Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Bifocal: Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: Bifocal
Authors: Deborah Ellis & Eric Walters
Genre: Young Adult Fiction (ages 12-16)
Publisher: Fitzhenry & Whiteside (Canada)

How this book came to me: This book was offered in the Amazon Vine program which I participate with. I agreed to receive a free review copy in exchange for writing a Vine review on Amazon. I didn’t know much about the book but realized the topic controversial and timely and was curious to read it.

Bifocal is written by two Canadian authors and it is set in Canada in a public secondary school (high school). The book is told in two voices with two main characters. Each author writes for one of the characters, and the chapters go back and forth between the two characters telling their experience and perception of the events and their participation in them as the story moves forward.

One main character is a Caucasian football player, who in my opinion is not living out his family’s Christian religious values. The other main character is a first generation Canadian born Afgani Muslim scholarly teen who lives his family’s Muslim faith in his everday life. His twin sister begins to adopt more extreme Muslim beliefs and makes statements to support views of the extremist Muslim terrorists (so two different views of Muslims are represented in the book).

Another high school student is arrested and accused of being a part of a huge terrorist ring that stretches across the country. In the story various students and the families react in various ways to the events as they unfold.

Regarding the writing and the story itself, I found the book to be a page turner from the beginning. The book was engaging and I was interested to see how it played out and how much of the scenarios would be resolved by the end of the book.

Also of importance is the fact that the community and school is divided by racial and ethnic backgrounds before 9/11, these divisions have older roots that 9/11 seems to have amplified.

The book touches upon ALL the hot and controversial topics regarding living in a post 9/11 world where threats of terrorist acts from Muslim extremists are a real and present danger. Having all the issues in one story makes it a little less believable. I repeat, every single debatable and problematic issue is touched upon, such as how the lives of innocent citizens are sometimes altered as well as questions of false allegations. While some of these things are tolerable to innocent citizens, other issues are portrayed as going too far. One example is Haroon’s uncle’s name appears on a ‘no fly’ list at the airport and the uncle is unable to join the family to celebrate Ramadan (it is portrayed as a mistake and a similar or same name as a suspected terrorist). A bigger topic is when police cross the line regarding breaking rules regarding their right to interrogate minors in private and when no arrest has been made.

In my opinion, the topics are not explored deeply and sometimes seem to not be essential to the STORY. It seems to me that the issues were placed in the book intentionally for the purpose of having them there to have a discussion about (primarily) and secondarily to ‘make the reader think’ (in their own mind). Sometimes the authors seem to be leading the reader to take a certain stance regarding each issue, or perhaps I am too cognizant of their own personal bias and their purpose for writing this book?
I wonder (even fear) that without further discussion faciliatated by an adult, without a person intentionally playing ‘devil’s advocate’ the reader may be led to accept a certain opinion on each issue therefore not thinking deeply about the issue and not being an independent thinker. Also at risk is using only the emotional issues in the story to form the opinion. The reader should be informed about more factual, historical information in order to come to their own opinion on each issue. For example, yes it was horrible that Haroon’s uncles name was on a ‘no fly’ list and he could not enter the country to celebrate Ramadan with his family—but does that mean that there should never be a ‘no fly’ list?

Racism, prejudice and stereotypes in general (unconnected to Muslim extremist terrorism) are addressed as a secondary issue, such as mentions of African American students. This includes all kinds of racial slurs and name calling going on between the different groups. There is a lot to discuss there as well.

Verbal attacks and physical hate crimes are present in the book as well, done by students to other students or to adults in the community. One example is that an act of vandalism is also done to a football coach who said something mean to the members of the other football team. So anger and violent crimes are also covered in the book not just related to religion or race.

I suspect this book was created to be discussed in groups such as having this mandated in a secondary/high school literature class, then having the students discuss the topics together. Also the students could be assigned to write essays with their personal thoughts on some of these matters. The book takes all the discussion topics relating to Muslim extremism and terrorism and places it in a story of fiction; it seems, as a medium to get these topics into the hands and minds of teenagers rather than trying to start a discussion based on newspaper articles (the fiction book will hook them in emotionally and will hold their interest more than short news stories will). Trying to prevent terrorist attacks and preservation of civil liberties in a post 9/11 world is a complex topic with no simple answers and it all really should be discussed (not just using this book as pleasure reading).

