Review: Zombie Baseball Beatdown

Zombie-Baseball-Beatdown-by-Paolo-BacigalupiThis review originally posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Recently, I ordered several books for our school library, including this much-hyped middle grade novel about immigration reform. I mean, about conditions in the meat processing industry. No! It’s about corruption in the legal system based on the evils of money. Ack! What I am trying to say is, a novel about ZOMBIES. Yeah, that’s right! It’s about zombies, and baseball. Or so I am reminded, when I look at the cover….

Okay, I should be fair. This was actually a pretty darn good book for what it is, and even though I’m about to point out its weaknesses, it overall gets a thumbs-up from me. Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi is a grody, funny adventure story of the classic “groups of kids running around with curiously little parental supervision” sub-genre. It’s a buddy story, written in an accessible style, with plenty of the stuff that middle school boys like: slapstick, comic books, sports, video games, cars, oblivious adults, crazy heroics, poop. You know: the good stuff. I found myself smiling, compulsively turning pages, reading choice bits aloud, and rooting for the good guys. It was a fun read.

On the other hand, Zombie Baseball Beatdown is also a not-at-all veiled polemic against racism, the meat industry, American immigration policy, and big business. As my husband, who is an expert in such things, reminds me, zombies are always political metaphors. And of course, subtlety isn’t really in order when you’re writing middle grade literature. That said, ZBB really lays it on thick. My personal politics weren’t offended by the book, but it didn’t take much imagination to realize that plenty of readers would be completely turned off by the story’s message and end up walking away from what was otherwise a fun story. Obviously the use of fiction to promulgate ideology is nothing new (hello, pretty much everything you ever had to read for a high school English class) but a lighter hand with the vituperation might not have been uncalled-for here.

As an adult reader of a kid’s book, I was uncomfortable with the violent ideation. It bothered me that almost all of the protagonists’ (adult) nemeses conveniently got zombified, providing the kids with ample excuse to beat them up with baseball bats. I mean, I’m not so far gone that I can’t see how this would appeal to a middle schooler’s sense of justice; heck, some of these adults were so rotten before become zombies that I wanted to smack them myself. But there are a few violent (for a middle grade novel) moments where the kids get to deliver what ought to have been fatal beatings to adults in their lives, and they left me feeling a little disturbed. The inevitable zombie apocalypse scene blithely glosses over the fact that the kids are bludgeoning their erstwhile parents and neighbors.

Looking back on the novel, I realize that there are really no positive adults in this book, and ZBB fails the Bechdel Test big time. I’m not really counting that as a flaw here; it’s clearly a book intended for young guys, and the characters are pretty awesome. Our main character is a smart (but not caricature-smart) Indian-American boy who isn’t much of a baseball player but has a good head for stats. One of his friends is a courageous, big-hearted Mexican-American boy from a family of illegal immigrants, and the other is a Martin Riggs type with a rough home life. Together, the trio face enemies small, large, bovine, and undead. The ending is deliberately untidy, in such a way that felt exactly right to me and will frustrate the heck out of its target demographic.

Ultimately, this is a book that I’ll still sincerely recommend to kids who will either gloss over the politics or not mind them, and it’ll have a prominent place in our Halloween book display next October. It may make Cory Doctorow’s YA lit look subtle in comparison, but Zombie Baseball Beatdown is also a zombie-infested revenge fantasy filled with lots of cow poop — what’s not to love?

Teaching Cynicism

I went home from work the other day chewing on something that had been bothering me. When Ryan got home, I decided to run it past him.

I'm not cynical. I've just been taking notes.“When you were teaching senior government,” I asked, “were the kids really cynical about everything? When I overhear my kids talking about politics, it seems like they’ve all written off the entire system.”

Ryan said that he’d experienced something similar. “That’s one reason why I don’t like teaching the [required] media bias unit. We spend an entire unit teaching the kids not to trust anything that they hear or read, and they’re already being told by everyone around them that everything is corrupt and bad. They believe that the political system is rigged, that their vote doesn’t count, that the bipartisan system is evil. And then we wonder why young people don’t vote.”

I found myself looking into a dark mirror. As an English teacher, I pride myself on teaching critical thinking and diverse perspectives. I think that the key purpose behind what I do is to teach students to be able to communicate effectively with their worlds AND to understand what their worlds are communicating to them, and that involves being able to cut through the rhetoric and know what to trust. I’ve always approached this from the notion that teenagers are naive, vulnerable to manipulation — that they tend to blindly trust the media or their favorite celebrity or their families/friends, and that they need to have their eyes opened so that they can think and decide for themselves.

