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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review: Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis

Since the dawn of the Wimpy Kid empire the novel as journal by the main character has become a publishing mainstay. A new series pops up every few months, but after I read the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid I decided that the genre as a whole was probably not for me. Though there are stand outs, I really enjoyed James Patterson's first Middle School book and Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is amazing (though written for a much older audience). But when I received a copy of Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, quite frankly, it looked adorable and genuinely funny so I had to try it.

Timmy's story is part Wimpy Kid with Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts undertones and it is all funny. Timmy Failure was written by Pearl Before Swine author Stephan Pastis (which may have been another reason I had to give it a try) so his debt to the comic strip greats comes honestly. This was a book for kids written with adult readers in mind. The chapter titles reference pop culture that kids will not understand and while it does not put a damper on their enjoyment of the novel it definitely works to increase the giggles on the adult's side.

Timmy Failure is a struggling detective. He's struggling for quite a few reasons, he's just not a very good detective for one but he also has a rice crispy treat loving polar bear that functions as his partner and secretary. I appreciate children's books that work to help kids learn something and Timmy Failure absolutely does that. Timmy is undoubtedly an odd kid. He is a loner and doesn't understand the other kids, he is struggling in school, and his single mom is having money troubles. Not only are these real things that kids go through, wrapping them up in a humorous missive makes them easier for the kids who haven't been through them to empathize. And empathy is a hard lesson that bears repeating.

This novel is peopled with characters to learn from. The people Timmy encounters are kind and genuine. Even as Timmy misinterprets many of their actions, the reader is learning to listen to others and that getting overly involved in ourselves and our on causes can make us lose sight of our friends and the people trying to help us. I say all of this to the adult readers of this blog, but what is great about this book is that what you need to tell kids is that it is funny. The important stuff is under the surface it works its way into the minds of its young readers without ever making them feel that they are learning a lesson.

Stephan Pastis' Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is a novel to give your 8 to 13 year old. Tell them how funny it is, read it together, you can enjoy the jokes and know that in the long run you will both be the better for it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

World Book Night: Those I've Read

Another year another thirty World Book Night titles. There are a few things on this year's list that I may never have encountered in my life as a reader. I'm weirdly excited to read a Nora Roberts book; I don't know that I've ever read a straight forward romance novel before. John Grisham as well, he's got such a large back catalog that I would probably have never picked up one of his books (though why the WBN decision makers chose a football story instead of a law thriller is beyond me). Probably what made me chuckle the most though was seeing Looking for Alaska by John Green make the list. I wrote in one of my WBN posts on the blog last year that this was the one book that my teenage customers insist that I read (after The Hunger Games, of course). I'll also be rereading a few books I have not picked up since high school; one I loved (The Handmaid's Tale) and one I absolutely hated (My Antonia). Then there is this year's embarrassing admission: I have never read a novel by Mark Twain. Not a one. Yep.

I'll get there soon! Until then, here are the selections I've read in the past:

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris was one of the books that got me through high school. While I was writing my own weird, sad essays, David's collection reminded me that there were other weirdos out there – many, including David, were weirder than me, and they were out there turning their awkward missteps into humor. David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day is hysterical, often outlandish, but always greatly entertaining. I can go back to these stories time and again for a laugh. A brilliant pick for World Book Night.

Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist is more of a fable than a novel. I read this just a few years ago, but the plot has not stuck with me. What did stick with me though is The Alchemist you will feel the warmth and hope its story provides.
the feeling it gave. It's a story of finding the path to your true self. This description doesn't really do the story justice. This is a book that betrays you with its simplicity. Long after you read
Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth has been one of my favorite books since childhood. I was introduced to this novel in the fifth grade (also known as the single best reading year of my life) and have reread it a few times since. The Phantom Tollbooth is the story of Milo's journey to another world and like most fantasy novels he has adventures, battles, and learns lessons, but unlike other fantasy novels (unlike most other books you will read) this book and its author are in love with words. The cleverness of the text intrigued me as a child and still does today. Obviously, I am not alone in this as an annotated edition by Leonard Marcus was released 2011. Juster's words and Jules Feiffer's wonderful art must mean the world to more than just me.

One of my all time easiest handsells to reluctant readers has got to by The Lighting Thief by Rick Riordan. The plot of this novel, that the son of Posieden has been framed for stealing Zeus' lightning bolt, really sells itself. That coupled with the fast pace of the novel makes it a sure win for any kid who thinks reading is boring. I read the entire five book series over one weekend and enjoyed it all the way through. Riordan ties his books back in to The Iliad and The Odyssey, but never in a way that becomes overwhelming to a reader that may be unfamiliar with those stories.

