I love Rick Geary's blocky style as well as his attraction to the morbid and macabre. Reading 'The Terible Axe-Man' makes me want to make sure I get tI love Rick Geary's blocky style as well as his attraction to the morbid and macabre. Reading 'The Terible Axe-Man' makes me want to make sure I get to all his work. Not as good as my favorite so far--that would be 'The Fatal Bullet'--but pretty darn good....more
Joann Sfar has been in the news recently because of his new movie about Serge Gainsbourg. The film sounds intriguing, and I hope it sends more peopleJoann Sfar has been in the news recently because of his new movie about Serge Gainsbourg. The film sounds intriguing, and I hope it sends more people to Sfar's prodigious and excellent comic book catalog. To his credit, Sfar insists on calling them comic books, dismissing the highbrow 'graphic novel' as a term for adults who might be embarrassed in the bookstore. Sfar writes superb comic books for adults and children, and his adaptation of 'The Little Prince' is no exception. ...more
In this fractious time and place, when the future can seem futile, where the landscape can appear forlorn, you could do worse than spend an hour or twIn this fractious time and place, when the future can seem futile, where the landscape can appear forlorn, you could do worse than spend an hour or two pursuing happiness with Maira Kalman. For Kalman, the majestic and the modest carry equal weight. Small wonders are as carefully observed and noted as grand ones. A masterpiece by Velasquez is no less important than the ‘woman in the red dress with a snappy hairdo’ examining it. Kalman’s loopy lines, just north of childlike, splashed with bold color, are a window into a United States where a plate of sausage and eggs transcends mundaneness and where epic figures, say, George Washington, become neighbors. Where you tour the Supreme Court and a Brooklyn sewage plant, equally charmed and delighted. Kalman is not exactly wearing rose-colored glasses—‘everyone has to be sad part of the time; otherwise, you would be insane’—but she refuses to dwell on the dreary. ‘And the Pursuit of Happiness’ is a palliative tonic of a book recommended to the world-weary. ...more
There are parallels in Henning Mankell’s ‘Daniel’ to Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room,’ another unsettling novel centered on abuse and captivity—a child seen froThere are parallels in Henning Mankell’s ‘Daniel’ to Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room,’ another unsettling novel centered on abuse and captivity—a child seen from his own point of view (albeit not exclusively, as is the case with ‘Room’), a queasy undercurrent of voyeurism infecting the moral outrage felt in reading exposé. It’s a daring breakaway from the format for which Mannkell is known.
Daring, but not altogether surprising for Mankell, who has made categorizing the dark, introspective, and insightful Kurt Wallander series as mere police procedurals seem all too narrow.
‘Daniel’ is very, very dark. A young man in a drab little Swedish town in the latter half of the nineteenth century leaves his demented, syphilitic, dying father, and his barren home, to pursue a medical career. He faints during his first autopsy. He discovers he has no purpose in life, other than regular, businesslike onanism and regular, perfunctory concubinary trysts. No self-reflection follows. He stumbles through the swales of academia and in the most random of ways decides he will become famous by discovering an unknown insect. In the Kalihari Desert.
It’s there that Hans Bengler finds his purpose. He will be “father” to a child orphaned in the imperial battles Europeans are fighting to see who gets South Africa. Daniel is Bengler’s name for the boy who continues to think of himself as Molo, even after learning Swedish and seeing snow.
Bengler quite literally leashes Molo and trains him like a dog as well. “My name is Daniel. I believe in God,” the waif dutifully recites as Bengler displays his curiosity to pallid countrymen for whom an African is no less strange than an alien or monster or freak.
Pretty bleak stuff. The relief Mankell offers is his craft—meticulously assembled observation and narrative that never calls attention to itself yet transcends its ordinariness, its plainness, to shine light on the human condition in all its ugliness and beauty. The voice of the child is particularly striking, and touching, and, in an odd way, hopeful. We may rip apart children’s lives but we cannot steal the pure truth of their perception, untainted by tawdry experience.
How is it that we can be so beguiled by the sordid that we ignore, or worse, accept the squandering of our most precious treasure? How can we allow child abuse? There’s the hope—that we can recognize how valuable our children are, and do something about it.
If there is any fault with the second book in the ‘Leviathan Trilogy,’ it’s that it would be difficult to read it as a stand alone. Reading ‘LeviathanIf there is any fault with the second book in the ‘Leviathan Trilogy,’ it’s that it would be difficult to read it as a stand alone. Reading ‘Leviathan’ before ‘Behemoth’ is as close to essential without being absolutely necessary as you can get.
Is that a fault? Not if you like series. Not if you like alternate history. Or slam-bang excitement, exotic locales, and nail-biting suspense. Westerfeld delivers.
Readers may come away from ‘Behemoth’ knowing more about the jury-rigged system of alliances that set World War I in motion, the intricate geography of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, and the cute little furry night creature with Walter Keane eyes from southern Aisa called the loris, than might have been learned in any school lesson. Oh, don’t let me forget Tesla, and the Orient Express.
That’s despite the information being contained in the most fantastic of fantasies, where the world powers of the early twentieth century deploy weapons that are either mechanistic marvels or breathing organisms, where a British midshipman is actually a girl.
And all that phantasmagoria being exquisitely drawn in the beautifully brooding black and white illustrations with which Keith Thompson has enhanced the story.
Westerfeld ends ‘Behemoth’ with a tantalizing question. I’m desperate for the final episode of the ‘Leviathan Trilogy.’
Highly recommended for fifth graders on up. ...more
M. Shyamalan’s ‘The Village’ has a plotline suspiciously close to Margaret Peterson Haddix’s ‘Running Out of Time.’ A nineteenth century backwoods setM. Shyamalan’s ‘The Village’ has a plotline suspiciously close to Margaret Peterson Haddix’s ‘Running Out of Time.’ A nineteenth century backwoods settlement is completely artificial; we’re actually in the present. When a medical emergency prompts residents to seek a twentieth century cure, a young girl is asked to escape the guarded perimeter of her make-believe world.
Despite the striking resemblances, the film’s producers called charges of plagiarism ‘meritless.’ Haddix and her publishers considered litigation, then didn’t bother suing, probably because ‘The Village’ was less than wildly successful, to put it charitably.
All a fascinating sidelight, but not one that really matters when you’re reading Haddix’s debut novel. The author of the fabulous ‘Shadow Children’ series has written a novel far superior, not to mention slightly more plausible, than Shyamalan’s humorless clunker of a movie.
Since ‘Running Out of Time’ is written for an audience that is willing to suspend disbelief, readers might excuse the lack of planes flying overhead. Or the children of the ersatz 1840s Clifton, Indiana, not wondering about the cameras in the trees.
Unlike ‘The Village,’ the town in ‘Running Out of Time’ is not a thought-control experiment. Instead it’s a tourist attraction that’s morphed into a study of immunology. The conspiracy, and conspirators, behind the artifice are more down-to-earth and realistic.
What really distinguishes ‘Running Out of Time,’ as in the ‘Shadow Children’ books, is its utterly true and finely drawn child protagonist. Jessie Keyser is a resourceful, yet vulnerable, kid, with the same sources of strength, and the same insecurities, as seventh and eighth graders in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her encounters with adults and other children carry a straightforward verisimilitude.
Jessie runs into all kinds of suspenseful action as she, like all children coming of age, searches for truth in an untruthful society imperfectly managed by its elders. And, like all childhood heroes should do, she saves the day.
‘Room’ is the imagined diary of a five-year-old prisoner. His mother was kidnapped from her college campus, then stuck in the spookiest of hidey-holes‘Room’ is the imagined diary of a five-year-old prisoner. His mother was kidnapped from her college campus, then stuck in the spookiest of hidey-holes, a backyard pre-fab storage shed sound-proofed and reinforced with electronic locks and mesh fencing. Over years, she is repeatedly raped. Jack is one of the results.
Emma Donoghue deftly lets us into Jack’s insular world, and his inner world, carefully constructing a voice that is naïve without being simplistic, unformed without being dull, precocious but not precious. Jack’s mother has heroically managed to supply him with the things a child needs—structure and stimulation, love.
