The Last Summer of the Camperdowns by Elizabeth Kelly

The Last Summer of the CamperdownsThe summer Riddle James Camperdown turns thirteen is The Last Summer of the Camperdowns. Not a house, as I guess from the cover, but a family composed of daughter Riddle (named after labor union leader James Riddle Hoffa), cold and sneering ex-actress Greer, and the famed labor historian/Broadway composer turned political candidate Godfrey “Camp” Camperdown. That summer, as Camp runs for the House of Representatives in protest of the Vietnam War and the erupting Watergate scandal, Riddle and Greer are dragged into endless campaigning that only gets worse as a tragedy occurs in their neighborhood bringing long-buried family secrets to the surface.

Despite their strained relationship, Greer and Riddle find common ground in their mutual love for horses and hounds, and frequently visit their neighbor Gin’s stables. Gin, a lifelong bachelor living off his mother’s handouts, is obsessed with breeding Irish Gypsy horses and has recruited horse-hand Gula Nightjar to help him. Gula gives Riddle the creeps, even before she uncovers evidence that he committed a brutal murder and then stalks her to enforce her silence. As Riddle struggles to understand what she witnessed and fears to reveal her knowledge, her world is also shaken by the arrival of the Devlins, another blue-blooded family consisting of Greer’s ex-flame and Camp’s ex-best friend Michael and his handsome son Harry, who becomes Riddle’s friend and first crush. From all of the above, her emotions are in turmoil and the consequences of her secret-keeping become more dire.

Riddle frustrated me extensively. I didn’t have a problem with her language as other readers did because of its maturity and linguistic style (extensive use of metaphors and similes particularly), since I got the impression that the adult Riddle was making the memory more lyrical in its retelling. But 13 year-old Riddle did vascillate between acting/demanding to be treated like an adult and childishness to a ridiculous extent. I understand that it was a time of growth and transition for her, but a character initially billed as a good listener and a fighter seemed to ignore what was going on around her and retreat into herself incomprehensibly.

I get that she was scared of the repercussions of telling the truth about the crime she observed in the barn, because she was confused about the situation and fearful of ending up in the same deceased condition. However, I kept wanting to shake her and make her ‘fess up. The middle of the story got repetitious as concerned adults asked her what was wrong and she burst into tears, refusing to tell. Obviously these people want to know the truth, and obviously she had a good relationship with her father if not her mother, so I can’t comprehend why she didn’t say something sooner. It got creepier as she befriended Harry and stole Charlie’s belongings – I could no longer sympathize with her. For all her protestations about her mother’s lack of a moral compass, apparently the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

However, I did (mostly) enjoy the supporting characters, including adult Riddle. Under Greer’s caustic barbs and Camp’s bluster,  I could feel their love for each other and Riddle. While Michael Devlin was basically the rich bad-boy poster child, I appreciated that Harry was such an upright and affable love interest. Gin was the perfect sniveling t0ady, for whom I did have slight empathy because of his incorrigibly gossipy mother Mirabel.  The villain Gula was sinister without being a caricature, and I appreciated that his motives had a real, if twisted, explanation.

On the plus side, and once again being judgey about covers, I thought this one fit perfectly – beachy and nostalgic, capturing the essence of the book of remembrance and an idyllic summer that is no longer within reach. The setting was such a strong presence within the novel from the towering dunes of the Cape to the wild crashing of the waves to the dark and deadly forest. Set in Wellfleet, Massachusetts in 1972, the place exuded  an old-world spirit that even seemed outdated for that time and location, with its cigarette-smoking sultry rich folk and fox hunting soirees, simply because I can’t fathom people like  that. This is one area where Kelly’s writing style triumphed by creating a vivid mood that made the tale come alive (and made me think this would make for a good movie). Yet, the central “mystery” didn’t quite live up to the American Gothic atmosphere.

really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, the weakness of the protagonist ruined it for me. Even she admits that “Crying had become [her] job for the summer.” (pg.342) It’s sad when Vera the basset hound trumps her owner in character. In some ways, this reminded me of The Great Gatsby, with its preoccupation with the foibles of the wealthy, and it also had similarities to The Chocolate Money, which I’ve previously reviewed, in that both the main characters lack the backbone to be the good people they want to be. I would recommend it as a cautionary tale, but not a beach read  – it felt like the dark days as summer wanes and the seasons change and the life ahead looks dimmer than it did in June.

3 Stars

Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies

Big Little LiesLianne Moriarty’s Big Little Lies is like if “Mean Girls” had opened with Regina getting hit by a bus, and then flashed-back to everything that happened to cause that moment. From the beginning, it starts with a bang as a dead body is discovered at the local elementary school’s Trivia Night fundraiser and the police interview the witnesses. Turning to six months earlier, we learn how the suspected murder came to happen and who in fact was murdered.

Three women are at the center of the story. Madeline is loud-mouthed and a little nuts, but has a good heart – though not big enough to embrace her ex-husband’s young second wife, whose daughter is joining the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest child. Her passionate distaste for wife #2 only grows when Madeline’s teenage daughter seems to prefer her step-mother over her mother. Celeste is gorgeous and aloof, with the perfect husband, the perfect twin boys, and the perfect life (seemingly). Newcomer Jane is a single mom who is perpetually stressed and doesn’t quite fit in with the other kindergarten moms, well-manicured and successful.

With Madeline and Celeste taking Jane under their wing, cliques soon start to form among the parentals, especially when an accusation of bullying arises. This situation quickly escalates into a not-so-cold war with both sides behaving badly. The rising hostility is mostly thanks to Madeline’s righteous indignation and rival mom Renata’s politicking, which boil on top of the usual issues of working vs. stay-at-home moms, helicopter parenting, and the like. All the characters and their reactions are extremely believable while not being cliche, which was crucial to making such a character-driven mystery work.

While this is a long book (nearly 500 pages), it’s a quick and engaging read that makes you laugh out loud. However, it’s a dark kind of humor since the book covers issues from spousal abuse to sex trafficking. You’ll likely get whiplash from how often the tone changes, to say nothing of the twists and turns of the plot – but it’s a roller coaster ride worth being on! I spent the whole book biting my nails in worry that one of my favorite characters would bite the bullet. It kept surprising me until the crazy conclusion and its aftermath, and while I picked up hints, I  never guessed how it would play out.

This was what I wanted Jennifer Weiner’s Goodbye Nobody to be. Perfect for fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? or those looking for a more humorous version of Gone Girl with characters who aren’t terrible, just human beings.

5 Stars

In the News: Happy Banned Books Week!

Yes, I realize banning books is not a celebratory topic, but it’s better than burning books a la Farenheit 451, right? This is the 32nd Banned Books Week sponsored by the American Library Association, which uses this time to call attention to the issue of censorship and embrace the freedom of reading.

However, Kristen Scatton, author of this piece in Bustle,  caused me to reflect on how to moderate books without banning them. Because she’s right – while the dissemination of information is crucial to the way our society operates, there’s also some types of information that we don’t expose kids to because it’s inappropriate for their age. Despite how much I currently love George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I wouldn’t give it to my 12 year-old self to read. At that age, I was obsessed with Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet, which was about growing up without being grown-up and apt for my age, after graduating from my 8 year-old self’s obsession with Harry Potter (not that I still wasn’t obsessed as a 12 year-old or even as a 21 year-old).

My point is that there’s some thematic commonalities between the three works, and all exist in the fantasy genre, but these ideas in each are tackled in ways that are appropriate for different age groups. I heartily agreed with Scatton’s point that it would be useful to create an age-based rating system for books to provide guidance for parents and teachers. Sure, some children have the maturity to read at a higher level and should be encouraged to do so, as my elementary school librarian did for me, but at least more information would be provided upfront rather than after the reader reaches the end of the book when what they know can’t be unknown!

I recently read The Queen of the Tearling and, as I noted on my review, was surprised at the unexpected adultness of some of its scenes. It’s billed as “young adult” so I could’ve easily picked it up as a 6th grader, when the mentions of rape and sex trafficking would’ve shocked my adolescent sensibilities. A rating system could prevent the same mistake being made by an actual 6th grader if they’re not ready for that content.

While I don’t necessarily agree that you need an adults-only section in libraries or that technology will be helpful in blocked access to restricted materials (I actually think the opposite is true), Scatton injects new ideas into the banned books debate, which has mainly centered on the question: Should books be banned and which ones? The answer: NO, none, never.

War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz

War of the Whales: A True StoryIt seems this blog was successful in influencing me to branch out to new genres. I ordinarily would never read something so sciencey but I saw this one on a friend’s shelf and thought, why not? And I’m very glad I did.

Joshua Horwitz’s War of the Whales chronicles the mass strandings of various whale subspecies due to the Navy’s use of deep-water sonar and the fight to enact new legislation protecting the oceans against violent intrusion from military activities. In the summer of 2000, Marine photographer and ex-Navy officer Ken Balcomb thought it was just another day of whale-spotting with his Earthwatch volunteers in the Bahamas until he finds a beached Curvier’s beaked whale outside his house. Within 24 hours, numerous other whales are spotted grounded ashore, with many of them unable to survive the experience. Calling on fellow biologists, like Bob Gisner of the Office of Naval Research and Darlene Ketten, a renowned whale hearing expert, as well as the Internet community, he attempts to find the reason behind this strange occurrence.

Coming to find himself stymied by the government and with a suspicious naval destroyer doing highly classified testing in the area, Balcomb’s experience leads him to the conclusion that the Navy’s sonar testing frightened and disoriented the whales by causing their eardrums to hemorrhage so that they headed towards shore accidentally. Similar incidents occurred after NATO naval tests off the coast of Greece and after the Spanish navy conducted exercises by the Canary Islands. Although he felt guilty about betraying his fellow soldiers, Balcomb eventually decides to expose the Navy’s role in multiple instances of whale deaths with the aid of attorney Joel Reynolds from the Natural Resources Defense Council, spurring a halfhearted government investigation and eventual Supreme Court case. (Spoiler: They lose in the court of law but win in the court of public opinion.)

Horwitz excels at making his cast come alive as distinctly human individuals. Although the government and military are meant to be the bad guys, with the Navy being the chief villain and fisheries being their minions, he provides compelling reasons for their actions, primarily in the interests of self-protection and national security that do have to be balanced against environmental protection. Neither Reynolds nor Balcomb are perfect either, see their numerous failed relationships as evidence, but their passion and dogged persistence for their beliefs outweighs other character flaws in this context. I’m sure none of these individuals appreciated seeing their actions (or inactions) dragged into the public eye, but at least Horwitz makes them all understandable to the reader.

He is also incredibly good at clarifying the often murky and complicated scientific and legal facts that are crucial to this story. From the anatomy of a whale’s head to the process of training dolphins to detect bombs to the complexity of filing a Supreme Court case, he manages to explain things clearly and in a way that doesn’t feel like a dry footnote. This book could’ve easily been textbook boring, but instead it is an approachable and engaging read.

Unfortunately the sad part is that despite the recent attention Save the Whales campaigns have received, it’s still hard to enforce what little legislation exists both in the US and worldwide. As Horwitz explained, the premier marine biologists are all dependent on the government and military for funding, so are often reluctant to stand up for the environment. While the awareness of noise pollution in the oceans in greater, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how human activity affects marine life, and how to balance between the two.

However, this book is a perfect launching point for learning and discussing these issues. It was definitely one of the best-written non-fiction books I’ve read, especially on such a timely topic with connections from the documentary “Blackfish” to military power/responsibility in a post-9/11 era.

5 Stars

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaThis was September’s book club pick, selected by an elderly gent who professed how much it engaged and moved him while he was hopped up on pain meds and laid up in bed after hip surgery. Given that commendation, plus the glowing reviews on the web, I was prepared to be starstruck.

Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set in war-torn Chechnya, a portion of the Caucasus in Russia that is heavily Muslim and has struggled for independence over the last two decades. The book stretches from prior to the First Chechen War for Independence in the mid-nineties to the mid-2000s, at the official conclusion of the 2nd War, though there are plenty who would say it’s still continuing to this day through terrorist/guerrilla warfare.

The plot centers on a rural village, when eight-year-old Havaa sees her house burned down and her father abducted by Russian soldiers as no one in the village comes to his aid. Striken with guilt over his inaction, neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa alone in the woods with her little blue suitcase and drags her away to a nearby city to take sanctuary at the hospital that prickly native-Russian Sonja works at as the sole doctor. The three of them over the course of five days develop a deeper connection despite the hidden wounds from their past.

Also in the cast is historian Khassan, another villager who has spent years writing books on Chechen history and ignoring his son who has become an informer for the Russians, and who we find out was responsible for Havaa’s father’s kidnapping. Sonja had a sister Natasha, whom she practically raised and has now gone missing, while Akhmed cares for his bedridden, ailing wife who barely recognizes him. As we see, the Russians are not the only ones responsible for the absences in these characters lives, but the binding thread is that these characters all have an undercurrent of hope remaining and which they’ll find through each other.

The title comes from a Russian medical textbook read by Natasha in which “a constellation of vital phenomena” is the definition of life. I didn’t love the title because I thought it was poorly connected to the rest of the plot, but my fellow book clubbers pointed out to me that a series of seemingly unrelated events connect all the characters (the stars within the constellation) to each other because of their shared relationships and experiences. The word “vital” also connects to the hospital setting, to Sonja and Akhhmed’s medical backgrounds, and to the fine balance between life and death that the characters court every day.

As I’ve mentioned before, I studied international relations in college, and had luckily taken a semester-long course on the Caucasus. Without that to call upon, I would’ve been totally lost. In focusing so deeply on a character-driven drama, it’s hard to understand the place and time those characters exist. There was no real explanation of the conflict, just hints here and there about what had happened or was happening. Wikipedia became my friend as the timeline got muddled, though I appreciated that Marra included a physical timeline at the start of each chapter since the plot contained a lot of flashbacks and flash-forwards.

I indicated “terrorist/guerrilla warfare” above, because throughout the timespan in the book, the characters clearly favor the ethnic Chechens over the Russians, who they perceive to be the cruel aggressors. The warlords and refugees are meant to be sympathized with, because their homeland and families are being destroyed and their liberties are being infringed on. Not that I’m endorsing terrorism, but another course I took in college on Just War Theory pointed out that the American War for Independence was construed as terrorism by the British, whereas nowadays we think of it as a glory-filled fight for freedom. Marra’s bias is apparent, but I presume he chose to express that viewpoint in order to make his readers think about the justifications on both sides of the conflict.

Marra’s writing style is beautiful and poetic, a jarring conclusion to the reality of the violence of a situation brimming with land mines and abductions. Unfortunately, it often becomes too verbose. One sentence stretched over multiple pages. Especially at the beginning, I think he could have cut down the verbage – what was meant to launch the text turned into a boring opening section, with the book not really picking up until the middle. If only he had cut some of the beginning and included a brief foreword on Chechen history, the book would’ve been much improved. I could easily see a reader overwhelmed by the language and unexplained history putting the book down and never picking it up again.

Which would be a pity, because it became a complex, thought- (and emotion-) provoking book towards the conclusion (and again, improved even more with discussion amongst book club members). I was disinterested in the beginning (2 Stars) and loved the ending (5 Stars), especially with the definitity of its conclusions following the characters into the future beyond the text, that I’d have to average it out to

3.5 Stars

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of CharacterPaul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character aims to redefine how we look at and classify “success” for children. Beyond good grades and high standardized test scores, what character traits are we teaching kids that will help them be successful through college and into adulthood? He argues that success has less to do with IQ and more to do with inner skills like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, and optimism, which can be taught within educational institutions.

Tough draws on extensive psychology, neuroscience, and economic research as well as his own investigations into the KIPP programs, prep or charter schools, and other educational projects. He does a good job of synthesizing the science with the anecdotes from individual experiences. The gist of the book centers around the cognitive versus non-cognitive skills debate, specifically as it applies to the concept of failure – how children relate to it, how they overcome it, how it challenges them. Tough surmises that privileged children are so sheltered that they haven’t learned how to recover from failure so it demoralizes them when it happens while impoverished children have dealt with so much failure in their lives without being equipped to handle it that they often give up on themselves. However, children from any socio-economic background who are persistent, self-disciplined, and focused can learn from their failure and move forward. These lessons are useful as children encounter increasingly difficult academic environments and adult responsibilities, and without learning them early they cannot be successful throughout their lives.

Then the problem becomes, how do we teach these skills? Again, scientists and educators have all sorts of opinions about it. Even the character traits considered vital for success differ across the board, with synonyms (i.e. “grit” being replaced by “resilience”) or arguments about whether “kindness” should be one. This is not to mention the varying definitions of success, as exemplified by the chess champion who fails academically or KIPP graduates who drop out of college. KIPP has now committed to focusing on character development, even issuing a character report card, but it’s unclear if this new model can create lasting success in a child’s life. Certainly standardized tests aren’t the best predictor of success, but we do need some way to measure process and it’s hard to measure the impact of character development initiatives.

Also at question is whether schools should even be teaching character, or if they should just be focused on content. Character development was previously the responsibility of parents, the primary influences on a child’s life (aside from their friends as they grow older). If education shifts its focused to non-cognitive skill training over cognitive, we’re looking at a learning landscape very different from the traditional historical model.

Tough doesn’t ignore the importance of parenting, negatively or positively, since what’s going in on in a child’s family can’t be isolated from their life at school. One strategy for at-risk youth is providing them with nurturing environments, which helps them overcome traumatic experiences. Meanwhile, wealthy parents tend to “helicopter” and this excessive attachment puts too much pressure on their kids to succeed. A healthy medium between the two is needed, though he isn’t exactly clear on how to find that.

This book doesn’t posit a ton of effective solutions, mainly because we don’t yet know what’s an effective solution. From Tough’s examinations, there’s a wide variety of methods that are being used to varying degrees of success – most of what is implemented is done on a trial and error basis. Still, he offers much to think about on the links between education and character development, factors that I hadn’t considered in play while I was growing up, but seem more obvious in retrospect.

An informational, though not necessarily ground-breaking, read for teachers and parents, especially those who place a high value on education or have strong opinions as to the current state of America’s educational system.

3.5 Stars

In the News: Facebook’s “books that have stayed with us”

Many of you have probably heard about the recent Facebook meme about “Books that have stayed with You.” These aren’t just favorite books, but books that have made a lasting impact on your life. Seeing your friends post their list gives you an insight into what influences them and what shared influences you have between you. The results that Facebook’s analytics have found are really neat, though obviously skewed by a younger and more-Westernized audience. But, for example, there’s a 0.4 overlap in books shared between friends compared to the 0.1 overlap between random lists – meaning friends tend to have similar literary leanings. For the full data analysis, take a look here.

