Niagara Falls All Over Again

Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken


This book is a bittersweet buddy comedy. The narrator is Mike Sharp, the straight man in a fictional 2-man comedy team that made it big on vaudeville and radio and made a few great movies in the 30’s and 40’s. The novel is about Mike’s relationship with his comedy partner, Rocky Carter, their rise to fame, and the reasons they finally stopped speaking to each other. Rocky is a kind of self-destructive character, a comedian who has to make jokes out of his pain. And most of those jokes are genuinely funny. I love reading about complex relationships like this one. Rocky and Mike’s careers are tied up together, they care about each other and enjoy each other, but they also resent each other for their very dependence and for the uneven way success deals with them. McCracken’s sentences and jokes and descriptions really make you feel like you’re behind the scenes in a vaudeville show. She did an awesome job recreating that entire world with language.

Books on teaching

I recently read two books for teachers that I hoped would help me improve my teaching by motivating my students.

150 Ways to Increase Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom by James P. Raffini


I didn’t find this book to be as helpful and useful as I’d hoped. Most of the activities were for a specific age group or a particular subject matter, and wouldn’t transfer well for use in every classroom. The only ones I think I’ll use are the ones that function as “icebreakers.” I think the most broadly relevant part of the book was the way it broke down motivation into filling students’ needs for autonomy, competence, belonging, self-esteem, and enjoyment. From there, it focused on making changes to some structures in the classroom that can either improve or harm student motivation. Those structures were task, authority, reward, grouping, evaluation, and time. More broadly speaking, thinking of ways to tweak those structures to fill student needs could create lots of good changes in a classroom.

The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game by Lee Sheldon


This book gave me a lot of validation because one of the main things it suggests is something I already do in my classroom. Rather than starting students with a grade of 100, so that every assignment is a chance to lose points, I begin everyone with a grade of zero, so that grades only ever improve, and every assignment earns some points, even if it’s not perfect. This grading structure mimics video games in which players begin at level one and gain points until they reach higher levels. It’s much more motivating than a more punitive grading system. Sheldon spends a lot of time applying video game terminology to his class activities, which I thought was less interesting or important than how the actual activities and structures of the class are changed by this gaming focus. There are several case studies that I wish I’d seen more details of, and I didn’t see any case studies in my own subjects, so I was kind of left wondering how my class could become more gamelike. I’ll keep thinking about it though. This book gave me a lot to think about.

Dept. of Speculation

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill


This short novel reads like a prose poem, with lots of short, disconnected paragraphs. It’s the story of a marriage bending under the pressures of parenting and career. The writing is soft and understated, with wry humor. Offill captures well the claustrophobia of early motherhood and the testiness of married couples under stress. I liked the narrator’s descriptions of her ambitions to be an “art monster” and marriage counseling as “the Little Theater of Hurt Feelings.” It’s a very quick read, but rewards reading slowly.

The Hidden Gallery

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Book 2: The Hidden Gallery by Maryrose Wood


In this second book of the series, Miss Penelope Lumley and her charges, the three  children who had been raised by wolves, visit London and have another series of improbable adventures. The plot thickens with regard to the ongoing mystery of the origins of the children and Miss Lumley herself. That mystery is what’s keeping me reading. I like the style and humor and the way the story introduces vocabulary and historical information and cultural concepts in an interesting, seamless way that makes the stuff stick in a young head. The book makes all these obscure facts seem cool and fascinating, like secret knowledge that makes them part of a club, and that’s a great way to motivate kids to learn without making it seem like work. I’ll keep reading, but for my sake I hope the series gets to the bottom of the Incorrigibles’ identities pretty quickly.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

the-love-affairs-of-nathaniel-p1I really had mixed feelings about this book. I’m convinced that Nate, the protagonist, is meant to be an anti-hero. The reader is meant to empathize with him while also thinking he’s a complete jerk. His actions are not supposed to be admirable, and they rarely are. I didn’t like the rare moments when I did empathize with him because I found his actions and attitudes so objectionable. He basically admits to misogynist tendencies, and spends much of the book making insulting generalizations about women, and yet at the same time he knows these ideas are bad and wrong and would never say them out loud. If I thought readers were meant to like Nate wholeheartedly and commend his every decision and idea as correct, I would be calling the book utterly offensive.

The story is about his complicated live life. I count five relationships of various levels of seriousness that are described in detail. I thought it was telling that in all the book’s sex scenes, there is no mention of Nate performing oral sex, only receiving, and occasionally being unsatisfied.

Nate has the incredible luck to meet and attract Hannah, a woman who honestly and sincerely embodies the “cool girl” described in Gone Girl. The requests she makes of him are basically the bare minimum it takes to maintain a relationship, and he feels like she’s unreasonable. She’s as chill and non-clingy as it is possible for a woman to be, but Nate constantly projects his own guilt onto her, or treats her as if she were his crazy ex. Though he has a strong emotional and intellectual connection with Hannah, his refusal to be sincere with her and honest with himself costs him the relationship in the end. His choice is really very cowardly, and the whole book could be seen as a criticism of anyone who chooses self-image over truth and vulnerability. He ends up in a serious relationship that is very shallow and full of conflict, with a woman who will never understand him the way Hannah did. I wanted him to be punished much, much more severely.

