The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.
--Francoise Sagan

Thursday, September 30, 2010

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

I'm a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan, so I couldn't resist buying What the Dog Saw a collection of his favorite articles from The New Yorker. These short pieces were perfect for me as I headed back to school after surgery. I didn't have a lot of time or energy left over at the end of the day, and there were several days when I didn't have time to read at all...but these were perfect little single-serving-sized pieces. I could read one in just 30 minutes or so and then choose another a few days later. I dabbled. I read which ever one caught my fancy on that particular day..."Hair Dye and the Hidden History of Postwar America"..."Why Some People Choke and Others Panic"..."What Pit Bulls Can Teach Us About Crime"...There were some truly interesting articles...And while I didn't enjoy these little tastes of Gladwell as much as his longer works, I was nevertheless fascinated and entertained.

I walked away with some interesting "What the Dog Saw", an article about Cesar Milan, I learned that dogs study and respond to human movements in a way that no other animals (including primates) do. There's an experiment where researchers hid a treat under one of two cups. When they brought dogs into the room, they found the dogs looked to the humans for cues as to where the treat was hidden. If the human looked at one cup or nodded in that direction, the dog would pick that one every time. Chimps, on the other hand, did not. They looked to other chimps for help and guidance but not humans. Fascinating, right?

I also learned about the power-law theory of homelessness in "Million Dollar Murray"...basically, homelessness doesn't follow a normal distribution (bell curve). Eighty percent of homeless people are off the streets really quickly, most within a single day...and they never return to the shelters or streets again. About 10 percent are "episodic users", meaning they come to the shelters for a few weeks at a time and return periodically especially in winter, but the last 10 percent are chronically homeless. And it is this chronic 10 percent that costs the health-care and social services industries the most money. One man, Murray Barr, in Reno, Nevada was homeless for ten years. When you total up his medical expenses they come to close to a million dollars! This totally changes how we think about and deal with the problem of becomes about solving a few hard cases...not dealing with thousands. Incidentally...the power-law theory applies to lots of other issues as well.

I could go on and on and on about all the interesting bits and pieces I gleaned from this collection...which takes me back to something Gladwell said in his intro. He's addressing the question he's asked most often: Where do you get your ideas? And he says, "The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell. I say trick but what I really mean is challenge, because it's a very hard thing to do. Our instinct as humans, after all, is to assume that most things are not interesting. We flip through the channels on the television and reject ten before we settle on one...We filter and rank and judge...We have to. There's just so much out there...but if you want to be a writer, you have to fight that instinct everyday."

I think that's true not just of writers...but of those of us who aspire to be well-educated, life-long while I'm walking away from What the Dog Saw with some incredible info stashed away, the thing that I want to remember most is that "everyone and everything has a story." I want to stay curious, ask questions, wonder...look for connections...and fight the instinct to dismiss and reject and ignore.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay is the third and final installment in The Hunger Games series. I inhaled the first two, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, over the summer, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on this one!

Because it's the last in a trilogy, I hate to go into much detail here...I don't want to spoil the first two for those who haven't read them (If you haven't, you should!) But I will say, I loved this one as much as the other two...right up until the last couple of chapters.

At the very end, Katniss, the protagonist slips into a drug induced haze...we experience the very end of the novel through a cloud of morphling: "Foam. I really am floating on foam. I can feel it beneath the tips of my fingers, cradling parts of my naked body. There's much pain but there's also something like reality. The sandpaper of my throat. The smell of burn medicine from the first arena. The sound of my mother's voice. These things frighten me, and I try to return to the deep to make sense of them." This felt like a cop out to me. It felt like Collins got to the end of a brilliant series and didn't quite know how to finish she was vague and poetic and nebulous.

In the last 30 pages, the book takes a final twist, which I hadn't anticipated...and I'm not sure I liked. It left me feeling unsatisfied. I wasn't counting on everything working out perfectly, but I was expecting, after all Katniss had endured, something closer to happily ever after...a real, indisputable victory.

I've read other readers' reviews, and reactions to the ending seem to be strong and pretty evenly split. Some people were disappointed like me; others loved it.

Either way, there's something to be said for books that cause such a stir...that make you angry...that make you think...that make you want your friends to read them just so you can hash them out together.

I'm still really glad I read this series. Now I just need you to read it, too!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fragile Beasts by Tawni O'Dell

Tawni O'Dell is no Edith Wharton...but I love her anyway. She grew up in coal mining territory...western Pennsylvania...and writes novels set in old coal mining towns...Coal Run, Sister Mine, Back Roads (which was an Oprah book club selection several years back)...and now Fragile Beasts.

The thing I love most about O'dell is that her tiny, one-traffic-light towns...and the characters that populate them...jump off the page. They spring to life right before your eyes. There you are sitting on the bleachers at the high school football game, riding around in a beat up rolled down, pushing a cart up and down the aisles at the Kwiki-Mart, stopping to say hey to Bill...with his baseball cap pulled down low, six-pack tucked under his arm. You don't just picture the place, you feel it. You experience it. And the feel like you know them. You get involved...invested in what's going on.

Fragile Beasts is about two high school aged kids, Klint and Kyle. Their mother left, moved to Arizona with some guy and took their little sister with her. Their father works at a job he hates and drinks to forget. One night Klint and Kyle are at a bonfire when their neighbor drives up, tears in his eyes, baseball cap clenched in his fists, and tells them their father has been in an accident. He was on his way home from Wing Night at The Rayne Drop Inn...he's dead.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of town, Candace Jack, daughter of the founder of J&P Coal lives in relative isolation, tucked away inside her mansion, nursing an ages' old broken heart.

Fragile Beasts is the story of how the boys and Candace come together and ultimately help each other heal.

The novel alternates between Kyle's voice and Candace's...but O'dell writes from both perspectives very convincingly. Neither voice feels contrived. It also shifts from present day Pennsylvania to 1960's Spain...where Candace fell passionately, tragically in love. The two venues feel equally three-dimensional...the gritty, decaying, coal mining town and the noble, vibrant Villarica.

It's not an Ethan's not subtle or deeply nuanced. It's more of a delicious, soap-opera-y kind of novel. The kind that carries you away.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Following my recent experience re-reading The Awakening, I was inspired to revisit some other pieces I loved in high school but haven't picked up since...Our Town, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace....

But Wharton's novella, Ethan Frome, was at the top of my "To Be Read Again List" because when I read it for the first time, I was totally caught up in the romance between Ethan and Mattie Silver...I desperately wanted them to run away together...and I was totally crushed by the ending. I wondered if, this time, I would feel differently. How would 15 years and a host of life experiences change my perspective on the story...the characters? Would I see Ethan as weak and selfish now? Abandoning his wife and his duty. Would I turn on him the way I turned on Edna?

I entered in to reading in a curious frame of if I was conducting an experiment. I tried to be completely objective and open-minded...letting the story unfold...waiting to see how I might respond. If anything, I may have approached it a little cynically...

