Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

My eldest son picked up Chasing Vermeer and read the first two chapters. By itself that sentence should not be breathtaking. However this is the first (non-picture) book he has ever voluntarily picked up and read. I don't know if he will get much farther, to be honest. He is starting first grade and is just jumping into the world of chapter books and I think Chasing Vermeer is over his head for now. But it will stay on the shelf for another day.

In the meantime, I had heard about Blue Balliett's first book somewhere along the way and was more than happy to pick up a copy at the library book sale for under a dollar. I decided to read the story first to see if it was appropriate for my 6 year old but also because I love a good kid's book. I'm glad I did.

Chasing Vermeer is the story of Petra and Calder, two socially-awkward kids, at a lab school attached to the University of Chicago. Their enthusiastic teacher introduces them to the art museum and the idea of debating with the meaning of art. They both discover an affinity for Vermeer when a famous Vermeer is stolen launching them into a mystery to uncover what really happened. The idea of coincidences, hidden messages, and questioning the truth lie at the heart of Balliett's book.

The story has an appeal at many levels. The main characters have interesting backgrounds and idiosyncrasies which speak to children who don't always fit in. The illustrations in the book and parts of the plot revolve around hidden messages and breaking codes which I know my boys both love. But the plot is both genuine and well-enough-crafted to appeal to a parent. I don't know that I will run out and buy Balliett's other books. But I will leave Chasing Vermeer for my boys on another day and will happily buy the other stories at their request.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

If I have a passion for an odd sub-genre of books, it is stories about foreigners adapting to a new culture. I love books like A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth - books that delve into questions of identity and ethnicity and interacting as a minority. Over the years I have found myself searching out books whose plots revolve around the individual struggles of people in flux. It was an interest in this type of story that brought me to Jhumpa Lahiri in the first place. I read The Namesake and then I saw the movie. The book was better (isn't it always) but the movie was actually quite good.

I have been coveting Unaccustomed Earth for absolutely months and finally got a copy from the library. I devoured the stories in a couple of days. While I loved the book I would have liked a novel better than short stories - but that's just me. I like the development of a novel-length plot. In Unaccustomed Earth Lahiri writes about Bengali-Americans who all interact with their families and deal with their joint cultural identities as integral definitions of their self. I had two favorite stories. One dealt with three post-grad roommates with little in common other than their shared apartment. The Indian girl gets regular calls from Indian men proposing a meet-up for the possibility of a future marriage. But she is heavily involved in a less than healthy relationship. Her American doctoral candidate roommate gets unwittingly involved in her affairs.

The best of the book in my opinion (which plays to my preference for longer stories) is the three-part novella style "Hema and Kaushik." The story unfolds in three parts, each part being narrated by either Hema or Kaushik. These two individuals have a shared family background. Over time their paths cross again and they find their heritage and future life choices brings them together in a way they would not have anticipated.

Lahiri's stories are poignant. While there is something about her characters which make them (maybe) uniquely Indian, she is attuned to universal themes in the relationships between family and friends. Certain aspects reminded me of filial duties I have had friends of mine express in the past. I believe Lahiri is becoming an Amy Tan for the 21st century: a voice for "her people." I would be curious to read more about how she feels about this role because while there is a universality to her stories each of the characters are fiercely unique and independent and not easily categorized by his/her ethnicity and/or identity.

I will happily read more of Lahiri's work. I have not yet read Interpreter of Maladies - a heavily lauded compilation of short stories (heck, it won the Pulitzer Prize) only because I don't gravitate towards short stories. But I have no doubt I will in the future.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

I need to take a break from reading memoirs. I have two friends currently writing their memoirs and they're SO much better than the published books I'm reading. Somehow current memoirs do not seem to follow a standard narrative line. It is acceptable to revisit the same topic multiple times throughout a book even though the reader has already learned about the topic, more than once. I prefer reading books that follow a story rather than ones which jump around reciting anecdotal stories without connecting them.

