Monday, December 23, 2013

Book Review: Swamplandia!

Author: Karen Russell

Title: Swamplandia!
Description: Swamplandia is a reptile theme park like Gator Land or Alligator World. It’s run by the Bigtree family (they aren’t Indian, despite the name).  It’s a pretty sweet existence on an island in the swamps; the tourists take the ferry over and cheer for Hilola Bigtree (the family’s mother) as she bravely wrestles the alligators, who the family calls seths, which seems like an affectation. Just as everything is going well, though, Mom dies of cancer, leaving three teenage children (the book is narrated by Ava, the youngest) and a husband who doesn’t know what to do with them or the park, especially when the competing World of Darkness opens on the mainland.
Plot: The plot is probably the weak point of the book, as I was never quite sure where it was headed, and certainly didn’t expect it to end up as it did. In the end, I’d say the book was about what happens when the linchpin of a family is removed.
Characters: The children have been raised on the island, working at Swamplandia!, but not interacting in a normal way with anyone other than tourists. They (especially Kiwi) are book smart in some ways, having been schooled by mail and “library boat” (something like a bookmobile, I guess). So they are wise, innocent, and odd.
Writing style: Well, this is a Florida book and it has a Florida writing style. Not the kind of Carl Hiaasen hard-boiled weirdos stuff, but a sort of swampy, tropical, anything-goes kind of style.
Audience: It’s literary fiction. And I’d say it’s a must-read for anyone who reads Florida fiction.

Wrap-up: I loved the swampy atmosphere of this book and the narrative voice of Ava. I didn’t love the ending much at all. I felt like Russell found her tone and her topic, but not her plot.  But the book was still very worth the read. 4/5*

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Book Review: Engaged Writers & Dynamic Disciplines

Authors: Christopher Thaiss and Terry Myers Zawacki
Title: Engaged Writers and Dynamic Disciplines: Research on the Academic Writing Life
Description : This book is based on a study of writing in the disciplines. Specifically, how much leeway do writers (both professors and students) have in genre when they are writing in a discipline? How free are writers to push the boundaries of standard disciplinary expectations? Do professors encourage it or frown upon it—and how much do they do it in their own writing?
Writing style: The book is based on the results of an academic study, but it’s quite readable.
Audience: This book is geared toward academics, specifically those who are interested in Writing in the Disciplines.
Major ideas: Most disciplines allow, if not encourage, non-standard writing for certain reasons. This varies by discipline, but as long as there were solid (i.e. rhetorical) reasons for variation, a surprising amount of variation from the standard academic genres goes on.
Wrap-up: If you’re the intended audience, I recommend this book. Many of us aren’t there yet with our students (it’s pretty accepted that first you learn the boundaries of writing in the disciplines, and then you can push them), but it’s fun to imagine what might happen down the road. 3.5/5*

Saturday, December 21, 2013

My Top Reads of 2013

Here are my top ten reads for 2013, in no particular order, except I saved the best for last:

Above all things by Tanis Rideout. I think it would be hard to take an existing story with an ending that everyone already knows, and make a riveting novel of it. Rideout makes it look easy. 

Trial of Fallen Angels by James Kimmel Jr.: a hopeful, affirming, forgiving view of the future.

Hoosh by Jason Anthony: a stunning amount of good research on, of all things, what to eat in Antarctica.

Odyssey: reading it while taking a Coursera course on Greek mythology (taught by Peter Struck) made it an absorbing experience.

Girl with the dragon tattoo by Stieg Larsson: everyone else loved it. Why not me?

Unbearable lightness of scones by Alexander McCall Smith: I have to include at least one Alexander McCall Smith book every year, right? His version of life is so forgiving—everyone is irritating and has annoying tendencies, but somehow, we have to love one another, because we are all we have.

Call me irresistible by Susan Elizabeth Phillips: OK, you know I read romances for fun, though I don’t review them much here (SBTB has a lock on that). But my favorite romance this year was this one, even though it’s not my favorite romance genre, the Regency (swoon). Everyone loves the world’s most perfect man, except for Meg, because she sees right through that perfection to the real person inside.
Hostage Three by Nick Lake: I have to keep beating the Nick Lake drum. In Darkness was amazing and so is this follow up.

Swamplandia by Karen Russell: dismaying ending aside, I was caught up in the tropics of muggy, pre-Disney Florida. Love me some good Florida fiction. (Review is coming)

Lexicon by Max Barry: Just finished this one within the past week, and it became my favorite read of the year. I’ve lain in bed thinking about it every night since. We know that words have power. What if they had even more power than we realize? Don’t miss this one.

Books read in 2013:
Non-fiction: 52
Fiction: 105

Total: 157

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Student Bashing

The recent brouhaha on WPA-l about student bashing has started me thinking. I’ll offer my thoughts here instead of there.

The background: an article in Slate has people up in arms for a few reasons: the idea that we shouldn’t assign papers; the blaming of students for what MAY be bad teaching; the (nearly constant) outlier representation of a group (in other words, most writing teachers don’t feel this way, but the cranky, outspoken ones are the ones who get the publicity).

Student bashing: On the one hand, everyone—without exception, I believe—wants/needs to vent about their work. For teachers, this includes students. We don’t always complain about students. We might also complain about other elements of our work: bosses, coworkers, bureaucracy, or the temperature of our offices. The problem comes when the medium for the complaint is a public one. We have become so used to having “conversations” with our “friends” on Facebook, Twitter, and our blogs, that we forget that these “conversations” are generally utterly public, and the whole world is listening in. (I'm not saying that the author of this article is guilty of this-- after all, it's Slate. I'm referring to most of us in the trenches.)

What to do: Everyone complains from time to time. The secret is to do it in an appropriate way. Parker Palmer claims that teaching is at an awkward intersection of public and private, and I think this is key in how we talk about our jobs. We need to resist embarrassing anyone, ever. If our rant would embarrass our boss, our employer, or, most crucially, our (generally quite vulnerable) students, it shouldn’t be public. It’s easy enough to find a friend and have coffee once a week to get this kind of venting out of our systems.

Is the kettle black? Earlier this week, I posted about a student listing “prayer” as the first step of the writing process. Was this student bashing? I didn’t think so. I thought that response was cute and funny—even clever. Every time we post about work, I guess we’re running the risk of posting inappropriately. Rather than choosing (as many do, and that’s fine) never to post about work, I try to evaluate each post. That means I’ll mess up more, but I think it’s a tradeoff—I also get to participate in more edifying conversations that way.

