Reading With Patrick by Michelle Kuo

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My Review:

Heartbreaking, inspiring and a tribute to dedication, Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship  is the memoir of an Asian American Teach For America teacher and her friendship with a poor, black student in Helena, Arkansas.  Their special relationship is in the forefront of the story with race relations, education and the legal system the backdrop for setting.

Michelle had always been encouraged by her traditional Taiwanese parents to get an education, settle down and get married.  But Michelle found the job of teaching troublesome kids in the Delta extremely rewarding. She stuck with it for a couple of years during which her student, Patrick, attended, on occasion.  His home life was less than perfect and his family was not overwhelmingly supportive or encouraging when it came to school.  Most of the people in the small towns were moving to the big cities and those left behind were the poorest and least educated.  After two years, Michelle, feeling pressure to fulfill her own personal goals and responsibilities, left Arkansas to attend Harvard Law School.  Upon her graduation she learned Patrick had dropped out of school and was currently in jail for murder.  Feeling a sense of responsibility, she gave up her life and returned to the Delta to meet with him, try to guide him legally and then continued teaching him while he was in prison.  The beautiful gift she gave him of being his mentor and teacher changed the course of his life. While in jail, Patrick wrote many letters to his daughter, allowing him to grow and prepare for all the work it would take to develop that relationship once he was released, while Michelle developed her inner strength to fight for what she believed in even if it went against the wants and needs of her beloved parents.

I admire the commitment Michelle Kuo made to Patrick; we must tend to the people in the poorest of neighborhoods where mentors, guidance and education are most needed.  She clearly made a difference in her student’s life, but currently, with a felony on his record he has a hard time finding a job.  According to a Random House Q & A with the author, Patrick’s “food stamps recently got cut off because of a federal law that cut off aid for 500,000 of the poorest people in the United States.”  On a positive note, his daughter is in third grade and doing well.

I highly recommend this inspiring story of dedication and human responsibility to teachers and everyone else who is able to contribute positively to our society.

As seen in Goodreads:

A memoir of race, inequality, and the power of literature told through the life-changing friendship between an idealistic young teacher and her gifted student, jailed for murder in the Mississippi Delta.

Recently graduated from Harvard University, Michelle Kuo arrived in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, as a Teach for America volunteer, bursting with optimism and drive. But she soon encountered the jarring realities of life in one of the poorest counties in America, still disabled by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. In this stirring memoir, Kuo, the child of Taiwanese immigrants, shares the story of her complicated but rewarding mentorship of one student, Patrick Browning, and his remarkable literary and personal awakening.

Convinced she can make a difference in the lives of her teenaged students, Michelle Kuo puts her heart into her work, using quiet reading time and guided writing to foster a sense of self in students left behind by a broken school system. Though Michelle loses some students to truancy and even gun violence, she is inspired by some such as Patrick. Fifteen and in the eighth grade, Patrick begins to thrive under Michelle’s exacting attention. However, after two years of teaching, Michelle feels pressure from her parents and the draw of opportunities outside the Delta and leaves Arkansas to attend law school.

Then, on the eve of her law-school graduation, Michelle learns that Patrick has been jailed for murder. Feeling that she left the Delta prematurely and determined to fix her mistake, Michelle returns to Helena and resumes Patrick’s education–even as he sits in a jail cell awaiting trial. Every day for the next seven months they pore over classic novels, poems, and works of history. Little by little, Patrick grows into a confident, expressive writer and a dedicated reader galvanized by the works of Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, W. S. Merwin, and others. In her time reading with Patrick, Michelle is herself transformed, contending with the legacy of racism and the questions of what constitutes a “good” life and what the privileged owe to those with bleaker prospects.

Reading with Patrick is an inspirational story of friendship, a coming-of-age story of both a young teacher and a student, a deeply resonant meditation on education, race, and justice in the rural South, and a love letter to literature and its power to transcend social barriers.

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About the Author:

Michelle Kuo is the author of the memoir READING WITH PATRICK, a story of race, inequality, and the transformative power of literature. She taught English at an alternative school in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

After graduating from Harvard Law, she became an immigrants’ rights lawyer at Centro Legal de la Raza, a nonprofit in Oakland, California. She advocated for tenants facing evictions, workers stiffed out of their wages, and families facing deportation.

