Drunk Tank Pink by Adam Alter

8 Jun

9781594204548_p0_v1_s260x420Bibliographic Information

Drunk Tank Pink by Adam Alter, Penguin Group, New York, 2013, ISBN: 978-1-59420-454-8

Plot Summary

Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave derives its title from a classic study by Professor Alexander Schauss that showed how men were made dramatically weaker after being exposed to the color pink.  Schauss’s paper was so influential, that it prompted a correctional center in Seattle, Washington to paint its holding cell bright pink.  For the seven-month trial period, officers reported not a single violent incident among the inmates.

Alter’s book summarizes a wealth of social science studies like this that show how we may not be in control of our lives as we think. The book is divided into three parts:

1)    The World Within Us, in which Alter examines the influence of names, labels, and symbols on our behavior;

2)    The World Between Us, where he describes the role other people have in shaping our character;

3)    The World Around Us, where he explores how our environment, from its geography to its weather, influences our choices.

Drunk Tank Pink provides ample evidence that shows how important our environment is in shaping our character.  As Alter writes towards the end of the book, “These studies tell us something profound and perhaps a little disturbing about what makes us who we are: there isn’t a single version of “you.”…It’s comforting to believe that there’s an essential version of each of us, that good people are good, bad people are bad, and that those tendencies reside within us rather than in the sights, sounds, and symbols that populate the landscapes that surround us from moment to moment.  But social psychology calls that belief into question.” (p. 201).

Critical Evaluation

Like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Alter compiles a wealth of research and anecdotal evidence to show how our thoughts, feelings and behavior are dictated by things we aren’t even consciously aware of.  Many of these studies are fascinating, especially the ones showing how our motivation to do good is influenced by the number of people around us. Unlike Gladwell, who profiles his subjects and studies in greater detail, Alter relies more on summary than storytelling to convey his information. As a result, I felt a little barraged with studies at times.  Towards the end, some of the research seemed to reach pretty obvious conclusions, like the one that found that people become more irritable when it’s really hot outside.  Other than this though, this is an excellent resource for anyone interested in social science research and how the environment influences human behavior.

Information about the author

From the author’s page on Amazon.com, “Adam Alter is an assistant professor in the marketing department at the Stern School of Business, New York University, with an affiliated appointment in the NYU psychology department. A native of Australia, Alter earned his Ph.D. in social psychology at Princeton University in 2004, focusing on how people reach the judgments and make the decisions that shape their lives. He has lectured at numerous institutions including Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Cornell, and the University of Chicago. Alter is a guest blogger on the Psychology Today website.”

Genre

Non-Fiction. Social Science.  Psychology.

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 11 and up

 

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

21 May

13366259Bibliographic Information

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Little Brown and Company, New York, 2012, ISBN: 978-0-316-219365

Plot Summary

The Yellow Birds chronicles the experiences of private John Bartle before, during, and after his experience fighting in the Iraq War.  Each chapter alternates in time and place, with most taking place in Al Tafar, Iraq, where Bartle is deployed.  Throughout this fractured chronology, the war is always present.  “While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way.”

Early in his training, 21-year-old Bartle is partnered with 18-year-old Daniel “Murph” Murphy.  When Murph’s mother asks Bartle to keep her son safe, Bartle promises her that he will, even though he knows it’s a promise he cannot keep. Fighting in Al Tafar, Bartle sees bodies torn apart by gunfire and I.E.D.s. He sees the slaughter of innocent and the hatred coming from people he’s there to protect. He also sees Murph slowly slip away with each horror he witnesses. Bartle wants to help but his sergeant warns him, “If you get back to the States in your head before your ass is there too, then you are a f**king dead man…Murph is home, Bartle. And he’s gonna be there with a flag shoved up his ass before you know it.”

Critical Evaluation

War literature is a staple of high school curriculum, whether it’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Slaughterhouse Five, or The Things They CarriedThe Yellow Birds is both similar to and distinct from this great canon of work. It describes the horrors of war in gory, graphic detail like Remarque does in All Quiet.  It’s got a fractured, disordered narrative like Vonnegut’s classic.  And it focuses on the camaraderie of soldiers like O’Brien’s book.

What makes it distinct from these books, however, is its beautiful and haunting language and imagery.  Kevin Powers is a poet and each line of description is inventive and precise. Bartle’s body at one point pulses with “an all-encompassing type of pain like my whole skin was made out of a fat lip.”  Bartle’s internal conflict to find meaning in his life during and after the war is as gripping as the dangers he faces in Al Tafar. Long after the mystery of what happens to Murph is answered, the reader is left questioning how anyone survives such a brutal and horrific experience.