My .02

Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: Drop City

Author: T. C.Boyle

Title: Drop City
Description: It’s the era of free love and communes. Star and her boyfriend Pan come to Norm’s commune, Drop City, to live with like-minded people who like to spend their time strumming the guitar and braiding one another’s hair. When the county objects to code violations going on at Drop City, though, Norm gets the idea to move the commune to Alaska, where his uncle has left him some land. When the hippies get to Alaska, they have to figure out how to survive.
Plot: I wasn't sure for most of the book exactly what the plot was. The book was sort of like the commune, just content to hang out and chill. The story cuts back and forth to Alaska, where a small community of rural Alaskans doesn't have any idea what’s coming.
Characters: The commune is made up of a mix of personalities, as is the town in Alaska. Some have pure motives, but others can’t make it in “real” society, so they've ended up there.
Writing style: I was reading this book along with the other Boyle book I just finished (The Tortilla Curtain), and I could definitely see similarities between them, but this book was lighter. Both books were about the juxtaposition of two very different ways of living and what can happen when they get in each other’s way.
Audience: Literary fiction.

Wrap-up: Of the two Boyle books (see recent review of The Tortilla Curtain), I enjoyed this one more. Maybe it’s because the hippie commune isn't something that’s relevant in today’s society, but immigration certainly is. So this book is more of a historical story, not an issue that will affect all of us for the foreseeable future.  3/5*

Monday, December 9, 2013

Review: This is How

Author: Augusten Burroughs

Title: This is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t
Description: The book is composed of short essays that each treat something that people have to face, get through, or otherwise survive. Snippets are pulled from Burroughs’ own experience, but I would call this more of a self-help book than a memoir. “Proven aid in overcoming shyness, molestation, fatness, spinsterhood, grief, disease, lushery, decrepitude, and more.”
Writing style: Burroughs is known for self-deprecating humor and tell-it-all memoir, and he brings at least the humor to this book, which is good, since it deals with some pretty tough subject matter.
Audience: Can’t think of anyone who doesn’t have problems, so can’t think of anyone who would never need a book like this. And you know, Burroughs is a writer, so the book is well-written, unlike many self-help books. Despite our extreme differences in philosophy, I found this book helpful.
Major ideas: Everyone has problems, so suck it up and get off your duff. In other words, self-help with the emphasis on SELF.

Wrap-up: Burroughs describes this as “the book he was born to write,” and I do think it will strike a chord with people who are waiting to hear from someone who has been through it (whatever it is) and managed to survive. 4/5*

Friday, December 6, 2013

Review: Ashes

Title: Ashes
Description: Assorted ghost stories.

Review source: It was free for Kindle.
Plot: Nicholson is writing new ghost stories, so he takes the genre and makes some twists on in, but he stays within genre conventions, pretty much.
Characters: Some stories are told from the ghosts’ point of view. Other stories have ghosts haunting those who deserve it.
Writing style: These were engaging stories, not so horrible that they gave me nightmares, not so gory that I had to stop reading—but a little horrible and a little gory.
Audience: If you’d like to see what’s being done with this neglected genre these days.

Wrap-up: If you enjoy reading ghost stories, these are a good mix of traditional conventions and new situations. 3/5*

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Author: Lorrie Moore
Title: Birds of America

Description: A short story collection.
Review source: It’s on EW’s list of best books of the last 25 years (well the 25 years previous to the list being published, which was before I started reading through it, which was many years ago).
Plot: Short stories aren’t really about plot anymore, are they?
Characters: They’re about characters, so there are characters in this book.
Writing style: These stories are very much like what I assume the typical MFA holds up as brilliant writing. Which is to say, they start in the middle of things, end in the middle of things, something might or might not happen, and it’s like looking into someone’s house for a bit, but it’s just someone just like me. Or not.
Audience: Literary fiction.

Wrap-up: I finished this book two or three weeks ago (yes, I put off writing reviews), and there’s only one story in it I can really remember, the last story, about a little boy who somehow has cancer. If this didn’t happen to Lorrie Moore, if this wasn’t the whole reason for the book being written, then I don’t get it. But it’s like she slipped this one true thing into the book of made up stories. 4/5*

Monday, December 2, 2013

Review: How to Argue Like Jesus

Author: Joe Carter & John Coleman

Title: How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator
Description: I read this book because I thought it might be a possible text for Comp. II when I teach argument; after all, my students really like it when I can tie their faith in directly to what they are studying. The authors are a blogger and a former college debater. The book basically takes some concepts from classical rhetoric (i.e. logos, ethos, pathos) and demonstrates how Jesus used them.   
Writing style: The book is definitely for the layperson and offers a very basic introduction to some rhetorical concepts.
Audience: Christians who care about how Jesus persuaded people to do things.
Major ideas: Jesus was a rhetorician.

Wrap-up: I just couldn’t bring myself to have my students read the book (and have to read it myself over and over again). I wish that whoever had written it had had an advanced degree in rhetoric and had taken a more systematic approach. This is still a topic waiting for a book. 2/5*

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Review: Corelli's Mandolin

Title: Corelli’s Mandolin
Description: This book was made into the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, so it’s sometimes sold under that title as well. The setting is WWII Greece; although Greece is hoping for their English allies to step in, they are occupied by the Italians, and later, the Nazis. An Italian regiment is stationed in Cephallonia; its captain is quartered at the home of the village doctor and his daughter, Pelagia. Captain Corelli is a musician, not a soldier, and he and Pelagia fall in love, but the forces of history conspire to keep them apart.
Review source: This book is on several “best book” lists that I’m reading through.
Plot: This is one of those sweeping historical novels where the action ranges from the global (Mussolini is a character) to the very local in an attempt to show how worldwide events affected people in one spot at one point in time.
Characters: Pelagia, the doctor’s daughter, has two suitors, one from her village before the war, and of course, Captain Corelli. She would also like to leave her small village and become a doctor herself, but that is unheard of in 1930’s Greece. Berniers has populated the book with major and secondary characters who bring history to life.
Writing style: Berniers is known for magical realism, and while this book doesn’t have too much of that (I’d not classify it in that genre), it does have the tone—which I’d describe as one of acceptance of whatever comes about.
Audience: Anyone who enjoys historical or literary fiction should enjoy this book.

Wrap-up: The book was sad on multiple levels, not the least of which was the recognition that a certain simple way of life was forever lost. I’m not necessarily out to be sad when I read, so I didn’t give the book as many stars as it probably deserves, but this is my review, so 3/5*.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Review: The Moon in the Mango Tree

Title: The Moon in the Mango Tree
Description: This novel is based on the true story of the author’s grandmother who married a doctor and went to Siam as a missionary’s wife. Although the doctor seems to have had a calling, the protagonist, Barbara, certainly doesn’t, and is more concerned with how many parties she will be able to attend in Bangkok than any life of service. She seems horribly hurt when her husband is too busy ministering to a village with a cholera epidemic to pay her attention during the rainy season.  
Review source: I received this book (signed by the author) at an ALA—not the most recent, I’m ashamed to admit.
Plot: The plot deals mainly with the conflict Barbara faces: stay with her missionary husband and be a good (but bored) wife and mother or leave him and fulfill her dreams of being an opera singer. Either way (she tries both), she’s a vain, self-centered protagonist who doesn’t seem to care about anyone except herself.
Characters: As I mentioned, Barbara is vain and selfish; the husband Harvey is busy at work so much that the reader sees him only as a husband-placeholder. The babies are too young to be characters in their own right.
Writing style: It was refreshing to read a book about missionaries that wasn’t sickeningly sweet, but this book was extreme in the other direction—I can’t think of a single character who actually displayed a believable semblance of Christian faith.
Audience: The missionary plot might fool some people into thinking this is Christian fiction, but it’s not.

Wrap-up: I can’t really think of a reason to read this book. 2/5*

Friday, November 29, 2013

Review: The Subject is Research

Author: Wendy Bishop and Pavel Zemliansky

Title: The Subject is Research: Processes and Practices
Description:  This is a collection of essays on undergraduate research aimed at students.   
Source: I read it because I was looking for a text for an undergraduate research course that the library is planning to offer.
Writing style: Since it’s a collection, the writing doesn’t have a consistent voice, but did seem to be at an appropriate level for upper-level undergraduates. One caveat on that book is that it was published in 2001, so any time it gets technology specific, it comes across as horribly dated. (Libraries are still on the cutting edge with their CD-Rom databases, etc.) So anyone who was going to use the book would have to be prepared to teach the current technology and tell the students to ignore any references in the book to stuff their parents used back when.
Major ideas: The strength of the book is its assumption that students are capable of thinking in a sophisticated way about research. Not just one approach or metaphor is introduced, but several. Students are challenged to think about sources and research writing rhetorically.

Wrap-up: I would probably use this book for my class, but I really wish they would bring out a new edition—with NO references to technology! That way it will stay current. 4/5*

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review: In the Garden of Beasts

Author: Erik Larson

Title: In the Garden of Beasts:  Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin                                      
Description: Roosevelt needs an ambassador to pre-WWII Germany. When several other choices turn him down, he appoints William Dodd, a history professor at the University of Chicago. Already out of his element, he arrived in Germany to find Hitler rising in power and various groups competing for his approval. As he began to realize that war was a distinct possibility, he realized that no one in the U.S. took him seriously. Meanwhile, his reckless daughter was making conquests of Nazis, spies, and pretty much anything else that wore pants.   
Source: This was a book group read.
Writing style: This book was straight, documentary history, not my typical reading material.
Audience: People who are interested in WWII and diplomatic history.
Major ideas: There might have been something the U.S. could have done to avoid war, had Dodd’s warnings been heeded.

Wrap-up: Although I believe that everything in the book was found in primary documents, Larson put the facts together in a way that was utterly fascinating.  Some surprises for me: the U.S. agreed that there was a “Jewish problem.” Hitler’s henchmen hated each other (I always figured they were a happy gang of evildoers). Germany had a president when Hitler rose to power. Anyway, it was a gripping story. 5/5*

Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: Writers Between the Covers

Author: Joni Rendon, Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Title: Writers Between the Covers: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads

Description: Short (8-10 page chapters) detail the love lives of various authors. Of course these are the most shocking and salacious the authors could discover. The chapters alternate with short selections that give just tidbits of information.

Source: Library Thing Early Reviewers

Writing style: It’s gossipy. The authors figure the readers want to know all the naughty details that aren’t in the standard biographies.

Audience: Book nerds.

Major ideas: The personal lives of geniuses are pretty messed up.

Wrap-up: This book is entertaining, but don’t read it if you don’t want to know your literary heroes’ feet of clay. 4/5*

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Review: Royal Pains

Title: Royal Pains: A Rogue’s Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds
Description: This book is made up of unconnected chapters that each document the life of a royal person who the author has deemed to be a “royal pain.” These folks range from the horrendous (Elizabet Bathory) to the merely rambunctious (Princess Margaret), so “pain” has a wide range of meanings here.   
Writing style: The book is pretty straight history; there’s not a lot of personal commentary by the author or inappropriate humor. She seems to have been writing from the historical documents available and news accounts of the time. The chapters are longish, around 40 pages or so.
Audience: History buffs, especially people interested in royalty. Some of the more horrible people here did some horribly graphic things, so young children and people sensitive to extreme violence should stay away.
Major ideas: Unlimited power and few moral restraints don’t exactly produce good character.

Wrap-up: I enjoy reading detailed history, but this book proves over and over again how nasty people are. 3/5*

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review: Life Among Giants

Author: Bill Roorbach

Title: Life Among Giants
Description:  David (aka Lizard) is a high school sports hero who is fascinated by the beautiful ballerina who lives across the pond from his family (Mom, bumbling Dad, and sister Kate). During a year when he has his first serious girlfriend and gets to meet the dancer, Sylphide, his world comes apart when his parents are brutally murdered.
Review source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Plot: Though Lizard witnesses the murders, his parents’ killer(s) are never brought to justice, a fact that haunts both him and his sister. His search for the motives behind the killings and his obsession with Sylphide are a constant throughout his life.
Characters: Well-written characters abound in this book, from Lizard, Kate, and Sylphide to secondary characters Desmond, RuAngela, and John.
Writing style: The blurb compared Roorbach to John Irving. To me, he was much more like Pat Conroy (or even a mashup of Irving and Conroy—two of my favorite authors). Lots of family emotions and secrets, sensuous descriptions, especially of food, and secrets galore made this book a kick to read.
Audience: Literary fiction.

