"They Say / I Say" - Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

The two academics suggest that students have no idea what they are doing when it comes to academic writing. The best thing for students is to follow templates for writing. Rather than a cheat, this allow students to see what professionals already know: that writing follows formula. They claim that academic writing first involves framing the "conversation" of a topic through summary and answering the twin questions of "who cares?" and "so what?" meaning what population would be interested and how it will matter to them. Here is where the problems with the text comes in. The work is too scholarly for students and includes too much basic information for academics, so I don't know who this work is really for.

Plato and a Platypus

It can be difficult to take complex ideas and make them accessible, but in Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar Cathcart and Klein walk the reader through a first year philosophy course using an easy-breezy style and lots of humor. Okay, the humor isn't that funny (most of it is pretty groan-worthy, in fact), but it does serve to reinforce their basic thesis: philosophy may be a bit nutty, but it shouldn't be intimidating. Anyone can understand the basics---in fact, if you have a sense of humor, you already understand the most important concepts.

I'm always a little skeptical whether these types of books are better as a primer or as a refresher course, but Plato is an easy (and comprehensive) enough read that I'd recommend it to anyone who was interested in philosophy but had no idea where to begin.

Cathcart, Thomas, and Klein, Daniel. Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. New York: Abrams Image, 2007.

Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation - Wess Roberts and Bill Ross

The book is designed to appear as if Captain Picard is discussing advice for future Starfleet offices on how to handle various leadership situations. For the most part it simply summarizes select ST:TNG episodes and briefly and in bullet-points discuss take aways that might be helpful when dealing with real life situations. It really isn't particularly good, but I read it in a day and wanted to see what the authors had to say since I gave a conference paper of a parallel subject years earlier. Note: Please don't end every chapter with "Make it so." too late. 

Divergent - Veronica Roth

I accidentally published this when I was considering reviewing the entire series so here you go: Divergent, the first in the titular series introduces us a futuristic Chicago wherein society is broken down into 6 castes: The selfless Abnegation who run the government due to their incorruptible giving nature, the peaceful Amity farmers, the truth dedicated Candor, the scholarly Erudite, and those obsessed with overcoming fear who make up the Dauntless, and then there are the outcaste faction-less; while you are allowed to pick your caste (which are called factions) upon adulthood, and a few change from birth faction--and some do not survive initiation. Beatrice is an Abnegation who joins the Dauntless and struggles to find the inner strength necessary to overcome her fears, but all that is secondary to the terrifying discoveries she starts to find. I wasn't too thrilled with this one and often thought about giving up on it. Too much dedicated to stupidity fronting as bravery (jumping from a moving train is not brave (what about the old, very young, handicapped, etc etc are they simply not brave?! Oh, wait, they simply don't exist in this book.) and neither is getting a tattoo or belly ring (apparently being a trendy looser is brave and I'm convinced Roth has no tattoos or she would have taken the opportunity to have her characters talk about the pain of the needle but being glad they went through with it etc, but then again I'm expecting halfway decent writing.)) and little beyond cliched romance. Still, the last few dozen pages did provide some excitement if not depth so I'm tempted to keep going and see if my old age is keeping me from "getting it."   

 

The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman

A baby wanders into a graveyard and winds up being raised by the ghosts within who seek to protect him from dangers much scarier than the dead.  I was extremely unhappy with the last Gaiman work I read so I was glad to have him redeemed with this fun tail filled with mystery, intrigue, and pathos. It does borrow too heavily and not super successfully from Lovecraft and the World of Darkness, although I can let it slide as I could hardly put it down.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - Hunter Thompson

Rarely do I say a movie is better than the book, but rarer still do I read a book and say "it's not very different from the movie." The story is about the druggy journalist author and a trip (sorry) he took to Vegas, under the guise of writing articles for magazines, and the insanity he engages in. The book is like a speeding bullet and it is hard to even slow down never mind stop reading, and I really enjoyed it, but, honestly, in terms of a story, does it have character development, strong writing? no. You're probably just as well off seeing the film.

Fragile - Neil Gaiman

I imagine one of the greatest things about being a famous writer is the ability to put any piece of crap on a napkin and getting to publish it. Some of these stories even won awards, but I give less and less regard to awards every day. Mainly they are ideas that should have been either developed or chucked, but not published as it. Every story I asked myself "why am I still reading this?" and in the end I was actually glad I did, but only because of the final story, which is a short continuation of American Gods (a work I greatly enjoyed) and I feel there was actual effort that went into this story (even if it wasn't perfect). Read only the last story, "The Monarch of the Glen," and only if you liked American Gods.

Looking For Alaska - John Green

Apparently, this was the big YA book being read by all the cool kids (for their high school english class that is). It got a Printz Award and was on the NYTimes best seller list, but, in the end, doesn't deserve either. The story is about a bright, friendless, anorexicly thin kid who goes off to boarding school to seek, well, something, and he finds that and more. I'm not going to go into details (no spoilers for you) or even put up a picture of it since, why bother. The book attempts to give a realistic account of some kids' lives in high school and the triumphs and tragedies they endure, yet it fails in that. The writing isn't anything stellar, and the kids just don't seem like kids to me, but to make matters worse--with one exceptions--there never are any really important/interesting stakes involved, and for a book trying to get away from YA genre lit and be realistic, it simply isn't (yeah, the gangly, nerdy, loser kid aways finds exciting friends and gets hot girls, sure, you might as well throw a boy wizard in there too). Skip it.

