Friday, October 21, 2016

Bagels and Teaching

Note: I've largely stopped writing book reviews. Motherhood and teaching are just too much for me. But I have occasionally written some informal essays. My students are currently writing college application essays, which means personal narratives that "sell" them as a student. This is my "adult" college application essay.

When I was in high school, I worked at Einstein Bros. Bagels. It wasn’t a great job, and my primary accomplishment by the time I quit before leaving for college was that my salary had increased from $6/hr to $6.25/hr. Over the course of those two years, however, I came to have strong opinions about bagel operations, including the application of cream cheese.

Most customers came in for a straightforward bagel and cream cheese, which meant we schmeared those two items together regularly throughout the day. The large tubs of cream cheese came with ice cream type scoops, and many employees simply scooped up some plain, plopped it in the middle of the everything bagel, closed the bagel, and handed it to the customer.

The downside of this type of serving is obvious: the cream cheese is not spread throughout the entirety of the bagel but instead oozes out through both sides of the hole.

On the other hand, I always used our flat schmearing knives to evenly spread the cream cheese over the bagel before firmly pressing the bagel together. It took a little more time, but the customer had a ready-to-eat breakfast rather than a mess needing cleanup.

I’ve not thought much about that job since, but looking back, I realize that my extra effort was a result of my belief in doing the best at whatever it is I did. I didn’t have a passion for cream cheese, but I’d chosen to take on the responsibility of a job, and because I valued myself as a person, I was going to do that job well.

Fifteen years later, I’m in the middle of my tenth year as a teacher. My students--tired and overworked high school juniors--often plead for a “chill day.” Or ask why I assign them writing assignments when I’m only “punishing” myself by having to grade an enormous stack of essays.

I always have the same answer for them: I do so because I value myself as a person and as a professional. Because I couldn’t come to school and teach each day if I thought my contribution to the world was so meaningless that we might as well have a “chill day.” Or that I thought so little of them as people that I didn’t care if they improved as writers.

As a teacher, I’m often tired and worn-out. I hate grading essays late into the night and into my weekend. I’m not perfect, and I have miles to go before I’m truly the teacher I want to be. But in the meantime, I can’t half-ass it. Those customers were going to get well-schmeared bagels, and my students are going to get the best education I can provide.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

Any avid Harry Potter fan has a difficult decision to make with the newest entry in the Harry Potter Universe: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play that follows Harry’s son Albus and is based on a story idea by J.K. Rowling but written by another man.

On the one hand, those fans--myself certainly included--love Harry Potter and are eager to re-enter the universe through whatever means are available. On the other hand, there’s something a little wrong in doing so via another person’s creative talent and in a means so divergent from the original seven-book series.

A Facebook friend described the book as “good fan fiction,” and while I think the description is pretty apt, I don’t think it’s the writing itself that’s problematic. More distracting is the play format and the incredibly short and jarring scene structure.

The play is divided into over 50 scenes, each act having nearly twenty scenes. That means that just as you adjust to the setting and the characters’ style and tone, you’re thrown out of that scene and into a completely new scene with a new setting and new characters. These shifts would probably be less an issue if you saw the play live, since visual cues of setting and characters would make it easy to follow. But as a reading experience it’s incredibly frustrating. Just as you feel at home with good ol’ adult Harry, Ron, and Hermione, you’re tossed to Albus or a flashback.

Part of what made reading the Harry Potter series great was getting into the “zone,” fully immersing yourself in the magical world of Hogwarts, forgetting to eat lunch because you’re too entranced in Harry’s world. It’s unlikely anyone would have the same experience reading Cursed Child. You’re painfully aware of your presence in the play’s text at every moment, so the world never becomes real.

And though this may be an meaningless quibble, I was also bothered by the writers’ decision to completely ignore traditional play structure. Most plays have a few acts, a few scenes, and a few straightforward settings. In crafting the play instead like a fast-paced short movie, the writers have ensured that most theaters could never perform it (the breakneck speed and special effects would require an enormous budget and technical staff), and they’ve ignored what often makes plays so enjoyable. We can see movies any time, but we choose to see theater because it offers a more intimate glimpse into human emotion and experience. While there are plenty of heart-warming moments in Cursed Child, the intimacy of theater feels lacking.

Those significant issues aside, there are some joys in this newest Harry Potter story. Scorpio, Draco’s son, has the most memorable journey and the most memorable lines. He’s fully his own character, and his growth is more interesting than that of Albus. Harry and Albus’ relationship, though the focus of the play, is a little less interesting, particularly because Harry’s flip-flop between over-reacting dad and sympathetic dad comes too quickly.

Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny are happily all recognizable as their younger selves (maybe even too much so?), though the jokes about each other’s behavior perhaps seem a bit more stale when made by middle-aged adults.

