Sunday, March 28, 2010

Book 19: Work Hard, Be Nice

There's so much I want to say about this book, this story of two young men from Teach for America, who thought they just might be able to make a difference in the lives of some children.
With the idealism and enthusiasm that youth brings, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin wholeheartedly tackled their Teach For America assignments in low-income Houston are schools. They quickly discovered that while they had the desire to be incredible teachers, they really didn't know what they were doing. Enter Harriett Ball, a colleague of Levin's. This was the type of teacher Feinberg and Levin wanted to be: inspiring, motivating, challenging, caring. Ms. Ball took Levin and Feinberg under her wing, mentoring them in what she had learned to be the most effective teaching methods.
As Levin and Feinberg began to adopt these approaches themselves, as well as innovate and incorporate tactics from other nationally known education mentors, they discovered they were passionate about helping economically disadvantaged kids succeed. And, they had a knack for it. So began an experiment in education called KIPP- Knowledge Is Power Program- that has now expanded into one of the most successful charter school networks in the nation.
Work Hard, Be Nice. This is the KIPP Motto. It became the foundation for schools that refuse to let a child's economic circumstances be a barrier to their capability for success. KIPP schools have five essential pillars, and a set of standards they expect each school to uphold. For example, the KIPP school day is 7:30-5:00, rather than the standard six hour day; scholars attend Saturday school two or three times a month. Teachers, students, and parents sign a contract for performance at the school. Teachers give out their cell phone numbers, instructing students to call them in the evenings for homework instruction if it is needed. In the fifth through eighth grade schools, reading is a part of each discipline. Beyond that, school leaders and teachers are empowered to innovate and do what they need to do to make their students successful.
Jay Mathews recounts the founding of the KIPP school in his easy to read, entertaining, and engaging Work Hard, Be Nice. He shows how Feinberg and Levin simply refused to take no for an answer when it came to things hindering their student's progress.
I have firsthand experience with a KIPP school in my city. I'm serving as an Advisory board member for the KIPP WAYS Academy. I have seen firsthand how this innovative approach to education can work. Our students are far exceeding state averages on standardized testing. This year, two of our students have been offered full scholarships to the Philips Exeter Academy for high school.
When parents, faculty, and students work together to make education important lives can be changed.
Recommended reading for anyone interested in education innovation, charter school programs, areas for community involvement.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book 18: Devilish

I just realized that right after a book called Godless, I'm blogging one called Devilish, as if reading some series. As you'll see from this post, though, the subject matter couldn't be more different.
Devilish is actually a work of Young Adult fiction by Maureen Johnson. I came across Maureen Johnson through some other authors I have read, and decided to pick this one up. Or rather, download it. This was an audiobook I listened to this week.
Set against the backdrop of a Catholic girls' school in Rhode Island, without giving into every Catholic Girls' School cliche, Devilish tells the story of Jane Jarvis' quest to save her best friend, Ally, after Ally sells her soul to a demon for popularity and panache.
Johnson's characters are well-drawn, believable. Even the immortal ones. She writes with a sense of realism, without being overly dramatic, or using that teens-talk-like-adults approach. You feel like you probably knew these characters in high school. I had flashes of Buffy, the TV version, as I listened to it. There's just the right mix of wit and angst, sarcasm and silliness. Our heroine is not tall and thin and rich and beautiful- in other words, someone normal.
There's a bit of gore, plenty of drama, some action, and cleverness, which I admire. A bit of snogging, but not the unresolved sexual tension of Twilight. This is more along the lines of Cassandra Clare, who I think has written some of the best YA Fantasy out there. Strong, likeable, characters who are flawed, but want to do the right thing.
A quick listen and a quick read, appropriate for middle years through high school, and not so bad for those of us who are somewhat older.
I'm in the process of reading two other books right now: The Seance, a creepy Gothic thriller, and Work Hard, Be Nice, which is the story of the founding of the KIPP Charter School program. These will be books 19 and 20, I think. I also have some Luke Romyn coming up, and I'm beginning to look at recommendations from some friends for the next books. Next audiobook is Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter from the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Book 17: Godless

