Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: Year in Review

And, so, my fourth year of blogging comes to an end. 2012 was a busy year for me: a move from Pennsylvania to Ohio and a change in jobs. My reading suffered a bit because of the craziness and general busyness (later nights at work; working out four times a week). And, for whatever reason, I've been in a big reading slump for the latter part of the year. Nothing's getting me excited. In fact, when I first sat down and started listing books for my top ten, I could only come up with seven. So here's hoping 2013 will be a better reading year!

My top 10 books read in 2012:
1. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (fiction)
2. Quiet by Susan Cain (nonfiction)
3. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (sci-fi)
4. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (fiction)
5. Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (nonfiction)
6. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (classic nonfiction)
7. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (classic fiction)
8. After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh (sci-fi short stories)
9. Among Others by Jo Walton (sci-fi)
10. Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (fiction)

Total books read and reviewed: 64
As I expected, my reading is down; I read 64 books this year, contrasted with 85 books last year and 109 in 2010. I'm at a little over one a week, which still isn't bad, so I'm not especially dispirited by the numbers.

Fiction read: 46
Nonfiction read: 18
My nonfiction stayed pretty constant with last year; 28% of my reading was nonfiction (compared with 25% last year).

Adult read: 57
Young adult read: 7
As has been the trend over the years, my YA reading continues to decrease (it made up 11% of my reading this year compared with 18% of my reading in 2012). I expect the numbers will stay about the same in 2013.

Female authors: 30
Male authors: 34
This is something I worked hard at this year, and even though having to prep for a new curriculum (and thus reading white men ALL SUMMER) made keeping parity difficult, I still managed to stay fairly equal.

Years published:
- 2012: 25
- 2011: 13
- 2000-2010: 21
- 1990-1999: 3
- 1900-1989: 12
- 1800-1899: 3
No surprises here!

Book sources:
- Total borrowed: 54
- Total purchased: 0
- Total for review: 1 (from NetGalley)
- Total otherwise acquired: 1 (as a gift)
- Total already owned: 8 (these are books I've had for over five years)
Didn't even have to buy one book this year, despite moving to a city with a much slower library system than Philadelphia. I'm coping.

Happy new year and best wishes for 2013!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

"Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell

I've begun a hunt for a new, contemporary text for my juniors' summer reading (Red Badge of Courage was torturous--for me and for them). I thought Gladwell's Outliers might be the type of interesting and thought-provoking nonfiction that would help start their year in English on a more positive note. I'm still not sure whether it's right for the classroom, but, on a personal level, I found the book interesting and worthwhile.

Like with Gladwell's What the Dog Saw (which I also enjoyed), there are some problems with Gladwell's anecdote-heavy broad social theories, but there are also some really important points. The most important of which, I think, is his primary thesis: that success does not come solely from one individual's hard work. Yes, hard work and a willingness to take advantage of opportunities are essential for success, but so much else--luck, family, culture--combines to allow those at the top to get to the top. And one of our very real problems in America is that we're so individual-focused that we fail to see that one's success (and, I think you have to argue--though Gladwell doesn't much--one's failure) is almost never due to a person's native intelligence or genius. A lack of awareness of this basic fact has huge effects in schooling, where every day I meet kids who believe they "can't" write or read well, rather than seeing reading and writing as skills that can be developed and improved upon.

The earliest parts of the book were the most intriguing for me, particularly the first chapter on the importance of hockey players' birthdays and the two chapters on the fallacy of geniuses. The chapters on culture dragged a bit more for me, and I'm not sure Gladwell did enough to argue that there's not one "right" cultural way (i.e., Asian countries are very successful in math--but so is Finland, which has a hugely different educational system).

At the very least, it might be worthwhile using some of the chapters in my classroom, particularly those showing the importance or practice and perseverance  So often my kids think it's a weakness if they have to spend hours on an essay (and instead praise the student who can "get away" with only spending 30 minutes) rather than recognizing that that effort is what creates success.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

"Lost at Sea" by Jon Ronson

Lost at Sea is a collection of Ronson's previously published (primarily in The Guardian) essays from the last decade. Though the essays are loosely categorized by vague themes, there's no explicit connection between the stories except that most are about sad or strange (and often both) individuals who walk the line between sane and crazy. They're interesting pieces on their own, but taken together, all at once, the essays almost seem repetitive, and I was left thinking, "Wow, Ronson flies around to a lot of places. Does The Guardian pay for that? It must."

