I finally read The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s Calling. 

I think sometimes J.K. Rowling’s….Rowlingness overshadows everything she does and we forget to actually examine the work. Which, of course, is why she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym. But anyway, I digress. Sometimes I think it’s easy to forget that she became so famous because she is an exceptional storyteller. Her ability to draw her readers into the stories of these characters has not diminished now that she’s adjusted her target audience.

The Casual Vacancy is about a small township where everyone knows everyone and shows how things begin to unravel after a town council member and beloved father and friend dies. In some ways I imagine this could have been the sort of life the Dursleys would have had if Harry had never come to live with them — their concerns so tied to how others see them, scheming to be the most important in town, having the best gossip, etc.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is an old school detective novel. The reader follows surly, stoic Cormoran Strike as he investigates the supposed suicide of a model. There are hints scattered throughout as we see that Strike knows something doesn’t jive or feels hinky, but there are only a few full twists.

really enjoyed this. While at first it might seem like a departure for Rowling, it’s really still just an underdog searching for truth and justice. And that’s fairly familiar. But the storytelling is great — Strike walks the fine line between being a sympathetic and downright pathetic character. The way Rowling weaves the narrative, you can’t help but keep reading.

Perhaps it’s because I already knew and I was reading them back-to-back, but I did feel like there was just something about her writing that was identifiable in both books — certain turns of phrase and the ways in which she laid out a scene. But again, knowing beforehand, maybe I was looking for it…

All in all, I liked both books, but I think I might put The Cuckoo’s Calling slightly ahead. I’m not sure what that says, if anything, about me or the books, but there you have it.

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Thanks to NetGalley, I got a chance to read For the Good of Mankind?: The Shameful History of Human Medical Experimentation by Vicki Oransky Wittenstein.

For the Good of Mankind explores the history of human medical experimentation and the resultant changes in medical experiment regulations. While one wouldn’t necessarily expect a book with this topic to be purely objective, it is abundantly clear from the subtitle alone that it takes a very subjective view. I was hoping to see an examination of the medical advances that have come out of this suspect practice, but much of that information was overshadowed by the descriptions of heinous acts performed by doctors and scientists in the name of science. In short — the coverage of material did not feel particularly balanced.

The book moves in chronological order, starting with some of the earliest cases of human medical experimentation and moving through the WWII and atomic bomb eras and on to modern times and current concerns with research oversight and stem cell experimentation.

The chronological organization is not readily apparent and in many cases it feels as though any advances made as a result of the experiments are negligible, which was not always the case. The book has a critical thinking section at the end that encourages readers to think about and discuss the actions of researchers in light of the possible outcomes, but critical thinking is not possible when a balanced view is never presented.

I am in no way in favor of such heinous human experimentation, but I find it peculiar that Wittenstein offers up such a biased view for “criical thinking.” For example, she talks about the harvesting of cancerous cells from Henrietta Lacks and their use in any number of experiments, but doesn’t go into detail about the role that HeLa cells have played in the cures and vaccines for countless debilitating diseases. This would be a great case for critical thinking prompts as Henrietta Lacks did not provide informed consent, however one could argue that the harvesting of her cells during her surgery also did not cause her any additional harm. And yet, Wittenstein barely touches upon this in the book.

For the Good of Mankind could work as an introduction to the seedy history of the medical research field and some critical thinking for readers able to discern that the book does not provide a  balanced perspective, but I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone.

Margot — Review

September 11, 2013

You know how there are certain books that you start, thinking that they’ll be interesting and then they totally blow you away? That’s Margot.

Jillian Cantor imagines a world in which Anne Frank’s sister Margot survived WWII and Hitler’s campaign against Europe’s Jews and is now living in Philadelphia as unassuming (gentile) Margie Franklin. No one in Margot/Margie’s life in Philadelphia knows about her life before the war or her connection to the now-famous Anne whose diary has just been adapted and released as a film.

Margot/Margie thought she was relatively happy in her new life in Philadelphia, but this movie version of her sister’s diary is bringing things to the surface and she is finding it increasingly difficult to live this new, hidden life.

