The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Lindsey Lee Johnson*****

themostdangerousplaceThe place is Mill Valley, California, the most affluent community in the USA, and yet there’s serious trouble in paradise. Although this title is being marketed as a novel for young adult readers, a lot of adults will want to read it. It’s thought provoking and a real page-turner. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. I actually finished this book some time ago, but often I find that the most interesting, complex books are ones I will want to give considerable thought to before I review them; everything I have read and thought has to gel. So I apologize to the publishers for my tardiness, but it’s not a matter of not caring; maybe it’s a matter of caring too much.

My own background is in teaching inner-city teens and street kids, but Johnson makes a good case for attention toward the privileged yet sometimes neglected children of the upper middle class. This sophisticated story features a number of characters—teachers and students—in detail. We follow them from eighth grade into and to the end of high school. There’s baggage and drama left over from middle school that high school counselors, teachers, and administration won’t know about, and it carries over and influences events in ways no one can foresee.

One key player is Molly Nicholls, a brand new teacher whose age is closer to that of her students than to many of the teachers she works with, and who can’t tell the difference between caring for students, and becoming their peer; between the professional distance used by her colleagues to protect themselves both legally and emotionally, versus jaundiced burn-out.  Molly is flattered when students come to her with complaints about other teachers, and she loves it when they tell her that she’s different than they are. But then she hits a crisis point that may abort her new career if mishandled; and the fact is, these new ‘friends’ of hers are going to graduate, while she’ll be left behind with the colleagues she’s alienated.

She just doesn’t get it.

That said, we also meet students that are stuck in a variety of unenviable positions. Young Abigail believes that she is special indeed; Mr. Ellison, everyone’s favorite teacher, spends extra time with her, drives her around in his car. His wife doesn’t understand him the way she does; she’s crushed when she realizes that he doesn’t intend to leave his wife, and that they have no real future together. She might be absolutely powerless were it not for the other power dynamic in place here, that of the socioeconomic disparity between the students’ families, who live in ostentatious luxury, and the teachers, who either commute a great distance, or live, as Miss Nicholls does, in a converted tool shed for an apartment. The relationships and the components that skew them are absolutely riveting.

Mill Valley kids don’t worry about where their next meals will come from; they drive cars far nicer than those of their teachers, and instead of allowances, they have bank accounts and credit cards.  But what many of them lack is parental time and attention, and most of them lack boundaries. And adolescents really need boundaries; they need small, frequent reminders to check them when they cross an important line. Their teachers don’t dare provide the discipline and structure; they need these jobs. And the parents often won’t.

For example, there’s cyber-bullying.  Tristan Bloch is a special needs student whose social skills often lead to miscues, and the primal behaviors of adolescents lock onto those miscues like sharks when there’s chum in the water.  Miss Flax, a teacher that counsels Tristan, makes a horrible error when she suggests that he make a move toward Calista, a popular girl who’s going through a family crisis herself as her mother lies dying in a dark bedroom and her father comes unstuck. Calista turns to her friends to deal with Tristan’s unwanted advance.  The whole ugly mess erupts on Face Book, and the result is tragic.

 

 “Teachers like [Miss Flax] were always encouraging hopeless kids like Tristan to inject themselves into the social scene with ridiculous gestures—declarations of love, blind stabs at friendship—as if middle school were a safe haven in which to conduct these experiments,  when in fact it was the most dangerous place on Earth.”

 

Then there are those like Dave Chu, a B student whose parents will be crushed if he isn’t admitted to an Ivy League college. Dave studies constantly, but he doesn’t have the talent to get where his parents need him to go, and they won’t hear of his entry into an ordinary California state college. Dave’s anxiety turns to panic, and ultimately he’s driven toward an extreme personal solution .

