Book Review: No-No Boy

I have two big shout-outs/thanks in this post. First, for Adam over at Memento Mori. As soon as he mentioned No-No Boy in one of his videos, I realized that I had never read anything about the Japanese internment camps. I think we had a copy of Baseball Saved Us somewhere in the house, but I want to say it was my brother’s (baseball fan that he is) and not mine. I might have never even read it and just remember the cover.

The second shout-out and thanks go to my friend Henny (of Dirt Nap Podcast fame), who was kind enough send me a huge dump of ebooks from my Goodreads “to-read” shelf, including . . . No-No Boy!

Author: John Okada

Aside: the story of John Okada, the author, is kind of tragic. No-No Boy is his only novel. It was published in 1957 to a lukewarm reception at best, and so he more or less left the writing world for the rest of his short life. He died in the early 70s of a heart attack, and while he was working on another novel at the time, the documents are lost to us so it’s hard to tell if he just had notes, or if he had a completed draft, or if he had something almost completely finished. Only a couple of years after his untimely death, No-No Boy was sort of rediscovered and quickly attained the recognition and praise it rightly deserved.

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.73 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: No-No Boy is the story of Ichiro Yamada, a no-no boy who comes back to his life in Seattle after his prison sentence. His mother is proud of him for being a no-no boy; she thinks Japan actually won the war, and that soon she and other loyal Japanese will get to go back. Others are, unsurprisingly, furious with Ichiro, white and Nisei alike. Eventually Ichiro runs into Kenji, a fellow Nisei and a veteran who lost his leg in the European theater and who is only getting more and more ill. Kenji seems to understand Ichiro, at least better than anyone else does, and the two spend a lot of time together as Ichiro tries to figure out his new place in the world.

Content warning: Okada writes about the racial tensions going in post-WWII America, so dialogue can include terms that have since fallen out of favor (or flat-out racial slurs).

Recommended audience: Those interested in post-WWII American history or teaching/studying it in school; those interested in Asian-American authors; those who enjoyed George Takei’s stage show Allegiance.

Cover of the new edition of John Okada's No-No Boy.
Image courtesy University of Washington Press

In-depth thoughts: The title No-No Boy refers to the loyalty questionnaire Nisei Americans (American-born Japanese) were required to answer, as a de facto test of patriotism/”Americanness.” The last two were real humdingers:

Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?

Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiances to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or other foreign government, power or organization?

Thousands of people answered “no” to both questions for a variety of reasons: misunderstanding the terminology, resentment at being asked to swear loyalty and serve in the armed forces of a nation that had ripped them out of their homes and sent them to detention centers, fears that they would be deported to Japan regardless and that a “yes” would come back to haunt them, etc. They became known as “no-nos” or “no-no boys” and served time in prison for their answers. Okada was not one of them, but the protagonist of his novel is.
There are a handful of books I review here that I really hope people will go out and read (if they haven’t already). Usually it’s because they’re really good, but this is one I think we should read because it’s important. Well, and it’s also really good and worth reading regardless—Okada takes the stream of consciousness style that really came to a head with the Beats and makes it his own. Here’s a quote from early on the in the novel, when Ichiro decides to pay a visit to the university where he was studying before the internment camps and then prison:

Not until the bus had traversed the business district and pointed itself toward the northeast did he realize that he was on the same bus which he used to take every morning as a university student. There had been such a time and he vividly brought to mind, with a hunger that he would never lose, the weighty volumes which he had carried against his side that the cloth of his pants became thin and frayed, and the sandwiches in a brown grocery bag and the slide rule with the leather case which hung from his belt like the sword of learning which it was, for he was going to become an engineer and it had not mattered that Japan would soon be at war with America. To be a student in America was a wonderful thing. To be a student in America studying engineering was a beautiful life. That, in itself, was worth defending from anyone and anything which dared to threaten it with change or extinction. Where was the slide rule, he asked himself, where was the shaft of exacting and thrilling discovery when I need it most? If only I had pictured it and felt it in my hands, I might well have made the right decision, for the seeing and feeling of it would have pushed out the bitterness with the greenness of the grass on the campus and the hardness of the chairs in the airy classrooms with the blackboards stretched wall-to-wall behind the professor, and the books and the sandwiches and the bus rides coming and going. I would have gone into the army for that and I would have shot and killed, and shot and killed some more, because I was happy when I was a student with the finely calculated white sword at my side. But I did not remember or I could not remember because, when one is born in America and learning to love it more and more every day without thinking it, it is not an easy thing to discover suddenly that being American is a terribly incomplete thing if one’s face is not white and one’s parents are Japanese of the country Japan which attacked America. It is like being pulled asunder by a whirling tornado and one does not think of a slide rule though that may be the thing which will save one.

Where (for me) novels like On the Road became self-indulgent and navel-gazeyNo-No Boy balances these deep dives with action and spreads them among multiple characters. We get to know Ichiro quite well, but we also spend time in the heads of the people around him, who have different perspectives, experiences, and opinions.

I hope that whet your appetite! If you’ve read No-No Boy, I’m curious about what you think. If not (or even if you have, I guess), what are some other under-read and underappreciated classics that you think should be more famous? Why?

Friday 5: Over/Under

What’s a film you consider overrated, and what’s a related or similar film you consider underrated?

This is actually a conversation I like to have with people. It’s interesting to see when people’s opinions diverge from the generally given consensus. It’s been a long time since I’ve had this conversation with people, though.

The first answer that comes up for me is the Sam Raimi Spider-man movie. There was a lot of buzz about it when it first came out, so I went in with high hopes. Something just never clicked with me, though, and I left the theater feeling disappointed.

If I had to go with an underrated superhero movie (since we’re in the genre), that’s a little tougher. So I’ll cheat and branch out a little bit, and say that some of my favorite movies are maybe in danger of becoming underrated or unknown. I’m a huge fan of The Marx Brothers, Vincent Price, and Gene Kelly (also major props to Donald O’Connor, an equally talented dancer who had the rotten luck of not being as handsome as Gene Kelly). It’s good to appreciate the old as well as the new.

I will say this, though: of old things, I think The Three Stooges are fantastically overrated.

What’s overrated about the area in which you live, and what’s underrated about it?

I’m not sure what’s overrated about Stockholm? But I don’t think a lot of people realize how many (free!) museums there are in Stockholm, as well as festivals, concerts, and events. It has all of the culture of New York City, but with a fraction of the population.

Whose talent or skill is overrated, and whose is underrated?

This is a tricky one. I think I’ll say that the concept of “talent” itself is overrated, as it leads to so much self-defeat. It takes a lot of work to get good at something, and if you just rely on focusing on what’s easy the first time around, “you’re gonna have a bad time.”

I think people underrate the value of a good copyeditor, but I might just be biased. 😉

What item in the supermarket is overrated, and what’s underrated?

I will never be able to enjoy bacon the same way the rest of the world does. I can choke it down if I accidentally end up with some in a meal somewhere, but I’m still quite likely to pick it out. Nor have I ever developed a taste for coffee or fizzy drinks.

As for underrated, for years I labored under the false notion that cottage cheese was bland, boring diet food. I don’t know if that’s still the reputation it has today, but I’d like the record to show that cottage cheese is delicious.

What’s utterly terrific except for one or two things?

A few years ago, I read Jennifer Ouellette’s The Calculus Diaries. As a humanities student trying to (belatedly) make peace with STEM, it was right up my alley, and overall I really enjoyed it. Except! In one of the chapters, she repeats the apocryphal story about ancient Rome and post-festivity vomitoriums. Ancient Rome had vomitoriums, but they weren’t special rooms for vomiting after a particularly large meal; they were (and are) just exits in large public buildings like stadiums or amphitheaters.

