals™. She very clearly presents herself as a bisexual person who is not representative of all bisexual people beyond the being attracted to more than one gender thing. I also appreciated that the complexity of the queer community is shown. Etta talks about being pushed into being an outsider by both the straights and the lesbians because both of them kind of just want her to “pick a side.” The book begins with the lesbians being angry at Etta for dating a boy. They’re acting like she was a “fake lesbian,” and this is how Etta feels about that:

And bi the way, I was never a lesbian, and I told the Dykes that all the time, but there isn’t a Banjo Bisexuals group or whatever. (location 54)

While a lot of the book eloquently deals with Etta’s sexuality, it also takes time to talk about race and racism. I lost the highlighted passage but essentially Etta is talking with a friend and discusses how hard it is to be part of so many minority groups and how she can never hide being black but she can hide being queer, and how that means she can never escape racism. On the other hand, she also points out how exhausting it can be to constantly be reminding people of her queerness. No one denies that she’s black but people keep trying to take her bisexual identity from her. It’s a non-preachy passage that introduces the complexities of intersexuality to a YA audience.

Finally, there’s the EDNOS. The best part about this is the book come in when Etta is in recovery. Most books about eating disorders come in during the downward spiral, but Etta has already gone to treatment and is working in recovery. We so often don’t get to see recovery and how messy it can be in literature, but we see it here. We get to see how mental illnesses don’t just go away, people just have strategies for staying in recovery.

There’s a ton that’s good about this book, but I must say that I did think the level of partying could sometimes be a bit over the top. While obviously not all kids are straight-edged I was a bit skeptical of the level of partying going on in Small Town USA (including high schoolers getting into a gay bar repeatedly). Perhaps what struck me as a bit less realitic, actually, was Etta’s intelligent and put-together mother who is clearly caring being somehow out of touch about the partying going on, whereas Etta’s sister is 100% aware. It wasn’t enough to truly bother me and I do think on some level some YA readers expect an unrealistic set of partying situations just for the interest level but in a book that had so much realistic about it, it just struck me as a bit out of place.

Overall, this is a great addition to contemporary YA with an out and proud main character and a timeless plot of a small town girl with big dreams. I requested it at my library to be added to the collection (and they did!), and if you can’t buy it yourself, I highly recommend you doing so as well. It bring so much different to the YA table.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Counts For: Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge #miarc
Specific Illness –> EDNOS

Book Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane (Audiobook narrated by Candace Thaxton)

Book Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane (Audiobook narrated by Candace Thaxton)Summary:
Have you ever heard of Typhoid Mary? The Irish-American cook in the early 1900s who was lambasted for spreading typhoid through her cooking. What many don’t know is that she was an asymptomatic carrier. This was the early ages of germ theory, and most didn’t realize you could pass on an illness without any symptoms. Captured and held against her will on North Brother Island, it’s easy to empathize with her plight. Until she’s released and begins cooking again.

Review:
I grew up hearing the cautionary tale of Typhoid Mary, who was mostly mentioned within hearing range in combination with an admonition to wash your hands. But some people (mainly other children) told tales of her purposefully infecting those she served. These sentences were spoken with a combination of fear and awe. On the one hand, how understandable at a time when worker’s rights were nearly completely absent and to be both a woman and Irish in America was not a good combination. On the other hand, how evil to poison people with such a heinous illness in their food. In any case, when this fictionalized account of Mary Mallon came up, I was immediately intrigued. Who was this woman anyway? It turns out, the mixture of awe and fear reflected in myself and other children was actually fairly accurate.

I’m going to speak first about the actual Mary Mallon and then about the writing of the book. If you’re looking for the perfect example of gray area and no easy answers mixed with unfair treatment based on gender and nation of origin, then hoo boy do you find one with Mary Mallon. The early 1900s was early germ theory, and honestly, when you think about it, germ theory sounds nuts if you don’t grow up with it. You can carry invisible creatures on your skin and in your saliva that can make other people but not yourself sick. Remember, people didn’t grow up knowing about germs. It was an entirely new theory. The status quo was don’t cook while you’re sick, and hygiene was abysmally low…basically everywhere. It’s easy to understand how Mary was accidentally spreading sickness and didn’t know it. It’s also easy to understand why she would have fought at being arrested (she did nothing malicious or wrong and was afraid of the police). Much as we may say now that she should have known enough to wash her hands frequently. Wellll, maybe not so much back then.

