Navigating Early

For Cannonball 6 I had made a challenge to myself to read the winners and honorees of the Printz award.  I did well but life got in the way and I fell off that goal.  This summer I’m back on the horse and I’m glad I started with Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool.

NavigatingThe premise of the book is that Jack has lost his mother, his father has moved them from Kansas to Maine. Since his father is in the Navy, Jack must go to an all-boys boarding school.  Problem is Jack does not know anything about sailing, the ocean or the forest, as one wouldn’t coming from Kansas.  Due to his lack of experience in these areas he’s been somewhat ostracized.  This leads him to come across another outcast, Early.

Jack learns from Early about sailing and Early learns from Jack about patience and life.  Early is odd.  He plays by his own rules and he knows synonyms for words and idioms like nobody’s business.  Being an educator, I noticed that he had signs of what we would call Aspberger’s or High-Functioning Autism.  This is never confirmed (until the author’s notes at the end), and that’s one of the high points of book.  Early is accepted by Jack and vice versa.  They learn to appreciate each other for who they are and there’s no labeling or bullying from the other boys.  Which is important since they end up on a quest.

The quest takes up the brunt of the narrative but is seamlessly woven into the book ends of the introduction and conclusion.  Vanderpool ends up weaving a story within a story into the quest and overall narrative.  From it we see the boys learn some of life’s hardest lessons, especially with grief and letting go.  One of the struggles that I had was that as an adult reader I wanted more of the conflict development from the boys.  As this is a young adult novel, though, it is not so “conflicted” that younger readers would be turned off.  I think that the conflicts and resolutions are perfect for the age group they were intended for.

Heart of the Story

Even though I grew up in a Christian family and community, parts of the Bible have always been hard for me to understand how they fit with other parts.  For example, how do all of the battles and kings in the Old Testament have to do with Jesus and his teachings in the New Testament?  I’ve heard pat answers from pastors and friends, but with this book I finally got answers as to why they fit together.

Heart of the Story Heart of the Story is written by a prominent Christian author, Randy Frazee.  The premise of the book is to identify the core of the various individuals and events that span the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.  What Frazee suggests is that it’s God’s love that connects it all.  Each chapter covers either an individual, e.g. Esther, Daniel, Ruth, Adam and Eve, etc.  Or it discusses a span of history such as the many kings of ancient Israel from Saul to the Babylonian conquest (if you’ve ever read 1, 2 Kings, 1, 2 Samuel, 1, 2 Chronicles, you’ll be glad to read the condensed version in ten pages).  The New Testament covers the birth of Jesus, his ministry, and his death, Paul’s mission work, and John’s writing the book of Revelation.

What I liked was how Frazee connects the theme to each story, but also gives evidence from each story that relates to the theme.  My only complaint is that there isn’t enough of this.  The evidence is pretty much the details that I knew from church and private school.  I wanted deeper details that move beyond what I know.  But at the conclusion of the book I realized that the book’s purpose isn’t for me, it’s for those that are new to reading the Bible, new to understanding God or religion at all.  So overall it was a good read, well written, but I wasn’t the intended audience.

Game of Thrones & Philosophy

It’s true.  I’m a card-carrying member of the Game of Thrones nerd club.  And I’m ok with that.  After reading all the books, discussing each episode of the show with colleagues, and debating philosophies for how the books are going to end, who’s going to die next, and if the series is going to end this decade at all.  So it was no surprise to me that I found myself picking up Game of Thrones and Philosophy from my library’s shelf.

GOT & PhilosophyIt’s part of series that takes pop culture and dresses it in academic robes.  Each chapter is an essay relating some philosophic theory and an aspect of Game of Thrones.  Quite a few of them compared and contrasted the morals of Cersei and Ned (of course they did) or the game theory behind each of their choices.  The first two essays with Cersei and Ned were ok, but after a while I felt like I had met Captain Obvious and all of his brothers.  There are a lot of characters in that novel and yet we focus on the two characters who represent polar opposites.

