Book Review – Calibration 74: Experimental Fiction That Sticks With You

Calibration 74: An Experimental Novella by [William F. Aicher]

It took me a while to figure out how to write this review because there’s just so much to think about packed into a relatively short book. I think I could read it over and over again and come away with something new each time. I’m going to try to focus on a few thoughts:

First, there are so many nuggets of truth, of wisdom scattered throughout the book. I could write a whole list of favorite quotes or lines I still think about. The book is a journey through the unnamed narrator’s mind as he searches, as he says in Calibration 42, for the answer to the ultimate question: “Life. The universe. Everything.” There are so many explorations of reality – what is reality? Is it perception? Is it mental? Not surprisingly since it was written during this pandemic, the book is so timely in a world where we’re increasingly living virtually, disconnected and yet hyperconnected.

Second, while it’s at times evocative of mental illness it’s not ABOUT mental illness. I identified with the narrator from the start, reflecting multiple times in early Calibrations that my stream of consciousness often mirrored his. At first this was comforting—maybe I’m not so strange after all!—but it eventually became slightly disturbing and I started to wonder whether I wanted to identify with this guy… I mean, there has to be something wrong with a guy who peeps in a woman’s window and boils skulls! I think, ultimately, that’s part of the exploration of reality, of humanity. Of how fine the line often is between being okay and not being okay.

Finally, I really liked that I never knew what to expect from the next Calibration. By the end of the book especially, it’s like reading a dream sequence. Things seamlessly change and morph in a completely nonsensical way that at the same time seems perfectly natural. Reading it felt like when you’re recounting a dream to someone – it all makes sense but then you say it out loud and you realize it makes no sense at all but it FELT like it made sense when you were in it. It’s trippy, but it works. Really well.

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked this up, but I was thoroughly pleased and impressed. It’s philosophical, edgy, and very different from anything else I’ve read. I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to read this book and will definitely look forward to Aicher’s upcoming work!

Thank you to William F. Aicher for gifting me a copy of this book! Get your copy here – you’ll be glad you did!

***** Five stars (and you know I don’t give those out lightly)

Are you really a unicorn? (A book review)

I’ve been following author Jess Hernandez on Twitter for a while and was so excited to see her debut picture book, First Day of Unicorn School (available for pre-order now!), is out on NetGalley. Sooo I logged in for the first time in two years (yikes), requested the book, and was thrilled to be approved within the hour. I sat down to read it with my four-year-old this afternoon and I was NOT disappointed.

First of all, look at that gorgeous cover! The whole book is full of bright, fun illustrations just like the cover art. My daughter loved them, and we spent a while just looking at the pictures and talking about the animals.

So, does the content live up to the expectation set by the cover? Yes! Milly is a donkey with a party hat (NOT a Unicorn), but gets accepted to Unicorn School anyway. She’s so nervous on her first day that her classmates are going to discover she’s not actually a unicorn and she won’t fit in, but it turns out her classmates all have a secret of their own . . . My four-year-old caught on quickly to what was happening (“Mom, she’s not a unicorn!”), and had a great time pointing out all the different “unicorn horns” throughout the book.

Ultimately, it’s a feel-good picture book showing kids that everyone has something they’re worried about, something they fear will keep them from fitting in — which actually means we’re all more similar than we thought, and really have nothing to fear. It’s about accepting ourselves and each other, and gets that message across in a totally kid-friendly, non-preachy way. I think it’s fabulous!

The book is actually geared for kids in grades K-2, so I’m looking forward to reading it to my first grader, too, and seeing how well she picks up the message. I give this one five stars, and recommend it to everyone with little kids at home.

Thanks to the author and NetGalley for the advanced reader copy!

Books that Transformed my Views of Racism in the US Criminal Justice System

This is the third time I’ve started this post. I’ve been thinking about it in general for weeks, specifically for days, I’ve been bursting at the seams with all I want to say and yet I’m incapable of putting it effectively into words. My thought process is so complicated, so convoluted, that I feel unable to distill it in any meaningful way. So, I’m going to do what you all expect here at The Edifying Word and talk about some books. I’m going to mention three books that have been truly transformative in shaping how I think about this issue. These books, together with current events, have helped me come to some important conclusions. I’m uncomfortable with how long it has taken me to reach these conclusions, but I’m trying to focus on growth: life is a journey and as long as I’m still living I’ll still be learning, growing, and improving.

