July: Somehow it begins and ends with executions

At about this time every summer, I reflect on how I spent June and July, wondering sadly how the time passes so quickly and wishing I’d done more to really savor it. Truly, summer is an annual lesson in living in the moment. I regret to say that I didn’t accomplish half of the items on my optimistic summer to-do list. How does yours look? If you haven’t quite gotten around to ‘read a really good book’, may I recommend one of the following? You’ve still got roughly two full weeks to lay in the sun and get lost in the wondrous pleasures of reading before September gently nudges us all back to work, so find something that lights you up, get yourself a big glass of something cold, and  s  a  v  o  r .  .  . 

 

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Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (Nonfiction)

*Winner of Carnegie Medal and NAACP Image Awards for Nonfiction*

This arresting memoir of a defense attorney’s tireless fight for justice for his clients is the third option on our A.P. Language and Composition summer homework syllabus, and the one I think is most likely to inspire similar career ambitions in my students. While attending Harvard Law School, Stevenson, the great-grandson of slaves, interned for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, which exposed him to the vast and deeply entrenched injustice within the prison system. Thus began his long and prominent career advocating on behalf of those trapped in what Stevenson argues amounts to slavery by another name. The compelling story of Walter McMillan, a black man wrongly convicted of the murder of a young white woman he’d never met, is the thread that unites the book’s examination of the failure of our nation’s criminal justice system. Stevenson follows the chronology of the state’s preposterous case against McMillan, relying on the illogical and contradictory testimony of witnesses who were clearly lying, while ignoring that of the many credible alibis to his whereabouts on the day he was supposed to have been committing the murder. It seems impossible that the case could have ever gotten to the trial stage, until you see the systemic mechanisms designed to ensure a guilty verdict, regardless of the truth. This is nowhere more evident than in the death sentence itself, imposed on Walter by Judge Robert E. Lee Key, who, in handing it down, overturned the jury’s sentence of life in prison. The result of the multiple appeals Stevenson and the SPDC argued on McMillan’s behalf garnered a lot of media attention during the mid-90s; less-known are the stories of the other people Stevenson has defended over the years, people wrongly sentenced to life in prison or death, who represent other groups our justice system fails: people with mental illness; women trapped in cycles of abuse and poverty; children. Though Stevenson’s work does result in some victories – abolishing mandatory life sentences for children, for example – it is evident that there is so much work left to be done. We have a long way to go before we can say we’ve made good on the promise of Liberty and Justice For All, and Stevenson points directly at where we as a nation need to concentrate our efforts: “The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth,” he says in his much-viewed TED Talk on this subject. “The opposite of poverty is justice”. The underlying argument of Just Mercy is that it is only through a full reckoning with the continued legacy of slavery that we will be able to see true justice finally done.

gentlemans guide

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzie Lee (YA)

*Named one of the best books of 2017 by NPR*

As I read this genre-defying novel I kept picturing Kirsten Dunst in Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Many of the pleasures of that film – the visual delights of her clothes and shoes and endless dainty cakes, the privileges of having her every teenage whim shamelessly indulged – likewise adorn the easy life of protagonist Henry Montague (Monty to his friends), a hedonist teenage viscount on the cusp of assuming the mantle and responsibility of adulthood. He exists in opposition to his stern father, who is determined to rid Henry of every one of his vices. Which of course makes Henry’s defiance all the more brazen. But this isn’t simply a story of rebellion and independence; Monty’s drinking and gambling and nude party-crashing at Versailles is just character development in service of a much more complex adventure. Driving the plot is the vehicle of The Grand Tour of Europe, a rite of passage among upper-class young men of the 17th-mid 19th centuries. For Monty and his best friend Percy, the Grand Tour represents their last chance to enjoy all the wondrous and diverse pleasures of Regency life before stepping into the roles assigned to them. The stakes are made higher by Monty’s deep and (he assumes) hopeless love for Percy and the fact that Percy is not in fact going to law school post-Tour, but to an asylum, as was the common treatment for epilepsy at the time. And then Monty steals a mysterious puzzle box which supposedly unlocks an alchemical secret to eternal life and the teens (including Monty’s brilliant, but to him utterly annoying, younger sister Felicity) escape the watchful eye of their chaperone and set off in search of the treasure before the very evil and dangerous bad guys get there first. Also, there are pirates. The plot is pure fun without being ridiculous and the greatest obstacle Monty faces – the abuse by his homophobic father – conveys timeless resonance that avoids being didactic. Ultimately, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a sweet teenage love story, which Lee resolves just enough to set up the book’s sequel (The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, due out in in October).

