Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"You're Not Doing It Right" by Michael Ian Black

I've decided I have a new "thing" for comedy writers' essays/memoirs. This is based mostly on my adoration for Bossypants (and reading of Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me?), but I also think it's because the books are (1) funny (okay, duh) and (2) seem so much closer to reality than a lot of what I read. Perhaps it's because I'm cynical myself, but these cynical writers' views of our lives echo my own views much more closely than the beautiful lyrical and deeply philosophizing fiction that garners so much praise.

That leads us to You're Not Doing It Right, which is probably described everywhere as a "cutting" and "honest" look at self-image, relationships, marriage, and parenting. These terms are apt because Black says things that most of us think but don't typically pronounce publicly, like that we sometimes hate our spouse or our children (I don't have children, but I imagine there will be times when I can't stand them). Unlike Bossypants, Black's book is entirely about his personal life (there's nothing specific about any of his writing or acting), so there is a lot of introspection about his own failings and shortcomings as an individual.

Not surprisingly, the book is quite funny, both because Black is so caustic and because he has no shame in exposing the worst parts of himself. In fact, I felt better about myself reading it (hey, my husband and I have our problems, but we don't fight like that). But what I really enjoyed was that he's able to own up to the sucky parts of life without sugar coating it, and I think sometimes we're so programmed to try to be positive that we're hurt by not acknowledging that the best things in life (a spouse, children) can sometimes be awful.

There were a few sections I bookmarked. This one I share because I am exactly the same way (though my husband's generally thrifty), and I had no idea anyone else felt like this:
"Money is a constant flash point between [Black and his wife] since we have very different attitudes about its purpose. Martha is of the opinion that money is to be spent in order to create a better life for herself and her loved ones, whereas I am of the opinion that money is a means of keeping score. The more you have, the more you are winning. Winning what? Just winning. Isn't that enough?" (155).
I also liked how he talked about "shrouding his best self" in a marriage. We so often give our "best" self to our coworkers and our friends and save the grumpy, no-fun self for our spouse. Perhaps part of the "hard work" of marriage is taking the energy to bring that self forward more often.

You're Not Doing It Right is not an advice book, but Black does show that it's okay to sometimes have selfish thoughts and be a jerk, so long as you recognize it once in a while.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

"Paper Towns" by John Green

As anyone who reads my blog with regularity knows, I tend to stay away from young adult contemporary fiction (well, recently, I've stayed away from young adult all together, but still...). Nonetheless, John Green is popular with my students, and I enjoyed his collaborative novel, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, so when a fellow teacher suggested test-reading Paper Towns for possible inclusion as summer reading, I was willing to give it a go.

After finishing, I'm feeling somewhat ambivalent. Paper Towns is well-written, with interesting characters, an intriguing mystery, and an excellent depiction of male friendship. In a different mood, I probably would have really enjoyed it. However, I felt rather cynical throughout my reading, so parts that typically wouldn't have bothered me did.

Paper Towns follows Quentin, a high school senior who has also been obsessed with his childhood friend and neighbor, Margo Roth Spielgman, for years. In high school, Margo is popular and effervescent, so Quentin is surprised when she shows up at his bedroom window, late one night, requiring Quentin's help. Margo enlists Quentin on an all-night prank-filled trip around town, but the next day at school, Margo is not to be seen. Margo has a habit of running off, so no one's particularly surprised, but as her absence lengthens, Quentin begins to believe Margo has left behind clues for him to follow and find her. 

As I said, what dragged down the novel most for me were the use of cliches that I see pop up often in young adult literature. These include:
- The cliche of big jocks picking on weaker "nerds" in high school. Can we not move beyond (or at least become more nuanced) in the way we present this stereotype?
- Using a teenager's deep interest in music as a sign that he/she is cool. When I discover a teen character has an extensive music collection (especially if he or she collects records), I just groan.
- Using classic literature as a metaphor for teenage angst. As an English teacher, I suppose I should be happy Green uses Walt Whitman's poetry, but I just couldn't get behind it.

But, these things are unlikely to bother a young adult reader, and there are plenty of good things too. I especially liked the relationship between Quentin and his best friends Ben and Radar, who are supportive and yet also carefully drawn individuals. I did think, at times, Quentin's quest to find Margo was presented too heroically, and Ben and Radar's objections overlooked. Quentin is unhealthily obsessed with Margo, and Margo is all he ever talks about. He's unfair to criticize his friends when they want to do or be interested in something other than Quentin's journey. Nonetheless, I liked the rapport between the friends.