In the end, Cursed Child is fairly un-memorable. Though I read it just a few weeks ago, I could probably only give you the barest plot outline. But, if I had the opportunity to see the stage version, I’d jump on the opportunity.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015: Year in Review

In my 2014 "Year in Review," I noted that I'd soon be returning to work after my maternity leave. And I quickly realized that while I could have a baby and continue reading, I couldn't have a baby, work and read. Now my evenings (once baby is in bed) consist of cleaning, grading, and lesson planning. So in 2014 I read very little, and it's something I've certainly missed. But, now that the year is coming to a close, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on the books I did manage to complete.

Books read in 2015:
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
Wolf in a White Van by John Darnielle
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Martian by Andy Weir
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

I also partially completed Neil Gaiman's Trigger Warning and The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel (somehow I just didn't have the staying power for short story collections).

So I read eight books (I think--I wasn't good at keeping a list as I went along, so it's possible I forgot one). Fortunately they were all books I enjoyed (this was also a year where I had no patience for books that didn't grab my attention; I started and put down several others).

My favorite was probably Grashopper Jungle, followed by Station Eleven. Grasshopper Jungle is a weird, "edgy" YA/sci-fi mashup that's mostly about Austin's uncertainty over his feelings for his best (male) friend but is also about giant grasshoppers attacking and the end of the world. As an adult now far-removed from the teenage world, I was happily surprised to see the novel's very frank approach to sexuality (books have come a long way from Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret).

Station Eleven was a nice take of the apocalypse/dystopia genre that brought together diverse characters in a satisfying way. Wolf in White Van was mysterious, weird, and a little scary--about the pointlessness and idiotic purposefulness with which we sometimes make life-changing decisions.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot I liked when I was reading but liked less once I finished. I don't normally go for the "big" term-heavy sci-fi, but Ancillary Justice was enjoyable nonetheless.

I've written reviews of the last two since they're fresh enough in my head.

I'm guessing 2016 won't be much different, but it is nice to take a little time to read--and write--again. :)

"The Rest of Us Just Live Here" by Patrick Ness

First caveat: I love (love love love) Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy. It is my favorite YA series of all time. I would love to reread it, but I'd cry too much.

See my reviews:
- The Knife of Never Letting Go
- The Ask and the Answer
- Monsters of Men

Moving on...

Some friends, my husband, and I recently finished watching the entire run of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's a series I really enjoyed as a teenager, and it was even more fun to re-watch it. Occasionally, while Buffy and the "Scooby gang" were still in high school, we wondered about what parent would enroll their child at Sunnydale High School. I mean, students were dying constantly. And the school was almost always under attack by some demon or another. And where were the police in all this? Did they just completely ignore it so a 16-year-old with a stake could take care of it?

Clearly Ness wondered the same, and thus The Rest of Us Just Live Here was born. The Rest is about the peripheral students in all those YA fantasy series--what happens to them while the Chosen One is battling the Big Evil?

It's a fun idea, but one that doesn't quite work out. Though The Rest is set up as a satire of the YA fantasy genre, the satire is so gentle (even when it appears, which isn't often), that the cliches of the genre are hardly criticized. Sure, there's a side comment about the "Chosen Ones" never using the Internet or observations about how the police never believe the students' stories about strange things happening (even though vampires destroyed the town, like, a month ago!)... But, otherwise, Ness is more interested in his own characters' stories. Which is fine, but it means the whole premise feels somewhat insignificant.

What Ness is interesting in exploring is his protagonist Mikey and his three best friends: his sister Mel, his friend Jared, and his unrequited crush Henna. But unlike in Ness' other books, these characters felt cliche (ironic, considering the "satire" of the novel). Mikey is OCD and too afraid to tell Henna his feelings; his dad's an alcoholic; his state senator-mom is too self-involved to notice him. Mel is a recovering anorexic. Jared is gay but not really out. Henna is constrained but her strict parents. All of these can be real teenage issues, but they felt excessively heaped on. Even Mikey's "I'm cool with my BFF being gay" attitude--something I'm completely thrilled to see--just felt like a repeat (but perhaps that's because I read and loved Grasshopper Jungle, which had a similar relationship). There's some nice commentary about the nature of friendships, and I felt Ness did an especially good job of capturing the mindset of someone with severe anxiety, but otherwise it was too neat and too expected. The kids were too good to each other; everything worked out too well in the end.

It was a quick read, but it probably won't read as fresh to people who've read a good deal of YA fantasy.

[A side note--everyone refers to the "kids who are always involved in the strange stuff happening" as "indie kids," (they all have uber-hipster names like Finn and Satchel), but the term always felt wrong to me, so it became distracting.]

"The Martian" by Andy Weir

Obviously this book exploded this year with the release of the Matt Damon movie (which I haven't seen). After hearing NPR gush about it for ages, I got around to reading the novel on the Kindle. It was an enjoyable read, but one I think you need to be clear about going in.

