Friday, July 7, 2017

The Fangirl Life Is Not for Me

I generally try to avoid anything that is a "hit" or trending with the masses. In fact, the more something is a "hit," the less likely I am to consume it, for my tastes often seem to not be aligned with the crowd's.

At CBR, Rainbow Rowell is a hit, so much so that, for many, anything she writes is an automatic "must buy." A couple of years back, I chose to find out if all the hype was warranted by reading Attachments (2011), her debut novel. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, though for seemingly different reasons: I loved the male protagonist whereas others loved the cleverness of the email exchanges between the two female characters.

Fangirl (2013) is another of Rowell's character-driven  YA novels that has been well-received by readers and well-reviewed by critics. As of this post, it has a slightly higher rating on Goodreads (4.12) than her very much revered Eleanor & Park (4.11), also published in 2013.

A coming-of-age story, Fangirl relates a year in the life of Cather (Cath) Avery, an anxiety-prone, introverted/anti-social/socially inept fangirl of the Simon Snow series (a Harry Potter-like equivalent) and college freshman who doesn't want to let go or grow up and out of her childhood obsession. Her twin sister Wren has, and that, along with some serious concerns related to their parents, causes some conflicts between the two as they navigate and transition from adolescence to adulthood-range.

I am not a fan of Fangirl. I will not remember it with fondness as I do Attachments, as I found Cath to be whiny, annoying, and full of herself; the plot--such as it was--too slow; and the overall novel unnecessarily long. And just as with Attachments, my favorite character is the male lead. In this case, Levi, a sweet, sensitive, chivalrous 21-year-old who is practically a patron saint of patience.

Rainbow Rowell is an engaging writer, so for all I didn't like about the book, Rowell is gifted in being able to create memorable characters and worlds that seem relatable and authentic. Still, I could not get beyond thinking that this story is just OK.

Crossposted at CBR.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Running for His Life--and Not from It

"Running ain't nothing I ever had to practice. It's just something I knew how to do," explains Castle "Ghost" Cranshaw from Jason Reynolds's National Book Award finalist Ghost (2016) when he comes across a track practice on his meandering run home from school one afternoon. A seventh grader, Ghost also has "a lot of scream in him" that has resulted in many altercations at school that have put him on a path to delinquency.

This scream implanted itself into Ghost three years before on that terrifying night when he and his mother dashed barefoot out of their house and hid in the storage room of Mr. Charles's neighborhood convenient store. "That was the night I learned how to run," he adds. Except, so far, he's been running in circles.

That all changes, however, when Ghost crashes a track practice because he takes a dislike to one of the athletes's "cocky swagger." Irritated, Ghost wants a showdown to prove that this cocky kid "wasn't all that" and that he, who "ain't never had a running lesson in [his] whole life, could keep up with him." And he does. Impressed, the coach invites Ghost to join his elite track team, The Defenders. Ghost does, but not without some conflict--all of which help him grow in his mindset, habits, and ultimately force him to stop running from his past.

Jason Reynolds captures the fears, longings, and eventual triumph of a traumatized and maturing young man coming to peace with his past as he begins to envision a more hopeful and purposeful future. Reynolds does a masterful job of creating nuanced and well-developed core of supporting characters. Three of them, the "newbies" on Ghost's team who also face their own personal challenges, will be featured in their own follow-up stories.

I was hooked from the first page because Ghost's voice rings so true and authentic: he speaks candidly and conversationally in a way that quickly brought to mind Bud Caldwell, a character whose story I read nearly twenty years ago but whose voice still resonates. In the last three paragraphs of this story, Reynolds displays his narrative prowess, creating as captivating an ending as the beginning.

Ghost is a wonderful story that highlights that people, especially traumatized people, need a supportive and generous community to help them achieve beyond their wildest expectations. This book is, therefore, highly recommended. I can't wait for the rest of the books in this series!

Crossposted at CBR9

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Who Killed Mr. Chippendale?

Who killed Mr. Chippendale, and why? These two questions drive the narrative in Mel Glenn's Who Killed Mr. Chippendale?: A Mystery in Poems (1999). Told from the perspectives of various characters reacting to the murder of Mr. Chippendale, Who Killed Mr. Chippendale? is developed through a series of interlocking free-verse poems. Many characters are introduced, the majority of whose voices are heard once and help to create a nuanced portrait of Mr. Chippendale whose life was very much a mystery to his colleagues despite his twenty years of teaching English at Tower High.