Information about the author

From the author’s page, “Kevin Powers was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, and holds an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a Michener Fellow in Poetry.  He served in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005 in Iraq, where he was deployed as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar.  This is his first novel.”

Genre

War Fiction.

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 11 and up

 

10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said by Charles Wheelan

25 Apr

imagesBibliographic Information

10 ½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said by Charles Wheelan, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2012, ISBN: 978-0-393-07431-4

Plot Summary

Charles Wheelan’s book was adapted from a Class Day Speech he gave at Dartmouth College in 2011.  After the transcript of the speech began to be shared on the Internet, he expanded on the points he made to students.  Some of the advice he offers graduates includes:

  • Some of your worst days lie ahead
  • Don’t make the world worse
  • Marry someone smarter than you are
  • Help stop the Little League arms race
  • Read obituaries
  • Take time off
  • Your parents don’t want what’s best for you
  • Don’t model your life after a circus animal
  • Don’t try to be great

Critical Evaluation

As someone who works in a high school, I suffer through commencement speeches every year, and every year the speakers repeat a variation of “our time here was awesome; our future is going to be more awesome.”  Even if this were true, it’s hardly inspiring or even interesting to listen to.  That’s why Wheelan’s book is so welcome at this time of year.  Let’s hope some would-be-graduation speaker picks up this slim volume and learns something from Wheelan’s honest assessment of what makes life worth living.

Wheelen includes some staples of the commencement formula.  He reminds graduates that it’s the journey, not the destination that matters and that happiness depends more on personal relationships than accomplishments.  What stands out here though are the harder truths.  In “Some of your worst days lie ahead” he warns his audience that there will be a lot of slogging through tedious tasks before the more purposeful and fulfilling work begins. In “Don’t make the world worse” and “Don’t model your life after a circus animal” he comments how easy it is for smart people to do horrible things for financial rewards. In every chapter, Wheelan includes interesting studies, stories, and personal anecdotes to support the advice he’s giving to young people

If there were an all encompassing theme to this volume, it would be “Don’t let your future be determined by someone else.”  This is an important message for young people to hear today when so much of their future “success” seems predicated on what school they go to, what firm they work for, and where they settle down.

Information about the author

Charles Wheelan is the author of the internationally best selling Naked Economics.  He teaches at Dartmouth College and lives in Hanover, New Hampshire with his family.

Genre

Non-Fiction, Advice, How-To

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 9 and up

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

1 Apr

15745753Bibliographic Information

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, St. Martins Griffin, New York, 2013, ISBN: 978-1-250-01257-9

Plot Summary

When we first meet Eleanor and Park they are strangers on a school bus.  Eleanor is new, “not just new – but big and awkward.  With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly.  And she was dressed like…like she wanted people to look at her.”  Park gets looked at too; he is the only biracial kid at school with a Korean mom and Irish dad.  Soon, this pair of misfits discovers shared interests in comics, New Wave music, and each other.  What starts out as friendship, soon becomes a romance that brings intense happiness and sorrow into their lives.

The sorrow part comes mostly from Eleanor’s step-father, who is an abusive alcoholic. He’s already kicked Eleanor out of the house for a year for typing too loudly.  If he discovers she’s dating a boy, there’s no telling what kind of terror he will bring down on her and her family.  The closer she and Park become, however, the harder it gets for her to hide the relationship from people in neighborhood.  While Park only hears the beating of his heart when he’s with Eleanor, all she hears is the ticking time bomb of her whole life about to explode.

Critical Evaluation

I picked up Eleanor & Park after reading a glowing review in the New York Times by John Green. In many ways, Rowell’s book reminded me of a John Green novel.  Like Green, Rowell has not lost her understanding of and empathy with her teenage characters.  At one point when their English teacher asks Park why students still read Romeo and Juliet (a rather ominous allusion that haunts the telling of this story), Park responds, “because people want to remember what it’s like to be young? And in love?”  That obsessive quality of first love, where everything is so new and intense, is what Rowell captures perfectly in this novel.  Eleanor and Park are two original characters who are sympathetic despite their flaws.  At first, they seem like a very unlikely couple but the deeper you get into the novel, the more you realize how well they suit each other.

Rowell throws a major roadblock in front of the couple’s happiness in the form of Eleanor’s step-dad.  His threatening presence makes the book a gripping read. Eleanor’s romance with Park is meaningful because of the risks she takes to be with him. My only complaint with the novel is with the ending, which seemed a little rushed and not as believable as I would have liked.  After following these characters for 300 pages, I didn’t quite buy the choices they make at the very end.  Despite this flaw, however, I was completely consumed with this book and sad to leave these characters when I got to the final pages.

Information about the author

The author writes on her Amazon.com author page, “Rainbow Rowell is the author of Attachments, Eleanor & Park, and Fangirl. When she’s not writing, she’s obsessing over other people’s made-up characters, planning Disney World trips, and arguing about things that don’t really matter in the big scheme of things.”

Genre

Young Adult Fiction

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 9 and up

 

A Hologram For The King by Dave Eggers

27 Mar

an-A-20Hologram-20for-20the-20King-20120803120038980540-300x0Bibliographic Information

A Hologram For The King by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s Books, San Francisco, 2012, ISBN: 978-1-936365-74-6

Plot Summary

Alan Clay is in Saudi Arabia to sell a virtual image to an absent king in his invisible city.  It’s a far cry from his previous job, making and selling Schwinn bicycles, but that job is invisible too, thanks to the mismanagement of the company and the global marketplace. Now Alan is looking for one big sale to help him out of his financial troubles and keep his home and his beloved daughter in college.

When he arrives at King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) to sell the King the latest hologram technology from Reliant, he finds a lot of billboards but no city.  The King is travelling with no firm itinerary, leaving Alan and his team with nothing to do but sit around in a poorly ventilated tent with little food and weak Wi-Fi.  Alan can do nothing but think about his prospects and play with a growth on his neck he worries is sucking the life force out of him.

The longer he remains in KAEC, the more he grows accustomed to its culture and people.  The people in Saudi Arabia, like Alan, have little to do except dwell on their present and imagine a different future.  Everything seems to depend on the King, who like the hologram Alan is so eager to present, may or may not ever appear.

images

Critical Evaluation

A Hologram For A King was nominated for a National Book Award and it’s easy to see why.  The writing is sparse, but all the more powerful for its lack of flowery language.  The desert setting reminded me of the classic stories of displaced people by Albert Camus and Paul Bowles.  There is a surprising amount of thought provoking material in a book that’s a relatively quick read.

Eggers is tapping into a deep fear that America’s economic status in the world is being diminished in the global marketplace.  Through Alan’s struggle, the reader feels how economic, political, and religious movements impact individuals on an emotional and psychological level.  Alan Clay shares some of the bewildered impotence of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, but Eggers also reveals how global forces for cheap labor are making it impossible for people like Alan to thrive.  The novel ends with a memory of Alan taking his daughter to watch the last launch of the NASA space shuttle, and the reader can’t help but feel that it’s not just America’s manufacturing that has been sapped, but its spirit of innovation and adventure as well.

Information about the author

The author writes on his Amazon.com author page, “Dave Eggers is the author of six previous books, including “Zeitoun,” a nonfiction account a Syrian-American immigrant and his extraordinary experience during Hurricane Katrina and “What Is the What,” a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award. That book, about Valentino Achak Deng, a survivor of the civil war in southern Sudan, gave birth to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, run by Mr. Deng and dedicated to building secondary schools in southern Sudan. Eggers is the founder and editor of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing house based in San Francisco that produces a quarterly journal, a monthly magazine (“The Believer”), and “Wholphin,” a quarterly DVD of short films and documentaries. In 2002, with Nínive Calegari he co-founded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center for youth in the Mission District of San Francisco. Local communities have since opened sister 826 centers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Ann Arbor, Seattle, and Boston. In 2004, Eggers taught at the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and there, with Dr. Lola Vollen, he co-founded Voice of Witness, a series of books using oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. A native of Chicago, Eggers graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in journalism. He now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two children.”

Genre

Fiction

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 10 and up

 

Teen Reviews of Recent Books

18 Mar

 

 

Our Book Club reads a lot of new YA books and reviews them for teen readers.  Here are some of their favorite new and soon-to-be-released books.

