What I’m Reading: June 2016

One thing I hoped for after graduation has come true: I have a lot more time to read.  I finally have a full-time job, so my days are spoken for, but I no longer have to make room in my evenings for homework.  So books have made it back into my life on the regular, thank goodness!

Resultado de imagen para my not so perfect life coverIt’s not summer for me without a Sophie Kinsella book, and this is the newest one, published in February of this year.  It follows the classic Kinsella style of zany characters and hilariously ridiculous situations, but it felt a bit more serious than her earlier books, especially the Shopaholic series.  In this, Katie Brenner is a recent college grad (like myself) who is trying to break into the world of branding.  She lands a job at a prestigious firm, but is a bit intimidated by her boss, whose social media accounts make it look like her life could not be more perfect.  Katie is simultaneously in awe and repulsed, but when she gets fired she has a whole host of new problems to deal with.

I enjoyed this because it’s the first Kinsella protagonist I’ve read who was just starting out in life.  I identified with Katie, and I admit felt a bit jealous that she is working in her field so soon after graduation.  But Katie is definitely not perfect either, and that made her so easy to root for.  I saw myself and my friends in her, and I wanted her to succeed.  She learns a lot of hard, adult-y lessons throughout the book, but it still has the nice, satisfying ending that is characteristic to Kinsella books.

Resultado de imagen para universal harvester coverUniversal Harvester is one I wish I could have read in school, or even in a book club, because it begs to be re-read and pondered and analyzed.  Set in the late 90s, it follows Jeremy, who works at a video rental store.  Jeremy, who has lived alone with his father since his mother died in a car accident, is settled into his routine, and likes it that way.  But he can’t help but be curious when several tapes get returned with extra scenes edited in, scenes that seem to have been shot not far from his house.

When I started this, it felt like a creepy thriller.  The mystery surrounding the tapes seemed dark.  Once I realized that — spoiler alert — the narrator is not the author, but another, unknown character, it got even creepier.  But as I got even farther into the book, the creepiness melted away, and it just felt horribly sad.

I know I’m being vague about this book, but it’s the kind that demands to be read to be understood.  You can go read the description on Amazon or Goodreads if you want more info.  What I will say is that Darnielle’s writing style is incredible.  Reading a novel with an unreliable narrator is one of my favorite things in the world, and he executed that perfectly.  This is going to be one I beg other people to read so we can talk about it.

Resultado de imagen para yo julia alvarez coverYo! is by the same author who wrote How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, which I loved.  This I have not loved nearly as much.  But part of it is because at first I didn’t realized that this book continues the story Yolanda, one of the Garcia girls, throughout her lifetime.  It’s an eventful one, too — she angers her entire family by writing about them, gets kicked out of college, and marries — three times.  If I had realized that this Yo was the same as the Garcia Girls Yo at first, maybe I would’ve liked it better.

But another reason I haven’t loved this is because I am reading it in Spanish.  While I have no trouble reading and comprehending words, comprehending voice is a different story.  In this book, each chapter has a different narrator.  Sometimes they are named, and sometimes they aren’t.  I also didn’t realize that at first, because it does take a little more effort for me to understand Spanish novels.  I found that it helps immensely if I read out loud, but I can’t read the entire thing aloud to myself.  I did finish the book, but I think I would have enjoyed it much more in English.

That said, it’s still an incredible work.  (Also, some of my issues may stem from the translation, since it was written in English originally.)  But even with my somewhat foggy understanding of the book, Alvarez’s unique writing style comes through.  Her characterization and place settings are both beautiful in their own way, and the fact that she wrote every single chapter in a different voice speaks to her talent.  Even though I haven’t enjoyed this nearly as much as How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, I’d still recommend it, and I may end up reading it again in English in the future.

