Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review of Radical Equations by Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr.

Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights is not like the other books that I read for Nonfiction November, in that it is not narrative nonfiction. Though he is telling a story, Robert P. Moses (with writing partner Cobb) is not trying to delight the readers with a suspenseful “plot” or a novel-like structure. For most readers, this will resemble the informative nonfiction you have to read for school.

However, this is an important book to revisit for people who are interested in public school reform. Most of us who read about school change or school problems have read journalistic accounts of public schools. Most of the authors are white. And, even more importantly, white people are mobilizing most of the reform efforts chronicled in these modern accounts (think: Teach for America; No Child Left Behind; Race to the Top….)

Activist and MacArthur Genius Moses situates his reform effort – The Algebra Project – not as “school reform” but as a civil rights movement. Drawing on his own history as an African American activist in the fight for voting rights in the South, he positions educational opportunity in math and science as a new access point for freedom. And he discusses how change in the educational system needs to come from the inside (minority and low-income communities) rather than from the outside (corporate reform).

The Algebra Project emerged in the late-1980s as a way to introduce algebra to middle school kids who were likely to be funneled off the college-prep track. Moses found that algebra was a gate keeper that prevented otherwise promising students from being prepared to take college-level math. He notes that schools often prepare students for the status-quo, meaning a world in which the power structure remains the same. And if kids are systemically kept out of the pathways to power (by being routed away from certain math classes, or being given access later than their white peers), they will not have the tools to make their communities powerful.

This book was published in 2001, and Moses is looking backward to make sense of how the program grew over a couple of decades. It’s worth noting that the wide-ranging, progressive curricular reform that he is promoting does not feel particularly viable in today’s test-driven, back-to-basics, top-down era. The political pendulum about curriculum sat in a different place when the project originated, favoring community-controlled schooling and more autonomous decision-making. However, the specifics of the curriculum (though important) do not interest me as much as the way that the author conceives of the change process, with community members running the show. According to Moses, school change needs to be a “family” project – meaning that the ideas need to be owned and promoted by community members engaged in a struggle for freedom. And the very idea of freedom as a purpose and an anchor of the movement is significant – the reason for engaging in this school change project is not merely for kids to become workers in another man’s business; it’s to change the opportunity structure altogether.

If you’re interested in reading further about the insider/outsider dynamic in modern school reform, I highly recommend Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children. Carr, like Moses, also addresses the tension in civil rights activism between mobilization for economic power and mobilization for political power. Moses’ project appears to be trying to bridge the two approaches to transformation.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review of Us by David Nicholls

I expected Us to be a romantic comedy about a couple on a journey back to each other, because that’s what the book’s cover blurbs say. It is not exactly that. There is some comedy, to be sure. There’s certainly a marriage between two people who love each other. And there’s a lot of kvetching about and working through relationships.

But I wouldn’t call it a romantic comedy. I think this book has a different set of allies in the growing group of books that explore middle-aged masculinity.  Recent novels that incorporate this topic (albeit in different ways) include Ted Thompson’s The Land of Steady Habits, Peter Mountford’s The Dismal Science: A Novel, and Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of Poets. In each of these books, comedy is the tote bag that carries the plot along, but the emotional center of the story is serious.

Us involves Douglas, whose marriage to his wife, Connie, is on its last gasp. His teenaged son is leaving the nest, and Douglas decides to take the family on a last-ditch family vacation to restore harmony. Along the way, he wrestles with what it means to “be himself,” what role work has had in his life, and what kind of father he has been.

This novel is told from Douglas’ point of view. This is his story alone. The book is about a man’s self-discovery, and, in particular, what it means for him to be part of mutually satisfying relationships.  We learn about Connie, but it is always through Douglas’ lens.

I enjoyed it the whole way through – though I did think that some of the slapstick comedy was too much, as if it were designed for the movie this novel is destined to become. My favorite moments were quiet – when the reader learns that Douglas’ version of events is not fully reliable.

