Sunday, May 29, 2011

Week 22: The Rising of the Moon

The Rising of the Moon, by Gladys Mitchell

Gladys Mitchell was quite a well-known mystery novelist in her day, but she isn't really very popular any more, probably largely because her detective was not really all that attractive. Mrs. Bradley is an intelligent psychologist (back when psychologists were a rare and strange breed) and good at solving crimes, but she's kind of caustic, frequently described as cackling with laughter or poking people in the ribs with her umbrella.

The Rising of the Moon is a neat story because it's narrated (in retrospect) by a 13-year-old boy. He and his younger brother carry out much of the action. They mystery revolves around several young women who are horribly killed--but only during the 3 days when the moon is at its fullest. It's quite a good read (although I was irritated when Mitchell made the full moon rise whenever it suited her, at 11pm for example) and if you're a British mystery fan, put it on your list.

Week 22: The Great Typo Hunt

The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time, by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson

Jeff wants to change the world and make a mark. But what can he do? He is a lowly magazine editor/writer. Aha--he can travel the country, fixing the tide of typos that plagues the land! Armed with Sharpies, chalk, white-out ("Elixir of correction") and dry-erase markers, Jeff and whatever hapless friends he can convince to come along set out to fix the world. Naturally, they maintained a blog too (the link above).

It's a reasonably entertaining book, somewhat too heavy on the personal meditation. I was ready to quit reading near the end, but it got much more exciting when he was dragged into court on a charge of vandalism--he had unwittingly fixed a historic sign at the Grand Canyon.

Jeff did not, surprisingly, do this project for a year and then write about it. It only took about 3 months, plus aftermath. But it's pretty much the same genre.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Take a Chance: Elegance

Elegance, by Kathleen Tessaro

8: Which Book Pick: Go to Which Book and use the software to generate a list of books. Read a book from that list.

I asked for a fun book and this is what I got. Sort of chick-lit, it's about Louise, who is unhappy about her sad-sack life and her empty marriage. She finds an old 50's book titled A Guide to Elegance (evidently a real book!) and starts to revamp her life. As she pulls herself together, she has to start confronting her issues--and there are a lot of them, starting with her husband, who is in denial that he's gay. Louise has her ups and downs as she tries to straighten out her life with the occasional aid of her trusty book on elegance.

I liked the book OK and it had some really really funny bits, but I was a bit surprised at how many issues Louise had to dig up and deal with. She's a mess, and that's kind of unexpected for the way it started out. So it wasn't as light as I had been hoping for. (Also there is more swearing than I really prefer.) But overall I did enjoy it, especially some of the humor.

Take a Chance: Seeing Voices

Seeing Voices: a Journey into the World of the Deaf, by Oliver Sacks

5: Blurb Book: Find a book that has a blurb on it from another author. Read a book by the author that wrote the blurb.

The last book I read for this challenge was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which had a blurb from Oliver Sacks on it, so I figured I would find an Oliver Sacks book for the next book in the challenge. I always enjoy his books, so I had to find one I've never read!

Seeing Voices is a short chronicle of deafness and how sign languages have come to be understood as languages in their own right. The book was published in 1989, just as deaf people were really getting going as a group; the book culminates at Gallaudet University (a deaf college) in Washington DC, where thousands of students protest in favor of a deaf university president, and achieve their goal.

Sacks talks a lot about the newest neuroscience research into deafness and sign language, and it's fascinating. But the book is over 20 years old! When Sacks was writing, serious modern research had been going on for less than 20 years, so there must have been quite a lot of progress since, and I'd like to learn about that.

It turns out that for a long time, people assumed that sign language could only be primitive and crude, and tried to force sign language to be just like spoken language done with signs. But a real sign language (like ASL) is a true language, just as expressive and subtle as a spoken one, with its own grammar and everything.

So: very interesting book, lots of good stuff in it. But 20 years out of date!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Week 21: Secret Daughter

Secret Daughter, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Secret Daughter chronicles the lives of two women and the child they share. Kavita is a young wife in India forced to give up her baby girl; Somer is a doctor in California struggling with infertility. Somer and her husband, Krishnan, adopt the baby and call her Asha, but Somer is always afraid that she will be left out. Kavita, meanwhile, gives birth to a son and moves to Bombay. As Asha grows up, she wonders where she came from, and eventually spends a year in India.

I enjoyed the book pretty well, but I felt that Somer's character lacked something. It was hard to get a sense of her as a person and Kavita was much more real. It seemed to me that the author favored the Indian characters, while the Caucasian characters were always described as sterile and hollow, lacking depth.