So, first conclusion: The criminal justice system in this country does not provide impartial justice, particularly to people of color. I should have known this, you say. I studied criminal justice at a top university, where I learned the following, among other things (thank you, my bestest friend and classmate for neatly summarizing this for me):

  1. The school to prison pipeline disproportionately affects minority inner city youths.
  2. Black men receive disproportionate prison sentences.
  3. The drug wars disproportionately affect/ed minorities.
  4. Poor, diverse communities are disproportionately affected by crime (broken windows theory).

There’s a lot of “disproportionate” in that list. By definition that cannot be justice. Knowing these things, it seems illogical that I could walk away from school with faith in this system. But I did.

And that faith remained until 2018 when I read two books: The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Before reading these books, I could delude myself into thinking that all of this “disproportion” was unfortunate but unintended, that the system was working from within to remedy these wrongs, actually seeking justice. Anthony Ray Hinton spent 30 years in prison–28 of those on death row–for a crime he did not commit. That the police and prosecutors instrumental in his conviction knew he did not commit. After reading his book, I moved on to Just Mercy, written by Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who ultimately helped Hinton win his freedom and who has dedicated his professional life to helping people like Hinton. Hinton and many others were intentionally targeted by the very people who were supposed to provide justice because of their race. It is incomprehensible to me, and sickening. I came away from both of those books with a sincere loss of faith in the criminal justice system in the United States. I saw it for the first time as truly broken.

This brings me to the second conclusion. The system is racist because our society is racist. It’s a hard pill to swallow. I viewed racism is an “other” kind of thing — a past thing, a very black and white “racists are bad people who hate,” without a recognition of the inherent sociological structures that perpetuate racism in the United States. (As a side note – it’s no wonder, because that’s really how things were taught to me as a kid – the Civil Rights Movement fixed us, right? Even today I read “I Am Rosa Parks” to my six year old and it presented inequality very clearly as a thing of the past. Segregation by law, sure; inequality, no.) Which brings me to the third book, A Drop of Midnight by Jason Diakite (which I previously wrote about here). Reading this book earlier this year is the first time I really saw societal racism. I’m not sure what it was about Diakite’s experiences, about his writing, that finally caused me to see what’s been in front of me my whole life, but I know after reading his book I lost the illusion of a free, just, equal America. Diakite’s memoir is about his search for identity as the Swedish-born-and-raised, half-white, half-black son of American parents. His portrayal of the United States as a racist society was eye-opening, compelling, and disheartening. I don’t think I’d ever considered before that a Black person not from the United States wouldn’t want to come here because of racism.

The first two books show overt racism. I needed to see this blatant hatred, this flagrant miscarriage of justice, to see finally understand the system is broken. But I needed to understand the structural racism, the biases and internal judgments that are often unintentional and not born of hatred, to see the true scope of the problem, and that’s what Diakite’s book provided for me.

There’s a lot more to be said about all of those books (Hinton’s book, incidentally, is what finally pushed me over the edge to be anti-death penalty, which, as a Catholic, is kind of embarrassing, but that needs a post all of its own). But for now, I think the above is enough. I’m grateful for my education, and I believe there are many, many very good, well-intentioned people in our country’s criminal justice system. I respect and support the police; just this weekend my parents brought dinner to my brother’s precinct to show their support and I respect and admire that. We need laws, police, the court system. But we have a long way to go before we have a system capable of achieving justice for all.

How do we get there? On a structural, practical reform level I can’t begin to say. On the most basic, human level it’s very clear to me: all humans are equal and derive their worth from being created children of God. Until we all recognize the inherent dignity of every human being and treat them accordingly, we will fail at implementing justice. And that, friends, is a spiritual battle.

Check out the books I mentioned, and give them a read. You won’t be disappointed.

The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

A Drop of Midnight by Jason Diakite