Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie by Jaclyn Moriarty

This is the third Moriarty book I have read (Feeling Sorry for Celia, and The Year of Secret Assignments - the American title - are the others) and the one that is the most puzzling to me. I can't figure out if I like it or not.

The Story: Bindy (short for Belinda) is a genius and wants everyone to know it. She makes a hobby of listening to people and their conversations and typing them up on her laptop. She has managed to alienate everyone who knows her by her air of superiority and her inability to relate to them. Then, during her year 11 year, her world starts to fall apart. Her parents are away for their jobs and she is staying with her uncle and aunt. And Bindy herself has increasing bouts of headaches, stomach aches, and general illness. Her grades start to slip. But the key problem is her FAD class - Friendship and Development class - a sort of encounter group. Intended to help students with personal issues, it instead intensifies Bindy's problems. And her life seems to go consistently down hill.

There is no need to give away the ending, so I won't discuss it. But the whole thing just seems a bit too unlikely to be believable. The other two books by Moriarty seemed much more real. This one, well, just seems a bit surreal. And that makes the characters almost like caricatures, rather than real people with real lives. I would like to like Bindy. I am very interesting in extremely intelligent kids, but it is hard to like Bindy as she appears in the story. There is just something lacking about the way her situation is developed. I wish I could put my finger on it better, but, for now, I can't.

The Report Card by Andrew Clements

I had read this book before and didn't care for it. I didn't like the way it dealt with a genius girl. I had previously read Frindle by the same author and disliked it, too, so I just put that author in my "don't like" category and dismissed it. But then, I read another of his books, The Landry News, almost by accident. I was subbing and the kids had a silent reading time. I like to model reading at the same time, so I picked out a title from the teacher's book selection and that was it. It was OK. Better than Frindle and The Report Card. But then, one of my newsgroups, GT-Families, I think, was discussing this book and I decided to look again.

The story is about a girl who is a genius. She became aware of her unusual abilities at a very early age, seemingly at birth or even before. When very young, she was able to almost instantly put together complicated puzzles that were difficult for her much older sister. She decided then that she needed to hide her abilities, because they made her sister mad and caused her parents to demand performances from her. When she goes off to school, she decides again that she will not show her abilities, choosing instead to model herself after each of the other students in the classroom in turn. She finally settles on modeling what her friend Steven does. He is an average student - a good kid, who works hard to accomplish what he does and she decides to emulate him.

She does not completely neglect her own interests and abilities - she just pursues them where no one else can detect what she is up to. She tries very hard to be just average - until the school starts giving standardized tests that indicate how well or poorly a student is doing in relation to the rest of the class/world. She decides that the tests and grades in general are too demoralizing to many kids and she sets out to defy their importance, which she does by purposely getting all D's on her report card. She makes one mistake, though, she gets a C in spelling. Her biggest mistake, though, is that she wasn't consistently getting D's, but rather purposely let her grades drop just after the cut off when parents would be notified that their daughter wasn't doing well.

The parents get upset and confront the teachers, the teachers justify themselves. Everyone decides that she needs to be tested to determine what, exactly, her abilities are. Only, they give her a test with which she is unfamiliar and hasn't had a chance to research - the WISC III. She decides that she will pass the test at about an average level, figuring that 7 out of 10 in about average. Interestingly, this turns out to be the continuation criterion of many intelligence tests - you keep on going to the next highest level, as long as you get approximately 7 out of 10 answers correct. I am not familiar enough with the WISC III to know if this is the continuation criterion for it, but I have given other IQ tests with that criterion. At any rate, she keeps on going until the test is done.

As was discussed in the news group, the actual scoring of her test was probably written about incorrectly in the book. She would not have been given a mental age score, I don't believe, as the scoring for this test is not designed to do that. Nevertheless, it is clear that she is extremely intelligent. If she had been average, she would not have been able to continue to answer 7 out of 10 correct consistently as the test got harder and harder, which it IS designed to do. So she was "discovered". And then the adults decided that they needed to do something about it - put her in a special school, have her attend the gifted program in her school.

In the end, she convinces Stephen to join her in a protest and many of the kids purposely get 0's on the next test. When she realizes what this means - disrespect for learning, etc., she convinces the kids to stop the protest and get back to work. She refuses the special school and the gifted program and goes back to educating herself on the sly while the others do the regular work.

There are many problems with this book, in addition to the scoring of the exam discussed above. Firstly, I am not sure if I believe the infancy stories. Not so much the puzzle story - it seems unlikely, but it is hard for me to completely discount it, because I am obviously not as smart as Nora. But what seems even more unlikely is the early decision to hide her abilities and her complete ability to fool her parents into thinking that she was average or even slightly below. I just don't see how an infant could hide her interests and abilities from parents who are involved with and interested in their children. It is true that she is a third child, but so am I - and my parents weren't completely clueless about me. Her reasoning just doesn't ring true to me.

