Monday, February 23, 2015

Reconstructing Amelia and Loving Reading

I just finished reading Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight. Maybe I should rephrase that. I just finished devouring Reconstructing Amelia.

Amelia is a high school girl attending an elite school. She is an excellent student and never gets into trouble. Amelia is accused of cheating, and her mother, Kate, rushes from work to the school to pick her up for her suspension. Instead of picking her up, Kate finds out that Amelia is dead. What happened? Was this the suicide of a troubled girl as the school claimed? Or was something else going on? Told alternately through Kate and Amelia's voices, we find out what lead up to Amelia's death. It kept me turning pages and wondering until the end. A good read!


I was satisfied as I finished reading this book. At the end of the book there were acknowledgements by the author. I read those. And then after that, there were the dreaded Book Group Questions. Questions designed, it seems to me, to suck the life right out of a book.

I enjoy books as a whole, which is why I think I prefer book books to digital books. (I'll read on my Nook when I'm traveling, as the ease and portability make it a worthwhile tradeoff.) But I love books themselves. I like the cover art and design, I like feeling the heft of a book. I like the font on the pages, I like feeling the texture of the pages. I like looking through the entire book. I like BOOKS.

However, I've noticed that when I come upon Reader's Guide Questions at the end of a book, which seem to be ubiquitous these days, it deflates my book experience.

It makes me feel like school. Like reading the book is supposed to be "educational", or "thought provoking" or that it is supposed to "challenge me". Books ARE those things and do those things, all by themselves. Books expand my thoughts and feelings, books challenge me to see things and people in a new light, books may (as this one did) deal with difficult issues. Reading is one of THE most "educational" thing a person can do.

Which is why, when I taught third grade, I carved out 20 minutes into every school day for reading. Just reading. They had to read, but I didn't have to know what they were reading. I didn't check and make sure they finished what they read. They didn't have to do book reports on what they read. There were no comprehension questions. No tests or quizzes. They just had to read. I also sent home a slip every Friday for the parents to sign off on that they read for an hour over the week-end. They just had to be reading.

Some of the kids loved this from the beginning. (ALL of the parents loved this from the beginning.) These were the kids who already loved to read. This was bonus time in their school day. And there were other kids who did not like this. They would fidget. And squirm. And roll their eyes. They'd ask me if they could draw (no). They'd ask if they could work on their math (no). I had a small classroom library. The school had a library. They could bring a book from home. They could find something to read. I told them they could start a book and change their minds in the middle if they didn't like it.

And gradually, even those reluctant readers began to enjoy reading. By the end of the year all the students would read quietly for the 20 minutes. And parents reported that their reluctant readers would settle into reading at home too.

School can suck the life out of learning and reading. The goal is that it doesn't, but sometimes it does. I did not want reading to be a chore. I wanted my students to love to read for its own sake.

Just as I loved reading Reconstructing Amelia.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

California by Edan Lepucki

I've been checking California out from the library, bringing it home and not reading it for a few months. Other books were just more appealing at the time, so this one did not get read. And then my partner bought it for me for a beach getaway and I (finally!) read it. Yay!

I was interested in this book because I'd read some good reviews. My partner was intrigued because Dan Chaon had a blurb on it as an endorsement. (Dan Chaon has written some dark and twisted - and very good! - things.) His endorsement says: "Stunning and brilliant...a wholly original take on the post-apocalypse genre."



Frida and Cal live in the woods. They came to the forest to survive. There's been some sort of societal collapse, and the people that are left have had to make drastic changes to survive. Cal's parents died in severe snowstorms in Cleveland. Frida's parents may or may not be alive in southern California. Frida's brother died a controversial death. Frida and Cal live in a small shack. With Cal's outdoor skills, they eke out a meager existence, though wonder how long they can live alone in the woods, especially when Frida realizes she's pregnant.

And then Frida finds neighbors, Bo and Sandy and their two children. It sounds almost idyllic, doesn't it?, two small families living in the wilderness, learning how to live off the land. Cal and Frida want it to be idyllic. Safe. It seemed good to have another family around for help and companionship.

While Cal and Frida are comforted to find others, they also have fear and questions. Why didn't Bo and Sandy disclose their existence to Cal and Frida from the beginning? Who is the mysterious traveler, August? Why did Frida's brother, Micah, die the way he did? And what are the Spikes and who lives beyond them?

Something shocking and disturbing happens, and Cal and Frida realize that they have to find answers. They leave their tiny settlement and find a well guarded community. This community can offer security, but at what cost? What are they hiding?

Lepucki releases the story carefully, leading us, along with Cal and Frida, deeper into this insulated community of survivors, where they have to navigate who they can trust and discern what they will do to ensure their own security.

Chilling. Brrrr.

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Friday, February 13, 2015

The Girl on the Train

I was excited to see The Girl on the Train on the best seller table at the library. I grabbed it as soon as I saw it. This book has been receiving a lot of buzz, touted as one of the best books of 2015. It has been compared to Gone Girl (which I loved), so I was excited to read it.


Rachel rides trains. She rides trains to fake a commute to London so she doesn't have to tell her roommate that she lost her job. Rachel also drinks. A lot.

As Rachel rides the train, she looks out the window. She has a favorite station where she can look into the homes of the people who live nearby. In one of the homes she sees a couple. In her mind, she creates an entire reality for this couple, giving them names, determining that they are a happy couple, imagining what they do for work, and how much they enjoy sitting on their terrace. Rachel ascribes this couple with a happiness that she no longer feels, as her drinking ruined her relationship with her ex-husband. Her ex-husband and his new wife, Anna, live near this station as well. Hmmm. Could that be why she likes this particular station so much?

As she's riding the train one day, she sees something that shatters her view of the loving couple, whom she's named Jason and Jess. This propels her to get involved in their lives. Is this a good idea?

Rachel cares for this couple in an intimate, yet distant and abstract way. She wants to help, but even so, her motives are weak. As she tries to help, her story gets tangled with theirs, and readers are left wondering what is true. Heck, Rachel wonders what is true, even about her own actions. Can you say "unreliable narrator"?

And she's not the only one. Rachel tells the story, as does Megan (Jess's real name), who has issues of her own. We also hear the story from Anna's point of view, Rachel's ex-husband's wife. Three different points of view, all of which are skewed. What is really going on?

The story unfolds well, truths (and untruths) revealed carefully and well. This is a taut psychological thriller that kept me guessing until (almost!) the very end. A good read!

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Proof: the Science of Booze by Adam Rogers

I brought Proof: The Science of Booze to a beach week-end getaway where there may have been some partaking of adult beverages. It seemed like a good fit.


Rogers gets his science on as he explores the science of making different kind of alcohol - with yeast, distillation, sugar, and fermentation. He interweaves the history of different kinds of alcohol, and how different cultures chose their alcoholic drink of choice, often by what was at hand to make it. In addition, he explores the science of smell and taste and how alcohol reacts with the body.

I enjoyed reading about the different processes and molecular interactions required to make alcohol. I can guarantee I won't remember most of the technical bits (and there were a lot of technical bits), but it was fun to get some historical and scientific context for different alcoholic beverages.

My favorite part was when he talked about how alcohol affects the body. There are numerous studies - and results - for other kinds of addictive substances (opioids, for instances), but very few about alcohol, Very little is actually known about how, molecularly, alcohol reacts in the body.

Rogers describes that, in 1973, Alan Marlatt developed a study to try to determine how people react when drinking moderate amounts of alcohol. The thing is, he wanted to study people who didn't know if they were drinking alcohol or not. This proved to be a challenge. It's really hard to develop a drink that doesn't have some taste of alcohol in it. But he did. Five parts tonic water and one part vodka served cold was the alcoholic beverage. All tonic water was the placebo. This was great, because then he could have four groups to study - people who expected a drink with alcohol and got a drink with alcohol, people who expected a drink with alcohol and got a placebo, people who expected a placebo and got a placebo, and people who expected a placebo and got alcohol.

What do you think happened when people started drinking?

NONE of the drinkers experienced loss of control unless they thought they were getting alcohol. Think about that. Even the people who thought they were getting a placebo but got alcohol instead did not show any loss of control. People's expectancies about their experience with alcohol determines their experience with alcohol.

More studies have been done since which take that idea further. Why do some people get violent and aggressive when they drink and others are mellow? Looking at other cultures, as well as more scientific studies, have shown that cultural and societal influences determine how people react when they are intoxicated, which would then influence their expectations of how alcohol will affect them.

Fascinating stuff. I read this chapter twice.

Rogers makes the science accessible for us non-sciency types with a friendly writing style. Proof: The Science of Booze is chock full of information into one of the world's favorite substances. Well done.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Station Eleven

Station Eleven has been getting a lot of buzz, so it had been on my radar. I was pleased when it was on the bestseller shelf at the library! I snatched it up.

And I'm glad I did.


The book opens on a production of King Lear. Arthur Leander playes Lear, and 8 year old Kirsten plays one of his daughters in this creative interpretation of the play. There is a tragedy on stage, and a young man comes from the audience to help. After that scene closes, we then open 15 years later, after the Georgia flu has claimed the life of most of the world's population. Society has collapsed. People live in small groups, some of which are nomadic, like the Traveling Symphony.

We follow Kirsten, now grown, as she travels around the Great Lakes with the Traveling Symphony, as the troupe performs Shakespeare and music for scattered small communities. We flash back to Arthur's life before Lear, including his previous wives, his best friend, and his rise to fame. We see Jeevan, the young would-be rescuer, as he works to understand what life has become after the Georgia flu. And we see Kirsten, a child when society collapsed, and now an adult, trying to make meaning in this new world.

The story could have been really convoluted, going from past to present and back again, but Mandel weaves the story together beautifully. Mandel has created a stunning novel, exploring connection and love and humanity. Well done.

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