Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Digital Is...in my world.

Tomorrow is Digital Learning Day for the National Writing Project and their "Digital Is..." initiative.  I've been following the build up on Twitter and want to weigh in.

My plan for Digital Learning Day is more than a day--I have taught the lesson in increments and tomorrow will be just one more day in that build-up to a digital product.

We are writing visual stories.

Taking a cue from a group on Flickr I am asking my students to compose a story with five images.  We are currently studying "Story" --their notes highlight that there are four basic types of story: love story, someone goes on a journey, worlds collide, and a stranger comes to town.  We also dig deeper in the concepts that all stories have some form of conflict, obstacles, and change.

We are going to attempt to demonstrate those aspects of storytelling in our visual stories.

Students have asked if it could be more than five images.  I like the five image limit in that it is like poetry--we have to be precise.  We have to select just the right image and place it at the just the right time.

Students are allowed to use any pre-existing images from home, new digital images, drawn/painted images, other creative composition images (construction paper, etc.), as well as anything from our school subscription to ImageQuest (a compilation of royalty free/public domain images hosted by Encyclopedia Britannica).

Rather than log the students into Flickr, we will use our own Moodle site.  Students have used this to load podcasts along with other products.  I'll have create a link on our classroom wiki that takes viewers directly to their visual story from their individual online portfolios on the wiki.

Planning something for this day inspired a thought--are we at a point where separate, isolated computer labs and classes are an inefficient model?  Considering the rate in which technology is evolving, and the varying differences in comfort and expertise among teachers, would we be better served if technology was blended into rooms, departments, or teams?

Our building is a 6 through 8 middle school--could we see the day where a technology teacher was assigned to each grade and learned to blend his/her curriculum in with the rest of the subjects of the school?  For the sake of argument, a tech teacher could spend week one in Teacher A's Science class, week two in teach B's Social Studies class, etc.

Of course, rooms would have to be revamped--more outlets, USB ports, and hardware--or perhaps mobile carts traveled with the tech teacher.  He/She could rotate--in our school we have twelve core subject teachers in 8th grade.  We would potentially co-teach once every twelve weeks--three times a year. 

I'm just think out loud, inspired by the spirit of tomorrow.  I'm wondering if any schools have a blended technology plan rather than a plan which sets technology as isolated rooms (technology dumps)...

Another advantage to this approach, would be the ability to train and develop the tech saavy of all of the teachers throughout the year...something that I believe our education system needs to consider nationwide.

Monday, January 30, 2012

YA Book Review: Shooting the Moon

A clean and uncluttered plot carries Frances O'Roark Dowell's Shooting the Moon.  A great book for a middle school library classroom for any reader, it will play well with struggling readers in the 8th grade.

The story grows (briefly) heavy towards the back end, but the author pulls it out any possibility of a grim or disturbing conclusion.  Twelve year-old Jamie roots for her brother as he enlists in the Army upon high school graduation and is immediately shipped to Vietnam.  A pair of Army brats, each has been raised under the mantra of service before self and neither can wait to get out into the world to protect our freedoms and serve.

Think a kindler, gentler Santini as the dad.

Enclosed in her brother's letters to his parents are rolls of undeveloped film distinctly labeled for his sister.

Through her brother's pictures, Jamie goes on a journey.  He tells her his story in Vietnam through images.

What you'll find is a simple story with charming characters--the text is not distracted by extraneous development.  The story cuts a clean line from the first page to the last--it is a very efficient and fast-moving 192 pages.

Reconnaissance Patrol Near South China Sea - David Lavender, US Army

Sunday, January 29, 2012

YA Book Review- My Father's Summers: A Daughter's Memoir

Technology brings authors to my classroom via Skype.  For over the past year I've participated in six different chats with YA author Kathi Appelt--one such chat was done for a group of teachers learning how to use Skype to bring a mentor into the classroom.  Having read both of Appelt's most recent YA novels (The Underneath and Keeper) I've developed an internal radar for her name and I see it places where I otherwise would have missed it.

This summer I stumbled across a reference and an excerpt to a memoir about her father--so I wrote her an email and asked her about it.  True to her generous nature, Appelt immediately mailed me a copy and included a sweet, inspiring message in the front: "Write your own story!"

Written in prose poetry and covering the formative years from middle school through high school, Appelt builds the memoir around her absent father--and while the story tackles an adolescent going through divorce, it is also a positive affirmation.  Strength and family and love resonate throughout the text.

For all intents and purposes, Appelt and her two younger sisters were raised by a single mother before any of them realized she really was a single mother.