But it wasn't long before I was completely swept up again. Ethan is just such a good, honest, hard-working man. He gave up everything--college...his dreams for the future--to take care of his ailing parents and save the family farm. He married Zeena because he felt like it was the right thing to do...the practical thing. He tries to be a good husband, to give her what she needs to be comfortable and happy. He sacrifices over and no avail. It's never enough. Ethan's life is's impossible not to feel sorry for him. And Mattie Silver is the only thing that brings him happiness. She's young and fresh and beautiful. She's genuinely interested in him. She laughs at his jokes and makes him feel alive again...and hopeful. He is "too young, too strong, too full of the sap of living, to submit so easily to the destruction of his hopes". It's impossible not to want them to be wish Zeena would just go away. And the fact that they resist slipping into an affair even when it would be so easy and so forgivable makes you want it to happen even more.

I never loved Ethan more than when he's headed to borrow money from Mr. Hale so he and Mattie can run away, and he stops dead in his tracks. It says, "For the first time...he saw what he was about to do. He was planning to take advantage of the Hales' sympathy to obtain money from them under false pretenses...the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had had the heart to desert her he could only have done so by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him. He turned and walked slowly back to the farm."

Right there...that's when I wanted him to have Mattie the most. And as awful as I feel admitting it, that's when I wanted Zeena to die...she's already so sick...I guess...and so miserable...not really living at all. She should just succumb. Or maybe it could be an overdose...a stray spark...a loose wheel on the wagon...How horrible am I? How masterful is Edith Wharton?

She's got me right where she wants me...feeling how trapped Ethan really is. Feeling the futility of it all. There is literally nothing he can do because he is virtuous and good, and his circumstances are so hopeless and miserable.

And that's when it hit me...Ethan Frome isn't just a love's ultimately a statement about social class. It's about how in many ways, money can buy happiness...or at least it doesn't hurt. It's about how so many people are limited by the lack of resources at their disposal...trapped in bad situations because they can't buy their way out. If only Ethan had been more comfortable financially...he could have left Zeena some money, and he and Mattie could have started a new life for themselves. They could have had a happy ending.

Ethan Frome is absolutely brilliant...vivid, captivating, subtle, nuanced...I'm so glad I read it again. I definitely appreciated it more this time around, and I look forward to experiencing some other old favorites again soon.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"A Book" by Emily Dickinson

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

I love this poem. It's always resonated with me...but not to the extent that it does now, following eye surgery. I had a detached retina...and the earliest days...right after surgery...when I couldn't read at all (or do anything else), were some of the longest, most restless days of my life. There was nothing I could do to pass the time. No escape.

I tried audio books, but I had a hard time following the plot. I kept having to rewind and re-listen. The words seemed to slip right through my fingers...I couldn't hold on to them long enough to construct the story. Maybe I'm more visual than I realized...maybe it was the narrator's soothing British accent...or maybe I was more drugged than I thought...but I was just lulled into the rhythm of the words.

The day I opened a new book, held a story in my hands again, and felt comfortable reading it, was pure joy! I was no longer stuck on my couch...confined to the same four my little August. I was transported...happily whisked away! The days since then have been filled with drama...with new people and places...sights and sounds. I've been living vicariously...and loving every minute.

Stay tuned...I have lots of blogging to do to get caught up!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"Lessons Learned"

I just finished The Death and Life of the Great American School System...It was a truly fascinating read. In the final chapter, "Lessons Learned", Ravitch outlines her ideas for reform.

First, she makes the important point that schools are not responsible for all of society's problems...and while public education is an extremely important component of our democratic society, it alone can't save us. Ravitch writes, "Our schools cannot be improved if we use them as society's all-purpose punching bag, blaming them for the ills of the economy, the burdens imposed on children by poverty, the dysfunction of families, and the erosion of civility." She believes children from disadvantaged homes need preschool programs, medical care, and other social services to help them succeed...schools can't close the achievement gap on their own...rather they should be "part of a web of public and private agencies that buttress families." I couldn't agree more!

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites research showing that the standardized test scores of children from disadvantaged homes without a lot of direct parental involvement drop significantly over the summer, while the test scores of children from more advantaged homes tend to rise. That's a huge testament to the importance of the home environment. And another reason why teachers' jobs and salaries shouldn't be tied to standardized test scores. It takes a village...

That said, Ravitch does believe there are things we can do to improve education. Namely, we should focus on the development of a rich, rigorous curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences...ideally at the national level. She notes that those nations that tend to outrank us on international measures (Japan and Finland to name a couple) have national standards that spell out what students are supposed to learn in a wide variety of subjects. Massachusetts, one of the only states to have a strong curriculum in every subject, also has the highest scores in the nation on the NAEP and ranks near the top when compared to other countries. In addition, the 1,000 or so schools across the U.S. that follow the Core Knowledge curriculum regularly out-perform others on standardized tests. Ravitch says, "Having a curriculum is not a silver bullet. It does not solve all our educational problems. But not having a curriculum indicates our unwillingness or inability to define what we are trying to accomplish...if you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there." In other words, without a curriculum, all else is moot.

Ravitch also believes accountability must include more than the data we get from standardized tests. She proposes that every state establish inspection teams to evaluate its schools; and, according to Ravitch, any school that's struggling should receive extra support...professional development for teachers, smaller classes, after-school activities, additional tutoring, parent education classes, etc. She writes, "When schools are struggling, the authorities should do whatever is necessary to improve them." (italics mine)

Finally, Ravitch believes teachers should be subject-area experts and experts in pedagogy. Prospective teachers should be tested on their knowledge of what they will teach, and all teachers should be regularly observed and evaluated by their peers and supervisors. Ravitch also says schools will have to offer adequate compensation to attract and retain highly qualified teachers...but she doesn't elaborate much on that point.

That's it. Those are her suggestions. So...again...I'm left wondering...what needs to happen to make this vision a reality?

I'm also wondering what Ravitch's critics have to say. What's the other side of this argument? What am I missing?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Campbell's Law"

I just finished the chapter on accountability in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. So many times I found myself nodding vigorously...wanting to highlight every word...It's just comforting to know there's research that supports what I've been thinking about testing all along: standardized tests are flawed and limited, they're not intended to be used as the sole measure on which important decisions are based, there are too many confounding variables that affect test scores (i.e., language background, socioeconomic status, student motivation, parental engagement, attendance...just to name a few), and test-prep is taking over classrooms across America...superseding health, physical education, the arts, literature, government, history, and science. We're producing a generation of students who can (maybe) perform well on standardized, multiple choice tests in reading and math. Period. And we're calling that an education.

Ravitch cites Campbell's Law: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social process it is intended to monitor." (italics mine) In other words, "When faced with demands to satisfy a single measure, people strive to satisfy that measure but neglect the other, perhaps more important goals of the organization." This phenomenon is known as goal-distortion...and Ravitch (drawing on the work of Harvard psychometrician Daniel Koretz) gives several examples from different disciplines...When the state of New York started issuing scorecards reporting mortality rates for surgeons, most cardiologists stopped performing surgery on critically ill patients to avoid getting a bad score. As a result some patients who might have survived were turned away. Also, when the airline industry was required to report on-time arrivals, they manipulated the expected duration of flights to compensate. As a result the on-time statistics became meaningless. Ravitch and Koretz believe this is what NCLB, testing, and "punitive accountability" are doing to education. Ravitch states, "The pressure to increase test scores is likely to produce higher scores, whether by coaching or cheating or manipulating the pool of test takers. As long as the state or district continues to report good news about student performance, the public seems satisfied, and the media usually sees no reason to investigate whether the gains are real...or meaningful." Fascinating!

