Book Snap #127

Title: All My Rage

Author: Sabaa Tahir

Date Read: March 6, 2023

Two snaps.

Snapshot of the book

All My Rage takes us from Lahore, Pakistan (then) to recount the story of Misbah and Toufiq (who are Salahudin’s parents) to (now) in Juniper, California to join the stories of Salahudin and his best-friend, Noor.

Noor is a Pakistani orphan who comes to live with her uncle in America, and she plans to make good on her second chance at life. Noor becomes lovingly entwined in Sal’s family, supported and cared for when she feels like an outsider everywhere else. But life is messy and complicated. Noor unwittingly falls in love with Sal; Sal makes a series of poor decisions to try and keep his family afloat; Noor tries to navigate attending college when her uncle forbids it; Sal tries to hide his father’s alcoholism and grieves for his mother– and they face it all while both intensely hating and tenderly loving each other.

It is a fantastic YA novel told in three points of view– tackling issues of Islamophobia, alcoholism, and domestic violence; while also exploring the pressures of highschool, the heartbreak of family, the beauty of friendship and the gift of forgiveness and compassion. Heartbreaking and tender, well worth the read.

Trigger warnings: drug and alcohol addiction, physical abuse, Islamophobia, sexual assault, tense exchange with law enforcement and death.

Snapshot of the book in my classroom

There are some craft study moves worth noticing in our Writer’s Notebook. Tahir makes some writerly craft choices worth exploring: using repetition, italics, and single word sentences that follow the rule of three. The first repetition is the italicized “Bang. Bang. Bang” taken from her reference to a song which is punctuated with the actual sound of gunshots. (Many young readers will likely get this reference.) Her next paragraph employs the rule of three: the names of the three Universities that she has been rejected from in single word sentences, one after another– just like the gunshots. And, followed by yet another magic three: the repetition of the word rejection. Each letter, each rejection, are like gunshots to her hopes.

“The letters come in hard and fast. Like the gunshots in M.I.A’s “Paper Planes.” Bang. Bang. Bang.

Yale. Columbia. Cornell.

Rejected. Rejected. Rejected.”

The book itself is divided into six parts. Each part opens with a stanza from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art.” Noor selects the poem for her English analysis essay because she liked the first sentence. Or, she amends: “Well. Sort of. Mostly I picked it because it’s short. But it’s also weird. It’s about misplacing stuff, like keys and houses. How the hell do you misplace a house?”

But it is really about accepting loss as inevitable. And so is this novel.

Tahir gives us Noor’s inner thoughts as she reveals the veneer of Noor’s college admission essays, juxtapossing the truth next to what she actually submits.

“A problem I solved. (Truth: heartbreak. What I wrote: a poor English grade.)

A life-altering experience. (Truth: my entire family dying and the smell of their bodies rotting around me. What I wrote: working at Juniper Hospital.)

My biggest life challenge. (Truth: they don’t want to know. What I wrote: bullying in highschool.)” (p.110)

Noor struggles to understand the poem, to get at the heart of it, to make sense of what Bishop is saying. She reworks the paper over time– and her final draft is excellent, because she knows what loss really is.

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Snapshot of the book in my life

Throughout the novel Noor is plugged into music or at the very least referring to it. Here is (a mostly complete) Noor’s Playlist. It already has some songs I do love, wonder what else I may discover? Check it out here.

Book Snap #126

Title: What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing

Authors: Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. and Oprah Winfrey

Date Read: February 17, 2023

Two snaps!

Sometimes, just reframing the question can make all the difference.

Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey collaborate in this conversational narrative that explores trauma through another lens by taking the often asked question– what’s wrong with you?– and flipping it to: what happened to you? This is not a question of semantics, but rather a thoughtful examination of the repercussions of trauma on how people perceive others and how they subsequently behave to protect themselves.

All experience is sequentially processed in our brains: moving from a primitive and reactive brainstem, which is organized to have us feel before we get to the cortex where we think. How we are loved and cared for in our early years is predictive of how we will behave in the face of trauma triggering situations later in life– nurturing parents regulate their baby back into balance, while a baby who is neglected, abused, or fearful will be in a constant state of flight or fright– the early trauma maps a response. Hence the question: what happened to you?– that we may better understand responses that seem aberrant or dysfunctional.

