ASTONISH ME by Maggie Shipstead

Last summer, I read an entertaining satire called Seating Arrangements about WASPs misbehaving – badly – at a summer wedding in New England. I just finished a second book by Shipstead called Astonish Me, and I can’t believe they are by the same author. I liked both books, but Astonish Me has such a different tone and purpose to it that I finished it blown away by Shipstead’s range and talent.

Astonish Me is a book about ballet. It spans three decades and two coasts, but it’s really about seven people, six of which are professional ballerinas. Joan, a New York City ballet company dancer in the late 70s, has a brief but life-changing interaction with famous Russian dancer Arlsan Rusakof after a performance in Paris. Arslan corresponds with Joan after he returns to Russia and she moves to New York, and she ultimately helps him defect by driving the getaway car to the U.S. after he performs months later in Canada. This kicks off a brief, imbalanced relationship between the two that dies out when Arslan’s former girlfriend, another prima ballerina, also defects and joins the ballet.

Joan later gets pregnant and leaves ballet to marry her high school best friend, a safe, nice guy named Jacob. They move to Southern California and raise their son Harry, 3,000 miles away from Arslan and the dance world Joan has left behind. As Harry grows up and ultimately develops his own interest in dance, Joan finds herself pulled back into the professional dance world and the complicated relationships she had left in her past.

I am a ballet mom – I have two nine year-old girls who have danced in four Nutcrackers and two other full-length ballets with the Washington Ballet. I’ve also seen a lot of ballet (like Shipstead, my mother started taking me to the ballet when I was “a little squirt”).  I spend a lot of the time I’m watching the performance thinking about the dancers – their relationships with each other, how they feel about the principals, what it’s like to be in the company, what they do in their free time. So on that level, I found Astonish Me to be very interesting. Shipstead is a precise, efficient writer, astute in her observations about relationships and expert in shifting decades, settings, and perspectives. The plot of Astonish Me unfolded slowly, teasingly, making me want to keep reading. I wasn’t crazy about the plot device that brought all the characters together at the end; I felt that it only highlighted the implausibility of some of the relationships in the book. But it didn’t detract from the power of the rest of the book and the insight it provided into ballet and those who devote their lives to it. While Seating Arrangements is light and funny, Astonish Me is serious and intense. Seating Arrangements is satire, while Astonish Me contains great empathy for its characters.

I listened to the first two-thirds of Astonish Me on audio and read the rest. The narrator – Rebecca Lowman – was perfect for the book: precise, intense, but somewhat unemotional, like some of the characters in the book. I really enjoyed the audio version and only switched to print because I was on vacation with the family and wanted to finish the book. I highly recommend the audio performance.

All right, Maggie Shipstead, what’s next? I will be eagerly waiting.

Related: 51 Things Only Ballet Dancers Understand


Q&A With Debbie Stier, author of THE PERFECT SCORE PROJECT

I recently reviewed (and loved) Debbie Stier’s The Perfect Score Project, a book about her year spent studying for and taking the SAT seven times. Debbie graciously agreed to do a Q&A on EDIWTB. Here it is:

debbie-stierQ: At what point in the project did you decide that you would write a book about it? 

A: I started poking around the SAT in the summer of 2010 and was instantly hooked. It took a few weeks before I declared on my blog that wanted to try for a perfect score.  At the time, I was thinking I’d take one SAT!

But then a publisher called and said, “that’s a book,” at which point I came up with a “book structure” i.e. taking every test every time it was offered in 2011 (7 times) at different test locations (5, because I had to repeat a few), and trying out 12 different methods of test prep (i.e. 1 per month).

I was going to write a “consumer report” on the SAT and test prep.

Then, my kids rebelled halfway through and an unanticipated layer was added to the story: how to motivate a teenager to care about the SAT.

Q: This must have been a difficult book to organize, considering that you had so many concurrent efforts going at once. How did you keep everything straight so that you could divide up the topics so neatly into chapters?

A: An author told me to have the structure down before starting to write, which I took seriously and spent months figuring out. The story part of the book is written chronologically, which was easy; trying to figure out the point of each chapter took months of sorting through notes.

After the first draft, I pulled out the “hard [SAT] info” and put it into boxes within the narrative, which freed me up and I was able to tell the story more easily.

Q: Was it difficult to isolate the distinct impact that each study method had on your test-taking ability? 

A: Yes, though I always knew the project was an anecdotal experiment, not scientific.

Q: Has your audience been mostly parents, students, or educators/test industry professionals?

A: I wrote the book with parents in mind and have been surprised that many have given it to their kids to read after finishing. I probably wouldn’t have shared all my “secrets,” had I known there would be teenagers reading!

I also get a lot of email and calls from educators and test industry professionals, which is gratifying. From the reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the audience seems to be evenly divided between parents, students, educators and test industry professionals.

Q: Did you take time off from your publishing job to do The Perfect Score Project? 

A: Yes! There is no way I could have written a book and held a job at the same time.  I couldn’t even look at the Internet while writing. It took total and utter focus.

Q: You love the SAT, but for most kids it is a dreaded experience that they are happy to put behind them. Given your perspective on the test, do you think it is a useful barometer for colleges to evaluate achievement, ability, and the likelihood of success?

A: I think the SAT is an accurate barometer one’s mastery of the skills tested: reading, writing and math – at one moment in time.  I’m living proof that you can improve significantly, so it’s definitely a test of ability, which is why I don’t think it’s an accurate predictor of “success in life.”

I read one study that said your high school’s SAT average is a better predictor of success in life than your personal SAT score. That seems more accurate to me.

Q: Any more books on the horizon or are you back to your day job?

A: Not sure!

I’m in the midst of writing another book about educating my daughter Daisy (now home schooled), and, she is writing a novel that I’m in the midst of editing.

My guess is that her book and proposal will be finished before mine.

Q: Did you enjoy recording the audio of The Perfect Score Project?

A: I loved it!  I’d do it again in a heartbeat, though I wish I’d taken diction lessons before I recorded it!

Next time!


April Issue of Bloggers Recommend

If you aren’t already subscribing to Bloggers Recommend, I highly recommend that you sign up. Every month, a group of book bloggers blurb brand new fiction and non-fiction from that upcoming month. The blurbs are short, but they give you a sense of what the book is about and why the blogger thought it was a notable read. After reading this month’s issue of Bloggers Recommend, I added at least 4 new books to my TBR list.

I contribute a monthly column for Bloggers Recommend called Perspectives on Reading. This month, I wrote a column called “Audio vs. Print: Does The Medium Make a Difference?” about the different experiences of listening to a book instead of reading it.

Give Bloggers Recommend a read and if you like what you see, please subscribe and follow BR on Facebook and Twitter.


Battle of the (Middle Grade) Books

Tomorrow is the Battle of the Books competition in my daughters’ fourth grade class. Battle of the Books is a 10-week reading and comprehension competition in which teams of fourth graders read the same five books and then have to answer questions from those books to see how much they understood and retained. I am the “team manager”, which means I have been in charge of making sure the team is prepared and has studied the right things. We’ve had several team meetings and I think the Fictionistas (our team is five girls, including two sets of twins) are ready for battle.

Being the type-A team manager that I am, I read all five of the books and prepared questions for them to answer. Since I read five books in the last week, and since it kept me from reading the usual fare I like to review here on EDIWTB, I figured I could at least write a blog post reviewing the books. I ended up liking them quite a bit. I think the teachers did a great job picking five books that would appeal to a range of interests and reading abilities, while still providing a challenge for the competition.

So here are my quick reviews of the books we read:

The World According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney. The World According to Humphrey is about a hamster who lives in a fourth (fifth?) grade classroom. He is used to being taken home at night by young, freewheeling substitute teacher Ms. Mac, but when permanent teacher Mrs. Brisbane returns to her job, she is horrified by the “rodent” in her classroom and leaves Humphrey alone overnight. Humphrey learns to fend for himself, but along the way he befriends the school janitor and wheedles his way into Mrs. Brisbane’s good graces. She decides to let him go home on weekends with students, and on these visits, Humphrey works his gentle magic. He helps parents parent better, he inspires kids to be more cooperative, and he lifts the spirits of hopeless, depressed adults. If I am making the book sound corny, it isn’t – it’s sweet and entertaining. Great book for fourth graders.

