Sunday, August 28, 2011

240 (2011 #45). A Visit From the Goon Squad

by Jennifer Egan,
read by Roxana Ortega

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year.  While the author, Jennifer Egan, describes it as a novel, it's really a series of linked short stories.  Characters in one story will pop up in one or more later stories, set earlier or later in time (even somewhere into the 2020s).  The two main characters are Sasha, a kleptomaniac, and her one-time boss, Bennie Salazar, a music company executive.

So what's the book about?  I'd have to say it's about time - how it ages and changes us, but so incrementally that sometimes you don't notice the changes until a significant amount of time has passed.  Most characters in this book appear at two or more different ages, and the effects of the passage of time are noticeable.  I particularly liked Egan's stories that were set in the future, with "handsets" that sound a lot like the smartphones already addicting so many people.  Time is the "goon" in the stories. Parts of the book are funny, parts are borderline unbelievable, and a lot of it is sad.

Actress Roxana Ortega does a nice job reading this audiobook, managing to create some uniqueness for each character.  She's especially good as the breathless starlet Kitty. But the book doesn't entirely succeed in audio format.

Alison Blake's "slide journal" Great Rock and Roll Pauses (essentially a Powerpoint) from chapter 12 is available as a PDF file on disc 7, but only in black-and-white. Ortega gives Alison a slight lisp to make her sound younger, and the "slide show" effect is created with what sounds like an old-style slide projector changing slides.  I wish the audiobook could have incorporated snippets from the music referred to in this chapter, but I supposed there were copyright issues. It all works OK, but without the music, this was one case where I would have preferred a print book. However, ALL of the graph data from the last few slides (out of 75 total!) was tedious to listen to, and would have been the same if read.

And what IS it with characters mimicking author David Foster Wallace in books today?  In this case it's Jules Jones, a celebrity journalist, in a chapter attempting to explain an attempted rape. I have to admit, it was fun, in each chapter, to recognize a character perhaps briefly mentioned in an earlier chapter, and also see a minor character from the current chapter then star in his/her own chapter later on.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Saturday, August 27, 2011

239 (2011 #44). The Marriage Plot

 by Jeffrey Eugenides

A few weeks ago I viewed a free live webinar called "Book Club Buzzing" sponsored by Booklist, and the Macmillan representative on the panel offered to send advance reader's copies of Jeffrey Eugenides' new book to anyone who asked.  I read and enjoyed his Middlesex five years ago (I wasn't writing reviews back then, but I gave it five stars), so I asked for a copy.

I'm probably not the right person to review it.  Maybe an English major, or someone with a stronger literary background, would have "gotten" the numerous references to literary history and theory.  Maybe a fan of Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters would have better appreciated the underlying reference to the conventional storyline of a love triangle.

Madeleine Hanna is the single woman in the triangle, and - surprise! - she is an English major who loves Victorian novels!  The two men vying for her attention are Leonard Bankhead, the charismatic biology/philosophy double major she meets in her final-semester "semiotics" (another one I had to look up) class, and Mitchell Grammaticus, the religious studies major she met her first year.  The novel starts on the day of their graduation from Brown in 1982, but flashes back through their college years to give us the backstory. 

I found Madeleine to be boring, weak, and wishy-washy.  The two men were much more interesting.  Mitchell's pursuit of religious enlightenment is intriguing, but Leonard's battle with bipolar disorder is much more so.  I could feel the pain of both living with this diagnosis, and dealing with someone you care for having this diagnosis.  Leonard's efforts to wean himself off medication are especially heart-wrenching. 

Supposedly Leonard is modeled after David Foster Wallace, an author I'm not familiar with (so yet another allusion I didn't get), and some have said Mitchell is based on Eugenides himself.

Although set in the early 1980s, the story has a timeless quality to it and could have just as easily been set today. While I wasn't the best audience for this book, I'm sure there are others out there who will love it.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This advance reader edition will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

238 (2011 #43). The Postmistress

by Sarah Blake,
read by Orlagh Cassidy

I listened to this audiobook for my local book club's discussion this month.  I have mixed feelings about it.

