Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Review of The Girls From Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe

The Girls From Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe is a debut novel about complex friendships. Like many young girls, Mia and Lorrie Ann are tangled in each other’s stories and secrets. But as they grow, experience and decisions and even luck separate them. The question that emerges is whether you can ever really know another person.

Thorpe has a fresh voice, and I enjoyed reading this book (despite the fact that it is filled to the brim with deep tragedy. I’m craving a little bit of happily-ever-after in my reading life these days).  I do think that it sags a bit under its own ambition – there’s a plot line about ancient goddesses; there’s some philosophy about women’s agency and women’s rights; and there’s a thread about the callousness of the birth industry. The story also travels twenty years and across continents, so it is genuinely sprawling.

I’m a sucker for a good story about the je ne sais quoi of friendship – about the differences between and similarities to family relationships, how they change over time, and what happens when they get damaged. However, I’m noticing that I have read very few books that explore friendship among people that are older than 30. I don’t mean the books that feature older characters looking back at childhood or young adulthood – but books that genuinely consider the dimensions of friendship of adults. Can you help me out? Let’s start a list, bloggees!

If you’d like to find out a bit more about the author of The Girls From Corona Del Mar, there’s an interesting interview here.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Review of All My Puny Sorrows By Miriam Toews

All My Puny Sorrows is a terrific book that I read at the wrong time. It is a book that asks if deep sorrow can run in families. It is also a book about autonomy, about whether you should be free to choose your own outcomes. Elf and Yoli are adult sisters who grew up in a Canadian Mennonite family, with deep community control. In childhood, Elf was always cracking away at tradition by being outspoken, especially through her music. As Elf becomes more accomplished, the more she wants to die. She attempts suicide again and again, and Yoli grapples with whether she should be protecting her sister from herself or helping her fulfill her wishes.

This was not the book for me to read over the holidays, because I found it unendingly sad. It also had very little plot – the reader is waiting in the hospital with Yoli over a series of seemingly endless days.

However, it is also an endlessly beautiful story that asks all sorts of questions about the true nature of love.  The writing is exquisite, with tiny (but not puny) bursts of wit. I will be quickly heading to this author’s backlist to find titles to read when I am looking for something heartbreaking and quiet.

Some reviewers have mentioned the political dimensions of this story (i.e. the right to die), but I wasn’t as focused on Elf’s desire to die as I was on Yoli’s struggle with the idea of compassion. Still, this book did make me wonder about how suicide is portrayed in popular fiction and found a terribly named list on Goodreads called “Popular Suicide Books.” On the list is Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die, which my book club read in October (you can find my thoughts about that novel here). Coelho’s book (philosophy?) about living and dying would make for an interesting contrast to Toews’ story. Both consider the idea of freedom of expression and community constraints. Both are set in a hospital. But, ultimately, I connect so much more with Toews’ novel, as its story is located in a web of family relationships. Coelho’s book makes me think, but Toews’ book makes me thinks AND feel.

You can find an interesting article about the autobiographical components of All My Puny Sorrows here.

Monday, December 22, 2014

What I'm (Not) Reading This Week

Welcome to my not-reading blog. I have not been reading much, even less than I promised last week. I am just half way through All My Puny Sorrows, which is so beautiful but also so deeply sad that I find it difficult to read while eating cookies and watching the holiday lights twinkle. Hopefully I’ll finish that in a few days and get a review up.

To be honest, I’m not hopeful for a big reading week ahead, either. My in-laws are doing a “read-along” of The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, so I need to tackle that by next weekend. I will admit that this book would not naturally find its way onto my stack, and dang, the tiny print. We’ll see how well I do with that while under the influence of eggnog. 

Two things of note from this past week – One, I received this delightful package from my The Broke and The Bookish Secret Santa. Thanks, Stephanie from Steph the Bookworm

She sent The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. which I have been meaning to read for a long time. And she also sent Blueprints For Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell. I learned about this one in Harlan Coben’s “By the Book” interview in the New York Times Book Review last spring. He said that Schappell was his “favorite overlooked or under-appreciated writer.”