What it is:

The Martian is a fun puzzle-solving adventure. It's almost like a detailed, scientific video game being played before you. Watney is an astronaut stranded on Mars. He has no food! How will he grow some? He needs more water! How will he make it? Though the science went over my head a number of times (I wasn't going to take the time to reread carefully to try to "get" it all), you can skim those parts and still enjoy the story. You root for Watney and for the power of ingenuity and human determination. As is obvious, he's safely rescued from Mars in the end (as you always knew he would be), but it's a triumphant moment anyway.

What it isn't:

Finely crafted prose. This annoyed me the most in the beginning. Weir has a talent with science, but not with the English language. The sentences are clear, straightforward, and utilitarian. There's no beauty in syntax, no arresting imagery. It's appropriate given that the reader is supposedly reading astronaut Watney's logs (and Watney is nothing if not clear, straightforward, and utilitarian), but the English teacher in me wanted a little more craft.

Similarly, there's no philosophical approach to Watney's experiences on Mars. A friend of mine mentioned she wanted to read The Martian, saying she imagined it like Life of Pi. I could do nothing but laugh. While Life of Pi is a philosophical meditation on faith and relationships, The Martian is textbook problem solving. Sure, Watney is stranded on Mars, likely to die of starvation (or any of a million other things), but he almost never thinks about it in the grand sense. He doesn't wonder about the meaning of life, about his relationships, about his purpose. He does math problems to figure out how to create fuel. For example, he spends a huge portion of his time growing potatoes, only to have most of his crop die when his living area explodes. He barely seems upset. Again, from a realistic perspective, such an attitude probably makes sense. A person most likely to survive in that scenario is a person who can dedicate him or herself completely to practicalities; a person who can remain optimistic and focused even when things look their worst. But, from a reader's perspective, you sometimes want a little more thought about our place in the universe.

My last quibble with the book is not directly related to the other two, though it does tie in. Towards the end, NASA is trying to decide how to save Watney. Choice one is to try to send him more food, a plan with a somewhat low chance of success. Plan two is to send his Mars crewmates back to get him (they were enroute back to Earth)--the plan has a higher chance of success, but would endanger the five crewmates' lives too (rather than just Watney's). The unlikable NASA member insists on choice one because it would endanger the fewest lives. He's repeated called a coward, and a bunch of employees go behind his back to ensure they do the "brave" "right" choice--choice two. Though the debate is worthwhile, the lack of subtlety bothered me. Is it really cowardly to not want to risk more astronauts' lives? And, furthermore, how do we decide the "value" of one individual's life? NASA and many others go to extraordinary lengths and spend billions to save one man. Watney's a good guy, but we probably could have cured a disease with that kind of money. I'm not saying Watney didn't deserve to be saved, but I wish there had been more insight into the way we place value.

In the end...

A worthwhile read if you're realistic about what you're getting. And I'd like to check out the movie!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: Year in review

Well, goodbye to my sixth year of blogging. Somehow I've managed to keep it up, even though I'll never be at reading levels I once was. Yet I'm still proud I'm usually managing a few books a month, especially now that I'm mom to an active four and a half month old! I return to work in a few weeks, which means reading in 2015--beyond the board book Sheep in a Jeep for the millionth time--will be especially challenging. But, I just try to make sure reading's always a pleasure, never a chore.

My top books read in 2014:
1. On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee
2. Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain
3. The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
4. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
5. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
6. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
7. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Total books read and reviewed: 30 (plus 6 baby-related books partially read and briefly reviewed)

Fiction read: 24
Nonfiction read: 6

Adult read: 27

Young adult read: 3

Female authors: 17
Male authors: 13
I think this is the first time I've read more female than male! Woot!

Years published:
- 2014: 12
- 2013: 13
- 2012: 3
- 2011: 1
- 2005: 1

Book sources:
- Total borrowed: 30

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 22, 2014

"Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes

I thought I would hate Me Before You, as I don't do romance, and I don't do weepies. Just from the book's blurb, it was clear how the story would go:

Quirky Girl gets job caring for rich, recalcitrant quadriplegic who wants to commit suicide.
Quirky Girl gets Quad to loosen up and enjoy life again.
Quad gets Quirky Girl to see life beyond small town.
Quirky Girl and Quad fall in love.
But their love can't change Quad's mind (cue tears).

And I was right about the plot progression, but I didn't realize I'd enjoy the story as much as I did. It's not new or especially different. Louisa is chatty and won't put up with Will's stubborn grumpiness. Will has a heart of gold behind his gruff exterior. But, okay, they were cute, as was the development of their relationship.

There is, also, interesting commentary about assisted suicide and how we respond to those desiring such a choice (which also corresponds with current events given the recent decision of young Brittany Maynard to commit suicide). One of the points that Will returns to is that his accident has robbed him of the ability to make most choices in his life, and that by refusing him the choice to die, those who love him only serve to remove his autonomy further.

It's stuff worth discussion, even if the book itself is more expected than groundbreaking.