Sunday, July 10, 2016

Completed: Excellent Sheep


I never wrote up a preview post for Excellent Sheep, but I'll just give you a quick overview of how this came to be on my shelf. The HOW it ended up there is pretty easy: My friend Liz is a college counselor, and she and I talked about reading this book together a few years ago when it came out...but then things fell by the wayside and I never got around to it.

The WHY for this book is pretty obvious by just glancing at the subheading (which, come on, dude, get ahold of yourself!) says it all about why it would be of interest in my particular field: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. The question of whether or not kids are prepared for life and college is pretty relevant to my current line of work because of the school I'm at and the families we serve. Even then, the word "elite" makes me cringe, but this is definitely a  book that is marketing itself to a particular class of people. Whatever.

Basic premise of the book: Super rich parents are churning out kids who are automatons who only want achievements that are determined by their parents, and they are unable to think for themselves. They are afraid of failure and don't know how to take risks. They've been taught that achievement is the only thing that matters.

My thoughts on this book are pretty muddled, honestly. But that's probably because the book itself is pretty messy. My biggest complaint is that the author doesn't seem to have that much control over himself---he is constantly shifting the audience he's addressing. At times, he addresses young people directly, urging them to think for themselves and do what they want. But it's such a bizarre fiction. No *kid* is going to read this book! It's all finger wagging and smugness. I mean, how could any kid take seriously the "don't worry so much about where you go to college" from a guy who works at the Ivy League?!?! Then there are the times it seems his real audience are these controlling, wealthy parents---but even then, are they reading this book? They don't want to hear what they're doing is wrong. If a parent agreed with the premise of this book, they probably would have no reason to read it! And if a parent disagreed with the premise, they'd never bother with it. It's preachy! I honestly think the *real* audience for this book are for the faculty of exclusive colleges. It's sort of this back-slapping reassurance that parents and society are the real bad guys, instead of having the faculty and administrators of exclusive colleges look at all the ways they enable and benefit from the college admissions arms race.

Honestly, this book was sort of annoying. It's not that it's bad---it's just that it's all rehashed. The question of what we're raising our kids to do is a fascinating and important conversation, but this book didn't feel like it made all that many interesting or even new points. I could name other books that cover the same territory and seemed more urgent, revelatory, or interesting.

Meh. Not too into this one.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Completed: Five Children and It


We read this book forever ago, so sorry for the late (and maybe brief) recap of our conversations. I
like when we have our little video conferences about the books we read, but it does make it harder to do the write up. I just feel like saying, "Remember that thing we talked about? Yeah. Wine!" Lol.

As you know, even though this book was one I owned for decorating purposes, you suggested we read it. How could it be that this children's classic, which had been in print for 100 years, is something we'd never heard of?! In fact, when I went to check it out from the Chicago public library on was already checked out! People read this thing, and then we did, too.

I think we were both worried about a hundred year old children's book, but I must say, this is probably the most pleasantly charming cold read I've ever done. The plot is pretty simple: five children go exploring one day and come across a magical creature at the beach (the It), and he has the power to grant one wish every day. Every chapter is a different wish---wishes that of course go completely wrong from what the wishers intend. However, as the sun set every day, the effect of the wish disappears. Those poor kids never seem to learn their lesson and just keep going back for more wishes, though!

Here's some things we noticed...

Childhood and parenting
Lots of differences in the portrayal of childhood. This just isn't a time when four kids would be allowed to wander all day and take a baby with them. There was also some pretty interesting observations about city kids vs. country kids that have also totally changed. It's hard not to wonder at how we think differently about what kids are capable of now. There's far more intellectual freedom and knowledge that kids have access to, but their physical freedom is totally curtailed.

However, there were some observations about parenting that seemed pretty much the same today. For example, both of us highlighted the same passage when we were reading: "You know, grown-up people often say they do not like to punish you, and that they only do it for your own good, and that it hurts them as much as it hurts you -- and this is really very often the truth" (53). I'm both entirely sure that all parents think that's true, and just as sure that no kid would believe it.