The Bookman Histories – Lavie Tidhar

Tidhar presents an alternate history where lizards rule the British Empire, robots hope for equal rights, America is ruled by (Native) Americans, and a terrorist (and things far, far worse) is at large. The stories mix fictional characters with real one, re-imagined in a wonderful world of delightful, realistic absurdity. In the end, I am, as always with contemporary fiction, disappointed. Its style is ubiquitously concluding a work by ending it. No, that does not mean having an ending (good, bad, ambiguous, whatever), but simply stop telling the story. Is there more to tell? Yes (as with everything). Are there narrative threads that are concluded satisfactory? Yes (as with everything). The point is that we are introduced to a story, conflict, series of characters, etc and by the time the pages end we are still left with most of that in almost as largely a state of potential flux as we began. Oh, ah, yes, that is so clever, and also trite, annoying, pointless, dissatisfying, and some other less pleasant words. The additional problem with the final installment was that Tidhar decided to throw so many characters at us without focus and without letting us focus on them (again, an attempt to be clever without fulfillment). Some much potential, so well written, so much for that.

The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story -Lemony Snicket

Christmas is a time for brotherly love and peace on Earth. Yeah, that's nonsense, but at least people have a basic idea of the holiday as opposed to one that's been around twice as long and hasn't become associated with fights at Wal-Mart. Snicket's delightful tale about a latke (a word that here means potato pancake) really talks about Chanukah and how different beliefs can go hand and hand. Nicely done.  

St. Thomas USVI or Bust: 2013! – Day 3: So it Begins

Starting to settle into being on vacation. While it was a little chilly (by St Thomas standards) due to a strong wind, it didn’t stop me from swimming and snorkeling, which was good as I got to chase around a sea turtle for a while. Started reading Damned by Palahniuk. After 90 pages I remembered that my time on Earth is limited so I shouldn’t spend it with crappy, boring, pompous contemporary fiction that thinks it is intelligent writing. Pick on my genre fiction all you want but at least it has a plot, and while it may be marketed to 16 year olds, I like it better than the so called adult fiction that I might have thought was interesting when I was 16. Went out to dinner and had to give the cab driver directions of where to go. Kind of nice when you know more about the island than the islanders. Denizen of the day: Pelicans, like the one that splashed down next to me while I was hanging by the shore and nearly gave me a heart attack.  

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

In the future we are divided into districts controlled by the decadent in the Capital and must pay tribute for a past rebellion by having a group of teenagers fight to the death in a bizarre arena for amusement. Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take the place of her sister and face this almost certain death. But that is only the beginning of her troubles. The trilogy has now moved on to a movie series, which I may or may not see, but I will recommend the books. There are problems: the pacing, especially after the first installment until almost the very end, just doesn't work, and most characters come and go (what do I expect in books about casual murder?) without the details that would make them shine; however, I think it does a good job showing the horrors of a reality TV addicted, jaded society and illustrates the damage of post traumatic stress. I think it's inspired by Battle Royal for those of you that want an even darker version (and there is a movie, too).

How I Became Stupid - Martin Page

Originally a French novel, it is the tale of Antoine, a young, eclectic scholar, who seeks to quiet his mind and finally become happy. To do so he attempts alcoholism, considers suicide, takes antidepressants, starts body-building, makes money, and generally engages in the typical things people suggest you do when you're down. Needless to say (but I will) the results are both comical and disastrous.  I like this short book, but it hit a little too close to home. Take a look at a scene from a play version of the tale.

City Gates – Elias Khoury

I am certainly grateful that Mark Beta gave me this short book about a stranger who comes to a city where everyone is gone, dead, or a weeping woman. It's very strange and surreal, but, unfortunately, not anything I cared for. Surely it was better in Arabic.

The Fourth Bear – Jasper Fforde

What does the return of the evil genius, the Gingerbreadman, have in common with a missing journalist (AKA Goldilocks) and a secret, devastating weapon? That's for Detective Jack Spratt to find out and you to read all about. Don't be fooled by the nursery rhyme theme, it is a great and intelligent read.

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

The second novel from the Afghan author is not as strong as the first, which might be due to the character focus. The story deals with two women, Mariam, who is raised ignorant and illegitimate, and Laila, who had all the potential to be an influential and developed westerner, trapped in a marriage to a sadistic monster. I felt the book relied too heavily on the brutality inflicted on Afghan women at the expense of a more developed plot.

Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

Both the movie and the book are powerful looks at pre and post Soviet and of Taliban Afghanistan. The tale revolves around Amir, a Pashtun boy of privilege, and his strained relationship with his father, his best friend/servant, and the upheaval caused by the ceaseless turmoil in his homeland. My problem with the book is that it strains the suspension of disbelief. Without giving too much away, Amir is guilted into returning to Afghanistan on a mission of honor when it would have been better for all involved if only a professional smuggler was involved, and the situation is made worse when, after a lengthy explanation of how the Taliban are in control of everything, Amir absconds to Pakistan despite the Taliban being after him.  The movie also makes the wiser choice of ending soon after this part while the book, more realistically but to lesser affect, continues on.