Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"The Shakespeare Thefts" by Eric Rasmussen

My husband, on errand to the library, was left the unenviable task of picking up "something I'd like" for me to read. He came home with several books, among them The Shakespeare Thefts, a short account of the author and his team's work documenting all known copies of the first folios of Shakespeare's plays. I was pretty proud of him, especially because I'm just now beginning Romeo and Juliet with my 9th grade students, and I'm always looking for fun tidbits to throw into lessons. Unfortunately the book is a dud, but I won't say that to my husband. :)

Studying Shakespeare is a bit of a challenge. We have a wealth of drama and intrigue in his plays, but we know so little about the man himself that's it's not surprising that so many fantastic stories and myths have grown up around him. Nevertheless, there's always a certain excitement about entering the world of Shakespeare, and the reader expects to encounter such adventure in the tales of the copies of the first folios, which were put together after Shakespeare's death and are the first place many of his most famous plays appear. Rasmussen himself builds on this expectation with a title like The Shakespeare Thefts, which suggests mystery and plots.

However, the stories just aren't particularly interesting. A number of folios have been stolen over the years (some were recovered, some not), but even the more interesting thefts are recounted blandly and without much excitement. Despite the title, many of the stories are not about thefts but about random things related to the folios: a Japanese owner who won't let Rasmussen see his copy (Rasmussen is really upset about this; he mentions it several times) or the owner who donated his copy to a university because it smelled. Rasmussen spends the rest of the time congratulating himself and his team's work and promoting his other book, The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue, which was made from his research.

Even though the book is a very short and quick read, and even though I finished it not even an hour ago, I already can barely remember any details of individual folios. It's a shame, because you'd hope that the lives of these rare and treasured documents could live up to the stories contained within them.

Monday, February 20, 2012

"Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain

The church in which my husband and I were married required that all couples undergo pre-marital counseling. It was a good experience, and one moment stuck out to me. My husband was praising my organizational ability and contrasting it with his own "go with the flow" "let it happen" mentality, which often infuriates me. As I was nodding smugly to his praise, the counselor interrupted and noted that just because my organization is good doesn't mean my husband's attitude is bad; there are benefits and drawbacks to both styles of planning.

This conversation came back to me while reading Cain's Quiet. One of her principal points is that Americans typically see extroversion as a strength and introversion as a weakness that should be overcome. I'm a textbook introvert, and I've always seen my preference for staying home snuggled with my husband and a movie (rather than going downtown to a bar with a bunch of people or going to a party thrown by one of my husband's friends) as a failure and a weakness. Just like that pre-marital counselor did for my beliefs about organization, Quiet challenges the pro-extroversion assumption and argues that, in fact, introversion is a great strength that should be valued and even encouraged.

Introversion has many definitions, but academics typically agree on at least some traits. Introverts tend to prefer exploration of the mind; they tire from large social situations and prefer the intimacy of deep conversations among close friends; they tend to be more sensitive. And, as Cain emphasizes in her book, introverts tend to be classified as lacking for being too "shy," "antisocial," or "quiet." One of the best part of Quiet, then, is its constant affirmation to introverts: you are not lacking and you are important to a well-functioning society.

Quiet is a perfect cheerleader for introverts (though, fittingly, a cheerleader who speaks in a well-organized book rather than a bright red mini-skirt and pompoms), as Cain details many studies showing the benefits of introverts in the workplace or as Cain explores how an excess concentration of extroverts helped lead to the financial crisis. After a few chapters, I told my husband (only half kidding) that the primary message I was getting from the book was that "I am more awesome than you because I'm an introvert." To that end, Cain may over-emphasize what introversion has to offer, but I think it's needed considering what a negative reputation introversion has in this country.

One of the fascinating sections of the book for me was Cain's description of the "groupthink" mentality found in schools and the workplace. I went to an Ivy League university for my masters in education, and I've long said that the primary thing I learned during my time there was that everything students do must be done in groups. We were so drilled that group work and cooperative learning were the only methods by which students could learn that for months I was terrified of ever assigning individual assignments. In fact, to this day, I feel reluctant to assign individual work (despite my personal preference for it), thinking I'm somehow harming the students' learning. However, Quiet argues, through numerous studies, that group work actually impedes creativity and effectiveness. I was an outstanding yet introverted student in school, and because of my quiet attitude, I was often overlooked. Now I realize how as a teacher myself I'm perpetuating that cycle.

