Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Typical Book Group Report - 19

Last night The Typical Book Group discussed The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.  There were 8 of us there, and all of us really liked the book.  We talked a lot about how it compared with other slavery stories, like "Twelve Years a Slave" and Charleston by Alexandra Ripley.  A couple people mentioned how the character of Charlotte reminded them of Oprah Winfrey's character in "The Color Purple". 

All of us were surprised that Sarah and Nina Grimke were real people.  This is a book where it might make sense to read the Afterward first, so that you can know who the characters are when they appear. 

It was hard for us to criticize the choices that the characters made, knowing that the story was based on fact. For instance, we didn't understand why Sarah gave Handful back to Sarah's mother, but apparently, she did.  We also wondered if there was any significance to the number 1884, such as it being a year of historical significance for blacks, but we decided it must just have been the lottery number that Denmark Vesey actually chose. 

Next month we'll discuss Cukoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling).

Still Reading:  American Woman by Susan Choi

Still Listening to:  The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Slowly Learning

Who's the Slow Learner:  A Chronicle of Inclusion and Exclusion is Sandra Assimotos McElwee's story of her son, Sean's progress from pre-k through twelfth grade.  Sean has Down Syndrome, and it was important to McElwee that his opportunities for an educational experience not be limited by a diagnosis.  As McElwee explains, Who's the Slow Learner is not a "how to" book, but a book about how she and her family did it.

McElwee lives in California, and her district's practice was to put all children with Down Syndrome into special classrooms.  McElwee wanted Sean to be fully included with his age appropriate classmates, and was very successful through 6th grade.  Once Sean hit 7th grade, his experience changed, not because of the fabled mean middle school kids, but because of adult bullies who were slow to learn just what Sean was capable of achieving.  My district is struggling with the issue of inclusion now as well, with some parents wanting their children to be fully included, and others preferring a more segregated setting.  Every child is different, and every district is different,  but the lessons that McElwee learned could be meaningful anywhere.

Each chapter covers a grade for Sean, and begins with his IEP (Individualized Education Plan) goals for that year.  Because the goals are supposed to tailored for each child, Sean's goals may provide some ideas for parents and districts, but are not something that can be cut and pasted into another child's IEP.  McElwee also provides verbatim copies of letters to and from district staff members, which were very fact specific, but provide good examples of how to effectively communicate your point, even if you are furious.  The rest of each chapter talks about Sean's experiences during that year. 

McElwee is Sean's biggest advocate, and she works hard to be sure that Sean is included in extracurricular activities as well as the classroom.  Sean is in plays, participates in choir, takes dance lessons, attends school dances, runs for student office, and manages the baseball team, all during his high school years.  When he can't participate in school activities for one reason or another, McElwee finds a group outside of school where he can be involved.  He even finds time to date a tv star, Becky from Glee.  This is California, remember.

The parent support group that I am involved with ( does a lot of the things that McElwee recommends, like having a buddy program, showing our teachers our appreciation, and working together with other parents of different learners.  I agree with McElwee that it is important for parents of different learners to be sure that the district knows them, and that they be involved with activities that parents of typical students are, such as the PTA.  One idea that I liked that McElwee suggested was a "Cool Club" for teenage different learners and those in their early 20s.  McElwee got 15 families together, and divided up the calendar.  Each family was in charge of coordinating an activity for the kids, for one weekend night, three times a year.  This could be mini golf, movies, a picnic, or whatever.  That way the kids always had something to do each weekend, like their typical peers. 

Although I don't have a child with Down Syndrome, I could still relate to McElwee's story.  Who's the Slow Learner is a must read for parents of children with Down Syndrome who are struggling with inclusion, and a should read for parents of children with autism or cognitive impairments who are facing the same challenges. 

Another idea for parents of different learners is to tackle this summer's reading list in audio form.   SYNC is a FREE summer program that gives away 2 audiobook downloads each week for the summer starting May 15 and ending August 14. SYNC audiobook titles are given away in pairs--a Young Adult title is paired with a related Classic or required Summer Reading title.  Check out the complete title list, including James Patterson's CONFESSIONS OF A MURDER SUSPECT and its pair partner, Agatha Christie's THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE.  Visit to sign up for title alerts by email.

I received a free copy of Who's the Slow Learner from McElwee, and agreed to review it.  Other than that, no promises were made, and no payments were received.

Next Up:  American Woman by Susan Choi

Still Listening To:  The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Handful of History

Charleston, in the early 1800s, was not a great place to live if you were a slave, or a slave owner's daughter with a conscience.  The story of The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, begins with said slave owner's daughter, Sarah, being given the gift of her very own slave, Hetty, for her 11th birthday.  Sarah immediately objects, but a slave is not the type of item that is easy to return.  Hetty was born to Sarah's family's household, and was named "Handful" by her mother, Charlotte, who is also a slave working for the family.

Sarah and Handful have a relationship that is different from Sarah's parents' relationships with their slaves.  While not treating Handful as an equal, Sarah is able to see her as a person.  In an instant that she knows she will come to regret, Sarah promises Charlotte that she will do whatever she can to help Handful become free.

