Monday, June 29, 2015

It's Monday! And I'm Looking For Summer Books (Help Me)!

A couple of weeks have passed since I’ve done a Monday update, so I suppose I’m overdue. I’ve been busy with some nonfiction recently. I read The Hungry Mind by Susan Engel, which involves thinking about the relationship between curiosity development and schools. I also read Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County by Kristen Green, which takes a look at both African-American activism around and white resistance to desegregation in Maryland. The book is a timely look at the connection between race and education and power.

As the temperature has skyrocketed in my neck of the woods, I have been on the hunt for a really good summer read. And when I say “a summer read,” I mean some fiction that is not-put-downable. I did recently read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which was a rare science fiction-esque choice for me – and I really loved it. I also read A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, which was balm to my still wounded spirit after the horror of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

I think the next book in line will be Summerlong by Dean Bakopoulos, for the sole reason that it has a beach chair on the cover. The book jacket description says it’s about parents acting crazy and kids becoming confused. Sounds promising!

Speaking of beach chairs, I’m guessing you’re all sitting on the edge of your own to hear about the Judy Blume event.  This was essentially a sorority gathering of middle-aged ladies, who squealed and tittered at the notion that Blume might someday write about Margaret going through menopause. (Blume denies this will happen).

There is something truly marvelous about the idea that books can be part of the identity of a generation. Whether it’s the Judy Blume Canon for greying women or Harry Potter for Millenials or The Hunger Games for today’s teens, it’s noteworthy that reading can provide a common touchstone. In fact, my favorite moment of the night happened when Famous Librarian Nancy Pearl and Judy Blume fangirled out together about the Betsy Tacy books that they both loved as children.

Nancy Pearl (left) and Judy Blume (right)
However, Judy Blume's purpose in gathering her fans in one place was only partly to reminisce about bookish sisterhood. She was also there to promote her new novel, In the Unlikely Event. The book is a fictional take on the year that three planes crashed in Elizabeth, NJ, where Blume grew up.

And it turns out that the book is simply about the weirdness of three planes crashing. That’s it. There doesn't seem to be any larger symbolism or ideas to consider, except for the fact that random bad (and good) events happen in life. The characters go through normal things (boyfriends betray you, work can be fulfilling, family problems are irritating), and every so often a plane falls from the sky. This strikes me as a book that never quite got beyond the “I have a great idea” stage – even though there are nearly 400 pages of writing. Sadly, In the Unlikely Event did not scratch my itch for a great summer read.

I’m curious to hear from you all about your own summer reading plans. Are you a silly or serious summer reader? Do you make plans or follow your whims? Please let me know in the blog's "comments" section or on The Leaning Stack of Books Facebook page.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Review of Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County by Kristen Green

VCU Digital Collections: Farmville 1963 Civil Rights Protest

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County by Kristen Green showed up for me at the library the day after the murders in Charleston.  The author is exploring the endurance of racism in her own little southern community – and in her family – by revisiting the topic of school segregation. The universe seemed to be pushing me to read this title, so it rose to the top of my leaning stack of books this week.

Prince Edward County, VA was the site of one of the five cases that made up Brown v. Board of Education. The case was significant for two key reasons. First, the civil rights activism that led to the case was generated by high school students, not adults.  And second, after the Brown ruling, Prince Edward County shut down its public schools altogether and set up publicly funded private academies for whites only. The result was that African-American kids did not receive any sort of public education in the county for five years.

Green’s central intention is to tell the story of the school closures, which were part of Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” to desegregation. But her other intention is to explore her own family’s relationship to the story of the school closures. In her research, she discovers that her beloved grandfather was one of the men in the community that promoted the private academy for white students; in effect, he was one of the local architects of the resistance. Moreover, Green herself attended the private school, which remained entirely segregated by race until she was in the eighth grade.

Hank Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images at
This personal part of the story (which also involves grappling with the role Green’s multi-ethnic children might have in her family and in the community) is interesting.  Her conversations with others and her own reflection offer a lens into the way that racist systems don’t “just happen,” and they don’t “just disappear.” She interviews her family members and others in the town, and most express a wish to “get beyond” the painful past. But the legacy of the system sits in a deep (though polite) divide in the community that is relational, educational, and economic. And in particular, while the private academy has been reinvented as a independent school that promotes diversity, it is still seen by most residents as “the white school” in town. The public schools, though integrated, continue to have a reputation as “the black schools.”

This is good territory, but Green’s exploration exposes its own shortcoming, which is that Green’s voice is not the voice we need to hear. The most profound tragedy she uncovers is the way that Massive Resistance fractured African-American families. Many parents sent their children away to live with relatives in other states so that they could receive an education. Green learns that Elsie, the African-American housekeeper who took care of several generations of her family, sent her only child away to Massachusetts to go to school, and her daughter never came back. Green’s grandparents did not connect their own political work to prevent integration with the life of a woman who was taking care of their family every day. Years later, when Green interviews Elsie, she finds a distance and a grief around that experience that Green can’t penetrate.

And with that, the reader gets a sense that this book’s real story belongs to Elsie. But Green is the one who went to a good college, earned a journalism degree, and acquired a book contract. Green’s schooling provided an avenue to get her story space on bookshelves and on book blogs. If ever we needed evidence that education is a vehicle to power, this book makes that case.

The Moton Museum, whose development Green describes, houses documents and photographs related to school desegregation in Prince Edward County. Many of the collections are online. Other historical material is available as part of the Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Review of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A few weeks ago, just after finishing Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, I told you that I would be hanging out in the Rainbows and Unicorns section of the bookstore for a while. I needed a break from literary despair.

Well, guess what? While in the Rainbows and Unicorns section, I found the PERFECT book to cleanse my reading palate: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. I need to say that usually I steer wide and clear from any book that has “heartwarming” as part of its description, but this book was an exquisite bowl of orange sorbet between my usual courses of doom and gloom.

There’s a catch, however. This is a novel about grief.

You’re probably scratching your puzzled head right about now, but you’re going to have to trust me. This is an utterly charming, often hilarious, very heartwarming book about grief.

The title character, Ove, is a curmudgeon in every sense of the word. His main activity is policing his community and criticizing his neighbors for minor infractions. Over the course of the novel, the reader learns about how he came to be so cantankerous and also follows his reluctant but growing relationships with others.

Truthfully, this has all the elements of a book that is much too sweet. But the author manages to avoid being excessively darling, mostly by inserting bits that are laugh-out-loud funny. I even read some of the comedic parts out loud to my family at the dinner table.

If you’re looking to try a book in translation, this one provides a great opportunity. It was originally published in Backman’s native Swedish, and I didn’t even realize that this was a translated novel until I finished.

Reading and enjoying this book made me think about novels that find you at just the right moment. I’ve thought about why I like certain books, and often it comes down to pacing or depth of character. But what about timing? Does the WHEN of a reading experience matter as much as the WHAT?

I did a little googling about the author, and it turns out that he began writing about Ove on his blog. Needless to say, I love reading about bloggers who become published authors. You can find an interesting interview with him here.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Review of The Hungry Mind by Susan Engel

This past March, I read an article by Susan Engel about the relationship between schools and curiosity. I approached the article as a parent of bored teenagers and also as an idealistic teacher and scholar.  I am always wondering what more we could be doing to promote creative teaching and learning. After reading it, I quickly purchased the book that spawned the article. The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood asks us to step back and get a sense of what, exactly, curiosity is – who has it and who uses it, how we might recognize it, and what it would take to build it.

Most of the time, educators talk about “achievement.” When we use that term, we are talking about how a child performs on an assessment. The “achievement gap” is the space between different groups’ performances on a standardized measurement.  That’s all. Just about every school reform these days is tailored toward understanding and impacting those scores.

One thing that most standardized tests don’t measure is a child’s curiosity.  However, curiosity is one of those vague categories that we know intuitively is a helpful trait. Curious people solve problems. Curious people come up with meaningful questions. Curious people learn more about subjects that interest them. But demystifying the vagueness of curiosity – What is it, exactly? How do we know it when we see it? – is largely Engel’s project. To that end, she synthesizes volumes of research to help us get a handle on this slippery concept.

Over several chapters, she looks at curiosity in infants and in children as they age. She looks at curiosity as a feeling and as an action. She looks at different kinds of curiosity (deep in a single subject and broad across subjects). She looks at it as an innate quality and as a learned habit.  She looks at how curiosity works in a social environment. And one big claim emerges through the chapters: as children age, the opportunities to be curious diminish. And that diminishing takes place at the schoolhouse door.

There are probably many reasons why schools squelch curiosity, but Engel focuses on teachers as agents of a one-right-answer curriculum. If teachers are only the bearers of the answers to prescribed questions, and if they do not have space to model or encourage the practice of asking genuine questions, how can curiosity grow?

This made me remember my boys’ year in kindergarten, which was arguably the most curiosity-promoting year they have had. (For a kindergarten contrast, check out this TED talk about a school in Japan). And even then – one memory that stands out involves the science unit they did on “fabric.” The National Science Foundation box kit about fabric was done at every elementary school in the district. The purpose was to have the 5 year-olds discover which types of fabrics absorb water and which types of fabric repel water. Sound like fun? It wasn’t. Who came up with such a boring thing? Kindergarteners like smells and sounds and things that crawl. Fabric? Not so much. 

The task involved each child putting three drops of water on different kinds of fabric and writing down what happened. The dropper was pretty cool, because SQUEEZING. One kid decided, hmmm what would happen if he squeezed droplets all over his body. Guess what? His shirt absorbed the water! And then he wondered what would happen if he poured an entire bowl of water on himself. Guess what? All his clothes absorbed the water! The teacher, however, was not absorbing how this was the place where the curiosity lay, not in curriculum guide or in the instructions or in the accompanying worksheet. Her anger quickly shut down any further exploration that day.

The problem I saw was not so much that the kid got wet or that a mess was made or that the teacher became overwhelmed. The problem was that there was an implicit lesson in that interaction: the child learned that the only questions that mattered were written on the worksheet. The only process that mattered was following directions. The good news is that Engel does conclude with a section on teachers who do cultivate curiosity in their classrooms, even in this era of standardized accountability. Her discussion is ultimately a hopeful one.

This book is not an academic text, per se, but neither is it a “popular” book aimed at a broad audience. I imagine that scholars might get turned off by her personal anecdotes, while more casual readers might get bogged down with the research. However, if you are the kind of reader who is looking for new directions in education, this book is a great place to start.

You can read this author’s thoughts about “joy” and schools here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Review of Station Eleven By Emily St. John Mandel

(abandoned airport, Athens; beware of planes during a pandemic)

If you’re suddenly struck down by a stomach virus while reading a book about a global flu pandemic that wipes just about everybody off the earth, you might rightly assume that the literary gods are having a laugh at your expense. That was my experience this week while reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  And I can confidently proclaim that this is a terrific book to read while lying flat on the bathroom floor.

It would also be a terrific book to read in a group, so Bookclubs! Take note! This gem is out in paperback now.

I am late to the party with this novel. It was a National Book Award Finalist for 2014 and the winner of the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction. It was on the Pen/Falkner Award shortlist, and it was on the longlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.  People have been talking and talking and talking about this book, but I have avoided it because I am sick to death of the apocolypse. Every time I see my kids open up yet another book about terrible people doing terrible things in terrible circumstances at the end of days, I feel like screaming.