Public health officials said that they tried to reason with Mary, and she refused to stop cooking or believe that she was infecting others. This is why they quarantined her on North Brother Island. Some point to others (male, higher social status) who were found to be asymptomatic carriers who were not quarantined. True. But they also acknowledged the risk and agreed to stop doing whatever it was that was spreading the illness. Maybe Mary was more resistant because of the prejudice she was treated with from the beginning. Or maybe she really was too stubborn to be able to understand what a real risk she posed to others. Regardless, it is my opinion that no matter the extraneous social factors (being a laundress is more difficult than being a cook, people were overly harsh with her, etc…) Mary still knowingly cooked and infected people after she was released from North Brother Island. Yes, there were better ways public health officials could have handled the whole situation but that’s still an evil thing to do. So that’s the real story of Mary Mallon. Now, on to the fictional account (and here you’ll see why I bothered discussing the facts first).

At first Keane does a good job humanizing a person who has been extremely demonized in American pop culture. Time and effort is put into establishing Mary’s life and hopes. Effort is made into showing how she may not have noticed typhoid following her wherever she went. She emigrated from Ireland. She, to put it simply, saw a lot of shit. A lot of people got sick and died. That was just life. I also liked how the author showed the ways in which Mallon was contrarian to what was expected of women. She didn’t marry. She was opinionated and sometimes accused of not dressing femininely enough. But, unfortunately, that’s where my appreciation fo the author’s handling of Mallon ends.

The author found it necessary to give Mallon a live-in, alcoholic boyfriend who gets almost as much page time as herself. In a book that should be about Mary, he gets entirely too much time, and that hurts the plot. (There is seriously a whole section about him going to Minnesota that is entirely pointless). A lot of Mary’s decisions are blamed on this boyfriend. While I get it that shitty relationships can cause you to make shitty decisions, at a certain point accountability comes into play. No one held a gun to Mary’s head and made her cook or made her date this man (I couldn’t find any records to support this whole alcoholic boyfriend, btw).

On a similar note, a lot of effort is made into blaming literally everyone but Mary for the situation. It’s society’s fault. It’s culture’s fault. It’s Dr. Soper’s fault. They should have rehabbed her with a new job that was more comparable to cooking than being a laundress. They should have had more empathy. Blah blah blah. Yes. In a perfect world they would have realized how backbreaking being a laundress is and trained her in something else. But, my god, in the early 1900s they released her and found her a job in another career field. That’s a lot for that time period! This is the early days of public health. The fact that anyone even considered finding her a new career is kind of amazing. And while I value and understand the impact society and culture and others have on the individual’s ability to make good and moral decisions, I still believe ultimately the individual is morally responsible. And at some point, Mary, with all of her knowledge of the fact that if she cooked there was a high probability someone would die, decided to go and cook anyway. And she didn’t cook just anywhere. She cooked at a maternity ward in a hospital. So the fact that the book spends a lot of time trying to remove all personal culpability from Mary bothered me a lot.

I’m still glad I read the book, but I sort of wish I’d just read the interesting articles and watched the PBS special about her instead. It would have taken less time and been just as factual.

Source: Audible

3 out of 5 stars

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Book Review: The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Series, #2)

December 4, 2014 2 comments

Book Review: The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Series, #2)Summary:
Seventeen-year-old Alex Morales works hard with his eyes on a good college.  He even works in a local pizza joint to pay for his own private Catholic school uniforms to help his Mami and Papi.  Papi is in Puerto Rico for his mother’s funeral and Mami is working late when an asteroid strikes the moon and everything changes.  New York City is struck by flooding and loss of infrastructure.  Alex is left alone to care for his two younger sisters, Julie and Briana, and slowly he begins to think that maybe things will always be this bad. Maybe Mami and Papi will never come back, the moon will never look right again, and there will never be a world where he can go to college and not be left caring for his little sisters.

Review:
I inhaled the first book in this series, in spite of the scientific flaws (which I addressed in my review of the first book).  Miranda’s journal ends so abruptly that I was eager to get to the next book right away.  I was surprised, then, when the second book starts back before the moon is struck with an entirely different family in a different area of the country.  This book shows Pfeffer’s abilities as a writer by showing the same apocalyptic event seen in the first book from the perspective of an entirely different family.