Ravitch goes on to say, "Accountability as we know it now is not helping our schools. Its measures are too narrow and imprecise, and its consequences too severe." She says a good system would include other measures besides test scores...things like grades, teacher evaluations, student work, attendance, and graduation rates. A good system would also take into account what schools and districts are providing in terms of resources, class sizes, well-educated teachers, and a well-rounded curriculum. It would also include regular external inspections conducted by trained observers. In Ravitch's system, a low-scoring school would not be closed down, disrupting hundreds of lives, with the hopes that a new and improved school would spring up in its place. Instead, that school would receive additional support. Decisive and consistent steps would be taken to see it improve. Closing a school would be a worst-case epic failure on the part of not only the people who work in that building, but also on every district official.

So...I'm wondering...what do we have to do to make that a reality???

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch

This book caught my eye a couple weeks ago when I was browsing at Books-A-Million. I just started it, but there's already so much I want to share!

First, some background...Diane Ravitch has been involved in education research and policy for over 40 years. She's a scholar, an author, and Research Professor of Education at NYU. She served as the assistant secretary of education under Lamar Alexander during George H.W. Bush's presidency; and in 2001, when President George Bush, Jr. presented NCLB, his infamous plan for school reform, she was "excited and optimistic." But in the years that followed, she began to see that NCLB...and its pillars--accountability and choice--were not solving any of our problems. In fact, she writes, "I came to believe that accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools as states and districts strove to meet unrealistic targets...Over time, my doubts about accountability and choice deepened as I saw the negative consequences of their implementation." In this book, Ravitch presents the evidence that changed her mind.

She begins by explaining how "the standards movement turned into the testing movement..." In the early 1990's, the U.S. Department of Education commissioned a set of voluntary national standards in several content areas. According to Ravitch, this effort fell apart in 1994, when Lynne V. Cheney, the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, criticized the unfinished, unreleased history standards. Cheney argued that the standards were politically biased...against great white men. She felt that minority groups were over-represented...and the nation's failings were emphasized. Her critique caught the nation's attention. It was all over the news. Elected officials in D.C. didn't want to have anything to do with the controversy...or the development of any other standards. It would have been political suicide, so they passed the buck to the states. But the states had seen what happened on the national level, and they were wary. Ravitch explains that most states wrote standards that were vague and "devoid of concrete descriptions of what students should be expected to know and be able to do."

...which explains a lot! I've often marvelled at the convoluted language used in the standards I'm expected to teach. I've been frustrated by how broad and nebulous they are...stumped by the fact that the sixth grade standards look exactly like the seventh grade standards...which look exactly like the eighth grade standards. Now I understand. Being any more specific...naming pieces of literature or authors students should read, for example, would be too risky.

So...the states were allowed to write their own standards and pick their own tests to measure whether or not students were meeting those standards. And then came NCLB with its legislative command that ALL students...including those with special needs, those whose native language isn't English, those who are EVERY school across the nation must be proficient in reading and math by the year 2014. This, according to Ravitch, is the plan's "toxic flaw"...The federal government has mandated an unattainable goal. She cites data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tests student in fourth and eighth grades. In 2007, only 33% of the nation's fourth graders, and 31% of eighth graders, were proficient or advanced in reading...ONLY 1/3 of all the students in the nation...yet, in just seven years, NCLB dictates that 100% should score at that level.

Faced with the unachievable, the states did one of two things...they stalled by predicting lower gains in the first several years of NCLB's implementation followed by a sharp increase the closer they got to 2014, making it look like they were doing better than they really were...OR they lowered standards and played with the percentage of questions students had to answer correctly in order to attain "proficient" status. Mississippi, for example, claimed that 89% of it's fourth graders were at or above proficient in reading, but only 18% scored at that level on the NAEP in the same year!

Not only that, but many districts sacrificed instruction in history, geography, science, the arts, and P.E. to focus on reading and math--the two subjects that counted towards Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)...and even then test-prep was front and center.

But despite all that, in the year 2007-2008 30,000 or 35.6% of all public schools in the U.S. did not meet AYP as defined by NCLB! Wow!

So much of what Ravitch has to much of the data she mind-boggling. I'm looking forward to reading more...especially to hearing her ideas about what needs to happen to turn it around.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

I read The Awakening for the first time my senior year of high school. It was required reading, but I was completely captivated. It was the first time I ever stayed up ridiculously late with a book, unable to put it down...I remember it was snowing...we had no power. I was curled up in a chair in the living room, blankets piled on, candles flickering...but Kate Chopin swept me a million miles away...summer...1899...Grand Isle. I could smell the salt air. Hear the waves crashing. Feel the sand beneath my feet. Because I was 17...romantic and idealistic...I strongly identified with Edna Pontellier. I felt so sorry for her...trapped in a loveless marriage. Expected to act in a certain way. Entirely without options...without control. I desperately wanted her to leave her husband and run away with Robert Lebrun. I cried when Robert left her; and in the end, I admired her decision...I saw her as strong and noble.

I remembered my experience with the book fondly, and several years later, I decided to read it again, expecting to enjoy it in exactly the same way. But by that time, life had knocked some of the romance and idealism out of me. I was surprised to discover that Edna no longer seemed heroic. Throughout my second reading, I saw her as weak and selfish. In the end, I was angry with her for what she had done to her husband and children. I believed the strong thing would have been to stay and endure. She simply quit.

I still loved the book, though...just in a different way. It became a measure of how I had changed over time. My memory of the first reading was like a pencil mark on a door frame...I could look at it and see how I'd grown.

When my book club was contemplating our July selection, The Awakening immediately came to mind. I knew there would be a lot to, selfishly, I wanted to read it again. It had been about seven years since the last time, and I was curious to see how I would feel this time around. I also wanted to know how my experiences compared to the experiences of other readers.

As soon as I began to read, it felt like I was stepping into a favorite pair of jeans...the soft, worn-in pair that fits just right. The world of the story was so familiar and comfortable. I read the first few chapters tentatively, waiting to see what kinds of feelings would surface...Would I be more sympathetic now or would I still feel angry with Edna??? the book wore on...I really felt very little.

This time my reading took on more of an evaluative/analytical quality. I read without any sense of urgency or hope because I remembered the story well. I felt emotionally detached but more mindfully engaged. I considered the changes in Edna more carefully. I looked for evidence that she tried to make it work. I thought more about the context in which Kate Chopin was working. Marveled at how modern it feels. Sought to understand what she was trying to say about people and the world in which she lived.

