Paper Towns (CBR7 #22)

The longer I sit with my reactions to Paper Towns by John Green the more and more it grows on me. Normally I would have finished this book and had the review up within 24 huors, but life was not cooperating this weekend so instead its been nearly three days since I finished the book before I’ve sat down to examine my thoughts. They are many, and they are varied, which is why I think I’m sticking with a 3.5 rating rounded down to 3. Let’s discuss why:

Paper Towns  is built around the last few months of senior year for Quentin and Margot. Q is your average kid from high school. He has his people (the band kids), he has his best friends (Radar and Ben), he has his weird parents (psychologists!), and he has the girl he pines for (Margot). What John Green excels at is taking characters like these and infusing them with the pathos of the young, without coming across as maudlin or whiny, or worst of all – fake. These characters, as a group, are perhaps Green’s best foray into a full cast of well-developed characters.

Plot wise, there were fits and starts. I hated the introduction. I put the book down for nearly a week after reading it. I don’t know that pulling the information that Q and Margot found a dead body together when they were very young is important as our first data point for these characters. We certainly don’t need several pages of Q explaining how this was the defining moment of what came after. At least not up front. What does come after is Margot going on a revenge campaign and then disappearing, first with Q and then without, we’re along for the ride of watching Q sort out who Margot is to him and their friends, and more importantly who Margot is to herself.

Empathy is the crucial piece of this novel. As we spend time with Q he is learning to empathize with his friends, his parents, and even the bully a few blocks over. He’s also learning that its incredibly difficult to truly know anyone, and if you don’t make the attempt, then you have nothing but an empty place holder where that person should be. The best part, the happiest reading was Margo and Q’s night of adventure. But the pacing of the book struggled after Margot took off and we’re left with Q as he struggles with these big questions.

Other things that Green did that I thought were good was using some heavy hitters of the artist world as big portions of the story, Whitman, I’m looking at you. I also appreciated greatly that the ending wasn’t afraid to be real and true to the characters’ intent. There was no 11th hour change of personality, just discovery and understanding.

Narfna spoke eloquently in her review of how books like Paper Towns are so important for the work they do in teaching us NOT to create Manic Pixie Dream Girls/Boys in our own lives. As much as Margot can be argued to fit into that category, it’s a superficial reading of the narrative, at best. In many ways Paper Towns has the same basic plot points of Green’s earlier works:  a character missing from the narrative through line while being its catalyst (Looking for Alaska) and a road trip story (An Abundance of Katherines), both with a young, male, protagonist. And for that reason, and some stumbling in the beginning, I can’t quite convince myself today to rate this book a 4, but I might later. Reading this book also had me dropping my rating for The Fault in Our Stars down to a 4 from a 5, so I’m obviously up for changing ratings.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (CBR7 #21)

As comes up every so often in my reviews, I work in Public History, specifically historic sites. A decent portion of my reading each year is about educational theory and practice as well as practical research for topics that are coming up in my programming. As part of my continuing professional development I attended a webinar about inquiry based learning, which is my favorite informal learning model, in which Teaching as a Subversive Activity came up as a possible reading to share with other staff and volunteers. Before I dared venture into that idea, I thought I better read it. This was a good choice.

Published in 1969 this book is not outdated, but it does take a radical approach to the work that can and should be done outside the typical classroom model which might feel out of place to the modern reader. Much of the book is spent deriding the ways in which schools fail their students by failing to meet their needs and repressing their natural learning inclinations. While I was interested to see that the arrival of ‘modern’ society in the post-war era lead to many of the problems we still see, the ways in which a complete overhaul of public education seemed perhaps a bridge too far for me to really embrace.

