Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Teacher Man: a Memoir by Frank McCourt

My dad brought this book with him the last time he came to visit. As many books as my mom and I read in common there are not that many that my dad and I share. But the theme of this book is something that bring he and I together. It is a topic that we can chase around for hours. It is, for both of us, the reason we go to work: teaching. As I read the book I caught myself thinking about my own students and my classrooms. But, more often than not, I found myself thinking about my dad's experiences, his classrooms, the students that he has taught. Like McCourt, my father has stood in front of thousands of high school students - from the lowest level students who are forced to take English to the Harvard driven, parent pushed stressed out teenagers - teaching English.
If the name Frank McCourt is familiar it is probably from his extremely popular first two memoirs Angela's Ashes and 'Tis.Teacher Man begins by reflecting on the unexpected popularity of the first two installments of McCourt's life. He never expected to become a best-selling author at the age of sixty-six. He then proceeds to explain how, through his thirty years in a classroom, he decided to write what would become a Pulitzer Prize winner, a National Book Critics Circle award recipient, a feature film, and the subject of a Spark's Note edition. Not to mention, there is an Angela's Ashes walking tour of Limerick. I've never read McCourt's other books nor have I seen the movie version. After reading Teacher Man I don't know that I feel a need to either.
What I really loved about this book was the nitty-gritty details of teaching in a high school classroom. The derision that students heap upon the teachers. The feelings of inadequacy new teachers experience. The sense that the students can smell a teacher's fear and turn it against them. There were anecdotes that made me howl with laughter. There were moments that students shared that brought a tear to my eye. I have significantly fewer years teaching experience and almost all of mine have taken place in colleges. But, I still identified with much of McCourt's emotional turmoil about teaching and the feeling of elation over classroom successes.
I also found myself inspired by McCourt's creative writing advice. The further his book progressed the more he shared the practical advice he gave his students about finding a subject, writing a story, becoming an author. It is not giving anything away to let it slip that the book ended when McCourt chose to take his own writing advice and write a book.
Much of McCourt's memoirs center around his personal angst and his feelings of inadequacy surrounding his Irish-American ancestry. His first ten years of teaching - really much of his career - he felt as though he was not successful and kept wondering when he would get fired. While some of the psychoanalysis was worthwhile and interesting (and his experiences with psychiatry downright hysterical) there were times when I felt he wandered down the garden path into self-analysis and unnecessary self-reflection. I wanted to read about McCourt the teacher, not about McCourt the pained Irish immigrant.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is pondering a career in a classroom. McCourt does not hold back in talking about how incredibly hard it can be to stand up in front of five classes of resentful students five days a week. But, by the end he also makes you realize what an incredible career teaching is.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

I had a chance to meet Rhys Bowen at the same book signing even where I met Ellen Crosby. If you ever have a chance to go to this go - it's terribly fun. (Although make sure you have either given yourself a spending limit or you have lots of spare on your charge card. It's way too easy to spend too much money. I resisted the urge to go this year. Maybe next year...)
Anywho, Rhys Bowen was another terribly nice lady. I had read some of her Molly Murphy books which I enjoyed. They follow the story of an Irish immigrant to the United States in the early twentieth century. I picked up a copy of Her Royal Spyness, the first book in a new series, and had a nice chat with Ms Bowen. I passed the book along to my mom and just got around to reading it.
This new series is great!! I noticed in the acknowledgements that Bowen had thanked Jacqueline Winspear. I'm a big fan of Winspear's books so that put me in the right mood. Like Winspear, Bowen decided to tackle the interwar era in London (a favorite era of mine for any number of reasons). However, unlike Winspear, Bowen took a completely light-hearted attitude and wrote a fluffy but fun story.
The main character, Georgie, is 34th in line for the British crown. As a result she was trained like royalty. But, like much royalty by the twentieth century, Georgie's family has no money. She can't just *get a job* like a normal person, but she tries. Her attempts at work, her ability to poke fun at herself as royalty, and Bowen's grasp of British society and the importance of class combine to make a really enjoyable book.
The book is not deep. It's not meant to be. It is a perfect light summer read. It's not smutty or too heavy on the romance. It's just fun. (And apparently other people agree. It has gotten a decent amount of attention.) Now I'll just have to wait for the second book to come out in paperback.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Quarry by Susan Cummins Miller

