A Wish After Midnight Struggles in Octavia Butler’s Shadow

A Wish After Midnight by Zetta ElliottIn A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott a teenage black girl inadvertently travels from modern day to Civil War-era Brooklyn. It’s reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, though it’s much slower paced. It’s more character driven, taking time to thoroughly introduce the reader to modern urban poverty and focusing on the racial differences between 1863 and the modern day.

While Kindred really dove into the time travel and let the social commentary speak for itself (more or less), A Wish After Midnight really chews on it. It’s interesting, but it’s not as satisfying or gripping of a read.

While not quite a slave in 1860s Brooklyn, Genna is still trapped with few options. In many ways, her choices and limitations aren’t that far off from modern days. There’s a lot to digest and in some ways that’s where it feels like there’s too much social commentary and not enough action. It’s good commentary, but it doesn’t have the page-turning wonder of Octavia Butler (which is a completely unfair comparison, but there it is).

Adaptation: Forget Conspiracy, More Drama!

Adaptation by Malinda LoTerrorism turns to government conspiracy and much, much worse in Adaptation by Malinda Lo. It’s basically a quick-paced teenie-bopper thrill ride.

It explored some interesting concepts (SPOILERS: Birds breaking planes! Genetic testing! Intergalactic hanky-panky!), but in the end the giant conspiracy saga was completely overshadowed by the teen romance. The lesbian teen romance—well, the xenosexual teen romance.

Yes, Adaptation includes a little human-alien romance. It’s not nearly as weird as you think, especially when the aliens look like humans and the human involved had no idea about the alien bit).

But as you can imagine, that part gets really interesting. Especially when the human involved thinks she’s gay. All the while struggling with feelings for her male debate partner. Never mind the lies and betrayal happening with the alien/human lover.

With all that going on it’s a bit anti-climactic when the president fesses up to first contact and Area 51 and all that. Forget the intergalactic conspiracy, I wanted more drama.

And be warned—it’s a trilogy. There’s a fair amount of closure at the end of the first volume, but there are still plenty of questions to be answered.


When I Was the Greatest: Overcoming the Stereotypes

When I Was the Greatest by Jason ReynoldsWhen I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds has the gritty, urban feel of Walter Dean Myers, but feels a little more intentional and unique.

It’s the story of a teenager in the hood, trying to stay on the straight and narrow, while still being a teen. It’s a powerful story of family and loyalty that doesn’t descend into the worst of urban stereotypes where everyone gets shot, does drugs and ruins their lives.

Instead it’s about redemption.

I love the character Needles who turns to knitting to control his Tourette syndrome. It’s a realistic coping mechanism and it’s just so wonderfully out of place for these tough urban characters.

Ask the Passengers for Teen Wit & Wonder

Ask the Passengers by A.S. KingAstrid Jones has never felt safe since moving to a small town. Her mom is image-obsessed, her dad is checked out, her sister is a people pleaser, her best friend lives a double life and, oh yeah, Astrid has a girl friend and hasn’t told anyone she’s gay. Not even herself. Since she can’t confide in anyone, she spends a lot of her time lying on picnic tables, sending her love to random passengers soaring past at 20,000 feet.

In many ways Ask the Passengers by A.S. King is the story of your typical teen finding out who they are, but it’s so well-written and funny and fresh that there’s nothing typical about it. It’s just a beautiful story. I listened to the audiobook and I think that always helps, but it just forged a great connection.

I think that’s the real strength of A.S. King’s writing. Please Ignore Vera Dietz was one of my favorites last year and made my top 10 list (tough competition kept it from going higher). That story had great characters and just pulled you into their real life. Ask the Passengers has the same feel, and it has that great teen wit and wonder.

As you can imagine it explores the many issues raised by coming out and the resulting reaction. Some of that is maddening, but realistic. It also has an interesting take on sexuality, with Astrid’s mother pushing her to have sex but Astrid is looking for love, not just sex. There are some frank and honest discussions about when a teen is ready to have sex. Refreshingly, it’s Astrid doing all the smart thinking, including telling her eager girl friend to back off.

There’s a lot to like about Ask the Passengers and I’ve now added A.S. King to my list of ‘read everything they write’ authors.

More Than This: Weird & Amazing

More Than This by Patrick NessDesperate and depressed, Seth commits suicide and wakes up in an abandoned world. He finds himself inexplicably in his childhood home in England, across the world from where he drowned, and the world is dusty, overgrown and empty. Is he in some kind of hell? This one is weird and deep, but really good as you start diving down the rabbit hole.

And you can hardly say much about More Than This by Patrick Ness without dipping into SPOILER territory. So be warned, cuz that’s where I’m going.