There's a lot of thought in Paper Towns into the question of how well we can know another person and the futility of trying to define anyone but ourselves. The book doesn't come down for or against the traditional (finishing high school, going to college) or the nontraditional (running off before graduation, exploring and drifting), but I like that it doesn't present either as wholly satisfactory.

Many of my students have adored Paper Towns and Green's other books, and though this one didn't come together fully for me, it was still an enjoyable read.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"The Song of Achilles" by Madeline Miller

"Achilles" is a name still famous after thousand of years. He's the greatest Greek hero, even though the action in the Iliad mostly has him sulking in his tent. His relationship with his friend Patroclus plays an important role in the Iliad's story, and scholars have long suggested that the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was romantic rather than platonic. Miller takes this standpoint in her novel The Song of Achilles, which follows the boys from their initial friendship through Achilles' death on the battlefield of Troy.

This is not a reinvention of Achilles' tale but rather a fleshing out with Patroclus as the narrator and protagonist. To anyone with a basic knowledge of Greek mythology, the ending is known from the beginning, and that awareness adds a deep dramatic tension throughout that I found hard to let go of. While I was reading, I desperately wanted to reach the end (reading of their joy was too much), and yet when I stopped reading, I didn't want to pick the novel up again because I knew that pain would be coming. This isn't a criticism but a testament to Miller's ability to make the reader feel the boys' relationship.

Although the book begins with the boys as pre-teens and ends with Achilles and Patroclus in their late-twenties, they never really seem to age and their relationship doesn't seem to evolve. Patroclus is always a fuller character than Achilles, who is too perfect and powerful to feel real. Nevertheless, this characterization of the hero and the relationship seems appropriate. For one, "perfect" is the way Patroclus sees Achilles, so it fits that we see him that way too. In addition, Achilles' story is that of myth, and there's a certain stasis in myth (e.g. Odysseus and Penelope's relationship is unchanged after his twenty-year absence) that's normal and feels right here.

My favorite part of the book is the early development of the boys' romance while working with Chiron, trainer of heroes. Their uncertain grappling of their feelings for one another, finally culminating in mutual love, is sweet and innocent. The world and customs of Ancient Greece are well-drawn, and the story moves quickly and smoothly. Throughout the book, Miller utilizes her readers' familiarity with Greek myth to strengthen her story. It's great to see Odysseus' way with words so well-constructed, and when Achilles repeatedly says he doesn't intend to kill Hector ("After all, what has he ever done to me?"), we groan with our foreknowledge.

It's a little surprising that although The Song of Achilles does not really break new ground in Achilles' and Patroclus' stories, it's nonetheless engrossing and moving. I'd recommend it to anyone with interest in Greek myths.

Monday, March 19, 2012

"The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula LeGuin

Reading Walton's Among Others inspired me to try some classic sci-fi, and LeGuin's well-known The Left Hand of Darkness seemed to be a good place to start (gotta give the love to the women sci-fi writers!). I was worried the novel would be dry or dated, as it was written over forty years ago, so I found myself pleasantly surprised at how engaging it is.

The novel follows Genly Ai, the first Envoy to the planet called Gethen, or Winter. He has been living on the planet as a representative of the Ekumen, a sort of interplanetary alliance, and has not been having much success. Winter's inhabitants live in an Arctic landscape, to which Genly is poorly suited, and he has made little inroads with the Karhidish king, whom he is trying to convince to align with the Ekumen.

The first half of the novel is a bit slow. Genly engages in vague politicking around Karhide and complains about their unusual customs and habits. Though he feels he has an ally in Lord Estraven, he's never certain, and I didn't feel especially connected or interested in Genly. However, about halfway through, the novel plunges into action. After Lord Estraven is declared a traitor and exiled by the Karhidish king, Genly travels to another country, Orgota, in hopes of forming an alliance with them. He fares even worse there and is abruptly thrown into a prison labor camp. Suddenly, a somewhat slow political novel becomes a daring escape tale when Estraven rescues Genly from the camp and they begin an 800-mile journey over ice back to Karhide.

Though the first half of the novel is necessary set-up, it's the second half that makes the whole piece worthwhile, as a strong friendship forms between Genly and Estraven. This relationship is all the more important because of the singular unique trait of the people of Winter: they do not have gender (at least, not as we see it). Most of the time, Gethenians are essentially neuter (or, more accurately, "potentials"), not having sex organs or traits associated with men or women. However, during part of each month (much like a woman's period), each Gethenian goes into kemmer and adopts male or female sex parts in response to another individual in kemmer. In this phase, the "female" Gethenian can become pregnant and have children. However, after the child is born and weaned, that same Gethenian could take on male characteristics in kemmer and sire a child. Though Genly has difficulty with many aspects of Gethenian culture, it's this inability to classify individuals by gender that is the most challenging. And even though I'd like to think we've come further in being comfortable with gender ambiguity since then, it's a challenging part of the novel for the reader too. After all, Genly refers to the people he meets as "he," and as an investigator writes, "The very use of the pronoun [he] in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman" (69).

Traveling and becoming close with Estraven forces Genly (and the reader) to accept Estraven as a person, not a woman or a man. Writes the same investigator, "The First Mobile, if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience" (69).

What I love about classic sci-fi and fantasy, in particular, is the detail and thought put into the worldbuilding. In that regard, The Left Hand of Darkness reminded me of Dune, though I felt for the characters much more here.

LeGuin challenges us to reevaluate the way we judge and assume based on gender, but her book is not heavy-handed about it. She seems to suggest (in a real and not a kid's cartoon kind of way) that true friendships and understanding can happen if there is a willingness to put aside one's prejudices and, at times, pride.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Divergent" by Veronica Roth

I've been recommending the Hunger Games to my 9th grade students for several years (even before it reached its current popularity--yeah, I'm that cool), and ever since I've been looking for its successor. At this point virtually all of my students have read the Hunger Games, and I need another book with such wide appeal (girls and boys; weak readers and stellar students). Though Divergent isn't quite that novel, I'm happy to say it is one I can recommend to a large number of my students, and it will undoubtedly be enjoyed by many Hunger Games fans.

Divergent's premise and plot lies entirely within it's worldbuilding, though it's this worldbuilding that is also the most unrealistic part of the novel. At some point in the United States' future, people decided that the country's problems were caused by individuals' lack of particular character traits. People formed groups called "factions" based on what personality trait they believed was most necessary for success: Abnegation believes in selflessness; Dauntless in courage; Erudite in knowledge; Amity in kindness; and Candor in honesty. Since then, people have grown up in one faction but are allowed to choose their own faction as teenagers. Once they do so, they undergo a rigorous initiation in order to become full faction members.

So, on the outset, this set-up seems pretty silly and doomed to failure. First, there's the absurdity in the idea that anyone could believe that one personality trait is sufficient for an effective society. Not surprisingly, the factions have taken their trait to an absurd extreme, so that Dauntless, for example, is dedicated mostly to reckless thrill seeking and Abnegation doesn't allow its members to use mirrors or wear anything but gray. Secondly, the government design is doomed for failure. Abnegation is given control of the government (since they're so selfless), but that obviously will breed anger among other factions. And people who fail faction initiation are "Factionless" and live essentially homeless, yet the people in the book don't seem to see this as a gigantic problem.

But, if the reader can accept all this, Divergent is a fun novel. The protagonist is Tris, a girl who has grown up as Abnegation but never felt at home there. When she takes her aptitude test to determine what faction she fits best in, she discovers that she doesn't fit just one faction--instead, she's "divergent." She keeps this a secret, knowing it's dangerous, and chooses to join Dauntless. Dauntless initiation is a struggle; though she makes a few friends (and grows especially close to one of their trainers, a slightly older boy named Four), she's forced to fight, take risks, and face unimaginable fears. Yet amidst all this there is growing unease between the factions, and a future in which Tris will have to play an important role.

Divergent has a fast pace and nicely balances the individual struggles of Tris as she undergoes initiation with the societal struggles between the factions. Tris is a fully realized character, particularly as she attempts to put aside her Abnegation upbringing in order to fulfill the requirements for Dauntless. Her relationship with Four doesn't overwhelm the story, but it's relationship you root for nonetheless. Like Hunger Games, Divergent doesn't shy away from violence. There are teenagers killing other people and a high body count. This will probably help make it appeal to teenage readers, though the number of deaths is so high by the end that the impact is somewhat lost.

The audiobook I listened to is read by Emma Galvin, who does an excellent job with Tris' narration and with the other characters' voices. The pacing and emotional tenor was spot on, and the novel was easy to follow.

I'm planning on recommending Divergent to my students when their next independent reading comes up, and I'm hoping it will be a new favorite for some.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

"The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey

Although it seems rather inappropriate to read The Snow Child considering the wonderful atypical 60 degree March weather we're currently having in Pennsylvania (where were you, Ivey, during those blizzards of the past few years?), the book is so engaging and well-crafted that I'd recommend it even for a summer in Mexico.

