Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Alchemist



Title: The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho
Genres: inspirational allegory, self-help, book club selection


This was the second student-led pick for the Augusta University Book Worms. I would classify this book as an inspirational allegory; Coelho takes what would be cheesy one liners in a traditional self-help book and magically intertwines them into a story about Santiago, a young, shepherd boy who travels to the Egyptian pyramids based on a (literal) dream of buried treasure. This was the first time I have read a book by Paulo Coelho and I enjoyed it very much. After four years of heavy academic reading and writing, this simple book was a breath of fresh air. Some online book reviewers claim Coelho’s writing style as too simplistic, but that’s the point of an allegory- to be simple enough that anyone can understand it!

The themes of this allegory are pursuing your dreams and viewing the obstacles to your dream as a temporary rough patch on your journey. This journey, referred to in the book as a Personal Legend, is “the path God chose for you here on Earth” (x). While following their path, everyone encounters Four Obstacles to fulfilling their dream: 1. They are told that their dream is impossible and slowly and invisibly begin to internalize this message. 2. Love; they are afraid that pursuing our dream will hurt their loved ones but “love is just a further impetus, not something that should prevent us from going forward.” 3. Fear of the defeats they will encounter along the way (in other words, worry and anxiety over the unknown). 4. Fear of “realizing the dream for which we fought all our lives” (guilt about their success and blessings).

After saving his hard-earned money for two years, Santiago travels from Andalusia, Spain to Tangier, Morocco. He immediately learns the hard way to not trust strangers yet also learns that strangers can also be kind as a local shopkeeper helps Santiago get back on his feet and recoup his earnings. Eventually, Santiago begins his perilous journey across the Sahara to his beloved and mysterious pyramids. Of course, more adventures and life lessons wait for him in the desert…but does his treasure?

Sunday, April 22, 2018

This Fight is Our Fight




Title: This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class
Author: Elizabeth Warren
Genre: politics, American history, economics, non-fiction


In This Fight is Our Fight, Elizabeth Warren mixes American history, personal family struggles, and stories from ordinary Americans to demonstrate how regulations against Big Banks protect Americans and their money. Senator Warren recounts how social programs and government projects enacted during the Great Depression put money in the pockets and food on the table of millions of Americans in the 1930s. She also shares stories of Americans affected by the Great Recession, student loan debt, exploitative labor practices, and low or stagnant wages. Senator Warren rails against Big Banks (the 2008 bailout occurred since American banks are now a huge part of our economy) and is not afraid to name Washington insiders with connections to big money and lobbyists.
Senator Warren views lobbyists as “the most dangerous kind of corruption…is perverting our government and make sure that day after day, decision after decision, the rich and powerful are always taken care of. This corruption is turning government into a tool of those who have already gathered wealth and influence. This corruption is hollowing out America’s middle class and tearing down our democracy” (5).
Senator Warren calls for increased and responsible funding of our infrastructure. Not only is subpar infrastructure physically dangerous (collapsing bridges, leaking dams and levees, etc.), it is also economically dangerous in the form of lost jobs, lack of internet access for rural communities. Senator Warren believes that innovation, education, and opportunity are intertwined. Investment in American infrastructure drives innovation; innovation is dependent upon education (and proper funding for education), and the accessibility of education and opportunity for American citizens. “The country’s failure to build and maintain infrastructure has robbed us of our vitality…Over the long run, infrastructure dollars buy workers something even more important. Infrastructure spending is a collective investment that makes it easier for businesses to flourish right here in America. Roads and bridges, cheap and dependable energy, rapid communication, educated workers- all these investments create a more favorable business climate” (130).