The other thing that happened this past week was my book club’s holiday book exchange. It functions kind of a like a White Elephant gift exchange – with stealing – but the books are all good ones. I received Seattle author Garth Stein’s new novel: A Sudden Light.

That’s it for now! May you all give and receive some fantastic books this holiday season, wherever you are and whatever holiday you celebrate.

(It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Journey)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

2015 TBR Pile Challenge

I have decided to enter the TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader. I mentioned in October that I have a sizable stack of un-read books that I really do want to read but never seem to tackle. So here is my formal declaration that I will read TWELVE of these books over the course of 2015.

I have chosen a set of twelve (as well as two alternates) that includes different genres that I enjoy: literary fiction, mystery/thriller, nonfiction, and YA.  Here’s the list: 

1) The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (nonfiction). I got this for Christmas several years ago. I was reminded about how much I want to read this book during the discussion about good titles in Nonfiction November.

2) Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (literary fiction). This was a gift at my book club’s holiday book exchange a few years ago. Someone else received it and asked me to pass it along to another member. I never did. Oops. I read this author’s Leaving Atlanta and enjoyed it. (Completed 1/9/15. Review here)

3) The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan (nonfiction). I gave this to my husband for Christmas a few years ago. People were also talking about it during Nonfiction November. I read this author’s The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest and enjoyed it.

4) Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (literary fiction/mystery). I bought this at the Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale years ago.

5) Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (literary fiction). Someone lent this one to me, and I never gave it back. Sorry! You can have it in 2016. I have read the following titles by this author:  Run, State of Wonder, The Patron Saint of Liars, What Now?, and most of This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

6) Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (literary fiction). I bought this one at the Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale years ago. My mother recommends it. (Completed 6/15. Review here)

7) Shatter by Michael Robotham (mystery/thriller). I bought this one new at Third Place Books in Seattle. This is the third in the Joseph O’Loughlin series, which I started a couple of years ago.

8) The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (literary fiction). I bought this one at a used bookstore a few summers ago, when it was all the rage. I can’t remember which store it was.

9) When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud (literary fiction). I bought this one at a Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale. I have read this author’s The Emperor’s Children (which I loved) and TheWoman Upstairs (which I loved less). (Completed 3/18/15. Review here).

10) Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (YA). I also bought this one at the library book sale. My favorite famous librarian, Nancy Pearl, recommends it.

11) After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell (literary fiction). I bought this one used at Magers and Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis a few years ago. I have read The Hand That First Held Mine, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and Instructions for a Heatwave by this author, and I have liked them all. (Completed 7/30/15. Review here).

12) A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon (literary fiction). I bought this one at Powells bookstore in Portland.

And my two alternates are:

1)   The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood (literary fiction). This is another book I picked up at the library book sale. I read this author’s Something Blue 20 years ago. (Completed 5/21/15. Review here).

2)   My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain (literary fiction). I ordered this used online, from some store that links with Amazon.

Does anyone want to do this challenge with me? If so, please share your list of books in the comments section (or join it officially! But please let me know that you're doing it). It’s easy to leave a comment – I promise. Click on the word "comment" below. Then just choose "anonymous" as your ID and write your comment. Remember to hit "Publish" when you're done.  It would be great if you would sign your name in the comment so that I know who you are.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review of This Is The Water by Yannick Murphy

After I finished This Is The Water, I went over to Goodreads to see what others are saying about it. And the overwhelming response seems to be that people want  fewer details about swimming.

I want there to be MORE details about swimming.

At its best, this book is a close look at perfectionism. The main character(s) wishes she had the perfect marriage (she doesn’t). She wishes that she were the perfect mother (she’s not). She wishes that she had perfect beauty (nope). All of this striving takes place in the context of a children’s swim team, where the kids are working daily to acquire perfect form and achieve the perfect time, to win big without celebrating, to lose without crying, to fit into the perfect suit that looks right and fits right and propels them to new achievement.

