Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review of The Martian by Andy Weir

There has been a lot of hype about The Martian. I saw it on several Best of 2014 lists. Book podcasters have raved about it. And I will admit that I read it precisely because of this hype. If left to my own devices, I never would have picked up a book about an astronaut stranded on Mars.

This is science fiction, heavy on the science. The reader follows an astronaut whose Mars mission colleagues assume that he is dead. They leave him behind when they return to Earth. The astronaut is not able to communicate with anyone on Earth to tell them about his survival, and he knows that he will stay alive only as long as his supplies last.

The story ends up alternating between the astronaut and employees at NASA, who do eventually figure out that he’s alive. The question becomes how the astronaut can manage to stay alive long enough for NASA to engineer a rescue. There’s an interesting philosophical undercurrent about how much a single life is “worth.”

As I read, I thought about all the young science enthusiasts I know.  I think this book would appeal greatly to teen readers. (Parents: there’s some swearing and some sexy talk – otherwise, very P3-13). The story also highlights the potential for deep creativity in scientific and technological fields (and the personal character required to be successful with science).

I can think of several people who would love it. But me? I liked it, but I did not love it. It has good pacing, and I enjoyed the main character. But the drama that I would expect to feel while “spending time with” a character through deepest isolation was not there. I expected to experience a pendulum of emotions from despair to resolve. I expected to feel the character’s deep hunger. Instead, he comes off as kind of happy-go-lucky to me. He made me feel very confident about his chances instead of concerned. My heart did not race as I read.

I’d be interested to hear from you about how hype influences your reading choices. I have read two very-hyped books recently: All the Light We Cannot See (my review here), which blew me away, and this one. In both cases, I would not have read the books without having experienced the hype. But in this case, I think that the hype gave me expectations that were too high.

Here’s an interesting article about the author. I took note of the perseverance he displayed with his writing career – similar, perhaps, to the perseverance of his main character? And I’m intrigued by the fact that The Martian started off as a serial on his website.

Monday, January 26, 2015

What I'm Reading, Sunshine Edition

Last week was the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, so somehow I missed the fact that Monday happened. That was lucky, because I would have had to say, “I have not read any books.”

Truthfully, I’m not sure how so many bloggers manage to read 5 or 6 books a week. Presumably you are working? Going to the office? To class? Chasing little kids around? I understand that it’s a quicker project to read some genres of books than others, but still….I am trying to accept that I can only be the kind of reader that I am.

This week, I am the kind of reader that needs to be outside. I know that many of you are holed-up inside awaiting the blizzard apocalypse. In my part of the country, we are enjoying a false springtime. The crocuses are blooming, the sun is shining, and it is very, very challenging to attend to one’s leaning stack of books.

My big (literally and figuratively) reading accomplishment last week was finishing All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which I loved (review here). I also read Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (my dad’s pick) (review here). And I am an hour away from finishing The Martian by Andy Weir (review forthcoming).

I also started a new feature: “Ask the Blogger.” So if you have questions about books or reading or whatever, you can ask a question in the comments section or on Twitter.  I just ask that you keep it clean. I do know how raunchy you book people can get.

And folks, I know that leaving comments has been puzzling. I can’t change Blogger, but here’s how it works:

Click on the word “comment” at the bottom of a message.
Choose “anonymous.” (but sign your name in the text, because owning your ideas is awesome).
Write your message.
Hit “Publish.”
It will ask you if you are a robot. Please tell the truth.
Then hit “Publish” again.

I promise that it’s not as difficult as you think. I just tried it myself to be sure.

This week I plan on reading Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson. This book recently won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. The controversy surrounding Woodson's win is symbolic in many ways of the tensions around diversity in publishing.

Here's the description on Goodreads

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. 

Here's the description on Goodreads:

100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write is a book in which chimpanzees, Chekhov, and child care are equally at home. A vibrant, provocative examination of the possibilities of the theater, it is also a map to a very particular artistic sensibility, and an unexpected guide for anyone who has chosen an artist’s life. 

And finally, I’m eagerly anticipating The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob (another huge book; likelihood of finishing it this week is small).

Here's the description on Goodreads:

When brain surgeon Thomas Eapen decides to cut short a visit to his mother's home in India in 1979, he sets into motion a series of events that will forever haunt him and his wife, Kamala; their intellectually precocious son, Akhil; and their watchful daughter, Amina. Now, twenty years later, in the heat of a New Mexican summer, Amina finds herself at the center of a mystery so thick with disasters that to make any headway at all, she has to unravel the family's painful past.

