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Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

From Octavia Butler's website: 

"This highly acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel of hope and terror from award-winning author Octavia E. Butler “pairs well with 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale” (John Green, New York Times)

"When global climate change and economic crises lead to social chaos in the early 2020s, California becomes full of dangers, from pervasive water shortage to masses of vagabonds who will do anything to live to see another day. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives inside a gated community with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, sheltered from the surrounding anarchy. In a society where any vulnerability is a risk, she suffers from hyperempathy, a debilitating sensitivity to others’ emotions.

"Precocious and clear-eyed, Lauren must make her voice heard in order to protect her loved ones from the imminent disasters her small community stubbornly ignores. But what begins as a fight for survival soon leads to something much more: the birth of a new faith... and a startling vision of human destiny."


I am just at the beginning of the first of this two-book series. I keep thinking about the fact that Butler wrote this in 1993 - thirty years ago - and yet hints at so many things going on in our world today. 

More to come soon. 

Book Reviews

It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover

I am undeniably late to the Colleen Hoover train. I listened to this one on audiobook, narrated by Olivia Song. The story is compelling. We met Lily as an empathetic teen and then again as a 20-something adult. Who she is throughout the novel does not change -- helping a homeless teen, at her abusive father's funeral, taking professional leaps, breathing on the rooftop of a building, falling in complicated love... she remains who she is and we sort of love her for it. 

I wondered if I would have experienced the book differently had I been in my 20s still. It felt much like when I re-read Pam Houston's "Cowboys Are My Weakness" - stories that felt so spot-on at a time in my life when I was grappling with the meanings and logistics of relationships will juggling figuring one's self out. Lily's experiences and approach forward often feel time-specific -- something that Hoover captures perfectly.

Note: this book does contain abuse - physical, sexual, and verbal. The author's epilogue talks about this and her own experiences. 

Kent State by Deborah Wiles

Written in a unique verse style, Kent State delves into the many voices and perspectives of that fateful day in 1970 on the Kent State campus when National Guardsmen shot four American students. Charged with emotions, the book does what many history books cannot -- provides a view that is all-encompassing, providing a diversity of voices without excusing any of them of responsbility. 

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

In 2021, my best friend's husband died of a sudden cardiac event. Earlier that year, my mother-in-law passed suddenly while she was staying with us. Later that year, a close family friend and psuedo-grandmother to my sons passed from an aggressive cancer. I found myself looking into books about grief to share with my two friends and for myself. 

A Grief Observed was first published in 1961. In it, Lewis talks about the process of grief after losing his wife. Shortly after, he loses his understanding of the universe and his place in it. There are religious lingerings and questioning of his faith throughout. 

Books on grief can be incredibly useful because they show us that others have gone through it and survived. For that same reason, those grieving often stay away from them -- especially in the early stages of grief. For me, this book provided me with ways to approach my friends whose worlds had been rocked to their core. And it allowed me the space to grieve without putting the heavy weight on those who were also grieving. 

Intimations by Zadie Smith

I have long been a fan of Zadie Smith's novels. Intimations is a short collection of essays written during the 2020 pandemic. Having the time to stop and consider the moment, Smith explores the moment with quiet intention - what was it, what did it mean, and what could come next. The most enduring essay for me looked at what time means, what it means to fill it, and importantly how what we think about time shapes how we spend it. 

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

I listened to this book on audiobook before I ever saw a physical copy of it. It was the most lyrical story I had ever heard. Beautifully composed. Perfectly capturing the struggle of a teen trying to straddle two worlds and figure out what her world will ultimately be - Acevedo offers a dynamic and compelling narrative. 

The book is written in verse. If you haven't seen that before, it will look as if they entire book is filled with poetry. But it isn't like your average book of poetry. Everything is related and as you go the newness of the format fades. Stories told in verse have, in my experience, an added rhythm to the story. In this case, the main character is a young poet in the making - so Acevedo's choice to tell her story in verse is perfect. 

I highly recommend this title to anyone. 

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

A book about finding your voice, about others trying to dictate what you can do and not do with that voice, and learning to be your authentic self. I loved this book. Thomas has a way of writing that is honest and raw and immensely human - developing depth in all of her characters. 

Highly recommend this title to any teen struggling to find where they are going or any adult who needs a reminder about how we come to be ourselves. 

The Energy By by Jon Gordon

The Energy Bus by Jon Gordon is both an easy read and a hard read. It is easy because of the simple writing, the one-theme simplicity, and (let’s be honest, at this age) the large font format. It is a hard read because of the complexity of its seemingly simple message. The message, in short, gives me pause. “101 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy” the front cover reads. A simple photo of the front of a bus adorns the cover. As a working, single mother of two, I look at this image, on its sunflower orange background, and think, “That looks like it is going to tip over… it is bouncing high enough off of the ground to have a shadow – that’s just not safe.” The New Yorker in me cannot unsee it. 

Why do our minds jump to these cynical knee-jerk responses, even if a bit pragmatic, when confronted with a message like that held in The Energy Bus? We often hear, “We live in such cynical times!” Well, maybe that is some of it. But Ray Bradbury talked about cynicism. George Carlin did. Aldous Huxley. Maya Angelou. Lily Tomlin. Noam Chomsky. Oscar Wilde. Sigmund Freud. Niccolo Machiavelli. John Updike. Milan Kundera. George Orwell. Flannery O’Connor. Cynicism does not belong to this century alone. 

Even within the pages of The Energy Bus, we are not alone in our cynicism. When looking for the information on the particular font on the verso (the page on the back of the title page of any book), I found this disclaimer: 

“Limit of Liability/Disclaimer of Warranty: While the publisher and author have sed their best efforts in preparing this book, they make no representations or warranties with respect to the accuracy or completeness of the contents of this book and specifically disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose… The advice and strategies contained herein may not be suitable for your situation. You should consult with a professional where appropriate. Neither the publisher nor author shall be liable for any loss of profit or any other commercial damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential, or other damages.”

If the positive messages within The Energy Bus need to come with a disclaimer housed within the first few pages, perhaps we should not feel so bad about being skeptical about the applicability of its message in our everyday lives. Because, to be sure, almost every person I have spoken to about this book about sort of whispers their displeasure with it. We feel bad about feeling bad about it – the mark of most great cynics. 

But, let’s not let ourselves off the hook so easily. As George Carlin said, “Inside every cynical person there is a disappointed idealist.” What have we been disappointed by? Family. Friends. Ourselves. Career paths. First loves. The fact that there will always be traffic on the LIE. That no one knows how to merge, despite all the signs. The times your best, most passionate efforts fell flat when reflected back to you by a loved one. The second season of a new favorite show. Season 4 of Lost. The Pinterest cake pop fail coming out of the oven right now. The fragility of IKEA furniture after the first time you move it. The discomfort of Spanx. The blank stares from students during the lesson you so carefully planned for weeks. 

There’s a lot to be cynical about. 

It simply, I think, is not as easy (or ideal) as this book suggests. One might argue that George’s own disappointments and pending failures are a result of his laziness. There is this assumption that George’s problem was that he was waiting for the world to motivate him – that he just wasn’t interested until his approach and attitude was about to lose him his wife, his job, his self-worth. And I don’t think that is how many people come to what Sarah Vowell once described as “low-key dread.” I think many of us come to it more enthusiastically than George slumped into it. 

First, it occurred to me about half way into the book that I did not care what happened to George. I think, at this moment, I am over the focus of white males in mid-life crises having epiphany storylines at the moment. It is too simple a dichotomy of pre- and post-epiphany. The introduction of the bus driver in the story, Joy, is the turning point moment for George. And it is quite a sharp turn. Within the first 6 pages, we hear Joy’s description of the people she means to shape with her message. In this telling, they are “Lifeless. No kick in their step.” Surely, with the existence of Mondays and long weeks and sleepless nights, we have all felt like that at some point. I was still a willing participant at that point. But then the description went on, “Like a light had been turned off inside them. She could tell the people who shone brightly and those who had a subtle dim. She called them Dimmers. They walked around like zombies just trying to get through the day.” And then, “No purpose, no spirit. No energy.” 

With this, I was done by page six. I not only did not care about George, I did not care about the flat portrayal of people. 

And personally, I was slightly offended. I should add some context to this – I have been told my whole life to smile more (and not just by creepy old men in the ‘80s and ‘90s), people who always assumed I was unhappy. The reality was far from that. 

My response to Joy’s description also came from my career in education. I have spent my entire career working as a sort of behind-the-scenes person, working out logistics and making connections for people, supporting their paths. Logistically, to do so with intense positive energy is antithetical to the whole purpose of support. I did (and do) so with ideals like diversity, openness, and creativity, in a holistic manner. I do not think that forcing someone to be energized by an idea, especially if it is their own idea, is good pedagogy. In our role as educators, I wonder if too much enthusiasm for anything is counter-productive to true, holistic, individual growth in our students. It is like putting a plant in a sunny window. It still can only ever grow towards the window pane in the direction. It is still a plant limited to its container. 

But, if I think about where my initial reactions to The Energy Bus come from and what they mean, I wonder if the sort of, “Not my thing” response is really about the comfortability of cynicism. Putting aside the particular George storyline, what is the book really suggesting that we are so uncomfortable with? If we wipe away the painted-life-mantras-on-overpriced-home-décor-at-Home-Goods-esque nature of it, what do we come up with? 

Because it isn’t about the bus. 

That is what I thought of today as I drove home and got stuck behind a bus whose driver obviously was not sure where to go on a winding backstreet country road. Being behind drivers who do not know where they are going is one of the most frustrating things about driving. Like I did when I saw the cover of The Energy Bus, I thought about how unsafe going that slow on a busy road was.

The 1619 Project edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones

I first came to know of the 1619 Project when I was at Bard High School Early College in Queens. The principal had asked me to see if we could get a few printed copies of what was going to be published by the New York Times as a special edition magazine. When I reached out to the Times to ask for a few copies, they asked me how many students were in the school. About 600, if I remember correctly. So that's how many they sent to the school. This project was important to get into the hands of young people whose formal education did not include the historical lens, nor the historical artifacts, included in this work. 

