Category Archives: Reading

Massive Fail

I clearly remember reading Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine. The basic story is that Danny really doesn’t want to do his homework. He and his mom live with Professor Bullfinch who is building a computer for NASA. As I recall after the Professor explains the machine to Danny, he gets together with his friends Joe and Irene and they decide to use the computer to do their homework. Do I remember all the ins and outs of the story? No. I remember that once it was found out, Danny and his friends were in trouble. There were consequences. However, I clearly remember the Professor suggesting that actually there was no harm, no foul. Why? Because in order to program the computer to do their homework, Danny et al had to learn the material and then figure out how to input and make it come out right. The lesson that I took away was that there was NO easy WAY to get around doing homework. Like it or not. Do well at it or not. It was a necessary evil of the education system and someday I would see a benefit.

The story was written in the late 50’s, I was twelve. I think I got it from the Scholastic Book Fair as it came through Villa Cabrini. I still have a number of the books I got. I was more a library person, because I went through books so quickly and I am not a re-reader. EVER.

Fast forward to today. Digital libraries allow me to read whatever whenever. I love it. Trawling through the NC Digital Library I came across Dan Gutman’s The Homework Machine  and I thought wow, how cool. But how would it be different? Because today computers are big and small and ubiquitous. And children, from my two year old grands on up, find nothing strange in pictures on a small 2 inch by four inch screen, and smile automatically when a phone is held up near their face. We Google everything when we are at a loss. We don’t use calculators. We do research in bytes. Yep, it’s different.

The story is written as an after-the-fact testimony of events leading up to the discovery of the ‘creation’, really programing and use of the homework machine in completing the homework assignment of four kids. Benton has programmed his computer to scan homework assignments [this is fifth grade] and then print the answers in a simulation of his own handwriting. Ergo, he never does homework, this allows him to work on projects more suited to his high intellect and interest. Reclusive tho he is, he does become friends with his seatmates and eventually tells them of his homework machine. Pretty soon they are all using it. They love it, they have more free time after school, they are getting good grades, they are and aren’t bonding as a group. But importantly, the adults think they are doing just fine and no one seems to question this about face for two of the most challenged students in this group of four, Sam and Kelsey.

Now all the time I’m reading this I’m trying to figure out what gives here, where does this story go?  The teacher is a new teacher, all unicorns and rainbows about how wonderful the students are, how great it is that her desire to have Benton have friends is actually working. How the whole class stands behind Sam when his Dad dies in the middle east. And even though there is some mention of her talking to the more seasoned teachers, when she follows the advice she is clumsy about following through.  SPOILER ALERT. In the end the kids get caught but at the end of the year! So this is a long, long time, the entire fifth grade.  The parents take some of the blame [we were happy Benton had friends]. The teacher takes some of the blame [I should have recognized sooner that something different was taking place]. The kids appear to know that they were cheating [at one point Judy, when she thinks they will be caught, talks about how this may be morally wrong]. They threw the computer into the Grand Canyon [their only real punishment was that they had to go to the bottom of the canyon and pick up all the pieces.] They lied to the principal. Additionally, they were watched by a man who wanted to exploit their intelligence and their talent, well, Benton’s. They opened a door to a total stranger and let him in the house.

Here is where I think this book is a massive fail, MASSIVE. Sam and Kelsey failed a comprehensive test at the end of the year after turning in perfect homework assignments all year long. Even Judy, the second brightest, gets a C.  There are no, NO, consequences–No talk of summer school. No talk of the fact that they just blew off fifth grade. No talk about what they DON’T KNOW!!!

Unlike the book of the 1950’s, this homework machine becomes an AI [so we are led to believe] and, according to the kids, must be destroyed, hence, the tossing in the Grand Canyon. Yes, the teacher was stupid–giving a really bad name to incoming teachers–and yes, the parents gave far too much latitude to the students–even in the 50s when we were allowed more freedom than today’s kids not sure we would have been able to pull off this stuff about school-school was important. The path to success. Teachers were believed way, way, way before the kid. These are not fifth graders [dating, holding hands, ‘lovey dove’???]  and if they are, we as a country are in far more trouble than I thought.  The end?

BRENTON DAMAGATCHI, GRADE 5 I opened the door. What else could I do? The man was just standing there.

JUDY DOUGLAS, GRADE 5 Basically, the guy wanted Brenton to help him trick kids. He wanted Brenton to spread the word that certain products were cool, so his clients could make more money. I didn’t think it was very nice and I told him so.

BRENTON DAMAGATCHI, GRADE 5 I thought it over. I told the guy I’d like to go into business with him. Judy was really mad. Then I told the guy I didn’t want to sell toothpasteand I didn’t want to sell clothes or CDs or video games. He says, “Well, what do you want to sell?” I told him I don’t want to sell some product to the kids of the world. I want to sell an idea. A really good idea that I’d been working on in my head.The guy was all excited. He asks, “What’s the idea? What’s the idea?” I looked around like it was a big secret that I didn’t want anyone else to hear. Then I whispered it in his ear: “Do your homework.” The guy left. I don’t think he’ll be bothering us anymore. 
Gutman, Dan (2009-10-27). The Homework Machine Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

So the answer in the book is ‘do your homework’?  Why? What for? If you don’t, then what?  If you invent a machine and are a bit smarter than these four kids and you can figure out a way to NOT get caught, then WooHoo?  Not that I want a moral tag. I may be exaggerating, but this book gives credence to the idea that the younger generation is NOT smarter, just able to access information faster. And, there are so many things here that I, as a parent seeing my kid read this book, would want to have long discussions about. Lying. Cheating. Opening the door to strangers. Just as starters.

Sad. Could have been a cool book. A story that hard work can pay off. But no. Not here!

The Penderwicks

I’ve recently moved from a iPad for reading to a small 6″ screen Kindle. My daughter says that the backlight on the iPad is bad for settling you in to sleep at night. That may be true, but also true is the the fact that a book may be bad for settling you in to sleep at night. I have a tendency to read and forget the time. At least the iPad let me turn off the beside light.

Which brings me to the Penderwicks. Or Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks.  I was looking for a book that would not have any relevance to what I was currently writing which was narrative non fiction and middle grade mystery, looking for something that would be totally different. For night time reading I use the North Carolinas Digital Library. I like it because I can go on at 10 pm at night, find a book and read for an hour. And while I miss the physically holding and hoarding of books on my shelves, truth is I would be going to the library on a regular basis were it not for the digital library and, Sigh, they are usually not open at ten at night.

the-penderwicksSo, back to the Penderwicks. the-penderwicksThere are four books that start with the family as they go off on vacation. There are four sisters between age eleven and baby. These are nice kids, obedient, loving, careful of each other’s feeling when they remember, which is most often. The feel of the stories harken back to a time when play was mostly out of doors, families ate dinner together, and respect for adults-father, teachers, neighbors–was a good thing and always present. While the setting seems contemporary the story also feels like it’s historical, a long time ago.

And once you are hooked on the lives of the family and their neighbors you continue to read in the series because you have come to care about their relationships, their problems and how they manage their solutions. What I love about the stories is the way Ms. Birdsall was able to give us completely distinctive children, with different voices, likes, dislikes, and talents. I was enchanted with books one and two. By book three the oldest of the siblings was off on her own vacation, leaving it to the remaining three to carry the story. By book four, it was primarily the youngest who, along with a step brother, takes you to the end of the saga.

It was grand that Ms. Birdsall gave us closure to the family story, although, I think it came at a price I was not willing as a reader to pay. I personally prefer stories to end at a good place, not necessarily the end of the story.  I get that JK Rowlings ending Harry so there couldharry be no more stories, but Wait! there is. Now I have not yet read this, but there was a promise at the end of book seven that this was it. We knew Harry married Ginny [about which there is a ton of commentary] and they had children and  Hogwarts as a school of magic continues. Good. Then This?

Back to the Penderwicks. Rosalind is all grown up and in love with the obvious choice. Skye is still independent. Jane is working toward being an accomplished author and Batty, the youngest, is now a responsible child, no longer the baby of the family.

Hmmm….I get that it’s the author’s right to say how the story ends. Somehow, tho, as a kid, I always the the best stories were like The Giver, where the author led us to the end of the story and let our own imaginations take the character where ever we wanted. Lovely as The Penderwicks are…I’d would have loved to imagine, rather than being told, where they would go.

The Long Series

Long Earth, Long War, Long Mars, Long Utopia. Four books. Long books.

I bought them because the name Terry Practchett was attached to the cover. I don’t really know Stephen Baxter, but I think, now that I have read these books. I might. No, I must. If for no other reason than to be happy with having spent the time on these.