One of the essays that did stand out was using Machiavelli’s theory for establishing a new dynastic power.  Taking several of the families fighting for the iron throne, the writer did a good job suggesting what the family should do, shouldn’t do, or is doing well and who is at risk for losing the game and who is positioned to win.

Similar to this philosophy of power was an intriguing essay that rounded out the book using game theory and Tyrion Lannister.  In my opinion, he’s one of the most complex and well-rounded characters.  We admire and shake our heads at him, but we have to admit that he’s playing the game for keeps.  Although we don’t know what his end goal would be.  Using the game theory, which says that for every move there is a counter move, the author outlined the choices that have landed Tyrion where he is and where he’s positioned to go.

The last essay that stood out for me was looking at Arya Stark.  She’s a powerful character who is playing the game, but like Tyrion, it’s not clear where G.R.R. Martin is taking her.  Using feminist/gender theory, the author analyzed why Arya stands out amongst the other characters.  What stood out for me was that the author revealed how Arya used the power she had in order to get more power, avoid losing power, and ultimately to determine her own path (a lesson Sansa could learn, but that’s another issue).

For those of you interested in Game of Thrones and who enjoy some academic boost to your regular reading, I’d recommend this book to you.  It reads well so don’t worry that you’re about to read a textbook on philosophy.

Rethinking Homework

Homework.  It’s one of those universal things that we have all had experience with.  And, sadly, it has probably been a negative experience.  Most of the time we, as students, despise homework and don’t see it’s value.  For teachers, homework is one of those things we tell ourselves is worthwhile but deep down we wonder if it’s actually valuable.

HomeworkCathy Vatterott’s Rethinking Homework addresses the old and new paradigms of homework and suggests ways in which teachers can improve their homework practices.  Old paradigms are the stereotypical thinking for teachers and students; the teacher assigns homework and the student does it.  But research tells us that due to changing home lives and family make up, not all students have time or the ability to complete the homework we give them.  Beyond that, research also tells us that most of the time homework doesn’t have educational value.

Ms. Vatterott argues that this broken cycle of assigning homework, the students not doing it, and then students failing doesn’t have to continue.  We educators can change our approach to students and homework. One of the first things we have to understand is that we cannot make students do homework.  We have to understand that when we release our students to go home we are sacrificing control over their time.  Instead, we have to work with the students to make the activities we need them to do at home worthwhile and something they can buy into.

This is what I liked about the book.  She clearly points out that if we communicate to students what we are trying to accomplish with homework and then get students to brainstorm ways in which to accomplish this goal, we are ultimately going to have a higher rate of completion as well as students engaged in the learning process.  At the same time, we will be able to differentiate the homework for students at different levels of learning.

The one frustration I had with the book was that the ideas Ms. Vatterott provided were brief and general.  I like to have depth and specifics.  Instead, this work just whetted my appetite to reflecting on my own homework practices.  Maybe that was her goal was to start the homework conversation and then direct those interested parties to look up the research in her book.  It’s still a good, academically researched work that is approachable and not preachy.

The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites

I love food.  And history.  So any book that can tell me the history of the food that I eat or am aware of is of interest of me.  The American Plate by Libby O’Connell is a book that does just that.  Beginning with the Native Americans and the staples they consumed through the debates over GMO’s and other ethical topics in today’s epicurean debates, O’Connell explains the relationship between food and history.  On top of that, she includes recipes for some of the principal dishes of each era.

American PlateWhat’s amazing to me is that the foods we eat today still have many of their roots in the Native Americans’ diet such as corn, squash, and beans.  Think about a lot of our holiday food or the food we prepare for special occasions, there’s usually some form of corn, squash, or bean. And being good Americans we have a lot of food dishes that are a consequence of our innovative spirit, Wonder Bread and Tang anyone?

