Monday, September 30, 2013

Stink: Solar System Superhero

by Megan McDonald

The irascible and short second grader, Stink Moody, is outraged when he learns that Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Friend of all things small (like James Madison, the shortest and best president), Stink takes up the cause for Pluto. Stink gets into a feud over this issue with a classroom rival, Riley, who has been to space camp and so comes off as a know-it-all, until his teacher suggests a debate. Stink wins the debate but learns a bit about not judging people until you get to know them, and sees Riley in a new light. This book contains the usual cheerful silliness of the series, and I enjoyed the real-life moral of looking to other people’s motives. There isn’t exactly a healthy respect for scientific opinion, though, which is a minus. It doesn’t matter how Stink and his pals feel about Pluto. The teacher should have given them the facts of how Pluto no longer fits the scientific consensus of the definition of planet. It’s just a kid’s book, but it’s rather dangerous to venerate popular sentiment over science. We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts.

four stars

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Comrade Lost And Found: A Beijing Story

by Jan Wong

A sequel of sorts to her maddening, fascinating, invaluable memoir Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now, this book chronicles Wong’s return to Beijing in 2008 to find the woman whom she denounced as a traitor at the height of the Cultural Revolution.  This betrayal has gnawed at her over the decades, and she makes the trip despite her fears that she will either find out nothing in the face of intractable Communist bureaucracy, or that the woman was imprisoned, tortured, or killed.  Bringing her family with her for support, she tracks down a lot of old friends and foes who seem happy enough to see her but aren’t exactly thrilled to talk about the bad old days, suffers through a banquet under the watchful eye of a humorless cadre, and marvels at the changes in Beijing since her college days.  (This last despite the fact that Wong lived there as a reporter off and on into the 1990s and made a few visits even in the early 2000s – this shows the tremendous rate of growth the city has undergone.) Little by little, and despite some obfuscations and lies from her sources, she gets a few hints about the woman’s fate – but then it’s time to come face to face and hear her story.

In my review of Red China Blues, I called Wong “deluded,” “na├»ve,” “blind,” “dangerously stupid,” and “an unrepentant spoiled fool,” which seems a bit harsh now that I write it all out like that.  Nevertheless, that book did seem like a personal apologia for her actions, while this one is, as she says, “tantamount to a Maoist self-criticism.” This is a much more palatable book in terms of the narration – Wong shows a little more perspective about truth and consequences here – and equally fascinating in terms of the human stories it tells from China’s tragic 1960s and 70s.  Wong’s own story is heartfelt and suspenseful, but what interested me the most was the historical whitewashing she encounters.  No country likes to talk about its black marks – America still celebrates Columbus and the Pilgrims as heroes, the Japanese don’t mention war crimes or the Rape of Nanking, Germany outlaws swastikas but would rather not talk about the extent of Nazism’s prevalence – but the ability of the Chinese to switch gears so drastically and with such equanimity is intriguing. As Wong writes, “It makes me wonder why, in a nation as vast as China, so few people try to come to terms with their past.”  Yes, it’s painful to revisit oppression, and no one wants to admit he was the oppressor, but the apparent wholehearted enthusiasm with which the Chinese have thrown their lot in with rampant capitalism and materialism is unsettling.  It’s as if the moral compass isn’t fixed; the Cultural Revolution was correct because it happened that way, and now laissez-faire capitalism is correct because it’s what’s happening.  It’s troubling to think in terms of such a collectivist mindset, but it’s hard to escape it as well.

four stars

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Get Rich Quick Club

by Dan Gutman

A girl whose goal is to be rich forms a club with her friends to further that goal.  Their idea is to create a fake UFO picture and shop it around to news outlets.  Against all reasonable expectations, this actually succeeds, until one of them has a crisis of conscience.  This is a silly, over-the-top, very kid-centric story, with the sympathy all on the side of the kids, who are materialistic, lying, and scheming, but not at all malicious.  One of the characters speaks in an absurd faux-Australian which grates after a while, and there’s little consequence to the kids’ machinations, but it’s all in good fun.

three stars

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Guilt Trip

by Ben Rehder

The fourth Blanco County mystery.  In this entry, game warden John Marlin helps the police to search for a missing SUV owner who may have drowned in a flash flood, while a local lowlife's house burns down in what seems to be a meth-related explosion. Marlin suspects that the two incidents are somehow connected, and they are – but in true Rehder fashion, the plot has dozens of disparate threads that intersect.  The main story involves a state senator who has a rather embarrassing kink, being blackmailed with photos of his proclivities, to force him to ban the controversial high fences around properties which stop deer from migrating freely.  There’s also a missing Corvette and charity money, a lowlife and a party girl on the lam, a would-be country star turned hit man, a pet psychic, a creepy stalker, and of course the loveable louts Red and Billy Don.  Marlin’s problem is that his oldest friend, Phil, appears to be implicated in the blackmail; and then there’s his crush Nichole, putting herself in danger as well.  I know that Rehder’s frequent, staccato character and setting changes, especially during action scenes, may irritate some readers, but I find his rapid-fire, red-herring style engaging.  Well-paced and intricately plotted, with sly humor, goofy characters, and a few moments of suspense, this book is on a par with the other books in the series.  Over the top mayhem makes for fast-paced, diverting fun.

four stars

Friday, September 6, 2013

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

by Paul Tough

Investigating successful kids and programs at low-income schools and high-achieving prep schools, as well as interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists, Tough challenges some conventional wisdom on causes of failure (poverty, teacher quality) and contends that nurturing character in children and young adults is the key to success.  He argues that the gap between poorer and wealthier kids’ success levels is caused not mostly through lack of cognitive stimulation, but through a chaotic environment where mothering attachment is lacking and childhood traumas are plentiful.  Evidence for this abounds: there is a drop-off in performance among elite prep school kids who have had no lessons in determination and failure management; the ACE score, a measurement of childhood trauma, is a reliable indicator of future performance; and a student’s GPA is a better indicator of college completion than standardized tests, regardless of the quality of the school (which makes sense: a kid in a chaotic environment with a high GPA obviously had high determination, while a kid in the richest prep school with tutoring and enrichment opportunities abounding, with an average GPA, is clearly not working as hard as he could be.  The good news is that according to some of his interview subjects, mothering skills can be taught and non-cognitive skills such as curiosity and grit are malleable traits and can be developed fairly late in life.

I found this book to be inspiring and important.  Written in an easy, engaging style, with great ideas and surprising revelations bursting forth from nearly every page.  The broad studies and character interviews are extremely valuable, while a surprisingly long discursus on chess isn’t so much – and why Tough gives any page time to the “bell curve” idea, which is basically giving a little air time to Hitler, is beyond me. Of course, in a way it’s a depressing book, because it makes clear how totally the system has failed low-income kids, giving the most needy the least instruction – though Tough notes that some programs, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, are trying to make a difference.  In the end, Tough diplomatically addresses what few dare to, though I have advocated for years: we don’t need teacher reform or school reform quite as much as we need family reform.  It’s a delicate thing for a well-off white person to criticize the parenting skills of poorer minority parents, but the fact is that with a few simple lessons to new parents after a child’s birth, many costly problems would be avoided before they began.  They do it in Germany – it’s too bad so many policymakers in America are so short-sighted when it comes to helping others.

four stars