Miranda’s family is suburban-rural, agnostic/atheist humanist, blended (divorced parents with one remarried), and white.  Alex’s family is urban (NYC), Latino, and devotedly Catholic.  Both families are given room to have strengths and flaws, most of which have nothing to do with where they live, their ethnicities, or their religions (or lack of one).  I honestly was startled to see Alex and his and his sisters’ strong faith treated with such respect in this book after Miranda’s lack of faith was treated with equal respect in the first.  It’s easy, particularly in a book written as a journal, to mistake a character’s beliefs for an author’s, and Miranda, a teenage girl, has very strong beliefs.  This book reminded me that those beliefs were just Miranda’s, just as Alex’s beliefs are just his, and it shows how well Pfeffer is able to write characters.

Some readers may find it odd and frustrating to go back in time to relive the apocalypse over again with different characters.  I personally enjoyed it, because the world falling apart is one of the best parts of post-apocalyptic fiction for me.  I also liked having the opportunity to see differences in how the apocalypse plays out based both on the location (suburban/rural versus urban) and the characters’ personalities and reactions.  However, that said, I can see how this set-up of two vastly different sets of characters in books one and two could be off-putting to certain readers.  Some religious readers may be turned off by the first book and Miranda’s staunch atheism.  Those who read the first book and enjoy it for precisely that reason may similarly be turned off by the second book’s heavy Catholicism and faith.  The diversity is a good thing but it also makes it hard to pinpoint an audience for the series.  Those who are open to and accepting of other belief systems would ultimately be the best match but that’s a demographic that can sometimes be difficult to find or market to.  However, if a reader is particularly looking for a diverse set of viewpoints of the apocalypse that is more than just characters’ appearances, this series will be a great match for them.

It should also be mentioned that this book is not a journal.  It is told in third person, from Alex’s viewpoint, although the dates are still mentioned.  It makes sense to do it this way, since Alex definitely does not come across as a character with the time or the inclination to keep a journal.  It would have been interesting to view the apocalypse from the viewpoint of a boy who did keep a journal, however.

The plot makes sense and brings in enough danger without being overly ridiculous.  It would have been nice to have maybe started the book just a bit earlier in the week to see more of Alex’s day-to-day life before the disaster.  Instead, we learn about it through flashbacks, which makes it a bit harder to get to know him than it was to get to know Miranda.

Overall, this is a surprising and enjoyable second book in this post-apocalyptic series that lets readers relive the apocalypse from the first book over again with a different set of characters.  This approach lends diversity to the series, as well as bringing in a greater variety of scenarios for those who enjoy the apocalypse process.  Recommended to those looking for a diverse presentation of beliefs and how those impact how characters deal with an apocalypse.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Previous Books in Series:
Life As We Knew It, review

Book Review: The Final Descent by Rick Yancey (Series, #4)

October 17, 2013 1 comment

Cover of The Final Descent. An orange sky with a moon is covered by a black silhouette of birds on tree branches and a bridge. Summary:
The man investigating the folios found with an elderly man who claimed to be over a hundred years old and named Will Henry has reached the final folio containing what this elderly man claimed to have been his life story.  The final folio is discombobulated and poetic, and so the investigator arranges it for us to read following the style of Dante’s Inferno.  And what a story it tells.

Will Henry is now a bitter, cold teenager still serving Dr. Warthrop.  When a man shows up at the door claiming to have a previously thought extinct monstrous snake’s egg for sale, Will Henry takes the acquisition into his own hands.  When they bring the egg to New York City for the annual meeting of Monstrumologists, Dr. Warthrop begins to question Will Henry’s loyalty, and Will Henry increasingly ignores all advice, going off on his own bloody ideas.  What direction will Will Henry’s and Dr. Warthrop’s lives ultimately take?

Review:
There were hints throughout the Monstrumologist series that it was going to continually descend to a dark place.  But I must admit I was slightly fooled by the idea put forth multiple times that Will Henry at least for part of his life is happily married.  I thought there would be a glimmer of hope in the ending.  Boy was I wrong.  This is an incredibly dark book, and a series ending that surprised me.  While still a strong read, it didn’t hold all the all-encompassing power and grotesque beauty I found in the first two entries in the series.

Yancey takes the poetic language found in the first three books and kicks it up a notch with the inclusion of the Dante-styled method for dividing the book into sections.  Beyond that, the language itself becomes increasingly poetic.  One line that is repeated a few times throughout the book is:

Time is a line. But we are circles. (page 4)

I found both the structure and the language interesting and gorgeous, and I really appreciate their inclusion in YA literature.  I can imagine that many of the younger readers of the book might never have read Dante and seeing this structure in this book might spur them on to check it out.  One thing that I’ve enjoyed throughout the series is that Yancey doesn’t shy away from challenging YA readers, and I’m glad to see that continued here.

