- Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein
- Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum
- My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, Rebekah Nathan
- The Control of Nature, John McPhee
- A Companion to Wolves, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
- Seaward, Susan Cooper
- The Stochastic Man, Robert Silverberg
- The Book of Evidence, John Banville
All eight of these books are delightful, but unless you’re an academic, you may not be interested in two of my favorites: Arum’s Academically Adrift and Nathan’s My Freshman Year. That said, I found the former dry but extraordinarily useful, and the latter a can’t-put-it-down good read.
Arum looks at whether college students are actually developing critical thinking skills, and mostly concludes that they aren’t. The biggest gains go to those students who came in well-prepared, meaning college reinforces existing racial and class-based disparities rather than equalizing them. He makes a convincing argument for harder classes with higher expectations and more rigorous requirements, but admits that more large-scale quantitative research on this topic is necessary before making policy recommendations. Nathan takes the opposite approach, writing an anthropological study of her experience enrolling as a freshman at the college where she is tenured faculty. She brings a compassionate but keen eye to the social and cultural practices of college, which I suppose is exactly what you’d want an anthropologist to do. I was particularly impressed by her analysis of diversity issues on campus, and the subtle ways her university undermines diversity even as it preaches it. By the end of her freshman year (and the book), Nathan has developed an understanding-from-the-inside of student behavior, including behavior that concerned her as a professor. Taken together, these two books made me rethink my approach to undergraduate education, and I’d definitely recommend them for future faculty as well as for education researchers.
My sister gave me Cinderella Ate My Daughter, along with several other books that you’ll be hearing about in future posts. I’ve enjoyed Orenstein’s work in the past, and this book was no exception. Orenstein does a nice job of weaving together the research on gender identity development, her journalistic investigation into “princess culture,” and her own experiences raising her young daughter. She uses these three strands to claim that the marketing and branding of young girls’ femininity is qualitatively different from the construction of girls’ childhood experiences a generation ago, which I mostly found convincing. I was probably most disappointed that she did not discuss how to resist the commercialization of kid culture; she concludes that girls will just get over their princess phase by themselves, but doesn’t really address the larger structural or systemic issues. Obviously no individual parent can change culture by themselves, but I think she missed an opportunity to call for activism by the parents of young girls.
The Control of Nature weirdly reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s essays. These three essays on large-scale engineering projects don’t have DFW’s characteristic bravura wit, but they do excavate (no pun intended) a hidden part of the world that makes our lived experience possible. The first essay, on the Army’s attempts to keep the Mississippi in its channel, is the most compelling. He explains why the Mississippi is trying to change course, what the Army Corps of Engineers is trying to do about it, and what impact that is having on the entire region. I especially liked his interviews with both expected (the general in charge of the project) and unexpected (the mayor of a small town on a nearby river). The second essay, on how the lava flows from an Icelandic volcano were diverted from a small town, is one of those “I can’t believe it’s true” stories, but I didn’t find his interviews as compelling. Finally, his essay on mudslides in LA and what the city does to prevent them did a great job of presenting the human impact of the geological and engineering decisions made by the city, though some of the stories he tells are fairly horrifying. I’m never buying a house in the LA hills!
On the fiction side, A Companion to Wolves was shockingly, shockingly good. I say “shockingly” because the books are magical-animal-companion fantasy – and not only magical-animal-companion fantasy, but sexy magical-animal-companion fantasy. Despite my tween-age obsession with Pern, I’m quite skeptical about this particular combination of tropes. Monette and Bear, however, do it really well. Their premise is that young warriors must bond with magical wolves to protect their (vaguely Norse-Germanic) people from trolls. The men who bond with female wolves, well, I’m sure you can guess where things go when their wolves come into heat. But while there’s certainly some hot-gay-sex-candy, the story focuses on the profound relationship between the main character and his wolf, and the challenges of his sexual awakening when sex, for him, will always be political. You see, his wolf is the arbiter of pack status, which means he must help and support her by maintaining relationships among the warriors that reinforce the pack hierarchy. In other words, his wolf doesn’t exist just to make him cooler (or to make him have sex with certain characters). The two of them serve a larger social function in a tightly-knit community that can only function if they both do their jobs. Plus, Monette and Bear do almost as well on plot as they do on character development; while the beginning of the book is a bit slow, once the story gets going, you really want to find out what happens next. I especially like their pacing, as they alternate major plot advancement with quieter times for character development and reflection.
Seaward and The Stochastic Man were Cooper and Silverberg, respectively, doing what they do well. Cooper sends her characters on a mysterious quest full of obscure symbolism; the resolution of just who Taranis and Lugan are, and why they behave the way they do, is particularly satisfying. Silverberg posits an alternate future in which one man learns to see through time. As a New Yorker, I found his future New York implausible, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Not their best works in either case, but enjoyable.
Finally, I’m still chewing over The Book of Evidence. The book purports to be the account of just how a mild-mannered Scottish expatriate ends up in jail for murder, but of course Banville doesn’t let you get away with anything that easily. Is the narrator telling the truth about himself? Well, he’s slowly revealed to be a bastard, then possibly a sociopath, who may or may not be aware of it. He seems unaware of the truth of his relationships with most of the other characters, though the stories he tells about them are compelling. And finally, we are led to question whether any of the story is true at all, or whether the narrator has simply romanticized murder through art. (If any of this is reminding you of Michael Frayn’s Headlong, by the way, you would be having the same weird not-quite-deja-vu that I had for much of the book. But Frayn’s book is a good deal more comic, despite the awful behavior of its protagonist, and as I recall no one dies in the end.)
Happy reading, all!