narrowboat

Narrow Boat by L.T.C. Rolt (Memoir)

If you follow me on Instagram (@loradenotter), you may have seen the photos from our recent and very slow adventure on the Oxford canal. Thanks to the British TV show Grand Canal Journeys, along with a handful of instructive and entertaining YouTube vloggers, Jeff and I (mostly Jeff) have become obsessed with exploring England’s inland waterways. I was dubious at first, mainly worried that I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to operate the locks or that we’d be terrible at driving the boat, constantly grinding fenders and pissing off locals left and right. As preparation, I ordered this seminal (and many times reissued) elegy for a way of life that was largely bygone when it was published in 1944. In Narrow Boat, the modern canal pioneer L.T.C. Rolt describes in lush (if repetitive) prose simple beauties and contentments of the English countryside experienced at four knots. Built largely during the 18th century to supply the Industrial Revolution, England’s canal system connected the industrial cities throughout the North and Midlands, eventually extending to London. Because of the constant change in elevation from North to South, a system of locks was constructed to allow boats to navigate both directions. For centuries, these waterways were traversed by narrow boats (no more than 7 feet wide) pulled by horses led along a towpath next to the canal. The towpaths are still there but now the boats are motorized and the canals support a thriving community of holiday makers, residential moorings, and continuous cruisers. None of the modern canal renaissance would have been possible without Rolt, whose document of his time, along with his wife, aboard their narrow boat Cressy not only sparked national interest in the traditional way of canal life, but also gave rise to the Inland Waterways Association, the organization that led the conservation movement to restore and protect England’s canals. At times the book reads like one lament for the Good Old Days after another, but after spending a week immersed in the peace and tranquility whose virtues Rolt took such pains to extol, I was more sympathetic to his argument. It’s not all that different from the ethos guiding our National Parks system. I’m sure many would agree that there are enormous benefits, perhaps difficult to describe but no less tangible, to spending time in wild spaces, disconnected from everything except the rhythm of nature. I probably sound a bit crazy when I try to tell people about it, but I came home from our journey feeling something like physical withdrawal. My heart just aches to be back on the canal.
fangirl

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (YA)

Probably best-known for the wonderful Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell has garnered a reputation for writing in a style that teens (and those who love them) find layered, authentic, and most importantly #relatable. On that front, Fangirl does not disappoint. Twins Cath and Wren are freshmen newly arrived at the University of Nebraska, but though they’ve shared everything growing up – especially their passion for the Simon Snow books, the Harry Potter-esque series that has loomed large over their adolescence (more on that later) – they have chosen not to share a dorm room. This is the first of many dramatic departures between the girls as they attempt to navigate this new stage of their lives. Wren, always the more outgoing of the two, takes quickly to the party scene, often to a worrying degree. Cath, by contrast, survives on energy bars because she’s too self-conscious to contemplate eating alone in the dining hall, or even asking anyone where to find it. Instead, Cath spends her time shut in her dorm room, churning out the next chapter in “Carry On”, her epic Simon Snow fanfic. For how shy she is in real life, in the fandom she’s kind of a big deal, and the pressure she feels to finish her fic before the eighth and final Simon Snow book is released later that year causes her to withdraw more and more into herself as the story goes on. Beyond its thorough examination of modern fandom participation, Fangirl is a book about how we deal with change. The move is also difficult on the girls’ father, who has been their sole parent since their mother left when the twins were eight. He has bipolar disorder, and how to monitor and care for him from a distance is a constant source of anxiety for Cath – though Wren would call it an excuse to run back home. When the girls’ mother comes back into the picture, wanting to rebuild a relationship with her daughters, they have to decide to what extent they’re ready to forgive and move forward. The inevitable transition from adolescent to adult is the struggle Rowell so beautifully explores through the lens of Cath’s fandom involvement, and by the novel’s insightful conclusion, it’s clear that she’s managed to achieve a sort of peace without letting go entirely of these childish things that have meant so much to her.

edward-st-aubynNever Mind and Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn (Fiction)