I guess I was fairly impressed that Waldman could get me to react so strongly to this character and straddle that fine line between sympathy and antipathy. It’s good to feel strongly about a book, and if those feelings are a bit confused, that’s usually a sign the book was decently complex.

13 Little Blue Envelopes

13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson


I liked Maureen Johnson’s other books, so I added this one to my list, although it looked a little less mature than the books I usually like. It pleasantly surprised me, though, with an ending that was unresolved and realistic. In this book, the protagonist Ginny’s artist aunt dies, and leaves Ginny with a kind of scavenger hunt through Europe as part of her will. The blue envelopes tell her where to go and what to do. She travels around, visiting various famous and less famous places, and gets involved with a young playwright named Keith. The lessons Ginny learns are not life-changing, but it’s an interesting and fun read. Recommended more for younger teens.

The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson


In this sequel, Ginny returns to England about 6 months after her previous trip, hoping to reconnect with Keith, and figure out what to say in her college application essays. A mysterious and prickly young man offers to give her back the envelopes she lost–for a price. The final envelope takes the group on another scavenger hunt through Europe. The ending is about as good as the first one too. A decent sequel.

Sevenwaters series, books 1 and 2

This fantasy series is set in early medieval Ireland. These awesome fantasy books feature compelling female first person narrators, beautiful sentences, and romantic love stories. There are mysteries, secrets, political alliances, fairies, prophecies, and an elegiac sense of magic about to leave the world. The series is a set of two trilogies, so I’ve really just scratched the surface.

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier


When a sorceress puts her brothers under a spell that turns them into swans, Sorcha has to endure a harrowing trial to break the spell. Over several years, she works to weave them shirts of nettles from scratch, while enduring rape and kidnapping in silence. There are some problematic aspects to this one: Stockholm syndrome, was that rape really necessary? But overall, I was enchanted by the book and in awe of its heroine and her incredible determination and stamina.

Son of the Shadows by Juliet Marillier


Sorcha’s daughter, Liadan, is the focus of this book. She is also kidnapped, and falls in love with her captor, but she is quite sassy to him throughout, and ends up saving his life in more ways than one. I was impressed by Liadan’s political acumen as she bargains for her lover’s life and discerns who she should share her prophetic visions of the future with. The story picks up some threads that the first book left open, and leaves several others dangling in turn, so that the next book promises to be amazing.

WWII novels

Here are two books concerning WWII and the Holocaust that I’ve read recently. These books are hard to read because of their brutally intense subject matter, but they’re educational, entertaining, and uplifting.

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen


A woman goes to Poland to investigate her late grandmother’s origins and finds that she was a survivor of a death camp and her grandfather was a resistance fighter who rescued her. The story is framed by the grandmother’s retelling her own personal version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, which served as a metaphor for her near death experience and was her way of telling her grandchildren about her own history.

When I picked up this book I had no idea it would be about the Holocaust, and thought it was just a fairy tale retelling. However, I thought the fairy tale frame was the least effective part of the story, and the Holocaust narrative was much more compelling. I thought it was interesting how the book highlighted the resistance fighters and some of the less well-known classes of Holocaust victims, like the gay man who narrates much of the story.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein


This sequel to Code Name Verity is about Rose Justice, friend and bridesmaid of Maddie, the surviving protagonist from that book. Rose is an American pilot who joins the Air Transport Auxiliary. She is intercepted while flying over Germany and is put into a women’s concentration camp at Ravensbruck. There, she befriends the “rabbits,” women who were maimed as part of “experiments” by the Nazi doctors. It’s near the end of the war, and the Nazis are concerned with covering up their atrocities by destroying the evidence, while the prisoners band together to survive so that they can tell the world what was done to them. It’s a satisfying story because Rose and her friends achieve some small victories over the Nazis by hiding to avoid being gassed, causing riots over bread, and eventually even totally escaping. The story ends with the Nuremburg trials, which Rose attends as a reporter. Rose is a poet as well as a pilot, so she makes up some very moving verses about her experiences, with aerial flight as a metaphor. Another remarkable aspect of the book is its inclusion of a former concentration camp employee as a sympathetic character.

Royal Assassin

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb 51NoiQqkVWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This fantasy trilogy got even better with its second volume. I really enjoyed Assassin’s Apprentice, in which royal bastard Fitz is recruited by his grandfather the king to be a secret assassin. The first book mostly lays the foundation for the trilogy, while this book takes it to a very adult place, as Fitz becomes a man, has a serious relationship, fights in a war, and has to make some hard choices concerning his loyalties and their limits. It’s a very engrossing read, with formal high fantasy language, multi-dimensional characters, and dramatic high stakes. Hobb’s psychological astuteness as she portrays Fitz’s relationship ambivalence and his court strategizing is impressive. Two characters that interested and surprised me most are Molly, Fitz’s girlfriend, and Queen-in-Waiting Kettricken. The intrigues and shifting alliances in this royal court entrap Fitz until his end is almost classically tragic. I can’t wait to see the comeback he makes in the next book, to see him solve the mystery of the Red Ships, and to see the villain get his due. I think this series would make a great TV show comparable to Game of Thrones, except that a lot of the drama would be difficult to portray on screen, since it involves telepathic magic. I highly recommend this series to anyone who likes fantasy.