The monster in this story is delightfully terrifying.  An egg that hatches a snake that eats its prey from the inside out? There’s nothing not terrifying about that.  Plus the monster is revealed early on, a nice change of pace from The Isle of Blood where we’re left to wonder about it for a long time.  There is also a secondary, surprise monster later on that I found to be a disgustingly nice touch.

The plot is quite complex, and yet also makes sense when various aspects of it are revealed.  It also manages to still be fresh, even though The Curse of the Wendigo was also set half in New York City.  The plot revolves much more around Will Henry and his choices and his personality than around the monster itself, which is appropriate.  Dr. Warthrop’s choices are also touched upon, but how everything has affected Will Henry is truly the focus of the plot.  It’s an interesting psychiatric study, and I was left truly wondering how things could possibly have worked out differently for either Will Henry or Dr. Warthrop.  There are no easy answers, and that gray area is a great setting for horror.

The book spends a lot of time wondering both what makes a monster and if madness can be avoided or escaped.  The first is a question addressed earlier in the series, and I think Yancey deals with it eloquently.  The second takes quite a dark turn in this book, and I was left feeling empty, hopeless, and saddened.

Madness is a wholly human malady borne in a brain too evolved—or not quite evolved enough—to bear the awful burden of its own existence. (page 170)

It’s certainly valid to view madness as an inescapable pariah for some.  I suppose I just have more hope for the world than that.  That’s what left me disappointed with the ending.  I wanted more hope.  Other readers might be less bothered by the tragic end.

Overall, this is a strong final entry in the acclaimed Monstrumologist series.  The poetic language is beefed up with a Dante style structure, and the plot is complex, following the ultimate impact on Will Henry of growing up as Dr. Warthrop’s apprentice in Monstrumology.  Some readers may be disappointed or overly saddened by the ending lacking a glimmer of hope but others will enjoy its incredibly dark turn.  Readers of the previous three books should not miss this one.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Previous Books in Series:
The Monstrumologist, review
The Curse of the Wendigo, review
The Isle of Blood, review

Book Review: The Preying Mantis by Andreas Louw

October 27, 2012 Leave a comment

MS Paint drawing of a bloody praying mantis.Summary:
FBI agent Betty Roy has been pursuing one serial killer for years.  He murders one young female teacher who plays a musical instrument per season.  Suddenly, though, he contacts Betty herself and starts ratcheting up the rate of the killings. He seems to have some sort of personal interest in her.

Review:
I picked this up during the Smashwords Summer/Winter sale for two reasons.  The plot sounded intriguing, and honestly the cover amused me.  What I found inside was a plot that was mostly strong (although it fell apart at the end) that was unfortunately supported by some truly bad writing.

Let’s start with the good. The plot is genuinely creepy.  Although the Preying Mantis (as he calls himself) is fairly typical for a serial killer thriller, he’s got enough unique qualities that the reader is left intrigued and guessing.  The murder scenes are brutal and frightening.  I was engaged enough that I kept reading in spite of the bad writing quality, purely because I wanted to know what happened at the end.

Unfortunately, the plot at the end takes a bit of a nonsensical nose-dive.  I have an incredibly difficult time believing that the FBI would let an agent recently removed from a serial killer case who they know is currently being pursued by him run off into the middle of the woods without backup. Or some sort of catch the criminal plan she is in on.  Similarly, I have major issues believing this same FBI agent would be stupid enough to go to the woods at this point in time, let alone go there without her big guard dog that she instead leaves at a friend’s house. It’s a lot of characters acting stupid just to get them to where the author needs them to be.  Thankfully, that only shows up at the end.

As for the writing itself, there are three separate issues at hand.

First up, we have an omniscient third person narrator telling a story that takes place almost entirely in New York City with American characters, and yet the narrator repeatedly speaks British English. This is bizarre, confusing, and jolts the reader out of the story. I actually had to check a couple of times and make sure the story was indeed happening in NYC.  Here are a few examples:

She had met the old man before and knew his heart was a bit dodgy. (location 1095)

He thought it best not to point out at this stage that if he had been shagging Wells’ wife, he might not have been gay. (location 2306)

Betty came out of the shower, refreshed, and took out a pack of crisps and a soft drink. (location 3553)

In case it’s unclear, Americans don’t say dodgy, shagging, or crisps. We say sketchy, banging, and chips.  I suppose it’s possible that Louw could want the narrator of this event taking place in America to be British, but if so, it should be for a reason. For instance, it would make sense if the story was being told by a British person researching the killer at a later date.  That is not the case, though. As previously pointed out, this is an omniscient third person narrator telling a story set in America. They should speak American English.  The British English also drifts into the American characters’ dialogue, but there are far larger problems with the dialogue, so I won’t bother citing those.  Suffice to say though that if it’s a problem for the narrator to speak British English it’s an even larger one for the American characters to do so.

