One Crazy Summer Reflection

*This reflection contains SPOILERS.*

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia has won multiple awards, including being a Newberry and Coretta Scott King book. Three sister are sent to spend a month with the mother who left them. They don’t know what to expect and are introduced to the world in a new way during their brief stay in California.

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are like most sisters. They depend on each other, but also know exactly how to push each other. As the oldest, at eleven years old, Delphine takes on a motherly role; Vonetta is nine and a show off; Fern is seven, and a little harder to gauge than the others, but clearly has a fire within her. Delphine narrates their story, giving insight into her role and her feelings. Cecile, their mother is still learning to be herself and care for her own needs after a difficult childhood. Because of this she doesn’t show much care or attention to her daughters.

The sisters end up spending most of their trip at the People’s Center run by the Black Panthers. Delphine’s thinking begins to shift here. Big Ma had taught them to be proper, to please white people, to appear meek and safe at all times, but Sister Mumbaki opens Delphine’s eyes to another option: respect, rights, and safety. Over the course of the novel the reader sees her gradually change. One example of this is her reaction to people looking at her and her sisters. When they first arrive in the airport, a white woman tries to give the sisters money because of how cute they are. Delphine seems indifferent, despite Cecile’s opposition. Three weeks later, while the girls explore Chinatown, white tourists (possibly Europeans) point at them and take pictures of the sisters from across the street. Delphine doesn’t like this attention and quickly get her and her sisters away from them.

Despite the heavy topics of One Crazy Summer, like identity and racial justice, it is an accessible novel for young readers. Delphine’s narration is relatable; she makes thoughtful observations about her world, her sisters, and Cecile. Additionally, the short focused chapters are ideal for young readers.

Delphine is very mature for an eleven year old, which makes sense given the responsibility she feels for her sisters. Regardless, she is relatable in her struggle to understand and find her identity, and she maintains many elements of her age. Delphine thinks she knows what is best, but has to be reminded of adults’ roles and importance, and that she still needs to listen to them and respect them. My favorite part in One Crazy Summer is when Cecile and Delphine finally talk. Cecile opens up, sharing with Delphine the challenges of her young life and why she left them. Delphine begins to understand her mother’s need for solitude, and her own identity, but it doesn’t stop her longing for her mother.

One Crazy Summer was a beautiful summer adventure. A great introduction to the black Panthers and the continued fight for civil rights and breaking down of systematic racism. Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are easy to fall in love with, as they learn about civil rights, justice, their mother, and themselves.

-M.R. Gavin


Americanah Reflection

*This reflection contains SPOILERS.*

There is so much to be said about Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Following Ifemelu as she grows up in Nigeria, studies abroad, works in the United States, and then returns to Nigeria, Adichie explores her observations and her search for love. While Americanah is a great and enlightening read, it also has a strong love story that ties the novel together.

Ifemelu and Obinze were lovers in secondary school and their university days in Nigeria, but time, distance, fear, and pain end their relationship with silence and unknowns. Yet for both characters, no matter the years, the other is never far from mind. In the United States, Ifemelu compares men to Obinze and wonders what he would think of America and her career.  In Nigeria and England, Obinze does the same. When they reunite, there is a certain amount of lust – despite personal obligations – but more than lust, there is a sense of completeness between the two. A wholeness, a happiness that is otherwise missing from their lives.

While the love story and relationship of Ifemelu and Obinze is beautiful, it is an underlying current within Americanah, holding the novel together without overpowering the cultural commentary and poignant observations of the characters, particularly Ifemelu. When she first arrives in the United States, she experiences a wave of problems and struggles. She has no support group and no money. Unable to find a job, she struggles with endless, fruitless interviews. A babysitting job finally helps her and can be seen as a catalyst to her life in America.  It gives her money, introduces her to friends, and is one of the places she begins making observations about American culture. Many of the things she notices are the interactions and differences between white and black Americans, and American blacks and non-American blacks.

Beginning a blog, Ifemelu finds a safe place to record and share these experiences. She writes from the perspective of a non-American black about race in the United States. Sometimes her observations are funny, but even when comical they are laced with serious problems of American society as a whole. One of the interesting things Ifemelu talks about is how she wasn’t “black” before arriving in America; she was Nigerian, she was Igbo, but in America, she is black, that’s it. She faces the same prejudices, biases, and problems as American blacks.

As a white American, I am in a constant state of learning the full extent of my privilege and the extent of oppression. I am trying to unlearn what systematic racism has taught me, and while it is not easy, it is necessary for there to be equality, safety and to stop the systems in place from continuing. Reading Americanah with the perspective of someone from outside my country is eye opening and helpful in further that process.  Ifemelu wrote that it is okay to say you don’t know how to ask something or that it is uncomfortable, as long as you do and you really listen to what is said in reply. If we keep ignoring the issues and not talking about them, they will never go away. In closure, read Americana. There is something for every reader within its pages.

