Doing Youth Participatory Action Research (Mirra, Garcia, Morrell)

There’s much to admire here. These people have done and are doing the work. Maybe it’s a question of audience. Who is this book for? If it’s meant to  convince teachers and administrators to take up their charge, I don’t know if this book will reach that audience. It’s a fairly academic text. It even looks unapproachable. I can’t imagine anyone picking it up at a conference and being able to use it to begin to develop a YPAR program. Who is this for, then? I fear that it’s circular – that this book, like the presentations the students make at impressive conferences, to reinforce the idea that research is done for the sake of people who attend conferences and then return to their universities to conduct. . . research. For all of the imagination and attention to logistical detail that the authors describe, their imagination seems to have certain, unfortunate boundaries. What, other than the perceptions people tend to have of students who look like them, do the students actually change? They seek to address, in the year that’s studied here, educational inequities, but what do they actually do to change things in that area? Has there been any research done to follow any of their participants to see if they continue to use the skills they learned from the program in college? To be change agents? Do they finish college? If the work is so dependent on grants, why don’t the students learn how to write grants? Why don’t they discuss what it means to be a grant-dependent program? For all of the discussion of disruption, why don’t they disrupt this?

I’m a YPAR convert. I am very excited to be part of a school (which has a University partner) that embraces this kind of work. But I don’t want to settle for conference presentations. Before students can be the change they see in the world, they need to see the change their work causes. And this change should include, but not be limited to the change they see in themselves. They can start by changing something in their own school, but we need to honor their work enough to let it influence our approach to education. Anything short of that seems, well, just academic.

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Zahra’s Paradise (Amir & Khalil*)

I auditioned this graphic novel as a kind of bookend for Persepolis. It’s a compelling story, driven by a brother’s search for his brother who (was?) disappeared after a protest in Iran in 2009. After a first read through, I was struck by my inability to find a pattern in what the authors (and the names are pseudonyms; the book flap says they’ve chosen to remain anonymous “for political reasons”) chose to explain. As for the graphics, the responsibility of ‘Khalil,’ I didn’t see many that merited a second look, but I am not an experienced graphic novel readerand I recall having the same reaction after my first read through of Persepolis. After much consideration and conversation, I have many more thoughts about the artwork in that book. The few frames that initially invited a second and third look are astonishingly powerful. Equally powerful is the mother’s prayer near the end of the book. No kidding. Tears and chills.

Though there are some difficult images in Persepolis, the nudity here is more prevalent and seems – again at first glance – less essential.

This book does contain a fair amount of reference material at the back that would definitely supplement any efforts to teach this book. And the Omid Memorial, replicated at the end of the book, will absolutely break your heart.

The Night of the Hunter (Grubb)

Though there are dead bodies in this one, this does not come across as your typical noir piece. There’s not a crime to be solved, and the (anti)hero is, depsite his profession, no saint. There is a mystery, though, or at least a question, and I don’t want to spoil the resolution, but there is a tremendous amount of intensity in the writing and a serious inquiry into the meaning of religion. I’m told the movie is quite good. In fact, my edition is part of the ‘Vintage Movie Classics: Novels that Inspired Great Films.” I’m sure you know at least one piece of this book, something that has transcended the novel itself. Our anti-hero has a tattoo on each hand, one says ‘LOVE’ and the other ‘HATE.’

This is a good, gripping novel.

Topdog / Underdog (Parks)

When I first heard about this plot, I was skeptical. Two brothers named Lincoln and Booth. Two African-American brothers named Lincoln and Booth. Lincoln gets a job at an amusement park portraying Abraham Lincoln which requires him to wear whiteface and allow tourists to assassinate him. Can you see what I mean? But Parks pulls it off with humor and a claustrophobic intensity. And to imagine Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright in the roles. . . well, wow. I’d love to see it.

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (Leerhsen)

Every once in a while, I like to read a baseball biography, and  the prospect of this one intrigued me since I knew very little about Cobb aside from his reputation. And it is just this reputation that Leerhsen wants to address. His thesis is that Cobb’s reputation for violence is not deserved, and he couches this in the era he played. People were still learning what it meant to be a star, the role of baseball in the national consciousness was evolving, the relationship between players and fans was still being determined, Cobb’s mother murdered his father, and so on. Nevertheless, Cobb’s violence, regardless of time, place and circumstance, was just intense and often criminal. There can be no doubt about Cobb’s talent and innovation, and the move from Cobb-as-hero to Ruth-as-hero was kind of cool to consider, but Cobb’s sustained longevity was a product of the privilege of being a superstar. Granted, there were times that he used this for the benefit of others. He anticipated the protests of Curt Flood by pushing against the notion that players were property. Still, he was only able to get away with this because of his stardom.

Leerhsen writes like a fan, which is mostly fine. And, in an effort to be definitive (because he only has one shot at it and so rejects other efforts of other biographers – think Robert Wuhl in the movie), he writes a lot. Maybe we needed a few less game descriptions, but perhaps the book is like a baseball season. You can’t stay at the same level of intensity for the whole season. I definitely drifted through some sections.

Turtles All the Way Down (Green)

John Green just gets it. This story, from the name of the protagonist (Aza) and the reason for that name to the honesty of her best friend, is just remarkable. Both in form and content, Green captures the anxiety of the teenage mind in ways that resonated with me. Perhaps a side note and perhaps related – it took me over 100 pages to even begin to think about that this was a male author writing in the voice of a teenage girl. And then I promptly forgot about it. The voice came across as so honest.

At first, I thought maybe the plot twist that sets the story in motion – the disappearance of the wealthy father of a former friend of Aza’s (a peer from what she refers to as ‘Sad Camp’) because of impending criminal charges – was a bit extreme. But in the end, it didn’t really matter except in broad strokes. The money is an issue, similarly to the way it so often is in John Hughes movies, but what’s keep here are the very honest relationships Aza has with her mother, her friend, her Sad Camp companion, her very well-depicted therapist, and herself.

I don’t know how John Green does it. Or how he keeps doing it. But I hope he will continue to do so.

Warlight (Ondaatje)

I find Ondaatje’s prose hypnotizing. His sentences always keep me pleasantly and slightly off-balance, the gaps in them just as meaningful as what is present. His language and plot move like memory, full of gaps because of both time and a kind of deliberate forgetting. Warlight, a term I want to believe is his own creation, is the atmosphere that hangs over his characters and their world. World War II forces them to operate in this dimness. Even after the war, they choose and are forced to retain their limited view of the world. Life, for the protagonist, becomes a quest for illumination, one that is inevitably incomplete. Ondaatje continues to have a knack for establishing a setting. Place matters, especially the map room where Nathaniel spends his time doing research. As with a good play, most of the violence here is off-stage, but its presence lurks in the warlight.

The book starts slowly, more reporting than narrative, as though Ondaatje knows where he wants to get, but feels like he has to bring us to a certain point first. Overall, though, the impact of the book is hypnotic. Ondaatje’s research (see the Acknowledgements) informs the canal off of the Thames that symbolizes this story. If the Thames is World War II, the story is that canal – secret and easily (and purposefully) overlooked.