Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"Too Much Happiness" by Alice Munro

Summary: A varied collection of short stories.

Musings: Although I don't read a lot of short story collections, I've found I tend to really enjoy them.  There's something about getting just a small snippet of a life that can be really affecting.  Munro's stories in Too Much Happiness are this way, and since I've read that these aren't necessarily her best work, I look forward to reading other pieces by her.

The stories I enjoyed the most were the most extreme--"Dimensions," about a woman coping after the terrible actions of her husband, "Free Radicals," about a woman confronted with a stranger after the loss of her husband, and "Child's Play," about the cruelty of children.  These, as well of most of the stories in the book, seemed to focus on a sense of loss.  The narrators themselves were typically lost, unmoored often by tragedy.  And, in many of these stories, it took a surprise and sharp moment to allow the narrators to refocus, perhaps not permanently, but in some way.  The narrator in "Child's Play" addresses something of this idea:
For a long while the past drops away from you easily and it would seem automatically, properly. Its scenes don't vanish so much as become irrelevant.  And then there's a switchback, what's been all over and done with sprouting up fresh, wanting attention, even wanting you to do something about it, though it's plain there is not on this earth a thing to be done. (190)
But although I overall enjoyed reading the work, I was also confused at times, feeling as if I was missing something.  "Wenlock Edge" had an enormously disturbing and perverse scene, but I had to look online to understand the ending.  Same with "Some Women."  Other stories, including "Wood," seemed to end abruptly and without significance.

I would probably need to reread most of the stories to get a fuller understanding.  Nonetheless, there's something haunting about each of Munro's pieces that stays with you and occasionally feels familiar.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Teach Like a Champion" by Doug Lemov

Summary: A book of techniques, compiled through observations of "champion" teachers, on how to most effectively run a classroom to maximize student achievement.

Musings: This book first came to my attention through a New York Times article ("Building a Better Teacher" by Elizabeth Green, 3/2/2010).  I rarely purchase teaching books, partly because I still have a ton on my bookshelf from grad school that I never read, and secondly because I often don't see specific enough application to my teaching to warrant a purchase and read.  Nonetheless, I was struck by Lemov's emphasis, as described in the Times article, of observing the best teachers and, from that, drawing out specific and easily applicable techniques that any teacher could employ.

Some of the criticism of education schools present in the article, which served as an impetus for Lemov's work, especially struck home for me.  I was an English major in undergrad, but I had no interest in becoming a teacher.  But, a year out of college, bored to tears at my nonprofit job, and living two hours away from the man who would become my husband, I decided I needed a change.  So I entered graduate school in education more out of a necessity for a purpose than for a real desire to teach, though fortunately that love of teaching did develop afterward.  I enrolled in an excessively expensive Ivy League school of education in a program that would give me my masters and certification to teach.

The faculty at the school was certainly passionate.  Situated in an urban area with dangerous and failing public schools, my graduate school truly believed in education as social justice.  They wanted to empower students, change the dictatorial nature of schools, and focus on inquiry.  I believed it; I wanted to change the world.  Then, they threw us into the public school classroom.  I was armed with theory and good intentions--and absolutely no applicable skills.

How could I empower my students if I couldn't even get them to be quiet long enough to hear my directions?  How could critical inquiry take place with students who hated and distrusted one another?  It was a heartbreaking situation for me.  I truly loved my kids, and I believed in them, but I had no idea how to lead a 90-minute class.  I was left feeling that attempts at authority were bad, that instructing a class was replicating an undemocratic social structure, but that in no way helped me or my students.  And I was angry at my school.

I teach at a public school now, and through trial and error I've been able to create a classroom that I think works.  But, I still feel I missed out on those "tools of the trade" that could make it better.  For this reason, I was eager to read Lemov's work.  Some of my old graduate school faculty might balk at some of his methods: teacher lead work (gasp!), methods of control (shock!), and an emphasis on getting the right answer (horror!).  Nonetheless, I do believe these techniques can help any teacher create a more effective and successful classroom.

What I liked most was how Lemov broke the book down into specific, named techniques.  He explains the technique, the theory behind it, and then provides several examples (a CD is also included with a number of video examples).  The techniques involve specific actions any teacher can take and implement tomorrow.  They're not necessarily groundbreaking, and most teachers probably do at least some of them already, but they are clear, organized, and build upon one another.