In the beginning, the conditions for slaves in Sarah's family were not the worst imaginable, although the occasional misbehaving slave was whipped, and Handful was never allowed to meet her father because Charlotte was separated from him.  Sarah's father is a respected judge, and he seems sympathetic to Sarah's misgivings about slave ownership.  However, as the story continues, Sarah's family's fortunes take a turn for the worse, and life for the slaves becomes more brutal.

In protest of slavery, Sarah moves north and becomes a Quaker.  The Quakers were opposed to slavery.  At first this protest seems a little lame, as Sarah is not actually doing anything to end slavery or improve Handful's situation.  Soon, Sarah's sister, Nina, moves to Philadelphia to be with her, and together the two find their voices and fight for their cause.

While my summary might sound heavy, The Invention of Wings is a page turner.  Normally I read before I go to bed to relax myself, but this book got my adrenaline pumping and made it hard to sleep.  Anyone who liked The Help by Kathryn Stockett will like this book too.  However, where The Help was famously said to be purely fiction (Stockett was sued by her brother's maid who claimed she was the basis of the book), Wings is based on fact. 

Only because I have been helping my son study for this U.S. History exams this year, some of the characters' names were recognizable to me.  Charlotte has a child with Denmark Vesey, a man who was accused of trying to start a slave revolt.  Sarah lives for a time with Lucretia Mott, a famous abolitionist.  Sarah and Nina work with Theodore Weld, who also fought against slavery.  And I haven't told you Sarah and Nina's last name.  It's Grimke.  Sarah and Angelina Grimke were said to be the most famous and infamous women of the 1830s, fighting for equality for slaves and for women. 

The Invention of Wings is sure to be one of the best sellers of 2014.  It is an Oprah Book Club book, and I am reading it for my book group as well.  I was asked to review it in December, but foolishly, I passed.  Nevertheless, Annie Harris from Viking Penguin would never let me down, and she sent me this link to a book group kit that includes discussion points, and even a few recipes.  She also wanted me to remind you that Sue Monk Kidd will be discussing Wings with Oprah on April 13 at 11:00 am, on OWN.

Next Up:  Who's the Slow Learner:  A Chronicle of Inclusion and Exclusion by Sandra Assimotos McElwee

Still Listening to:  The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Neighborhood Book Group Report - 1 Neighborhood Book Group got together last night to discuss Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.  Once again, this group was businesslike!  Although we have all been neighbors for sometime, there is still a little awkwardness when we get together in one room to talk about our opinions.  It is so much easier just to wave when I walk by with my golden retriever pulling me along than to sit and talk about something more substantial.  Hopefully, with more time, the ice will break.

It's been a while since I talked about Me Before You, so here is the long story short.  Louisa is a young woman who is out of work, living with her parents, and dating her longtime boyfriend, Patrick.  She applies for a care giving position that she is sure she is not qualified for, and is shocked to get hired.  She will be caring for Will, who was a wealthy young professional until a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed.  Will has decided that life in a wheelchair is not worth living, and his mother has hired Louisa to help persuade him otherwise, without exactly telling Louisa that this is her expectation.

We found that there was a lot to like about Me Before You.  There were some surprise favorite characters, including the true caregiver, Nathan, and the wedding guest who didn't pity Will but instead treated him as a human, Mary.  We weren't exactly sure who would play Nathan in the movie, but it was suggested that he should look like the new Detroit Tigers' Manager, Brad Ausmus, and that we should all watch more baseball.  Here's a for instance: 

 OK, so maybe the ice is melting a little.
We also talked about the title.  There were a few ways of interpreting it.  One way was that Louisa was always letting other people put their needs before hers.  Her family, he boyfriend, and Will all put their needs first, and she allowed them to walk all over her.  The title might be recognizing the new Louisa in the end, where she is finally acknowledging her own needs.  The interpretation that I liked better though, was as a way of explaining who the characters were before they met.  Like, "This is who I was before you knew me."  Me before you.  Throughout the story both Will and Louisa  tell each other about who they were as opposed to who they are in the moment when they are speaking.  Will's "big life" has been reduced to a small suite of rooms.  Louisa's small life is pushing its limits just a bit, and she likes it.
Next time we meet we will be discussing Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen.  We are a little fuzzy on the next meeting date though, so I'm not starting that one until I'm sure I can make the meeting.
Still Reading:  The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Still Listening to:  The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Development on Paper

After I read this article about books that I should read  before the movie comes out, I moved This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper to the top of my list.  So far I've seen two of these movies, which is a lot for me, since I'm not much of a movie goer.  I can report that the movie, Winter's Tale is no where near as good as the book, but the Divergent movie is great, and follows the book pretty closely.  From reading the article, I knew that Jason Bateman would be starring in TIWILY, but what I didn't expect was that TIWILY would be a paper version of his TV show, Arrested Development.

In TIWILY, a family that has grown apart is coming back together to sit shiva for the father.  The family consists of the mom, Hillary, who can't resist showing off her surgically enhanced breasts, and is known for her best selling book about child rearing.  Then there's Paul, the oldest brother, who was a star athlete until he was injured, and stayed home from college to work in the family's sporting goods store.  Next is Wendy, the only sister, who is a somewhat indifferent mother to her children, and who is married to a man who is married to his blackberry. IMDb says that she will be played by Tina Fey.  The baby of the family is Phillip, who has been bailed out of trouble one time too many, and who brings his therapist/fiance home to meet the family.  Finally, there is Judd, the protagonist and the Jason Bateman character, who has recently walked in on his wife having sex with his boss.

The story is mostly told by Judd, who speaks with a hipster accent.  If I turned down the corner on every page where Judd said something in a clever way, just about every page would be bent.  The family has a snappy banter between them, using sarcasm to convey their repressed feelings, but also coming to each other's defense just when you expect them to let each other down. 

The relationships in this story run deep, with what happened 20 years ago being just as important as what is taking place in the present.  There is a whole lot of cheating going on, but most of the time it is the woman doing the instigating, rather than playing the victim.  There's also a lot of testosterone surging through the book with disputes settled through fist fights, even though a couple of the characters' lives were forever changed as a result of fights in the past.  This family is clearly as dysfunctional as that in Arrested Development, so playing Judd shouldn't be much of a stretch for Bateman.  While certainly not life changing, this was a fun and quick read.  I'm looking forward to seeing this family again on the big screen. 

This is one more down for the Rewind Challenge.

Next up:  The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kid

Still Listening to:  The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Keep the Secret

Tatiana de Rosnay knows a thing or two about secrets.  In her first book, Sarah's Key, Sarah locks her brother in a closet just when French police appear to take the family away, eventually leading them to a concentration camp.  Sarah has to make a quick choice.  Should she tell the police about her brother, or keep him safely locked away?  In the closet, he has no water, no food and no light, but also no Nazis.  I'm not giving anything away by telling you that Sarah decides to keep the secret, and hope that the family will quickly return to the apartment or that a neighbor will find her brother and save him.  Now that's a secret.

In her next novel, A Secret Kept, I am sure that there must be a secret, because the title tells me that, but after a third of the book, no one has mentioned it.  My hunch is that the main characters' mother, who supposedly died when they were children, is really still alive.  But the thing is, there is nothing about these characters that makes me care.  I'm supposed to believe that the staff in a resort town recognizes these people when they revisit after 30+ years?  Even though they were children when they were last there and are now in their 40s? 

What sealed the deal for me though was this line, delivered by a woman who had just slept with the main male character about 10 minutes after meeting him:  "I handle dead people all day long.  With the same hands that were stroking your dick a few moments ago."  Yes, she's a mortician, but still, no, no, no.  I'm done.  I've got too many books waiting for me to read them to waste time on this one. 

On the bright side, since I listened to this book on CDs that I checked out from the library, it counts for the Rewind, the Audiobook, and the I Love Library Books challenges.

Next up on CD:  The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Still Reading:  This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Leads to Nowhere

I was so excited to read Night Film by Marisha Pessl!  Her earlier book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is one of my Favorites.  I went in expecting so much, and Pessl pulled out all of the stops to try to deliver.  Unfortunately, it felt like she delivered quantity at the cost of quality.

Night Film begins when an investigative reporter, Scott McGrath, is running at a NYC reservoir and he sees a woman who might or might not be following him.  Soon, a famous director's daughter, Ashley, is dead, and McGrath believes that she was the woman at the reservoir.  Because he had ruined his career by trying to expose the director as a criminal, McGrath felt that he had to solve the mystery of Ashely's death.

The director, Cordova, is known for his violent films in which the fear and injuries seem a little too real.  His films were banned after copycats began killing people in the ways shown in the movies.  A cult of followers developed, with illegal showings of the films popping up around the world. 

McGrath can't let go of the mystery of Ashley's, death.  While investigating, he meets two people who had also had contact with Ashley shortly before she died, Nora and Hopper.  Together the three of them pursue all possible leads, including black magic, a sex club, an antique shop, and lots of strange characters.

Night Film is full of gimmicks which Pessl must have thought were necessary to the story.  There are photos of newspaper clippings, emails, and photos of the characters and scenes.  Some of the online reviews have indicated that these are difficult to read on an e-reader, and I can't imagine how they would translate to an audio version.  There are also small pictures that appear on some of these pages.  If one goes to the app store and gets the Night Film Decoder, the pictures can be scanned to reveal more detail, such as movie posters, interviews and more stories.  Pessl also feels the need to italicize words in most paragraphs of the book, which got annoying.

There was an opportunity for a great ending that I think Pessl missed.  It felt like she was working so hard at coming up with a conclusion that no one could guess that she missed the chance for a satisfying ending that at least tied a few loose ends together.  After 500 pages of McGrath being unsure of who to believe, he talks to a character who should have been inherently unreliable, and accepts what she says as the truth.  In the end, one is left asking questions.  Why would Cordova bother, and what did McGrath gain?

This is one more down for the I Love Library Books Challenge.

Next Up:  This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

Still Listening To:  A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay
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