This time, I saw the conflict on a larger scale. It's about so much more than Edna's love for Robert...her yearning for something she can't have...her passionless marriage...even the societal expectations. What she goes through in The Awakening is timeless and fundamentally HUMAN. It's something we all experience during certain least to some extent. She becomes dissatisfied with her life and seeks to change it for the better. She begins to chase after happiness and believes she can find it...IF. IF she starts painting again...IF she moves out of the big house...IF she has Robert...She quickly tries to fill herself up with one thing after another, acting on every whim, doing what feels good, but nothing works for long. Her spirit is restless and insatiable. Nothing has meaning. Chopin explains, "There was no one thing in the world she desired. There was no human being she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone." Edna comes to see the world as a harsh and lonely place...She loses hope...She can't imagine life any other way.

This time, her decision at the end of the book felt like the only option. It wasn't brave or cowardly...strong or weak. It was unfortunate but inevitable. There was no other way it could have ended. This time, I didn't judge her at all.

Next time, who knows? I'm sure I'll see it differently. That's the brilliant thing about this's complex and intricate. It can be read on different levels...held up and examined from different angles and in different lights.

I don't often re-read books the quote at the top of the page states...there are too many books out there and not enough time...but this experience has inspired me to revisit some other old favorites soon...see what's new...

Up next...Ethan Frome.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffeneger

I honestly don't know what to say about this book. It is quite possibly the strangest thing I've ever read. I was drawn into it immediately...hooked by the mystery surrounding the older set of twins, Edie and Elspeth...Why were they estranged? How was Jack involved?...And I was curious about what would happen to the younger twins in London. Would they uncover this deep, dark family secret??? Would the course of their lives be changed forever???

There was no way I could have anticipated what actually unfolded. It was far too bizarre. I feel like I was set up to expect one thing, and what I got was totally different. As far as I can tell, the climax had nothing whatsoever to do with the Edie and Elspeth situation Niffenegger set up at the beginning of the novel. Eventually, you do find out what happened between them, but it's insignificant by that point. It's been overshadowed. The characters themselves don't seem to care about it, and I was too preoccupied with the crazy, supernatural twist things had taken. It almost seems like it could have been two separate novels...or maybe even three...

I thought the ending was not only strange, but it was also unsatisfying. Strange would have been ok...but I was left with so many questions, and so much of what happened didn't add up for me. I spent the day after I finished reading trying to untangle it all in my no avail...I'm still just as perplexed as I was when I read the final page.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fahrenheit 451

I'm not sure how I made it through high school and college without reading this's one of those books people reference and I think...I should really read that...but not being a huge sci-fi person, it never made it to the top of my list. Then, Daniel read it while we were at the beach last week. He finished it, and it was just laying there waiting for me to pick it up.

Honesly, getting through it was hard work. I didn't really enjoy it while I was reading it. It felt so sparse and cold. It was hard for me to find my place in Bradbury's world. I had so many questions...which I bombarded Daniel with constantly. But I love it now...I love it more each day. I guess I needed to sit with it a while and think it through.

It was hard for me in part because I had some preconceived notions going in...I was expecting something more Orwellian...the government policing what people read and say and do. I thought "they" would be the ones banning and burning books, trying to keep people pacified and powerless. As it turns out, in Bradbury's futuristic society, the censorship started with the people. Captain Beatty explains, "It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick..." It seems the people originally began to censor books because they wanted to keep the peace...they didn't want anyone to be upset by anything. They whittled away at books...a line here...a paragraph there...then entire pages and sections...Captain Beatty goes on: "Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book..." Eventually, there was nothing of substance left.

That, plus industrialization and incredible advances in technology, led to this fast-paced, pleasure-seeking, instant gratification society where everyone is conveniently tuned out. The country is on the verge of war, and no one cares.

The characters, most notably Mildred, have a brainwashed their minds have been turned to mush...but really there's no one to blame. There's no Big Brother. Just a gradual, collective checking out. People in Bradbury's world no longer read, think, discuss, create, savor, or reflect.

Which brings me to my second misconception...Despite the title, it's not really a book about censorship and burning books. Initially Montag, the protagonist, thinks books are the answer. If society stopped burning books, if people started reading books again, they could unlock the secret to happiness...uncover the solution to all their problems. The world would be saved. Then he meets the professor who tells him, "It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books...Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of the things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us."

The professor goes on to name three things that are missing from this society: 1. Quality of information 2. Leisure to digest it 3. The right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two...and that idea of taking action is reinforced by Granger at the end of the book. Granger, one of the Book People, says, "Everyone must leave something behind when he dies...a child or a book or a painting or house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted...It doesn't matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you once you take your hands away." So lovely! And, it seems to me, that is the crux of Fahrenheit 451.

It's a cautionary tale...warning us of the dangers of becoming spectators. Perhaps even more relevant now than it was in 1953.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

I'm a sucker for boarding school novels in the same way I'm a sucker for southern lit: A Separate Peace. Looking for Alaska. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I can't get enough of them...I'm sure it's because, on some level, I wish I'd been part of that kind of world myself...strolling around campus on a fall day in my plaid skirt and fleece vest, old brick buildings, well-manicured lawns, playing tennis or field hockey...or maybe rowing...sledding down snowy hills on cafeteria trays, skiing on spring break, playing Frisbee in the circle on a warm spring day...the traditions...the prestige. Boarding school books let me live vicariously...and for a few chapters, I thought I'd enjoy trying on Lee Fiora's life as much as Frankie's or Alaska's or Gene's or Finny's.

I could absolutely relate to her longing to go to a school like Ault. The comparisons she made between the Ault campus and her public school in South Bend, Indiana. Her obsession with the glossy school catalog. The way she spent hours pouring over old yearbooks...and I admired the fact that she made it happen for herself.

I could also relate to some of the teenage least early on...On page 15 she describes the beginning of her time at Ault: "...I was exhausted all the time by both my vigilance and my wish to be inconspicuous. At soccer practice, I worried that I would miss the ball, when we boarded the bus for games at other schools, I worried that I would take a seat by someone who didn't want to sit next to me, in class I worried that I would say the wrong or foolish thing. I worried that I took too much food at meals, or that I did not disdain the food you were supposed to disdain--Tater Tots, key lime pie--and at night, I worried that Dede or Sin-Jun would hear me snore. I always worried that someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely."

But as I got to know Lee the book wore on...I became more and more frustrated with her. How can anyone be so self-absorbed? So paranoid? So horrible??? For so long? I understand that she would feel like an outsider initially...being in a new place...not knowing anyone...afraid the other kids would figure out she didn't belong...but then she had so many chances. People did reach out to her. Dede...Conchita...Cross...Darden...even Aspeth. If she had just been able to pull herself together and act "normal" for a few minutes...

I kept reading...propelled forward by the hope that things would turn out better for Lee than she expected (or frankly deserved). But in the end, she ended up more isolated than ever. And I can't help but think she wasted a wonderful opportunity.

Some critics have made the claim that Prep is about social class, race, and gender if it's the story of how the institution or the people at Ault kept Lee and others like her on the fringes; but I think Lee isolated herself. She's the one to blame. She wouldn't let anyone get close. She over-analyzed every exchange...every interaction.