‘Long’ was very apt to have in the title. And, now that I have read the ending, Philistine and shallow person that I am, I am not sure I get the point. Oh, yes, there is the land issue. The ability to get to Mars. The haves versus the have-not–well really, the steppers versus the non-steppers. The harm to earth. The ability to leave a harmed earth and move on to another more compatible earth and treat it better. The sideline issue of whether or not God knows about all the parallel earths.

Continue reading

NEVERWHERE A book report

On the jacket, at the bottom, is the AUTHOR’S PREFERRED TEXT. Underneath that is WITH A SPECIAL INTRODUCTION BY THE AUTHOR AND A NEW NEVERWHERE STORY.

We, i.e., the reading public, is informed NEVERWHERE was first published in 1992,  a breakout novel for Mr. Gaiman. In the introduction Mr. Gaiman writes this is NOT the NEVERWHERE you read before, if you read Neverwhere before. It’s not the second NEVERWHERE either. And that it started as a TV series. But in his head it was always a book. And, this version, THE AUTHOR’S PREFERRED TEXT, is sorted from bits and pieces–drafts and the original UK text–and that redundancies have been removed. This is a definitive version.

Well.

This is the story of Richard Mayhew who is an okay looking guy, of undetermined age, dating a woman he feels is a step or two up from his social level and he is damn happy to be dating her. But he’s not really. She demands, she criticizes, she improves. All of which make Richard wonder why they are dating. Not that he’s not happy. But he’s not really.

A simple act of kindness–that of helping a young woman who is bleeding on the sidewalk–turns into a look at what life is like in Neverwhere. Neverwhere is not a nine to five job. It is not a steady paycheck. It is not finding a nice girl, settling down and having children who are only going to repeat the cycle. Neverwhere is some parts magic, some parts adventure, some parts psychotic. And it is not what life looked like for Richard just before his act of kindness–it is not dull.

There is a lot of running to and fro under London. Matter of fact, Richard learns there is a London Above and a London Below. There may just be the ability to move back and forth in time, but you don’t really know that–you do think it is possible. There are memorable characters,  places where death may be imminent, angels, rat-speakers, sword fights, escapes, cults, and some truly disgusting antagonists.

Yes, I liked it. Especially when Mr. Gaiman channeled Terry Pratchett: Richard looked at the key. The key looked back. Ah, good times with Twoflower and the pearwood Luggage. For me it was reminiscent of Katherine Marsh’s THE NIGHT TOURIST, [2007] without all the Latin and the searching for his mother, the Orpheus-Eurydice Myth recast according to readers on GoodReads. Sorry, Mr. Gaiman, I read Ms. Marsh’s book first otherwise I might just say that differently.

If you’ve read other Gaiman books—Coraline, The Graveyard Book–the writing, the voice, the tone, the sentiment, the descriptions, the hovering over the dark and mysterious will be familiar. I found the ending too easy to predict. Sigh. Once, just once…well, never mind. Read it, if you like endings tied up neatly.

Access

newspapersnewspapersI read a lot. And most of my friends/acquaintances do as well.  But for me it is not just books. My mother, a lifelong reader and wordsmith, loved the newspaper. And it wasn’t just the news she read, although she did keep herself updated. She read magazines, recipes, magzinesbooks, labels, graphs, advertisements–anything and everything that used words. I read two newspapers a day plus online coverage.

Me? Yes, I love books. Although I am not a re-reader. I read it once, then I’m bored with trying to read it again. I know what happens. I don’t care to memorize lines, I think that’s too easy. And I don’t want that initial picture that forms in my brain, that first love type of picture, the one where I know–just know–what the character looks like, how he walks, talks, smiles, laughs, to go away. Not any of it.

But I don’t want a stack of books. I don’t want a huge library. I don’t want to dust it, catalog it, file and refile it. Nope, I don’t want to maintain it.stack of books Besides, somehow I feel I would be limited by the fact that all those things were in my library.  What I want is ACCESS! Yes! I want to be able to get any book now–as in RIGHT NOW–and read it. 

Oh, so yes, I would need the time to do that.  Hmmm…need to think that through a bit more.

And there it is. The problem. Slight, but not!  Damn, as if there wasn’t writingalways…It’s time. If I’m doing all that reading, when am I doing all this writing. And it is the story. Always the story. It is the story that draws me back into my own writing. So reading? Yes. Writing? double Yes.