Saturday, September 19, 2015

Review Round-up

As you might have guessed from the lack of posts recently, I ended up getting that teaching job! I've been back for two weeks now and it's been exhausting, but I think it's going pretty well. I am still planning to write more about this soon but I wanted to get some reviews that I've been sitting on out of the way. All three of these books come from my Tried and True list, so I've been making progress on that. It's ground to a halt now that I'm working again but at least I got to squeeze in a few good reads while I could!

The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell (audiobook)
This was a surprisingly quick "read" and like Gladwell's other books, had a lot of interesting information. The premise here is twofold: 1) change is often quite gradual until a tipping point is reached and then there's a rapid shift, and 2) things that tend to go viral (or "create epidemics", as Gladwell called it over a decade ago, before the concept of "viral" became a thing) all tend to follow similar patterns in the way that they spread. Gladwell outlines the factors involved in something being "sticky" enough to become an epidemic. Some of the things discussed are common sense but a few things stood out for me. The research that went into the creation and success of Sesame Street, for example, was really interesting, especially since my daughter is just starting to discover Elmo and friends right now. 

Every time I listen to an audiobook, I comment on the author reading it. Gladwell reads this one, too, and for the first time, I think it may have been better if he didn't. His voice was so soft and soothing that it was hard to stay engaged sometimes. He could almost lull you to sleep. 

The Imaginary Girlfriend, John Irving
I bought this short memoir of Irving's at used book store several years ago, intrigued by the idea that a man who constantly insists that people stop looking for an author's life in his novels would have written a memoir. It turns out, he doesn't give us much to work with. If you're interested in his wrestling career, there is lots of high school and college wrestling minutiae. I would have been much more interested in his family life and writing career. There were a couple of surprises: Irving is dyslexic and actually hates the city of Vienna. The Vienna bit surprised me considering how much a part of his novels Vienna tends to be, and not usually in a negative way. It's worth the read for the sake of completeness if you are an Irving fan but you're not missing much otherwise.

And The Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini (ebook)
Oh, how I loved this book! It's been over a week since I finished and I'm still thinking about it. 

If you are familiar with Hosseini's previous novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, you probably already know that this, too, will break your heart. That's what Hosseini does. He pulls at your heart strings until they snap, but he does it so well. And The Mountains Echoed was much more subtle and less devastating than The Kite Runner, and not at all emotionally manipulative like I found A Thousand Splendid Suns to be. There is no gratuitous tragedy here, just the simple, beautiful heartbreak of people living their lives and making difficult choices that have lasting consequences across generations. I loved the story, I loved the characters, and I loved the way the story was told through the different viewpoints and formats. This is easily my favourite book of the year so far.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Review: Freakonomics

Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner 
Non-fiction, Ebook

In an attempt to make some progress on my Tried and True list, I had planned to start with The Tipping Point but got sidetracked a little. As it turns out, Freakonomics references The Tipping Point a few times and I ended up listening to the audiobook immediately afterward. They tied into each other nicely.

The underlying premise of Freakonomics is that people are driven by incentives, whether they be financial, moral, or social, and that conventional wisdom often gets those incentives wrong. In other words, people are not necessarily responding to the incentives that we think they are. Each chapter explores a different issue and tries to suss out what incentives are at play and how they affect outcomes.

Levitt covers a broad rage of topics, from cheating sumo wrestlers to the link between legalized abortion and crime rates, and the ideas presented are thought-provoking. The chapter discussing the inner economic workings of a crack-dealing gang in South Chicago was my personal favourite. There were many times, however, where I wished that the topics would have been discussed in greater depth, like teachers cheating on standardized tests or hidden prejudice. I was also expecting the book to present the actual data that Levitt's conclusions were based on but it didn't. All of the studies he referenced are cited at the end so the reader can look them up, but I would have found it useful to see some of it within the book. I like my charts and graphs, what can I say? 

All in all, I did really enjoy this book despite finding it a little unsatisfying. The authors went on to create a successful blog, podcast, and several more books after this one so at some point, I would like to check those out too.

P.S. A quick back-to-work update: I had an interview on Thursday for that teaching job I was interested in and should hear back Monday or Tuesday. Fingers are crossed!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Summer Days, Drifting Away

T-minus two weeks until school starts! There are two reviews on deck in the near future (Freakonomics and The Tipping Point) but in the meantime, a few random updates:

  • A is cutting her third tooth of the summer and the fourth is not far behind. These include her lower molars. It has not been a great time.
  • Also not a great time: A has decided she hates when I change her diaper and will not lay down for me. I've tried nearly every suggestion I've come across, including introducing the potty, but nothing has worked. The alligator wrestling is getting old. 
  • Our house is currently cleaner than it's been since before I got pregnant. Yay! This is because we're dealing a fruit fly infestation. Not yay. Not yay at all.
  • The job search hasn't been going well. I seem to be limited by my lack of Masters in Education and my lack of counselling experience. It's discouraging and makes me think it's easier to just stay in teaching.
  • Speaking of which, a full-time teaching job came up for the fall semester that I think I have a reasonable shot of getting. After some initial panic, I had an epiphany of sorts and am actually really hoping to get this. I'll write more on this in the near future. 
I think that covers the main goings-on around these parts. Stay tuned for some reviews (and hopefully employment news) soon!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Preparing For The End

There's one month left to go until school starts, which means I'm counting down the days until I have to go back to work. I'd be lying if I said that thought doesn't fill me with a certain amount of panic. After 15 months at home with A, she'll be heading to day care and I'll be heading...somewhere.

What exactly I am going back to has been a question that I've been grappling with even before getting pregnant. If you've read this blog from the beginning, you've probably gathered that work hasn't exactly been my Happy Place over the last few years. I thought that a year away might help me get my motivation back but it has only increased my desire for change.

I considered my options:

1. Same old, same old. The thought of going back to substitute teaching and continuing to wait for things to get better leaves me feeling deflated and stuck. In my province, you start out as a sub and basically wait your turn for a permanent position. It's been five years with no real prospects in sight. Maternity leave felt like a "now or never" opportunity to get off of that hamster wheel and if I don't take it, I'll constantly be wondering "what if?" 

2. A completely new direction. The big downside here is that most other career directions would require going back to school. That's a big time and money commitment that I'm not ready to make at this point. I actually did have a college program picked out before A was born but as I started looking into it more seriously, I was unable to find a version that could be done totally online. Right now, that's a deal breaker. Also a deal breaker was how much sales would be a part of the job (the program was in the financial services sector).  

3. Half in, half out. This is the current plan. I'll be going back to teaching in the fall and actively looking for something else. If I do find something, I'll take a leave of absence from teaching to see where things go. I am cautiously optimistic; while there isn't anything right now, I did come across a few interesting opportunities earlier in the year that would have been doable. That gives me hope that something will come along, I just have to keep watching and waiting.

That probably doesn't sound like much progress but it feels good to have a plan and feel like I'm doing something to make a change instead of just complaining about how much the status quo sucks. I've already updated my teaching resume and have applied for a couple of contracts, since a full-time paycheque would be good if I could get it. The non-teaching resume is a work in progress. 

What doesn't feel as good is knowing that I won't get to spend my days with A anymore. Realistically, this change will be good for both of us. She will make new friends and have tons of new experiences, and I will have some adult time again. Sometimes I get excited by the thought of having total freedom once she's in day care and I have days off. I can get stuff done around the house! I can enjoy some quiet! Then I feel guilty and worry about who will comfort her when she needs a snuggle. We found a day care that we love and I know that she will be in good hands. I know she will be ok. But it will be a big change for both of us so I'm making extra effort these days to appreciate all this time together while we still have it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review: Divergent

Divergent, Veronica Roth
Divergent series #1
Young Adult Fiction, Dystopian

Finally. FINALLY.

This was the "I don't want to put it down and you can't make me" kind of book I've been waiting for. I got the boxed set for Christmas and I'm glad the other two books are already waiting in the wings.

There has been a lot of hype over the Divergent series for the last couple of years but I fell down The Hunger Games rabbit hole instead. One of my book club friends actually described Divergent as "The Hunger Games with more rules." She wasn't too far off. There are a lot of similarities and Divergent is pretty formulaic. All the usual YA tropes are there: a teenager who has some special skills, doesn't fit in with her peers, gets separated from her family, and is the only one who can save them all. Unlike The Hunger Games, however, there is no annoying love triangle and Tris, the main character, is more relatable than Katniss. 

At first, I will admit that I was underwhelmed and thought the premise was kind of stupid. The series is set in a dystopian Chicago where everyone is separated into one of five factions according to their dominant personality trait. Tris has the dilemma of not fitting into just one faction, making her "divergent." The factions came about as a way to maintain peace but this seemed like an oversimplification of complex issues to me, and the idea that people can be classified according to just one trait seemed ridiculous. But as I kept reading, it all came together. We meet Tris just as she turns sixteen. She's had a very sheltered upbringing and her understanding of her world is pretty limited. Since the novel is told from her perspective, our understanding is limited too and it grows with her. I appreciated that.