When the book version came out, I was excited to dig into what I was hearing was this controversial title with outlandish ideas. What I found was anything but. I remember asking a colleague if she too felt that it had largely been facts presented in grad school history courses. 1619 as an origin is a radical idea for many, but I cannot wrap my head around why it is so threatening to so many. 

The narrative is told in an approachable and familiar way. It includes chapter essays as well as creative pieces (prose and poetry) to illustrate a historical moment. This unique way of presenting history gives contour to the story.  I recommend this title to anyone. If the sheer length of it is too much - the audiobook is available. And there are a ton of educator resources available online. 

The Mistress's Daughter by A.M. Holmes

I loved this book. I finished it in one afternoon. 

Raw. Honest. Not pushing for a feel-good ending. Holmes tells the story of being the biological child of two people who were having an affair. Her biological parents come looking for her when she is an adult. The sort of identity and family identity and sense of self stuff you expect in a memoir about family is all there -- and it is told in such a unique way. 

For me it especially holds a place in my mind as confirmation that we can choose who we let into our strange little worlds. 

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

I love the idea of this book. A look into how our choices change the next chapter of our stories. About how much agency we do and do not have in our own lives. About how we build our identities by way of the choices we made about our lives. About how we might have chosen differently, if we thought differently or knew differently or felt differently... or just did. 

The book lost me though at the list of experiences toward the end. It felt like the depth of experiences he was exploring earlier in the book were made shallow in list form. 

I have heard from many people how much they loved this book and the story it tells. It just wasn't my thing. 

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

I read Alice in Wonderland for the first time as an adult as part of a look into the idea of "The Hero's Journey." This looks at how a main character is drawn through a particular pathway in many of our beloved stories - from the known world to the unknown and back again. Along the way they experience challenges, meet mentors, fail, and try again with success before going back to the known world.  (There's a popular look into this using Luke in Star Wars). I also read it after reading an article that compared Holden in Catcher in the Rye to Alice -- as adolescent travelers that both search for identity in their journey through unknown worlds. 

I recommend checking out Alice in Wonderland. It is quirky and weird and offers these gems of depth about the human experience. It is about how we make sense of our world, try to make sense of others, and sometimes fail to understand anything while understanding everything. The book is different from the many movies out there... of which my favorite is that weird NBC production from 1999. 

All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda

At first this seemed like a story about the processing of moving away from grief and the trauma of a neighborhood left guessing at the loss of a teenager 20 years ago (missing? murdered? ran away?). But it quickly turns into more a mystery with unraveling (and often too convenient) secrets everywhere. I listened to this one on audiobook and it took me a while to care at all about the narrator's story. In the end, I had a lot of issues with the all too easy wrapping up of this story. But if you like mysteries with family drama, small towns, coming-of-age retellings, and the like -- this will keep you entertained... and probably a little annoyed at the "heroine."

Tags: Mystery, family drama, small towns

Fire Keeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley

I loved this book from cover to cover. Boulley beautifully weaves a coming-of-age story with friendships, sports, family drama, cultural accuracy, history, loss, and so much more. It is approachable with its characters familiar, warm, and complicated. It is unapologetically honest.  I highly recommend this book to all. 

Tags: mystery, suspense, family drama, Native American, historical fiction

Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King

Whew. Does A.S. King know how to capture angst in the teenage years or what...? This is a tale of a teenage girl trying to make sense of herself and her world. It includes a bit of surrealism, family drama, art, friendship, sibling connection, and a sort of coming to terms with one's own family history. 

Tags: coming-of-age, angst

Dig by A.S. King

This was the first book by A.S. King I had ever read. And I was blown away. It is so well-crafted, from start to finish. Throughout the book you will meet five characters whose lives are entwined, you just won't learn how until the end. Heartbreaking and honest - this tale digs at the workings of racism and family and anxieties. It includes ghosts, like we all have. 

Tags: mystery, paranormal, ghosts, family drama, coming-of-age

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Synopsis:” Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.”

“Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.”

This book captures so much – that ‘sort of lost feeling’ of teenage years, the struggle to be a good friend to someone struggling with a mental health issue, the search for self while trying to ‘do the right thing’ – it is all in there, with a bit of mystery and suspense and sadness.

Fresh Ink, an anthology

The stories live up to the anthology's title - it is fresh ink indeed. This one has stayed with me long after I finished the collection. It is brutally honest about the experiences shared in the stories. Relate-able. At times heartbreaking. A must-read... with tissues. 

Once Upon an Eid

This is a collection of stories about teens celebrating Eid. The stories span the diversity of experiences of something that non-Muslims often assume is experienced as one thing to the entire Muslim population across the world. What we see in these stories are unique, personal, and even often familiar experiences. The preparation of the holiday dinner table. The cousins and family members. The smells in the kitchen. The laughter. The responsibility. The joys and heart of celebrating holidays with and without loved ones. 

I highly recommend this to everyone.