Wrap-up: I enjoyed this book more than I’ve enjoyed a read in quite a while. 5/5*

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review: Snow Child

Author: Eowyn Ivey
Title: Snow Child
Description: After the stillbirth of their child, Jack and Mabel start over in Alaska, both grieving over destroyed dreams and the implacability of aging. One day, though, they build a child from snow, and the next day, a live child appears near their cabin. Afraid to push too hard, but desperate for someone to love, they slowly come to know Faina, the mysterious girl who leaves every year when the snow melts.
Review source: I won this book from FridayReads.
Plot: Mabel believes that Faina is supernatural; in her childhood she had a book of folklore that told the story of such a Snow Girl who would die if she became too warm. Jack finds out more about her background, but nothing explains why she disappears every year along with the snow.
Characters: Jack and Mabel are characters who the reader really believes in. The secondary characters (the neighbor family who befriend them) are also fine. Faina, though, is impossible to grasp—probably by design.
Writing style: Both Jack’s and Mable’s points of view are featured. Ivey is an Alaskan, and she does have a wonderful sense of place in this novel (though not one I could warm up to, ha ha).
Audience: Literary fiction. Those who like retellings of fairy tales should give it a try.

Wrap-up: This wasn’t a particularly captivating read for me, though I did want to know how it would turn it out. 3/5*

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review: Tortilla Curtain

Author: T. C. Boyle
Title: The Tortilla Curtain
Description: This book follows two families: a wealthy liberal dilettante who fancies himself an environmentalist, and a Mexican couple who came to the United States for the good life—or at least a better life than the one they had in Mexico. The book opens with a violent encounter: the liberal hits the immigrant with his (very nice) car. The human impact on the environment in Southern California is a central theme in this book; both the wealthy suburbanites who try to create a pristine enclave in the desert and the desperately poor immigrants who live off the land because they have to have a marked influence, both on the land and on one another.
Review source: Thanks, Penguin.
Plot: There really isn’t a plot so much as a problem (enunciated in the description). Two conflicting ways of life collide; how will that affect each of the families who are just trying to get by?
Characters: The Mexicans, Candido and America, are especially sympathetic characters. It’s so easy to understand how they want a better life and are willing to do almost anything to jump through the hoops they need to – but how do you even figure out what to do, when the instructions are in a foreign language? Delaney, the wealthy liberal, thinks he wants to help (the environment, the immigrants), until it makes him a little uncomfortable, when he quickly retreats to isolationist conservatism.
Writing style: Spare and emotionally wrenching.
Audience: Social commentary/literary fiction.

Wrap-up: This kind of book is tough to read; no one wants to be confronted by so many tough truths, and Boyle recognizes that there aren’t easy answers. 3.5/5*

Friday, October 18, 2013

Review: Bonfire of the Vanities

Author: Tom Wolfe
Title: Bonfire of the Vanities

Description: The iconic novel of the 80’s. Bonds trader Sherman McCoy is involved in a crime committed at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong person. Early on, he is confident that his wealth can insulate him, but his world begins to lurch out of control as the novel follows Sherman, the police investigators, the lawyers, the reporters, and various others as the case plays out.  
Review Source: Another one of EW’s most influential books on the list I’m reading through.
Plot: Mostly this book is about Sherman McCoy. Is he a Master of the Universe? Or is he just a two-bit criminal? Maybe something in between.
Characters: No one here is innocent; everyone is complicit, and the more we learn about them, the slimier they grow.
Writing style: Wolfe loves to play with peoples’ accents. No reader of this book will ever forget the way Sherman’s bimbo calls him “Shuhman.” This was his first fiction, after having been very successful with non-fiction, and he still writes like a journalist. It’s easy to imagine him witnessing all of these conversations.
Audience: This is literary fiction. Those who enjoy Wolfe’s non-fiction and similar titles would probably also find it worth reading.

Wrap-up: I did not find this a fun read, but it held my interest. 3/5*

Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: Letters and Life

Author: Bret Lott

Title: Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, on Being a Christian
Description: Lott is one of the more respected Christian writers active today; this book is a collection of his essays on the Christian writer’s life.
Writing style:  In one way, he’s very down-to-earth; he teaches Sunday School and mostly goes to work every day. In another way, though, he’s different from us—not too many have been chosen by Oprah for her club. I do like the down to earth parts.
Audience: Anyone interested in Christianity and writing, or even in being a Christian thinker.
Major ideas: I’ve latched on to Lott’s idea of testimony as a framework for the writing life since the first time I heard him speak (at Calvin’s Festival of Faith andWriting several years ago). Here he elaborates on that.

Wrap-up: This is a small book, and nearly half of it is a long essay about the death of Lott’s father, which I could have done without (or at least he could have shortened it). I am sure it was necessary for him to write, but it didn’t do anything for me. The essays about the writer’s life, though, are completely worth the price of the book. 4/5*

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review: Money

Author: Martin Amis
Title: Money
Source: It's on the EW list of most influential books.
Description: Ad exec John Self has landed a huge movie deal, making a huge movie with some odd people from the movie industry. Meanwhile, his love life is floundering, as he can’t quite give his girlfriend what she needs from him. He’s also nearly always drunk.
Plot: I pretty much described the plot above; Self is trying to get this movie made and keep his personal life together.
Characters: Well, the author himself is a key character here (known in the book as “Martin Amis”). No one in this book seems human to me, but I’m not sure if that is because the author and I run in different circles or because he did this on purpose to suggest something about money.
Writing style: Amis uses odd names, jumps in continuity, and a sort of air of remove. The effect is (or at least to me) complete indifference to anything in the book.
Audience: ? you tell me

Wrap-up: I pretty much hated this book; I kept reading because Amis could do some pretty impressive tricks with his language and every once in a while he’d blow me away, especially when he started riffing on money, the real subject of the book (yeah, I know, the title sort of gives it away). 1/5*

Friday, October 4, 2013

Review: America (The Book)

Author: Jon Stewart and the writers of the Daily Show
Title: America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction
Description:  A “lighthearted look” at American history and politics.
Writing style: Funny as heck.
Audience: People who can get a joke.
Major ideas: Let’s try not taking ourselves so seriously all the time.
Wrap-up: Two fairly major caveats: the book is almost 10 years old by now, and it has some fairly raunchy bits (words and pictures). These two aside, I laughed through most of it. Sometimes these political books can be so topical that they become not merely funny, but nearly incomprehensible. This book does a survey of American history, so that will always be there. It’s mostly just the stuff about the 2004 election that seems pretty dated. 4/5*

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: The 39 Steps

Author: John Buchan

Title: The 39 Steps
Description: Richard Hannay, newly arrived in England just before WWII meets a neighbor with a secret; when the neighbor turns up dead in Richard’s flat, Hannay takes up the secret and goes on the run.
Review source: This was a book club selection; it’s old enough to be free on kindle.
Plot: This is an action-packed thriller; it’s so short that there really isn’t time for the reader to (metaphorically) take a breath. Hannay is on the run from one bad guy after another; at the same time he’s trying to solve the mystery and save the world.
Characters: This isn’t a book about character. Hannay and all of the other folks who appear are completely interchangeable.
Writing style: You’ve probably put it together by now; this isn’t my favorite type of book. I haven’t seen the movie(s) based on the book, but the book really reminds me of those thriller movies that have chases, fights, and blood, but at the end of the movie you can’t remember a single character’s name.
Audience: It’s a spy novel with some detective elements.

