Archive for the ‘Reading level’ Category

Review: Arrival/The Story Of Your Life

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

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Following are my thoughts about the movie, Arrival.

Despite my efforts, it’s possible that reading this post will spoil the movie for you. I’m not intending to, but would hate if I did …

So, maybe, watch the movie, or read the novella The Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang before you read further? Watching the film and especially reading the novella – well worth your while.

By the time I turned 10, I could distinguish between the dreams that were predictive and the ones of that are mere processing.

It’s not as if those early portents were of much consequence.

The structure of those early Knowings was part of their message.

Every one of those early dreams would begin with me in a place I’d never been in before.

First, I’d see every detail of my surroundings, as if the camera were panning around the place so I’d remember it when next I saw it. It was as if the Universe were announcing, “Stay turned for the following important Message.

But then what would come next would not seem to me to be an important message at all. In the dream, I’d participate in an innocuous conversation with someone, sometimes someone I already knew, sometimes not.

Sometimes, the conversation would be a disagreement, but it was not usually something I cared about very much, in the dream at least. Usually, I had very little context. These messages were not very long – maybe a minute or two of talk at most after the scene had been set.

Despite my resentment that the Universe was instructing me to store such a ridiculously uninteresting tableau, I would remember these Messages.

Then, sometime later – a day, week, month, or year later – the exact conversation that I’d dreamed would take place in my waking life in precisely the place I dreamed it would. Every word that I’d dreamed would be spoken. Every item I’d dreamed of would be on every shelf; every leaf would tremble just as it did in the dream.

Every time one of my dreams played out in my real life, I wondered, at the end of its reiteration, if I should tell the person I was talking with that I had already had the conversation we’d been having. Usually, I didn’t. Once in a while, if I were talking with someone I knew would just honor my honesty and not argue with me, I’d say something like, “You know, I dreamed this conversation a few weeks ago. I was thinking of trying to deliberately deviate from the script I dreamed, but felt bound to relive it as the dream instructed me to.” What would you do if you were talking with an 8-year old who told you something like this, or even a 20-year old? You’d move on to other topics, wouldn’t you?

Much later on, some of my dreams would predict real, consequential events in my life. These dreams would be less specific as to exact location and words spoken. After all the dreams, all the training, the Universe knew I was familiar with the drill.

In these later dreams, I’d dream the thing happening and Know it would happen and that I could not stop it. In these cases, when I’d startle awake from the dream, I’d usually tell the person I was with what I’d dreamed would happen. And we would agree, because we were grown-ups, that I could not renege on my commitment on the basis of the dream.

So, for example, on the morning I awoke to lightning flashing after a dream in which I was a passenger in a car that crashed on a wet, windy road in Princeton Junction, NJ, I got on the train that took me to Princeton Junction (should I have canceled the trip), seated myself in the passenger seat (should I have insisted upon driving), my mother driving, and the car was hit head-on by an idiot who took a curve too wide and totaled it (should I have suggested an alternate route?).

As we sat on the side of the road, I did NOT tell me mother I had known since I’d awoken that we would not be driving in that car ever again.

Needless to say, I am not good at sleeping. But now, my Messages don’t only come in dreams. Often, I just Know things that will happen. And, as even the Greeks have told us, the world does not appreciate hearing dire predictions, and resent people who say “I told you so.”

Knowing things without any basis for Knowing them is, if anything, even worse than dreaming them. In particular, with close family and friends, I often Know what will happen (sometimes very specifically) as soon as they describe some path they are considering. It is only rarely that I tell them what I Know.

There’s a movie out now. I think it will not be in theatres for long. It’s called Arrival, and it’s based on a novella called “The Story Of Your Life” by Ted Chiang that I recognized as a Message from the Universe when I first read it in around 2002.

The first time I saw Arrival, I went alone to a free Women Who Code showing. With my foot in a cast, I walk slowly and I got into the showing 15 minutes late.

Although I enjoyed the film, I felt that if I had not read the story first, I would not have been able to understand it. But I thought that maybe this was because I’d missed the beginning.

So, last week, I dragged my husband and daughter with me to see it again, beginning to end this time.

Turned out that DH, who has a terrifying ability to grok any movie plot no matter how confused, understood every single thing about Arrival.

My daughter, who is brilliant in general and a very savvy watcher of movies, was indeed confused. Also, I misunderstood when I thought she had asked me what exactly Arrival was about, and when I told her, she was extremely miffed with me.

Given its thoughtful pace and meditative mood, my feeling is that Arrival is not going to be a blockbuster. But it’s a film that adult children ought to take their parents to. The kids are unlikely to get it; the parents will on first watch.

Then, you all, read the novella. The novella avoids a lot of the silliness of the movie and gives the complete Message.

(Based on my recent Knowings, the endings of both the movie and the story feel inappropriately optimistic, but then Chiang was writing just after 9/11 and before the Iraq Invasion, when the world was a very different place.)

In this very cool piece, a linguist reality-checks the process Amy Adams’ character used to learn the alien’s language.

Book review: Song of the Lark

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

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Author:Willa Cather
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:Fiction
Year of publication:1915

I am always blown away when a novel that is nearly 100 years old speaks to me as compellingly as Song of the Lark did. The story of Thea Kronborg, one of many children in a family

Recommended.

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Book review: The Monkey Bible

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

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Author:Mark Laxer
Reading Level (Conceptual):For grown-ups
Reading Level (Vocabulary):For grown-ups
Genre:science fiction
Year of publication:2010

I am frankly very disappointed in this book. It had so much potential, and I really enjoyed the first maybe two-thirds of it. Up to that point, Laxer posed questions that I personally thought were fascinating: What is the relationship between humans and the "non-human" world? Do we have any right to separate them at all [I don't think we do]? What does religion mean? How does the mental process of religion relate to the physical world? I was also impressed that there were no direct answers to these questions, because the answers are different for any individual... And Laxer effectively communicated that flexibility with a mix of narrators who all found different answers for themselves.

BUT. After a couple of hundred pages, the answers started being drilled into me, which I didn't appreciate, because all of a sudden the open-ness I had felt disappeared. I was also unhappy that the story took a lot of turns towards the impractical, so that by the end I didn't believe in the world presented to me anymore. All in all, The Monkey Bible represents a great idea, started off very well, but ended all-too-mush-ily for me.


I forgot to mention the "Companion Music CD" included with the book. I haven't been able to force myself to actually listen to it, because the lyrics are written out of the back of the book, and my reaction to them perfectly matches my feeling that they tried too hard: to "get a message across," to be super new-agey, to "enlighten" the audience in a way I didn't want to be enlightened. I think the book would have been able to speak for itself.

-- Fizzy

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Book review: Going Postal

Monday, March 21st, 2011

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Author:Terry Pratchett
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2004

This book is super satirical, funny, and enjoyable. The main character is an ex-thief who ends up working in the government as the Postmaster.

I just love how Pratchett mercilessly mocks how stupid and horrible people can be, and still makes this into a great book, and is able to slip in some big moral problems.

Very enjoyable if you love highly satirical, sarcastic, and just plain WEIRD.

-- Fizzy


In this particular visit to Pratchett's confusing city of Ankh-Morpork, we meet Moist von Lipwig. Moist, once a petty criminal, has been hand-picked by Lord Vetinari to be head of the city's postal service. Hilarity ensues.
As with most of Pratchett's novels, it's not the plot that counts. For example, here just in passing, is how Pratchett builds us a time-machine. It is slightly rickety, but it does move the plot along:

"I never learned jommetty, sir. Bit of a hole in my understanding, all that stuff about angles and suchlike. But this, sir, is all about pie."

"Like in food?" said Moist, drawing back from the sinister glow.

"No, no, sir. Pie like in jommetry."

"Oh, you mean pi, the number you get when," Moist paused. He was erratically good at math, which is to say he could calculate odds and currency very, very fast. There had been a geometry section in his book at school, but he'd never seen the point. He tried, anyway.

"It's all to do with . . . it's the number you get when the radius of a circle . . . no, the length of the rim of a wheel is three and a bit times the . . . er . . ."

"Something like that, sir, probably, something like that," said Groat. "Three and a bit, that's the ticket. Only Bloody Stupid Johnson said that was untldy, so he designed a wheel where the pie was exactly three. And that's it, in there."

"But that's impossible!" said Moist. "You can't do that? Pi is like . . . built in. You can't change it. You'd have to change the universe."

"Yes, sir. They tell me that's what happened," said Groat calmly. "I'll do the party trick now. Stand back, sir."

Groat wandered out into the other cellars and came back with a length of wood.

"Stand further back, sir," he suggested, and tossed the piece of wood on top of the machine.

The noise wasn't loud. It was a sort of slop. It seemed to Moist that something happened to the wood when it went over the light. There was a suggestion of curvature. Several pieces of timber clattered onto the floor, along with a shower of splinters.

"They had a wizard in to look at it," said Groat. "He said the machine twists just a little bit of the universe so pi could be three, sir, but it plays hob with anything you put too near it. The bits that go missing get lost in the . . . space-time-continuememememem, sir. But it doesn't happen to the letters, because of the way they travel through the machine, you see. That's the long and short of it, sir. Some letters came out of that machine fifty years before they were posted."

"Why didn't you switch it off?"

"Couldn't, sir. It kept on going like a siphon. Anyway, the wizard said if we did that, terrible things might happen! 'Cos oh er, quantum, l think."

"Well, then, you could just stop feeding it mail, couldn't you?"

