Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Alex, Approximately
Series:  None
Source: Library
Published: April 2017

SUMMARY

Bailey Rydell’s crush is a fellow classic film buff who goes by the name of Alex online.  Then Bailey moves across the country to Alex’s California hometown.  But Bailey is an evader.  Hesitant to tell Alex that she could be living down the street, Bailey determines to try to find Alex herself first.  But then Porter happens.  Porter is annoying.  But also incredibly handsome.  And maybe a little funny.  Soon Bailey finds herself falling and she wonders if this is fair to Alex.  What she doesn’t know is that Porter and Alex are the same person.

Review

I initially picked up this book because I had heard that it is a retelling of The Shop Around the Corner.  However, the story stands on its own.  Led by a charming protagonist who loves to evade people (and sometimes) problems, it offers a romance that feels realistic but is also disarmingly sweet.  I do not  usually read contemporary YA, but this one stole my heart.

Although the plot summary focuses on the conflict between Bailey’s interest in Alex and her new crush on Porter, the book itself spends most of the time chronicling Bailey and Porter’s falling in love.  Though they love to argue, their chemistry is clear and readers will cheer them on from the start, knowing that the two are destined to be together.  Alex fades into the background as Bailey becomes more invested in the boy she knows in real life.  And Alex, of course, does not seem to mind.  After all, he has a real life romance of his own!

The relationships depicted feel very real and very contemporary.  Most of Porter’s flirtations are not very cute or sweet, but rather indications that he finds Bailey physically attractive and wants to get physical with her.  And that’s pretty much what happens.  The two get handsy and hop into the back of a van together before even determining what they mean to each other or what their relationship status is.  Older readers may find this odd and perhaps alarming, but it’s hard to deny that this is what dating looks like now for many people.  The teen crowd for whom it is intended may largely not bat an eye.

Bennett balances the pick-up lines with some sweet gestures by Porter, which at times make this book feel more like a woman’s fantasy than anything else.  Porter does sweeping romantic gestures.  He opens up to Bailey and is emotionally sensitive.  He is very careful about making sure Bailey is comfortable and asking for consent.  Frankly, if you think about it too hard, it feels a little too good to  be true.  I mean, the guy is even physically ripped and goes around beating up other dudes to defend his girl’s honor or something.  Fantasy for sure.

However, the relationship between Bailey and Porter is sensitively drawn.  Both have baggage, but both are learning to grow up and to open up.  In many ways, they help to bring out the best in each other. Initially I read this book for the classic film references.  I kept on reading because I loved Bailey and I wanted her to find happiness.

4 stars

Saints by Gene Luen Yang

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Saints
Series:  Boxers and Saints #2
Source: Purchased
Published: 2013

SUMMARY

Abused by her family, a young peasant girl flees her village and becomes a Christian convert.  Now named Vibiana, she struggles to understand her calling in light of the visions she sees of Joan of Arc. When the Boxer Rebellion arrives at the gates, Vibiana will have to decide how strongly she believes in the faith she has adopted.

Review

Drawn mostly in sepia tones, Saints is a more reflective volume than its longer predecessor, Boxers.  In a parallel story, it follows a girl from Bao’s village as she leaves her unloving family and becomes a Christian convert–initially because she thinks Christians are “foreign devils” and that she is assuming the demon nature her family has ascribed to her.  As the story progresses and the Boxer Rebellion gains in intensity, however, Vibiana must choose if she really values the faith she has been living.

Saints is a thought-provoking story, though its use of humor might obscure it reflectiveness for some readers.  Vibiana does not convert out of any spiritual or intellectual conviction, and her growth seems from the outside a little rocky.  She has a habit of asking questions that annoy some of the adults (though others appreciate her thirst for truth and knowledge) and she sometimes seems a little flippant about the faith, to the the despair of the priest who burns himself with an intensity others find uncomfortable.  The wide range of Christians depicted, however, ultimately suggests that there is room for all in the faith as they struggle on trying to find their way and trying to become better.