And so I — along with my colleagues — teach really great rhetoric units where we parse advertisements and articles, dragging pathos into harsh lights for interrogation, tracking how ethos and logos push our decision-making process in different ways. We have long, sometimes heated discussions about the way the world really works and how to “make it” in a system that often seems weighted against us. We teach research units where we drive home the point that you can’t trust everything you read online — that there are very legitimate-looking websites out there run by bigots, conspiracy theorists, and satirists — and most shockingly, that the “news” program playing every evening at home may not be unbiased news at all.

These, I think, are good things for young people to know. If I can convince even a handful of students that commentators like O’Reilly and Olbermann aren’t reliable arbiters of information, then that’s a job well done. If my kids leave my class and never fall victim to believing an Onion article is true, then that is a measure of success that I’ll happily accept.

Still… at what point do we show students the champions of honest journalism? At what point do we teach trust instead of skepticism?

I began thinking about the literature that we traditionally teach in our high schools. (I say “traditionally” because my school is piloting a new curriculum that shelves much of the traditional canon — but I thought of the texts that are read in our neighboring districts as well.) What are we reading, and what do those texts teach?

The Great Gatsby teaches us that people are shallow and awful, that love is a lie of convenience and false memory, that the American Dream is at best a flickering illusion and at worst a nightmare. The Scarlet Letter casts doubt on the trustworthiness of religion and society. Ender’s Game depicts a world where adults manipulate kids, where violence and shows of strength are the answer to many problems, where genocide is acceptable when committed against those who are very different than us. To Kill a Mockingbird shows that justice does not always prevail. Animal Farm teaches us that some animals are more equal than others; 1984 paints a picture of a deeply corrupt system to which students inevitably draw parallels to their own views of government. Lord of the Flies asserts that all of us are inherently evil under the surface. Hamlet teaches us to trust no one; Romeo and Juliet teaches that love and family can be destructive forces. Where is the redemption and hope in Of Mice and Men? Where is it in Frankenstein? Heck, even in one of my new classes, we read Little Brother with its central idea that young people should trust no one over the age of 30.

Do any of our assigned texts have an inarguably positive message? Perhaps The Odyssey, in which goodness and loyalty prevail — and to find it, we go back to a text written thirteen centuries ago.

Even as I write this, I’m arguing with myself. These pieces of literature are great classics because they are dark, because they are conflicted without any clear final-chapter sunlit resolution. And what I’ve written is admittedly the bleaker take on all of those texts; there are certainly sunnier messages to be taken from (many of) them (I maintain that there’s nothing positive to be taken from Ethan Frome).

But do we? Do we focus on the hopeful, the uplifting? Or do we underline the darkness, reinforcing what is apparently a pre-existing state of cynicism in our students?

On Facebook, a student of mine wishes that he was old enough to vote against “these clowns” as he posts a cartoon labeling Romney, Obama, Ryan, and Biden as hypocrites. Another, who is impressively well-informed and wants to major in political science, shares great articles and provides his own commentary — in which he sees no glimmer of hope from either candidate and expresses his belief that no one should vote for either major party ticket. My colleague assigns students to draw satirical cartoons and collects posters depicting the candidates as cash-hungry cronies conspiring against the American people.

I don’t know what to think.

There’s definitely a part of me that is shaking her head, wondering when I turned into such a Pollyanna — and that part of me believes and will continue to believe that it is imperative that our children don’t reach adulthood ignorant of the world and those who would take advantage of them. It is so important that they don’t go out into the world without their eyes opened. I know too many adults who blindly believe anything they hear so long as it comes from someone with the right little letter next to their name on the ballot, too many adults who wouldn’t know satire if it bit them, too many adults who believe that [fill-in-the-blank biased “news” show or column] is trustworthy.

And then there is another part of me that weeps to think that they may go through young adulthood — and perhaps their entire lives — blind to the possibility of good… that they may never find inspiration and hope in a political candidate… that they may never trust the systems built by the people, for the people. I picture them as old men and women shaking gnarled fists at “the machine,” having never taken the time to realize that like any machine, it is only as good or bad as those operating it. Or worse, I picture them NOT shaking their fists, because they grew so cynical that they stopped paying attention at all.

