--Janet Evanovich, Top Secret Twenty One
Let's be honest--who hasn't felt that at least once in your life?
"When I'm with Lula, I always feel like she's chocolate cake with a lot of fancy frosting and I'm more in the ballpark of a bagel."
--Janet Evanovich, Top Secret Twenty One
Let's be honest--who hasn't felt that at least once in your life?
Only "Weird Al" Yankovic could make such an important statement about the need for good grammar in such an amusing way. I think I'll make this required viewing for all Heroic University families! He does include some of my personal top pet peeves.
The gist of this book by New York Times bestseller author Katherine Howe--which happens to be her first foray into YA writing--is a high school senior who uses something she is reading in school to help figure out issues in her real life. So if you know anything about my classes, then you would realize I would be all over this book! But besides having a theme that is right down my alley, it is an intelligent, well-written, and engaging story that combines historical non-fiction with a realistic picture of what life can be like for a portion of teenagers today.
The protagonist, Colleen Rowley, is not any kind of modern Everywoman. Rather, Colleen is in her final year of an elite and highly-competitive Catholic girls school, St. Joan's Academy, outside of Boston, Massachusetts. So the book captures the privileged milieu shared by We Were Liars rather than the more average world of, say, The Spectacular Now. But I think she does a great job of describing what happens when you mix together the creme de la creme in the same pot.
The story begins as students are returning from their Christmas break. As Colleen describes it:
Senior year. Last semester. We were pretty keyed up. I man, everybody's always on edge when the semester starts, kind of, except spring semester senior year is like that normal nervousness times a million. Senior year is when it all comes together, all the years of studying and work and projects and sports and campaigns and whatever we're into that we've been working really hard for--it's either about to pay off or everything is about to completely fall apart.
The downside of attending these kinds of elite secondary institutions is that everyone is expecting to attend similarly-elite colleges. However, no matter how fabulous the high school is--even if, say, Stephen Hawking was teaching the science classes and the Dalai Lama was teaching the religion classes and Bill Gates was teaching the computer science classes and John Green was teaching the literature classes--and how high the students' GPAs and SAT scores are, no college is going to take more than a handful of students from the same high school. So in that last year, you no longer see your classmates as the people you've spend half your life learning with, you seem them as your competition for one of those few coveted spots to Harvard or Yale or Stanford or Duke.
Of course, the students feel like they must play it cool, and not demonstrate their anxiety and their jealousy and their willingness to do whatever it takes to become the MOST desirable student of the crowd. The students are too well-bred to resort to cat fights, name calling, or profanity.
It was rare to see open aggression at St. Joan's. Oh, it's not like we were innocent lambs who sat around holding hands all day. It's just that most of our methods were more subtle. If we wanted to make someone feel how truly insignificant she was, there were ways and ways of doing it. Backhanded compliments on a Facebook feed. A subtweet or two. A stare just a second too long, followed by a tiny roll of the eyes. Whispering, always whispering. These were the methods of discipline and hierarchy employed in the halls of St. Joan's.
Colleen also does a great job explaining how closed and incestuous these schools can feel.
St. Joan's was a small school. Everyone knew everyone else's business. We knew who was diabetic, and whose mom drank too much. We knew who had a gluten allergy, and who just said she did to hide her eating disorder. We knew who cut. We knew about everyone's tattoos, and we thought they should probably have gone into Boston to get them instead, 'cause the lines were already blurry. We knew within the week when one of us lost her virginity. Sometimes we knew within the hour.
And yet, within this codified society where everyone knows everything, a mystery arises. Girls begin experiencing all sorts of unexplained medical problems--losing control of their bodies, losing their hair, losing their ability to walk or talk properly. Panic ensues, and the school becomes a hotspot, filled with television reporters, medical authorities, environmental activists, even religious protestors, all vying to be the ones to explain what is happening to the girls of St. Joan.
At the same time, Colleen is noticing other strange developments in her life. Her favorite teacher disappears without any explanation. She is getting strange texts from an unknown source. Her texting-obsessed friend isn't answering her messages, and her best friend's old money family is being even more reclusive than usual. Colleen eventually realizes that maybe they don't know everyone's business as much as they thought they did.
The heart of the story, however, is when Colleen discovers the parallels between what is happening at St. Joan's and an assignment she is reading for her AP US History class. As her investigation into this mystery takes her deep and deeper into the past, Colleen--along with us readers--comes to wonder whether people from many years ago were actually as different from us as we usually assume they were.
All in all, I thought it was quite a lovely book. If I have one complaint, it is that I don't think most of the supporting characters are fleshed out very much, but are more standard "types" you find in this kind of an environment (the clean-cut boyfriend, the Queen Bee and wannabes, the "rebel" who isn't really very rebellious, etc.). The major "character" outside of Colleen is the school and that community of driven, privileged kids who face their own kinds of challenges.
It is also a great reminder to those of us with high schoolers the kind of pressure our kids can feel these days over getting into these highly-competitive colleges. Personally, while I want my son to strive for his "dream school," I never want him to feel like his life will be ruined if he doesn't get in. I think a lot of students can lose sight of that these days.
