There Is No Dog

There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff

There is No Dog

In this YA novel, God is a teenage boy who falls in love with a human girl, and his turbulent emotions trigger catastrophic natural disasters. The book’s action takes place in heaven, where God, his assistant, his mother, and her poker buddies argue over the fate of the universe, and on earth, where God courts his chosen one and floodwaters threaten to swamp an entire town.

I’ve read some books before that present an image of the cosmos that I find either fascinating and inspiring, like His Dark Materials, or confused and objectionable, like the Fallen trilogy. This book mostly fell somewhere in the middle. The idea of God as a teenager with a short attention span, wildly creative but careless, has some resonance, but doesn’t get me excited. His pursuit of his little girlfriend is creepy and stalkerish, not really romantic at all. I liked and sympathized more with Mr. B, God’s workhorse assistant, and his poor neglected pet, Eck.

The best part of the book is the surreal imagery, like when fish start swimming through the air at a crucial moment of the plot. Rosoff begins with several fun, witty, poetic passages that riff on the creation story. There’s a wry sense of humor about the more pathological characters’ actions; this really seems like the only way to present them unless it’s going to be a horror novel.

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Neil Gaiman Speaks Truth

In an amazing lecture published in The Guardian, Neil Gaiman defends literature, libraries, and everything that’s good in the world:

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. …

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. …

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Deadline

Deadline by Mira Grant

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Deadline is second in the Newsflesh trilogy, which is about intrepid bloggers uncovering the conspiracy behind the zombie apocalypse. The previous book, Feed, has a sad and shocking ending, which leads to the narrator, Shaun, behaving erratically and suffering from delusions in this novel. The action is nonstop, as Shaun and his crew travel from Oakland to Portland to Memphis and back to Portland, dodging zombies and tornadoes and security forces. Things get bad and then worse, as the Second Rising rages and the information the team exposes endangers them all. A bit of romance is introduced in this sequel. There’s a great twist ending too. I recommend these books for anyone who likes zombies and suspense tinged with humor.

I’m featured on Liberating Working Moms!

I’m going back to work in 6 days, and the thought of being apart from my baby is making me feel things. And when I feel things, I write. And if it comes out halfway decent, I try to put the writing somewhere people will see it. I’m thrilled this little piece found a home on the smart and empowering blog Liberating Working Moms.

Here’s a permanent link to my article.

And here’s a clickbait pic of my baby. This is what it looks like from my perspective when he reaches for me to gnaw on my nose.

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In editing this essay, a few paragraphs got cut out, as they often do. Though what appears on Liberating Working Moms is the essay’s best, most concise form, I thought I’d share the outtakes here. These three paragraphs weren’t consecutive in the earlier draft, so that’s why they don’t flow together here at all.

He’s rolled over three times, and each time, he rolled toward me. My hands are one of his favorite toys, second only to his own toes, and apparently almost as tasty. When I change his diaper, he grabs at my elbow and hugs it to him. It’s so adorable I don’t even mind the extra minutes at the changing table.

A baby’s laugh is quite possibly the best sound in the world. Parents will do some pretty dumb stuff to hear it. I’ve never seen my husband clown so much as when he’s trying to get a giggle out of our son. He exhausts himself jumping out at him, playing peekaboo, and tickling him. I think it might be the most fun he’s ever had.

He has even learned to show his enthusiasm and appreciation for his milk. When I set him on the nursing pillow, he knows what’s coming. He moves his body rapidly in excitement, making a big open-mouthed smile and curling himself around me, clutching at my shirt, feet at my shoulder. Sometimes he’ll interrupt himself, look up at me and make some sounds, then get back to it, like he’s chiming in on our dinner conversation. When we’re done, he’ll look up at me with a lazy grin. Nursing hasn’t been easy for me. They told me it would take two weeks, maybe four, to get used to it, but my body needed two months before my oversupply regulated itself and I didn’t get painfully engorged so often, and the baby’s mouth had to grow a little for his latch to improve too. There were also days when he resisted nursing, crying at the breast to protest my fast letdown, as if I could stop it. Seeing how much my baby loves to nurse now, I’m glad I had the stubbornness to stick with it–and that’s really all it was, stubbornness–although I’m sure he’d have been fine if I’d had to give him formula.

Favorite Characters

Inspired by a recently published friend, Jillian Kuhlmann, I decided to write a post about my favorite literary characters of all time. This list is not a list of the objectively greatest characters of all time, if there is such a thing, but my personal favorites, the characters who have meant the most to me personally because of the unique way they appeal to my particular interests and personality.

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Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series is a source of hope and deep identification for bookworms and nerdy girls everywhere. She may not be the title character, but she runs the show and saves the day.

I can’t forget the original graybeard wizard, Merlin. Merlin is such an influential and mercurial character that it’s easier to pick him for a favorites list than it is to choose which version of him to include. So when I put Merlin on my list, I’m doing it in an archetypal way, including every Merlin, from Mallory to Tennyson to contemporary YA. If I had to pick, though, I find him more fascinating when seen through the eyes of young Arthur than when he’s given his own book, as in The Crystal Cave. The Merlin I know best and find most charming is T. H. White’s from The Sword in the Stone.

Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet is best described by her creator: “I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.” I feel the same, Jane.

I love the humor, wit and strategy of Lyra Belacqua from the His Dark Materials books (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). She begins the series as a ragamuffin wild child and ends it as a young woman who sacrifices love and her only talent for the good of the universe.

Quentin from The Magicians and The Magician King is not really a super admirable person, but I sympathize with him so much in his reactions of wonder to his encounters with the world of magic. I think I love this series so much because it makes a gigantic metaphor of the conflict between the real world and the worlds we escape into through literature, and dramatizes this conflict with Quentin’s life and choices. The third and final book of the trilogy is in the works.

Honorable mentions are the way to take the pain out of picking favorites. Here are mine.

Jane Eyre has the conviction to stick to her high standards, refusing to accept marriage when it is bigamous or loveless, even when it means damn near starving.

Jo March, the original bookish tomboy, making the pixie cut hot since 1868. I think of her and Professor Baer every time I share an umbrella with my husband.

Atticus Finch, upright defender of justice. Wouldn’t it be nice if judges and politicians asked themselves, “What would Atticus do?”

Three-way LotR tie: Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf. Courage, loyalty, and magic.

City of Bones

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

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This is the first book in the Mortal Instruments series, in which an ordinary girl. Clary Fray, discovers the world of Shadowhunters and demons in her New York neighborhood. I already read the prequel series, The Infernal Devices, in which the ancestors of the current cast fights demons in steampunk Victorian London. Like that series, City of Bones is fast-paced, with action moving quickly from one exciting encounter to the next. The uncovering of the backstory of the main characters’ parents is the source of drama and mystery.

The love story, which was shaping up to be a triangle, generally seemed a bit clunky and obvious. The romantic lead, Jace, is supposed to be super hot, but I just found him petulant and annoying. I don’t understand why arrogant guys who mouth off to everyone are so often presented as the epitome of sexiness. Jerks are not attractive. It seemed a clumsy attempt to craft a Byronic hero. He is inferior in every way to Will, the hero of the Infernal Devices books. When Will acts like a jerk it’s because he feels he has to drive others away from him to keep them safe. When Jace acts like a jerk, it’s just who he is.

I also found the heroine, Clary, annoying sometimes for her self-righteousness and her tendency to run toward danger without thinking. Maybe it was the immature protagonist or the contemporary setting, but I felt this writing was less interesting and well-crafted than in the prequel series. Maybe Clare has improved since this book’s 2007 release. Maybe her writing is the kind that needs several volumes of a series to build to a satisfying ending. In that case, I look forward to the later books in the series. In the meantime, the movie adaptation seems to have been a bust; its reviews were terrible.

Internet Roundup: Education, Part 2

Yesterday I introduced a handful of random articles about education that I thought were worth sharing. But today’s three are the best I’ve read in a long time. I feel like they really get to the core of the biggest problems in schools, and I only wish the people making big decisions about education, especially the ones who have never been in charge of a classroom, would take these ideas to heart.

This article is great because it reveals the unstated assumptions behind most of the rhetoric we read and hear about education, and shows why they’re wrong.  I love the description of test-prep-driven schooling as a “hamster wheel”:

“Five Bad Education Assumptions the Media Keep Recycling” by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post

My favorite points are the ones attacking standardized testing, the international competition mentality, and the idea that students should be motivated to learn because it will get them a good job someday. This last myth, #4, is spurious for a couple reasons. First, learning should be intrinsically motivated. Second, the idea of eventual financial reward is only motivating if a student can look that far into their own future and reasonably believes they will get that reward. Very young students have no concept of adult careers, and don’t know how present effort is related to eventual success (and when they’re young is precisely when they begin to fall behind). But what’s most depressing to me is how cynical some students are about whether their hard work will ever pay off. They have never known anyone personally who succeeded in real life, so they figure there’s no point in trying too hard because they’ll be discriminated against, or be unable to afford college, or success will elude them in some other way that’s out of their control. When that’s the case, it’s totally rational and even smart for them to put in a bare minimum of effort. Sad but true.

Once you’ve debunked and rejected those myths, the question remains, what is wrong with schools and what can be done to help the situation? This article does a good job of explaining why trying to reform schools by focusing primarily on teachers is misguided:

“Poverty Is What’s Crippling Public Education in the US–Not Bad Teachers” by Anthony Cody

I don’t think many people know that the statistic about four years of good teachers in a row closing the achievement gap is based on extrapolations, not on some experiment with lucky low-income children who had four great teachers. Researchers took measurements of student growth from one year of good teaching, and projected that out to see how many years it would take to close the gap, using equations based on predicting the growth of corn, because children’s learning is exactly as predictable and regular as the cultivation of a genetically engineered crop. Policy makers are focusing on teachers because of research like this, but they’re ignoring the biggest factor, poverty.

Poverty is one main focus of Diane Ravitch, who may be my new favorite education policy person. She has a new book out, called Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. I’ve started reading the book, which is long and involved, with lots of graphs and charts and citations. I’ll review it here eventually, but no promises as to when. Ravitch has been giving great interviews to promote her book:

“Diane Ravitch: Testing and Vouchers Hurt Our Schools. Here’s What Works” by Sara Scribner for Salon

And what does work? She suggests better prenatal care, early childhood education, and health services in schools. My favorite of her common sense solutions:

The research on class size is overwhelming — kids who are struggling do better in a small class because they get more attention. A teacher can spend more time with the children who are behind and figure out what’s going wrong.

I guarantee you will never find an actual teacher who will disagree with that. And here’s more Ravitch, summing up all of our problems in education in about two sentences:

the research is very clear that family is far more important than anything that happens in the school, and when the family is economically secure and when the parents are educated and when they pay attention to what happens to their children, their children get higher test scores. When families live in poverty and their kids don’t get medical checkups, and they have eye problems, ear problems, asthma, they have lower scores.  That’s just a reality. That’s not an excuse.

Amen, Diane. This is the bottom line: our schools and our communities are reflections of each other. You can’t improve our schools without improving our communities at the same time. Any effort that focuses too narrowly on one or the other will fail. As long as our society has incredible income inequality, there will be incredible inequality in educational opportunity.