Maybe this is just me getting old and falling into the recurring trap of worrying that today’s kids can’t live up to past generations. Maybe this is just me working my way through year five as a secondary educator and worrying about the efficacy and value of my practice. Maybe it’s just election season burnout.

But it bugs me.

Define "cynical"

Eight Years

Eight years ago today, I was driving to class and had gotten about a mile down the road when I turned on the stereo, looking for some music to help wake me up. Instead, what I got sounded like someone was putting on a radio show – like War of the Worlds, only not as well-written. The DJs kept talking in hushed, panicked tones about something, about a plane crash, and making references to something that had happened earlier on the broadcast. Good radio-narration had gone out the window; they were forgetting to recap every few minutes for those of us who had just tuned in.

After a moment or two, my boyfriend and I realized that we were listening to something real and not a weird publicity stunt. A plane had crashed in the middle of New York City, and although it was hard to tell in the chaotic live coverage, it seemed that there might have been a second crash as well.

That was about the point in time when the third airplane hit. The DJs gasped. I heard them say that the Pentagon had been hit, and I knew that we were at war.

We pulled over at the first gas station we passed, and I bolted for the pay phone. I woke my parents up and told them to turn on the television. Then I called two other people: my best friend, who was enlisted in the Army National Guard, and my other best friend, who was male and draftable. I don’t remember getting through to either one of them. I don’t remember how many times I tried; Ryan – the second friend I mentioned – remembers getting something like 20 missed calls from me and from his mom that morning. (Proof positive that my husband can sleep through anything, I guess.)

(Thinking about it sends me right back to that pay phone. I can see the car parked two parking spots down from me, and the yellow glow of sunrise through decidedly un-ominous clouds. I can feel the cold clinch of fear and the itching desire to do something. It’s all sitting there on my mental TiVo, Do Not Delete. )

When we got to school, it was a ghost town. Practically every classroom had a sign on the door, cancelling class, directing students to the SUB. There was a television set up in every corner of the SUB, in every common area on campus. Everyone flocked. We got there just in time to watch news coverage break to a field in Pennsylvania, knowing only that a plane had crashed, not yet knowing the drama that had played out in the moments before. We watched the tiny polka-dots moving across the U.S. map: airplanes still aloft, every one a potential harbinger of destruction. You’d think that we wouldn’t be too scared, on a personal level, being in Boise, but we knew better. One of the country’s most important Air Force bases is just down the highway from Boise. Having grown up in the shadow of Cheyenne Mountain, I’m all too aware of how apparently safe parts of the country can actually be top targets.

The university became a trauma center. My English professors spent the next several classes sharing particularly well-written accounts, or having us write our own. Flags sprouted like clover. ASBSU sent student leaders into the field with collection jars for the Red Cross. I took one to band and ended up with more coins than I could carry – I forget now how many hundreds of dollars Blue Thunder donated.

I don’t remember recruiters descending on campus or anything, but I doubt very much that I was the only person wondering about enlisting. I knew that they wouldn’t take me under normal circumstances – a person with my vision problems is a liability, not an asset – but these circumstances seemed far from normal. If everyone I knew was going to go to war, surely the military could find something I could do.

In retrospect, I wonder where all of us would be today if that hadn’t happened. It’s an utterly inconsequential part of the big equation, but I kind of doubt that the chapter would have made it. We rode a wave of patriotic duty and service that year, bonding over bitter cold flag ceremonies in the corner of the stadium after discovering that the stadium flag was languishing in a wadded up garbage bag except on game days. Most of us couldn’t serve our country in a traditional sense, so we threw ourselves into serving our little community of band people. Heck, our football team won their game on September 22, 2001, starting a 31-game home winning streak. I’m not going to pretend that glory and vengeance and sheer physical catharsis wasn’t on their minds that day.

Where our country, or our world, would be… it’s hard to imagine. I can’t fathom what these eight years must have been like for Americans of Middle Eastern ancestry. Constitutional rights have been altered. Our thoughts about what celebrities should and should not say have changed. The price of gas, and the cost of war, have contributed to one of the worst economic situations our country has seen. Without 9/11, Bush likely would have served only one term – how would our country be different if another person had been at the wheel these past four years? September 11 cut a deep swath through global history. For better and worse, it’s pivotal to today.

It’s hard to believe that my students were seven years old on 9/11/01. That morning, they would have been safely tucked away in a first grade classroom. If their teachers knew, they found out by a phone call to the classroom, or maybe someone poking their head into the room. Maybe an email went out from the office. Maybe school got released early; I’m sure plenty of parents came and brought their babies home. Did their parents try to explain what was going on? Could they have possibly understood? How many of them had to say good-bye to a parent or sibling when their country called them overseas?