Of course, reader and writer can never let go of their own voices and forget who they are in relation to such a tale—voyeurs. ‘Room’ is an artifact found in a culture of reality shows and tell-all autobiographical celebrity. It’s to Donoghue’s credit that she doesn’t ignore that, and doesn’t shy away from making us squirm.
As the story begins, Jack realizes that he wants to ‘have some’—meaning mother’s milk. A five-year-old breast feeding is undoubtedly transgressive, and it feels prurient to read about it. At the same time, it makes sense in the closeted atmosphere that Jack calls home.
Fast forward to the liberated mother and son. Mother agrees to an Oprah-like tattle-tale TV interview for some needed income. The interviewer obviously goes for the obvious: ‘You breastfed him. In fact, this may startle some of our viewers, I understand you still do?’
Mother is miffed: ‘In this whole story, that’s the shocking detail?’
The reader may flirt with a moment of intellectual and moral superiority. Someone who reads ‘Room’ is likely to view the media circus from some remove, or maybe not view it at all. To identify with the mother’s outrage.
However, isn’t it true that it is a shocking detail? That it does startle the viewer? Isn’t it distressing that it perhaps does make us more uncomfortable than watching Jack, concealed in a wardrobe, counting the creaks of the bed as his prison-master and father assaults his mother?
The best tales of transgression—‘Lolita,’ Edward Albee’s ‘The Goat,’ the fairy tales that are a leitmotif of ‘Room’—make us all too aware of how close we are to what we say shames and disgusts us. The messy human condition that makes it hard to hold the high ground. The forbidden fruit that continues to titillate.
All that guilt, not to mention the claustrophobic and mundane horror of daily life in captivity, could have resulted in a very dour novel. Fortunately, Donoghue knows just how far to maintain the pressure, and just when to release. Jack’s escape is cathartic, action-packed, thrilling. It features a wonderful cameo appearance by a stellar representative of local law enforcement.
Amazingly, Donoghue achieves such authorial slight-of-hand within the restrictions of a child’s language.
‘Room’ is not heart-warming, nor forgiving. Neither is it predictable or saccharine. ‘Room’ is a transformative story that challenges its reader and writer.
Working on a daily basis with children who have been diagnosed with deficits—problem learners—I’m attracted to educational theory which holds that indWorking on a daily basis with children who have been diagnosed with deficits—problem learners—I’m attracted to educational theory which holds that individuals are amalgam of unique characteristics. Strengths as well as weaknesses.
My conception of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences played into that attraction. School is in large part based on psychometrically determined intelligence quotients and the ability to apply intelligence to written language and mathematics. Stretching that view a bit might allow kids who are academically unsuccessful to see that they have capabilities that can be realized with effort, and allow society to make use of unrecognized potential.
After reading ‘Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons,’ I find my conception was fairly accurate, but I remain confused about how to translate theory into practice. I’m also more skeptical about the theory itself, while still agreeing with Gardner that we need ‘to nurture all of the varied human intelligences.’
It’s interesting that Gardner has been surprised by his audience. He originally formulated his theory in 1983 as ‘a psychologist who thought he was addressing his fellow psychologists.’ However, he did not find a warm welcome among his colleagues, to whom ‘Frames of Mind’ ‘seemed somewhat exotic.’ Among those whom Gardner, perhaps with a hint of derision, labels ‘psychometricians,’ ‘the book aroused antipathy.’
However, the book was a huge hit with another constituency. ‘For reasons that I do not fully understand,’ writes a baffled Gardner, ‘the theory of multiple intelligences spoke immediately to educators—loudly and quite clearly.’
The dichotomic reception of ‘Frames of Mind’ set off warning signals in my mind to approach the theory of multiple intelligences with caution. I came to ‘Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons’ after reading Daniel Willingham’s excellent ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ The cognitive psychologist’s critical view of Gardner’s work increased my wariness.
The presentation of ‘Multiple Intelligences’ didn’t help. It’s not an updated edition of ‘Frames of Mind,’ but a poorly organized mish-mash of collected essays, some written with co-authors, and randomly ordered reflections on a theory by its creator a quarter of a century down the road.
Readers looking for an outline of that theory need go no further in this book than its first chapter, twenty-five pages aptly titled ‘In a Nutshell.’ Or, with even more brevity, you could note that Gardner posits seven intelligences: musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, intrapersonal and interpersonal. Maybe an eighth, too—a naturalist intelligence.
Most readers, I would think, come to this book with that outline more or less already in place.
Gardner does contextualize his work and its effect over the years, and acknowledges an impediment to widespread acceptance of his ideas—a lack of supporting clinical evidence for multiple intelligences.
While it’s hard to argue with his plea that ‘psychologists should spend less time ranking people and more time trying to help them,’ it leaves a question unanswered. How?
Good teachers have long recognized that different students learn in different ways. I’m not really sure that determining which intelligences are in which classrooms will make for an improved version of tailoring instruction to varying needs and abilities, even to the moment.
To be fair, Gardner does address the issue of application in the second part of this book where he discusses the Project Spectrum elementary school program, learning through projects, the Arts PROPEL high school program, and using broader, more inclusive forms of assessment. The problem is that the information is sketchy. Gardner repeatedly reminds readers of the positive reaction to his theory among educators, rather than tell them exactly how educators can put theory into practice.
A chapter called “Multiple Entry Points Toward Disciplinary Understanding” offers an interesting and helpful way of framing instruction—narrational, logical, quantitative, foundational, aesthetic, experiential, or collaborative. Likewise, while considering Project Spectrum, Gardner includes a questionnaire which puts forward useful criteria for determining a child’s learning style through observation.
But is connecting learning styles to teaching really have much to do with intelligences as separate categories? Gardner says no, that ‘style and intelligence are really fundamentally different constructs.’ Ironic, given that I found the questionnaire and entry point framework the most practical takeaway from ‘Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons.’
Gardner tackles those ‘new horizons’ in a final section that I thought was pretty much fluff. A chapter on multiple intelligence theory and the workplace seemed downright goofy.
The ostensible goal of this book is to re-introduce Gardner’s theory and to explain its application. It fails on both counts....more
Three years ago, Robert Brock’s translation of ‘Pinocchio’ garnered a fair amount of attention, including mine. I realized I knew nothing about the daThree years ago, Robert Brock’s translation of ‘Pinocchio’ garnered a fair amount of attention, including mine. I realized I knew nothing about the darker original story, despite the Disney movie being a childhood favorite.
Actually, though, I couldn’t remember too much about the movie, and thought I should see it again. What really stuck in my mind was Jiminy Cricket, and even more, the voice of Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket singing “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Bliss.
Three years later, I haven’t yet returned to the movie, nor read Brock’s translation of the Carlos Collodi story. But then ‘Pinocchio’ drew me back.
In her superb blog, the ‘Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac,’ Anita Silvey devoted an entry to the Robert Innocenti-illustrated edition of the book. The sample she provided of his work was too enticing to let ‘Pinocchio’ slip out of consciousness once more.
Innocenti delivers. Collodi’s story, of course, is far longer than would fit in a picture book. Innocenti lavishly supplies many, many more pictures than normally found in a chapter book, in large format and lush color. He places the action in a hyper-realistic small-town Italy full of magic and foreboding, in a not-too-distant past—photography’s there and motor scooters are on the horizon. It’s a magnificent book to look through.
As for Collodi’s tale…. It’s probably no surprise to anyone that Disney homogenized the contents. ‘Pinocchio’ will surprise, though. That cute little cricket is a large all-too-real insect creepily crawling up a wall. The cricket does talk, and offers the wooden puppet, whose life ambition is to ‘eat, drink, sleep and amuse myself, and to lead a vagabond life from morning to night,’ some sound advice.
Don’t run away. Don’t rebel. Obey your parents. Go to school, or at least learn a trade. If not, ‘you’ll grow up to be a perfect donkey.’
Pinoccio grabs a mallet and smashes the cricket’s head. Innocenti unflinchingly depicts a line of goo running down the wall to the discarded weapon.
Definitely not Disney.
There are moral overtones to the tale, and as in the movie, goodness transforms the puppet into a boy. But the original Pinocchio never really seems quite ready to walk a straight and narrow path. You get the feeling he never really learns his lesson, and never will.
Indeed, you get the feeling that is not what the story is really about, and that Collodi enjoys observing the evil mischief of his protagonist.
A violent story that glosses over morality might be considered inappropriate as children’s literature. I’ll leave that up to you, and any little devils looking for something with a little jolt. Fairy tale land can be unsettling. And thrilling. Ask the Grimms.
Highly recommended for unsqueamish fourth graders on up....more
The New York Times Magazine section called ‘The Funny Pages,’ unfortunately no longer around, introduced me to Seth. So you can look at a complete worThe New York Times Magazine section called ‘The Funny Pages,’ unfortunately no longer around, introduced me to Seth. So you can look at a complete work of his online and for free (http://www.nytimes.com/ref/magazine/f...). Fabulous.
It might be wise to take a look at ‘George Sprott,’ before delving into ‘It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken,’ just to test out your tolerance for Seth’s elegant portrayal of the quotidian. If you’re looking for action comics or dramatics, you are not likely to be satisfied.
‘It’s a Good Life’ is a magical piece of fiction that reads like autobiography. It’s about Seth, who is not really Seth, a neurotic graphic artist who views the modern world with utter distaste and yearns for an imagined past, much like the real Seth. That yearning takes him on a quest for Kalo, an unsung cartoonist from yesteryear, whom the fictional Seth first notices in an old New Yorker. Of course, there never was a Kalo, and his work is really Seth’s.
In an understated style that shows his appreciation for mid-twentieth century architecture, Seth gets you believing all this, to the point where you might Google Kalo, or start looking through old New Yorkers.
‘It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken’ is an endearing and bittersweet graphic novel, which I highly recommend to endearing and bittersweet oddballs who like to read comic books, and like old cartoons....more
Fiction is about finding truth in imagination. That gives writers license to occupy someone else’s time or milieu, to be whom they are not—another claFiction is about finding truth in imagination. That gives writers license to occupy someone else’s time or milieu, to be whom they are not—another class, another gender, another race.
The test is readers’ belief. Characters have to be real. They must do what they do because of what they are, rather than doing what the writer wants to prove he can make them do.
Perhaps Michael Cunningham felt that a challenging test of his ability to make his readers believe was to write about a straight man suddenly overwhelmed by his inner homosexual. I don’t know. But ‘By Nightfall’ reads like an author out to prove that he can write about a straight man suddenly overwhelmed by his inner homosexual.
So Peter Harris, who might have been an interesting character, a Soho gallery owner who possibly has the right combination of contradictory personality quirks, business acumen, and aesthetic awareness to advance into the top tier of New York’s art market, becomes instead a symbol. A symbol of wanting to be ‘the one who wants to be free,’ ‘the one who’d do unspeakable things.’
Cunningham is a wonderful author with an exquisite eye for detail, and some of the passages in ‘By Nightfall’ are lyrically stunning. The eternally insomniac Peter gets out of bed and wanders to the tip of Manhattan, calling his sullen daughter Bea by cell phone on the way, and the reader is treated to an inside tour of the city, both provincially insular and extravagantly extroverted.
As he approaches Battery Park, Peter remembers it is where 'Moby Dick' begins with ‘a riff about this "mole" assaulted by waves.’ And then Peter senses ‘the black roil of the harbor, netted with light, he can smell it suddenly…this particular seawater…this finger of land, this "mole"…the city’s only point of contact with something bigger and more potent than itself.’
Would that Cunningham had allowed Peter more of that late night roaming, and more contact with the novel’s truly interesting characters, like Bea, and Peter’s wife, Rebecca, and his friend Bette, dying of cancer.
In another astonishing passage filled with precise and visual language, Cunningham accompanies Bette and Peter as they visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and view Damien Hirst’s shark in its formaldehyde-filled display case, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.’
But the poetry of Manhattan spaces and the intricacies of complicated people take a back seat with the entrance of Rebecca’s brother, a specimen of incredible physical beauty. He’s also emotionally and intellectually vapid, a coke fiend and second-rate scam artist.
With his appearance, Cunningham seems to become just as distracted by the superficial as Peter is. The artists, and art, in Peter’s gallery are reduced to caricature. The novel hooks on a metaphor for the emptiness of contemporary art that is spectacularly clumsy. See, underneath the attractive wrappings there’s really nothing at all.
The art and the pretty boy seem silly and meaningless. Above all, they seem to be there only to make a point, not to tell a story about people you believe are really people....more
A nice safe choice for the Newbery people, but not one that knocked my socks off.
The best historical novels, of course, trick you into learning aboutA nice safe choice for the Newbery people, but not one that knocked my socks off.
The best historical novels, of course, trick you into learning about their periods. The reader never notices he’s sitting still for a history seminar, but is swept up in a story that happens in history. Vanderpool’s intention to teach World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, is quite transparent.
Not to mention her desire to impart a feel-good messages about diversity (that is, the diversity of European immigrants in a Kansas town), and self-confidence. You know the bad guys are going to lose because, well, they’re bad. And they’re in the Ku Klux Klan
The structure of the novel makes for some snags in the stream, as well. There are four narrators, the delightfully feisty Abilene Tucker, 12-years-old and making do without family as a new resident of Manifest, Kansas, the author of a somewhat hokey homespun newspaper column, the doughboy scribe behind a trove of letters Abilene comes across, and a Hungarian fortune teller.
If that isn’t enough stutter-stop narration for you, you also have to keep switching back and forth between two time frames, 1918 and 1936.
Too bad, because Vanderpool has some strong characters, a fascinating little window into an unsung time and place, and a nice bit of mystery regarding Abilene’s father.
I especially liked the cousins who quickly become Abilene’s buddies, the spunky Lettie and Ruthanne, and wished I could have followed more closely on the three girls’ heels as they kicked up the dust in the streets of Manifest. In the 1918 flashbacks, a boy called Jinx is also a strong and complex character.
The adults, with the exception of Abilene’s caretaker, Shady Howard, both a man of the cloth and the bottle, are one-dimensional and predictable. Like a nun named Sister Redempta, and those guys wearing hoods.
If I’d come to ‘Moon Over Manifest’ as an unheralded debut novel, I might have been more forgiving of its flaws. I expected more from the Newbery Award winner, especially in a year with so many great chapter books, and for that matter a fantastic non-fiction book about World War I, Russell Freedman’s ‘The War to End All Wars.’ ...more
I’ve read Gareth Hinds’s ‘Beowulf’ and ‘King Lear.’ Both fantastic examples of what can be done with the graphic novel form. With ‘The Odyssey,’ howevI’ve read Gareth Hinds’s ‘Beowulf’ and ‘King Lear.’ Both fantastic examples of what can be done with the graphic novel form. With ‘The Odyssey,’ however, Hinds has really outdone himself.
He’s outdone himself in size—‘The Odyssey’ is 250 pages long—and scope—it includes all of the elemental parts of Homer’s epic. And he hasn’t left out any of the excitement and drama that figure in his other works. If anything, those aspects are intensified. Hinds’s spectacular artwork, rich color, and superior page layouts are icing on the cake. Such a lovely book.
Readers of children’s literature know that ‘The Odyssey’ is a source tapped by many authors. How could kids not like a story jam-packed with magic and adventure, monsters and gods? Of the many adaptations, this is now the one I will recommend first. It’s the most comprehensive, and the most thrilling.
Highly recommended for sixth graders on up. ...more
The titular question might appear an opening to a rant against our educational system. Rest assured that Daniel Willingham is hardly scribbling out soThe titular question might appear an opening to a rant against our educational system. Rest assured that Daniel Willingham is hardly scribbling out some angry screed. He’s thoughtful, and avoids polemic.
In fact, I hope I’m not oversimplifying when I say his basic answer is that students don’t like school because it’s hard.
If that sounds awfully facile, be aware that Willingham goes on to a knottier problem: What can we do about it?
What Willingham is really writing about is not student anathema, but how our brains work, especially in the areas of understanding and memory, and how that connects to teaching students. A harder concept to translate into a catchy title.
School is hard because ‘we are not naturally good thinkers.’ That doesn’t mean we don’t have amazing brains. Evolution has equipped us to take in what’s around us and react accordingly. In typically down-to-earth and insightful language, Willingham uses a striking contrast to clear up the paradox:
‘Tasks that you take for granted—for example, walking on a rocky shore where the footing is uncertain—are much more difficult than playing top-level chess. No computer can do it.’
Humans do, however, have more difficulty when consciously processing available information to solve problems or create new ideas—thinking. ‘The mind is not designed for thinking,’ Willingham writes. Thinking takes time. Thinking requires work. Thinking means not being sure.
So our brains default to not thinking when possible, even when we are performing complex actions—like walking on a rocky shore. Once we know how to chop an onion, drive a car, or read a book, we no longer waste time or effort considering how we are doing those things, or question whether we are doing them correctly.
Willingham repeatedly returns to a major stumbling block on the road to true reasoning and reflection—working memory. This is a short and easy-to-read book with lots of great practical advice for teachers, but its most valuable contribution to my own thinking was really helping me better understand what working memory is, and how its limitations affect learning and cognition.
In a way, working memory is consciousness itself. It is what you are thinking about now. Working memory allows you to blend what’s coming in through your senses with what you already know so that you can answer questions and put together thoughts.
Willingham cites current research that pretty definitively concludes working memory is limited—very limited—and more or less fixed—there is little evidence that you can improve it.
What you can do is cheat it. If the ‘lack of space in working memory is a fundamental bottleneck of human cognition,’ the trick is to enfold richer content into the limited number of items that small space can hold.
There are two ways to do this. One is to increase factual knowledge. That’s extremely counter-intuitive—learn more to learn more. Here’s how John Medina put it in his ‘Brain Rules’: ‘It’s like saying that if you carry two heavy backpacks on a hike instead of one, you will accomplish your journey more quickly….’
But it’s true. Willingham uses the same kind of model as Medina, dividing his work into nine ‘cognitive principles.’ One is, ‘Factual knowledge precedes skill.’ Another is, ‘We understand new things in the context of things we already know.’
When a student can easily access factual knowledge from long-term memory, he can ‘chunk’ information. He has a clear idea of context. The items that he’s manipulating in working memory are broader and deeper. As I’m reading a discussion of eukaryotic cells and life regulation in Antonio Damasio’s ‘Self Comes to Mind,’ I’m extremely grateful I just reviewed cell structure with a seventh grade kid with whom I’m working.
Walking on Willingham’s rocky shore is a demonstration of the other way to get around the working memory logjam. Performing automatically means a student doesn’t have to use working memory to think about that performance.
An example Willingham uses is practicing times tables as a young man. When he transferred to a new school, his math teacher insisted that Willingham would do better if he memorized the multiplication facts. Coming from a school that placed more emphasis on conceptual understanding than rote memorization, Willingham at first resented the requirement. He soon realized how much automaticity helped.
It’s another counterintuitive principle, its paradoxical nature beautifully summed up by a marvelous quote from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: “It is a profoundly erroneous truism…that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.’
Unfortunately, automaticity only comes effortlessly with tasks such as breathing. Willingham’s cognitive principle here is, ‘Proficiency requires practice.’ So teachers have to think hard about what their students most need to practice. They should also consider that spacing practice—rather than cramming—is more effective.
It’s clear that Willingham regards working memory as a universal. Indeed, he cites studies connecting working memory to intelligence. This viewpoint is quite different from the outlook of Howard Gardner, and Multiple Intelligence theory. Willingham is somewhat abashed to find himself in this counterpoint position.
Nevertheless, despite feeling ‘like a bit of a Grinch’ in stating it, another one if his cognitive principles is, ‘Children are more alike than different in terms of learning.’ He makes a critical qualification, however—that he is not making a claim ‘that all children are alike, nor that teachers should treat children as interchangeable.’
But more important than tailoring content to individuals is teachers really getting to a deep understanding of that content. Activating previous knowledge and making sure that knowledge is there will help advance proficiency and comprehensive mastery.
So will thinking ‘of to-be-learned material as answers.’ Begin with a thorough examination of the questions.
No matter where children’s interests lie, no matter what their talents or ‘intelligences,’ I do believe that well-rounded general knowledge should be a goal of education (as does Gardner). It makes sense to me that we can also generalize about the ways students might acquire such knowledge.
Gardner’s skepticism about ‘horizontal faculties,’ like working memory, might result in teachers using valuable time evaluating different learning styles that would better be spent in effectively presenting content to groups with at least some homogeneity.
Educators, parents and students looking for some good tips on how to do that will find ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ a most worth while resource.
While reading Anne Scott MacLeod’s thought-provoking essay on historical fiction in the recent, and excellent, ‘A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’sWhile reading Anne Scott MacLeod’s thought-provoking essay on historical fiction in the recent, and excellent, ‘A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature,’ I was a little distressed to learn that MacLeod faults Karen Cushman for copping out on her heroine’s fate in ‘Catherine, Called Birdy.’
At the end of that work, Birdy lucks out when her arranged medieval marriage to an ‘old, ugly, and illiterate’ lecher is cancelled when he dies. Instead, she will wed his young, handsome, and well-read son.
Not a legitimate representation of the time, MacLeod insists. ‘In fairness,’ she admits, ‘I think Cushman knew this; she just flinched at consigning her likable character to her likely fate.’ (MacLeod’s piece is online at The Horn Book’s site: http://www.hbook.com/magazine/article....)
OK, sure. But I loved ‘Catherine, Called Birdy.’ I also believe that children have the wherewithal to distinguish fantasy from history, and to realize that writers of fiction have license to alter the documentary record. Readers of ‘Catherine’ learn a great deal about England in the late thirteenth century. As MacLeod has to acknowledge, ‘Birdy’s world is real enough---rough, dirty, and uncomfortable….’
I suppose ‘Alchemy and Meggy Swann’ could be criticized in the same way. Perhaps Meggy, a poor teenaged girl left orphaned in Elizabethan London, crippled by a congenital birth defect, should have ended up battered and hopeless. That would’ve been a different, and grimmer, tale.
A tale that could not have starred Cushman’s Meggy, a typically and satisfyingly feisty and sharp-tongued protagonist whose hard exterior covers the warmest of hearts. But Meggy’s life in exile is hardly anodynic, and Cushman’s London festers, filthy, stinking, noisy—and alive with color and flavor.
With the death of her beloved granny, Meggy has been ousted from country home and sent to her absent-minded and irresponsible father. He’s the one who practices alchemy. With the end of the period of servitude for the boy who assists the alchemist, he is forced to recognize his daughter and enlist her help.
The boy, Roger, turns out to be Meggy’s first friend in London, other than her pet goose. Unlike others, Roger does not ‘look to…demons’ to explain Meggy’s hip dysplasia. He’s more interested in her eyes than her limp.
Attempting to finance the search to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, worthless material into gold, Meggy’s father gets in too deep with the wrong sort. Meggy is, of course, the one who must try to subvert the nefarious plot that ensues.
As she does, she ‘wabbles’ through the crowded London streets and the reader learns about ballads and broadsides, sausage pies and ale, and that alchemy and natural philosophy were precursors of chemistry and the Scientific Revolution.
The reader is also treated to a marvelous story. In the same way that alchemy blurs the line between magic and reason, Cushman crafts a blend of energetic fiction with an authentic dose of the era’s language, customs, sights, sounds, and smells that earns ‘Alchemy and Meggy Swann’ a place among the best children’s historical fiction.
Highly recommended for fifth graders on up....more
In his essay about the spate of new books dealing with the effects of the internet on culture in a recent New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/crIn his essay about the spate of new books dealing with the effects of the internet on culture in a recent New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics...), Adam Gopnik separates observers into three camps: the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers.
Daniel Pink, as readers of his previous ‘A Whole New Mind,’ will guess, is a Never-Better type, seriously optimistic about our potential and the odds of achieving it.
While ‘Drive’ isn’t specifically about what the Internet is doing to us, it is about the kind of motivation we’ll need in a new age that has come about largely because of online technology. If you can handle Pink’s relentless positivity, he makes a compelling case for reconfiguring the reward and punishment paradigm we’ve been using to get work done.
Pink suggests changing the goal itself to solving problems and creating solutions. That goal will be realized when workers feel their work has purpose, and when they are given the independence to achieve competence in their own way.
We need to throw out ‘Motivation 2.0’ for a new ‘operating system,’ one based on ‘Type I’ behavior, rather than ‘Type X.’ Type I types are ‘fueled more by intrinsic desires that extrinsic ones.’ Type X types are dinosaurs left over from the Industrial Age mentality exemplified by assembly-line advocate Frederick Winslow Taylor, and the behaviorist school mindset personified by B.F. Skinner.
Such a revolution is grounded in work done by newer psychologists, particularly Edward Deci. Deci’s studies indicate that ‘if-then’ motivators for puzzle solvers actually result in subjects performing at a lower level than those who were offered no recompense other than the joy of solving puzzles.
Deci, working with Richard Ryan, developed self-determination theory. Countering behaviorist ideas that our actions are merely the result of responses to positive or negative reinforcements, Deci and Ryan propose that what we do happens because of ‘three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness.’
Pink is a staunch disciple of that philosophy. He presents his case in a most entertaining fashion. As in ‘A Whole New Mind,’ he does a wonderful job of synthesizing disparate strands of evidence, and gives readers lots of great ideas for future exploration.
A couple of issues that are glossed over, however, concern me.
One is economics. Pink acknowledges that on a basic level, intrinsic motivation is not enough compensation for labor. Workers should get fair wages. Indeed, he encourages employers to ‘pay more than average.’ But he never says what is fair, just that it is less than you might think.
Our society runs because it has an infrastructure that is running—although these days you might wonder about that. Many infrastructure jobs are mundane—moving things in, taking things out, keeping the conduits open. People who do that work are needed, but they are often not paid well. Is that fair?
Again, Pink doesn’t deny that there are routine, boring, but necessary jobs that justify ‘if-then’ rewards. He just doesn’t pay too much attention to them, or how much they are worth. Instead, he investigates creative businesses which employ progressive policies.
Far more exciting. Sometimes, though, someone’s got to take out the trash.
The other issue is educational. When I went through SF State’s teaching credential program a few years back, the emphasis was definitely on intrinsic motivation with students. In my subsequent work as a tutor, however, I’ve worked with many special needs kids.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Special Education has a distinctly different take on extrinsic motivators—far less critical—than Regular Ed. Why is that and why does it never seem to be addressed? There are certain areas of behavior where we haven’t yet completely escaped the Skinner box. ...more
Mike Carey adapted this graphic novel version of Neil Gaiman’s original, and the art , which on first glance did not appeal to me, is by Glenn Fabry.Mike Carey adapted this graphic novel version of Neil Gaiman’s original, and the art , which on first glance did not appeal to me, is by Glenn Fabry. His style grew on me, and he’s got great material in ‘Neverwhere.’
My only exposure to Gaiman outside of ‘Sandman’ has been children’s books, and I’ve always wanted to read some of his adult fiction. This great story gives me another push in that direction.
‘Neverwhere’ stars the mousy Richard Mayhew, pushed around by his domineering fiancée and his co-workers, who finds some gumption when he encounters the aptly named Door, a super-heroine type, sexy in looks but not in practice. She opens a portal into London Below, an alternate, fantastical version of the metropolis, and a quest that changes Mayhew into a daredevil.
Along the way, Door and Mayhew run into some distinctly unusual characters, strikingly lined out and vibrantly colored in by Fabry. I particularly liked the two villains, Mister Croup and Mister Vandemar.
If you like fantasy in comic book form, ‘Neverwhere’ fits the bill....more
If you only want to read one Portis novel, make it, of course, ‘True Grit.’ Two, add ‘Norwood.’ Three, it’s ‘Gringos.’
Portis writes with an unassumingIf you only want to read one Portis novel, make it, of course, ‘True Grit.’ Two, add ‘Norwood.’ Three, it’s ‘Gringos.’
Portis writes with an unassuming air. Nothing monumental going on, except perhaps with ‘True Grit.’ That tossed-off, effortless feeling is not so easy to produce, if you want it to come across with any sense of authenticity. Ask anyone who’s tried writing like that.
Ask Portis. Here’s the narrator of ‘Gringos,’ Jimmy Burns: ‘Writing is hard—it’s a form of punishment in schools, and rightly so—and so I stood paralyzed before all the different ways this simple message might be put.’
You just know Portis sweats to craft such deceptively straightforward observation, so plain yet so elegantly witty.
Let him walk you down the length of a saloon:
‘Along the bar various claims to personal distinction were being made.
‘“I have a stainless steel plate in my head.”
“I am one-sixteenth Cherokeee.”
“I have never voted in my life.”
“My mother ate speckled butterbeans every day of her life.”
“I don’t even take aspirin.” ’
In six rather stark sentences, Portis demonstrates the beauty of the fiction form. There’s a whole little pathetic world there that’s pretty funny. A tracking shot would capture the author’s discerning ear for dialogue and eye for ne’er-do-well characters, but without the humor of his introduction.
‘Gringos’ would make an excellent movie, though.
Jimmy Burn is an ex-patriate in Mérida scraping out a living by trading and hauling whatever he can fit in his truck, as well as hunting down criminal fugitives hiding south of the border . He goes on the requisite Portis road trip, meandering through the exotic Yucatan jungle in a search for a vanished eccentric, meeting up with genuine archaeologists as well as kind of kooks whom readers of ‘Masters of Atlantis’ will recognize—the ones who’ve seen aliens, or at least find their traces in Maya ruins.
And the denouement of ‘Gringos’ features a satisfying dose of violent action, somewhat uncharacteristic for Portis. Plus there is a happy ending.
People tend to denigrate adaptations, abridgements, those shortcuts to understanding that all of us use from time to time despite their reputations.
APeople tend to denigrate adaptations, abridgements, those shortcuts to understanding that all of us use from time to time despite their reputations.
Admit it. As a student, you read the Cliff Notes, or more likely these days, the Wikipedia summary, of a required text rather than do your homework. Perhaps as an adult, you’ve refined the process. A few reviews, and you blithely pretend that you’ve read the book they’re talking about at the dinner party.
One of the joys of working with kids is that you get to read kids’ books. They’re easily digestible, but you can still feel like you aren’t cheating. They’re real books. Many are just as much works of literature as anything the older crowd might consider paragons. Plus you can learn something.
Such is the case with ‘Zora and Me.’ By reading a clever little mystery that could stand alone as just that—a clever little mystery—you’re exposed to a fascinating slice of history. Eatonville, Florida, was ‘the first incorporated all-black township in the United States.’ That was in 1887. It was also the place where the family of Zora Neale Hurston, one of America’s most esteemed writers, moved in 1894, and where she grew up.
So you’re also introduced to Zora, or a fictionalized fourth grade version of Zora Neale Hurston. Besides appending their book with a timeline of her life and a bibliography, Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon also include a list of children’s books based on folktales that Hurston collected. So you can follow up, if you so desire.
But that’s not a requirement. Which brings me back to the clever little mystery.
Cassie has a friend, Zora, already known for her fascination with the tales adults tell, and her own story-telling abilities. When Old Lady Bronson is mysteriously injured at a pond called Blue Sink, Zora conflates the reality of a man-eating alligator and a reclusive old man to produce the story of a man who ‘can take on the face of a gator.’ Or it seems that is what Zora is doing.
Then an event of greater import happens in Eatonville—murder. Cassie, Zora, and their friend Teddy set out to prove the gator man is guilty. And there is something to Zora’s theory. But the real shape-shifting, it turns out, has a more insidious source than ghostly gators.
The mystery is wrapped up in a wistful coming-of-age story told in wonderfully evocative language—a story where Zora’s father lights in on her with special vigor because, ‘Sometimes there’s nothing more aggravating than looking in a mirror.’
A story that takes place in a time before ‘the moving pictures and before the radio’ when: ‘people were accustomed to silence; we even used to hug up on it once in a while. I never though of it as special then, that we could just sit and stare and luxuriate in the comfort of our own thoughts. Without time to think, we wouldn’t have had anything to talk about in the first place.’
See? You should read kids’ books. Kids need adults, and other kids, who can tell them what’s good. ‘Zora and Me’ is.