However, the compelling swimming storyline is tangled together with a serial killer storyline. A serial killer, known to the reader, is sitting in the stands thinking serial killer thoughts and planning terrible things. I don’t know why this has to be a serial killer book. Perhaps it is to show that you never really know what’s under the surface of a person (Get it? Swimming? Under the surface of the water?).  In any case, it feels unnecessary to me, and I don’t think that the serial killer goings-on are fully believable.

(But here’s an important takeaway: if you know that someone is murdering people at rest stops along the highway at night, PLEASE stop to pee at McDonalds instead).

The other interesting thing that some readers are discussing is the writing style. The author starts every section – sometimes every paragraph – with “This is…” Here’s an example:

This is the facility. The long shafts of sunlight that come in through the windows and hit the water on sunny days. The showers whose pressure is weak, whose tiles need brush-cleaning in the grout. This is Dinah after her daughter Jessie doesn’t win the race. Dinah is sitting back down on the bleachers in the stands. She is comparing the time to the last time Jessie swam that event. She is telling herself at least her daughter beat her previous record. This is how much she beat it by: one one-hundredth of a second.
This is the racing suit some of the swimmers wear. It feels like the skin of a shark, when rubbed the wrong way. Rubbed the right way it’s smooth and gives you the feeling that you can beat your old times, that you can beat anyone’s times….

Once I sank into the novel, this cadence didn’t bother me. It is actually a unique way to shift perspectives and to make the reader feel like SHE is in the stands watching things happen. But  it does remind me a bit of a children’s book my boys read when they were preschoolers, called Pizza Pat.  

Pizza Pat is a twist on the nursery rhyme, "This Is the House That Jack Built," and it has lines like this one:

This is the sauce all gooey and gloppy that covered the dough all stretchy and floppy that lay in the tray that Pat bought.

And it repeats, over and over, with a new “This is…” line on each page. Unfortunately, I have that rhyme back in my head after a nice 8-year hiatus, and I am filled with a tiny bit of rage.

While I think that this book is trying to be too many things at once, I did enjoy it. It was a relaxing read after a trying week. It would be great for a long plane ride (but not a car trip, especially if you plan to pee at rest stops along the way).

Monday, December 15, 2014

What I'm Reading This Week

Last week I posted three reviews. Each book (2 YA titles, 1 adult literary fiction) concerned girls who are coming-of-age. Daphne’s Book is a “vintage” YA title. This One Summer is a graphic novel. And An Experiment in Love is a historical novel focusing on young British women in the 1960s growing up at a time just prior to the modern women’s movement.

Truth be told, An Experiment in Love is the only book that I actually read last week. That’s it. One book. And I had been on a roll for several months, plowing through multiple titles without pause.

I guess I have to relax and admit that this is not the time of year when I get a lot of reading done. I can pretty much just refer you to my Monday post from two weeks ago. I'm still reading all of those things.

Ironically, this happened the other day:

I add books to my hold list at the public library all year long. I'm not sure why this has to be the week that they all become available.

I am going to select one title from this stack to tackle this week, because I get frustrated with myself if I make big reading plans and then don’t follow through. I’ve chosen All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews.

From Goodreads:

You won’t forget Elf and Yoli, two smart and loving sisters. Elfrieda, a world-renowned pianist, glamorous, wealthy, happily married: she wants to die. Yolandi, divorced, broke, sleeping with the wrong men as she tries to find true love: she desperately wants to keep her older sister alive. Yoli is a beguiling mess, wickedly funny even as she stumbles through life struggling to keep her teenage kids and mother happy, her exes from hating her, her sister from killing herself and her own heart from breaking.

But Elf’s latest suicide attempt is a shock: she is three weeks away from the opening of her highly anticipated international tour. Her long-time agent has been calling and neither Yoli nor Elf’s loving husband knows what to tell him. Can she be nursed back to “health” in time? Does it matter? As the situation becomes ever more complicated, Yoli faces the most terrifying decision of her life.

The author just won the Canadian Writer’s Trust award for this book.

The hedgehog is a new ornament. It makes me very happy. It doesn't really have anything to do with the book, but what says Happy Holidays better than a sparkly hedgehog?