There’s a host of controversial material here, and also limitless potential for students’ reactions to what’s provided. I can see parents offering their child with a copy to read, and I can also see other parents hot-footing it to their child’s middle or high school to demand its removal from the curriculum or even from the library shelves. One thing’s for sure though: it’s generated a lot of advance buzz, and that buzz will only get louder with publication. It’s meaty, complicated, and an unmissable read for parents of adolescents, as well as those considering entering the minefield of teaching.

You can buy this book January 10, 2017, and you should.  Highly recommended!

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood****

alltheuglyandwonAnd you thought Fifty Shades of Gray was controversial.  Just remember that you heard it here first: if this novel has legs and gets around, it’s going to create a lot of noise.  I could almost smell the book-burning bonfires as I read the last half. And lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

Wavy grows up in the North American heartland, smack dab in the middle of nowhere. When you consider it for a moment, that’s obviously the place for a meth lab to be. No sophisticated, well funded cops will sniff around and shut down your operation; there’s plenty of cheap land for the various vehicles and outbuildings such a business might require.

It’s not as if guests are welcome to drop in.

Guests don’t drop in, in fact, but two children do, one at a time, to proprietors Liam and his estranged and dysfunctional wife, Val. First Wavy arrives, a daughter that grows up with instructions never to let anyone touch her, especially her father; next comes little brother Donal, whom Wavy undertakes to raise as best a small child can do, since nobody else is available for either of them. Val struggles with mental illness and has given in to addiction with no struggle at all. Liam lives elsewhere with a small harem of junkie women that he uses sexually and as part of his drug business. When Wavy sees him, he usually yells for one of the women to get her out of there and take her somewhere else. He doesn’t seem to care who she’s with, or what they do with her.

Wavy lives briefly with her grandmother, a nurturing woman who despairs of Val’s habits but is more than willing to take care of her grandchildren, and slowly Wavy begins to bloom. But Grandma is elderly and sick, and she dies. During the brief time Wavy is with her, Grandma teaches her to read the stars. Wavy has a quick, sharp mind, and with just a little encouragement she learns the constellations. They form her only reliable connection to the world, since they are the sole immutable part of her life. Take her to live here; take her to live there. Put her in school; yank her back out. No matter what happens, she can still find Cassiopeia.

Liam’s mechanic and sometime-employee is a man named Kellen. He sees Wavy left like yesterday’s mail by the side of the road and gives her a lift on his motorcycle. To stay on board, she must touch his jacket in spite of what her mother has told her about never touching other people. We all need to be touched, and children of course most of all, and a bond is formed.

As to Kellen, he’s a strange bird, and the reader is never fully informed what his deal is. Is he, as some say, a slow learner? Is he mentally ill? All we really know comes from the inner narrative we hear from him in alternate chapters, and what others say about him. And we know what he does. When Wavy’s parents don’t show up to pick her up from school or to attend parent conferences, Kellen goes. And we know that other members of Liam’s meth crew consider Kellen to be the kind of man that won’t pull the trigger, but will help move the body when the deed has been done.

Sadly, Kellen really is the best parent figure in Wavy’s life. For those that think this is melodramatic nonsense: teach in a low income school district for a decade or two, and then come back and tell me that. Because these kids are out there.

Greenwood is dead smart when it comes to developing character. The peculiar behaviors that Wavy develops along with the period in which her physical development ceases to move forward are right on the money. The author states that portions of the story are autobiographical, and that sounds about right.

The relationship that develops between Wavy and Kellen will cause plenty of fireworks way after Independence Day has passed. Those that have triggers related to anything at all should steer clear. But for the rest, this novel is worth your time and dime. As the relationship between Wavy and Kellen begins to change, readers may lean in, or may want to hurl the book at a wall, but no one will be left unmoved.

This book is available to the public August 9, 2016, but you can order it now.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond*****

EvictedI was cruising for something new to read, something that wasn’t yet another mystery or thriller. I ran across this title and requested it from Net Galley, then asked myself what I had been thinking! Who wants to read an entire book about eviction? What a grim prospect. I was even more surprised, then, when I opened it and couldn’t put it down. Desmond approaches his subject in a way that makes it not only readable but compelling. Thanks go to the people at Crown Publishing and Penguin Random House for approving my request for a DRC. This book is available to the public March 1.