This is the toughest posting I've done to date. The subject matter in Godless is something very personal to me and something I've struggled with for the last few years. I've made peace with my beliefs, and I'm still fascinated by the subject. There's so much that occurred to me as I was reading this book. I do tend to write in my postings about how the work affected me specifically and I intend to do that here as well. I'm doing my best to not turn this into a manifesto or say so much that the posting takes ages to read.
In Godless, Dan Barker recounts his journey from growing up an evangelical Christian, to becoming an evangelical minister, and eventually becoming an Atheist. I found myself underlining sentences in the book, making notes in the margins, and even digging up a bible here at the house to check the cited verses and their context for myself.
In his days as an evangelical, Barker would assign spiritual significance to everything. He recounts how if he lucked upon a parking space, he'd thank God for providing him a place to park; if he had to walk six blocks, he'd be grateful to God for the lessons in patience (pp 29-30).
When he began to question his faith, Barker explains that it wasn't as if a switch flipped but a "slow, sometimes wrenching, halting, circuitous process." That is true. It takes a lot of effort and work to figure out what you believe and why. It is painful to realize that what you learned as a child, no matter how well-intentioned the teachings, just doesn't work for you as an adult.
Barker's doubts began innocuously enough. He realized he could no longer reconcile the inconsistencies in the bible with what he knew to be true from a reasoned perspective and his own experiences. This was the part of the book that I really enjoyed, and where I found myself looking up passages and verses to check my own perspective. More often than not, I found myself agreeing with Barker. I don't like the God of the Old Testament. As a "loving father" how could he ever ask another parent to sacrifice their child for him? Most people will say it was a test of faith for Abraham, and that he got a bye in the end, and Isaac lived. But Jephthah, in Judges 11, received no such reprieve. There's a litany of examples like this throughout the book, and I won't cite them all here.
Part of the book is a bit more mmmm, academic, I'll call it. Barker provides an analysis of God's omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, explaining how omniscience and omnipotence are somewhat at odds with each other. He also explains the fallibility of the concepts, as an example. The book got rather deep when Barker presented analysis around the incongruity on the origins of God.
I learned a lot reading this book. I did not know until now that the last verses in Mark regarding the resurrection were not in the original text of the gospel, and were added some years later. I also did not know how much of the story of Jesus shares its origins with many of the pagan religions- it really is all quite fascinating.
Another part of the book that I found interesting was Barker's exploration of the need for religion in determining whether or not a person will be moral and/or ethical. I don't think religion is required to determine morality. Consider the number of different religions and their differences, yet the similar moral code shared by many people regardless of their faith. I have many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim friends who are moral and ethical people. But I know several people who are very vocal Christians who engage in immoral and unethical behavior. Their religious beliefs do not preclude this behavior. I single out Christians here merely because most of my friends profess to be of the Christian faith. I don't mean that statement to say that only people of the Christian faith would be immoral or unethical, I only say that having faith doesn't give one a lock on being a "good" person.
Parts of the book I did not like. Barker spends a fair amount of time explaining why faith/Christianity/Religion is wrong and trying to convince readers to move to atheism. I think faith- or lack of it- is a very personal journey. I applaud Barker's efforts to encourage free thinking and reason in determining what one believes, but I almost felt a bit- pardon the pun- preached at in the book. I'm happy to discuss my beliefs and my questions with anyone who asks, but I am not on a mission to convert anyone else into thinking like I do. As long as one's belief is reasoned, I'm very respectful of differing viewpoints.
Many people get a great deal of comfort from their faith, and if that works for them, I'm happy to hear it. I prefer to think of myself as a free thinker, accountable for my actions. I do believe in good and evil, and I think that we all have some capacity for both in us. Great things have been accomplished in the name of religion, but so have terrible atrocities. It is an interesting journey to start questioning faith. Some people end up in the way of Dan Barker, turning away from their beliefs. Others have their beliefs strengthened by questioning. It completely fascinates me.
From an enjoyable read perspective, I liked Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America better. But from the perspective of more detailed analysis of why a number of precepts of the Christian faith don't hold up under study, Godless provides a lot of good, factual information.
I've no idea what I am going to read for Book 18. Potentially Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth but I may also go for some fiction as well. There are some books that have been sitting around the house for a while that I've not read yet.