*Trigger Warning: sexual abuse*

Two of my girlfriends (whose opinions in these matters I trust implicitly) have been unequivocal that Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in Showtime’s Patrick Melrose series is the best of his career. And they saw his Hamlet at the National Theatre. So I obviously have plans to watch the series, but I’m also one of those people who has to read the book first whenever possible, which is why I’ve taken on St. Aubyn’s autobiographical saga of the dysfunction, cruelty, and self-destruction of the Melrose family and their extremely well-heeled friends. Each slim volume takes place throughout the course of just a day or two and begins in Never Mind with five-year-old Patrick exploring the exotic garden of his family’s summer home in the South of France. The sense of childlike wonder is quickly dispelled as we float among the guests getting ready to attend a dinner given by Patrick’s parents, David and Eleanor. These people are truly awful and paint a picture of the British upper class as one characterized by cynicism, misery, chronic infidelity, and a snobbery so sharp and deeply ingrained it seems like some of the characters exist for no other reason than to tear down the others behind their backs. But for sheer, unflinching brutality, it doesn’t get worse than Patrick’s father David, who, during the course of the evening, rapes his son as an act he attempts to frame as discipline. At least David is dead by the beginning of Bad News, which catches up with Patrick in his early 20’s as he travels to New York to retrieve his father’s body. ‘Thank God’ I was thinking for the first couple of chapters, until I realized that the entire second novel would consist of Patrick wandering all over the city, combing the squalor for increasingly dangerous substances to inject into his veins. Reviews of St. Aubyn’s writing always point out his gift for acerbic wit and dark humor that link every observation and social interaction into a taut chain of expertly crafted class commentary. His command of brilliant human insights, hitting on one right after another, is indeed impressive. But now that I’m three books in (look for more reviews in my August blog), I just really want some kind of redemption by the end of the fifth. I know that redemption is far from certain in cases of trauma as complex as Patrick’s (and St. Aubyn’s), and that it’s naive of me to wish for it, but fuck’s sake, he was a child. It wasn’t his fault. I love this guy and I want him to be okay. And if you know whether he is or isn’t at the end, don’t tell me. I need to get there on my own.

 

Let’s end on a good note, shall we?

scythe-9781442472433_hr

Scythe by Neal Shusterman (YA)

*Winner of the Michael L. Printz Honor Award for Excellence in YA Literature*

I read a story in this morning’s paper describing yet another study showing that today’s teens are spending more of their time on digital and social media rather than reading books. The statistics are alarming – just 16% of 12th graders reported reading a book, magazine or newspaper daily and one in three said they had not read a book for pleasure in the last year. Whenever I see a study like this I’m torn between feeling helpless against such a powerful social tide and becoming even more persistent in my efforts to get my students to read. I feel like the kid in that cheesy starfish parable, if I can get JUST ONE KID to read a book, I’ll have made a difference! But that’s how it is with teaching; you never see the sum of all your work so you measure it one little individual victory at a time. Scythe, the first book in Neal Shusterman’s morbid and compelling Arc of a Scythe series, gave me one of my little victories this year. An 11th grade boy who freely admitted he couldn’t remember the last time he’d read a book asked if he could borrow it. When he returned it a few days later, he had nothing but praise for Shusterman’s imaginative and exciting storytelling. “That was WAY better than I expected,” he said, and I wish you could’ve heard the joy in his voice. What could possibly light up an aloof teen boy so brightly, you ask? WELL. Scythe takes place in a future utopia that has conquered disease, aging, and even fatal injuries, and so must employ high priests of death to cull the population, a practice called gleaning that, much like the ritual stoning in The Lottery, is seen as a vital social function. Because they are the arbiters of life and death, scythes are revered above everyone else in this society, so when teens Citra and Rowan are both chosen to be apprentices to Scythe Faraday, it’s seen as an honor and privilege. Except they have to kill people. There are shades of The Hunger Games here, with the novices ostensibly on the same side, but also in competition with each other as they train for the eventual showdown that only one of them will survive. Along the way, philosophical differences roil among the Scythes about how to best determine and carry out gleanings. Even within a group whose lifework is to kill, there are heroes and villains, and that’s one of the things I found most remarkable about this novel – Shusterman doesn’t pull any punches out of concern for his young audience. He trusts they can handle the complex discomfort of contemplating the act of taking a life. My favorite YA authors (Patrick Ness might be the best at it) are the ones who refuse to condescend to or protect their audiences from “grown-up” ideas and realities. If my 15 years of teaching high school has taught me anything, it’s that teens crave the same respect from the rest of the adults in their lives. It’s also taught me that they can handle it.

 

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