Desmond undertook his study as part of his study of sociology while attending the University of Wisconsin, and continued it into his graduate studies at Harvard. The whole book is based on rentals among high-poverty families living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Desmond explains why this location is a good case study as regards the rest of Midwestern urban America.

Most of the text is told as narrative nonfiction, with the author shadowing eight families, some African-American, some Caucasian, through trailer parks and ghetto apartments in Milwaukee. There is a great deal of dialogue, all of which was captured with permission via digital recorder, so the text flows like good fiction. One Black landlord and one Caucasian landlord are also shadowed, and although I came away feeling that both landlords—one of whom, to my horror, was a former fourth grade teacher—were lower than pond scum, Desmond is careful to also demonstrate the ambiguities, the times when one or the other let things slide when an eviction could have been forced; brought over some groceries for a new tenant and did not ask for repayment; gave tenants opportunities to work off back rent to avoid eviction.

At the same time, we see how ultimately, almost all of what appear to be landlords’ small kindnesses are actually adding to their profit margins.

The text is nicely organized. The beginning and ending are expository in style, as a newspaper or magazine article would be, with the statistics that demonstrate how much more of a renter’s income is eaten by housing than was true in previous years; how a bad credit history can lead a low-income family into an apartment that is substandard and costs as much or more than a nice apartment of the same size in a calmer neighborhood that might be rented by someone with a good credit history; and the terrible dance that must be done to keep both heat and rent paid sufficiently to avoid being cut off with winter on the way, or evicted. It also points out that there are people living in low income apartments that should not even be living independently due to mental health issues or extremely low IQ; Desmond recognizes the times—though they are a tiny minority—in which someone takes that welfare check and does something tremendously stupid with it, not using it for housing, utilities, food, or even clothing for the kids.

He clues us in to the fact that while huge numbers of Black men are getting locked up, huge numbers of Black women, particularly mothers, are getting locked out.

Desmond discusses the various ways landlords manage to avoid fixing even the most desperate plumbing and structural issues in rental housing. He discusses the inevitability of eviction for a renter that calls police—or for whom someone else calls police—due to domestic violence. The problem is considered a “nuisance” by the city; three visits by cops in a month mean huge fines for the landlord unless an eviction is ordered, in which case fines are waived.

It’s enough to make you sick.

Particularly appalling is the situation in which Lamar (all names are changed ) is diligently scrambling to paint apartments and clean out a basement to avoid eviction. The man has no legs, but he can’t collection SSI, because theoretically, he could do a desk job. He crawls around on his stumps to paint the areas his elementary-aged neighbor kids have missed, climbs through filth and muck in a half basement, and is cursed at by his landlord, who says he is trying to disrespect her by doing such a terrible job.

He is evicted anyway, and the landlord becomes unavailable to do repairs for other tenants soon, because she and her co-owner spouse are off to Jamaica.

There are some people that would fit so cleanly into Dante’s seventh circle.

It is the individual stories of the eight families, the various fascinating rationalizations of the two terrible landlords, which keep this from simply becoming a dark place the reader would never want to go. Some of the cultural nuances were really interesting to me, and I have lived in some hard neighborhoods back in the day, and taught many high poverty students. I’ve been to some of their homes. Yet Desmond taught me a great deal.

For those interested in America’s housing crisis; for anyone that has ever been evicted; for those interested in sociology and culture, this book is a must-read.

Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, by Michael G. Long ***-****

peaceful neighborI confess I was intrigued by the title and description of this biography. Mr. Rogers came on television when I was entering adolescence, and so I didn’t watch it for myself. When I had children of my own, I tried to limit their time spent in front of TV, and so I tended to watch Sesame Street with them and then reach for the off button. But my son wanted to see Mr. Rogers, and I confess that although the magic escaped me—who wanted to watch this dull man with the puppet on his hand, seriously?—my son, who was three years old, thought differently. I watched the little smile play on his lips as Mister Rogers spoke to him, face straight into the camera. It made my kid feel better. And so I decided to plunge into this biography and see if I could figure out what made the show so appealing to little kids. I went all the way through a Master’s degree in education and came out still clueless, so why not? Thank you to Net Galley and Westminster John Knox Press for the DRC. The title was published in March and is available for purchase.

On the whole, I never did find the magic, but from an analytical standpoint, I could see where the work done by Fred Rogers was effective. He treated small people with respect. He was an expert in the psychology of very young children, and his show was crafted around gently, reassuringly addressing some issues that parents might not know how to talk to their children about. This is not to say that he had a superior attitude or spoke down to parents, when he acknowledged our presence, but I was a mom who had spent my entire pregnancy unemployed, sitting around the house reading books about pregnancy, childbirth, and the raising of young children, and I had no idea that my son had been afraid he might go down the drain after the bath was over. And I watched his little face light up when Mr. Rogers sat at the piano and sang, “You can never go down, never go down, never go down the drain!”

The first twenty percent or so of this biography deals with Rogers’ religious beliefs, and I nearly had to stick myself with a pin to stay awake through it. The guy was a pacifist, and so although he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, his belief system and his quiet, subdued manner was largely that of the Friends, or Quakers. So for those who have a strong interest in examining the intricate details of faith as it relates to war and children, this will be more absorbing than it was for me.

Just at about the point at which I had decided that grabbing the galley had been a mistake—seriously, 176 pages and I had only read twenty percent? It felt like forever—and gave myself permission to skim and review this thing, it became more interesting. And although I think the author very much overstates his case in calling Rogers “subversive”, I agree that he openly, if subtly and carefully, disagreed with Presidents Reagan and HW Bush about the wars in the Middle East, and before that, with the Vietnam War. He never carried a sign, our writer points out several times, but chose to work behind the scenes and to use his television show as a platform for peace.

“War isn’t nice.”

He was no radical; during the Civil Rights movement, rather than encourage integration, he held fundraisers to buy supplies for the African-American schools that were separate and entirely unequal, to try to level things out a little bit, one school district at a time. Good luck with that.

But the real gift that he gave to small children was that of absolute acceptance. Children were valuable no matter what they looked like. He acknowledged that we feel mad sometimes, and talked about ways to work out the mad without hurting anyone. He recognized that sometimes girls want to play with machines, and sometimes boys might like to hold a doll, to dress it and pretend to feed it. His was a gentle persona, and he let everyone know that men can also be nurturers. And when a company presumed to use his likeness on a tee shirt with a gun in his hand, he took their ass to court and made them not only stop selling those shirts, but destroy every last one they still had in their possession or for sale.

He also had blind spots. He was raised in a wealthy family—Mr. McFeely, the neighborhood postal character in the Make Believe neighborhood where Mr. Rogers filmed, was also the name of his grandfather, who built the family fortune. And at Christmas time, the staff of Mr. Rogers’s TV show each got a nice card with a note saying he had made a gift in their name to a charity; but one of the staffers pointed out to the author that some of them were paid very low salaries, and sure could have used the holiday bonus instead.

A documentary that was filmed about Fred Rogers was made with the understanding that the cameras must not show “the tasteful opulence of my home”.

Ahem.

The writer does a fine job of analyzing where Fred Rogers stood on all of the key issues of the day before his rather sudden death due to stomach cancer. If this man was important to you, or if you have an interest in the connection between social justice and religion, or children’s television shows, this might be a great book for you. If you are not interested in religion, you may want to skim through the first chapters and get to the meatier parts.

Either way, Fred would’ve liked you exactly as you are now.