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*.