Quiet is a great book for any introvert who has ever felt like something inside him or her was wrong. The book is also great for teachers, parents, and partners of introverts, as it affirms introverts' tendencies as normal and beneficial and gives tips on how to bring out the best in introverts. Cain uses a variety of studies and anecdotes to make her points, creating an engaging and important book.

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Last Man in Tower" by Aravind Adiga

Adiga's White Tiger was one of my favorite books in 2009, and though the premise of his newest book, Last Man in Tower, didn't appeal to me in quite the same way, I was more than willing to try it on the strength of the author's name alone.

Last Man in Tower is about an aging housing complex, called a "Society," in India. A wealthy builder wants to demolish the building and turn it into luxury housing, and he offers a large amount of money to buy the building from the current occupants. Eventually, all members of the close-knit Society agree to the sale except Masterji, a retired teacher and recent widower, who continues to hold out even when his neighbors begin to turn on him.

On the surface, Last Man in Tower seems like a pretty traditional story: greedy builder offers hardworking but struggling people unimaginable fortunes; greed then brings out the worst in people, turning kindly neighbors into monsters. In fact, the story seemed from the outset to be so straightforward and unoriginal that I almost anticipated some crazy twist. I was surprised when, in fact, Last Man in Tower is exactly the story that you'd expect from that set-up. There are no twists, no unexpected character development. The developer remains greedy and cruel; the neighbors devolve into inhumane savages and make excuses for themselves later; Masterji stays stubborn until the end.

It is a testament to Adiga's skill as a writer that Last Man in Tower is engaging even though the plot itself is not particularly so, and he does an excellent job of drawing out his characters, particularly Masterji and Mrs. Puri, the doting mother of a teenage son with Down's syndrome. The daily life of India is also particularly vivid, from the Society building itself to the streets of Mumbai. The only part of Adiga's writing I didn't care for was the frequent animal symbolism, which seemed heavy-handed and unnecessary. For example, (warning: spoiler) just before a group of Society members finally decides to kill Masterji, they root a crow's nest with baby crows out of the building, purposefully stepping on and killing one of the hatchlings. We get it.

Last Man in Tower is just as well-written as Adiga's previous novel, though it's not nearly as good. It's more straightforward than White Tiger, though, so it may appeal more to a general audience.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson

There has been great praise for Johnson's Orphan Master's Son around book sites for several weeks now, so I was finally convinced to pick it up. And it definitely lives up to the hype.

Shamefully, I don't know much about North Korea (although, I suppose, a lot of very smart people also don't know much). I know that the country is a wacky insanely restrictive dictatorship known for horrific human rights violations and that Kim Jong Il was short and wore platform shoes and was nuts. Orphan Master's Son is a work of fiction, so I know it can't be taken for a literal report of life in North Korea, but whew, is it scary.

Johnson's novel follows the life of the orphan Jun Do, named after one of the famed North Korean martyrs. He's a kidnapper, a radio interpreter on a sailing ship, a prisoner, and, lastly, he takes on the persona of famed Commander Ga. Jun Do's story is heartbreaking and completely engaging, as the reader sees a young man reinventing his life over and over again until he decides to not simply accept his reality but change it whatever the consequences.

The most frightening part of the book is its depiction of life inside North Korea, which is uncannily like living in Orwell's 1984. There's the oppression by "Dear Leader" or the way the citizens must live a life of doublethink--simultaneously believing they have a great and free life and knowing they don't.

Johnson's skilled at making the repressive North Korea come to life, but he's equally talented at making Jun Do someone you care for and desperately want to succeed. His story is a great and powerful adventure, and though it's sad and awful at parts, it's not a gloomy story.

I'm disappointed in my review because I don't know how to describe the book well, but I can say it was utterly absorbing and that I highly recommend it.