Struck most by Appelt's honesty, I enjoyed each vignette for its bravery and sense of acceptance.  She tells the story from the familiar point of view of a child in a one-parent home.  She nails that sense of loyalty a child feels towards one parent or the other, the questions that children internalize, the digging for answers, and the undeniable all-seeing eye of a child...she writes some enormous, beautiful, moments that retain the raw emotion and unfiltered truth of youth:
There wasn't a wedding.  My father said they simply went to the courthouse and got married by the justice of the peace.  Said Choice went with them because they needed a witness.  I saw a witness too.  Saw the cat give birth to four kittens.  Saw my cousin do a flip off the high dive.  Saw a storm roll in at the beach, watched the sky turn from blue to gray so that soon I couldn't tell where the rain ended and the see began.  Saw my mother double over in the middle of the driveway, saw her reach for the missing car, saw her tears slide down her face.  I was a witness too.
Appelt's poetic and emotional vignettes are direct and vibrant.

This is a great book for your middle school classroom library.  Also, it is one where you should be able to find examples of mentor texts for lessons or writing workshops.  A passage that I'd like to use as a mentor text is called "Whispers":
There were whispers coming from my mother, pieces of information not fully formed, not thoroughly bound by the edges of whole words, partial bits of language caught sometimes between the sofa cushions, under the coffee table, above the cabinets, lying here and there.  I'd hear them whenever the screen door slammed each time we walked through, floating just beneath my touch, audible but not.  It's the way of whispers to slip under the mat at the kitchen sink and hide behind the spices in the cupboard.  There but not there.  Heard but not quite.  There were whispers afoot, coming from my mother.

As a final thought I want to add that I really found myself attached to the tenacity with which Appelt defends her mother.  As much a study in divorce and her father's choices, the book artfully brings to life some of the emotion of a household managed by a single mom.  I was raised by a single mom and found in Appelt's writing the first real expression of the resilience of single mothers...the wounds...the tender frailty of the experience...other than things I've written for myself, it is all there.

Just a lovely lovely book by Kathi Appelt.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Tech Review: cel.ly in the 8th grade classroom

My 8th students and I gave cel.ly a try this week--essentially cel.ly is a website that enables an individual to create a "cell" for conversation.  Students can use their cell phones to text responses and participate in classroom polls.

I chose to use curator mode.  This sends all text messages to the teacher first--I was then able to choose the best (appropriate) replies and release them out to the rest of the phones in the classroom and to the display in the classroom.

First impression and lasting impression--a little clunky but full of positive possibilities.

It took a good 10-12 minutes to walk my students through the process of sending a text message to the correct "cell"--I was surprised by how many students experienced difficulty performing what I consider a simple task: text "@samplecell" to "1234."  This should have been the same experience as texting a vote to American Idol, but many of my students grappled with the execution.

In the name of safety, I chose to make the "cell" private and I also wanted the students to need my "permission" to join.  Immediately, I learned that I had to explicitly demand that they do not use their name (or full name as some tried) as their user name.  Students were immediately willing to be trusting of the technology and none offered any reservations about entering a name.  Without my guidance, I know I would have had many who entered their names.  Now, I believe the site was private and I believe the owners of the site when they say no one else will see these cells, but this demonstrated the importance of having these types of conversations with our kids--whether they are our classroom students or family.  Just for this lesson alone, the experience was worth it.

The teacher is allowed to either hand click permission as each user requests access to the cell, or the teacher can use commands on a cell phone to admit all with one key stroke.  There was lag time between this key stroke and students entering the cell.  I felt the impatience build in the room as students wanted to immediately jump in and start using technology--the 10-12 minute setup took some of the starch out of the room.

As I had planned ahead, I had a poll waiting for students as they entered the cell.  A poll in the form of a text message was sent to students as access to the cell was granted.  Built on the homework from the night before, I asked students to select one of four possible answers to a question on plot structure.  The direction in the text is to enter a 1, 2, 3, 4--the corresponding number to each response.

I had students who struggled with the concept--some wanted to type the answer in, some wanted to type an "a" or a "b" instead of a 1 or a 2 (matter of habit from school testing), and others did not trust their ability to read the text and follow the instructions, choosing instead to ask me, "what do I do?"

While students took the poll, I displayed it on the Smart Board--we watched the percentages leap and build in real-time...and then I started a discussion on the percentages. Finally! the technology led us to a discussion about literature and our perceptions of the plot structure...more than 15 minutes into the class.

After a brief discussion, I wanted to try one more feature--the curated text.

I asked students to send a text as an answer to the following question, "What is the change in the protagonist that the author wants us to consider?"  Again, students struggled with the execution.  Some expected to have to reenter a code or recipient, some looked for a number choice (from the last exercise)--I had to reiterate, just type your response and press send several times.