The postmistress of the title (really a postmaster, even when female, according to post office regulations of the time AND the "postmistress" herself) is Iris James, a 40-year-old spinster in the fictional Cape Cod town of Franklin, Massachusetts. (In an interview, author Sarah Blake admitted that "it never occurred to her to check" to see if there was a real town of that name.  There is, and it's far from the Cape.)  The story starts in September 1940 and runs through September 1941.

The other two main characters are Emma Fitch, newly wed to Franklin's young doctor Will Fitch, who feels he is battling his father's bad reputation, and Frankie Bard, a war correspondent with CBS Radio in London during the Blitz (Edward Murrow is a minor character in this book).  Iris and Emma and Will and others in Franklin listen to Frankie's broadcasts.

The book begins awkwardly, with Iris visiting a doctor in the city to get a certificate verifying her virginity.  She has her eye set on Harry Vale, the town's mechanic, who's obsessed with the possibility of German U-boats attacking the coast.  Meanwhile, Will loses a patient in childbirth, and feels it's his fault.  Inspired by Frankie's broadcasts, he volunteers to serve as a doctor in London, leaving (unknown to them both, pregnant) Emma behind.  Before he goes, he leaves Iris a letter to be delivered to Emma in case he dies overseas.

Frankie's storyline is far more interesting.  She spends an evening with anti-aircraft gunners manning their post, another with people in the shelter, and reports on it all to the folks back home.  She certainly made the Blitz come alive for me!  But Frankie is looking for "THE story" of the war, and asks to be sent into Germany and France to travel with (nearly all Jewish) refugees as they attempt to escape German-occupied territories.

This is the most harrowing, heartbreaking part of the book.  Frankie takes a "portable disk recorder" (which, the author admits in an end note, was not readily available until 1944) and records the voices of the people she rides with - often just their names, where they are from, and where they are going.  She sees what happens to some of them, and is left wondering what happened to many others.

The ending is very sad, parts of the plot are contrived (undelivered letters and unrealistic coincidences), and character development, beyond Frankie, is weak.  But I would still recommend the book, because the prose is lovely and well written, and Blake has a deeper message about war.  Part of the message is, "pay attention."  And part of the message is, "How do you bear (in both senses of the word) the news?"  (page 326)

As Blake elaborates in this second end note (unfortunately not on the audiobook, which is otherwise perfectly voiced by actress Orlagh Cassidy, particularly well suited to Frankie), on pages 326-326,
I wanted to write a war story that did not take place on the battlefield, but showed us around the edges of a war photograph or news report into the moments just after or just before what we read or see or hear....It's about the lies we tell others to protect them, and about the lies we tell ourselves in order not to acknowledge what we can't bear: that we are alive...while bombs are falling, and refugees are crammed into camps, and the news comes toward us every hour of the day.  And what, in the end, do we do?

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  I purchased a hardbound print copy from the Hood County Friends of the Library sale.]

Monday, August 15, 2011

237 (2011 #42). Readicide

by Kelly Gallagher

This book is required reading for the children's literature course at my university, so I decided I'd better read it.  English teacher Kelly Gallagher packs a lot into 150 pages (including a thorough index and references).

Subtitled "How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It," the book covers exactly that in five chapters.

Gallagher spends the first part of the book talking about how high-stakes, shallow testing has led to "teaching to the test" and reading programs that dull the desire to read for many students.  While there's not a lot teachers can do to end these testing programs, Gallagher does offer some good advice on ways to end "the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools." (p. 2)

Gallagher has taught high school for 23 years, so most of his strategies are aimed at that age group, although many can be adopted for all ages.  Some of his recommendations include:
  • providing time for recreational reading in the school day;
  • "augment books with authentic, real-world text" (p. 46), such as assigning an "article of the week" for students to annotate;
  • surround kids with interesting books (I would add to do this in the library as well as in the classroom);
  • assign high-interest books and/or self-selected recreational reading for summer reading;
  • for self-selected books, have students do "one-pager" reflections (templates for a number of these are in Appendix C);
  • avoid over-teaching books with too much chopping up and analysis, or emphasis on the trivial (as the Accelerated Reader program does); but
  • avoid under-teaching books by providing too little framing for complex texts (assigning classics for summer reading is a good example of this).
This was an excellent, thought-provoking book, and I'm glad it's required reading at my university for future teachers.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Saturday, August 13, 2011

