Friday, March 16, 2012

Books of a Feather: Smart Kids

Since it's been a while, and I have a fair amount of ground to cover, I came up with a snappy way to combine a couple of books, and resurrect an old feature at the same time.

During one of my February posts, I mentioned about all of the fabulous books I got from the library. Two in particular had similar themes: "The Selected Works of T.S Spivet" by Reif Larson and "Gifted" by Nikita Lalwani.

Both deal with smart children, and the tension between their intellect and natural inclinations. T.S. Spivet's particular gift is cartography. He makes maps of everything, not just physical surroundings, but relationships of things to each other and actions. Rumika Vasi's gift is mathematics.

The two couldn't have grown up in more different environments, though. Young T.S. Spivet is the child of oddball parents. His father is a literal cowboy, owner of a working ranch in Montana. His mother, Dr. Clair, is a biologist who has spent her life trying to find an elusive species. His father is rather disdainful of intellectual pursuits (specifically him), and his mother is too wrapped up in herself to pay too much attention to him. He's been more or less left to his own devices, and has had a secretly flourishing career illustrating things for various print media. He's stunned to learn that he's won a prestigious fellowship from the Smithsonian, and decides to stow away on a train to go accept it.

Rumika's story, by contrast, will probably make you want to throw things. The PC way to put it would be that it's a case of culture clash, when Indian natives try to translate their way of life to Wales and to the rearing of a genius daughter. The un-PC way to put it would be that Rumika is the child of an overbearing control freak father and a spineless, submissive mother, and a child you can't help but feel immensely sorry for throughout her tale. From the moment her gift is detected, Rumika's life is math, math, math. Her father makes her study in summer clothes with the windows open so she concentrates better, denies her all outlets and chances for a social life, and then packs her off to Oxford at an early age, with...rather predictable results.

Based on these two books, it seems that genius and a harmonious home life are not compatible. "Gifted" totally plays to all stereotypes about genius children, and quite a few about Indian families, too. "T.S. Spivet" is a lot less claustrophobic and rage-inducing, but his family still did not quite know how to cope with him. In fact, the two books are the two most common narratives of genius children: "T.S. Spivet" deals a lot with ostracism, how his gift alienated him from most people he knew and prevented him from forming many close relationships; while "Gifted" is about the pressures believed to be placed on these children from society and their families.

There's no doubt about it: "T.S. Spivet" is the more creative work, featuring many of his drawings and several twists and turns. "Gifted" has a lot less joy, a lot less character development, and is much more straightforward, and less fun to read. Rumika is alienated from her gift to the point where she doesn't even like math at all anymore and doesn't succeed at Oxford. T.S. loves his maps the way a musician loves her instrument or an artist delights in drawing. No one makes T.S. do anything.

But I wonder which is closer to the more common experience of a genius child. Are there other narratives out there besides Rumika's and T.S.'s? Do any grow up to be happy, well-adjusted adults from households that could integrate them into normal family life and society? I don't know. But it makes me wonder now.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


Imagine a world in which no one got sick. Crime was an extreme rarity. Your food was delivered to you daily, rather than having to cook it yourself. And on your 80th birthday, you'd have a feast day, all day, then die painlessly.

In exchange, everything was optimized and tightly controlled. You didn't choose a career. Instead, you were monitored closely, given a work experience at 17 based on years of data about your abilities and inclinations, then a finalized vocation. You had a choice of a handful of recreational activities each week. And, at 17, your ideal match was selected for you, also based on years of data.

That's Cassia's world. Cassia is the main character in Ally Condie's 'Matched.' Except, things don't go quite according to plan. Cassia gets her Match, all right, and even more excitingly, her Match turns out to be someone she's grown up with, which is very rare, considering the large population of the Society. After you get your Match, you get a microchip containing photographs and information about them. Despite being good friends with her match, Xander, Cassia views her chip anyway.

Her chip is all screwed up, though. It's all about someone else that she knows, a boy named Ky. Although an Official quickly tracks her down to exchange the chip and reassure her that the entire thing was a mistake and that she shouldn't question her Match, she does anyway, which in turn leads her to question whether The Society really does know best. And, as it turns out, she's not the only one wondering that.

I enjoyed reading this book, and got through it very quickly. Since I've been re-reading The Hunger Games recently, which is also set in a totalitarian society in the near future and features a female POV character choosing between two different boys, I can't help but compare them. And I predict that the Matched trilogy will have fewer male fans. The boys in this story are not terribly vivid and act more as plot devices than full-fledged characters, the way Peeta and Gale came across. Also, the action in Matched is mostly emotional. There's little enough problem-solving, and no real violence at all.

