Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Teenagers 101: What a Top Teacher Wishes You Knew about Helping Your Child Succeed

Because I work so closely with my youngest grandson on his daily homework assignments and on his test preparation, I am always on the lookout for books like Rebecca Deurlein’s Teenagers 101.  In this case, it was the book’s more descriptive subtitle that grabbed my attention: “What a Top Teacher Wishes You Knew about Helping Your Kid Succeed.”  My grandson has a variety of learning disabilities that frustrate his efforts, so keeping him properly motivated is a big part of helping him succeed with his school work.

Teenagers 101, though, is not just aimed at parents of children who are struggling with their school work.  Much of the book, in fact, is aimed at parents whose children are doing better than most of their peers, those kids who take Pre-AP and AP classes and cannot imagine a future for themselves that does not include at least four years of secondary education.  Deurlein’s advice regarding motivating your particular student, however, applies equally well to students at both ends of the spectrum. 

And, if you in your role of parent or grandparent, need a little motivation to remain, or to become, active in helping your student succeed, Deurlein offers these two reminders of just how important that role is:

·      “How you respond to your children’s actions, and what consequences they face as a result of their behavior will determine, almost entirely, their future behavior.”

·      “Every kid does something well.  Our job is to notice when that happens and use it as a tool of encouragement that will prod children to work harder next time.”

Deurlein, however, is quick to point out where your role as mentor begins and where it ends.  Too many parents make the mistake of “editing” student homework to the point that it becomes more the work of the parent than that of the student – and no one, including the student, is fooled.  Consequently, the author devotes an entire chapter to “knowing when to back off” and letting your teen assume responsibility for his day-to-day education, a process that should be well in place by the time they start high school.

Rebecca Durlein
Along the way, there are chapters on a diverse set of topics, such as: the advantages of allowing your children to take advanced classes; organizational skills; teaching children to “dress for success;” determining if your student is “college bound;” building self-esteem in children; and how to effectively work with your child’s teachers.  Keep in mind that Teenagers 101 was written by an experienced high school teacher, someone who has probably seen it all by this stage in her career.  She has a good idea of what works and what does not work.

If you are looking for some motivational tips or for something to explain what your child might be going through, Teenagers 101 is a good place to start.

Monday, March 30, 2015

An App for Censorship: Squeaky Clean

The Famous Mr. Clean Himself
I suppose I should have seen it coming.  There's already an app to help shortcut just about anything a human being can possibly want to do these days, so I should not have been surprised by this: an app to censor the books read by children.  

All concerned parents have to do is run an e-book through something called Squeaky Clean in order to make themselves feel good about their parenting skills a little while longer.  As a consequence, their children just might be sheltered from the harsh realities of living in the 21st century - or of even growing up - for another few days or weeks. 

According to NPR, Jared and Kirsten Maughan came up with the idea for Squeaky Clean when their daughter came home from school one day all upset about some of the words she was being forced to read as part of a school assignment.  This Washington Post article notes that the little girl was in the fourth grade at the time, and that she had borrowed the book from the school library (which means it may have not been required reading, after all).  The article points out what happened next:
...the Maughans quickly learned from a lawyer that republishing books with the offensive words changed or removed would violate authors’ copyrights. So they partnered with a Chicago firm called Page Foundry, which altered its general book-reading app to create Clean Reader — a profanity-filtering program. The Maughans earn a small commission from books purchased through the app.
Not so fast, Maughans.  Before long authors were fighting back and demanding that the Maughns not sell their books on a website suggesting that they be censored before being read.   Says NPR:
Arguably, the leader of that angry response was author Joanne Harris, best known for her novel Chocolat. In several scathing blog posts, Harris decried what she called "censorship, not by the State, but by a religious minority."
Joining Harris in the fight were authors like Margaret Atwood - and the Society of Authors.  As of last week, the Squeaky Clean website no longer sells books, but it continues to offer the free app to those wishing to play censor for a day with their children's reading.    

My favorite paragraph from the NPR link shows just how ludicrous this whole thing is:
Blogger — and romance novel aficionado — Jennifer Porter has drawn up a rundown of the common replacements for words the app deems profanity. Among some of the noteworthies: from "whore" to "hussy," from "badass" to "tough" and, somewhat confusingly, from "vagina" to "bottom."

