Month: April 2017

Sachiko’s Strength

Reviewed by Yeng Xiong

A few years ago, I was in Japan, sightseeing all the major cities.  One memory that will always stick with me was when I was in Hiroshima.  In the city, they have a park called the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which symbolizes the horrific act of its bombing, but also celebrates the lessons that come from it.  I was walking in that park when there was a classroom full of teenage students standing in front of one of its memorials.  Their teacher was giving a speech that resonated with me even though I didn’t understand what he was saying.  That speech made me reflect on all the sacrifices the Japanese people faced and how they persevered through that dark event to be the nation they are today.

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson chronicles the true-life story of Sachiko Yasui.  The book’s preface begins in 2005 at the Lyndale Park Peace Garden in Minneapolis, where the people there were commemorating the end of World War II.  The author of this book, Caren Stelson, was among those in attendance when she saw Sachiko Yasui give her speech on her life.  Stelson was “motionless, listening to Sachiko tell her story about having survived the bombing of Nagasaki” and promised to write her story.  Five years later, she finally got an audience with Sachiko and gained an approval to tell her story, only if Stelson “could look into my eyes.”

Sachiko’s story began a few days before the bombing of Nagasaki.  She was with her family, interacting with her parents and her siblings as they tried to live a normal life under the veil of World War II.  As Sachiko was only six years old, she only had a vague understanding of what was happening around her.  On August 9th, 1945, it was another ordinary day for Sachiko, as she was making mud balls and playing house with her friends.  Suddenly everything changed when the atomic bomb hit Nagasaki, throwing her life and everyone she knew into a spiral of despair and survival.

Stelson adds another element to her book by showing various photos throughout the book.  For instance, there are a lot of photos of Sachiko and her family during the various stages of her life.  Most of them are in black and white, adding an artistic element to the book.  There are also other photos of the devastation and the bleak aftermath of the atomic bomb.  In addition to telling Sachiko’s story, Stelson weaves in extensive notes about the context of the situation.  For example, the book has a section dedicated to the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story is an inspirational story that everyone should read.  It weaves a narrative that is both gruesome, but at the same time, evokes inspiration and hope.  It tells of the atrocities of the past and how we, as humanity, can learn from our mistakes and move forward.  Like when Ichiro, Sachiko’s brother, tells her to “take care of everyone,” it gives her the strength to bear the atrocities and move on.  Then, after learning to move on, Sachiko’s father tells her to “use your wonderful life to help people in the world.” This book reminds us that we also must not brood on the past and use our wonderful lives to make the world a better place.

Everything, Everything: An Eye-Opening Experience for Everyone Involved

Reviewed by Katrina Grenell

Would you risk dying to fully live? That is the question in which protagonist, Madeline, learns to answer throughout Nicola Yoon’s 2015 young adult novel, Everything, Everything, which was nominated for the category of Best Young Adult Fiction for the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards.

Before you rush out to see the film adaptation for this novel (which releases to movie theaters May 19), I highly suggest you wait (even if the film does the book justice), and read Yoon’s incredible page turner first. This romance novel is not like others of its kind. Madeline has just turned eighteen, but she’s as close to being an adult as the earth is distanced from the sun. Having a rare disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (known as SCID) that causes severe reactions (including death) to anything in the world outside her home, she’s been isolated for her entire life. The only things familiar to her are her books, as she admits, “I’ve read many more books than you. It doesn’t matter how many you’ve read. I’ve read more. Believe me. I’ve had the time.” Her house consists of items only sterile and white, which often resembles that of a hospital. For the last seventeen years, she’s only been around her mother, who is also her doctor and primary caretaker, in addition to Carla, the nurse that is with her during the day while her mother works. Madeline cannot attend school – she attends online classes and occasionally gets visits from her tutors in person, but only after they’ve gone through an extremely strict decontamination process after entering her home.

Surprisingly, Madeline is a happy girl. She has a lot more substance to her personality than you’d expect for someone who hasn’t had the privileges of most normal, healthy girls her age, which is what makes her character so relatable yet also so unique. Yoon also creates Madeline’s character with a touch of diversity – Madeline is half African American and half Asian, which speaks to Yoon’s passion for bringing diverse books into the forefront for the Young Adult genre. Madeline doesn’t like it when people feel bad for her, since she knows that her life may end short and she’s already come to terms with it: “I have no patience for books that pretend life has meaning. I have no patience for happy endings.” Madeline, wanting to get down to the knitty gritty, spends most of her time learning new things. Everyday, she learns little facts that are interesting to her about the world outside she longs to see, yet she convinces herself that she’s happy spending her evenings playing board games with her mom.

