Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review: Savage Girl by Jean Zimmerman

From Goodreads:
Jean Zimmerman’s new novel tells of the dramatic events that transpire when an alluring, blazingly smart eighteen-year-old girl named Bronwyn, reputedly raised by wolves in the wilds of Nevada, is adopted in 1875 by the Delegates, an outlandishly wealthy Manhattan couple, and taken back East to be civilized and introduced into high society.

Bronwyn hits the highly mannered world of Edith Wharton era Manhattan like a bomb. A series of suitors, both young and old, find her irresistible, but the willful girl’s illicit lovers begin to turn up murdered.

Zimmerman’s tale is narrated by the Delegate’s son, a Harvard anatomy student. The tormented, self-dramatizing Hugo Delegate speaks from a prison cell where he is prepared to take the fall for his beloved Savage Girl. This narrative—a love story and a mystery with a powerful sense of fable—is his confession.
I have very few complaints regarding the quality of the writing.  Zimmerman has done an excellent job researching her subject and capturing the era and setting, from the western mining towns to the upscale parlors of New York.  She also does a great job of capturing a consistent voice in her narrator.  The plot is certainly original, and I truly appreciated the author's use of her research throughout the story.

My main concern regarding the quality of writing is in the pacing of the novel.  There were moments where the story became so slow and so bogged down in detail that the flow of the plot really suffered.  For the first three quarters of the novel, we are getting the narrator's story as he is relating it to his lawyers.  It's told in past tense, but this is occasionally interrupted by his lawyers, which managed to throw me off quite a few times, as there's no real demarcation, other than the switch into present tense.  The final quarter of the book is also told in present tense, and moves at a much quicker pace than the rest of the novel.  It felt a bit disjointed and disorienting.

Entertainment Value
I really wanted to love this book.  I have this fascination with the idea of feral children and was quick to add this to my TBR list when I read about it in School Library Journal.  Unfortunately, the book just fell flat for me.  A huge problem was that I just couldn't bear the narrator.  I'm normally fine with unlikable and unreliable narrators, but this character's voice just grated on my ever nerve.  He's whiny, spoiled, and self-indulgent.  While this isn't a fault with the novel (the author intended for the narrator to sound that way and she does a great job at maintaining consistency), my dislike for him really hampered my personal enjoyment of the book.

There's also the whole issue of the Savage Girl and why our narrator falls in love with her.  While my dislike of the narrator was an issue of personal preference, I feel something was missing from the novel in terms of explaining why she is so wonderful and so beguiling.  Why do people just keep falling in love with her for no reason?  Did I miss something?  I would have liked to get to know more about her, I think, and less about our narrator.

I think this book definitely has an audience, particularly among those who love historical fiction, but there were aspects that made it really difficult for me to get behind.  While the narrator was well-developed (if incredibly irritating), most of the other characters were flat and unbelievable.  And the pacing and flow left a lot to be desired in terms of how engrossed I became (or did not become) in the book itself.  I love the subject and I greatly appreciate how well researched the book is, and I might try the author again in the future, but this one didn't blow me away.

Thank you to Penguin for providing a copy for me to review!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

From Goodreads:
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first man to die there.

It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he's stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he's alive--and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to get him first.

But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills--and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit--he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?
I can't believe how lucky I've been this year on picking up books with excellent writing.  I feel like my resolution to go back to what I love instead of what I feel like I need to accept for review is really serving me well.  This is one I heard the Book Riot folks raving about, and I trust them, so I grabbed it when I saw it on the FLP website.

It is just stunning.  Weir has found the perfect balance between heart-stopping tension, humor, and sciencey goodness (yes, that is a technical term).  It's a survival story and an adventure story, but it's set on MARS.  Space survival.  I can't rave enough about how well done this is.  I was hooked from the first page, but it never got so dark that it was depressing or so light that it didn't feel believable.  And it had just the right amount of the technology Watney needs to survive without overloading the reader with jargon.

Entertainment Value
I was entranced from the first page.  If any book deserves to be made into a movie, this is the one.  One of my biggest fears is space.  Being trapped in space, totally alone, with no way to get home?  Just the thought makes me clench my teeth.  It's just terrifying.  I will stay right here on Earth, thank you very much.  But reading about someone facing my biggest fear?  Perfection.  Luke can tell you, I couldn't get enough of this book.  It's one that had me flipping pages in a panic and staying up late at night to finish.

Please quit everything you're doing and go read this book.  It's amazing and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Friday, April 11, 2014

For Profit Education Wrap Up

My Story, Part 1
My Story, Part 2
How For Profit Schools Hurt Students, Part 1
How For Profit Schools Hurt Students, Part 2
How For Profit Schools Hurt Their Own Employees, Part 1
How For Profit Schools Hurt Their Own Employees, Part 2
How For Profit Schools Hurt Communities

As you can see above, I've written quite a bit in the past month or so about the problems I experienced in working in the for profit education sector.  I want to stress again that most employees on the campus level, at least at my school, were doing the best they could with what they were given.  Employees' hands and feet are tied by corporate policies and the threat of job loss is constantly held over them by superiors.  The problem is the corporate mindset and the commodification of education.

The fact remains that there are some people for whom a traditional four-year college is not a possibility.  There are those who can't meet entrance requirements, can't function socially, or who are older and looking for a career change or a trade education.  There are some for whom higher education is just not feasible because they can't handle the material.

For many of these students, I think community college could be an answer.  The fact remains, however, that there are still admission requirements for most community colleges.  I honestly can't say that I have an answer for those students who are just not cut out for post-secondary education, but who want to better themselves.  I think there are many independently owned trade schools that could be an option, but any educational venture that is run as a corporation (particularly those that are publicly traded ventures) runs the risk of taking advantage of the poor and uneducated, those who don't have other options available to them and don't know the right questions to ask when looking at furthering their education.

Many of you have expressed how shocked you are that these schools are allowed to exist.  It's currently a major issue in post-secondary education that the government is finally starting to take seriously.  I'm going to include a few links at the end to articles that describe how the government is addressing the predatory practices of these schools.

The most important things you can do are to support Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who has introduced the Proprietary Education Oversight Coordination Act, which would require these schools to be subject to a government oversight committee.  You can also support President Obama and the Department of Education as they push the "Gainful Employment Rule".  This would prevent colleges whose students graduate with such enormous debts that they cannot hope to pay them off from receiving federal funding and financial aid.  Finally, you can support the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has recently filed a lawsuit against a prominent for profit corporation.

A few additional resources/articles that you may find helpful:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Book Review: Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

From Goodreads:
In the tradition of the best investigative journalism, physician and reporter Sheri Fink reconstructs 5 days at Memorial Medical Center and draws the reader into the lives of those who struggled mightily to survive and to maintain life amid chaos.
          After Katrina struck and the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths. 

Five Days at Memorial, the culmination of six years of reporting, unspools the mystery of what happened in those days, bringing the reader into a hospital fighting for its life and into a conversation about the most terrifying form of health care rationing.

In a voice at once involving and fair, masterful and intimate, Fink exposes the hidden dilemmas of end-of-life care and reveals just how ill-prepared we are in America for the impact of large-scale disasters—and how we can do better.  A remarkable book, engrossing from start to finish, Five Days at Memorial radically transforms your understanding of human nature in crisis.
The bare bones summary: Fink examines the events taking place at Memorial Medical Center during the five days they were stranded, without power during Hurrican Katrina and the allegations that hospital staff euthanized some patients rather than evacuate them.

This is truly an amazing piece of journalism.  I feel like Fink went above and beyond in getting the facts from as many sources as possible and verified those sources extensively.  She also does a great job of remaining neutral throughout the book, even as she deals with moral and ethical gray areas.  I can't say enough good things about the quality of the writing.  It's exactly what I'm looking for in a work of journalistic non-fiction.  Unbiased, many resources, verifiable sources.  Perfection.

Entertainment Value
Not only is the writing impeccable, but the story itself is fascinating.  I had no idea what those in the hospitals affected by Katrina went through and the details were unimaginable.  It was like reading a post-apocalyptic story, only knowing it really happened.  It was terrifying and tense and full of situations that I can't imagine having to be in, with doctors having to make the kind of decisions no one should be faced with.

In addition to the main story of the five days after Katrina hit, the author also explores numerous issues raised by Katrina, such as state emergency preparedness regulations, dilemmas faced by first responders conducting triage, and the history of the city of New Orleans itself.