Predictably, and unfortunately, the behaviors that are adaptive for children living in violent, trauma-permeated environments becomes maladaptive in other environments (especially school). “The hyper-vigilance of the Alert state is mistaken for ADHD, the resistance and defiance of Alarm and Fear get labeled as oppositional defiant disorder; flight behavior gets them suspended from school; fight behavior gets them charged with assault. The pervasive misunderstanding of trauma-related behavior has a profound effect on our educational, mental health and juvenile justice systems” (p.92).

Beyond trauma-senstitive pedagogy and psychologocal treatment, most readers will connect personally with the chapter in which Perry and Winfrey explain that our stress-responses are depleted from constantly monitoring the sensory noise of the modern world, that our relationships are recklessly impoverished, that we have significantly less empathy for others, and, despite the marketing that suggests otherwise– we remain painfully disconnected. Disconnection is a disease. We need to look up from our phones, engage in thoughtful discussions and debates over dinner with our friends– we need to connect. We can be discouraged and overwhelmed with the many problems in our society– but Perry and Winfrey offer hope for a trauma-sensitive world where kind, capable, creative people can make it safer and more human– one where there is resilience, healing and the connection we so desperately need.

Oprah Winfrey spent close to twenty-five years interviewing guests and experts about stress, trauma, adversity and resilience– often also sharing her own stories of abuse and neglect. In 2007, she founded the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, in South Africa, leaning heavily of the expertise of Dr. Perry to foster a trauma-sensitive and developmentally aware education setting for her pupils. Dr. Perry is a child psychologist and neuroscientist, the principal of the Neurosequential Network, senior fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago. Together, they offer the anecdotes of their combined guests, students, and patients with such generous empathy and understanding that all readers reconsider asking what’s wrong with you, and begin to ask: what happened to you? Changing the question will make you a more benevolent person. Highly recommend!

Book Snap #125

Title: Our Missing Hearts

Author: Celeste Ng

Date Read: January 12, 2023

Two snaps!

Snapshot of the book

Bird is a twelve year old boy living in a new town, in a small apartment, with his father– a clear departure from his childhood home where he remembers his mother tending her gardens and sharing folk stories with him; a happier time when his family was together. Since her mysterious and abrupt departure, he is coached by his father to simply forget her: her belongings removed, traces of her life with them erased, even his memories of her become elusive. The nickname she fought for him to have, Bird, is forbidden in favor of a return to his given name, Noah. So, when a letter arrives addressed to Bird, postmarked from New York, he knows his mother is reaching across her exile to contact him.

We are transported to a world in which neighbours are encouraged to call out the unpatriotic actions of those they interact with under the guise of a policy called PACT (Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act). PACT outlaws the promotion of un-American values and behaviour; requires citizens to report potential threats; and protects children from environments espousing harmful views. The racist (veiled as patriotic) throughline of the book is so hauntingly familiar that I had to pause and look up whether PACT was something that had actually been a policy in the United States, it rang as entirely plausible, I wondered at how I could have missed it.

I mean, this is the water we are swimming in: shortly after the September 11 attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act; which, although it does not directly advocate the use of racial profiling and discrimination, legitimizes and creates a surveillance society in which people hold their neighbors under suspicion. Further, while United States immigration law allows people who are fleeing violence and persecution to request asylum at or near the border; under President Trump the United States intentionally separated children from their parents to deter families from exercising this right. Moreover, Trump’s blatant racist views emboldened MAGA followers to act on their own racism in a multitude of forms during his candidacy and presidency. Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984, during a period of conservative revival in the United States which posed a very real threat to the developments of women’s rights (a torch recently picked up again by Republicans). Atwood has always contended that there was nothing in her fictional Gilead that hadn’t already happened. Likewise, Ng sets up a fictional United States in which Persons of Asian Origin are profiled, surveilled, targeted for racist abuse and mistreatment and deemed unfit to parent their own children.

Our Missing Hearts is a counter-cry to PACT, a snippet conceived by Bird’s mother, Margaret, in a poem she wrote. He finds the words written on slips of paper, spray-painted in graffiti near the subway, and published in the book his friend Sadie procures to convince him his mother is a hero.