One thing that does seem completely plausible is her decision to act like the other children in her class. I have heard that story many times from parents of gifted children.

But there are other things that bother me: why does she so completely buy into the idea that she has to hide her abilities. Yes, our society doesn't particularly like people of exceptionally high ability, and it is probably entirely too correct that denying her ability is much easier on everyone than using it. But the author seems to condone the idea when, in the end, he shows her going back to the regular classroom - with nothing exceptional being done to acknowledge or deal with her abilities. The message seems to be "act normal - that is the best way for everyone". It isn't good to be obviously too different.

All in all, this is a very problematic book, especially for young and brilliant girls.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

I was trying to read this book in preparation for a book group. I knew before I bought it, that it wasn't really my type of book, but I was trying to broaden my vistas a bit. For me, the venture wasn't a success. The book may be well written - I don't seem to be an especially good judge of that - but the topics just don't appeal to me. I should actually qualify that. The topic of getting ready for the Chicago World's Fair might have, by itself, appealed to me. The power struggles between all of the major personalities, the architects, the engineers, the workers, are interesting to me. But the tale of the murderer is abhorrent. It is supposed to be abhorrent. It is supposed to be the horror that draws you into the unfolding story. But I just can't stomach it. It is just too disgusting, too nervewracking.

I wonder sometimes what the appeal of horror stories are for people. I hate them. I suppose it is a bit like the voyeuristic inclination we all seem to have when we come upon a car accident. We know that it isn't a good thing, but we eagerly look for the cars involved and assess in our own minds what the damage must have been (or is). But reading about a real life serial killer seems to be far beyond the curiosity evoked by a car crash. It feels sick to me to even be interested in such awful things. I am glad that other people seem to feel it necessary to do research on the motives and operations of a serial killer, but I want to have nothing to do with it. If that means I am avoiding reality and leaving an important historical event out of my knowledge, well, so be it. I, at least, plan to leave this book to others.

Back to teen lit for me. I sometimes wonder if I will ever have mature tastes.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tamora Pierce Again

Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen

I liked both of these books, but I must admit that, like most of her books I have read, I get bogged down in the battle and armament details and get much more caught up in the personal battles and character descriptions. I get so impatient with reading about just how the battles go. I suppose this must be appealing to a lot of her readers, as it seems to be a formula present in just about all of the Tortall books, but I find myself trying to skim over parts of the book just to find out how it all turns out.

That said, I did find Aly appealing. She always seems to be about three steps ahead of where I am thinking as I read the books. It is obvious that she is a very clever thinker, as far as strategy and planning goes - or at least she is more clever than I am so it appears to me that she is very clever. I like that. I also like that each of the major characters at the heart of Pierce's stories has slightly different strengths. Their general appeal is similar, but each one has something unique. Aly's is her talent for spying and intrigue.

The conflict between the raka - the darker skinned natives of the Copper Isles - and the luarin - the white nobles who invaded and conquered long ago - is also an interesting one. It parallels in some generic ways the conflicts between other historical light skinned invaders and their darker skinned subjects. The names and the dress style - moderately Asian sounding names and sarongs - are reminiscent of Hawaii, but the conflict itself appears so often in history that it is hard to tell if the author used Hawaii as a model or took a bit from many and various similar conflicts - white/Maori, white/Indian, white/African, white/Native American, etc. I suppose it is a tad politically correct that the emphasis is on getting both groups to accept each other, but, then again, it is probably the only realistic solution.

Side Note: I read a review somewhere that seemed to think that these would be the only books in this series, because Aly ends up safely back in Tortall. That isn't how the book ends. It ends with her staying in the Copper Isles, from what I can tell. That doesn't necessarily mean that there will be further books in the series, nor does it mean that there won't be. The door is still open for further books, but who knows.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mind Candy

I have a large collection of cartoons, both regular and political. The collection ranges from Best Editorial Cartoons of 1974 to Peanuts and Asterix, and includes some cartoon books picked up in travels both in the US and abroad. I like to compare humor styles and I am especially excited when I find examples of humor that are localized - unique to a particular geographic region or cultural group (e.g., Footrot, a New Zealand cartoon strip). Also, for example, Tundra cartoons are interesting to me, because a good bit of their humor comes from people, animals, and situations that are especially applicable to Alaska. I have the complete collection of Gary Larson cartoons, which are absolutely great for a unit I do with upper elementary through middle school kids on making inferences. It is such a thrill for me when kids use the method (An Inference Is a Guess You Make - the early graphic organizer) to analyze Gary Larson cartoons and the meaning of the cartoon gradually becomes clear to them.

I am also especially fond of my complete Calvin and Hobbes collection, my nearly complete Zits collection, and my nearly complete For Better or For Worse collection. It would be wonderful if my salary kept up with my collecting interests.

Two of my more recent cartoon interests are Frazz and Get Fuzzy. New books from these strips will be discussed here.

