Thursday, May 31, 2007

Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire, by Rafe Esquith

I finished my first challenge read--Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 by Rafe Esquith, for the Non-Fiction Five Challenge. It is the story of an extraordinary teacher who has been teaching fifth grade at a public school in a poverty-stricken and violent Los Angeles neighborhood for the last twenty-two years, and he has created an oasis in his classroom. By challenging his kids to follow a personal code of behavior, he gets them to behave and to learn without "ruling with an iron fist".

I probably have more reason to be interested in this book than most people, because my oldest child is exactly the age of the kids that Rafe Esquith teaches. And Esquith's suggestions are great--he inspired me to introduce my child to Shakespeare, and he has many great suggestions for books, movies, music, plays, and math and science projects that I think will inspire all my (three) children.

I would have to agree with one reviewer who called Esquith's tone "arrogant", but at the same time, he tells many humble and self-deprecating stories about the mistakes he's made as a teacher over the years. It's an interesting combination. Maybe there is something approaching arrogance in the way he seems so sure about things--he is very confident in his assessments of the terrible state of many public schools today, and of the pitfalls many teachers can't seem to avoid. But I found, ultimately, that his voice didn't turn me off to his message.

I will also say that this book gave me many, many ideas about encouraging and supporting my kids' education, but it also made me feel inadequate as a parent at the same time. This guy has so many great ideas, I don't know how I would fit them all into my kids' lives. But the book did inspire me to try.

I am also interested in hearing what teachers think of this book. I think teachers would be more qualified than I am to judge it, and I'd be curious to hear what they think.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A New Book

I keep forgetting that I joined the "book club" sponsored by one of my local public radio stations (KPCC in Pasadena--a great station). I really can't afford it, but I spent a bunch of cash sponsoring the station so that I could receive the books that they select several times a year.

The last book they chose, Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire, by Rafe Esquith, is my first Non-Fiction Five choice. I've finished it (just in the nick of time, I realize, since tomorrow is the last day of May) but I still have to write something about it.

It is so nice to have a book arrive out of the blue. Due to what my husband deems a mental block, I never remember that I belong to this "book club". But today I received a package containing the newest KPCC Book club selection, Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson.

Now this is not something I would have chosen to read, probably, but that is the great thing about this kind of program. And you have to love the picture of Einstein on the cover, with a truly happy smile and all that great, crazy hair.

Apparently this book has been very well reviewed, and the page at Amazon has a lot of extras--an interview with the author, a podcast preview of the audiobook, and you can read the first chapter of the book. (Feels a little like the hard-sell).

I might not have chosen this book, but it does look good. My husband probably would have picked this book, so maybe I'll hand it over to him. If he's lucky.

By the way, he also says I have a mental block about running the dishwasher. I'm good at loading the dishwasher, but I always forget to turn it on. Thus, the mental block. He may be right.

I couldn't get the image from the cover, so I'm putting in this link, so you can see Einstein's smile:

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I Need a Vacation After That Vacation...

We're back from our marathon trip back east. I took this picture early in the morning of our last day. We went for my husband's college reunion, and also fit in a visit to my father-in-law, so the trip was action-packed, to say the least. A good time was had by all, but traveling with three kids really takes it out of me. And--no surprise--I got next to no reading done. What was a surprise was that for some unknown reason (and I really shouldn't mention it at all, in order not to jinx it for the future) I was fairly calm on both cross-country flights.

I'm almost done with The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency 8) by Alexander McCall Smith. I'm enjoying the language and the details about life in Botswana. I even tried to follow advice from the book, as I was jostled by a curmudgeonly old man in the airport who muttered darkly at me. He said something like, "You sure picked a nice place to stop," because he had to wheel his suitcase around me and my daughter, who had chosen that moment to squat in the middle of a crowded corridor, for no apparent reason. I wanted to shout after him, "You try flying with a toddler some time!" But instead I took a breath and tried to smile.