The answers started scrolling across the screen of my phone--by pressing a 4 digit code I could release the responses I found most accurate or interesting to consider.  A bit of a tangle occured--as 30 students are thinking and writing text message responses at different rates, my ability to monitor bursts and floods of answers was challenged.  Just as I would read one response and begin to type the code associated with it, another three of four answers would appear, pushing the code I needed for the previous response out of sight.  Yes, I could scroll back to find it...but that allows more time for more responses to scroll in.  It became a new management skill for me.

Now, as I'm reading and deciding which texts to send back out the entire class, what are the kids doing who already sent a text.  Again, there is a clunky disconnect in the tool and the lesson.

It also dawned on me, what if I wanted to create a poll in the middle of a class discussion--this would take some time to type out.  Not a lot of time, but time nonetheless.

My experience reinforced that no digital tool takes the place of good pedagogy.  I really had to plan to use the digital tool, and if I were to use it again in the future I would have to modify the plan--this digital tool, the use of cellphones and texting, is a departure from what I have normally done over the course of a seventeen year career.  Yet, I did find a lot of value in the day.

The PEW research group, in their study titled Writing, Technology, and Teens, notes:
Teens write a lot, but they do not think of their emails, instant and text messages as writing. This disconnect matters because teens believe good writing is an essential skill for success and that more writing instruction at school would help them.
The lesson reinforced the need for meaningful professional development for teachers.  I would say I am very comfortable with using digital tools in the classroom but I also believe I am very far away from using texting and cellphones seamlessly and efficiently in a lesson.  It takes practice but it also takes training.

I can envision the cel.ly tool used in a middle school setting during a short film or reading selection in a Social Studies, English, or Science class--it could be a way to engage students in thinking as the video plays or as they read, and it strikes me as an interesting way for teachers to monitor student understanding.  Teachers could send out polls or questions (the time is there as students are engaged in viewing or reading) and all students would have an opportunity to respond.

There is definitely a use for this type of tool--and I know new tools and apps emerge everyday--I hope more teachers try them and share their experiences (even if it is just with their own colleagues).

A far cry from the traditional one-room American school house, digital tools such as cel.ly do remind me that the time for a national focus on digital literacy and digital tools in education is upon us.  These tools can actually bring the teacher another level of understanding of the literacy of their student population.  It condenses the classroom--imagine being able to monitor what your students are thinking as they engage in an activity or reading--imagine being able to redirect your class or your lesson based on what your students are understanding (not what we think they are understanding).  I really felt that with more experience and some training that using cel.ly or something like it would provide me a more immediate, accurate, and ongoing snapshot of the developing knowledge of my students in that specific lesson.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Book Review: we is got him

In 1874 a four year-old child named Charley Ross became the first kidnapped person in America held for ransom.  Carrie Hagen's novel we is got him traces the kidnapping that grew into a national embarassment.

The book completely fascinated me as Hagen brought 19th century Philadelphia to life.  Born and raised in Philadelphia, I learned a lot about society, corruption, and the quality of life for most from we is got him.  Through the setting Hagen recreated the events of the day and brought to life just how unsettled we still were as a nation--the irresponsibility of partisan politics rears its ugly head.

For me, the real stars of the book are the ransom notes:
Mr. Ros: We supos you got the other leter that teld yu we had yu child all saf and sond.  Yu mite ofer one $100,000 it woud avale yu nothing.  to be plaen with yu yu mite invoke all the powers of the universe and that cold not get yu child from us.  we set god--man and devel at defiance to rest him ot of our hands.
Hagen serves as a detective, piecing together the clues, ransom notes, statements, and people on both side of the ledger--the kidnappers and their families, the victims and their families, and the politicians and police from Philadelphia and New York.  She certainly pins down the high probability of what (may have) happened--the facts of the case were never resolved--and leaves me with a strong feeling of regret and empathy for the father and mother of Charley Ross.

A high profile case when it occurred, the story of Charley Ross faded with time--even as a Philadelphian I'd never heard of the case.

Overall, the case as it unfolds is exciting to follow.  As each ransom note and correspondence appears, and the months pass by painfully for the family, I was hooked and didn't find any parts slow or poorly told.  I liked Hagen's clear, efficient, style but especially appreciated the little details which brings a whole world to life:
Like so many other instituuions, the postal service changed dramatically during the Civil War.  Officials thought it more appropriate for women to learn of family deaths in the privacy of their homes, rather than the public sphere of the post office.  In 1864, sixty-six American cities instituted home delivery.  For the first time it was possible to anonymously place a letter in a container at a post office, hotel, bar, or letter box, and know it would reach a designated person exactly where he or she lived.
I heartily recommend this book to anyone, but especially those people who enjoy a mystery, crime, or historical story.  Well researched and well written, this book combines the best components of all three--add to the fact that if you are a Philadelphian, then the book becomes a must-read.