The-Archived-by-Victoria-SchwabBibliographic Information

The Archived by Victoria Schwab, Hyperion, 2013, ISBN: 978-1423157311

Plot Summary

Mackenzie is a Keeper, meaning she is responsible for keeping Histories (an animate ghost that contains all the memories of a deceased person) out of our world.  However, she begins to question the reasons for keeping these histories locked out of our world as she grieves her younger brother who was killed in an accident.

Critical Evaluation

This book is complex and intriguing.  The main character is smart, relatable, and brave, and the other characters are unusually vibrant and realistic.  The plot is incredibly suspenseful and heartbreaking, humorous, and chilling at the same time.  I could not put the book down!

Information about the author

The author writes on her Amazon.com author page, “Victoria is the product of a British mother, a Beverly Hills father, and a southern upbringing. Because of this, she has been known to say “tom-ah-toes”, “like”, and “y’all”. She lives in Nashville, TN when she is not wandering in search of buried treasure, fairy tales, and good tea.”

10137823Bibliographic Information

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson. Tor Teen. Release date: May 14th, 2013. ISBN: 978-0765320322

Plot Summary

A boy lives in a society where people can magically make chalk drawings come to life if they have a special kind of power. They use these ‘chalklings’ to fight not only each other, but to defend their country from attacks. A boy who has always wanted to be a Rithmatist (someone who can make these drawings come to life) stumbles upon a mystery revolving around mysterious disappearances, wild chalklings, and a Rithmatist murderer. Can he solve the case?

Critical Evaluation

It’s a very original book that is very intriguing. It is very well written and is overall a good read.

Information about the author

The author writes on his Amazon.com author page, “I’m Brandon Sanderson, and I write epic fantasy novels for Tor Books. The sixth novel I wrote, ELANTRIS, was my first published, and I followed this up with the Mistborn trilogy and WARBREAKER. I was also chosen to complete Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series based on his notes, resulting in THE GATHERING STORM, TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT, and A MEMORY OF LIGHT. I’m now launching my own grand epic that I’ve wanted to tell for many years, starting with THE WAY OF KINGS.

Read an excerpt here: tor.com/wok

More sample chapters from all of my books are available at brandonsanderson.com/library — and check out the rest of my site for chapter-by-chapter annotations, deleted scenes, and more.

 

ProdigyBibliographic Information

Prodigy by Marie Lu. Putnam.  January 29, 2013. ISBN: 978-0399256769

Plot Summary

The US has split in two: the west coast is now the Republic and the east is its enemy, the Colonies.  The story is told from two different points of view- June is the young but brilliant prodigy of the Republic, and Day is the Republic’s number one enemy.  When Day is accused of killing June’s beloved brother, she sets out to kill him, but begins to wonder who her real enemy is.

Critical Evaluation

Anyone who likes The Hunger Games will love this book.  It is similar in that they are both set in future North America with militaristic dictatorships controlling the people.  Prodigy was intriguing because the good and bad in the characters’ worlds are so brilliantly interwoven and connected to each other.  Note: This is the second book in the series.  I recommend reading the first book, Legend, before reading Prodigy.

Information about the author

Marie Lu is the art director at Online Alchemy, a video game company, and also owns the children’s brand Fuzz Academy.  She was first inspired to write Legend while watching Les Miserables one afternoon and wondering how the relationship between a famous criminal and a prodigious detective might translate into a more modern story.

16100972Bibliographic Information

Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg.  Arthur A. Levine Books. Release date: June 1, 2013 ISBN: 978-0545509893

Plot Summary

The entire concept of the book was really interesting – an openly gay boy wants to feel normal and stop being known as ‘the gay boy’, so he decides to study abroad at an all boy’s school, where he disguises himself as a straight boy.

Critical Evaluation

Openly Straight sort of reminded me of Perks of Being a Wallflower in its tone and how you empathize with the characters. The endings to both books left me wanting more, but gave me enough closure to put the book down and move on, unlike other books I have read.  The audience for this book would probably be 15+.  It’s a thought-provoking, intriguing book, that I would definitely recommend.

Information about the author

The author writes on her Amazon.com author page, “A B- student throughout high school, Bill Konigsberg was voted Most Likely to Avoid Doing Any Real Work In His Life by a panel of his dismissive peers. He proved them wrong with a series of strange-but-true jobs in his 20s – driver recruiter for a truck driving school, sales consultant for a phone company, and temp at Otis Elevators.

He moved to Denver in 1996 and was voted Least Stylish Gay Guy in the Metro Denver Area (including Loveland!) for each of the years from 1996-98. His fashion-free wardrobe robbed him of prospective dates countless times, as did his penchant for wearing a mustache that didn’t suit him.

He worked at ESPN and ESPN.com from 1999-2002, where he developed a penchant for sharing too much information about himself. That character flaw earned him a GLAAD Media Award in 2002, for his column “Sports World Still a Struggle for Gays.” That coming out essay made him a household name to tens of people across the country.

He continued oversharing in graduate school at Arizona State, where he added People Pleasing to his growing list of character defects and parlayed that into the title of Most Chill Teacher of freshman composition. This title was unofficial.

He wrote a novel called Audibles at Arizona State, and sold that novel to Dutton Books for Children in 2007. His editor asked him to change the title so that it would appeal to people other than “football players who read.” The resulting novel, Out of the Pocket, received strong reviews from his mother, father, significant other and one girl who had a crush on him in high school. It won a Lambda Literary Award in 2009, leading to more than one stunned audience member murmuring: “Who?”

His second novel, Openly Straight, will be released in June of 2013. He describes the novel as “Twilight-like, only without vampires and wolves and angsty teenage girls. Also, set in an all-boys boarding school in Massachusetts. Otherwise, it’s like an exact replica.”

Bill currently lives in Chandler, Arizona, which is the thinking man’s Gilbert, Arizona.

The Program coverBibliographic Information

The Program by Suzanne Young.  Simon Pulse. Release date: April 30, 2013. ISBN: 978-1442445802

Plot Summary

Teen suicide rates have grown exponentially, and the government has declared it as a national epidemic. The Program is a place where teenagers ‘under the radar’, or high-risk teenagers are sent, where they go to be ‘reformed’, therefore curing them from their suicidal thoughts. Sloane knows better than to cry, because crying means getting sent to the Program. And everyone who goes, doesn’t come back the same.

Critical Evaluation

Overall, a good read! I would definitely recommend it to someone else who is into the whole dystopian thing/fighting authority. Romance is included, of course.

Information about the author

The author writes on her Amazon.com author page, “Suzanne Young currently lives in Tempe, Arizona, where she drafts novels on restaurant napkins while eating chimichangas. After earning her degree in creative writing, Suzanne spent several years teaching middle school language arts. She is also the author of A NEED SO BEAUTIFUL. You can visit her online at http://www.suzanne-young.blogspot.com.

Uses For Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt

8 Mar

Uses For BoysBibliographic Information

Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, ISBN: 978-1-250-00711-7

Plot Summary

By outward appearances, Anna is moving up in the world.  Through a series of failed marriages, her mother manages to get them out of their tiny apartment and into a large, comfortable home in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.  With each move, however, Anna becomes increasingly isolated.  Her mother abandons her, sometimes for weeks at a time, while she dates what might be her next husband.

At fourteen, Anna is living alone.  Boys fill an empty space, but Anna doesn’t realize that while she may have “uses for boys”, they also have uses for her.  She starts to smoke pot, get drunk, and have sex.  She can’t understand why none of her relationships feels as romantic as the ones her friend Toy describes when they are together.  Toy has thoughtful, considerate, sensitive boys lavishing her with attention and gifts, whereas Anna feels emptier after each encounter.

When Anna finally meets Sam, a boy with a loving family, she gets a glimpse into the kind of home she so desperately wants. Now she must decide if she can change her behavior or if she’s doomed to repeat the mistakes of her mother.

Critical Evaluation

Uses For Boys is not an easy book to read.  It chronicles one girl’s dark spiral into a world filled with alcohol, drugs, and sex.  Throughout reading, I was desperate for someone to help Anna and prevent her from making such disastrous choices.  She’s so desperate for human connection that she responds to any offer of companionship.

While Anna’s story is tragic, Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s writing is so lyrical and true that the book is also a beautiful read. Writing in the first person, Scheidt captures Anna’s struggles and reveals her strength and vulnerabilities.  The reader roots for her to find a way out of the mess her mother has put her into. Her story reveals how significant our family bonds are to our future relationships.

Information about the author

The author writes on her Amazon.com author page, “As a teenager, Erica Lorraine Scheidt studied writing at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University and later received an MA in creative writing from University of California, Davis. Now a teaching artist and longtime volunteer at 826 Valencia, Erica works with teen writers in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s a 2012 Artist in Residence at Headlands Center for the Arts and is currently at work on a second novel for young adults.”

Genre

Young Adult Fiction

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 10 and up