I was thinking of lady detective Precious Ramotswe, who inspired her colleague Grace Makutsi to behave with politeness to a rude receptionist:
Mma Ramotswe would be proud of me, she thought; Mma Ramotswe had always said that the repaying of rudeness with rudeness was the wrong thing to do as it taught the other person no lesson. And she was right about that, as she was right about so many other things. Mma Ramotswe...Mma Makutsi saw the face of her friend and heard her voice, as if she was right there, beside her. She would have laughed at Violet. She would have said of her insults, Little words, Mma, from an unhappy woman. Nothing to think twice about. Nothing.

I have to admit, I had avoided this series of books initially because I don't typically read mysteries or series or big bestsellers. But I found this book to be a charming traveling companion.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Have a good holiday...

My family and I are heading to the east coast for the Memorial Day weekend, so I probably won't be doing much blogging. Taking Aryn Kyle's The God of Animals on the plane, and The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, by Alexander McCall Smith. Let you know how they serve me as plane reading when I get back...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Tagged Again--A New Meme

Matt at A Variety of Words just tagged me for a new meme. This one is quirky and fun, and I liked it when I first saw it, even before I was tagged.

The rules, as posted by Matt, are: “You simply have to grab the book nearest to you (no cheating here), turn to page 161, and post the text of the fifth full sentence on the page along with the body of the instruction on your blog. Then you tag 3 people.”

I happened to have A.M. Homes’s new memoir, The Mistress's Daughter: A Memoir, sitting on my desk next to the computer. I just bought it the other day at my local independent bookstore, and I hadn’t opened it yet. But here’s what I found on p. 161:
In 1972, when my grandfather died in Washington, I got two of his hats, a winter hat and a summer hat.


So now I’m tagging three other blogging buddies for this meme:

Robin at A Fondness for Reading

Iliana at bookgirl’s nightstand

Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf

Sorry if you've already been tagged. Hope you’re in the mood to play, but if not, no worries!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

A New Challenge--Southern Reading

I’ve been reading about all the bloggers doing the Southern Reading Challenge hosted by Maggie Reads, and which runs from June 1st through August 30th.

My mother is a southern gal (now a western transplant) and I do love southern literature, so this one was attractive to me. But I didn’t want to commit to another challenge—mostly because I’m new to challenges and don’t want to get in over my head.

But then I thought, “It’s only three books…” And I’ve always wanted to read something by Lee Smith. So I jumped right in with both feet, and mooched Fair and Tender Ladies from BookMooch.

So my list for the Southern Reading Challenge is:
Fair and Tender Ladies (Ballantine Reader's Circle) by Lee Smith
Delta Wedding (A Harvest/Hbj Book) by Eudora Welty
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

And I think I might just have to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Just because.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

I've Been Tagged--Eight Things About Me

Stephanie over at Stephanie's Confessions of a Book-a-holic tagged me for the "Eight Things About Me" meme today. Not sure I'll come up with 8 interesting things, but I'll try.

I've noticed two things while figuring out what to say about myself--1) Stephanie and I have a lot in common and 2) lots of my favorite bloggers have been tagged with this one.

Here are the rules:

1: Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves.
2: People who are tagged, write a blog post about their own 8 random things, and post these rules.
3: At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people and include their names.
4: Don't forget to leave them a comment and tell them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

Okay, here goes:

1. Three of my ancestors were executed as witches in what some call "the witch delusion" in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.

2. I have scoliosis and wore a brace on my back from age 10 to age 15, which, yes, includes what I like to call "the land without pity"--junior high.

3. I am afraid to fly, and yet I know that my fear is absolutely irrational, and it doesn't keep me from doing it. Though once I took the train from Los Angeles to New York--three days--rather than get on a plane. It was a really great experience, but it made me get back on planes pronto...

4. I (like Stephanie) was in a sorority in college. And, as Stephanie says, to know me now is to laugh at that. Not my finest hour, but I made some good friends.