Thomas Eakins - Baby at play

Monday, January 23, 2012

Book Review: An Audience for Einstein

Rooted in a strong morality tale, Mark Wakely's An Audience for Einstein represents a great introduction into science fiction--especially for teens.

While the writing feels stiff and unpolished in some places, and characters narrate life a little too much for my taste, the novel speculates what if we could save the memories and knowledge of one dying person at the expense of the future of another (in this case, an eleven-year old)?

Professor Dorning creates a method to extract the knowledge from the brain of one of the world's leading scientists, Percival Marlowe, and plants it inside the brain of a impoverished adolescent, Miguel Sanchez.  Dorning lies, hides all of the facts, and manipulates two lives because he judges Marlowe's life as more valuable than Miguel's.

Miguel was only a poor Hispanic who didn't go to school--what was the value of his life?  He panhandled with other teens while his mother struggled in rehab--what was the value of his life?

There are a couple of encounters that feel like loose ends:

a. a doctor in a hospital suspects Miguel might be in danger with Dorning, but never follows it up
b. child and youth services investigates Dorning, catches him in his lies, and he walks

Some moments feel contrived:

Flat characters ring of uninteresting stereotypes:

a. Miguel's panhandling friends
b. two rookie police officers laugh and mock the maid who reports the suspected child abuse

Beyond the lack of warmth, choppy writing, and minor flaws in structure,  An Audience for Einstein is a good story.  Some passages even rise and capture the reader's fascination with some really fine moments:

a. the title of the novel comes when Percival Marlow, now "reborn" as the child Miguel, stumbles into an opportunity to lecture a university class for a few moments...the real professor of the class patronizes him and calls the class, "an audience for Einstein"...

b. Miguel, an underprivileged youth, playing in the ocean for the first time in his life, tumbles beneath a wave and finds himself sucked deeper out to sea--unable to swim, his life is in danger

The core of the story cycles between the awareness of Percival Marlow back and forth with the awareness of Miguel Sanchez--they share Miguel's body, but the threat looms that Marlow's brain will take over...vanquishing Miguel's brain and presence forever.  Miguel will soon be dormant, never to return.

Even though this will not be the best written book your students will read, many will enjoy the moral implications it is built upon.  An Audience for Einstein is a solid choice for any middle school classroom library.  I'm looking forward to reading some Writer's Notebook entries or student reflections once they find this book on my shelves.

artist Farley Aguilar

Sunday, January 22, 2012

YA Book Review: Wonderstruck

Alternating pages of wordless charcoal and pencil sketches with pages of text, Brian Selznick's YA novel Wonderstruck strikes all the right chords.  It is a book to safely place in your middle school classroom library.

Combining the classical appeal of the story of a young girl, Rose, journeying to New York City to see a starlet in the 1920s with the contemporary artist's hand of using imagery to tell a story, Sezlnick subtly tells one character's backstory in the format of a graphic novel.  Once Rose's story intersects with the the protagonist's arc, Ben, then both forms combine as well--graphic novel and the written word--into one plot.

Both main characters are deaf--both are driven to find a parent in NYC--both find each other without ever knowing the other existed.  Rose's mother, a famous actress in NYC, has no time for her daughter.  Ignoring her sign language lessons, Rose escapes her house in Hoboken to find her mother.  Ben, of the other hand, finds his way to NYC in part through his nightmares.  Early in the novel Ben believes the wolves in his dreams are chasing him--on the contrary, they are driving him, pushing him, calling to him of you will, to NYC to find his father.

Personally, I find a lot to like about this book on several levels:

a) We're a visual society and as digital reading and writing evolves we experience the continued premium placed on imagery as story teller, and the rise and respect of the graphic novel form--I think this emerging form is more encouraging to young people than anything else out there--I never had the opportunity to read books like this when I was 12 or 13...they just didn't exist.  How would my love of story telling and artistic curiosity have formed differently had I been exposed to these two forms together?  It just wasn't done...and taken seriously.

b) The simple, clean plot elevates the YA form--I've been reading a preponderance of YA novels containing smoking, cursing, sex, suicide, depression, and mental health issues...among other heavy topics...it was refreshing to read a YA novel that did not engage those often gritty and controversial subjects.

c) While the themes of parents abandoning the child for work, and what happens when a parent dies, both serious matters at their core, provide the backdrop of the novel neither drives the journey...love drives the novel...love certainly drives the curiosity and desires of both Rose and Ben and through the use of both imagery and language the theme of love rises above all else.

d) Finally, as a reader, you can't ignore the fact that the two protagonist's are deaf--it almost feels incredible to say that the use of deaf characters unique, but it is--I was brought back to the beautiful Carson McCullers novel The Heart is Lonely Hunter by Selzick's use of deaf characters with bold adolescents.