Wish me luck! I'm dragging the lawn furniture out of the garage in the hope of some meaningful reading (or sleeping in the sun).

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

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Thoughts About Outliers: The Story of Success By Malcolm Gladwell

I’m sure that most of you have already read this book. I’m glad I finally sat down and tackled it, because for the most part, I found it to be an accessible and fun entry into discussions of talent and merit. This is the book that my father recommended – as I asked him to choose what I read during the week of his 75th birthday.

The premise of Outliers: The Story of Success is that successful people (and he means success by American standards) emerge in a complicated web of context. They are talented and hardworking, yes. But they are also lucky (born in the right time and place). And they have a foundation of cultural values that supports being successful in their particular area.

This premise is obvious in many ways, but it’s hard to live in the United States and not believe in stories of individual exceptionality. Whether it is the idea of genius or the idea of the self-made man, the narrative of individuality seems to be linked with a kind of hopefulness.

Gladwell wants us to let go of false narratives and create a more realistic and useful hope. One of the examples he offers involves the youth hockey system in Canada. He pulls out data that shows that most “star” hockey players are born in the first four months of the year (no wonder I’m not a hockey player!). In a system that is set up to favor bigger and more coordinated athletes, older children get more opportunities. As they get more opportunities, they get more practice. And with more practice, they get better than their slightly younger peers.

Gladwell asks what the world of elite hockey would look like if the system were organized differently – what if all the talented players had opportunities, not just a small slice of the larger pool? Wouldn’t professional hockey benefit in the end? And, in fact, more opportunities would mean more people becoming qualified to do all sorts of things, and more innovation would result. The narrative of individual exceptionality distracts us from being honest about the systems of opportunity we create.

The author loses me a bit when he digs into the idea of cultural context. He is trying to argue that the family we have and the culture we carry cannot be separated from our opportunities and the way we navigate them. The problem is that he makes huge generalizations about diverse groups (e.g. Asians, Southerners) that, at best, simplify cultural context or, at worst, verge into racist territory.

But Gladwell sits in a pretty comfortable place. He’s writing popular social science that is immensely readable, in a way that can mask the fact that it might be a bit light on the science. My family had a conversation over the holidays about whether popular history (the kind you buy at the Barnes and Noble rather than the kind you check out at your university library) is really history. If an author uses narrative flourish to tell a compelling story – inventing, perhaps, the dialogue or the color of the walls when there’s no evidence to support it – is it historical fiction rather than pure history? Does it matter if the data doesn’t exist to support the assertion?

In this case, can Gladwell back up his claims? Are the studies he references good science? Does it matter? I don’t know. Ordinarily I would be uneasy about someone making big claims about culture or social behavior without some significant scientific grounding, but it’s easy to give this book a pass. There’s a lot of meat to chew on here, if you’re willing to give the particulars the grains of salt they deserve.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Review of All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

It has been hard to pick up a new book since I finished All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s the kind of book that lingers, in a terrific way. The novel is both immensely readable AND provocative. The questions it poses are really compelling, but the questions don't step in the way of the storytelling.

I think that this is one of those experiences that is best discovered by the reader, so I won’t get into a big plot summary here. There’s a young German orphan who is being groomed to be a soldier in World War II.  And there’s a blind French girl in Paris who flees the German invasion with her father. You know that the two are going to connect at some point.

When I first started this novel, I thought it was going to be too precious. It has a bit of a fairy tale feel, and I was suspicious. But this is a book that is exploring humanity and war (and humanity in war), and the author’s skill is making the atrocities in the story both horrifying and quiet. There are no extra words, no extraneous graphic images. Yet I found the tiny moments of terror and loss to be breathtaking.

These are the questions the story makes me consider:

If going against your moral code will save you, will you do it?

If you know that sticking with your moral code will kill you, will you do it?

If you know that your own ambition will put those you love in danger, will you take on that risk?

If you negate your own ambition to prevent putting your loved ones in danger, what are the consequences?

Do we push for technological innovation when the same technologies can be used for good as for harm?

I do have one quibble with the book.  For a story that offers so many complex characters, why is the blind girl the only main character that seems simply “pure” or “good?” While her decisions are central to the plot development, she doesn’t wrestle with moral dilemmas in the same way that others do. I wonder whether her disability is part of the issue, if both writers and readers struggle with a more complicated portrayal of disability.