There were some practical hints and tips for incorporating inquiry based and student centered teaching and learning into your repertoire and I can only sing the praises of those methodologies, but I don’t think that this is the book to get you to these practices, even though it is an interesting anthropological read in its own right at this point.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Princess Bride (CBR7 #20)

When this selection came up for the Go Fug Yourself Book Club on Goodreads I was convinced I didn’t want to read it. I don’t remember who I heard it from, but somewhere along the way I had been convinced that the book didn’t live up to the movie. And I love the movie and didn’t really want to impinge on that in any way. I expressed said concern upon the book’s selection and our very own Malin let me know that this was a position I might wish to reconsider and beseeched me to read the book. Knowing when it’s time to listen to the wisdom of others, I borrowed a copy from the library and got to reading. As usual, Malin was right.

Inside the pages of this book, this very strange and odd book is the story we know and love (I’m assuming you know and love it, otherwise who are you and how did we miss giving you the chip?).  But, the added bit of fun is that Goldman is playing at an idea with the larger narrative. Yes, this is a story about true love and daring do, but its also a sly commentary on writing and probably the world at large.

You see, Goldman presents The Princess Bride as the work of another, a S. Morgenstern of Florin, and this is his ‘only the good stuff’ abridgement of that story, the version his father read to him as a small boy. In that way we see what becomes the framing device for the movie, but it also gives Goldman license to comment on both the narrative of the story, what it really is, how it should be proceeding, and the authorial intentions of the wholly invented Morgenstern and the history of Florin. Its very good, and very funny.

The book also reads incredibly quickly. I was able to blow through hundred page sections in a single sitting (not the usual for me). The copy I had, the 30th anniversary edition, had lots of additional stuff, and was also marked as YA. I don’t know how I feel about that designation, but I guess the movie is of a similar rating, but it does help me add a book to my Read Harder challenge goals.

Read this one, even if you think you won’t like it.

The Countess Conspiracy (CBR7 #19)

In my past reviews of the main novels in Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series I’ve enjoyed talking about the different tropes that Ms. Milan has turned on their heads in this landmark series. In The Duchess War the male protagonist shows the insecurities that one would typically expect in the female protagonist. In The Heiress Effect the ‘damsels in distress’ save themselves. This trend continues in The Countess Conspiracy as the gentleman at the center of the story puts his considerable efforts to work putting forward the career of his lady love.

It’s entirely typical in Romances of all stripes to have the female protagonist work to help further the career aspirations of her love as a way of showing the depth of her affections. In The Countess Conspiracy Milan shows what this looks like from the other side as Sebastian Malheur works to support the scientific work of the woman he loves, Violet Waterfield the widowed Countess of Cambury. Violet, you see, is the foremost scientist in regards to genetics and sexual heredity. It’s also the 1860s, and woman are not to discuss such things, let alone study and publish about them.

With that as the central issue of the book, of Sebastian no longer wanting to act as the public face of Violet’s research, the reader is also treated to the story of Sebastian redeeming himself with his brother and proving his love for Violet is both true and longstanding. While this book hs perhaps less smolder than some of Milan’s other works, it also fits in with the backstory of Violet’s reservations about love in general and sex with Sebastian in specific.

The Countess Conspiracy is not my favorite Brothers Sinister book, (that falls as a tie between The Governess Affair and The Duchess War), but this is another fantastic work in which the author creates multidimensional characters with histories and problems and having them work them out in timelines and methods that are realistic to the time period of the work. Milan also uses her knowledge of the time period to provide continuing social commentary, as we saw in A Kiss for Midwinter and The Heiress Effect. If you aren’t reading this series and this offer I suggest you do so.

This book was read and reviewed (and recommended) as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Ready Player One (CBR7 #18)

This one almost feels like a cheat, since I knew going in I was likely going to rate this 5 stars. I enjoyed the book tremendously when I read it the first time nearly three years ago for Cannonball Read 4. This year I have tackled my dislike/fear of the audiobook experience, and decided on a whim that I really did want to hear the Wil Wheaton version of Parzival’s story. It was simply a delight.

