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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

 

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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

 

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

 

In Darkness by Nick Lake

12 Feb

imagesBibliographic Information

In Darkness by Nick Lake, Bloomsbury, New York, 2012, ISBN: 978-1-59990-743-7

Plot Summary

“In darkness, I count my blessings, like Manman taught me.

One: I am alive.

Two: there is no two.”

When In Darkness opens, 15-year-old Shorty is trapped under a collapsed building after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010.  Just before the earthquake hit, Shorty was in the hospital recovering from a bullet wound, the result of a gang retaliation he helped organize and execute.  Now that he’s trapped, he recounts his story of how he became involved with the drug dealing gang and how his life began, and may end, “in darkness.”

Interspersed between Shorty’s narrative is another story of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian slave who led the first successful uprising against the French and English in order to free his people. Like Shorty, Toussaint has to fight for survival.  The French want desperately to keep control of Haiti (and keep the lucrative slave trade) and fight Toussaint’s army with more men, better ships and better weapons.

As Toussaint’s and Shorty’s stories unfold, the reader starts to see parallels in their struggles until finally the two characters become one in their fight for better lives and a better Haiti.

Critical Evaluation

In Darkness just won the 2012 Printz Award for Young Adult Literature and it’s easy to see why.  The novel is imaginatively written, well researched, and exciting from its opening to closing pages.  The dual narratives, number of characters, and sometimes graphic violence may be too much for younger readers.  But older readers will walk away from this novel with a better understanding of Haiti’s history, its people, and unique culture.

Shorty and Toussaint’s stories travel in opposite trajectories.  Shorty’s story is about the loss of innocence.  After seeing his father murdered and his sister abducted, Shorty’s heart fills with revenge against the gang that has destroyed his family.  This revenge makes him a killer and even though it’s hard to see what other options he might have growing up in one of the poorest slums on the planet, the reader still grieves as this young boy’s life spirals out of control.

Toussaint’s story, on the other hand, is of a middle-aged man emerging as his nation’s hero.  Author Lake does a terrific job of humanizing Toussaint, a man who has become mythologized for his role in winning Haiti its freedom.  What we see here is not only the brilliant strategist, but also a man who struggled with fear and doubt.  It is only because he doesn’t let his heart be ruled by hate and revenge that he’s able to not only free but save his country.

Switching back and forth between a story of Haiti’s past and Haiti’s present, it’s easy to get depressed about what’s happened in the country.  Toussaint is an idealist who fights for his people’s freedom.  Fast forward 200 years and we have Shorty, a young boy living in one of the poorest slums in the world, caught up in never-ending gang warfare.  Toussaint’s dream has clearly not become a reality, but Lake doesn’t leave the reader without hope.  There is forgiveness and redemption in the novel.  Through its alternating stories, Lake makes the reader want to learn more about Haiti’s past and do more to protect its future.

Information about the author

The author writes on his Amazon.com author page, “My name’s Nick and I write books for younger readers. My latest, BLOOD NINJA, is about ninjas who are also vampires – because the only thing more awesome than a ninja is a vampire ninja.

I like all the things you like, and I hate all the things you hate. I swear.

I live in a picture-postcard village in Oxfordshire, protected by trip-wires, boobytraps and a fat, lazy tomcat. Life in a picture-postcard village is very nice, but it’s a bit two-dimensional.”

Genre

Historical Fiction

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 10 and up

 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

6 Feb

9780374214913Bibliographic Information

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2012, ISBN: 978-0-374-21491-3

Plot Summary

Clay Jannon is desperate for work.  Unable to find a web design gig in any of San Francisco’s disappearing internet start ups, he takes the only job he can find at a strange bookstore located next to a strip club on Broadway.  Mr. Penumbra’s tall and narrow store immediately strikes him as a strange place. “The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest – not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.”

original

The bookstore also has a mysterious clientele – an odd assortment of people who check out books written in a strange code.  Clay starts to wonder if he’s stumbled into the secret lair of some underground cult.  In order to discover the group’s secrets, he enlists his friends, all of whom have a unique skill set of their own, to discover what exactly is happening in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  What they discover proves to be more mysterious than anything any of them could have imagined.

Critical Evaluation

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore had a few things going for it that made it a must read for me.  First off, it had a blurb from George Saunders, one of my favorite authors, on the back cover.  The story takes place in the two places where I spend the most time: San Francisco and Mountain View.  It’s about a man working in a bookstore / library and its cover glows in the dark.  Pretty much, I knew I was going to like this before I got to page one.

Mark Sloan’s book did not disappoint either.  There’s so much to like in this book about a hapless 20-something who stumbles across something of lasting value in our digital culture.  Mr. Penumbra’s has some big ideas about old and new technology, but these ideas are embedded in a fable-like story involving a young man on a quest for truth.

Clay’s quest is like many heroes’ journeys.  At the start, he is unprepared for the challenges of his quest, but through the assistance of friends (including a girlfriend who works at Google), and a spiritual guide (Mr. Penumbra), he is able to overcome the shadowy forces working against him.  After persevering through countless challenges, he learns an essential truth about himself and our world and emerges as a stronger, more capable, human being.

Information about the authors

From the author’s Amazon.com author page, we learn that “Robin Sloan grew up near Detroit and now splits his time between San Francisco and the internet. He graduated from Michigan State with a degree in economics and, from 2002 to 2012, worked at Poynter, Current TV, and Twitter.”

Genre

Fiction

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 10 and up