Wrap-up: I’m really bad at those kinds of books where you have to do a lot of visualizing of the action, and this book is mostly like that. It wasn’t my favorite of the book club picks. 2.5/5*

Monday, September 16, 2013

Review: Art of the Commonplace

Author: Wendell Berry

Title: The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry
Description: This is a collection of Berry’s essays and speeches.   
Source: Free on Kindle.
Writing style: I had read Berry’s fiction, but this is the first extended reading I’ve done in his non-fiction. I was surprised that he came across as much more Christian in his non-fiction than in his fiction.
Audience: Anyone interested in economics, ecology, sustainable living, agriculture, or Christianity.
Major ideas: In order for an economy to be Christian, it has to take creation into account. If the future isn’t acknowledge as a part of the economy, it will be an economy of death (as is modern capitalism). The industrial economy is concerned with getting as much out of all the available resources (soil, animals, and people) as possible before those resources are exhausted.

Wrap-up: Berry is a powerful writer, and though I was already sympathetic to this point of view, I found my thinking changing even more. Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit a farm to go plant, and I hesitate to offend my neighbors and my nose with chickens, but I will be thinking in my future shopping decisions about how to make even more local, sustainable purchases. 5/5*

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Review: Edge of Grace

Author: Christa Allan

Title: Edge of Grace
Description: Caryn Becker has had a rough couple of years. Her husband’s death has left her a widow and her young son fatherless. Much of the father’s role is filled by Caryn’s brother David, so Caryn is floored when David lets her know that he is gay. Caryn’s faith is shaken by her husband’s death, and this new revelation only makes things worse. 
Review source: ALA
Plot: Caryn’s life is so scattered it stressed me just to read about it. David gets severely hurt and Caryn is forced to decide between having a gay brother and having no brother at all.
Characters: I didn’t especially like Caryn, nor did it strike me as realistic that she would completely cut off her beloved brother because of his orientation. It’s not because of her faith—it’s just because she’s uncomfortable with “people like that.”
Writing style: Nothing spectacular. This is an issues book. The author has complete power here. She can make some characters (i.e. David) come across as perfect. Of course, the effect of that is to make Caryn seem unreasonable for having misgivings. 
Audience: It’s Christian women’s fiction.

Wrap-up: No matter what, a book on this topic would ruffle some feathers with its intended audience. It’s worth reading because it is thought provoking. 3/5*

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World

Title: The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World
Description: Amadeo has always wanted to discover something that no one knew about. When his new friend William invites him to help prep Mrs. Zender’s house for an estate sale, this might be his chance. 
Review source: ALA
Plot: Amadeo’s friendship with William, his acquaintance with Mrs. Zender, Amadeo’s godfather Peter Vanderwaal, Amadeo’s family—all of these elements weave together to make a story with remarkable depth.
Writing style: Like many others, I was in love with From theMixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when I was a girl. Now as I read this book as an adult, I saw many of the same themes recur. What makes good art? What is our responsibility toward art? How does the past influence the present? While this book doesn’t have the same siren song (stow away in a museum!), it was thought-provoking and wise.
Audience: Written for YA. Still worth a read.

Wrap-up: This is a fitting last work for a towering figure in children’s lit. She passed away this year at 83, but she hadn’t lost her touch. 4/5*

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Review: Above All Things

Author: Tanis Rideout
Title: Above All Things
Description: Novelized account of the explorer George Mallory and his wife Ruth as George begins his third attempt on Mount Everest in the 1920’s.  
Review source: This was a book group book.
Plot: Rideout is fairly limited with the plot, since she follows the historical account closely.
Characters: When an author’s hands are tied in terms of plot, the reader expects a lot from characterization, and here Rideout doesn’t disappoint. She gives us a sense both of what it was like for Ruth to be left at home with three small children and for George, who had failed twice and was determined to succeed on the third attempt.
Writing style: The novel alternates between Ruth’s and George’s story, though George’s spans months, and Ruth’s is basically one long day as she waits for news.  This creates a nice effect, as we experience the sense with Ruth that time drags and that every day is the same, while for George, time is the one thing he doesn’t have; when the monsoon hits, the window of opportunity will close.
Audience: This is literary fiction, but readers of historical fiction and those who enjoy accounts of adventure should also like this book.
Wrap-up: There’s a different experience in reading a book when you already know how it will end. The journey is even more important, and Rideout more than meets expectations here. 5/5*.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Review: Making Waves

Author: Lorna Seilstad
Title: Making Waves
Description: In 1895, there aren’t many options for women, and Marguerite Westing is chafing under the constrictions of her life. She wants to learn to sail, she wants to study astronomy, and she doesn’t want to marry the insufferable man her mother has picked out. The entire family spends the summer at a lake camp where Marguerite meets Trip Andrews. Trip shares her Christian faith and helps Marguerite and her brother with some family issues, and attraction blossoms between the two of them.  
Review source: It was free for Kindle.
Plot: There are several different plot threads here, and they are woven together nicely.
Characters: Marguerite is spoiled and self-centered, and has a tendency to lie when she opens her mouth, but she’s not too unpleasant. Trip is a more attractive character, but he tends to be harsh when he discovers Marguerite’s mistakes.
Audience: It’s a Christian romance.

Wrap-up: The book was pleasant and an engaging read. 3/5*

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review: Chasing Chaos

Author: Jessica Alexander

Title: Chasing Chaos: My Decade in and out of Humanitarian Aid
Description: Alexander’s memoir details her adventures in aid programs in Darfur, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Haiti, and Indonesia.
Source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Writing style: Alexander is a gifted writer, combining anecdotes from her experiences and descriptions of some of the conditions she has worked in with commentary on the aid industry.
Audience: Anyone with an interest in international aid would enjoy it.
Major ideas: This book was really thought provoking. Probably many of us have hoped to make a difference internationally, but Alexander shows how difficult the job really is, even for those with many years of training. Sometimes those with very good intentions do more harm than good, but Alexander is generally understanding rather than cynical.