Appealing, charming, and technically inspiring, put Wonderstruck in your middle school classroom library.

Frederic Remington’s Moonlight, Wolf

Saturday, January 21, 2012

YA Book Review: Looking for Alaska

Late in the game, I read my first John Green YA novel over the past couple of days: Looking for Alaska.

I see his books self-selected by my 8th grade students, and had one tell me this week that he is their favorite author.  Another enthusiastically told showed me signed copies of his latest book.  Not having John Green on any of my classroom library shelves, and never having read him,  I'm working through them now in the hope of discovering more high interest literature for my room.

The Printz Award winner Looking for Alaska is excellent--John Green doesn't need me to say that.  Starred reviews of this novel hit 5/5 stars all over the place, but before you put it on your classroom shelf you need to read it and have that talk with yourself--is this appropriate for my classroom?

Part of me writhes and despises this talk.  When we have this talk about a great book I feel naive and like an old fuddy-duddy.

A coming of age novel, Looking for Alaska contains teenagers sneaking around smoking and drinking at a boarding school.  They talk about sex--there are some brief references to and acts of sex--as well as suicide and death.

Sometimes when I have this talk it feels as though I'm trying to convince myself that teenagers are not curious about those things.

I'm reminded of the film version of Grease.  In 6th grade when it was released, I saw it at the beach  during the summer heading into my 7th grade year.  While my mom used to cover my eyes in the movie theater if someone kissed or worse in a film, she didn't ban me from seeing Grease and I can't recall anyone blaming Stockard Channing or Olivia Newtown John for inspiring sexual deviance in their children, and John Travolta and Jeff Conway seem like they are off the hook for smoking among teens in America and calling their car a "pussy wagon"--there are factions of adults who can look at the fabric of teen America as it is presented in books and film and label it inappropriate.  Yet, I think I've only met people in my age bracket who regard Grease fondly, and when we talk about it we don't hyperfocus on "flogging the log"--mostly we remember the story and the connection to some part of our adolescence.  Things are only inappropriate in hindsight--after we experienced for it ourselves--and in the case of Grease I'd be a hypocrite to call it inappropriate.  I'm having that same though about Looking for Alaska.

Highly recommended--look, I get what everyone else sees too--Looking for Alaska, and I'm learning more specifically, John Green, makes connections with adolescents.  Yet is it a book that you have to leave to them to find, or do you make it a little easier to access by keeping it on your bookshelf in your classroom?  By the looks of it, kids are doing a pretty good job of getting their hands on it already.

But before you put it on your shelf, have that talk first.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

YA Book Review: A Step from Heaven

I found An Na's A Step from Heaven while revising curriculum for the Common Core with colleagues.  We're pouring through the new text and materials and this novel about a Korean family's acculturation into American life catches my eye--after doing a little research through the stellar reviews online I thought maybe this is something to build into the curriculum?

A relatively short read at a 160 pages, the writing gripped me immediately.  Told from the first-person perspective of the daughter, Young-Ju, the novel begins when Young-Ju is a toddler and on the beach with a parent.  The writing (the thinking of the narrator) is in the language of a Korean toddler--as a reader I had to work a bit to keep up as there are Korean names and references to grandfather or father that I had to learn, and the images, attention span, and curiosity of Young-Ju as a toddler also keeps you focused.

Cleverly, Na alters the writing style and level as Young-Ju ages.

As a reader, you settle in to a rhythmic writing style at the same time you come to like and respect Young-Ju...and sour on her father.

Which brings up a very important consideration for this book--do you hand it to a student or do you just keep it on your shelf and if they self-select it, great...or do you keep it off your classroom shelf?  I raise the point because one of the central themes in the novel is abuse.  In addition to the father's (Apa) alcohol abuse, he beats the hell out of his wife and both children.  Bruised, battered, and at one moment perhaps fighting one's life, Apa's wife and two kids stay together with him as a family.

We witness Apa lose control not only of his temper and hands, but also his jobs and family--he physically leaves his wife for another women...in front of the children.

Yet through it all, Young-Ju's mother (Uhmma) still stands by her husband.  He is her husband and she is his wife--and that's it.

Just when I am ready not only to turn the page on Apa, and perhaps find him myself and shake sense into him, Uhmma shows her children pictures from better times.  One picture is of a young man, smiling, laughing, and holding a baby down the incoming tide of the ocean.  Uhmma points out that that is Young-Ju and her father...the strong memory that Young-Ju has of that moment has always contained her grandfather as the man holding joyously her in the waves--but she was wrong, it was her father.

Somehow, Na manages to soften the reader's perspective on Apa--somehow I pity him, somehow I want him to get help and be back with his family.

I don't know how Na did, but it was a beautiful and artful twist to the conclusion of the novel.

Highly recommended for any adult--I'll leave it up to you and the circumstances of your community to decide whether or not to keep this on your classroom bookshelf.  Honestly, it is tastefully done--and the moments of spousal and child abuse are brief but sharp--but I do think it warrants a healthy discussion to determine how you would offer this as an option to your students, and at what age--definitely high school appropriate, and I am inclined to say it is 8th grade appropriate, but I do think it is right on that edge.

Minjae Lee - Artist

Book Review: Death in the City of Light

On the one hand I am tempted to suggest that it is comforting to learn another culture screws up high-profile cases too.  On the other hand, the surreal circumstances of serial killer Marcel Petiot are too astonishing not to know--for seventeen years I've taught a WWII unit as a companion piece to a month with the Diary of Anne Frank.  My students not only read Anne's diary but they self-select two other books of interest about the period.  In all of my digging through fiction and nonfiction, poetry and ideas for lessons, research topics based on the culture of the 1940s I never once recall coming across the name Marcel Petiot.

David King's Death in the City of Light astonished me.

Who knew that a serial killer operated right beneath the toothbrush mustachioed nose of the world's most notorious serial killer.  I understand that it was difficult to compete with Hitler.

However, this isn't your run-of-mill serial killer--Marcel Petiot, a trained surgeon, lured Jews back to his house of horrors by offering help fleeing Occupied Paris.  Despicably, he preyed on frightened people, terrified people who believed this man would save their lives,  they trusted him and paid a lot of money in cash or jewels for the relief of the safe passage offered to South America.  Petiot drugged them, murdered them in a homemade gas chamber (equipped with a viewing lens so he could watch), then carved them into pieces which ended up decomposing in a quicklime pit in his yard or stoking the stove in the basement.

Beyond the cruel and savage nature of his actions, Marcel Petiot pandered to the media, yawned at the judge and jury, taunted the prosecution and made an absolute spectacle of the trial.

Rumors at the time swirled that the Nuremberg Trials would be put on hold so lawyers and politicians could attend the closing events of the Petiot trial.

From the outset, the judge lost control of the courtroom, the prosecution bungled evidence, and the public laughed at and with Petiot.  A trial for the murder of anywhere from 20 to over a 100 people (many represented by family or loved ones) turned into a source of daily laughs.

For me, the book is as much about Petiot as it is about the era.  Death followed millions during and after World War II--King suggests that a society so immersed in death had a difficult time finding the nausea, fear, and loathing for a serial killer who frankly admitted murdering many.  He claims to have been murdering Nazis--another nauseating show of disrespect to the families of the people he butchered.

The details in the book satisfy the curiosity as King digs deep into Petiot's history as well as the evidence, the files and testimonies, and the French investigators who hunted Petiot down and brought him to justice.

A highly recommended read for anyone interested in history or even pop culture--this Petiot trial is one of the enormous moments of pop culture that I never heard about from the 1940s.

Yves Klein

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Review: Destiny of the Republic

Through a combination of an assassin's bullet, medical ignorance, and ego,  President James Garfield's life was stolen from the American public.  Candace Millard's book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and Murder of a President reads like any great crime thriller.  I am so happy to have read it, while at the same time I am astonished a little ashamed that I knew so little about this great man.

From chapter to chapter, Millard shifts back and forth between the early life and political rise of self-made man James Garfield and the maddening and deadbeat path of soon-to-be Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau.  These parallel journeys couldn't be any more opposite.

Even as a reader, long before Garfield and Guiteau ever meet I found myself fascinated by one and despising the other. 

Garfield raised in impoverished conditions worked with his hands and taught himself Latin as an adolescent.  He talked his way into college by offering to be the school's custodian in an exchange to take classes.  Soon excelling in college, he was asked to teach...years later he would become president of the college.  From janitor's closet to president--hard not to like this man.

A shrewd general in the Civil War, Lincoln called him to his side, took him off the battlefield, and heeded his counsel--while accepting this duty, sat poorly with General Garfield who wanted to be with his men.

Garfield, married, had several children and loved being a family man--he played often with his children and loved reading to them.  A voracious reader himself, he developed a friendship with the Librarian of Congress so that he could have first crack at all of the new titles delivered to the Library of Congress.

Serving several terms as a congressmen he earned the sterling reputation as a great orator and as a level-headed and fair man.  As a reader, it is easy to understand why the men and women of his generation, of all races, admired James Garfield.

I was astonished to learn that he didn't even want to run for the Presidency.  Greatness was thrust upon him--upon giving a nomination speech for a friend at the Republican Convention, Garfield told the crowd, "we have to ask ourselves what we want."  A single voice sparked what was to become a great conglomeration of Garfield being shoved into the White House--out in the crowd, a lone voice yelled, "We want Garfield!"  The crowd roared its approval and the rest is history.