I found it to be an engrossing, as well as terrifying read.  It's scary to think of how quickly the situation became dire and how much more trouble we would be in if a similar disaster destroyed more than just a single city.  I strongly recommend that you read this one.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Book Review: Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

From Goodreads:
They live among us. 

They are our neighbors, our mothers, our lovers.

They change.

When government agents kick down Claire Forrester's front door and murder her parents, Claire realizes just how different she is.

Patrick Gamble was nothing special until the day he got on a plane and hours later stepped off it, the only passenger left alive, a hero. 

Chase Williams has sworn to protect the people of the United States from the menace in their midst, but he is becoming the very thing he has promised to destroy. 

So far, the threat has been controlled by laws and violence and drugs. But the night of the red moon is coming, when an unrecognizable world will emerge...and the battle for humanity will begin.
Just in case the publisher's summary doesn't grab you, I'll tell you what pulled me in: literary werewolf novel blurbed by Stephen King.  Sounds right up my alley.  I'm not big on paranormal romance, but the whole idea of werewolves with a literary bent excited me.

I'm going to address the heavy-handedness of the allegory of this book in the Entertainment Value section, but I feel like I have to mention it here too because it was problematic for the writing as well.  The characterization, plotting, and pace all suffer from being forced into the mold of the message the book was trying to convey.  More below.

Here's my major, major complaint about the writing itself: the total lack of action.  It's a book about werewolf terrorists, so obviously lots of stuff ought to be happening.  Instead, the author does that horrible thing where the tension builds, you can tell a big event is coming, we're rushing towards the climax...and then the chapter ends.  When the next chapter opens, the big event has already taken place and we're hours, days, even weeks later dealing with the fallout.  We don't get to see the bombs explode or the characters fight it out.  All we get is the lead up to the big event and then the aftermath.  Why can't we see the action?

Entertainment Value
I really respect King as a writer, so I had to wonder if we read the same book.  In my personal opinion, this book is straight up allegory.  And the only way it could be more heavy-handed is if it included footnotes that say "Do you get it?  DO YA???"  We have a community of werewolves, known as Lycans, who are heavily policed in their home country and in the United States as dangerous insurgents.  They respond by using airplanes to perpetrate terrorist attacks on the United States.  The US quickly becomes involved in a war with the Lycan terrorists - one that involves the military policing the home country of the Lycans.  Do ya get it?  The actual plot, characters, and action all suffer because the author is so wrapped up in the allegory and making a point.  I didn't want to read an allegory about the War on Terrorism and foreign affairs during the Bush Administration, I just wanted to read a book about werewolves.

I was really let down.  This one had been on my list forever and I was excited to order it for our library when I did a selection of horror/paranormal titles around Halloween.  The lack of action, the problems with pacing, and the heavy-handedness really ruined the book for me.  I certainly wouldn't characterize it as horror and it really is more about the allegory than it is about the paranormal.  I was unimpressed and can't recommend it.

Friday, April 4, 2014

What I Read in March

I know it's much worse in other parts of the country, but we've had an unseasonable cool March this year.  Last week it even snowed!  We've also had loads of nice weather, although the weekends always seem to be full of rain.  I've been on Spring Break this week and only working four daytime hours a day.  Coming home at 4 has been perfect - I've spent every afternoon sprawled out on the back porch with my puppies and a book.

This was my view:

With a generous dose of this thrown in:
"Let me help you read, mommy."  
Danes trying to crawl under kitchen chairs = hilarity.

 As far as what I read:

The Martian by Andy Weir
The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson
Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall
The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith
The Fever by Megan Abbott
The Deepest Secret by Carla Buckley
Codependent No More by Melody Beattie
History Decoded by Brad Meltzer
Vintage by Susan Gloss
Ask the Passengers by A.S. King
Lie Still by Julia Heaberlin

Books read in March: 11
Pages read in March: 3294
Books read in 2014: 30
Pages read in 2014: 10,22

What did you read in March?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

How For Profit Schools Hurt Communities

My Story, Part 1
My Story, Part 2
How For Profit Schools Hurt Students, Part 1
How For Profit Schools Hurt Students, Part 2
How For Profit Schools Hurt Their Own Employees, Part 1
How For Profit Schools Hurt Their Own Employees, Part 2