Humor, language, and slang
I know I for one was wondering if I would find the language abstruse or difficult. For example, when thinking of some old "children's classics" like Robinson Caruso or Treasure Island, I just would not want to read those. I didn't even want to read them when I was a kid. But this book was not at all difficult to read. In fact, there was a very funny, albeit dry and British, kind of humor in the book. At one point, one of the kids threatens another with, "smell my fist!" You also noticed that they used the word "snarky" in the text, which seemed ahistorical. How could such a *now* word have been used back then? I looked it up in the OED, Nesbit is the first person to have used the word in print. Nice catch! (Although you'll notice that they note the first usage in 1906's Railway Children instead of 1902's Five Children and It. Maybe we should send them a correction?!

Part of the humor came from the narrative voice, which was sort of old-fashioned in that it directly spoke to the reader. Here's an example we both liked:
“But one thing you can’t imagine, and that is how soda-water behaved when you try to drink it straight out of the syphon -- especially a quite full one. But if imagination will not help you, experience will, and you can easily try it for yourself if you can get a grown-up to give you the syphon. If you want to have a really thorough experience, put the tube in your mouth and press the handle very suddenly and very hard. You had better do it when you are alone - and out of doors is best for this experiment." (45)
It sort of made me think of what it would be like to describe the Diet Coke and Mentos trick to a future audience.

Plot v. Characters
So this book really wasn't about the kids as characters, it was definitely about childhood as an adventure. In fact, it's clear that the real idea is that for each wish that goes wrong, the kids learn a moral lesson. As the chapters build and progress, the lessons become a little more sophisticated and complex. But a few months later, I can't even remember much about the specific kids except for the baby, who all the kids call the Lamb. And the Lamb is most memorable for what happens in the chapter where they grow him up all at once---as it's a bleak look at a future adulthood where people are cold, brusque, and a little clueless. It's the children's world that is warm, empathetic, caring, and kind.

You made a great point that this one way children's books have really changed. Now, we expect that kids are going to want to latch on to the character in a powerfully empathetic way. We don't just *like* Harry, Ron, or Hermione---we want *to be* them!

Big cultural differences and time changes.
I was cooking with gas, sort of loving this whole thing, until the chapter about the Indians. From a modern perspective, it was absolutely cringeworthy. I guess we should have seen it coming with the references to gypsies...but it was jarring. However, on the plus side, there did seem to be some attempt at gender equity. You noticed that phrases like "don't be a girl" and "be a man" were more about disdain for adult ways than true gender statements. But in other ways, it was obviously unable to escape its own time period.

One thing we both noticed, too, were the references that were dated because of history that hadn't happened yet. In the chapter about flying and flying machines---the Wright brothers hadn't flown yet! That would have been purely speculative and a total flight of fancy (pardon the pun). At one point, there was a joke about "germs" instead of "Germans," and I had to remind myself that the Germans weren't everybody's permanent bad guys. It was totally an okay thing to joke about.

As an overview, we both found this book charming and delightful. I sort of wished Darius was younger so I could have read it to him, but I would have had to skip that whole Indian chapter. And I believe you said it best when you said, "The book really captured that sense of every day of childhood being an adventure--that when you're out playing with other kids, anything could happen." I think we both enjoyed this book and reading it together.

Sorry for the super delayed post! Jenny

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Mid-year Status Report

Dear Jenny,

After five strong years of writing this blog, we hit 2016 and... well, it hit us instead. But it's June now (well, it's July tomorrow... eep) so maybe it's time to see if we can get this train back on the track?

I thought maybe a little "status report" would light a fire under my butt (at the very least, it's a good little To Do list.) Even though I have only reported on one. single. book. this year, I have actually read four more! Just need to write about them.

Five Children and It We both read this and discussed it way back in April (!) Did you take the notes? I can barely remember this book now. It was super charming, right? (Also... did we know it was made into a movie?)

Wolf in White Van  Man. I burned through this book a couple of months ago and did not take many notes. This will be a tough one to write. I think there's a slowly unfolding secret and, for the life of me, I cannot remember what the "big reveal" ends up being. I might have to semi re-read this book. Have you read it?

Lincoln on Leadership — This one was a slog... it was given to me while I was a manager, then finished (slooowly) when I was no longer working. But I learned a lot about Lincoln and I was pleased to discover that it seems like he was as great as I had always thought he was. So that was nice.

Women in Clothes — You gave me this book a few years ago and I cannot begin to tell you how much I LOVED it. Love, love, LOVE. I finished it this week and every morning, I am sad to re-discover that I am done with it. I put about a million tags on it, so that's going to be a long post/rave. Or I'm just going to have to say "This is great!" and hand it over for you to read. We'll see.

So... that's 5 books total that I have read out of 12. We're just wrapping up the 6th month of the year, so reading wise, I'm only one book behind. But yeah... there's the writing part. Time to get on that.

aaand... Book Exchange!
In other random bookish news, the book exchange in our front yard is going strong -- it's fun to see new books show up and old books go every day. I sort of feel compelled to start leaving notes with the books I put out (a "Why I recommend this book" note) but I'm sure that's over-thinking, so I have resisted.

This thing might also be... a little dangerous. I mean... new books are showing up on our front lawn every day.  I'm going to have to implement a strict "I must leave a book if I take a book" policy. Otherwise, my TBR list is going to get out of control. And I can barely keep up with the 12 I've picked for this year!!

In conclusion: It's July.
Soooo... Tomorrow is July 1and Beloved is on deck for us to read together. You ready?


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Joint Book 2.16: Five Children and It

Dear Jenny,

Well, it's already April 6 -- time to talk about reading this little weirdo!

I first spotted this book at your house, as it is "N" from the Penguin Drop Caps series (as seen to the right there). We had heard of all of the other books you had in this series (I won't name them here, as they spell out your last name...) but this one? Nope. Neither of us had ever heard of it.

So I looked it up, found out it's supposed to be a children's "classic" and I suggested we read it together for our little blog.

Further reading about this book tells us that it was first published in 1902 and, according to Wikipedia, has never been out of print. Whhhhaaa---? How have neither of us heard of this book?!

And I thought it was going to be one of those things where we had never heard of it before but then, after we talked about it, we'd hear a bunch of people mentioning it... Nope. Haven't head a peep. This book's a mystery.

So! Let's get reading!

  • April 10: Chapters 1-3
  • April 17: Chapters 4-7
  • April 24: Chapters 8-11
I am concerned about my tolerance for a book written in 1902. Hopefully being a children's book, it will be easier to take?


Completed: The World According to Garp

Dear Jenny,

Oops. Slow start to reporting this year... my bad. We actually finished this in January, but then my world kind of imploded in February, so I haven't been great about focusing in 2016. Buuuut... here I am!

Basically, this book held up. We weren't sure if we would feel the same way about this WMFuN 20+ years later, but it was great. I kinda just want to end this review there, but we said some other stuff when we were reading it, so I'm going to jot down my notes here (I was going to try to arrange this into something coherent but it's now April, so let's just get this done)...

First chat (Chapters 1-3)

Jenny:  I don't have patience for world-building, and John Irving is a big world-builder, but it's in our world. He writes this entire whole other world (for instance, about the guy who founds the school), which just adds just a layer but we still love it and it's interesting. So I guess I have patience for "world-building" if it's our world.

Kelly: I remember this being a WMFuN novel, but so much of this has focussed on Jenny (his mother)

Jenny: Does he marry a transgender person?
Kelly: I think he's going to marry the coach's daughter.
[Transgender person ends up being a friend of the family's -- Roberta. Garp's son ends up marrying another transgender person that Roberta introduces him to.]

Kelly: Doesn't he get his penis bit off?
Jenny: What?! I don't remember that. Whhhhat?!
[This ends up being Garp's wife biting off the penis of her lover when Garp rear ends his car.]

Interesting note about John Irving -- he always begins novels with the last sentence. (We speculated about how that works for awhile. But hey, we're not John Irving so what the heck do we know?)

Second chat (Chapters 4-10):

Kelly: We're getting to the WMFuN'edness now.
Jenny: I don't know -- Irving can write anything and I'll love it.
Kelly: Um, seducing the babysitter?
Both: [...]

Fuckups observed:

  • Screwing the babysitter
  • Having sex with the other prostitute [It's been 3 months since we read this book and I said, "Whaaat?" when I just read that. After thinking about it, I remember now, but man! Irving's books are like fever dreams!]

Redemptions observed:

  • Busting the rapist
  • Visiting the aging prostitute

Third chat (Chapters 11-19):

And then my notes devolve into truly random chatter about the book. I'm sorry. I should have written this down months ago! Here's what I've got:

Garp plays a traditionally "feminine" role in their household but never thinks anything negative about it -- he is the product of Jenny's views of "feminism." One theme from this book: You are just a product of your parents and your situation.

The story of the Pension Grillparzer: we thought it wasn't going to be good cause it's a book within a book, but... it's really good. Of course. It's Irving-within-Irving!

Irving's gift is that he writes a straight narrative with weird people and situations. He's a keen observer of life: People are weird. And he doesn't flinch from that.

It's so moving that the "reveal" of the son's death is delayed in the story for so long. You know something terrible has happened, but you don't know the details and it gets tougher and tougher as it goes on and you suspect what has happened. Jenny: Especially after the "forecasting" (more than "foreshadowing") that the son is going die leading up to that scene.

[I wrote down the following sentence, but I have no idea what it means]: Who is responsible for the gear shift? The war.

We talked about some of the more ridiculous coincidences and your comment was perfect: "Life is full of ridiculous coincidences." Fair enough.

I have not done this book justice. But hey -- it's logged. We're movin' on!


Friday, February 19, 2016

Completed: The Checklist Manifesto


This might be one of those super short reviews---honestly, I just don't have much to say about this book. I probably would have really enjoyed it if it had just been a magazine article, but it didn't seem meaty enough to warrant a whole book.

The author describes how checklists are valuable when used in complex situations. It may seem counterintuitive, but when faced with complex, multi-step tasks, checklists help people make sure they have done the most important steps.

Gawande goes on to describe how checklists have helped in medicine, which is interesting enough. And he describes how they are also used in aviation, which is interesting enough. So, it's pretty convincing that checklists are helpful when there is complexity and procedures. But it was hard to see how this would apply in my own work. My job is complex but it's not governed by procedure. Good curriculum design just doesn't quite work the same way as surgery---and so it just felt sort of weird. I mean, dude, you're going to call something a manifesto, it should be something that everyone would benefit from, right??

Don't get me wrong. There's some interesting stuff about how to make good checklists and the different types of checklists, but it's not something I actually think I can implement in my life.

There were two parts of the book that I most enjoyed. Probably the best part of the book was the ending where he described how the pilots of US Airways flight 1549, which is the one that the pilots landed on the Hudson River after the engines were taken out be geese. Honestly, it's a great story! And he talks about how part of the checklist actually said, "Fly the airplane!" because under such stressful circumstances, it's possible for pilots to focus on everything going wrong and forget to fly the plane.

The other part I really enjoyed debunked something of an urban legend. I'd heard a story about how the band VanHalen required all their venues to remove all of the brown M&Ms out of the bowls of candy that were placed backstage. As it turns out, the brown M&Ms were just a test. The sets, lights, and staging of their shows were so complex that they threw that M&M clause in as a test. If they went backstage and saw brown M&Ms, they would know they had to go through and test everything else at the venue. It was a warning that there were going to be other problems. At one venue, after finding brown pieces of candy, they discovered that the stage would have collapsed under the weight and load of the set and were able to cancel the performance. This one item on the checklist helped them judge the level of detail at any particular arena.

There was nothing *wrong* with the book. It was fine. But it was not my manifesto.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Jenny's Book 2.16: The Checklist Manifesto


I've been reading lots of fiction for the Tournament of Books (so far I've read 8 of the 17), so I mightThe Checklist Manifesto is by Atul Gawande, a doctor who also writes for The New Yorker. I know I've suggested his book Being Mortal to you.
take a break and read a little non-fiction. And this isn't even the type of narrative non-fiction that I like to read that teaches history through a story.

I bought this book for a grad school class but ended up reading something else instead of it. This book makes a case for why using checklists can help us deal with the complexity of our modern lives. Certainly I know checklists are helpful for my students (there's even a checklist maker app my friend Andrea uses called Checkli). However, I'm sort of curious to see if the idea of using checklists is applicable to teaching or curriculum design.

At one point, I did read a critique of checklists in education, but I can't find it right now. I remember the book it was in, but I'm pretty sure it's at school.

Not sure it will be a super exciting read, but I think it's going to be just the thing I need after A Little Life. In fact, I've been mostly reading trashy romances about Russian Billionaires after A Little Life. Seriously. I just need a break from all that drama.