Friday, July 6, 2018

Random Reading List

Over the past few weeks, my library haul has been incredibly random. Working on the premise of judging a book by its cover, I've been borrowing books that are shiny, new, and colorful. Sometimes the book itself fulfills the promise of the lovely outer covering. Sometimes, well, it just doesn't. Here's the shortlist of books that followed through.

  • Me, Myself, and Them, by Dan Mooney: This is a very honest and raw (fictional) story of a man in the throes of mental illness. I don't generally like to read books like this, as they're either very inaccurate, or very painful, but Mooney uses an unusual device to show his character's issues, and I thought it was very well done.
  • Murder at the Grand Raj Palace, by Vaseem Khan: A wonderful mystery (part of a series! Hurray!) set in modern-day India. The detective has an adorable sidekick, which could have gone wrong, but doesn't, and the characters are colorful and memorable. 
  • Lock In and Head On, By John Scalzi: I don't know how I missed this author for so long. These two mystery novels (best to read them in order) are Sci-Fi, but not too Sci-Fi -- he pegs them as novels of "the near future." It's like reading noir mystery, but with computers and robots. I went looking for more, and found Redshirts, which is absolutely hilarious, and reminiscent of Douglas Adams. If you like Sci-Fi in any form, these are a must-read.
  • The Optimist's Guide to Letting Go, by Amy Reichert: Sad and sweet. This is a fairly light read, but with likable characters and a satisfying ending.
  • Campaign Widows, by Aimee Agresti: This book makes the above light read seem profound and scholarly (!) but it's very entertaining, and the good people win and the bad guys lose. It's always satisfying to read a book like that!
Happy reading!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Summer Reading List for Teachers

One of my mentors used to start each one of his inspirational speeches with the quip, “What are the two most compelling reasons to be a teacher? July and August!” Although it seems like a lot of vacation, master teachers know that most of that time is used taking apart classrooms, refining curricula, mastering new skills, and beginning the new school year by setting up rooms afresh. All the same, it’s a good idea to set aside some time to rest and recharge for the coming year, and what better to do that with than a good book?
 My number-one recommendation to newer teachers has always been Teach Like a Champion, by Doug Lemov. The classic teacher guide has now been joined by a 2.0 version that includes a DVD, and there’s a workbook that you can purchase separately. Lemov’s writing is easy to read and understand, and while it makes somewhat unorthodox beach reading, can be absorbed anywhere.
As a student, I read the book Skullcaps and Switchblades, by David B. Lazerson. A bearded Orthodox Jew, “Laz” is assigned to a classroom of African-American children with learning disabilities in an inner-city school in Buffalo, New York. His style of writing is humorous, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. The reader is along for a terrific ride as Laz uses Talmudic precepts and beatboxing to reach his students across a gaping cultural divide. This book is a must-read for any teacher who works with diverse populations.
Any teacher who’s struggled with discipline should read Teaching With Love and Logic. A spin-off of the very popular parenting book and program, it’s very easy to follow. It’s also logical, as you can tell by the title.
If you’re over 30, it will definitely be helpful to read iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us. By Jean M. Twenge, this book will help you understand the very different world in which your students are growing up. I found it more than a bit frightening, but very illuminating.
Last, here are some books that aren’t specifically about teaching, teachers, or students, but I’ve found to be very helpful in shaping what and how I teach.
·         Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. This talks a lot about what goes into true mastery of any skill.
·         Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared M. Diamond. If you teach history, this is a must!
·         The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch. This is very moving, and it’s not very long.
·         Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. If you haven’t read this already, read it this summer. No, watching the movie doesn’t count.
Here’s to a wonderful and growing summer to all my teacher friends and colleagues. May you all walk into your new classrooms in September refreshed, rested, and ready to do your best to get the best out of your students!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

I'll Be the Victim! (All Your Life...)

This week's haul was actually fairly good -- quite a few of the books were readable. I've written before about how sometimes the books I take out all seem to have the same theme or a similar character/location/event. This week, three of the books dealt with women who were victimized, but all in different ways.

First: The Widows of Malabar Hill. This is a mystery set in Bombay in the late Raj period. There is a lot of literature about this era, but this book sets itself apart with its very narrow focus -- Indian women in the 1920s. The main character is Perveen Mistry, who is working as a solicitor in her father's firm, even though women cannot be members of the bar. Throughout most of the story, Perveen's experience is contrasted with that of her British friend, Alice, and the eponymous widows of Malabar Hill. Perveen and the widows are all victims to one degree or another, and it's nice to read about how women of different backgrounds and beliefs support each other. Some of the book is in flashback, and it doesn't flow quite as well as I would have liked, but it's a worthwhile read.