But, like I said, individually, each story is certainly interesting, and I like Ronson's style of integrating his personal experiences and narrative into the essay's subject (as he did in The Psychopath Test). There are a good number of essays about famous court cases, including the British Who Wants to be a Millionaire? scandal and a British pop star's child-sex scandal. "Who Killed Richard Cullen?", a prophetic look into the 2007 economic meltdown (though written in 2005) was especially interesting, as I hadn't realized that England had experienced the same problems as the U.S.: banks targeting middle-income people, saddling them with credit card debt, etc. And I liked how Ronson explores interesting people--like a minister who assists individuals looking to commit suicide or a man with a course to convert agnostics--and lets us see both their crazy and their reason.

I think I'd prefer reading Ronson's essays as their originally appeared, but Lost at Sea is a good representation of Ronson's work.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

"The Drowned Cities" by Paolo Bacigalupi

When I requested The Drowned Cities, I didn't realize it was a companion book to Bacigalupi's earlier young adult novel Ship Breaker (which I enjoyed). I was a little disappointed because I was looking forward to Bacigalupi's excellent adult sci-fi, but his YA books are similarly engaging: strong world building, interesting characters, and lots of action.

The Drowned Cities feels a little less sci-fi than Bacigalupi's earlier works, primarily because so much of the book is drawn from real life in its depiction of a nation's chaotic civil war and use of child soldiers. The protagonist of the novel is Mahlia, an orphaned child of a Chinese peacekeeper (though the peacekeepers have long since abandoned the Drowned Cities) and a local woman. Her only friend is Mouse, another orphan who saved her when one of the warring armies cut off one of her hands. When Mouse is taken as a soldier, Mahlia is determined to rescue him, and she attempts to do so with the help of Tool, an enormously strong and dangerous part-human, part-animal augment (and a recurring character from Ship Breaker).

I taught the nonfiction book A Long Way Gone, about child soldiers in Sierra Leone, to my seniors this year, and it's scary how much of Drowned Cities echoes the real life horrors children in such countries have faced. Bacigalupi skillfully shows how such armies indoctrinate their young soldiers, making them feel like part of a team--and ensuring they have no other options.

Tool is probably the most interesting character in the novel, though by the end he felt somewhat unexplored. He's a killing machine on his own for the first time and making real decisions in his life. I like that he's both able to break free of some of his conditioning and show compassion, but that he's also not able or willing to "switch off" the violent part of him--it's who he is, and he accepts that. Mahlia and Mouse serve as good counterparts to each other, and Bacigalupi is even able to make the characters' "why in the hell would they do that?" moments (which are apparently necessary for tension-driven YA) seem believable.

I don't consider myself especially squeamish, so I was a little surprised that one of the most off-putting aspects of the book for me was its intense violence. There is a large amount of graphic and brutal violence done to children and adults, including murder, mutilation, and torture. The violence is realistic in context of modern child soldiers, but it could be strong stuff for the younger end of YA. Nonetheless, Drowned Cities is a worthy companion to Ship Breaker.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Judging a Book by Its Lover" by Lauren Leto

In the right hands, a book about a love of books can be a wonderful, self-affirming nugget. I love books! And so does this author! And we love them in similar ways, and (hehe), I totally get that feeling all the time--kindred bookworms of the world, unite! I felt that way about Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman because even though Fadiman is way better read than I am, I still experienced a kinship with her.

Though I hoped to find a similar feeling in Judging a Book by Its Lover, Leto just doesn't inspire the same book-lover camaraderie. Leto has a snarkier tone than Fadiman, something I thought I'd enjoy but that instead put me off. Her sarcastic descriptions of the type of people who love a certain author (e.g., "J.K. Rowling: Smart geeks") sometimes rang true, but were never especially funny or insightful. A lot of the book is comprised of lists (how to write like a certain author;"cult favorite" books; summaries of well-known literature; summaries of popular memoirs) that quickly grew tedious. A list billed as an "SAT vocabulary-word cheat sheet" and "a way to make your sentences seem smarter" was so basic--maybe my high school students wouldn't know all the words, but I certainly was comfortable with and regularly use nearly all of them--that I felt offended (really, who's going to be impressed with your use of "compelling" or "inexplicable"?).

The sections of the book that aren't lists (and some that are) are mostly about how to pretend to have read a book you haven't. As a book lover, this somewhat surprised me, as I can think of only one time that I was ever in this situation (and remember, I'm an English major and an English teacher). There's something either wrong with your friends or with you if you're constantly needing to bluff your reading experience.

And, here I fear sounding pretentious, but there has to be something said for taking literary advice from a woman with a degree in political theory and constitutional democracy and whose only other publication is the book version of Texts from Last Night (and whose cover is blurbed by James Frey...yeah...). Leto acknowledges that she's not a "scholar of literature," which is fine, but I did need to buy, somewhere along the way, that I should believe in her. I'm sure if the book had been written differently and I'd enjoyed it more, Leto's credentials wouldn't have mattered, but as I slogged my way through endless lists, I couldn't help but think, "So says the girl whose other book was composed entirely by very drunk people who can't text well."

Leto is best when she focuses on personal stories, such as she does in the first half of the introduction (before the story goes into grating hyperbole) and in "The Spelling Bee." Otherwise the book will only be new--yet completely unappealing--to people who don't read.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"Thank You, Jeeves" by P.G. Wodehouse

Thank You, Jeeves marks my third entree into the Wooster/Jeeves series, and though it is probably my least favorite of the three, it does have some great Bertram/Jeeves moments.

It's not necessary to summarize the plot, though the novel does begin with Jeeves leaving Bertram's employment upon Bertram's refusal to stop playing the banjolele. Despite his resignation, Jeeves is still present through most of the story, offering the same calm and sage advice as in the other novels. The slapstick isn't quite as laugh-out-loud funny as the previous two books, and the highjinks of Brinkley, Bertram's new valet, are really too outlandish. Add to that that the second half of the book involves two characters in blackface (which I couldn't help but read at least somewhat offensively, even given allowances for the time period)... and I just didn't enjoy myself as much as on previous Wodehouse expeditions.

Nonetheless, the end of the novel, with the reunion of Jeeves and Bertram, was quite touching, and perhaps is my favorite Wodehouse ending thus far.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"This Is How You Lose Her" by Junot Diaz

I adored The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It was such a unique book, with a strong voice in Yunior and such deeply felt characterization. Though I read the book a number of years ago (before I began this blog), it's remained a favorite. So I was excited to read Diaz's newest book--This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories primarily centered around the same Yunior--as I hoped it would help break me out of my reading funk.

There were definitely things I liked about the book. Yunior's voice is still there, a combination of America and the Dominican Republic, educated phrases and cultural slang. There are complicated relationships, most interestingly between Yunior and his mother and brother, even though each story is about a girl. And the last story, "A Cheater's Guide to Love," written in the second person (something that shouldn't work but that is so effective here) is outstanding, reminiscent of what made Oscar Wao so powerful.

Yet the rest of the book felt somewhat flat to me. Perhaps because the collection covers Yunior's relationships with so many girls, it becomes harder to empathize, to see him as other than the scumbag all the former girlfriends claim him to be. The recurring motif is, of course, cheating, as Yunior cheats on every single relationship he has, both the relationships he cares about and those he doesn't. He says he has real feelings for some of the women, but it's hard to see all the parading girlfriends as more than flesh in his eyes, and his constant melancholy seems undeserved.

I can see the book as a statement on masculinity, on the simultaneous desire for sex and love without the willingness to make sacrifices for either. For Yunior is, in the end, a coward, despite all his excuses. And yet that theme didn't come through as clearly as I would have liked.

This Is How You Lose Her lacks the scope, humor, and pathos of Oscar Wao, which doesn't make it a bad book, but nonetheless a disappointment in comparison.