A friend gave me Janzen's book and described it as a light, fun read. The title caught my attention. It's the beginning of summer, a comedic beach read sounded like the perfect idea. The story is light and fun and engaging. I did laugh from time to time. But I was hoping for more. The title is a bit of a tease, suggesting a greater dichotomy between the character and her upbringing than actually appears in the story.

The basic plot of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is a newly divorced woman who travels to her childhood home for a chance to recover and put her life back together. To add insult to injury her husband left her for a man named Bob who he met on “” Janzen also suffered from a car accident which left her physically hurt. Through the course of the memoir the reader learns thatJanzen’s ex-husband was verbally abusive and a manic depressive who brought his wife into his misery. Janzen counters her experiences with her admittedly bisexual husband to the much more traditional men of her Mennonite upbringing.

Both Janzens’ brothers and her father are devoted Mennonites who accept her differences of opinion relative to religion and lifestyle but yet remain wedded to their traditional views. By the end of the book Janzen has reconciled herself to many of the Mennonite ideas she escaped in college and through her marriage. But she leaves the conclusion necessarily open-ended as to where she will turn in the future.

The whole book rang a bit false, “Ha ha, my husband treated me like crap and then left me. Now I’m going to poke fun at him, at me, and at my upbringing. Isn’t that funny?” I enjoy snark and satire and witty cynicism. But it was a bit too raw and painful to be genuinely funny.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ruby in the Smoke A Sally Lockhart Mystery by Philip Pullman

Once upon a time I loved reading Gothic Mysteries. Somewhere in that junior high era I discovered Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart Series. I read Ruby in the Smoke eons ago. When my husband rediscovered the series he picked up the first book. Although his connection to the story was not based on personal memory. He got Ruby in the Smoke because Pullman is the well-known author of The Golden Compass series.

Ruby in the Smoke was written first and while it is a good book and shades of Pullman's later characters are evident in the story I would argue that Golden Compass is the better series - he extends his nuances and side plots in intricate detail with The Dark Materials books.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed re-reading Ruby in the Smoke. To be honest, I know I read the book before but I did not remember anything about the story. Written as a young adult book, it does deal with death and violence in a way that would keep me from giving the book to anyone younger than maybe 10. Pullman's plot revolves around an Indian ruby, an orphaned girl, and piracy all located in soot-filled Victorian England: classic Gothic at its finest. One of Pullman's strengths as an author is his ability to create strong relationships between his young characters: Ruby in the Smoke is no exception. Each of the book's main characters is young, unique, independent, and strong. I appreciate his books for the message of independence and strength of character he sends.

I will likely hang on to my copy of Ruby in the Smoke for my boys. However, it is not a story I will read to them in the next couple of years. The themes (as Pullman seems interested in in general) are a bit dark and heavy for a younger child. He acknowledges the dark side of people and is willing to have a character suffer a beating to further the plot. This book does not hold place amongst my favorite books that I will re-read for nostalgia sake. However, it was a good light romp through my literary past.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

House of Testosterone: One Mom's Survival in a Household of Males by Sharon O'Donnell

My mom picked this book out for me based on its title and its cover art; she figured as a girl who has way too many Barbie dolls and two boys I could appreciate what O'Donnell had to say. Whenever my sons saw this book on my nightstand they would laugh and tell me all about the boy who was dressed like Captain Underpants. The cover sold exactly what the book is: a light comedic memoir of one woman's attempt to live in a house of males; it seems like the perfect book for a mom of two boys. Having read it, I immediately passed it on to a friend who is the mom of three boys. There is enough truth and humor it what O'Donnell says that I can it will make the rounds amongst my mom friends.

An excerpt from the books describes the life of a mom of all boys:
  • you automatically wipe off the toilet seat before you sit down
  • your weekend schedule includes more total hours of little league sports than it does sleep
  • the lamp in your family room is held together by Super Glue in three places
  • you can carry on a conversation about athletic cup sizes with the college-aged guy at the sporting goods store with no embarrassment whatsoever

All moments to which I can either relate or imagine will exist in my future. Undeniably these bullet points make me smile. However...

O'Donnell needed a better editor.