Wrap-up: I have nothing bad to say about this book. It was always interesting, and it taught me a lot about humanitarian aid. 4/5*

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review: Dead End in Norvelt

Author: Jack Gantos
Title: Dead End in Norvelt
Description: Jack Gantos is having a bummer of a summer. His parents seem to be conspiring to get him into trouble, and he ends up grounded. The only time he can leave the house is to go help old Miss Volker write obituaries of all of the town’s original citizens.  
Review source: ALA
Plot: Norvelt is a planned town that’s dying as its earliest residents die. Based on the values of Eleanor Roosevelt, the inhabitants are dealing with society in the sixties: the Cold War, generation gaps, and the scary Hell’s Angels who keep coming around. Jack and Miss Volker are in the middle of it all.
Characters: Part way through I realized that the main character’s name was the same as the author’s. The blurb on the cover tells us that it’s part memoir, part anything but.
Writing style: First person narration from preteen Jack makes for a lively story.
Audience: Obviously, it’s a YA book, but it was a fun read.

Wrap-up: I’m not sure which parts of this are fictionalized (well, maybe I can guess), but the story is pretty seamless. A very nicely written book that might appeal to adults just as much as it does to kids. 3.5/5*

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: Forgotten

Author: Cat Patrick
Title: Forgotten
Description: High school junior London remembers backward. Every day at 4:33 a.m. she forgets the previous day (and therefore all of her past), but she “remembers” what will happen in the future—except for the day she is living in. She has to take notes  to remember what happened at school, fights, and so on. Then she starts having a “memory” of a funeral, but whose funeral is it?
Review source: ALA
Plot: I thought  the conceit here was really interesting, and the author pulled it off well. I couldn’t really find any points where she messed up, and it would have been really tricky to juggle all those details.
Characters: London is a spunky teen who has learned to adapt to her situation and is determined to solve the mystery that appears in her “memory.” Patrick develops London’s key relationships very well, even as London has to try to figure out what she might have done the previous day to affect that person’s attitude toward her.
Writing style: The story develops steadily with new information released gradually. It’s a book about relationships as well as about what may have happened—or may be going to happen.
Audience: This is a YA book, but I think anyone would like it.

Wrap-up: I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it as a quick and interesting read. 4/5*

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: The Marquis' Secret

Title: The Marquis’ Secret
Description: This is the sequel to The Fisherman’s Lady. Both books are Bethany House republications of George MacDonald words that have been altered to tone down the Scottish dialect. In this book, Malcolm attempts to dissuade his newly discovered sister from a disastrous marriage and he may be falling in love himself.  
Plot: I’m trying to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read the first book. The plot in this book is more intricate and less gothic than the first book, and I enjoyed it more.
Characters: Malcolm, as in the first book, is a bit too good to be true. MacDonald uses him as an example of a Christian man, but no Christian man is this perfect (I know, I live with one who is pretty close). I don’t think in either of the two books that Malcolm makes a single false move.
Writing style: A lot of Scottish dialect still, but it’s not difficult to read. This kind of overtly didactic (some would say preachy) tone is out of style now, but I did enjoy the book.
Audience: MacDonald’s fantasy novels were an inspiration for C.S. Lewis, which is why a lot of people pick them up (Princess and the Goblin, Princess and Curdie, etc.). Fans of historical Christian fiction would also probably like it.

Wrap-up: I’d definitely recommend reading the first one before reading this one, or you’ll be confused about a lot of the plot and earlier character development. I thought this book was the better of the two, and I enjoyed reading this version (as opposed to the original, which I haven’t seen, but I’m not crazy about trying to figure out dialect). 4/5*

Friday, August 9, 2013

Review: Duolingo

Another way that I spent my time this summer was reviewing my Spanish. I have this desire to be fluent in it, and though I seriously doubt that I’ll ever achieve that, I keep trying. The latest way I’ve been working on it is through a free website called Duolingo. I have to admit that I’ve become pretty hooked on it. There are several other languages available (Italian, German), but I haven’t tried them. So what I’m writing is probably true of all of these languages, but I can only guarantee that it’s true for Spanish. There are achievement levels to reach (I think I’m currently at level 10), and as usual, they become more and more difficult to reach the higher you get. You earn points in several ways. At first, it’s by doing lessons on various aspects of the language (verbs, words about time, colors, people, etc.). Each unit has from 3-10 lessons; once you have successfully accomplished all of the lessons, you unlock the next unit. If you’ve had the language before, each unit gives a chance to pass out of it by successfully completing a quiz. For all of the lessons, you get four mistakes; if you miss three questions, you can still complete the lesson, but on your fourth miss, you have to begin again.

Another way to earn points is to review. If your skills in a certain area start to slip, you’ll see some white area in your completion bar, rather than seeing it fully filled in. You can go back and review any area and get points for each question you get right. These reviews are timed, so you can add an element of quick thinking if you desire (you can choose not to have them timed).

After you’ve reached some milestone (I’m not sure if it’s a number of units completed or a level), Duolingo starts to tell you that you can read a certain percentage of articles published in Spanish (starts out around 30%). You then have the option of being taken to an article and seeing how other students have translated it. You get points for voting on the translation (good or bad) or for editing it. Eventually you start to see some articles that have sentences in lighter type. These are untranslated sentences, and you get to have the first chance to translate them. These are worth quite a few points.

I have found this to be the best online language tool I’ve tried (including Rosetta Stone). There is an option to include speaking in the questions (you have to hook up a mike), but I haven’t tried it. The other question types are transcribing a sentence or phrase, translating from Spanish, and translating into Spanish. Highly recommended! 5/5*

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review: Where Shadows Dance

Author: C.S. Harris
Title: Where Shadows Dance (Sebastian St. Cyr)
Description: Set in Regency era England, this book piles more murders on than most mysteries. Beginning with a young man who supposedly dies of a heart attack, people related to the case start dropping left and right in spite of Sebastian’s best efforts.  
Review source: Either ALA or RWA, I forget
Plot: The plot was more engaging early in the book when it was more plausible. As the deaths started to mount up, things seemed to get wildly out of hand. I lost count of all the dead bodies by the end of the book.
Characters: This was my first Sebastian St. Cyr and I really enjoyed the style and historical period. Sebastian was an engaging protagonist, as was his assistant Hero Jarvis.
Writing style: I really enjoyed Harris’ style. I love historical fiction when it shows evidence of thorough research and has lots of period details, and this book delivers. Harris has a Ph.D. in history and it shows.
Audience: The book appears to have been marketed as romantic suspense, but I’d call it more like straight mystery. There is not much romance involved here (though Sebastian and Hero did have a personal relationship).

