Like No Other by Una LaMarche

Like No Other by Una LaMarcheLike No Other by Una LaMarche is a lovely Romeo and Juliet story between a Hasidic girl and a black teen in modern day New York.

Maybe even more than the original Romeo and Juliet, this story is truly about crossing family lines. Devorah sees something beyond her strict religious upbringing and wants to know more. But instead of just condemning her former life, she still sees value in it.

And the nerdy Jaxon who never quite fit in or connected with a girl, found a girl, well, like no other.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

I love Rainbow Rowell’s work and wanted to read her latest, Landline, as soon as I heard about it. It features a magic phone that allows you to talk with someone from a different time.  Time travel is always an awesome setup, and the phone-based approach is just fun.

So a workaholic mother, Georgie, sends her family off for Christmas vacation without her and as her marriage is on the brink she discovers a magic phone that connects her with her husband from 15 years earlier in the midst of another relational crisis.

Complicated? Yes. It’s probably not as coherent as it could be. The time travel effect was subtle and it took me a minute to catch up. But once you realize what’s going on, it’s fun.

Like other Rowell books, it’s full of humor, warmth and random asides. Plus you’ve got the time travel element, so that’s pretty great.

Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith

Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander SmithForty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith is one of the most thought-provoking and terrifying books I’ve read this year. That’s both a good thing and a disturbing thing. Especially as I’m reading it in the aftermath of Ferguson.

The Story

Martin is invited to join an elite group of black businessmen, but he discovers they’re part of a secret society that wants to repay the evils of slavery by enslaving whites.

Every evil committed by white slave traders and owners against black slaves is being brought to bear on the ancestors of those slave traders and owners. Literally abducted from the streets and taken to this stronghold that purposefully resembles a Southern plantation—except the slaves are white and the masters are black.

So we’re talking servants, manual labor, treating humans like cattle, rape, abuse and more.

In some ways the story is completely implausible—a secret slavery stronghold, hidden in the middle of the United States? But that’s not the point. In other ways it’s brutally realistic. Martin is forced with a terrible choice and he has to do the unthinkable to even stay alive. The story also avoids the Hollywood approach with perfect plans and a Jason Bourne style escape. That makes it all the more real.

The story is a fast-paced thriller, but it’s wrapped around this thought-provoking and terrifying idea.

Reverse Discrimination

It’s terrifying in the way you’d expect. Any time I’ve read about slavery the evil is so apparent, so gruesome and revolting. It’s hard to understand how anyone could justify it. But it’s a part of history. People did do those things. Society accepted it. People were taught that those things were acceptable.

So Forty Acres is doubly terrifying because you have a group of people enslaving another group of people knowing full well the terror of what they’re doing. There is no societal justification. Just their own brutal vengeance. It’s an eye for an eye taken to it’s own logical end. And it’s not a pretty place to be.

But as I read it, I felt a deeper sense of terror as well. This is what white people fear. Whenever anyone talks about reparations for slavery or affirmative action or trying to find some measure of equality, there are some people who ask when is it enough?

There’s an unspoken fear in that question of giving up power. Making society equal means someone has to give up their power. Forty Acres presents an extreme answer to that question, an answer that’s morally abhorrent. But it’s also raising a serious question. No one would seriously suggest the scenario in Forty Acres, but there is a hidden fear that these conversations and questions would lead there.

Part of what I found disturbing about this story was my own reaction to seeing white people enslaved by black people. Somehow it seemed more unjust than the reverse, which is ironic since one happened and one is a work of fiction. I’m not saying this reaction reveals some kind of closeted racism, but I think it reveals bias and white privilege within myself that I’m barely aware of.

Let me put it this way: The image of a white man beating a black man, while vile and repugnant, isn’t that jarring to me because it happened over and over again as part of our ruthless history of slavery. But the image of a black man beating a white man, I found completely jarring. Both are horrible, but I have an easier time moving past one of them. And I think that’s a product of institutional racism or white privilege or whatever bias I bring to the table.

An Evil Legacy

In 1865—149 years ago—slavery was fully abolished in the United States with the passing of the 13th Amendment. But the legacy of that evil institution continues to haunt us today. Despite many advances in civil rights, racism and prejudice persist. It’s not something we simply move past. There’s often unconscious prejudice we don’t even realize we have. Forty Acres taps into all of that, making it one of the most powerful books I’ve read this year.

Help Close the Achivement Gap

I’ve been talking about Ferguson for the past week or so, and it’s left me feeling raw and frustrated and powerless. That’s a good time to take action.

This isn’t directly related to Ferguson, but I think it is a good way you can help the general problem of racial disparity we see at work in Ferguson.

The Achievement Gap

Minnesota is one of the top states in the country for education. We’re also one of the worst states in the nation for the achievement gap. What’s that mean? It means the performance gap between white students and students of color in Minnesota is among the worst in the nation.

So to put it bluntly—Minnesota has a great education system, but only if you’re white. If you’re a student of color, you’re not going to do as well.