But – strangely – I think that this story about a post-apocolyptic future world hits all the right notes. Station Eleven follows several characters and a science fiction comic book just before, during, and after the flu pandemic wipes out most human life on earth. The novel begins when a famous actor has a heart attack on stage while performing King Lear. An EMT, who used to be a tabloid reporter, tries and fails to save him. He then walks out into a city where everyone is beginning to die. Years later, a child actor from that performance is roaming through (what used to be) Michigan as part of a “travelling symphony,” performing music and theater, dodging violence, and searching for comic books and old entertainment magazines in abandoned houses. Events and people are connected in mysterious ways.

(An artist’s representation of the comic book, included in first edition copies of the book)

The reason why I think that this book would be so great for a book club discussion is that it has a snappy plot but also raises a host of compelling questions to deliberate. Questions that came to my mind were: What kind(s) of art endures? Does the production of art matter if no one sees it (i.e. does it matter if a novel gets published?)? Does fame have any value? Are YOU doing any kind of work that will endure?

And the good news: Station Eleven has a burning hope at its center. A central message is that human beings can create amazing things. You all know how deeply I’ve been searching for lights-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel these days. It’s kind of remarkable to read about the end of the world and come away feeling…buoyed.

You can find good interviews with the author here and here.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Censorship: A Classic Post Revisited

(photo from Book Riot)

Some of you know that I had a very brief career as a mommy blogger at Now That You Mention It. Since I’m seeing Judy Blume this evening – LIVE! -- I thought that today would be a great day to revisit a classic post from 2009 about introducing Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to my own children. This post is also a little bit about how nuts I am and how much difficulty I have keeping my crazy contained. 


If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know how much I enjoy a good holiday celebration. You know --- Harvestoween and Earth Day and Veterans’ Day. So it should come as no surprise that, in our family, we are busy getting ready for Banned Books Week (September 26-October 3).

I am completely serious – except there’s a twist. I am trying to ban a book. Or mutilate part of it. I have thought very hard about whether or not it would be possible to break into Green’s classroom and STEAL this book off the shelf. Or maybe get the School Board to end that crazy policy of having kids read during class. NO READING! NO READING!

You can wipe that shocked look off your face now. Let me explain. It all started this summer, when the boys and I snuggled up on the couch to read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing together. The author, Judy Blume, was my favorite as a child. She single-handedly educated me about topics as diverse as menstruation, divorce, and scoliosis. You could always count on Judy to tell you the truth.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is not one that I remember very well, probably because I didn’t
spend a lot of time with the books that featured boy characters. But, of course, in a strange twist of fate, all the people who now live in my house are boys. So I thought, “How about if we read this together and fill a few of these endless late-summer hours?”

And the kids loved it. They loved Pee-tah and his little brother, Fudge. I had to do a little explaining (70s gender roles, mugging (!), what a “doorman” is), but somehow, my kids really resonated with the main theme that a brother can be annoying and might eat your turtle.

Apparently, Judy Blume has turned this set of characters into a series, following the brothers as they age. I wanted to learn more about the next in the series, Superfudge. So I got online and was taken aback at all the WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! postings in the reader reviews.

So it kinda turns out that Judy Blume tells the truth about Santa Claus in this book.

Dammit with the truth-telling! I want my kids to be shielded from the truth! I want a cover-up! Come on, Judy! What were you thinking?!!!!

Anyway, I decided that we wouldn’t be reading that book. Instead, I bought the next one, thinking maybe the boys wouldn’t notice that we skipped over a whole segment of the characters’ lives.

I know that this will probably be the last year for Santa in our house anyway, just because the boys are getting to that age where logic starts to work (How likely is it that the same mother who somewhat obsessively checks to make sure the doors are locked would let a strange man come into the house in the middle of the night?). We already dodged a bullet last year when the kid who sat next to Blue revealed Santa’s identity. But this was the great part – Blue didn’t believe him! It turns out that this kid had cried wolf one too many times. There was the time that he told the teacher that his father died (not true), and the time that he told the class that he was getting his legs amputated (not true), and the time that he said that his mother liked to cook ponies for dinner (not true). So when he said to Blue, “There’s no such thing as Santa,” Blue just shrugged and said “Everyone knows you’re a big liar.”

