I picked up Chaim Potok again this fall in order to offer an alternate text to students who had either already read, or were personally opposed to ano...moreI picked up Chaim Potok again this fall in order to offer an alternate text to students who had either already read, or were personally opposed to another book in my standard curriculum. As I did I remembered just how detailed and immersive a writer he is.
Covering the often tenuous uncertainty of friendship between an hasidic and a modern Jew in 1940s era New York City, Potok gives plenty of details about the cultural conflict between each sect. He also has an impressive ability to weave international incidents into the flow of a story with natural grace, giving the reader a sense of time as well as place.
But Potok's best sense of immersion is at play in how he describes the people. Characters are rich and detailed, their behaviors motivated through histories both ancient and personal. Reuven, Danny and their fathers are beautifully crafted and sincerely engaging. They seem less like characters you're reading about and more like people you're sitting beside.
Before I prepared the quizzes and assignments associated with the book, I had described The Chosen as "a classic that captures friendship, feuds, growing up and growing old."Re-reading it, I feel like I can shorten that again to "a classic".(less)
It had been a while between sharp witted political satires for Christopher Buckley. Blame it on the irrational expectations after the film release of...moreIt had been a while between sharp witted political satires for Christopher Buckley. Blame it on the irrational expectations after the film release of Thanking you for Smoking, or the general difficulty in satirizing Barack Obama without verging into "SOCIALIST HITLER" quackery, but it's good to have him back.
His latest adventure in the annals of ethically questionable PR protagonists tracks a defense industry lobbyist charged with whipping up anti-Chinese sentiment in America. Once we have an enemy again, the thinking goes, we'll feel a much greater need for a bright shiny missile defense technology. In the process of adding some vigor to our vitriol, we run into a couple of beautiful/amoral talking heads, a civil war re-enactor, a besieged communist party leader, a woebegone national security advisor, an aspiring equestrienne and the Dali Llama, all slammed into each other through surreal political machinations that would be laughable if they weren't so oddly believable.
Surprisingly, Buckley's usual passion for exposing the power behind the throne is underwhelming, the PR'tagonist "Bird McIntire" seems, in a classic Buckley-ism, just to "be in it for the mortgage", making him a rather bland hero for most of his chapters. The real connection comes with the beleaguered Chinese President Fa, who seems to have genuine patriotism, intelligence and compassion on his side, even though none of those traits seems particularly helpful amongst the swooping war hawks and oblivious ostriches in the rest of the novel. (Just how accurate Buckley's observations of Chinese political culture are is questionable, but his sense of people is still strong).
To be sure there's plenty to appreciate in Buckley's ever-present sharp eye and clever repurposing of political vanity here, but the imbalance in characters leaves it a few strides short of his best offerings. I only hope that he'll have a new offering sooner rather than later.(less)
Fun fact for anyone who has tuned in to my writing at random, or without knowing the origin of this little place. I'm a teacher, and proud. More than...moreFun fact for anyone who has tuned in to my writing at random, or without knowing the origin of this little place. I'm a teacher, and proud. More than that, I have a masters degree in international education, and I'm proud of that. I suppose I love diverse worlds of education because I'm a glutton for punishment: not content with my standard 12 years of high school, plus 4 years of college and 2 years of graduate school, I want to be in school every day. Not content to be in one kind of massively complicated often ineffective bureaucratic system, I've chosen to study and explore dozens of them around the world.
Amanda Ripley took on the same challenge with a more direct purpose. Rather than questing after knowledge or jobs, like I do, she was hunting for the answer to a simple question: "how can American kids get a world class education?". She and troop of exchange student journalists looked into the systems of successful schools in Korea, Poland and Finland and report back with anecdotes and analyses that peer into the multitude of factors that help them succeed while we struggle (comparatively).
The book comes back with a host of ideas and buzzwords including social structure, mathematics instruction, teacher training, drive, rigor, parental engagement, union adaptability, cultural value and standardized testing. Ultimately Ripley's take away seems to be that everyone cares about education, but Americans care about other things beyond the learning in the classroom (self-esteem, athletic accomplishment, personal policy victories).
As someone who has studied international education and has a personal stake in how well American students do on tests, I'm impressed with how well Ripley and her collaborators have done given such a short time. Though I dispute that any test (even the almighty PISA used to frame this study) should be used as a global yardstick, I'm glad that someone has demanded that pundits and policy makers step back from their abstract arguments to consider that there is no one answer. To be sure the hug-happy American educator hasn't served students as well as they could, but our fixes won't come from Finland or Poland or even cram-session Korea. If readers approach this book less as a road map for success and more as a puzzle to solve, there's plenty of hope for us left.(less)
As the weather turns colder and the sports talk radio station turn their focus 100% towards pigskins, I can't help but pop in audio-books to make my c...moreAs the weather turns colder and the sports talk radio station turn their focus 100% towards pigskins, I can't help but pop in audio-books to make my car ride go faster. Finding Douglas Adams' classic surreal mystery in a box of my parent's basement this summer was an unanticipated winner for me. All the silliness and sublime imagination of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is repurposed here to guide characters through a curious case of murder, betrayal, magical conjuring and a sofa stuck half way up a staircase.
