The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #43: The Chosen

Hi.

How are you?

How’s the family?

Here’s my last book review of the year (more than my half-cannonball, less than a full), hope to hear from you in the new year!

I picked up Chaim Potok again this fall in order to offer an alternate text to students who had either already read, or were personally opposed to another book in my standard curriculum. As I did I remembered just how detailed and immersive a writer he is.

Covering the often tenuous uncertainty of friendship between an hasidic and a modern Jew in 1940s era New York City, Potok gives plenty of details about the cultural conflict between each sect. He also has an impressive ability to weave international incidents into the flow of a story with natural grace, giving the reader a sense of time as well as place.

But Potok’s best sense of immersion is at play in how he describes the people. Characters are rich and detailed, their behaviors motivated through histories both ancient and personal. Reuven, Danny and their fathers are beautifully crafted and sincerely engaging. They seem less like characters you’re reading about and more like people you’re sitting beside.

Before I prepared the quizzes and assignments associated with the book, I had described The Chosen as “a classic that captures friendship, feuds, growing up and growing old.”Re-reading it, I feel like I can shorten that again to “a classic”.

 

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #42: They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?

Hmmm…do I plug my own blog or do I make a dumb joke…what kind of an obvious question is that?

What’s the difference between a blogger and Kim Jong Un? Bloggers have the good sense to hide their bad hair cuts.

They Eat Puppies Don’t They?

It had been a while between sharp witted political satires for Christopher Buckley. Blame it on the irrational expectations after the film release of Thanking you for Smoking, or the general difficulty in satirizing Barack Obama without verging into “SOCIALIST HITLER” quackery, but it’s good to have him back.

His latest adventure in the annals of ethically questionable PR protagonists tracks a defense industry lobbyist charged with whipping up anti-Chinese sentiment in America. Once we have an enemy again, the thinking goes, we’ll feel a much greater need for a bright shiny missile defense technology. In the process of adding some vigor to our vitriol, we run into a couple of beautiful/amoral talking heads, a civil war re-enactor, a besieged communist party leader, a woebegone national security advisor, an aspiring equestrienne and the Dali Llama, all slammed into each other through surreal political machinations that would be laughable if they weren’t so oddly believable.

Surprisingly, Buckley’s usual passion for exposing the power behind the throne is underwhelming, the PR’tagonist “Bird McIntire” seems, in a classic Buckley-ism, just to “be in it for the mortgage”, making him a rather bland hero for most of his chapters. The real connection comes with the beleaguered Chinese President Fa, who seems to have genuine patriotism, intelligence and compassion on his side, even though none of those traits seems particularly helpful amongst the swooping war hawks and oblivious ostriches in the rest of the novel. (Just how accurate Buckley’s observations of Chinese political culture are is questionable, but his sense of people is still strong).

To be sure there’s plenty to appreciate in Buckley’s ever-present sharp eye and clever repurposing of political vanity here, but the imbalance in characters leaves it a few strides short of his best offerings. I only hope that he’ll have a new offering sooner rather than later.

 

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #41: The Smartest Kids in the World

This is normally where I plug my personal blog, but instead I feel like saying this: “WINTER BREAK! WOOOO!!! NO SCHOOL!!! LET’S READ ABOUT SCHOOL!!!!”

Fun fact for anyone who has tuned in to my writing without knowing my background: I’m a teacher, and proud. More than that, I have a masters degree in international education, and I’m proud of that. I suppose I love diverse worlds of education because I’m a glutton for punishment: not content with my standard 12 years of high school, plus 4 years of college and 2 years of graduate school, I want to be in school every day. Not content to be in one kind of massively complicated often ineffective bureaucratic system, I’ve chosen to study and explore dozens of them around the world.

Amanda Ripley took on the same challenge with a more direct purpose. Rather than questing after knowledge or jobs, like I do, she was hunting for the answer to a simple question: “how can American kids get a world class education?”. She and troop of exchange student journalists looked into the systems of successful schools in Korea, Poland and Finland and report back with anecdotes and analyses that peer into the multitude of factors that help them succeed while we struggle (comparatively).

The book comes back with a host of ideas and buzzwords including social structure, mathematics instruction, teacher training, drive, rigor, parental engagement, union adaptability, cultural value and standardized testing. Ultimately Ripley’s take away seems to be that everyone cares about education, but Americans care about other things beyond the learning in the classroom (self-esteem, athletic accomplishment, personal policy victories).