I thought the first section, "Setting High Academic Expectations," was one of the most useful.  It really led me to reconsider the way I do whole class question-and-answer by emphasizing student accountability and involvement.  Even basic techniques, like "no opt out," which ensures that a student who answers a question incorrectly ends the sequence by answering correctly, can really change a classroom atmosphere.  The sections "Engaging Students in your Lessons" and "Creating a Strong Classroom Culture" were also especially helpful.

While I read, I found it useful to take notes and ask myself questions about how I might reorganize some aspects of my classes.  Lemov emphasizes the importance of making use of every moment in the classroom, and I know there are ways I could improve upon that.

The book is, of course, not perfect.  Most of the techniques relate to whole class, teacher directed work (oh, what my grad school faculty would say!), and there's almost nothing on individual or group work.  A lot of the most interesting techniques also work primarily for questions to which there is a specific correct answer.  They would work great for lessons on grammar, but would be less helpful in open-ended discussions on literature, especially at a high school level.  The book's categorized as K-12, but most of the examples are for elementary school.  Many of the techniques can certainly be adapted for upper grades, but high school presents additional challenges, especially in implementing behavior techniques.  Elementary school students are probably more willing to be taught how to sit up and follow a speaker than high school students (even though high school students certainly need it!).

I go back to school next week, so this was the perfect time to reconsider how I lead my classroom.  I think any teacher would benefit by the book.  Lemov's techniques could also make a great professional development (I'll pretend that's not an oxymoron) if teachers were given the opportunity to practice.

Friday, August 27, 2010

"World War Z" by Max Brooks

Summary: World War Z, a "nonfiction" account of the Zombie War, comes almost a decade after the end of the war and exists as a compilation of interviews with a variety of people from around the world.  These survivors detail their own experiences--in the military, in government, as a civilian--in living through and fighting the undead.

Musings: World War Z is an unexpectedly compelling look at what might happen if zombies existed.  Zombies have been fairly popular in literature recently, but most of those works are humorous.  This novel, instead, takes an absurd premise (the stereotypical idea of a zombie exists, and the zombies are attacking human kind) and realistically imagines how governments and individuals would react.  It's a truly fascinating look into human behavior and governance.

The reader is given a widespread look at how the world reacted through the author's interviews.  The majority of these interviews are with military personnel, although there are a few interviews with ordinary citizens.  From a storytelling standpoint I would have liked to hear more about how civilians survived (we hear about a variety of successful and unsuccessful methods second hand), but the choice of interviewees allows the reader to consider how our modern understandings of grand-scale issues like military strength, diplomacy, democracy are challenged in the face of world-wide catastrophe.  It's interesting from a political science viewpoint, though you certainly don't need to think of it that way to enjoy the book.

Even with all the macro-level policies to consider, the book is, at heart, intensely personal.  The interviewees have survived the greatest threat to mankind, but they have done so at an enormous cost.   I enjoyed the range of voices; everyone from the maker of a fake zombie vaccine who feels no regret for his actions to a blind Japanese man who survived mostly alone are included.

Brooks is to be given great credit for carefully thinking through his scenario.  The world-building is so perfect and the people so real that it's impossible not to be moved by the account.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Mockingjay" by Suzanne Collins

[The following review contains major spoilers from Mockingjay.]

Summary: Katniss has been rescued from the Quarter Quell and is now in District 13, a rebel stronghold, with her family and Gale.  The leaders of the resistance movement want Katniss to become the Mockingjay, the symbol of the rebellion, but she isn't sure she's willing to take on that role.  Meanwhile Peeta is being held by the Capitol.  As it becomes clearer that war between the Capitol and the Districts is inevitable, Katniss must decide what part she will play.

Musings: Like many people, I've been aching for the release of MockingjayThe Hunger Games is my favorite YA novel, and I eagerly anticipated the trilogy's conclusion.  And although it pains me terribly to say it, I was so, so disappointed.  I have a lot of problems with the novel, but, in the end, I think my major issue is with Katniss herself.