The story contains great descriptions of India, though. There's quite a lot about Kavita's farming village, Bombay--filthy, crowded, exciting, with awful poverty and high privilege--and Krishnan's wealthy family home. I thought that was the best part of the novel.

Week 21: Saturday is for Funerals

Saturday is for Funerals, by Unity Dow and Max Essex

Unity Dow is a judge in the Botswanan justice system, and here she teams up with AIDS researcher Max Essex to report on the AIDS epidemic as it's playing out in Botswana. Together they describe new treatments and efforts to curb the spread of AIDS: programs to diagnose and treat the disease, vaccination trials, even tribal chiefs bringing back traditional circumcision rituals. Judge Dow gets a lot of people coming to her for help, and she tells some of their stories.

It's a really interesting book that highlights some of the dilemmas of AIDS, and also offers quite a bit of hope for the future. As one of Africa's most stable countries, Botswana has been able to make a lot of progress compared to many of its neighbors, so that there is no longer a funeral every single Saturday, the way there was a few years ago.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Feminist Challenge: A Room of One's Own

A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf

This is the May title for the Feminist Classics Reading Challenge, and I enjoyed reading it. I read it once before in college and remember several parts, but it was very nice to get the whole picture. I was really not in a mood to be patient with Virginia Woolf, but her assertions in this essay are difficult to argue with.

Woolf points out that the reason that women in the past never did much writing was for the simple reason that they were almost never allowed to do so. No matter how much talent a woman might have had, she was kept much too busy serving her family; education and personal leisure time were not considered in the least necessary for women, and most likely bad for them. Woolf concludes that the only way for a woman to be able to become a writer is for her to have an income of 500 pounds a year without having to work for it (quite a nice income, which would allow for a flat and a servant or so) and a "room of her own" in which to work in peace.

I have mixed feelings about this, actually. I had just finished reading a book which described working-class people of both sexes who worked 14-hour days of physical labor, who really did not know what privacy was, and who routinely made time before and after work to educate and express themselves. This did not really make me sympathetic to her [fictional] complaints about her former horrid soul-sucking middle-class job in the awful days before she inherited 500 pounds a year. Everybody's got to work for a living and few of us get servants out of it. On the other hand, she points out quite truthfully that nearly all of the greatest English writers of the past have been men of some leisure to write, and certainly it's completely obvious that the reason we have few women writers in history is because women were almost never allowed to become writers.

I actually read A Room of One's Own a few weeks ago, and then didn't get around to writing about it soon enough. I had lots of thoughts and now they're all gone. Oh well. It's an important essay to read, so go read it.

Week 20: Reading Women

Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed my Life, by Stephanie Staal

The Feminist Literature Challenge I'm participating in gave away a copy of this book, which seemed nicely thematic. I didn't win, so I went and found a copy for myself.

Stephanie Staal is your average 30-something New York writer--very intelligent, went to a fancy college (Barnard), lived in New York City, high-powered career, got married to a nice guy and then had a baby girl. Motherhood and the usual attending difficulties--dividing time between work and family, less time for husband, too much housework and no time or help--threw her for quite a loop, and she decided to try to take some time to find herself and audit the same Feminist Literature courses she loved as a 19-year-old undergraduate. So this is part personal memoir and part reaction to feminist classics.

At first I was quite annoyed by Staal, who has a very nice life--which, at least, she freely admits--and is kind of unhappy about it. She's got a perfectly good husband, and they're drifting apart--but then at no time in the entire book did I see either of them put any effort into their relationship, at least once they were married. Did they never set aside time to go out together? They both seem to put work and baby ahead of each other, and then Staal is surprised when she feels distant from him. (Happily they seem to get back together by the end, though apparently not because they try very hard. Living in New York City seems to be their solution.) Oh, and she doesn't fit in with the other mommies on her block because they're all Stepford Wives and she's an individual with a brain, and therefore too eccentric to fit in, so that was aggravating.

But aside from that, it was easy for me to identify with her. Staal is only a couple of years older than I am (and her daughter is only a little younger than my older girl), and her reminiscences about her college years and the mood of the times sound very familiar to me. I didn't take Feminist Literature, but we were living with and talking about the same issues. And her surprise or consternation about the reactions of current undergraduates sounds familiar too.