You might come to ‘Flush’ with two preconceptions.
Carl Hiaasen writes adult thrillers with a satirical tenor, often featuring characters from the traiYou might come to ‘Flush’ with two preconceptions.
Carl Hiaasen writes adult thrillers with a satirical tenor, often featuring characters from the trailer trash end of the social spectrum. So it’s likely that his children’s books will retain a bit of that edge.
Those adult thrillers, and Hiaasen’s books for younger readers, focus on environmentalism, so it’s likely that ‘Flush’ centers on that kind of issue.
Your preconceptions would be proven true.
The tone of ‘Flush’ is sardonic. It features a bartender who saves the day named Shelly, who has a ‘barbed-wire tattoo around one of her biceps,’ wears ‘stockings that look like they were made from a mullet net,’ and actually lives in a trailer park. Not your run-of-the-mill children’s book character.
It’s all about a kid’s battle to help his father stop a casino boat owner from dumping raw sewage in Florida’s coastal waters. Sometimes the message is close to heavy-handed. The bad guys have zero complexity, no redeeming social value.
There is more going on in ‘Flush,’ however. Wthout making a big deal of it, Hiaasen makes his personable 14-year-old protagonist an accomplished naturalist. Noah knows the names of plants and animals that live where he does—in the Florida Keys. And I mean he really knows them, not just as names he can rattle off. Noah really looks at where he is when he’s outdoors, and notices what he sees.
In our culture, where kids often suffer from what Richard Louv in his ‘Last Child in the Woods’ called ‘nature-deficit disorder,’ Noah makes a nice role model.
Although Noah is not afraid of risks, he’s an eminently practical kind of guy, unlike his dad, who is a hothead. Noah gets that practicality from his mother. She married because she loved her impulsive husband, but he goes a little far in his fight to keep the ocean clean. ‘Flush’ has a lovely subplot—Noah and his stubbornly righteous little sister, Abbey, working together to save their parents’ marriage.
That subplot and Noah’s eye for nature combine with colorful characters and a good dose of action and suspense to endear readers of ‘Flush.’ I haven’t met a middle schooler who’s read it who wasn’t enthusiastic about the experience. Now I am, too. It’s a sweet little chapter book.
I can be forgiven for knowing nothing of Joyce Farmer. Apparently, she did make a mark in the underground commix industry in the 70s when she and LynI can be forgiven for knowing nothing of Joyce Farmer. Apparently, she did make a mark in the underground commix industry in the 70s when she and Lyn Chevely created ‘T*t* and Cl*t*,’ a counterweight to male-dominated, and sexist, product.
Then she more or less disappeared from the scene. Now in her 70s, she has published the painstakingly detailed, and sometimes painfully honest, story of the slow death of her stepmother and father. Farmer was concerned enough about the frank nature of her account that she changed all the names (including her own), but ‘Special Exits’ is subtitled ‘A Graphic Memoir,’ and I gather it’s pretty much straightforward autobiography.
Aging and dying are not intrinsically attractive themes, but Farmer has superior story-telling skills and kept me interested in the most mundane aspects of the process—cleaning house, buying groceries. She also had me frustrated with our society’s weakness in granting dignity to dying. Rest homes and funeral directors don’t come off too well here.
What could have been lugubrious is transformed by humor, compassion, and a masterful evocation of the times, not to mention the author's meticulous yet loose drawing style. Farmer’s parents lived in a decrepit South Central Los Angeles bungalow with an ornery cat named Ching. Their survival in the midst of their own decaying also involves surviving the riots that followed the Rodney King trial. Farmer’s father rises in elation from a hospital bed, tubes stuck in his arms and nose, when the TV news covers a celebrity death. ‘Look! I beat out Nixon!’
Indeed, what really rescues Farmer’s tale from dreariness is the wit, strength, intelligence and love of her parents, her family and her friends. She finds power in the sometimes overwhelming struggle to just get by, and her 200-page graphic novel closes on a small moment of closure that is immensely touching....more
R. Crumb's blurb on the back cover says it all: 'It's almost as if the artist...as if he weren't quite...human!'
This is really just a ritzy comic bookR. Crumb's blurb on the back cover says it all: 'It's almost as if the artist...as if he weren't quite...human!'
This is really just a ritzy comic book, the same length as the ones I used to buy for a dime, enlarged in page size, enhanced with gorgeously lush color, encased in hardcover, going for twenty bucks.
It's worth it (easy for me to say, because I borrowed it from my library).
A young man wakes up, at first remembering very little except that he doesn't know where he is. That's because while he was sleeping, the world was reorganized, or perhaps reverted to its natural status--a status E.O. Wilson might find familiar. Is he dreaming? He wakes up again, and again. Each time, things get stranger and stranger.
It's a spooky, weird tale, even more so than 'Black Hole.' And that's saying something.
Thanks to the superb draftsmanship and the expansive imagination of Charles Burns, 'X'ed Out' is a most wonderful spooky, weird tales....more
Our national mythology is a story of otherness merging into assimilation leading to individuality. The colonists differed from their British brothersOur national mythology is a story of otherness merging into assimilation leading to individuality. The colonists differed from their British brothers and sisters, and were different than the Indians. They learned how to survive in a new and forbidding land, and established a society where personal initiative could trump origins. Germans, Italians, Irish, Poles, Swedes, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, so many others—we’ve moved in as strangers, figured out how to make it, and then made ourselves over.
That leaves out Africans—at least the majority of African-Americans. These days, new African immigrants often simulate the same trajectory as other immigrant groups. Look at all the Ethiopian restaurants in Seattle if you don’t believe me.
In the past, Africans came here with those first British colonists—generally not by choice. They’ve never been strangers to the United States. They have been other. Different color. Systematically cheated of the chance to advance through personal initiative. Bound, both literally and figuratively, by origin.
History is never so simplistic, however. In ‘The Warmth of Other Suns,’ Isabel Wilkerson makes a strong case for the immigrant experience of blacks—how they fled poverty and persecution in the South for American cities of the North, bonded with each other in their own neighborhoods for support, and worked hard to prove themselves as individuals.
After the arrival of the first Africans, after three hundred years of involuntary servitude, the changing social structure that came with World War I—jobs in the North and accessible transportation to get there from the South—finally allowed blacks to do what the Germans and the Italians and the Irish did: escape a place where there were too few opportunities, go to one where they had a chance at a new life, and make names for themselves through personal achievement.
The significance of the Great Migration has gone unnoticed and unrecognized. There’s a misconception that the movement north led to welfare mothers and crack cocaine. Wilkerson quotes Daniel Moynihan’s Department of Labor report from 1965, which called the urban influx of southern migrants ‘a tangle of pathology.’
Moynihan was merely reinforcing a popular, if stereotypical, view. Wilkerson cites a 1920s economist who found that ‘migrants were untrained, often illiterate, and generally void of culture.’ In ‘The Negro Family in Chicago, 1939,’ the well-known sociologist E. Franklin Frazier opined that new arrivals from the South were ‘inarticulate and resigned,’ causing a ‘disorganiztion of Negro life’ that seemed ‘at times to be a disease.’
Inaccurate, writes Wilkerson. ‘The general laws of migration,’ she holds, are ‘that the greater the obstacles and the farther the distance traveled, the more ambitious the migrants.’ The South clearly ‘erected some of the highest barriers to migration,’ and the evidence, from census figures, surveys, and studies, paints a picture of predominantly urban migrants, better educated and higher on the socioeconomic scale than the blacks already residing in northern cities.
But ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ is not grounded in statistical argument. The Great Migration is unwieldy and amorphous, not only due to false perceptions. Spanning more than half a century and a whole country, it’s hard to pin down in time and space. Those involved often fail to see themselves as part of an historical movement. Wilkerson wants her readers to feel its sweep and impact on an intimate level, through the stories of real migrants.
To do so, she narrows her scope to three migrants, who left different locations in the South to journey to different northern (and western) cities at different times. Each of these stories—Ida Mae Gladney moving to Chicago from Mississippi in 1937, George Starling from Florida to New York City in 1945, and Robert Foster from Louisiana to Los Angeles in 1953—is fascinating, and each of the protagonists is intriguing.