5. Like Jenclair (at A Garden Carried in the Pocket) I still have my last pair of toe shoes. Also battered, also in a box, in a closet, but I plan to hang them in my daughter's room because I think they'll make a nice decoration.

6. And since I'm in sync with Jenclair, I'll also say that my favorite city is Edinburgh, too. My dad is from Scotland, and we used to go there to visit all the relatives on his side of the family, and I fell in love with Edinburgh. I like London, too.

7. I want to learn meditation. But I can't seem to find the time! How pathetic is that? Now that I've written it down, maybe seeing those words on the screen will shame me into figuring out how to make time.

8. I love driving vacations, and my husband doesn't. But we've agreed on starting small and trying to get to a few great spots here in California this summer. With three kids in the mini-van--I'm nuts!

Okay, I'm going to tag 8 blogging buddies--and sorry if you've already been tagged. Don't worry if you don't feel like doing it--it's just for fun.

John at The Book Mine Set at

Matt at A Variety of Words

Bookfool at Bookfoolery and Babble

SFP at Pages Turned

Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza

Literary Feline at Musings of a Bookish Kitty

Brad at Turning Pages

Hope you're feeling like sharing!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Non-Fiction Five Challenge

Well, I'm late, as usual.

I'm finally joining in on the Non-Fiction Five Challenge, hosted by Joy at Thoughts of Joy. Check out the link to see what it's all about. It goes from May to September, so I'll try to read my first book really quickly, before the end of this month!

I've been reading about this challenge for awhile now, and thinking it was a great idea. But I've never actually joined in on a challenge, so I hesitated.

Then I looked at my TBR list and saw so many non-fiction books on it that I realized I would be reading five before September, anyway.

And then I would be annoyed with myself if I hadn't done the challenge, but had read the books anyway. Because I like to have that kind of satisfaction, darn it. I want to say I finished a challenge!

So here's my list for the Non-Fiction Five:

Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56, by Rafe Esquith

How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman, M.D.

My Life in France, by Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley

I'm excited to start! I'll put the list on my sidebar, soon...

Saturday, May 12, 2007

They've Got To Be Kidding... had a post that caught my eye, about a new lifestyle site for recent college grads, called, with this article:

25 Books that Look Good and Read Even Better: Building a Sexy Library.

It's a guide for decorating your bookshelves with books that at least make you look smart to potential lovers.

Here's one of the author's tips: "Shortcut to looking well read: Stock bookshelves with the lesser-known works of famous authors. Examples: East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, and Pale Fire, by Nabokov. Special bonus points if you actually read them!"


At least the article has a slightly tongue-in-cheek feel.

And maybe I should be encouraged by the idea that they think good books might be seductive...

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Mini reviews

I read a few short books over the last few days, and when I was done, I was surprised to notice a theme. They are all concerned, to some degree, with disappointment in love. First I read Lucky Girls: Stories, Nell Freudenberger's debut, a book of five short stories that read like novellas. The negative reviews I read tended to focus on Freudenberger's choice of subject matter--young women with older men, dysfunctional families whose members seem unable to communicate with each other, the ennui of privileged young women, Americans feeling attracted to, yet lost in, Asia.

Her subject matter didn't bother me, and I found her writing self-assured rather than self-conscious. And I found myself liking each story because of her way with certain images and details, even if I didn't love or even relate to the characters. I liked the last story, "Letter from the Last Bastion". It's about the illegitimate daughter of a literary giant, who writes a letter to him--but the letter is disguised as a sort of anti-entrance essay to the admissions department of the college where he teaches. It felt especially ambitious in its scope, and I was drawn in, truly curious about how it might end.

I also read Barbara Pym's novel Jane and Prudence, because Iliana at bookgirl's nightstand mentioned it (thanks, Iliana!). I've read several of Pym's novels before and enjoyed them, so I immediately mooched this one. I always appreciate Pym's humor, but I noticed other things, this time, too. It was really the first time I noticed the juxtaposition of the stiffness and codes of proper behavior in the English society Pym describes, and her more modern sensibility, where the characters suffer from ennui, and demonstrate a matter-of-fact attitude about things like sex and infidelity.