Lucky for us, that kid is now attending another school. Second grade has started, and the students are back to their homework and their math assessments and their germ sharing. Yesterday, Green ran out of his classroom at the end of the day with a big smile on his face. “Mommy!” he exclaimed. “Guess what I’m reading at silent reading time?” “What?” I asked, delighted that he is so interested in literature.

He said, “I’m reading Superfudge!!!!!”

I felt my pulse begin to race. NO!!!! NOT SUPERFUDGE!!!!

And then I did what I should not have done. I marched into his classroom and accosted his teacher. I will add that it was really hot yesterday, and I was not at my best. The second grade is overrun with pungent little boys, so there was an odor to the school that made me queasy – like some of the kids had accidentally peed on the tops of their dirty sneakers. And I was sweaty, and red-faced, and trembly. The teacher took a step back when I shrieked, “You can’t let Green read Superfudge!!!! He’ll find out about Santa!!!!!”

In that moment, my name was scratched off the list of potential candidates for Room Mother.

She paused and said, “Umm… do you want me to hide it?”

And I honestly went home and wrestled with whether or not I should take her up on that offer.

Then I had this very profound flashback. I was 10 years old (and a very young 10. A Barbie-doll-loving kind of 10.
A Snoopy-and-the-Gang kind of 10. Not the kind of 10 that dresses up like a hooker on Halloween). My mom took me to the B. Dalton Booksellers in the mall to find something to read, and I found a Judy Blume book that I had never read. It was Forever, which concerns a teenager’s first sexual experience with a guy who names his penis “Ralph.” When we got home, my mom looked more closely at the book and decided that perhaps it wasn’t appropriate for me quite yet. So she took it. And hid it.

In response, I spent the next year looking for it, hunting and searching, searching and hunting, until I found a copy in my friend Lisa’s house and read it in her basement, all in one sitting. This made me wonder what would happen if the teacher really did hide Superfudge. Would Green spend the entire school year wandering around his classroom looking for that book? Up-ending book bins? Tearing through the math manipulatives? Opening all the science kits?

This morning I apologized to Green’s teacher. I said that perhaps I had overreacted. I told her that Green can read whatever he wants to read. Ideas should be free, even if they destroy our holiday traditions. No problem.

She continued to gaze at me warily. I can’t imagine why.

I guess I will watch and wait to see what happens when Green gets to that revelatory chapter in the book. I wonder if he will tell Blue at recess. I wonder if he will tell other kids. Of course, if any of you can think of a reasonable way for me to get rid of the book before that point, please let me know.

Just kidding. Sort of.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Are You There God? It's Me, Monday!

(Judy Blume Doll, from UneekDollDesigns)

The remnants of devastation from reading A Little Life are almost out of my system. Thank goodness, because I was beginning to feel a bit haunted!

I did finish two books last week: Charming Billy by Alice McDermott and Here by Richard McGuire. Hopefully I’ll have reviews up for those shortly. I have also started Susan Engel’s The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood – so I’m adding a little bit of nonfictiony sauce on what has otherwise been a spring full of fiction.

I have two other books on my leaning stack for this week. In the I’m-late-to-the-party category, Hilary St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven finally came in from the library. It arrived just as I was finishing A Little Life, but I just couldn’t take on dystopia after reading such a sorrowful novel. I also want to read Euphoria by Lily King. Both of those novels just came out in paperback, so I’ll let you know if they’re good choices for your summer reading plans.

But the big news is that I’m going to go see Judy Blume on Thursday! I can’t explain how giddy this makes me. I have such a visceral memory of reading and re-reading Blubber under my covers in elementary school.  For young readers at that time, it was rare to find the real world of childhood in a book. Blume’s novels allowed me to “get lost” in reading for the first time.

I think that Judy Blume’s books are now seen as “literature,” but I don’t think that was always the case. My memory is that a Judy Blume novel was not something you’d find in a leveled book bin in your classroom or stamped with a seal of high adult regard. I read Judy Blume on my own, somewhat obsessively, furtively.