What I loved about Katniss in Hunger Games was her survival instinct and refusal to give up.  Even in the face of all that the Capitol was forcing her to do, Katniss stood up for herself, refusing to be just a pawn.  She took Prim's place in the Games; she made Rue beautiful in her death; she threatened to take the berries with Peeta.  It is that strength and fire that makes her the Mockingjay, the symbol of the rebellion.

But in Mockingjay, despite the rebellion's desire for Katniss to formally embrace her symbol, Katniss is no longer the "girl on fire."  Like the first half of Catching Fire, Katniss spends most of the book in an angsty self-deprecating stupor.  Her life is understandably difficult; in Hunger Games, Katniss only had to worry about her, and later Peeta's, survival.  But now she feels responsible for the lives, deaths, and hardships of many people.  However, instead of reacting with determination, Katniss remains depressed or hysterical (I was surprised by how many times she's sedated or restrained in the novel; it's somewhat disturbing), hiding in closets rather than playing any role in what happens to her or her country.  It's hard for the characters in the book and for the reader to rally around a hero who seems to have no real spark and no real autonomy.

So despite the world-changing events in the book, Katniss does very little.  She once again becomes a pawn, this time of the rebellion, breaking slightly out of her prescribed role occasionally, but always returning to the rebels' primary intention in the end.  The one event that she does finally take some control over, President Snow's assassination, is an utter disaster.  It ends with several people dying and accomplishing absolutely nothing. 

The only real active choice I saw Katniss make was Coin's assassination.  I don't have problems with Coin's death in and of itself, but, truthfully, it felt too abrupt.  Although Katniss does not like Coin, we rarely see her wrestling with the the dangers of each leader.  And, of course, after the killing, Katniss is subdued, locked up, and put on trial (a trial that she is not even in attendance for!).

And here we come to one of my main criticisms of the book.  I hated the ending.  Going in, I had no particular preference for Peeta or Gale, though I assumed she would end up with one in the end.  So I have no problem with her starting a family with Peeta.  But my objection to the ending was that it was the final culmination of Katniss' lack of agency in her life.  It was a final reminder, for me, that Katniss is broken and powerless, and not at all the girl from the first book.

After the trial, Katniss is "sentenced" to return to District 12.  Her mother chooses not to return; Gale chooses not to return.  Peeta, of course, does come back.  So when Katniss finally feels slightly more human, after time, Peeta is the one who's there.  He does understand her pain, having been in the Games, but he's also the only option.  Peeta's a great guy, but that seems more like resignation than a choice.  Collins states that Peeta's steadiness and warmth was more important to Katniss than Gale's fire; that may be, but there's no indication of that being true throughout the book or that Katniss comes to that decision and picks Peeta.

Characters don't always have to be strong and determined in the face of adversity, and I wouldn't argue that Katniss should never show weakness or despair.  But, the ending of the trilogy does not live up to the characterization, story, and pacing of the first book.  There's no satisfaction, as a reader, of seeing your hero go from the "girl on fire" to someone completely powerless and ineffective.

Katniss herself was my main problem, but I had a lot of other issues with the book too.  Katniss' own lack of energy is reflected in the book itself, as very little happens.  There are a lot of meetings and plannings, but there's no real tension or excitement.  It is hard to admit, but I was bored.  Even the few moments that could be more dramatic, like Peeta's rescue, happen so quickly that there's no sense of anticipation.  When Katniss makes an allusion to attacking the Capitol's pods being like the 76th Hunger Games, I was actually excited.  I thought perhaps the action would pick up.  Instead, a number of people die, and then everything is over.

I had also hoped that Katniss' relationships with Gale and Peeta would be fleshed out.  She spends most of the first two books running away from talking with them, and I saw her renewed closeness with Gale in the beginning of Mockingjay as a good sign. However, she's soon not talking to him as well.  Having Peeta returned hijacked was an interesting plot device, but it's also hard to see such a warm and steady character act in that manner.  It made Katniss' life with him later less rewarding.

Going in, I really thought the ending of Mockingjay would make even a dull beginning worth it.  By the end, I felt hurt and betrayed.  I'd invested my emotional energy in a book that did not justify it.  I would still highly recommend The Hunger Games to any reader, but I think I'd advise him/her to stop after the first book.  Awhile ago a student and I were arguing whether the Hunger Games or Chaos Walking (Patrick Ness) trilogy was better.  I thought Hunger Games was better than The Knife of Never Letting Go, but that The Ask and the Answer was much stronger than Catching Fire.  After reading both Monsters of Men and Mockingjay, the win definitely goes to Ness' works.  

