Thursday, December 25, 2014

Tuesdays at the Castle

41. Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George

Apparently, I forgot to write about Tuesdays at the Castle. I read this adorable children's book back in June, when I was preparing to teach my summer class for fourth and fifth graders. I used the book as an example for setting description, and students were so interested that a few decided to do their independent book project on it, and many more fought over the library copy in my classroom. Now, there are two sequels out: Wednesdays in the Tower and Thursdays with the Crown.

Tuesdays at the Castle is one of few books where the setting takes center stage. As such, it's great for illustrating the importance of setting to a story, but it's also just really fun. Princess Celie, our ostensible protagonist, has a special relationship with the eponymous Castle Glower. Tuesdays are the days that Castle Glower adds new rooms, turrets, or other features. Celie is the only one who never seems fazed by the castle's peculiarities, which extend to granting comfier quarters to its favorite residents and choosing successors to the throne by granting throne-adjacent bedrooms. Since the castle's influence is everywhere at work, it's at least an equal protagonist in the novel.

Anyway, a thrilling read for a detail-oriented middle grade reader, and an amusing romp for readers of any age.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Top Ten Books I Read in 2014

Happy Top Ten Tuesday! Again, I switched this week's and last week's, since tonight is the last night of Hanukkah (Happy Eighth Night, y'all).

1. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Obviously a Hugo award winner for a reason, Leckie is a new and exciting writer in contemporary science fiction.

2. Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed

Although less widely recognized and certainly not "new," the writers' retelling of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is a compelling reflection on the ancient tale, and modern sensibilities.

3. The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

Weir's narrative voice and methodical structuring are perfect for this most troubling of historical mysteries.

4. The Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett, and Amanda Pressner

I read this twice this year. To any young, single woman who dreams of travel, it's irresistible.

5. The Best American Travel Writing 2013, edited by Elizabeth Gilbert

Nearly every story was perfect in its own unique and true way.

6. Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

Anchee Min has a feel for characters, and for the most outlandish yet accurate metaphors.

7. Sexual Abuse, Shonda, and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities by Michael Lesher

Not a book I necessarily enjoyed reading due to subject matter, but very well-written and researched.

8. Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery

The perfect amalgam of L.M. Montgomery's style, plot, and substance. Montgomery fans shouldn't miss it.

9. The Queen's Lover by Vanora Bennett

Inventive yet well-researched historical fiction on the woman who embodied the Tudors' claim to the throne.

10. Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the new Domesticity by Emily Matchar

Well-researched and thoughtful investigation of why so many women (and some men) have returned to the domestic arts.

11. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I'm cheating a bit, but didn't feel I could leave this off. I didn't love every story, and yet Russell's power with language transcends each and every one. My favorite was "Reeling for the Empire."

You know these are good because these are the ones I remembered, almost all off the top of my head.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Brief Reviews

39. Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Six-Word Review:

Gift for erudite academic, otherwise forgettable.

Slightly Longer Review:

A library browse find, Dear Committee Members was an entertaining read for the two hours it took me to finish. The conceit is a novel written entirely in letters of recommendation from one roguish professor. The letters are witty and verbose, and sure to bring a smile of recognition to the face of any academic. Many a faculty member will wish they had the cojones to compose such missives. Unfortunately, however, the plot is thin and plays on stereotypes without transcending them. Ultimately, Dear Committee Members is funny but forgettable, though perhaps a good gag gift for the English professor in your life.

40. The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Six-Word Review:

Brooding artists abound; no real swans.

Slightly Longer Review:

I purchased this audiobook back in July, but due to a number of interesting circumstances, didn't get it back in my possession until December. It was still quite useful in alleviating my long commutes. It is, at heart, a book about art and psychology, and probably not something I would have read if not in need of a cheap and easily accessible audiobook. There are multiple storylines, narrated by a number of different characters, that are not convincingly told in past tense. Kostova's flair for description is such that I would never believe the narrators were not speaking as they experienced. This actually made for a very difficult suspension of disbelief, but I tried. The main conceit, centered around art, and a (fictional) work of art in particular, was interesting, and got me thinking and excited about art in ways that I honestly rarely am (When I say "art," here, I mean specifically drawing and painting, I have never had trouble valuing literature or drama!). In any case, I really want to see the Degas in the Met (and, okay, actually I've been excited about Degas since I read B.A. Schapiro's The Art Forger, a much better book about art, but still). ANYWAY. The Swan Thieves has a somewhat misleading title, intriguing characters, vivid description, and a mediocre plot. Read it if you're a fan of Impressionist art, especially if you frequent the Smithsonian, the Met, and/or the Louvre.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Top Ten Bookish and Teaching Items I Wouldn't Mind for Hanukkah

Happy Top Ten Tuesday! I'm reversing the posts for today and next week, especially since Hanukkah starts tonight (Happy Hanukkah!).