My mother LOVES mystery series. Most of the series books that I read come from her. But she makes sure that she has the books in order and always starts with the first book. She likes to read them straight through. For her it is like reading one very long book with multiple episodes. I generally read series mysteries in order as well as they main character develops over the course of the series. Good authors often have a second mystery interwoven around the life of the protagonist that sorts itself out in the course of multiple books.
I picked up Quarry almost a year ago. I love academic stories and this one involved a graduate student ready to graduate with her dissertation: a sure bet for me. But, I have hesitated to start the book because it is not the first book in the Frankie MacFarlane, Geologist mystery series. The other day I figured what the heck. How much of a difference would it make to read a book out of order?
In this case, too much of a difference. I felt like a middle school girl who had joined a conversation already in progress. The people talking kept inserting information that had come before just to make sure to remind me that I wasn't there at the beginning. The entire conversation didn't always make complete sense because I was obviously without some prior knowledge that I needed to understand the whole story. For that reason I found Quarry somewhat irksome.
Don't get me wrong, the plot of the book is complete. There is a murder, a murder attempt, and by the end a resolution to this particular crime. But there is a fair amount of back story behind who Frankie MacFarlane is and how she got to this particular point in her life. I felt like Cummins Miller wouldn't have wanted readers to pick up this book without having read her others. In my experience a good series author will incorporate a short summary somewhere early in the book so that readers who have not read the prior books will still feel caught up enough to enjoy this story. There might be moments where total comprehension is not there, but there is no sense of not having enough information to read the book.
There is an added difficulty however. I looked into purchasing the first book in the series. It was published by a small academic publishing company. It is out of print and hard to find. Therefore, there is no realistic way for someone interested in this series to read all of the books in order.
All of that having been said, there were things about Quarry that I really enjoyed. The academic setting of the book was well replicated. The interaction between the students and their professors, the competition between faculty, the tension involved in defending a dissertation was all accurate and engaging. The criminal in this story was different enough to keep me reading. Nonetheless, don't know if I will pick up any more books by Miller. I'm not particularly into geology and I don't like the way she throws bones that are impossible to understand without having read every book about MacFarlane.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Toujours Provence by Peter Mayle

Everyone loves Peter Mayle. He gets lauded by editors, quoted by Francophiles, recognized by the Brits. Except me. This is the second one of his books that I have finished and the second one that I haven't liked. However, after more thought on the subject, I am beginning to wonder if it is the entire genre of travel writing that I don't like as opposed to just a particular disinclination for Mayle. After all, the genre advocates humorously satirizing an entire population based on one person's personal experience with a limited part of the given population. I don't like stereotypes, especially about a place that I love. And to me, that's what Mayle's book are. Stereotypes based on his individual experience.
There were amusing and unforseen moments in Mayle's book. Again, his story revolved largely around food. One particular incident had him eating a hefty meal at a truck stop. Obviously there are people who drive trucks in France just like in the US, but to be honest the concept of all you can eat truck greasy stops utilized by heavy set rough men seems particularly American. So it was intriguing to hear about a French truck stop. The men seemed like an equivalent to the Americans but, as per Mayle's point, the food was distinctly better.
Knowing from A Year in Provence that Mayle and his wife had left their jobs and life behind in England to move to France, there is a sense that he searches out unique endeavors so that he has something to write about to make money and continue the lifestyle that he has in France. Therefore, I have to wonder how "typical" his experiences are. Would anyone besides Mayle life the type of life that he describes?
The book was a quick read. You will learn a bit about Provence. But, it still resides in stereotypes and the self-congratulatory nature of Mayle. If you haven't chosen to leave behind "society" and join the laid back world of Provence France then you obviously have made a mistake.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Merlot Murders: a Wine Country Mystery by Ellen Crosby