Everything changes for her when she receives a new next door neighbor: dark, adventurous, and handsome Olly. Madeline has so much to say, since she’s been bottling all of her knowledge up for seventeen years with nobody to share her thoughts about it with. Olly and Madeline have nightly rituals of online instant-messaging, which soon has Madeline pining for more contact, which she gets with the help of her trusted nurse and advocate, Carla. “He’s not safe. He’s not familiar. He’s in constant motion. He’s the biggest risk I’ve ever taken.”

The real lesson begins when Madeline realizes that these rebellious, limited visits from Olly, where they have to sit across the room from each other and aren’t supposed to touch, can’t last forever. She either has to go back, or move forward. She makes a choice – which, when you read into find out – will take you on a twisted ride to realize that nothing is ever as it seems. It will have you questioning your own life, and if you’re using it bravely enough.

Along with courage, this novel will make you deeply question the choices you’ve made, and why you made them, like when one character in the novel reflects on his own choices: “They’d try and make me choose. And I wouldn’t choose them. This way, everybody wins.”

Everyone in this novel is dealing with something, whether they’re sick or not, which is what makes the central theme of the book relate to a sort of intersection of struggle for everyone. Olly is trying to protect his mom and sister from his abusive and alcoholic father, Madeline’s mother Pauline has given everything she has to give to protect Madeline from the dangers of the outside world, and Olly’s friend Zach is struggling to become the proud gay rockstar that he wants to be. Written through the wiser-than-you’d-think voice of Madeline herself, this book takes you through many ups and downs (grab the kleenex for sure!), with unexpected twists and turns, while she grows on you more and more through her revealing of little inserted quirks, like her journal pages, drawings (produced by Nicola Yoon’s husband, David Yoon), book spoilers, and random facts. While Yoon’s writing gave me all the feels, it also made me question my own life, and what is worth fighting for.

“In the beginning there was nothing. And then there was everything.”

I Am Malala: An Inspirational Story of Heroism and Hope

Reviewed by Ashley Nesladek

In the book I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick, Malala’s story begins when she is eight years old. She describes the small village she lives in, Mingora, which is in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. She describes the place she lives as having “tall mountains, lush green hills, and crystal-clear rivers.” She also describes her family, which consists of her two brothers, her mother and her father. Unlike many girls born in Pakistan, Malala explains that her mother, and more importantly, her father are extremely supportive of her. While usually it is not something to celebrate when a girl is born in Pakistan, her family does exactly that- celebrating her birth the same way a family would normally celebrate the birth of a baby boy.

Malala’s father owns a school in their town, which Malala attends. In the beginning, she does this without fear- many girls in Pakistan attend school. She describes how the neighboring country of Afghanistan has been taken over by Taliban rule. This means that girls there are not allowed to go to school and Malala explains how grateful she is that she still has the opportunity to learn. This changes quickly, however, when the Taliban begins to infiltrate Pakistan. Malala describes what it is like when the Taliban brings terrorism to her town: “So every morning, before I rounded the corner on the way to the Khushal School, I closed my eyes and said a prayer- afraid to open them in case the school had been reduced to rubble overnight. This was what terrorism felt like.” Suddenly, Malala’s right to an education is threatened and she and her family must decide to retreat or fight back.

Malala decides, at the age of 10 years old, that she will not give up her right to an education without a fight. She resolves to continue to attend school despite the real danger she faces in doing so. Members of the Taliban are regularly beating and killing people who they believe are going against the Quran in her village, and going to school as a woman is one of the things they believe the Quran forbids. Malala’s family supports her decision and do everything possible to show her that support. Her father says to her “I will protect your freedom Malala… Carry on with your dreams”. By the end of the book, Malala comes face to face with members of the Taliban, and she is given the ultimate test in bravery and standing up for what she believes in.

        Malala steps up to this challenge, and then some. From writing candidly about her experiences as a girl in Pakistan suffering from the effects of the Taliban even after her secret identity is exposed, to talking to people all over the world about her experiences, Malala goes above and beyond. She gives a voice to so many who cannot or will not speak about these atrocities. Even in the face of extreme violence, Malala makes sure her voice is heard. At one point in the book, Malala has some internal dialogue about what she would do if she came face to face with the Taliban, and this is what she comes up with: “ ‘Malala’ I said to myself. ‘Just tell him what is in your heart. That you want an education. For yourself. For all girls. For his sister, his daughter. For him.’  That’s what I would do. Then I would say, ‘Now you can do what you want.’ “

This book is extremely relevant to young adult readers in a variety of ways. Malala’s story is inspiring and heroic. Not only is she going through many of the normal coming of age experiences, like fighting with her brothers and critiquing her looks and who she will become in life, but she is doing so under extreme prejudice because of her gender. This book allows young readers to understand just how difficult life can be and may present them with a perspective they would have never experienced otherwise. This will empower young readers, and help them to believe that they truly can achieve greatness if they believe in themselves and their cause.