As someone who has studied international education and has a personal stake in how well American students do on tests, I’m impressed with how well Ripley and her collaborators have done given such a short time. Though I dispute that any test (even the almighty PISA used to frame this study) should be used as a global yardstick, I’m glad that someone has demanded that pundits and policy makers step back from their abstract arguments to consider that there is no one answer. To be sure the hug-happy American educator hasn’t served students as well as they could, but our fixes won’t come from Finland or Poland or even cram-session Korea. If readers approach this book less as a road map for success and more as a puzzle to solve, there’s plenty of hope for us left.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #40: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Yadda Yadda Yadda: Main blog link is here

As the weather turns colder and the sports talk radio station turn their focus 100% towards pigskins, I can’t help but pop in audio-books to make my car ride go faster. Finding Douglas Adams’ classic surreal mystery in a box of my parent’s basement this summer was an unanticipated winner for me. All the silliness and sublime imagination of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is repurposed here to guide characters through a curious case of murder, betrayal, magical conjuring and a sofa stuck half way up a staircase.

As a reader, Adams knows precisely what he wants to emphasize in each line and phrase, and captures a great deal of the tonal elements that many other readers may miss. He occasionally blurs the distinctions between characters, and the rhythm of his jokes sometimes veers into “wry-observation-overload”. But the thrill of the chase, the glee of the literary allusions (turning Samuel Taylor Coleridge into a plot point must be an unparalleled feat of excellence in authorial nerdery), and the hilarity of his coy pause and punch-line syntax makes it a perfect companion through the snowy streets of commuter-ville USA.

 

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #39: Triumph

Guess what! You can read more of my weird commentaries on my personal blog! What’s that you say, you have better things to do? Well…tough…read it anyway! (Here at the Scruffy Rube)

Running is a writer’s world. Alone with the sound of your breath and the pounding of your feet against pavement, you have all the time in the world to imagine and create stories, legends and myths. You can take your time to chronicle each and every alteration of the weather and the body until you have a big pile of overwrought imagery and irrelevant symbolism.

Jeremy Schaap cuts through a lot of the running falderal with his book about the Track and Field battles during the 1936 Olympic Games. Naturally the focal point is Jesse Owens, and he devotes most of the book to both illuminating and complicating the Buckeye Bullet for readers who know him only as a name from the history books. Owens is a reluctant father and an uneasy political figure who has no choice but to accept his position in the athletic pantheon. At times, he seems to be little more than a cliche spouting, anti-septic athlete, but that has less to do with Schaap’s writing and more with the carefully reassembled hodgepodge of quotes given to sportswriters of the day (making the plethora of cliches much more understandable). And a fair amount of time is spent reflecting on the Nazi ne’er-do-wells whose dreams of a demonstration of aryan supremacy were foiled by Owens, including Goerbles, Goering, Leinie Reifenstahl and, of course, Hitler himself. Their villainy is despicable to be sure, but in the context of their political standing, not wholly different from how the Olympics are sought after today.

Triumph is at its best when it focuses on Owens’ interactions with lesser known luminaries of his time, including AAU chairman and manipulative mastermind Avery Brundage, sprinting rivals Ralph Metcalf and Uliss Peacock, coaches Charles Riley and Larry Snider and the reluctant Nazi/Owens-ally-to-be Lutz Long. The audiobook’s narrator (Michael Kramer) doesn’t ape accents, but offers subtle variations on a slow, well measured drawl, to give each quote a degree of gravitas. There are some characters (including several inconsequential sportswriters and the utterly irrelevant Eleanor Holm-Jarrett) who bog down the story rather than support it, but those are minor complaints of a broadly interesting and honest look at a defining moment in American sports history.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #38: Ocean at the End of the Lane

Have you read my other posts? Did you know I have a personal blog? Will you check it out? (I suppose I shouldn’t be waiting for a response from you since I have no idea when you will read it)

Adopted mid-westerner, Neil Gaiman’s newest book is a rich form of youthful and mature storytelling. It starts as a Roald Dahl-style exploration of childhood and the distrust that naturally exists between children and adults, and slowly turns into as surreal and dream-like a narrative as I’ve ever read. The villains are scary, the heroes are strong-willed and determined, and the setting is at once familiar and highly stylized. Yet, as the world becomes more imaginative, chaotic and uncontrollable those characters become even more important to hold on to. They aren’t simplistic because this is a kid’s book, they’re simplistic because, when faced with bizarre complications to our world, we can all be forgiven a little more simplicity. Gaiman’s characters are real, consistent and consistently flawed; how they adjust to chaotic settings in our present is amazing.

The simple lessons of children’s fare gives way to a more complicated acceptance of how complex our lives are (even as children). That the main character remains static, unchanging, unable to grow or adjust is a startling choice. It’s hard to write a book in which a protagonist does not grow or learn or undergo a formative experience (just ask some of my 9th grade students, who wrote better short stories than they thought they could, almost in spite of themselves.)