As a reader, Adams knows precisely what he wants to emphasize in each line and phrase, and captures a great deal of the tonal elements that many other readers may miss. He occasionally blurs the distinctions between characters, and the rhythm of his jokes sometimes veers into "wry-observation-overload". But the thrill of the chase, the glee of the literary allusions (turning Samuel Taylor Coleridge into a plot point must be an unparalleled feat of excellence in authorial nerdery), and the hilarity of his coy pause and punch-line syntax makes it a perfect companion through the snowy streets of commuter-ville USA.(less)
Adopted mid-westerner, Neil Gaiman's newest book is a rich form of youthful and mature storytelling. It starts as a Roald Dahl-style exploration of ch...moreAdopted mid-westerner, Neil Gaiman's newest book is a rich form of youthful and mature storytelling. It starts as a Roald Dahl-style exploration of childhood and the distrust that naturally exists between children and adults, and slowly turns into as surreal and dream-like a narrative as I've ever read. The villains are scary, the heroes are strong-willed and determined, and the setting is at once familiar and highly stylized. Yet, as the world becomes more imaginative, chaotic and uncontrollable those characters become even more important to hold on to. They aren't simplistic because this is a kid's book, they're simplistic because, when faced with bizarre complications to our world, we can all be forgiven a little more simplicity. Gaiman's characters are real, consistent and consistently flawed; how they adjust to chaotic settings in our present is amazing.
The simple lessons of children's fare gives way to a more complicated acceptance of how complex our lives are (even as children). That the main character remains static, unchanging, unable to grow or adjust is a startling choice. It's hard to write a book in which a protagonist does not grow or learn or undergo a formative experience (just ask some of my 9th grade students, who wrote better short stories than they thought they could, almost in spite of themselves.)(less)
It's not the most memorable of plot lines or characters, but the commitment and appreciation of setting is a tremendous boon. Set in a Renaissance Ven...moreIt's not the most memorable of plot lines or characters, but the commitment and appreciation of setting is a tremendous boon. Set in a Renaissance Venice glass blower-y, The Falcon in the Glass captures a young adult's struggle to find their place in a world that doesn't involve a single school (but has a big chunk of teaching), that has no cliques, but definitely deals with class and sectarianism.
It's rare to find really well done historical YA fiction, let alone historical YA fiction that delves into long past times. To capture both the universality of teenage education, social conflict and family trouble and the unique experience of Renaissance Venice is tremendous to find. Chances are it's not propping up any island displays in your neighborhood Barnes & Noble, and it won't grab much attention. But if you have a young reader with a hunger for history, you could do a lot worse than this book.(less)
Ruta Sepetys' protagonist is not that easy to relate to. Sure, Jo Moraine has some of the same problems and dramas that plague every girl on the cusp...moreRuta Sepetys' protagonist is not that easy to relate to. Sure, Jo Moraine has some of the same problems and dramas that plague every girl on the cusp of 18: boys to choose from, applying to college, dealing with an absentee father, finding friends, balancing academics and work, avoiding the same mistakes her mother made, growing into her womanhood.
Of course, she's also the daughter of a prostitute who is also caught up in a murder investigation set in 1950's era New Orleans, so it's not exactly a perfect match.
Still, It's a credit to Sepetys that her characters are believable and the setting feels fresh rather than mothballed or stuffed with overwrought sentiment. The 50s and its segregated past are there, so is the setting of New Orleans, dank and musty. And still we can connect to the drama surrounding Jo, wondering whether or not she can break the cycle of dependency and degradation of life in the French Quarter and find a better place somewhere else.
It's a further credit to Sepetys that she makes us care whilst juggling plotlines like a stilted mardi-gras parader juggles flaming torches. At times it feels a little ungainly (again, like the juggler on stilts), lunging for a plot point that you might have forgotten about, but she keeps them all in the air, and builds her world with a number of valuable, believable characters (even amongst those who only appear for a page or two).
In the end, Out of the Easy beautifully pairs a rich setting with a believable (if not entirely relatable) character. As Jo gradually ticks off each of her dramas, she becomes a powerful and winning character whose setting enriches her, even as she seeks to escape it.(less)