Thursday, September 11, 2008

Reading, Watching, Listening ... August in Review

Books I Read in August: 16

Because I've been completely addicted to books you'll find that my list of what I read is HUGE, but I didn't see a single film... Netflix is making money off me this summer. Because my list was longer than normal I divided the titles up by genre and I used my reviews from Goodreads. Why write two reviews?

Young Adult Novels
Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer

Hmmmm... this book seemed rather LONG to me... I'm not sure how some folks can read it in a day. I guess I felt that way with some of the Harry Potter books too, though others read them in one sitting. I must say, it's for certain... I don't like Jacob Black. I find him annoying and immature and I don't understand Bella's attraction to him. Of course, I don't really get her either. Oh well. The Cullens I like. Their backstories in this book were interesting and I wish there was more of that in the books. Even some flashbacks, perhaps? I am sure I'll read Breaking Dawn sometime soon.. but maybe not for a few weeks. I need a break from the icy cold, white teeth, sparkling vampire world.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

While Harry Potter and friends attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Percy Jackson finds himself at Camp Half-Blood where he, like Harry, must come to terms with who he REALLY is... in this case, he's the son of a Greek God and a mortal woman. It's hard to avoid comparisons to the Harry Potter series... even the dark dangerous meanie seems to be a bit like "He Who Shall Not Be Named" and yet I can see this story series has promise for young readers. I didn't love it as much as I'd hoped, but I liked it quite a bit. 3.5 stars worth of love.

I read the book after recommendation from Sophie G, a favorite young reader for whom this book is perfectly suited. I was hoping for a good work of fiction that might infuse a young reader with a desire to pursue knowledge of Greek mythology. The book IS full of allusions to various gods and goddesses and stories of heroes and villains from the myths. It serves the purpose I'd hoped for and I think it's cool that Riordan chose to explore this concept--the Greek Gods still living (of course, they are immortal) and thriving in our world today!

Despite the similarities to Harry Potter (hard to avoid in some ways) and Percy's whiny (almost Holden Caulfield "I just got kicked out of another private school") voice at the beginning I did find myself eager to find out what happens. I would recommend this for young readers.

Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

I think I enjoyed this one better than the first because it just jumped right into the conflict and there was less soul searching, figuring out Percy was a half-blood etc. Also, this story played with Homer's Odyssey which I thought was pretty cool. I thought it would be a fun complement to students reading The Odyssey or an opportunity for younger readers to learn about that story.

Percy Jackson and the Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan

In this third book, Percy, Annabeth, Thalia, and Grover begin the story by going on a mission to retrieve two new half-bloods which sets the story's conflicts in motion. Annabeth goes missing, Artemis makes an appearance and recruits Bianca, one of the new half-bloods, to be part of her immortal army of archers. The oracle's message of doom for one of them keeps things tense as a group of young half-bloods and archers seek their friend, try to save Artemis, and use all their powers to thwart Luke and the Titans who are threatening all of Olympus. Apollo makes an appearance in this one and both he and Artemis are quite cool.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

This book depicts a high school girl whose rare, unusual spirit soars. It's a story about individuality--about mob mentality, about conformity. Yet, even more it's a story about giving to others, generosity of spirit, zest for life, and seeing the world with new eyes. I think this is a lovely book and one I'd highly recommend.

Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

At first I didn't love this book as much as the first. It was a bit unsettling to hear Stargirl's thoughts--it's written in first person, diary style as if it were a long letter to Leo. She seemed far more normal and hesitant and less fantastic than she did when the story was told through Leo's eyes. Of course that makes sense. Still, I found myself loving this girl all over again and discovering my cheeks wet with tears when the story ended. Her interest in the Winter Solstice is something I totally loved and is something I "get." I used to love the equinoxes and solstices and look forward to those days much more than I have in recent years. I think I need to find my own way to mark those moments so I can celebrate them in Carmyn-girl style. I enjoyed both Stargirl books.

The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo

This book is reminiscent for me of her other more popular tale Because of Winn Dixie. In both books the protagonist has lost a mother and is alone in a new town. Both children are pretty sad and in need of a friend. Both children have a grown up who is a straight shooting kind person who becomes a confidante. I thought The Tiger Rising was good but almost too short... like a novella rather than a novel. But I guess for a young reader it might be just fine. I wanted more, especially at the end. Overall, I feel that DiCamillo is a fine writer with interesting well-crafted characters and she has a great sense of detail. I love her books and this was no exception.

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

This book is rather short (174 pages in a fairly large font) and echoes the Lemony Snicket books in tone and vocabulary. Lowry is often alliterative and actually includes a cute glossary at the end of the book. She also includes a bibliography of 13 "books of the past that are heavy on piteous but appealing orphans, ill-tempered and stingy relatives, magnanimous benefactors, and transformations wrought by winsome children" which are referred to, however momentarily, in this brief novel. I was familiar with all but one title so in some ways I felt this book offered these small rewards to its adult readers and it all felt a little tongue-in-cheek. It's a 3.5 star rating I like Lois Lowry and also, I think it has a nice cover.