Anyway, she picks out some readings to comment on, and that's quite interesting. She talks a lot about the shift in her perspective from when she was 19 to now; adulthood and motherhood have changed a lot of her opinions, and life isn't as simple to diagram out anymore. I did enjoy the book and felt it discussed some good points. I've read some of the texts--and I was happy in the beginning to see her reading Perpetua's Passion, which I read and enjoyed a few years ago--but several were unfamiliar. Now my reading list is longer, and someday I really do have to get around to reading The Feminine Mystique...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Week 20: The War Against Grammar

The War Against Grammar, by David Mulroy

Mulroy is a classics professor, which gives him some really good insights into the issue here. He starts off by quoting the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and their steadfast opposition to the explicit teaching of grammar in schools. For several decades now, the NCTE has maintained that grammar instruction is actually counterproductive to students' writing and that grammar should never be mentioned in class except in passing as part of a writing lesson. Students should read and write a lot, and that will teach proper grammar intuitively.

Now, I think I'm pretty much the poster child for this method of teaching. I learned very little grammar in school (I did not get as far as adverbs or prepositions), but I read all the time, and I did some writing for classes. On the whole, I can write coherent sentences and make myself understood. I'm about as good as it gets if teaching grammar is mostly ignored.

And I am not at all happy with the education I received. I don't think I am alone among my classmates in feeling that writing, as a discipline, is a murky swamp full of mysterious pitfalls. If I make a mistake, I often don't know it and can't fix it. I really wish that I had been taught better, and I've spent a lot of time since trying to remedy it, but I'm still struggling with gerunds and participles. Grammar, like language in general, is much easier to learn for children.

So Professor Mulroy's manifesto in favor of teaching grammar to students was right up my alley. He offers a clear argument for the importance of grammar, along with quite a bit of history as well. Mulroy points out that students who don't know the basics of English grammar often exhibit what he calls a "higher illiteracy;" they can express themselves well enough, but they often cannot comprehend complex texts. As proof he offers the results of a test he gave his students: to paraphrase the first line of the Declaration of Independence. Such students also tend to shy away from learning other languages. So the need for "21st century skills" would seem to dictate that we need to teach more grammar!

My solution for my own kids is to put them through the most rigorous grammar program that I know of. I also use a writing program that is very explicit in every step. It turns out that writing doesn't have to be a swamp; there are tools and methods for saying exactly what you want to say, it's just that I don't have many of them. I hope we can do better for the next generation, but don't expect the NCTE to help much.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Week 19: Spooky Children's Books!

I raided my daughter's reading pile for some new children's fantasy!

100 Cupboards
trilogy, by N. D. Wilson

The 100 Cupboards trilogy has a typical-sounding plot--young boy discovers doors to other universes, finds companions, and battles evil witch who is trying to take over a world. But! The difference here is in the author's great writing style and creative use of the old tropes. I really enjoyed his writing, which is vivid and descriptive in a style that feels fresh and imaginative without being labored. Wilson takes his characters through traditional plot elements in a new way that makes the books hard to put down.

The Stone Child, by Dan Poblocki

This story is also a new interpretation of a traditional plot. Eddie moves to a new town and finds that its the home of his favorite spooky author, who disappeared years ago. The town is strange and may be haunted. Eddie and his new friends find an old coded manuscript and start to solve the mystery, and that's when the books start coming true...

This story features some odd takes on the old Lilith legend, and otherwise feels a lot like a John Bellairs story. It's pretty good.

Week 19: The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, by Jonathan Rose

Jonathan Rose chronicles 150 years of working-class striving for education in this giant (but excellent) tome. In the early 19th century, it became possible to get books cheaply, and thousands of working people spent their time reading, attending clubs that encouraged education, and generally absorbing as much culture as they could get their hands on. Education was the path to freedom and equality, as well as leisure enjoyment and fuel for the mind. It's impressive to find out what people read and enjoyed; many of them seem to have loved authors that I find very difficult, such as Milton and Carlyle and so on. I guess that shows the awful effect of TV and the Internet.

I particularly enjoyed the last couple of chapters, which covered the Edwardian period up to World War II and focused on the intelligentsia's opposition to working-class self-education. Modern authors such as Eliot, Forster, and Woolf exuded snobbish horror at the efforts of ordinary people, calling them 'half-educated,' 'middle-brow,' and (oh no) 'suburban.' All those literary jeremiads about the grey, faceless masses in the suburbs and cities, and the hopelessly clumsy and awkward characters like Howard's End's Leonard Bast--those are more cariacture than reality, more snobbish stereotyping than anything else. (So next time you hear a lament about soulless suburbia, remember that you're hearing an echo from people who thought that only certain elites had a right to good education and the life of the mind.)