I met Ellen Crosby at a book signing event just over a year ago. I picked up her book because I lived in Virginia wine country for seven years. I bought the book because Ellen Crosby seemed like a really nice, down to earth lady. I have been saving the book for a special occasion. I don't know that this week was special, but it was a good time to read something amusing and diverting. I liked Crosby's foray into Virginia wine country and the world of mysteries.
Crosby has a light writing style that made her book a really quick read. That doesn't mean the plot was overly basic just that she was descriptive without being laborious, detailed without getting mired in text. I fell into the story and was able to read the entire book in less than forty-eight hours. It was shy of 300 pages so it wasn't a long book, but it also wasn't heavy.
I enjoyed Lucie Montgomery, Crosby's main character. She has a past that makes her an interesting character but she is not somehow disturbed and jaded by a haunting mystery. Crosby explains up front what makes her heroine unique - and she writes the difference well. It was not too heavy-handed nor was it suddenly forgotten about on page twenty.
In addition, I enjoyed Crosby's attention to detail with wine making. I always enjoy a book where I can learn a few tidbits of trivia. Having lived in Virginia I knew bits here and there about Virginia wine-making. And as a UVa alum it would be hard to not know about Thomas Jefferson's connection to the wine making industry. But, I did learn more about what makes Virginia wine unique and about the actual process of harvesting grapes and turning them into wine. I don't know that I could hold an educated conversation about the world of vintners, but I feel as thought I might know listen to such a conversation and know what was going on.
The only thing that I didn't like about The Merlot Murders was the ending. Not that I disagreed with how she solved the crime. Instead I just felt like the story ended too abruptly. She was obviously setting herself up for a sequel and the beginning of a series. Nevertheless, I still would have liked to see at least one more chapter to wrap up the story. As it stood the murder was solved, the book was over. There was absolutely no sense of closure. What about all the lingering problems that remained?
All in all, I would recommend this book to almost anyone. There was no overt sex or violence. The story was intriguing without being too edge of your seat gripping. I will definitely keep my eyes out for the two other Wine Country mysteries that Crosby has since written. And maybe I will get a chance to see her at another book signing and tell her how much I enjoyed her work.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Murder in Belleville by Cara Black

Cara Black is without a doubt one of my favorite new authors. After I read her first Aimee Leduc mystery I ran out and bought the next six (it didn't hurt that I found them all signed at a local mystery book store). She has an incredibly nuanced understanding of contemporary French culture that makes her stories fascinating to read.
However... (there just had to be a however) Murder in Belleville the second novel in this series is so full of detailed French issues that without a deep knowledge of the topic it gets a bit laborious. Not to sound pompous but, I know much more about French/Algerian relations than the average American. I have taken grad classes on French Imperial History and contemporary French History and done reading on my own on this topic because it is so curious to me. And I still found myself lost between all of the different pro-/anti- French/Algerian factions and characters in the story. The history itself is terribly complex and while Black did a good job writing a realistic mystery, she did not help elucidate who hated whom and why. There were moments I found myself wondering why Leduc, the detective in the novel, had as much knowledge as she did about the Arab population as many French tend to ignore what they don't want to see.
The book is set in 1994 at a point when illegal immigrants in France staged a sit-in/hunger strike in a Catholic Church in Paris to resist being deported back to their nations of birth. For many individuals, deportation would have meant death at the hands of the home government for disagreement with governmental policies. The French were stuck with allowing the illegals to stay causing an obvious problem or deporting them and looking like schmoes for allowing them to be mistreated. What's a government to do?
I happened to be in Paris when this sit-in took place. I remember watching the news coverage of the Church and the discussions of "Frenchness." The immigrants in the Church tended to be Muslim and/or African. France is still discussing what it means to be French and the reality of a non-French speaking, non-Catholic population who hold French passports.
Black could not have picked a more apt event to highlight French tensions relating to Algerian residents in France. Like her first Leduc novel, Black incorporates characters who have realistic ties to a past that gives them strong opinions about the present. In this instance the story revolves around strong ties to Algeria - a pied noir (European citizen born and raised in Algeria) acts as a government minister whose job is to remove the immigrants from the Church. His loyalties are divided for many reasons that become apparent through the novel. She also uses beurs (the slang word for Arabs in France - usually used by the young) as the main population for the story.
As with Murder in the Marais, Black chose her venue wisely. Belleville, the 20th arrondisement in Paris, is largely home to an immigrant population. It would be a logical place for the beurs to live and interact. I learned more about that area than I had known previously as there is little reason for a tourist to visit that quarter of Paris.
I will keep reading Black's books. They're fascinating. To me they are the epitome of a good mystery - accurate details about a real place and time (which I happen to know and love) combined with a less-than-straightforward mystery that needs to be solved. But, as I probably said the last time I talked about Cara Black, these novels assume a detailed knowledge of French social and political mores that I don't think too many Americans understand which my prohibit them from finding the stories engaging.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tinker by Wen Spencer