Finally, I found it to be a real page-turner. I started it after 9 PM one evening, read late into the night, and woke up early the next morning so I could finish it before I had to "get to work." I was not shocked, but enjoyed, her resolution of the entire situation.
Oh, and for those of you with sharp eyes and a knowledge of my other book reviews--yes, that is a goldfinch on the cover. Who would have thought I would have two favorite books among summer reading where the cover displayed a goldfinch?
I've been remiss in letting you all know of an opportunity to support an effort to radically change how we approach math education. But first, full disclosure: I sometimes take on freelance editing jobs, and I was the copy editor for this book. Therefore, I do have an emotional and editorial connection. However, I would still urge people to support this campaign, even if I weren't the copy editor (I can't take any credit for the contents, which are AWESOME), because it support the same basic principle as Heroic University--namely, to make learning enjoyable instead of miserable.
And as much as I think we often get it wrong about how we traditionally teach literature, it isn't half as bad as the state of math education. How many adults do you know-and maybe you are one of them-who have math anxiety? How do we raise our children so that they aren't as traumatized by their math education as we were? What can we do differently to make their experience better?
If you have ever asked yourself these kinds of questions, then this book is for you. The REAL editor, Sue VanHattum, a college math instructor herself, has collected contributions from over 50 educators who are approaching math in fun, creative, and empowering ways. Sue has something for everyone--homeschoolers, teachers in traditional schools, parents who want to change their schools' curriculum, community groups running after-school programs, even people teaching in prisons (actual penitentiaries, I mean, not just classes that make students FEEL like they are imprisoned). The examples and exercises range from the littlest learners through K-12 into adults. There are numerous articles on all sorts of innovative ways to turn learning math into more of a game environment than the torture chamber so many of us remember. And there are puzzles, games, exercises, and other activities that you can use right now with your own students or children to approach math in a new light. For example, even while I was copy editing the book, I used a few of the exercises in the book with my own son, who is currently studying algebra, with great success.
If you want more information on the book, check out the Playing with Math fundraising page on Incited (a Kickstarter-like crowd-funding platform that focuses specifically on educational projects). For only $9, you can get a digital version of the book, and a physical copy for $25. The good news is that they have raised the minimum required for getting the book to the printer. Additional contributions will go towards translating the book into Spanish. But by contributing (as I have done myself), you not only get access to this wonderful resource for a better way to approach math. You will also be part of an international effort to transform math education. As Sue explains it:
"Our bigger goal is to change our culture’s perceptions of math. We want math and play to go together naturally. After you’ve read your copy of Playing With Math, we hope you’ll play with the ideas in it and share your own math-play ideas with us."
The campaign is only running until July 20, 2014, so go check it out right away.
From the “Spectacular Now” to the “Great Perhaps.” That is the arc that my YA reading has taken me, since I followed up Tim Tharp’s novel, The Spectacular Now, with John Green’s debut work, Looking for Alaska.
As the key phrases might indicate, Looking for Alaska’s protagonist, Miles Halter (dubbed “Pudge” by his roommate for his rail-like physique) is about as different as can be from Sutter Keely of The Spectacular Now. While Sutter is all about sucking the juice out of the present moment, Miles’ thing is memorizing the last words of authors, historical figures, and other people….people such as François Rabelais, whose dying words were supposed to have been “I go to seek a Great Perhaps” (the reason Miles gives his parents for why he wants to go to boarding school). He also likes to read biographies of great writers more than he likes to read the things they have actually written. What do these things tell you about him?
Miles enters the coed Culver Creek boarding school in Alabama for his junior year in high school and encounters the delights and deficiencies of institutionalize school living. His more-experienced roommate, who goes by “Colonel,” takes him under his wing, warning him about the delineations between the regular boarders and the “Weekend Warriors” (children of rich families who return home every weekend to enjoy the benefits of affluence), as well as the strict disciplinary policies of “the Eagle,” dean of students Mr. Starns. The Colonel also introduces him to Alaska, a character that I’m coming to see is a mainstay of Green novels—the mysterious, brilliant, sexy, gorgeous, but somewhat self-destructive female obsession that is out of the league of Green’s geeky male narrators (which appear to be stand-ins for Green himself, a self-proclaimed nerd).
This book is truly a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, and quite a good one. Green captures that experience when you are first thrown into living with a bunch of strangers your own age and how you somehow create your own little tribe that soon become the most important people in your life, even if you haven’t known them for more than a few months. Miles gets to experience a number of important firsts in his life—first time smoking, first time drinking, first girlfriend, and, of course, first case of unrequited love. Of course, it doesn’t take long for these firsts to become habits, despite (or because of?) the school’s strict prohibition against tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and sex.
But more important than these teenage behaviors, much of the book is about the intellectual or even spiritual aspects of bildungsroman. Once outside his familiar environment and daily familial influence (although, so far among the books I’ve read, Green’s male protagonists generally have pretty cool and hands-off parenting styles), Miles starts to ponder some of life’s big questions. What is life all about? What happens after death? When should rules or laws be followed and when should they be broken? Is life simply a “labyrinth of suffering?” What gives us hope when things in life turn sour?