Note: There's an excellent review on Amazon by Ilana, in which she criticizes the book because of its failure in terms of Katniss' journey.  Her review helped me formulate some of my thoughts, and I highly recommend it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson

Summary: Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is recently disgraced after being found guilty of libel for publishing a damaging article on a giant corporation in his magazine Millennium.  When he receives an unexpected offer from an aged corporate tycoon, Henrik Vanger, to spend a year working in rural Sweden, Blomkvist reluctantly agrees.  Henrik wants Blomkvist to write a chronicle of the Vanger family, but, secretly, he wants Blomkvist to investigate the mystery surrounding Henrik's grand-niece's disappearance decades before.  As Blomkvist gets deeper into the mysteries of the Vanger clan, he begins working with Lisbeth Salander, a young techno-wiz with secrets of her own.

Musings: Clearly The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a very popular book right now, and the novel certainly packs in the twists and turns of a good detective mystery.  The mystery itself, full of sensational violence and twisted psychopaths, is fairly standard, but what makes the book stand out is its complex protagonists, Blomkvist and Salander (the girl with the dragon tattoo).  In fact, I might argue they are a bit too complex and involved for the story itself, but I suppose that kind of detail is necessary to sustain a longer series.  Blomkvist is presented as a likable guy out to do the right thing by refusing to compromise his morals.  Apparently he's also irresistible to women (who could resist a middle-aged journalist?!), as he sleeps with nearly all the women he meets.  But don't worry, he's certainly not perfect--his relationship with his "occasional lover" Erika Berger broke up his marriage (and continues despite Berger's present marriage) and he rarely sees his child.

The English title, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, puts the emphasis on Salander, which is somewhat of a misdirection considering the content of the book.  She's a unique figure, and is the more interesting of the two "detectives" with her tattoos, piercings, and refusal to engage in "normal" social behavior.  However, she's not central to the plot, and her dragon tattoo (and her other tattoos) aren't even explained! Nonetheless, Blomkvist and Salander are an interesting odd-ball pairing, and I imagine the development of their relationship will guide the second book.

As most people know, the original title of the book, translated from Swedish, is Men Who Hate Women, and it's probably more apt than the English title (though I can understand why publishers would want to change it).  The violence perpetuated against women is discussed and mentioned in various forms throughout the novel.  I did appreciate the awareness given to these kinds of events, though the most prominent examples in the novel are so sensationalized and grotesque that the violence begins to seem far-fetched and veer more toward the realm of "torture porn" rather than really make a statement about the pervasiveness of violence against women.  There's also little understanding of why the violence occurs, in particular, against women.

Although I did mostly enjoy the book, the novel felt more like an extremely long episode of Law and Order: SVU than a groundbreaking new work.  The story drags in places, and the dramatic resolution to Harriet's mystery is somewhat cliche.  I wasn't attached enough to the characters to have to know what happens to them next, but I wouldn't mind reading the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, the next time I have a lot of time to relax and read.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

"The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles" by Julie Andrews Edwards

Summary: When Lindy, Tom, and Ben accidentally meet the eccentric Professor Savant, they learn about the mysterious Whangdoodleland and its king, the fantastical Whangdoodle.  Working with the Professor, the children learn to harness their imaginations and travel to Whangdoodleland in hopes of meeting the Whangdoodle.  But Whangdoodleland has been closed to humans for hundreds of years, and the "oily" Prock will do all he can to keep the children and the professor from reaching the Whangdoodle.

Musings: This is a book that continues to have a lot of sentimental attachment for me, even though I first read it many, many years ago.  The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles was the central book my 5th grade class read.  Even all these years later, I still probably regard 5th grade as my favorite year because of my amazing teacher, Ms. DeVilbiss.  She pushed and encouraged me to read even more than I already was (I probably read several hundred books that year) and inspired my still-present love for manatees.  She was funny and caring and brought out more in me--a supremely shy, though good, student--than other teachers.  We did a lot of projects for Whangdoodles (I know I had the board game I made for many years), and one of the joys of rereading the book was remembering flashes of drawings I or other students had done.  The book is great for a school read because it presents so many opportunities for students to visualize and interpret the imaginary world Andrews has created.