 

I Want More Spanish Books Everywhere

You all know I love reading, and that I just graduated with a degree in Spanish.  I posted here (before my impromptu graduating-and-moving blogging break) about how I’m planning on keeping up my Spanish skills.  One of the biggest ways I’ll be doing that is by reading in Spanish, so every time I go to a library or bookstore I browse the Spanish section.

Just in the last week or two, I’ve been to four bookstores and library branches.  And of the places who actually have books in Spanish (some don’t have any at all), all of the ones they have are condensed into just two, three, or four feet of shelf space.  That’s not a lot, when you consider that entire niche sub-genres — like, say, vampire young adult fantasy novels — may have the same amount of shelf space.

Here in America, we have vast bookstores.  We have sections for bestselling fiction, literary fiction, young adult fiction, historical fiction, Christian fiction, and chick lit fiction.  We have romances, erotica, sci-fi, thrillers, epic fantasies, and crime dramas.  We have biographies and memoirs, how-to everything, travel sections, technology books, books of just photos, books to read in the bathroom, every type of cookbook you could think of, and dozens of different magazines.  We have books on every religion imaginable, and many bookstores have one or more aisles dedicated entirely to different versions of the Bible.

Aside from books, bookstores also typically have huge sections of stationery and notebooks, small gift items, and coffee shops.  Barnes and Noble has the Nook e-reader section complete with its plethora of accessories.  Bookstores have sections just for kids, with books and toys geared towards them, and entire sections blocked off for music and movies.  Do you want me to go on?

We have all of this in some form in almost every bookstore you could ever walk into.  Now, there are almost 43 million Spanish-speakers in the US as of 2015 (and not all of them are of Hispanic/Latino origin), which is almost 10% of the population.  This number is only getting higher as the years go by.  And yet, despite this, bookstores allow only a small fraction of their shelf space to books in Spanish, and this tiny amount of shelf space is expected to encompass the highlights of every genre that is offered in English in the rest of the store.  It’s ridiculous.

Now, I do have to admit that while I couldn’t find any statistics on it, I don’t think Spanish speakers read in Spanish as much as anyone reads in English.  I discussed this with one of my Costa Rican teachers when I spent a month in Costa Rica studying abroad.  We were in the “getting to know you” stage, and she asked me what I liked to do for fun.  I told her one of my favorite things was reading, and she asked me how many books I read a year.  I told her it’s probably 20-24 on average, and she was astonished.  She told me she reads maybe 1 or 2, and that most people she knows haven’t picked up a book since they got out of school.  Of course, this was a small town in Costa Rica, not in the US.  I have no way of knowing whether reading is something that is valued in Spanish-speaking households here, because apparently it hasn’t been studied.  That’s something I’d like to see.

I also want to mention that I have never been in a bookstore or library in, say, New Mexico or California, where the number of Spanish-speakers is much higher than in Tennessee, where I live.  Maybe in those states it’s more common to have larger sections of Spanish books since the customer base is larger.

Regardless, though, there are Spanish speakers everywhere in the US.  It’s the second-most-spoken language here after English, and as such, I feel like it should be given a tiny bit more than a measly three feet of shelf space in a bookstore.  Maybe more Spanish speakers would read and write if bookstores offered more than the same old Harry Potter translations and copies of Cien años de soledad in the Spanish section.  Maybe more people would learn it as a second language if they could read different types of books at different levels in Spanish.  Maybe brick and mortar bookstores could save themselves from going the way of Borders if they tapped into the Spanish-speaking market.  I don’t actually know if any of this would actually help anything (honestly it probably wouldn’t).  But I’d at least like to see some more effort.

For now, I’ll have to stick to reading through every small Spanish section I can find, and I’ll also try to find translations of works originally in English.  But I would truly love to see just half an aisle of Spanish books when I go into a bookstore or library.  I might have to take another trip out west.

What I’m Reading: April 2017

Two weeks until graduation and I somehow still have had time to (mostly) devour two books, both of which I got from the library when I knew I shouldn’t have.  But the high quality of these two books makes up for any time I maybe should have spent doing something else.

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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents follows four sisters from the Dominican Republic who are forced to move to New York with their families in 1960 due to political strife.  Told from the perspective of all four girls, in 15 separate but intertwined stories, the story is written in backwards chronological order.  Secrets alluded to in the first few stories are slowly revealed as you read through the chapters, as the girls get younger.  With every chapter, you understand a little more.

It took me a chapter or two to really get into this book, because the first chapter has so many inside jokes and allusions you just don’t know about yet.  But the writing is incredible.  Alvarez does an amazing job of making the characters realistic as they get younger.  The way their understanding of the world changes throughout the book is fascinating, and each story intertwines a little more with the next until finally, at the end, the story is complete.  This is one I would love to study in a classroom setting, or in a book club.  This is a book that needs to be discussed and relished.  It was unlike anything I’ve read before, and unlike many of the books that draw my eye, it is one that can be read multiple times without getting too predictable.  There will always be something else to pick up on.

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The Namesake is about a boy named Gogol whose family moves to the US from Calcutta.  Gogol is the main character, but the book follows his parents just as much as it tells his story.  It’s a growing up novel, but with a wide perspective.  It’s very similar to books by Alan Brennert in that the scope of the novel is very wide, focusing on many decades and many people.  But it is not overwhelming.  It’s written in a comforting, quiet tone that immediately makes you feel as if you are part of the Ganguli family.  I haven’t quite finished it at the time this will post, but it is one that I can tell will have an impact.  The style is also somewhat reminiscent of The Kite Runner, except not as sad.  I also realized that this book has been made into a movie, so it is definitely one I’ll have to try to find and watch.

There you have it — a shorter what I’m reading post than usual, but two books that come very highly recommended.  It doesn’t really matter if these are your favorite genre or not — if you like books with good writing, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy these.

 

 

What I’ve Been Reading: Feb/March 2017

In between procrastinating working very hard on projects and homework, I’ve found a little time to read.  If you are looking for books with heavy topics, this is the post for you!  Warning: this post contains quite a few spoilers.

439288Verdict: If you get a chance, PLEASE READ THIS.

Speak was recommended to me by a friend who has very good taste in books, and we saw it in the bargain section at Books-a-Million, so I went ahead and bought it.  I really think this is one of the most important books that people, especially young people, will ever read.  Word of warning: it’s not a happy book.  If you haven’t heard of it (which you may have, because it’s read fairly commonly in high schools now), it’s about rape.  The protagonist, a high school freshman, gets raped right before the start of the school year, and spends the entire year dealing with the aftermath alone.  She gets depressed, and it manifests mainly through selective mutism — she quits speaking to almost everyone except her art teacher.  She has trouble sleeping.  She loses all her friendships, because no one knows what happened and she won’t talk about it.  It’s a story that is more common than we think it is, and that’s why it’s so important.  It’s not a happy or fun book to read, but it is incredibly well-written.  The protagonist is realistic, and the language is simple and easy to understand.  I cannot stress enough the importance of this book.

13260227Verdict: Do not use to make yourself feel good about the human race.  Do use to try to understand the lives of others, and why they act the way they do.  Do use to develop your empathy.

The Distance Between Us is a memoir about being left behind.  Reyna Grande, the youngest of three siblings, grew up in Mexico after both her parents moved to the United States.  They were stuck in poverty with an abusive, neglectful grandmother, and feelings of abandonment are the main recurring theme.  Grande writes about life in Mexico, and how her older sister became the little mother for her and her brother, and how that affected her sister for the worse later in life.  She writes about how her brother struggled because he never had a good role model.  She writes about how it was when her mother returned to Mexico because her father slept with someone else.  She writes about illegally crossing the Mexican-US border after begging her father to bring her to the US, and she writes about trying to please him time and again even when he gets drunk and beats her and her siblings.  This was not a happy book to read, either.  It shows the worst effects of poverty and desperation, and if I’m being brutally honest, it makes Mexican immigrants look terrible.  Grande’s father was a horrible person, and it’s so easy to read this book and think that everyone who comes from Mexico is like that.  But this is not a book about Mexican immigrants.  It’s a book about the life of Reyna Grande.  It’s about socio-economic disadvantage.  It’s about needing a family, even if that family treats you like shit.  And it shows that it’s possible to overcome all that, but that your history will always be a part of you.

20447732Verdict: Yay! A memoir with happy parts.

A Cup of Water Under My Bed is one of the most iconic coming-of-age memoirs there is.  Hernandez discusses meshing American and Cuban-Colombian traditions, translating documents for her parents, and navigating being bisexual in a Latino family with very traditional values.  This book is more like a collections of essays than a comprehensive memoir, which makes sense since it began as an editorial column when she began writing for the New York Times.  Hernandez definitely has a knack for storytelling, and she has an interesting one to tell.  Because this one was not as devastating as the books above, I don’t remember as many of the details.  However, I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys memoirs.

Besides my capstone books, that’s all I’ve been reading lately.  Reading Spanish memoirs closely really cuts into other reading, and I actually found myself getting confused about which details were from which book.  So reading all these at the same time probably wasn’t the best idea.  I’m afraid I’m going to end up basing a point in my paper about the works of Esmeralda Santiago on something I read in another memoir, but those are the hazards of wanting to read a bunch of similar things.  Enjoy!

All images from Goodreads

What I’ve Been Reading: Christmas Break

I was hoping to do a lot more reading over break, along with job applications and sewing projects.  But since I decided last-minute to take a CLEP test, a lot of my free time was spent studying.  My application and sewing plans went out the window, but I squeezed in a little time here and there to pick up a few books.  Here’s a rundown of what I did get to read.

My mom and I both enjoy watching HGTV, and Fixer Upper is our favorite.  I got this for my mom for Christmas, and read it after she was done (although the temptation to read it before Christmas was strong).  It was worth the wait though, because it was wonderful.  It’s a quick, light, often funny read, and it really shows how to maintain a healthy relationship when times get tough.  It makes me want to get into flipping houses (but that’s nothing new).  Even if you’ve never watched the show, the Gaines’ have such an interesting life there’s got to be something in there you’ll enjoy.

This. Is. Incredible.  In case you don’t know, Diane Guerrero is an actress in Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin (among other things).  This book is her story about growing up after both her parents were deported.  It’s honest and raw, and completely disproves bad stereotypes about Latino immigrants.  I cannot say enough good things about this book or about Guerrero.  Read as part of my goal to read more diverse authors. 

I borrowed this from the library to ease back into Spanish.  It’s a translation of Stevenson’s book Outback, and it would be a perfect challenge for an intermediate Spanish student.  As a middle grade novel, the vocabulary and verb tenses are fairly simple, as is the story.  It’s supposed to be a survival/adventure novel, but there wasn’t as much of that as there was setup.  Also, the character of Mel, a researcher, felt a little one-sided.  However, I loved the ending — spoiler alert: the two main characters did not get together romantically at the end, and the whole book has underlying themes about dealing with depression and illness while not being too heavy.

This floated around on the blogosphere for a long time, and I finally got my hands on a copy.  I really wanted to like this book, but in the end I don’t think it was worth all the hype.  It was a lot of philosophy and not a lot of character development.  It was such an interesting concept and story, but nothin really got resolved — we never find out how or whether the MC pays his invoice.  Maybe I’m missing the point, and it never meant to be just a novel — maybe it was meant as more of a social commentary, like Animal Farm.  But at least Animal Farm resolved somewhat.

This is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, which I’ve never read.  I was vaguely familiar with the plot, but this novel would’ve been enjoyable even if I wasn’t.  Set in Barbados, it deals with family drama, racism, favoritism, greed, and jealousy.  While not one I would likely return to (unless I read King Lear first), Nuñez’s style is easy to read and she is an admirable storyteller.  Read as part of my goal to read more diverse authors. 