In case you aren’t familiar, here’s Goodreads to give you the plot summary:

It’s the year 2044, and the real world has become an ugly place. We’re out of oil. We’ve wrecked the climate. Famine, poverty, and disease are widespread. Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes this depressing reality by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia where you can be anything you want to be, where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. And, like most of humanity, Wade is obsessed by the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this alternate reality: OASIS founder James Halliday, who died with no heir, has promised that control of the OASIS – and his massive fortune – will go to the person who can solve the riddles he has left scattered throughout his creation.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that the riddles are based in the culture of the late 20th century. And then Wade stumbles onto the key to the first puzzle. Suddenly he finds himself pitted against thousands of competitors in a desperate race to claim the ultimate prize, a chase that soon takes on terrifying real-world dimensions – and that will leave both Wade and his world profoundly changed

I actually think I may have enjoyed the reading experience more this time than I did before. It had been a suitably long time since my first go round that I didn’t remember all the details, and some of the plot points caught me off guard, for a second time. I was also pleasantly reminded of things as they were coming, often thinking “oh, that’s right BLANK happens now”. This added a lovely layer of nostalgia to a book that is in many ways centered on just that idea. While Wheaton’s narration isn’t perfect (he’s not great at delineating character voices, good, but not great) this is still something I am happy to recommend to just about anyone.

Get in Trouble (CBR7 #17)

I have a feeling that this book is a case of its not you, it’s me. In addition to my goal for Cannonball (65 books this year) I’m working on the Read Harder Challenge put on by Book Riot. As part of that challenge there are 24 tasks and one of them is a short story collection. I haven’t really done much in the way of reading short story collections so this was one of the tasks that truly felt like a challenge. Late last year I read the collection My True Love Gave to Me and I had a typical experience: inevitably there are some which are too long, and some which are too short. And some that are just, well, terrible. Of the stories which I loved from that collection one was Kelly Link’s The Lady and the Fox. Once I decided to do the Read Harder Challenge I went back to the stories I loved from My True Love Gave to Me to hunt up collections and lo and behold Kelly Link had a new collection coming out in 2015. I immediately signed myself up for the waitlist at the library. Challenge solved!

And if only it were so easy. Her latest work, Get in Trouble, comes highly rated with lots of awesome pull quotes on the back cover. And I thought this was going to be a case of discovering a new delivery method of awesome stories. This was going to be another experience with audiobooks! But, no. Don’t get me wrong, the writing – when it’s good, it’s really good.  But it’s also inconsistent. Some stories feel overwritten, some feel underwritten, and I have BIG problems with some of the formatting that happens in the stories.

There are nine stories included in Get in Trouble, and of those I enjoyed five. This simple math is what I used to decide to rate this book three stars instead of only two. But those four stories which didn’t work for me, REALLY didn’t work for me. Here are some of the issues I ran into:

  • It took me far too long to “get into” the universe of each story. By the time I found my footing the story was generally over. Or I wanted it to be.
  • Often the best part of the ‘bad’ stories was the mystery of what the heck the setting/interpersonal dynamics were. The plots held much less interest.
  • The further I read the more confused with the narrative devices I became. Was it symbolic? Or just random and nonsensical? For some of the stories I still don’t know.
  • Time jumps, POV changes, and other mechanics of storytelling are not delineated in the text. They just happen. Give me a font change, use italics or really anything to help the reader understand.

The stories which I enjoyed, and which worked for me, tended to have both younger protagonists, and to be playing with only a single idea. “The Summer People” explores the burdens of the responsibilities we take on, and the cost of friendship.  The one I enjoyed the most was “Secret Identity” and works through the differences between being who we are and who we want to be. With superheroes and dentists thrown in. “The New Boyfriend,” deals with ferocious jealousy and what love is. The adult protagonist stories I enjoyed were “Light” which struck a chord both because it deals with fraught relationships and is set in South Florida (it also includes pocket universes and frozen iguana, what’s not to love). Finally, there’s “Two Houses” which almost feels like a cheat since I skimmed through the ‘horror’ parts of it, but the ending was so poignant that it won me over. To say too much would give it away.