For Profit Schools Produce Unqualified Workers
One of the selling points of for profit schools is that they provide a quality education that is directed towards the work force, often focused on a specific trade as opposed to a liberal arts education.  In an idealistic world, it would be a place where students who can't succeed in a traditional college setting due to any factor (age, social skills, insufficient previous education, etc) can learn a specific skill set that will provide them with the opportunity to better themselves in a trade.  In reality, for profit schools are commercialized business ventures where education plays a secondary role to the main purpose of making a profit.  The end result is that thousands of "graduates" are being sent out into their communities without the skills or education they need to succeed in the workplace.  This doesn't just hurt the students, it hurts the local economy, the government who supports these graduates who can't find a job, and the communities where unemployment rates are already high.

For Profit Schools Produce Unwilling Workers
I mentioned the academic sacrifices employees have to make to hand-hold students last week.  It's bad for instructors who can't focus on academics and it's bad for students who don't get the academic attention they need, but it's also bad in the long run for communities.  The vast majority of students who attend for profit schools, in my experience, were on some form of government assistance.  In many cases this was absolutely necessary for their family's survival.  Unfortunately, it was also abused in many cases.  Overall, many students viewed school as another form of government assistance, especially since they didn't understand that they'd have to pay back the loans they were taking out.  

I can't count the number of times I was told by a student "I'm paying your salary" when they felt they weren't getting what they wanted (in the case of the library, this usually meant unlimited free school supplies; for instructors, it meant good grades, passing the course, less homework, shorter class sessions).  The problem is that the way the school runs is by keeping those students happy so that their (the government's) loan money would keep coming in.  As much as instructors fought against it, administration required that almost any steps be taken to keep students coming.  In the end, we sent out entitled graduates who expected unrealistic salaries and benefits.  Our graduates frequently failed to show up for interviews, came to work late, left work early, didn't show up for work at all, and then were mystified as to why they lost their jobs or never got jobs to begin with.  

For Profit Schools and Debt
I've talked about the negative impacts on students of the huge amount of debt for profit students go into - how they don't understand that even declaring bankruptcy won't get them out of these loans - they'll be haunted and pursued by the government forever and their interest will just keep compounding.  But the impact of these enormous government loans on the nationwide economy is also devastating.  We're talking about tens of thousands of students taking out enormous government loans that they will never be able to pay back, even if they are able to get a job in the field for which they are "earning" a degree.

Experts agree, we are facing a signification educational debt crisis, much like the recent housing crisis.  The real estate bubble was caused by people purchasing homes for more than they could afford to pay off.  The education bubble is being caused by schools giving out loans with enormous interest rates for more than students can ever hope to pay off.  In fairness, this isn't just a problem being caused by for profits.  Traditional schools are also giving out loans.  The reason this is a particular problem with for profits, however, is that students are paying significantly more for a two year degree than most state schools charge for four year degrees.  In addition, the students' associate degrees (and even bachelor and master's degrees) are less marketable and bring a lower potential earning wage than traditional degrees.  

For Profit Schools Devalue Education
There are several ways this happens.  The most blatant is that when for profit schools will, basically, sell degrees to students, the value of everyone's degree goes down.  If I can buy a degree from a for profit without earning anything, the value of the same degree that was legitimately earned is lessened.

Another way for profits decrease the value of education is by the devaluing of instructors.  I briefly mentioned this in my post on how these schools hurt their employees, but I think it's worth mentioning again here.  Employee turnover at my school was considered a positive thing - it meant that no one had to get salary increases.  Everyone could be paid as a new hire for the most part.  Obviously, I worked there five years, so that isn't across the board, but I never received a merit-based pay increase.  I got five cost of living raises.  In fact, our school's overall policy was that no one was ever given merit-based raises.  It meant the government couldn't accuse us of paying instructors more to keep students in class, but it also meant that no one really tried hard at anything other than meeting the numbers.  

In addition, teachers weren't treated by administration or by students with any amount of respect.  There was no regard for them as educators, and it was well-known that the administration would never back up an instructor over a student.  The general feeling was one of total disrespect for the profession and authority of instructors.  Some may not see that as a negative community impact, but I certainly do. A lack of respect and total devaluation of the work of educators is certainly harmful to the community as a whole, and I saw it continually in my work.