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07:58 pm: 2015 reading challenge (audio books)

I recently read about the 2015 reading challenge. I've never done a reading challenge, an error which clearly I must correct. I love the this particular challenge , because it provides a whole bunch of unusual ways to identify books (author has your initials, book is set in your home town, there's a number in the title, etc.). So I'm going to track what I read.

Although I won't count audio books toward my goals*, I figured I'd start with a quick summary of what I've heard so far this year during my long commutes. Many are things I'd planned to read anyway, but I wanted to try the Audible application and service. I've never liked audio books because they're juuuuust toooooo sloooooow, but if I'm just sitting there anyway, I might as get something out of it.

The longer my thoughts, the more likely they're negative.



Challenge Category

My Thoughts
Jane Austen Mansfield Park (dramatization)

  • >100 years old

  • became a movie

  • never finished

  • set in a different country

  • book I hadn't read from an author I love

  • female author

Because I love Jane Austen, I've tried and tried to read Mansfield Park, but I've never finished it. I know it's supposedly an indictment of indolent landowners blah blah blah but Fanny is such a prig (reminds me of Cordelia, whom I've never liked; the reference to Lear was apt), her cousins are mostly sort of evil in a benign and boring way, and I've just never been able to get into it.

The dramatization was, to my surprise, utterly engaging. Perhaps reading the Cliff notes would've given me a similar experience, but I suspect this is a story that's singularly well suited both to condensing and to focusing on dialogue.

Note that the volume is a bit uneven in the recording. Some dialogue seems to be deliberately muted, which bugged me. Thank goodness for volume control on the steering wheel!

danah boyd

It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

  • non-fiction

  • female author

I learned a lot from It's Complicated. I always learn from danah boyd... she's wicked smart and has an apparently unique perspective on teens and social networks. One stand-out moment for me here was that it's adults who focus on their devices to the exclusion of people, rather than teenagers. Teenagers use social media as a way of connecting with their friends; if they're with their friends, their use tends to be sending pictures and texts to share with friends who are not present. Their use is far more intermittent than adults'.

boyd uses more social-science language than I expected, like "networked publics" to refer to places (geographical or virtual) where people gather. The language actually helps to make parallels between, say, Facebook and malls; both are places where teens go to hang out with friends. It took me a while to re-adjust to the social science vocabulary.

I was taken aback by the constant references to demographics. Every example seems to start with name, race, age, gender, town, and location ("I talked to Mary, a white 16-year-old girl, at home in Northern California"). Demographics very rarely had anything to do with the story, so it felt as if boyd included the information to prove the diversity of her samples. It's probably a good idea (and is standard in social science writing), but it did get repetitive.

There's tons more to the subject and it is, in fact, complicated. I highly recommend the book to anyone with kids. There's specific information to help you understand teenagers in a technically-enabled world, with many (diverse) examples.

Giacomo Casanova Casanova: History of My Life (abridged)

  • something I was supposed to read in school but didn't
    (I did read everything that was assigned, but this could've been)

  • became a movie

  • set in a different country

  • based on a true story (probably, mostly)

  • bottom of to-read list

  • >100 years old

  • author I've not read

  • banned book

  • originally written in another language

I admit it: I bought this because Benedict Cumberbatch narrated it. I prefer Ode to a Nightingale, but that voice? Oy! I'll listen to just about anything he reads (I'm not a fan of Ngaio Marsh, but might have to make an exception).

I'm glad I listened to this, and not just because of Mr. Cumberbatch's beautiful baritone. The language is somewhat florid and I suspect I would have become impatient with reading it.

It reads as if it was written more than 200 years ago (gee, I wonder why?). In terms of literary history, it is arguably the first salacious memoir (earlier memoirs tended to focus either on battles or on intellectual discourse).

Although the writing is circumspect, there's no getting around the fact that this a smutty book. Whether you consider that a good or bad thing is up to your own judgment.

Cary Elwes As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride

  • memoir

  • set in a different country

On the other end of the spectrum, there is nothing salacious about As You Wish. Elwes dishes no dirt except stereotypically dry, British, self-deprecating dirt.

I heard it primarily as an ode to Andre the Giant (Fessik), who died a few years after filming, with large doses of appreciation to Rob Reiner, Robin Wright, and (fight masters) Bob Anderson & Bill Tomlinson. Elwes has nothing negative to say about anyone except himself, and seems to have genuinely enjoyed working with the cast and crew on the movie.

This is a gentle, mildly humorous, intermittently entertaining description of making one of my very favorite movies. If you don't love The Princess Bride, or really really love to hear about the movie-making process specifically from an actor's point of view, the book would be a disappointment (why the heck you'd buy the book without those interests, I have no idea... it's not intended as great literature, after all).

Atul Gawande Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

  • non-fiction

  • book I hadn't read from an author I love

  • made me cry

I loved Complications and Checklist Manifesto. I liked Better just fine. So I was eager to read Gawande's latest. And I'm glad I did. No, really. This is an important book to read if you or someone in your life will ever die.

To no one's surprise, it is depressing. I cried several times while listening to it. Gawande relates many deeply moving stories, and some really hit home for me. The hardest parts for me to hear were probably the most essential ones.

There are also many uplifting stories; the happy ones were just as likely to make me cry as the sad ones (have I mentioned that I'm a sap?). I've resolved to make sure I participate in more happy ones, and hearing this book helped me understand how to increase my chances of achieving that goal.

Leonard Sax
(warning: horrific website)

Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic
of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men

  • non-fiction

You know how I am about parenting books; this one felt like a natural one to me. It had mostly good reviews, too.

While I think Sax has some good points and the book sure got me thinking, it also infuriated me on occasion. Sax is definitely a controversial figure (particularly in gender studies), so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

Here are the 5 factors Sax identifies as causal factors in boys' becoming less motivated:

  1. Video Games. Sax believes no one should play video games, except Sims & Wii bike racing, because he plays and likes them. :eye roll: Really undercuts his own argument there. OTOH, I'm very squidgy about first-person shooter games myself. The book was written in 2007, so doesn't cover Minecraft. He equates video games with watching pornography, which seems like a stretch to me.

  2. Teaching Methods. Sax is a fierce advocate for single-sex education, about which I have mixed feelings. I'm sure there are some boys (and girls) for whom it could be very effective, but it seems more like a stop-gap than a true solution. He doesn't specifically address the problem with treating boys like broken girls, but he certainly implies it. He's also very disturbed by the push for reading and writing in kindergarten, but doesn't address whether pre-K programs are providing similar exposure to a "school" environment that focuses on play and builds positive experiences for kids.

  3. Prescription Drugs. I'm a very crunchy-granola type o' parent, so it's no surprise that I agree that medications are over-prescribed. I was not aware of potential irreversible damage to the motivational centers in boys’ brains as a result of using these medications, which is alarming. I don't find Sax a credible source (given citations to dubious sources), so I would need to do further research on this myself.

  4. Endocrine Disruptors. Again, crunchy parent here. Environmental concerns will always be big for me. Environmental estrogens from plastic bottles seem like Bad Things, and Sax's arguments seem logical (estrogen slowing boys' maturation and speeding girls', creating further disparity).

  5. Devaluation of Masculinity. This is the one that really made me angry, though I think Sax has some good points buried in there. He points out that shifts in popular culture have created very different exemplars of manhood (Jim Anderson [Father Knows Best] in the 60s; Cliff Huxtable [The Cosby Show] in the 80s; Homer Simpson in the 00s). But his ideas of manhood are very... subjective. John Wayne isn't real and isn't a good example. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is.

His bottom line seems to be that men should always sacrifice for their wives and children, which is kind of horrifically sexist, yes? Should adults be willing to sacrifice in appropriate circumstances? Absolutely. But willingness and doing aren't the same thing - most of the time, there's time to consider choices and make worthy sacrifices. And why should men have a special requirement to sacrifice? Do women need some kind of extra protection? Are we less able to sacrifice?

Weird. Still, there is some good information here, as long as you don't get swept away by the author's occasional ridiculousness

I've listened to all of the episodes of Cabin Pressure, which isn't a book, of course, but is nonetheless completely hilarious and highly recommended to everyone who laughs with their eyes open (otherwise too dangerous to listen and drive).

* I'm not sure why, but it seems less legitimate to me. I'll also only be posting about books I'm reading for the first time (perhaps with thoughts on others that meet the criteria).

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