This book is best appreciated not so much as a mystery but as a character study. This mystery simply lacked the tension needed to make it an engrossing whodunit. Still, the story is relevant, for it explores a variety of current issues, e.g. generational conflicts, immigration and the pursuit of the American Dream, media and teen violence, and offers a realistic portrayal of modern high school life. One problematic aspect of the story is the seemingly rushed and abrupt ending and the flash forward to thirteen years later in a "Where Are They Now?" -type epilogue.

A quick read and an effective resource for teaching writer's craft (characterization, poetic elements, juxtaposition, etc.), Who Killed Mr. Chippendale is engaging and therefore recommended.

Crossposted at CBR9

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

I Love That Book, "Love That Dog"

My pleasure while reading Sharon Creech's Love That Dog (2014) just could not be contained as evidenced by the Cheshire grin plastered on my face from the beginning to end of this novella. Related in free verse from the perspective of Jack through dated entries that span a school year, Love That Dog is quite charming and delightful.

On the surface, Love That Dog is a story about a boy who learns to appreciate and write poetry. On a deeper level, however, it is a story of a boy who, through poetry, finally finds a way to mourn the loss and honor the memory of his beloved rescue dog, Sky. Through his year-long exposure to poetry, Jack discovers the magic of poetry and writing, which enables him to express his thoughts and feelings, and ultimately tap into the power of his own voice.

Jack's voice is completely authentic and endearing. Seeing his growth from resistant, to grudgingly compliant, to insecure, to confident, to independent, and ultimately to inspired in response to his teacher's poem assignments quite thrilled me as an educator. His ownership of his writing in the end (by asking his teacher to teach him to use a computer so that he could type his poems himself) activated the joy that comes from witnessing a student's process of discovery. 

Jack's poems gain some sophistication. It this through those entries that Creech conveys Jack's academic and emotional growth. He integrates lines from the poems his teacher Mrs. Strechberry introduced him to, plays around with repetition, and includes some word play and figurative language. Jack is also effusive and verbose in expressing his joy over a school visit from his favorite poet/writer, Walter Dean Myers, whose poem "Love That Boy" inspired his own. That Jack's school year ends in such a special way for him emphasizes the many uplifting aspects of this story.

Love That Dog is all-together wonderful--if only seemingly too short because I wanted more.

Crossposted at CBR9.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

From Hans Jorg Gudegast to Eric Braeden

"Wait. Why is Stephen A. Smith of ESPN writing the Foreword to a soap opera actor's autobiography?" The answer is clear upon learning the important role that sports has played in Eric Braeden's life, as detailed in his autobiography, I'll Be Damned (2017). Braeden is the star and figurehead of television's number 1 daytime drama, The Young and the Restless. He stars as Victor Newman, a role he originated in 1980 intended to be for a 26-week run and has parlayed it into one of nearly four decades.

Born Hans Jorg Gudegast in Bredenbek, Germany, Braeden's career as an actor was quite the unlikely story. However, a curious mind, and an adventurous, independent spirit takes him from a war-torn hospital basement in Kiel to the sound stages of Hollywood.

I'll Be Dammed is Braeden's first book. As such it covers the span of his life, career, and humanitarian efforts to a level of detail and name dropping that may not appeal to the masses. Fans of Braeden (from either The Rat Patrol or The Young and the Restless) will find this book particularly interesting and insightful.

A few things stand out to me about Braeden from reading his book:
  1. He takes pride in his German roots and has worked hard in various ways to counter the "single stories" that have dominated Germany since Hitler. One way is by establishing the German American Culture Society. Interestingly, it wasn't until he emigrated from Germany that he learned of the atrocities of his parents' generation, which he acknowledges transformed him and propelled him to take on humanitarian causes.
  2. He values his relationship with his wife and son above all else. He loves and respects his wife  Dale and takes pride in his son Christian whom he considers to be his greatest accomplishment. 
  3. He is physically active and extols the benefits of sports: "Far beyond just being an outlet for an excess of energy and an innate competitive spirit, sports taught me discipline, and structure, and rules, and winning and losing with dignity, and the essential importance of never giving up." He credits his wife, son, and sports for keeping him grounded.
  4. He is a no-nonsense and doesn't take anyone else's B.S or attempts at disrespect. I credit his "otherness" as an immigrant as the cause. Not being of the culture enables him to not abide by the implicit "understandings" or covert rules, expectations, and norms of U.S. culture.
  5. He is opinionated and makes no apologies for his political beliefs or personal viewpoints. His authentic voice shines in this autobiography. 
A bit of trivia:
  1. He has no formal acting training and "fell into" acting by chance. For years early in his career, he was typecast in roles as a villainous German, which he grew weary of, mainly because he thought German was being made synonymous with Nazi, which he asserts is incorrect and egregious. 
  2. To play the lead role in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), he was encouraged to adopt a stage name. He, at first, was vehemently opposed but at the urging of his wife Dale relented. He chose Eric because it was a common European name he could live with and Braeden in honor of his hometown, Bredenbek. He added the a in Braeden to ensure correct pronunciation.
  3. He is an accomplished athlete and takes pride in his sports accomplishments: He won the German Youth Team Championship in discus, javelin, and shot put in 1958 and the U.S. National Soccer Championship with the Los Angeles Maccabees in 1973.
  4. According to his autobiography, he was in the running for the role of James Bond after Sean Connery vacated the role but due to not being British, he was dropped for consideration.
  5. Despite his character Victor Newman and Nikki Reed (played by Melody Thomas Scott) being a "supercouple," and thirty-seven years of working on the show, Braeden does not consider himself  "close" to the majority of his co-stars as he does not socialize with them outside of work.
  6. On July 20, 2007, he became the second German-American actor, after Marlene Dietrich, to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He states, it is "arguably one of the proudest moments in my career."
  7. Lastly, his years of active engagement in sports and physical activity has served him well: At 76 years old, Braeden has a body that most men would envy. For Pajiba-lingo connoisseurs, as an admirer of a particular type of older man, yes, Braeden's body activates my lions. 
Crossposted at CBR9.

Spotlighting Dr. Bennet Omalu, CTE Discoverer

"Huh?" was my response when the local radio update featured a clip of Jose Baez, the lawyer of former Patriots' tight end and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez, accusing the medical examiner's office of holding Hernandez' brain hostage and requested that the family's wishes be honored by releasing the brain to Boston University for CTE analysis. Seemingly out of the loop, this is how I learned of Aaron Hernandez' death by suicide a day before. Other than being surprised by the timing of his death--days after exoneration of a double homicide--and lamenting the tragic nature of Hernandez' life and all parties involved in his drama, my response was due to learning that Boston University was in the game, as it were, for CTE research and diagnosis. "Well this is certainly elevating the school's national status," I recall thinking with pride.

A week and a half later, after reading Jeanne Marie Laskas's Concussion (2015), I downgraded my assessment of Boston University's connection with CTE research based on its association with one person featured in the book: Christoper Nowinski, a Harvard-educated, former WWE wrestler and co-founder of Boston University's CTE Center. He is characterized as an attention-seeking opportunist and one of a long-list of individuals who attempted to rob Dr. Bennet Omalu of his spotlight in connection to CTE.

Adapted into a feature film starring Will Smith in 2015, Laskas's Concussion is a biography of Dr. Bennett Omalu, a Nigerian-born pathologist who made the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players. CTE is a progressive, degenerative disease found in people with repeated blows to the head. According to the book's Amazon description, this discovery is "one of the most significant medical discoveries of the twenty-first century, a discovery that challenges the existence of America’s favorite sport and puts Omalu in the crosshairs of football’s most powerful corporation: the NFL."

The first part of the biography details Omalu's background and youth in Nigeria. The son of a community leader in Nigeria, Laskas relates Omalu's childhood and journey from Nigeria to his studies and settlement in the United States. Seemingly brilliant from a young age, Omalu had always felt like an outsider to the point of becoming chronically depressed and suicidal. Born during turbulent times in Nigeria--though he was shielded from witnessing or experiencing the devastation afflicting his countrymen--Omalu sought to escape Nigeria's corruption by immigrating to the United States to pursue more education. His deep sense of isolation and depression he did not escape, however, for he finally realized, as he states in the book, "Diseases of the mind are difficult to heal." School, work, and his Christian faith kept him focused and compelled him to persevere. His research and reports related to CTE highlighted that corruption exists everywhere.

It was Omalu's autopsy of retired Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster in 2002 that began his journey to the discovery of what he would later name chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE. Using his specialized training as a neuropathologist, Omalu conducted independent analyses into Webster's brain tissue. In 2005, he published his findings in the scientific journal Neurosurgery in an article entitled "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player" in which he identified Webster as a "documented case of long-term neurodegenerative changes in a retired professional NFL player consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)." What Dr. Omalu thought would please the NFL and its doctors incited a near-decade long David v. Goliath-type battle that nearly ruined Omalu's career and highlights the corruption that comes with having power.

While I find fault with the book's title because the book isn't really about concussions but rather about Dr. Omalu, I can excuse the false advertising if the strategy was to increase book sales so that Dr. Omalu could earn the credit he deserves and which others (particularly the NFL) attempted to deprive him of for his discovery of CTE. I did not find Laskas's writing style to be as engrossing as Skloot's in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; still, Concussion is a worthy text because it details the degree to which those with power (in this case the NFL) attempt to destroy those who challenge their standing, even at the expense of others' health and survival; showcases how institutionalized prejudice and racism can prevent people of color from being heard and credited for their work; and exposes how medical and scientific research can be corrupted  by financiers with an agenda.

Crossposted at CBR9

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Golden Girls Forever, Indeed!

It was with giddiness that I stumbled upon Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind the Lanai (2016), Jim Colucci's guide to my all-time, favorite sitcom, the immortal juggernaut, The Golden Girls (1985). For fans of the show, this book is quite a gem as I can testify from how I literally skipped out of Amazon Books after perusing its shelves for the first time.

Packed with hundreds of exclusive interviews with the suits, writers, producers, directors, stars, guest stars from the show, Colucci reveals behind-the-scenes, never-before-revealed stories and commentary. The level of detail and insight into various aspects of the show suggest that the author really did his research and is very much a fan of the show.

A Bit of Trivia:

  1. Bea Arthur was "difficult" in that she took her craft seriously and wasn't about appeasing others or being unnecessarily "friendly." As such, though highly respected, she was also intimidating, especially to many of the guest actors on the show. Also, as much as the other ladies were different from the characters they played, Bea and Dorothy were more similar than different.
  2. Details about Estelle Getty brought to mind Alec Baldwin's quote highlighted in Caitlin_D's review of his memoir Nevertheless (2017): "I realized then that the movies really do enhance certain actors, making them seem like something they really aren’t at all." In this case, Estelle Getty was made to seem more with it than she actually was: She was just terrible at remembering her lines, causing many re-shoots and delaying production. It's a wonder she ever considered carrying on by starring in The Golden Palace (1992).
  3. Though in real life the ladies' relationship with each other wasn't as close-knit and easy as would be expected from their on-screen chemistry, they very much respected each other and were professional towards one another.
  4. Betty White is as lovely as she appears. So, too, was Rue.
  5. Cindy Fee was only 23 years old when she recorded the theme song. (I always imagined her to be in her mid-thirties plus, actually). In any case, she was so busy/in demand for singing commercial gingles that she said she'd sing "Thank You for Being a Friend" in one take as she had other songs on her track list for the day. In the book, she is quoted as saying, "'It never stops playing. And so even if I did nothing else, I make a pretty good living from The Golden Girls alone every year.'" The song has been so profitable that it also enabled her to put her two sons through college.
  6. Lizzie Maguire's mom seemed so familiar because she is Blanche's niece Lucy from season 1's "Nice and Easy." ...And the actor who plays the "dumb," Miami Vice-wanna-be cop from that episode went on to become a lawyer, his true passion.
Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind the Lanai is a true fan's delightful and insightful read.

Crossposted at CBR9.

Unrealistic: Secrets and Sensibilities

Regina Scott's The Lady Emily Capers series features alliterative titles and silhouette-based covers that I love. Reading Secrets and Sensibilities (2013), however, did not pique my interest enough to warrant continuing with the series. This is due, again, to poor characterization and unrealistic plot development.

As far as steamy romances go, Secrets and Sensibilities isn't one, similar to Julia Quinn's romances in which steamy sex scenes have no part in the storyline. Unlike Quinn romances, though, Secrets and Sensibilities also lacks interesting characters, witty dialogue, romantic courtship, and sexual sizzle. Bland, flat, and boring best describe a story that began with great potential.

So what's the story?