The Snow Child is loosely inspired by a fairy tale in which a childless couple builds a girl out of snow; when the girl comes alive, they cherish her, but because she is from snow, they cannot keep her forever. In this novel, Jack and Mabel are the childless couple living in Alaska. They have recently escaped to this snowy wilderness and are struggling through their first winter. Feeling giddy one evening, they build a child out of snow, and soon after, they discover a shy and wild young girl, named Faina. Faina comes and goes from their lives, never content to stay for long and never staying through the summer, as Jack and Mabel grow with the Alaskan land.

Though this is not a fast-paced book, I had a hard time putting it down, both because I wanted to see the growth in the relationships between Jack, Mabel, and Faina, and because the book's setting is so rich. I've no romantic notions about Alaska, but Ivey does an excellent job of describing its beauty and danger and the satisfaction that can come from working in such an environment. The snow seems so beautiful when described through the life of Faina, a child of the snow and cold. Faina herself is wonderfully characterized; she's both human and part of the forest, and I loved the other-worldly quality she brings to the practical earthly lives of Jack and Mabel.

There is a small sense of dread throughout the novel, as the reader knows that, like the fairly tale snow child, Faina cannot possibly remain forever. Despite this, the novel is not a sad one, for in loving Faina, Jack and Mabel find love and happiness in other areas too.

Not surprisingly, The Snow Child would be best enjoyed on a cold winter evening, curled up with a blanket and hot chocolate by a fire--but don't put off reading it just because you can't get that atmosphere now.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"The Buddha in the Attic" by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic is a tiny novella, nearly a long short story, that follows the lives of Japanese "picture brides" through their journey to unknown Japanese husbands-to-be living in America, their wedding nights, their struggle to survive and work, motherhood, and Japanese internment in World War II. However, rather than following one or a few "brides," the entire novella is written in first person plural: "we."

This choice of narrator creates a choral effect--a certain echo--which gives the book a poetic feel. It's a stylistic choice with benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, the prose is beautiful and descriptive, and the use of "we" to describe individual women highlights both the similarities and the differences in the women's lives. Some marry abusive husbands; some marry timid men; some marry happily; some become prostitutes. Some women toil in the fields; others do housekeeping work in the city. Some survive and prosper; others' lives are cut short. Yet all women feel some excitement and some regret in leaving their homeland, and all feel conflicted about the country to which they've arrived. The downside to this style is that there really are no characters, and the reader feels no specific attachment to the women. Because of this, the book is not especially engrossing, and the point of view certainly would only work in a very short piece (and this book nearly pushes the limits on how long such a conceit can go, even though it's only 129 pages in large print on tiny pages).

Perhaps, too, because of the lack of specific characters, Buddha in the Attic doesn't feel especially new. Though there's plenty I don't know about the lives of such women, the stories are largely expected. The women are disappointed by the reality of living in America; their lives are difficult, and they struggle to communicate with children who are more Americanizes than they will ever be. They feel shock and resignation when the order for internment arrives. Without individuals to focus on, the story remains rather broad and touches on more familiar issues.

The Buddha in the Attic is such a quick book that it's worth a read for those interested in Japanese immigration, but I'm also sure it's unlikely to be a favorite for many.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Among Others" by Jo Walton

Thought I suppose Among Others would be classified as (loose) fantasy, in reality a better genre classification is "fictional memoir fantasy science-fiction love letter." Or something like that. In simpler terms, Among Others an ode of adoration to the worlds created within science-fiction and fantasy--and a unique and engaging story to boot.

Among Others is written in memoir/diary format and narrated by a fifteen-year-old girl named Morwenna. Mor has run away from her mother, who killed Morwenna's sister Morganna and disabled Morwenna after the twins tried to prevent her from becoming an evil witch. Now Mor has been placed with her father, Daniel, whom she barely knows and who sends her to an elite boarding school, Arlinghurst. There she struggles to find a group of like-minded people (her "karass") and eventually discovers them in a local science-fiction book club. Though this is the set-up, it forms little of the action of the novel.

What to say about this strange and wonderful book? First, I typically dislike the diary format in novels because it seems like a contrived plot device: the "diary" entries are eternally long and read just like a book's narrative. Though Walton occasionally succumbs to those faults (e.g. by recounting long dialogue or by telling a lengthy story exactly chronologically), overall she's very successful at capturing the feeling of a real girl's diary. Some entries are very short; others are longer. Certain plot points are brought up and never returned to; other story arcs are never completed. No where is there a big info dump about Mor's background. We learn about her family in small pieces, and, in fact, large parts of her history are never described in detail. Instead, like a "real" diary, the entries focus on the thoughts and feeling of Mor each day. Most of the entries concern Mor's discussion of the science-fiction books she's reading or of general observations of her family and friends. On a side note, though I love science-fiction, I'm not especially familiar with classic texts (the book takes place in the late '70s), and Walton's work makes me want to check-out handfuls of them.