I wanted her to put on a dress and go to a dance...get a cup of punch...stand around with the other girls who weren't a wallflower. After she went to the movie with Cross and his friends, I wanted her to say hi to him in the cafeteria. She didn't have to act like they were best friends...but at least smile and acknowledge him...give him some indication that she was interested. OR...if she wasn't going to make an effort to fit in...I at least wanted her to embrace life on the outside. Rebel. Dress like Conchita. Date the kitchen guy. But don't be so worried about not being popular...that you won't associate with anyone.

And the way she was with her parents. Wow! Of course...they could have made more of an effort, too. It was important to her, so you think they could have tried to be less weird.

Basically...Prep was like reliving all the worst parts of adolescence...without any of the happiest moments. It was pretty painful.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins

I've been hearing great things about this series since at least last summer...from readers of all ages. Many of my sixth graders read it and loved it, but many adults I know have been raving about it, too. Considering I'm not a huge sci-fi fan, I wasn't sure I'd enjoy it...but, eventually, curiosity won out.

The Hunger Games is set in a futuristic, dystopian society, which Collins makes so real. In a nutshell...a wave of natural disasters struck North America, chaos erupted, and "the Capitol" emerged and seized control. Now, the Capitol keeps its 12 outlying Districts in line through intimidation and force. Living conditions in the Districts are appalling...people are starving, they're forced to work impossibly long hours in hazardous conditions for little pay, they're imprisoned within their home Districts by electric fences, they're constantly monitored and kept powerless, while people in the Capitol live in total luxury.

To remind the Districts just how powerless they really are, the Capitol forces each one to send a boy and girl between the ages of 12-18 to the annual Hunger Games...a televised fight to death...gladiator style. The "tributes" are chosen via a lottery which they call "the reaping". Every child's name is entered once for each year of eligibility (12-year-olds are entered once...18-year-olds are entered seven times), but families can choose to have their children's names entered multiple times in exchange for food and fuel. Many must do so in order to survive.

In the first book in the series, we meet 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. Her 12-year-old sister Prim, whose name has only been entered in the reaping once, is chosen against all odds as the female tribute from District 12. Knowing Prim has no chance of survival, Katniss volunteers to take her place. We follow Katniss on her journey from home to the Capitol to the arena. She's an underdog going in...but she's not totally skill-less: She's awesome with a bow and arrow. She's an experienced tracker and hunter. She's spent time in the woods...knows which plants are edible...climbs trees effortlessly. Plus, she's smart, and she has an incredibly strong spirit. Propelled by her anger toward the Capitol and her love for her family and friends back home, Katniss quickly emerges as a force to be reckoned with...

Collins achieves this great balance in Katniss...we're terrified for her, but we also have hope that she'll somehow manage to survive. And if there wasn't already enough tension, she begins to fall in love with Peeta, her fellow District 12 tribute...Only she knows, and so do we, that there's no way they can both survive.

As we're watching all of this unfold, so are Katniss' and Peeta's families and friends...and everyone in Panem. All eyes are glued to their TVs. The nation is captivated by Katniss and Peeta, just as we are as readers...and we clearly get the sense that feelings of discontent and unrest are beginning to stir in the Districts. Katniss becomes a symbol of the injustice and cruelty of the Capitol. Her spirit gives the people of Panem hope...and energy begins to build.

Every chapter in The Hunger Games is its own mini can't possibly fold down the corner, turn out the light, and go to sleep. You must read on...and on...and on...because you're dying to know what's going to happen to Katniss and Peeta, her family, her District, her world. Collins masterfully propels you forward. As soon as I finished Book One, I had to start Catching Fire, and now I'm eagerly awaiting the release of Mockingjay, the final book in the trilogy...which doesn't come out until August 24!!!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

John Green is one of my favorite authors. I discovered him just a couple of years ago. He writes these smart, edgy "adolescent lit" novels (Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns) all of which have the quirkiest, most original characters. (I say "adolescent lit" because, although his characters are in high school, the novels are definitely R-Rated...especially in terms of language...occasionally in terms of subject matter.)

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is Green's latest, co-authored with David Levithan...who I'd never encountered before. They wrote alternating chapters from the perspectives of two different characters both named...Will Grayson. I was fascinated by the concept and eager to get my hands on anything Green had anything to do with.

The Original Will Grayson...written by seventeen. He lives in a ritzy suburb of Chicago. Both his parents are doctors. He's been best friends with Tiny Cooper since fifth grade. Tiny is...according to Will..."not the world's gayest person, and he's not the world's largest person but...he may be the world's largest person who is really, really gay and also the world's gayest person who is really, really large." Will feels like he lives in Tiny's shadow. After a school-board member gets all upset about "gays in the locker room," Will writes a signed letter to the editor of the school newspaper defending Tiny's right to "be both gigantic (and, therefore,the best member of the football team's offensive line) and gay." Will's other "friends" end up Never Talking to Him Again, and Will takes this event as further proof that his two rules for life are essential. Rule #1: Don't care too much. Rule #2: Shut up. He says, "Everything unfortunate that has ever happened to me has stemmed from failure to follow one of the two rules." The Original Will Grayson is guarded...cynical...somewhat resentful...lonely.

The other will grayson...written by also seventeen. He lives on the opposite side of a tiny, run-down apartment with his mom, who struggles to make ends meet. His dad is totally out of the picture. The other will grayson is beyond cynical. He writes, "i am constantly torn between killing myself and killing everyone around me...those seem to be the two choices, everything else is just killing time."

Butandso...the two Will Graysons the most unlikely spot and under the most unlikely circumstances...and this novel is all about what happens when their lives become intertwined. It's ultimately about truth, taking risks, and trying and failing and trying again...metaphorically ripping the lid off "Schrodinger's Box" and peering inside, despite how terrifying that can be. It's about love in all it's complexity and all it's forms...

That's why I love John Green (and David Levithan?) so much. His novels are so entertaining and accessible...but they're also smart and layered and thought-provoking...He's a phenomenal storyteller.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I inhaled this book! I've been up till two or three every night this week reading...I just couldn't stop turning the pages...I would tell myself, "One more chapter. That's it. Then turn off the light and go to sleep." But one more chapter would turn into just one more and then another. It was incredibly suspenseful. Much of the time I was filled with afraid for Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter...but I HAD to know what was going to happen. It was like watching a scary movie with my eyes half covered...seeing it unfold through the cracks between my fingers.

I fell in love with the characters...and though I'm embarrassed to admit it...with the world of the story. I fully realize Jackson, Mississippi circa 1960 is no place to romanticize, but I couldn't help myself. I'm a sucker for southern literature...and I feel like Kathryn Stockett captured the South here...the good, the bad, and the ugly. Something about it resonates with's almost like it's in my genes...encoded on my DNA...

Which made me wonder...if I had lived in that time and would I have treated "the help"? How would I have felt about the Civil Rights Movement? Which character would I have been? I wish I could say Skeeter...but I'm not sure I'm that brave (or...reckless). I HOPE I wouldn't have been Hilly, but I do enjoy being in charge and being in the spotlight. I'm very traditional...and fairly conservative...I don't go around rocking the boat. Maybe I would have been somewhere in between. A Lou Anne...quietly doing what's right behind closed doors. It's really hard to say...