-M.R. Gavin


Pax Reflection

*This reflection contains SPOILERS.*

Pax is an emotional story about a boy, Peter, and his fox, Pax. It is a journey of learning, discovery, and change. While it is an enjoyable tale, it teeters on unrealistic despite being realistic fiction.

To begin, I enjoyed the characters, especially the beautiful connection between Peter and Pax. Forced to leave Pax behind, Peter sets out on a dangerous journey to right his wrong and find Pax again. Similarly, Pax ventures to return to Peter. Both boy and fox are stalled by change. Peter’s broken leg and the friend who helps him, Vola, and Pax’s need for food and desire to protect his new friends, Bristle and Runt, slow down their search for each other.  Additionally, a war is on the verge of beginning in the exact location they need to look. Sara Pennypacker, the author, uses alternating chapters to show Peter’s and Pax’s sides of the story and their gradual changes. Peter begins to understand he doesn’t have to become like his father; Pax shifts his allegiance, but still loves Peter.

In my opinion, the structure Pennypacker uses is well done and supports her main characters’ developments. Additionally, the structure is consistent for younger readers. Peter and Pax remain connected, but each learn on their own. Pax’s storytelling is vastly different than Peter’s because he is a fox. Smells convey messages; fox conversations are short and to the point. Instinct plays a key role in Pax’s chapters. Furthermore, Pax witnesses the role of humans in a way he has never seen before – in war. The animals he meets can smell the war coming, and over the course of the book, Pax develops this sense as well. Then, Pax witnesses the horrors of war on the natural world. Humans’ war and violence kills animals, and destroys their homes, without any consideration.

While the fox chapters felt plausible for realistic fiction, Peter’s chapters were harder to believe. The human characters were fine: an angry father, a disinterested grandfather, a growing boy trying to make his way, and a hermit woman working to atone for her mistakes and find herself . Peter fears he will grow up to be exactly like his father, and feels moments of rage he associates with his dad. Vola, is a disabled veteran, who separates herself from others because she lost herself and because she is afraid she will hurt someone else. The setting of Pax is fictional, but completely realistic. The problem for me was important elements of the plot, and elements that younger readers would probably question aren’t addressed. Peter runs away from his grandfather’s house; not very unusual, except, no one looks for him. When Vola takes Peter in, she makes him write to his grandfather to tell him he is safe, but the reader never finds out if Grandpa replies at all. So it seems normal for an adolescent to run away and for the adults in his life not to know about it. At the very least, we know his grandfather doesn’t tell Peter’s father. The end makes that clear (granted his father is in the army, so perhaps it is hard to communicate, but it also isn’t that far away – Peter estimates it is 200 miles). Peter ends up on the battlefield and his father hugs him, shocked to see him. Besides not knowing Peter was missing, which I will attribute to warfare and army mail, Peter then runs through the middle of a minefield following Pax, and his father barely attempts to stop him, and doesn’t follow him. Peter’s father laid the minefield! If anyone can get Peter through it, his dad can, but no his dad watches Peter crutch away. I understand that families are complicated and lots of people do things differently than what I am used to, but this just seems odd to me.

Despite my issues with the adults in Peter’s life and how they handle his running away and turning up on a battlefield, I enjoyed Pax. The characters, Peter, Pax, and Vola are beautifully written and connected to one another, as they develop through the novel. The dual story structure with alternating chapters is effective for young readers and older readers. Finally, the illustrations by Jon Klassen added to the unique style of Pax without overwhelming it.

Have you read Pax? Do you agree or disagree with my reflections? Comment below!

-M.R. Gavin

Water for Elephants Reflection

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

*This reflection contains spoilers.*

I admit, I saw the movie before I read the book and it was at least six or seven years ago. Regardless, Water for Elephants was an enjoyable novel, and better than I was expecting.

Picking up Water for Elephants, I was prepared for a lighter read with strong romantic elements, but it wasn’t. The story is full of action as it follows Jacob’s unexpected entrance into the Benzeni Bros. Circus. Yes, there are still moments of romance, but they blend into the story without undermining the rest of the plot. That having been said, I think if you want to read it for romance, you absolutely can and if you want to read it for an enticing plot, that is possible as well.

Additionally, Water for Elephants wasn’t the light read I was expecting. To begin, the structure of Gruen’s story deals with the sorrows and challenges of aging. Jacob tells the story from his assisted living home in a series of flashbacks and with increasing worry about his own sanity. He is lonely; he is depressed. He has aged to the point of not recognizing himself. As a young reader, that is a scary concept and having worked in an assisted living facility, it was a difficult reminder of how some people live everyday.

