Internment

Rating: ⭐
Author: Samira Ahmed
Genres: Young Adult, Dystopian
Pub date: Mar. 19, 2019 (Read Feb. 2019)

Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

I was really excited about this book, I thought the premise sounded super interesting and appropriate for the current political climate. I read Samira Ahmed’s debut novel, Love, Hate, & Other Filters, last year and didn’t really like it, but I was super optimistic about this book and even included it on my most anticipated books of 2019 list. I’m still really glad a book like this exists, but sadly I was very disappointed with it. I may just not be the intended audience for this anymore as someone in my late twenties, but it really didn’t work for me.

Like I said, the premise of the book is great. It’s about Muslim teenager, Layla Amin. Since the inauguration of the new president, America has seen a lot of changes. Muslims were asked to identify themselves in the latest census and with the creation of the new Muslim registry, Layla has been forced out of school and her parents have been forced out of their jobs. Then one day, the police show up at her home and escort her entire family to America’s first internment camp in the middle of the California desert.

The camp is called Mobius. At Mobius, Muslims are divided into blocks by ethnicity and forced to live in small trailers. Her parents do their best to adapt to this new life and keep their heads down, but Layla misses her old life and boyfriend on the outside and starts to rebel against the camp’s Director and his racist policies. But what will be the cost for her rebellion and as a teenager, does she really have the power to change anything?

I’m really glad a book like this exists and I hope it gets into the hands of the right people. But what I struggled to understand was who the intended audience is? Is it meant for the already liberal-minded? Is it hoping to expand the opinions of those who are unsure where they sit in the current political climate? Is it targeted at the MAGA faction that is scared and hateful towards those who are different from themselves? Or is it just meant to give voice to the rage and pain of American Muslims? As an already liberal minded person, this didn’t really challenge my thinking or offer me any new insights, but I think it could be a great book for younger teens who are confused by politics or whose views may differ from those of their parents and they don’t know where to turn for information. So I’m really glad this book exists and I hope it can help inform teenagers or just support Muslim American teenagers in feeling heard.

The reason I didn’t like it is because it’s so heavy handed. Nothing about this book is subtle and I felt like the author was just trying to beat me over the head with her politics. It’s the prime example of why “show, don’t tell” is so much more effective and enjoyable. I don’t think Ahmed trusts her readers at all. She spells out every single point and action of her characters and doesn’t trust her readers to come to their own conclusions. She is constantly telling us how Layla is feeling rather that letting her circumstances and actions speak for themselves. Layla also didn’t feel like a teenager to me. She felt a bit like a 17 year old espousing an adult’s viewpoints. I like to think teenagers are this woke, but she knew a lot of random historical facts about Japanese internment camps and other politically motivated rebellions around the world. Overall it added to the book, but felt a little forced coming from a teenager who mostly just seems overly into her boyfriend.

I went back to look at my review of Ahmed’s first book and I have similar complaints with this book. I felt like her characters were so 1-dimensional and that the emotional connection to them was just really lacking. Her characters feel more like caricatures and it made it hard to relate to any of them. I was frustrated by how obsessed Layla was with David when she had so many more pressing concerns. All of her relationships felt extremely surface level and I never felt that any of her relationships had any great depth. She talks about how she’s worried about the impact her actions might have on her parents, but I never really felt any tension because I didn’t feel any connection between the characters to begin with.

I thought the Director was the greatest caricature of the novel. He was too classically evil for me to ever take him seriously. I thought the Director represented a great opportunity to influence your readers and hopefully alter their mindsets. But the Director is too much of a villain that he doesn’t incite that feeling of righteous anger or conflict. If your goal is to alter someone’s mindset or opinions, you need a more nuanced villain. Someone who you can almost relate to, but highlights the flaws of conservative America. No one will relate to the Director, so it’s easy to dismiss him as just a hateful asshole. He doesn’t make you question your thoughts or views and that was the main way that this novel failed for me.

I think liberals will read this book and be reminded of why they are frustrated with the current administration, while conservatives will read the book and think it’s ridiculous and Muslims just trying to paint white people as the bad guys. Just to clarify, I do not think that’s what this book is doing at all. I think this is actually a story to give voice to the feelings that Ahmed has about the direction America is going. And if this story gives voice to that rage and pain for Ahmed and for readers like her, then I think this book has achieved something great. I am not American and I am not Muslim, so who am I to say that this book doesn’t have value? I do believe it has value, I just wanted it to be more nuanced because I want white Americans to pick up this book and read a viewpoint that they hadn’t really thought about. I want them to see Muslims as people and that their viewpoints might be changed by reading about this horrifying near-future scenario. I guess I just don’t have very much faith in people’s ability to change and I thought this book was just too surface level to change the viewpoints of people that don’t already agree with this book.

However, it is unfair of me to put that responsibility on the author. She is not responsible to change people’s minds. It’s why I question who her audience is? As an Own Voices book, I can really see this working for some people and I really hope that it does. If you are an American Muslim feeling outcast in your school, or your community, or your country, then I hope this is the book that you needed to pick up to feel seen and understood. This book wasn’t what I was hoping it would be, but I am probably not the intended audience. I fully support the themes Ahmed tackles in this book, her writing style and methods just aren’t for me. I hate to be critical of books like this because I do think they are extremely important and authors need to be supported to write them. But I also don’t want to give good reviews to a book just because I’m glad it exists – I still want it to be a thoughtful and well-written book. I thought this book had so much potential and honestly, I just wanted more from it. But hopefully it will make its way into the hands of the right readers!