But this book makes me want to take more something BIG...something noble. It makes me grateful for all those people who have.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales

This is a sweet little adolescent lit book that my sixth graders have to read for seventh grade summer reading. I'd never heard of I decided to check it out.

At first, I was's a lot like House on Mango Street...but far less beautiful. It's about a Mexican American family living in Texas. The older daughter, Sofia, wants out...wants to build a better life for herself. The story's told in her voice...Like Mango Street , it's a series of little episodes or vignettes strung together...and initially, I couldn't see where it was headed. Unlike, Mango Street, the style seemed overly simplistic. The dialogue felt contrived...I almost put it down.

I'm glad I didn't!

In the end, it came together beautifully. It was really touching...and many of the images...the father's brown and white cowboy boots; the family gathered around the table for sobremesa, cups of coffee in hand; the homemade cascarones, the glow-in-the-dark rosary; the pinto bean ritual; the Christmas nacimiento...will stay with me for a long, long time. So will the characters.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

After trudging through When Everything Changed, I needed to get lost in a good story. Girl in Translation was perfect! It was completely absorbing.

Given Kwok's bio on the jacket flap, I'm guessing it's largely autobiographical. Like her protagonist, Kimberly Chang, the author emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. as a child and worked alongside her family in a sweatshop. As I was reading, I imagined Kwok's and Kimberly's voices intertwined.

In the novel, Kimberly's father dies when she's very young, and she and her mother come to New York looking for a better life. What they find is hardship after hardship. Neither of them speak English. They move into a filthy, roach-infested apartment in an abandoned building with no heat. Kimberly says, "Even now, my predominant memory of that phase of my life is of the cold. Cold like the way your skin feels after you've been slapped, such painful tingling that you can hardly tell if it's hot or cold. It simply registers as suffering..."

Kimberly and her mother have debts to repay and are forced to work in a sweatshop in Chinatown. The conditions are horrific...the pay is negligible...1.5 cents per skirt. Kimberly calculates whether or not something is expensive by how many finished skirts it costs. She says, "In those days, the subway was 100 skirts just to get to the factory and back, a package of gum cost 7 skirts, a hot dog was 50 skirts..." After their debts, plus interest, are deducted from their paycheck, they have very, very little money left over. It's hard to imagine circumstances so dire.

But Kimberly is determined to overcome all these obstacles and build a better life for herself and her mother. She is extremely smart and dedicates herself to her studies, earning a full scholarship to a prestigious secondary school, Harrison Prep. She is one of only a few minority students there...the only one who is so poor. Her desperation to fit into the Harrison world...the anxiety...and the embarrassment...are agonizing...But she persists and eventually flourishes.

It is at that moment when a full scholarship to Yale is on the table and everything she's hoped for is within her grasp, that Kimberly is faced with a painful decision. She explains, "There's a Chinese saying that the fates are winds that blow through our lives from every angle, urging us along the paths of time. Those who are strong-willed may fight the storm and possibly choose their own road, while the weak must go where they are blown. I say I have not been so much pushed by winds as pulled forward by the force of my decisions. And all the while, I have longed for that which I could not have. At a time when it seemed that everything I'd ever wanted was finally within reach, I made a decision that changed the trajectory of the rest of my life." (It's the "Road Not Taken" phenomenon.)

Ultimately, Kimberly sacrifices love, acceptance, and her own happiness for the life she believes she should pursue. She winds up successful, which is a relief, but I'm not sure she's fulfilled. At the end of the novel, she still seems torn between two worlds...

I guess a thoroughly happy ending would have been too trite...I suppose I was foolish to hope for one. Still, Kimberly's (Kwok's?) determination is amazing and inspiring...her voice, captivating...her story, un-put-down-able. It was easy to get lost in Girl in Translation.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Finally Finished

It took weeks...and some serious determination...but I finally finished When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins. It was an epic but eye-opening journey.

It's amazing how rapidly things changed for women in this country. It was only 50 years ago that the Physical Education Department Chair at Indiana University said "girls are psychologically unfit" to participate in athletic contests because "they would cry all the time if they lost." It was only 36 years ago that the female MAYOR of Davenport, Iowa was told she couldn't have a BankAmerica card unless she got her husband's signature. And it was only about 30 years ago that Congresswoman Pat Schroeder and Representative Ron Dellums, the only black member of the Armed Services Committee, were forced to share a chair because, according to the committee chairman, they were each worth "only half a regular member."

Given the prevalence of that kind of attitude, it's crazy that a mere 30 years later, I haven't felt any after-effects. I think, here in the South especially, racial discrimination is still an issue. Unfortunately. The tension between blacks and whites, still palpable. But I don't think sexism persists in the same way. I grew up playing sports, studying advanced math and physics, believing I could be anything I wanted to be; and until I read this book, I didn't realize how relatively modern that kind of experience is.

I also never fully realized before, that whether consciously or subconsciously, I am a product of the culture created by the feminist movement. My sense of self has been shaped by it...the choices I've made have been influenced by it. No one directly indoctrinated me, but the spirit of feminism is alive inside me. I want to have it all. The only difference between me and the women of my mother's generation is that perhaps I realize how difficult managing it all can be. I've seen others who have gone before me, and I don't know how they did it. I don't know if I'm cut out for it...or if I even want to set off down a path that is inevitably chaotic and stressful. I want to have it all, but I don't want all the craziness that comes with it...and that desire coupled with that fear can be pretty paralyzing.

At the end of the book, I was left wondering if the pendulum isn't beginning to swing back the other direction. So many women from the last chapters of the book (and so many of the women I know) are tired of trying to balance career and family. More and more are opting for one over the other...or pursuing one for so long the other becomes an impossibility.

There's an interesting little section near the end of the book where Collins points out that in 2006 more than 56% of undergraduate college students were female, and their graduation rates were better than the boys. Newsweek did a cover story on "The Boy Crisis," and George W. Bush's secretary of education said the dominance of women in higher education has "profound implications for the economy, society, families, and democracy."

So...I wonder where we're headed? More stay at home dads...more female politicians, CEO's, doctors, and lawyers...government funded daycare? Or fewer women who choose to work outside the home...fewer who are involved in making the big decisions...fewer role models for little girls? Are we going to see a backlash against the feminist movement and the notion that women should be able to have it all? What will the next 30 years bring?

Monday, May 3, 2010


There are so many unbelievable stories in When Everything Changed ...I could go on and on and on. Here's just ONE...

Collins explains that doctors in the 1960's (all male, of course) took the attitude that women were like children...they panicked easily and were better off knowing as little as possible. It was apparently common for a woman who found a lump in her breast to go into surgery for a biopsy and wake up having undergone a complete mastectomy. "The patient either woke up to find she had a Band-Aid...or no breast..."

In one particular case, 23-year-old Barbara Winslow took her husband with her when she went to see the doctor. After examining her, Winslow's doctor said a biopsy was needed. He also informed the couple that he would immediately perform a mastectomy if the tumor was malignant. At that point, he passed the consent form to WINSLOW'S HUSBAND to sign. When Winslow asked why SHE wasn't the one being asked to give permission, her doctor replied, "Because women are too emotionally and irrationally tied to their breasts."


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

When Everything Changed by Gail Collins

A change of pace...a little non-fiction. Daniel and I have recently begun watching the show Mad Men, and I've been wondering how much of it is authentic and how much is exaggerated...especially in terms of the way women are treated. Then, I read an interesting article by Gail Collins in the latest O Magazine...and When Everything Changed was mentioned in the by-line. Intrigued, I snatched it up.

It is FASCINATING! For instance, I learned that in the year 1960, if a married couple applied for a loan, the woman's income was not factored in at all if she was under the age of 28. Between the ages of 28-40, half of it was counted; but it wasn't until a woman was 40 or over OR could prove that she was sterile that 100% of her income was taken into account. When one woman assured the loan officer that her husband had undergone a vasectomy, she was told that wasn't enough...after all, she could still get pregnant!!!

Many such tidbits have left me speechless. I never realized how drastically different the lives of my grandmothers (and even my mom, for that matter) really were.

Although the writing is a little clunky and disjointed in places, I'm hooked...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Final Thoughts on Solitude

I finished The Solitude of Prime Numbers yesterday afternoon, but I had to live with it for a while...let it settle a little bit...before I could post. Ultimately, it reminded me of a quote from Plato: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

Alice and Mattia are both extremely flawed, selfish, damaged characters, but Giordano made me care about them. I didn't always love the decisions they made or the way they treated the people in their lives (What Alice does to Sol is horrible!), but I loved them. I read wanting happiness and healing for them...wanting redemption...

Now...even after a day of reflection...I'm still not entirely sure what to make of the ending. In some ways, it was just right, but at the same time it was somehow...unsatisfying. It definitely didn't end as I hoped it would, but maybe this ending is better than the one I'd imagined...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

Ahhhhhhhhhh...I can't put this one down!

It's about Alice and Mattia...Both suffered traumas when they were very young...and neither have healed. Mattia copes with the lingering pain by cutting himself; Alice is anorexic. The two meet in high school, and they are instantly drawn to each other...Giordano says (and I'm paraphrasing here) Mattia rejected the world, and Alice felt rejected by it...and they formed a defective and asymmetrical friendship...a clean and empty space where both could come back to breathe when the walls of their school became too close...

I can't wait to see where their relationship goes.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

I was on spring break all week, and I had big reading plans...But then I got sort of bogged down in this one...Eggers himself warned me I might...

In the "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book" he writes, "#4...many of you might want to skip much of the middle, namely pages 239-351, which concern the lives of people in their early twenties, and those lives are very difficult to make interesting, even when they seemed interesting to those living them at the time." And "#5 Matter of fact, the first three or four chapters are all some of you might want to bother with. That gets you to page 123 or so, which is a nice length, a nice novella sort of length..."

It was really tedious at times. But it was clever and hilarious and poignant and fascinating at times, too.

Eggers' parents both died of cancer within just weeks of each other when he was in his early twenties. His younger brother, Topher, was only 7. As if losing both your parents so young isn't enough to deal with, Eggers also became a single parent to Toph instantly, over-night.

A.H.B.W.O.S.G. is the story of the first several years after their parents' death. The brothers picked up and moved from Chicago to San Fransico. Toph started a new school...played Little League Baseball. Eggers worked as a temp, auditioned for the REAL WORLD (which I remember watching),and eventually launched Might, an alternative magazine. They played a lot of Frisbee and hung out at the beach. Eggers went to Open Houses and Parent/Teacher conferences...always having to explain who he was and why he was there. They improvised...made it all up as they went along...and Eggers tells the story with a real sense of introspection and humor that I appreciated.

Ultimately, though, this was a heavy read...and I'm ready to move on...hoping to find another page-turner soon.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell is part coming of age story and part mystery. The protagonist is Rachel--the daughter of a Black American soldier and a Danish mother. She's eleven years old when the story opens, on her way to Chicago to live with her paternal grandmother. We understand right from the start that Rachel has survived a tragedy that killed her mother, brother, and baby sister.

In Chicago she's immersed in an all black community for the first time in her life...Not only is she trying to grieve...trying to heal, but she also has to make sense of growing up in a world where she doesn't exactly belong. Her light colored skin and blue eyes set her apart and draw a constant stream of attention her way.

Throughout the course of the novel, Durrow shifts between Rachel's perspective and that of an eye-witness to the tragedy she survived. He's a boy just about her age...Jamie...who later becomes known as "Brick". This shift, and the way the two characters' stories intertwine, break apart, and come back together, is beautiful, surprising, rich...But Durrow also includes chapters from the perspective of Laronne, a friend of Rachel's mother. Laronne finds some of Rachel's mother's journals at one point, so we hear Nella's voice as well. This shift feels contrived to me...maybe unnecessary. And in both cases, when the perspective shifts, Durrow shifts from first person to third...I can't figure out why she made that choice. Why not let us hear Brick's story in his own voice? (Jayne Anne Phillips did the same thing in Lark and Termite...and Amy Bloom in Where the God of Love Hangs Out...a trend I'm not enjoying.)

But these were minor irritations in an otherwise gorgeous novel. There were many things I loved about it...I loved the fact that I spent almost the entire book in suspense...wondering what happened to Rachel and her family and how she survived...wondering how it would all come together. I loved the entire cast of characters (even Laronne...though I could have gotten to know her without actually hearing her side). I loved watching Rachel cope and fail and struggle and grow and heal. Her story is universal, albeit extreme. It's about figuring out who you are and who you want to be and reconciling the two. It's about finding your way in a world that's pushing and pulling you to be something else. These are things we can all relate to...

At one point, Rachel talks about her grandmother's dream for get a nice office job, a three bedroom house, a husband...She says, "Grandma sees these things when she talks about them and gestures with her hands like she's painting brush strokes in the air. The way Grandma paints her dream for me, there's a low sky."

The Girl Who Fell is a story about carving out a place for yourself...painting your own dreams. At the end of the book I was left with the feeling that Rachel's still out there trying to do just that.

Final Thoughts on The Curious Incident

I finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time yesterday. I loved it the whole way through. Haddon did such an incredible job of bringing Christopher to life and making him likeable...despite his quirks and differences. I really cared about him...I worried for him and hoped for him...I was fully invested.

Being linked so closely to a character with autism was interesting. I felt like I really understood Christopher...I got him...His behavior stopped seeming weird to me. And when he encountered people in the story who were put off by him or afraid of him, I was indignant. But then...I would stop and think, "What would I do if I were in their sitution?" What if I bumped into a 15-year-old boy in a train station and he started barking like a dog? What if I saw him sitting on a bench with his eyes closed "doing groaning"? I'm sure I'd steer clear...I'm sure I'd feel uncomfortable...

The most moving part of the book is near the end, when Christopher recounts his favorite dream. He says, "Sometimes I have it during the day, but then it's a day-dream. But I often have it at night as the dream nearly everyone on the earth is dead because they caught a virus...And I can go anywhere in the world and I know that no one is going to talk to me or touch me or ask me a question...But if I don't want to go anywhere I don't have to, and I can stay at home computer games for a whole week, or I can just sit in the corner of the room and rub a coin back and forward over the ripple shapes on the surface of the radiator..."