That being said, I can see many women loving this book. It does have a nice, romantic plot, and but Cassia is not a sappy character. She has an Athletic Permit because she enjoys running hard on their 'tracker' and passed an examination to ensure she wasn't an anorexic or a masochist. She's very smart, and seems destined for one of The Society's higher-level jobs until the romance thing sidetracks her. She is also an independent thinker: when she chooses her Match banquet dress, the clerk points out that her non-mainstream choice was predicted by her personality. Cassia is a character you can admire and root for, and does well at carrying the plot along. I'm looking forward to picking up 'Crossed' on my next library trip.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A good library haul

Yesterday, I was in such a foul mood that people were noticing, even at work. I decided I'd better try not to bring that home and went to the library instead.

I wasn't expecting much. Usually when I go to the library in a bad mood, I have a hard time thinking of things I want to read, and my mental state means that I won't luck into anything that looks good, because NOTHING looks good. And I get irritated that they just buy crappy books for morons and that the whole place is geared towards lovers of Danielle Steele and people who only visit the library when they want to try to fix their sink themselves and not people who actually like decent books, which by the end of my trip, I can't even define anymore.

Miraculously, that didn't happen to me yesterday. I found all kinds of books, including some I've wanted to read for a while, at a library where I've historically had bad luck despite it being the second-busiest in our 37-library system. I could have even had Jill Kelly's book, "Without a Word," but I flipped through it and it seemed to have more Jesus in it than the Bible, so I left it on the shelf.

Here's what I got. Try not to die of envy.

Matched, by Ally Condie. I actually read this one already and will have an entry about it soon.
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. I was reminded to look for this book when I saw another patron with it. I figured, why not see if they have another copy? And they did.
City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and early Manhattan by Beverly Swerling. I liked "The Island at the Center of the World" a lot and was excited to see that someone had novelized about an era that doesn't loom large in our collective imaginations. She has several books, too, so the prospect of discovering a whole new author is exciting.
The Year that Follows by Scott Lasser. I only remember that it was a family drama that looked interesting.
Gifted: a novel by Nikita Lalwani. I deal a lot with 'stage parents' in my job. I don't mean that they are literally trying to make actors out of their children, but they're usually trying to gain some sort of renown for them. This novel is about a girl whose parents are trying to get her to be the youngest person ever admitted to Oxford, and what happens when her own desires clash with theirs.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson. I liked the movie.
Townie: a memoir by Andre Dubus III. The author of "The House of Sand and Fog" recalls growing up in two worlds: that of his working-class mother and his academic father.
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen. As you know, I like anything that's weird, anything that promises to be different. This is about a 12-year-old cartographer and his cross-country journey to accept an award from the Smithsonian. Other than "Matched," obviously, this is the one I'm looking forward to reading the most.

So yeah, it was a good day at the library!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy birthday, Mr. Dickens. Today, you are 200!

If you Googled anything today, you will already know that today is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens. I know I'm a bit late to the party, but if you've never read any of his works, I encourage you to give him a shot.

I will be bluntly honest. Literature that pre-dated the twentieth century by much had never really been my thing. I'd love to claim that I had a childhood love affair with "Huck Finn" or "Treasure Island," but I didn't. I guess when I was younger, I had a hard time getting accustomed to earlier writing styles. The references would throw me. And I just liked it to be easy.

I gave Dickens a try after reading the Jasper Fforde books. Miss Havisham features prominently in them, as does David Copperfield and Uriah Heep. If you feel as I used to about older books, Dickens will help dispel your prejudices. He writes in a warm, emotive style, and employs memorable characters and lots of humor. I do plan to read all of his books. I haven't gotten very far, just "Great Expectations," "A Tale of Two Cities," and "David Copperfield," but I certainly plan to keep the project alive. If you've been meaning to read one of his books, now is an excellent time!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I stand against SOPA

Tomorrow, I'm blacking out this site (assuming the coding worked) to oppose the internet censorship legislation currently under consideration by our government. As you cruise the web tomorrow, hopefully you'll see a lot of this. According to, you will. Don't try to get your entertainment fix in via Failblog or Reddit tomorrow. Need to look something up? Don't ask Wikipedia. Everyone's getting active, whether they've got one of the largest search engines or a tiny little book blog. If you've got a website and want to help make this point, go to the above address. See you on the other side of the blackout, and let's hope it's not a permanent one.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Life under the bridge: The Lost Memory of Skin

Pedophiles are high on the list of things that we, as a society, fear and hate. States are passing stricter and stricter laws that carry harsher sentences and lifetimes of punishment. In one very well-publicized instance, it led to a colony of sex offenders forming under a Florida bridge. The law stated that sex offenders couldn't reside within 2500 feet of schools, parks, daycare centers, or similar places that attract a lot of children, and the bridge was one of the few places that met the criteria.

