Weekend Update: National Book Festival!

2014 National Book Festival Poster Artist: Bob StaakeFor those of you in the greater DC area this weekend, take the opportunity to attend the National Book Festival today! Held on Saturday, August 30th from 10 am – 10 pm in the Convention Center, it is the perfect opportunity to escape the sweltering heat by way of a good book.

This year, they have pavilions on Poetry & Prose, Culinary Arts, Fiction & Mystery, Science, History & Biography, and Contemporary Life. For children, they have the Picture Books, Children’s, and Teens rooms as well as a PBS Kids station. Authors will be speaking throughout the day and also have dedicated times for book signing. Politics & Prose will be selling books from all the authors on-site.

This year for the first time, they’re holding evening events, including a special panel on Graphic Novels as well as a presentation on “Great Books to Great Movies.”

This event is hosted by the Library of Congress and, most importantly, free of charge! For more information on getting to the Convention Center (conveniently located on the Yellow/Green metro lines and close to several other metro routes) and the schedule, check out the National Book Festival website – http://www.loc.gov/bookfest/.

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In the News: The Great Ivy League Debate

The war of perceptions about an Ivy League education has recently been heating up, in particular thanks to Columbia grad and former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, whose book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life recently has garnered copious attention. I don’t want to go into too much detail because (1) I haven’t read the book yet and (2) I’m a little biased against Deresiewicz, who came across as an entitled, pretentious jerk in A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, a book I did read.

So holding off on criticizing for a moment, I wanted to point out this engaging article by Alexander Nazaryan in Newsweek: “American Horror, Ivy League Edition.” Although I think his title is a tad hyperbolic, he brings up two other books as supporting evidence for Deresiewicz, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs and Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy by Andrew Lohse. Both are biography/memoirs about the results of an Ivy League education on real people. Now clearly Peace, Hobbs, and Lohse all had issues stemming from before their entrance into college, but it does bring into question the role colleges should play in the personal lives of their students. Is a college’s responsibility simply to teach classes and help graduates land jobs or should they be therapist and counselors, intervening in student’s choice to party it up and telling them to buckle down, to find meaning in their lives?

Everyone says that college is the best time of life so there’s a large element of societal expectation to make it that way. It’s also the first time most kids have the freedom to do what they want, though perhaps not the adult-brain to warn them of the consequences of their actions. Personally I’m a little less sympathetic to a Lohse, who chose to join a frat and succumb to its peer pressure, than to a Peace, who had a traumatic childhood that haunted him to New Haven and back. But in the end, it’s not hard to see why they made those decisions – most kids at that age don’t know what they’re doing with their lives, most don’t have a passion, so why wouldn’t they follow the crowd or take the easiest route?

I guess this is where Deresiewicz would say that colleges should be training them not to be sheep, but then you’d better have some good shepherds to show them the way (and, by the way, tell me when you find those because I’m out of college and could still use that help). To an extent, that’s an understandable and reasonable expectation, but on the cusp of adulthood, there are limits on the hand-holding that should be necessary. As almost-adults, it’s their decision what they want to do with themselves, and universities can’t be single-handedly responsible for producing passionate, successful people after 4 years, disregarding the 18 years they had no influence on their students’ lives, if the student’s choose not to go to classes, not to participate in campus life, and to be disdainful of their experience.

In the end, college is less about where you go than what you make of it. I’m not absolving the Ivy League and I don’t believe that the Ivy League is the best fit for everyone, but the same problems could be apparent in liberal arts colleges, community colleges, or in people who don’t even go to college. Like many issues, this is complex, but I think it’s pointless to point fingers at an institution like the Ivy League without examining our culture that heaps certain expectations on children’s shoulders without providing any guidance from the get-go.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to LeadSo I’m a little late to the game on this one. For an ardent feminist and self-described bookworm, I should have read this as soon as it came out. But I’ve read so many articles about it, for it, and against it, that by the time I finally got around to it, it felt like I already had read it.

I think that did disfavor to the book too. When it first came out, it probably seemed new and innovative, but when you attend meetings and your colleagues say “sit at the table” or you’ve heard numerous graduate school panels encourage you to speak up and take risks, it’s advice seems very overused. Same with the repetitious discussion about balancing children/family life with a career – a discussion that seems less pertinent to me as a fresh-out-of-college employee than perhaps older women, but something that the US in particular does much less well than other countries who are very supportive of maternal and paternal leave.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead has thrust Sheryl Sandberg into the spotlight. As a C-suiter and as a mother, all her actions are now criticized under the lens of feminist advocate. She herself throughout the book mentions that this made her hesitant to write it, though I don’t understand her misguided view of feminism and her belief that it had accomplished gender equality. Her career trajectory, and the anecdotes she mention, certainly suggest that she has a wealth of experience and knowledge about ascending up the business ladder as a women, to her current position as COO of Facebook.

Sandberg talks extensively about her own past, though she also intersperses examples from other women she knows as well as hard data. I’m glad that she acknowledged that she had privileged opportunities, including her schooling at Harvard and sponsorship by Larry Summers. (Side note: How do you get into Harvard without knowing about The Illiad and The Odyssey? In addition to her initial view on feminism, this lapse made me think that she’s a product of a different era and out-of-touch with millennials who are being educated and joining the workforce in a very different climate than when she grew up.) She also is white and wealthy, which affords her additional privileges that I’d imagine would be out of reach for many American women.

I certainly agree that there are not enough women in leadership in business or government. Take the recent Supreme Court decision about birth control – no matter what side of the issue you’re on, it’s telling if all the women consistently vote one way on these issues and the majority of men take the opposite view. Men have to be taught that it’s okay not to be the bread-winner, that it’s valid to be a stay-at-home dad, that current restrictions on women’s rights by government and companies effect them negatively too.

This is where I have a problem. I think women have proven to be very effective in leadership positions, and if women want to lead, then they should be able to. But not all women want to lead like not all men do. And that’s an equally valid choice. If women are hanging back from leadership roles because they don’t have the self-confidence to go for them, that’s an issue we need to resolve by educating girls from a young age that they have the potential to do whatever they will; however, I know plenty of people who are content with their positions – they can be heard when they want but they’re also happy to sit back and get work done quietly and efficiently. In sum, it’s a bit of an all-encompassing human issue when not all people are aggressively determined to rise to the top but society expects that drive from them and looks down at those who choose differently.

As I mentioned, I had heard this all before as have many other women I know. Now I need the tools to build that confidence, to push and challenge myself, to determine my goals and accomplish them instead of sabotaging myself. Maybe this is why Sandberg is so big on mentorship, but most of this development needs to come from within and I haven’t yet read any persuasive and effective material on how to self-improve in that way – definitely not from her self-promoting, pseudo-empowering website. That’s just personally – we also need more quality solutions as a community to incite structural and cultural reform.

Perhaps that can be Sandberg’s next book. She may have made Facebook work around her as did Melissa Mayer at Yahoo, but overall offered no comprehensive solutions to better women’s labor conditions at large. I applaud her for launching this conversation, but don’t think she has made substantive contributions to change.

3 Stars

Deb Caletti’s The Secret Life of Prince Charming

The Secret Life of Prince CharmingQuinn lives with her mother, grandmother, aunt, and little sister – a supportive crew of women who love each other but haven’t been able to hold onto romantic love. They’ve all suffered heartbreak caused by the men formerly in their lives, not least of all Quinn’s father. Quinn herself takes their words of wisdom into account, but doesn’t believe she’ll suffer the same since she’s in a comfortable (if unexciting) steady relationship – until her “reliable” boyfriend dumps her unceremoniously for another girl.

Meanwhile, Quinn and her younger sister Sprout are tentatively reconnecting with their father Barry, the titular Prince Charming who walked out on their family when they were kids. Visiting him every other weekend, Quinn is drawn in by his goofy antics and tall tales, and feels like he’s changed his ways after settling down with his current girlfriend. But then she discovers that he collects trophies from all the women he’s hurt, she realizes her image of him is nothing like the truth. She tentatively reaches out to her half-sister Frances Lee, and they work together to reunite Barry’s ex-girlfriends with their beloved possessions, hoping to mend some hearts along the way.

Quinn begins the story as a safe wallflower, reluctant to take risks or put herself out there because of the horror stories she has heard about men. She wants to believe the best of her father, which is understandable, but fairly quickly manages to banish her delusional image of him while realistically grappling with her new perceptions. It was touching to see how she bonded with the women in her immediate family, but also the women in the extended family that Barry connected her to. Most of the supporting women don’t get fleshed out much, though they are distinct, except for Frances Lee. She’s spunky and angry, a good influence for Quinn in helping her be more upfront and open to adventure. It’s cute how the relationship between the three sisters develops over the narrative as the get to know each other better.

I don’t know how I feel about the side romantic plot. Although Jake came off as a pretty decent guy and certainly challenged Quinn’s misconceptions, he was an unnecessary aside. There are other ways Quinn could have realized that not all men are terrible without shoehorning in the “perfect guy” into her life. I think it detracted from the focus on the women and their resilience, while not responding to the general negative attitude towards men permeating the novel.

This book is light and fluffy, with no real stakes. Yes, Quinn’s worried about maintaining her relationship with her father, but there’s nothing really climactic about how the story is handled. It’s a slow journey of self-discovery that makes the plot pacing slow as well. Although the premise is original, it’s not a gripping, page-turning read.

Enjoyable for fans of Maureen Johnson or Sarah Dessen.

3 Stars

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay

13542383The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, also known as The Secret Life of Bletchley Park, delves into the history of British counter-intelligence during World War II by way of anecdotes from the numerous Britishers who served in it. Until the 1970s, a code of silence concealed all knowledge of Bletchley Park activities – the individuals who worked there continued to stringently conform to the Official Secrets Act that they had pledged to uphold. Some do even to this day in a digital, globalized world that makes secret-keeping ever more difficult. Although several works of fiction and nonfiction have been published since then, Sinclair McKay does an excellent job of consolidating both the history of Bletchley Park and the personal stories of its staff.

As the title indicates, this book focuses mostly on the lives of the codebreakers, though it also discusses the history of Bletchley Park and the GC&CS (government code and cypher school) and the interaction of Bletchley operatives with the public and other governmental agencies. However, much of the text examines, for example, how the personnel were chosen, where they were billeted, the food at the canteen, the various social clubs they created (ranging from Scottish dancing to theatricals), and other minutiae of their everyday lives outside of codebreaking, translating, or whatever their occupations were. At the height of operations in 1944/45, there were some 9000 individuals working there among the 3 daily shifts.

One of McKay’s most interesting observations was the blend of social classes found there. A number of women, especially at the beginning, were pulled from the upper-class because the male directors believed that debutantes had more loyalty to the country and would know how to keep their mouths shut. Additionally, several famous artists and intellectuals spent time at Bletchley, including James Bond creator Ian Fleming, novelist Angus Wilson, historian Harry Hinsley, and several noted actors and actresses of the day. Yet, there was little tension – in a socioeconomic way at least, though plenty romantic and creative tensions arose.

In addition to the character sketches of ordinary individuals, McKay shines the spotlight on the leaders and pioneers in the code-cracking, including Alan Turing, Dilly Knox, John Jeffreys, and Gordon Welchman who were some of the earliest recruits and the finest mathematical minds in the nation. Quirky, complicated individuals, they nevertheless managed to work closely together to break through German codes, critically saving the lives of thousands and helping the Allies win the war. The time Turing, and also Tommy Flowers who worked with GC&CS via the Post Office, spent at Bletchley led to some of the earliest forms of computers.

(Aside: The upcoming film The Imitation Game” stars Benedict Cumerbatch as Alan Turing, including the excerpts of his life that he spent at Bletchley leading efforts on German cryptanalysis and becoming briefly engaged to a (female!) colleague, before he dies after being prosecuted for homosexuality.)

While the book was largely full of fascinating facts, I am skeptical of its editors’ prowess. Often, the narrative seems disjointed and abruptly switches between topics – it was very ill-organized. Explanations of certain things (i.e. the bombes) come chapters after the terminology is introduced, without even a glossary at the end to lend clarity. Compounding this issue was the repetition of specific facts, which led to redundancy and thus boredom. Additionally, since so many people are featured, it’s hard to distinguish between them as they pop up throughout the text.

Spy-enthusiasts, conspiracy-theorists, and World War buffs will find this book intriguing, if far less adventurous than would be imagined. For me, the highlight was hearing about these extraordinary youth – many were my age or younger and I can’t even fathom the boundless intelligence or persistence they expressed in a climate of stress and fear.

3 Stars

In the News: Bookless Library

Despite all the turmoil in the world, this may be the saddest news I’ve read all day: “Florida Polytechnic University opens with a bookless library.” As a bibliophile and former Floridian, I’m appalled that the state of education in my home state has sunk to the level that books aren’t considered vital to a university or its student body. Yes, it does say that they have access to e-books and to interlibrary loans, but I recall from my own college days the joy of studying in carrels among the shelves, surrounded by stacks of dusty hardcovers with bright neon sticky notes sticking out of every few pages.

Although the online tools the library offers are probably useful for citations and organizing papers, a large amount of the learning experience is lost when you can Control + F articles online to find what you need instead of actually having to *gasp* read. Innumerable times I discovered fresh insights or fascinating factoids from physically having to turn through the pages or from scanning similar the section around the book I was searching for. I sincerely hope that the e-book obsession reverses, and bookless libraries are not the libraries of the future.

Katherine Webb’s The Legacy

The LegacyI’m a sucker for books with creepy houses, especially of the large and historic variety. So it was a no-brainer that I would pick Katherine Webb’s The Legacy up as it seemed in the vein of Kate Morton or Karen White.

Erica Calcott and her older sister Beth grew up under the stern eye of their grandmother at the imposing Storton Manor. Now that she’s died, they are surprised to find themselves the heirs to the estate, under the condition that they must live there to keep it. However, Beth is reluctant to return due to a family tragedy when they were young – their cousin Henry disappeared, possibly died, from Storton’s grounds. Emotionally fragile and depressed since then, she is coerced into going over and packing up grandmother’s belongings by Erica, who hopes that being there will allow Beth to come to terms with what happened and help Erica herself remember what she has forgotten.

Sadly, while a mildly interesting read, this book didn’t deliver on its promises. The dark family secret wasn’t so dark or exciting, yet neither Erica nor Beth had really recovered or developed since it occurred. They were both bland characters and I wasn’t emotionally invested in their situation, particularly with regards to Erica’s ridiculous pining after their childhood friend. However, there’s also a extended side plot about the secret baby that may or may not have belonged to their great-grandmother. I was significantly more enthralled with that thread than the modern story-line, despite the fact that I had guessed the climax accurately, and felt disappointed when the narrative switched from past to present.

If you’re looking for a light historical fiction read, this could be enjoyable. Unfortunately, it’s not particularly memorable among others of its type.

3 Stars