99% Perspiration by Jef Mallett

The main character in this cartoon strip is Frazz, who is the custodian for a small elementary school, when he isn't out riding his bike or composing music. His main sidekick is an extremely smart young African American kid named Caulfield. Since this strip combines my interests in education and in gifted kids, it can't help but appeal to me - and it does. Just one of my favorite examples (though it might be from his other book): Caulfield says that a guy in his dad's class called him a person of color, but he wasn't sure what color he was, so he went to the paint store and got all these cards with colors on them and decided that he was "Serengeti Sunrise". The next panel shows many differently hued kids checking out their colors, too, including one young person who declares, "Woo! Hoo! I'm buff!" They also classify Frazz, the principal, and then Caulfield jokingly calls his teacher's color "Old Foghorn", but gets caught at it by Frazz. The humor is mostly gentle and childlike, with occasional jabs at the educational establishment.

I don't have a direct use for these books in the classroom, but I do find them very appealing.

Scrum Bums by Darby Conley

The main characters in this strip are Robert Wilco, who is, I think, an advertising copy writer, his dog Satchel, and his cat Bucky. Satchel is this sweet innocent character with an absolutely adorable look of befuddlement, whenever the conversation goes beyond his very literal comprehension abilities. Bucky is his sarcastic, self-centered, scheming feline counterpart. I am not a dog lover, but who wouldn't fall in love with naive, innocent Satchel. And what cat lover doesn't recognize the evil tendencies of their feline companions in the schemes that Bucky thinks up. I have two cats - the large Maine coon reminds me a lot of Satchel - with his bumbling naiveté; the small black and white devil kitty is obviously Bucky, though she isn't quite as clever - and is only about half as evil.

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

The Secret Life of a Boarding School Brat by Amy Gordon

This is a more up-to-date account of a girl at a boarding school. This one, unlike the spate of books I read during the summer, has a publishing date in this century. For an up-to-date book, it has a different focus from most. Sure, there are dead mothers and fathers, divorced parents, deaths of relatives, but, while they are important to the story, they are not the focus of the story. The partial exceptions to this are 1) the death of Lydia's grandmother, which, while it is still a raw wound to her soul, has happened off-stage, so to speak, and 2) the divorce of her parents and the re-marriage of her father. They are important, but largely background to the real story, which revolves around Lydia's adjustment to being in the boarding school where her grandmother went to school many years ago. Both those events set up the reason for Lydia's feeling of estrangement from her compatriots. She is still adjusting to a different family organization and then she gets shipped off to boarding school. She begins wandering through the school at night and soon makes friends with the school's handyman cum night watchman. He sees that she is interested in an old, prominently displayed painting and sets her the challenge of finding out who the people depicted in the painting are. The rest of the story is a kind of mild mystery, with elements of learning to accept people for who they are.

Unfortunately for my interests, there is very little information about how the school is set up and how it functions, as far as academics and extracurriculars go. We find out a little about the way dinners are run - kids are assigned to tables for a certain period of time. The only times I have been in a situation like that as a child - at summer camp - I disliked it. The only time as an adult was at a private school. I really liked it there. I liked how it felt more like a family atmosphere - and how the kids actually ate the food. (This is completely unlike the public schools where I substitute teach. In these schools, well over half of the food served in the school lunches goes untouched into the trash - it is appalling to see the waste.)

At any rate, the book is a comforting read. The mystery isn't earthshattering and should be solvable by kids who are paying attention and the emotional content of the book is satisfying.

More SF and Fantasy

Dragon and Thief by Timothy Zahn

I just finished Dragon and Thief by Timothy Zahn and I enjoyed it. It isn't profound, but it does have an interesting alien and a decent plot. To whit: Jack Morgan is on the run on a remote planet when he witnesses a space battle that results in one of the ships plummeting down onto the planet. Since he keeps himself going in part by scavenging, he decides to investigate. He is set upon by the only survivor, a K'da poet-warrior, who is an obligatory symbiont - unable to survive for more than a few hours without contact with a host. Jack becomes, rather unwillingly, his host. Together they escape the beings who attacked the ships and go in search of a way to clear Jack's name and save Dracos' species. This is the first of a series that is currently at 4 books. Others in the series: Dragon and Soldier, Dragon and Slave, and Dragon and Herdsman. When I get through some of the other books I have stacked up, I may get back to this. I don't feel a tremendous amount of urgency, but I like SF and it is kind of rare to find SF that upper elementary or middle school kids could read with no untoward adult-like themes.

The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce

I know this is one of the most popular of the Tortall books and one of the earliest - I haven't seen an exact chronology, but I actually liked the Protector of the Small Series a bit better. I just can't get all that interested in the evil protagonist in these books, Duke Roger. I like Alanna well enough, but her men troubles and her battles with various evil, powerful others aren't quite as compelling as I would like. Still, I enjoyed the books and will continue reading books about the Tortall Kingdom - and hope that I actually LIKE the heroines a little better than I like Alanna.