I think the beginning starts off a bit weird. It’s really unclear what’s happening. We get this drowning scene and then quickly learn it was suicide. Then he wakes up in this weird space and it’s familiar but not real. It’s very Twilight Zone. We get flashbacks to his life in dream form, telling us how he got to suicide, including how he blames himself for his brother’s abduction and resulting trauma. Then there’s his secret gay romance that is revealed to the world.

Just when this weird empty world is starting to feel like some kind of metaphysical hell, he runs into other people (it’s about 150 pages in, so it takes a while). Now it really starts getting weird. Ultimately it has a Matrix-like quality where his previous life was a simulation and the empty, abandoned world is reality. It’s a trippy post-apocalyptic story, disguised as a guilt-ridden trip to hell.

How it all plays out is just gripping—I had to start covering up the right side page so I wouldn’t skip ahead. The characters he runs into are also fascinating, well-fleshed and very real.

More Than This is really weird, but it’s pretty amazing. It’s early to call it, but I’d expect to see this one in my top 5 for the year.

Cairo: Ready to Be a Movie

Cairo by G. Willow WilsonI’ve been getting into G. Willow Wilson since the Festival of Faith and Writing and appreciating her unique perspective. Cairo is her first graphic novel and brings together a group of characters that cross paths in the city of Cairo and shape each other’s destinies.

It draws on Middle Eastern mythology and recasts it for a modern age. It’s full of gritty realism and fantastic moments, peppered with comic book wit.

I can picture it as a movie. I suppose that’s natural with the shorter length of a graphic novel and the fact that it’s already visual. But even the story and the characters. It’s unique enough to be a fascinating movie, flipping stereotypes on their head and exploring new legends. Plus it could have a killer ensemble cast.

Chains: Slavery and the Revolutionary War

2014_05chainsIsabel is a slave girl during the American Revolution in Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, desperately searching for the freedom the rebels are fighting for. But neither the Americans nor the British are willing to grant freedom to a black slave.

It’s an eye-opening perspective on the complications of our Independence.

It reminds me of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing series, especially the second volume when war has broken out and Octavian joins the Brit’s Ethiopian Regiment for the promise of freedom. But Chains is much more direct and approachable. The Octavian Nothing series takes too long to get anywhere.

The American experiment in freedom and democracy is complicated when you realize how wrapped up it is in slavery. The fight for freedom wasn’t limited to the Revolutionary War. It would be nearly a century before blacks in America could taste freedom, and another century before they could truly practice it as equals.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of our nation’s founding that we’re reluctant to face. But it’s there. And 238 years later it still leaves a mark on our culture.

The Post-White House Political Career

So presidential terms are fascinating and I like the idea of promising to be a one-termer. The other idea I find fascinating is what happens to presidents after the White House? Most former presidents retire quietly and busy themselves with humanitarian projects.

We’re not a monarchy or an empire, so that’s probably a good thing.

Post-Presidential Politics
Only three presidents that I’m aware of continued their political career after office (at least on a national scale):

  • William Howard Taft served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for nine years.
  • Andrew Johnson served four months in the Senate, his term cut short by a stroke. (Serving with the same senators who voted for his impeachment? Awkward.)
  • John Quincy Adams served 17 years in the House of Representatives and effectively had a second career as an abolitionist.

Adams is the most interesting case in this list of presidents who bucked the trend. He embraced the abolitionist cause and some have argued that he did more in Congress than he ever did as president.

It’s probably not a coincidence that all three served single-term presidencies and were defeated in their reelection bids. I imagine they had a sense of something to prove (definitely the case with Johnson, Adams seemed to have a mission, and Taft always wanted to be chief justice).

Any Current Takers?
I wonder if any current former presidents could pull this off? It seems like it’d be pretty easy for a former president to win (maybe that’s part of what makes this idea unseemly and why so few have done it). Seems like George W. Bush could take Texas and join the Senate. And as reviled as Barack Obama seems to be by half the country, he could easily nab Chicago’s district and take up a seat in the House of Representatives.

While John Quincy Adams served in Congress he met another congressman from Illinois who would go on to be president.

I can’t see any current former presidents actually doing it though. With the exception of George H.W. Bush, the rest are all hated so much by the opposition that they’d be a constant distraction. But it’s interesting to think about.

We don’t need a country of ruling elites (more than we already have), but I’m also intrigued by the example of Adams. Continuing to serve in the name of an important cause is a good reason to buck the trend.

Random Fact: Ever the contrarian, John Quincy Adams was sworn in as president with his hand on a book of constitutional law as opposed to the more traditional Bible. Imagine the uproar if someone tried that today?

What If Presidents Promised to Serve Only One Term?

So I think watching history unfold is captivating, especially when it comes to presidential politics. Yesterday I recounted the numbers on presidential reelection. Today I want to talk about a fun strategy.

The other night I couldn’t sleep and a political strategy came to mind. We seem to be stuck in an era of gridlock, where politicians are always angling for the next election. They’re focused more on staying in office than getting anything done.