I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I felt that a preteen or teen reading this book to themselves who does not then discuss it will be missing out. They may perhaps enjoy this engaging page-turner as a fast read to ‘see what happens next’. I worry that some of the nuances and maybe some of the issues may go over some of their heads without much thought. It would be a shame to read the book and not think about the issues more deeply. I think that through discussion facilitated by an adult, with other students, the reader’s interpretation of the events in the story will be more thoroughly processed. Alternatively, by examining the issues through writing about the topic and expressing the student’s opinion I can only imagine the reader would develop deeper opinions about the various topics. I would love for readers to become independent thinkers such as the two main characters in the book are.

The book could serve as a jumping off point as a unit study, for researching individual topics for the student to learn more facts about Muslims, Ramadan, wearing the jihab, hate crimes, the legal process of handling suspected terrorists, and more. A comparison of Christianity and Islam could be done. Lots of research could be done to flesh out the topics touched upon in this book.

I can easily see a teacher’s guide being created from this book. Many times I immediately thought of two or three discussion questions that could arise, sometimes from just one sentence. These issues are so deep that single questions are worthy of being the content for an entire essay.

Sometimes to understand more about a book we need to know something about the authors. Note that authors Ellis and Walters are well-known Canadian authors who both purposefully write books that touch upon causes and issues that they feel strongly about. Both authors also identify themselves as working toward tolerance and non-violence. Walters was a fifth grade teacher first, and later became an author of children’s books. His first books were focused toward catching the interest of reluctant readers. It seems clear to me that the authors wrote this book to put these ideas and topics into the minds of young readers so they would think about these controversial and timely topics.

A couple of last thoughts: I don’t know much about the Muslim religion (the moderate or the extremist views) in order to judge if this book is factually correct or incorrect, a topic which other reviewers are discussing. I know enough about Christianity to know that the Christian faith was not really represented in this book, certainly not equally or enough to compare and contrast it to the Muslim faith, and the “Christian” main character was not living out Christian values in his actions (not sure if the readers will even realize that). Lastly, I did resent the comment on page 48 where the media was criticized for not referring to the Oklahoma City bombings as an attack by a “Christian terrorist” because that bombing had nothing to do with religion and my research shows that McVeigh was a lapsed Catholic to boot.

I am torn about whether this is a 3 or 4 star book. Too bad I can't rate it a 3.5.

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Sheila said...

Deborah Ellis wrote some good books on Afghanistan, but her book on Israel has been banned from some Toronto schools because it portrayed the Israelies as terrorists and showed too much of a moral equivalence between a Palestinian suicide bomber at a school and the Israeli army trying to stop rocket fire.

Anyway, Ellis doesn't always show both sides of the story very well. Her heart, I think, is in the right place, as she does want peace. But she's not very practical about it. Not everybody is peaceful as she is. That's the way of the world. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

I guess that book sort of poisoned me to Ellis' other ones, but maybe I should pick this one up and see. Thanks for the review!

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christinemm said...

I received this comment by email and thought I'd share it.

"The problem with the book and a lot of similar thinking is that it focuses on how terrible society is today and applies no historical perspective. Talk to some eighty and ninety year olds about waps, dagos, guineas, micks, and spics and you will readily see how little society has changed over time. The difference today is that new arrivals feel no compulsion to assimilate and contribute. Many immigrants seem to thrive on the balkanization of society attempt to take it over from within. Moving to another country, anther society another culture is difficult. We do these new arrivals no favors by gilding their path and allowing for separate sub cultures. One only need look at the issues in Europe (UK, Netherlands, France) and Canada to see what political correctness has wrought. And the answer is not nice well adjusted citizens; it is pissed off people who don’t understand why you haven’t done more!!!"