One last criticism I have of this book is that I’m uncomfortable with the number of famous quotes and ideas that Ahmed includes without referencing the source material. I think she is paying homage to some great people, but it rubs me the wrong way when those individuals are not referenced. The tagline on the back is “rebellions are built on hope”, which is obvious to me that it’s from the Star Wars Rogue One movie. The characters repeatedly joke about their love of star wars, but this quote is used without every directly attributing it to Star Wars. Two others that I picked up on were that she has one of her characters reference how “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”, which has been attributed to Hamilton and Malcolm X among others, and Layla repeatedly says “the people united will never be defeated”. Please reference these individuals because otherwise it seems like you are trying to pass these ideas off as your own.

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The Radium Girls

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kate Moore
Genres: History, Non-Fiction
Read: Nov. 2017

Why do we always forget women’s history? Why do we never even record it?

The Radium Girls inspire me. Thank you Kate Moore for writing this book and reminding us of the struggle these women went through and the impact their fight has had on all those workers to come after them. This book was so well researched and so well written. Sometimes I have trouble with non-fiction, but this read like fiction and Moore infused a lot of emotion into her telling of history.

The Radium Girls tells the story of the thousands of girls who worked as dial painters in radium factories in small american towns beginning in 1917 and continuing into the 1970’s. Radium was still a relatively new discovery at this time and a luminous paint was developed using radium for painting the dials on watch faces and aviation and military equipment throughout the Great War.

The US Radium Corporation set up a factory in Orange, New Jersey and their competitor, Radium Dial, later set up another factory in Ottawa, Illinois. Hundreds of girls in both towns were hired as dial painters at the factories. While the dangers of radium were definitely known at this time, it was more often touted as a ‘wonder’ drug with many health benefits. The girls at the factory were taught to paint the dials using the ‘lip – dip – paint’ method. In order to get the brushes super fine for precision painting, they were taught to use their lips to wet the brush to a fine point. This resulted in them ingesting the radium-laced paint with each ‘lip and dip’ and due to poor cleaning procedures at the plant, they often took radium powder home on their shoes and clothes. They became known as ‘glowing girls’.

As you can imagine, ingesting radium daily on the job is not the best practice and the girls eventually started developing health problems, including fatigue, achy backs, limps and loose teeth. Some girls experienced a very rapid decline in health, while others experienced slower symptoms. However, all of the symptoms resulted in the deterioration of the women’s bodies, often resulting in death. Unfortunately, it can take years for symptoms of radium poisoning to develop and with many women having moved on from their dial painting jobs several years prior, and with little known about radium poisoning at the time, doctors had a really hard time diagnosing their issues.

Moore is unflinching in her storytelling of the events that took place in Orange and Ottawa in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Parts of the book are very difficult to read due to the immense suffering the radium girls went through. Both radium companies tried to deny any wrongdoing and it is shameful and literally evil the lengths they went to distance themselves from the girls and any wrongdoing. The US Radium Corporation were a bunch of snakes, but Radium Dial was downright criminal. Both companies repeatedly lied to the girls and to the courts and it was actually enraging to read about the ordeal they put the radium girls through.

Once a connection was finally made between the girls symptoms and radium poisoning, many of the girls brought legal action against the companies. They went through hell from both the radium poisoning and from the lengths they went to try and secure some kind of justice and compensation for their families.

These girls inspire me because despite suffering some of the worst pain I’ve heard described, they persevered and fought relentlessly for justice – mostly for the radium girls that would come behind them as they were unlikely to live long enough to enjoy any justice they might find for themselves. They literally birthed the laws that now exist surrounding workers rights and likely saved thousands of lives through the development of safety procedures and protocols when working with radium as a result of their case.

I was totally blown away by this book. It is some heavy subject matter, but I was completely enthralled by their story and inhaled this 500 pager in just 2 days. Even though this book takes place in the 20’s and 30’s, it is still hugely relevant today. Women are still routinely ignored and silenced. What frustrated me about this book was that nobody gave a shit about the women and that they were literally losing their lives on the job. In fact, people only even started talking about radium use in the plant when the first male employee died in New Jersey, even though several women had already died at this point.

Because the radium girls in Ottawa began pursuing litigation in the 30’s, when the Great Depression was at its worst, the community shunned them. They saw Radium Dial as a quality employer in a time when jobs were hard to come by and the community tried to silence the women when they came out saying they’d been poisoned and said they made it all up because they didn’t want to lose the plant. When the girls approached their boss after Charlotte Purcell lost her arm to radium poisoning, he literally looked at them and told them he saw nothing wrong with them. Women were second class citizens and the girls were routinely silenced and ignored.

Nevertheless, they persevered. I love that these types of stories about women are finally becoming mainstream. These stories deserve and need to be told. Women’s history is so important and so often forgotten or unrecorded. The post script of this book destroyed me because it proves how easily history is forgotten and repeated. That’s why I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone!