Monday, February 25, 2013

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: The Truth About College by Professor X

This book grew from a pseudonymous article in The Atlantic, also titled "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower." It chronicles one man's journey into adjuncting college writing and literature classes to supplement his income after buying a house just before the housing bubble crashed. Professor X is cynical of the idea that college is the way to wealth for most of his students and argues that we (as a nation) should re-evaluate our college system. While Professor X has come under a lot of attack for giving up on his students (attacks that he meets head-on later in the book), I think the book works as a call to look at our colleges. While I think that anyone could benefit from writing more clearly, I think Professor X is right to question the "go to college or else" mandate and to think about how much remedial work is possible in one semester. The memoir part of the book strikes me as a little bland at times (we bought an expensive house and then we couldn't afford it very well, so we fought about it).

Friday, February 22, 2013

Steal This University: The Rise of the Corporate University and the Academic Labor Movement edited by Benjamin Johnson, Patrick Kavanagh, and Kevin Mattson

This collection of essays proposes that American universities are changing in ways that harm them because of the rise of corporate interests, which focus on lowering labor costs as much as possible without worrying about the effects these changes will have on the laborers themselves or the quality of education they are able to provide. The book shows how the casualization of academic labor harms faculty and provides accounts of attempts (both successful and not) of various employees (including graduate students) to unionize and negotiate for better working conditions. Even though this book was written about a decade ago, it still feels very relevant and its arguments still managed to persuade me.

Cold Days by Jim Butcher

In this book Harry Dresden is back from the dead and stronger than ever--thanks to his agreement to serve as Queen Mab's Winter Knight. Harry has got to figure out how he can serve in this role without letting it corrupt him--but in the meantime, Chicago is likely to be at Ground Zero of a magical explosion of apocalyptic proportions (centering on Demonreach, of course) and Mab has given him his first assignment: kill her daughter, Maeve (an immortal, for those of you keeping score at home). I like the way that this book doesn't shy away from tough questions, or asking Harry to do morally questionable things. I think Butcher has done (and continues to do) a great job increasing the stakes so we see what's going on with the series long term (it's not just one adventure after another) while making each book individually great to read.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Trust No One by Linda Sue Park

This book finally started bringing the pieces together for the series finale (due out in March). Now I understand what the Vespers' goal is (other than torturing the captives and making Dan and Amy steal important things). I thought that there were a number of plot points that got dropped throughout the book--especially in reference to Amy's relationships with a variety of characters. I love the way this series picks up historical artifacts and mysteries and tries to tie them together--it's not always completely successful, but it is entertaining.

Philida by André Brink

This book tells the story of an enslaved woman on the brink of freedom who finds promises unfulfilled, and realizes she must craft her own identity and search for her own destiny. It was a lovely story, that gradually unfolds to its full significance. I found the multiple narrators and the care given to small parts of the story (especially Kleinkat) really enhanced my enjoyment. This complicated and uplifting book was longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize.

Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture edited by Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger

This collection of essays examines the role of the vampire in contemporary literature. Its essays are grouped into four categories: the development of the vampire metaphor in an historical continuum, on writing vampire fictions, the role of disease and disease metaphors in writing contemporary vampire fictions (especially AIDS), and the vampire as an other (especially related to sexuality). I found some of the essays in the collection stronger than others ("Consuming Youth: The Lost Boys Cruise Mallworld" by Rob Latham on the ways in which the film The Lost Boys enacts the capitalist/vampire metaphor in our contemporary economy was particularly good), but all of the essays do better with reading a given text or set of texts than theorizing in new and exciting ways.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

This book concludes the Hyperion Cantos and the adventures of Raul Endymion and Aenea. I found the story really moving in places and challenging in others. There are parts that were just confusing for me: I'm still not sure I completely understand the motivations of the Techno Core, for example. But I found the story both intriguing and exciting. I think I would like to re-read all four of these books, but preferably one right after the other.

The Americans by Robert Frank

This book collects a series of photographs Robert Frank took while traveling across America on a Guggenheim grant in 1955 and 1956 and presents them in the style of Walker Evans's American Photographs: black and white, one photograph per spread. Even though there is an essay by Jack Kerouac introducing the collection, the photographs stand on their own. They are moving and beautiful and cover a wide variety of American life.