"Ah, well, sir, there it is," said Croat, snatching his beard. "You have positioned your digit right on the nub, or crust, sir. Nyle should've done that, sir, we should've, but we tried to make it work for us, you see. Oh, the management had schemes, sir. How about delivering a letter in Dolly Sisters thirty seconds after it had been posted in the city center, eh? Of course, it wouldn't be polite to deliver mail before we'd actually got it, sir, but it could be a close-run thing, eh? We were good, so we tried to be better . . ."

And, somehow, it was all familiar.

Moist listened grimly. Time travel was only a kind of magic, after all. That's why it always went wrong.

That's why we're postmen, with real feet. ... Come to that, it was why farmers grew crops and fishermen trawled nets.

Oh, you could do it all by magic, you certainly could. You could wave a wand and get twinkly stars and a fresh-baked loaf. You could make fish jump out of the sea already cooked. And then, somewhere, somehow, magic would present its bill, which was always more than you could afford.

-- Emily

If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Going Postal

Play Review: Twelve Angry Men

Monday, October 25th, 2010

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Author:Reginald Rose
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 8 and up
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:1954

I think this play is amazing. It focuses on twelve men on jury duty who are deciding whether a teenager is guilty of killing his father. The jurors must unanimously rule "guilty" or "there is a reasonable doubt." All of the jurors are white, fairly privileged.

The play stresses that whether he's guilty or not, everyone has the right to a fair trial. The writing is really strong, and I like how the whole plot surrounds so many unknowns...

-- Fizzy


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Book review: Harmonic Feedback

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

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Author:Tara Kelly
Reading Level (Conceptual):Sophisticated readers
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2010

I really liked this book: it's told from the perspective of a girl diagnosed with Asperger's and ADHD.

Her biggest challenge in the book was realizing that the labels "normal" and "abnormal" are nothing more than labels, and that nobody is the same, so "normal" is subjective.


I found that her mental journey to that realization was very well put together and really hit home.

Note: High school level: drugs, sex.

-- Fizzy

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Musical Review: Rent

Friday, August 20th, 2010

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Some musicals strike us as perfect, or at least nearly perfect. We’ve seen Into the Woods nearly fifty times and would be willing to watch it weekly or more if we could afford to. The book is interesting to us, most of the lyrics are clearly intentional and speak to us, the music is complex and beautiful. Sure there are songs that we think could go, or be improved, but still.

Rent seems terrifically unfinished to us. My teenage daughter who did not experience the 1980’s when AIDS first began to wreak havoc with so many lives and who had never heard the acronym AZT was utterly confused by the initial half hour. (We paused the DVD to explain what was happening and why.)

We admired Rent as an impassioned, furious, context-free snapshot of that awful time. The performers on the DVD are gorgeous, with voices to match. But the music and lyrics don’t rise to the cause they represent. The perfect song that Roger runs away to Santa Fe to write is not.

Wonder if perhaps, if the creator, Jonathan Larson, had lived to see the show on Broadway, he would have refined it further.

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Book review: The Blue Girl

Monday, June 14th, 2010

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Author:Charles de Lint
Reading Level (Conceptual):Sophisticated readers
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:fiction

This is a book that can be placed under the category of "Urban Fantasy" : fairies and other fantasy creatures running around modern day cities...

Picked this up as a quick read. Not gripping per say, but interesting.


It's about a girl who befriends a ghost and then becomes tangled up in the inner workings of the hidden fantasy world. I thought that this was a stand alone book, and have not read the 14 previous books, which I just learned existed, so it is definitely a fun fast read for those who enjoy fantasy.

--Fizzy


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Book review: Marsbound

Monday, June 14th, 2010

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Author:Joe Haldeman
Reading Level (Conceptual):For grown-ups
Reading Level (Vocabulary):For grown-ups
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2009

Very sci-fi. Interesting take on the future.

In this setting the future seems just like now, except for updated space travel and things like that. It doesn't get toooo into details on the world, because almost all of it takes place in space. Anyways. The story follows Carmen, who is the first to discover inhabitants on mars. I like her as a character because she is very questioning of the rules and is just an interesting perspective to view the book through. Within the book there is also a romantic strand, so I'd more recommend this for women then men.

This definitely contains adult content.

-- Fizzy


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Book review: Water for Elephants

Monday, May 10th, 2010

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Author:Sara Gruen
Reading Level (Conceptual):For grown-ups
Reading Level (Vocabulary):For grown-ups
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2007

Fizzy says:

Great book. REALLY cool. It follows the story of one man for one summer, as he runs away to the circus. Accidentally.

Gruen definitely did her research, and gets deep into the gritty life of traveling circuses around the 1930's. The hierarchy that separated bosses, performers, and workers is very clear, and Jacob, the narrator, doesn't fit into any of those categories, which leads to an interesting and fast paced novel.

I read it in about a day and a half. SUPER good. Recommend it to anyone.

Emily says:

Beautiful and deep, but interspersed with the fascinating circus lore is unspeakable cruelty, human to human, and especially, human to animal. Balanced, sometimes, by unbelievable grace.

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