Also intriguing are the visions of Joan of Arc, a figure Vibiana does not recognize and whose unfolding story intrigues her as she gets to live it.  Joan inspires Vibiana with a desire to be like her by picking up a sword and fighting for her country.  Juxtaposed with Bao’s own visions of the opera gods and his seeming ability to transform into them on the battlefield,  Joan appears enigmatic.  Is she real?  Is Vibiana really seeing her?  Ultimately,  Vibiana must decipher for herself the message Joan brings and what that means for her own future.

Together, Boxers and Saints form a thoughtful look at the Boxer Rebellion, the motivations that drive people to commit acts of violence or acts of great sacrifice, and the ways in which war can distort one’s perception of what is right and what is wrong.

4 stars

Twisted True Tales from Science: Insane Inventors by Stephanie Bearce

Insane Inventors by Stephanie BearceInformation

Goodreads: Insane Inventors
Series: Twisted True Tales from Science
Source: City Book Review
Published: February 1, 2017

Official Summary

Nikola Tesla was crazy smart. He invented the idea for cell phones in 1893, discovered alternating current, and invented a death ray gun. Of course, he also talked to pigeons, ate only boiled food, and was scared of women who wore jewelry. He was an insane inventor. So was Henry Cavendish, who discovered hydrogen, calculated the density of the Earth, and was so scared of people that he had to write notes to communicate. Sir Isaac Newton discovered the laws of gravity, believed in magic, and thought he could make a potion to create gold. These stories may sound twisted, but they’re all true tales from science!

Review

This installment in the Twisted True Tales from Science series takes on “insane inventors,” men and women who took large risks, often with their health and safety, to test their theories and advance scientific knowledge.  The book is divided into three parts—Don’t Try This at Home, Anything for Science, and Strange Days of Science—though it is not clear what the divisions are based on or what order the stories are presented in since they all have the same general theme of “extreme things people did in the name of research.”  The stories are interesting, however, and young readers will enjoy discovering how interesting and daring science can be.

Bearce covers a good range of scientists, including both more and less well-known ones.  I am always delighted to learn about historical figures I hadn’t heard of before.  The book could have been more diverse, however. There are two women (both, I might note, who didn’t actually know what they were doing—working with radiation and x-rays—was dangerous…unlike some of the men who seemed like they might be actively trying to die).  The featured scientists were generally European and American men, and Garrett Morgan seems to be the only person of color in the book.  Somehow Tesla is featured twice.  (I like Tesla.  He’s quite interesting.  But I didn’t see the point of repeating part of his story in such a short book.)  Bearce has a whole series of science books, however, so it’s possible that some of the other ones (Disaster Discoveries, Explosive Experiments, and Medical Mayhem) are a bit more wide-ranging in the people they feature.

In addition to the anecdotes, Bearce provides a selection of fun science activities and experiments kids can do themselves, ranging from building their own flashlight to experimenting with blacklights to looking up optical illusions online.  And since many of the stories are about people dying or getting seriously injured, she makes sure to end the book on a positive note: the invention of the supersoaker and you can make your own out of a water bottle.  Illustrations also add to the fun of the book, and there are some insets with quotations, though personally I didn’t see the point of quoting something that was written in the text itself.  I would have loved to see the insets feature new information, like something the featured scientists had said.

This is a great book for middle schoolers, particularly those interested in the weird and the gross.

4 stars Briana

Black Hole by Charles Burns

black-holeINFORMATION

Goodreads: Black Hole
Series:  None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1995

SUMMARY

It’s the 1970s in Seattlel and an STD known as the bug is devastating a local high school.  The bug can manifest as anything from an extra mouth to a lizard tail to webbed fingers, but once you have it, society doesn’t want you.  Black Hole follows several teenagers who either have the bug or are about to contract it as they navigate high school, trying to fit in but knowing they’re not like their “normal” peers.

REVIEW

I have to admit this is not the type of book I normally enjoy and the story here simply did not resonate me.  Why a bunch of teenagers would sleep with each other, knowing they will contract the bug and likely end up homeless in the woods as a result, is beyond me.  Surely one’s urges are not so strong that they’d lead one to choose voluntary mockery, degradation, and social isolation?  Isn’t this book doing a bit of a disservice to teens, suggesting many of them simply “cannot control themselves”?

