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Happy 6th Birthday, SPR!

As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Friday, August 29, 2014

Dear Committee Members: A Novel

For my birthday, which is today (HAPPY ME DAY!), I am choosing to discuss with you one of the most amazing books I have read this year: Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members

Jason Fitger is a professor of English at a small university, Payne, somewhere in the Midwest. He spends the bulk of his time teaching and writing letters of recommendation for students and colleagues for a myriad of positions. His office is situated right next to the men's room which just happens to be in disarray due to the multi-trillion dollar upstairs renovation of the Economics department (better funded, perhaps?). His personal life is a mess, his last few novels have been bombs at best, and he just needs to get his advisee funded so he will stop living off the dregs of catered lunches. All in an academic day's work.

"Laugh out loud" is not an appropriate description for this book. I guffawed. I howled. I even snorted at one point on the subway. This book was so on point and so true to academic life that it is frightening. And funny. So very, awesomely funny. Jason Fitger is a character I know and avoid, someone who is so curmudgeonly that you know if you need to ask him something you will get a rant about anything else than what you need. He is the colleague you avoid but can't stop inflaming because it's just so much fun to watch him go--because when he goes, he goes.

He writes way too many letters of recommendation (LOR, if you will) and he is a firm believer in written correspondence--even to his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend. By written correspondence I mean more LOR's and other requests. This novel is epistolary, and Schumacher couldn't tell the story any other way. She infuses this form with humor that is so pitch-perfect that even non-academics will laugh at the ensuing drama in Jason's world. From personal quibbles to issues with the world-at-large, this book is a laugh riot.

Schumacher is one hell of a writer, and she inhabits her protagonist (who also just happens to be his own antagonist, mind you!) with so much realism and wit. The thing is, I don't believe that Jason means to be funny; I believe he intends to point out the ills of the world such as online recommendation forms and the inanity of higher ed administration, which is something not unlike most general office politics. It's what makes him so sympathetic, and why anyone who picks up this book will fall madly in love with it. A personal thank you to you, Julie Schumacher, for writing this book and making my week.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Objects of Her Affection: A Novel

Sonya Cobb's The Objects of Her Affection sounded intriguing and exciting, so I picked it up between studying for exams.

Sophie and her husband adore their two young children, and after Sophie's nomadic childhood she desperately wants to provide her children with the stability of roots. She convinces her husband to purchase an old fixer-upper that is a financial stress for them promising it will be all right. When she finds herself in over her head after just a few months, she takes an opportunity that falls in her lap that may end up destroying everything she has.

This was a fully enjoyable novel that was well-written with interesting characters and a clear and engaging story arc. Sophie was a sympathetic character, even though at times you knew what she was doing and wanted to reach through the book to slap her. That being said, it's very hard not to relate to getting in over your head. Whether it's on a house, credit cards, and too many new clothes, we have all been in at least one desperate position where we have considered taking drastic measures. Sophie is an every-woman, although most women don't have the opportunity to steal museum pieces from their husband's office. 

Now, I can't say that I would make the same decisions that Sophie did, but then there is no novel about my poor life decisions, now is there? (No, there's not. Don't bother looking.) It was knowing that I would not make the same decisions that in part made this book so interesting. Why bother reading about ourselves all the time? This is a timely novel that is a smooth read and allowed me as the reader to invest in the characters and the story. I love picking up a book that catches my interest and allows me just live in it for a bit and makes me want to give the author a virtual high-five. That's what this book was. Delicious.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

Hiya crazy kids. "Where have you been," I can hear you asking. Well, I was on vacation with my family week before last and read seven books and didn't really have convenient access to a computer plus I had comprehensive high-stakes exams for my doctoral program this week LAST WEEK and had to take so much Xanax that the world should be calm, so I might have just disappeared for a while. But I'm back. Rest easy.

I recently read William Deresiewicz's excerpt of this book in The New Republic, fell in love, and immediately had to get my hands on a copy of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. (Also, today's post is dedicated to one of my besties, Mike, who is also madly in academic bro-love with Deresiewicz.)

What is the purpose of higher education? Is it to prepare students to enter the workforce in white collar professions or is it to prepare students for life by giving them an opportunity to explore who they are through exposure to a variety of new information? Is it to compete for positions in the economy or is it to think critically and creatively? Does failing a class mean you are a failure? These are just some of the jumping off points of Deresiewicz's exploration of what higher education was, is, and is aiming to become.

I have been meditating on these issues for sometime, as I teach a a very specific pre-certification population that wishes to follow a predetermined career path. What is the purpose of a college education? On one hand, it's hard to justify the exorbitant cost while encouraging young people to "find themselves," but at the same time the conversations, self-exploration, and finding what interests students is completely lost. Grades are the numbers that define people, followed by the number of zeroes in your salary, and excuses for not doing work and a lack of responsibility are rampant in both of these settings. The desire to make your college degree "worth it" has created a student body of what Deresiewicz calls excellent sheep--flocks of young people who go with what they are told and measure success in number of dollars, leading students away from careers they might otherwise choose in favor of making the big bucks.

While reading this book I turned to my brother who is currently pursuing an undergraduate education and asked him what he thought college was. He fit exactly into the mold of this book--for him it's about gaining skills to go into business and make a lot of money. It's about being marketable in the economy from the perspective of business (read: economics, finance, and other white collar jobs). It's not about exploring sociology, philosophy, the classics, the sciences such as biology, psychology, or even a deeper understanding of what business is. It's about being competitive in the workforce. And it made me disheartened.

See, I was a Classics major in undergrad. Even 15 years ago people were asking the worst question ever: "What are you going to do with that?" Or, "Are you going to teach?" My response was always no, that I wasn't going to teach. I would do something else. I loved Classics, I learned so much more than I could have in any other major, and I figured out a little bit more about who I was as a person. It was about obtaining a college degree where I could explore and become, not be and do. I didn't understand then as I don't understand now why it had to be a direct path to a career--why couldn't it make me a more knowledgeable person? This is what I think is Deresiewicz's point. I would say that I am no failure--in fact, I'm pretty darned good at what I do and am successful at it. I didn't take a direct path here, and thank goodness. I have had so many life experiences, career experiences, and most importantly, college experiences. All of which made me a pretty good contributor to society.

Granted, Deresiewicz comes out of the Ivy league and certainly speaks to the extreme of this position in the way of wealth and privilege (another issue I would love to explore in more detail), but it's clear that this is the position that a good number of students (and arguably parents and even educators) have toward institutions of higher education. Can't we see it taking shape even earlier in the "college and career ready" push in K-12 education? I think if you teach in higher ed, secondary education, are a parent, have been to college, or just live and breath, you should take the time to read and really think about Deresiewicz's book. What do we want our society to be?

Hard copy for purchase below.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Vacationers: A Novel

Today's post is an open love letter to Emma Straub on the occasion of her novel, The Vacationers.

Dear Emma,

We met recently at the Mashable Reads book club where we all gushed about your novel, and you are just fabulous. It helps tremendously that your book is one of the most fantastic things I have read this summer, but you are also so fun. I told someone that I don't even want to get married, but I would do it if you agreed to be my maid of honor. (Sorry, Laura [my sister]. Emma wins.)

I now have to do a quick summary of the book for my readers, so don't go away. There's more.

The Posts head out for a two-week vacation in Mallorca. It sounds dreamy, and the island certainly is, but the family is dealing with their own demons. Franny and Jim, the parents, are in the process of separating due to a poor decision on Jim's part. Sylvia, a recent high school graduate, wants to simultaneously ignore the drama at home in New York while also losing her virginity before college. Her older brother by a decade, Bobby, brings his girlfriend Carmen along only to make her the scapegoat of a whole host of issues. And the family friends Charles and Lawrence, happily married, are anxiously awaiting adoption news. As their inner demons bubble to the surface, they must face them all head on since they are trapped on a European island together.

Back to you, Emma I absolutely loved this book. It was a novel. Like, a meaty, sink-your-teeth-into-it, enjoy it, smile at it, laugh at it, not-put-it-down novel. A novel in the best sense of the word. I loved this family and I wanted them to just work it out. Like, come on, guys. Seriously. As I mentioned at book club, I really felt this was Sylvia's story. I know it's told from everyone's perspective and no one's at all, but it seemed it was truly a story about Sylvia discovering who she is, what she believes, and what her identity is, specifically her romantic identity. She never wants to become her parents (and really, who does at age 18?), but she wants a grand gesture from someone handsome and smart and funny and everything. Oh, Sylvia. I can't wait to see who you become as a 30-year-old.

I also completely felt as though I was in Mallorca. It was painted as such a beautiful and realistic picture that it felt so real, and a piece of me wished I had been able to read this book on vacation (starting tomorrow!) at the beach. I couldn't though, obviously, because I had book club and I got to meet you and I just think you are the bees knees and I really want you to finish another book right this second so I can read it. Anyway, back to the exotic location of the story. It was a perfect fit and it was a character unto itself. I really want to go there now.

All of this to say, Emma, is that I feel we are meant to be best friends even though you don't even know my last name or may even remember me at that. It's okay. We'll get through this. As long as you write another novel soon. If you take too long I may have to switch loyalties and go back to true crime and other murder mysteries. You don't want that, now do you?



Hard copy for purchase below.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Bones and Roses: Cypress Bay Mystery

Eileen Goudge's Bones and Roses had an intriguing premise (was it murder?), so I scooped it up this week and bit into it like a sandwich.

Tish has been a long-time resident of Cypress Bay, so much so that it remembers how bad she was even when she has forgotten. Where she once had a drinking problem, Tish is now sober and getting along in her rental-management business. That is, until the day she finds her mother's long-lost petrified body in a storage locker. She thought her mother ran out on the family years ago--but clearly she was murdered. Tish is willing to go to extremes to find out what really happened to her mother all those years ago, even if it means risking her own life when she finds out the sinister underpinnings of those she thought she knew best.

I love a good murder mystery, so I found this book to be a lovely addition to my weekly commute. The story was intriguing with its fair share of twists and turns, but I have to say what I liked best about it was the relationships and Tish herself. I found Tish, who is the first-person narrator, to be a sympathetic character even when she was being a genuine pain in the rear. She was a realistic character, one who makes poor decisions that are understandable yet really dumb. It was endearing and very relateable. I also think Goudge made a strong decision by making Tish a recovering alcoholic; it allowed for a lot of back-story and relationship complications that made the plot interesting and moved it forward.

The relationships between Tish and those around her are funny at times (for example, with Spence, the police detective whose car she lit on fire in high school after he ruined her reputation) and really lovely and full of long-time love and affection (with Ivy, her best friend since childhood). The weave of Tish's world was something I have never experienced--the living of life in a town you grew up in, where everyone knows you and remembers all of your best and worst moments, the ones you simply want to forget. The relationships drove the story, and they are worth spending time with to enjoy the narrative.

Also, I would love one of Ivy's bug dioramas--they sound amazing.

Kindle copy for purchase below. ($4.99! It's a steal!)

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Weight of Blood: A Novel

Well, there I go again, finding incredible novels and sharing them with you. Like this fine one for example, The Weight of Blood, by Laura McHugh. 

Henbane is a small town in the Ozarks--rarely do new people show up. When the beautiful and exotic Lila comes through and steals away one of the most eligible bachelors, rumor has it that she's a witch. She has a stunning baby girl, Lucy, before she disappears. Lucy grows up believing her mother killed herself until she begins to investigate the disappearance and murder of her best friend, Cheri. Things aren't adding up--and they may be far more sinister she can even envision.

I was full-on, no holds barred captivated by this novel. I was just simply intrigued for the first two chapters, then this story gripped me in its claws like a buzzard on roadkill. It was astonishing, really, this story that really had two main ideas that came out of it. The first is how the innocence of the young really allows children to believe what they are told and it in many ways protects them from the evil of the world, particularly of their fellow human beings; the second is that you may never really know the people you love. Either one of these would make for an astounding novel, but the way that McHugh wove these huge ideas together made for a read that I couldn't actually put down.

The story is told from several different perspectives which allowed me to understand both the past and the present of this tight-knit community and those who lived in it. I was very interested in finding out more of Lila and what happened to her, and I have to say that I didn't suspect what was coming. (Even though I expected that the bad guy might be the bad guy, I didn't quite expect that surprise.) The end of Part I is a game-changer--it turns the narrative arc on a dime and makes you unable to move from your seat until you push on through the next part. When Cheri's murder was connected to a much larger story, my mind was blown. It doesn't make sense yet it fits as a piece in the puzzle all at the same time.

McHugh has a wonderful writing style as well; she was able to write in several voices while still keeping a solid, steady note as the narrator of the same novel. She created a simple yet so complicated world that these characters lived in, and it's not terribly hard to have sympathy for them. This was one of those novels that I felt honored to have lived in for a few hours, and the praise that McHugh has received for this work is incredibly well-deserved.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Furman v. Georgia: The Death Penalty Case

I have found a great series of books that detail landmark supreme court cases (you can see the brand on the left), and it was all because I was seeking out as much information as I could about the history of and legal precedents on the death penalty. This book in the series is Furman v. Georgia: The Death Penalty Case by D.J. Herda.

The premise of the case that ultimately reached the Supreme Court is that William Henry Furman, a black man, who was convicted of murder was given a cruel and unusual punishment in being given the death penalty. The opinion of the Court was that the death penalty needed consistency across assignment of punishment which up until that time was not happening. This book discusses the events leading to the ruling, the ruling itself, and the aftermath.

What I find most important about this book set-up is that it is for the layman reader. I can certainly read my fair share of heavy books, particularly on this specific subject, but I found it refreshing to read a piece that was aimed to reach a literate audience without being either pedantic or over the heads of the masses. This book was short, sweet, and to the point, laying out the history of the case and the path to the Court, followed by the arguments in the case, the Supreme Court ruling, and the aftermath of the decision. Everything was boiled down to what the average reader needs to know, which is helpful when you are teaching something as complicated as judicial rulings to students at younger ages and with less experience reading heavy tomes.

I am really looking forward to picking up the rest of the books in the series; they have the Dred Scott case, the New York Times censorship case, and the right to bear arms case. (This is just in the Gold Editions; there are many others in their regular editions.)

Hard copy for purchase below.