This piece of the story made me realize just how difficult life can be for someone with autism. It really brought it home. It was brilliant.

And the hopeful...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

Taking a break from the short story collection...I found this book at the Scholastic Book Fair at school today, and I remembered my sister talking about how good it was. I snatched it up and spent the day reading happily alongside my students.

I LOVE the protagonist in this story! Christopher is 15 years old. He's autistic. He loves prime numbers, the color red, outer space, and Sherlock Holmes. He detests yellow and brown, pointless chatting, metaphors, and being hugged. He has a pet rat named Toby. He wants to be an astronaut. He refuses to eat if his food touches on the plate. He's completely three-deminsional.

Christopher goes out walking late one night and finds his neighbor's dog murdered. Its been stabbed with a gardening fork. Christopher is initially accused of having done it, punches a police officer, winds up in jail...upon his release, he vows to find out who the real killer is and begins to do some dective work of his own.

I'm about 70 pages in...and already, the investigation has led to some surprising (and pretty ugly) truths about Christopher's own family. I can't wait for all of it to unravel. Wondering how he's going to cope.

This is just the kind of book I've been that's un-put-down-able.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom

This is a collection of short stories exploring love and loss.

Part One
I finished the first section, "William and Clare" this morning...four short stories about the evolution of one couple's relationship...first colleagues, then best friends, illicit lovers, and finally husband and wife. It started with a great first line: "At two o'clock in the morning, no one is to blame."

And then there was the first paragraph:

We'd been watching CNN, one scene of disaster leading to the next, the reporter in front of what might have been a new anthrax outbreak giving way to the military analyst in the studio with new developments from Kabul, when William put his hand on my breast. My husband was asleep upstairs...and William's wife was asleep in the guest room...

I was hooked. Who are these people??? What's going on? How did they get here? To this moment? I inhaled the next 58 pages of their story.

My only complaint is that the first story, "Your Borders, Your Rivers, Your Tiny Villages," was written in Clare's voice, and all the rest were in third person. The shift was jarring. By the end of the first story, I was attached to her, and I missed her voice and her perspective.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

Phillips' style is reminiscent of Faulkner or Woolf...very stream of consciousness...sort of impressionistic. At the best of times, I felt swept up and carried along by her words...I could smell the freshly cut grass, I could feel the thick, July air, I could hear the pounding rain and the rush of the river. But at the worst of times, I was utterly bored. I didn't know Robert Leavitt well enough to spend fifty pages with him in a tunnel in South Korea as he was dying...the pain, the slipping in and out of consciousness, the flashbacks, the oozing blood, more pain...I found myself, at some points, wishing he'd go ahead and die...just end it.

I really didn't care about any of the characters...Lola, Nonie, Lark, or much as I wanted to. I felt disengaged. I don't know if it was the shifthing point of view, or the style, or both...I never felt sad with them or afraid for them...I was just floating along, watching their lives unfold, a distant by-stander...

And that might have been okay if there had been a lot of action. Several times I found myself desperately wishing something would happen...even something tragic. And when certain big events finally transpired...Lark's discovery about her father...the incident with Gladdy at the end of the book...the characters themselves didn't have much of a reaction. They seemed muted and far away...those moments, anti-climatic.

Ulimately, Phillips did an incredible job evoking time and place. The setting, atmosphere, and mood were vivid...early 1950's, small town West Virginia, the Korean war...I could see it, hear it, smell it, taste it. At times her descriptions, her word choice, felt perfect. (i.e. Today is Sunday. Nick Tucci will run his push mower along the alley, to keep the weeds down. He does it after dusk...and the grass smells like one sharp green thread sliced open.) But beyond that?

There was enough to the story and the characters to keep me reading, hoping, and expecting...but I'm not sure it paid off in the end.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Weeping Underwater Looks a Lot Like Laughter by Michael J. White

I was intrigued by the title, the cover, and the blurb on the jacket flap...reassured by the fact that it's a Barnes and Noble "Discover Great New Writers" book. I bought it impulsively...without reading the first chapter or even the first page (as I ordinarily would)...Excited to dive in, I settled on the couch on a snowy afternoon, ready for an awesome read.

Just a couple pages in, I knew I'd made a terrible mistake. The writing is so clunky and contrived. I just can't get past it. Sixty pages in, I'm done, and I don't abandon books often. In fact, I can probably count the number of books I've started but not finished on one hand (Heart of Darkness, Heir to the Glimmering World, Girls In Trucks...). There truly aren't willpower is pretty strong. But the thought of picking this one up again has completely stalled my reading life. It's just laying there on the table waiting, and I am doing everything I can to avoid it.

And there really are too many great books out there for me to force myself through this the exciting prospect of deciding what's up next!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

I've been waiting for this book since the moment I finished Eat, Pray, Love a few years ago. I fell in love with Gilbert's voice when I read an excerpt of that memoir in O Magazine. It was so fresh and honest...but familiar, too. We had a lot in common, it seemed. I got the feeling (and I'm sure I'm not alone in this) that she and I could be close friends, sitting over lunch, commiserating...finishing each other's sentences...And since I finished Eat, Pray, Love, I've been wondering about her...hoping for a chance to catch up and reconnect. Needless to say, I scooped up Committed the day it came out.

It picks up where Eat, Pray, Love left off. In Bali, on the last leg of her introspective journey around the world, Liz fell in love with a Brazilian man named Felipe. Having both suffered devastating divorces, they pledged their faithfulness to each other privately vowing NEVER to marry. That is until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security got involved. With Felipe in handcuffs, about to be kicked out of the U.S. for good, Liz asks a Homeland Security officer, "Okay...what's the fastest way for us to secure him a better, more permanent visa?" To which the officer replies, "Honestly? The two of you need to get married."

This book chronicles the next ten months of their lives as they journey, rootless, from place to place, wading through all the red tape and attempting to make peace with marriage. It's a seamless blend of their story--their conversations, their travels, their fights--and tons of research Liz conducted on marriage.

I was captivated. Regularly I stopped reading and said to whoever was sitting near me..."Listen to this..."

Here's just one example. Gilbert writes, "Everywhere, in every single society, all across the world, all across time, whenever a conservative culture of arranged marriage is replaced by an expressive culture of people choosing their own partners based on love, divorce rates will immediately begin to skyrocket...about five minutes after people start clamoring for the right to choose their own spouses based on love, they will begin clamoring for the right to divorce those spouses once that love has died."

WHAT? That seems so counter-intuitive initially, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. If you (and your clan) no longer need your husband to protect you physically, provide for you financially, expand your circle of kinship, secure you respect, or even father your children...where does that leave you? When marriage is all about your personal happiness, what happens when the going gets it inevitably will? What is there to bind you? What incentive do you have to work through the pain? Gilbert goes on to say, "Maybe divorce is the tax we collectively pay as a culture for daring to believe in love--or at least, for daring to link love to such a vital social contract as matrimony."

This is fascinating...thought-provoking, stuff. I'm walking away with a fresh perspective...with the wheels still turning...