Michelle has also clerked for the Honorable John T. Noonan at the Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit and taught courses through the Prison University Project at San Quentin Prison.

The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Michelle grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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Chemistry by Weike Wang

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My Review:

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved this book titled Chemistry! Author Weike Wang’s unnamed narrator, a Chinese-American Ph.d. student, lives with her redheaded boyfriend behind her traditional parents’ backs.  Despite the high expectations for their daughter to become a chemist, she is unable to be successful in her research, losing interest in her male dominated field and having difficulty making decisions regarding her career and her relationship.  The boyfriend proposed but she is just not feeling it enough to say yes, yet she doesn’t immediately say no.  Caught in ambiguity, with nonscientific questions of the heart on her mind, and confusion about her future hanging in the balance, she searches inside herself to understand who she is, flaws and all, and how she fits in.  Like an unsolved scientific problem, she may not be able to solve it and may choose to just ruminate. “Being in limbo doesn’t preclude us from sharing nice meals. In limbo, we still have to eat.”

The narrator states that her vision is poor, and everything about her, her parents and her acne for example, seems worse than others.  This, for me is a metaphor portraying how self conscious she is; a harsh judge of herself, while looking at others through a softer veil of judgement. Overwhelmed with her own situation, she shows little emotion to the outside world.  Her approach to life is scientific, and a bit negative. “The optimist sees the glass half full.  The pessimist sees the glass half empty.  The chemist sees the glass completely full, half in liquid state and half in gaseous, both of which are probably poisonous.” She is a realist, guided by proven fact and less by emotion and feelings; her life teeters back and forth while she is looking for a balance.  “The only difference between a poison and a cure is dosage”.  She searches for happiness and presents to the reader how she feels about it with an equation:

“Happiness = reality- expectations.

If reality is > expectations, then you are happy.

If reality is < expectations, then you are not.

Hence the lower your expectations, the happier you will be.”

Wang is a minimalist when it comes to verbiage; like a mathematical equation with no directions, she says only what is imperative, no flowery language or description but with an added touch of humor.  It is up to the reader to read into the meaning of what is presented; her metaphors are fantastic food for thought when it comes to understanding the main character and her journey.

Written without names, the narrator could be anyone; an anonymous person in the midst of the struggles of life.  I loved all the science references,metaphorical situations, and found this book most enjoyable. Chemistry is short but worthy of spending the time to read thoughtfully.  It is satisfying in so many ways; a must read this summer with a unique style, thought provoking, heartbreaking and funny!

As seen on Goodreads:

Three years into her graduate studies at a demanding Boston university, the unnamed narrator of this nimbly wry, concise debut finds her one-time love for chemistry is more hypothesis than reality. She’s tormented by her failed research–and reminded of her delays by her peers, her advisor, and most of all by her Chinese parents, who have always expected nothing short of excellence from her throughout her life. But there’s another, nonscientific question looming: the marriage proposal from her devoted boyfriend, a fellow scientist, whose path through academia has been relatively free of obstacles, and with whom she can’t make a life before finding success on her own.

Eventually, the pressure mounts so high that she must leave everything she thought she knew about her future, and herself, behind. And for the first time, she’s confronted with a question she won’t find the answer to in a textbook: What do I really want?Over the next two years, this winningly flawed, disarmingly insightful heroine learns the formulas and equations for a different kind of chemistry–one in which the reactions can’t be quantified, measured, and analyzed; one that can be studied only in the mysterious language of the heart. Taking us deep inside her scattered, searching mind, here is a brilliant new literary voice that astutely juxtaposes the elegance of science, the anxieties of finding a place in the world, and the sacrifices made for love and family.

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About the author:

WEIKE WANG is a graduate of Harvard University, where she earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry and her doctorate in public health. She received her MFA from Boston University. Her fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from Alaska Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, The Journal, Ploughshares, Redivider, and SmokeLong Quarterly.