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Feed by M.T. Anderson



Title: Feed
Author: M.T. Anderson
Genre: YA fiction, science fiction, Book Worms book club selection

The events in Feed take place in the future (year unnamed), in a world where social media feeds are streamed through a chip inserted in the brain (just imagine Facebook and Twitter constantly updating in your head). In this world school and the clouds are trademarked because they are owned by corporations. Education consists of learning how to use the feed to be the best consumer. There are flying cars (called upcars) and neighborhoods consist of tunnels instead of asphalt roads. The pollution is so pervasive that neighborhoods are encased in giant bubbles and the local weather is controlled by the neighborhood’s homeowner’s association. The world’s oceans are so polluted that beachgoers have to wear special suits to protect themselves.
Not only does the feed constantly bombard the user with ads, videos, and chat, but the feed also controls all the physiological functions of the body (the reader doesn’t find this out until later in the book). Because of this constant bombardment of information, peoples’ vocabularies and verbal sentence structure are shorter and clipped-similar to a tweet. Teens refer to each other as “unit” instead of “dude” or “hey, man” indicating that everyone views themselves and others as a type of machine. When the feeds of Titus and his friends are turned off after a hacking, at first they don’t know how to entertain themselves and are easily bored. In this world no one reads physical books and writing has become an obsolete skill. “Before that, they had to use their hands and eyes. Computers were all outside the body. They carried them around outside of them, in their hands… that’s one of the great things about the feed- that you can be supersmart without ever working” (47).
While Titus and his friends recover from their hacking, Titus starts a relationship with Violet. Violet is different from Titus and his friends- she didn’t receive the feed until she was six or seven, she learned to write (gasp!), and her vocabulary and critical thinking skills are superior to that of Titus and his friends (she is accused of showing off and using “weird words” multiple times). Violet is also aware of the world outside of the feed and is constantly mentioning world events in brief snippets to Titus and his friends. Like most teenagers, they are unaware of the world and the bigger picture. The readers gets quick snippets that all is not well in the world; besides the pollution, there are rumors of war, riots, and an incompetent president trying to keep it all hush hush.

It’s also quite creepy how prescient the author was in regard to computers, cell phones, technology, and corporations’ seamless intertwining in our lives. The book was written in 2002; Facebook didn’t launch until 2004, Twitter in 2006, the iPhone was released in 2007, and Amazon and Google hadn’t tried to take over the world yet. This was the first selection of the book club where I work. After the hacking incident, we thought the direction of the book was going to lean towards investigating the hacking and the people and politics behind it, but it’s just a quick blip in these kids’ lives (like everything else on the feed). We came to the consensus that the author focused more on the teens than the hacking because that is how most teens (and adults, unfortunately) view the world- they only pay attention to events and politics if it affects them directly. This book prompted serious discussion about the role and amount of technology in our lives along with the dangers of being a passive consumer. 


Friday, February 16, 2018

Rebecca Skloot and Writers Weekend

This past week and weekend was a busy one for book lovers in Augusta. Last Thursday night kicked off the 6th Annual Writers Weekend, which is sponsored by the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Augusta University, and “features award-winning authors and teachers who will lead workshops and share their original creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. This unique opportunity enables readers and writers from a variety of backgrounds to connect, collaborate, and create.” (Source: Literaryaugusta.com). Not only was Thursday night the kickoff event for Writers Weekend but it was also the culmination of various events held throughout Augusta to build excitement for the keynote speaker Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. A movie screening of the HBO movie based on the book was shown at Augusta University and the Columbia County Library back in January and Rebecca Skloot and two members of the Lacks family came to town this past week to participate in panels, meet-and-greets, and Q & A sessions at the Columbia County Library, Paine College, and the Imperial Theater.