This book was on the long list of nominees for the 2014 Booker Prize. And with that in mind, here’s one thing that struck me: I think that if this had been a story about Connie’s self-discovery, the exact same journey but with the wife at the center, it would have been branded “chick lit.” It would have had a cover that featured a woman with flowing hair or a bouquet of flowers. It would never have been noticed by a prize committee or featured on the capital-L Literature table at the bookstore. And if I’m right, what kind of great stories are we passing over because of that branding?

It turns out that there are lots of conversation about this topic. Here’s a whole cluster of articles about the pros and cons of gendered marketing on the Huffington Post.  Here’s an interesting one on Salon. And here’s a little humor about chick-litifying the classics

Monday, November 24, 2014

What I'm Reading This Week, Thankfully

Here’s a summary of last week’s reading adventures: Suicide, Murder, Divorce. Way to ring in the holiday season! My book club read Veronika Decides to Die, and I wrote about why it was a good “discussion book.” I read The Restless Sleep for Nonfiction November and found that I’m still restless for a satisfying nonfiction crime book.  And just yesterday I finished David Nicholls' Us, which was not exactly the romantic comedy I thought it would be (but it was maybe something better). A review on that is forthcoming. 

So I knocked off two books from last week’s leaning stack of books. This week is Thanksgiving, so I’m not sure how much reading I’ll get done. But here’s my ambitious pile, with a few new additions:

You’ll notice that there’s a book whose spine is reversed. That’s because I don’t want you to know that I’m reading it yet. It has to be a secret! My book club has a book exchange every December, and I’m thinking that this will be the one I’ll give (if it lives up to the great reviews). I’ve also put Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love in the stack, because I received it at the exchange two years ago and still haven’t read it.

Here’s the synopsis from Powells:

It was the year after Chappaquiddick, and all spring Carmel McBain had watery dreams about the disaster. Now she, Karina, and Julianne were escaping the dreary English countryside for a London University hall of residence. Interspersing accounts of her current position as a university student with recollections of her childhood and an ever difficult relationship with her longtime schoolmate Karina, Carmel reflects on a generation of girls desiring the power of men, but fearful of abandoning what is expected and proper. When these bright but confused young women land in late 1960s London, they are confronted with a slew of new preoccupations--sex, politics, food, and fertility--and a pointless grotesque tragedy of their own.

That’s it for now. Please let me know what you’re reading, too. Hint: leave a comment!

(It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Journey)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Review of Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho and Thoughts on Bookclubbery

I liked Veronika Decides to Die, but I would have liked it even more if I had read it when I was 20 and playing around with my own vision of “the good life.” The plot involves a young woman in Slovenia in the 1990s that is fed up with her mundane existence and tries to commit suicide unsuccessfully. She wakes up in a mental hospital and is told that she experienced complications from her drug overdose and will die in five days. What follows is an exploration of how she and several other patients in the hospital think about what kind of decisions to make in the face of having only a few days to live.

Books that are driven by a Big Idea rather than by its characters do not tend to be my favorites, because it often seems as if the characters are being “used” by the author rather than being allowed to develop on their own. That did happen in this case – Coelho wants to propose a philosophy of authentic living here, and the characters and plot are created to promote this philosophy. But, still, this book is compelling in its earnestness, and I was rooting for the characters to be able to experience freedom on their own terms.

Coelho’s philosophy has two parts. First, he believes that Western society has sanity and insanity flipped. We call “normal” those who conform to a routine, boxed-in life. We call “crazy” those people who deviate from social expectations or who freely express their passion – artists, creators, dreamers.

Second, living a “normal” life builds up boredom and resentment and bitterness. Once these negative feelings overcome a person, the will to live well – or live freely – subsides. Coelho seems to be asking how people can break the shackles of this “normalcy.”

The twenty-year-old me would have enjoyed discussing these ideas in the dorm commons at one in the morning. But, as it turns out, the older me really enjoyed talking about this book at my book club this week (not at one in the morning).