Here are some reading scores from St. Paul Public Schools: 2014_08achievegap

(see the full PDF report)

Now those are older numbers (2004-2006) and the state is making a concerted effort to improve. But a recent report noted that both Minneapolis and St. Paul are only hitting state goals for white students.

The achievement gap is a very real problem. It can go on to impact all sorts of other things: graduation rates, college, income levels, etc.

If we want to break the racial disparity in the United States, we must address the achievement gap.

What’s it Look Like Locally?

The West Side neighborhood has had a problem with under-performing schools. Here’s some data comparing three schools in St. Paul’s West Side and the city of West St. Paul (which are two different school districts):


(You can get this data for any school from the Minnesota Report Card.)

Cherokee Heights is the elementary school for the West Side. Nearly all of their scores are below 50%. Only 27% of their students are “on track” for success. Students have not made a year’s progress (AYP) in reading for the last five years (2009-2013). The racial breakdown for Cherokee Heights is also incredibly diverse: 88% people of color.

By comparison, Garlough and Somerset are both schools in the nearby West St. Paul district. Garlough’s scores are in the 50-75% range and Somerset is in the 75-100% range. Garlough has 68% of their students “on track” for success and has made AYP for all but two of the last five years in reading. Somerset has 71% of their students “on track,” and has hit AYP all five years. Demographics wise it should be no surprise: Garlough is 60% people of color; Somerset is 20%.

One Way to Fix the Achievement Gap

I don’t say any of this to throw Cherokee Heights under the bus. They’ve got hard working teachers doing their best. But they’ve got a long way to go.

Now I’m also not an expert on the achievement gap. But my wife is a kindergarten teacher. She knows this stuff. She works at a new charter school in the West Side neighborhood of St. Paul called West Side Summit. Charter schools are public schools with a specific focus, and are effectively their own district.

West Side Summit’s goal is to close the achievement gap.

They’re working with the same population as Cherokee Heights (West Side’s population breakdown is slanted more Hispanic and less black and Asian, but it’s very similar: 84% people of color). They’re using a new blended learning model—the only elementary school in Minnesota doing it—where the kids work on computers for large chunks of the day, using programs that adapt to what each kid needs to learn. They also have an extended school day and an extended school year—more time in the classroom.

And they’re doing it. In the school’s first year the entire school averaged a year and a quarter’s progress in reading (West Side doesn’t have data in the Minnesota Report Card site yet; my data comes directly from the school). That may not sound like much, but most schools aren’t hitting AYP at all, let alone going above and beyond. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts as a whole haven’t hit AYP at all for the last five years in reading. Even the West St. Paul district (with the highly achieving Somerset school above) has only hit it in 2013.

Get to the Point!: How You Can Help

So aside from depressing you about the state of our schools (remember: Minnesota is among the best in the nation), what’s the point?

Giving kids access to books has been hugely important. A previous Donor’s Choose project put a ton of audio books in my wife’s classroom. Last year her class had a year and a half’s progress in reading. That’s amazing!

Right now my wife is doing a Donor’s Choose project to put iPods in her classroom. The iPods will be a big improvement over CD players—no more scratched discs, no more dying batteries, plus kids can record and listen to themselves reading. It’s an innovative way to get kids into books, boost their reading and close that achievement gap.

The project total is nearly $1,500. That’s a lot of money. However, the Bill & Malinda Gates Foundation is offering a 50% match if the project can be completed before Sunday, August 24. That’s tomorrow. So we need your help now!

As I’m writing this, we only need $450 more to hit the goal and get the matching grant. Will you help? Please donate now.

I realize this is only one tiny way to help close the achievement gap. It’s a giant problem with far-reaching consequences and there are probably a million things we could be doing.

But that’s overwhelming. This is one way you can help right now.

Thanks for your support.

Update: The project was fully funded on Sunday, August 24. We did it before the deadline and got the fully matching grant. A big thank you to those who donated.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

A lot of people told me to read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. It’s got space exploration and Christian theology! What a combo.

The result is a little harder to embrace.

The Story

It’s the story of humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life, told in the pre- and post-contact story of the sole surviving member of the Jesuit expedition, Emilio Sandoz. The second expedition to the alien planet found Sandoz in a brutalized and scandalous condition, and returned him to Earth for someone else to sort out. The story alternates between the Jesuits trying to pull the story out of Sandoz and the historical timeline of the actual trip from Sandoz’ perspective (which started some 40 years earlier, due to the incredible length of space flight).

That’s right: Humanity discovers aliens and the first ones there are the Jesuits. It’s a purposeful parallel to the Jesuit missionaries who traveled to the New World. And like those early Jesuits, the inter-galactic variety didn’t do so well. (What we don’t know is whether the alien natives suffered the same fate as the New World natives; perhaps that’s explored in the sequel, Children of God.)


The story had a number of fascinating ideas, from space travel in mined asteroid to solving the world’s orphan problem with indentured servant-hood. It also had some ideas that didn’t make as much sense, such as humanity chancing first contact with aliens in person. I couldn’t shake the idea that the whole story of the mission didn’t seem like an intergalactic one.