 Rebecca Skloot is the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which was published in 2010 and it took her 10 years to write this book- mostly because she took the time to respect and get to know the various members of the Lacks family. The book is about an African American woman who died in the 1950s from cervical cancer, but her cancer cells (called HeLa cells) lived on and multiplied which had never happened in a lab before. Researchers around the world soon used her cells to study and cure various diseases (polio, for example) and create vaccines. Her cells journeyed to outer space where astronauts could study the effect of space travel on human cells.
 I remember the buzz when the book was released and put it on my To-Be-Read list but for some reason I never got around to reading the book. Well now that Rebecca Skloot was coming to town it was the perfect opportunity. I attended one of the movie screenings and “A Conversation with Rebecca Skloot and Henrietta Lacks’s Family” at the Imperial Theater. Victoria Baptiste (Henrietta’s great-granddaughter) and Shirley Lacks (Henrietta’s daughter-in-law) participated in a panel with Rebecca Skloot that was moderated by local attorney Laverne Lewis Gaskins.

One of the first questions that Ms. Gaskins asked of Victoria Baptiste and Shirley Lacks was to describe Henrietta to the audience. They described Henrietta as a wonderful, giving person who loved people and loved to feed them too! Henrietta also loved to dance, to look good all the time, and she loved to wear red toenail polish. Despite the poverty of the Lacks family she made do with what little she had. Then Ms. Gaskins asked the ladies about Deborah Lacks. Deborah was Henrietta’s daughter and the essential link that Rebecca Skloot needed to find out more about Henrietta and the HeLa cells. Ms. Baptiste and Ms. Lacks described Deborah as witty, loving, a jokester, and spiritual, yet, always yearning to know more about her mom.

Rebecca Skloot first heard about HeLa cells in her school biology class in 1988. The teacher told the class that the HeLa cells were named for Henrietta Lacks and that these cells had never stopped growing and were responsible for much of the medical breakthroughs in the twentieth century. This intrigued Ms. Skloot and after class she asked the biology teacher for more information, but the teacher said there was no more information known about the woman. When she was in college, Ms. Skloot took a General Ed class and one of her assignments was to write about something the world forgot, so she wrote about HeLa cells. While conducting research for this writing assignment Ms. Skloot found out that the HeLa cells were originally attributed to a fake name to give the Lacks family privacy. While Ms. Skloot was in grad school she continued her research on the HeLa cells which led her to make her first phone call to Deborah Lacks in 1999. Deborah was excited yet distrustful of this white lady that wanted to write about her mother, so she kept Ms. Skloot at arm’s length (Deborah and her family had been burned before by other people claiming to write about Henrietta and the HeLa cells). Ms. Skloot originally thought her research and book would just be about Henrietta but the more she found out about how the family was treated (or not treated) by the medical community, the more she realized that her book would be about the whole Lacks family. To gain Deborah’s trust, Ms. Skloot interviewed extended members of the Lacks clan and would tell the stories and tidbits of information about Henrietta through messages left on Deborah’s answering machine. Ms. Skloot told the audience that she had no journalism background when conducting this research, so she had no preconceived ideas or training about conducting interviews or journalistic research methods. Ms. Skloot said that journalists usually only ask questions and don’t allow their sources to ask questions of them; Ms. Skloot did the opposite and the Lacks family slowly learned to trust her.

So right now you’re probably wondering what the big deal is about these HeLa cells and why was the Lacks family so distrustful of journalists? Henrietta’s biopsy was conducted before informed consent was standard in medical procedures. The doctors at John Hopkins used Henrietta’s cells in research without her knowledge or permission and the surviving family members were never notified or asked for consent either. The Lacks family also was never financially compensated even though their matriarch’s cells saved and improved millions of lives around the globe. John Hopkins researchers contacted the Lacks family in the 1970s and conducted more tests and took more tissue samples without being fully honest about what they were researching and how the test and tissues samples and results were going to be used. (At the panel Ms. Skloot told the audience that informed consent laws were established by the 1970s but not codified at the time that John Hopkins researchers were collecting samples from the Lacks family).

During the panel Ms. Baptiste and Ms. Lacks stressed the importance and ethics of informed consent about cell and tissue research in the medical community: “If you have to ask me permission to use, then you know it belongs to me” (Ms. Baptiste) and “If I’m alive, then you need permission because it’s part of me and belongs to me” (Ms. Lacks).