(It's Monday! What Are You Reading is hosted by Book Journey)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Review of An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

My kids are doing a historical fiction unit at school. In order for their book of choice to “count” as historical fiction, the story needs to take place prior to 1990.


I suddenly feel pretty historical myself.

Hilary Mantel has a wide body of work that can be considered historical fiction, most notably her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which I have yet to read.  Those books are positively enormous – in an intimidating way. An Experiment in Love, by contrast, is lean, which is somewhat appropriate given its focus on repression and denial.  This book follows a pair of Irish Catholic girls in England as they come of age in the 1960s. They find themselves together as they climb toward and through higher education, attempting to fulfill (or failing to fulfill?) their mothers’ aspirations that they grow beyond their social station.

If your thoughts about the 1960s involve psychedelic colors and communes and raging politics, you won’t find that here (though there is a hint of campus-based political organizing). This is a portrait of a generation of women caught between traditional roles and modern feminism.  Some of the characters resist tradition, but their resistance is sneaky and under the radar. Rebellion, when it happens, is directed inward, toward the body, as opposed to outward toward society.

This would be a great book to discuss in a group. There are many thematic onion layers to peel back and consider. There is a strand about womanhood and motherhood. There is a strand about appetite (literal and metaphorical). There is a strand about women’s education and what it yields. There’s a strand about sexuality.

This is a truly beautiful story – the writing is stunning. But at the same time, the gorgeous writing masks some rather thin characters. I could never fully “see” these people, and I sat at a distance the whole time I was reading. If one of the benefits of reading historical fiction is to be transported to another time and place, this experience, for me, fell short. But if another benefit is to generate questions about change over time, this experience definitely fit the bill.

You can read an interesting interview with the author here and a more recent one here.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Review of This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

Since I wrote a retro review earlier in the week about a YA title that looked at the space between childhood and adolescence, I’ll follow up with a discussion about This One Summer, which is a graphic novel that explores a similar theme. I am a graphic novel novice – I didn’t read many comic books as a kid, and I’m not particularly drawn to the format as an adult. But I know that graphic novels appeal to many readers, so I decided to try this one out.

The story, which is written and illustrated by a pair of cousins, involves two tween girls who spend the summer with their families near a Canadian lake. They are simultaneously little girls who frolic and emerging teens encountering the danger and thrill of the adult world for the first time. One girl’s growing awareness of womanhood and motherhood is particularly poignant.

Though this is marketed as a book for young people, I think adults are the best audience. There is something searing about the moment when you feel your childhood slipping away, and perhaps it’s a moment that is only recognized in retrospect. Would a kid in the midst of that moment understand it?

Interestingly, that moment is captured here in pictures, not in words. As someone who reads very, very quickly, it took work to slow down and experience this kind of storytelling visually.

For example, one of the girls is slowly learning about her mother’s grief and the way it affects her parents’ marriage. Jillian Tamaki, the illustrator, captures this growing awareness in the girl’s eyes:

In a May 2014 New Yorker article, Tamaki says that her task as the visual artist is “to make things specific and visceral.” And with that, I’m struck by the collaborative nature of graphic novels with different writers and illustrators. It would be interesting to learn more about the negotiation that must take place to bring a single story to life.

You can read an interview with the writer and the illustrator here.

And here’s an article about the growth in the graphic novel genre.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Retro Review of Daphne’s Book by Mary Downing Hahn

My inlaws have been in town for the past week, and I haven't finished a single book. All those goals I had last week? Unfulfilled. Next week I will be back to my regularly scheduled reading programming. Until then, here's the start of a new feature: a review of a "retro" title. 

In this case, Daphne's Book is a retro young adult title -- the kind of young adult book I would have picked up at the Walden Books in the mall in the 1980s. It was "young adult" for young teens, and we'd probably call it "middle grade fiction" today. If you're a "vintage" book enthusiast, there's a great site featuring vintage YA called "Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989.