1. Paper clips

The number one item that I actually really want is paper clips. Before becoming a teacher, I never realized how valuable paper clips are. I use them all the time, and I never have enough. Plus, I like the colors and cool designs they sometimes come in.

2. Binder clips

If paper clips are useful, binder clips are indispensable. Paper clips are great for individual assignments, but if I have a whole stack? Binder clips are the only way to go. And even these come in fun designs now too.

3. Post-It Notes

Post-It Notes are so great for jotting down notes for me, notes for students, notes to anyone and everyone. They're so quick, easy, and accessible. And nobody can get mad when I'm writing on a hot pink background, right? Or lime green? You just can't take it that seriously.

4. Book Markers/Post-It Flags

And if Post-It Notes are great, well, book markers are even better! They're Post-It Notes specifically designed for books, so I can mark my favorite passages, or whatever I want to point out to students, but I'm not desecrating any books in the process. Brilliance.

5. Books on Teaching

I'm still a fledgling, and I know there's a lot more I could learn about pedagogy. I haven't had a lot of time this semester, but hopefully (*knock on wood*) I'll have more next semester, I can spend some time studying up and honing my skills. Any teachers out there have recommendations? I teach college during the year; fourth and fifth graders in the summer.


1. Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

I know I want it. Honestly, I will probably get it for myself.

2. The Martian by Andy Weir

Apparently I should move this up on my TBR list.

3. Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

I really want to read it.

4. The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books by Azar Nafisi

I've been looking forward to this for years!

5. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

I've been saying I'm going to read it for years now.

Friday, December 12, 2014

On Sexual Abuse, Shonda, and Concealment in (Orthodox) (Jewish) Communities

38.Sexual Abuse, Shonda, and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities by Michael Lesher

Michael Lesher's Sexual Abuse, Shonda, and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities is a clear-headed, investigative account of the systematic protection of child sex abusers, and corollary silencing of child sex abuse victims, in Orthodox Jewish communities. The book is meticulously documented, and unfortunately at this point, less shocking than it is confirming of what many of us have already suspected or known.

I am not an Orthodox Jew, but I am a Jew, and many aspects of the culture depicted in this book are familiar to me on some level. While I want to stress, as Lesher does, that sex abuse is not condoned in Judaism (far, far from it), I am familiar with that paranoia that somehow "they" (the other, the gentile) will get wind that we have done wrong, and use it as an excuse to persecute and annihilate us. This attitude may sound crazy in present-day America--but coming from the history of the Jews, well, it's the attitude that has kept us around this long. And I do honestly think that the self-preserving, suspicious instincts of Jews are an attribute that have allowed us to survive as long as we have. I am not defending the rabbis and authorities who have allowed these terrible abuses to happen, who have allowed these abuses to happen to children, to Jewish children, and by protecting their abusers, as Lesher points out, effectively excluded them from the community. No, I am not defending these people--but I am explaining their logic. They have created a society that protects criminals--in response to a larger society that uses the actions of criminals of particular groups in order to persecute innocent members of particular groups. Recent events in American history ought to reinforce that lesson for anyone reading this.

As it happens, sex abuse scandals have touched even my much more liberal, entirely (or almost entirely) compliant with secular authorities, sect of Judaism. At my synagogue, there was a much-beloved rabbi. I knew him well enough, or thought I did. He was the kindest of the rabbis, and the one who paid the most attention to children. He was always with us, playing games, singing songs. Unfortunately, he was passed over for promotion to head rabbi, and left in a huff. He had many supporters, and many people were upset that he was passed over for the position. In his new position in another state, his wife left him and took the children. He returned to our area, and began work for a well-known Jewish organization. the clergy at our synagogue invited him back to promote this organization to the children in the Hebrew school. Thus it was that I had seen and spoken with this rabbi only weeks before, when he was revealed very publicly as a child molester on a popular television show. Obviously, the show had been filmed much earlier. This man resigned from his job only right before it came out, and afterward a letter was sent around our synagogue offering counseling and inviting victims to come forward. As far as I'm aware, no one did.