Spring 2017 Goals

Well, it’s that time of year.  I started doing seasonal goals in the summer, and really have seen a difference in how deliberate I am about doing or not doing certain things.  So it definitely makes sense for me to continue that.  My dilemma now is that I don’t really like New Years’ Resolutions, per se, because I never keep them.  I think it’s better for me to create seasonal goals, and update them until I either achieve them or they become a habit.  So these are my goals for my final semester of college — January through May.

Life Goals

  1. Be intentional about communicating with others, especially roommates.  I really hate confrontation, and I want people to like me, so I tend to just shut up and tolerate it when someone does something that makes me uncomfortable.  While the roommates I had last year were really awesome, there were a few things that did bother me, and I bottled it up and let it get to me rather than just talking to my roommate about it.  This semester, I have two new roommates, and while I’m not going to be unreasonable, I am going to voice concerns if I have them, and I’m going to try to prevent problems rather than solve them.
  2. Get physically stronger.  When I was in high school, I had a routine I did almost every day, and I had great muscle tone and concentration.  College changed that — my schedule changed and I didn’t really have the room to do my routine in the dorm.  Now, I walk to campus every day, so I normally count that as exercise, since it’s at least movement.  But I need to be doing something more, and I definitely need to be in the habit of exercising once I graduate, because it’s likely I’ll be driving to a job — goodbye, built-in exercise.  Since I’m bad at exercising for the heck of it, and I’ve noticed how much weaker I’ve gotten since having to carry heavy cameras and tripods around all the time, getting stronger is my goal to reach for.
  3. Find ways to support causes I believe in.  Since I’ve been in college, I’ve really come to solidify what I believe in, and I’m to the point where I want to be more active than just talking about an issue or sharing a video on Facebook.  This might be a little tricky, because I can’t contribute to anything financially right now.  But I may be able to volunteer a little, or something like that — I just need to research.
  4. Read more non-white authors.  I mentioned a couple posts ago that I’ve noticed how few non-white authors I read, so I’ve been trying to add new authors to my TBR.  I’ve already marked a couple off my list (I highly recommend Diane Guerrero’s In the Country We Love), and plan to continue this.  I may not have a ton of time to devote to pleasure reading, though, so we’ll see how this goes.
  5. Food: Continue cooking at least once a week; stick to ~$15/month on coffee purchases.  I do cook fairly regularly, but I also end up eating frozen microwave meals or fast food quite a bit too.  I actually kind of enjoy cooking, and I eat a lot healthier when I cook.  I just need a reminder to continue doing it.  Also, this is my continuing experiment on how much I really spend on coffee.  During cold months, I like brewing my own coffee at home, but I like cold coffee when it’s warm.  Lucky me got a French press for Christmas, so I’m planning on using it to make cold brew when it gets warm to cut down on iced coffee purchases.

Education/Career Goals

  1. COB Ambassadors:  Try to help project manage an event.  This is a continuation of one of my fall goals.  I don’t know if this will be possible, because I’m not sure how crazy the semester is going to be.  But I’ll keep my eyes open.
  2. Apply to ~5 jobs a month at least.  This is going to be an -ish goal.  Normally when I sit down to apply for jobs, I do 3 or 4 at a time and then don’t look again for awhile, because it takes a few weeks for new jobs to be posted.  Regardless, I don’t need to be neglecting this.  It won’t be the end of the world if I don’t, but I’d really like to have a job lined up before I graduate.  How’s that for a goal?

I may end up adding to this list as the semester really gets under way, but those are the main things I want to focus on in the coming months.  This is already quite a lot, so I don’t want to overload myself.

Finally, here’s a random life update: my aunt, who helps manage a new-ish church in Alabama, contacted me recently to be the church’s webmaster of sorts.  I’ll be updating the site and content every so often, and I’m really excited about that!