I keep coming back to Momster’s question about her eleven year old’s summer reading. It’s no secret that reading is good for you, like kale. But this week I started thinking about the kind of books I did read as a child – Judy Blume books included – and I’m guessing that not a single one of them would have fallen on an approved summer reading list.

I have wonderful memories of riding my 3 speed to the drug store to buy paperback books. Crappy paperbacks! They cost a couple of bucks and were maybe 200 pages long. If I had a friend with me, we’d each buy one and then trade.

Here’s one that I remember reading:

(Did boys look like that in your school?? Gah! Chest hair! I’m thinking that he may have been held back…)

I’m fairly sure that my mother didn’t puff up with pride at this particular reading selection. I’m also certain that the books I picked weren’t aligned with my reading level.  In short, they weren’t kale. But oh, did I read like crazy! I wonder if I became such a good reader – and more importantly, someone who LOVES reading – because adults and their agendas stayed out of it.
Judy Blume is in her 70s now. I know that she’ll have an audience of nostalgic middle aged groupies – grown-ups whose memories of summer reading do not include sticker charts and incentive plans and progress toward higher scores on next fall’s Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment.

And YES, I most certainly plan to read Blume’s new novel for adults, In The Unlikely Event. I'm guessing I won't be able to get it for $2 at the drugstore, however. 

(It's Monday! What Are You Reading is hosted by Book Journey. I'm winging it while she's on hiatus)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Review of A Little Life By Hanya Yanagihara

I finished A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara nearly a week ago, and I’m still devastated by it. I haven’t really read anything since I put it down. This novel is expertly crafted, with (mostly) rich, well-developed characters. It will definitely find itself on “Best of 2015” lists in December.

And I just can’t recommend it to you.

I have tried to think of ways to explain the plot of this 720 page (!) book about four men who meet in college and then grow to middle age, and here’s what I came up with:

Terrible things happen. The end.

But I figure you want more, so here’s a haiku:

What’s wrong with your friend?
It’s worse than you imagine
Pain Pain Pain Pain Pain

That doesn’t help either? OK, I’ll try again. At the center of a group of college roommates sits Jude, who has a set of physical injuries and a wall up around his past. As the roommates start their adult lives, they try to understand and protect this complicated and damaged man that they love so much.

This is a difficult book to read if you need light at the end of your reading tunnel. I should have known this when I saw that there’s a section called “The Happy Years” in the MIDDLE of the book. And even then, the happy moments are small and anxious. Like most of the characters, the reader loses trust that everything will work out in the end.

So why is this going to be on the “Best Of” lists? I think there are a couple of reasons. First, I think that this story asks us to hold still with the tiny moments of grace in relationships. Yanagihara is exploring the idea of deep love, stripped away from Hallmark card platitudes and fairy tales. How do you love a person who will never willingly give you his whole self? Or, how do you convey your love for other people if you can’t willingly offer your whole self?  If love is not a contract, what is it? What if there is no happily-ever-after?

Second, I think that this book is remarkable for its work to dig into the relational lives of men. All of the major characters are male, and we see each major character grapple with what it means to be loving. The author is female, so the reader can play around with whether the characters seem genuine.

I have recently read two other books that have involved the idea of whether a person can overcome damage inflicted in childhood. Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child looks at the legacies of damage, both culturally and personally. Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset looks at cycles of parent/child relationships. A Little Life is the most complex and affecting of the three, and I’m not sure I will get over it. I’m still crushed.

If you have any trigger issues at all, steer clear of this novel. I mean it. Every last terrible thing is in this book. For the rest of you, pick it up at your own risk. I can’t imagine that you’ll enjoy it, but you’ll definitely come away changed. As for me, I will be hanging out in the Rainbows and Unicorns section of the bookstore for a while. 

You can read an interesting article about the author here. In it, she discusses the cover art and the process of bringing this novel to life. And here's an essay she wrote about the art that inspired the book (some spoilers included).