Jennifer Porter's piece includes a list of common "bad words" and their suggested replacements.  You have to see it to believe it.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Dickens and Baseball Kind of Day

It was beautiful all around this part of Texas today.  I'm starting to really believe that Spring has settled in so permanently now that we won't suffer one of those nasty little weather surprises we often get around here in late March or early April.  Bright sunshine, a high of just over 80 degrees, and a cool (but   gusty) breeze all afternoon just can't be topped.  

Thankfully, my thirteen-year-old grandson's team played in a baseball tournament all weekend, including today's doubleheader, so I had a great excuse to enjoy it all firsthand.  The team didn't fare very well (even losing one of its best hitters to a double-fracture of his right leg on Saturday), but it was still a memorable week-end.  It probably seems even better than it really was because of how nasty the weather has been here for the last several weeks.  Just plain old pitiful.

But...before the two games this afternoon I finished a little book titled The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens by Thomas Hauser.  It's one of those novels written in the first person that are narrated by a famous real life person from the past.  In this case, that person is Charles Dickens.  

I will do a more formal review of the book in the next few days sometime, but I have to say that Hauser did a remarkable job of capturing Dickens's speech pattern, style of expressing himself, and his whole general persona.  The book is a mystery cloaked inside a "confessional" tale in which Dickens reveals some things about his past that he has kept secret for almost four decades.  Good stuff.

Honestly, I was unfamiliar with Thomas Hauser before The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens caught my eye in a catalog.  Turns out, though, that the man has written some 47 books "on subjects ranging from professional boxing to Beethoven."  His very first book (Missing) was nominated for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award and was made into a huge hit film starring Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon.  Surprisingly, Hauser is probably best known for his boxing books and the work he does for HBO Sports.  

More a little later on this one.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sisters of Shiloh

It may have been uncommon, but it was certainly not unheard of for women to disguise themselves as men during the Civil War years so that they might join the fight on one side or the other.  Sisters of Shiloh, co-authored by sisters Kathy and Becky Hepinstall, tells the story of two fictional Virginia women who do exactly that.

Growing up in Winchester, Josephine and Libby were everything to each other.  Josephine, a year older than Libby, was the plain one, a shy little girl who was never quite at ease in the company of strangers.  Libby, on the other hand, was a pretty child so at ease in the world that her older sister easily faded into the background.  It was inevitable that someone would come between the sisters - and that someone came along in the person of Arden, the little boy who invaded the sisters' orchard hideaway when Josephine was thirteen and Libby twelve.

When, despite the pleas of Libby for him not to do it, the newly wed Arden sneaks away to join the Confederate army, Libby finding it impossible to wait at home alone, decides to catch up with him.  Josephine, ever her sister's protector, joins her, but by the time they find Arden at Antietam it is too late to save him from his fate.  Libby, though, is not ready to quit the fight; she wants vengeance and vows to kill with her own hands one Yankee soldier for every one of the twenty-one years Arden lived before dying to a Yankee bullet. 

Kathy and Becky Hepinstall
As members of Jackson's famous Stonewall Brigade, she will get her chance to do exactly that - but only if she and Josephine can make their fellow soldiers believe that they are men - and if Libby does not first slip into madness.  More and more often as the war grinds on, Arden comes to Libby in the dark of night, and what he hints about her sister is not pretty.  He urges Libby to keep killing Yankees but seems equally concerned about making her understand what really happened between him and Josephine on the day he died at Antietam. 

Sisters of Shiloh tells the story of two remarkable women who refuse to accept the roles and places assigned to them by the mores of their time.  Instead, they do what their hearts tell them is right: they take full control of their own lives and experience the defining events of their generation.  Libby and Josephine may be fictional characters, but it is important to remember that there were scores of real women who did the same thing during America's Civil War.  How they pulled it off is hard to imagine, but novels like Sisters of Shiloh offer a glimpse into their world and into their heads. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Does Anyone in Ford Heights, Illinois, Give a Damn?

Phil Kadner, Chicago Tribune
This is just bizarre.  

