Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review: Inside the Undergraduate Teaching Experience

Author: Catharine Hoffman Beyer, Edward Taylor, and Gerald M. Gillmore
Title: Inside the Undergraduate Teaching Experience: The University of Washington's Growth in Faculty Teaching Study 
Description: Researchers at the University of Washington conducted a study which examined professors’ teaching styles, specifically changes that they made to their teaching. They were especially interested in the types of changes that were made and the reasons for the changes.
Writing style: A combination of study results and anecdotes.
Audience: Anyone interested in undergraduate pedagogy.
Major ideas: The study identified a group of the best professors (based on awards for teaching); there were also randomly chosen professors in the group. Both sets change their teaching methods more than the researchers expected, with the best professors showing the most changes.
Wrap-up: This book was not a bad read, but I think I could have done as well with a well-done précis. 3/5*

Friday, January 24, 2014

Review: Eyre Affair

Author: Jasper Fforde

Title: The Eyre Affair
Description: This is a steampunky mystery about literature, so if that doesn’t cover all your bases, you’re too hard to please. Thursday Next is a literary detective in a world where literature affects the “real” world, where time travel is pretty commonplace (in fact, her father only blips in from his time travels on rare occasions), and where the world’s most vicious criminal has just stolen the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit.  
Review source: This was my choice for our book group read.
Plot: I thought the plot was a bit busy, but that may be because the book is the first in a series. Either way, too many genres converging can get a little overwhelming.
Characters: Fforde is writing everything with his tongue in his cheek, so characters have silly (and sometimes scatological) names, and of course, people with silly names can’t be taken seriously, can they?
Writing style: More steampunky science fiction than mysterious, but the mystery conventions are there too. And humor spread over it all. Imagine Douglas Adams with more genres and a female protagonist.
Audience: As I said, if you’re not covered by one of the genres in this book, well, I guess you’ll pick it up because it’s literary fiction. (ha!)

Wrap-up: The book was probably a little too silly for my taste (i.e. I won’t be seeking out the next title in the series), but it was ok for something different. 3/5*

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review: Declaring His Genius

Author: Roy Morris Jr.

Title: Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America
Description: The book tracks Oscar Wilde on his speaking tour of North America.
Writing style: Morris’ discipline is history, not literature, and this book reads very much like a history book. It’s obviously based on primary documents, probably chiefly Oscar’s letters and newspaper accounts from the cities he visited. It reads a lot like a very detailed itinerary.
Audience: Literary scholars of Oscar Wilde might be disappointed. Frankly, I think the topic would have made a good, solid chapter in a biography, but the material was a bit skimpy and uninteresting to form the basis for a whole book.
Major ideas: Oscar took quite a bit of both lighthearted and malicious mockery and managed to remain fairly good-natured through it all. He formed a generally good impression of America and Americans in spite of the grueling schedule and the refusal of many to take him seriously.

Wrap-up: I hadn’t realized how very young he was when he came to the U.S. (28)—it was before his marriage, before the publication of any of his major works, and certainly before the scandal that would mark his later years. In other words, Oscar really had nothing to be famous for except for being Oscar—but he played that role to the hilt. 3/5*

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Review: Einstein's Refrigerator...

Author: Steve Silverman

Title: Einstein’s Refrigerator and other Tales from the Flip Side of History
Description: This book is made up of columns from Silverman’s website called Useless Information. As a high school science teacher, he wanted to be able to catch his students' attention. He started finding historical/science tidbits of information and putting them on his blog. They’re collected here in this book.  
Source: It was free for Kindle.
Writing style: The individual chapters are short and interesting, but there are no connections between them.
Audience: High school students probably would enjoy this book, as would people who enjoy picking up trivia here and there.
Major ideas: There’s a lot we don’t know about science history that we might be surprised to know.

Wrap-up: This book was entertaining while I was on the treadmill. 3/5*

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review: Lexicon

Author: Max Barry

Title: Lexicon
Description:  Early on we meet two seemingly unconnected characters: Wil, who wakes up with people poking around in his brain, then trying to kill him, and Emily, who is recruited to a mysterious school where she may or may not be chosen to learn the art of persuasion. It turns out that words are even more powerful than we ever knew, and certain people can be trained to use them in ways so powerful they seem like magic. As Emily tries to figure out how this works, Wil tries to escape from the “poets” who are relentlessly pursuing him.
Plot: There are lots of flashbacks and flash forwards, and these two characters are unrelated until fairly late in the novel, so I was bewildered for probably at least the first half of the book. When it all comes together, though, it’s remarkable. Now I just need to read it again.
Characters: It’s tough to sort out the good guys from the bad guys at first (another reason the book is so confusing), but the characters are fascinating, and the idea of a select few people being so persuasive they can virtually tell anyone to do anything is not as far from reality as we might think.
Writing style: Fast-paced, gritty, tantalizing in handing out clues to what’s going on.
Audience: It’s a literary thriller.

Wrap-up: My top book of 2013. Aside from being surprising, original, and dizzyingly fast-moving, it’s just plain fun to read. 5/5*

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Review: Praying for Sheetrock

Author: Melissa Fay Greene
Title: Praying for Sheetrock
Description: McIntosh County Georgia has been under the thumb of white county sheriff Tom Poppell (and before that, his father) for decades. In the early 70’s, though, the majority black population decides they have had enough.  
Source: It’s on the EW list.
Writing style: This is literary fiction, and Greene is a fine storyteller. In many spots it reads like a novel; she has had interviews with many of the principals here, so has access to many of the thoughts and feelings that are often unavailable to authors of this type of book.
Audience: People interested in race relations, history of the South, and literary nonfiction in general.
Major ideas: The black people in McIntosh County really have no idea that they can change the status quo until they are pushed too far. This is an interesting story of how they realize they can take agency and begin to assume a political role in their own lives.

Wrap-up: I really enjoyed reading this book. Greene did extensive documentary research and interviews, and pieces it together to tell a fascinating story. 4/5*