Racial disparities and attitudes in healthcare were also discussed at the panel. In the 1950s racial segregation in Baltimore determined where Henrietta could seek out and receive medical care. John Hopkins was the only hospital in the area that accepted poor, African American patients. Ms. Baptiste and Ms. Lacks also suspect that race played a part in Henrietta’s pain management while she in John Hopkins recovering from surgery and radiation treatments. Ms. Baptiste currently works in the medical field and sees discrimination against patients of color almost daily. She told the audience, “You can’t change the mentality of people despite protocols and regulations.” (When I was in the book signing line, a lady in front of me told Ms. Baptiste that her Haitian husband is treated differently than she is whenever he goes to a medical appointment and this woman suspects this differential treatment is because of the color of his skin and his accent).Ms. Skloot admitted to the audience that she grew up in the racially-sheltered Pacific Northwest; she thought racism was gone in this country and she didn’t experience the realities of race until working with the Lacks family. She was told, “You’re going to get access to things a black writer wouldn’t.” She still didn’t believe this until she questioned an older white doctor who had conducted testing on the Lacks family and referred to them as “those people.”

John Hopkins has not formally apologized to the Lacks family- according to the hospital lawyers it would be an admission of guilt. John Hopkins does honor Henrietta Lacks every year and Shirley Lacks’ husband told her that it “warms my heart to see these people learn about and acknowledge my mom.” In 2013, there was more controversy when German scientists sequenced the genome of HeLa cells and released the genetic information online. Some of the Lacks family was concerned that their genetic information would be viewable by the public while other family members were curious and hopeful that sequencing the HeLa genome could benefit the world.
Ms. Skloot told me she loved my tabs; I then told her, "Well, you're going to love where my cat chewed the corner of your book because he was mad that I wasn't feeding him."



On a semi-lighter note…
Actress Karyn Parsons headlined the opening session of the Writers Weekend event on Saturday. (Karyn Parsons played Hilary Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air TV show). Ms. Parsons was invited to Writers Weekend to promote her non-profit company Sweet Blackberry. The idea for Sweet Blackberry began when Ms. Parsons was pregnant with her first child and realized that she would need to supplement her daughter’s education regarding African American contributions to the world. The same stories are taught over and over, and schools don’t have the resources to update or supplement their materials. Ms. Parsons admitted to the audience that she hated history as a kid; it was presented as a series of dates in a very abstract way and not as a series of stories that were relatable to her. Sweet Blackberry aims to change that by presenting children with stories of historical figures on their level. Right now, these stories are presented as short films that can be purchased through the Sweet Blackberry website or viewed on Netflix. Film narrations have been provided by Alfre Woodard, Queen Latifah, and Chris Rock (with Laurence Fishburne narrating on an upcoming film on Bessie Coleman!). Future goals for the organization include book publishing, TV series, apps, an interactive kids’ section on the website, and the website itself as a resource for African American historical figures.

The second session I attended at Writers Weekend was “A Reading with Tony Grooms” who read “Uncle Beasley’s Courtship” from his short story collection Trouble No More (also available through the Kennesaw Digital Commons) and three passages from his new novel The Vain Conversation. Mr. Grooms’ novel was in the works for 25 years (!!) and was inspired by a 1991 AJC article about the 1946 Moore’s Ford, double lynching in Walton County (you can read a recent update here: http://www.myajc.com/news/state--regional/moore-ford-lynching-years-long-probe-yields-suspects-but-justice/J5QYgAcuQoTIRta5AVeS5L/). Mr. Grooms told the audience that his novel is a story that asks questions about redemption and is an analogy about race relations in the US (“there has been no closure”).








Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Afro-Vegan



Title: Afro-Vegan
Author: Bryant Terry
Genres: non-fiction, cookbooks

I read an article online recently that mentioned this book. First, I was intrigued by the title: a mashup of African cooking and veganism. Second, when I read multiple reader reviews on Goodreads, my mouth kept watering from all the delicious-sounding recipe titles that the reviewers were referencing. So with a growling belly I requested this book through my library. The cookbook is full of beautiful, closeup, full-color photos of these beautiful and intriguing recipes. Not only does Bryant Terry want to encourage healthy eating through the vegan lifestyle, he also wants African Americans to embrace the culinary legacies and traditions of their ancestors. He believes that eating a plant-based diet of African heritage food will not only restore the physical health of many African Americans but their emotional and spiritual health as well. A unique aspect of this cookbook is that each recipe has a recommended song (and sometimes a recommended book!) to build the mood and atmosphere as the dish is created. So you can fill your belly, add to your musical playlist, and expand your literary horizons, all at the same time!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Persepolis



Title: Persepolis
Author: Marjane Satrapi
Genres: non-fiction, graphic novel, memoir, autobiography, Iranian history, Iranian author

Chronicles the life of Marjane Satrapi as she grew up during the political unrest in Iran from the late 1970s through the late 1990s. It's her autobiography in graphic novel form and it gives Westerners a rare glimpse into a mysterious country and region. I watched the movie last semester for my history class and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I checked out the graphic novel because there are always more details in a book compared to its move counterpart.

As a little girl, Marji parrots the political slogans and ideologies she hears from the grownups around her. As a preteen her eyes slowly open to injustice in the world as she and the other females in Iran are subject to harsher and harsher rules regarding dress, opposite-sex relationships, and public etiquette. Marji's parents send her to Europe for her safety and to continue her education; although Europe is not dangerous, Marji's ethnicity keeps her from truly fitting in. She returns to Iran but finds that her home country has changed dramatically under the leadership of religious fundamentalists.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A long time ago, on a blog far away...




Title: Phasma
Author: Delilah Dawson
Genres: books to movies, Star Wars, scifi

I recently saw The Last Jedi in theaters and while I liked the movie overall, I was disappointed with the lack of Phasma’s screen time- she only had about 5 lines in the film. We’ve been told that Phasma is a badass but there has been no background story or character development in the last two movies that live up to the hype. So imagine my delight when I saw Phasma by Delilah Dawson available for checkout at my local library- finally, I can get some background info on Star Wars’ latest mysterious character!

Vi Moradi is a Resistance spy captured by the First Order; she is secretly interrogated by a mysterious red-clad Stormtrooper known as The Cardinal. The Cardinal is obsessed with Phasma- he was the cream of the crop under General Brendol Hux, and Hux’s personal bodyguard, until General Hux brought Phasma into the First Order. Now The Cardinal is intent on ruining Phasma and he needs information extracted from Vi Moradi to do it. While under duress, Vi Moradi tells The Cardinal about Phasma’s tough upbringing on Parnassos (this part reminded me of Scheherazade in Arabian Nights- she draws out the story as long as she can to save her own neck).


Phasma was the tallest and strongest warrior and a respected co-leader in a small, hardscrabble band of people on Parnassos, the Scyre. The Scyre lived on an inhospitable part of Parnassos and constantly fought for survival against geography, the elements, and other small groups of people desperate for what little resources were left. The Scyre were an egalitarian group with an uncertain future since miscarriages and childhood mortality were common misfortunes. One day, a starship crashes on Parnassos and Phasma and her warriors rescue Brendol Hux and his Stormtroopers. Phasma uses this opportunity to learn more about the First Order and to strike a deal with Hux to get her people off of Parnassos to ensure their survival. Unfortunately, the longer Phasma is around Brendol Hux, the more she starts to think only for herself and less about the Scyre’s survival.  Phasma uses this opportunity to shed herself of the Scyre with tragic results (for the Scyre). The Cardinal (and the reader) learns that Phasma’s heart is as cold as the chrome armor she wears.