In fact, Veronika Decides to Die generated one of the longest discussions about a book our group has ever had (as opposed to discussions about families or food or politics or whatever). That got me thinking about what kinds of books are best for book club discussions. Here’s what I have come up with so far:

1)   The book has to have some sort of larger theme or idea it’s exploring. The fact that Veronika Decides to Die is idea-driven actually worked to our advantage here. Our group talked about the concept of sanity. We talked about mental health. We talked about the “right to die.” People brought up their own experiences and decisions. While some character-driven books allow us to play with the text (Did you like the ending? Did the character make realistic choices?), they don’t pull us up and out toward the real world. So, oddly, the books that I tend to enjoy the most don’t necessarily spark the best discussions.

2)   The book needs to be short enough for people to finish. If people are not done with the book, it’s hard to talk about the resolution.  Veronika Decides to Die is 210 pages, and everyone at the table completed it. It would have been difficult to discuss Coelho’s philosophy without knowing what happens to Veronika at the end.

3)   It’s great if the book spurs a question for which there’s no clear answer. In this case, we wondered why Veronika Decides to Die is set in Slovenia. Is there something about that place and that time (late 1990s) that made talking about authentic living important? We puzzled through what freedom might have meant in that part of the world during and after the Bosnian War, and we considered the fact that Slovenia was a brand new republic. We are still puzzling.

I trolled around the interwebs looking for insight on good ideas for choosing books for discussions. Here’s a link to librarian Nancy Pearl’s ideas about the topic. She also makes a list of novels she thinks could propel a lively conversation:

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski
The Plague of Doves and The Round House by Louise Erdrich
In the Woods by Tana French
A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Sparrow and A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
Among Others by Jo Walton
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

So what do YOU think? Do you agree with Nancy Pearl? Do you have books to add? And what about nonfiction? Please weigh in. Hint: leave a comment.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review of The Restless Sleep by Stacy Horn

I read The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad as part of the Nonfiction November Readalong. The book allows the reader to follow detectives as they try to wrap-up four unrelated unsolved cases, which include the 1951 murder of a woman in her apartment (involving poop – GAH!), the murder of a couple involved in the drug trade (in front of their children – GAH!), the murder of a police officer (involving a meat hook to the eye – GAH!), and the murder of a kid (just GAH!). I read lots of crime fiction, but the sordid details of these real-life cases were difficult for me to handle.

My favorite parts of the book involved the discussion of the evolution of forensics (and how frustrating it can be to build a case without modern forensics). If you’re interested in learning how cadaver dogs become cadaver dogs, or how the process of DNA identification of old evidence happens (or doesn’t), there are some great details in here for you.

However, this is largely a story of bureaucracy – how the Cold Case Squad came into being and how it is being dismantled. The reader learns about office politics and financial politics and the complicated organizational webs that make “justice” a complex process. And with that, I felt a little empty handed by the conclusion of this book where we learn that there are not enough resources dedicated to old, low-profile cases, and, well, that’s the way it is.

The structure of this book reminded me a bit of The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases. That Book also had some great details about the process of solving missing/unidentified persons cases (by lay people!), but there were also large, very detailed parts of the book about the organization of internet communities that left me frustrated. Perhaps this frustration merely indicates is just my own curiosity lies in the cases themselves, not in the politics of crime fighting.

On a different note, It looks like this author’s most recent book is about singing (ha – a different note! Get it? I could have said that she changed her tune. Sorry. I’ll stop.). Here’s the Goodreads blurb about Imperfect Harmony: Singing Through Life’s Sharps and Flats:

Why do we sing? For Stacy Horn, singing in a community choir the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York is the one thing in her life that never fails to take her to a transcendent place and remind her that everything good is possible. She’s not particularly religious and (she’ll be the first to point out) her voice isn’t exactly the stuff of legend, but like thousands of other amateur chorus members throughout this country and the world, singing with other people makes her happy. As Horn relates her funny and profound experiences as a choir member, she treats us to an eclectic history of group singing and the music that moves us, whether we re hearing it for the first time or the hundredth; the dramatic stories of conductors and composers; and discoveries from the new science of singing, including the remarkable physical benefits of song.

