The Mansion of Happiness

The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death by Jill Lepore

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This book of essays covers many disparate topics, from abortion politics to board games to children’s literature to cryogenics. Lepore pointed out how particular cultural phenomenon like “The Game of Life” or breast pumps all carried implicit and explicit arguments about the meaning of life and death. All of the essays were informative and interesting, and I learned a lot from them and generally agreed with Lepore’s perspective. I would have liked the book better, though, if Lepore had tied her essays together more clearly and shown how the various events and ideas were connected to each other. The title made me think the book would be more comprehensive than it was. Any “history of life and death” should surely go farther back than a century or two.

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

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This is  a sweet story about a deep friendship between two boys. They meet at the pool when Dante teaches Ari to swim, and their relationship deepens when Ari saves Dante from being hit by a car. Ari is withdrawn and quiet, and the more voluble and animated Dante brings him out of himself. Both are Mexican-American, but feel somewhat disconnected from that culture because they’re second-generation. There are many silences in Ari’s house, especially about his brother who’s in jail and about his father’s service in Vietnam (The setting is 1987 Texas). Ari’s growth makes these silences unsustainable, and he learns about his parents and about suffering though finally hearing their stories.

Ari’s voice is one of the main appeals of the book. He feels things very deeply, but doesn’t know how to handle his emotions, especially anger. One of the main sources of tension in the book is about masculinity and how Ari feels he must act a certain way to be a man. Masculinity is connected with violence in his community, and he struggles to break that cycle and grow into a new kind of man. The novel’s biggest conflict comes from Dante’s homosexuality and its impact on his friendship with Ari. That makes the book somewhat unusual for YA lit: I feel like there aren’t many books with gay characters, so it was nice to find a book that represents an often-overlooked perspective.

Recipes for a Perfect Marriage

Recipes for a Perfect Marriage by Morag Prunty

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This novel is about a food writer who marries a solid, dependable guy who doesn’t really give her butterflies in the stomach. As Tressa weathers a crisis doubting her decision to marry, she reads her Irish grandmother’s journals and recipes. Every other chapter tells the story of her grandparents’ marriage, one Tressa thought was perfect, but which was really an arranged marriage, surprisingly happy despite hidden strife. Every few chapters there is a ‘theme’ and a recipe that both women cook.

The book is a bit preachy and sentimental. I agree with the lesson it’s trying to teach: that love is a choice and an action, not just a feeling, and that we can develop and grow feelings for someone by acting toward them in a loving, kind way. That’s what people mean when they say that marriage is hard work. It seems unromantic to think of it that way, but it’s really not. It’s not as revelatory an idea as Prunty seems to think; I encountered it years ago on A Practical Wedding. The novel’s treatment of this teaching was pretty didactic and heavy-handed. Of course Tressa and her grandmother learn a lesson, but it could have been conveyed more subtly, unless Prunty wants to switch genres from fiction to self-help. The prose was sometimes exaggerated in a way that was supposed to be funny but that I mostly found banal.

The “food writer” has got to be one of the top 5 most clichéd careers for a woman in a romance novel or romantic comedy movie. It’s feminine, creative, and glamorous, the kind of job that people dream of thanks to the Food Channel, and therefore incredibly unrealistic, like Sara Jessica Parker buying Manolos as a freelance sex columnist in New York. I get annoyed by “foodies” and food snobs, as characters and in real life, and Tressa is definitely one. I understand the idea of food bringing people together, though, and the recipes seemed to be central to Prunty’s conception of the novel. They’re certainly a novelty that might have appealed to some readers, just not me.

Panic

Panic by Lauren Oliver

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Lauren Oliver’s dystopia trilogy Delirium was awesome, so I was excited to pick up her latest YA novel. Panic is a high-stakes game played by the graduating senior class in a small town. Contestants compete in increasingly dangerous stunts for the chance to win $60K. The setting is bleak and claustrophobic; it almost makes sense how winning the game might seem like the only way out. Heather and Dodge are the two protagonists, competitors who ally with each other. Heather desperately needs the money to escape her addicted mother and their trailer home, and Dodge wants to win as revenge for what happened to his sister when she played. There are two nice love stories and some exciting action scenes.

The one thing that strained my credulity was the idea that a game like this could go on for seven years without attracting attention from the press and police, especially considering the number of injuries and even deaths involved. That thought didn’t make the story any less enjoyable though. The relationships, the moral questions, the creative stunts and the twists and surprises made it hard to put down. I mentioned Oliver’s sensitive treatment of class issues in Before I Fall in a previous post; here class is even more important because the characters live closer to the edge, but handled just as deftly and realistically.

Reign of Error

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch

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This is by far the best book I’ve ever read about education. If you’ve ever wondered what’s wrong with our public schools and how they can be fixed, this book will answer every question you could possibly have on the topic. If I could force every lawmaker in the country to read a single book, this would be it.

Diane Ravitch was Assistant Secretary of Eduation under Bush and one of the architects of No Child Left Behind. But she changed her mind about that law and the changes it set in motion when she saw the results come in. She wrote another book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, about that reversal, then wrote this one in response to critics who said she criticized NCLB without presenting alternatives or solutions.

Ravitch criticizes the current education reform movement, naming leaders like Michelle Rhee and organizations like Teach for America as contributing to the problem. She dismantles many myths about American education; the most heartening chapter might have been the one about how test scores are not really bad at all, if you read them in the correct way. I also enjoyed the chapter about the limited effect teachers have on test scores, and the one that destroys all arguments in favor of merit pay for teachers. (The biggest study she cites is from Vanderbilt, which seems ironic considering MNPS’s recent flirtation with merit pay.)

