Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fiction | Epic Adventures with Percy Jackson

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Back when I announced my upcoming gig as a middle school librarian, I asked for recommendations on must-read middle grade books. My first recommendation was Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, which I immediately picked up—it was almost shameful I hadn't read it before!

So in this immediate reading, I made it through the first two of the five book series: The Lightning Thief and The Sea of Monsters. Our hero is 12-year-old Percy Jackson who, at the opening of The Lightning Thief, is just about to be kicked out of yet another boarding school. He's not really a bad kid, but things just never really go his way. He's not the smartest; he doesn't really fit in anywhere; and now he's starting to witness some weird occurrences. Like, teachers-turning-into-big-demonic-birds-and-attacking-him kind of weird.

Percy learns pretty soon after that his life isn't very normal. All those weird things have much different explanations than he would've thought—his best friend isn't even human; he's been sent to boarding school for protection; and the reason his dad has never been around is because his dad is a god. The mythological kind. Which makes Percy half human and half god—a demi-god. 

Much of The Lightning Thief establishes Percy's world for the reader; we learn about the camp for other kids like Percy, Camp Half Blood; we learn the warring history between the gods and the titans; and we learn of the scandal that's caused lingering tension between Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades—the most powerful gods, known as The Big Three. Naturally, Percy discovers the truth about his identity and embarks on a quest to find Zeus' stolen lightning bolt in an effort to ease tensions between the feuding three.

Riordan does a good job of pacing the story and increasing its plot complexity, deepening Percy's world, as the series continues. In The Sea of Monsters, Camp Half Blood is threatened, and his best friend Grover may be in trouble. Percy sets out to find the fabled Golden Fleece before his newfound world is destroyed.

The brilliance in the series lies in its creativity. I found Edith Hamilton's Mythology to be the most boring thing I ever read in grade school; but Riordan rethinks what already exists and creates a new fictional world that is built with these timeless stories. Because the scope of mythology is so great, there is plenty of material to explore. As the story progresses, both in a single book and along the series, there are more twists revealed in the history and relationships that build this world. So though each book is somewhat episodic, you also recognize it's just a piece in the bigger picture and that more will be revealed as you read; the stage is continuously being set for what's to come.

There is a lot of talk in reading forums about the merit of Percy Jackson in comparison to Harry Potter. Some avid HP fans find it a rip-off, and in some sense, that could be valid: sidekicks of a brain and a lovable doof, his camp where similar kids are trained, a villain trying to return to power, etc. I'm not going to go into a deep comparison or even deem one better or worse than the other because ultimately, they are both series about young adolescents that face obstacles, must overcome challenges, and find their own skill and confidence. Fans of one series may be fans of the other, or one may hold appeal for a reader that the other doesn't. Either way, there is plenty to grab onto here. I was very entertained by Percy's adventures in the first two, and I will most definitely be finishing the series.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A New Book Club & a Yonahlossee Author Encounter

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Aside from leaving friends and family, my greatest sadness in moving out of New York has been the loss of my beloved Idlewild book club. For four years, I met monthly with a group of one-time strangers in the most perfect indie bookstore on W 19th St. We were all so wildly different—in terms of age, background, experience, and taste—but we developed a great rapport, exploring such a wide variety of books that forced us to read outside our comfort zone. I have always been so grateful to have found that little literary niche.

Upon landing in Nashville, I decided to investigate our own indie bookstore's book club, which is how I found myself in Parnassus Books for the first time last Wednesday night to discuss Anton DiSclafani's debut bestseller, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.

It's 1930, just as the Great Depression is starting to bare its fangs. Thea Atwell, our fifteen-year-old narrator, has been cast out of her Florida home and shipped to a girls' camp in the mountains of North Carolina. We know from the beginning that Thea is somehow to blame for a recent family tragedy, but just exactly what she did is a mystery the author slowly draws out over the novel's 300+ pages. As the narration cuts back and forth, from new experiences to ones in the past, we are shown pieces of Thea's puzzle that illuminate her world and situation.

We quickly get the impression that Thea is much more something than the other girls her age. At Yonahlossee, social status is a tricky web of money, heritage, personality, and skill on the back of a horse. Thea is sharp and shrewd and understands how to navigate such a complex social strata. She knows who to befriend and who to avoid, and she has a mature sense of tact and awareness that puts her in a powerful position. Thea is independent and fearless, but she's also brazen and reckless, unaware or unconcerned of the damage her behaviors can inflict.