Monday, November 17, 2014

What I'm Reading This Week

I’m joining the “It’s Monday: What Are You Reading” project (hosted by Book Journey) for the first time today. I’m trying to keep my momentum up, because I know that things will fall to pieces once the holiday season begins.

This past weekend I finished Veronika Decides To Die, which is my book club’s pick for this month. I’ll write up a review after our conversation – assuming there’s going to be a conversation. Ladies, who’s coming this month? It’ll be a good time -- Ethiopian food and suicide! 

I’m also reading The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad as part of the Nonfiction November read-along. I’m about half way through, and the discussion starts on Wednesday. So far…eh. I’m a little bit bored, and a little bit horrified. I’m still waiting to get sucked into it. 

The stack below holds other things I hope to get to soon – though not necessarily all of them this week.  

1) I received Lila for my birthday (thank you, Saskia!). I’m thinking that I have to re-read or at least skim Gilead and Home before I tackle it, though. I tend to forget details from previous books, and that drives me crazy.

From Goodreads:

Lila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church—the only available shelter from the rain—and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life. She becomes the wife of a minister, John Ames, and begins a new existence while trying to make sense of the days of suffering that preceded her newfound security.

Neglected as a toddler, Lila was rescued by Doll, a canny young drifter, and brought up by her in a hardscrabble childhood. Together they crafted a life on the run, living hand-to-mouth with nothing but their sisterly bond and a ragged blade to protect them. But despite bouts of petty violence and moments of desperation, their shared life is laced with moments of joy and love. When Lila arrives in Gilead, she struggles to harmonize the life of her makeshift family and their days of hardship with the gentle Christian worldview of her husband that paradoxically judges those she loves.

2) Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights is the last book I promised to read for Nonfiction November. If I accomplish that, I will have read 4 nonfiction books for pleasure in a single month. That might be a record.

From Goodreads:

At a time when popular solutions to the educational plight of poor children of color are imposed from the outside-national standards, high-stakes tests, charismatic individual saviors-the acclaimed Algebra Project and its founder, Robert Moses, offer a vision of school reform based in the power of communities. Begun in 1982, the Algebra Project is transforming math education in twenty-five cities. Founded on the belief that math-science literacy is a prerequisite for full citizenship in society, the Project works with entire communities-parents, teachers, and especially students-to create a culture of literacy around algebra, a crucial stepping-stone to college math and opportunity.

3) Us just came in from my library hold list! Woo! I enjoyed Nicholls’ One Day, so I’m hopeful that this one will be a relaxing treat (It looks like One Day is on sale at Powells for $1.50, if you don't mind the annoying movie cover!).

From Goodreads:

Douglas Petersen understands his wife's need to 'rediscover herself' now that their son is leaving home. He just thought they'd be doing their rediscovering together.

So when Connie announces that she will be leaving, too, he resolves to make their last family holiday into the trip of a lifetime: one that will draw the three of them closer, and win the respect of his son. One that will make Connie fall in love with him all over again.

The hotels are booked, the tickets bought, the itinerary planned and printed. What could possibly go wrong?

4) Finally, This One Summer is a YA (or middle grade? I can't tell) graphic novel. I have yet to read any graphic novels and am not sure how much I’ll enjoy this format. But I’ve heard good things about this one, and it doesn’t involve superheroes or dragons -- so it seems like a good one to try.

