Enna Burning

Enna Burning by Shannon Hale

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This book is a sequel to The Goose Girl, a fairy tale retelling that I enjoyed a couple years ago. Its protagonist is Enna, the best friend of Isi, the princess from that book. It’s rather dark and violent; there’s a war going on, and Enna is a key participant. She develops a magical talent for controlling fire, which she uses to aid her country in battle, until she is captured. There is a creepy Stockholm syndrome sequence, and then she escapes. Enna faces lots of guilt and some tough moral questions about her involvement in battles and sabotage, as well as her brief time as a brainwashed turncoat. The ending is almost unbelievably sunny compared with all this turmoil, and Enna’s friend Isi is almost too perfect, so forgiving and sweet.  The writing is often overdramatic, but otherwise decent.

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If I Stay

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

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This tearjerker romance was a decent YA novel–not great, just decent. It’s a definite heir to the Lurlene McDaniel “dying teenagers” genre, and it doesn’t do it as well as other books I’ve read recently. If the worst thing you can say about a YA romance is that it’s flat and predictable, instead of saying that it’s trying too hard to be sexy, poorly written, or outright offensive, you’re doing ok.

I found the characters rather generic. Not clichéd, really, just faceless and bland. It seemed as if Forman had thought of the situation first–girl in coma has to decide to live or die–and then populated it with characters that she proceeded to imbued with various traits. The dramatic situation did not arise naturally from the characters’ personalities. That may be the nature of the situation described–a horrible car accident can happen to almost anyone. I also didn’t think there was really much doubt that the main character would choose life and pull through, and hence no real dramatic tension. And of course I knew there would be some kind of big spectacle of a grand romantic gesture, especially since the boyfriend character is a musician (of course he’s a musician).

The novel has a sequel, which will probably deal with the main character’s grief and recovery, and with the lingering questions over her relationship with her boyfriend and the directions in which their separate musical careers seem to be taking them. Because I’m interested in what a YA romance would say is a happy ending for that kind of relationship problem, I think I’ll pick it up.

Operating Instructions

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott

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I was slightly disappointed in this book, mostly because a lot of people said it was the greatest ever and it didn’t quite live up to that hype for me. I’ve blogged before about Lamott’s writing–this book is what gives her authority to write an essay denouncing Mother’s Day–and she’s one of those writers whose fans are super loyal and recommend her to everyone they know. (Bird by Bird is on my list too, thanks to her fans.)The best thing about the book were some rather beautiful sentences describing her son’s baby body and behaviors.

Lamott is a single parent, and her struggles make me feel grateful that I’m not. She frets and worries about her son’s lack of male role models, until she gets a few uncles and friends to fill that role for him. Generally, her story provides a great example of how people can gather a community around themselves to create that village that we always hear is necessary for raising a child. It’s really nice to see somebody making the best of a hard situation like that.

The last third of the book became rather sad as Lamott’s friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The contrast between her illness and Sam’s growth made Lamott understandably emotional, and she captured that sorrow and joy as well as anyone can.

One thing I found annoying was Lamott’s little rants against Republicans and men who don’t perform oral sex. I certainly understand her objections, and the passages were meant to be funny, but I found them more off-putting, not to mention irrelevant. This kind of rhetoric is behind the divisions in our country and in our relationships. My friend Jamie did a great job explaining what the problem is here.

Dealing With Dragons

Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

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This is the kind of book I’m looking forward to reading with my kid someday. Princess Cimorene is stifled by life as a royal, by all the things she’s not allowed to do as a proper princess. So she runs away and lives with a dragon, thwarting an evil wizard’s plot. Along the way she meets and helps a witch, a stone prince, and another princess. Characters seem aware of fairy tale tropes and either get trapped by them or use them to their advantage. The tone is lightly humorous and wry, poking fun at the ‘rules’ of stories. Cimorene is a wonderful heroine, full of common sense that leads her to question the gender role she’s been handed, and propose smart solutions to others’ problems. This is the first of a series, so I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books. It’s an easy, quick read, and would be fun to read aloud.