At the invitation of the widow of the former Earl of Brentfield, art instructor Hannah Alexander accompanies four of her students on a country visit to the estate of David Tenant, the new Earl of Brentfield. The widow of the late Earl and aunt to one of Hannah's pupils has failed in her attempts to capture the attention of the new earl and hopes that her niece, on the verge of her Seasonal debut, will be more successful. All her plans come to naught when Hannah captures the attention and imagination of David upon their first meeting. It's unclear why because the characters are not developed enough to reveal traits that make them distinct and unique from others. What follows is a nonsensical, unrealistic story. Here are just a couple of examples of what I mean:

  1. Characterized as an awkward spinster who retreats into her art at the all girls' school to avoid interacting with them, within the week she spends at the Earl's estate with four of her students, Hannah is suddenly open to having children because she learned that all they need is love. This, despite telling David within day one or two of meeting him that she is not interested in being a mother.
  2. A self-taught artist/painter, Hannah is expected by the new earl to be the best candidate to help him locate and identify precious works of art. This plot point was meant to be a mystery but was again a flat and not-so-mysterious plot point.
  3. The plot element that annoyed me the most is the development of the romance. It seems like within two or three days, with minimal contact, David was already pledging loyalty and devotion to Hannah by promising her marriage. Again, they had barely interacted with each other, and the little interaction they did have had not made either of them so extraordinary that their attraction to each other would have made sense. In addition, the conflict what would have arisen from their unequal social status was brushed over. I understand that to explain this element Scott created an outsider in David, a leather craftsman from Boston who found himself heir to an earldom and who didn't care to adhere to British society norms. Still, the shoulder shrug given to this aspect of the story just seemed ridiculous.
Regina Scott had a good set up; however, the delivery is amateurish and unrealistic mainly because the plot evolves and conflicts get resolved all within the span of one week.

This is a CBR9 crossposted review.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Surreal, for Sure

"I just don't get it," was my response to reading my first  Haruki Murakami, his six-story collection, After the Quake (2002), set in the aftermath of the Kobe Earthquake of 1995. Prior to reading this book--the result of a work-related book club--all I was aware of was that his novel 1Q84 (2013) was quite the sensation and is still on many's "To Read" pile. As such, my expectations for this author were high.

I quickly began to readjust my expectations, however, after reading the first story, "UFO in Kushiro" which left me feeling incomplete and confused. Though the lead-in story, I thought it was the weakest of the collection.

After the Quake is the kind of book I think I'd appreciate more from conversing about it with others. Unfortunately, I didn't make my book group discussion, so my ambivalence about this collection and Murakami's writing style remains.

Marie K. who reviewed this book on Amazon, wrote that this story collection "bear[s] all the hallmarks of Murakami's style: clean prose, sparing detail and surreal flourish." For readers to whom this style is appealing, this collection is a winner.

This is a CBR9 review.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Hidden Figures: Black Women Who Had "Leaned In"

One of the strongest arguments made in support of same-sex education relates to the benefits for girls. During the middle school years, pre-teens become more attuned to where they fit in the social order. For many girls, this means that being perceived to be "smart"--particularly in math and science--is not an asset. As such, they begin to "dumb down" in math and science to become more desirable to the male sex.

It is no wonder, then, that I was thrilled that Hidden Figures (2016) by Margot Lee Shetterly was turned into a feature film. Not only did it feature females in a traditionally male-dominated field, but it also featured black females in ways not previously depicted in Hollywood productions. That this film is based on real-life people was even more appealing.

Hidden Figures, Young Readers' Edition (2016), I assume, is the more accessible 8-12 year-olds' version of the biography. Similar to the adult version, it relates the experiences of the black female mathematician pioneers during NASA's aeronautic golden age: Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden--who was not featured in the film. 

As a secondary source documenting the extraordinary challenges and successes of NASA and the black women who broke barriers at a time when opportunities were limited to them, the young readers' edition to Hidden Figures does an effective job of providing historical race-based context of the U.S. at the time, along with the history of what became NASA. As an engrossing piece of narrative nonfiction, however, this version misses the mark. From a technical standpoint, this text is redundant and disjointed for the age group. I imagine that those who are not strong readers would have a hard time keeping track of the people and details related. Assuming that the adult version is related in a similar style, the film improved on the actual text. 

One of the interesting aspects of reading this book was in being able to compare what I was reading to what was presented in the film. Interestingly, while the film centered around Taraji P. Henson's Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer's Dorothy Vaughan is strongly featured. In fact, she seems to be the cornerstone of the successes experienced by the other women featured. 

In all, because Shetterly shines the spotlight on a group whose contribution to air and space travel was previously in the dark, Hidden Figures, Young Readers' Edition is recommended.

Crossposted at CBR9.