When I perused this book on Goodreads, I was highly surprised by the number of 1 star reviews it garnered. Many complaints seem to be of the "whiny" or "selfish" narrator, but this quality hardly seems one that could elicit such vitriol from readers. Thea's level of "selfishness" is found often in narrators, especially teen ones, and though her behavior is somewhat shocking, the more interesting aspect of this story is the environment that leads to her feelings and actions. I think dismissing this character as selfish and the plot as empty does a disservice to the author and the quiet portrait she paints on Thea's world as influenced by her times and circumstance.

Yonahlossee puts Thea in an environment totally opposite of what she has known. She's been isolated in the remote citrus fields of Florida with only her twin brother and cousin for young companions, and now she's surrounded by many young women with little idea on how to interact with them. She's facing a whole new world of interactions and relationships that tests her developing sense of morals and self. On top of that, she's growing into womanhood in a time when women are regarded as unimportant. And being surrounded by young women whose futures seem to be inconsequential, Thea asserts her power the only ways she can: by taking what she wants and being the best on a horse. In regard to certain critics, I am left wondering if it's just the nature of Thea's behavior that colors opinions, and if these readers are wrongly attributing the source of their discomfort.

With Yonahlossee author Anton DiSclafani
The great perk of last week's meeting at Parnassus was that the book's author, Anton DiSclafani, was there to join the circle. I was curious (and also somewhat skeptical) as to how open a discussion would actually be if the author of the book was sitting there with us. I am happy to report, though, that she was just wonderful and added so much to the conversation. I am always interested in the inspirations that lead to a book and how the ideas develop. Anton walked us through her transition from short stories to a novel and how difficult it was to fully flesh out a novel-sized idea.

Further, she described the motivations behind particular scenes and why she told the story the way she did. Prior to the meeting, I had noticed the subtleties through which the author seems to make her statement; Thea's actions are very large, but the reasons behind her actions are much quieter on paper. When I mentioned this during the meeting, Anton explained that she is telling the story through Thea's eyes, so because Thea lacks this mature awareness of the world, we as the reader also see it through hazy goggles; Thea is figuring out her situation on a larger scale, without a complete understanding of it, so we see them as smaller pieces of the puzzle as well. While many readers seemed to hate Thea, I pitied her more than anything. She's a young woman isolated by her living arrangements and disregarded because of her gender. She doesn't need to be liked, and I'm not agreeing with or justifying her behavior, but I think, as a character, she deserves a great deal of consideration. This book ended up being great for discussion—there are enough gray areas of behavior and morality that keep the conversation lively!

In hearing articulate explanations and rationales like this, I gained an even bigger appreciation for this story and what the author was saying with it. Anton was incredibly personal, very well-spoken, and graciously thick-skinned, so no side-stepping or tip-toeing was necessary! I enjoyed hearing about her experiences in writing a second novel, and I look forward to reading future works from her.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Fiction | Uncertain Questions, Uncertain Answers

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At a late night birthday party, I took The Magus by John Fowles off a friend's shelf, and her quick review and summary was something along the lines of: "This book is weird, like Natalie Wood drowning on a boat and her husband doesn't seem innocent and why was Christopher Walken there too? It all creeps me out."

Now, neither of us are really too sure where the Natalie Wood reference came from (it may have been fueled by other things that night) but that general gist is still kinda accurate: this book is weird. And it's a little bit creepy. And something doesn't seem right. And you don't really know what to believe.

There's no real easy way to artfully describe the intricacies of the plot, so brevity will have to take precedence. The premise follows Nicholas Urfe, a fairly wayward young Englishman bored with the lifelessness he finds in England. Hungry for stimulation, he accepts a teaching position on a remote Greek island. There, Nicolas becomes entangled in the game of a millionaire recluse, Mr. Conchis. As Conchis shares with Nicholas his ponderings on life and philosophy, he also manipulates reality, creating a sort of theatrical show—a series of masques—that causes Nicholas to question what's real and what's part of the game.

There is so much to this book.

Right off, the writing is fantastic. It's quick-witted and sarcastic. Throughout a novel that gets increasingly complex and philosophical, the writing keeps it fanciful so that its 600+ pages fly by much faster than you'd expect. Nicholas isn't the most likable character, but we're drawn into his mind and depend on his actions and reactions to tell us what's real and what's not. He's clearly a distinct product of his time and situation, which brings me to another notable part of this book: the setting. It's entirely contingent on the time period. World War II has ended, and now it's far enough in the past for the aftermath to have materialized. It's past immediate recovery; now we see the change in the way people think and do, the way society reorganizes itself and gets moving again. And this is perhaps what Fowles attempts to explore the deepest with The Magus.

"He had simply guessed that for me freedom meant the freedom to satisfy personal desire, private ambition. Against that he set a freedom that must be responsible for its actions; something much older than the existentialist freedom, I suspected - a moral imperative, an almost Christian concept, certainly not a political or democratic one. I thought back over the last few years of my life, the striving for individuality that had obsessed all my generation after the limiting and conforming years of the war, our retreat from society, nation, into self."

Conchis' psychoanalysis of Nicholas has some sort of goal, we must believe, but what that goal is constantly eludes both Nicholas and us, the reader. On the surface, The Magus is a deliciously seductive thriller, steeped in mystery. Deeper, it's a poignant statement of human emotion and psyche, an exploration of freedom, identity, modernity, and society.

I feel, after writing this much, that there is nothing left to say as a summary and initial review, but that I've also barely scratched the surface. There is so much here, so much to uncover, that The Magus is worth many re-readings.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Reading Notes: The Evolution of God, Part 3

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So far in Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, we've covered the evolution of religion from polytheism to monotheism, the development of a dominant monotheistic religion called Judaism, and the emergence from that of another major religion called Christianity. In Section 4, Wright introduces another major world religion to the mix: Islam.

As you may remember, the author's focus in this book is on the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and how they came to be as products of their places and times. Now, focusing on the birth of Islam, Wright begins detailing its evolution as a religion and its relationship with the already existing ones.

Wright's history of Islam goes like this (and I don't know enough to deem it factual or interpretive): Islam was born after Judaism and Christianity when a man named Muhammad claimed to be a prophet of God. God shared his word with Muhammad directly, and this is what's contained in the Koran. Being the literal "word of God," the Koran is a much more straightforward text than the Hebrew or Christian Bibles—less history, fewer stories. Muslims believe that the higher power (in this case, "Allah") existed before Islam became a religion, and he also evolved independently of other religions. And though Islam is not the same as Judaism and Christianity, Muhammad united them by deeming the Islamic God to be the same Abrahamic God shared by the other two religions, because he (Muhammad) placed himself on the same level as Moses—as one who has been contacted directly by God. This is the distinguishing point: Islam was its own movement; it didn't descend from the other religions. 

I think this is semi-accurate. Ignore the atheism website.

Muhammad is a fascinating figure, and this is ultimately what Wright tries to prove throughout this section. He was a prophet promoting an apocalyptic reversal of fortunes to amass followers, much like Jesus. And he was a politician, building an empire by making a "foreign" God local and eventually using force to demonstrate power. He preached tolerance to gain followers but once his Islamic State grew, his ties with Judaism and Christianity began to dwindle.

It seems here that Muhammad now wanted Christians and Jews to accept Islam and recognize their texts as precursors to the Koran. More problems arose with his desire for them to embrace a new religion that contradicted their own. [Islam recognizes Jesus as a person but not as the "Son" of God.] Basically, he was trying to become a leader, but others weren't accepting it. The way it played out next is sort of unclear. The big disagreement involves Jerusalem and who "took it back." Was it Muslims? Was it a Jewish-Muslim alliance? It's clear that Islam also had a break with Judaism but was that at this point or was it later added by authors of the Koran after Muhammad's time? This is where I'm hazy on religious history, and there are probably a ton of perspectives to read and consider. We're not going any further into that now.

What Wright does next is explore how Islam developed into what it is today—or, to be fair, how it is perceived in the Western world. Here he takes a scholarly, historical look at the concept of "jihad" and how it evolved into a controversial piece of modern world politics.

Apparently, "jihad" is mentioned only four times in the Koran and more times in the hadith (the oral tradition), and it refers to a constant struggle. There is, and always has been, a continuous argument about how exactly "jihad" is defined. Does it mean an internal, emotional struggle? A literal, external one? As with many religious concepts, it's up to interpretation, and one man named Sayyid Qutb decided in the mid-20th century that "jihad" should be an aggression in the name of Islam, not just a defense. This can be considered the birth of modern radical/extremist/fundamentalist/whatever-you-want-to-call-it Islam.

Wright argues that it's unlikely "jihad" was ever intended strictly as aggressive foreign policy. Violence against nonbelievers wouldn't always, historically, have benefited Islam—think about when Muhammad was trying to gain followers. But his point is that words are always interpreted to one's own benefit; you can always justify war in the name of religion. All religions have their moments of war and peace.