It's very interesting that, not just in this book, but in Pym's work as a whole, her women are almost always unsatisfied. Domesticity and marriage are portrayed as unromantic, and bogged down in the boring details of life, and older spinsters are peevish and difficult, while the younger single women are slightly angry and a little lost, looking for love but not quite sure they want the reality of life with a man. There is a sort of unnamed feminist feeling of unease about women wasting their educations by not pursuing meaningful work at the same time that meaningful work isn't really open to them. It was really fascinating to look at English society through Pym's eyes again.

Then I decided to read a novel by the late Elizabeth Taylor, another English writer, called Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (Virago Modern Classics). My mother wanted to read it because she had heard that the film version, starring Joan Plowright, was worth seeing. Most of the reviews of the film I read were positive--most mentioned the word "bittersweet"--so I thought I'd check out the book. Reviews of the book hail it as a forgotten classic, so I had to get it. It's the story of elderly Mrs. Palfrey, who moves to London's slightly run-down Claremont Hotel to live out the rest of her days, independent from her only daughter, who lives in Scotland, and doesn't seem to want her. The hotel has other elderly residents, and their lonely lives center on the few visitors they have, the outings they can manage, and the hotel's dinner menu. Mrs. Palfrey's life takes a different turn when she forges a friendship with a young writer, Ludo, who pretends to be her grandson for the benefit of the other hotel residents.

The book's power lies in Taylor's exposing the fear of aging in the society she lives in. She shows how middle class England in the late 1960s and early 1970s doesn't really allow for aging--it doesn't have a place for the breakdown of the body, and even seems to consider it embarrassing--and therefore that society marginalizes its elderly. (And by the way, I don't think only 1970s English society felt this way--we are guilty of it today) Taylor's portraits of the lonely elderly are keenly observed, sympathetic but unromantic. These characters are trapped in bodies that are betraying them, and they've been betrayed by their loved ones and even the society they live in. Though I loved the plucky Mrs. Palfrey, I found her fate and the fates of the rest of the inmates of the Claremont almost unbearably sad.

Monday, May 7, 2007

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver--a review

I enjoyed The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver, for many reasons, but mostly, I think, because I related to the main character.

Irina McGovern is a 40ish American children’s book illustrator living in London with her boyfriend of ten years, Lawrence Trainer, who works for a prestigious think tank. Irina is pretty content in her life with Lawrence, though there are few sparks left.

One fateful night, when Lawrence is out of town, Irina meets their mutual friend, Ramsey Acton, for dinner to celebrate Ramsey’s birthday. Ramsey is a professional snooker player with an East End accent and a handsome face, and Irina finds herself fiercely attracted to him. There is a point in the evening where Irina can either kiss Ramsey, or stop herself.

This is where the novel really begins. Shriver now divides the book into parallel narratives, alternating chapters about what happens to Irina’s life if she kisses Ramsey, and what happens if she doesn’t.

Musing on the road not taken must be a human compulsion, because it is such a common artistic theme. For example, this book reminded me quite a bit of the enjoyable 1998 British movie Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah, which is also about the two stories that result when a woman makes a choice between two men—but in the movie, the choice of one man was clearly better than the other. Here, to the book's credit, there is no clear-cut winner.

For Irina McGovern, staying with Lawrence is the safe choice, the way of faithfulness and loyalty, but it is also the way of complacency and stagnation. Lawrence is solid and caring, and shepherds Irina’s career, but he is also intellectually superior and smug, uninspiring in bed, and one of his favorite words to use about others is “moron”. Lawrence and Irina’s relationship is generally harmonious but a little boring.

On the other hand, Ramsey is attractive, intense, and their sexual connection overshadows the fact that they have little in common. Ramsey is possessive of Irina, obsessed with snooker to the exclusion of nearly everything else, and can’t seem to care about any aspect of Irina’s life that doesn’t include him. And their relationship is turbulent--Ramsey and Irina fight all the time.