Tinker was a great new find by my husband. He found it on a staff recommended shelf in the sci-fi/fantasy section at a local bookstore. Given that the basis for the novel is Pittsburgh, our current residence, the choice at the store was not surprising. Husband read the book in one long sitting (around boys playing, dinner, bedtime, etc.) For him to pick up a book and not put it down until he is finished is not that unusual, but it is typically the sign of an engaging story.
I needed something light since most of my reading these days is interrupted every minute or two by arguing siblings, needs for water, requests for the sprinkler, you name it. Tinker was the perfect read for the middle of the summer.
The basic premise of the novel is that Pittsburgh has, through a scientific mistake, been transported to Elfhome - populated by. you guessed it, elves. Once a month for 24 hours Pittsburgh returns to Earth. This gives humans a chance to come and go, supplies to be traded, applications for college to be mailed, etc. Tinker is the main character of the story. She is an eighteen-year old genius who has lived her entire life in Pittsburgh/Elfhome and works maintaining the local junk yard. There are of course bad guys, good guys, magic spells, and a love story. The appeal of the novel is the unique world that Wen Spencer has created and the great sarcastic character that tells the story.
The line on the front of the book says the book will appeal to Buffy fans. There is a similarity between the sarcasm and wit of Buffy and of Tinker. There is also the parallel between the older magical being who becomes a helper/mate to the protagonist. If you liked Buffy, I would agree, you'll like Tinker.
When I finished I wished that I had the follow-up novel, Wolf Who Rules, because I do want to read more about the world that Spencer has created. She completed the story in Tinker, but she definitely left the book open for a sequel.
I will add one other caveat. According to Spencer's website, she has won awards for Romance. There is a pretty heavy romantic tilt to Tinker. I don't think romance is atypical in sci fi/fantasy but Spencer's story does have a romance style edge to it. The relationship revolves around physical attraction. It is not overtly sexual, but there is definitely eroticism.
All in all, a fun find. It was amusing to read about bridges and highways that I know, even if they had been transported to another realm.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

North by Northanger by Carrie Bebris

Well, I think this was probably the best book of the three Bebris mysteries so far. I had posted that I didn't like the second very well so I wasn't sure how this one would go. There are a number of things that Bebris did which vastly improved this story.
First, Bebris backed way off the supernatural aspect of the stories. While I didn't mind the idea in concept, placing Elizabeth Bennet Darcy in a supernatural setting was just unexpected. In this story she hinted at the possiblity of unnatural occurences; everything could have also been explained logically. I liked that idea much better. It allowed for a reasonable suspension of disbelief instead of a complete departure from reality.
Second, Bebris did not give away the entire plot in the prologue. She allowed the plot to evolve naturally. There were hints throughout the story that foreshadowed the villains. But that is true of most any good mystery. As a reader you want a chance to figure out whodunit along with the characters. I was able to do that more naturally in this novel.
I also enjoyed the plot of this book. It took place at Pemberly (Darcy's home), incorporated a number of characters from the original Pride and Prejudice (and Northanger Abbey not suprisingly), and developed a logical narrative in which Elizabeth is expecting her first daughter. Concerns about child-bearing and heirs seemed like a reasonable topic for an Austenian. I was a bit uncertain about Bebris' knowledge of childbirth and childcare in the early 19th centry. I wonder if a wet nurse would have been assumed for someone in the Darcy's postion. And, I wondered at Elizabeth's presence in society as late in her pregnancy as she was. But, it's possible I'm imposing Victorian ideals on an earlier era. I honestly don't know enogh about child-rearing in England in that era to discredit Bebris' perceptions.
A final note, I just discovered that before writing the Darcy mysteries Bebris had only written sci-fi/fantasy books. I am unsurprised given the tendency towards the supernatural that occured. There is one further Darcy mystery that Bebris has written. At this point I don't feel a need to run out and pick the book up. If I happen upon it for a bit of nothing I would read it. But, I'm ready to switch to a different topic for a bit.