So what if a presidential candidate promised to serve only one consecutive term?

They run for president and promise not to run for a consecutive reelection. Assuming they can stick to their promise, that means they have four years in office with no need to worry about reelection. Suddenly the first term is not about ensuring a second term. Their last year isn’t mostly lost to distraction while they run a presidential campaign and the country at the same time. Let the candidates squabble through the debates while the president remains presidential.

The American people get a more focused president. And the president would have the option of running again for a second, non-consecutive term (without the “loser” stigma). If they were a well-loved president and enjoyed doing the job, they’d have a great shot at reelection down the road.

Turning Down the Job
It rarely happens in U.S. history that a president decides not to run. It’s happened seven times.

Three times a president served a single term and did not run again:

  • James Polk. He campaigned with a promise to only serve one term and historians say it kept him focused on actually accomplishing stuff (of course he died 103 days after leaving office, so his post-presidential career was quite short).
  • Rutherford B. Hayes. He also promised not to run for reelection, though his initial win was clouded in scandal. He worked for social and educational reform in his retirement.
  • James Buchanan. He also declined to seek reelection, though that probably has more to do with his incredible lack of popularity as the country descended into the Civil War. More than a principled stand, he was saving face.

Four times a president served a partial term when their predecessor died, were elected to second terms and could have run for third terms but did not: Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Calvin Coolidge and Lyndon Johnson (though Roosevelt ran for a non-consecutive third term but split the ticket and lost).

It’s rarely been done in U.S. political history. Most presidents either served two terms or served only one and lost their re-election bids (or died while in office). It seems like two non-consecutive terms could be a way to accomplish more and save face politically (a former president could always gauge the popular opinion and have a good idea of their chances before running for their non-consecutive second term; and there would be plenty of reasons to opt out and not run again).

The One Exception
Grover Cleveland is the cagey president who pulled off the two non-consecutive terms. These days losing an election means you don’t get to try again (John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, etc.).

But Cleveland pulled it off. It’d be like Jimmy Carter going up against Ronald Reagan in 1984 and winning, or George H.W. Bush against Bill Clinton in 1996 and winning; it’d take a special set of circumstances to work. And that’s really what Cleveland had. He lost the electoral college in the 1888 election but won the popular vote. When he moved out of the White House his wife told a staff member to take care of things because she’d be back in four years. She was right.

So maybe Al Gore coming back in 2004 to challenge George W. Bush would be a better comparison.

Run On a One-Term Platform
Limiting presidents to a single, six-year term is another idea that’s often discussed. Though I like the idea of presidents having another shot and giving the people a chance to weigh in.

But I think promising to run for a single-term would be powerful in our election-mad times. It immediately puts the single-termer above the fray. They’re here to do business. It’s bold. It’s different. And maybe it’s crazy enough to work.

Now which politician is going to be patient enough to walk away and wait four years before trying again? Which politician is going to be bold enough to make that kind of promise in the digital age and stick with it? Which politician is going to realize that this plan would effectively lengthen their time in the spotlight?


Two-Term vs. One-Term Presidents

I’m hardly even an armchair political spectator, but there is something about presidents, political power and history that’s fascinating. Presidential election years tend to kill my productivity because I want to hear the latest news and get the latest insights on what could happen (even when nothing is happening).

Watching history unfold is captivating.

So I’ve got some random thoughts on presidents and who gets reelected. But first, let’s look at the numbers on presidential reelection.

There’s a tendency to think of one-term presidents as failures. (Somehow being elected President of the United States once isn’t good enough.)

Two terms is the standard, exemplified by George Washington and only ever broken by Franklin Roosevelt on the brink of World War II, which brought on the  22nd Amendment and the two-term limit (though Ulysses S. Grant tried for a non-consecutive third term and was nearly nominated).

But the numbers look a little different:

  • 16 presidents were elected to two terms (or more, thanks Franklin).
  • 9 presidents were elected to one term and lost their reelection bids (these would be the guys we think of as failures).
  • 7 presidents were elected to one term and did not seek immediate reelection (3 were simple single-termers who didn’t run again; 4 had succeeded to the job and served a partial term, were then elected to another term, but didn’t run for a third term. Until Theodore Roosevelt tried for a third, non-consecutive term, but lost.)
  • 5 presidents succeeded to the presidency and never won an election.
  • 5 died before getting a chance to run for a second term, so it’s hard to know if they would have made two-term presidents
  • Only 1 president escaped the failure club by losing reelection but then coming back to win four years later and end up serving two non-consecutive terms. (Grover Cleveland forever complicated presidential math because we count him twice; Barack Obama is the 44th president, but the 43rd person to have the job.)

I don’t know what those numbers really tell you, other than the fact that lots of presidents have only served one term. 14 of them served a term and lost reelection and 7 more opted not to run again (maybe because they’d lose?).

A work-at-home dad wrestles with faith, social justice & story.