Tampa

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

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This is by far the smuttiest book I’ve ever read. Just look at that cover, guys. The main character, Celeste, is a middle-school English teacher who has sex with her students. She’s a first person narrator, and her every thought is either a sex fantasy, a strategy for having sex and getting away with it, or a complaint about how bored she is with everything that’s not sex.  It’s hard for me to imagine having a libido as all-consuming as Celeste’s. I listened to the audiobook, and the actress, Kathleen McInerney, read the whole thing in a voice that just seemed soaked in porn. Some of the “sexy” things Celeste does and thinks are so over-the-top that they have to be intended as humor because no one could really find them sexy (I hope). At the same time, though, some other scenes and descriptions were very sexy indeed, which makes the reader feel complicit and icky.

It’s a sex-reversed Lolita, but Celeste is much less lovey-dovey, sentimental, and poetic than Humbert Humbert. She never sees her young lovers as anything but sex objects, only thinks about their feelings in so far as their feelings determine when she’ll get off next. Even before beginning her relationship with a student, she’s decided that she’ll end things before the boy’s puberty reaches a certain point because then she’ll no longer be attracted to him. One of her boys seems to fall in love with her, and is incredibly emotionally damaged by the affair, but she doesn’t seem to care at all.

The comparison to Lolita makes the sexual double standard crystal clear, especially in the ending (spoiler alert: she gets away with it). The book reminded me of the episode of South Park where little Ike was having sex with his kindergarten teacher, and everyone’s reaction to the news was, “Nice.”

One theme that’s more deeply relevant for non-pedophilic women is Celeste’s fixation on youth in general. She’s only 26 but has an aggressive anti-aging beauty regimen in place. She finds the body of anyone older than about 30 to be physically repulsive and dreads her own maturation to the point of contemplating suicide to avoid it. She’s a very beautiful woman, and her beauty gives her a feeling of entitlement and specialness that she fears losing with age. She’s a trophy wife to a shallow cop with a trust fund, and describes their marriage as a show she puts on for his friends in exchange for a plush lifestyle. Celeste is a monster, but she’s the monster that our youth-obsessed culture made her.

David and Goliath

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

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I’ve read a few of Malcolm Gladwell’s other books, and especially enjoyed Outliers. So when I read a review of this book that was critical of Gladwell’s general style before I had a chance to pick it up, I could understand the issue. Chabris says Gladwell oversimplifies his subjects and misrepresents his findings. Gladwell responded, saying that Chabris doesn’t understand the narrative nature of his project

I think they both have a point, but I come out on Gladwell’s side in general. Chabris says that when Gladwell calls patterns “laws” he’s overstating his case by using terminology that’s used in the social sciences to describe phenomenon that have been researched and proven. I’ll give him that point. Gladwell should choose his words more carefully. Gladwell counters that using stories to make his points makes his books fun to read, and that his books are more nuanced than this critic gives him credit for. The various stories exist in tension with each other, disproving each other and refining the lessons that readers learn from them until they’ve reached a very subtle understanding. Points that are made in the beginning of the book are often disproved by the end, until the various themes of the various stories form a narrative in themselves. I’m a sucker for narrative, so agreeing with Gladwell is almost irresistible for me.

This book is more counterintuitive than some of Gladwell’s previous books, so it’s likely to meet more resistance from readers. I felt myself silently arguing with him at times. The main thesis can be distilled down to this: what we think of as disadvantages can sometimes be good, and, conversely, power has some inherent weaknesses. Some of his specific stories are controversial. For example, he shows how a famous photo from the civil rights movement was all but staged. Then he argues that dyslexia forced several very successful men to develop the personalities and skills that brought them to the top of their fields. Gladwell asks again and again, would you wish dyslexia on your child? The answer is clearly no, but the connection between the learning disability and these particular men’s success is undeniable. Gladwell sometimes exaggerates both the hidden power of the oppressed and the secret weaknesses of the powerful. For this reason I’d love to read a Marxist critique of this book. It would be ripped to shreds.

