What to Read on the Subway This Week: 1/23
This week, delve into a sad novel by a funny man, read about the history (and future) of textbooks, get caught up in a debate about protecting girlhood, and empathize with an older man who is just beginning to understand himself.
On Your Kindle
Shopgirl, by Steve Martin
If you loved actor Steve Martin in gentle comedies like Father of the Bride and Roxanne, then you'll be surprised—though not unpleasantly—by the gravity of his best-selling novella. In Shopgirl, Martin opens a window to the lives of lonely people, centering his story on Mirabelle: glove saleswoman by day, moderately ambitious artist by night.
Mirabelle’s struggle with depression—caused by or causing her loneliness, the reader wonders—is a dark backdrop to her untethered days in sunny Beverly Hills, where she is torn between relationships with a wealthy older man and a younger, immature one.
The omniscient narrator exerts much control over his characters, rarely allowing them to speak independently. The metaphor-filled prose is a bit distant at times, leaving the reader feeling a bit like she's being led by hand through a dream. But the moments of cleverness (“They are nearly indistinguishable… except that one man stands in the kitchen of a two-million-dollar house overlooking the city, and the other in a one-room garage apartment that the city overlooked”) and the insight that's heartbreaking in its vividness make this a touching, captivating read.
On Your Smartphone
Remember textbooks? They were a staple of my public school childhood: thick and heavy, covered in a protective layer of brown paper grocery bag or, if I was feeling fancy, colorful wrapping paper. Some, with high-resolution illustrations and interactive “bubbles” on the corners of their pages, seemed modern and helpful, while other years-old versions were absolute torture to read.
Into the classroom comes Apple, which is partnering with leading textbook publishers Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to create a “textbook experience” for the iPad platform. This Atlantic article posits that this new creation is revolutionary, because it modernizes learning in an Internet age and makes book-learning truly interactive.
While I think that this new medium will be appealing to this generation’s students, I wonder if the availability of “iTextbooks” on the expensive iPad medium will contribute to the growing socioeconomic education gap. What do you think? Weigh in below!
On a Podcast
Caitlin Flanagan on Protecting Girlhood, NPR’s On Point
Writer and critic Caitlin Flanagan has recently penned a very controversial book, titled Girl Land, about her perceived need to create a safer haven for pre-teen and adolescent girls who grow up too fast in today’s media-flooded culture. On this edition of NPR’s On Point, Tom Ashbrook interviews Flanagan and also hosts guest Irin Carmon, staff writer at Salon, who had previously reviewed—and criticized—Flanagan’s book.
These 45 minutes are absolutely captivating: Flanagan’s condescension (and very personal questions) spark bemusement in Carmon, which leads to another article on Salon (and for me, another full hour of intrigued Internet-searching to learn more). By making her statements so broad and so personal, Flanagan masks the validity, however large or small, of her argument. The interview—and the book and articles preceding and following it—will keep you thinking long after your commute.
Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee
In this Booker Prize-winning novel, J.M. Coetzee portrays a confident, womanizing professor of communications at a South African university. David Lurie, the novel’s protagonist, is instantly recognizable as a scoundrel: insincere, arrogant, and desperately lost in his life. David’s relationship with a student contributes to his “disgrace” early on in the story, and his subsequent unraveling drives the action through the rest of the book.
After he is terminated and sent to live with his daughter on a remote farm, where they both fall victim to an unspeakable act of violence, David begins a process of being stripped to his most basic self. The novel is deceptive in its simplicity: Its sparse prose and few characters belie its complexity. The novel is, at its heart, a paradoxical coming of age story—both for an old man and for his apartheid-torn nation.
Photo courtesy of Mo Riza.
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