Book Review: The Illustrated Book of Sayings by Ella Frances Sanders

5

Goodreads Description

Ella Frances Sanders’s first book, Lost in Translation, captured the imagination of readers with its charmingly illustrated words that have no direct English translation. Now, the New York Times-bestselling author is back with an illustrated collection that addresses the nuances of language in the form of sayings from around the world. From the French idiom “to pedal in the sauerkraut,” (i.e., “to spin your wheels,”) to the Japanese idiom “even monkeys fall from trees” (meaning, “even experts can be wrong”), Sanders presents sayings that reveal the remarkable diversity, humor, and poignancy of the world’s languages and cultures.

I haven’t traveled a whole lot, but I want to.  And in an ideal world, I’m the kind of person who would rather take two or three weeks and rent an Airbnb and shop at the local market and cook my own food — live in a place for awhile rather than tour it as a viewer.  But this is not an ideal world — who has the time or money for that?  Luckily, I found this book, which is probably as close as I will get to living in many foreign cultures.

The Illustrated Book of Sayings is both a brief and an intimate look at 52 cultures from around the world.  Sanders picks an idiom from a language, and spends around 150 words explaining the meaning, and where it comes from.  Whimsical illustrations accompany each idiom.  If this sounds at all boring or dry, I’m doing a bad job of explaining.  Sanders dips her toe into linguistics (which as a word nerd, I loved), but also relates the idiom to some idiosyncrasy of the people who use it.  It makes you feel like you’re in that country for a moment, chatting with the natives.

Plus, wordy facts aren’t all you get.  Many idioms are animal related, and Sanders seems to enjoy adding animal facts along with her explanations.  For example, did you know that “one of the largest members of the pelican family — the Dalmatian pelican — lives in Denmark”?

Sanders’ explanations are as informative as they are quirky.  And if you just really, really hate reading, you can at least have a fun time looking at the illustrations.  This is a great book to keep on the coffee table to flip through on the days you are too broke to buy a plane ticket.

I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah’s Blogging for Books for free in exchange for this honest review.

 

What I’m Reading: December 2016

There are lots of reasons I always look forward to Christmas break, but one of the big ones is because I get to read.  While I’ve had more time this semester to read (and write!) than normal, not having class at all means even more reading time.  So here’s what I’ve read already, and some of what I’m looking forward to.

What I’ve Read So Far

judyblumeVerdict: So.  Worth.  It.

As soon as I realized Judy Blume had written a new(ish) novel, I wanted to read it.  I grew up with Blubber, the Fudge books, and of course Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  And the fact that this one was based on true events made it even more appealing.  At first, the extensive character list in the front threw me off, but Blume introduces characters slowly enough that it wasn’t confusing at all.  This was such an engaging, sad read, and Blume, as always, captures the very essence of human experience at all ages.  She stays in touch with her inner child but is so incredibly realistic about the way people feel.  If there was ever an author in touch with human nature, it’s Judy Blume.  I highly recommend this.

sleepVerdict:  Do not start unless you have about 6 hours to spare.

It took me from around 8:30pm to 2:00am one night to read this.  I literally did not put it down.  It was kind of funny that I picked it up — it had been on my TBR but I didn’t realize it had finally downloaded to my Kindle from the library until I went to delete another rental.  I just read another book with almost the exact same premise (see below), but I figured why not go ahead.  And this book did not disappoint.  It was suspenseful, engaging, and I caught myself actually holding my breath near the end.  If I ever write a debut novel half as good as this one, I’ll rest easy in my grave.

 

1358844Verdict:  Funny, as usual.