From Goodreads:

Every summer, Rose goes with her mom and dad to a lake house in Awago Beach. It's their getaway, their refuge. Rosie's friend Windy is always there, too, like the little sister she never had. But this summer is different. Rose's mom and dad won't stop fighting, and when Rose and Windy seek a distraction from the drama, they find themselves with a whole new set of problems. It's a summer of secrets and sorrow and growing up, and it's a good thing Rose and Windy have each other.

In This One Summer two stellar creators redefine the teen graphic novel. Cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, the team behind Skim, have collaborated on this gorgeous, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful story about a girl on the cusp of her teen age—a story of renewal and revelation.

That's all for now. Please let me know what you’re reading, too. Hint: Leave a comment. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review of The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

This book received quite a bit of buzz last summer. It is the story/ies of an assortment of Latino immigrants who live in the same apartment complex in Delaware. Through different narrative voices, the reader learns the backstory of each character – what drove him or her to come to the United States and what he/she has faced as a new (or aspiring) citizen.

At the center of The Book of Unknown Americans lies a relationship between two teenagers – Mayor, whose family comes from Panama, and Maribel, whose family is newly arrived from Mexico. The road to each other is symbolic of the larger coming together (and disconnections) of cultures, families, expectations, and experiences. I think the book is at its best when it focuses on these two characters and their family members.  And though this is a novel for adults, I also think that it is reminiscent of some of the better YA that I have read – in that it has a very accessible style but also tackles important ideas and topics related to identity.

The “unknown” component of the title presumably relates to the fact that the characters’ stories are not typical headline-generating stories about immigration. The characters are regular people – regular Americans – working and shopping and going to church and going to school. And the setting – an unassuming Delaware town – is also not a border town with a fence and armed gunmen. It is a regular place, where regular things happen. These stories might be unknown to the average reader.

This is one of those novels that seems to be written to serve a Larger Purpose. In this case, the purpose might be to shed light on the diversity within the category of people we call “Latino” and to broaden the tapestry of stories about immigration to incorporate this diversity. To that end, there’s a Tumblr designed to capture more of these "real" stories .

I will say that while I did enjoy this book, I wonder what it would have been like if the characters had been able to breathe a bit without the cloak of the agenda. The short chapters that focus on the neighbors in the building certainly achieve the goal of putting more stories on the table, but perhaps at the expense of fully fleshing out the central storylines. As a reader, I would love to go to school with Maribel (she attends a school for special needs students). I would love to go to work with Maribel’s father, Arturo (a laborer in Pennsylvania). I would love to be a part of the disappointing job interviews and the violent confrontations. All of these events happen off-page and leave me wanting more.

If you want to learn about this author (a fellow Northwestern University grad. Woo!), you can read interviews here and here.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review of Hold Fast to Dreams by Beth Zasloff and Joshua Steckel

I was pleasantly surprised by Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty, which I had assumed was yet another account of a white teacher trying to be a “savior” in an inner-city school. And indeed, Joshua Steckel is a white college counselor at a Brooklyn high school that serves a diverse group low-income and minority students. But this book is not a cliché and asks its readers to think critically about the promise and limits of higher education in an unequal society.

The narrative follows a set of students as they apply and then go (or try to go) to college. The authors rely on interviews and essays written by the students themselves, so the kids’ voices are front and center. We see the stumbling blocks to access (e.g. parents needing to file taxes early enough to be eligible for financial aid; visiting far-away schools; tensions between individual aspiration and family responsibility, etc.), and we also see the road blocks involved with degree fulfillment (identity issues on largely white campuses; lack of a supportive cohort; financial strain; family pressure; academic struggle, etc.).

What distinguishes this narrative from others like it is the teacher’s vulnerability in showing his initial assumptions about and eventual learning with the kids he serves (assumption #1: good students should absolutely go to a four year, residential liberal arts college) or about the colleges whose relationships he cultivates (assumption #2: colleges will really commit to a student for four years with social and economic support). And in the end, the reader gets a picture of the featured kids as real human beings developing identities, rather than as statistics or exemplars or ‘future workers.’ The reader also gets a sense of teaching as a deeply relational activity.