Bird is determined to solve the riddle she has sent him, he knows it will lead him back to her– he is her missing heart. While remembering the fairy tales of his youth to make sense of her cryptic message he discovers a rogue group of librarians who pass information through the stacks in an effort to reconnect families. Our Missing Hearts is a gripping and heart-wrenching tale of love, prejudice, bravery, and connection. Ng’s writing is beautiful, worth every minute you spend reading it.

Snapshot of the book in my classroom

There are a few ways this book could be positioned in a high school classroom. First, to examine with Ng the racist world she creates, drawing the parallels to our own current culture. As Ng writes in the Author’s Note: “it isn’t exactly our world, but it isn’t not ours, either.” This would be an excellent shared read for the discussions it could provoke.

Second, Ng does not use quotation marks for dialogue in the novel, which opens up a writer’s craft discussion as well. All writers make choices– it is then up to readers to decide to what effect. It bothered me at first, but I came to accept it– the writing was clear and I followed conversations without the help of quotation marks. In an interview, Ng explained her choice like this: “I wanted the novel to feel slightly folkloric, almost dreamlike; for Bird, the events feel a little bit like stepping into a fairytale, one of the stories his mother told him when he was young. When you think of a story being told out loud, the way folktales often are, the voice of the person telling it and the voices of the characters kind of merge, if that makes sense. There’s a blurring between the person narrating, and the words of the story, and the things the characters say. So, removing the quotation marks helped create that effect for the reader. Instead of a clear, formal, writerly quotation mark, neatly marking off what’s dialogue and what’s narration, it blends a little.” (Penn, F. 2022).

Snapshot of the book in my life

The power of the love for your child– that is what resonates. Having children just puts the whole world into perspective. Becoming a mother wasn’t easy for me, but being one is the most wonderful, challenging and rewarding thing I have ever done. My love for him is infinite, intense and affirming. I do not want to know the pain of losing a child, but I am wholly empathetic to the parents who have found themselves broken and empty from their missing hearts. I cannot imagine a worse pain.

Book Snap #124

Title: Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worse

Author: Robert M. Sapolsky

Date Read: February 10, 2023

Two snaps!

Snapshot of the book

Not gonna lie, I am mostly excited to review this one because it took some intellectual grit to complete it– and I feel a certain sense of accomplishment. Behave is a dense, multi-layered, in-depth, panoramic exploration of a thesis: that we don’t hate violence — we hate and fear the wrong kind of violence, and violence in the wrong context. Yet, we engage in conversations riddled with military metaphors (rally the troops; shoot down my ideas); our sports teams’ names celebrate violence (Warriors, Vikings); we build theologies around violence; elect leaders who excel at it; and even selectively mate with champions of human combat. When it’s the “right” type of aggression, we love it.

Robert M. Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. In Behave, he takes us through a scientific exploration of the biology of violence, aggression and competition; helping the reader better understand our behaviours and the impulses behind them. His approach is three-fold: First, you can’t understand things like violence, aggression and competition without biology. But, second, and just as important: you can’t understand these compulsions relying solely on biology. And finally, our biology, our psychology, and our culture are utterly intertwined.

Behave sets out to help us understand our behaviour in an interdisciplinary way. And so, in painstaking detail and with perfunctory wit (especially in his often sardonic footnotes– not to be missed!) Sapolsky posits a singular behaviour in chapter one and moves through chapters exploring: what happened one second before (the neurobiology); seconds to minutes before (the sensory stimuli); hours to days before (hormones at work); days to months before (the role of neural plasticity); during adolescence (which he gives the tongue-in-cheek title: “Dude, where’s my frontal cortex?); back to the crib and the womb (an overview of childhood brain development, the importance of mothers, and our environment); back to when you were just a fertilised egg (all those genes); and centuries to millennia before (exploring anthropology and culture). He further considers the evolution of our behaviour; our propensity to classify groups as Us versus Them; our use of hierarchies to decide on relationships, obedience and resistance; our morality and “doing the right thing”; our capacity for empathy; the metaphors we kill by; free will and punishment; and even war and peace.

