Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Hole Is To Dig: a first book of first definitions by Ruth Krauss


Our toddlers want to know everything. They soak up every stimulus around them for good or ill.

Krauss’s simple definitions help babies learn how to construct the world. They go inside-out, defining by function rather than description: “mashed potatoes are to give everybody enough. . . a face is so you can make faces . . . dogs are to kiss people.” Maurice Sendak’s intricate little illustrations convey the hard-won wisdom of childlike delight. The vision is of a deeply humane world that has rules and formalities, but where love is the answer. The book begs readers to converse with their listeners, to propose as-good-as definitions, to laugh over perspectives.

As I get older, I prefer kids’ books. They get to the point, if they have a good one, faster. I think Krauss’s point is that kids naturally need to understand “why” more than “what.” –JSK


Thursday, January 21, 2016

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem


Gloria Steinem's new autobiography, My Life on the Road, is the finest piece of writing I've read in a
long time.  A recognized name for decades, Steinem is still marvelously articulate, describing remarkable people with whom she has worked, historic events she has witnessed, and places she has visited and studied.

A freelance journalist and social activist, Steinem has spent her adult life writing, organizing, and speaking all over the world.  She credits chance encounters with people from all walks of life with teaching her what she could not have learned any other way.  Fellow travelers, taxi drivers, college students, and sometimes complete strangers revealed much to her about what matters to them, and their stories fueled her passion for the women's movement she is known for helping to lead.  She advocates a communal, collaborative style of idea-sharing--talking circles--in order to connect with people and understand their perspectives.

She dedicated the book to a late British doctor who was willing to perform a then-illegal abortion in 1957 on a young college graduate traveling to India.  In a deeply personal revelation, Steinem says she was that young woman.  Since then, she has been a lifelong crusader for women's reproductive rights and Planned Parenthood.  Experiencing gender bias and double standards at an early age, she later wrote that "the dry tinder of inequality was everywhere, just waiting to be set on fire."

The author's reasoned, eloquent writing is a pleasure to read.  The book is not so much about her personally, but about her work and how much still needs to be done.  Now 81, she continues to ask questions and learn from those she encounters, and encourages all of us to do the same.  -MS

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Getting Schooled by Garrett Keizer


A 58-year-old returns to teaching tenth grade English twenty years after he gave up in the same school, in the disadvantaged Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. In the meantime, he was an Episcopal priest and wrote essays for Harper's and the New Yorker, but his new students thought him coolest for an appearance on Comedy Central.

With each chapter named for a school month, Keizer's book is an expanded, meditative journal that condemns the administrative baloney and parental foibles which get in the way of real teaching. He demonstrates putting each kid first, and agonizes over his choices how to deal with students. Keizer attributes a lot of guts to his students, and is equal parts idealist and curmudgeon, thanks to his high expectations. He mistrusts technology: one lesson asks kids to list important text details "not found on [a]sleazy Internet rip-off site" of book notes.


I like listening to articulate old teachers who respect their students' perspectives even though they may know better themselves. Keizer questions his own every assumption, even while he ruefully respects the need of all his acquaintances to make a difference in our world. I like his scintillating observations of people's motivations in a school. –JSK

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

I feel like this review should be offset with a disclaimer:  I am a huge fan of Felicia Day, and have been since a friend recommended The Guild, her pioneering comedic web series about online gamers.  Day has been a part of some of my favorite things over the years, so I was excited to learn about her new memoir.  It's no surprise, I suppose, that I found this book utterly charming.


Day talks about her unusual childhood, during which she and her brother were lackadaisically home-schooled, her training as a classical violinist/mathematician, her gaming life, and her experiences as an actress and producer in Hollywood.  Throughout, her tone is breezy and conversational, and even if she doesn't always go deeply into personal details, she does a great job describing what it is like to BE her, and finding the common intersections that she has with her fans and with women's experiences in general.  She recognizes the positives of virtual life in its potential for community building, giving people a place to belong, and finding new ways of doing business. Of course, the internet has its dark side as well, and Day covers subjects like online anonymity and misogyny with candor and insight.