My prognosis: your mileage will definitely vary, but when Kelly Link is on, she’s on.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Packing for Mars (CBR7 #16)

This book wasn’t exactly what I thought it was when I decided to read it. I thought Mary Roach would be writing from the perspective of what needs to be done/brought/invented to get us to a place where we are sending humans to live on Mars. What Roach really does is explain how the same things which had to be accomplished for basic space flight and putting a man on the moon are the things that scientists of various stripes are working on right now to continue the forward momentum of space exploration, and the science of everyday modern life.

I also didn’t expect, and that’s probably because I just wasn’t paying close enough attention, that Mary Roach is hysterically funny. I’m used to reading monographs that are occasionally amusing, but it’s not often that you run across an author who takes the extra effort to make the narrative amusing, whether it be by using puns or footnotes to drop a joke or perhaps my favorite of all quoting the astronauts in question and filling in the blanks. It is obvious from the page that Roach enjoyed the researching of this book and I am looking forward to taking her advice and reading Mike Mullane’s book Riding Rockets, which she suggests as the funniest astronaut memoir. The only problem I ran into is that since my roommate read Packing for Mars first, I did miss out on the opportunity to read the funniest parts for myself without prior knowledge of their existence. Chapter 14, I’m looking at you.

But, if you have an interest in the science and history of space exploration and all the wacky questions that may not have occurred to you that would be a concern (for example, gravity aids in the sense of bladder fullness letting us know we need to go) then I would very much suggest this book to you. I think I’m going to look for Roach’s book Stiff later in the year for more fun science reading.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Mr. Kiss and Tell (CBR7 #15)

Mr. Kiss and Tell is the second Veronica Mars book to come out of the super successful Kickstarter project from two years ago. Last spring we had the movie and the first book, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, and this year we have book two. I was so excited to get it that I bought it for myself for my birthday.

And you may say to yourself, why were you so excited, you’ve only rated these two books at three stars? I know, but I love Veronica and the rest of the gang in Neptune that while they don’t quite make the 4 star category for me, they are certainly some of the most fun I’ve had reading in a long time. The strength of having the series creator Rob Thomas in on the action is that he knows these characters inside and out. He’s been working with and on them for over a decade. So, as I read the dialogue it came through in the voices of the actors who play these roles. I can hear Wallace, Weevil, Mac, and Logan as clearly as if they were coming from the television in the next room. And that is nothing short of delightful.

Book two picks up kind of where book one left off. In The Thousand Dollar Tan Line Veronica was on the hunt for a girl who vanished from the Neptune Grand during Spring Break. Mr. Kiss and Tell moves the story ahead to the months following the close of the mystery in the first book and Veronica dealing with her new normal. Our central mystery in this one is a rape and attempted murder that happened around the same time as the events of The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, and Veronica has been brought in to determine whether or not the Neptune Grand is liable. This being a Mars Investigations project it certainly doesn’t end there.

While the first book took place over a few short weeks, this book takes longer, nearly 4 months by my count, and shows the other side of private investigations when tips dry up and dead ends abound. We also get the story of Weevil’s court case following being set up and Sheriff Lamb’s run for reelection. All of this is good, and the continued world building these books deserve. But here’s the thing that kept me from bumping this 3.5 to a 4: it was at times a little too insular. While I enjoy seeing old characters again, we aren’t limited by production budget. We can have new locations and characters without budgetary concerns. That’s one of the joys of books versus television or movies. You don’t have to worry about how to pay for it. While I’m happy to see the main group of 8 or so characters (everyone listed above plus Keith, Cliff and Dick who was tragically absent from the page), I don’t need every character to be directly linked to the show or movie. So, as we’re digging into old Meg plots and Mac plots for characters and side plots it just seemed a little too small, a little to self-referential.

For those of you all about the LoVe connection: it’s here, and there is plenty to unpack in Logan’s new life and what that means for Veronica who is still in the process of getting to know him as he is now, and how he got there. It was good stuff, if perhaps a bit rushed.

I really liked this book, and if you aren’t already a Marshmallow, why the heck not?