It’s true that many of the teens can control themselves, but simply choose to contract the bug because they are attracted to someone else.  I still find it odd that another party would voluntarily transmit the bug to someone else, if they cared about that person.  Individuals with the bug, once they can no longer hide it and “pass” are eventually driven out of society.  In Seattle, there’s a homeless camp in the woods where the teens live in filthy tents.  And they know there’s a murderer on the loose out there, too.

Certainly the book provides a strong message about ostracizing those who are different, and the feelings of isolation and not fitting in will be familiar to many readers and especially teens, who can see themselves reflected in the young protagonists.But I’m not sure if this is a particularly effective way of talking about what constitutes “normal.” Questions about why teens would voluntarily cause each other to suffer because they “love” each other are all I can think about.

Plus it’s easy to get distracted by Burns’ apparent personal challenge to make everything and anything visually resemble female genitalia.  This is a very graphic novel–I mean, an adult novel.  With adult content.  And sometimes the books seems so caught up with trying to be provocative and titillating that it loses sight of its own message.

I really do not feel that I got anything out of this book that I could not have gotten more profitably elsewhere.  A deeper message about teenage years or fitting in.  Without a cast of characters devoted to nothing but getting high and sleeping around.  As I said, it’s not the type of story I enjoy.

2 starsKrysta 64

Drama by Raina Telgemeier

dramaINFORMATION

Goodreads: Drama
Series:  None
Source: Library
Published: 2012

SUMMARY

Callie is so excited to be the set designer for her middle school’s production of Moon Over Mississippi.  But now she’s having trouble getting the cannon to fire and, even worse, it seems like half the cast is involved in drama over dating.  Can the show go on?

REVIEW

I enjoyed Drama mainly for its quirky protagonist and its lovable cast of characters.  The drama of Drama, however?  Not so much.  Raina Telgemeir crams in so many crossed loves that the book feels more like a soap opera than the story of a seventh grader’s involvement in school theatre.  In some cases, less really is more.

YA has become somewhat infamous for love triangles, but here we have what seems to be a love pentagon. Maybe even a hexagon.   It’s hard to keep track of who likes whom because none of them apparently know what their feelings are, either.  The kids are all kissing and dating each other in what almost seemed to be some sort of incestuous muddle as half the characters seem to be semi-involved with each other throughout the course of the book.  But isn’t it normally a bit of a taboo to kiss someone right after they’ve broken up with someone else, or to start dating someone the week after a break-up?  Isn’t there usually some sort of unspoken rule about that?  I kept waiting for a character to get upset about their previous girlfriend moving on so fast, or finding out that they were a rebound, but generally no one cared.

Aside from the weird romantic dynamics, however, the story is engaging.  I loved seeing someone write about the people who usually stay behind the scenes during a show.  Their enthusiasm for tech and theatre is contagious, and the characters themselves are quite endearing.  I wanted to join Callie’s circle of friends because they always seem like they’re having a good time.  It’s a shame the plot didn’t quite live up to the characters.

3 starsKrysta 64

Do We Value the Work of Professors?

Discussion Post

Read any article about higher education and you will quickly see that the comments section is typically filled with the complaints of citizens irate that professors have such a cushy job with tenure and yet dare to be unionized or to ask for more recognition or appreciation for their work.  However, though working in a university certainly comes with its perks (perhaps a more flexible schedule, for instance, which can help with child care, or the existence of snow days so instructors don’t have to drive on icy roads), teaching in higher education comes with many costs that often go unrecognized, especially by students.  Much of these costs can be seen even in the hierarchy of universities, which are typically invisible to students, who have no real reason to see a difference  between a visiting professor, a lecturer, or an associate professor.  After all, each comes into the classroom and, as far as the students are aware, performs the same job.

The College Hierarchy No ONe Told You About

However, let’s take a look at what a typical hierarchy might look like for a university.  Hierarchies will vary from university to university, but a general scheme will look like this:

  • full professor
  • associate professor
  • assistant professor
  • lecturer/instructor
  • adjuncts/visiting professor
  • grad students/GAs/TAs.

