I probably can't add anything to the hundreds of other reviews of this classic, so I'll tell a story about it instead.
When I was about 26, I decided t...moreI probably can't add anything to the hundreds of other reviews of this classic, so I'll tell a story about it instead.
When I was about 26, I decided to go back to school for my Master's (in Computer Science). As part of the application process, I had to take the GRE. One evening I was hanging out with my girlfriend and going through one of those vocabulary guides that list words you might see on standardized tests like the GRE. I was reading out to her the words I didn't know and was amazed at how many of them she recognized and defined accurately.
After a while she said, "What you need to do is read more nineteenth century literature like Dickens or Jane Austen. That's where all these words come from."
I had read Dickens in high school, but never Jane Austen.
"Jane Austen," I said. "What did she write?"
"Jane Austen... You know, Pride and Prejudice?"
"Oh, yeah. I've heard of that. Is it any good?"
"Is it any good? Do you mean you've never read Pride and Prejudice!??"
At this point my girlfriend went into a five minute long rant about how she couldn't believe she was dating somebody who was so illiterate that he had never read Pride and Prejudice, one of her favorite books of all time, and that I had to read it, and if I didn't like it I was a total loser.
So, to make a long story short, I read Pride and Prejudice, looking up all the words I didn't recognize. I loved it, my girlfriend married me (eventually), and three of the words I learned were on the GRE. So I guess I owe both my marriage and my graduate degrees to Jane Austen!
My wife loved this book and dragged me to the movie shortly after it came out. I thought the movie was cute---a better than average teen romance set i...moreMy wife loved this book and dragged me to the movie shortly after it came out. I thought the movie was cute---a better than average teen romance set in my old stomping grounds of New York City's Greenwich Village and Soho. On leaving the theater, I soon heard from my wife how much better the book was, and how disappointing the movie was. I guess it's all a question of what you're expecting going in...
I started reading the book as soon as we got home.
It opens with a great hook. Nick sees his ex-girlfriend at a club and doesn't want to face her. So he turns to the girl next to him, Norah, and asks her to be his girlfriend for five minutes. Surprisingly, she responds by kissing him. Over the course of an all-night adventure in New York, they get to know each other better while each wrestles with their own doubts and insecurities and tries to figure out what to think of the other.
I loved it! And my wife was right about the movie.
The lead characters were likable and realistic. Their concerns and doubts, their hopes and fears, the roller coaster of she loves me, she loves me not, all resonated with the distant memories of my teen years. The fact that the story is set in a realistic New York City was a bonus. The story wasn't always predicable (despite having seen the movie!) and included a nicely humorous touch to keep things from getting too serious (or too overwhelmed with teen angst).
In reading through other reviews, here and on other sites, I'm surprised by the number of people who find the casual cursing and implied sexuality objectionable. I don't know quite how to respond. It's realistic fiction. And these things are part of reality, especially for teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. Obviously younger kids are probably not ready for, and wouldn't understand, some aspects of the real world. But I think this book would be fine for most high school kids. I doubt they will find much here (except perhaps the night life of New York) that they haven't heard about, thought about, and talked about with their peers. In fact, the biggest surprise for a high school reader may be the authors' empathy for the doubts and fears and ups and downs of teen life.(less)
This was another book my wife insisted that I read. It was our before-bed read aloud book last month.
Reading 10-15 pages a night, the first half of th...moreThis was another book my wife insisted that I read. It was our before-bed read aloud book last month.
Reading 10-15 pages a night, the first half of the book was enjoyable, but unfolded rather slowly. I was a bit puzzled about why my wife was so enthusiastic about the book. Then, about half way through, the excitement and tempo increased a few notches, and it become a real page-turner.
This is a fantasy novel, but it is not your typical swords and sorcery adventure. There are swords, and even a couple of fights, but the closest we get to sorcery are some mysterious occurrences that could best be described as super-natural. Turner's alternate reality evokes the feeling of Greece. The landscape is rocky, somewhat mountainous, and filled with olive trees. The "old" religion has the feeling of Greek mythology although the divinities are mostly different. And the political backdrop is a set of small rivalrous kingdoms that could be stand-ins for the city-states of ancient Greece.
The story is told (first person) by Gen, a thief who opens the book imprisoned in the kingdom of Sounis. He is freed by the King's Magus---a wiseman-type councilor---who needs a skilled thief to help him recover a lost artifact. They set out on this expedition, accompanied by the Magus's two apprentices and a soldier. In the first half of the book, we slowly get to know the characters through Gen's eyes, and learn something of the world where this story is set. Turner does a good job developing and describing the mix of relationships between the members of this quest---rivalries, respect, jealousy---and as we get to know the characters better, it becomes apparent that there is a bit more to each of them than meets the eye.
Midway through the book, just when it seems that the entire plot is going to be character-driven, the tempo increases dramatically. There are fights, escapes, chases. Amongst this action there are still the puzzles of characters whose motivations we don't entirely understand---including our narrator, who carefully hides a few secrets of his own until the end.
All-in-all, a well-told story, with a good combination of plot, characters, and an interesting setting.
Once again, my wife picked a winner. I should pay more attention to her recommendations.(less)
This is the first book of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. My daughter read them when she was at the point where reading changes from being work to be...moreThis is the first book of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. My daughter read them when she was at the point where reading changes from being work to being fun. So it was one of the first "serious" books (> 100 pages and no pictures) that she read on her own for pleasure. First my wife read the series aloud to her. Then she read them all to herself. Then she read this book out loud to me.
The story is told from the point of view of Princess Cimorene. She's a curious, intelligent girl who hates the stereotyped role she's expected to play as a princess---she has to learn to needlepoint and dance, but isn't allowed to cook or fence or learn magic. Finally, she runs away and winds up getting captured by a dragon, Kazul. Unlike other captured princesses, who lament their situation and wait to be rescued by young knights they can then marry, Cimorene befriends her dragon and refuses to be rescued. The plot thickens when some oily wizards show up...
The character of Cimorene is engaging. She is spunky and has a sarcastic wit that makes my daughter laugh. I liked her almost from page one and was quickly sucked into the story. The plot has some interesting twists, but there is never a sense of real peril. From the beginning it's pretty clear who's good and who's bad, and that it will all work out in the end. These characteristics all appeal to my (then) 8 year old daughter. She also loves the humor and has adopted a similar style in some of her creative writing projects.
The writing is clearly targeted at younger (pre-teen) readers, but this is a fun story that many older readers will enjoy, too.(less)
I first read this book as a young teenager, and enjoyed it tremendously. It is possible that if I had first read it today, I would only give it four s...moreI first read this book as a young teenager, and enjoyed it tremendously. It is possible that if I had first read it today, I would only give it four stars...
Allen Carpenter is a science fiction writer. After he dies in a drunken accident he wakes up in the "vestibule" of Hell, a Hell largely matching the description found in Dante's Inferno. Carpenter is a rationalist and a non-believer, so at first he tries find rational explanations for his new environment---his fans had his body frozen after his death and he has been revived in a Disneyland-like reconstruction of Dante's Inferno, built by a civilization vastly more advanced than ours. But as Carpenter descends the concentric circles of Hell, he is slowly forced to accept that he really is in Hell.
Like Dante, Carpenter meets many damned souls in his descent through the Inferno. During this journey, he has to come to grips with the apparent cruelty of whoever or whatever condemned these souls the their eternal fates. For many of the damned are suffering fates that seem vastly out of proportion to their earthly crimes. Why, Carpenter wonders, would a moral God need to create such torment?
I enjoyed this book on three levels. First, it is a fun story---our hero has lots of adventures trying to escape from Hell. Second, I was fascinated by the description of Dante's Inferno, with each category of sinner carefully segregated and given a punishment that fits their crime. Along the way, the authors update many of the sins and punishments with modern touches. When I first read the book, this aspect was doubly interesting, as I hadn't yet read Dante. Finally, Carpenter's inner struggle to understand the purpose of Hell adds a bit of intellectual interest to the story. This isn't deep theology, but it adds a level to the book that makes it more than just a straight-forward fantasy adventure.(less)
J.R.R. Tolkien, better known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, used to write and illustrate letters to his children from "Father...moreJ.R.R. Tolkien, better known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, used to write and illustrate letters to his children from "Father Christmas." This book contains a selection of those letters, each reproduced on a separate sheet of paper and enclosed in an envelope. The letters tell of various misadventures of Father Christmas and his assistant, North Polar Bear, problems with Goblins, etc.
I read the letters with my (then 10-year old) daughter. She enjoyed the novelty of the book of letters, and she found the stories cute and funny. Being a bit more jaded, I feel it is cute and nicely done, but probably never would have been published if it wasn't by Tolkien.
It turns out that author Jackie French didn't just make up the story in her much-loved picture book, Diary of a Wombat. She based much of it on her li...moreIt turns out that author Jackie French didn't just make up the story in her much-loved picture book, Diary of a Wombat. She based much of it on her life with and around wombats in the Australian bush. In this book she again builds on her years of experience with my favorite marsupials, this time providing us with a non-fiction chapter book describing wombat life and behavior.
The book is interesting and fun. French includes many amusing and touching anecdotes about the wombats in her life. She also addresses many questions that will interest her younger readers: "Can you pet a wombat?" "What is it like having a wombat in your house?" "What do you do if you meet a wombat?" The last question, of course, is of little practical value to an American reader, but this is an Australian book, so most of her readers might have better luck...
Lynne Truss, a self-proclaimed "stickler," provides a humorous romp through the world of punctuation. The book is part punctuation guide, part history...moreLynne Truss, a self-proclaimed "stickler," provides a humorous romp through the world of punctuation. The book is part punctuation guide, part history of those funny little squiggles we call punctuation, and part rant about punctuation (mis)use in the real world. Much of the book is built around a seemingly endless collection of real-world punctuation errors that Truss has collected. Many of them are laugh-out-loud funny.
You can read Truss either as a comedienne doing a brilliant routine about punctuation, or as an outraged purist bemoaning the state of the world. My interpretation is more of the former. She may be a purist, but she also pokes fun at how much of a stickler she is being, and she acknowledges that many of the finer points of punctuation are judgement calls, as evinced by the stories she relates of conflicts between editors and famous authors over the placement (or not) of commas and semi-colons.
All in all, this was a fun read, and definitely the only punctuation guide I've ever had trouble putting down.(less)
This is the second Mary Poppins book. Like the first, it presents a sterner, less sugar-coated Poppins than the one most people are familiar with from...moreThis is the second Mary Poppins book. Like the first, it presents a sterner, less sugar-coated Poppins than the one most people are familiar with from the Disney movie. Several chapters in this book inspired scenes in the Broadway musical, most notably the episode with Miss Andrew and her lark.
The similarities here go beyond the same characters and the same writing style. At first I thought that Travers was simply re-using her ideas---an upside down tea party, instead of one floating at the ceiling, and an evening out with at a celestial circus, instead of an evening at the zoo. But after a while I had to conclude that this was deliberate on Travers' part. Every chapter in this book has a twin in the first. This stories are different, and still entertaining. But there is an inevitable reference to the partner from the first book. I'm not sure what to make of this beyond the curiosity of it. I'll be interested to see what Jackie thinks.(less)
There was enough of interest in this book to keep me reading all the way to the end, but there were a lot of annoyances along the way. The book was al...moreThere was enough of interest in this book to keep me reading all the way to the end, but there were a lot of annoyances along the way. The book was also poorly organized. It appears to be little more than an anthology of Owen's articles from The New Yorker. But rather than actually publishing it as an anthology, Owen tried to patch them together into one cohesive book. The result is a patchwork full of interesting digressions that are poorly melded with the central argument of the book.
The argument of the book is interesting and straight-forward. Dense urban areas are more energy efficient than the typical suburban lifestyle. City dwellings are smaller (and thus need less heating, cooling, and lighting). City residents drive less, since urban density makes mass transit and walking/biking more practical. And large urban buildings are more efficient to heat and cool (per resident) than the smaller building of suburbia. Thus, Owen argues, if you care about climate change or other political and environmental costs of our fossil-fuel-dependent life style, big cities are a good thing, and we should do things to encourage more people to live in cities (or, conversely, to make suburban living less enticing).
From this basic point, Owen makes some interesting inferences. If a city dweller has 25% of the carbon footprint of a car-dependent suburban resident, then anything that makes cities more enticing is good for the environment. So investing in city schools is good for the environment, since one of the reasons young families leave the city is often concern about the quality of public education.
Owen spends a lot of the book critiquing things---from trendy environmental movements, such as locavorism and sustainability, to the goals of city and town planners and traffic engineers. Maybe it's good to eat locally grown produce, but if everybody in a major city tried to live that way, they would all starve---there wouldn't be enough locally grown food to feed that many people. Similarly, a family that spent millions of dollars building an 8,000 square foot house to be as eco-friendly as possible are derided for not realizing that it would have been much more eco-friendly to simply build a smaller house, or to move to an apartment in the city.
My frustrations with the book come from many of these critiques (as well as the author's own suggestions). Often he is clever and points out things that make you say, "Gosh, I never thought of it that way." But at the same time, he often makes sloppy arguments and never seems to apply the same skepticism to his own viewpoints that he applies to everyone else's. For example, Owen states that zoning is bad, because zoning laws often enforce rules that make it harder to achieve the population densities you see in urban cores. But he never explains why zoning per se is bad, rather than specific types of zoning ordinances. This is probably because Owen does not actually mean that the mere existence of any sort of zoning law is necessarily a bad thing.
All in all, I would have found this book better if the author were as honest and forthright about the shortcomings of his lifestyle and ideas as he is about everyone else's. Owen admits that he does not follow the lifestyle he advocates, living instead in suburban Connecticut. He tries to argue that he is not being hypocritical by observing that if he didn't live in his Connecticut home, somebody else would; so there would be the same environmental impact either way. I found this a completely unsatisfying rationalization. If more people, like himself, wanted to live in cities, and did so, there would be more aggregate demand for urban dwellings, and, over time, cities would grow. If Owen had admitted that he is an example of the challenge we face---that most people prefer the luxuries, flexibility, and prestige of our sub-urban lifestyle and aren't willing to give up these comforts for intangible environmental benefits---he would have been more honest, and he would have gotten at some of the real underlying challenge of trying to reign in the waste and inefficiency of a "more-is-better" culture.
In the end, Owen does admit that the problem of how to truly live in a sustainable and environmentally conscious way without giving up the comforts of modern society is quite difficult and that he doesn't know what the solutions are. But at that point it is too little, too late. I had already spent most of the book saying, "It's easy to criticize, Mr. Owen, but I don't see you coming up with any practical suggestions either." I would have been less annoyed, if Owen had made this admission earlier, and been a little more humble in his critiques of everything anyone else has suggested or tried.
I listened to this book on CD, read by Patrick Lawlor. Part of my general annoyance with the book was the slightly sneering and superior tone Lawlor brought to the book. Maybe that was Lawlor's take on the book, but it also may have simply been the way Owen's words came across when read out loud.(less)
I came to the Inspector Morse novels by a round-about route. We visited my in-laws over Labor Day weekend, and on Sunday evening wound up watching a b...moreI came to the Inspector Morse novels by a round-about route. We visited my in-laws over Labor Day weekend, and on Sunday evening wound up watching a bit of TV. Usually I do my best to ignore the television---engrossing myself in a crossword or a good book. But this particular evening a show called Inspector Lewis was on. At first I didn't pay too much attention but I wound up getting sucked in. It had interesting characters, and the setting---in and around Oxford, England was a familiar blend of the urban and the academic. The final plot twists were a bit of a stretch, but overall, the show was enjoyable---high praise from someone who usually does his best to ignore the television!
Over the next few Sundays, Jackie and I watched additional episodes of Inspactor Lewis until PBS's Mystery! rotated off to some other series of whodunits. Being curious, I did a bit of poking around on the web and discovered that Inspector Lewis was a spin-off of an earlier PBS/BBC series called Inspector Morse, where the Lewis character appeared as Sgt. Lewis. Furthermore Inspector Morse was based an a series of mystery novels by Colin Dexter, the first of which was Last Bus to Woodstock. A quick trip to the library, and I had another book to read...
Overall, this was a pleasant read, with a well-crafted mystery and good writing. It is firmly in the "hardboiled" school of detective fiction, presenting a gritty and ugly picture of humanity, focusing in particular on the sexual foibles of nearly every character---having affairs, buying pornography, engaged to people they don't love, looking for no-strings-attached sex, and so on. Morse, himself, is unlucky in love, drinks a lot, and is generally painted as a brilliant intuitive detective who is leading an unhappy life. While I think this was a pretty good book in the abstract, the bleak world view it presented wasn't really my cup of tea.
An odd aspect of reading this book was how old it made me feel. Characters rely on regular telephones, and even the postal service to communicate with each other! Facts have to be gathered via legwork; there is no internet. Reports are typed, and papers left at the office can't be retrieved electronically. Women are still pretty much confined to traditional gender stereo-typed roles---housewife, secretary, barmaid, and nurse. This is clearly a relic of an earlier age. Yet it was written in 1975---when I was ten years old---reminding me that I, too, am a relic of a different age.
I may pick up one or two later books in the series to see how Dexter and his characters develop over time, but I probably won't read the entire series. (less)
This is another fun language book by McWhorter. This volume is organized around looking at all the ways that languages change and evolve over time. Mc...moreThis is another fun language book by McWhorter. This volume is organized around looking at all the ways that languages change and evolve over time. McWhorter describes a rich variety of changes that languages and dialects can undergo. We've all heard and read about how languages can change in pronunciation over time, and how word meanings can evolve. But that is only the start of McWhorter's entertaining and informative tour through the evolution of language.
Complex language features---such as inflection or the use of tone---come and go over time, and McWhorter provides some fascinating insights into how and why this type of change happens. He also describes a variety of other complexities that arise in the world's languages, but are generally unfamiliar to folks like me who are mostly only familiar with Romance or Indo-European languages.
There is a large (and interesting) section of the book devoted to pidgins and creoles. Creoles are essentially new languages that spring into being when people who use a much simpler pidgin are compelled to rely almost exclusively on that pidgin for communication of a long period of time. The resulting Creole is a true language with a grammar and vocabulary that provide sufficient expressiveness for the full range of human communications. McWhorter argues that since Creoles are less evolved, the common features across creole languages are probably a good indication of the types of features that would have been present in the earliest human language.
Another interesting aspect of the book was the contrasting of more isolated, regional languages and more wide-spread languages such as English, Hindi, Chinese, or Arabic. The truly bizarre and hard to grasp linguistic complexities are much more likely to be found in the more isolated languages, where most if not all speakers learn the language natively as children. Once a language gets big enough that many people are learning it as a second language, those rough edges get softened over time. Thus, for example, Swahili, a language adopted by many adults as a second language, is generally considered the "easiest" of the Bantu languages.
There are many other interesting aspects of language evolution in this book. How do languages change when the mix with each other, whether due to migration, trade, or conquest? What happens when a language starts getting written down? How do languages change as they die out? Do we have any hope of reconstructing the original human language?
The book is full of interesting examples English and other languages readers may know, such as French, German, and Russian, and from languages readers are unlikely to have heard of, such as Ngan'gityemerri, an Aborigine language from northern Australia. And McWhorter tells his story with enthusiasm and a pleasant sprinkling of personal anecdotes and asides, both relevant (such as his personal experience grappling with different German dialects) and merely entertaining (such as his musings on the quality of art in turn-of-the-century comic strips).(less)
I've been playing flamenco guitar (off and on) and listening to flamenco music for roughly thirty years. I love flamenco singing (cante), but I don't...moreI've been playing flamenco guitar (off and on) and listening to flamenco music for roughly thirty years. I love flamenco singing (cante), but I don't speak a word of Spanish, so I can't follow the words. And Flamenco CDs never seem to include printed copies of the lyrics. So I've pretty much been flying blind all these years, hearing and feeling the emotional impact of the song, without knowing what it was about (except in the most general terms).
This thin volume is just what I've been looking for. It is a collection of flamenco verses presented in both Spanish and English translation. The book focuses on cante jondo, the deeper and more emotional style of flamenco. Most of the verses are soleas and siguiriyas.