It occurs to me that I simply don't know what went on behind the scenes. Did the other clergy and administration have some idea of what he was capable of, is that why they didn't offer him the head position? When his wife divorced him, was this part of the reason? When should people have sat up and taken notice? This man was continually around children, until the television show exposed him. Is it really possible that he had no actual victims? This, as Michael Lesher might say, is one of the "good" cases. This man was part of a community, and enough a part of the secular community, that held him responsible and had him legally prosecuted. Even so, it was a shameful day in our Jewish community, at our synagogue, in my household. We were not only horrified that we had been harboring this man, but we felt personally embarrassed, in front of the larger secular community, that such a person existed among us. We worried how it would make "us" look.

This is the mentality that the larger community foists upon minority groups, and makes crime a particularly fraught issue. What if we, all of us, could be blamed or tainted by the actions of the few?

This is the fear that drives rabbis and Jewish authorities to attack people like Lesher for exposing the criminals in Jewish communities. We want to deal with this privately, alone, so "they" don't know, so they can't hold us all responsible. As Lesher documents, these systems, from beit din (rabbinic courts) to Jewish "patrols" in Orthodox neighborhoods (essentially, private police), end up silencing victims and protecting perpetrators, all in the name of protecting the community overall. Victims and their families are pressured into not speaking up, forbidden to go to secular authorities. And perpetrators, often rabbis and people who work with children, continue with impunity.

This, as Lesher's book demonstrates, is the real problem. There are not more child molesters in the Jewish community than in any other community. There are not more child molesters in Orthodox Jewish communities than in Catholic Churches. In fact, the number of child molesters is parallel with the proportion expected in society overall. Child molesting is not a Jewish problem, it's a human problem. But the way certain Orthodox Jewish communities have organized themselves, child molesters are allowed to operate more freely, and accrue more victims, than if they were prosecuted when initial allegations were uncovered.

In Orthodox Jewish communities, as in all communities, the larger problem is power dynamics. This is the problem of feminism, the problem of civil rights, the problem of humanity. If those in power, in this case, the rabbinate, are threatened, then those not in power will suffer. While the culture of fear may be genuine, it also serves to bolster, knowingly or unknowingly, the power of the leaders. And, unfortunately, how leaders gain power is delineating between "us" and "them." "We" are right, and "they" are wrong. In Jewish communities, especially those in Israel, this means Jews vs. Palestinians. But it could also mean Jews (specifically, the rabbinate) against anyone who dares tell them they are wrong (specifically, outspoken victims of sexual abuse). Lesher, rightly I think, links the attitude toward child victims of sex abuse to similar attitudes towards women, and towards Palestinians. Poignantly, he writes:

If we tolerate the teaching that other people's children are legitimate targets, we have no right to be astonished when the same teaching is applied to our own children.

Chilling, isn't it?

Of course, this is not pleasant to talk about, but now is a time when all kinds of unpleasant conversations are coming to a head. So, let's begin at home. How do our attitudes, our prejudices, blind us to suffering? How can we stop? How can we begin to see, and begin to heal?

For the readers who want to answer those questions, this is a book for you. And I'll leave you with another quote from Lesher:

The questions we ask are driven by what we know; and what we know depends on the questions we ask.

Received for review from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Top Ten New-to-Me Authors I Read in 2014

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

1. Ann Leckie

I'm probably not the only one who has Ann Leckie on their list this year, and I only found her after everyone else did. But I will be following her output very closely from now on!

2. Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed

I was truly blown away by Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, it's definitely one of my favorite books of 2014. I only found it because the authors asked me to review it, but I will definitely be seeking out the sequel.

3. Rhett C. Bruno

I had never heard of Bruno before he queried me to review his novel, The Circuit: Executor Rising, but I was very impressed with this not-quite-dystopian space opera, and look forward to the sequel.