This is the second book this month whose title gives me pause. The idea that this is a book that focuses only on “the vision of a life beyond poverty” does not fully reflect the nuance of the stories in the account.  Zasloff and Steckel themselves grow to understand that higher education – even for students who come from challenging circumstances -- is often part of the process of building a “good life.”  A good life definitely has an economic component, but it also involves “interests, passions, and abilities,” [296] the balance between responsibility and self-fulfillment [296], and “a search for meaning.” [297].  I wish the title would reflect that complexity.

This is a provocative read, and a good one. I recommend it.

One thing of note -- The New Press, which is a nonprofit, "public-interest" publisher, put out this book.  It looks like they also published The New Jim Crow, which I've been meaning to read. The role of the publishing industry in narrative nonfiction is an interesting one, and I’d like to explore it more.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Looking for Lost Places

Here’s the prompt for this week’s Nonfiction November post:

Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

I can’t tell you how much this one has tied me up in knots. All of my academic feelings of imposter syndrome came to the fore while I debated with myself about whether I am an expert in anything.  After much ado, I have decided to dodge my crazy and address part 3 of this prompt: “create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read.”

I have a strange fascination with abandoned places. My trips have often involved trespassing into crumbling structures or driving down dusty roads to find ghost towns. Take, for example, this fun ruin whose "private property" sign I ignored this past summer:

This got me thinking about the idea of lost places -- how ideas turn into reality but then are abandoned or forgotten or covered up by new things. For instance, check out Valerie Anex's fantastic collection of photographs about Irish “ghost suburbs,” – planned communities in Ireland that failed and were left uninhabited.

photo: by Valerie Anex from

There's certainly enough photography out there to keep me happily internetting forever, but what about reading? A quick search has led me to these three titles might be part of  an inquiry around this topic. Here’s a list of the books, along with the synopsis of each one from Powells:

A tour of the world’s hidden geographies – from disappearing islands to forbidden deserts – and a stunning testament to how mysterious the world remains today. At a time when Google Map’s Street View can take you on a virtual tour of Yosemite’s remotest trails and cell phones double as navigational systems, it’s hard to imagine there’s any uncharted ground left on the planet. In Unruly Places, Alastair Bonnett goes to some of the most unexpected, offbeat places in the world to reinspire our geographical imagination.

Bonnet’s remarkable tour includes moving villages, secret cities, no man’s lands, and floating islands. He explores places as disorienting as Sandy Island, an island included on maps until just two years ago despite the fact that it never existed. Or Sealand, an abandoned gun platform off the English coast that a British citizen claimed as his own sovereign nation, issuing passports and crowning his wife as a princess. Or Baarle, a patchwork of Dutch and Flemish enclaves where walking from the grocery stores’ produce section to the meat counter can involve crossing national borders.

In Ruins:  A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature by Christopher Woodward

In this enchanting meditation on ruins, Christopher Woodward takes us on a thousand-year journey from the plains of Troy to the monuments of ancient Rome, from the crumbling palaces of Sicily, Cuba, and Zanzibar to the rubble of the London Blitz. With an exquisite sense of romantic melancholy, we encounter the teenage Byron in the moldering Newstead Abbey, Flaubert watching the buzzards on the pyramids, Henry James in the Colosseum, and Freud at Pompeii. We travel the Appian Way with Dickens and behold the Baths of Caracalla with Shelley. An exhilarating tour, at once elegant and stimulating, In Ruins casts an exalting spell as it explores the bewitching power of architectural remains and their persistent hold on the imagination.

Lives In Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson

Lives in Ruins is an absorbing and entertaining look at the lives of contemporary archaeologists as they sweat under the sun for clues to the puzzle of our past. Johnson digs and drinks alongside archaeologists, chases them through the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and even Machu Picchu, and excavates their lives. Her subjects share stories we rarely read in history books, about slaves and Ice Age hunters, ordinary soldiers of the American Revolution, children of the first century, Chinese woman warriors, sunken fleets, mummies. What drives these archaeologists is not the money (meager) or the jobs (scarce) or the working conditions (dangerous), but their passion for the stories that would otherwise be buried and lost.