I've written about Fahrenheit 451, Middle School, and Bossypants before.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Sometimes I need a big meaty nonfiction book to work my way through. I find that I especially look for these types of books when life gets too hectic or begins moving too slowly. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman was exactly the type of book I needed for my post holiday rush cool down. Kahneman's book focuses on behavioral economics and describes the ways in which our brains work both for and against us. Rarely do I read a book that literally changes the way I think but this book definitely did.

Kahneman argues that the brain functions with two (imagined) systems. System 1 is fast, intuitive and System 2 is slow, reflective. These systems are imagined as distinct characters, while Kahneman states there is no neurological truth to the systems, they are meant to describe the ways in which we think. To illustrate the two systems the first half of the book establishes the way they each work, mostly through short tests of math and logic. Kahneman argues that we rely on our intuition and trust it far more than we should stating that it is “intuitive preferences that consistently violated the rules of rational choice.”

Throughout the opening section of the book I was in complete agreement with Kahneman, but the nature of his argument is forced to be too onesided and he eventually lost me. In the field of behavioral economics it is necessary for the many to be lumped together with the studied few. This removes the effects of personality. For example, I hate math. I am intimidated by it and do not trust myself to work through it. In general, I ignore math in all aspects of my life. Thus, I found Kahneman's questions or tests regarding math difficult. I trusted my immediate, intuitive thoughts and usually got the problems wrong (or refused to answer them at all), but when the question was based on logic rather than math I tended to answer correctly (even if the answer was one that came to me quickly, intuitively, or with my System 1). This distinction goes ignored in the early parts of the book and only becomes more problematic as time goes on.

This is not to say that I did not glean plenty from this book because I definitely did. Kahneman's discussions of logic provided lots of food for thought. Even if I did not always agree with his trail of logic, I always learned something from it. I have even put some of his findings in practice in my daily life. The idea of priming, that behavior is influenced by environment, made me think greatly about the things with which I surround myself. Granted, this choice is not always mine but being aware of the effects of priming and using the reflective rather than the reactionary part of my brain keeps me from becoming unintentionally hindered by details.

I could say a lot about this book. I took copious notes while reading it and instead of hashing them out here I suggest that you try this one yourself. Thinking, Fast and Slow made me feel both ecstatic and infuriated, but most importantly it made me think and react. I hate to say that it “changed my life” because that is such a cliche, but it did alter the way I think in many, many ways. I look forward to rereading great swaths of it and agreeing and arguing with it as I go. I am working to get as many people reading this book as possible because if ever a book warranted being talked about it is this one.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Review: Philida by Andre Brink

Philida is sometimes a difficult novel to reconcile. The novel is a recreated (or imagined) slave narrative of a woman who really lived. The difficulty arises in the fact that it is a white man, a descendant of her master, writing the novel. Andre Brink decided to write Philida after discovering that one of his ancestors owned a slave named Philida in an effort to understand what her life had been. It is an admirable way in which to wrestle with a guilt that is not your own, and the novel ultimately succeeds in its pride of Philida.

The novel begins with Philida's petition to the courts. Francois, the son of her master, has promised to make her a free woman after she bares his children. With the proof of their union in her arms, Philida insists that his promise be fulfilled. I doubt that it reveals any secrets of the novel (or of history) to tell you that this does not happen. She is first denied her promised freedom by Francois and his father then by the courts in which she is wholly disbelieved when someone with a white face testifies against her. The novel then follows the consequences of these actions as Philida has incurred the wrath of Cornelius Brink, master of the house.

Philida is a novel that is permeated with secrets, and Brink's own questions about the past lie heavy upon it. But is it too presumptuous for a white South African man living in the 21st century to write in the voice of, or attempt to tell the story of, a slave woman from the 19th? This is a question that comes up each time a writer co-opts a voice that is not their own, especially in the form of the descendants of the oppressors representing the voices of those they had oppressed. My own answer to this question begs the goal of the story. While reading Philida, it felt as though Brink were trying to understand a personal history mired in darkness. The stories that are not told are the ones we may most need to know. Brink told the story of Philda's life because he felt he needed to understand it. One cannot make sense of the tragedy that was slavery, but to give the characters life, to make them whole instead of keeping them secret, is a story worth telling.

Freedom abounds in the end of the novel. Away from the Brink family, Philida finds a sense of identity and with it peace. The idea that true freedom begins in our minds may at first sound unsavory in a slave narrative, but it comes about in such about in such an organic way that I find the possibility of it real for Philida, which is what the author must have hoped for her. Andre Brink does not know what happened to the real, the historical, Philida, but in his novel he did not give her character her freedom – he allowed her to find it for herself.


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