I don’t want to say too much. I feel like I won’t do it justice. Also, I don’t want yo uto spend too much time reading this when you need to go get your hands on a copy. It just came out earlier this month and it’s fantastic. I say get thee to a bookstore!

My Birthday Weekend

September 11, 2013

This past weekend my mother came up to celebrate my birthday with me. It was a jam-packed weekend and I had a great time.

Saturday we walked all over the city (my fitbit put us at well over 8 miles by the end of the day). We had a leisurely, delicious brunch in this tiny place downtown and then wandered around South Street Seaport for a while. The weather was fabulous and it was so nice looking out across the water.

We eventually headed over to the 9/11 Memorial. It was kind of ridiculous going through the various entrances, but once inside the memorial grounds it’s very peaceful and lovely. It’s also such a huge space, which, for me, had been hard to conceive of at first.

It’s interesting how they’ve used technology to enhance the experience of the memorial — there is an app and a mobile site, as well as strategically placed machines that all exist to help visitors locate names or groups of people (i.e. first responders, passengers from a specific flight, etc.) within the memorial. The app and site showed you where names were located and if there were memorial bricks and provided donor information. It’s interesting because these tools add these extra layers of metadata that were probably at one point purely used for logistics, but are now helping to enhance the visitor experience at the memorial. Leave it to me to start thinking about user experience and information science wherever I go…

After we left the memorial we pretty much walked half the island, grabbed a (very) quick dinner, and then saw Pippin on Broadway.

Pippin was fantastic. I may be forfeiting my theatre dork card by admitting this, but I didn’t really know the story before I saw it. I is so cool and fun and dark and twisty. It is, in a word, awesome. And spectacular. It made me want to go to circus camp or something. I want to watch it a million times and unpack all the various theories swimming in my head about motivation and perspective and reality. Yeah, basically it’s super cool and you can tell because it’s making me super nerdy.

Sunday we (read: I) slept in a bit and then went to tea at Alice’s Tea Cup. The place is really cute and they have lots of delicious varieties of tea (as they should) and great scones and sandwiches and tarts and the like. I actually plan on going back to buy some of the blend that I had because it was absolutely fabulous (green tea with bergamot and some other deliciousness).

After tea, off to another show! We saw the matinee of Soul Doctor, which was also great. It was really fun and interesting seeing the history of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement since I didn’t know that much about it and how it developed in great part through the actions of one man (the “Soul Doctor”).

After the show, we did a bit of shopping (because what’s a birthday in New York without a bit of shopping?) and then headed downtown for dinner.

We went to the Risotteria, which is my new favorite place in New York. The food is fantastic (they’re also really accommodating — great for vegetarians, gluten free diets, and allergies) and the staff is really chill. What more could you possibly want?

It turns out the answer is “jammie dodgers.” There’s a British candy shop across the street from the restaurant and so after dinner we popped in quickly to have a look around. They only had mini jammie dodgers in the original flavor (which is best), so that’s what I got. They might already be gone…

All in all, it was a fantastic birthday weekend. I might be getting crotchety in my old age (really, I maintain that teenagers/”youth” are just annoying), but I think it’s probably worth it for birthdays like this.

Losing It — Review

September 2, 2013

Losing It is a collection of original short stories written by a number of popular YA authors all revolving around one subject: virginity. The authors all approach the subject from a number of different angles. They explore cultural and societal differences, the pressures placed on boys vs. girls, and the concept of virginity within same-sex relationships. The collection also displays a range of relationships, some healthier than others.

While bawdy at times, Losing It isn’t graphic. The authors bring us into each character’s story and the history and emotion behind it, without going into details about the act. Teens looking for a steamy read to hide beneath their mattresses will be disappointed in that respect.

Some stories in the collection shone, while others fell somewhat flat, but while a number of these stories don’t stand out on their own, I think it works as a collection. If it can in some way facilitate a sex-positive dialogue amongst teens, parents, educators, and librarians, that can only be a good thing.

Losing It, edited by Keith Gray, comes out in October from Carolrhoda Lab (an imprint of Carolrhoda Books). I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy and I would certainly recommend it.