EVERY DAY by David Levithan

EVERY DAYSome people have wild imaginings but don’t do anything about them. David Levithan had this idea: Imagine if you woke up a different person every day. And he wrote this remarkable book about a teenager who has this experience.

EVERY DAY is about so much more than teenage trials and tribulations. Although it’s written for teens, there’s a good book in here for adults, too. It raises important ethical, moral, and philosophical questions about how we choose to live each day. It reminds us that those choices have consequences.

And it’s a page-turner. I read it in two sittings.

PS–Thanks to Shannon Marshall at Great Oaks Charter School for this recommendation!

Posted in Fiction, For EDUCATORS, Magical Realism, Novel, Young Adult | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIRMost of us don’t know when we’re going to die. We know it will happen, but we have so many dreams and ideas—so many things we want to do, so much time we want to spend with people dear to us—that we prefer not to think about it. It could happen today, but maybe it won’t happen for another 40 years. So actually we don’t even try not to think about it. We simply don’t think about it.

Until something happens. Maybe it’s the sudden, unexpected death of a healthy friend or a rock star. Or maybe it’s something else.

For Paul Kalanithi, it was something else. A brilliant neurosurgeon, he found out at age 36 that he had stage IV lung cancer. The questions in his life changed from What should I focus my research on for the next 20 years? and When should we start having children? to How much time do I really have? How should I spend my remaining days, weeks, months, years? and Should we have a child at all?

His memoir, WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR, was cut short when he took a turn for the worse, but it is long enough to get his points across. His writing is beautiful, clear and insightful, and he raises questions that we all must confront sooner or later. What is the meaning of my life? Am I spending it the best way I can?

You don’t have to wait for a diagnosis to ask these questions.

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READING RECONSIDERED by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway

READING RECONSIDEREDYou might be tempted not to pick up READING RECONSIDERED, thinking perhaps, I’ve already read so many books on literacy: what could this one possibly add?

A lot.

Subtitled A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction, this book is definitely aptly named. It is stuffed with practical tips, tools, and insights that will help anyone who teaches. Notice I did not say, “anyone who teaches English.” If it was not apparent before the emergence of the Common Core Standards, it should be obvious by now that we must ALL take responsibility for teaching students to read, write, and speak well.

One of my favorite parts (there are many) is the section in which the authors describe “The Five Plagues” of complex text, challenges which often cause students to struggle:

  1. Archaic Text
  2. Nonlinear Time Sequence
  3. Complexity of Narrator
  4. Complexity of Story (Plot and Symbolism)
  5. Resistant Text

Their suggestions for how to help students deal with these challenges (e.g., using “pre-complex texts” with young readers so they will be able to access, say, Dickens and Darwin later) could improve instruction across the curriculum if enough teachers see them.

It should be noted that although this book focuses on reading, the authors also devote attention to the role of writing in shaping reading instruction. The book also includes a DVD and online access to 44 video clips demonstrating techniques with actual students. So you can see what works for yourself. And so can your friends. Tell your friends!

Posted in For EDUCATORS, Literacy Instruction, Nonfiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

THE PASSENGER by Lisa Lutz

THE PASSENGERAs should be evident from a handful of previous posts, I am a HUGE fan of Lisa Lutz. From her Spellman series (like Harriet the Spy for adults, but funnier) to the hilarious Heads You Lose (written with her ex-boyfriend, David Hayward, in alternating chapters) to the recent How to Start a Fire (also structurally fascinating), I have had nothing but positive things to say about her writing.

I am pleased to report that her latest effort, THE PASSENGER, continues this trend. It moves quickly, taut with suspense and mystery, packed with headlong action, and it has an ending that I did not see coming.

Another two thumbs up!

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PRESENCE by Amy Cuddy

PRESENCEAs you read this, you could be doing a hundred other things. You might be thinking of them, either at the back or front of your mind, even at this moment. The dishes, the laundry, something for work, haven’t been to the gym in a while…. You are here but your presence may be fleeting. Amy Cuddy’s PRESENCE, subtitled Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, examines the challenges of being fully present in such a distracting world, suggests strategies for how to overcome these challenges, and explains why it matters.

One of Cuddy’s guiding principles echoes a quote from the great American dancer Martha Graham: “The body says what words cannot.” In other words, it is virtually impossible to hide what you think or feel because your expressions and posture will give you away. Conversely, Cuddy’s research also shows that engaging in powerful poses (particularly before a stressful job interview or difficult conversation, for example) can actually give you power. Your body can help your mind.

This book has helpful implications for all of us.

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FURIOUSLY HAPPY by Jenny Lawson

FURIOUSLY HAPPYIf I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: if you sit next to me on public transportation, you are in danger of being chortled to death. A recent train ride home from New York with a copy of Jenny Lawson’s latest book in my hands put several passengers at risk.

This one is subtitled “A Funny Book About Horrible Things,” and that seems fairly accurate. Lawson is very open about her struggles with mental illness. And yet the book is not sad or depressing. It’s honest, humble, and—like her previous work, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened—often hilarious. As a coping skill, she has a way of looking at ordinary things that brings out their inherent funniness. Here’s just one example:

“There are few things in the world that make me angrier than poverty, the lack of basic human civil rights, and the fact that most women’s clothes don’t have pockets. Obviously the first two are more pressing, but the pockets thing is pretty irritating too.” She carries this argument forward by discussing it vehemently with her husband, Victor, who once again plays the perfect straight man to her “outrage.” You never get the feeling that she is really angry, just that she likes to argue about silly things possibly for the same reason that some people go to the gym or take long walks: to let off steam.

Many of us—if not all of us—know someone who struggles with anxiety, depression, or some other form of mental illness. This book is funny. But it is also helpful and important in what it reveals about what that person may be going through.

PS– Jenny Lawson also writes a blog called The Bloggess.

Posted in Essays, Humor, Memoir, Mental illness, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir

THE MARTIANAndy Weir’s first novel, THE MARTIAN, is what Hollywood types call “high concept”: An astronaut who was left for dead finds himself alone on Mars. This is the story of what he does to try to survive. Of course they made it into a movie. They’d be crazy not to.

Sometimes when a movie adaptation comes out before you’ve read the book, you see the movie and skip the book. In this case, that would be a mistake.

I have not seen the movie yet. It might be great, and I do plan to see it. But the book is truly phenomenal: an engrossing, suspenseful tale of how a determined man with limited materials and time uses his vast knowledge of math, engineering, and botany (among other topics) to solve one problem after another in his passionate, furious quest to survive. Nothing is easy. Often his solutions, however ingenious, create other problems. Which is not surprising, considering his situation. So much can go wrong, and it does, at breathtaking speed.

I won’t spoil it. But I will say this: it is completely believable. I love the combination of sci-fi meets resilience. And I can’t wait to read Andy Weir’s next book!

Posted in Creativity, Fiction, For EDUCATORS, Novel, Sci-fi, Science, Space travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff

FATES AND FURIESAfter a while, if you’ve read enough good books, you begin to approach them the way a chef eats in someone else’s restaurant, trying to discern the content of each dish. How could I make this? you think, savoring every bite. You pick out the garlic, the onions, a dash of thyme….

Not long into Lauren Groff’s novel FATES AND FURIES, I detected some James Joyce, who in Ulysses brings us the voice of a button (“Bip!”) and an intensive focus on time (let’s just call it a very full day). Groff early on shares the point of view of a neighbor’s cat (“Confusing, these people lounging around their food like enormous cats sated from the kill”) and tumbles through time in a succession of quick scenes—parties from year to year in the same basement apartment—in a way that also brings to mind plays such as Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular, for example, in which a set of friends meet annually around the holidays and we watch their lives spin through time. Plays are, indeed, one focal point of this book: Lotto, the husband in this headlong tale of marriage, fails as an actor and becomes a successful playwright. Meanwhile his wife, Mathilde, whose secrets are uncovered largely in the second half of the book, does more than he will ever know to support his work.

To continue the tasting: the internal monologues evoke Virginia Woolf, and we find more than a sprinkle of poetry in Groff’s beautifully-crafted sentences: a minor character’s death, reported as “Ski tumble; embolism,” reminded me of the Billy Collins poem “Picnic, Lightning,” which itself was a reference to Lolita (“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.”). Page after page, there is more to admire and absorb.

All of this is to say that if you love literature, FATES AND FURIES is absolutely delicious.

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CIRCLING THE SUN by Paula McLain

CIRCLING THE SUNOne thing we could all use in this world is more empathy. I was thinking about this problem while reading Paula McLain’s latest historical fiction memoir, CIRCLING THE SUN, which puts us deeply in the shoes of Beryl Clutterbuck—later Markham—who lived a bold and courageous life.

Born in England, Beryl grew up in Kenya and learned how to train horses with her father after her mother abandoned them. As the book jacket states, she would become “a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen” (AKA Isak Dinesen, who wrote the memoir OUT OF AFRICA). This gives you a headline, but not nearly enough about the fascinating details such as what the landscape of Kenya looked like in those days or what it’s like to have your leg chewed on by a lion. McLain fills in those details, and more.

McLain wowed me with THE PARIS WIFE, her fictional memoir of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and here again her writing impresses, page after page. I particularly love how, in showing how Beryl tries to find her way, she interconnects descriptions and feelings: each sentence carries so much water. Here is just one example:

“This was certain: I belonged on the farm and in the bush. I was part of the thorn trees and the high jutting escarpment, the bruised-looking hills thick with vegetation; the deep folds between the hills, and the high cornlike grasses. I had come alive here, as if I’d been given a second birth, and a truer one. This was my home, and though one day it would all trickle through my fingers like so much red dust, for as long as childhood lasted it was a heaven fitted exactly to me. A place I knew by heart. The one place in the world I’d been made for.”

If we could bottle McLain’s empathizing skills, just imagine how much better we might understand one another.

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KATRINA by Gary Rivlin

KATRINA by Gary RivlinTen years ago today, the National Weather Service announced that “Tropical Depression 12” had become “Hurricane Katrina.” From that point on, day after day, the news became more and more grim.

We all know what happened—well, we knew what the news media was able to report, given that for some time virtually all methods of communication went down. More than 100,000 residents of New Orleans, without personal means of evacuation, struggled to catch buses out of town, and many were left in the Superdome and the Convention Center without sufficient food or water.

The problems were predictable—in fact, in 2004, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) had developed a “Hurricane Pam Exercise” to prepare for the event that became Katrina. But on every level—federal, state, and local—the leaders failed to respond with a proper sense of urgency, and as a result, more than a thousand people died and many, many more lost their homes. Many of us who lived at a distance watched TV in disbelief. Days were passing, and still people were stranded. How could this happen in America in the 21st century?

Gary Rivlin’s compelling account, subtitled After the Flood, sheds more light on what happened in those early days and for years afterward, as residents attempted to not just survive but recover.

It is a national shame that this story ever transpired, but Rivlin tells it well.

Posted in For EDUCATORS, History, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction, Race relations | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments