Sunday, August 28, 2011

Book Review: Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane

I actually got into Dennis Lehane through the movies--I watched Gone, Baby, Gone years ago (liked it), as well as Mystic River (liked it up to a point) and Shutter Island (loved it). So when I was looking for a new mystery series a few months ago, Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series seemed like a good choice.

I might go back and review the first three books in the series later, but Gone, Baby, Gone is the one freshest in my mind. If you want to keep score, though, the previous books in the series are: A Drink Before the War (loved it), Darkness, Take My Hand (well-written, but I didn't enjoy it as much), and Sacred (my favorite in the series so far).

What I really like about the Kenzie and Gennaro novels are how the events in the previous books continue to haunt the private detectives. By this novel, the pair have seen their share of violence--this series is very hard-boiled, even bleak--and want nothing more but to kick back and just take the easy cases. But then, of course, a new case (the kidnapping of a child) forces them back into dark territory. I really liked how the two struggled with even taking the case in the first place, even knowing where it could lead.

The two main characters are also extremely likable, and the mystery itself was intriguing. I also like, in general, how Lehane takes the detective novel and turns it into something literary, even poetic at times. There are some turns of phrase and metaphors that seem almost magical. The English major in me is happy with these books.

Unfortunately, I do think that the writing got carried away. At 500+ pages, it felt overwritten in many places, with what felt like pages and pages of description and inner monologues from Patrick Kenzie. It slowed the pace down much more than I prefer in a mystery novel, and especially due to the subject matter--violence against children--it felt like too much.

I'm still very much a fan of Lehane's writing, and I'd unequivocally recommend the first three books in the series. Though I'm still attached to the characters, this book was a bit of a chore to slog through. I'll be taking a bit of a break before moving on to the next book in the series, preferably with something a bit lighter.

Any other Lehane fans out there? Which book of his is your favorite?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Can You Trust Eyewitness Testimony?

Eyewitness reports play a key role in crime fiction, especially legal fiction. Two guys say the other guy did it, and our intrepid sleuth has to figure out which one is telling the truth. Fortunately, after a fair amount of detecting, he or she is able to find a witness to the crime, and the case is solved--until the witness refuses to testify, of course. Or suffers an untimely death at the hands of the killer.

In any case, the importance of eyewitnesses, and their memory, is undeniable in our stories. That's because of how important it is in real life. Often, the only evidence a detective has to go on at first are eyewitness reports. In trials, eyewitness testimony is seen as the "smoking gun" by many juries.

But how reliable is our own memory?

As it turns out, not very.

We sometimes think of memory like we're playing back the video tape of what we experienced. In truth, researchers say, we rebuild our memories each time we recall them, more like a box of Legos than a recording. In fact, it's more accurate to say that we don't remember events--we remember the last time we remembered them. And each time, we have to build them "from scratch, and if much time has passed you stand a good chance of getting the details wrong. With a little influence, you might get big ones wrong."

This leads to something called the misinformation effect. With a little bit of prodding and poking, researchers can get people not only to misremember things that actually happened, they can easily implant new memories like getting lost at a shopping mall or shaking hands with Bugs Bunny at Disney World (Bugs Bunny is a Warner Bros. character and wouldn't be found at a Disney park).

Elizabeth Loftus summarizes what we know about memory by saying: "If there were three words that I would come up with to to describe what memory is, I would say memory is suggestive, subjective, and malleable."

Remember that the next time you listen to eyewitness testimony. Or when you remember anything.

Or think you remember.

Recommended Reading
Slate series on manipulating memory
YouAreNotSoSmart: Misinformation Effect

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Book Review: Least Wanted by Debbi Mack

Least Wanted is the second book in this mystery series featuring lawyer Sam McRae. I’m not exactly sure why I started with this one instead of Identity Crisis. Maybe the description sounded more interesting, maybe I liked the cover better. In any case, this is the one I read first.

I fell in love with Mack’s writing from the very first page. The prose was clear, engaging, and vivid with just the right amount of wit. The author does a great job of introducing us to Shanae and Tina Jackson, two characters vital to the story.

