Author Archives: Lara Bryn

Review: The Last Dropout

last dropoutRecap: Whatever you think the national dropout rate for high school is, it’s probably worse. Whatever you’ve read the national dropout rate for high school is, it’s likely worse. The truth is we don’t have very accurate data on it since most high schools try to highlight the more positive statistics and shuffle the bad stats underneath. Some schools don’t even include ninth grade dropouts in their numbers, even though ninth grade is clearly part of high school.

This undeniable crisis is highlighted in The Last Dropout. The book focuses on the national nonprofit organization Communities in Schools (CIS), which was developed to help school-aged children and ensure they don’t drop out of school. CIS primarily works in urban areas where dropout rates are typically worse and resources typically less available. Rather than acting as a resource in and of itself, CIS acts as an intermediary party that connects school districts with outside resources that could benefit students. For instance, it connects school with local doctors and dentists to ensure students are getting proper healthcare and dental care; that would allow them to better focus on schoolwork because they wouldn’t have to stress about their health. It also connects students with organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters to ensure students have mentors who can guide them if they don’t receive that attention at home.

The Last Dropout documents the history of CIS, how it works and its successes.

Analysis: I received this book from a viewer (I’m a local TV anchor) a while ago and never read it. I was never sure why they felt compelled to send it to me, and there was no note included in the package. I let it sit on my shelf for a long time, thinking I’ll get to it eventually because it seems interesting. But by the time I finally picked it up, I thought I’d just have to power through this.

I was wrong! The book hooked me from the beginning with anecdotes about the children who have been helped by the CIS mission. The book is written by one of the co-founders of CIS, who is so passionate about the mission, it reels you in. The story of how he developed the nonprofit is fascinating. Latter sections of the book were a little meatier. Parts of it lost me with lots of education jargon, and the author’s sometimes repetitive explanation of CIS’s mission. But of course, he’s proud of his work and the organization, and based on what I’ve learned from the book, I can’t blame him.

The book is now 10 years old, and I’d love to know how CIS has grown over the years and how many more children have succeeded because of it. The Last Dropout opened my eyes to a systemic problem I was never really aware of before, and I’ve already recommended it to some of my teacher friends.

Get The Last Dropout in paperback now for $8.35. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $1.99.

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Review: Ann M. Martin: The Story of the Author of the Baby-Sitters Club

IMG_3463Recap: Ann M. Martin is the brilliant creator and writer of The Baby-Sitters Club series that I binged ferociously throughout elementary school. I wanted friends like the girls in the club, and I wanted a side job like they had so I could make money to shop at Claire’s. Ann M. Martin was J.K. Rowling before J.K. Rowling. She was a badass woman who created an entire world of people and problems to which every kid could relate. Finally learning a little more about her as a person was exciting and interesting.

The book is a true biography of her life and climb to the top as a children’s author. It includes details of her family, her childhood, the fall that caused her to deal with lifelong pain and illness and how she started writing professionally. When you read her biography, it becomes clear why she wrote about what she wrote about. She always loved children, writing and babysitting. For most of her young life, she thought she would be a teacher, but things ultimately changed direction as they so often do.

It was also interesting, maybe not so surprising, and a little disappointing to learn that once the series became so popular, she wasn’t necessarily the author writing all The Baby-Sitters Club books.

Analysis: A little backstory on this: I received this book in the mail as a response to a fan letter I wrote to Ann M. Martin probably when I was about eight years old. Clearly, author meant for me to read it then, but I didn’t and it fell into the abyss of my childhood bedroom. I rediscovered the book several years ago when my family moved out of that house, so I finally decided to read it.

It was extremely thoroughly and painted a beautiful, wholesome picture of the woman who will always remain wholesome in my pain.

That said, I wish I’d read it when I was eight. Though her story was interesting, it was clearly written for kids. The writing is extremely basic, especially when compared to some of the other adult memoirs and biographies out there. (I mean hell, I read Ron Chernow’s Hamilton a few years ago.) But it is the perfect biography for children who probably love Ann M. Martin as much as they love her books.

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Movie vs. Book: Ready Player One

readyplayerone

 

 

Contributed by Harrison Cole

The year is 2045. Due to climate change, misuse of resources, and an ineffective government, the Earth has become an energy-deficient wasteland. The only respite from this decaying world is the OASIS, an online virtual universe. It originally started as a game, but it’s grown to be much more—the OASIS is where you read the news, watch TV, conduct business, attend school, and hang out with friends. After the creator of the OASIS died, he left his entire fortune and controlling stake in the simulation up for grabs with a contest: the first avatar to find his “Easter Egg” hidden in the OASIS wins it all.

The novel is a gripping story that follows high school senior Wade Watts on his quest to find the Egg. I was obsessed from page one and have been preaching the gospel on this one ever since. It’s an easy read that’s got something for almost everyone: it’s fast-paced, full of 80s pop culture references—many of which I wasn’t familiar with before (how great is DEVO?!)—it has a cringe-worthy teen romance, and best of all, it transports you into the vast, exciting digital world of the OASIS with its endless possibilities. Check out Lara’s book review for more. Read the book. READ IT.

The movie is terrible. Spielberg and co. changed quite a bit from the book, but I actually didn’t mind that. I did mind the internal inconsistencies, the references to the book without any context, and the lack of meaningful interaction or development between characters. If you’ll forgive me a minor spoiler, I’ll give you an example of the movie’s sloppiness: at one point there was a reference to “clearing the first gate.” This is a concept unique to the book, and it felt like that line was an artifact from an earlier draft of the script. Also, the movie never explained the reason for the title: when a user logs in, before gaining access to the simulation, the text “READY PLAYER ONE” flashes in front of her. I thought that was an odd omission from the movie since there’s a point-of-view shot when Wade first dons his goggles. I’ve got plenty more but the rest would ruin it for sure, and just because I hated it, that doesn’t mean you will too. But you probably will.

The movie did have some redeeming qualities: the effects were well done, TJ Miller was hilarious, and there were tons of enjoyable pop culture references. Despite only including one song that was referenced in the book, the soundtrack definitely captured the feel of the story. I also dug the scenes depicting what people look like in real life while engaged in the simulation. Funny stuff.

But it wasn’t enough to redeem the movie. Bottom line: wait for streaming. Or better yet, wait until someone develops an OASIS-like simulation and watch it there.

Get Ready Player One in paperback for $8.79.

Or on your Kindle for $9.99.

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Review: Cujo

cujo.jpgRecap: It’s been five years since a serial killer was on the loose in a small town in Maine, but that doesn’t mean the serial killings are over.  When a massive St. Bernard chases a small animal and becomes rabid, no one is safe. The problem is no one knows the pain he’s feeling. No one know he’s sick. So his owner, Joe, lets him roam around the property. Joe’s son and wife, Brett and Charity, leave town to visit her sister. By the time Donna and her four-year-old son, Tad, go to Joe’s house to have her car repaired, Cujo has already killed several people including Joe.

Donna notices he’s rabid right away; by this point, he’s become more sick and his red eyes and foaming mouth prove as much to her.  She has no choice but to stay in her car with her son but the car is in such disrepair, it won’t start. The July heat doesn’t allow them the fresh air they need, and they have no access to food or water other than what they’ve packed. Because it’s 1980, Donna has no cell phone and no way to get help.

As she waits for a postman to come, for the police to come, anything, her husband Vic is away on business, trying to save his company and contemplating how to save his marriage after he learns Donna had cheated on him. Ultimately, no matter how much he wants to, Vic can’t quit Donna and when his calls go unanswered, he calls for help only to find the devastation Cujo has left behind.

Analysis: For my first Stephen King novel (I know, I know, it’s crazy), this was phenomenal. I was more than pleasantly surprised by the character depth and development he offered throughout the novel. It’s much more than just a “horror novel,” which is what I was expecting. Cujo is a monster, but he’s a completely plausible monster and King interestingly takes us inside the rabid dog’s mind as well as Donna’s heat delirious mind, and Vic’s marriage obsessed head as well as many others.

This level of character depth and plot thickening allows for a slow build until Donna and Cujo are left no choice but to face off. For days as I read the last pages of the book, I found myself repeatedly muttering “Please don’t let Donna die.” King made me care. It’s the stuff real horror novels are made of.

MVP: Vic. While Donna’s a badass, it takes her a while to get there. Vic instinctively and instantly knows something is wrong and uses his intelligence and logic to break open what’s going on and attempt to make a rescue.

Get Cujo in paper for $14.56.

Or get it on your Kindle for $10.99.

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Review: Emma

IMG_3381Recap: In this classic British romance novel, Emma is one of the most popular and well-liked bachelorettes in her community, but no matter how hard she tries, she is completely oblivious to the true wants and needs of the people around her. If you’ve seen the movie Clueless, it may or may not surprise you to know it’s loosely based on this Jane Austen novel from 1815. Emma is the “Cher” character — or rather, “Cher” is the Emma character — focused so much on matchmaking her friends that she misreads signals for her own opportunities at love — or misses them altogether. In the first half of the novel, she is intent on fixing up her new and lower class friend Harriet (“Tai” in Clueless if you’re still following along with the comparison) with her friend Mr. Elton. But every signal that she believes proves Mr. Elton likes Harriet is a sign he actually loves Emma. The result? Both Mr. Elton and Harriet are crushed.

This ripple effect continues throughout the novel as she encourages Harriet to refuse a proposal from a lower-class man, finds herself with feelings for a man who’s secretly already engaged to another woman in town and then tries to set Harriet up with a man who she ultimately realizes she, herself, actually has feelings for.

The gist: Emma is a hot mess. Movie producer Amy Heckerling had it right; she really is clueless. But it’s hard not to root for her anyhow. She is not the greatest friend, but she does try, and as a 21-year-old, can we really blame her for misreading signals from men? Weren’t we all doing that at that age?

Analysis: The truth is I bought this book at a used book sale years ago and never read it because it’s roughly 450 pages and 200-year-old British literature. Very intimidating. But once I started it, I found that it was incredibly easy to follow — much easier than some other classic literature I’ve read. Essentially, it’s a teenage rom com set in 1800’s Britain! It’s quite funny. I particularly enjoyed the Miss Bates character who can’t seem to stop talking. We all have someone like that in our lives.

Aside from the obvious romantic themes and tropes (falling for the one who’s been there all along, etc. etc.), Emma also speaks to much larger themes that still resonate today, including social and economic status as well as gender roles. I never realized how much of Clueless thereby also deals with these themes; it clearly does, but obviously not to the level and depth of Austen’s literature. Emma herself is a strong feminist, refusing to marry for most of the novel. It is more important for her to care for her ill father than to find a man to support her. She also makes her matchmaking decisions based on status, swaying Harriet away from the “poor man” and toward the more upstanding “rich man.” (This can be interpreted negatively in that she is focusing on who can better provide for her friend or positively, in that she doesn’t care for the class system at all and sees no problem in her friend dating outside her class.)

It’s an interesting look at much how much and how little has changed in the 200+ years since Emma was first published.

MVP: Mr. Knightley. As yet another love interest in this complex romance novel and brother of Emma’s brother-in-law, he is the only one who — though bitter and defiant at times — is frank and says what he means. When it comes to Mr. Knightley, there are rarely ulterior motives. He knows what he wants from the beginning and bides his time until he gets it, but never fakes feelings like many of the other characters in this novel.

Get Emma now on your Kindle for $8.00

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Review: Option B

417t2blcp9rl-_sx292_bo1204203200_Recap: Grief is no easy thing and like addiction, it is not something people can “overcome.” It’s something that simply becomes a part of our lives forever, and we are tasked with learning to manage it. If anyone knows about grief, it’s Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg who several years ago lost her husband suddenly. He died from heart-related problems at the age of 47 while working out at the gym.

Sheryl feared not only that she would never get over his death but that her children would never be happy again.  She turned to friends, family and experts to help her work through her grief. Along the way, she became close with psychologist, author and University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant, who helped her co-write Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. As she writes in her book, “Option A (having her husband) is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.”

Speaking to Grant and other psychologists, she writes about many theories that helped me to better understand why some of us make grief harder for ourselves than others. For instance, Sandberg talks about “The Three P’s: personalization, pervasiveness and permanence. The goal is to avoid the three P’s; avoid thinking this situation is all your fault, avoid thinking this will affect every part of your life and avoid thinking you will always feel this way.

Analysis: Sandberg’s Option B works in a way that many other self-help books don’t in that she offers concrete, easy-to-employ tactics for dealing with not only grief, but any kind of loss: unemployment (loss of job), divorce (loss of marriage), etc. They’re easy to put into everyday use, like stop saying “I’m sorry,” allow yourself cry breaks, do good deeds for other people, find ways of honoring the person you’re grieving so they don’t feel forgotten and talk about them with others, including co-workers.

