Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic took on the shared memories of Japanese immigrants to the US in the early 1900s, specifically those of picture brides.  It is touching and distressing by turns, and throughout the novel, stories that do not get told in the history taught in US schools gets brought to the forefront.  Students and people in general need to hear some of these experiences.

 

The narrative is in many places a bit confusing, especially since much of the piece is in the first person plural.  It is a story of specifics told with extreme generality, and generalities told extremely specifically.  The strange narrative device works really well for the novel though.

 

The end of the book, taking part at the beginning of WW2 is the most emotionally draining, but also probably the most important.  Otsuka manages to create a beautifully written, powerfully captivating narrative that shows, not tells, the experience of discrimination, assimilation, and disconnectedness that was experienced through the first half of the 1900s by Japanese immigrants to the US.

 

Reading Level:  High School and above

Could be paired with:  WW2 literature, history of discrimination in the US (and in general)

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Book Review: Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

This novel takes themes of mythology and folklore and weaves them together with a dystopian future and rebellion.  Throughout there are also themes of loneliness and discovering the self.  From the beginning of the novel, I was captivated by the characters struggling to understand their own story, disjointed through time in the form of ancestral memories.

 

It takes a while for the novel to take shape and become comprehensible, but the feelings portrayed by the characters and the smaller stories within the story kept my attention long enough to find the greater narrative.

 

I also give a huge tip of the hat for the way that this novel incorporated themes of gender and sexuality throughout.  The novel is not about not being straight or gender conforming, but those ideas and themes are clearly present and extremely well integrated into the voice of the novel.

 

I give this one of the highest recommendations that I could give a novel.  I loved the magical realism and dystopian elements woven together with the historical and mythological.  I think that this novel could be given to high school students and up, and it would make a fascinating read if paired against Brave New World.

Book Review: The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata

Originally written in Indonesian in 2005, The Rainbow Troops was translated into English by Andrea Hirata, the author himself, in 2009.  The book presents a deeply compelling story of the childhood of a boy very much like the author himself:  entrenched in poverty, attending a run-down school, and fighting along with his friends and teachers for the chance at an education.

 

The message in the book is powerful, and the scenes throughout the book are touching.  The Rainbow Troops, or Laksar Pelangi, after whom the book was named are the children at a poor, struggling, village school, but among them are brilliant and determined young children, and their teachers stand strong against the forces that repeatedly try to crush them.

 

This would be an excellent teaching book from any level middle school and above.  It could easily be placed in a unit of coming of age stories.  The characters in The Rainbow Troops are relatable and fascinating, and the story shows history and culture that many students would never have even heard of.  It also portrays Muslim culture in a way that is relatable, which is something that is so rarely seen in primary and secondary education in the US.  I highly recommend this wonderful and compelling novel, and I hope that I will someday have the chance to introduce it to many classes of students.

Book Review: Chike and the River by Chinua Achebe

This short novel by Chinua Achebe is a much lighter piece than some of his better known works.  It feels a bit like a fable.  The young central character and overall hopeful feel to much of the story make this the sort of piece that could be assigned to students as young as third or fourth grade.  I would approach the story differently for different age groups though.

 

For elementary schoolers, I would want to focus on how the characters are similar to them.  The story is the story of a child in a new environment, learning new things, and making mistakes.  There is a scene in the book where several of the major characters send letters to pen pals in England, and I think that would be an important part of the book to focus on with elementary school students.  For middle schoolers, I would start with the same basic focus as elementary schoolers, but it would be easier to start also talking about what the social problems depicted in the story are.

 

For high school aged students and above, the focus could be much more on drawing parallels between this work and other works.  It would be great to do a unit on narratives of childhood and growing up using this as one of the center pieces.

 

I absolutely love how clear and simple, yet flowing, the writing of this piece is.  The Anchor Books edition has lovely prints that complement the story, and the overall story is interesting and engaging with identifiable characters.

Book Review: Gold Boy Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li

http://www.yiyunli.com/GBEGBook.php

In this collection of short stories, predominantly set in China, covering a pretty wide period of relatively recent time, Yiyun Li creates touching, poignant, and powerful narratives that drew me in and left me curious and satisfied.  While most of the stories are rather short vignettes, the opening and closing stories are much more complete stories, and would be the ones that I would recommend the most heavily for study.

 

This collection, or various stories from it could be placed in units about social narratives.  I could see reading the novel beside Austen, Hardy, and Dickens, though these are much more contemporary stories.  This would be an excellent collection to assign at either the high school or college level.

 

Underneath the cut you can find more of my thoughts on the specific stories in the collection.

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Literature Without Dead White Men

When I was in high school literature classes, and then in college literature classes, I, like many of my peers, and many teachers, noticed and bewailed the fact that so many curriculums seem to focus nearly exclusively on dead white (straight cis Christian) men.  As someone who does not fit several of those labels, and as someone who grew up in a very diverse community, this was an extremely disconcerting experience, and I always thought that someone should fix it.

One of the arguments that I heard from some people who saw the problem, but did not have a solution, was that there just wasn’t that much out there that was well written in English by anyone else.  I thought that this was a horrible excuse at the time, but I did not really have a ton of counter examples.  Several years, a lot of reading, a couple of years of teaching kids who do not see themselves represented in their school literature, and some great conversations with my sister and my best friend later, I realized that maybe I could address that problem at least a little bit.

The entire purpose of this blog is going to be to accumulate reviews of awesome books by people who are not dead white (straight cis Christian) men for potentially academic purposes.  Even if you are not interested in the academic side of things, I am going to only be recommending books that I liked or found compellingly powerful, so you can probably find some awesome things to read here.   Because of the academic influence of the idea, I am going to generally include a few things in my reviews other than just a general discussion of the book:

  • What grade level the material would be appropriate for
  • What commonly read novels a teacher could potentially pair it with

I would love to have feed back on my reviews from other teachers, other readers of diverse literature, and anyone who finds this project fascinating.  If you have a book that you think belongs on my list, I would also love to hear about that.  My current criteria for the list are:

  • The author must be in some way a minority (and not a cis white man, regardless of other things)
  • The book must be well written and vaguely within the bracket considered literary fiction (I read lots of other things, and I may at some point do some forays into Science Fiction and Fantasy)
  • The book must have “teachable” points
  • The book must be written in English or translated into English by the author, or the author with assistance
  • Generally, the book must be relatively current (there should be people alive today who were alive when the book was released) — This point is the most debatable of the set, but my current focus will be on newer books, though there will certainly be a few exceptions.

Thank you for reading!

Etienne