From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming

SMERSH plots to embarass MI-6 by taking down its top agent, James Bond, in this novel. A SMERSH agent offers to defect with a code machine--but only if Bond comes to get her. So Bond travels to Turkey. When they head back to England on the famed Orient Express, Bond must determine who to trust and who is trying to double cross him.

Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

This book features Agent 007, James Bond going undercover as a diamond courier to trace a series of diamond thefts to its source. He finds himself in deep with an American gang. Felix Leiter returns as a Pinkerton agent. This book is similar to other Bond novels: a lot of good fun.

The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett and illustrated by Paul Kirby

This book features Cohen the Barbarian on a final quest--to give the gift of fire back to the Gods. If he succeeds, he will destroy the Disc. And only Rincewind and Leonard of Quirm, using an experimental technology that allows them to travel around the Disc (a spaceship) can save him...but they didn't count on an unexpected passenger. I enjoyed this book--and it's lavishly and beautifully illustrated.

Close Quarters by William Golding

This book continues the sea journey of Edmund Talbot, a younger son of an aristocrat on his way to Australia to earn some money in hopes of eventually occupying a pocket borough back in England. The ship becomes becalmed--and in the midst of the general disaster, Edmund falls in love. Edmund is a more sympathetic character than he was in the first novel, and there's a lot of beautiful prose. I especially enjoyed Talbot's meditations on the ways that nautical metaphors have infused the English language.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

No Word from Winifred by Amanda Cross

This book features Professor Kate Fansler called in to locate a missing client of her brother's law firm. This client's connections to the literary world (she's the honorary niece of an Oxford writer) interest Kate. As with many of Cross's mysteries, I enjoyed the depiction of the literary-academic world (especially the scenes at the annual MLA conference) much more than the mystery, which worked in fits and starts.

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

This monograph argues that American college students are not learning very much in college. Given the rising costs of higher education, and the increasing sense that a college education will open up possibilities to students, it's important to address this lack--although the authors hesitate to call it a crisis, because the US higher education system is not in danger of collapsing. The authors' conclusions are mostly based on a test called the College Learning Assessment, which was administered to students at twenty-four universities at the beginning of their freshman year (2005) and the end of their sophomore year of study (2007). The authors then used the data to assess how much the students learned. The book accounts for a wide variety of variables. It seems that the variable over which individuals have control (as opposed to, say, whether their parents went to college) is the types of courses they select: students tended to learn more in courses that required at least 40 pages of reading a week and at least 20 pages of writing over the course of the semester. I think this book brings up a lot of problems in higher education, and it motivated me to look more closely at course structure. I think a larger sample size (more universities) and studying a larger range of classes (not just the one cohort) would help reinforce the study's claims. I am also not entirely convinced that this test alone is a good measure of how much students have learned (though I admit that it is a step towards a solution of a tough problem).

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Moonraker by Ian Fleming

In this book Agent 007 gets put on a unique assignment: M. suspects Sir Hugo Drax (a member of his club, and about to give England a long-range nuclear weapon) of cheating at cards. Bond agrees to investigate, and with special permission, infiltrates Drax's installation after the murder of one of Drax's workers. Bond's physical stamina is at times unbelievable, but the story moves along quickly and has exciting twists and turns along the way. The bridge plot at the beginning is very well explained. Good for light reading.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book subtly investigates the questions of what we give up when we subsume our personality and our moral judgment into unquestioning loyalty. Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, has lived the life of a perfect butler. Even as his father lay dying upstairs, he only worried about serving Lord Darlington and his guests as perfectly as possible. He decided to give his loyalty to Lord Darlington and then never questioned Darlington's decisions or actions--even the more hideous ones, such as firing two housemaids because they were Jewish. But when Lord Darlington dies in disgrace, and a new American buys the house, Stevens goes on a journey. Ostensibly, he's trying to find a new housekeeper, but more importantly, he attempts to reconcile his actions and his memories with his moral self. This book was absolutely lovely. It unfolds over the course of the journey, but is littered with flashbacks as Stevens's memories continue to haunt him. I really loved this book. Winner of the 1989 Booker Prize.