4. Anchee Min

Her books were some of the few of my local library's relatively small audiobook collection that interested me. Her fictional memoirs of China's last empress are exquisite, and Min herself is fascinating. I heard her speak (and sing!) at the National Book Festival in August, and she was a riot. She spoke about her personal memoirs, which I have yet to read, and shared stories of how she was chosen to be an actress in Communist China, how she trained in Chinese opera, and how she deceived her way to the States and learned English in six months, among other tidbits. I definitely plan to read more of her.

5. Vivien Shotwell

Vienna Nocturne is a novel that melts in your mouth. LibraryThing Early Reviewers introduced me to this one, but I'll be on the lookout for more.

6. Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett, and Amanda Presner

I read their memoir, The Lost Girls , about traveling around the world, twice this year, and dip into it when I need adventure. Sadly, I think this was a one-time deal, but I appreciate it deeply.

7. Vanora Bennett

I really enjoyed The Queen's Lover, about Catherine of France and Owen Tudor. Bennett will be another historical fiction go-to for me.

8. Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein

Her short story "Sultana's Dream" was amazing, I just wish there was more.

9. Matthew Schultz

I was very impressed with "On the Study of Physics in Preschool Classrooms," I would read more of his stuff.

10. Cole Becher

Likewise, "Charybdis" was brilliant, though the subject matter was disturbing.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Book Review: Ancillary Sword

37. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

If Ancillary Justice was an epic space opera bursting with its core concept, Ancillary Sword is the magnifying glass pulled closer, examining the implications of this universe, and this character, on just one planet.

One of my favorite aspects of Ancillary Justice was the twin story arcs, one from the past, and one in the present, that cohered to explain the narrator, Breq's, identity. The first book had an epic ending to go with its epic scope, but the second book picks up in the same place. Going forward is slower going and makes for a different, but no less thoughtful, novel. The pace is different, instead of a race to discover the corruption at the heart of civilization, this is a slower, more revealing investigation of the injustices on just one planet (okay, solar system).

Breq, now Breq Mianaai, official cousin to Anaander Mianaai, leader of the Radch empire, is sent to protect the Athoek System from the recently outbroken war. It contains the only person she longs to protect, Basnaaid Elming, the sister of her beloved lieutenant Awn Elming, whom she knew when she was a ship. When there, we see Breq behave instinctively like Lieutenant Awn in the first book, gravitating towards the lowest on the totem pole. There are plenty of social injustices for Breq to mend, and the reader gets a fuller picture of gender and social dynamics in the Radch empire. Sadly, we realize that, with or without feminine pronouns, rape and exploitation continue.

The reader receives more clues here too about Breq's body, which for me, lead to some unanswered questions--do ancillaries age, and is it or is it not possible to revive original memories after becoming an ancillary? The hints on these topics are, I think, intentionally blurred, and while I'm betting there will be more answers in the next book, I don't expect to discover Breq's actual gender, for example. The books only work on a conceptual level with certain layers of mystery intact.

If you haven't yet read Ancillary Justice, I highly recommend it. If you are a fan, you will probably like Ancillary Sword too, but you should know that it's a different sort of book. I wouldn't jump into this sequel without having read the first, because you'll miss a lot about Breq's character, though it could still work on the social injustice thread level.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Top Ten Books I'm Looking Forward to in 2015

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

These are probably supposed to be 2015 new releases, so I'll try to put a few of those, but really these are just books I hope I will get to read in 2015.

1. The Winds of Winter by George R.R. Martin


2. Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

I intend to buy and read it by 2015 at least, if not before!

3. The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books by Azar Nafisi

It's out! I've been waiting for this book for years!

4. Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

It's time I learned what the fuss is with Kelly Link's short stories. I feel especially interested in her since I met her, once, at the Boston Book Festival.

5. Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The unvarnished story of The Little House on the Prairie books is finally being published.

6. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This pre-and-post apocalyptic novel has garnered much praise this year, perhaps I should check it out.

7. On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard

And speaking of stations, I've been meaning to get to this one.

8. Yes Please by Amy Poehler

I've typically stayed away from the celebrity memoir genre, but if I was going to break that trend, it might be for this book. I've really been enjoying "Parks and Recreation," and I feel like Poehler must have a story to tell.

9. Redeployment by Phil Klay

It just won the National Book Award, and it's about time we had some literature on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

10. The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

I want to read this, but I think I have to read The Wise Man's Fear first.