A Year Down Yonder by Richard S. Peck. A Year Down Yonder takes place in 1937 during the Great Recession, which occurred after the Depression. 15 year-old Mary Alice Dowdel has been sent by her parents to live with her grandmother in rural Illinois, because they have been forced to move into a Chicago boardinghouse that doesn’t have room for her. At first, she is very unhappy at the prospect of leaving Chicago and moving in with her abrasive, emotionally distant grandmother in her hick town. But Grandma turns out to be conniving and outrageous, as well as loyal and generous with a strong sense of justice. She puts people in their place and never apologizes for it. I really liked A Year Down Yonder. I found myself laughing out loud throughout the book (usually at Grandma), and was touched by her relationship with Mary Alice and the people in her small town. Another good read for fourth graders, though there is some outdated language that they didn’t always grasp and some mature themes that thankfully sailed over their heads (a teenage pregnancy, a woman caught nude in a young man’s boarding room). This is a Newbery medal winner (2001) and, it turns out, a sequel – I think I may look into its predecessor as a possible Mother-Daughter Book Club book.

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare. More historical fiction from Speare, who also wrote The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Sign of the Beaver is about thirteen year-old Matt, who has moved with his father to what is now Maine to build a house and settle land there in the late 1700s. When his father has to return to Massachusetts to retrieve Matt’s mother and younger sister, he leaves Matt in charge and promises to return in 7 weeks. While his father is gone, Matt has to learn to fend for himself. He ends up coming in contact with an Indian boy and his grandfather, and after a rocky start, Matt builds a relationship with them that becomes very deep and enduring. The boy, Attean, teaches Matt how to trap, fish, build a bow and arrow, and mark a trail. He also teaches Matt about his tribe’s culture, bringing Matt back to his village for some ceremonies and celebrations and integrating him into his family. In the end, Matt has to decide whether to wait for his family, who has not returned after five months away, or join the tribe as it moves further north. There are also good questions raised about the white man’s ways vs those of the Indians, and how those cultures clashed as settlers moved into lands long held by Indians. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Sign of the Beaver (a Newbery honor winner in 1984) and strongly recommend it for fourth graders.

The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog by John Erickson. The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog is the first in a popular series about Hank, a cowdog in Texas who isn’t quite up to the job of protecting the chicken coop. In this first book, Hank and his even more inept sidekick Drover fail to prevent the murder of some hens on a neighboring farm, and Hank gets unjustly accused of doing the killing himself. He takes great offense at the accusation and runs away, eventually finding his way to a nearby community of coyotes. He manages not to get himself killed, but forms an uneasy peace with Scraunch, the meanest and nastiest of the coyotes, while slowly becoming part of the coyote community. Hank’s loyalty is tested when Scraunch plans a raid on Hank’s owner’s farm, and Hank has to decide whether he’s a bad guy or a good guy. Hank the Cowdog was my least favorite of the five books, but it wasn’t bad. There were some funny moments when Erickson poked fun at Hank’s ineptitude, and the portrait of the coyotes, while unsavory, was illuminating. My daughters liked this book least of the five too. Maybe’s it’s a boy book.

Who Was Milton Hershey? by James Buckley, Jr. Who Was Milton Hershey? is part of a series of books for kids about famous people. This one focuses on the enterprising chocolatier, who lived in Pennsylvania from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. I learned a lot about Hershey in this book, but what stood out to me was what a decent guy he was. He provided services and amenities for his factory workers at a time when such benefits were rare, such as bank accounts where they could save their money, bonuses, running water and electricity. He built a whole town for his factory, and included things like parks, bowling alleys and theaters to improve his workers’ quality of life. Hershey was quite generous as well, founding a school for orphan boys and eventually donating all of his stock in the Hershey company to that school (which is now worth an astounding 9 billion dollars). Hershey didn’t raise the price on his Hershey bar for over 65 years, and he even installed electricity in the homes of his sugarcane factory workers in Cuba. Who Was Milton Hershey? was an easy and informative read for my fourth graders, and I think they will remember a fair amount about this creative, interesting, and socially progressive businessman.

So those are the books! I will report back on how the Fictionistas fared in tomorrow’s competition.



I am a fiction girl who hasn’t taken a standardized test since the LSAT in 1991. My kids are too young for me to be worried about the SAT yet, which they won’t take for another 7 years. But when Debbie Stier’s The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering The Secrets of the SAT arrived in the mail, I knew I wanted to read it, right away. I had met Debbie at a conference a few years ago and learned about the project and its accompanying blog, and was eager to read the book. I was not disappointed.

The Perfect Score Project is about one year (2011) during which Stier, the mother of a then-high school sophomore, decided that in order to help her son prepare for the SAT, she would take the test all 7 times that it was offered and try every variety of test prep/study method/resource/tutor available to her, whether in person or online. She did it all: Princeton Review, Stanley Kaplan, Kumon, the College Board’s own materials, private tutors, message boards, Skype calls with other SAT-obsessed people across the country, study books, and online courses. Stier, who hadn’t taken the SAT seriously when she herself was in high school, dedicated herself completely to the effort. Each month, she tried a different study method, throwing herself into each new discipline or process with enthusiasm and unflagging energy.