Miles wrestles with these questions in an interesting and age-appropriate way, especially when a major event at school bring them to the forefront of his attention. I love how Green balances the standard teenage rebellion behaviors, like smoking and drinking when you aren’t supposed to, with physical aspects of the initial forays into sexual activity, WITH the deeper philosophical themes of starting to create one’s own life. I found this book to be a very satisfying treatment of the many facets of a young person today really trying to make the transition to maturity. It is no surprise to me that the book won the 2006 Printz award for the "best book written for teens, based entirely on literary merit."
So Sutter Keely had it all figured out with his “Spectacular Now” theory. Miles Halter certainly found himself stepping into his sought-after “Great Perhaps.” I thinking reading both books may help adolescents make that transition themselves with a little more insight. They are also great reminders for us parents about what our children are going through during this challenging phase of their lives.
I never read J.K. Rowling's first post-Potter book, A Casual Vacancy, but I also haven't heard very good things from the people I know who did read it. But when the new detective series author Robert Galbraith was revealed to be a nom de plume for Rowling, I thought that made a ton of sense. If she could pull off hiding clues in Harry Potter books that weren't needed until several books later, telling a mystery in a single volume should be a piece of cake for her.
I really enjoyed that first book, The Cuckoo's Calling, which tells the story of a famous supermodel who kills herself by jumping from her balcony.....or did she? So as soon as I heard the second in the series was coming out, I reserved it at my library (along with several hundred others), and just got it last week.
The second book, The Silkworm, features the same detectives--ex-military private investigator Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott. This case also has tinges of celebrity, but is set in an industry that Rowling knows well--the world of publishing. The story centers around a fading author named Owen Quine whose days of glory seem to be behind him. But when a draft of his latest book is leaked, the publishing world discovers it is a scandalous mixture of nasty innuendos, shocking exposes, and vicious caricatures of every one in Quine's life. Numerous of his literary victims would like to kill him, except he is nowhere to be found. It is up to Strike to find both Quine and the truth among the stories, rumors, and outright lies told to him by the inner circle of Quine's publishing comrades.
It's a good mystery, and Rowling does a great job of hiding the clues skillfully and honestly (no never-before-mentioned twin or anything like that). I didn't figure out the puzzle until the end, but was satisfied by how everything played out. But on top of the mystery plot, you see a lot of the masterful touches that makes Rowling such a good writer. As in Harry Potter, she has some great names, including Cormoran Strike himself. Even better, she endows each character with unique but believable features. In several of my latest book reviews, I've complained that I can't tell the characters apart, but that is never a fault in Rowling's work. Quite a number of the characters seem a bit skewed, but they never go too far, turning the whole thing into a farce.
So while it isn't a earth-shaking book, it's a good read, and definitely a cut above your typical murder mystery. It is an adult book, but honestly, it has less profanity, sex, and violence than some of the YA novels I've read. I wouldn't give it to a tween who is still enraptured by the world of Harry Potter, but I think it is fine for a teenager with a not-too-conservative value system.
It may be hard to recognize, but the image above is pure literary gold. It is J.K. Rowling's original hand-drawn spreadsheet for chapters 13-24 of the fifth book in her series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Starting from the left, Rowling records the chapter number, month the chapter takes place, chapter title, and plot synopsis for that chapter. Then she has six additional columns where she keeps track of the larger subplots running through the book--things like the romantic subplot, Harry's interactions with Professor Snape, what is going on with the Order of the Phoenix at the that time, etc. It is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the woman who created one of the most vivid fictional worlds of our time, and who managed to weave together an incredible number of characters, subplots, magical items, places, and other items that went into her magnificent seven-part Harry Potter series.
I was just with a group of writers this weekend, and they were discussing how they liked to write. Quite a few of them found that writing came much easier and was just better when they write by hand on paper rather than by computer. Another uses her old college typewriter, finding her writing just can't make the leap to computer, although she uses the computer all the time for her "day job."
I think this is something that our technology-assisted children might be missing out on. I know my son writes everyone via keyboard. We are actually making him write on paper some now to prepare him for the writing required by upcoming tests like the SAT and AP exams. But I haven't encouraged him to try writing his fiction by hand. Now I think I will get him to give it a try, just to see if that makes a difference for him. You never know unless you try....
And don't even get me started on my battles over trying to get my son to outline or flowchart or mind map or do SOME kind of visual organizer before writing his papers! But maybe this will help convince him. If it's good enough for J.K. Rowling, maybe it will be good enough for him.
For some other samples of handmade visual aids by authors such as William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, and Sylvia Plath, check out Famous Authors’ Handwritten Outlines for Great Works of Literature, or Charts and Diagrams Drawn by Famous Authors, both on Flavorwire.
Carol is the founder and Headmaster of Heroic U. Here she shares some of her thoughts about education, literature, the hero's journey, and life in general