Daphne’s Book book was written in 1983. Look at the cover! There’s no way that a kid today would pick up a book like this one – there’s no sexy teen on the front, no faceless girl, no apocalyptic rising sun. And inside the covers, there are no wizards, no dragons, no factions or violence or sex.

As a side note, check out how the cover has changed over the years. The original is at the top of this post. Here's the one from 1995: 

And here's the one from 2008:

You can read through this article to imagine what today's version would look like.

Daphne's Book is the story of a seventh grader who is forced to be a project partner with an outcast. There is a complicated social landscape, and she has to deal with her feelings about the consequences of befriending someone that is desperately unpopular. In many ways, this storyline is reminiscent of Judy Blume’s Blubber, which was my favorite book by that author.

The second aspect of this story concerns the family life of the outcast. She lives in a rickety old house on the outskirts of town. She has a mean grandmother, and she's hungry. The main character needs to make decisions about how much of the situation to keep secret.

There are all sorts of era-specific aspects of this book: the legacy of the Vietnam War, references to “Women’s Lib,” payphones, dittoed papers at school, and combs in the back pockets of the popular girls. There is also a dated feeling of kids playing alone in the woods, wandering around town by themselves, a general freedom and lack of supervision that might not resonate with modern kids.

However, the author did capture a timeless part of being twelve years old – that sense of being in-between childhood and adolescence. The main character loves her dollhouse but hides it. She envies but shies away from the popular girls and their interest in boys. There is something so painful and poignant about the limbo of being neither a little kid nor a teenager.

I don't know if there's an audience for this kind of fiction anymore. It would be interesting to read more about the fantastical turn in kids' literature these days. It makes me wonder if the real world is not dramatic enough for today's kids, or if, perhaps, it's TOO dramatic, requiring escape. 

You can find an interesting interview with the author here. The interview is in three parts, and you can follow the links at the end to read the whole thing.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Review of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You was named Amazon's Best Book of 2014, so I read it with a whole bucket of high expectations. But all that celebration was ultimately distracting for me. I really liked this book, and it was an especially impressive debut. But I’m not sure I'd call it the best book of my reading year.

Part of the issue is that I have read books with similar plots and similar themes. This is a story of a family whose daughter goes missing and is ultimately found dead in the town pond. The novel follows each member of the family through his or her grief, and the reader watches as all the characters spin around each other but struggle to connect. Stewart O’Nan’s Songs for the Missing is one of my favorite books that follow a similar line.

What distinguishes Everything I Never Told You from others like it is its examination of ethnicity and identity. The Lee family is biracial – Chinese-American and white – and they live in a white, midwestern town in the 1970s. Part of what each character “never told” the others had to do with his/her relationship with the dead girl. But they also each kept silent about their experiences as outsiders. The reader experiences the characters’ untold stories in the past, before the death in the family, and in the present, in the midst of their grief. There’s a vague worm of a who-dunnit, but this exploration of identity is the central driver of the story.

This is a very, very sad book, from beginning to end. Have a box of tissues handy. I can’t say that this was a “fun” read, but it was definitely valuable to walk a while with these fascinating characters.  

You can read a bit about the author here.

Monday, December 1, 2014

What I'm Reading, Candelight Edition

Nonfiction November Wrap-Up

First of all, I want to mention that I read FOUR nonfiction books for pleasure during Nonfiction November. One of those was the Nonfiction November “readalong,” The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad by Stacy Horn.  It turns out that the other three are the kinds of things I read to prepare for teaching anyway, as they all concern education and poverty and opportunity. Win! Those titles are The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs and Hold Fast to Dreams by Beth Zasloff and Joshua Steckel. And just this weekend I read Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights by Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr.

One thing I noticed about these three books together is that they are authored by different kinds of stakeholders in public education: an ordinary citizen, a teacher, and a reformer. If we were in one of my classes, we might discuss how these different positions affected the writing of these books.

Last Week and the Week Ahead

I managed to do quite a bit of reading over the holiday weekend. In addition to Radical Equations, I read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, which is a book that is receiving all kinds of buzz. 

I also read This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki. That one is a YA graphic novel (my first!). 