If you’d like to read an interview with the author, here’s my favorite.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ask the Blogger

My loyal reader, Gabrielle, recently posed a bookish question in my comments section, and I certainly won’t pass up an opportunity to be a literary Dear Sugar

She asks:

How do you feel about reading with technology? I just started a much acclaimed novel with a strong historical element and find myself grabbing my phone as I read to google names of important sites in the book and maps. Is this a distraction? Should I wait a few more pages till the author introduces that topic more? Should I just plod along like in the old days? Thoughts?

Dear Gabrielle,

The minute technology and reading comes up, people get hot and bothered. Usually there’s some sort of simmering resentment between gadget lovers (who love the easy accessibility of information, or the storage and portability of e-readers and tablets, or just the awesomeness of being on the cutting edge) and paper book lovers (who love the smell or the feel or the physicality of ownership). In this particular debate, I have always said, “Read how you want.”

But you seem to be asking something different. You are wondering if reading something and then stopping to explore an idea on the internet is a bad thing. Well, again, is any reading-related activity a bad thing? Probably not. If the way you read in the “old days” involved “plodding,” then BY All MEANS, grab your phone and google away. Some might find that process to be “interactive reading,” where the text inspires you to search and explore.

I will confess to something, however.  The internet has inspired in me a host of bad habits. If I let myself, I will check my email or Twitter or Facebook just because I can. I will quickly ditch my chapter when there are so many digital rabbit holes to investigate. For me, searching the internet can get in the way of sinking deeply into the worlds that good books offer.  It can make me lazy.

So I suppose my answer is still, “Read how you want.” But if you ever see ME googling something while reading, please tell me to put my phone down.


The Leaning Stack

Monday, January 12, 2015

What I'm Reading, Birthday Dad Edition

I knew that I wouldn’t read that much last week, because my new teaching quarter began in earnest. I only read one: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (my review here). But here’s the good news: the book was on my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge list, hosted by Roof Beam Reader.  I have selected twelve books that have been gathering dust in my house, and I plan to read all of them. And GET THIS, bloggees! Tayari Jones actually read my post about her book and wrote to me on Twitter! We twittered. Tweetered. Whatever. The interwebs still confuse me, but I’m trying to get up to speed with all you cool kids.

Anyway, 2015 TBR Pile Challenge: 1 down, 11 to go.

I also made a dent in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and I’m really enjoying it so far. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish it in the next few days.

This Wednesday is my father’s 75th birthday, which is a huge milestone. My dad is a big reader, and I have fond memories of reading next to him as a little kid. He tends to read nonfiction – heavy, hardcover tomes on Truth and Justice. I think he is a bit puzzled about why I gravitate toward contemporary fiction when there is so much Truth and Justice to explore.

In honor of his festive day, I told him that he could pick what I read this week. My only stipulation is that it not be too long or too hard. So he selected Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, which is neither long nor hard. I know the rest of the planet has already read it, so this opportunity will help me appear more current.

From Goodreads:

In this stunning new book, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of "outliers"--the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different?

The other book I hope to get to is The Martian by Andy Weir. This is one of those books that would not normally grab me, but everyone seems to be talking about it. I want to see why there's so much fuss. 

From Goodreads:

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first man to die there. It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead…But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills--and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit--he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

Happy birthday, Dad! May you get to read whatever you want, whenever you want.

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

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Review of Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones is a novel about sisters, but it has a twist: these sisters have a bigamist father who is married to both of their mothers -- and only one of the two sisters knows about these circumstances.  One sister, Dana, feels like she plays second fiddle to Chaurisse, who gets to live with their father and who remains oblivious to the bigamy. Chaurisse does know Dana, however, as a beautiful girl that she envies and would like to befriend.  The idea of there being a “chosen one” threads through the narrative, with each girl in turn feeling like the other one is “lucky.”

In many ways, this is a straightforward coming-of-age story that takes place in a very unconventional family. I could see this being a good choice for older teenagers as well as for adult readers who enjoy domestic fiction. But what is most interesting to me is that this very universal story (messed-up family) takes place in a setting that is decisively African-American. And by setting, I don’t mean just the place where the story is located (Atlanta). I’m talking about everything – the pictures on the walls, the hair products the characters use, the historical figures the characters reference, the music they play – all of it speaks of a deep and rich culture and heritage. The novel’s complexity comes from its ability to navigate universality and cultural-specificity at the same time.