236 (2011 #41). Moon Over Manifest

by Clare Vanderpool,
read by Justine Eyre
with Cassandra Campbell and Kirby Heyborne

This book was most deserving of the 2011 Newbery Medal.  With dual narrative lines set in 1917-1918 and 1936, it's the story of a small town in Kansas called Manifest (modeled after the real town of Frontenac, where author Clare Vanderpool's grandparents grew up).

In her Newbery acceptance speech, Vanderpool stated, "I knew I wanted to write a story about place and about home from the perspective of a young girl who didn’t have a home." (*42)  She later added,
"I came across a quote from Moby Dick. 'It is not down in any map; true places never are.' That’s when the wheels began turning. What is a true place? What would a true place be for someone who had never lived anywhere for more than a few weeks or months at a time? What if it was a young girl during the Depression? A young girl named Abilene Tucker." (*44)

Twelve-year-old Abilene is sent in late May, 1936, to the town of Manifest by her drifter father Gideon, the closest place to a home in her father's stories.  She's supposed to stay with a preacher named Shady.  She arrives just in time for the last day of school, where she meets Ruthanne and Lettie, her playmates for the summer.  She also meets Miss Sadie, a Hungarian woman who runs a "divining parlor."

Throughout the book, Miss Sadie tells Abilene a story about Manifest in 1917-1918, that mysteriously ties in items from a cigar box Abilene found hidden in Shady's home.  The cigar box also contains letters from 1918 from Ned Gillen, a boy adopted by the local hardware store owner from the orphan train.  Ned wrote the letters back to a boy named Jinx, after he helped Ned join the army (underage) to fight in World War I.  Both Jinx and Ned (and Shady and a few other local people still alive in 1936, such as Hattie Mae and Sister Redempta) are in Miss Sadie's stories.

On the audiobook, actress Justine Eyre voices both Abilene in the first person in 1936, and the third-person 1917-1918 stories of Miss Sadie.  Besides these alternating narratives, there are also excerpts from Ned's letters (voiced by Kirby Heyborne) and from "Hattie Mae's News Auxiliary," a column in the local newspaper in both 1917-1918 and in 1936 (read by Cassandra Campbell). 

It all works together to create a novel with an intriguing plot, compelling characters, and a lot of heart and soul.  And Vanderpool does an excellent job in creating her setting, not only in time and place, but also in the details of historical events and community life.  I could feel the heat of the hot, dry summer, but I also felt the excitement of the bootlegging shenanigans, the immigrants' fear of the Klan and the mine owner, and the dread and sadness brought by Spanish influenza.

According to Vanderpool,
"Moon Over Manifest is about home and community, but in many ways it became a story about storytelling and the transformative power of story in our lives....Abilene would call this a universal—this need for story....And of all the places for her to end up in her drifting: Manifest, Kansas, the stopping point for immigrants and refugees from around the world. Displaced people just like her. People with stories of their own but whose stories become hers.... Through the people of Manifest, Abilene experiences the power in a story." (*44-45)
So does the reader. 

This book has an 800 Lexile score and measures at grade 5.3 reading level on Accelerated Reader, with an interest level of grades 4-8.  The main characters are 12 (Abilene and her girlfriends) and 13 (Jinx), at the upper end of that grade range.  With the mystery subplot and Jinx's cons, I think the story would appeal to both boys and girls.  An author's note at the end addresses what's real and what's not in the book, and suggests further reading.  There are plenty of opportunities to tie this book in with lessons on social studies, English language arts, and even science.

(*Vanderpool, Clare. "Newbery Acceptance Speech," The Horn Book Magazine, Volume 87, Issue 4, July-August 2011, pages 39-45.)

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This audiobook and a hardbound copy of the book were borrowed from and returned to the Dick Smith Library at Tarleton State University, Stephenville, Texas, where I also accessed Vanderpool's speech through the EBSCO Academic Search Complete database.]