It seems that in Cook County, Illinois, somewhere near Chicago, sits a poverty stricken little "village" called Ford Heights.  According to Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Kadner, "The village has only about 2,700 residents and is only a couple of miles long."

Here's the bizarre part.  Residents of Ford Heights pay property taxes to the county's library district (over $13,000 last year) but they cannot borrow books from a library.  Any library.  Neither is there one in their village, nor do they have borrowing privileges at any of the libraries in areas surrounding Ford Heights.  

Perhaps even more bizarrely, Ford Heights has a fully-staffed seven-person library board for which residents foot the bill, a board that might be in the process of working out an agreement with one of the other nearby libraries - or not.  The mayor, who sounds more than a bit cavalier about his responsibilities to the people who elected him, sure as heck doesn't know.  According to Kadner again, the mayor said this when questioned,"I don't know.  I don't talk to those people (library board members).  They are very dysfunctional.  I have no dialogue with them at all.  I have no idea what they are doing."

Kadner's column can (and should) be read here.  It is an eye-opening look into what I suspect is local government at its worst.  Kadner is certainly to be applauded for trying to get something done that will allow the residents of Ford Heights full access to a library system they are helping pay for.  Good luck to him on that one.  It won't be easy as long as no one with the authority to make it happen gives a damn.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

New Harper Lee Book Cover Revealed by Publisher

It seems that my February 7 post about the cover of Harper Lee's new novel, Go Set a Watchman, was premature because the book's publisher has just announced an entirely different look for the much anticipated novel.

So here's an update:

Apparently, this is NOT the cover of the new book.

This is the new cover announced yesterday.
And, for reference purposes, this is what the original cover looked like.

I do like the "new, new" cover a lot more than I like the one supposedly announced back in early February.  It makes much more sense when compared to the original (disregard that 50th anniversary addition to it).  I like the continuity implied by the resemblance of the two covers and the sixties-feel that both give me.  

So maybe this is the final cover...for sure, it won't be the last bit of news to trickle out between now and July, however.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Jack of Spades

This time around, the prolific Joyce Carol Oates (who writes under a pseudonym or two of her own) offers a disturbing thriller about a mystery writer whose pen name starts to cause him problems in the real world.

Andrew Rush, author of twenty-eight highly successful mysteries, is quite pleased with himself these days.  His career solidly established, Rush has earned the respect of readers and critics, alike.  But Andrew Rush has a problem.  His agent and publisher expect him to keep doing what has worked so well for him in the past, and that is not enough for Rush anymore.  Unbeknownst to his wife, children, or even to his longtime agent, Rush has been writing novels under the pseudonym Jack of Spades for a while now – novels that are nothing like the ones he writes under his own name. 

The Jack of Spades novels are so disturbingly dark, masochistic, and violent that Andrew Rush would not even want to be seen carrying one of them around.  They are so strange that public libraries ignore their existence, so bad that when one of Rush’s grown daughters stumbles upon a copy of a Jack of Spade novel in her father’s study, she is repelled by its very existence.   But for reasons he would probably not admit even to himself, Andrew Rush badly needs Jack at this point in his life.  However, not until a local woman accuses him of plagiarism and presses formal charges against him, does Rush realize just how much he needs Jack.

Andrew Rush fears embarrassment and damage to his personal reputation as much as he fears anything in life.  Even though his publisher provides legal representation (and very expensive representation, at that) and assures him there is nothing to be much concerned about, Rush finds it difficult to think of anything but the lawsuit’s potential to ruin his reputation.  The writer, though, is not getting advice only from his lawyer; Jack of Spades is at his ear, too – and is offering him a more hands-on solution to his lawsuit problem.  Now the big question is whether or not Andrew Rush will come to his senses before his descent into utter madness consumes him and those around him.

Jack of Spades is a tip-of-the hat from one writer to another.  Oates makes numerous references throughout the novel to horror author Stephen King, even using King as a very minor character in the story at one point.  King fans are likely to be pleased that Oates even mentions a plot twist or two of King’s that are similar to the general plot of Jack of Spades.

Bottom Line:  Jack of Spades, although somewhat predictable, is a fun ride that fits snugly within the horror thriller genre.  Fans of the genre are certain to appreciate it.

(to be published on May 5, 2015)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Is Listening to a Book the Same as Reading One?

