The past few weeks have found me finishing up a bunch of books. I went on a women’s retreat for church which afforded me extra time to read (heavenly indeed). I’m not sure I want to do full reviews of any of these but I thought I’d offer a few brief thoughts on each.
The Shallows:What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
Overall, I found this book very interesting. I liked that Carr is neither an alarmist (he admits to a fondness and reliance on technology) nor in denial about the effect of technology on the way we think. More than anything this book underlined to me the differences between my generation (that grew up without computers) and the generation of my children. I wished that Carr had spent a bit less time on discussing the neurological effects of technology and a bit more time on discussing the implications of what those effects might be. For example, I couldn’t help by think about the increase of diagnoses of ADD when reading about how something like Google is designed to make us inattentive. I also thought that Carr overstated how difficult it is to choose to “unplug”. Yes, technology is here to stay and we are dependent on it. At the same time, most of the people I know have found various ways of limiting its impact. Carr describes a scenario where a user is online only to have alerts telling them when their email, Facebook, Twitter and readers have new content and how difficult it is to ignore those alerts. Yet, it is quite simple to choose not to be alerted. Or even more, to choose not to use Facebook or Twitter or a reader.
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
I read this one mostly out of curiosity at what won the Newbury last year. It’s one of those very quirky books with a lot of weird characters and situations. The main character is Jack Gantos (yes the same name as the author),a 12 year old living in Norvelt, Pennsylvania, who is “grounded for life” after accidentally shooting one of his Dad’s Japanese rifles from WWII. Jack is a strange kid whose nose bleeds constantly at any stress and who is afraid of death. He gets mixed up with Mrs. Volker, one of the original Norvelt residents, when she asks him to help her write obituaries for the town. There is also a gang of Hell’s Angels, Jack’s best friend Bunny who is a foul mouthed Girl Scout and daughter of the funeral director, a homemade bomb shelter and a mystery of sorts involving the death of many of the original residents.
For about the first third of the book, I thought this was another Exquisite Corpse Adventure and I still do think there was an element of quirkiness just to be quirky. But in the end this one won me over a bit. There is a lot of history woven into the book and the theme is that you have to know your history if you don’t want to repeat it (or “do stupid stuff” again as the narrator says.) There is also more character development as Jack goes from being scared and somewhat disgusted by the elderly Mrs. Volker to being her friend. One of the reasons I read this was to see if maybe it would be good for John. He certainly could read it now, but I think this is one best left until older. Partially due to some of the themes (war, death, fighting parents) and partially due to the fact that while he’d think some of the quirkiness was funny he just wouldn’t get the bigger ideas yet.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai
A 2011 Newbury Honor Book and the winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, this is a really beautiful book. It tells the autobiographical story of a year in the life of Ha, a young Vietnamese girl who leave Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and settles in America. The story is told through narrative poems. The poems are lovely but Ha’s story is what is really touching. Some of the story is funny (the inconsistencies of the English language). Some are heartbreaking (realizing that her missing in action father is dead). Some are uncomfortable (the baptism by her family of well-meaning but misguided Christians). I was able to read the book in one setting which I think made the experience that much better. Ha’s voice was strong and beautiful and I came away feeling lucky to have spent time with her.
The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure
This is yet another “person does something quirky and then writes a book about it” books. Think Julie and Julia or The Year of Living Biblically or even Moonwalking with Einstein. In this book, McClure sets out to visit as many of the Laura Ingalls Wilder related sites as she can. Along the way, she tries her hand at some Little House on the Prairie type of tasks like butter churning and does a lot of ruminating on what Laura means to her personally. This book has been reviewed in a lot of places. Amy had mixed feelings, so did Janet, 5 Minutes for Books loved it. Overall, I thought is was just ok. I found it hard to identify with McClure’s Laura obsession. Although I’ve always been a big reader and as a girl imagined myself in books I’ve never felt the way she feels about Laura. And though I’ve dreamed of visiting some of the Little House sites myself (or Prince Edward Island or Mantako, Minnesota) I’ve always seen those as fun places to go, not places that might hold some deep meaning or answers about life. McClure’s tone has been described as irreverent and that didn’t bother me that much but I did think she was unnecessarily mocking of the other people she met along the way. She pokes fun at her own geeky obsession but in a sort of “oh, I’m such a geek, aren’t I cool” kind of way. But when she meets a stereotypical homeschooling family she’s shocked to actually like them. And when she ends up in a group of fundamentalist homesteader Christians preparing for the apocalypse she becomes completely freaked out for reasons I couldn’t quite understand.
The main problem with the book is that it’s hard to put McClure’s voice aside and I didn’t find her voice all that interesting. But if you can put it aside there are some interesting questions raised. Which version of Laura is the “real” one? The actual historical details or the details that Wilder chooses to remember and put down for posterity in her books. Why do we Americans embrace a certain ideal of the pioneer? What does our obsession with things like Laura Ingalls or American Girl dolls say about our vision of American girlhood? I wished McClure had explored some of these ideas in more depth. It would have taken a “I’m so geeky cool” memoir and made it into a much better book.