In fact, I think Mack’s description of Tina in the first chapter should be studied by writers who want to make their characters come alive. Just the right mixture of metaphor, exposition, and dialogue, which, by the way, sounded pitch-perfect to my ear.

As soon as I reached the third chapter, however, the story changed directions completely. I was thrown off, and it took me a moment to understand Sam McRae was now taking on a different case. This was, I think, both the book’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. On the one hand, having Sam involved in three (maybe four?) different cases at the same time added a nice touch of realism. Real lawyers do in fact work on more than one case at a time. The juggling of these cases also provided for a nice glimpse into Sam’s personal life. On the other hand, trying to keep the cases and characters straight felt like more of a challenge than it should have been.

My other quibble with the story was with the ending. Without spoiling it, I felt that Sam should have had more of an active role in a climactic confrontation, and that this confrontation was over far too quickly to satisfy.

On the whole, though, Least Wanted had more than enough intrigue and detection to keep this mystery fan happy. I enjoyed the twists and plot developments, and I especially loved Sam’s snarky attitude. I look forward to future adventures with her, and won’t hesitate to buy the next one when it comes out.

Least Wanted Buy Links:

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cheating Teachers

In addition to writing mystery novels, I'm a full-time English teacher at a public high school. This weekend is the last weekend of the year before my students seek shelter from the sweltering Arizona heat and return, dutifully, to their desks on Monday morning. It's a hectic time, one full of promise and excitement for me as I think ahead to all the wonderful things we'll be exploring.

It's also a time of immense pressure and anxiety. Did I prepare enough? Do I really have to strength and stamina to control a room of 30 teenagers again? Why didn't I just go into something easier, like surgery?

But there's another pressure that all teachers feel, one that's been steadily increasing over the last decade or so: the pressure to perform.

I'm not talking about teacher evaluations, about the day-to-day in the classroom. I'm talking about standardized test scores. Through the No Child Left Behind Act, schools that don't make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) can have their funding cut, have their staff replaced, or even be shut down entirely.

My own school has done very well on these standardized tests (and other AYP measurements, like drop-out rates), but we still feel the effects of what I call the "data push," or the pressure for more and more data. Over the course of the year, our department devotes an entire month to standardized tests. That's 30 days of instruction gone to multiple-choice and essay tests.

Some of us deal with the pressure by prepping our students for the test as best we can, despite using up extra class time that could have been used for something more relevant to the kids. Others say the heck with the test, and trust that if we teach our students what they need to know, they'll do well on the tests anyway. (I personally cop a little of both attitudes.)

But some teachers take a different approach: they cheat.

Recently, it was discovered that "that more than 80 Atlanta teachers admitted to cheating on state standardized tests--with one group of elementary teachers even holding a 'party' after school to change their pupils' answers by hand" (link). A survey also showed that, in Michigan, where test scores are tied to teacher salaries, 30% of teachers feel the pressure to cheat, and 8% reported actually cheating on the test (link).

It's awful to think that teachers, who are supposed to model values, would do this. And while I don't agree with cheating, obviously, I can understand the pressure. In the same article reporting the Michigan statistics, I think professor Nelson Maylone said it best:

"Teachers and principals have not been told to raise student achievement levels; they've been told to raise test scores, and the two things are not the same."

I honestly don't know the solution to this one. I agree that there needs to be accountability, both for the teachers and the students, and standardized tests are the easiest and most cost-effective way to do that. At the same time, standardized tests don't show a complete picture of the student, and it's quite easy to "game" the system from both ends. For example, there are some tests that aren't high stakes for the students (they get to go on to the next grade regardless of whether they pass), but that still determine part of a teacher's evaluation. I've heard a number of stories where students didn't like their teacher and purposely did poorly in order to punish them.

What do you think? If you have kids, what have been some of your experiences with the new waves of testing? Are we doing it right? And, if not, how should we fix it?

In the end, it's all about the students. I want to do what's best for our kids. But sometimes, it's hard to know what that is.