THE BRILLIANT DISASTER by Jim Rasenberger

THE BRILLIANT DISASTERIn preparation for my first trip to Cuba, I kept my eyes peeled for good books to boost my background knowledge. THE BRILLIANT DISASTER caught my attention, not just for its title but also for its subtitle: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. It seemed like the kind of book that would help me understand the complexities of American-Cuban relations in more detail.

Although I had of course heard of the Bay of Pigs, my high school history classes had never seemed to make it much past World War II, so I dug in with genuine curiosity.

The first thing I want to say is this: If we had read this book in school instead of sitting in rows and copying down random, disconnected facts day after day, I would have absorbed and appreciated history so much more. The story of how President Kennedy inherited this covert action program from his predecessor and allowed the CIA and his advisers to convince him that the US could overthrow Fidel Castro without appearing to be involved—even if you know the ending—is thrilling and agonizing. As a result of some poor decisions, JFK found himself trapped in a dilemma with many lives on the line. What makes this narrative even more compelling is the knowledge that it truly happened and that the consequences could have been worse.

The attempted invasion was a debacle for so many reasons, and Jim Rasenberger’s comprehensive book benefits both from the release of previously classified documents and from his relative lack of bias. Unlike the decision-makers who later wrote their own versions of events, his only connection is that his father was somewhat involved among a group of lawyers brought in to help save the captured brigade by soliciting donations from American pharmaceutical companies in a deal cut with Castro.

This book sheds light on an important sequence of events in American (and Cuban) history, but more importantly, it illuminates the challenges that political leaders face in trying to pursue their goals and protect the peace.

Posted in 1960s, For EDUCATORS, History, Investigative journalism, JFK and Castro, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

WHISTLING VIVALDI by Claude M. Steele

WHISTLING VIVALDIThis amazing book, subtitled How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, takes its title from a story that Brent Staples (now a NY Times columnist but then a University of Chicago psychology graduate student), told about an experience he had as a young African American man walking around in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. White people were looking at him anxiously, some even crossing the street to avoid him, and out of nervousness, he began to whistle. And when people heard him whistling classical music—Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—they relaxed and actually smiled at him. They no longer saw him as a threat.

In WHISTLING VIVALDI, social psychologist Claude Steele sheds light on how “stereotype threat” affects us all—from women taking math tests to black students anxious to do well in college to white men faced with the prospect of having a conversation on a racially-charged topic. Steele explains ground-breaking research (much of it his own) that explores how stereotypes shape our identity and often limit us in ways we might not even realize. But he doesn’t stop there. He also provides helpful strategies for combatting these challenges and closing achievement gaps. This book is both stunning and hopeful.

If you are an educator, no matter where you work, you will want to read this ASAP.

Posted in Change, Coaching, Education Reform, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Nonfiction, Race relations | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson

MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STANDMaybe you have a cold, or maybe it’s rainy out, or maybe you are procrastinating from doing something “important.” You could probably come up with a better excuse, but the truth is, when it comes to reading you shouldn’t need one. We should all be able to curl up with a good book whenever we choose to without having to explain ourselves. And today, if you need a good companion for this purpose, I highly recommend MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND, Helen Simonson’s witty, charming novel about a widower (the aforementioned Major) and a widow (Mrs. Ali) who navigate the social slights and rigidity of a small English village in ways that—as my high school Latin teacher used to say—will warm the cockles of your heart.

This book came out in 2010 and was a New York Times bestseller, so I recognize I am late to the party, but it doesn’t matter. And in fact it might be a good thing, because I hear Ms. Simonson has a new book out. Which is very convenient.

Posted in Fiction, Novel, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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 , , , | 1 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.

Posted in Biography, Inspirational, Memoir, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in Fiction, Mystery, Novel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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