I’m a sucker for stories that involve circuses, carnivals, sideshows, etc.. Maybe in another life I would have run away with the circus. So even though I was not blown away by The Dovekeepers, I decided to give Alice Hoffman’s newest one a chance; I’m so glad I did.

This is a wonderfully constructed book. The parallels evolve subtly and meaningfully. She evokes the atmosphere of early 20th century Coney Island incredibly well. I opened the book, and I was there. The writing is exquisite. One character is said to have “a thorn of compassion” before offering to help someone. What a great phrase and absolutely perfect for that moment and that character. Beautiful and important images of water are interspersed throughout the novel, and even a word like “brother” takes on such nuanced meaning.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire has an important role in the novel, but to her credit, the novel is not about that. The characters become involved with it, but Hoffman is willing to let some of the questions remain unresolved. On the other hand, the novel is, somewhat, about the fire and the issues that it raised – unions, social classes, immigrants, changes in New York, etc.. It becomes a great set piece, but does not dominate the proceedings.

Hoffman’s ending is evocative and well-earned. Hoffman’s orchestration of things both small and large is masterful.

This is my second time through this book. This time, though, I read it with more focus and urgency. I have many students who are “word callers.” In Tovani’s terms, word callers “can decode words but don’t understand or remember what they’ve read” (14). She offers a dozen or so strategies that are both familiar and useful (sounding), and she seems to have the credentials to offer them. Still, I do wish she’d offered some concrete evidence that they, you know, work, or at least some anecdotes.

She’s got something, though. I was reading it and a student pointed at the title and said, “That’s exactly how I feel.”

I’ll probably see if I can introduce her ideas at my school.

I picked up the school reform issue of The Nation. While I was not too inspired by any of the articles it contained, this book caught me eye, and I’m glad it did. Vilson is a voice – and I use that word deliberately – that we in the teaching profession need. He’s the first one that helped me make sense of education related blogging. His positive spirit is both inspiring and infectious. He is determined to teach “fearlessly.” He does not want us, as teachers, to wait to be asked for our input. Or, as he puts it, “[i]nstead of waiting for someone to hand the mic to us, let’s take it” (176). This notion of teacher voice, he contends, requires “three cogent pieces: a balance between emotion and reason; expert confidence; and a specific audience in mind” (178). He has the familiar criticisms of NCLB and Race to the Top, but it’s his constant attention to the needs of his students – even as he becomes a teacher leader – that prevails. And it’s his nuanced and developing understanding of the relationship among race, class, and education that’s inspiring.

And by the way, Vilson can write. I’m not just talking about his powerful poetry (seek out his performance at the Save Our Schools march), but also his prose. His meditation on behalf Ruben Redman as well as his “Note from a Native Son” are remarkable. And then there are sentences like these (trust me, it makes perfect sense in context): “Three-fifths for any man of color in this country would break his constitution” (77). Boom!

Here’s to the new generation.


Atrocious cover art notwithstanding, this book is quite an accomplishment. Pessl has created worlds within worlds. What are those Russian dolls called? Nesting dolls, I think. Pessl is aware of her plot construction and uses the images of those dolls herself to much better effect.

This is a marvelous genre-defying story. There are twists and turns, action and reflection. Pessl has an eye for the telling detail. That she can stretch an image too far at times or neglect a practical detail or two are aspects of the book that are easily forgiven.

She is persuasive in her rendering of a male voice. The ending, the internal one for the male protagonist, comes off as not completely earned. I could have used more about Scott’s life prior to this latest investigation. I think such a move would have helped make the ending more resonant for me.

This is an extremely frightening and visually evocative book. Someone’s going to make a disastrous film version of it one day.

A fast and worthwhile read.

Ripley has an interesting premise. Some countries (Finland, for example) are in the news for the progress they’ve made with education. So what happens, she wonders, when she follows American students who elect to study in one of these countries for a year? How are there experiences similar? Different? Better?

There is, as is becoming increasingly well-known, much that is good about what is going on in Finland. For Ripley, it starts with the acceptance that academic rigor is necessary and that the Finns have grit to meet the standards. In South Korea, Ripley notes the obsessiveness (they have a police unit dedicated to shutting down the after school study programs by 10 pm) and is concerned about it. Still, she prefers it to the American system. And Poland (the surprise entry here, at least for me) is making impressive strides as well.

Ripley, with a kind of obvious bias against American public schools (sometimes with good reason), undersells the issue of the changing population in Finland. The teacher that she holds up as a model says some rather cringe-worthy things that Ripley applauds. I’m not suggesting that a child’s background is everything; it’s also not nothing as this teacher contends. Mr. Vuorinen, the teacher in question here, says of his students, “I want to think about them as all the same.” That does a disservice to all of them. He (and Ms. Ripley) obviously cannot hold two potentially conflicting thoughts in their head at the same time. Teachers canpay attention to a student’s background and still demand that the student meet rigorous expectations.

Here, as elsewhere, Ripley is too fond of either / or statements. Education is not that simple. She does raise some interesting talking points. If certain standardized tests are meant to check on how the school is doing, why is everyone tested? Why not a random sampling? Why aren’t the requirements for becoming a teacher more challenging? How should public schools be funded?

There are items ripe for conversation here, but they would be more useful if Ripley were less condescending and more nuanced.

In my search for her site, I was reminded that Ripley is a magazine writer. The book certainly reads that way – as a good, though much stretched, magazine article written for the general public not those of us who know better.

Ratner is an eloquent writer. Her ability to evoke time and place and capture the essence of language (in the form of poetry, songs and stories) is remarkable. And the material here is compelling – one family’s displacement and struggle during the Cambodian Civil War in 1975.

On the other hand, Ratner struggles here with two things. First, she falls prey to the “wise child” narrator syndrome. At 7, Raami simply would not have access to the insights she offers here. If Ratner meant to distinguish between the older Raami and the Raami who is caught up in the moment, the distinction eluded me. Second, the story has no real momentum. Big moments are made small. And small moments can seem endless. The problem may be explained in the first line of her author’s note when she writes, “Raami’s story is, in essence, my own.” If she wanted to present this as memoir, it may have worked better. But because a thing is true does not mean it makes for or needs to be included in a story.

It’s a first novel. I expect that with her skills and a good editor, the next book will be better.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 184 other followers