Book Review: Bad Bye, Good Bye

I am long overdue for a review of this sweet little picture book! Here are my thoughts on Bad Bye, Good Bye.

Author: Deborah Underwood

Illustrator: Jonathan Bean

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average Goodreads rating: 3.91 stars

Language scaling: A1+

Recommended audience: Children struggling with a move to a new home.

Cover of "Bad Bye, Good Bye" by Deborah underwood and Jonathan Bean
Image courtesy HMH Books For Young Readers

In-depth thoughts: The simple language Underwood uses makes Bad Bye, Good Bye an excellent choice for new learners and new readers, regardless of first language. The fact that Underwood s able to use such simple language to encapsulate all the stress of moving to a new home is a testament to her storytelling abilities. This would be a great addition to any classroom, as every teacher will encounter a “new kid” or two who still has anxieties and stress over their recent move (or a departing student who’s nervous about an upcoming relocation).

Underwood has a number of picture books under her belt in addition to Bad Bye, Good Bye. She’s also the author of The Quiet Book and its companion The Loud Book!, as well as the Here Comes Cat series, Part-Time Princess, and Interstellar Cinderella (perhaps better suited for slightly more advanced readers).

Bean’s art is also charming, with a blocky, collage-y feel that reminds me a lot of Eric Carle and Ezra Jack Keats. You can see more of Bean’s work on his website, which includes illustrations for the EmmyRunaway, and Mokie & Bik series. He is also both author and illustrator for This is My Home, This is My School, a picture book introduction to homeschooling.

Overall, I think Bad Bye, Good Bye is a great addition to any teacher’s library. Lots of kid lit ink has been spilled on the topic of moving, but sometimes the simplest story is the most effective one.

Book Review: Otto and the Flying Twins

I picked up Otto and the Flying Twins at a library sale some months ago, and in an odd coincidence (given the book’s subject matter) I had it in my bag while I was stranded in town on Friday.

Author: Charlotte Haptie

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.62 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Fantasy aficionados

In-depth thoughts: Teachers wishing to address prejudice and The Holocaust could do worse than to include Otto and the Flying Twins in the curriculum.

On the surface, it’s a whimsical fantasy story about an evil queen (though in an updated form of an evil councilwoman) trying to eradicate magic from the city, and the young boy and his magical friends who stop her. But dig a little deeper and it’s hard to deny the parallels with pre-World War II Germany: the “magicos” are declared inferior and a threat to the city’s well-being, relegated to ghettos or sent to work in moonstone mines.

It’s hard to strike a balance between light whimsy and serious hardship, and my only complaint with the book is that Haptie never finds a good balance; despite some serious moments, the mood tilts very heavily towards “fun fantasy.” Rather than address the very real problem that hatred and prejudice is built up over lifetimes and generations, Haptie compresses what was probably two or three centuries of anti-Semitic sentiment that contributed to the Holocaust into just a couple of years and the flimsiest of pretenses—essentially, one individual’s personal grudge. (And greed, but arguably it’s something like greed that drives people to blame The Other for economic woes, so that’s not so unrealistic after all.)

But it’s a fantasy book for middle grade readers, not Holocaust scholarship. I realize this is a very high-level nitpick, and I’m willing to overlook it because everything else about the book was delightful.

Anyone familiar with YA and middle grade tropes will see some of them refreshingly subverted or avoided. The titular Otto isn’t The Chosen One; that’s actually his dad, Albert who does much of the heroics (if off-screen). Otto is, of course, gifted with what everyone considers The Best Power Ever, but it’s well-balanced: neither over-powerful enough to render his friends useless, nor so under-powered that we wonder why anyone values such a power in the first place.

When his mom finds out that Albert hid his Karmidee heritage from her, she lashes out at him and spends most of the rest of the book angry at him, for ugly reasons (internalized prejudice) as well as respectable ones (building a life with someone only to find out they’ve lied about a very important part of themselves is bound to be a shocker). It’s a response that feels very human, especially because she balances it with protecting her family. There’s nothing worse than conflict driven by one or more parties being willfully stupid. Instead, Dolores does what she can to protect her undeniably magical family and keeps her frustration with Albert separate.

Otto’s obligatory female sidekick, Mab, isn’t presented as a love interest, which is refreshing—but this might be due to the target audience (the story feels and reads much more middle grade than YA). She’s not entirely useful, it feels like, except to explain things to Otto (and by extension, the reader).

The language in this book is something to behold. There is an air of genuine whimsy in this that I found lacking in Harry Potter. (Well, either lacking or totally oppressive.) Normal Police, widges, dammerung, an Impossible List . . . Haptie takes well-worn fantasy tropes and adds her own unique spin to them.

Otto and the Flying Twins is the first in a trilogy of books. I get the impression that they were meant to be a longer series, but seeing as the last one was published in 2006, I think it’s safe to say that the series stops at three books. If you can find it, get it. Otto and the Flying Twins is a great example of middle grade fantasy at its finest. More than that, it’s a great jumping-off point to discuss prejudice and resistance—topics that are going to be quite relevant for the next few years.

Book Review: The Radium Girls: The Dark History of America’s Shining Women

I knew about the radium girls in the vaguest of senses thanks to an offhand mention in The Radioactive Boy Scout, a book I read a few years ago. Silverstein mentions that scores of workers (women, mostly) in the dial-painting factories became ill and even died from their work, but since that’s largely a footnote in the story of David Hahn, Silverstein doesn’t go into much detail about it. I didn’t think about it any further until last year, when I saw that an available book on NetGalley was Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, adapted from and inspired by Melanie March’s play These Shining Lives.

Author: Kate Moore

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average Goodreads rating: 4.35 stars

Language scaling: B2/C1+

Recommended audience: Readers interested in the early 20th century American labor movement, women’s history, or the history of radium and radioactivity.

Content warning: While it’s only brief parts of the book, Moore does not mince words to describe the effects of radium poisoning on the women in question.

The cover of Kate Moore's "Radium Girls: The Dark History of America's Shining Women"

In-depth thoughts: I wavered between 4 and 5 stars for this book. The story is harrowing and written well overall, but at some points all of the information becomes more overwhelming than anything else. Moore also has a tic of spending a lot of time on the physical description of almost everyone involved; as someone who relates strongly to descriptions of aphantasia, it’s not surprising that I would not find detailed descriptions of people’s appearances compelling. Other readers will no doubt appreciate Moore’s dedication to making these stories as real as possible. Finally, the Kindle version had some display and formatting errors, mostly based around the small-caps font used for the newspaper headlines and photos (there weren’t any).

In the end I decided on 5 stars because I think my issues were with the formatting rather than the content, and because I think everyone should read this book.

I have to admit, I was not entirely prepared for what I read. I know enough about radiation poisoning to know that the women employed in these factories suffered, and suffered a lot. That’s a biological reality I knew going in. It was how steadfastly the companies refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing that was the most shocking and the most viscerally upsetting. Their legal battles dragged on for years—over a decade. It’s one thing to lose an arm or the use of your legs and have a workman’s comp case take a few years. It’s another thing for the case to go on for 13 years when you’re dying of cancer.

The radium corporations insisted that the sick, dying, and dead women were already in poor health when they started work; they refused to release medical examination records; they insisted that the cause of death in a few cases was syphilis, not radium poisoning. They claimed in one case that radium was a poison and therefore not covered by existing workman’s compensation laws; after the law was changed to include poison, they turned around in another case and claimed that radium wasn’t poisonous at all.

People talking about #resisting in this weird new era we live in also talk about the importance of surrounding yourself with stories of people being courageous and doing the right thing. I think that makes The Radium Girls a book we should all be reading. It serves as both an inspiration and a warning.

Book Review: Spot It! Find the Hidden Creatures

Spot It!: Find the Hidden Creatures is another gem of a picture book that I found at the library a few weeks ago. It was actually originally a French title (Cherche la petite bête); the English version is put out by Abrams Books.

Author: Delphine Chedru

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.88 stars

Language scaling: A1+

Recommended audience: Young learners and beginner English students.

Image courtesy Delphine Chedru and Aram Books

Plot summary: A series of “find the hidden figure” puzzles.

In-depth thoughts: Some of the puzzles are fairly simple, but others are challenging even for grown-up eyes! Chedru’s technique of building patterns out of simple lines and shapes make Spot It! a great companion book to lessons about shapes and geometry (as well as animals). My students enjoyed trying to stump me with their own puzzles inspired by Chedru.

Book Review: The White Giraffe

Since today is White Day in South Korea and Japan, it seems like a good time to put up my review of The White Giraffe.

Author: Lauren St John

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.99 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Animal lovers

The White Giraffe by Lauren St John review
Image courtesy Dial 

Plot summary: When tragedy strikes, young Martine is sent to her grandmother in South Africa, who runs a game preserve. Her fascination with a mysterious white giraffe leads to the discovery of a fate greater than she could have ever dreamed.

Content warning: The book opens with a house fire scene that might be a bit scary for younger readers. There are also some representation issues when it comes to non-white characters.

In-depth thoughts: It’s clear that St John knows and cares a lot about animals, including the unique wildlife of sub-Saharan Africa. According to her biography, she grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe with a host of exotic pets, and frankly that’s a memoir I would read! It’s also clear that her background was a big influence on The White Giraffe. I just wish that her knowledge, passion, and background had faced a little more scrutiny and gone through a few more revisions before they ended up as The White Giraffe, as it falls a little too close to the White Savior narrative structure for me to be entirely comfortable recommending it for its intended younger readers.

I also admit that as an adult, I’m hardly the middle grade target audience, but a hallmark of good children’s writing is that adult readers can enjoy the book as much as younger readers. But in The White Giraffe, the writing felt a little flat and some elements of the plot seemed rushed or thrown in for the sake of . . . I’m not sure what.

The White Giraffe is the first in a series that includes (as of this blog post) four other books: Dolphin Song, The Last Leopard, The Elephant’s Tale, and Operation Rhino. Hopefully St John has found her stride and ironed out the above issues in The White Giraffe, as I think her passion for conservation and the natural world is one worth sharing and cultivating in young readers.

Book Review: Passing

Nella Larsen’s Passing was a selection for my online book club. The two women who run it have a knack for finding classics that, despite my academic background, I seemed to have skipped over. Passing is one of those classics.

Author: Nessa Larsen

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.8 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Thriller fans; readers interested in Harlem Renaissance literature

Cover of Nella Larsen's novel "Passing"
Image courtesy Penguin Publishers

Plot summary: Irene Redfield and her high school classmate Clare Kendry are both mixed race; Irene is “out” (if I can borrow the term) as a woman of color, living a life in Harlem with a black husband and black children, while Clare is currently “passing” (as in, passing for white) within white society—a big deal in 1927. A chance encounter brings Clare back into Irene’s life after years apart, throwing both of their lives into disarray. One thing leads to another, until events reach their tragic, if inevitable, conclusion.

In-depth thoughts: Much of the tension is built on concepts of race and passing that I don’t think would be quite as relevant today. Not to say that racism is no longer a problem; just that society’s definition of “white” has broadened. Someone fitting Clare Kendry’s description—pale, blonde, and brown-eyed—would be overwhelmingly accepted and read as white today, outside of maybe a few fringe neo-Nazi groups. But in the book, the old “one drop” rule is still in effect, and Clare’s worry that her “true identity” as a woman of color might be revealed to her white husband is constantly hanging over her head. Such a discrepancy in norms says a lot about an America still in living memory.

Of course, other elements of tension in the story are more timeless: secret pasts, secrets and trust within relationships, motherhood, the lot of women in society, the limits of what we can know about others. Passing is a thriller but it’s also a character study. While some of the specific worries about race may belong to another time, the suspense and the breakneck speed feel very modern.

Book Review: The Moviegoer

Finally, the reviews I post on my personal blog and the ones I post here are in sync! (Or is that in synch?) This should keep book posts moving at a much more regular pace. Maybe I’ll move to updating three times a week. Who knows?

The Moviegoer is a selection from TIME Magazine’s “Top 100 Novels of All TIME” list, which is a reading project I’ve had since around 2009. I have five books left to finish the list.

Author: Walker Percy

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.7 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Readers interested in New Orleans, the American South, and Americana/Americana literature; readers who feel directionless and lost

In-depth thoughts: The Moviegoer wasn’t a book for me, but I can understand why others would relate to it. It’s not the most gripping story, and I wouldn’t recommend it straight off the bat for EFL students who want to dip their toes into English literature. But those who have already ventured into the field might like it. It periodically draws on some very America-specific pop culture touch points; as you can guess from the title, the story’s narrator spends a fair amount of time watching and thinking about movies, all of which date back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Towards the end of the story, there are also references to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations and traditions, which might be unfamiliar to some readers. Still, none of these references are essential to the plot. Overall, a solid, introspective read.

Thoughts on Clozemaster

One of my friends, perpetual Swedish student Henny, brought Clozemaster to my attention. I’ve been using it for a week now—time to share my thoughts on it!

Clozemaster takes the free library of natural language translations available on Tatoeba and turns them into cloze exercises (“fill-in-the-blank” exercises, if you’re not in the ed biz). You can then go through these exercises on the website or the free smartphone app.

The Clozemaster dashboard before logging in.
The Clozemaster website dashboard before logging in.

It also has a nice 8-bit/16-bit aesthetic going on in both looks and sound effects, for anyone nostalgic for old school video games.

You can see that the variety of languages is pretty astounding, though of course some languages have more content than others. Like Tatoeba, you can create an account for free on Clozemaster, and it has no limits on how many languages you can choose to study.

Note: Clozemaster is not for beginners. You need some familiarity with the target language to benefit from the program. Generally, the developer touts Clozemaster as “the next step after DuoLingo.”

Clozemaster dashboard
Clozemaster dashboard

The data is cool, but for me it’s secondary. The important bits are towards the bottom: the section labeled “Fluency Fast Track” and then “Grouped by: Most Common Words.” That’s where you actually do the studying.

The basic difference is that Fluency Fast Track mixes clozes from easy to difficult (and from most common to least common), while the “Most Common Words” group will focus specifically on the 100, 500, 1000, etc. most common words. I like to keep things focused, so I prefer the latter, but either should be fine.

All of the exercises, in the app as well as most browsers, also include text-to-speech audio. It’s not entirely natural, so I wouldn’t use it for phrasing or intonation, but it’s fine for individual words. Also, the web version links every word in the phrase to Forvo (in addition to Google Translate, Wiktionary, and Tatoeba), where you can hear actual humans pronounce the word in question.

The wrinkle that I really appreciate is that you can play a cloze exercise in two modes: multiple choice or text input. The text input option is really important because it forces you to move a word from your passive vocabulary to your active vocabulary. If you want to challenge yourself with the text input option, I’d recommend setting Clozemaster to show you the L1 translation along with the question (rather than after you answer), so you know if it’s “What’s his name?” or “What’s her name?”.

There is also a smartphone app that, like Anki, connects your browser-based account (and all of its progress) with your smartphone:

Clozemaster app dashboard
Clozemaster app dashboard

If you pay for a Clozemaster Pro account, you have the option of downloading the “Fast Track” lessons directly to your phone; otherwise everything is in the cloud, so the app is useless if you can’t connect to the Internet. There are other little bells and whistles you get in the pro account as well: listening comprehension practice, the ability to focus on specific parts of speech, more data, the ability to export into Anki, etc. At $60, it’s not a bad investment at all.

Do you use Clozemaster? Follow me!