Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Yet More Books

Sahara Special by Esmé Raji Codell

This book gets good reviews, but it just didn't seem to go anywhere for me. It is a typical school story - troubled kid gets turned around by a teacher with slightly unusual methods. It's nice, but I will forget it pretty quickly.

Tending to Grace by Kimberly Newton Fusco

Cornelia, who doesn't speak, gets left by her mother who goes off with a boyfriend. The person she is left with is her mother's aunt, a crotchety old country woman. It gradually becomes apparent that the reason Cornelia doesn't speak is because she stutters and has found it easier to keep all of her feelings suppressed and unexpressed, rather than talking them out. The aunt and Cornelia gradually come to terms with each other and Cornelia extends a few careful tendrils of herself into the community. Not great literature, but a worthwhile read anyway.

Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis

I don't know why I am so reluctant to read books that Curtis writes. I put off reading Bud, Not Buddy for a LONG time. It just sounded too much like a canned attempt at sympathy. It turns out I was wrong about that. It was a book that, to me, felt so REAL, I could hardly believe when I finished it that it just didn't go on, like real life. I didn't like the Watsons go to Birmingham as well, but still, it was good. But this book - WOW - another hit. Caveat: I listened to the audio version. I have had the book for a long time - and I just let it sit on the shelf - pulling others out ahead of it over and over again. So when I saw the audio version in the library, I thought that maybe that would help me get started on it. It sure did. I think the reader of the book, Michael Boatman, is perfect for the book. His voice is calm and even and sounds "philosophical" - just like the main character, Luther T. Farrell. His voice for Momma is smooth and cool. The whole reasonableness of the voices makes the critique of society even stronger and more devastating. Momma has really done a number on Flint, Michigan, and on Luther T. Farrell. The book is disturbing in many ways, but it will provide me with things to think about for a long time.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

More Books

The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman

(review also on Amazon) The basic story of Anthony "Antsy" Bonano and his friends is fairly straight forward - Anthony and his friends suddenly become aware of this kid who is pretty much an inconspicuous person in the world. I won't summarize the plot, as it is done pretty well in the reviews [see Amazon]. What surprised me, though, was the depth of the book. It could have been just a recounting of the basic events as detailed in the summary, but instead, you get tantalizing images of some really interesting characters: Anthony, and Calvin "The Schwa", of course, but also Mr. Crawley, Lexis, Anthony's family, and even Anthony's friends. This is a deeper and more complex world than the simple facade would have you believe. At the same time, it is not belabored. This is not a didactic book - it isn't trying to teach you something, but it is showing you a world that is complex and multi-faceted.

You can read the story as a straightforward accounting of events - and the plot is strong enough to make it a good read in that regard. Or you can see more - character study, exploration of values, decisions about what is important in life.

Better than I expected somehow.

Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett
A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett (listened to on audio CD)

I somehow feel that I am SUPPOSED to like Terry Pratchett. A lot of the other people I know who like books similar to the ones I like think that his books are great reading. But I just don't. Sure, I laugh at them, but basically I really don't think they are a very good use of time. They just don't leave me with anything afterwards. Once I am finished reading them, they leave my mind and there is no lingering pondering of characters or events.

Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison (listened to on audio CD)

I have read this one in book form. It is funny, but fairly vapid. My daughters loved it when they were teens, though, so I guess it is an age thing.

Shiva's Fire by Suzanne Fisher Staples (listened to on audio CD)

The audiobook is good, well read and moving, but I am not enjoying listening to the story as much as I enjoyed reading the book. I think it may just be that the second time through isn't adding that much. I wonder what Shabanu would be like on audio. I really enjoyed that book the first time.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Recent Reads

Totto-Chan, The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

This is an account of a progressive small school in Japan just before and during World War II. The book was originally written in Japanese and has been translated to English. It is basically a series of vignettes about life at the school. The problem with holding it up as a model for modern schools is that the classes there were very small - up to around 15 pupils at most, I think. It is so much easier to teach responsively when the classes are that small. The writing is nice, but I am not an especially good judge of that. My main interest is in how the education works. It seems to work very well, for all abilities of learners, because it is so flexible. But I think just about any teacher could teach better with 9 to 15 students in his/her class.

The Fruit Bowl Project by Sarah Durkee

This is basically an account of a writing lesson. The students, 8th graders, were given a writing assignment by a famous actor: write something that contains the plot elements of school, sixth grade, a reading test, a dropped pencil, an angry girl, lunch, and milk out of the nose. It is more interesting than you might expect - to see how various kids attacked the problem and came up with such different results. Some are quite good, actually. Still, it isn't really a book that will grab kids and make them want to read it.

Linnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge

For an old fashioned book, I suppose this is OK, but it seems too goody-goody for today's world. Still, I enjoyed it. It harkens back to a simpler time, where the bad things that happen are always solved and things turn out for the best.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

This is an older SF classic that I re-read in preparation for a SF discussion group. It was interesting to see how such an old book attacked the phenomenon of cloning, both from a scientific point of view and from a sociological one. I liked the structure of the problem. At first it was simply a matter of survival of the human race, then it became a question of what the human race actually was. Powerful book and still relevant.

Hannah Divided by Adele Griffin

This is a story about a girl in 1934 who is an outstanding mathematician, but who can't read. She is given an opportunity to study away from home, but has to give up her rural family life and endure feeling different in big city. Plusses: she doesn't win the scholarship she needs in order to continue (or so she thinks), but she resolves to continue anyway. She learns some good lessons about working hard, getting to know others who are different, and standing up for herself. Negatives: it is not a terribly thrilling story. It wasn't meant to be, and that is, in fact, a good thing, but it makes it harder to recommend to kids.

This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger

Yes, I seem to be on an older book kick. Paula Danziger is generally a very light weight writer, but sometimes that is exactly what I enjoy - and what I have seen kids enjoy. This book has plot elements that are just a bit too expected, too simplistic, but, for all that, it is enjoyable. It is nice to see a good kid with simple, everyday types of problems grow up a bit.

Why Gender Matters by Leonard Sax

From a post on GT-Talk: I just finished Why Gender Matters and, while I think he has some good ideas, I am not convinced about a number of things. The book starts out solidly with explanations of real scientific data, but gets more and more into extrapolation as it goes. The most solid difference he mentions, the fact that girls and women can hear better than boys and men, is cited far too often as the cause of many consequences that seem rather far fetched.

And the case of the "anomalous" boy was utterly unconvincing to me. Martin didn't seem fearful at all to me - he seemed sure of himself and determined to be his own person, regardless of what is parents thought. Nor was the "anomalous" girl very "anomalous" in my eyes. I guess I just don't get that chapter. I think he argues way too much on the basis of single examples rather than larger scale studies (perhaps because there are no relevant studies, but still - it isn't convincing to me). I could just as easily assert that a single sex high school didn't help my husband take an interest in music, art, or foreign language - all true - but irrelevant in the long run.

I attended a single sex college and disliked that aspect of it immensely. Perhaps I am anomalous in that regard, I don't know, but I certainly wouldn't choose it again. It did NOT lead me to be more confident in myself, as was the "promise" when I went there. In fact, in my opinion, it had the opposite effect, but that is another story for another time. Suffice it to say, I think at the college level, a single sex institution was not a good choice for me. That is certainly not to say that it wouldn't be a good choice for other women or other grade levels. I think, in particular, single sex middle schools, even starting as low as 5th grade and going through 8th grade could actually be helpful. I read of a private school that was co-ed K-4, single sex 5-8, and co-ed again for high school.

I read watched a video about an attempt at IMSA (Illinois Math and Science Academy) to segregate the physics classes by gender. It was very interesting to see the difference in approaches that the girls took from those of the boys. So maybe even at the high school level there could be some advantages.

I guess my initial take on the book is that it opens up for me a huge area of observation that is worthwhile to takes notes on, but there is so much that still isn't understood that I think his conclusions are often a bit too far reaching.

First Test by Tamora Pierce

I enjoyed this more than I expected. Again, back to the school theme - what we teach, what we learn, and how the whole experience is structured. I know that isn't what most people get out of these books. Most people focus on the young-girl-who-overcomes-obstacles-to-do-something-that-has-been-seen-as-boys'-territory plot elements, which are, of course, the main focus of the story.

Public Enemy #2 by Aaron McGruder

Although, since I am white, upper middle class, don't have TV, and don't follow news about black people or even about any race of entertainers, I don't get all of the references, I can't help but appreciate the Huey's attitude. It is scathingly honest, bitter, and brutal.

Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan

I liked this one better than Esperanza Rising. It isn't fantastic, but it is enjoyable and worthwhile.

More later.