Then there's the way in which the book addresses magic. Mor can practice magic, and she can communicate with fairies, but this is not Harry Potter magic. It's more a subtle power that connects things and is sometimes indistinguishable from non-magical, intense feelings (like the tingling when you first get close to a boy or girl you like; or the emotional resonance you feel to an object that's important to you). Mor is afraid of practicing magic, for she understands its consequences. For example, if she uses magic to make a bus arrive earlier, she's changing enormous parts of history in order to make that happen.

Mor doesn't seem reality-realistic--no child, how precocious, could read the number of science-fiction books she reads in a week. She fits the "more awesome at everything" (except math) stereotype of fantasy protagonists, and her book club is just too perfect and welcoming. But, those details rarely bothered me. The book is so subtle and its use of fantasy elements so quietly integrated that I was instantly drawn in. In the end, Among Others is more about a love of literature and a teenage girl struggling to define her world than anything else, and it addresses those issues more effectively than most contemporary YA.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman

As I've pointed out before, I have endless fascination with how the human mind works, and anytime psychology of the mind is put into digestible (i.e., non-textbook) format, I jump on it. Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow is quite popular right now, and his work is backed up by decades of research and by the fact that he's a Nobel Prize winner in economics.

The main premise of the book is that the human mind is divided into two parts, which Kahneman terms "System 1" and "System 2." System 1 is our gut instinct; it reacts without conscious thinking. System 2 is the slow and deliberate process that we bring in to solve difficult issues. Through the framing of the human brain in this manner, Kahneman exposes many of the fallacies that we are prone to.

There's tons of great tidbits to be gleaned from the book, so I'll just list a few I most enjoyed:
  • Humans are highly susceptible to priming. Just seeing an image of money (e.g. dollar bills on a computer screen saver) can make us more selfish.
  • We're prone to answering the easier question. Most people know that interviews aren't good at judging people's capability for a job. Part of that reason is because interviewers subconsciously answer the easier question: not "Is she good for the job?" but "Do I like her?"
  • If we're asked to make a list of benefits (e.g. reasons why you should buy the car you like), we become less confident in the decision. Fluency (the ease at which we bring up answers) affects our feelings--it eventually becomes hard to think of many reasons, so we assume the decision is a poor one.
  • Success = skill and luck. Because of this, if you do really well or really poorly on something, you are almost certain to do worse or better respectively the next time--you'll "regress to the mean."
  • Most people suffer from hindsight bias. Once we change our mind, it's hard to recount our former beliefs; we feel we "always" felt that way.
  • Formulas are usually more accurate than humans in prediction, even of complex things like a person's appropriateness for a job.
In fact, it's easy to forget that our mind actually does many wonderful things well, as Kahnemen is so successful at showing how susceptible to suggestion and other factors we are. However, while I expected to learn that we mess up a lot, I was surprised at another message in the book: the enormous role that luck plays in our lives. We like to create narratives by which certain things occur or don't occur, but there is much outside our control, and one person's success could just have easily been another's failure. It's a somewhat sobering thought.

Overall the book is informative and engaging, with lots of "thought problems" to immerse the reader in the theories and plenty of illustrative studies. However, I do have a few criticisms. First, though Kahneman is obviously very intelligent and accomplished, he can, at times, come off as rather full of himself, particularly when he extols the virtue of one of his theories. Additionally, while the first three-quarters of the book were fascinating, I found the fourth section, "Choices," incredibly dull. This is a bit ironic since much of that section is on economics (his Nobel winning area). Nonetheless, the detailed economic theories were complicated and difficult to understand, and the unending gambling scenarios were tiresome. This part of the book felt much more like a textbook than the rest, and I had a hard time convincing myself to finish it.

Initially I started Thinking, Fast and Slow as an audiobook, but it's absolutely unsuited for that format. Much of the book requires stopping to think about problems before continuing or looking at graphs and illustrations, which is difficult to do with an audio book. I missed too much and quickly switched to the paper copy.

For those who also find illuminations of the working of the human mind endlessly entertaining (and, even, somewhat scary), I'd definitely recommend the book (though don't feel bad if you want to skip the last section).