It was surprising to me the influence the government and economics has had on our palate.  From the rationing in WWI and WII which spawned crazes in canning and meatloaf to the soups of the Great Depression, these two factors have played a factor in the next generation of food innovations.  We also have to take into consideration the influence of immigration on our culinary choices.  Many of the foods we consider part of the American diet other nations would consider “foreign food”.  Bagels, Meatballs, Chop Suey, these are all made by immigrants in the U.S.  Thanks to the proliferation of meat and the limitation of geographic-specific ingredients, many immigrants groups changed their native diets to fit what they found in America. For examples, spaghetti and meatballs and chop suey are all made by Italian and Chinese Americans but are not necessarily the same recipes you would find in Italy or China.

Who knows what the next evolution of food will be?  We still see fad diets telling us what to eat and not eat and Veganism and Gluten-free diets seem to be determining what super markets advertise, but history teaches us that these fads won’t last long.  I don’t know about you but I’m excited to see what we will be adding next to our American plate.


Messiah, by Jerry Thomas, was not a book I chose to read.  Unfortunately, my worship group I’m in at the Christian high school I teach at elected to read this.  Every morning before classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, small groups of teachers at the school meet to either pray, study the Bible, read a book, or some form of worship.

MessiahThe overall premise of Messiah is telling the life of Jesus in a narrative from, from birth to resurrection.  Which in itself is not a bad thing.  The gospels are not written to be a narrative, but rather an introduction or overview of who Jesus was and what he taught. Thomas, though, adds commentary on what the application of Jesus’s miracles and teaching are.  So, in essence, he’s interweaving narrative and commentary and it doesn’t always work.  It’s not a fluid transition from narrative of Jesus’s life and teachings to Thomas’s commentary on “what it all means”.  It’s actually rather abrupt.  These rough transitions were annoying because it’s like someone looking over your shoulder while you’re reading constantly interrupting you and tell you why what you’re reading is important.  Let me get there on my own!

What was also doubly frustrating is that as a good reader, I can tell the difference between writing that shows rather than tells and I know how to have a good discussion.  Sadly, not all of my colleagues have this background.  Several of them aren’t big readers, a problem that many teachers have, sadly, so they really liked the book.  Which one would if you didn’t have a wide breadth of literature to draw on.  Ultimately it was the discussions about the book that were more worthwhile than the actual reading.  I think this book is meant for those who don’t know much about Jesus and his relationship to Christianity or to those that are looking for small bite-sized chunks of commentary to chew on.  It’s not for those who are looking for something challenging or academic.

Green Arrow/Green Lantern, Vol. 2

The Green Arrow/Green Lantern story arch matures in Volume two.  The authors have continued to tackle real-world issues that reflect the turbulent social period of the 70’s.  From Speedy being a heroin addict to racism, Green Arrow and Green Lantern use their superhero status and skills to do the best they can to keep society together. The authors, however, are using the green duo to bring these gritty issues to the forefront of discussion, which is what literature is supposed to do, isn’t it?

GA GLLike a good wine, the Green Arrow comics have improved with age.  I also think that having Green Lantern as a counterpoint to Green Arrow was good call on behalf of the authors/publishers.  Green Arrow can sometimes be grumpy and cranky while Green Lantern can be naive and vapid.  In Volume 2 Green Lantern finally has removed his rose-colored glasses, but hasn’t lost his people-are-inherently-good outlook.  This bodes well for Green Lantern who has succumbed to an intensely cynical mood, partly due to Speedy’s drug habit and partly because he (GA) is broke.

As I’ve mentioned in my previous reviews of the Green Arrow cannon, this is my first foray into the comic book world.  Being a literature teacher I’ve heard all of the arguments why comics are “bad” for kids to read.  And I have to say that the comics from the 40’s and 50’s are definitely flat and mind numbing.  But as the series has aged, I feel that there’s more grit/meat/content/purpose to the comics as the writers use their medium to speak to their audience.   These more mature comics I can support.  The purpose of literature is, after all, to get the reader to ponder the author’s view of a societal issue so that we are thinking about our own relationship to the observation.  If a comic book writer can accomplish this, than hats off to him/her.  I’d rather my kids/students would be reading something that will make them better thinkers and educated about life’s highs and lows.