Instead of separating the narratives, though, Wilkerson interweaves them. For example, the section of her book titled ‘Exodus’ recounts all three leave-takings from the South. The need to loop chronolocially and spatially as stories jump back and forth in time and place can be a little confusing. The author seems to be aware of this, occasionally resorting to repetition. The repetition can be slightly irritating.
Nevertheless, when she gets into each of her three stories, Wilkerson’s present-tense prose is beautifully crafted, immediate, and engaging. You can feel her affection for, and sometimes even her frustration with, her subjects. She carefully listens to them recount their tales, contextualizes those tales in the history of the times, and directly connects to their import, bonding herself and her readers to the humiliations and the honors, the victories and the defeats.
Wlkerson gives this great movement the overdue recognition it deserves. ‘Despite the private disappointments and triumphs of any individual migrant,’ she writes, ‘the Migration, in some ways, was its own point. The achievement was in making the decision to be free and acting on that decision…’
That achievement was surely the catalyst leading to the major contributions African-Americans have made, and continue to make, to our country’s culture and politics. ...more
Even though I knew Barry has been going off in a different direction, I came in expecting the narrative force of 'Cruddy,' and looking for Marlys andEven though I knew Barry has been going off in a different direction, I came in expecting the narrative force of 'Cruddy,' and looking for Marlys and Maybone. Marlys and Maybone are in 'Picture This,' but it's not an autobiographical work like, say, 'ONE! HUNDRED! DEMONS!' If you can't get over your preconceptions of what you think Lynda Barry does, or you are the linear type, this work will be difficult to take in. It's not only a primer for drawing, or a paean to the power of drawing, either, although it is both of those. It took a while, but I warmed up to it, and as a result of its influence, keep telling myself I've got to start doodling more. Barry gives noodling around, pasting things together, and nicotine addiction new meaning in 'Picture This.'...more
I didn't read the Turkish version, but since I couldn't find the 2010 Dark Horse compilation of 'Blacksad' comics on a Goodreads search, I put the samI didn't read the Turkish version, but since I couldn't find the 2010 Dark Horse compilation of 'Blacksad' comics on a Goodreads search, I put the same basic cover up. Plus Turkish looks cool, just close enough to English to seem like it in print, even though you know that can't be.
Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido were overinfluenced by 'Maus' here, and its appropriation of talking animals to confront mass moral transgression. For Art Spiegel, it worked. For Canales and Guarnido, not so much. These noirish tales of the McCarthy era suffer from a surplus of animalism. Too bad, because the art is fabulous, and the stories are strong. Their impact is severely diminished by feline private eyes and polar bear police chiefs.
I found out about 'Blacksad' through an article in Salon by Laura Miller that is an excellent survey of some great newish graphic novels: http://www.salon.com/books/laura_mill.... She introduced me to the outstanding Richard Stark Parker adaptations by Darwyn Cooke, and I'm with her on other recommendations (Lynda Barry's 'Picture This,' the stellar new release by Daniel Clowes, 'Wilson'). This one? Well, it's different. ...more
I rank ‘Masters of Atlantis’ fourth best in my listing of Charles Portis novels. It’s also his fourth chronologically. Number one, of course, is ‘TrueI rank ‘Masters of Atlantis’ fourth best in my listing of Charles Portis novels. It’s also his fourth chronologically. Number one, of course, is ‘True Grit,’ then ‘Norwood,’ then ‘Gringos,’ and last, ‘The Dog of the South.’ If you are a fan of the quirky, of common-man American culture in quaintly bizarre representation, you can’t go wrong with any of them.
In ‘Masters of Atlantis,’ Portis takes on an odd American institution that worms its way into all his work—the society with secret knowledge. Aliens are responsible for the advances of human history, or alchemists, or lost tribes. Anyway, certain unacknowledged prophets are aware of much more that the supposed experts. The truth. And they will let you in on what’s really happening, usually for a nominal fee and a special greeting for members only.
This kind of thing is still around, perhaps attaining its most virulent form in the brotherhood of Beck, but more genteel fraternal organizations do survive. The heyday of Shriners and Moose, Freemasons and Rosicrucians, though, seems to have passed. That’s a movement in our history that Charles Portis undoubtedly regrets, and he joyfully pays tribute to gnostic knowing with this comic homage.
It’s Portis’s most ambitious work in the number of major characters and historical context. The Gnomon society achieves intermittent fame and fortune not only through the initial efforts of Lamar Jimmerson, who returns to the States after World War I with the ‘Codex Papas’ and establishes a temple in Burnette, Indiana. There’s also Sidney Hen, fellow Master and leader of Gnomonism in England, then Canada, then Mexico, before finally being reunited with Jimmerson in the La Coma trailer park just outside of Brownsville, Texas.
And there are lower ranking figures who play significant roles in this story. One of the chief disciples of the Gnomon way as it approaches the end of the twentieth century is Maurice Babcock, who Portis describes in great, and marvelous detail: ‘not fat but with the soft look of a middle-aged bachelor who has a good job, money in the bank,’ who takes ‘pills and time-released capsules throughout the day,’ avoids ‘all foods prepared in aluminum cookware,’ and eats ‘a bowl of bran at bedtime to scour the pipes.’
It’s Babcock who gets to go on the inevitable Portis road trip, which has to be squeezed into the overstuffed story. Too bad, with this kind of observation: ‘The farmers of America, Babcock noticed, had stopped wearing straw hats, overalls and high-top shoes, and had gone over to the trucker’s uniform of baseball caps, tight jeans and cowboy boots, this outfit having the raffish air of the pool hall.’
Women cannot be privy to the myteries of the Cone of Fate, but Portis still manages to include some strong ones who play prominent parts. Indeed, ‘Masters of Atlantis’ suffers from an embarrassment of riches. A Portis story by nature meanders, but this one especially seems to wander, nevertheless keeping the reader chuckling as it does so. The extensive cast and the extended time frame are heavy burdens for Portis's intimate and colloquial style.
Would that Portis had centered the tale on the novel’s most impressive creation, Austin Popper, the quintessential glad-handler, an irrepressible promoter who is ‘sometimes facetious in a most unbecoming way,’ with ‘a vulgar inclination to make everything clear,’ and ‘a ready fund of information gleaned from newspapers and popular magazines.’ When momentum flags, you can depend on Austin Popper for a jump start.
When ‘the wisdom of Atlantis’ fails to gain attention, or funding, it’s Popper who offers the chance ‘to harness secret powers, tap hidden reserves, plug in to the Telluric Currents.’ An unforgettable character with a talking blue jay, he gives new meaning to the expression seize the moment. Popper throttles it.
Popper’s appearance before the Churton Committee of the Texas Senate, investigating ‘the recent infestation of the state by various cults, sects, communes, cells, covens, nature tribes and secret societies,’ is absolutely priceless. It is his personality that makes wading through the digressions, amusing as they are, of ‘Masters of Atlantis,’ worth it. ...more
This is the best one to read if you only read one other Portis novel besides ‘True Grit.’ Everyone should read ‘True Grit.’
In a charming first novel,This is the best one to read if you only read one other Portis novel besides ‘True Grit.’ Everyone should read ‘True Grit.’
In a charming first novel, Portis establishes his mastery of language, in particular the Texarkana vernacular, of well-chosen detail that goes beyond apparent mundane triviality and really captures the American ambience as well as the human condition, and of pitch-perfect dialogue.
Norwood Pratt—another one of Portis’s strengths is names—is the title character, a poor, ignorant redneck who’s also a philosopher and philanthropist. After getting a hardship discharge from the Marines when his daddy dies in the early 1960s, the disappointed Norwood returns to his lackluster life in Ralph, Texas, as a Nipper gas station attendant and caretaker for his sister Vernell, whose lack of get-up-and-go is either the result of social and cognitive impairment or just plain old absence of motivation.
Norwood finds some purpose in sprucing up the dilapidated family property and getting his sister working, but his life is empty until a shady entrepreneur—Grady Fring the Kredit King—employs him to transport some automobiles of shady provenance—they turn out to be stolen—to New York. Norwood jumps at the opportunity to collect on a seventy dollar loan from a Marine friend who’s supposed to be in Gotham, and maybe the chance to become a country music star.