The author does quite a bit in the last chapter of this section to demonstrate how religions are adaptive; they may argue on a theological level, but globalization has and will continue to bring them to a peaceful coexistence based on social and economic benefit. Muhammad represents, as one man, all the highlights of Abrahamic history and religious evolution. Wright continues to argue that the Koran happens to be, theologically-speaking, the most modern text; it's evolutionary in nature, highlighting existing wonders of nature rather than miracles; these signs of nature are evidence in themselves of God's existence. If the world was created, by God, as a physical system with a purpose, then we naturally move towards "functional integration" (ie: working together and getting along), and human behavior is directly connected to both circumstance and moral consciousness. And Wright argues that the Koran, more than any other religious text, explicitly shares these ideas.

I mentioned this in my last post. Unbelievable!

I think Wright dedicates an entire section to Islam to demonstrate how connected these three religions really are, despite the assertions that each are independent of one another. I know there are years and years of further incident that drive the religions apart, but my takeaway from these sections is that these conflicts are cyclical, and Religions (with a capital R) do (or can) eventually find their way back to a cooperative, peaceful relationship with each other. Perhaps we'll find out if this is proving true in the 21st-century in the book's final section.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Incidents in the Library: What to Do?

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I was going to continue on today with my in-depth reading notes from The Evolution of God, but something happened to me a few hours ago that is filling my mind with thoughts and questions. I want to hear from both librarians and non-librarians on how you think these situations should be handled while also considering, "Is there a right answer?"

Here's what happened: I've been volunteering twice a week for the past four weeks for an enhanced summer reading library program. This public library branch is in a low-income neighborhood, and the kids that use the library—ranging from Kindergarten to late high school—spend all day there, everyday. They're latchkey kids to the extreme; every day of their summer is spent in the "homework room" where there are computers, board games, craft projects, movies, etc. At any given time, there can be over 30 kids in this room with maybe one or two adults in there with them.

Usually, in my experience, they behave very well. They tend to self-regulate and have a good rapport with the children's librarian. Today, though, two of the older boys (aged 13 or 14) got in a heated argument and started threatening to fight. It never escalated too far (a couple shoves back and forth), and another boy broke between them, laughing because they were literally throwing insults about each other's mother. Everyone thought the confrontation had dissipated and returned to what they were doing. One kid, though, must've wanted the proverbial last hit and chucked his phone at the other kid, only he missed and it hit me straight in the head.

Me. A volunteer, in the wrong place at the wrong time, leaving my post with a bleeding head and a black eye.

The result of this incident: This phone-thrower and accomplice, whose names are known and are regular patrons, are banned from the library for a year (though they probably don't know it yet because they bolted). I was questioned/treated by paramedics, declining a hospital visit, and questioned by the police, where I also declined to press charges against a 13-year-old kid who wrongly, but accidentally, hit me in the head with an iPhone.

The questions an incident such as this raises are numerous, and the issues and problems are far from easy to solve. One question, the more minor one, is: What responsibility does the library have to its volunteers in terms of workplace safety? Any? [For me, I signed a waiver agreeing to the following language: "I acknowledge and agree that as consideration for the Library allowing me to serve as a volunteer I waive any rights or claims that I may have against the Library, its employees and volunteers and the [redacted], and release the Library, its employees and volunteers and the [redacted] from any potential liability arising during my volunteer activities." Does this cover such a situation? Should it?]

The more important question, though, is: What power do we have as librarians to handle non-library issues with or about our patrons? The "latchkey kid" issue is a huge one for many public libraries, and many have policies in place that establish zero liability for the library regarding unsupervised children; the library does not provide full- or part-time childcare. Of course, kids still come to the library without their parents, because it's probably safer than other options. Without the level of responsibility that's inherent in schools, how can a public library provide a level of structure, discipline, and consequence that prevents an incident like today along with other behavioral problems?

This library system's behavioral policy states a 1- to 5-year ban for an incident of assault, but there is no specific policy regarding unsupervised children. The Brooklyn Public Library will attempt to contact a parent or guardian in the case of incident (or other city agencies of the parent/guardian is unreachable) but there is nothing else in regards to specific consequence. Same goes for the Chicago Public Library; children may be asked to leave, but no more severe consequences are listed.

In the recent classes I've been taking for my teaching license on classroom management, I've learned how important it is to establish a strict set of rules, procedures, expectations, and consequences to handle behavior. The public library is not a classroom, but does that mean, for its young patrons and especially its latchkey kids, it should be run without these things? After all, the library isn't really responsible for any of them. Is a behavior plan necessary? Realistic? What do you think?