Whangdoodles is still fun as an adult, although it follows the path of similar older children's fantasy novels (it reminded me a lot of the Narnia books or A Wrinkle in Time) in focusing on moralizing.  Some of the characters in the novel come more alive than Whangdoodleland itself, which isn't significantly explained.

There are a few "adult" observations I couldn't quite help but make.  The storyline of three children spending a significant amount of time alone with an eccentric professor--with the promise not to tell their parents what they're up to--of course raises flags today.  I also couldn't quite understand why it was so important that the professor and children meet the Whangdoodle.  It's clear from the beginning that that is the goal, but there didn't seem much purpose.  The Whangdoodle and the other creatures of his country do not want the humans to enter, and for valid reason, but the professor and children insist anyway, causing harm to a number of the country's creatures.  In the end, the professor is able to offer modern science to help the Whangdoodle--something he couldn't do on his own--but the door is also open for potentially dangerous humans to enter the world.  I couldn't help but read a colonization allegory, which caused me to view the humans' actions in a less than positive light.

I still think this would be a great book to read aloud to an elementary-age child.  It's perfect for generating discussion and stimulating the imagination.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"The Color of Water" by James McBride

Summary: The Color of Water is McBride's memoir and tribute to his mother, a Jewish woman who left her family, married a black man, and sent twelve children to college.

Musings: The Color of Water was, for me, another memoir of a family with a fascinating history put together in a story that didn't quite work.  On the one hand, the book is a unique portrait of a determined woman living in a highly prejudiced era.  Raised Orthodox Jewish by her rabbi father, Ruth only wanted to get away, and when she found love, she let nothing stop her. She married a black man when doing so was highly dangerous. She never let people's prejudices get the better of her or her children, frequently reminding her kids that the only things that mattered were education and God.  The book alternates between McBride's and his mother's points of view, and I enjoyed the parts by Ruth the most, as her feistiness and determination were evident, even as she retold her early life as an old woman.

McBride's portion of the book was less compelling.  The various points he narrates didn't seem tied together, and although he talks frequently about his identity issues, I felt he was telling about them rather than showing.  Parts of the narrative were repeated, and it often seemed like I was rereading earlier sections of the book.

The prose dragged somewhat, sometimes filled more with generalizations than story.  I wanted to know about McBride's own journey and relationship with his mother, but the two pieces didn't fit together for me.

I know The Color of Water is a highly-praised and positively reviewed book, so I feel in some ways that I must have missed something that others picked up on.  There are interesting detail about the difficulties of interracial relationships in the early 20th century and the way in which each person constructs his/her identity, but the memoir did not come alive.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

"The Last Olympian" by Rick Riordan

Summary: In this concluding book of the Percy Jackson series, Percy and his friends must finally confront Kronos and his army as they attempt to destroy Olympus.

Musings: After following Percy and his friends through five books, there's satisfying closure in The Last Olympian.  As expected, relationships are restored and strengthened; good triumphs evil.  However, the final book in the series is also a lot like the previous four, and Percy and his friends, despite being five years older, don't appear to have changed or grown.  Unlike the Harry Potter series, in which the pains and rewards of maturing and growing older are at a forefront, Percy remains in a stasis of semi-deluded (I don't know how many times he was "shocked!" or "stunned!" by what just happened!!) good-natured innocence.  The lack of real character development is not a major drawback, as the book is as fun as always, but it does keep the series from forming a real emotional attachment with the reader in the way that Harry Potter does.

Most of The Last Olympian centers on the major fight for Olympus.  A variety of new monsters are introduced for this purpose, but the consistent plot arc of horrible monsters --> last minute reinforcement to save the day! --> recuperate --> more horrible monster than before! --> more amazing reinforcement than before --> etc. can get old.  Percy and Annabeth's relationship, already painfully slow in coming, also seems drawn out.

One interesting question brought up several times in the book is whether the gods are really better rulers than the Titans.  A number of demi-gods, minor gods, and monsters join the Titans' side, and while Percy and others continue to fight on the gods' side--the "good guys'" side--I didn't think a very compelling argument was made for why the gods should be supported.  The novel could have been more interesting had the division between good and bad been acknowledged as muddy.