Although this video seems to be aimed more at the parents of young readers than at adult readers themselves, most of the benefits of audio books listed here apply equally well to readers of all ages.

Jon Scieszka, author of the Frank Einstein series, and Brian Biggs (illustrator of the books) note that:

  • Listening to audio books help readers learn how to pronounce words correctly, 
  • Young readers can successfully listen to books at two entire grade levels higher than that at which they can read,
  • Readers learn about the pacing of stories by listening to them read aloud,
  • Young readers have a 76% higher comprehension rate when listening rather than reading for themselves, and that
  • Young readers are 67% more motivated to finish an audio book than they are to complete a written one.
I have listened to audiobooks for years, most often during my compute to the office and back (now down to four mornings a week).  But I also depend on audio books to keep me entertained and awake during the long driving days I rack up every summer following my other hobbies: music festivals, baseball, Civil War battle sites, and visiting author homes/museums around the country.  I generally drive around 3,000 miles a summer doing those things, so I have a bunch of hours available to listen to someone read to me.

But for a long time, I did not consider listening to a book to be equivalent to reading one.  It just felt too easy, more akin to watching a math teacher work a problem on the blackboard than working that same problem out for myself.  I was always a little embarrassed, in fact, to admit that my only experience with a book (pick a book, any book) was via audio; it felt too much like cheating.

This year, though, I have had a change of heart.  Probably, because I've learned what genres work best for me in audio format, I have come to fully embrace audio books as part of my regular reading (even down to keeping track of the pages I have "read" in audio).  I believe that my comprehension of certain books really is higher via audio.  That was a surprise. And, God knows, there are dozens of words that I have read in books hundreds of times each that I'm still not sure how to pronounce at loud.  Often, when one of those words pops up in an audio book, I've paused to repeat it half a dozen times before moving on.

So what do you think?  Is listening to a book the same as reading one?  Does it count?

Monday, March 23, 2015

When I Found You

It is possible for the course of a person’s life to be changed in an instant.  Sometimes that change is for the better, sometimes for the worse.  But then there are those times when it is hard to tell which it is.  Nathan McCann, the main character of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s When I Found You, would probably tell you that, in his case, it would depend on which day of the week you asked him that question. 

Nathan, a middle-aged accountant, is caught up in a loveless marriage to an unhappy woman who is only going through the motions of life.  He is not, however, (as he will prove in spades later in the story) the kind of man to give up easily or quickly when he has made a commitment to another person.  For now at least, Nathan’s work and his love of duck hunting help make up for the unhappiness of his home life. 

And then it happens.  While they are on a hunt one cold morning, Nathan’s dog leads him to the tree sheltering a newborn baby clothed only in an old sweater and a perfectly fitting knitted cap.  When, much to his shock, Nathan discovers that the baby is still alive, he drops his shotgun where he stands and rushes the child to the local hospital – where, beyond all odds against it, doctors manage to save the baby’s life.  And, almost unbelievably even to Nathan, his own life is about to change every bit as drastically as the abandoned baby’s life will be changed because, almost out of nowhere, he is filled with an all-consuming desire to adopt this little boy.

Catherine Ryan Hyde
But, that is not to be.  The baby’s grandmother steps up to claim him, and the best that Nathan can do is get her to agree that she will someday introduce her grandson to “the man who found him in the woods.”  Young Nat (who was named after Nathan) proves, though, to be more than the old woman can handle, and one day fifteen years later she does more than introduce the boy to Nathan – she abandons him on man’s doorstep.  Thus begins the rest of Nathan McCann’s life, and it will not be an easy life because Nat will soon vividly demonstrate how he wore out his grandmother and why she dumped his care into the hands of “the man who found him in the woods.”  

The basic plot outline of When I Found You is what compelled me to read the novel.  I was intrigued by the idea of a man who, strictly by chance, stumbles upon the one person with whom he will be most intricately bound for the rest of his days.  I expected a tale of a life saved, and put to good use, by someone who had escaped what was almost a certain death sentence.  Instead, the book turned into more of a cautionary tale with the message “be careful what you wish for”.   When I Found You is interesting in the way that train wrecks are interesting…I looked, but I didn’t enjoy it.