OK, readers, please pull me off the internet and back into my reading chair. What else should I add to the list?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review of 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

What an odd book this is! The premise is that an assortment of characters –including a grieving, smart-mouthed nine-year-old with a killer voice, a fifth grade art teacher looking to re-start her life after a divorce, and a jazz club owner with a bevy of problematic relationships and a club that is failing – careen toward Christmas over a 24 hour period. The writing is confusing and circular and occasionally so piercing I could hardly stand it – almost like jazz itself.

The setting – Philadelphia – is also a character here. The alleyways and rooftops and street corners all have a role to play in bringing all of the disparate people together (at 2 a.m. on Christmas Eve, when the jazz club needs to close its doors or face sanction).

For me, 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas is not the cat’s meow. The author's stylistic choices – which are essential to making this a distinctive book – got in my way. I was always a reader here, never fully sinking into the story. But I do see how this kind of literary playfulness could be someone’s cup of tea, especially a music lover or someone who is looking for an urban story that is not centered in New York City.  I’d say that this all the makings of a screenplay, but it seems so very similar to Love Actually (This book is better).

My big quibble – the ending! What? I don’t get it, and it made me want to scream.

One thing that this book made me think about is other novels that have larger-than-life child protagonists. Madeleine, in many ways the centerpiece of this book, is like no other nine-year-old I've met. Do you like ultra-precocious characters? Which are your favorites? Here's a 2010 article about the topic on The Millions.

Want to learn more about this book? You can find an interesting interview with the author here and here.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Review of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs

I was drawn to this book by Alex Kotlowitz’s blurb on the book jacket. Kotlowitz is one of my favorite urban storytellers, in no large part because he is self-conscious about his role in that storytelling.  In There are No Children Here, he discusses the muddied waters of the friendship he developed with the family he was “reporting on,” and elsewhere he has played around with the concept of “narration” as an idea.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League is being discussed as a flashlight of sorts on the complicated relationship between poverty, race, education, and success. On the surface, this is the story of a young African-American achiever who heads to Yale, but who dies violently a decade later in the same community where he started, presumably due to his participation in the drug trade. The author, who was his college roommate, sets out to give more context to Peace’s story and does, indeed, paint a puzzling and real portrait of a man who was enigmatic to many of his friends and family members even in life.

I found this to be an engaging and provocative book. As a reader, the title lets you know that Peace dies young, but it is a gripping page-turner nonetheless. This is good narrative nonfiction.

However, I don’t think this is a story that ultimately sheds light on the topics the author intends. I don’t even think it’s a book about Robert Peace. I think this is a book about the author himself – his unfinished feelings about interracial friendship, the fact that he could never really understand the man he roomed with and cared about, the fact that even with a shared educational experience, they seemed to share little at all. This IS a story about race, but it’s not necessarily the story I was expecting or, perhaps, the one that the author planned to tell.

The fact that this is Hobbs’ own story explains his very dominant narrative voice. There are few quotations here. Though he admits to countless interviews, the voices of the people he’s describing aren’t clear. The reader hears his questions and his inability to really get the answers he seeks (Why didn't Robert Peace take advantage of the opportunities that seemed to be at his feet?).

I do think that the title is not the best one for the book. If we are to believe the author's account, Robert Peace didn’t have a tragic life – the reader learns all about his devotion to his family, his love of ideas, his entrepreneurship, his steady wisdom, his love of travel, and so on. His death was tragic, but not his life. We can wonder why he made the choices he did, and we can mourn the outcome. But it seems like the author is working hard to show the richness of a life that is reduced to a cliché in the newspaper accounts of his death. The title only reinforces that cliché.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Review of Starbird Murphy and the World Outside by Karen Finneyfrock

In a strange twist of fate, Starbird Murphy and the World Outside has almost the same cover as Reunion, which is the last book I read.* 

The difference is that Reunion cover has a row of houses on the bottom, and the Starbird Murphy cover does not. This totally works, because the character named Starbird doesn't live in a house. She lives in a yurt with her mother on a commune in rural Washington State.