These kids are about to be adults in a world that exists, in its current form, because of 9/11 – and they can’t even remember it having happened. Now I know what it feels like to be old, to be a parent. The things that made my world are ancient history to the people who now inhabit it.

I still think this is the best possible memorial they could build.

I still think this is the best possible memorial they could build.

Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Speaks Out

I live in a reverse bubble when it comes to political news. Living with a politics/news junkie, I am often uncertain whether the subjects that populate our conversations are even common knowledge. If what I’m about to say is new information to you, I hope I do a good job of (quickly) explaining it. (I’m not a politics/news junkie, so I’ll be explaining what I know very much from a layman’s perspective.) I also hope you’ll read and share it with others. (In my case, I am passing this along after receiving it from Ryan, who read it on The Daily Dish.)

But first, a QUICK PRIMER about the current state of affairs (skip to the block quote at the end if you’re up on your current events):

Iran’s incumbent president, Ahmadinejad, was going to lose the election last week. (This was known before the election took place; then, as results began to come in, it became official.) This indicated a positive regime change, from an American perspective – and given that the popular vote supported it, the Iranian perspective as well. It is certainly in our best interest for Iran to have a true democracy and for it to look not unkindly on the United States.

The state-run news media called his opponent, Mousavi, to let him know that he was going to win and that they were about to start reporting this. News about Mousavi’s impending victory got to Ahmadinejad and the country’s religious leader, the Supreme Leader. (While Iran is, on the surface, a democracy, it is a practical theocracy. The Supreme Leader, a religious cleric selected by peers, and somewhat analogous to the Pope, is the real head of power in the country. For example, while the United States picks its presidential candidates through a series of public elections, in Iran the Supreme Leader selects the candidates.)

The Supreme Leader then released a statement asserting that Ahmadinejad was, in fact, the clear victor. Iran is a modern country, and its people knew that this result didn’t add up. Mousavi’s supporters – who very much constitute the majority of the population – began protesting and rioting. In response, the government shut down EVERYTHING. They shut down the internet, cell phone towers, television, radio – you name it. They didn’t want the rest of the world to know that they had, effectively, stolen the election. The one thing they failed to shut down, at least initially, was SMS. News leaked out. The revolution, to quote many, was Twittered.

Remember the television footage of the enormous Obama rallies that took place before our election? Well, now imagine that there are snipers from our military sitting atop buildings around one of those rallies, shooting haphazardly into the crowd. Real bullets, not rubber ones. The country’s major university was attacked; shots were fired through dormitory doors. Students and professors have gone missing, been arrested, or left campus in protest or in fear. Because they make up a large portion of the protestors, young people are being subjected to terrific violence.

Grand Ayatollah Montazeri was once next-in-line to become Supreme Leader of Iran; he was forced to resign in 1989 for privately criticizing the current regime’s political and social stances. To quote View from the Occident, Montazeri “is widely respected and is one of the most senior, if not the most senior, religious scholars in Iran. He is also the leading ‘dissident’ scholar who has suffered for his principled stands against state power.”

Today, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri released the following statement (as translated from the original Persian):

In the name of God

People of Iran

These last days, we have witnessed the lively efforts of you brothers and sisters, old and young alike, from any social category, for the 10th presidential elections.

Our youth, hoping to see their rightful will fulfilled, came on the scene and waited patiently. This was the greatest occasion for the government’s officials to bond with their people.

But unfortunately, they used it in the worst way possible. Declaring results that no one in their right mind can believe, and despite all the evidence of crafted results, and to counter people protestations, in front of the eyes of the same nation who carried the weight of a revolution and 8 years of war, in front of the eyes of local and foreign reporters, attacked the children of the people with astonishing violence. And now they are attempting a purge, arresting intellectuals, political opponents and Scientifics.

Now, based on my religious duties, I will remind you :

1- A legitimate state must respect all points of view. It may not oppress all critical views. I fear that this lead to the lost of people’s faith in Islam.

2- Given the current circumstances, I expect the government to take all measures to restore people’s confidence. Otherwise, as I have already said, a government not respecting people’s vote has no religious or political legitimacy.

3- I invite everyone, specially the youth, to continue reclaiming their dues in calm, and not let those who want to associate this movement with chaos succeed.