Only associate and full professors have tenure, which, incidentally, is not a guarantee of employment for life, but rather the expectation that the professor cannot be fired without a good reason (professional misconduct, for instance).  It does not necessarily protect incompetent professors but rather is meant to guarantee them the space to speak freely and to prevent anyone from being fired from publishing certain ideas or holding certain political beliefs.  Assistant professors (and sometimes associate professors, as well) are tenure-track, meaning that they will be reviewed periodically to see if they will be awarded tenure.  They will be judged based on their service to the school, their publications, their contributions to their field, and their teaching evaluations.

Lecturers/instructors  and adjuncts and visiting professors are not tenure-track, but rather hired for by contract for certain amounts of time.  They typically receive low pay and no benefits.  They may not have office space or may be required to share office space or have undesirable office space.  They may also have limited access to other university resources and may not be given a voice in department meetings or policies.  Many teach lower-level courses tenured faculty do not want and often they may not even have control over what they teach or how they teach it.  The department might even order the textbook for them.

Graduate assistants are typically grad students who are going to school while also juggling a teaching load.  They usually receive a small stipend for teaching and waived tuition.  They may have little say in the department and are often seen as nothing more than cheap labor by the university.  Some schools have seen graduate students unionize in attempt to protect themselves from increasing workloads or pay changes.

How to Achieve Tenure

The dream for individuals working in higher education is, of course, to work their way up to a tenured position.  However, tenured positions are regularly being cut as a way to save the university money.  And tenure is not easy to achieve.  NEA reports that the review process to get tenure is three years at a community college and seven years at a four-year school.  If someone fails to achieve tenure, they typically have to leave the school and hope to find employment elsewhere (and thus begin the process all over again).  To achieve tenure, individuals usually have to research and publish, demonstrate that they have contributed to their field, serve the college by working on committees and attending meetings, and show teaching proficiency.  Karen Kelsky elaborates on the research expectations based on the type of institution an individual teaches at.  R1 and R2 schools typically want more publications than a liberal arts school or a community college.  Expectations may range from a few articles to a book or two.

So what does this all mean?  A good deal of what higher ed instructors do goes unnoticed by students.  The time they spend researching, writing, publishing, serving on committees, etc. is work students do not see and often may not value as what they need from instructors is a constant presence in office hours or over email, without regard to the other obligations their instructors may have.  At the same time, a good deal of what higher ed instructors do goes unrecognized by their institutions. Many institutions, especially R1 and R2 schools, value research over teaching.  Instructors may feel they have to sacrifice teaching or mentoring in order to achieve tenure.  NEA reports that instructors often work 52 hours a week (though this seems low to me, especially during busy times like finals week).  They are struggling to keep up with their many professional commitments even as many of them face increased teaching loads as a way for universities to handle budget cuts or otherwise cut costs.

The Real Costs of Higher Education

However, despite the high cost of college, most of that money is not going to instructors but rather to administrative costs such as athletics, counseling services, etc.  Individuals working in administration also often receive high salaries and large bonuses.  But the faculty that most people assume are receiving large pay from the tuition money seldom are.  In fact, adjuncts in particular receive a scandalously low amount of money for their work.  And yet, the American public continues to complain that higher ed instructors do very little work in return for astronomical benefits and to suggest that college tuition can be cut by taking away pay from these overrated and over-valued instructors.  Few voices have pointed out that, to lower tuition costs, American students might have to choose to give up many of the services and resources they have become used to, which were not offered by colleges in years past–if that’s even possible anymore.  Alternatively, the administration would have to cut their pay and bonuses.  But this is something few people call for.  When budget cuts roll around, it’s usually the faculty who are expected to do more for less.