Graphic Novels
Wonder Woman Vol. 1: Gods and Mortals by George Perez

This novel felt more "comic book" style than any of the others I've been reading lately--paper quality, appearance of text. It was entertaining and held my attention, but I think I preferred the Darwyn Cooke treatment in The New Frontier series.

Wonder Woman Vol. 2: Challenge of the Gods by George Perez
Maybe I've had a bit too much of the Greek gods lately but I wasn't really remembering that Wonder Woman's story was so interwoven with Olympus. It wasn't a bad thing, but I didn't love that part of it so much either.

Flappers and the New American Woman: Perceptions of Women from 1918 Through the 1920s by Catherine Gourley

Flappers and the New American Woman is the second book in the Images and Issues of Women in the Twentieth Century series by Catherine Gourley. This series features tons of info in sidebars, photo captions and period advertisements in addition to the main text. This book explores the "modern girl" and the myriad of changes she faced in the 1920s. Exploring media, housewives, beauty, morals and manners, race, politics, and more, Gourley introduces young readers to big names and even a few I didn't know. We learn about the impact of famous women: Clara Bow, Margaret Mead, Nellie Tayloe Ross, Margaret Sanger, Lillian Gilbreth, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elinor Smith and many, many more. I would highly recommend this series for young readers interested in women's history.

Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani

I love the Big Stone Gap series. I'd nearly forgotten how much. The magic is still there for me. One thing I hadn't realized is that the book is written in present tense. In my creative writing workshop earlier this summer, we were discussing such things and I said then how I prefer writing to be in past tense and isn't most fiction told that way anyway. How interesting to realize at least one book I love is not. Now, I want to start pulling beloved books from the shelves to examine the tense! Hmmm... I guess if it wasn't jarring to me, then it's well done either way. But I digress.

This book showcases a part of the United States I can barely imagine. While I have no desire to move to Appalachia, I can appreciate Trigiani's efforts in transporting her readers there. Growing up in a small town gives me a foothold in understanding Ave Maria's world. And remaining single at 35 in a relatively small community gives me a window into her character's mind. I love the supporting cast of characters as well, and though the story is a wee bit predictable, I still love where it takes me. I look forward to rereading the other two stories in the trilogy and finally reading her fourth book about Ave Maria and family.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I expected I would enjoy this book, based on my Amy Tan experiences and while this did have a similar feel to it, I wasn't captivated in the same way. It read quickly enough for me, but in some ways I wasn't really loving Lily, particularly at the end. I was frustrated with Snow Flower, as well. I can see how this might be interesting to discuss in a book club. Questions of friendship, commitment, honesty, duty might all arise. I felt if Snow Flower had been more honest about things that Lily would have understood her better but then when she was honest, Lily still didn't understand and it actually seemed to make things worse. It made me question whether they were actually loving friends or two women in love with the idea of being lifelong friends. I felt as if Lily didn't really understand Snow Flower and perhaps Snow Flower DID understand Lily.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr

I was eager to read this book because I'd heard good things. It reminded me of The Devil in the White City because it was about a serial killer and because it was set in the same era, though not the same city. However, I am not really a big fan of the crime story and so the parts I liked best in The Devil in the White City were the parts on the Chicago World's Fair and its architects. Erik Larson's book was a TRUE account, a history that read like a novel. This book was fiction but felt real. I was interested in the story from start to finish but I do feel it dragged a little and was a bit of a slower read for me. Perhaps Caleb Carr could have pared it down a wee bit. I loved the descriptions of the food, however. Delmonico's. Yum! I think many people would enjoy this book and I am glad I read it. But if you haven't read The Devil in the White City, I would read THAT one first!

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto

This book's dismal tone from start to finish made the read an unpleasant one for me. The format also left much to be desired. The book had 35 pages of preamble in the form of foreword, introduction, publisher's note from the first edition, and about the author. The following five chapters over 94 pages were reprinted speeches or essays that lacked flow or transition and didn't truly follow through on what I thought the book would offer. Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling is something I set out to read eager to see if Gatto was going to corroborate some of my own ideas about public schools in our country. Instead, he seemed to not understand schools at all. At least, not as I've witnessed them. His credibility was instantly damaged,in my eyes, and it was difficult to lend much credence to his words. Furthermore, his tone was such that I was irritated and had he been a TV (he'd like this reference)I would have changed the channel. :)

Some of his points in the "Seven Lesson Schoolteacher" were things I could agree with. Where he loses me is his vehemence with which he lambastes all schoolteachers and schools as falling into this trap. Sure, even if one is to assume his theory is correct and the entire machine of public education is broken in the United States, not every school, not every teacher is the demon he makes them out to be. And furthermore WHAT exactly is his solution? It's VERY clear he doesn't believe in school reform. Just get rid of all compulsory schooling. Abandon the public school idea. Okay. So we do home schools or create schools in a private club sense. But what of the two income family. Surely it's not SCHOOL that is robbing them of the ability to spend family time together but the necessity of earning enough money to get by. Some people have the ability to live off one income, many do not have that luxury. How does this idea factor in for Mr. Gatto's grand solution? This was something I felt he needed to explore if he was going to make such broad declarations.

