Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Black and the Blue by Matthew Horace

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I work with children with physical and mental differences. The place I work at is stocked with a variety of toys. One of the toys we have are a police car that makes a siren sound whenever a button is pressed.

Almost every child that comes recognizes this vehicle. Some can say “police car!” Some, if their mental capabilities are high enough, will enact play schemes with the police car and another vehicle where the cops catch a bad guy.

This image played over and over in my mind as I read The Black and the Blue.

Matthew Horace does an excellent job of covering the topic of police brutality in America and the Black Lives Matter Movement. The Black and the Blue includes both statistics and personal accounts of both the author as well as witnesses and victims of the crimes.  Horace draws on his own law enforcement background to explain how police training and procedures are suppose to work, which highlights just how wrong (and purposeful) the actions of police are in many of these killings. Though far from surprised, I was struck at the level of systemic racism within law enforcement.  

This is a difficulty but important book to read. When I put it down, I told myself I needed to read something light and fluffy. However, I also recognize that as a privilege. Not everybody has the ability to take a break from these topics. For many people, this is life.  

Throughout the book, Horace also includes interviews with other police offices of different walks of life: white and black, male and female, gay and straight. These voices serve to show the diversity in the police forces and as a reminder that not all police are bad, but all police are working in a bad system. The book focuses on the crimes police have committed on the black community in America, but Horace also talks about some of the other systemic problems facing this community as well. He states that Black Lives Matter cannot stop at the brutality and murders committed by police. It must also work to stop the harm done by gangs and drugs as well.

The Black and the Blue ends with the author quoting a song lyric: “Everybody can do something”. After reading this book, my thoughts turned to finding ways that I too can do something about this problem. How can I help reality match the play schemes of the children I work with, where police are the good guys who defend and protect ALL communities?

 

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Witches by Roald Dahl

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Warning: This review contains a small spoiler for the end of the book.

September 13th was Roald Dahl day, a yearly celebration of the author’s work that takes place on his birthday. As a kid, I grew up watching James and the Giant Peach, Willy Wonka, and Matilda. I especially liked the later, since the main character was as obsessed about books as me. I remember my teachers reading the novels these three movies are based on outloud to the class, but that’s where my exposure to Dahl stopped. Since my social media feeds were blowing up last week with Roald Dahl quotes, I decided to give another one of his novels a try.

The Witches has all the things you come to expect from Dahl: child main character, bad guys (or gals, in this case), gross humor, and little touches of sweetness and wisdom stirred into the mix. The story follows Lucas, a young child who lives with his grandmother, an expert on witches. She imparts what she knows about the subject to him, namely all the physical ways to identify a witch and that their main goal is to kill children.  One day, he encounters a group of witches, including the High Witch, and has the opportunity to get rid of them…if he’s brave and smart enough.

Dahl’s writing reminds me of JK Rowling and other great children’s authors. The prose moves along quickly and smoothly and keeps you entertained. While there are poinent things said about people committing evil actions, teamwork, and the power of having a loving family, The Witches does not appear to have a hidden meaning. Dahl trusted children to be smart enough to understand the points he was making outright and didn’t try to spoon feed them a sappy “moral”.  

The witches in the book are violent creatures, and their intentions are presented outright. Though they use silly sounding words  like “squelching” to describe what they want to do with children, Lucas states outright at one point that they are plotting to kill him.  In this children’s novel, violence is depicted an aspect of the world and not hidden or downplayed. Nor are the evil things done by the witches magically reversed at the end of the story. However, through the character of Lucas’s grandmother (a badass cigar smoking grandmother, by the way) Dahl also shows that compassion and love are also present in the world. Lucas’s grandmother says several times throughout the story that she loves her grandson, no matter what he looks like. When bad things happen to him and he is afraid, Lucas draws strength from the fact that he knows his grandmother loves him. The importance of communicating unconditional love to children was not lost on this adult reader.

The story ends with the knowledge that while some of the witches were killed by Lucas’s actions, other witches still exist in the world. Lucas and his grandmother make plans to continue fighting them, driving home the point that removing evil is a slow and continuous process, but one we must keep working towards. Not a bad thing to meditate on in 2018.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. That being said, several parts felt a little dated (it was written in the 80s) and problematic.  Dahl states early on in the story that not all women are bad, but Witches are always women. The importance placed on gender (and a gender of only two sides at that) just feels odd today. More disturbing, there are several references made to women with bald heads (one of the indicators that a woman is a witch) as being unnatural and offensive. What about women undergoing chemo? What about women from cultures where it’s more common to shave their head? What about women who just…want to shave their heads? Without saying it, the novel paints the picture of women who meet traditional society standards of appearance as being “normal” or “ok” and women falling outside of this as being suspect of wanting to do harmful things.  The rest of the novel was wonderful. I could have done without this part. I don’t think the novel would have suffered with the exclusion of them.

That being said, would I let a child read this? I’d probably recommend another book with the same themes first. If the child still wanted to read the book, I’d let them, and then have a conversation about the problematic aspects afterwards.  If they are capable of understanding this book, they are capable of understanding that conversation as well.

Happy late Roald Dahl Day!      

 

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg

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I discovered Natalie Goldberg in high school when I read a copy of her first book, Writing Down the Bones. As a young person who wanted to write, it was freeing to read that you didn’t have to write in order to please someone or be published; all you had to do was grab a pen and paper and write. Pure and simple.

After Bones, I read three more of her books before moving onto other authors, and I stopped keeping up with her work. Recently, I stumbled across her page on Goodreads and noticed that while I had been reading elsewhere, Natalie was still writing and publishing. It’s funny how writers do that.

This 2013 book, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life and Language is a description of the writing retreat of the same name that she hosts.  Don’t worry, it doesn’t contain bottled down “do this and you will be published” trash advice, despite what the title seems to imply. In fact, early in the book Natalie states that there is no true secret of writing that works for everyone. Like most of Goldberg’s books, True Secret discusses Zen Buddhism and how the spiritual implications of both the practice of Zen and writing are interwoven for Natalie. It also covers the overarching philosophy of Sit, Walk, Write that she uses in the retreat. As I understand it, sitting and slow walking are more traditional forms of Zen meditation. Writing (specifically, the type of timed freewriting described in her works) is a form of practice developed by her. For the most part, the book doesn’t cover any ground that her previous book on writing haven’t already. If you are new to her writing, I would start with her earlier works, as I think they lay out her approach to writing in a more straightforward way–particularly Writing Down the Bones. However, True Secret was still a joy to read. Seeing the author once again tackle the same themes she describes so well was like listening to an old friend tell a story that you’ve heard numerous times before but still love the telling of it. I came away with a renewed drive to continue my own writing.

The last section of the book contains some of its best writing, particularly the chapter Gwen, an account of one of Natalie’s students who is dying of cancer. It strikes me that Natalie’s books contain chapters (each one a self contained essay, really) that are so scattered. There is a chapter about assigning chores to the retreat students, another about what it’s like to try writing at the same time in the same place every day for a week, and then a moving chapter about what it means to live fully before dying. Yet the book still forms a cohesive whole. Her books are like boxes of chocolate. Each little section  needs to hold a piece for the box to be complete, and yet each chocolate is its own individual delicacy.

Hopefully, Natalie will continue to follow her own advice of sitting, walking, and writing.  Hopefully, we will get to keep reading the books that come from this practice.