The book has two fatal flaws which kept it sitting on my nightstand for three months rather than getting read in a night. First, O'Donnell makes gross over-generalizations about men which makes her sound like she is writing in the 1950s. Second, she mentions the same anecdotes two or three times in different sections of the book setting up her train of thought as disjointed and repetitive. Both of these issues, I think, could have been fixed had someone sat her down and made her rewrite more carefully before publishing what should be a fun look at parenting boys.

O'Donnell's book is a series of anecdotes about living with four sports-crazed, non-cooking, laundry-challenged men - her three sons and her husband. As a mom of boys, some of the stories made me smile - although nothing in particular is coming to mind which tells me they weren't all that memorable. I could relate to spending hours pouring of sports details and driving from scouts, to sports, to other sports. But O'Donnell's husband is a 1950s Neanderthal who somehow completely missed the woman's movement on the 1960s. O'Donnell cheerfully talks about he forgets anniversaries, complains about going to the theatre with his wife, and ignores her whenever a sporting event is on. I hope most women would not put up with his stereotypical antics and would not raise their sons to emulate this outdated model. I am sure the author exaggerated moments for the laughs but instead the stories end up making her look manipulated and lacking in a backbone.

By the end of the book I felt like I had read about her RV camping experiences and trips to Disney at least half a dozen times. I knew from her multiple mentions exactly which baseball team her family preferred. While the stories worked as individual essays, as a book she needed to remove redundancy and better organize her stories.

Finally, the last chapter of the book suddenly veers from humorous to sappy. "Moms hug your boys and tell them how much you love them before they grow up and leave you. Because leave you they will," seemed to be the tone of the last section. I would have preferred she stay light and humorous and end her book on a funny note rather than the shift to nostalgic.

House of Testosterone is a classic example of good marketing and a good cover to make up for a relatively weak book.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Universal Computer: The Road from Leibniz to Turing by Martin D. Davis

Every semester I teach Introduction to the Study of History. The course covers the twentieth century and every student is expected to write a research paper. I have a distinct number of students fascinated with the history of technology - current computer/cell phone/internet technology in particular. But in general the papers are pretty bad (to put it mildly). The students tend to wax poetic about how "shiny" technology is and spend much less time actually writing about how the technology emerged. Not a student of the History of Technology myself, I decided to beef up my own knowledge in order to give my students a better foundation.

Finding good history texts about post-World War II technology has posed a bigger problem than I anticipated. I can find good books about steam engines and the wheel but less about current technology. What I did find tended to be extremely technical - written for the engineer or the scientist rather than the historian. Finding three copies of Davis' The Universal Computer in the Computer Science section at the university library suggested a popular book so I picked up a copy.

After reading Davis I may be a technology/science convert! This book was SO interesting! It was math, philosophy, biography and history of the first computer all wrapped up into 250 pages. Each chapter focuses on one mathematician's quest for greater understanding of logic. Davis starts with Leibinz in the 17th century and moves forward progressively through the 1950s. The individuals he discusses would not necessarily be considered foundational figures in computer technology but their names are vaguely familiar from high school science or science fiction (in some cases) Leibniz, Boole, Bertran Russell (although I never knew of him as a mathematician but an conscientious objector). The most well-known figure for computer people is Alan Turing the creator of the Universal Machine which leads to the logic of modern computers.

Part of what makes the book compelling is the biographical information Davis includes. Not only did he walk through the mathematical equations (which made my head spin) but he also gave tidbits about the men's lives (and yes, it was almost exclusively men) and the worlds they inhabited. It was hard for me to imagine a world in which logic and the debate about infinity were religious questions rather than issues of hard science.

The other aspect that made the book fascinating was Davis' role in these issues. As soon as he began writing about the interwar era he interjected himself into the story, talking about meeting Einstein, about writing his dissertation at Princeton under one of the mathematicians, about reproving Frege's analysis. Davis does not tout his own role in the creation of the computer but his contributions are obvious throughout the second half of the book.

Having finished The Universal Computer I feel better able to assist my students with computer history questions. There's still a lot more to read and a ton more questions to attempt to answer. But I slowly feel like I am getting a better grasp on the history of modern technology.