I felt that much of what Gatto was stating was dated. Since 1992 there's been a standards movement that serves to create continuum of ideas and skills from kindergarten to grade 12 in areas like reading, math, writing and more. More teachers are using best practices and teaching using inquiry based methods. Nothing he wrote addressed these things because it's only in the past 15 years that these things have been flourishing. His final chapter makes mention of standards, once again with a disparaging word. What is ironic, is that in an earlier chapter schools were lambasted for lacking these standards and continuum and connectivity in curriculum and then in the congregational chapter he denounces the the presence of the very thing he was shaming schools for not doing. Not only is Gatto, inconsistent, he is unrealistic, and it seems his way if it were followed to the letter would leave HUGE groups of people with no education at all, nor any realistic or fair way to get it.

In chapter three, Gatto says of his subbing experience in New York City,

"After three months the dismal working conditions, the ugly rooms, the torn books, the repeated insistences of petty complaints from authorities, the bells, the buzzers, the drab teacher food in the cafeterias, the unpressed clothing, the inexplicable absence of conversation about children among the teachers (to this day, after thirty years in the business, I can honestly say I have never once heard an extended conversation about children or about teaching theory in any teacher's rooms I've been in) had just about done me in."

This quote just about did me in. I cannot fathom working in an environment like he's described. None of that characterizes my school or others I've worked in. And in 30 years to never have heard an extended conversation about children or teaching theory? What kind of planet is this guy from. Not only are teaching theory and school improvement topics that are discussed at length in our teacher's lounge, in our Monday morning staffings, at staff meetings, and during our professional learning community meetings, but we also regularly express concerns about various students and pool resources, information, and ideas about how to help particular students achieve their learning potential. We approach our students with a team approach and this at a high school level. So, I find Mr. Gatto very much mistaken. Perhaps no one wanted to discuss theory with HIM. :) In fact, if I were creating my own select village as he describes in chapter five, I'm pretty sure he would not be invited to stay.

I'd sort of like to pair Steven Levitt (Freakonomics) and John Gatto and see what sorts of correlations could be drawn from some of the ideas Gatto puts forth with no statistical evidence whatsoever, aside from his own 30 years of what appears to be pretty limited experience.

If you are looking for a book with some radical ideas about public schools and the ways they damage kids and destroy families, be sure to pick this book up. If you are like me and just want so understand a bit more about the underside of public schools, you might find what you want here, but take this with a block of salt and be prepared for some grating, over-the-top, generalizations.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

One thing I discovered after reading this book was how there are folks out there who really do NOT like it. Some calling Levitt a racist, others saying his "economics" is a joke. I am not really sure how I feel. I guess as I read it I was intrigued by the suppositions. I wasn't utterly convinced but I was impressed by the idea of looking at sociological phenomenon in a way that others hadn't really done before. It's about "looking outside the box." Sure some of his chapters could be offensive. Some of it was more interesting than others. I wasn't really into the chapter on "baby names and its impact on the success of a person." I did find the stuff on the Ku Klux Klan interesting though. That's a subject I really don't know a lot about. I didn't care for the way Dubner sort of hero-worships Levitt in the beginning of each chapter. Even if it's done tongue-in-cheek (which I am not sure it was) I was a little sickened. In the end, I'm not sorry I read this and I think there are worthwhile ideas in this book. You may want to read some other reviews, both for and against the book before commiting to the read or to a purchase since it's still in hardcover.

What I was Watching in August


Friends Seasons 6,8,9,
Project Runway
Weeds Season 4


What I was Listening to in August

Tigermilk by Belle and Sebastian

This is their debut album (1996) but it's all the public library had. I have heard them on our local NPR station and I knew I liked the sound but I really hadn't heard a full album until this one. I need to get my hands on a bit more of their work before I decide that I am totally in love, but I will say I like this one quite a bit. Their website is cool too. I like the bits about the band.

Get Born by Jet (2003)
This isn't the "newest" of albums either but it's my first REAL listen to this group. Of course, I'd heard songs by them before but had no clue who was signing or what they were about. We used "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" at trivia and it prompted me to go for the whole CD.

a random sampling from my MP3 player here are my posted shuffles:

August 6, 2008

In Spite of All the Danger by The Beatles
Cuttin' Out by Donovan
Fading Like a Flower by Roxette
Talk to Me by Stevie Nicks
Promises by Eric Clapton

August 12, 2008

I Don't Want to Lose You Yet by Supersuckers
Breathe by Anna Nalick
Won't Get Fooled Again by The Who
Hello, Darlin' by Wanda Jackson
Tide is High by Blondie

August 19, 2008

My Rollercoaster by Kimya Dawson
The Sweetest Thing by Juice Newton
Pretty by The Cranberries
Freedom by George Michael
SOS (Rescue Me) by Rihanna

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