ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes

ME BEFORE YOUME BEFORE YOU, a page-turning, tragic/romantic/comic novel by Jojo Moyes, brought up three things for me. First, how your life can change at any moment, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, and sometimes both. Second, it reminded me how we can’t allow these crises to paralyze us (no pun intended). We can’t allow the clock to stop; we have to keep growing. And third, there is this great line in Ann Patchett’s essay collection, THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE—in fact, in the title track—in which a friend asks this question about her first husband while she is trying to decide whether or not to stay with him: “Does he make you better and do you make him better?”

In the end, maybe things are that simple. And that’s how you know it’s love. Which is why I’m still waiting.

(PS, thanks to Sandy Gingras for this excellent recommendation!)

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THEN THEY CAME FOR ME by Maziar Bahari (with Aimee Molloy)

THEN THEY CAME FOR MEROSEWATERWhen I first heard that Jon Stewart was going to write, direct, and produce a movie based on this book, I instantly ordered the book. I had every intention of reading it before the movie came out. But I’ve been a bit swamped with work (and am trying to write another book of my own), so I haven’t been able to read as many books as I’ve ordered. To be honest, I am about 60 books behind.

So I went to see the movie the other night, and I must say, Bravo, Mr. Stewart. The story of how Maziar Bahari, a journalist, was imprisoned in Iran for being “a spy” and how he handled himself throughout this ordeal is poignant, funny at times, and inspiring. The message about the importance of allowing journalists to do their jobs and enabling dissenting voices to be heard is clearly and intelligently conveyed.

And you know what? I decided I deserved a reading staycation. So I curled up in bed with Bahari’s book (which in the paperback version is called ROSEWATER, like the film), and I was not disappointed. On the contrary. It was easy to see why Jon was inspired to make the film: Bahari’s book tells a powerful story with grace, wit, and humility, and he is as honest about his moments of weakness as he is about his insights. I’m glad I read it after seeing the movie, for two reasons: 1) the movie laid a foundation of useful background knowledge about the historical situation and 2) it was fascinating to see the original text that Jon worked from.

I don’t want to spoil anything. Both the book and the movie are worth the price of admission.

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SLOW GETTING UP by Nate Jackson

SLOW GETTING UPIf you like to watch NFL football as much as I do, from a bar stool or the comfort of your living room, most of the hits don’t seem too painful. Sure, there is the occasional OH MY GOD you blurt when a receiver extends his arms for a ball and is instantly hit VIOLENTLY and drops like a bag of rocks. He lies motionless, and the aggression is palpable—to the point where you wince repeatedly as they show it over and over. But the routine plays don’t seem so bad. It looks like fun. You used to play two-hand touch in grade school. That’s why you watch, right?

In SLOW GETTING UP: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile, Nate Jackson, who played for six seasons as a wide receiver and tight end, will quickly reframe your thinking. Yes, it’s fun (if you really like to hit people), but it’s also a steady stream of ripped hamstrings, dislocated fingers, separated shoulders, and did I mention hamstrings ripped off the bone? You have a job as long as you’re healthy, and it’s nearly impossible to stay healthy for long. The way some people pop vitamins, you take needles and pain pills. Also, apparently—after you’ve passed your one drug test per year—marijuana. After each major injury, you undergo strenuous rehab and hope to regain your job. Sometimes you do, sometimes you work hard and are cut. Just like that.

Jackson’s story lays bear the torments of the NFL lifestyle. It’s fascinating. And as the readers, we get off easy. We just have to watch.

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THE INNOVATORS by Walter Isaacson

THE INNOVATORSWalter Isaacson’s latest 500-pager, THE INNOVATORS: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, is a paradox. Much like its predecessor, STEVE JOBS, it’s a dense page-turner.

For pages and pages, it made me think about where I was when important things were invented.

In 1970, when Alan Kay went to work at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) with the dream of creating a personal computer, I was in kindergarten.

In 1971, when Ray Tomlinson invented a way to send Email, I was in first grade.

In 1973, when I began “reading to learn,” Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, were born.

In 1975, when the magazine Popular Electronics announced “The World’s First Minicomputer Kit,” the Altair 8800, and Bill Gates and Paul Allen decided to create a software industry, I was in fifth grade.

In 1977, when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak released the $1,298 Apple II—as Isaacson puts it, “the first personal computer to be simple and fully integrated, from the hardware to the software”—I was in middle school. Within three years, 100,000 Apple IIs were sold.

In 1983, I went off to college with an electric typewriter. Ours was the last class to enter Princeton without computers. I wrote all of my papers on that typewriter until the spring, when I joined the staff of the literary magazine. We were told it would be more efficient to produce the magazine if we used a computer. So I went to the Computer Lab, and someone up there showed me how to use one. There was a room dedicated to high-volume printers, as I recall, and you would wait for someone to sort through what was spit out, then they would put your printout in an alphabetized set of cubbies in a ziplock bag with a top sheet labeled with your name.

In 1984, Apple released the Macintosh, and all of the freshmen arrived with computers. I could not afford one, and the university had begun to populate more buildings with computer labs, so I used one in my dorm.

In 1985, one night I stayed up until 2 or 3 in the morning talking with one of my advisees about the increasing spread of computers on campus. We debated whether or not it was a good thing that the library was going to replace the card catalog with computers. Sure, maybe you could search and find more easily the one thing you were looking for, but what would become of those serendipitous moments when you flipped through the cards and found something really cool? How would you ever find that thing you didn’t know you were looking for? As I said, it was late at night.

In 1987, I graduated and began teaching high school English. I did not own a computer. I owned a collection of floppy disks. I inserted them into the computers at school. Then I convinced the kind folks at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, who’d given me a Teaching Fellowship, to allow me to spend some of the money on a computer. Since the school computers were IBM and Apple’s software was not compatible, I bought an IBM.

In 1990, Tim Berners-Lee made the World Wide Web possible, inventing URLs, HTML, and HTTP. But there were no search engines. I was still mainly using my computer for word processing. In grad school, I would write long letters to friends, print them out, and mail them in large envelopes.

In 1993, I joined millions of other Americans making use of the free AOL disks that appeared relentlessly in the mail. Finally, the Internet was really open for business. Email truly became a thing. But still: no search engines. You couldn’t Google things because Google wouldn’t be launched for another five years. People created groups, listserves, electronic bulletin boards—pockets of information that were helpful if you knew where to look.

I could go on, but you get the point. So much has changed. But one thing has not: Walter Isaacson is still a great writer.

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THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain

THE PARIS WIFEIf you know anything about Ernest Hemingway, you probably know that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, that he liked hunting and fishing, that he spent considerable time in the 1920s in Paris, that he was married four times, and that he killed himself with a shotgun. He lived large and died tragically.

I am such a fan of his short stories that I wrote my senior thesis in college partly on those stories.

What you may not know, and what Paula McLain reveals in her remarkable novel THE PARIS WIFE, is how he met his first wife, Hadley Richardson, how madly they were in love, and how she helped to launch his career. Although McLain’s work is historical fiction, it is based on extensive research and comes across as entirely plausible. Hadley’s voice comes through as though she is sitting in the room with us, telling the story.

And what a story it is. The first chapter begins: “The very first thing he does is fix me with those wonderfully brown eyes and say, ‘It’s possible I’m too drunk to judge, but you might have something there.’” We know how it ends (obviously, he had three other wives), but it’s so romantic, we can’t look away.

This novel is poignant and engrossing. And as Hemingway would say, it feels true. That’s what matters.

(Note: This book came out in 2011.  Many thanks to my friend Allison Miller for this great recommendation!)

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SWAMPED by Sandy Gingras

SWAMPEDI’ve been 29 for long enough to remember when movie tickets cost $1 and I was paid $3.25 an hour to chop onions. These days, movie tickets are $13, and I am paid considerably more not to chop anything. So it is weird to me that books, particularly books I love, books that I consider invaluable, can be downloaded from Amazon for a mere 99 cents.

I know how hard Sandy Gingras worked on SWAMPED, her first mystery novel (which won the 2012 Debut Dagger Award from the Crime Writers Association), because she’s a good friend and I read drafts along the way. I don’t read many mystery novels, but I like the funny ones (such as The Spellman Files series and Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz), and this book is HILARIOUS (funnier than Janet Evanovich, in my opinion). The characters are edgy and lovable, the dialogue is quick-witted, and the main character, Lola Polenta is smart and a bit lost—in short, delightfully human and real. I can’t wait to see what happens next to everyone in this series.

This book is also surprisingly poignant. The last line knocks me over. But don’t peek. You can download it quickly, but you will want to savor the whole thing.

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BUILDING A BETTER TEACHERIt would be difficult, if not impossible, to capture and evaluate all of the many ways in which people throughout history have attempted to prepare teachers for their profession. If teacher preparation were a pie, you would have to stand very far back to take a picture of the whole thing. Thus, although Elizabeth Green cuts us a sizable helping in BUILDING A BETTER TEACHER, she inevitably falls short of her ambitious subtitle, How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone).

However, Green succeeds brilliantly at illuminating an important aspect of the work that many have overlooked: namely, how intellectually challenging it is to teach. While some may argue about whether great teachers are born or made (Green argues they can be made, and I agree), it’s rare to find a book that shines as bright a light as Green does on the complex, myriad decisions that a typical teacher must make from moment to moment and consequently, how difficult it is to prepare someone to do that work well.

In short: Green provides engaging descriptions of some of the most prominent efforts across America to improve teacher training, and indeed, those stories are fascinating. But ultimately I think the primary value of this book is how clearly it demonstrates just how challenging it is to teach effectively. And that is a truly vital message.

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NO STRUGGLE, NO PROGRESS by Howard Fuller (with Lisa Frazier Page)

NO STRUGGLE NO PROGRESSSome people in this world always seem to be where the action is. They run toward the flames of a burning building instead of running away; they jump in the ocean when someone appears to be drowning; they look for the most challenging problems to solve. They don’t follow. They lead. As anyone who has ever met Howard Fuller knows, he is a leader. And if you’ve ever heard him speak, you know he is wise, passionate, and determined—possessed with what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now”—determined to ensure that every child receives an effective education, especially the poorest, who for far too long have not. As Howard said (quoting William Daggett) when resigning from his position as the Superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools, “We must love our children’s hopes, dreams, and prayers more than we love the institutional heritage of the school system.”

He left there because although he loved the children of Milwaukee, he knew he could help them more by speaking from a different stage. So he founded the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette, then the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and in the past two decades, he has been a key figure in the national movement for educational choice.

His memoir, NO STRUGGLE, NO PROGRESS: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Educational Reform, rings clearly with his powerful voice, and it answers the question, “How did Howard become so wise, passionate, and determined?” From his humble beginnings in 1940s Jim Crow Louisiana to his meeting with a president in the Oval Office, Howard has lived a truly amazing life, and he tells his story with clarity, honesty, and humility.

His book, like his life, is a true page-turner.

Posted in Biography, Education Reform, For EDUCATORS, History, Inspirational, Memoir, Nonfiction, Poverty, School leadership | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion

THE ROSIE PROJECTRegular readers of this blog may recall that after this year’s Valentine’s Day episode of The Big Bang Theory, I drew one simple conclusion: In a world where Sheldon can kiss Amy, anything is possible.

While reading THE ROSIE PROJECT, a romantic comedy in which Don Tillman, a genetics professor, decides to embark upon a Wife Project in order to find a romantic partner, I kept hearing Sheldon’s (well, Jim Parsons’s) voice. It’s a straightforward story, well-paced, and thoroughly entertaining. What makes it so endearing, I think, is that the characters are very human, witty, and likable.

In short: If you like The Big Bang Theory, this is a great summer read.

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UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT by Stuart Taylor, Jr. and KC Johnson

UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENTAs someone who leans in the liberal direction, I might have been put off by the inflammatory subtitle of this book (“Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case”), but since a good friend recommended it, I decided to pick it up.  On the one hand, I’m glad I did.  On the other hand, the story is so disturbing that I almost want to cancel my subscription to the New York Times.

If you didn’t follow the Duke lacrosse rape case as it was ongoing in 2006-7—or even if you did—you probably were not aware of the facts of the case.  I say, “even if you did” because although District Attorney Mike Nifong spent considerable time on TV talking about the case, it turns out that most of what he said was untrue.  It was true that the boys hosted a stripper party (which of course was a bad idea and contributed to the narrative that they were “hooligans”), but other than that, Nifong told numerous lies and fanned racial tensions in Durham, where he hoped to win black votes in his upcoming election by supporting the fraudulent claims of an African-American woman (I say “claims” because she repeatedly changed her story and in fact only said she’d been raped when threatened with being involuntarily institutionalized).  In the end, Nifong was disbarred and removed from office for his unethical actions.

If, like me, you’re inclined to trust prosecutors (thinking, Why would they bother if they didn’t have a case, when there are so many other crimes to deal with?  They must have enough evidence if they’re going to spend all of this time and money…), and if you’re inclined to be sympathetic to women who are brave enough to assert that they have been raped, then when you heard what Nifong said, you probably believed that these three lacrosse players were guilty.  And the biased, inaccurate coverage in the New York Times (among other newspapers) would have led you to that same conclusion.

This book examines the rush to judgment, abuse of power, and toxic academic culture that milked the story for ideological purposes, and it is quite unsettling.  Reade Seligmann, one of the accused players, said, “If police officers and a district attorney can systematically railroad us with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I can’t imagine what they would  do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves.  So rather than relying on disparaging stereotypes and creating political and racial conflicts, all of us need to step back from this case and learn from it.”

Indeed.  We cannot undo the past.  But we ought to at least learn from it.

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