Amid the bright commentary and anecdotes about being almost-famous lies the book's biggest strength:  Day's assertion that our differences should be celebrated and that openly appreciating the things we love is never a bad thing. As she says in her conclusion, " Everyone has a chance to have his or her voice heard, or to create a community around something they're passionate about...Best of all, [the internet] rewards people and ideas that never would have made it through the system and allows the unique and weird to flourish."  For me, these are inspiring words.    -BR


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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman

I have recently developed an obsession for anything by Alice Hoffman and Here on Earth was once again a fantastic read. I hate to admit it but I have always had a weakness for love stories so when I discovered this book I was elated to be able to read a love story by my current favorite author. However, if you are looking for something uplifting to read this is not for you, this love story is much darker than most.
The story follows the lives of March and Hollis and the people around them. March and Hollis were lovers when they were teenagers and lived for each other but when March’s father dies Hollis who was his ward becomes indebted to her older brother. Once his debts are paid he leaves their tiny town to make something of himself. March is distraught by this and waits for him to come back for years but he doesn’t return. She eventually agrees to marry one of her neighbors and they move to California to start a new life.

Many years later March is brought back to her small hometown for the first time when her family’s housekeeper and substitute mother passes away. She brings her teenage daughter along for her short trip back but once she makes contact with Hollis her short trip becomes an indefinite one. You quickly discover that the attraction between these two is not healthy for either one and slowly get to see them both lose control and for March lose herself and the people closest to her. While this toxic love story is progressing there is beauty to be found with March’s daughter who has her own journey. She is able to find her true self with friendship, love and forgiveness. In the end March has to learn her own lessons by rediscovering what it is that makes life worth living as well as what the true meaning of love is. - CB

Monday, December 28, 2015

Ex Machina (2015, R)

In our computer age, artificial intelligence remains a great conundrum, and fertile ground for speculation and science fiction.   In this film, the directorial debut of Alex Garland, Caleb, a young computer engineer (Domhnall Gleeson) has been invited to the isolated home of his genius employer, Nathan (played by Oscar Isaacs in an imposing performance which contains both humor and menace), to take part in an experiment.   Nathan believes he may have created a robot capable of true artificial intelligence and he wants Caleb to test his results. Specifically, he wants to know if Caleb feels the robot, Ava--a creation with transparent limbs and a lovely young female face (Alicia Vikander)--passes the Turing test.  In other words, can her responses during conversation be judged as indistinguishable from a human's responses?  Caleb begins interviewing Ava, but finds himself out of his depth and caught in the middle of an apparent contest of wills between the creator and his created.

Ava and Caleb
Garland wrote the  screenplays for such thoughtful science fiction films as Sunshine and 28 Days Later in addition to this work, and he proves to be a skilled director with Ex Machina as well.   While concerned with themes of sentience and whether and when a machine might be considered to be the equal of a person, he layers a psychological mystery over the sci-fi trappings, building a sense of paranoia and misdirecting Caleb and the audience even as the continuing experiment gives structure to the story.  At the center of the enigma he gives us Nathan and Ava, both unknowable, both charismatic, both potentially monstrous.   I have found myself thinking of them often, along with Garland's final act and the film's beautiful imagery, pondering the implications of the questions they pose.   -BR

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov


What a difficult book to describe.  Pale Fire is a novel that consists of three parts: a foreward, a 999 line poem, and then an extensive commentary on that poem.  In the novel, the poem is written by a famed American poet, John Shade, who was working on the poem when he died an untimely death. The foreward and commentary are written by this poet's neighbor and "dear friend" Dr. Charles Kinbote. Kinbote, however, is the penultimate unreliable narrator.  Throughout his insane rambling commentary, readers are forced to piece together the truth of his character's past, the real nature of his relationship to Shade, and finally the murky circumstances surrounding the poet's death.

While the structure of the novel may seem odd, I found it to actually be really interesting and incredibly well done.  I thought that the poem itself was quite good and intriguing (not that I would really know, I'm not a very good connoisseur of poetry ((unfortunately)), while the commentary was simply fantastic.  Nabokov is an incredible writer, so all of the writing itself is very good. But the real key to this novel is the plot structure and pacing.  The commentary, which is part dense history of Kinbote's homeland, part actual commentary on the poem, and part insane rambling, weaves and undulates as it slowly unravels and ultimately dissolves.  This is definitely a novel that would benefit from multiple reads, as readers will find more and more clues and allusions each time they go through it.  It is certainly a book that I intend on reading again, and I would highly recommend that everyone else to give it a chance as well.  It won't disappoint.  --CA

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