I am Malala was one of the best books I ever read, hands down. Malala shows a level of bravery that is unfathomable at the age of only ten years old, and she continues to show it throughout the entire book. Toward the end of the book, when she meets the President of the United States, Barack Obama, she says “If God has given you a voice, I decided, you must use it even if it is to disagree with the president of the United States.” She proves that anyone who has a deep enough desire to do so can change the world. Malala describes her journey with humility and grace in a way that is not only inspiring, but also keeps you interested in her story.

The Source of Your Strength: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Reviewed by Zack Martin

It may be difficult to write a novel based on a fictional series of novels memorialized in fictional fan fiction from your last novel without ever asking readers to rely on your own source material, but Rainbow Rowell makes this maneuver look easy.  In Carry On from 2015, Rowell returns to the parallel fantasy world that she had created via a frame in her late 2013 novel Fangirl.  In that book, protagonist Cath is on a mission to write her own ending to the fictional “Simon Snow” series before the eighth and final installment of the series is released in print.  Carry On is that final book.

Carry On is remarkable in its total lack of dependency on either the frame scenario from Fangirl—there is no mention of Simon Snow readership, no Rowell self-reflexivity whatsoever—or on the implied seven years’ worth of story that precedes the eighth (school) year that occupies Carry On.  Rowell’s addicting commentary on source material and fandom is made to exist entirely independently of its own source with the context that informs it remaining just that: external information that enriches the experience of reading but does not interfere with the storytelling.  Add to this the fact that Carry On is an ode to magical chosen ones, to Harry Potter, and to the joy a fan writer takes in lovingly remixing and what if-ing readymade worlds, and it is clear that Rowell has created a survivor.

Carry On recounts the final (and, in its world, optional) year at Watford School of Magicks for main characters Simon Snow, his best friend Penelope Bunce, his roommate and nemesis Baz Pitch, and his girlfriend Agatha Wellbelove.  As such, the novel is just about as dramatic a deployment of in medias res as you can find, with the fact of “carrying on” built directly into its structure.  Leaping into a nominally completed pseudo-series is a fascinating experience as a reader that is, in turn, supported by Simon’s own character.  Simon is a Harry Potter lookalike with a twist.  Whereas many fans and observers might have suspected it of Harry, here it is made transparent: Simon is the worst Chosen One ever.  He is a fluke, a semi-complete mage, and his poor “magick” skills show it.

As is recounted in his own lore, Simon is the first known mage to have ever come from non-magical stock—there are no “half-bloods” in Rowell’s world of mages, a deviation from the Potter source material.  Carry On is full of such revisions, which Potter aficionados will collect and savor.  These changes are important, and they often reflect the times and the issues of power and class that J. K. Rowling developed as Potter progressed.  Wheres Potter’s Hogwarts students were invisibly waited upon by an army of indentured service elves, early in Carry On Simon notes/explains that “nobody’s spoiled at Watford.  We do our own cleaning and, after our fourth year, our own laundry” (36).  As readers are made aware, the 2015 Watford wizarding community is caught up in an identity conflict about access: just how much latent power or ability should an individual need in order to be considered worthy of an education?

Simon’s candid, humble voice shines through this novel, and it is his growing self-awareness that permits him to defy expectations and survive.  As the novel progresses–and Simon keeps on living–he begins to assert the possibility of himself.  Simon’s fatalist mythology has been perpetuated from above by the Mage, the Headmaster and uncertain mentor figure to Simon, and from Simon himself by his penchant for violent magickal explosions and his magnetic attraction to baddies.  It unravels as he begins to understand that life could, just could, go on after the warm embrace of Watford ends.  In a touching and hopeful aside after Agatha opens up to Simon about her own uneasiness over the foregone conclusion that is Simon, he insists to himself that “(You have to pretend that you get an endgame.  You have to carry on like you will; otherwise, you can’t carry on at all)” (143).

Persisting against all odds and resisting interpretations of yourself that would hold you back are at the heart of the intra- and interpersonal teen conflicts in Carry On and dovetail well with the predilection (read need) for young adult literature to embrace identity construction.  Maybe that is why Carry On is so queer-affirming: in order to navigate turbulent environments, Watford’s young adults discover their own sexual expressions with honesty and self-assertion.  And maybe that is also why the novel offers up, in its ending, such a touching representation of persisting as a community member even when it might appear that your right to belong has been revoked.  You do the best you can with what you’ve got, Rowell seems to say, and Carry On certainly lives that truth.

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