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #37: The Falcon In the Glass

Here’s the part where I plug my personal blog, and hope someone, anyone goes to check it out.

It’s not the most memorable of plot lines or characters, but the commitment and appreciation of setting is a tremendous boon. Set in a Renaissance Venice glass blower-y, The Falcon in the Glass captures a young adult’s struggle to find their place in a world that doesn’t involve a single school (but has a big chunk of teaching), that has no cliques, but definitely deals with class and sectarianism.

It’s rare to find really well done historical YA fiction, let alone historical YA fiction that delves into long past times. To capture both the universality of teenage education, social conflict and family trouble and the unique experience of Renaissance Venice is tremendous to find. Chances are it’s not propping up any island displays in your neighborhood Barnes & Noble, and it won’t grab much attention. But if you have a young reader with a hunger for history, you could do a lot worse than this book.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR Review #36: Eleanor and Park

 

I’m the guy who hated Romeo and Juliet (spare me captain boner and lady dumbass). I’m the guy who hated Wuthering Heights (go jump off a moor Heathcliff, I like the cat better anyway). I’m the guy who shakes his head at every protestation of love I ever hear from students, every hand-holding, sweetly embracing pair of fools who will end up in tears in just a few weeks.

I’m also the guy who nearly broke down crying at this book. Rainbow Rowell doesn’t try to oversell the seriousness of the relationship, it’s not life or death–but it may feel that way. She doesn’t try to make her characters more mature than their years (they seem downright childish at times), nor does she make it infantile crushing. You have to root for a pair of kids who seem so familiar to us all and so eager to live for the sake of living.

It’s a supremely sweet story, honest and exhilirating and a little bit brutal…just like teenage romance is.

 

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #35 Winger

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Printz Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

Another realistic and truly genuine teenager…the only problem is that in creating him Andrew Smith created a genuine teenage voice: one that is by turns immature and absurdly irritating. While the book jacket is laden with praise for how marvelous the main character/narrator, Ryan Dean West is, I couldn’t help but think he was the most egotistical whiner since Harry Potter in book 5 (without an ounce of Harry’s heroism), and the most gratingly obnoxious snot since Holden Caufield (though at least Holden owned his profanity).

Smith’s reliance on giving his narrator a limited vocabulary is primarily responsible for this. Sure, most teenage boys have a limited vocabulary and turn almost any situation into a homophobic slur, but doing it again and again despite the West’s repeated claims that he’s not homophobic (and that he’s the smartest kid in the whole school) just seems hypocritcal. Sure, teenagers struggle to change, but when West spends almost 400 pages turning every image of a woman into an instant sexual fantasy, the final 50 pages of maturity is a little underwhelming. And the less said about the Ryan-Dean-Hyper-Hyphenated-Scales-of-Irritatingly-Punctuated-Asshattery the better.

I will admit, Smith is spot on in his portrayal of boarding school culture, so much so that I found myself missing my old stomping grounds in India, despite the irritatingly pompous protagonist. And one of the final lines contains a kernel of truth that almost redeems the rest of the reading experience: “almost nothing at all is ever about sex, unless you never grow up, that is. It’s about love, and maybe, not having it.” But ultimately, no matter how brave it is to write a brutally honest teenage character, if you fail to balance a teen’s maturity with his immaturity, you will alienate the reader as much as an average teenager alienates their neighborhood.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #34 Out of the Easy

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Printz Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

Ruta Sepetys’ protagonist is less easy to relate to. Sure, Jo Moraine has some of the same problems and dramas that plague every girl on the cusp of 18: boys to choose from, applying to college, dealing with an absentee father, finding friends, balancing academics and work, avoiding the same mistakes her mother made, growing into her womanhood.

Of course, she’s also the daughter of a prostitute who is also caught up in a murder investigation set in 1950′s era New Orleans, so it’s not exactly a perfect match.

Still, It’s a credit to Sepetys that her characters are believable and the setting feels fresh rather than mothballed or stuffed with overwrought sentiment. The 50s and its segregated past are there, so is the setting of New Orleans, dank and musty. And still we can connect to the drama surrounding Jo, wondering whether or not she can break the cycle of dependency and degradation of life in the French Quarter and find a better place somewhere else.

It’s a further credit to Sepetys that she makes us care whilst juggling plotlines like a stilted mardi-gras parader juggles flaming torches. At times it feels a little ungainly (again, like the juggler on stilts), lunging for a plot point that you might have forgotten about, but she keeps them all in the air, and builds her world with a number of valuable, believable characters (even amongst those who only appear for a page or two).

In the end, Out of the Easy beautifully pairs a rich setting with a believable (if not entirely relatable) character. As Jo gradually ticks off each of her dramas, she becomes a powerful and winning character whose setting enriches her, even as she seeks to escape it.