The Book of Essie at first seems to be yet another story about kids growing up in the generation of reality TV and constant self-publicity, but turns out to be more about using today's media to take back one's life. Essie presents as a victim who refuses to allow life to play out as her parents write the script, but is able to seem as though she's cooperating while she manipulates the outcome. This is a compelling story, although sad, and the ending is liberating for Essie. However, the reader can't help wondering how things play out long-term.

I didn't expect to like Not That I Could Tell, because it seemed a bit too much like A Simple Favor, but it was SO much better! First, no creepiness! Second, the ending is happy! For everyone! There is just enough suspense to keep the reader guessing, but not so much that the ending is anti-climactic. This book also does a good job in raising awareness about domestic violence in a way that's not pushy or preachy.

Happy reading!

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Beach Reading (Or, What To Read While on Vacation)

June has arrived, and with it the hot and humid weather that characterizes summer on the East Coast. Some of you are planning vacations (lucky you), and others will be carefully carving out weekend beach time. For this, you will all need reading material.

Many associate beach reading with light and fluffy fare (literally as well; it's a lot more convenient to put a paperback in your holdall than a hardback), but it's not necessary to let this limit your reading. Summertime is a great time to relax, true, but it's also a good time to move a bit out of your comfort zone and explore new genres (steampunk! nonfiction!), or just attempt to read the book that's always daunted you just a bit -- think War and Peace, which I have attempted four times and have not yet managed to get past the battles. No, I won't be revisiting it again. Those are hours I will never get back.

If you don't want to intimidate or impress your fellow vacationers, a good choice are the books of Kevin Kwan. Beginning with Crazy Rich Asians (and I implore you, read the book before you see the movie, as there is no way it's as good as the book), it continues with China Rich Girlfriend, and then on to Rich People Problems. The two main characters, Nick Young and Rachel Chu, provide the sweet and somewhat naive lens through which the readers meet  the cultural phenomenon of the, well, crazy rich Asian. The other characters range from colorful to must-have-recently-been-in-the-loony-bin, and the local color and language make these books funny and blissfully entertaining.

Another wonderful choice is Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld. This is really a Pride and Prejudice remake, but this time it's done well -- this is the book Jane Austen might have written if she was born in 1975 instead of 1775. It doesn't quite parallel the original, but it's very true to the characters, who are so well crafted that they become people you think you might have met. It's also absolutely hilarious, and very, very contemporary.

If you're the War and Peace type, or the kind of person who wants to snob out one's fellow vacationers (I'm not such low-brow as you seem to be, my dear friend in the yellow deckchair reading Sophie Kinsella), first I'll ask you to exercise some restraint. Didn't you learn about being kind to others? Along with everything else you learned in kindergarten? Which reminds me of Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a splendid book for someone like you. However, if you really must read something a bit more substantive, try for something less obnoxiously obvious than Tolstoy. I hear some of the Man Booker Prize books are readable (I refuse to read any of them; a book that's even been nominated for a Man Booker is automatically off my list). Or go for a Penguin classic -- it's light and will fit in your beach bag, and has the benefit of being discreet.

Happy reading!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Other Kennedy

There are so many books about the Kennedys -- a handful each about Jack and Bobby, at least one about the ill-fated Kathleen, and even a tear-jerker about poor Rosemary. I'm sure that Ted Kennedy will soon have his share of biographies, but meanwhile you can find at least one book written about his rise and fall. However, the other Kennedy sisters have always lived in the shadow of their more famous siblings, and they always seem to get lumped together in people's minds, when they think of them at all.

That's why I was so excited to see Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World (Eileen McNamara) on the new nonfiction shelf this month. Born at a time when nice Catholic girls did some service work and got married, Eunice carved out a mission for herself and may have done more for America than either of her brothers.

Tall, thin, sickly (like Jack, she also had Addison's Disease), Eunice didn't let anything stop her work and advocacy for the developmentally disabled. Referred to as the "mentally retarded" in those days, children born with any mental disabilities were often left in hospitals, relegated to institutions, or hidden away at home. It was not unusual for pediatricians to recommend that parents "put them elsewhere" and forget about them, for the good of the rest of the family. Those who remember the Geraldo expose of the infamous Willowbrook Institution will know that these facilities were mere holding pens; disease, filth, and abuse were common, and residents often died young from preventable illnesses and conditions.