4- I ask the police and army personals not to “sell their religion”, and beware that receiving orders will not excuse them before god. Recognize the protesting youth as your children. Today censor and cutting telecommunication lines can not hide the truth.

I pray for the greatness of the Iranian people.


May reasonable, rational, and fairer minds prevail.

Image Credit: Andrew Sullivan, designed for Facebook profiles

Supporting Women

So, apparently Sarah Palin was in California campaigning for McCain and herself. One of her reasons to support the Republican ticket was, we’re told, because “there’s a place in Hell reserved for women who don’t support other women.” (She was allegedly [mis]quoting Madeleine Albright, although I’ve been unable to find the original quote anywhere online…yet.) In other words, if you’re a woman and you don’t vote for the McCain/Palin ticket, you’d better be packing for warmer climes. (Goodness knows what would happen to a woman who supported neither Palin nor H. Clinton.)

I’d just like to go on the record as saying that I support other women – I support other women by voting against politicians of any gender who would make this country a worse place for the majority of American women, and I support other women by voting against a female candidate who will inevitably give political/ambitious women a bad name. I don’t think of Palin as a female candidate – I think of her as a terrible candidate.

P.S. No, I don’t read the Huffington Post – it’s a link-chain sort of thing. (Come on – do you really think I have time to read ANY of this stuff? That’s why I married a political geek, to keep me updated on this sort of thing.)

About Time!

Senator Clinton has finally indicated that she is going to concede the nomination to Senator Obama. This has been a long and frustrating process; I started out feeling pretty warmly for Hillary, but she’s really squandered a lot of her casual support. Recently it feels like Hillary has been doing everything wrong – like she’s been everything that people hate and fear about a female political candidate. Wil Wheaton described her as the “psycho ex-girlfriend of the Democratic Party” and, sadly, I feel she lived up to that name in recent weeks.

I’m not sure how such a politically-savvy woman went so far off the rails.

Primarily, I’m happy that we finally have a candidate – or, as teh intranetz would have it, an Obamanee.

Daily JPG 36

Courtesy of Fark, and my apologies for all the political posts:


You’ll need to click for bigness and readablefulness.

The thing is – and I know that he may not end up being the nominee – but really, there’s no denying how COOL this all is. You should see what Boise is like right now. I just got back from a caucus that pulled over ten times the number of voters who attended last time – and they were all there for Obama. It’s all pretty exciting.

On Tuesday, February 5…

…if you are an American citizen and eligible to vote, and if there is a primary or caucus in your state, please participate.

I don’t have the time or energy to say everything I would like to say about this, or about the candidate I’ve (finally) selected to support. But on the off chance that it will help anyone make their decision, one way or another, I will say this:

The title of Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, says it all.

Yes, I know hope is a leisure of the naive, that skepticism is a trademark of intellectual maturity. And there’s certainly a chance – some would say, I’m sure, a certainty – that my naivete will come back to haunt me. Friends, I’m ready and willing to risk that.


As I just told a friend of mine, for me it boils down to something I’ve been wrestling with for some time now. I look at our nation’s leadership for the past several years – and no, I’m not just referring to G.W. – and I’m disappointed. Discouraged. Even embarrassed. I’ve always been a vehement supporter of the idea that you might not like the President, but by golly you should respect the office. Recent years have challenged my ability to do so, and I hate that. The President of the United States should be someone we can respect, even if we disagree with him (or her). How, though, are we to feel respect toward someone who hasn’t earned it? From a PR perspective (avoiding political analysis) G.W. is a joke. Bill Clinton is still, and will probably always be, a punchline. Bush the First avoided much worse than jokes about lip reading and broccoli, and before him we have the Gipper…

I found myself wondering if the age of the heroic leader was over. Were we ever going to have a President again who would make his or her country proud? A President who inspired hope for the future and not just one-liners for the late night TV shows? A President who got people excited? A uniter? A dreamer? A philosopher king? A President who would be beloved in history, who could actually change the status quo and finally start the next chapter in American history?

I am not so naive that I believe that Obama is that person. But for the first time in my lifetime, I have found a candidate that I hope is that person.

I know that we need to change (and that’s not an anti-Bush or an anti-war or an anti-Republican statement). Obama agrees with me that yes we can. No, he’s not the most experienced person on the campaign trail. But he is someone who I can believe in.

It takes a lot of courage, a lot of audacity, to hope. You have to be willing to put it on the line. But if we all step to the line together, we are stronger…

Get informed. Vote. Change the world.