Embedded Formative Assessment (William)

There’s little there that’s earth-shattering here. It’s just good, clear, well-researched arguments about the importance of formative assessment. The section on providing written feedback is particularly important. Aside from wishing there were a greater balance of examples, this is one of the finest, most important education books I’ve read in a long time.



Up in the Old Hotel (Mitchell)

What a wonderful collection of essays. There are no celebrity pieces here and Mitchell, though present in some as an “I” figure, stays out of them. His essays are people, ordinary people, in a place, at a particular time. He lets them talk for themselves. Unlike many modern essay writers, these are not thinly veiled autobiographical sketches. There are no modernistic narrative techniques or meta-commentaries on the truth of such essays. This is one terrific writer, on his feet, getting on the bus or the subway and meeting people – people who fish, or sell movie tickets, or claim to write oral histories – and writing about them. I would have loved to hang out with Mitchell, to take a walk through the Bowery with him, or sit at a diner and watch him work. An incredibly memorable book by a writer I’m glad a colleague helped me discover.

A Place on Earth (Berry)

What a remarkably quiet and elegant story of not only a place (Port William, Kentucky), but also of people (Mat Feltner) and a time (the story ends with the end of WW2). The book will make you want to take a walk, to look carefully, to work with your hands. Berry wants you to remember that “a man’s life is always dealing with permanence-that the most dangerous kind of irresponsibility is to think of your doing as temporary. . . What you do on the earth, the earth makes permanent” (180).

If I have a quibble, and it is only that, a quibble, it’s that pretty much all of the characters are a bit too wise and insightful.

This is the story of a community at a particular time. These are neighbors who can speak without words, who understand over time. There is a sadness in this book, that of time passing and death approaching, not just for those who have aged, but those who have gone off to war. This is a book about generations, both of land and of people.

I look forward to Berry’s other Port William stories.

Coraline (Gaiman)

I once had a student recommend a Neil Gaiman book to me (American Gods), but its size intimidated me a bit. Then I admired his response to a politician’s comment about his neck.


I decided to start slowly with Coraline. What a delightfully well-constructed and genuinely scary story. His writing is vivid, his characterizations and plot artful.

Can’t wait to see what Tim Burton has done with it.


I’m not sure I’m ready to dig into American Gods yet, but I’ll get there.

Ninth Ward (Rhodes)

Enough time has passed, it seems, for people to start writing about Hurricane Katrina. Dyson’s Come Hell or High Water and Eggers’ Zeitoun are both excellent (and very different) non-fiction books written for adults. Rhodes has tried something different here; she’s written a story for young adults (I’m thinking 5th or 6th grade). Lanesha has been adopted by Mama Ya-Ya, her mother’s midwife (her mother died giving birth). She has ‘ordinary’ kid issues (friends, a dog, an annoying neighbor, getting teased, etc.). Oh, and she and Mama Ya-Ya can see ghosts, including Lanesha’s mother. Then it comes time for the Ninth Ward to get ready for the storm. The once annoying TaShon become her helper (along with the dog they share, Spot, and Lanesha’s ghostly mother provides timely assistance) and they, well (spoiler alert), survive the storm. Maybe it’s because I read those two other books, but this book seems oversimplified in a problematic way. They get out of the house, but what next? What happens next in the Ninth Ward? Both children are without any kind of adults in their lives (TaShon got separated from his parents at the Superdome). I wouldn’t want this to be a student’s only understanding of the Hurricane or even New Orleans.

Empty (Weyn)

Apocalyptic / dystopian fiction is really popular now in the young adult fiction world. A discussion of why that might be is better left for another post. But what makes something like The Hunger Games catch on and something like Weyn’s Empty fail so miserably? I think it’s the writing. Though it’s been a bit of time since I read the first part of Collins’ trilogy (I’m not reading the other two until they come out in paperback), but I recall being caught up in the creation of her world and the people who populate it. Weyn fails miserably on both counts. Rather than creating a world, she tries to take the specifics of our current one (a generic ’10 Years in the Future’) and say that because of our over-reliance on oil, that things will, as Yeats says much more eloquently, “fall apart / the centre cannot hold.” But her prose is didactic, and the dialogue is clunky. This is movie of the week stuff. And the female characters are especially poorly drawn. In the end, despite all that’s going on, what they really want is their man.

Elijah of Buxton (Curtis)

It’s hard for an adult to write in a child’s voice, and I don’t think Curtis gets it here. There’s something too deliberate, too self-conscious about his Elijah. The book meanders for a while – setting and celebrating the scene, introducing the mainly one-dimensional characters. Then Curtis offers us some fairly predictable plot. Though the ending is interesting, the book doesn’t hang together well. Curtis has an outstanding reputation, so I’ll try some of his other books, but I can’t recommend this one.