Eunice's closest sibling, Rosemary, was the catalyst for her journey as an advocate and activist for the mentally disabled. It's still unclear as to what her level of impairment was, and what may have been the cause of her disability, but it's common knowledge that Rosemary was "different." Educated separately from the rest of her siblings for most of her childhood, her family tried to train her to function in society in such a way that it was not obvious that she was lacking. By the time she reached young adulthood, however, it was clear that the family's public profile would soon make it obvious that this particular family member was not quite like the others. Excitable behavior, tantrums, and outbursts became more frequent. Joe Kennedy, her father, made the decision to have her undergo a frontal lobotomy, intending that the surgery would regulate her behavior. A controversial procedure even at the time, it was not without risk -- and it went horribly wrong. Rosemary emerged from the surgery without most of her faculties, and was relegated to a care home for the rest of her father's life, only to emerge when Eunice brought her closer to home after Joe's death.

Through her close relationship with Rosemary as a child, and her exposure to the developmentally disabled, Eunice grew to realize that here was a whole population that was being shamefully neglected. The book documents her work as an advocate and activist for this population, but most importantly highlights her personal work with developmentally disabled children. She allowed these children into her life and into her home. Her day camp for DD children was actually run at her home; she got into the swimming pool to teach children to swim. The Special Olympics, her brainchild, still thrives today.

Anyone who reads this book will agree that if Eunice had lived in another time, she might have been president -- not her brother.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Why Do People Enjoy Creepy Stories?

I know it's been an age since I've posted (5 years!?), but I've been thinking about revisiting this blog for the past year or so. Like so many resolutions, it never got past the "thinking about it" stage, but I find myself with some unexpected time on my hands, so here we are.

If you've been thirsting for a few really compelling book recommendations, I'll get to those. However, first I want to address my title question -- Why Do People Enjoy Creepy Stories? I read the book A Simple Favor, by Darcey Bell, over the last weekend. It started out very pleasantly -- two mom friends, one seems to have misplaced herself, other one is concerned and blogs about it. From that point, the story spirals into what is, for me, the stuff of nightmares. I had gooseflesh while I was reading it, and I didn't actually sleep very well afterwards. I did some poking around, and I discovered that there's a whole genre of novels about people who aren't who they say they are, and do seriously dysfunctional things. But who reads them? I haven't. Do you? Do you like not sleeping?

Back to some serious reading: I've discovered a wonderful mystery series set in Ireland in the Middle Ages. Beginning with My Lady Judge, the series is by Cora Harrison and follows a Brehon -- a Celtic law advocate who is also (gasp!) a woman. I'd never heard of Celtic law, which is actually fascinating, and it was very interesting to read about a woman with such power living in a time in which women were chattel, both practically and legally. This series is very worth the time hunting up each one and reading in order.

The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish, is set in the 1600's and is the story of two extraordinary women. It's quite a long book, which is terrific, because it's one to savor. The only thing I didn't like about it is that it's the author's first, which means there will be a long wait for another.

Rounding out the list with something feather-light -- Kevin Kwan's series about the rich of Singapore, Beginning with Crazy Rich Asians, the story continues in China Rich Girlfriend, and culminates in Rich People Problems. The first one is being made into a movie, so read the book first! The dialogue is sprinkled with Malay slang, the characters are wonderfully wacky and memorable, and there are so many laugh-out-loud moments that make this series a mood-lifter.
Happy Reading!

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Power of Words

In elementary school, the principal often used to begin short reprimand speeches with the words, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will hurt me even more."  True, and at a time of year that it's even more important to watch your words, I offer a novel that gives words a tremendous amount of power.  Lexicon, by Max Barry, is built on an astounding premise:  words have power, intrinsically, and can be wielded as weapons.  Parts of the book resemble Lev Grossman's The Magicians, but Lexicon is nowhere near as linear, which can be a bit confusing.  This book makes an impression, and is a page turner.  However,  I was a little disappointed in some of the characters, many of whom seem one-dimensional.  Emily, the main character, is fairly well developed, but I would have liked to see more of Eliot's personality, and the "outlier" they all seek seems more like a paper doll than a person.

A new discovery of mine is Fred Vargas, a French mystery writer.  The Ghost Riders of Ordobec is the latest of his but the first I have read, and it is very entertaining indeed. The translation is so good that the reader wouldn't suspect it wasn't originally written in English.  I will definitely be looking for more of his writing.

Terry Pratchett is always a lot of fun, if you're the type who likes zany fantasy, and I often find myself rereading favorites like Monstrous Regiment and The Thief of Time.  Now, together with Stephen Baxter, Pratchett has written two new books: The Long Earth, and The Long War.  Companion novels, they really must be read in order to be understood.  I enjoyed them, and the plot is interesting, but the reader only occasionally senses the effervescence of Pratchett floating above the text.  The theme of the book, I understand, does not exactly lend itself to the hijinks of the Discworld, but I missed it all the same.