The other reason I consider this story not “light” is the internal conflicts Jacob struggled with as a young man. He falls in love with a married woman, but would do anything out of respect for that marriage, but after Marlena’s husband hits her, Jacob realizes the danger she is in. Therefore, many of his decisions and actions are motivated by love. Another huge motivator for Jacob is his good will toward living things. Toward the animals in his care, Walter, Canal, Marlena. His actions are dictated by a desire for all of their well-beings. He experiences a lot of remorse when things go wrong and the safety of others is at risk.

The atmosphere is interesting, and enchanting, but littered with moments of stark realism from the 1930s. Night Circus and Caraval project and enchanting magical world around the circus/carnival atmosphere, but Water for Elephants is a less enticing. Set in the 1930’s, America is struggling with the Great Depression. There is little work, and even less money.  There are racial tensions, conflict between class (performers and laborers), prohibition, and anger and fear in abundance. While the circus life may be glamorous for some, it is hard for most. The circus catches the reader’s interest and imagination, but the love and adventure Jacob experiences are the heart of the story.

Finally, a small but important aspect of Water for Elephants is human-animal relationships. Walter and Queenie, Marlena and the horses, Jacob and the many animals in the menagerie (Bobo, Rosie, the orangutan) are all just as important as Jacob and Marlena’s relationship. Gruen takes time to describe these relationships,and the build them through the looks, body language, and touch. This element, while not center stage, was an important feature that took me from liking the story to loving it.

-M.R. Gavin

Neverwhere Reflection

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

*This reflection contains spoilers.*

There is the world above and the world below. It is impossible to be part of both. Richard Mayhew is normal in every way until he helps an injured girl and is thrust into the world of London Below. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman follows Richard’s adventures as he discovers his problems are little compared to others.

While Richard and Door are the main characters, my favorite character is the antagonist’s henchmen. Islington wants power, but is trapped, so he uses Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar to help. Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar are vile, terrible men (or some sort of men between London Above and Below). They embody evil. Instead of being revenged based, or power hungry villains, they are bad because they want to be; inflicting pain brings them joy. Furthermore, they are dependent on one another for success and combined create one complete character. Mr. Croup is more talkative and emotional, while Mr. Vandemar is physically dominant, violent, literal, and matter-of-fact. Together they made a villain I wanted to lose, but found hilarious to read and holistically evil.

Compared to Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar the other characters where a little underwhelming. Richard was too whiny and needy. Door, despite being a key character, maintained a veil of mystery throughout the novel. Although she is mysterious, she is also a badass. A petite, nondescript girl, who has an amazing power of opening, and is leader, is the type of female character I like. Marquis de Carabas is an interesting character, but there is a lot the reader doesn’t know about him, like, why does he owe Door’s father? Hunter is also  mysterious; she is fierce and determined, but ultimately, a traitor, or perhaps just on a different mission? There is a lot of mystery surrounding all of the characters, who they are, and their backstory and when I finish Neverwhere, I had a lot of questions. Normally, I would assume those questions were meant to be answered in a sequel, but as far as I know there is none.

The world Gaiman creates in Neverwhere is phenomenal. People, places, and things that fall through the cracks and are forgotten become part of the underside. Old bits of history, sewers, and closed tube tracks are essential parts of London Below. The rooftops and even regular London Above landmarks integrate into London Below as needed. Additionally, the tribes of people are diverse and I can’t help but wonder more about them: the Rat Speakers, the Velvets, the Black Friars. I want to know all their stories. Gaiman creates and amazing world, but only tells one story, while giving the reader glimpses of other parts of London Below.

Ultimately, Richard is faced with a choice, is his life in London Above all there is for him, or is there more to the world (London Below)? His life and personality change so much because of his experiences, the idea of settling back to normal is restrictive. I think that is what I like most about books. Each one I read changes how I look at the world, and I can carry it with me. While I can’t completely abandon the normal world, I can escape into the pages of a book. Once you’ve done that it is hard to imagine stopping. The idea of living and going through life without books is terrifying. So, in a way I connect to Neverwhere on a deeper level and can understand Richard’s conflict.

-M.R. Gavin

The Old Man and the Sea Reflection

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

*This reflection contains spoilers.*

Ernest Hemingway is a famous and popular 20th century American author, but this is the first novel – or novella – of his I have read. The Old Man and the Sea is a simple story and was easy to read, but to me it is also a metaphor for life and the conflicts we face within it.

Santiago is the old man, an unlucky fisherman with no catches in more than eighty days. He fishes and he enjoys listening to and reading about American League baseball. On the eighty-fifth day, he knows he will get a big catch. That eighty-fifth day turns into three days at sea working to catch the biggest fish he’s ever seen.