Speaking of dialogue (see what I did there), let’s get to that.  The main problem with the dialogue is that it doesn’t sound realistic.  At all.  Also every single character sounds exactly the same.  The Latino-American cop sounds exactly like the white American FBI Agent who sounds exactly like the serial killer who sounds exactly like the head of the FBI’s investigation.  And none of them sound realistic.  Rather than try to explain it, let me show you.

I shall go mad if I don’t have anything to do for the next two weeks. (location 310)

Would you like to order out? I am quite hungry and can do with some sustenance. (location 1213)

After about fifteen minutes he emerged form his office and said, “Let us go.” (location 2868)

How come you being here all by yourself in the middle of nowhere, dear? (location 3617)

The only way dialogue like this would work would be if, say, one character was OCD about never saying a contraction or had Asperger’s Syndrome or something.  But none of the characters are like that and also they all speak exactly the same way.  It’s a real problem for dialogue to sound so incredibly unrealistic. It drags the reader out of the story, plus it’s bad characterization. Each character should have an individual sound.

Finally, there are the general grammar/spelling issues.  The most annoying being the author’s tendency to switch back and forth between present and past tense, frequently within the same sentence.  For example:

She had been hunting him for the last two years and it reached the point where he has invaded every aspect of her life. (location 123)

Lemke had played this kind of game before and he is definitely not going to let someone like Newmark get under his skin. (location 669)

Shudders up and down my spine, y’all. And not the kind you’re supposed to get from reading about a serial killer.

Overall, the book has a relatively unique plot that is overshadowed by a first draft quality level of writing.  I encourage Louw to get either a co-author or an editor for future endeavors, as well as a wider variety of beta readers.  Sound editing and checks by beta readers could have cleared up many of these issues.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Smashwords

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Book Review: Finding Bluefield by Elan Barnehama

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Picture of two women together with a brown border.Summary:
It’s the 1960s, and Barbara thinks she has enough on her hands handling medical residency as a woman.  She doesn’t need the complications of dating women on top of that…or the risk to her profession of rumors that she’s a lesbian.  But when she meets local cook, Nicky, all these cautions go out the window.  Soon they’re a couple, and Nicky is determined to have a baby for them to raise together.

Review:
I read this book because my previous read from this indie publisher (Bold Strokes Books) was such a unique, well-written piece of GLBTQ lit, and I was excited to get more.  Unfortunately, the quality of this book does not come close to that of Lemon Reef.  Admittedly, Lemon Reef is by an entirely different author, but one does expect similar quality levels from the same publisher.  That was, unfortunately, not the case this time.

The plot is moderately common in lesbian fiction.  Girl meets girl. Couple wants a baby. Girl gets pregnant. Can they raise the baby and keep the relationship going.  With the added backdrop of prejudice and changing rights from the 1960s through the 1980s, it had the potential to be more unique and add an interesting twist, particularly since Nicky is supposed to be involved in the Civil Rights movement.  Unfortunately, none of this really pans out.  There are tantalizing teases of something more or something unique such as when Nicky gives a ride to a black man trying to escape from mob “justice” in the small town or when Barbara cheats on Nicky in New York City, but none of these ideas are brought to fruition.  In fact, the whole book feels more like a moderately fleshed-out plot outline for a future book.  Like, here are the key points, and I’ll flesh them out later.  Only this is the finished book.  There will be no more fleshing out of the plot.  It’s frustrating to read because just when you think something is about to happen, the idea gets dropped and you skip ahead a few years.

Similarly, the characters are never fully realized.  They are extremely two-dimensional, even the two main characters.  I actually found myself mixing Barbara and Nicky up repeatedly, which is intensely problematic.  They are two separate people, and their relationship is the focus of the novel, yet even after the entire book they are mostly unclear to me, except that Nicky has green eyes.  They simply don’t feel like real people to the reader at all, which is a problem in general but even more so when the book is trying to both be character-driven and address rights issues.

