Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"Underground Airlines" by Ben H. Winters

Occasionally I read a book that terrifies me. And often that terror doesn’t come from a real (for me) place. I suppose I don’t read books about suburban moms or English teachers much. Instead, the terror comes from books that speak to my greatest fear: a lack of control, an inability to have agency in my life. So that’s perhaps why, despite my incredibly privileged upbringing as a white, middle-class woman, I find books about slavery scarier than most horror movies.

I found Ben H. Winter’s Underground Airlines absolutely terrifying and thought provoking; Winters has combined a tension-filled “adventure” story with sardonic commentary on race relations in America. Underground Airlines exists in an alternative history of the U.S., one in which slavery was not eradicated but rather continues in the “Hard Four”: the Southern states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and the Carolinas (combined as one state). The main character, “Victor” (we don’t learn his real name), is an escaped slave turned fugitive-slave hunter. He does his job with brutal efficiency, avoiding thinking about the number of fellow slaves (209, he repeats quietly, as a self-reproaching aside) he has returned to slavery, all in the name of keeping himself free. The novel follows Victor on the trail of Jackdaw, as escaped slave with an odd file, and whose case goes deeper than originally appears.

The novel straddles the worlds of thriller and social commentary so that, even though both elements are well-done, you’re often wanting more. In fact, I think I could have read an entire book purely on speculation of what our country would look like today without the abolition of slavery. There are hints to our position within the world stage (a country sanctioned for human rights violations) or the way in which our economy would suffer and thrive from continued slave labor. More significantly, Winters explores how our American psyche would have to adjust to continue to allow such an atrocity into the modern era. The answer is widespread, tacit hypocrisy: I disapprove of slavery, so I’ll ignore it and pretend I’m not quietly benefiting from it. All characters, from Victor to the abolitionist priest Father Barton, get such psychological scrutiny, suggesting that while slavery is evil, people are ambiguous. And in that ambiguity, people are able to justify most any action.

There are some parts that feel somewhat underserved, particularly the convenient character of Martha. She’s described as a hot mess at the beginning of the novel, but she then becomes incredibly assertive and put-together, capable of pulling off a high-stakes heist of sorts with Ocean’s Eleven-level efficiency. Her relationship with Victor also felt too broad even though they ultimately put complete trust in each other.

But the flaws are relatively minor and don’t detract from the book’s effectiveness. It’s the kind of book that calls out for discussion for its reflection on our past and observations about our present.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Bagels and Teaching

Note: I've largely stopped writing book reviews. Motherhood and teaching are just too much for me. But I have occasionally written some informal essays. My students are currently writing college application essays, which means personal narratives that "sell" them as a student. This is my "adult" college application essay.

When I was in high school, I worked at Einstein Bros. Bagels. It wasn’t a great job, and my primary accomplishment by the time I quit before leaving for college was that my salary had increased from $6/hr to $6.25/hr. Over the course of those two years, however, I came to have strong opinions about bagel operations, including the application of cream cheese.

Most customers came in for a straightforward bagel and cream cheese, which meant we schmeared those two items together regularly throughout the day. The large tubs of cream cheese came with ice cream style scoops, and many employees simply scooped up some plain, plopped it in the middle of the everything bagel, closed the bagel, and handed it to the customer.

The downside of this type of serving is obvious: the cream cheese is not spread throughout the entirety of the bagel but instead oozes out through both sides of the hole.

Conversely, I always used our flat schmearing knives to evenly spread the cream cheese over the bagel before firmly pressing the bagel together. It took a little more time, but the customer had a ready-to-eat breakfast rather than a mess needing cleanup.

I’ve not thought much about that job since, but looking back, I realize that my extra effort was a result of my belief in doing the best at whatever it is I did. I didn’t have a passion for cream cheese, but I’d chosen to take on the responsibility of a job, and because I valued myself as a person, I was going to do that job well.

Fifteen years later, I’m in the middle of my tenth year as a teacher. My students--tired and overworked high school juniors--often plead for a “chill day.” Or ask why I assign them writing assignments when I’m only “punishing” myself by having to grade an enormous stack of essays.

I always have the same answer for them: I do so because I value myself as a person and as a professional. Because I couldn’t come to school and teach each day if I thought my contribution to the world was so meaningless that we might as well have a “chill day.”

I became a teacher for all the traditional reasons: a love of reading and writing; a feeling of satisfaction in working with young people and seeing them grow. But there are days when I groan at re-treading Huck Finn another year; days when the blank stares coming from twenty-some 17-year-olds suggest I could just as well be reading the phone book.

On those days, what drives me isn't an all-consuming dedication to today's youth or the English language. Instead, it's self-respect. It's a belief that what I do reflects me as a person. And for that reason, I can't half-ass it.

I didn't care about my customers' breakfast enjoyment; those customers got well-schmeared bagels because I cared about myself. And whether I adore my current students or not, they get the best education I can provide. I don't do it out of altruistic, self-sacrificing devotion; I do it for me.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

Any avid Harry Potter fan has a difficult decision to make with the newest entry in the Harry Potter Universe: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play that follows Harry’s son Albus and is based on a story idea by J.K. Rowling but written by another man.

On the one hand, those fans--myself certainly included--love Harry Potter and are eager to re-enter the universe through whatever means are available. On the other hand, there’s something a little wrong in doing so via another person’s creative talent and in a means so divergent from the original seven-book series.

A Facebook friend described the book as “good fan fiction,” and while I think the description is pretty apt, I don’t think it’s the writing itself that’s problematic. More distracting is the play format and the incredibly short and jarring scene structure.

The play is divided into over 50 scenes, each act having nearly twenty scenes. That means that just as you adjust to the setting and the characters’ style and tone, you’re thrown out of that scene and into a completely new scene with a new setting and new characters. These shifts would probably be less an issue if you saw the play live, since visual cues of setting and characters would make it easy to follow. But as a reading experience it’s incredibly frustrating. Just as you feel at home with good ol’ adult Harry, Ron, and Hermione, you’re tossed to Albus or a flashback.

Part of what made reading the Harry Potter series great was getting into the “zone,” fully immersing yourself in the magical world of Hogwarts, forgetting to eat lunch because you’re too entranced in Harry’s world. It’s unlikely anyone would have the same experience reading Cursed Child. You’re painfully aware of your presence in the play’s text at every moment, so the world never becomes real.

And though this may be an meaningless quibble, I was also bothered by the writers’ decision to completely ignore traditional play structure. Most plays have a few acts, a few scenes, and a few straightforward settings. In crafting the play instead like a fast-paced short movie, the writers have ensured that most theaters could never perform it (the breakneck speed and special effects would require an enormous budget and technical staff), and they’ve ignored what often makes plays so enjoyable. We can see movies any time, but we choose to see theater because it offers a more intimate glimpse into human emotion and experience. While there are plenty of heart-warming moments in Cursed Child, the intimacy of theater feels lacking.

Those significant issues aside, there are some joys in this newest Harry Potter story. Scorpio, Draco’s son, has the most memorable journey and the most memorable lines. He’s fully his own character, and his growth is more interesting than that of Albus. Harry and Albus’ relationship, though the focus of the play, is a little less interesting, particularly because Harry’s flip-flop between over-reacting dad and sympathetic dad comes too quickly.

Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny are happily all recognizable as their younger selves (maybe even too much so?), though the jokes about each other’s behavior perhaps seem a bit more stale when made by middle-aged adults.

In the end, Cursed Child is fairly un-memorable. Though I read it just a few weeks ago, I could probably only give you the barest plot outline. But, if I had the opportunity to see the stage version, I’d jump on the opportunity.