Girl wakes up with amnesia and has no idea who she is — exact same premise as Before I Go to Sleep.  But this was a much fluffier version, a Kinsella classic.  While there are obviously elements of suspense (how can there not be, with this premise?), the surprises are more reality show-esque than the horrible truths revealed in Before I Go to Sleep.  I actually listened to the audio book, and ended up laughing out loud, as I usually do with Kinsella novels.  But maybe not as much as I would have if I had read it — I’m not sure.  Generally I’m not crazy about audio book narrators.  However, it’s really hard to go wrong with Kinsella.

 

TBR for December

To Review

jeffJeff graciously offered me a copy of this collection of memoirs in exchange for a review, so be looking for that within the next few weeks!  I’m excited about this because I love memoirs, and have really enjoyed his blog so far.

 

 

 

sayinsThis is my next book from Blogging for Books, which I chose because 1) I love languages and 2) I love coffee table books.  Someday I hope to have a coffee table full of books, and this will definitely be going on the pile.  Look for the full review by the end of December!

 

 

To Read

Lately I’ve been realizing how few non-white authors I have read.  While I follow a few non-white bloggers, that’s not enough.  In addition to the TBR I already have on Goodreads, I’ll be searching for more non-white authors to read over break.  Feel free to let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations!

Book Review: Substitute by Nicholson Baker

29429931Resultado de imagen para 2/5 stars

Goodreads Description

In 2014, after a brief orientation course and a few fingerprinting sessions, Nicholson Baker became an on-call substitute teacher in a Maine public school district. He awoke to the dispatcher’s five-forty a.m. phone call and headed to one of several nearby schools; when he got there, he did his best to follow lesson plans and help his students get something done. What emerges from Baker’s experience is a complex, often touching deconstruction of public schooling in America: children swamped with overdue assignments, overwhelmed by the marvels and distractions of social media and educational technology, and staff who weary themselves trying to teach in step with an often outmoded or overly ambitious standard curriculum. In Baker’s hands, the inner life of the classroom is examined anew mundane worksheets, recess time-outs, surprise nosebleeds, rebellions, griefs, jealousies, minor triumphs, daily lessons on everything from geology to metal tech to the Holocaust to kindergarten show-and-tell as the author and his pupils struggle to find ways to get through the day. Baker is one of the most inventive and remarkable writers of our time, and “Substitute,” filled with humor, honesty, and empathy, may be his most impressive work of nonfiction yet.”

I’ve had this book since September, and just cannot make myself finish it.  Baker may be “one of the most inventive and remarkable writers of our time,” but this book is neither inventive nor remarkable.

If I wanted to hear a play-by-play of every single minute of a substitute’s day, I would just talk to my mom, who can talk to me face-to-face and actually make a story interesting.  She substitutes quite a bit, and tends to tell detailed stories, but she has a knack for storytelling and pulling out the interesting parts of the day.  She focuses on one or two kids and tells me what she thought of them in depth and why she thought they weren’t doing well or, in some cases, how sorry she feels for them just from the little she heard about their home life.  She humanizes them.  Baker tries, but he falls short.

The book is organized into chapters, each of which summarizes one day as a substitute.  Every single chapter consists of verbatim conversations, Baker’s thoughts about feeling tired and inadequate, and near word-for-word lessons that Baker taught or heard.  (Did he just record and transcribe his days as a substitute, and send that to his editor??)  If I wanted that, I’d substitute myself.  I’ve been through elementary and middle school; I know what classrooms are like.

With this book, I think Baker was trying to show just how bogged down students feel by school.  In the schools he was at, each student was issued an iPad in order to more easily turn in homework or play educational games during down time.  But there were a lot of technological malfunctions that resulted in kids sitting around for long stretches of time.  There were intellectual gaps that made it difficult to teach to a level everyone could understand.  There were seemingly pointless assignments — busywork — that not even Baker wanted to do, much less the students.  If our school system is this frustrating for a substitute, Baker tries to say, imagine how much more so it is for kids who must spend 13 years there.