Academics are not over-valued, but rather under-valued by the people they serve, and it’s a taking a toll.  Study after study in various countries reveals high levels of mental illness and stress in academia as a result of the high workload expected from those working in higher ed.  The Guardian argues that mental illness has become accepted in academia and the numbers suggest that this might be true.  A 2005 study showed that 10% of grad students at UC Berkeley had thought about suicide and a 2015 study showed that 47% of them are depressed.   A 2013 study from UCU in the U.K. reported that three quarters of the staff in higher ed said their job was stressful.  In 2014, Christie Wilcox for the New Scientist noted that a 2003 survey in Australia showed that academic staff experience mental illnesses at a rate that is three to four times higher than the general population and that the rate of mental illness among academics in the U.K. might be as high as 53%.  Wilcox noted that there are no similar studies available for mental health incidences among academics in the U.S.

Conclusion

Instructors in higher ed do not simply teach a course or two each year and then go home to enjoy free time, nor do they typically have summer or vacations off.  Rather, they are constantly researching, attending conferences, writing and publishing, doing peer review, teaching, grading, mentoring, serving on committees, attending meetings, and filling out paperwork.  Most of this work goes unacknowledged both by their institutions and by their students, even as institutions continue to increase the workloads and professional expectations of their employees.  As a result, higher education seems to be heading towards a crisis moment where institutions may have to reassess what an individual can realistically be expected to achieve and whether they will decide to pay more of their employees a living wage.  In the meantime–try to be kind to those who work in academia.  They are struggling more than they may feel able to admit.

The Princess and the Page by Christina Farley

The Princess and the Page

Information

Goodreads: The Princess and the Page
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: March 28, 2017

Summary

Keira has no idea that her family are Word Weavers, who can make stories real by using a magical pen.  All she knows is that her mom hates stories; only lists, facts, and the “the truth” are allowed in their home.  So when Keira stumbles across a beautiful pen hidden in her parents’ bedroom, she takes it and begins to write a fairy tale,  But she has no idea what her words will unleash or the danger she will find herself in.

Review

Magical pens and stories springing to life sound like the perfect middle grade fantasy, so I was excited to read this one.  Who wouldn’t want the stories they put on the page to take on a life of their own?  Unfortunately, The Princess and the Page did not capture my attention the way I thought it would, and I closed the covers with some disappointment.

I thought the prose jarringly clunky and unsophisticated in general, and I considered DNFing because of it. I’ve talked about before how I think that many modern authors simply do not have great prose (Sorry!), but there’s neutral prose and prose that’s grating; Farley’s leans toward being the latter, and this is one thing I really cannot stand in books.  It’s also one thing that an editor cannot really fix for you, short of hiring a ghostwriter to redo all your sentences.

However, I continued powering through, only to discover that the book also contains one of my other least favorite things: ridiculous sounding pseudo Middle English. Farley lays it on thick, and the result is cringe-worthy.  The medieval character (technically French, but the book is in English so….) runs about spouting gems like this: “Thou art most certainly not what I was expecting, but that is nary a worry…Come hither!”  Worse, Farley is not consistent with the grammar.  (Seriously, Middle English has actual grammar rules you should look into if you want to emulate it.)  So the character says “Dost thou” but “thou can” instead of “thou canst.”  I simply couldn’t take a character who speaks like this seriously.  Think of writing medieval dialogue like writing accents in fiction; you want to give readers a taste of it, not write a character who sounds like a hilarious stereotype.

Beyond these issues, I was not a huge fan of the plot.  There are aspects of it that are interesting, since Keira has to deal with a story she wrote coming to life.  It also has a great setting, a mysterious castle in France, and the glamorous set-up that Keira has won an all expenses paid dream vacation there.  However, the novel is meant to be part mystery, as it takes Keira and her friends a while to figure out what’s happening in the castle, how the actions are related to the story she wrote, who is responsible for certain actions, etc.  The issue is that Farley relies on the trick of artificially withholding information in order to create suspense.  For instance, readers are never told how Keira’s fairy tale actually goes, so they have to wait for actions to happen in the text and Keira to reveal pages later that real life is mirroring her tale.  This also means the story is sometimes choppy because it’s not always clear what is going on.

There are things that I like about The Princess and the Page, but since I considered DNFing a couple times due to the prose and the jumpy plotting, I decided to give it two stars.  It has a pretty high overall rating on Goodreads, however (books about stories always seem to be a hit), so others might enjoy it even though I did not.

Briana