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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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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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Review: Soul Witness

51lsnw9ki8l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Recap: It’s Black Friday in New York City and another terrorist attack has killed and hurt many. Then the State Capitol of Pennsylvania blows up. Many, many more are killed and hurt. Then a Russian plane headed for New York crashes in northern New Jersey. The number of terrorist attacks has increased. More people are dying and authorities still have no answers. Investigations are started, but seemingly never finished. No terrorists are charged or tried.

But then one of the investigators makes an astonishing discovery. Photos from each of these attacks, as well as the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City and the London bombings from 2007, have one thing in common: the same man’s face. They each show the same man looking as smoke, fire, and chaos ensues. He is never caught in the act with a gun, bomb, or other weapon. He never appears malicious. He just appears to be staring, watching it all happen. Finally at the most recent attack, he is taken into custody, but he will not speak. Authorities don’t even have a way of identifying him.

Ultimately the case moves to trial. Lawyers are determined to crucify the man, assuming that he had something to do with each and every one of the biggest terror attacks in recent history. But even his defense attorneys are unsure what will happen when he demands to take the stand. Who is this man? And how will all this play out?

Analysis: Though Soul Witness was published several years ago now, its story carries through in relevance and relatability since terrorism in real life, just as in the novel, only seems to get more severe and heartbreaking as time goes on. Whether it’s a terror attack or a person who unleashes in a public space in a mass shooting, we, as Americans, are all too familiar with these stories. While the Black Friday attack, Pennsylvania State Capitol attack and plane crash are all fictional plot points in Witness, they feel all too real. Foreshadowing makes it clear this creepy man is not necessarily going to give lawyers and investigators what they want, but author Bill Costopolous does a great job of building suspense as we, like the characters in the book, also wonder how this will all play out.

As a reporter who lives and works in Pennsylvania’s Capital City of Harrisburg, I also couldn’t help but be entertained by the local references woven throughout the novel. (The trial takes place in Harrisburg, PA a few blocks away from the Capitol building.) With his law background, Costopolous is the perfect writer for a story like this — making the case and trial all too believable.

MVP: The No Named Man. His testimony is unexpected and absurd, and yet exactly what you’d hope for in a twisty quick read like this.

Get Soul Witness now in paperback for $19.99.

Or get it on your Kindle for just $3.99.

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Movie vs. Book: Call Me By Your Name

One of my favorite lines from the movie Love Actually” is when the red-headed boy Sam tells his father (stepfather?) that he’s in love with a girl. His father’s response is “I’m a little relieved.” When the boy asks why, he explains he thought whatever the boy was about to tell him would be worse, to which Sam replies “Worse than the total agony of being in love?”

The total agony of being in love is the premise of Call Me By Your Name, which tells the story of a 17-year-old boy who falls in love with another man — a student his father has taken in for research help for their summer abroad in Italy. Enter Oliver, a stunning, charming man who seems so sure of himself, but whom young Elio can’t read. All he knows is he is attracted to Oliver — desperately, hopelessly attracted. Here comes Agony Part One. Over the course of their weeks together, both Elio and Oliver have relationships with girls, but they ultimately keep finding themselves more interested in each other. One night together results in a completely new breathtaking, sensual, deeply loving relationship — one which will knowingly end at the of the summer but affect them forever. (Agony Part Two.)

Typically when I write my movie vs. book reviews, I’ve read the book in preparation for the movie, then see the movie and compare. But in this case, I saw the movie first and fell so madly in love with it, I needed more. So I read the book, which I also fell madly in love with and watched the movie again.

The story resonated with me so deeply, reminding me of my first relationships and flings that, similarly to Elio and Oliver, have had a lasting impact on me. Man man, woman woman, man woman — all that is really irrelevant here. What’s understandable for everyone is the experience, exploration, and desire.

The novel Call Me By Your Name received so many literary awards when it was published in 2007, and it is truly beautifully written with sections full of lovestruck anxiety that wreak of teenager as well as insightful sections about love and life. It is refreshing then, that James Ivory who adapted the screenplay for the movie, kept so much of the book true to the movie down to the dialogue. If the writing is beautiful, why change it? Thankfully Ivory saw, understood and respected that. Thankfully actor Timothee Chalamet (who plays Elio), Armie Hammer (who plays Oliver) and Michael Stuhlbarg (who plays Elio’s father) also do a beautiful job of translating exact lines from the novel into moving action on screen.

That said, there are a few major changes. The movie eliminates one character altogether — a little girl who lived next door to Elio in the book and becomes good friends with Oliver over the summer. She plays a part in getting the two of them together in the behind-their-backs conversations she has with each of them. In the movie, her scenes of dialogue are instead just given to Elio’s mother. The book is also set entirely in memory; it’s from Elio’s point of view and told 20 years after his summer with Oliver. He then writes about several other times he’s met with and seen Oliver in the 20 years since that summer. Instead the movie ends with a phone call six months after the summer (leaving open the option to a possible Call Me By Your Name sequel, which has been widely discussed by the director and actors). The movie also cuts a big party scene from the end of the summer when Elio and Oliver go away together for a few days, an opportunity to show Elio getting excited for his future.

The famous peach scene (which I won’t get into here — but it is full of exquisite metaphor) is possibly more graphic in the novel. And really, everything is a little more graphic in the novel — from Elio and Oliver’s explicit sex scenes and language to Elio’s painstaking agony (See? There’s that word again…) over Oliver.

But overall, it is a beautiful adaptation. I could re-watch and re-read Call Me By Your Name over and over again, if for no other reason than to remember how great love is and how it leaves you no choice but to remember everything.

Get Call Me By Your Name in paperback now for $9.69.

Or on your Kindle for $9.99.

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