#CBR7 Review #148: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

This last year, I finally convinced The Chancellor to watch Blade Runner with me. He absolutely hated the whole experience. He’s definitely more into Modernism than I am. I am entertained and fascinated by postmodernism, so I found lots of food for contemplation in the movie. This led to a discussion about the source material. I’d never read anything by Philip K. Dick, and I finally decided this summer was the time to start catching up.

The novel (as with the film) focuses on Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter of andys, or androids. A world war has devastated the Earth and rendered most animal species extinct. There’s a special kind of android, called the Nexus-6, which is highly specialized and much more human-looking and sounding than its less pricey predecessors. Deckard has developed a test to identify this kind of android, but his path becomes increasingly dangerous when he understands to what lengths androids will go to blend in with other people.

This is an intriguing novel, to say the least. While the most famous parts of the movie (the “Tears in the rain” monologue) aren’t drawn from the novel, there is an interesting interplay between a source text and its more popular adaptation that’s worth exploring. I would definitely consider adding this to a course rotation and then invoking a discussion about what the film does and doesn’t do. I think the character of Rachael in the book is a bit more finely-drawn than the film, which makes an interesting contrast.

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#CBR7 Review #147: Take This Bread by Sara Miles

I’ve been reading books about faith from people of other faiths, and it’s been such a worthwhile experience for me. Both Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans referenced Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread, and that was reason enough. But in a Facebook conversation, my dear friend RLG recommended it to me as one of the key texts she’d been reading in her new position as Formation Minister at her Episcopal Church. I was on board. I am so glad I followed her recommendation.

Sara Miles grew up a secular atheist, seeking to make the world better. She waitressed for a while and then became a journalist in war-torn countries. When she discovered that she was pregnant with her daughter, she and her partner relocated to San Francisco. But on their respective comings-out, their family refocused until she met her current partner/wife. One day, Miles walked into an Episcopalian Church and found herself taking Communion. That moment changed her entire life. Miles found herself becoming converted to a follower of Jesus Christ and learning what it meant to feed her spiritual hunger with Communion, faith, and the act of giving back to her community. Miles documents her honest struggle and explains the processes that made her frustrated and fulfilled with her newfound faith.

This book is profound in the way it examines the intersection between faith and social justice. As a person who grew up “in church,” I find myself challenged by notions of what faith in motion really looks like. Is it possible to cut through bureaucratic red tape in order to feed the starving and clothe the naked? What good does organized religion actually do and what purpose does it actually serve? These are just a few of the many questions that reading Take This Bread brought up. I am a better person for having read it, and I would challenge you to do so as well.

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#CBR7 Review #146: Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

Well, here I go again, it seems. I’m binging on another author, with no help in sight for binge-readers like me. Cather is a master storyteller, and this novel takes us away from the Great Plains into a world that none of us have experienced. It’s the power of reading—you get to experience other times and other worlds.

Shadows on the Rock takes us to 1697 Quebec. There, political and religious conflicts take place against remote settlements and unforgiving winters. The novel follows a year in the life of Cécile Auclair, a twelve-year-old girl who lost her mother young and helps her apothecary father keep their home running. She tries to take care of Jacques, a young boy whose well-intentioned but shiftless and neglectful mother is more interested in pursuing men than a respectable living. Cécile must rely on her common sense, resources, and determination to survive the hard winter ahead and the turmoil that can unfold in a newly-established land. The landscape forms a major part of the plot, from the cold and meager winters, to the beautiful summers and the time of renewal when ships enter the harbor.

This might be one of my favorite Cather novels ever. You really get to know Cécile and understand how she functions as a person. You also get the sense of how she becomes Canadian, in learning to live off the land her family helped colonize, but then taking on that identity for herself. The landscape is harsh but beautiful, and Cather’s writing brings it to life. This might be one of the most imaginative novels I’ve ever read.

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#CBR7 Review #145: Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather

In my latest authors binge, I’ve decided that Willa Cather needed to be next on my list. I really liked The Professor’s House a lot, and thought that Lucy Gayheart should come next. I was really intrigued to see what Cather would do this go-round.

Lucy Gayheart has some interesting similarities to The Song of the Lark in that the coming-of-age of the artist, but she diverges in the end. Lucy Gayheart is a young music student from Haverford, Nebraska, raised by a widowed father and a much older sister. Her life is centered in Haverford, including her quasi-boyfriend Harry Gordon. But to give her a chance at a music career, Lucy moves to Chicago for the fall, winter, and spring months, taking voice and piano lessons with a premier teacher. There, she meets the charismatic but troubled opera singer Clement Sebastian, and falls in love with him as a singer and a person. Her short-lived love affair with him is disrupted and it will forever affect her life.

This novel is haunting, melancholy, and deeply, deeply beautiful. Cather is a master at creating characters and scenes in her novels that stick with you. You understand the power of Lucy’s mind to attach to Sebastian the way it does, just as you sense the beauty and emptiness in Haverford that would cause a brilliant mind to feel penned-in and restless. I’m sad that there isn’t more acclaim for Lucy Gayheart. It is a gorgeous novel, and one that I could not put down.

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#CBR7 Review #144: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Anytime I mentioned that I’d never read Vladimir Nabokov’s iconic and controversial classic, Lolita, I get gasps of amazement. Apparently, it’s one of those you-have-to-read-it-for-bragging-rights kind of books. So I decided it was high time to read it.

I don’t want to give anything away for those of you who have not read the book but intend to at some point. But here’s the basic premise: Humbert Humbert is a European, having put behind a marriage and an academic career. His obsession with nymphets, girls of about 12-15, begins when he is 13 and in love with a young woman. After that relationship fails to meet its full potential, he spends his life seeking to fulfill that quest. On a trip to the United States, he meets Dolores Haze, the daughter of his widowed landlady, Charlotte Haze. This chance encounter with Dolores, whom he promptly deems a nymphet and nicknames Lolita, will dictate the rest of his life. Lolita is a novel of passion and deviancy, of language, of unfulfilled love, and of deep-seated longing.

After reading the novel, I find myself struggling with what to say about it in the end. Since I knew that the sexualization of a young girl occurred, I did not find myself surprised by the more unsavory parts of the story, particularly Humbert’s pedophilia. I did not like it, but I did not close my mind to the novel because those details were in there. But nor did I find myself with the innumerable language games and wordplay that Nabokov invoked all.the.time. I think it comes down to a matter of personal taste, and my personal taste is not necessarily the beauty of the language. Good writing is important, yes (ahem, E.L. James), but I don’t know that the language and allusions and slippage of references were the reason I’d recommend this novel.

In the end, Lolita felt like a Novel All English Majors Must Like, and in the end, I was underwhelmed by the unevenness of it. Alas.

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#CBR7 Review #143: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

As you know, I’m still reading books by authors from other countries as a means of enriching my curriculum. While my reading list is already set for this fall’s literature course, I am obviously building materials for future courses. On one of our weekly library trips, The Chancellor scouted this novel out. Correction: that would be a bi-weekly trip. Teachers on summer vacation get WILD. Anyway, this sounded really interesting, so I decided to check it out, hoping it wouldn’t disappoint me the way The Fishermen did.

Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel tells the story of four brothers who embark on a role-playing adventure, becoming fishermen, when their father takes a job in a far-off city and begins building a separate existence. Their delight in this forbidden venture sours when they encounter a madman on their way back from the river. This man, naked and unbathed, predicts that the oldest brother will be killed by one of his own siblings. And from there, the novel hinges on the fear of this prophecy’s fulfillment, coupled with the pangs of adolescence. The brothers cannot predict the violent and devastating turn their lives will take in the years to come.

I found this book to be a slow start, but became utterly engrossed as the novel progressed. Obioma is a talented young writer, with a lot of potential for a brilliant career. I thought the allusion to Macbeth via the madman’s prediction gave the idea of fate and destiny relevance for our world. I will be interested to see where Obioma’s next novels take him.

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#CBR7 Review #142: Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (Updated) by Ken Robinson

Several of the creativity-oriented books I’ve been reading have cited the work of Sir Ken Robinson, a prominent educator and public speaker. There are even mentions of his TED Talk being the most popular on the website. So I figured that it would be beneficial to read his book and gain more insight in developing my pedagogy. My teaching statement last year focused on vulnerability, and while I very much do believe in a professional sort of vulnerability, I believe that thinking about my work in terms of innovation and creativity may be more accurate. So Out of Our Minds went on my list.

Robinson focuses on the state of education, the history of creativity and innovation, and examples or models of creativity in use in our society. He deplores the standards-driven and streamlined models that exist in American public schools, especially considering No Child Left Behind. He breaks down creativity and change in three phases, which I found to be the most helpful: imagination (the idea where you first begin to dream or envision something that doesn’t exist); creativity (the work of changing your paradigm to something that can exist); and innovation (the work of creating and implementing your vision).

I was excited about this book, but I was somewhat disappointed in what I ended up reading. Yes, contemporary education in America is not perfect. Yes, we need to change things. So, how do we do it? Where do we start? How does an ordinary teacher with no administrative power to change state standards and curriculum be creative in his or her classroom? These are the practical questions I found myself wishing had been answered. We can pile on the woeful state of education all we want, but until you give someone the tools to make small, attainable changes that snowball into larger structural changes, you don’t end up changing anything. You just write a theory of creativity, and I feel ultimately that’s what this book is: a nice theory of creativity with no real way to implement it at the classroom level. And that’s just too bad.

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