Monday, October 17, 2016

The 39 Clues Roundup

Dan and Amy are on a world-wide adventure, searching for clues to some mysterious prize while trying to outrun and outsmart older and richer members of their extended family.

Much suspended disbelief must be employed, but it's a good premise for learning facts about famous people and places in history.

The Sword Thief (The 39 Clues #3) by Peter Lerangis


Another book, another author! Despite the multiple authors, the style seems mostly consistent. If anything, maybe both Dan and Amy's personalities came out a bit more in this installment.

It's mostly more of the same, only this time in Asia. There're hidden underground tunnels, alliances, and betrayals. I still find it distracting that you just have to accept that other people have uncovered other clues in ways that are never explained. Like how did the Kabras get that antique coin? And I'm a little bothered by how Amy and Dan keep leaving important items in random places while trying to outrun someone in pursuit. It just seems like such a huge risk; I can't believe that they manage to get their stuff back, again. But I guess suspended disbelief is a pre-requisite for this series already, given the whole premise of two minors competing in a world-wide challenge to find a mystery prize of unlimited power!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

One False Note (The 39 Clues #2) by Gordon Korman


The world-wide search continues!

Where the first book had Amy and Dan Cahill learning about Ben Franklin in Paris, this book has them learning about Mozart in Vienna, Salzburg, and Venice. The brother and sister pair travelling to different places and learning about important historical figures reminds me of the Magic Tree House series, but of course this series is written for an older audience.

I'm enjoying the chase for clues, but I have to get used to only having Amy and Dan's perspective. The first book of the series made a point to mention that there are multiple paths that lead to the actual clues that need to be found. So we follow Amy and Dan, but along the way, they keep getting intercepted by other Cahills. Since we don't know how other Cahills are figuring things out, I keep wondering about things like: How did Jonah Wizard know to go to Vienna? How did Alistair Oh get the paper that he hid in his cane? I guess none of those things are really important, you just have to accept them.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance


I am a staunch advocate for common sense gun control, but even I have to admit that in the first chapter, the author manages to describe a situation that could arguably be a case in which a 12-year-old child might be justified in using a gun. The shockingly eye-opening account went on to tell how that same 12-year-old girl got pregnant at 13 and married at 14 (her husband was 17). This girl eventually becomes the imposing matriarch of the Vance family - Mamaw - whose life and spirit were central to the book's themes.

I found Hillbilly Elegy to be compelling and informative. It provides ample context for discussion of race, poverty, socio-economics, education, and politics - especially in light of the 2016 presidential election. Still, this book is first and foremost a memoir. It's one man's family history, told in a conversational narrative voice. It's approachable and easy to read, though I sometimes got tripped up by some of the author's turns of phrases. From time to time, there are brief academic discourses, with references to sources and studies, but social commentary and analysis are not focal points of this book.

As a memoir, I might have given the book 4 stars. However, I think my enjoyment of the book was affected by my own misplaced expectations. I know that's probably not fair, but it was part of my reading experience, so I'll explain.

The reason I picked up this book is because I read some fascinating interviews with the author (including this one). These articles discussed two main ideas that struck me: 1) how poor, uneducated, working class white people (like hillbillies) make up the base of Trump supporters, and 2) the importance of "individual agency," i.e., the idea that whether or not you think the government is doing too much or too little to help the poor, poor people themselves still need to take responsibility for their own life decisions.

Reading this book, I was hoping to have a revelation to help me understand why Trump has garnered so much support, but I don't feel I got that. The book does not mention Trump at all, which, I realized while reading the book, is understandable since it was probably written before Trump burst onto the national political scene. The book does briefly discuss how white conservatives distrust Obama, actually doubting his citizenship and faith, but the author only acknowledges that some people think racism is a factor, and then quickly moves on to other possible explanations.

As for "individual agency" - the concept is exemplified in many anecdotes throughout the book, but the idea wasn't fleshed out in a comprehensive way like I had hoped.

The interview linked above also mentioned the idea that hillbillies, i.e., poor "white trash", are the only group of people that Americans are unashamed to look down upon. It would be unacceptably racist to openly disparage poor blacks, but somehow, thinking less of poor whites is okay. This book had a lot of potential for in-depth discussions of race, but it largely avoided the topic. In fact, the author's wife has an Indian-sounding name - Usha - but her ethnicity is not revealed in the book. Not knowing for sure, but assuming she was Indian, I found myself wondering how the author's family, given their deep white roots, might have reacted to Usha's non-whiteness, or how the author might have felt marrying into a non-white family. (Being in a mixed-race marriage myself, my experience is that race is not a non-issue.)

One completely random but interesting side note. The author credits his Yale professor Amy Chua - of Tiger Mom fame! - for giving him good advice and encouraging him to write this book. Just seemed like a small world type connection - perhaps an example of the kind of elite networking the author describes in the book!