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Juliet, Naked (CBR7 #14)

This was going to be a four star book. It had it all made. I was reading dialogue out loud to my roommate and giggling along with the characters. These are usually the hallmarks of a book that I love. And it’s Nick Hornby. We had taken a break from each other in the last few years (the description of How to Be Good just didn’t catch my attention) and I was ready to fall in love again. And I did. Mostly. Is it possible to give 3.75 stars?

At the beginning of the book Annie and Duncan are in a 15 year relationship that has gone nowhere and left them both vaguely unsatisfied. Things are plodding along until there is a non-fight fight about new music from Tucker Crowe. You see, Duncan is a Crowologist and the first newly released music in 20 years by the man in question.  Duncan, who has dedicated years to the study of this artist, is in rapture. Annie, who has spent her time with Duncan also vicariously having her own relationship with Tucker’s music, is not. They both post reviews to Duncan’s website which is populated by other Crowologists (of which Annie is not one) and Tucker Crowe responds to Annie, thanking her for her kind and perceptive words about the difference between Juliet his last album from the 1980s, and Juliet, Naked the acoustic version recorded at the same time and released now.  As all of this is happening, Duncan and Annie stop being in a relationship with each other (he cheats, and then admits it) so Annie keeps her bit of news to herself, enjoying that she has something that Duncan does not.  She is now internet pen pals with a former rock star, and her ex’s obsession.

The narrative continues on from there, and I won’t give it away any further than I have, but I think you can see where this one might be heading (and you aren’t completely wrong).

There was a lot to like about this book. I mentioned above the comedy and dialogue. However, foremost for me is Hornby’s ear for realistic word choice and thought patterns. His characters always seem real to me, even if there isn’t always a lot for me to relate to.

Here’s Annie:

“For the best part of 40 years she had genuinely believed that not doing things would somehow prevent regret, when, of course, the exact opposite was true.”

“Everyone disliked their partners at some time or another, she knew that. But she’d spent her hours in the dark wondering whether she’d ever liked him. Would it really have been so much worse to spend those years alone? Why did there have to be someone else in the room while she was eating, watching TV, sleeping?

And Duncan:

“He had never once felt itchy, in the way that two connecting pieces of a jigsaw never felt itchy, as far as one could tell. If one were to imagine, for the sake of argument, that jigsaw pieces had thoughts and feelings, then it was possible to imagine them saying to themselves, ‘I’m going to stay here. Where else would I go?’ And if another jigsaw piece came along, offering its tabs and blanks enticingly in an attempt to lure one of the pieces away, it would be easy to resist temptation. ‘Look,’ the object of the seducer’s admiration would say. ‘You’re a bit of telephone box, and I’m the face of Mary, Queen of Scots. We just wouldn’t look right together.’ And that would be that.”

And Tucker:

“The truth about autobiographical songs, he realized, was that you had to make the present become the past, somehow: you had to take a feeling or a friend or a woman and turn whatever it was into something that was over, so that you could be definitive about it. You had to put it in a glass case and look at it and think about it until it gave up its meaning.”

So what didn’t work for me? There were too many characters to worry about. We have Annie, Duncan, Tucker Crowe, Tucker’s music and the Crowologists who study it, and Tucker’s children and exes. For a book that clocks in at 400 pages this shouldn’t be too much, but somehow it is. Because there’s at least one character that I can think of that gets such short shrift (and she shouldn’t) that it robs the final 50 pages of this book of the meaning that it was trying to get to.

Because most importantly, what’s the story really about?

Hornby doesn’t shy away from big questions, and I think that’s what gives his stories legs. Juliet, Naked is really about the way we make meaning out of art, and out of life. So, all of those characters and groups that Hornby is working with and balancing have something to add to the equation that is this novel. But that doesn’t mean that Honrby managed to balance said equation. There’s too much up front, too much on the left hand side of the equal sign and not enough after on the right hand side of the equation. There is time wasted when Tucker arrives in London, and then narrative strings left to wither and die in the final push of the book. And everything is wrapped up with a few words and no explanation of why.

Like I said, I wanted to love this book, and I did. Until I didn’t anymore.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.