She does this while still offering the same theories, analysis and results of psychological studies that other self-help books might also include. But she also tells short stories about people all over the country who have gone through horrific, life-changing events and overcome them. These real-life stories work as great examples for some of the psychological theories that we may not otherwise understand because of therapist jargon. They also worked for me as examples of people who have been forced to work through situations much more severe than mine. The thought process becomes: if they can get through that, I can certainly get through this.

I’d been wanting to read this book for so long after the death of my father, and while I (thankfully) found I had already employed some of these tactics into my own life to help deal with my grief, I also found this book helped me to better understand grief in general and understand why I’m still having trouble working past certain aspects of my grief. As Sandberg explains, grief is not considered to be a linear process, and it’s different for everyone. I have accepted my Option B. Thank you, Sheryl, for showing me what I need to do now to kick the shit out of it.

Get Option B in hardcover for $7.83. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $13.99.

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Movie vs. Book: A Wrinkle In Time

The classic fantasy children’s novel tells the story of a young girl Meg, who is transported to another planet by three other-worldly women (Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which). The mission: to locate her father who has gone missing in a space-traveling mishap. Along for the ride are her younger “special” brother (Charles Wallace) who is brilliant and a boy from school (Calvin) who — unbeknownst to her — is interested in her, her intelligence and her friendship.

It’s an empowering female story about love, trust and taking a leap of faith. For that reason, it has been read by boys and girls everywhere since it was first published in 1962. To see it on the big screen with such a phenomenal cast as Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Storm Reid and Chris Pine was exciting to say the very least.

The movie takes the novel a step further by not only having a female lead this story, but by making her mixed race, forcing more than just a gender-oriented discussion. The character of Mrs. Who, who in the novel only speaks by quoting famous philosophers and successful people, is also updated in the movie as she quotes more modern artists, including Outkast and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Because the book is so fantastical, the movie has to hold up to it; it relies on a lot of CG in these make-believe planets. Good or bad, cheesy or not, the CG is beautiful. It’s simply a pretty movie to watch, which works considering how pretty the story is when we first read it.

But there are some major changes that really take away from the original story. In the novel, Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace are each given a piece of advice from the three Mrs. when they are forced to complete the journey on their own. Calvin is told his best talent is communication and he should use it when the moment calls for it. When the trio finds themselves in a moment where the evil spirit IT is trying to hypnotize them with monotonous chanting, Calvin gets out of the trap by shouting back at IT in phrasing that doesn’t rhyme or sound rhythmic in any way. It allows him to keep from being hypnotized, and then Meg follows suit. This section is eliminated from the movie altogether. By cutting this scene, the movie ultimately gives Calvin no real purpose. He just seems to be a character along for the ride. Without those few key moments, he’s essentially worthless.

In the book when Meg finally finds her father, he is trapped in a glass tube. Getting him out from there becomes a entirely new challenge. But in the movie, when she finds him, he’s just roaming around in a multi-colored hallway, and they are able to embrace and easily move on with the story.

As the story goes, Charles Wallace has become brainwashed by IT. Meg’s father suggests leaving the planet without Charles Wallace. The mere suggestion leaves Meg so aghast that her father would ever consider leaving his son behind. It leaves the reader aghast too. I remember thinking what a horrible father! But then Meg, Calvin and Meg’s father “tesser” — or transport — to another planet. Meg becomes really sick. She’s comforted and nursed back to health by a mysterious, mystical creature who she names Aunt Beast. During this time, she and her father resolve their issues and the Mrs. come back and tell Meg that she must be the one to  save Charles Wallace since she has the closest relationship with him. This ENTIRE section is removed from the movie. It is crushing to have this section cut and damages the storytelling of the movie. First of all, Aunt Beast is a beloved character. To have her eliminated is just sad. Secondly, this part of the book allows Meg — and  us, the readers — to make peace with Meg’s father over his suggestion to leave Charles Wallace behind. This resolution doesn’t really happen in the movie until the very end, at which point it feels like a rushed, forced afterthought.

It’s no surprise to me that the movie version of A Wrinkle in Time has gotten bad reviews, and that the movie will likely bomb at the box office. Personally, I thought there was some great acting and a few key moments filled with emotion. I also still think it’s an important movie for right now — seeing a biracial female lead us on this journey. But it doesn’t finish with the full scope of emotion, positivity, strength, empowerment, fantasy and storytelling that the book is known for.

Get A Wrinkle in Time in paperback for $5.65. 

Or on your Kindle for $6.99.

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