The Mysterious Howling

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Book One: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood

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This children’s book series is inspired by gothic novels and literature about governesses, books like Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw. It gently mocks that tradition while paying homage to it. The protagonist is Penelope Lumley, graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, in her first governess job at Ashton Place, in charge of three feral children. They’ve truly been raised by wolves. Of course, under her tutelage, they make remarkable progress, but not quite enough to avoid a crisis when the lady of the house wants to throw a big holiday party. The children’s antics and mischief are silly in a way that young readers will appreciate. The children’s origin is a mystery that will drive the entire series.

The best thing about this series might be that it teaches kids new words and concepts in a fun way. Ideas like hyperbole and irony are introduced in a way that’s funny, and words that will stretch the vocabulary of young readers are used in contexts that make their meanings crystal clear. The sense of humor driving the narration is somewhat dark, perhaps only a step to the sunny side of Lemony Snicket. Hopefully, familiarity with the gothic tropes found here will make readers eventually seek out the books that inspired this series.

Atlantia

Atlantia by Ally Condie

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I really liked Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy, so I was happy to pick up her next YA fantasy romance. Atlantia is about two sisters, Rio and Bay, growing up in a city under the sea. Their mother dies mysteriously, and soon after, Bay decides to leave Atlantia and go to the surface, surprising her sister. Rio, the narrator, has a secret talent: she’s a Siren, and her voice can compel people to do things. The plot is driven by a mystery about Rio’s mother’s death, the society’s origins and Bay’s reasons for going Above.

This novel suffers in comparison with the Matched books. The concept of the setting is more ‘out there,’ and the romance plot is less well developed, so the fantasy elements have to carry more weight. It’s still worth reading for anyone who likes the genre, though.

The Flamethrowers

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

TheFlamethrowersKushner This novel is about a young artist in 1975 New York. She’s called Reno because that’s where she’s from, and she’s interested in filmmaking and motorcycles. Much of the plot is driven by her relationship with Sandro Valera, an artist whose family owns a motorcycle and tire company in Italy. The climax comes when she is visiting his family in Italy and witnesses a riot protesting the Valera company’s labor practices. The setting was probably the most interesting part of the book to me. The art scene when Manhattan was cheap, the urban unrest in both New York and Milan, the underground resistance movements that Reno got involved in were fascinating. The novel definitely has concerns larger than the protagonist’s love life, and its politics were definitely in sympathy with these workers’ movements. There was even a passage describing the Valero company’s expansion of its rubber harvesting operations into Brazil, including the perspective of a worker in the second person. Two characters, Ronnie and Giddle, were total enigmas to me: they seem to come from nowhere and have no past, so they constantly reinvent themselves, and this involves lots of lies. By the end Reno has been used and betrayed, but she seemed to be picking herself up from it all in a way that I admired. It’s a gritty book, and one that immerses you in its grittiness.

A Million Suns

A Million Suns by Beth Revis

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This book is a sequel to Across the Universe, second in the trilogy set on a spaceship bringing colonists from Earth to a new planet. It’s told in alternating chapters from Amy and Elder’s perspectives. Amy comes from Earth and was cryogenically frozen; Elder was born on the ship and is its young leader. They have a budding romance that gets less focus than you might expect in this genre, but so much other stuff is going on that it didn’t bother me.

The structure of the story is a mystery. It begins with Elder directly addressing the crew on the question that was revealed to be crucial at the end of the first book, and he gets an answer that baffled me in all the best ways. Amy and Elder follow clues left by Orion, the first book’s villain, to find out what the ship’s real problem is. The answer was something I didn’t expect, and I love it when books surprise me. Meanwhile, Elder has to deal with increasing upheaval on the ship: people disagree with his rule and are refusing to work and to distribute food fairly. And people are getting killed by overdoses of Phydus, a Xanax-like drug that makes them calm and compliant. The plot depends on things happening very quickly; I kept wishing I could call time out and sit everyone down to talk things out. I enjoyed this book just as much as the first one, and that’s saying something. I’ve already started the last one and it’s as much fun as the first two.

The Happiest Toddler on the Block

The Happiest Toddler on the Block: The New Way to Stop the Daily Battle of Wills and Raise a Secure and Well-Behaved One- to Four-Year-Old by Harvey Karp, MD

9780553802566_p0_v1_s260x420I read The Happiest Baby on the Block over a year ago and thought it was ok. This book is about as good as that one is. It gives a few good tips and tells parents some ideas of what to expect from the developmental stages between ages 1 and 4. Throughout the book, Karp uses a metaphor comparing kids to cavemen, comparing the growth children experience as toddlers to the way humans evolved over millions of years. The tone and style reminded me of children’s television, so I found reading the book somewhat irritating. I felt I was being talked down to.

The core method of this book, the thing that’s supposed to make toddlers so happy, is that parents are instructed to reflect the toddler’s emotions back to them in simple, emphatic language. This gets the toddler’s attention and makes him feel understood. When he feels understood, he calms down and becomes more cooperative.