Wrap-up: You’ll see more reviews from this series in the future. I highly recommend for those who enjoy historical mystery series. 4/5*

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Review: America, the Story of Us

Author: Kevin Baker

Title: America, the Story of us: An Illustrated History
Description: Published by the History Channel, this book is filled with beautiful color illustrations (probably about half text and half pictures). It gives a pretty standard and surface-y history (in about 400 pages, that’s all you can do).
Source: ALA
Writing style: Documentary but interesting.
Audience: Adults (or maybe advanced high schoolers).

Wrap-up: I read this one bits at a time and it was pretty interesting, but I think it would get a bit monotonous if devoured in gulps (not a page turner). Worth taking a look for the pictures, though. 3/5*

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Review: Harvesting the Heart

Author: Jodi Picoult
Title: Harvesting the Heart
Description: At heart, this is a book about a marriage. We see Nick and Paige from the moment they meet through their dating and birth of their son Max. Paige’s mother left her and disappeared when Paige was five, and Paige later had an abortion, so when she faces motherhood herself, she lacks a role model and she is filled with guilt about her earlier child. Nicholas is a promising young cardiac surgeon who is pretty sure that his job is much more difficult than Paige’s.  
Review source: Still reading the Penguins.
Plot: The plot is centered on relationships: marriage, parents, and children. In other words, it’s character-driven.
Characters: Almost all of the characters in the book are sympathetic without coming across as artificially perfect. Paige’s mother, though, was a difficult character to buy. The depth of selfishness that would cause a mother to leave a five year old child is impossible for me to imagine.
Writing style: This is the first Picoult book for me; I know she has lots of fans. For me, the style was pretty overwrought. I guess the story of a normal marriage wouldn’t be much of a story. (Of course, I could argue that the best authors can make the story of a normal marriage tell a fascinating story.)
Audience: It’s women’s lit.

Wrap-up: I enjoyed this book and was rooting for Nick and Paige to overcome their problems. But I don’t think I’m emotionally strong enough to read more of Jodi Picoult’s books. 3/5*

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Review: The Giver

Author: Lois Lowry

Title: The Giver
Description: This is another book that I feel like I’m the last person in the world to read. If there is someone who hasn’t read it, though, it’s a Newbery Prize-winning (i.e. YA) book about a boy named Jonas who lives in a society where everything is well-regulated. Babies are born to birthmothers, then placed with families; every family gets one boy and one girl. When they are twelve, children are given their life’s calling, but Jonas’ doesn’t get what he expects on that day.  
Plot: For a YA book, the plot’s nicely done. That is, it’s not as complex as I’d expect in an adult book, but it works.
Characters: The two main characters are Jonas and the Giver; both are beautifully written.
Writing style: Lyrical, yet spare. I had lots of mental pictures as I read this book. And I was fascinated by the setup of the society. I would have loved to read more about it.
Audience: Anyone from about twelve and up.

Wrap-up: I shouldn’t have waited so long to read this one. I would have loved it as a kid (and I’m pretty sure it was around then, or pretty close). As it is, I still liked it very much. 5/5*

Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: Hostage Three

Title: Hostage Three
Author: Nick Lake
Description: Amy and her wealthy parents are on a yacht trip around the world when they are captured by Somalian pirates and held for ransom. During the time they spend with their captors, eighteen year old Amy gets to know them as people, especially one who she might be falling for.  
Review source: ALA (and signed by the author, see photo below)
Plot: This book is very different from the first book I read by Lake, In Darkness, which is about Haiti. They do share an interest in Third World countries and how people act when they are desperate. It was a bit of a stretch for me, though, to imagine spoiled Amy falling for a Somali thug.
Characters: Amy is fairly unlikeable. For an almost-adult, she acts spoiled and spiteful for most of the book. I would have liked to see a change in her behavior earlier, though it does eventually come, I think. Lake does a marvelous job portraying the pirates. He humanizes them, but at the same time, their desperation makes them very scary.
Writing style: Very similar to the earlier book, which I loved. This one lacks the historical parallel story, though, and is told through Amy’s eyes.
Audience: It’s a young adult book, but it’s deep enough that adults will get something from it. I think that because of the love story, this one is more restricted to young people and less universal than In Darkness.

Wrap-up: Lake is just a very talented, very versatile young writer. Read something he’s written! 4/5*

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review: Iron House

Author: John Hart
Title: Iron House
Description: Michael’s girlfriend Elena is pregnant, so he decides to leave the life he’s been living, that of a Mafia hitman. Not surprisingly, the Mafia isn’t crazy about this decision and decides to go after Michael using his younger brother Julian as bait. Michael and Julian spent most of their childhood in a horrid orphanage called Iron House, and it seems that this past is coming back to haunt them both.  
Review source: ALA
Plot: If you can’t tell from the description, this is a thriller, one of my not-so-favorite genres, but I really liked this one. There were enough separate plot threads to always keep me guessing about where Hart was heading next.
Characters: Michael was an interesting guy—a cold-blooded killer who becomes a hero. Elena wasn’t just a helpless victim.  Julian’s adoptive mother, Abigail, is also an interesting character.
Writing style: Pretty typical thriller I guess. There was one section that was quite graphically violent.
Audience: Thriller and mystery readers (Hart has at least two Edgar awards).

Wrap-up: After about midway through, I couldn’t let this one go. 4/5*

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Review: Transforming Information Literacy Programs

Author: Carroll Wetzel Wilkinson and Courtney Bruch

Title: Transforming Information Literacy Programs:  Intersecting Frontiers of Self, Library Cultures, and Campus Community
Description: This is a collection of essays on information literacy and its place in the academic library and within higher education. Rather than more tips and tricks on classroom management with the one-shot, these essays deal with the success in general of information literacy programs, librarians as teachers, and assessment issues, among other topics.   
Audience: Academic librarians and others interested in the teaching of information literacy as an academic skill.
Major ideas: Information literacy, despite its importance, is still struggling to make headway on many campuses. Library/librarian/administrative ambivalence and lack of faculty buy-in are a couple of reasons for the lack of success, as well as the difficulties inherent in assessment of these programs.