The philosophy behind most of Ravitch’s criticism of charter schools and other movements to privatize schools is the basic idea that education is a public good, benefiting everyone in a community. When parents have the choice to enroll kids in charter schools or use vouchers to send them to private ones, only the families with the most resources exercise these options, so that the neediest students are left behind in public schools that have been drained of money. A vicious cycle begins: test scores plummet, schools are threatened with closure, more good students leave, repeat until the school is closed or “fresh-started.” Many arguments in favor of charter schools, standardized testing, and teacher evaluation use metaphors from the business world and the free market. But education cannot and should not work as a business in this sense. Competition, Ravitch argues, only hurts children by destabilizing an institution that should give structure and certainty to their lives. She also uses John Dewey’s ideas about democracy and its need for educated citizens, and I’m a sucker for a good Dewey quote.

Ravitch presents a comprehensive list of solutions for all of these problems, and if they seem unrealistic, that’s a sign of how messed up things are right now, not a sign that she’s wrong. Her solutions begin with prenatal care and early childhood education, keep going with a full liberal arts curriculum, reduced class sizes, elimination of for-profit charter schools, and professionalization of teachers, and follow through with a full complement of medical and social services provided in schools, and summer and after-school programs for all students. Is there anyone who would honestly argue that a widespread implementation of all of these common-sense solutions would not result in vast improvement in our education system? Sadly, I’m afraid most of these solutions will never even be tried because they’re too expensive.

I especially appreciated Ravitch’s critique of the overuse of data in education: “The things we treasure most are the very things that cannot be measured with a yardstick or a scale or a test.” I’ve realized that nothing I care about in teaching can be measured with a test. You can’t quantify a student’s growth in self-confidence, or their increased ability to appreciate multiple points of view. If standardized tests didn’t impact my job security (thanks to policies Ravitch and I disagree with), I wouldn’t give them a second thought in my teaching. They are meaningless as learning experiences because we don’t get the results in time to even discuss them with students.

What I wish Ravitch had included was a list of things that ordinary people can do to change this situation, besides voting wisely. As a classroom teacher, what can I do about excessive standardized testing in my school, and about larger structural issues like charter schools, poverty, and segregation? Should parents pull their children out of testing? What organizations are working to strengthen public schools and support students and teachers? I really enjoyed this book because I felt validated to read an expert reaching the same conclusions I have and arguing for many of the same solutions I’d like to try. But without an action plan, the experience of reading this book was also somewhat frustrating.

Ignite Me

Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi

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This dystopia novel is the last of a trilogy featuring Juliette, a formerly mentally fragile girl with superpowers. In Shatter Me, she is in solitary confinement because she accidentally killed a child just by touching him. That makes her go a bit nuts, understandably. In that novel, she falls in love with Adam and is held captive by Warner, who is introduced as a villain but becomes a love interest. At the end, she escapes and joins a group of rebels. In the sequel, Unravel Me, she trains along with other superpowered youths at Omega Point, and tension builds in the love triangle.

My initial assessment of the trilogy was that it was like Twilight in emotional intensity, but more empowering in its underlying message, and this conclusion confirms that judgment. Much (but not all) of the drama comes from the romance plot. Juliette recognizes that her feelings for Adam were dependent on the time and place where they developed, and that they might not fit anymore. She fell for him because he was the first person to treat her like a human being, not because they were be particularly well-suited to each other. What a mature way to look at a first relationship. Juliette especially doesn’t like the fact that Adam seems to prefer her former, more needy self. Warner, on the other hand, wants her to be strong, and encourages her to train and be independent. When she finally chooses, she says it’s not about either man but about her own vision for her future, about avoiding stagnation and passivity. It feels like a rare development for a YA romance: that the good guy lose out to the bad boy; that the love triangle results in the reassessment and abandonment of a first relationship, rather than its testing and strengthening. I really enjoyed these progressive, feminist aspects of the romance plot, and noted that it didn’t make the story any less romantic or sexy to have a heroine who wasn’t passive.

The fact that Juliette has problems and goals beyond her love life is also important. Though she began the series as a fragile flower, Juliette ends by leading a successful revolution. And what I think is even more remarkable, she tells her fellow revolutionaries that she will be the one to lead the new government when the Reestablishment is defeated, and no one protests. I was hoping she’d turn into a bad ass, and she totally fulfilled that promise. The book is probably 50-100 pages longer than it needs to be, thanks to some fluffy make-out scenes and training montages filled with sexual tension. But anyone who likes this genre would do much better to pick up this series instead of several others out there.

Sleeping Through the Night…and Other Lies

Sleeping Through the Night…and Other Lies: The Mysteries, Marvels, and Mayhem in the First Three Years of Parenthood by Sandi Kahn Shelton

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I think I picked this book up first because I was looking for books about how to get my baby to sleep, and it came up in a library search. I thought it was going to be about how “sleep training” or “cry it out” is bad and wrong. I’m glad it wasn’t that book. I am so sick of reading about how to get babies to sleep. Instead, this is a humor book that takes a silly, exaggerated view on life with babies and toddlers. It’s not quite as funny as I was hoping it would be, or it wasn’t exactly a match with my sense of humor, or I’m too close to the situation to laugh at it. I wasn’t really put off or offended by any of the jokes, though, so that’s good. It was published back in 1999 and feels a little dated. Anyone who likes books like Confessions of a Scary Mommy or Motherhood Comes Naturally would probably like this one.