Even with the nomination, he didn't even campaign...and still won.  How beloved and respect are you if you do not seek the Republican nomination and then upon receiving it anyway, do not campaign for the Presidency?

Remarkable.  The untold story of THAT man is only gleaned here--but it is here and the bits and pieces you will gather about the respect many felt for Garfield are all equally riveting.

Only halfway through the book I recommended it to my father, and I caught myself speeding home after work on Friday to finish the last half of the book before dinner.

On the other hand, Millard traces the life of soon-to-be assassin Charles Guiteau.  Raised by a religious zealot, Guiteau spent a significant amount of time in a commune in the state of New York, left to become a traveling preacher, wrote a book about religion which he plagiarized from another published book, slept and ate in hotels and boarding houses yet always skipped out on the bill.  He begged and borrowed money from anyone and everyone he met--never paying anyone back.  He took everything from others--and we learn that included the 20th President of the United States.

Struggling to be a decent human being, Guiteau got it into his head that he was owed a political office by Garfield and simply traveled to Washington to gain it.  With little formal education or any work experience, he believed others owed him.

The journeys of these two polar opposites intersect in the dilapidated and long-neglected White House, then freely open to public--anyone could present themselves to sit and talk to the President.  Guiteau sat in the White House day after day--he followed the President seemingly everywhere--he told everyone he met that he helped put Garfield in the White House, that constituents were friends of his, and that he would be receiving an appointment as an envoy to France--any day now.

By the way, the Secret Service at the time did not protect the President.  They spent their time tracking down counterfeiters.  Politicians were open and unprotected.

Guiteau wrote letters and notes to Garfield and his cabinet on expensive hotel stationary or from official White House stationary which he would brazenly ask for...and receive!  All the while, living the life of a deadbeat--his clothes becoming more threadbare and tattered--he fell deeper and deeper into a vitriol for anyone who did not help him.  In his rubber sandals he is said to have presented a rather disagreeable and creepy image.

Of course, Guiteau does not gain the political appointment.  When all doors seem to be closing around him, he claims to have had a dream that God told him to remove Garfield from office--Garfield blocked his way in to a political office.  Once he took care of Garfield, Vice President Chester Arthur would be thrilled and grateful and would send the Army to the prison to release Guiteau in a great display of American fanfare and gratitude.

These two parallel lives are but a slice of Millard's book.  Garfield's journey also intersects with Alexander Graham Bell and (frustratingly) doesn't quite intersect with Joseph Lister (pioneer of antiseptic surgery).  At the time of Garfield's shooting, many physicians still did not believe in germs and did not wash themselves, their coats, or their instruments.  As a matter of fact, several physicians shoved dirty fingers into Garfield's bullet wound--doing more harm than the bullet which science proved was not a fatal shot.

Even after being shot in the back, he didn't have to die.

My review focused mainly on the remarkable Garfield himself but so much of this book latches on to the stalking of the President by Guiteau and the subsequent bumbling of the President's medical condition after the shooting.  I reiterate, as Millard does, he didn't have to die--his death owes as much to the fault of medical malpractice and ignorance as much as it does to the assassin's bullet.

Several times throughout the book I was struck by the tenderness in which the American public handled the ailing Garfield.  You get the sense that people were saddened and sickened not that it was an attack on America the country, but that it was an attack on a great human being--a good man who reminded many of themselves, or at the very least a man who many admired, loved, and strove to emulate.

I am absolutely humbled by the kind of man that Garfield proved himself to be.  Millard discovers that as his death settled into the American public, some in Garfield's inner circle feared that generations would forget just how beloved, respected, and sorely missed he was.  Millard goes a long way to ensuring that Garfield along with his gentility, promise, and resolute nature is honored. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review: A Perfect Red

Both exhaustive and exhausting, I struggled through A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield.  Perhaps this is more a reflection on me than the writer as the book has garnered many plaudits from top reviewers.  Greenfield obviously did her homework--there is little wasted space--as she elevates a lowly insect to instant celebrity. 

I did learn quite a bit, so the book did not disappoint in that regard.  Yet the full title was so inviting that I expected something sexier in style than a dry lecture: A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire.

All of those things are in the book to a certain degree, but as someone who enjoys nonfiction the telling of the story disappointed me. The gears of A Perfect Red grind and seize the worst through the core of the story--the elusive source of the lucrative and perfect scarlet: the cochineal insect.  

