You Should Have Known

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You Should Have Known (Photo: Hachette Book Group)I read an advance review of You Should Have Known in the LA Times about a week ago, and I was intrigued enough to pre-order it on my Kindle. It came out on Tuesday – my last official day of classes – and what better way to celebrate than with a new book? I’ve been reading The Spark off and on for about a week, but it’s heavy, which doesn’t make it a great bedtime read. So $12 seemed like a risk worth taking for some light, well-reviewed fiction.

Well as it turns out, I didn’t get to it until Thursday. But it’s such a quick read that I finished it by mid-morning on Friday – and after the disappointment of The Maze Runner, I quite enjoyed it. In a nutshell, the plot revolves around New York therapist Grace, who is about to publish her first book. The book, also called You Should Have Known, smugly suggests that from the beginning of any relationship there are signs that the person may be a less-than-ideal partner, but many women choose to overlook these signs in the name of love. But then, an event happens that shakes Grace’s world to its core and makes her question whether she has really practiced what she preaches.

In many ways, it’s Gone Girl-meets-The Husband’s Secret. It’s perhaps a bit more predictable than the former and a bit over-American compared to the latter, but it’s really very enjoyable. It’s long (Amazon.com says that the hardcover version is 440 pages), but quick, and light without being fluffy. It has tension that kept me reading late into Thursday night and talking points that make it work with book clubs. You Should Have Known is exactly what I wanted to read this week.

The Maze Runner

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The Maze Runner (Photo: Random House)I knew it. I knew that eventually in 2014, I would stumble across a book I did not like. It’s bound to happen eventually, but I was hoping that with a streak of 10 really excellent reads in January and February, March would continue to be awesome.

Enter The Maze Runner, which I actually finished last week but am just getting around to posting about now. Next Wednesday is my last day of classes before a long-ish field placement that will take up most of the month of April, so it’s deadlines galore round these parts.

A couple of weeks ago, my English specialization class (I’m a pre-service secondary English language arts teacher) spent some time at the University of Calgary’s Doucette Library of Teacher Resources, which is a fantastic place full of knowledgeable staff who love talking about books for children and young adults. I had heard The Maze Runner was a popular read for kids who liked The Hunger Games series, and with a male protagonist, boys seem quite drawn to this series. So at the end of the seminar, I signed it out.

Maybe the problem is that I’m not a teenage boy, but of all the teenage dystopian fiction out there, I’d say this one is comparatively pretty weak. Yes, we’ve got the familiar theme of teenagers being thrust into uncomfortable situations of leadership as they are manipulated by corrupt adults, and yes, we have lots of pacey, semi-violent combat and strategizing, but that’s about where the similarities end.

The basic premise of The Maze Runner is that 16-ish-year-old Thomas (nobody is really sure how old he is) wakes up in an elevator, which deposits him at a place called the Glade. The Glade is home to several other teenage boys – no girls. Like all the boys, he has no memory of the past. The Glade is surrounded by a maze that is populated at night by creatures called Grievers, which are basically cow-sized slugs covered in saw blades that sting you and/or kill you, depending on their mood. Oh, and the walls close in on the Glade every night, while the walls of the maze outside rearrange themselves into repeating patterns. The boys have been living in the Glade, trying to solve the puzzle of the maze, for two years.

So far, so good, right? Except that where Thomas falls flat is his complete lack of personality. The thing that makes The Hunger Games a bestseller and draws teenagers (and adults) in like moths to a flame is Katniss’s complex range of emotions as she handles truly appalling situations. Katniss is a sharp tack who plays her cards close to her chest. She’s loyal and selfless, but also selfish. She’s confused about love. She’s brave and scared and pragmatic and resourceful and funny and beautiful and complicated. She makes considered decisions sometimes and rash ones at other times. In short, Katniss is human. (This is why the first movie in The Hunger Games series was met with some criticism by fans, because you don’t see a lot of what is going on inside Katniss’s head. However, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire did a really, really good job of capturing the spirit of the book.)

By contrast, Thomas tends to feel one emotion - frustration. Thomas is frustrated when he can’t remember anything, frustrated when he can’t do the jobs he likes to do, frustrated when nobody will listen to him when he is new. He isn’t lonely, he’s sort of passively protective, he’s brave out of necessity, and he’s kind of a jerk, taking on a leadership role that nobody wants him to have after two days when all the other kids have been there for two years. When a girl shows up, she’s described rather flatly as black-haired, blue-eyed and beautiful. Oddly, she’s telepathic, too. (Perhaps James Dashner  was watching Star Trek: TNG reruns when he wrote this, because she’s kind of the equivalent of an early Counselor Troi before they gave her actual stuff to do.) Descriptions of the girl, Teresa, never move beyond how beautiful she is, how Thomas feels protective of her, and a couple of times, how she is ‘smart’ (without getting into any specifics about how she is smart, like she might be really good at reading maps or doing math or something). It actually really bothers me that some teachers use this book in junior highs and high schools, because it confirms all kinds of gender stereotypes that I don’t think are fair.

To make matters worse, all the kids in the Glade speak in an absolutely hideous made-up slang-language, which they apparently developed after only two years of living in isolation from the rest of their society.

Because we don’t know anything about these characters, it’s very difficult to care about them. Like all good dystopian YA trilogies, this one ends on a cliffhanger, but unlike The Hunger Games and Divergent, there’s no emotional connection to anyone. I hate to admit it, but I kind of don’t really care about what happens to Thomas or any of the other kids in this book. They’re really irritating and flat. After I read The Hunger Games and Divergent, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the sequels, but I think I’ll pass on The Scorch Trials.

I’ll also pass on the movie. Even these poor actors in the trailer hate all the slang they’ve been forced into saying. And Teresa isn’t blonde in the book. I feel like they’re likely to make a bad thing worse.

*UPDATE* Whoops, thanks to Mariana, who noticed that the trailer below is the book trailer, not the movie trailer (in which case, I’m still not sure why Theresa is blonde? Though it does explain the acting…). The movie trailer comes out next week, so that is something to look at!

One More Thing

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One More Thing (Photo: Random House)I was really excited to learn that BJ Novak (you know, Ryan from The Office) was coming out with a book of short stories. He was a writer and co-executive producer of that show for years and he’s really, really talented. Also, did you see him in Saving Mr. Banks over the Christmas break as one of the young Disney songwriters working on Mary Poppins? Brilliant.

Also, Novak made a really silly trailer for this book with his pal Mindy Kaling (I listened to her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? back in November), which is really worth checking out.

So when One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories came out a few weeks ago, I instantly ordered it and put it on my to-read list for the February break. I’m so glad I did, because it’s genuinely my favourite thing I’ve read so far this year. There’s a really comprehensive New York Times review of the book here, but the book is basically made up of 64 vignettes, or short stories. They range in length from two lines to several pages, which makes it a quick, fun read.

Some are funny, some are touching, some are silly and some are quite thoughtful. All of them are very, very clever. My favourites were “Everyone Was Singing The Same Song”: The Duke of Earl Recalls His Trip to America in June of 1962 (in which the actual Duke of Earl doesn’t understand why everyone seems to be humming the same song when he introduces himself), and A Good Problem to Have, in which Novak imagines the frustrations of the man who invented the style of math problems in which two trains pass each other while travelling at different speeds in opposite directions.

I’m not normally drawn to short stories, but I’m so glad I bought this one. I have a feeling I’m going to be lending it to a lot of people.

An Evening With Neil Gaiman

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This isn’t a book post, but tonight I had a lovely surprise. Neil Gaiman is the University of Calgary’s Distinguished Visiting Writer for 2014 and when tickets went ‘on sale’ (really they were free, but you had to reserve them because demand far exceeded supply) last October, they were all snapped up in less than 60 seconds.

But this afternoon when I checked Facebook after class, I found a message from Susan, who I spent most of last summer working with. She had come into a spare ticket for Neil Gaiman for tonight, and if I could be back at the university in about an hour, it was all mine. I’m so glad I didn’t have to work!

Neil Gaiman was absolutely fantastic. He was warm and funny, and his stories were just the right amount of creepy and spooky. He read quite a lot, including a number of short stories (Feminine Endings, Click Clack the Rattlebag and – what I think was – My Last Landlady) and a couple of good poems. But my favourite part was when he talked about a recent Q&A he did where a little kid asked him what stories are for?

Of course, he gave the kid an age-appropriate answer about how people are ‘hardwired’ to tell stories, but for the adults in tonight’s audience, he told a moving story about his grandmother, who lived in the Warsaw ghetto (and escaped just before it was burned). It was punishable by death to own books, but somehow, she had a Polish translation of Gone With The Wind (which also happens to be my very favourite book). Every night, she blocked out the windows and read for hours by candlelight – and the next morning, all the girls would rush into the room to find out what was happening next in the world of Scarlett O’Hara and Ashley Wilkes and Rhett Butler.

“Stories are important enough that you’d risk a bullet to the head,” he said.

Drama High

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Drama High (Photo: Penguin Group US)Full disclosure. I didn’t buy Drama High for myself. I picked it up for Matt, who is directing a spring play, a couple of weeks ago as a Valentine’s Day present. It’s a fascinating portrait of one of America’s best drama teachers, Lou Volpe, who has been asked to pilot high school versions of big-ticket Broadway shows (Rent, Les Miserables and Spring Awakening, to name some of the more controversial ones) from his unassuming school auditorium in Levittown, Pennsylvania during his 40 years on staff.

But of course, I got curious (I’m a huge musical theatre junkie) and started reading. I read all but 70 pages, and then it was Valentine’s Day, so I stopped reading, wrapped it up, gave it to Matt and then promptly asked for it right back so I could finish it (I also got him some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, so that did soften the blow of me stealing his present just a little bit).

I think maybe it’s partly because I feel like I’m in a much calmer headspace about my career shift than I was last semester when I was still figuring the ins and outs of returning to university as an adult, but I find myself gravitating to a lot of ‘teacher’ books right now (case in point: Tony Danza’s I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had. I’m still talking about it to anyone who will listen). It’s not conscious, but it’s something I’m noticing about myself right now. I guess maybe I’m looking for a little bit of inspiration.

Luckily, Lou Volpe has inspiration in spades. Michael Sokolove is a former student of Volpe’s from his earliest years of teaching, and he’s managed to paint a sensitive, respectful and compelling portrait of a beloved educator. Drama High follows Volpe’s class at Harry S Truman High School during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years with sharp observations. “Confidence is a funny thing in high school. Almost everyone has it in the wrong measure – either too little or too much,” Sokolove writes. Unassuming Volpe has the gift of bringing out the best in his students, which is one of the things that makes him a great teacher.

The New York Times did a really nice review of Drama High when the book first came out. It points out that Sokolove’s personal connection to the story is another reason why it’s such an excellent read. He’s not only a former pupil of Volpe’s, but his kids are also high school-age, which means he has a vested interest in arts education and the impact of heroic teachers.

“What Volpe’s students gain from him is a passion and sense of self unrelated to anything having to do with money, power or status, Sokolove continues. “Nothing matters except what they do together.” Isn’t that what every person, regardless of their profession, should want to achieve in their work? I hope so.