A book needs at least a compelling plot or engaging characters to be readable and both to be great.  This book has neither.  I can see potential in the plot and sentence structures for good writing, but the author needs to work on both expanding into greater plot detail as well as on improving characterization.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol

African-American girl standing near a pole.Summary:
Jonathan Kozol’s books about his social justice work among inner city children in the 1980s and 1990s brought attention to the starkly uneven educational opportunities presented to children in America.  Now the children he originally met are young adults, and through this memoir telling of his friendships with them, he explores their lives and what it means to be successful when everything is stacked against you.

Review:
Long-time followers of my blog know that my undergraduate university (Brandeis University) seeks to instill in its students a sense of social justice, and that certainly worked with me.  So when books like this pop up, I’m instantly interested in reading them.  True equality means equal opportunities and safety for all, and a book like this is a bit unique in that it doesn’t just look at inequalities but also examines the long-term effects of attempts at intervening and helping people who basically got the short end of the stick.  Kozol succeeds quite well in analyzing what has worked and what hasn’t in the Bronx where a large part of his social justice career has been.

The chapters each focus on a different child, although a couple of children get their own chapters.  Kozol met the children either in one of the infamous 1980s NYC homeless shelters or at an after-school tutoring program offered at a church (St Ann’s) in the Bronx.  There are a few things that are immediately apparent from observing the long-term trajectory of these kids, which is why a book like this is so valuable for social justice work.

First, all of the kids who were homeless or who spent a long time in homeless shelters had many more problems and difficulties later in life.  It is clear that homelessness has a long-lasting negative impact on children, no matter how many good opportunities come to them later in life.  Similarly, girls seem to stand a better chance than boys of climbing out of the poverty they grew up in.  Kozol never makes any clear speculative statements as to why he thinks this is, but the multiple lives we observe clearly demonstrate that boys are more targeted than girls both by the crime lords and by the police.  They are both presumed to want to participate in crime and presumed to already be participating in crime.  If you live in just this neighborhood and see just this world where almost everyone you see except maybe a parent or a teacher expects you to become a criminal, it’s no wonder that the boys are struggling more than the girls.  This is a great example of how patriarchy hurts men too.  These assumptions about masculinity and roles in the community are hurting them.

The other big theme of the book is of course how educational inequality entrenches classism and racism.  Kozol has spent most of his career working in improving education so it’s not surprising this is a theme of the book.  One thing that stood out to me was how quickly kids are lost if they never get a firmly established literacy and sense of confidence in their ability to learn.  Once kids start getting held back a grade or fall below grade level, it is incredibly easy to become discouraged and turn to what appears to be an easier life of crime.  And it’s not the kids’ fault that they are struggling at school.  The class sizes are too large, the teachers are frequently inexperienced or, in the case of one school, were never even trained as teachers at all.  There is frequent teacher turnover, too heavy of a focus on just getting the kids to pass the achievement tests and not establish real learning and literacy.  There is a real problem with violence and bullying.  The list goes on and on.  It goes beyond the schools though.  Outside of school the children are never truly safe.  There are shootings and stabbings and rapes, and we’re not talking down an alley. We’re talking in the lobby or stairwell or elevator of their apartment buildings.  How can anyone focus on learning and growing up when that is all around them?  It’s a big problem, and one that is not easily solved.

Kozol ends the book by talking about what he sees as progress and how the now grown-up kids he worked with see possible solutions.  He’s adamant that even small gains are gains.  He views any child whose life ultimately is one of peace and self-worth as an accomplishment, whether they even completed high school or not.  To a certain extent I agree with him, but to a certain extent I agree much more with one of the grown-up kids (who just so happens to be about my age) who argues that small changes aren’t good enough.  That the inequality is so deeply entrenched that we must truly rock the system and not just save one child at a time.  She does ultimately agree that the small changes are still worthy of praise and is working on a degree in sociology so she may go back to the Bronx and focus in on small changes. That then is the question at the heart of this book and one for which there are no easy answers. How do we fix this problem?

It’s difficult to say who this book will appeal to.  It’s not a clear treatise on the educational system or social justice.  It is one man’s observations of the lives and life stories of inner city youth he worked with.  It is not academic per se but it’s also not exactly a memoir either.  I think perhaps that it will appeal most to anyone whose day to day job involves having small influences on the education of individuals.  It clearly shows how much impact one person can have on another person’s life, particularly when it comes to education and literacy.

Overall then I recommend this to those who work in education whether formally or informally.  It is encouraging to see the perspective of an older person who has clearly seen how his life work has impacted the kids he worked with.

4 out of 5 stars

Source:  Netgalley

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