As a teacher, the chapter that discussed class sizes bothered me somewhat. Gladwell says that it is a waste of taxpayer money to hire extra teachers to lower class sizes beyond a certain point. He says lowering class sizes from 40 to 25 does make a big difference for students, but once that number has been reached, shrinking classes further has either no effect or a negative effect. Spending money to lower class sizes from 25 to 15 doesn’t help students learn more, and only allows teachers to work less. Gladwell says this as if it were a bad thing to make a teacher’s workload more manageable. As if making the work teachers do easier and more sustainable wouldn’t have a positive effect on the profession through retention, and thus an indirect positive effect on students and their learning.

Gladwell talks about how small classes are too much of a good thing. If a class is too small, students don’t speak up and participate, and there are fewer peers for them to learn from. I can see this is true in my experience. It seemed to me that when I taught classes smaller than 15, in schools where students were accustomed to classes twice as large, they didn’t take the classes seriously. It seemed to them that half the class was missing, so what was the point of doing any work? There was no sense of urgency because they figured that the teacher had plenty of time to give them individual attention to make sure they passed. I also observed the inhibited discussions and bickering behaviors Gladwell’s quoted teachers discuss.

What I would add to Gladwell’s analysis is that the less the students bring to the table, the larger the class should be, within that golden range of about 15 to 25, and, conversely, the more the students have to offer the class, the smaller the class can be, even below the golden range, without diminishing the learning experience. That’s why the elite private school he mentions, which boasts of a 12:1 student-teacher ratio, is probably not actually cheating the students and parents of anything. That’s why graduate-level classes frequently have fewer than 8 or 10 students, and they never have trouble keeping a discussion going. Older, more experienced students also have fewer problems with overcoming inhibitions and establishing the intimate but appropriate relationships necessary for a small class to function.

If his message is oversimplified, which is almost certain to happen, Gladwell seems to say that lowering class sizes as a whole is pointless, when teachers consistently say that large classes are a major problem that keeps them from teaching to the best of their ability. I feel sure that more money has been spent to lower class sizes from 35 to 25, which Gladwell says does make a difference, than from 25 to 15, which he says doesn’t. Especially in subjects that do not have state-mandated tests attached to them, schools often push class sizes to the limit they are allowed by law, to the detriment of learning and good order. Additionally, he relegates to a footnote the fact that students with learning disabilities perform better in smaller classes, disregarding the reality of inclusive classrooms.

In his footnotes Gladwell endorses the idea that we should have fewer teachers who are very, very good, and load up their classes with 40+ students and pay them a lot more. I don’t believe this is a good idea for schools, and I think Diane Ravitch, who is much more knowledgeable about education than Malcolm Gladwell, would agree with me.

I always feel like I learn something from Gladwell’s books, in this case about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, resistance to the Nazis in France, the civil rights movement, and the treatment of leukemia. David and Goliath is an interesting book, but I think Outliers is Gladwell’s best work.

The Sorcerer’s House

The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe

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This unusual fantasy novel is about Baxter Dunn, a recently released convict who suddenly learns he has inherited a huge, mysterious house. Most of the book’s action concerns explorations of the house and its surrounding woods, and revelations leading from what is found there. Some of the discoveries do seem truly imaginative, and I liked the ending. The novel is epistolary, told in letters from Bax to various other characters, stretching the limits of that form to its brink.

My favorite thing about the book was Bax’s voice. He seemed like such a magnificent bastard, gloating in his letters over his triumphs, while pretending to apologize for it, seducing his brother’s wife by letter. I just didn’t like when he came off as a womanizer bragging about his conquests. The mysteries were confusing and fragmented, owing partly to the letter format, and partly to the preponderance of twins in the cast of characters. For these reasons I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I expected to.