I didn’t do this list on Facebook, though I combed through my friend’s lists and noted a couple books down on my “to-read” list, but I wanted to expand on why I chose the books I did. So without further ado, the books that stayed with me (in order of reading chronology):

1. The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White (2nd grade) – This is going to sound ridiculous coming from a book blogger, but I hated to read when I was a kid. It took me the longest time to learn how and I think my embarrassment over my inability lead to dislike of the activity. But this is the first book I can remember loving. Louis’ courage and determination to overcome his deficiencies inspired me to do the same.

2. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (3rd grade-12th grade) – 21% of those who did this meme put Harry Potter somewhere on their list, and for good reason. These books may not be the pinnacle of English-language literature, but they’ve become classics amongst a certain cadre of youth who grew up eagerly waiting for Harry’s next adventure (not to mention their own Hogwarts letter!). I was no exception to the obsession and made a number of friends because of our shared Potter-mania. A book that can build friendships is indeed magical.

3. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (6th grade) – This was the book that taught me empathy for others. I couldn’t relate to a gang of ’60s greaser guys, but Johnny and Ponyboy still struck a chord inside me, teaching me to look beyond first visual impressions into the inner complexities of a person. I’ve reread this book multiple times since and I’m still shaken every time I get to “stay gold.”

4. Cambridge Latin Course (7th-11th grades) – Not an obvious pick perhaps, but I studied Latin for six years and was a total Classics nerd. To this day, I’ll still sing the Mickey Mouse conjugation song, recite lines of Catullus’ poetry, or translate random words and phrases based on the Latin roots I know. Although post-high school I transferred into a language that’s actually spoken, the Roman History class I took in college is still one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had, one that would’ve never happened if this book hadn’t sparked my interest in Ancient Rome.

5. Animal Farm by George Orwell (8th grade) – Around 8th grade, I started becoming interested in politics, disillusioned with the current American administration. I read this while on a trip to Egypt and France, and thus began my interest in government and political activism, eventually leading me to DC. “All animals are equal…but some animals are more equal than others.”

6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (10th grade) – I became a vocal feminist because of this book. Like many celebrities today (cough*TSwift*cough), I didn’t really understand the concept of feminism but Atwood drew my attention to ongoing discrimination against women by portraying a dystopian society not too far removed from what ours could be someday.The politics of gender have been ongoing for thousands of years, but I hope they don’t evolve as in Offred’s experience.

7. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (12th grade) – Since I began liking books, I knew they could take me on new adventures and teach me new things, but Nafisi demonstrated how literature turns dreams into reality for women globally, especially when they are so constrained in their society. Through her memoir, I realized what an astounding transformative impact education can have on the political, economic, and social development of a community.

8. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (12th grade) – I read this book when I was making a final decision about what college to go to. Delving into the human struggle within the larger political-military landscape of Afghanistan solidified my choice to major in international relations, with a focus on the Middle East. I may not work in that field now, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the turmoil in the region has not eased since this book was written and individuals continue to suffer due to the machinations of their self-serving governments.

9. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (summer before college) – As a first-generation Indian-American, I related to Gogol’s difficulties assimilating both his cultures (and thank God that my parents didn’t give me an obscure ethnic name). In college, I threw myself into Indian-centric activities and classes because I felt like I didn’t comprehend my ancestry and I wanted to embrace it more. I often feel like I’m a “bad” Indian when I suck at math or can’t properly cook curry. To this day, I’m slow to navigate between my family heritage and the customs of my homeland, especially in cases of value conflict.

10. I Am The Messanger by Markus Zusak (2013) – A lot of people laud Zusak’s The Book Thief, but I think this is his better work. Through average shmoe Ed, the reader understands what it means to stand up and take action for the good, something that everyone can do, not just heroes. “I am not the messenger, I am the message.”

As you can see, I picked these because they molded the person I am by guiding me towards certain life decisions. I’d love to hear your top picks, if they differ or if any are the same. Like I said, this is a great way of finding commonalities but also for getting inspiration about new reads from people you trust. I hope you pick up some of my recommendations!