Nonetheless, Riordan knows how to keep the pace quick and draw in major players in a cohesive narrative.  It's an excellent series for young adults.

- Read my reviews of the first book in the series, The Lightning Thief, the second book in the series, The Sea of Monsters, the third book in the series, The Titan's Curse, and the fourth book in the series, The Battle of the Labyrinth.

Friday, August 6, 2010

"The Lonely Polygamist" by Brady Udall

Summary: Golden is the patriarch of the Richards family, which includes four wives and twenty-six children.  Never at ease in his role as head of the large family, Golden has been feeling increasingly stifled and exhausted, using work as an excuse to avoid home.  The Lonely Polygamist follows Golden, his fourth wife Trish, and his eleven-year-old son Rusty as they struggle with their loneliness and frustration in a family that is falling apart.

Musings: This book immediately brings to mind the HBO series Big Love (which I only saw a few times), though the family members' isolation in a world of chaos seems even more pronounced here.  Going in, although I heard many good things about the book, I wasn't sure what to think.  It's hard to imagine sympathy for a man who has taken on four wives, as the chastisement "you got yourself into it, after all" seems appropriate.  Nonetheless, Udall's novel depicts characters never quite in charge of their own lives and whose frustration and "acting up" is both completely understandable and unfair to those around them.  They're relateable despite living away from what most of us would consider the norm.

Golden is an exhausted man who only came to the polygamist life as a teenager following his father.  He doesn't question his lifestyle or the religious backing for it because he has been raised to avoid conflict and decision-making.  First his father, and then his first wife Beverly made the decisions for him.  Yet the stresses of constantly failing everyone--his wives, his children, and most notably his recently-deceased child Glory who had been born with disabilities--have worn down on him.  In the first sentence of the book, Udall announces, "This is the story about a polygamist who has an affair," (15) and although not really the central focus of the book, Golden's "affair" does give him some release from the anxiety of his home life while also bringing all the stresses of his life to an even greater breaking point.

Trish and Rusty are also equal narrators in the book, which I was glad to see.  Trish came to the polygamist family looking for home and belonging.  Rusty, scapegoated as the "trouble-maker" of the family, struggles with both resisting and conforming to his family's categorization of him.

There are moments of hope and sadness in the novel, but, most of all, I felt resignation and acceptance.  It's no "happily-ever-after" type of story, but it's probably the most true to life.  Although we'd all like to imagine the possibility of grand-scale changes in our life, small concessions and the ability and willingness to continue on are probably the best we can hope for.

Udall has created interesting and sympathetic characters, and the narrative moves quickly along.  There are small moments of humor and the recognition of the absurdity of family life.  I never found myself bored or uninterested.  This is also the first book I've read on my Kindle, and though I thought the e-book format might be somewhat distracting, I had no problem reading the novel as quickly and easily as I do with a traditional format.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"Breakfast of Champions" by Kurt Vonnegut

Summary: Dwayne Hoover is a well-to-do car salesman who is about go to crazy.  His insanity will be set off by an encounter with Kilgore Trout, a prolific and completely unknown science-fiction writer who has, by chance, been invited to participate in the Arts Festival in Midland City.  In classic Vonnegut, these two men and other characters will meet and exist... and so on....

Musings: Although I continue to fail to "get" Vonnegut, I still quite enjoy his work.  No other book of his has fit together for me the way Slaughterhouse-Five did, but the novels are always stimulating, if nothing else.  I did like Breakfast of Champions better than Cat's Cradle (and much better than Hocus Pocus, which I couldn't even finish!) because it was more linear and the repetition served to enhance the narrative.  Breakfast of Champions also includes frequent drawings, which were fun.

But, alas, what to say about the story?  Vonnegut highlights the mundane by making commonalities seem new--explaining how mammals called chickens become Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken, for example.  The concept of people as robots, acting the way they are programmed to act (both literally and metaphorically), is repeated throughout the novel and also serves to emphasize humans' inability to act out of of self- and society-prescribed roles.  The continued emphasis on characters' races and male characters' uh--sizes--also play into the way in which we try to artificially categorize those we know.

Like all of Vonnegut's works, Breakfast of Champions is bizarre, profane, absurd, and very readable.  You're never bored and always left wondering.

***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century Reading Challenge.