I took a bit of a break to read Freakonomics but I'm already itching to get back to this series and find out what happens next. I love it when a book lives up to its hype and this one was a definite winner!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: What to Expect The Second Year

What to Expect The Second Year, Heidi Murkoff 

Non-fiction, reference, parenting

Sometimes it feels like my daughter went from a sweet, immobile little baby to a full blown toddler over night. Suddenly, she's throwing food on the floor, getting into every nook and cranny she can find, and mimicking us saying "nonono" as she does the exact thing we'd tell her not to do. At first, it was a little overwhelming; just when we thought we had the whole baby thing figured out, we were back in uncharted territory.

I picked up WTE The Second Year from the library looking for some comfort and guidance. It's always reassuring to know that my kid is perfectly normal and that it's all a phase. I already knew that, of course, but it always helps to see it in print! I was particularly interested in a few specific things:
  • Dental hygiene. We were already brushing before bed most nights but I wanted to get into a more consistent, twice a day routine with an upgrade from her baby brush.
  • Eating habits. Between the food throwing, the lack of interest in cow's milk, and the 20th percentile weight she's been maintaining for a looooooong time, I had some concerns.
  • Behaviour/discipline. I know how to deal with teenagers since that's my job, but I wanted some tips on setting a good foundation and managing behaviour at this age.
The book addressed all of those and much more. It was actually very reassuring to know that we are mostly doing the "right" things, we just need to keep going. As fas the behaviour aspect, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of what I already do in the classroom with teenagers applies to toddlers as well, just heavily simplified.

It was really helpful to learn how toddlers think at this age. For instance, they have a hard time sharing because they don't understand the concept of ownership yet. The book explains how their understanding of those concepts develop and gives some strategies for helping them learn. That stuff was very interesting to me and I feel that having a better idea of where A's frustrations come from can help me manage expectations and potential tantrums a little better. In that sense, I came away from this book feeling more confident and prepared.

The WTE books seem to get a bad rap, especially the pregnancy one, but I have to admit that I don't mind them. Their format can be obnoxious, sure, and they are written as if they are Cosmo articles in book form. But the information is good and thorough, which is the most important thing to me. That's why I keep coming back to them. WTE The Second Year is a good reference for this stage of development and worth checking out.

For more insight into toddler tantrums, I'd also recommend Dr. Harvey Karp's The Happiest Toddler On The Block. I'm not planning on a separate post for that because I didn't actually read the book. My library only had the dvd so I watched that instead. It was also very helpful. We don't really do the caveman thing with A, which is the main "gimmick" of this book/video, but there is a lot of useful information about the toddler mindset and managing tantrums. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Revisiting The Tried and True

Back in my student days, I had a bit of a summer reading ritual: as soon as school was done for the summer months, I was off to the library to pick up something by John Irving or Graham Greene, two of my favourite authors. My goal was to eventually work my way through all of their books. Since then, life has gotten in the way and I am behind with a lot of my favourites so I decided it was time to do something about it. It's been a pretty mediocre year so far and I'm hoping that revisiting some of my old favourites will help turn things around.

Here's who/what I'm planning to catch up on in the coming months:

  • John Irving, though I haven't decided which book yet. He may also be publishing a new one in the fall, which I'm very excited about.
  • Graham Greene, either The Third Man or Travels With My Aunt.
  • Alice Munro, Dear Life
  • Khaled Hosseini, And The Mountains Echoed
  • Judy Blume, In The Unlikely Event. I'm so excited for this one! Here's a great interview with Blume about this novel/
  • Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point. Oddly enough, I have yet to read to his very first book.
  • Michael Ondaatje, not sure whether to go with something old or something new yet.
  • Something fun by Sophie Kinsella
  • Agatha Christie, the first book in the Miss Marple series.
That list may be a little too ambitious but we'll see how far I get. There's one favourite missing from the list because she's actually already been done this year (The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver). That's a good start, right? 

I've also been dipping into multiple series in the last little while so next time I feel like a good, long, meaty read, I might just tackle the next book in the Outlander or Song of Ice and Fire series. But first, something new: I'll be starting Divergent in the next few days. I've been looking forward to it so here's hoping it lives up to the hype!

Who are some of your favourites? What/who do you go for when you want to guarantee a good read?