Unlike the slew of copycat dystopian novels for teens that have flooded the marketplace, this novel focuses on a utopian community. The Free Family is an egalitarian (or is it?), environmentally friendly, self-sustaining community, with a leader named EARTH (in all caps, always) who is special because he gets messages from The Cosmos. Kids in the Family receive a Calling when they become teenagers. Sometimes these Callings have to do with leadership, and sometimes they have to do with service (read: crappy tasks).

The title character receives a Calling to work in the Free Family’s off-site café, which is one of the places where the Family generates income. So after a childhood of isolation, she becomes an urban high school student/waitress. Culture shock and transformation ensue. She has to figure out what’s important to her about The Family, and whether she really believes everything she has learned about the world through its lens.

This book is so engaging because it brings the reader into an unfamiliar world (unless, I suppose, you already have a background in utopian societies), while simultaneously addressing some universal coming-of-age themes (figuring out your own identity when you have strong cultural ties; learning to stand up for yourself even if those around you don’t agree, etc.). Like many of the books I enjoy, this is a family drama (with family secrets and betrayal). And while it is most definitely a YA title, I thought it had quite a bit of adult crossover appeal, too.

Since it is Nonfiction November, I thought I’d check around for books about utopian communities. This one looks interesting – I’m intrigued by the discussion of suburbanization and utopian thinking. Has anyone read it?

* You can read an article about redundant cover art here and here

Monday, November 3, 2014

Nonfiction November

Nonfiction November is the first book blogger "event" that I plan to join -- yay, participation! This one is co-hosted by Sophisticated Dorkiness, Regular Rumination, Doing Dewey, and I'm Lost in Books

I'm really just going to dip my pinky toe into this project. My goal is to read two nonfiction titles this month, which feels deeply ambitious for a fictiony-type like me.  I am embarrassed to admit that I have only read four so far this year.*   I am frankly stunned that the number is so low (I read 11 in 2013).  Thanks to my Goodreads list for keeping me honest.

Clearly, I don't gravitate to nonfiction. That said, many of the books that knock me off my chair tend to be nonfiction. A couple of years ago, one of my bookclubs chose Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, which is an account of a World War II POW. The subject matter was outside of my usual reading zone, and I put off reading it until the last minute. But it ended up being the best book I read that year – a marvelous surprise.

One title that I really liked this year was Fink’s Five Days at Memorial. This book is a narrative account of the five days when people were trapped in a hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Over the course of those days, many patients die. The question is whether some doctors and nurses intentionally killed patients, and whether those decisions were ethical.

Five Days at Memorial is exactly the kind of nonfiction that I enjoy – social journalism. There’s a plot and good pacing and thick (in this case, thick and humid) description. It is also a book that sparks conversation – the ideas it tackles really matter.

I’m always struck by readers who are the opposite – those who read mostly nonfiction and very little fiction.  You know who you are – I saw you out at the beach this summer lugging around your copy of  Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century. It weighed down your beach bag but probably made for a great pillow. 

Anyway, wish me luck. 

(I’m starting off the month by reading some YA fiction – not a great indicator of success at this  challenge. But I’m going to change gears soon. Oh yes I am.)

*This year’s total does not include all of the nonfiction I read for work (journal articles, books I assign and re-read, etc.). It also does not include Ann Patchett’s essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, because I skimmed it too lazily to get cosmic credit for it. Nor does it include Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, which I haven’t finished yet.  And, just for the record, if I were allowed to include “surfing the internet,” my nonfiction total would be really, really high.