The writing kept me at arm's length from a story I found quite interesting.  Yet, I was never able to lose myself in the story and found myself constantly thinking that I need to keep reading because the history is compelling.  Being kept at arm's length in a newspaper or magazine informative article is one thing, but the same feeling in a book is disappointing.  For a book about a color, I expected a little more engagement of my senses.

At its best, the book reveals the compelling journey of red.  From nobility to British red coats to the man struggling to put bread and soup on his family's table, everyone sought to wear at least a small trace of red (no matter how poor the quality) on their clothing because of what it represented--wealth and power.  As a matter of fact, these strong feelings towards red do not shift until the emergence of the Victorian Age when everything bright and beautiful was summarily dismissed.

The writing yanks the reader back and forth across the Atlantic as the Spanish Empire bumbles its finances and political decisions and at the same time European scientists quibble where this lovely scarlet dye comes from--plant or insect.  It had been under the noses of Cortes and his men in Spanish-occupied Mexico for decades...meanwhile the Spanish Empire's finances burn...

We go on to follow a kidnapped cochineal insect and the quest to try to cultivate the insect.  Pirates raid ships not only for the traditional gold and silver...but for cochineal as well.  This becomes such a problem that the English found it a source of national pride when one of their men navigated a ship full of cochineal safely and successfully home.

The Spanish pressed their lips tight and their secrets to themselves for as long as they could, but the development of the microscope laid the debate to rest and the secret was out.  Manufacturing took over and squashed the highly-labor intensive development and refinement of the cochineal insect.

Overall, it is a story worth telling and knowing, and I am glad I know it now, but the journey through the book just proved dry and challenging for me.  The writing just did not appeal to my sensibilities.

Vermeer - Girl in the Red Hat

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Book Review: Salvage the Bones

Reading a distinct artistic voice remains one my great pleasures.  Even if I know ahead of time that the writer's voice and acclaim precedes him/her the surprise of the journey through the novel stays with me for a long time.  Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent grabbed me like that--so did Kerouac's On the Road--along with McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Rand's Atlas Shrugged; Robinson's Housekeeping; Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day; de Saint-ExupĂ©ry's The Little Prince...and so on.

This morning I read Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones in one sitting--just under five hours.  Ward is an artist--make no bones about it.  The novel builds in subtle intensity and hits its stride just past the halfway mark--I physically felt the anxiety and squirmed with impatience to read through the next page.  I had to slow myself down, however, so that I did not miss the joy of her craft beyond the story.  The layering of language is unlike anything I've read recently.

The first thing I want to share is that this is a love story.  The layers of love, some frayed, some broken, some deep, just dominates the subtext of each page--from the mother's final words, to the father never changing the bedroom, to the photographs dad kept, to way Skeet attends to China (the pitbull), to what the protagonist craves from Manny, to what Manny will never give her, to the protagonist's coming to grips with what is growing inside of her, the love of the father for his children, to the love extended by neighbors after Hurricane Katrina hits, to final images and moments in novel when Big Henry extends his love for the unborn child, to Skeet sitting and watching and waiting...

This is a brilliant study and journey of love.

And sadly, I will not put it in my 8th grade classroom because of the mature nature of some of the scenes.  I don't hold it against the book or author by any means, and perhaps I shouldn't be so cautious with a beautiful book, but it's just the world we live in now, which is a shame...but that is another story.  However, this does not in anyway reflect on the book.  I make the point of it here to illustrate the power between these pages.  This novel is a shared experience--I defy you to read it and put it and down and pass it off and out of your memory.  You can't do it.

The raw beauty Ward etches into the reader can be traced to her command of nuance within the severity of the subject matter.

My personal loathing and discomfort for dog fighting should have triggered my hands to clap the book closed.  Hey, I can't even watch Marley and Me.  

However, I didn't close the book until I read through to the final page.

A strong case can be made that this story belongs to the main pit bull in the story, China.  To a certain degree, this is her story.  Used as a pawn on the surface, the reader slowly discovers that the money China earns from birthing pups because she is a legendary fighter will go to this family (it's what they do--it is a part of the culture) barely making it on Ramen noodles and eggs found around their property.  

Additionally, and most relevant, China's owner loves her and she loves him back--I'm convinced of it.  It is hard to imagine making a main character a dog who doesn't speak--so, Ward gives us Esche, the only significant female in the story who isn't killed off.  We live the story through Esche and while she has the arc and she experiences change and the story runs through her, I have to argue that much of the same can be said about China.  China's journey, in many ways, mirrors Esche's.

I'm a new and enormous fan of Ward and Salvage the Bones.  Through some raw and gritty subject matter she grabbed my bones and wrung them out for just over four straight hours until I was left with nothing but empathy.

And wonder.

In my heart I know what happened to China.

And it is just devastating to walk away from the final page of the book...because I also know I'm going to carry it with me for a long time.