Wrap-up: This is probably the best book I’ve read on information literacy in the academic library setting. I really liked the focus on theory and research (rather than lore or local experience), and also the emphasis given to the big picture of information literacy programs. 4/5*

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: The Heart of Memory

Author: Alison Strobel
Title: The Heart of Memory
Description: Savannah Trover is a popular and well-known Bible teacher whose husband runs her ministry, but her personal life has been put on the back burner while she grew her career. When she becomes seriously ill, she is forced to slow down and realize that her daughter is alienated from her and her husband is hiding something pretty serious. On top of all that, she’s facing life-threatening illness. Savannah’s encounter with illness and the struggles it brings to her and her family are at the heart of this book.  
Review source:  Free for kindle
Plot: This was one of the better free books I’ve received on kindle. I was always interested in what was going to happen next, and Strobel doesn’t settle for easy answers.
Characters: Savannah is pretty irritating as a main character. She’s completely self-centered (well, her whole family is), and I don’t believe she does anything kind for anyone until maybe the last chapter or two.
Writing style: The pluses on this book: interesting story line and ability to resist the temptation to take the easy way out (Christian fiction-ly speaking).
Audience: I’d call it Christian women’s fiction.

Wrap-up : It was a good enough read that I’d recommend it to non-Christian readers as well, just because Savannah goes through so much in coming to grips with her illness. It would probably be helpful for anyone dealing with a serious chronic condition. I liked it. 4/5*

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review: FabYOUList

Title:  FabYOUList: List it, live it, love your life
Description: Cross was about to turn forty and was feeling a little unfulfilled, so she made a list of forty things she wanted to accomplish before then. One of them was to write a book—this book, as it turns out, which describes each of the goals and how she accomplished it.   
Source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Writing style: Cross appears to have began her writing career as a blogger, and the style is very much a blogging style. She combines a little bit of humor with a didactic “you can do this too” kind of vibe.
Audience: Women.
Major ideas: Cross changed her life by doing these forty things (for example, ziplining, acting, camping with her kids, sunbathing nude, etc.), and she thinks that everyone has the same opportunity.

Wrap-up: I had mixed feelings about this book. A lot of it comes across as a bit superior/preachy. Some of her stories are interesting, but others are not. The idea of a bucket list isn’t new (I know, this isn’t technically a bucket list, but close enough), so I don’t think it’s revolutionary for someone to encourage people to have a bucket list and try to fulfill it. The stories of how it was done are what make this book unusual. By the way, if you would like to do this yourself, here's a great website!  I also recommend Twenty Wishes by Debbie Macomber—a book on the same topic although it’s fiction. 2.5/5*

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Review: Coursera

                This summer I signed up for three MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) through Coursera. Mostly this was because those of us who work in higher education keep hearing that the MOOC’s are our competition, so I was sizing it up. The courses I signed up for, though, were courses I was very interested in. So how did they go?
                First, a little bit about Coursera. Coursera is probably the best-known of the large MOOC-offering companies, and there seemed to be hundreds of courses for me to choose from. There were basically three ways to “take” a course: I could just hang out and do what I wanted; listen to as many lectures, do as many assignments, etc. This would be free. Or, I could attempt to earn a “certificate.” The certificate option requires the student to complete certain specific requirements which differed from class to class. I chose this option because I tend to be an achiever. For both of the courses I completed, I did receive the certificate, in spite of five weeks of travel during the time I was taking them. The third option is something called “Signature Track.” I didn’t investigate this one too much, but I think it involves getting something more like real college credit, but it involves some kind of cost.
                OK, the classes. I’ll start with the last one. I signed up for a course called History of Rock Part II. Once it started, I realized that the lecturer was (sorry) really boring. He basically just named the members of different rock bands. They couldn’t actually play any music during the class time/lectures because of the copyright issues. I did go to youtube and play some of the songs he mentioned, but that didn’t seem to add much, since the professor just (again) named songs rather than doing any in-depth analysis of them. I listened to the first three lectures and decided to cut my losses at that point.
                So now on to the two classes I liked and completed. First, a little about the mechanics of Coursera. The lectures are all on video. One of my classmates in the first course mentioned software he had developed for use with the lectures called It plays the lecture on the left side of the screen and allows you to take notes on the right side of the screen and coordinates the notes with the lectures. I got addicted to this software and used it for every lecture in both courses. It was a godsend.
                The courses are primarily built around these lectures. In order to get the certificate, both courses required me to take weekly quizzes over lecture and reading material and earn a certain score (80% in one class; 60% in another). Both classes also required written assignments. One required one 3-5 page paper, and the other required 6 2-3 page papers. In both classes, the assignments were scored by 5 other students in the class (and I would have to score 5 other students for each assignment). As you can see here, the requirements varied fairly widely, as did the amount of time spent on lectures and outside reading.
                The first course I took was on Greek and Roman Mythology, taught by Professor Peter Struck from the University of Pennsylvania. It was a 10 week course that required us to completely read the Odyssey, Hesiod’s Theogony, three tragedies, and about half of the Aeneid. There were usually about ten lectures per week, each 12-20 minutes long. Professor Struck was a great lecturer, and the course was definitely college level (my paper was on the Freudian implications of the Bacchae). I loved this class, took the lectures with me on a cruise, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing—and learned a lot!
                The second course, which will finish up next week, is an 8-week course called Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets. This class is no less fascinating than the mythology course, but it’s less “serious.” I don’t mean that it’s on a lower level educationally, but it has less serious reading and fewer lectures. On the other hand, it makes better use of the online format, I think. It has other videos besides the lectures: demonstrations of archaeological techniques and conversations with field archaeologists. This class has assignments every week, but they are shorter and more fun than the mythology assignment. The class is taught by Professor Susan Alcock of Brown University and many guest helpers. This class only has one or two lectures per week, but it always features several demonstration videos. Each week also has four interviews with archaeologists working in Abydos, Egypt, Montserrat, Petra, and the Mayan site of El Zotz. The assignments are the best part of this class. We’ve had a chance to do archaeological speculating from Google Earth, create online 3D models of artifacts, and analyze our own garbage.

                I loved these courses and intend to continue to take Coursera courses whenever I have time. I didn’t do much on the forums, which were optional in both classes, but they appeared to be active. They do take a good amount of time if you want to get the certificate. I would estimate that I spent 3-4 hours per week on each one, more if you count the reading for the mythology class. I don’t know that they are threats to my "real job" yet, though. They seem to serve a different purpose. They were also much easier than a standard college course, so I don’t know that I would take it too seriously if someone came to me wanting to receive “real” college credit for one of these courses. I did learn a lot and have fun in both of them, though, and I’m appreciative to Coursera for making this kind of learning available! Both courses: 5/5*