I think that this is a story about women – with relationships between women forming the core of the novel. But I actually find that Silver Sparrow’s two male characters are the most compelling. The bigamist father is the centerpiece of the family dysfunction, but he is not exactly a villain. He is not especially attractive or likeable, but as a reader, I was rooting for some way for him to make it right. His brother, too, is fascinating. He is the character who makes the deception possible, but he is, in many ways, the hero.

I found this interesting interview with the author here.  And look at the interviewer – it's none other than Roxane Gay, who wrote 2014’s An Untamed State and Bad Feminist! Both of those books made all sorts of  last year's "Best of" lists. I also found this NPR interview with the author, where she talks about the importance of acknowledging young people.  Here’s a quote I love:

"I was kind of an invisible girl when I was young. I was more like Chaurisse in my novel. I never felt particularly special. I mean, I didn't have low self-esteem, but I never felt sparkly or that I had anything to say. And I went to Spelman College and I met the president of Spelman at the time, Johnetta Cole. And she had heard that I was a writer, and she once said to me, 'How's the writing?' and it was like someone had touched me with a magic wand. And then I started taking my writing more seriously…The most amazing person I had ever seen in real life said that I was a writer. So I became known for it, and people started asking me, 'What did I think about this or that thing? Would I be willing to write for the school paper?' It gave me value. I felt that I had something to contribute through writing. And I couldn't help but think, 'Wow, what would happen if someone went to teenage girls in high school and said: You know, you have more to worry about than who's going to take you to the prom. Because you have something to say that matters.’ "

Friday, January 9, 2015

A Short Review of The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

The first book that I finished in the 2015 was The Farm by Tom Rob Smith. There are all sorts of good things about this thriller – the writing is spare and matches the chilly Swedish setting; the plot moves along quickly; there’s suspense, but it’s not gruesome or scary. I was looking for a quick, fun read, and in most ways, this book satisfied me. (I will say, however, that The Farm made me scream at the end, and not in a good way.  The “reveal” of the mystery involves a plot device that makes me crazy.)

The premise is that an adult son receives a call from his father saying that his mother is psychotic, delusional, and possibly violent. When the mother arrives on the son’s doorstep, she contends that his father is a liar and not to be trusted. The novel follows the son as he tries to figure out the truth about his parents and as he decides which one to believe. The question at the center is how well a person can really know his family members.

Reading this book reminded me a bit of reading Before I GoTo Sleep by S.J. Watson. 

In that novel, the narrator has amnesia after a major event and is trying to uncover what happened. She finds her old journal, which contains a note in her own handwriting telling her to distrust her husband.  But she wakes up every day having no memories once again, being cared for by the husband she can’t remember. The “thrill” in both of these books lies in trying to figure out which character is unreliable.

The author claims that this story derives from a real experience with his parents (though I hope the resolution is not true. Gah.). Here’s an interview where he discusses the line between his truth and fiction. And here’s the original essay he wrote about his parents in the London Times.

Monday, January 5, 2015

What I'm Reading, the New Year Edition

It’s the new year, and it’s time to put away the tinsel and party hats and get back to business. Clearly, December was not a good month for me to do any ambitious reading. In the past couple of weeks, I slowed way down, distracted as I was by the eggnog and the ho-ho-ho. I read like crazy the first few months of my blogging adventure, because, well, accountability! But I only finished a few in the final weeks of 2014. The first was All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (review here), which was deeply sad but also deeply rewarding. I followed that with The Girls From Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe, which is a debut novel about friendship and isolation (review here). And just yesterday, I finished The Farm by Tom Rob Smith (I kept referring to him as Jim Bob accidentally. This is NOT a book by Jim Bob Duggar). I will write a review of this chilly literary thriller some time this week.

As promised, I did finish The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, because we were supposed to discuss it at our little extended family reunion in California. It turns out that we didn’t discuss it due to the above-mentioned eggnog and ho-ho-ho, so I’m not sure what to do with my thoughts about this book. Maybe I’ll write a post at some point about reading classics, or maybe it will be a post about reading things I should have read in college but didn’t.

I also joined the Official 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader. It is my great hope to shrink my leaning stack of books by at least twelve this year. I also have plans to more intentionally read books by a wide range of authors and about a wide range of people and places this year. You can read about my interest in intentionality around diversity here.