It may sound like Shriver’s portraits of these men are as one-dimensional polar opposites, but they’re not. Instead, Shriver’s characters are subtle, and what makes the whole thing believable is her nuanced depiction of Irina, who becomes, through the small details of her life, a most believable and sympathetic heroine.

Early on in the book, I felt like one of the weaknesses was that these men were both so unappealing. I wanted to say to Irina that neither of her choices seemed so great to me, and maybe she should get rid of both of these guys and start over. But later I felt like maybe Shriver was effectively pointing out that life is not so easy, and choices we make are usually not so clear-cut as the choice between good and evil.

Initially I also wasn’t sure how much I could like Irina if her whole life seemed to turn only on her choice of man. But later I felt that Irina’s choice was not only about men, but also about what kind of life she wanted, and who she wanted to be. She was choosing between a safe but unexciting life and one with the drama of a more compelling love, but she was making sacrifices either way. Again, what’s interesting here is that neither choice is only good or bad; they are both open to interpretation. Shriver is really good at showing us all the shades of gray in life.

Also showing us the shades of gray, Shriver confounds the reader’s expectations with several good plot turns—she doesn’t make either plot end exactly the way I thought it would.

Overall, I was impressed that Shriver really made me care about Irina’s welfare. I really thought about the choices Irina was making, and the consequences of those choices. And the book made me think about what part of our destiny is chance, and what part is choice.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Create your daemon

I saw this on Stephanie's blog, Stephanie's Confessions of a Book-a-holic, and again at Jenclair's blog, A Garden Carried in the Pocket, and thought it was a lot of fun. It's from the site for the movie "The Golden Compass", from the book by Philip Pullman, and it's pretty cool. My kids did it too!

Friday, May 4, 2007

A riff on...

...the title of my last post. It often feels true for me, being the mother of three fairly small children who are always coming down with some virus or other, that “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Or, as Robert Burns actually wrote in his poem “To a Mouse”:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley.
Which, like the accent of many a Scots relative of mine, is unintelligible. Until you get a translation, that is.

When I looked this poem up, just to make sure that the old adage actually existed somewhere, I found this site with a translation of the poem, which is attributed to a book by George Wilkie, entitled Understanding Robert Burns: Verse, Explanation and Glossary. It's so much nicer to read Burns's work with a convenient glossary opposite every stanza.

“To a Mouse” is actually quite a bittersweet poem, written “on turning her (the mouse) up in her nest, with the plough, November, 1785.

And there’s one really nice paragraph that needs no translation, where he apologizes to the mouse for mankind’s behavior:
I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!
I never really posted last month for Poetry Month, so here it is, better late than never--which is another adage altogether (and attributed to John Heywood, who seems to have collected all the best “Proverbes” in the 15th century, including “Would ye both eat your cake and have your cake?” and "Better one byrde in hand than ten in the wood.")

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The best-laid plans...

Well, after all my posting about the Los Angeles Festival of Books, my family and I didn't make it there this weekend. It's a long, boring story, but my husband both had to work and was ill, so there was no way it was going to happen. It was a nice idea, though.

So my good friend J said why don't we go to the L.A. Central Library ALOUD reading series and hear Michael Ondaatje to make up for missing the Festival? I said, "Great, where do I sign up?" Well, the tickets are free, but you do have to reserve ahead. This is an amazing reading series with lectures, readings, and performances by writers that are like rock stars to me--check out the calendar. I would go to hear Michael Chabon on May 9th, but it's already sold out.

But as I investigated the site, I found that if I can't go in person, our local public TV station, KCET, has a podcast you can subscribe to!

And further investigating the podcast archives, I saw that I can listen to past lectures or readings that sound great, like Michael Pollan talking about The Omnivore's Dilemma, the late, great science fiction writer Octavia Butler, or Jane Smiley and Marianne Wiggins talking about Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel...

I'm feeling a little better about missing out on all the fun this weekend...