A few books

Well, there went my plan to update once a week or so.  I do have a couple of posts in the making – one on the Anthropocene and one on my own research on using satellite imagery to monitor Arctic rivers.  In the meantime, here are some books I’ve read in the past few weeks.  No particular order:

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

If you like fantasy, fairy tales, or novels with a deeply rooted sense of place – read this book.  Agnieszka, a coltish young woman, awaits the day that her best friend, Kasia, will be taken from their home as a tribute to The Dragon.  The Dragon is no mythical beast, but a century-old sorcerer, who plucks one 17-year old girl from the valley he oversees, once every ten years.  Kasia is beautiful, self-assured, and talented.  Yet, Agnieszka is the one who is taken.  In doing so, she is drawn into a world of magic, intrigue and an ongoing battle against the malevolent Wood. 

Uprooted came out on the day that I flew back from New England to Texas last month.  I was spending the night in the airport, and rather than trying to sleep, I devoured this book.  Novik drew inspiration from Polish folktales, and that translates into a wonderfully atmospheric setting for her story.  The Wood feels like an archetype of an evil forest.  Plus, I found Anzieszka to be a very relatable character whose choices and actions actually made sense.  Not always the case in genre fiction!  Her friendships with Kasia, the Dragon and other characters evolve and motivate her in believable ways.  Suffice to say, I loved this book.  Novik already earned a spot on my comfort-reading shelf with her series of dragons in the Napoleonic War, but this is even better .

Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele

A few weeks ago, as part of a workshop, the National Academies hosted a webinar and panel discussion featuring Claude Steele.  He spoke about stereotype threat and implicit biases, and how we might be able to combat those obstacles.  About halfway through his talk, I bought his book (oh, ebooks, how I love thee).

People experience stereotype threat when they fear being at risk of fulfilling a negative stereotype about a group they identify with.  High school girls (and younger) do poorly on math exams compared to boys, in part, because they have added anxiety from this stereotype threat.  That anxiety – the actual, physical and mental symptoms of it – prevent them from performing their best.  The same holds true for other groups – white men in athletics and black students taking academic exams are cited frequently in Whistling Vivaldi.  Steele steps through how this theory was developed, what the effects are and how it is possible to lessen  stereotype threat.  As someone who might be teaching students in the relatively near future, I found this book particularly interesting.  There are strategies here that could make any classroom more welcoming and effective – not just for a few privileged students already likely to succeed, but for all. Underrepresented groups in STEM face other hurdles, of course.  But stereotype threat is an important topic for any educator to understand.

Missoula: Rape and Justice in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

I started this a few weeks ago, and set it aside.  This weekend, I read the remaining 90% in one go.  I won’t lie – it is an upsetting read.  I had to pause every few pages (to alternately yell at the book or drink a bit more beer as fortification).  However, Jon Krakauer writes a gripping story, sympathetic to the people involved and backed by extensive research into the psychology and statistics of rapists and their victims.  Missoula may have grabbed headlines as a place of inordinate sexual violence, the “rape capitol”, but really it represents a standard college town in America.  Brace yourself, and read Missoula.

Robin McKinley

I needed a palette cleanser after Missoula, so I’ve been reading some old favorites by Robin McKinley.  Most of her books are standalones, but set in a very loosely related world – many are retold fairy tales.  Rose Daughter retells Beauty and the Beast, my favorite fairy tale.  I told a friend this recently, and she looked at my bookshelves, at my stack of books on the coffee table, and my necklace (a book made out of handmade paper and reclaimed leather), and said something to the effect of, “Is it because you relate to Disney’s Belle?”  She’s probably right.  Anyway, Rose Daughter also features gardening, and the best use of unicorns in any fantasy novel, ever.  Other favorites by Robin McKinley include Sunshine (best vampire urban fantasy with a baker as a protagonist); Spindle’s End (with fairy godmothers far less foolish than the Disney version); The Hero and the Crown (should be given to every 11 year old on their birthday). 

I’ve read other books the past few weeks, but these are the highlights (with one exception, that will be a longer post if I can get around to it).