Now, on to this week! My new teaching quarter starts Tuesday, so I’m not sure how much time I’ll have. I’m going to put forward this stack of two:

The first book, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, was on just about everybody’s "Best of 2014" list. We are also reading it for my book club. I managed to score a fantastic paperback copy for Christmas!

Here’s the description from Powells:

Marie Laure lives with her father in Paris within walking distance of the Museum of Natural History where he works as the master of the locks (there are thousands of locks in the museum). When she is six, she goes blind, and her father builds her a model of their neighborhood, every house, every manhole, so she can memorize it with her fingers and navigate the real streets with her feet and cane. When the Germans occupy Paris, father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, where Marie-Laure’s agoraphobic great uncle lives in a tall, narrow house by the sea wall.

In another world in Germany, an orphan boy, Werner, grows up with his younger sister, Jutta, both enchanted by a crude radio Werner finds. He becomes a master at building and fixing radios, a talent that wins him a place at an elite and brutal military academy and, ultimately, makes him a highly specialized tracker of the Resistance. Werner travels through the heart of Hitler Youth to the far-flung outskirts of Russia, and finally into Saint-Malo, where his path converges with Marie-Laure.

Doerr’s gorgeous combination of soaring imagination with observation is electric. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

I am also going to read The Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. This is one on my 2015 TBR Challenge.

Here’s the description from Goodreads:

With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” author Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the two teenage girls caught in the middle.

Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode.

That’s it for now. I do feel like I have a clean reading slate. I’m looking forward to lots of good conversations and page turning in 2015. Join me?

(It's Monday...What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Journey)

Friday, January 2, 2015

Diversity and Intentions

At the beginning of 2014, I told myself that I wanted to read more broadly and with an eye toward more diversity. Certainly, the whiteness and middle-class American-ness of the publishing industry has received a lot of press lately, as has the overall whiteness of children’s literature. Politically, the data about (the lack of) diversity in literature has reenergized the discussion about inclusion and the role of writing and art in creating a more just society.

So what does that have to do with me? If you exclude the reading I do for my job, I mostly choose books based on whim and my mood. But I’d like to think that I grow when I read, that I become a more understanding person when I step into the shoes of different characters and walk through settings that are unlike my own. So the question is whether my whim and my mood actually give me a broad reading life.

Last year, when I said I wanted to read with an eye toward more diversity, it turns out that I was very unspecific in my ambition. I did not quantify what “more” meant. I did not qualify what “diversity” meant. In part, that lack of specificity stemmed from the fact that I don’t read with any particular agenda. Reading is not my homework. I read what appeals to me, because I’m looking for a particular kind of experience at a particular moment, not because I want to achieve anything or measure anything or prove anything.

My lack of specificity, however, made my reading goal sort of like a formless New Year’s Resolution (e.g. “I will lose weight” instead of “I will eat six carrots and run five miles daily”). And when it comes to reading diversely, the devil is very much in the details – Does reading more diversely mean that I read more books by nonwhite authors, no matter the subject? Or does reading more diversely mean reading books with a diverse array of characters, no matter the background of the author? Does diverse reading have to do with setting? For me, does it mean that the setting is not in the United States? Or does it mean that the setting is not “Western?” And what of other kinds of diversity – gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc.?

I keep track of what I read on Goodreads, so I am able to do a little bit of data analysis. I read just over 5 books a month on average during 2014. Just for fun, I created a few broad categories of analysis: books with an author of color; books with a main character of color; and books with a non-United States setting. I recognize that these categories do not encompass all of the dimensions of diversity, so don’t get upset. I’m just taking my temperature here.

With unspecific intent to read more diversely, 8% of the books I read in 2014 had an author of color.

3% of the books that I read in 2014 had a main character that was a person of color.

(As an aside, of the nine nonfiction titles that I read for pleasure, four concerned race or race relations. One of those books had an author of color.)

25% of the books that I read last year were set in a country that was not the United States. But if I look at books that were set in a non-Western country, that number drops to 3%.

My takeaway here is that my formless reading ambition to read more diversely in 2014 did not yield a reading life that was especially broad. So what about 2015? How can I give structure to my ambition without making reading all about structure?

I am going to devote January to coming up with a plan that works for me, so stay tuned.  In the meantime, let me know about your approach to reading broadly (hint: leave a comment!).