There is a lot to like about The Perfect Score Project. Stier makes a huge amount of information manageable to follow and digest. She’s very organized: each chapter deals with a different component of the SAT (scoring methods, testing locations, etc.) or a study method. There are sections interjected throughout the text with bullets of important information and takeaways, like Essay Advice, SAT Grammar, Guessing, and Five Questions to Ask a Potential Tutor.

Stier is also a good storyteller. This topic could be dry or confusing, but Stier makes it clear, compelling, and even funny. As I mentioned, I am a reader of fiction. I rarely read nonfiction, and when I do, I often have trouble sticking with it. But with The Perfect Score Project, I was eager to get back to it. Stier manages to create suspense – will her scores improve over the course of the year? Does test prep actually work? Will her son get on board? – that kept me very interested.

I respect Stier as well for revealing so much about herself – her SAT scores (which are for many people a closely held secret), as well as her struggles with parenting her teenage children and the spectacularly bad summer that brought their issues to a head. She is unflinchingly honest in The Perfect Score Project, whether she’s talking about her poor math skills or her myopia when it came to getting her son motivated to study.

Finally, I learned a lot. I will definitely return to The Perfect Score Project when my daughters are ready to start studying. There is a lot of good information about how the test prep companies differ and the various tutoring styles available. Stier even spends a chapter on how to choose a testing location. (Hint: fancy private schools aren’t necessarily the way to go.)

The Perfect Score Project was a really fun, informative read. I  mostly listened to it on audio, which was narrated by Stier.  I can’t imagine anyone else speaking her words. It’s such a personal book - I felt like she was riding in the car with me. I have always feared that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on non-fiction on audio, but I had no problem with The Perfect Score Project.

Depressing-o-meter: 2 (it’s not depressing at all, unless you start thinking about how much you’ve forgotten since high school)

Stier has agreed to do a Q&A on EDIWTB in the coming weeks – stay tuned!



Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway for Pack Up The Moon by Rachael Herron.

Congratulations to the winner: Karen White (audiobook narrator and friend of EDIWTB)!!


WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

This month’s mother-daughter book club pick was When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, one of those books that’s billed as YA but which I saw all over the place when it came out in 2009, suggesting that its appeal goes well beyond kids’ fiction. (It won the Newbery in 2010.)

When You Reach Me takes place on the Upper West Side in the 1970s, and is about Miranda, the daughter of a single mother, who has become estranged from her best friend Sal, a boy who lives upstairs from her. The two were walking home from school one day when out of the blue, he was punched by another kid. From that day on, their friendship was over, despite Miranda’s attempts to engage Sal and recover what they had. In the meantime, a cast of odd characters is filled out, including Marcus, the boy who punched Sal; a homeless man who lives on the corner and sleeps with his head under a mailbox; and Annemarie, a girl Miranda befriends who partially fills the void left by Sal. And some mysterious notes start appearing in Miranda’s apartment, each one making reference to events that hadn’t happened yet. Who could know these personal things about Miranda, and how did he or she know things that even Miranda didn’t know yet?

Books about time travel always make my head hurt – in a good way – and this one was no exception. References to A Wrinkle in Time abound (Miranda is reading it when When You Reach Me takes place), and there is a suggestion of the possibility of time travel throughout the book, as Miranda discusses it with her friends.

But it wasn’t the time travel that drew me into this book. It was the depiction of a lonely, 1970s latchkey childhood – a far cry from the overprotective, overscheduled lives middle-graders live now. Miranda spent a lot of time alone, with few people to talk to about her disappointments, sadness, and anxiety. I liked that the characters were not one-dimensional; even the rich girl/bully turns out to be smart and redeeming in the end. And the explanation at the end of where the notes came from and who wrote them was satisfying, if a bit headache-inducing. Miranda’s relationship with Sal is explained, if not rehabilitated, and she finds other flawed but rewarding friends to spend time with.

Here’s a great interview with Rebecca Stead on Amazon.

I think this is a great book for kids. It is a story about relationships and friendship wrapped up in science fiction and mystery. Miranda is a formidable heroine – she is self-sufficient and independent, but not infallible.

Our book club meets this Sunday – I expect that this one will be well-received by the group.