Wonder (Palacio)

This is a remarkable book, all the more impressive because it’s Paacio’s first novel. I hope her publishers know what they have here. Though currently marketed for younger readers, I think this could crossover to many if not all ages.

Palacio’s plotting is masterful. She uses various points of view to tell the story of Auggie Pullman, who has a combination of issues (one of which he can’t pronounce) that cause his face to look quite unusual. The premise that gets the book going is that his parents have finally decided that he should go to a regular school.

What I admired most about the book is the way that Palacio consistently surprised me. I don’t mean with sudden revelations, but with writing choices (the narrators, for example) that kept me interested. I also think she got the tone of 5th grade absolutely right. This is an author who gets school and the 5th grade mind – neither of which are easy.

Though there are a few predictable things here (the underdog story, the important English teacher), but just when I was going to be disappointed about how Palacio leaves Julian (a kind of antagonist), she gives him one last moment that speaks that makes him, like all of the other characters (parents included, which is also impressive), remarkable and well-rounded. This is a great, great book.

NurtureShock (Bronson & Merryman)

About 60 pages into this, I stopped and thought, ‘This should be required reading for expectant parents, parents, teachers, and, well, everyone.” If you accept the notion that education is largely about clearing up misconceptions (and I do, even in English), this is the book for you. Bronson and Merryman have done their homework and Bronson, who seems to be the lead writer, communicates it well most of the time. Some of the ideas about praise and failure are familiar. It’s time to figure out how to find room for failure. The insights about sleep (and the lack of it) are astounding. It makes me think that any high school that starts much before 9 is borderline criminally negligent. Chapters 3 (“Why White Parents Don’t Talk about Race”) and 9 (“Plays Well with Others”) should make you question much of what you thought you knew. Seriously, if I could, I’d stand outside of schools, day care centers, maternity wards, and just hand out free copies.


The Iliad (Homer, trans. by Fagles)

“And they buried Hector, breaker of horses.” The question remains – why does a book that starts with Achilles’ anger end with Hector’s burial? But what a beautiful ending.

I haven’t read the book since sophomore year of English class. I remember getting a good grade for comparing the ‘cast’ of The Iliad with the cast of M*A*S*H (Hawkeye as Achilles, etc.).

It didn’t read as well I remembered. The scene where Achilles tries to hug the ghost of Patroculus was still moving, but I was surprised by how brief it was. I remember the funeral games, but I thought more was made of how Achilles treats Hector’s body. In general, Achilles, once a hero of mine, came off as more petulant than I remembered. The night scene (perhaps stolen by Shakespeare for the pre-battle scene in Henry V) is quite good. I remembered the long lists, so they didn’t bother me. There was just much more space between set pieces than I remembered. It’s not that I expected the women to come off well here, but calling Helen a ‘whore’ seems harsh.

I can’t recommend this translation. Fagles seems particularly obsessed with the words ‘bitch’ and ‘nipple.’

I read this because a class I’m working with wants to try to respond to the question – What is a classic?

So, is this a classic? Is it less of a classic than The Odyssey? Do we just like The Odyssey more because it’s a better story? Because we like the protagonist (not really a candidate for Man of the Year either) more? Because it has more action in its familiar structure (i.e., a journey story)?

Do these books just remain as classics because we have them and are enchanted by the idea of a blind poet reciting them? If they were written today, would they be published? If we replaced ‘Homer’ with ‘Schmendaman’ (a point Steve Martin makes in his play Picasso at the Lapin Agile) would we still buy them much less teach them?

Help me help my students. Is The Iliad a classic? Why or why not?

This is a great adaptation of it. What is our story of war today?


How Children Succeed (Tough)

The subtitle for this book is Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, so jokes about the author’s last name are inevitable. Much of the argument in this book is familiar, though still not, in my opinion, accepted widely enough. These are stories of people using research to try to inform not only the teaching of content, but also the teaching (and evaluation of) character – not moral character, but performance character. (I think ‘performance’ is the adjective Tough uses.) By this, he means aspects of character, like persistence, that more and more educators are seeing as a pre-requisite for success. Another example – failure. We all wants children and students to learn, as Tough describes it, to manage failure, but no one wants anyone to fail; the stakes are too high, or at least they seem that way. Does the inability to manage failure lead to cheating? Another in a long line of magazine articles that have been expanded into books, but Tough writes well, and it’s nice to have the good research all in one place.

An Atlas of Impossible Longing (Roy)

I’m not sure how this book got on my list. It could have been a review, because I thought the title was really cool (it is, isn’t it?) or because I thought it was the same author that wrote The God of Small Things (it’s not). Whatever the reason, I’m glad I found it. This is a tightly plotted 3-generation story and the author is quite skillful at putting so much weight on small things, like looking out a window or even the number three.

Like Last Man in Tower, this book dwells on the rapaciousness of the real estate business in India. Though I’m always wary of making a cultural observation after 2 pieces of fiction, I wonder whether this trend is worth noting.

So, Ms. Anuradha Roy, thanks for this one. What’s next?

This Is How You Lose Her (Diaz)

I tried to ration myself, but I inhaled 6 of these stories before I knew it. I even read one – “Otravida, Otravez” – twice. Then I couldn’t sleep and read the 7th story and finished the last two of these interconnected stories before I went into the Fitzgerald Theatre to see him (http://fitzgeraldtheater.publicradio.org/events/). This is another remarkable book from Diaz. The writing sparkles erratically. This is not to suggest that Diaz is out of control, only that his ‘popcorn on steroids’ style suits his characters and stories well.

One narrator, who works in a hospital laundry and is a soft touch for those girls, and I mean girls, who have just arrived in the country, explains (55):

I never see the sick; they visit me through the stains and marks they leave on the sheets, the alphabet of the sick and dying.

I had to stop, re-read and mark the passage. It absolutely took my breath away.

My only regret is that this collection – which Diaz says it took him 16 years to finish – took me two days to finish. And now I have to wait years for the next one.

Bless Me, Ultima (Anaya)

I think I read this a long time ago, but since a teacher wants to use it in class, I thought I’d read it again. There is much that was probably new here and there is much to be admired. Some / much of the writing is stilted and wooden (especially the dialogue), and there’s something of a lack of attention to detail. (Objects just appear without being introduced; they are just conveniently there.) A few too many characters are one trick ponies and the pacing lags more than it doesn’t.

So what makes this so compelling for some? Is it Antonio’s religious struggle – the Golden Carp vs. the Catholic religion? The llano vs. the priesthood? There are some moving passages and I admire Anaya’s willingness to create a difficult ending. I do wonder, though, how well the questions of religion will go over with some students and families?

We’ll see how it goes.