The author, Kirkland, is a poet experienced in translating Spanish verse. So the English versions are quite readable---not the stilted awkward prose you sometimes get when verse is translated too literally. Quotations from flamenco aficionados are intermingled among the verses, and the book includes a short history of Flamenco and a brief description of the verse styles. (less)
This book looks at the history and development of twelve major international cities via the infrastructure built underneath them. There is a brief int...moreThis book looks at the history and development of twelve major international cities via the infrastructure built underneath them. There is a brief introduction and conclusion, but the bulk of the book is the chapters for each of these cities---New York, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Mexico City, Cairo, Beijing, Tokyo, and Sydney.
I'm pretty much the target audience for this book---I'm a life-long city-dweller, I like to read and think about how cities work, and I am interested in the kinds of engineering challenges involved in building subways, sewers and the like. Also I read and enjoyed Alex Marshall's earlier book, How Cities Work.
Despite all it had going for it, the book was a bit of a disappointment. Or maybe I was expecting and hoping for too much. I expected a more general discussion of how cities develop their underground infrastructure, illustrated by examples from various cities. Instead, the book is primarily twelve separate essays on each of the twelve different cities. There is interesting stuff in each city's description, whether it is historical information about the cities, unique features, or ongoing challenges. But the book gets repetitive. Despite the differences between the cities, the bulk of the discussion of each city focuses on three topics: the subway system, getting water into the city, and getting sewage out of the city. This was fascinating for the first city (also the city where I grew up), interesting for the next few, and made my eyes glaze over by the time I reached Sydney at the end of the book.
Note: This is the second book I've finished in 2011---the same number as my wife. This won't last. By tomorrow she will have finished a third (and maybe a fourth!), and I'll spend the rest of the year watching her book count fly past mine. But tonight, we're equal!(less)
This book provides lively look at several aspects of modern English from a linguist's perspective.
The book starts with a few chapters discussing the...moreThis book provides lively look at several aspects of modern English from a linguist's perspective.
The book starts with a few chapters discussing the myriad ways that languages and dialects change over time. McWhorter shows that languages are not static and immutable, rather they are constantly evolving over time, like a lava lamp, to use one of McWhorter's favorite metaphors. These opening chapters are pretty much a shortened version of McWhorter's more recent book, The Power of Babel.
Through most of the remaining chapters, McWhorter discusses different aspects of modern English through the lens of language change. There are discussions of a lot of (sometimes) controversial rules that some "authorities" try to propagate, with McWhorter arguing that these rules are generally pointless. It's hopeless to try to preserve old bits when the language has moved past them (e.g., "whom"). Likewise it's pointless to fight against new evolutions in language ("hopefully" and the use of "they" as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun).
More interesting for me was the chapter on Shakespearean English. McWhorter describes how often Shakespeare uses language that is, essentially, foreign to the modern audience. Mostly this is a matter of word meanings and idioms. But McWhorter argues that many of us have to work so hard to understand a Shakespeare play (in the theater) and miss so much of its meaning that we really should be performing Shakespeare in translation---translation into modern English.
The final three chapters of the book are devoted to a discussion of Black English. The book was originally published shortly after the 1996-7 controversy over the teaching of Ebonics in the Oakland schools. And in many ways it is largely a vehicle for McWhorter to make his argument about this issue. McWhorter pokes holes in many linguistic misconceptions surrounding the debate and offers his views on the pedagogical challenges of teaching kids a new dialect at school and discusses the larger hurdles facing Black English speakers in American schools.
All in all, this was an entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking book. Some of the sections on Black English feel a bit dated, as they are focused on rebutting arguments that were put forth 15+ years ago. But even so, it was still a good read.
In reading the book, I was disappointed that McWhorter didn't draw some connection between his chapters on the folly of prescriptive rules in grammar and usage and his chapters on Black English. It seems to me that both of these issues touch on the topic of how language is used as a marker of class and status. McWhorter rightly argues against people who disparage Black English as linguistically inferior to Standard English. At the same time, he acknowledges the value in teaching everyone to speak Standard English. While the prescriptivist rules about split infinitives and "hopefully" may not have a solid linguistic basis, I would argue that they are examples of the same issues that come up with Black English. Failure to follow these rules can be viewed as an indication of inferior education, intelligence, and social background---just as many people treat Black English. Thus, to the extent that these rules are followed to sound like the educated and elite, it doesn't matter whether they have a sound linguistic basis.