I’ll post reviews of those two books later this week. I have also started Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment In Love, which came from last week’s stack.

My inlaws are arriving this week for a visit, so I’m not sure how much reading I’ll get done. But here is this week’s pile of intentions:

1) I’m excited to return to The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, which I started earlier in the year but need to finish.

From Goodreads:

Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.

2) I have also decided to re-read Gilead by Marilyn Robinson in preparation for reading Lila.

From Goodreads:

Twenty-four years after her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America's heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson's beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows "even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order" (Slate). In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life.

3) And finally, it’s hard to resist a book with blood splatter on the cover. I just received This Is The Water by Yannick Murphy from the library. I can’t remember why I requested this or who recommended it, which seems to happen to me a lot.

From Goodreads:

From Yannick Murphy, award-winning author of The Call, comes a fast-paced story of murder, adultery, parenthood, and romance, involving a girls' swim team, their morally flawed parents, and a killer who swims in their midst.

Bookish Etc. 

One last thing – the candles! On Wednesday I will be attending a fundraiser for First Book—Seattle at the Glassybaby hot shop. 

If you’re in Seattle, this is a terrific event, with the proceeds bringing brand new books to local kids. If you’re not in Seattle, you can get involved with First Book by checking out their national website.

You might have seen First Book President and Co-Founder Kyle Zimmer receive the Literarian Award at the National Book Award ceremony last month. She has been instrumental in the efforts to promote the publication of diverse authors and storylines in children’s literature. 

*It's Monday! What Are You Reading is hosted by Book Journey.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review of Radical Equations by Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr.

Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights is not like the other books that I read for Nonfiction November, in that it is not narrative nonfiction. Though he is telling a story, Robert P. Moses (with writing partner Cobb) is not trying to delight the readers with a suspenseful “plot” or a novel-like structure. For most readers, this will resemble the informative nonfiction you have to read for school.

However, this is an important book to revisit for people who are interested in public school reform. Most of us who read about school change or school problems have read journalistic accounts of public schools. Most of the authors are white. And, even more importantly, white people are mobilizing most of the reform efforts chronicled in these modern accounts (think: Teach for America; No Child Left Behind; Race to the Top….)

Activist and MacArthur Genius Moses situates his reform effort – The Algebra Project – not as “school reform” but as a civil rights movement. Drawing on his own history as an African American activist in the fight for voting rights in the South, he positions educational opportunity in math and science as a new access point for freedom. And he discusses how change in the educational system needs to come from the inside (minority and low-income communities) rather than from the outside (corporate reform).

The Algebra Project emerged in the late-1980s as a way to introduce algebra to middle school kids who were likely to be funneled off the college-prep track. Moses found that algebra was a gate keeper that prevented otherwise promising students from being prepared to take college-level math. He notes that schools often prepare students for the status-quo, meaning a world in which the power structure remains the same. And if kids are systemically kept out of the pathways to power (by being routed away from certain math classes, or being given access later than their white peers), they will not have the tools to make their communities powerful.

This book was published in 2001, and Moses is looking backward to make sense of how the program grew over a couple of decades. It’s worth noting that the wide-ranging, progressive curricular reform that he is promoting does not feel particularly viable in today’s test-driven, back-to-basics, top-down era. The political pendulum about curriculum sat in a different place when the project originated, favoring community-controlled schooling and more autonomous decision-making. However, the specifics of the curriculum (though important) do not interest me as much as the way that the author conceives of the change process, with community members running the show. According to Moses, school change needs to be a “family” project – meaning that the ideas need to be owned and promoted by community members engaged in a struggle for freedom. And the very idea of freedom as a purpose and an anchor of the movement is significant – the reason for engaging in this school change project is not merely for kids to become workers in another man’s business; it’s to change the opportunity structure altogether.

If you’re interested in reading further about the insider/outsider dynamic in modern school reform, I highly recommend Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children. Carr, like Moses, also addresses the tension in civil rights activism between mobilization for economic power and mobilization for political power. Moses’ project appears to be trying to bridge the two approaches to transformation.