The neurobiology is impressive (and comes complete with an appended primer entitled Neuroscience 101)– but the fact remains that the brain is not where the behaviour actually begins, rather it is the final pathway resulting from all that came before it — and that is what the book sets to unravel.

Brains don’t operate in vacuums. Answering the question of why we behave the way we do is best summed up with: It’s complicated. “Nothing seems to cause anything; instead everything just modulates something else” (p. 674). It might seem complicated to actually fix anything– but we have to try. And if we can come to a better understanding of the interconnectedness of it all, we might just have a chance. Because, as Sapolsky so beautifully writes: “You don’t have to choose between being scientific and being compassionate” (p. 675).

Snapshot of the book in my classroom

As a high-school teacher nothing has been more fundamentally core to understanding the kids I teach than knowing that the adolescent brain does not function like an adult brain. In Chapter six, “Adolescence: or, Dude, Where’s My Frontal Cortex?” Sapolsky underscores this fact, explaining that the final brain region to fully mature is the frontal cortex, not going fully online until the mid twenties (p.154).

Adolescence is more than a cultural construct, it is an actual developmental gap, influenced by cognition, emotional regulation, risk taking, peers, social acceptance and exclusion, empathy, sympathy and moral reasoning– it takes a while for the brain to “get it right.” Because of the brain’s plasticity, we learn, change and adapt. “Adult life is filled with consequential forks in the road where the right thing is definitely harder. Navigating these successfully is the portfolio of the frontal cortex, and developing the ability to do this right thing in each context requires profound shaping experience” (p.173. )This is the part of the brain that develops because of what life throws at us– we are profoundly sculpted by experience. Most importantly: “If by adolescence limbic, autonomic, and endocrine systems are going full blast while the frontal cortex is still working out the assembly instructions, we’ve just explained why adolescents are so frustrating, great, asinine, impulsive, inspiring, destructive, self-destructive, selfless, selfish, impossible, and world changing.” (p.155).

Snapshot of the book in my life

No book could ask you more eloquently, with more science, and with such thoughtful examples and stories– to understand that our behaviour must be carefully examined through multiple lenses. A snapshot of behaviour inevitably cuts out the panorama of its depth. Be leery of your compulsion to make snap judgments. Slow that amygdaloid functioning and assume that people are doing doing the best that they can with the resources they have: it will change your relationships. It’s important to examine the myriad of reasons why we behave the way we do, so that we might develop compassion for ourselves, and others.

Book Snap #123

Title: This Golden State

Author: Marit Weisenberg

Date Read: January 17, 2023

Two snaps!

Snapshot of the book

The choices we make, make us who we are.

Choices are also bets we make with the future. And, the bet Poppy’s parents have placed weave a complicated tapestry of anxiety-level unpredictability, fear, paranoia and danger into their lives.

Poppy is a high school senior. But Poppy isn’t like most high school girls. She can’t be. She is likely the only person at Lincoln West High School without a smartphone. She doesn’t make future plans– she never stays anywhere long enough to see them through. She doesn’t even really know anything about her own parents. But when she sees her family parked outside of the school that May afternoon, she knows exactly what it means: for seventeen years they have been on the run, and they’re running again.

Poppy has no idea why her parents have them living like fugitives, she and her sister just abide the Winslow family rules: They don’t use their real names; they don’t stay in one place for too long; when something feels weird, you take one thing and run; they keep the family together at all costs; and you never ask about the past. In their last exodus, they head to California, and things feel different. Different enough that she is compelled to break some of the rules she willfully abides. What she discovers will force her to make her own tough decisions– and make a bet on her own future.

This Golden State is a gripping page-turner. The mystery surrounding Poppy’s family is a tightly-wound ball of secrets– and her bold decision unravels it all. The thrill and suspense of discovering who the Winslows are, along with Poppy, makes the book hard to put down. Her accidental romance with Harry, is both bittersweet and tender. He also struggles with his parents, their expectations, and how to navigate relationships in his life. As intense as their life experiences may seem, they are all too relatable: what teenager doesn’t feel that their parents just don’t understand them?

Weisenberg delivers a thriller, a mystery and a romance all in one. Sure to be a YA favourite!