On a completely different note, I found the cover photo on the hardcover edition of the book puzzling. It is a black-and-white shot of a city street in the late afternoon, with long shadows throwing everything into relief. Obviously this ties in with the title of the book, The Word on the Street. What's funny about it is that somebody obviously wanted to emphasize the canyon-like effect of looking down a city street and stretched the picture to make it longer and narrower. The result, however, is that all of the cars and trucks on the street are oddly out of proportion.
A fascinating history of some of the early congressional debates about slavery. For the most part these were debates about whether it would even be pe...moreA fascinating history of some of the early congressional debates about slavery. For the most part these were debates about whether it would even be permissible to discuss the "peculiar institution" of the South in the U.S. House of Representatives. Miller makes excellent use of the original records of these debates and does a good job portraying the debates in terms of the concerns of the participants, people who had no foreknowledge that this issue would ultimately lead to the American Civil War. The book also provides a larger-than-life look at the last stage of the career of John Quincy Adams, the only former U.S. President to serve in the House of Representatives.(less)
Recently I ate lunch with a work friend who loves math. In fact, I think she's just moonlighting as a computer programmer until she can figure out how...moreRecently I ate lunch with a work friend who loves math. In fact, I think she's just moonlighting as a computer programmer until she can figure out how to do math full time. That morning she had pointed me to Vi Hart's amazing math doodle videos and, not surprisingly, we wound up talking about them and how they do a brilliant job of making math fun and interesting. From there, our conversation touched on the various formative experiences the two of us had in learning about math as kids, our experiences with teaching or tutoring people in math, and the (many) woes of math education in the United States.
Somewhere during the course of the conversation I remembered this book, which I originally read more than ten years ago. I remembered i as being a fascinating comparison of how math is taught in the US, Germany, and Japan, and recommended it to my friend as a way to get a broader look at math education in the US, and at what other countries are doing differently and better. My original plan was to bring the book to work the next day and give it to her, but when I pulled it off the bookshelf I started re-reading. So it took a bit longer to get it to her.
This foundation for this book is a comparison of math education in the US, Germany, and Japan. A group of researchers took a random sample of schools in each country and went into them and video-taped an 8th grade math class from each school. By comparing what the saw in dozens of classes in each country, the researchers analyzed the differences in teaching styles between them.
The book starts with the actual research, describing sample classes from the three countries and then generalizing about the differences in lesson content and style between them. Since the authors are academics, this section also includes information about their methodology---how they tried to ensure that they videotaped a random set of classes, how they encoded the types of behavior and activity they saw in the videos, etc. Personally, I found this interesting---I like understanding how people in other fields do research---but I can imagine that this could be pretty dry for other readers.
But that is only the first part of the book, and although it was, for me, the most interesting part, it is really just the groundwork for the authors' primary argument. The authors describe the system of lesson study used in Japan. This is an ongoing process where each year teachers select a small number of topics to investigate. These may be very broad and abstract topics, such as, "How do we help students see both sides in an historical debate?" or very narrow, such as, "How do we help students start to understand the concept of 'borrowing' in subtraction?" The teachers meet regularly to discuss the topic, and typically prepare a new "lesson" which they try out in the classroom. They then write-up their results as a way of sharing their ideas and experience with peer teachers.
The authors argue that by having the teachers involved in this ongoing introspection about what works and what doesn't work in the classroom, the teachers themselves become more invested in finding (and using) better methods of teaching, thus leading to a continuing improvement in the quality of education. And they make a strong case for bringing something similar to American education. They identify some of the cultural and bureaucratic obstacles and suggest ways to overcome them.
As an engineer I was quite sympathetic to the argument in favor of lesson study. I, too, believe that the way you make any system better (whether hardware, software, or people) is to always be on the lookout for areas where there is room for improvement and then to figure out how to make them better. What is particularly appealing is that this general approach does not preclude any of the other ideas that people have come up with for improving education. It merely provides a vehicle for teachers to learn about them, reflect on what will work in their classroom, and discuss how to adapt ideas they believe in to their own lessons. (less)