That bridge inspired Russell Banks' new novel, "Lost Memory of Skin." A young sex offender, known only as The Kid, is struggling to build some sort of life for himself under the bridge. After a raid, he meets The Professor, a sociologist interested whose interest in studying the community quickly crosses the line into actively trying to help The Kid and the other denizens of the bridge make things better for themselves. But The Professor has a past, too, that ultimately catches up to him (and no, it's absolutely not what you're imagining).

While child molestation is one of the worst crimes someone can commit, I've long felt that as a society, we're entirely too hysterical about it. And given the devastating consequences of it, that's a difficult stance to pull off. But we've managed it. People see them lurking everywhere, in pretty much anyone who so much as looks at a child they don't know. Seventeen-year-old boys are forced to register for life for receiving "child porn" sent to them by a classmate. Nineteen-year-old boys are stamped with the sex offender tag for having sexual contact with girls three or four years younger than them. The outcome doesn't even matter. On the Free Range Kids blog, I have seen comments from people who grew up, married the guy when they were of age, and have children with him, yet he's unable to attend their school events or get involved in their activities, all because of something he did with his now-wife years ago when they happened to be on the wrong side of an arbitrary age line.

So I viewed this novel, of course, as a scathing commentary on all of that. Banks did an excellent job of walking a fine line, knowing that many people would have little or no sympathy for The Kid. He made him not exactly likeable, but somehow sympathetic anyway. It's ambiguous just how much of a danger to society The Kid might be. It's more that he's simply not very bright, and not very social. He grew up without much of a home life. Around the age of 10, he discovered porn, and that was pretty much all he did for the next several years until going to basic training in the Army. I won't get into the exact nature of how The Kid came to commit a sex crime, but that story is rather pathetic, too.

Overall, this is a terrific novel, and it has a lot in it. I'd be interested to see what other people think of the book. I'm glad to see someone willing to take on such a controversial and highly charged issue. It's one that's not going away any time soon.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Hey, Boo

So, the Mr. and I were fed up with Time Warner Cable's usurious rate hikes, and finally did something about it: we ditched the cable portion of our package, got an Xbox Live Gold Membership (around $60 per year) and got streaming Netflix and Hulu. It's not exactly the same experience. One upside is that Netflix has all sorts of offbeat stuff streaming that you'd really have to hunt for on cable TV. The documentary "Hey, Boo" is one of them, and we watched it tonight.

It's a strange coincidence that I was just writing yesterday about how I'd like to interview Harper Lee, then I watched a documentary about her. I learned many interesting factoids about her life and her book, for example:

The courtroom in her hometown, where her lawyer father used to work, was replicated precisely for the movie, and is now a museum.

When Harper Lee was a young woman, working at the airline reservation counter in New York and trying to hone her writing, a very good friend of hers who had made a big pile of cash off music royalties gave her a year's worth of living expenses so she could write. "To Kill a Mockingbird" was the result.

She had a brother who died of a brain aneurism at 31, and a sister who turned 99 in 2010 (the year of the documentary) and was still practicing law.

The documentary was studded with many literary stars, including Richard Russo, Wally Lamb, and Allan Gurganis. Oprah Winfrey was also in it, as was the girl who played Scout in the movie. It included footage of teachers discussing the book with their students. The writers talked about their favorite parts of the book, and what it meant to them. Richard Russo highlighted the father-daughter relationship, and the conversation Atticus had with Scout after she told him that other kids were saying he defended niggers. Oprah Winfrey choked up, reading the moving passage in the book after Tom is found guilty and the entire black community stands to honor Atticus' efforts to defend him. Anna Quindlen said that she collected incendiary, non-conventional heroines growing up, and counted Scout among them.

I had no idea that Harper Lee hadn't granted an interview since the 1960s, although I knew she'd stepped back from the public eye. The documentary made me wonder even more, how she felt about the tremendous, enduring reaction to her book and what her intent was when she wrote it.