The old man’s hunt, dance, kill, and return with the fish is where I see a metaphor for life in Hemingway’s novel. First, the hook. The old man hooks the fish in the same way we all hook to life and things in life and cling to them. Next is waiting. The old man and his boat are pulled out to sea by the giant fish; it just keeps going. There is nothing the old man can do except to hold on and wait. Similarly that is a portion of life. It pulls us in many directions and we wait for the right moment or opportunity. Even if we are a go-getter, and work hard, there is often waiting involved to see the return on the investment made or the risk took. Then is the fight at the correct moment the old man works to take down the fish and tie it alongside his boat. This is his moment of triumph and glory. In the metaphor to life, these are the moments when we take charge of our own destiny and make choices that influence the rest of our life. Finally, in the old man’s return to the coast, he faces more challenges than getting the fish as sharks follow and hunt his catch. This is synonymous with adversity in life. It is rare that something turns out exactly as expected, but we must fight with every ounce of our being as the old man does, no matter the outcome.

Additionally, The Old Man and the Sea describes the classic man versus nature story. It starts with the old man versus the fish and the sea, and the old man versus his natural needs (food, water, sleep), and then, after the old man bests the giant fish, the old man versus the sharks, who instinctively follow the free bloody meal. Nature fights the old man every step of his journey despite the respect he feels for the fish and his desire to treat the fish’s death with dignity. However, an argument could also be made that this novel shows the classic conflict of man versus himself. The old man versus his aging body (although that could also be considered part of nature); the old man versus his wobbly mind (again potentially nature). Each of the base conflicts can be considered in many ways and applied to innumerable aspects of modern life. The point is not to look at the outcome of the novel as bleak, but to consider and value the spirit and resilience of an old man.

The following quote from The Old Man and the Sea does a good job summarizing my takeaway from the novel.  The old man says, “But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed, but not defeated.” This quote, though near the end, is how the old man moves through life. Eighty-four days without a catch doesn’t defeat him. He pushes on and fights through. I think people inherently, perhaps even instinctually, do that. It is not always easy and is sometimes too much, but people are fighters regardless of the pain and difficulties life throws at us, including knowing when to rest, as the old man does on the final page.

-M.R. Gavin

We Should All Be Feminists Reflection

We Should All Be Feminists Reflection

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

*This reflection contains spoilers.*

Based on a TEDTalk given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists is a quick but powerful read exploring gender and feminist stereotypes. In my opinion, it should be required reading, as it allows individuals to engage with the conversations surrounding gender and feminism no matter what their experiences or entry points.

Much of what Adichie writes is important, but two things really stuck out to me as a reader. Adichie talks about how people – her readers, friends, family, and passers-by – perceive her. One friend told her an article she penned seemed “angry” which, of course, females cannot be. Instead of seeing that as a fault, Adichie uses it to further her cause. “Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change.” Anger has been at the heart of many revolutions. It is generally the spark. Adichie uses “we” to clarify who should be angry and she is referring to the collective “we.” All people should be angry about the way in which society views and handles gender. While women are often oppressed, the gender roles feminism works to combat impact all people, how we are raised, and how we perceive the world.

The second thing that really struck me was this quote, “‘Why does it have to be you as a woman? Why not you as a human being?’ This type of question is a way of silencing a person’s specific experiences.” This and the previous quote can be applied to so many aspects of social justice. Sure, it would be great if we could each be valued as a human being, but our life experiences are not formulated based on simply humanity. They are based on our experiences as men or women, as a white person or a person of color, as a person with a stable income or a person without a stable income. Every single thing that makes us unique also impacts our perspective. While we should be proud of the experiences that make us who we are, we must also acknowledge that those experiences are greatly impacted, and manipulated by the views and systems in place. (For example, in my series of pairs, I unintentionally organized them in the way societal norms have instilled in me. Men, whiteness, and money being more important or better in some way, which is not the case at all!)  By telling a person to relate their stories as just a human, ignores all the experiences that have impacted their stories and world view.

Adichie’s call to action seems simple, but is relatively complex. “Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” That is not negative, it does not dictate what someone should look like or act like. It simply is a person hoping for equality between the sexes. Because this does not exist yet, feminists can’t just believe in that, they must recognize the problem, be conscience of their role with in it, and do what they can to challenge societal norms and systems that continue to maintain the existing inequality.

Conversations about sex and gender are far from easy, but as I mentioned originally, Adichie’s book We Should All Be Feminists gives a good starting point for any person. Her stories are recognizable; men and women alike can probably recall a time when they were in or witnessed a similar situation – regardless of their role in it. Additionally, her reflections on each situation show the reader what was wrong with the situation, and also provides a guess as to why the situation occurred. Adichie looks at both sides considering what was wrong, and how societal expectations and systems allowed – if not encouraged – each situation to take place.

I came away from this book with a better understanding of how to engage in the feminist conversation, and how to continue the fight for equality, in my own small way. I hope all of its readers take the conversation into their social circles and continues to grow and spread the discussion until gender stereotypes have been destroyed.

-M.R. Gavin