I haven’t really found this to be the case with my son. I like the idea of making him feel understood, but making it clear to him that I understand how he feels does not seem to have any effect on his tantrums unless it follows by my giving him what he wants. He’s a pretty stubborn, determined, focused kid, and he doesn’t just forget about the fact that he’s not getting that thing that he wants. I’ve tried to do what the book says, but mostly it just means his crying is joined by my fake-crying. The overall volume just increases.

Maybe I’m not doing it right. Reading parenting books and not getting the amazing results they promise makes me feel like a worse parent because obviously I’m not doing it right. Oh well. At least I’m trying.

Fairest

Fairest by Marissa Meyer 1402928540000-The-Fairest-cover-e1402943140653

Fairest is a prequel to the Lunar Chronicles, a series that combines fairy-tale-inspired characters and skeleton plots with a fantastical future setting. It tells the story of Levana, the villain, evil queen of the moon. Most of the focus here is on her twisted marriage and her disfigured face. It’s easy to feel sorry for Levana: she’s somewhat humanized here, mostly through showing how her older sister abused and bullied her, and how desperately she wanted to be loved. However, I think this story does fall short of the real tragedy that the most fascinating portrayals of villains achieve. Levana’s psychology is pretty childish in the way that she uses people and simply discards them when she is done with them. Even in the beginning, she proves her innate villainy with her enthusiasm about a plan to unleash a plague on Earth in order to sell the antidote and improve Luna’s trade position. In the end, the way she shuts down her own ability to love and chooses to become the villain we know from the other books is pretty chilling. It’s a pretty short book, and the copy I read included a teaser for the conclusion of the Lunar Chronicles: the first three chapters of Winter. Meyer’s series seems strongest when it focuses on the heroes; maybe it’s ok for her villain to be kind of flat. I’m looking forward to Winter, coming out this fall.

The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

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This book is the first of a series that takes place on a planet colonized recently by humans. The protagonist, Todd, is the youngest boy in Prentisstown, one of the most distant outposts. Prentisstown has no women; Todd grew up in the knowledge that a war with the planet’s original inhabitants had killed the women and released a toxin of some kind that made all the men’s thoughts audible in a constant stream they call Noise.  The action of the story begins a month before Todd’s birthday when he becomes a man, when he meets a girl, Viola, in a swamp. They run away from Prentisstown together and begin to discover what really happened years ago to Prentisstown’s women. I enjoyed Todd’s folksy, humorous voice immensely. It reminded me of Huckleberry Finn: like Huck, Todd has a heart of gold, and is in the process of losing his innocence.

I was particularly impressed with the way the Noise worked on a deeper level as a metaphor for “othering,” as a psychological explanation for how and why we separate into “us” and “them.” Because on this planet, everyone can hear men’s thoughts, but women’s thoughts stay private, men have a sort of automatic knowledge and trust of each other, while women seem untouchable and mysterious to them in comparison. They find it hard to trust women without being able to read their thoughts as they can a man’s. Todd and Viola encounter several towns where the people dealt with this problem in different ways: in Carbonel Downs there was a kind of sexual apartheid, in Far Branch there was a matriarchy, and Prentisstown, where Todd grew up, had the worst solution of all. It was sometimes jarring to hear the words Todd applied to Viola because of growing up in this world: “it,” “void,” “empty,” “nothing.” This denigration of the other comes from fear and vulnerability, the precarious position of being totally known by someone who you cannot know equally well, whose difference makes them seem unknowable. Toward the end, when Todd realizes he cares about Viola, he says he does know her and hear her Noise, showing that love can break down the barriers created by prejudice.

Fair warning: this is a very brutal and violent book, the kind where you get attached to the characters and then watch them suffer.

Sometimes the plot was far-fetched and extreme, like the villain that wouldn’t die, the final explanation for his pursuit of Todd, and Todd’s own multiple near-death experiences. It was sometimes hard to believe that secrets could be kept at all in a world of mind-readers, and there were times when I thought Ness might have been selective about applying the rules of his world to the action for the sake of narrative effect or convenience. But overall, it was a fun, action-packed book that I’d recommend to anyone who likes this genre. It might be a particularly thought-provoking book for a boy who’s resistant to reading books about girl protagonists. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series. A studio has bought film rights for it, but I haven’t heard anything about casting or filming yet.

Internet Roundup: Education, Part 4

Since learning about and becoming involved with the Bad Ass Teachers Association, I’ve been directed to lots of great links and articles about education and the real problems in our schools. I wanted to share a few of the best ones and comment on why they’re right.

Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post has become my favorite education journalist, just as Diane Ravitch is my favorite education expert. Often she merely gives another writer a forum, as she does here, allowing an education leader from Finland to compare how our two societies treat teachers and how that relates to educational outcomes in the two countries. Pasi Sahlberg concludes that child poverty is a bigger problem in the US than bad teachers, discusses three fallacies on the topic of teacher effectiveness, and gives three policy recommendations. Here, Strauss devotes her column to a principal’s discussion of the Senate hearings on education (I wrote Senator Alexander about what I’d like to see happen in those hearings a couple weeks ago). The principal criticizes “the superstructure of education supervision” which I think is a perfect way to describe where we’ve gone wrong in our approach to education.

The Atlantic has had some good writing on education in the past month as well. Here, they review Anya Kamenetz’s new book on testing and the way it has distorted schools. I’ve liked Kamenetz since her first book on student loan debt, and now she’s writing with the perspective of a parent and the experience of NPR’s lead education blogger. Her book is on my long list of things I want to read.

My favorite of the Atlantic articles might be this one, about the all-important place of joy in the classroom. I love the vision of education painted here, of teaching students to appreciate and enjoy different experiences. The standardized test is about as far opposite this approach to education as as you can get. You can’t assess joy. Another thing that’s hard to assess? Wisdom. But that’s what I have always sought in my education; it’s what motivates me to continue to learn and read as an adult. That’s what I want for my students and my son. In high school English classes today, the current focus is supposed to be on skills over content–but the content is the stuff that makes the skills worth learning and using! It’s what makes the class more interesting than repetitive drills. If we want students to be “engaged” (another buzzword), we can’t abandon literature in favor of teaching students how to read technical manuals and textbooks for other subjects.

This smart essay made me realize I didn’t go far enough in my letter to Senator Alexander. I suggested that we should only have standardized tests if they are developmentally appropriate, transparently graded, and returned promptly with detailed results. Of course, I knew what I was asking was impossible, and that was the point. But Steven Singer points out the simplest and most radical solution to the problems created by standardized testing: chuck it all. Get rid of every bit of it. It’s pointless as a learning exercise, it’s abusive to children, it’s a waste of money, its purpose is merely to create data to justify its own existence. It’s harder to stand behind the continued use of standardized tests than to just stop putting anyone through this data-driven madness. Trust teachers to make their own assessments, and stop interfering. That’s the first step to improve the quality of education.

Mating in Captivity

Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic by Esther Perel

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Perel is a sex therapist who discusses many of the problems she sees in committed couples who aren’t satisfied with their sex lives. She discusses the erotic in an abstract way as a kind of playful energy, which was a new idea for me. Sex is rife with tensions and contradictions: it’s about power and control and also about letting go; it’s something you can ‘work on’ and schedule, but a meditative, non-striving state of mind is best; our culture is both Puritan and libertine, shaming us both for having sex and not having enough sex. I’m used to thinking of sexual entitlement as a bad thing–it’s what gives men internal permission to rape–but Perel talks about how, in the context of a committed relationship, both partners need to feel somewhat entitled to their pleasure, or they won’t ever ask for what they need, and the experience is diminished for both. Perel is as inclusive as possible, discussing couples of all ages, gay couples, and nonmonogamous couples, and tries her best to avoid gender stereotypes.

Personally, I didn’t relate much to the problem that Perel kept saying was so universal. Most of her couples experienced a decline in attraction and desire as they got to know their partners better or when they committed to them. Most of their issues seemed to boil down to the idea that “familiarity breeds contempt” and the inverse of  “you always want what you can’t have.” Part of it also seemed to be kind of a virgin/whore complex, or an idea that sex is dirty: several of the men interviewed said something like “I can’t treat my wife that way” meaning ‘the way that turns me on.’ Maybe I’m exceptionally well-adjusted, but these conflicts aren’t ones I’ve experienced personally. If anything, familiarity and commitment have enhanced my desire because they are what freed me from my inhibitions and made it feel safe for me to be sexual in the first place. Sure, it’s a turn-off to see my husband sitting on the toilet, but it’s not that hard to put that image out of my mind when I’m in the mood to. I’ve been with my husband for almost 11 years now, married for 4, parents for almost 2, so I don’t think ‘newlywed glow’ is a good explanation for why I don’t feel the same way as Perel’s couples. We’ve had our share of problems in the bedroom, but our issues have been so idiosyncratic (or so banal) that a book like this was not likely to address them. So I found it hard to relate to a good chunk of the book, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing for me.

The book was published in 2006, and I feel like since then a lot of its insights have become kind of common knowledge, thanks in part to Dan Savage’s podcast, which began the same year. For example, I feel like most people know that fantasies aren’t necessarily things that people want to actually experience, and that excessively goal-directed sex is no fun. For that reason I don’t feel like I learned much from it. Its most useful concepts for me were the good side of entitlement, and eroticism as an abstract idea that encompasses play. Seeing the way she approached problems in a sideways direction was also kind of instructive. The book might be best for committed couples with very little experience, like those who waited until marriage for sex, or for people who have never read or thought much about sex.