For Portis, it’s an excuse to dive into what will become his trademark, a rambling and disjointed Odyssey stuffed with witty, sly, homespun observation that manages to be at once sardonic and sympathetic. Echoes of Mark Twain and other great American writers.
In New York, Norwood finds his service buddy has gone back south. On a homeward-bound Trailways bus, he runs into a “pretty little girl with short black hair and bangs and bejeweled harlequin glasses.” Of course he falls in love with Rita Lee.
She isn’t his only traveling companion. There’s also Edmund B. Ratner, a British midget, the second shortest in show business and ‘the world's smallest perfect fat man.’ Not to mention Joann, ‘the Wonder Hen, the College Educated Chicken,’ rescued by Norwood from a penny arcade. These delightful oddballs compose only the core of Portis’s eccentric and motley cast.
‘Norwood,’ like all of Portis’s work (except‘True Grit’) is hardly earthshaking. But it’s still one heck of a novel....more
Aleksander, a prince barred from his throne, is up past his bedtime in 1914, playing with tin soldiers. Given who he is, it follows that in this imagiAleksander, a prince barred from his throne, is up past his bedtime in 1914, playing with tin soldiers. Given who he is, it follows that in this imaginary battle, the French and British forces stand ‘no chance against the might of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.’
What prevents the boy from becoming king is his mother, Sophie. Franz Ferdinand married her for love rather than dynastic succession, and children of the union are denied the crown. For now.
Suddenly, the surreptitious playing and the actions of make-believe armies are interrupted, and the prince is whisked away to very real battles. When Aleksander threatens his abductors with beheadings ordered by his father, one of them counters, ‘Alas not, Your Highness…. Your parents are both dead, murdered this night in Sarajevo.’
Does it sound like history? The 1914 assassinations of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo did begin World War I. European nations, insecure about their imperial standing, reacted all too swiftly, leading to the unraveling of a complicated network of alliances and counter-alliances, and a long and brutal war that solved nothing and left more than nine million combatants dead.
Franz Ferdinand did fall in love with Sophie Chotek. Her lack of pedigree meant a marriage designated as morganatic, between social unequals. Offspring were out of the royal line.
But hold on. There was no son named Aleksander. If there had been, his tin toys would probably not have included ‘diesel-powered walking machines,’ nor ‘Darwinist monsters.’ Actual models for such toys—that, of course, is complete fantasy.
A steam-punk fantasy made rivetingly believable by Scott Westerfeld. In “Leviathan,’ the same powers still go head to head, but with competing technologies based on competing science. The British and the French have moved forward from the discovery of evolution to genetically-engineered living weaponry, while the Germans and the Austrians have taken steam-driven machinery to a new level—armored vehicles that traverse difficult terrain by walking on legs.
It’s not the Central Powers against the Allies, but Clankers against Darwinists.
Westerfeld creates the perfect foil for Aleksander in Deryn Sharp, a newly enlisted British midshipman learning how ‘fabricated beasts’ work. The swirling stew of events in the aftermath of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination result in her getting a position on ‘the first of the great hydrogen breathers to rival the kaiser’s zeppelins’—the Leviathan.
Sharp is a quick study, brash and bold. Sharp also has a secret. She is not the boy that the Air Service thought they had signed up.
The Leviathan carries its own secret, a military secret zealously guarded by one of Britain’s ‘boffins.’ Dr. Barlow is an unusual scientific expert in the same way that Deryn Sharp is an unusual warrior. She’s not the expected gender.
The Leviathan rushes to complete its covert mission and perhaps keep war at bay. The Austrian prince runs to escape those who would eliminate any rival to the kaiser, a rivalry that could postpone a greater conflict. It’s inevitable that Deryn and Aleksander’s paths will cross.
What happens makes for a skillfully-woven tale of intrigue, suspense and adventure. Westerfeld has done a sterling job. Keith Thompson contributes extraordinary illustrations that perfectly fit the story, little wonders of chiaroscuro. ‘Leviathan’ will keep middle schoolers, teens, and adults totally engrossed, and anxious to read, as I now am, its sequel, ‘Behemoth.’ Perhaps it will also prompt them to find out more about World War I.
Highly recommended for fifth graders on up....more
Darwyn Cooke decisively scored with his first comic book adaption of the Richard Stark ‘Parker’ novels: ‘The Hunter.’ ‘The Outfit’ doesn’t deliver theDarwyn Cooke decisively scored with his first comic book adaption of the Richard Stark ‘Parker’ novels: ‘The Hunter.’ ‘The Outfit’ doesn’t deliver the same bold punch. That might be expected from a sequel, and because the story line is not as hard-hitting or straightforward.
Cooke’s choice of palette is an indicator of a more workman-like delivery. There’s still just one color other than black and white, but where it was crackling cyan in ‘The Hunter,’ ‘The Outfit’ is tinted with a more muted blue.
Cooke also uses a clever device to telescope three hits on organized crime’s operations by employing different styles than the slashing lines that dominated ‘The Hunter.’ The most successful of these is a send-up of a 1960s pulp crime magazine. No matter how ingenious and necessary, though, these changes in style (and story) are drags on momentum.
But as might be expected from Donald Westlake (writing as Stark) and Cooke, it’s still a slam-bang narrative filled with action. After a nice opening two-pager aerial view hipping us to place and time (‘Miami Beach 1963’), we’re shoved right into a one-page panel featuring a gun shot and a woman screaming, as the indefatigable Parker rolls out of his swank hotel bed. That’s followed by a couple of tightly packed pages with no dialogue other than Parker’s would-be assassin’s mutter of ‘Guh…’
Then we’re introduced to the woman. A good match for Parker, Bett Harrow takes in the groggy invader without ‘fear or astonishment but breathless. Expectant.’
Parker’s on his ruthless way again, and if the pace is only slightly slower, Cooke demonstrates anew his gift for the comic book form, wringing a hurtling narrative from his simple and bold retro drawings. Cooke and Westlake are a perfect match-up and I’m looking forward to the next one of these. ...more
‘True Grit,’ 1968; ‘The Dog of the South,’ 1979. Why the eleven year gap? I think Charles Portis doesn’t like being famous.
And maybe he also feared ge‘True Grit,’ 1968; ‘The Dog of the South,’ 1979. Why the eleven year gap? I think Charles Portis doesn’t like being famous.
And maybe he also feared getting out from under the weight of the astounding accomplishment of ‘True Grit.’ As it is, he can’t quite drop one of Mattie Ross’s singular mannerisms, the exclamatory sentence. It makes the voice of the first person narrator (another ‘True Grit’ trademark), the hapless Raymond Midge, echo the feisty and schoolmarmish Matty a bit.
‘What a sweet job!’
‘What a statement!’
‘What a story!’
The writing teachers who tell their students to avoid the exclamation point should be forced to read ‘True Grit.’ It works! And it sort of does in ‘The Dog of the South,’ just not quite as well. Portis more or less dropped it in his next two novels—another decade plus for those.
Portis returned to his modus operandi in ‘Dog.’ A rambling mission, in this case Midge’s retrieving his Little Rock wife who’s run off to Honduras—Central America is important to Portis—with a flimflam artist. Flimflam artists who’ve bamboozled themselves selling self-improvement schemes, UFO chasers, trailer park trash, whacky fraternal organizations with secret doctrines and handshakes, loopy men and women full of earnest chatter. Lots of unbelievably natural dialogue. The lore of an unusual corner of America spreading out from Arkansas into the neighboring states.
Portis ties these elements up in shaggy-dog narratives that are a treat to read, even if it is a shtick. In ‘True Grit,’ he managed to keep the best parts of that shtick, and then transcend it by shifting into history and transforming himself into Mattie Ross. The writing teachers who tell their students to write from their own experience about what they know should be forced to read ‘True Grit.’
Actually, everyone should read ‘True Grit.’
None of Portis’s other books measure up to that benchmark.
But they’re pretty darn good.
‘The Dog of the South’ may be the least successful representative of the Portis brand, but it, too, is pretty darn good. Distinctively eccentric literature for discerning oddballs....more