While I understood Baker’s goal with the book, it just was not enjoyable to read.  It was boring.  I found myself skimming page after page,  skipping ahead in the book to see if it got any better.  Even then, I could only force myself to finish about half the book.  It just wasn’t interesting.  I definitely think Baker has more than enough material to make an interesting book, but he should have used the book as it is now as a resource.  He should have tailored the stories a bit more, and tried to create some semblance of a story line from the things he experienced and the kids he met.  I gave a rave review to a similar book a few months ago, and wish Substitute had been as good as it was.  Besides the fact that the other book was written by a full-time teacher, the only difference, really, was that the other one was organized into chapters according to theme, not days.  It made the book a lot easier to take in.

I may not give up on Baker completely, because he has written several other books (mostly novels) that seem to have good ratings.  In fact, I think Substitute is his lowest-rated book on Goodreads.  However, I wouldn’t recommend this book at all, unless you have insomnia and need something ridiculously boring to lull you to sleep tonight.

I received this book from Blue Rider Press through NetGalley for free in exchange for this honest review.  All opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review: Chronicle of a Last Summer by Yasmine El Rashidi

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Inside Cover Synopsis:

Cairo, 1984.  A blisteringly hot summer.  A young girl in a sprawling family house.  She passes her days quietly: listening to her mother’s phone conversations, looking a the Nile from a bedroom window, watching the three state-sanctioned TV stations with the volume off, daydreaming about other lives.  Underlying this claustrophobic routine is mystery and loss.  Relatives mutter darkly about the newly appointed President Mubarak.  Everyone talks with melancholy about the past.  People disappear overnight.  And her own father has left, too — why, or to where, no one will say.

The story unfolds over three pivotal summers, form her youth to adulthood: as a six-year-old absorbing the world around her, filled with questions she can’t ask; as a college student and aspiring filmmaker preoccupied with love, language, and the repression that surrounds her; and later, in the turbulent aftermath of Mubarak’s overthrow, as a writer considering the silences that have shaped her life.

At once a mapping of a city in transformation and a story about the shifting realities and fates of a single Egyptian family, Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer traces the fine line between survival and complicity, exploring the conscience of a generation raised in silence.

The next time I choose a book about a country other than my own, I am going to make sure that I know a little bit of background before I dive in.  To be honest, I had very little idea what was going on throughout the entire book.  Several significant political and personal events happened (I think), but I couldn’t really figure out what because there was very little description and very little dialogue.

I think this was intentional, though, because the main (and nameless) character didn’t really know what was going on either.  For the vast majority of her growing-up years, our MC was virtually stuck inside her own mind, and that is definitely how this book feels.  No one would really talk to her —  there are verbal exchanges, but most of them are non-versations where true feelings, facts, and questions go unsaid and unasked.  Also, I don’t think there was one set of quotes in the entire novel — what dialogue there is is written in the context of the MC thinking about them after they have happened.  Everything is filtered through her thoughts, almost (but not quite) like a stream of consciousness.  It’s more like a stream of observation, which is probably what her entire life has felt like, since silence is such a dominating theme in the book.

Honestly, it’s a bit frustrating to read the book, because things keep happening, but we don’t really know what they are or why they’re happening.  The reading experience definitely mirrors the MC’s entire life, however, and that really speaks to El Rashidi’s talent.  She makes the reader identify with the MC without even realizing it.  I didn’t realize the extent of this until I began writing this review, and that almost made me add a star to my rating.  However, even if I knew more about Egypt’s history and better understood the events surrounding the MC’s life, I still think I would have found this book a bit bogged down.  I understand that this was probably intentional, and is important to the understanding of that time in history, but I have read other books similar to this that were more engaging.  Thus, I stuck with three stars.

I would recommend this more to people with a niche interest in history and/or Egypt than to a general reader.  However, I would also be interested in learning a bit more about El Rashidi’s other work, because she seems to be influential and well thought-out.

This book was provided to me for free by Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for this honest review.  All opinions expressed are my own.