I really liked Rose's history and would recommend it to anyone willing to spend a lot of time on it, since it's not a light read. Also, this book did not actually put me in a sympathetic mood for my next feminist classic: A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Fun Game

Here's a cute little game I found on Subtle Melodrama. Fill in the statements with the titles of books you've read this year!

In high school I was Living Oprah
People might be surprised I’m At Home
I will never be the Heir of Redclyffe
My fantasy job is (at) Planet Narnia
At the end of a long day I need Strength in What Remains
I hate it when the Luck of the Irish Ran Out
Wish I had a Doll's House
My family reunions are the Day of the Triffids
At a party you’d find me with People of the Book
I’ve never been to Barchester Towers
A happy day includes a Room with a View
Motto I live by: We've Got Issues
On my bucket list is 2012 and the End of the World
In my next life, I want to have the Mystic Grail

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Week 18: Farm City

Farm City, by Novella Carpenter

I guess I just can't get enough books about gardening. This one is about a hipster type who moves to inner-city Oakland and starts a tiny little farm on an empty lot that she doesn't own (though apparently she has since purchased the land). She plants veggies, puts in a few trees, gets bees, poultry, and bunnies, and even raises two pigs.

Carpenter is mostly pretty interesting as she chronicles her urban garden. She spends a lot of time dumpster-diving for rabbit and pig food, which I approve of. She manages to hold off on the smugness pretty admirably, though she ticked me off in the introduction by calling Berkeley "plush" (yes, bits of it are--so are bits of Oakland). And towards the end she gets kind of aggravating, but I guess she can do that. Oh, and she's utterly turned off when she goes to buy something and suspects that the woman might be...(horrors) a Republican. "Not my kind of people."

I was pretty impressed with what she managed to accomplish, and also at the sheer cluelessness of some of her ideas. The pigs are the biggest example: she buys two young pigs and then finds out that pig poop smells terrible. Who doesn't know that?? She is really unprepared for the pigs and just keeps shoveling in more straw to cover the smell (somewhat unsuccessfully).

It's worth reading, and I do approve of urban gardening. Even if she's a little too eager to establish her hipster cred.

Week 18: Generation X Goes to College

Generation X Goes to College: an Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America, by Peter Sacks

Peter Sacks was a news journalist, but when he moved to the Pacific Northwest in the early 90's, it was hard to find a job. So he applied to teach journalism at a community college. He soon realized that he had no idea how to teach college courses, especially not to Generation X 18-year-olds, whom he found puzzlingly disengaged and entitled. This book is his attempt to understand and explain both Xers and the problems that plague the higher education system. So it's 20 years out of date now, but there were some things to think about.

It was an interesting book to read, because I was in college at the time that he was teaching; I'm one of the Xers he complains about. He says that his students are disengaged, rude, lazy, illiterate, and expect to be given lots of credit for trying hard, no matter how bad the result is. They feel entitled to easy As and want to be entertained all the time, not challenged to think. I don't think I was that bad a student, but I went to a college with a different culture. And if we were the slacker generation, I think we've had that well beaten out of us by now!

One interesting thing he complains about is the Generation X distrust in authority. People comment on this all the time, so I gather that it's considered to be a wide-spread characteristic of Xers--an unwillingness to trust authority and institutions, a feeling that an institution has to prove its worth, and a willingness to walk away and find a different solution if we're not satisfied.* People my age do not assume that the schools are going to do the best thing for our kids now, and I guess 20 years ago we didn't always assume that our professors knew best. This drives Sacks crazy, but I fail to see why I should trust an institution that can't show me a good track record (even though I think, of course, that students should be respectful of a professor). It's been (painfully) proved to us too often that trust is often misplaced, I suppose. To me, unquestioning trust in authority is naive and stupid, and I suspect that Sacks would agree as long as it's not his authority that isn't being trusted. It's not like he trusts the administration of his college; he has a lot of criticism for them.

At the same time, I'm currently working at a community college, and people now complain about exactly the same things Sacks complains about, only much more so. The disengagement has only intensified, only now students bring their own entertainment in the form of texting and Internet-surfing on laptops. This, and general illiteracy, is something I worry about. But maybe we're all doing a lot of hand-wringing over something that cures itself in time; Xers managed to grow up and I suppose this generation will too. I expect that Sacks' own professors often complained about the lazy, entitled students of 40 years ago. So, actually this book made me feel better about the future!

*For example, this article talks about how to market schools to X parents, and its descriptions of us are pretty accurate.