But really the story isn’t about space and aliens, it’s about God’s will and the bad things that happen.


While the story had some interesting ideas, I found the back and forth narrative a little frustrating. It was kind of a tease, but in excruciating detail. I felt like the story was tricking me into following along, instead of just using a good story to keep me hooked.

Do I Teach My Son That Police Are Heroes or How Not to Get Shot?

In the aftermath of the Mike Brown shooting and the chaos in Ferguson, Mo., there are so many questions and frustrations rolling around in my head.

I managed to write about it (in brief) on Church Marketing Sucks yesterday, simply encouraging churches to address the many pains and hurts in this world and asking, “How long must we sing this song? How long, Oh Lord?”

Don’t Get Shot

One of the painful and difficult questions I’m struggling with is that Ferguson happened this week. A black teen was walking down the street and ended up shot to death by a police officer. Another reminder that parents of black children simply must teach their children how to deal with racial profiling and harassment:

“As a father, I should not have to teach my kids how to be arrested. I should not have to teach my son to do everything possible to make sure that you are not killed out here in these streets when a police officer pulls you over.” (NPR)

I need to teach my son how not to get shot by the police.

Police Are Heroes

But two weeks ago a police officer was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop not two blocks from my house. The work police officers do is dangerous. They put their lives on the line to protect our communities.

The out-pouring of support for Officer Scott Patrick and his family was incredible to behold. As it should be.

The night before the funeral procession we had the Night to Unite block party. Police, firefighters, EMTs and city officials were making the rounds, handing out glow sticks, tattoos and stickers. They were welcomed, encouraged, thanked.

I need to teach my son that police officers are heroes to be trusted and respected.

How Do I Reconcile the Two?

I don’t know how to reconcile those two. There are some petitions advocating for new federal laws and cameras. That’s something. The militarization of police is especially troubling in this case and makes it all the murkier.

I don’t want police officers to get killed, but is it necessary to send six squad cars to arrest a black woman for jaywalking? I don’t want anyone to get killed, but these are the disturbing realities we need to face.

A Wizard of Earthsea: Meh

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le GuinA Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin is a beloved fantasy classic that subverts expectations. I wasn’t impressed.

It’s the coming of age story of a wizard, but unlike Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, there are no wars and the main enemy is primarily internal. It was an intentional choice by Le Guin to create something different and portray a world that wasn’t defined by endless war and violence.

It also has the distinction of being a fantasy novel published in 1968 where nearly all the characters are people of color. The only white characters are villains and savages, a telling reversal. Unfortunately the publisher refused to reflect that in the cover art.

While all that is fascinating, I didn’t think the story was. I’m not a big fan of fantasy, which is one big strike, and then the story felt distant and slow. Part of it was her style, which felt older than the 1960s—more like ancient legend. Then there’s the fantasy trope—”I traveled to the [bizarre description] isle of [weird name], and found the [more bizarre description] people, know as [another weird name]. But I think the biggest factor was the slow plodding pace of the story and feeling like we weren’t going anywhere.

This is probably sacrilege to all the Earthsea fans, but there it is. The book has more than 100,000 ratings on Goodreads, and still has a very positive 3.96 rating (out of 5), so clearly lots of folks would disagree with me.

Half Way Home: Colonies, Lord of the Flies & AI

Half Way Home by Hugh HoweyHalf Way Home by Hugh Howey offers one of those classic and incredible sci-fi setups: Planetary colonies are sent out across the universe and governed by an artificial intelligence that decides the viability of the colony and aborts when not fully viable. You get a sense for the creepy undertones already.

The story follows one colony that is aborted, but the abort sequence is stopped. Maybe 15% survive, having been interrupted in their gestation and only half grown and educated (meaning they’re teenagers instead of adults). As the surviving confused colonists stumble out of the vats, they’re in for a strange new world where their AI tried to abort them but then changed its mind, and rather than give answers insists they work to build a rocket ship that has nothing to do with survival.

So it’s part colonization story, part Lord of the Flies, with a little bit of creepy Dave from 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown in.

The fact that Hugh Howey wrote Half Way Home for National Novel Writing Month means it’s quick and has a special place in my heart.


One of the deeper themes in the story (SPOILER ALERT) is the main character’s orientation. He’s gay and slowly comes to terms with this throughout the story. What he’s really coming to terms with is the fact that he’s alone—and we learn that’s quite intentional (thank you creepy AI). It’s not an overriding part of the story, but it is an interesting commentary on the “otherness” that society creates for LGBT people.

Not Quite YA

The only downside to Half Way Home is that it’s supposed to be a YA novel, but I think that fails.  I read a lot of YA (probably half the books I’ve read this year are YA or middle grade) and even knowing what to expect I couldn’t read it that way. The characters came across like adults and not teenagers. And it’s not that Howey can’t write teenagers. He did a great job with the YA feel in the Molly Fyde series.

But Half Way Home‘s non-YA-ness didn’t lessen my enjoyment at all. I’ve been lacking in some intergalactic sci-fi lately, and while colonizing a planet isn’t gallivanting across the stars, it’s still pretty great.