Random Update

I've got a few random updates before I get to Book 17 in the next posting. First, according to the calendar, if I am truly supposed to be reading a book per week to meet my goal, I should be starting book 12 this afternoon. Instead, I'm blogging Book 17! I'm glad to be a bit ahead of the game, as I'm quite certain that there will be times when it takes me longer than planned to get through a book.
I get two questions about this project from people. The first is, do I have an idea of what each of the 52 books will be? No, I don't. The only one that is pre-defined is Number 52. It will be my all-time favorite book, and is due for a re-read. The second question I get is if I am buying each of the books that I am reading. The answer is that it depends. So far, the books I've read are ones I've picked up this year through either Amazon or Barnes and Noble. But I also have a stack of books in the house I've previously purchased and that I want to get through.
I've not decided what Book 18 is going to be, but I have started a new Audiobook by Maureen Johnson that I hope to be blogging soon as well.
Now, I'm off to blog the next book.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Book 16: American Wife

How does a small town librarian from Wisconsin end up married to the President of the United States? In American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld explores this journey of an ordinary couple to the most well known people in the United States. In creating Alice and Charles Blackwell, Sittenfeld borrows heavily from what we know about Laura and George Bush. Alice is a Librarian, Charles comes from a large, connected, well-to-do family. Charles is insecure, drinks too much, and is part owner of a baseball franchise before his political career really takes off. Where the story differs, though, is where things get interesting.
When I say "where the story differs" I'll be honest. I've not read biographies of Laura and George Bush, so I am assuming that there are key events in the book that are complete fiction. If not, well, I missed some huge stories in the news cycle during the Bush Administration, and please forgive my oversight.
Again, it isn't what actually happens in the story that is capturing my attention and interest. It is what I began thinking about as I read these sections. Sittenfeld's Alice is so well drawn that even though there are striking similarities to Laura Bush, it isn't Laura Bush that I saw in my mind as I was reading. Alice is, so to speak, her own person. Alice is likeable, and I found myself empathizing with her the first time she meets Charles' family. Like Alice, I grew up a middle class only child. And while I'm a fairly confident person, I would be intimidated meeting such a large, close-knit family like the Blackwells, for the first time. I like being able to identify with a character that way.
As the story progresses, and Alice Blackwell is looking back at both her husband's presidency and their life together I was struck by how much sacrifice at least some of our First Ladies have made with their lives. Charles is from a staunchly Republican family. Alice is a Democrat. She doesn't change her affiliation for her husband's political endeavors, but she follows her convictions behind the scenes. Charles has a religious epiphany and becomes a born-again Christian. Alice is largely agnostic. However, because of her marriage, people assume that what is true about Charles is true about Alice.
I felt much empathy for Alice when it became apparent that there were fundamental differences between Alice's feelings on certain policy positions and that of the Administration. Alice understandably feels stifled. That is what made me really think about our First Ladies. Many of our First Ladies are ambitious in their own right, and may be perfectly comfortable in their role in the White House. But I imagine (with no evidence to support this, just my own musings, were I in that position) that a great many of them must feel like they have to bury so much of themselves in that role. After all, we've not technically elected the First Lady. We've elected the President. Some Presidents may confer with their spouse, but how much of those conversations become policy? We'll never really know. But everyone must always be on message. What if you don't believe in what that message is? How do you support your spouse and stay true to yourself? How much do you go along with if you don't want your spouse to really even follow a particular path? Alice never really wanted Charles to run for any office. But she loves her husband, and it is important to him. I really felt for some of the struggles Alice faces as First Lady. Being damned for whatever she does. I really value my privacy (inasmuch as what I don't disclose in Social Media being more important to me than what I do), and I can't imagine having everything I do scrutinized the way a First Lady does.
At any rate, American Wife is a fast read, with an entertaining story. I'd call it a good beach read, if you are planning for summer vacation. I enjoyed this read more that Sittenfeld's Prep.
Next up? I think I want some non-fiction. I'll be looking through the unread books at the house to come up with something.... Happy Reading.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Book 15: Freedom TM

A cautionary cyber-thriller rife with fodder for conspiracy theorists. That's my one sentence description of Daniel Suarez's Freedom TM.
But before you go out and pick this one up, be sure to read Daemon first ( That is critical, because Freedom TM picks up right where Daemon leaves off, and you'll be lost and frustrated without the context of the previous story.
From, This concluding volume crackles with electrifying action scenes and bristles with intriguing ideas about a frightening, near-future world. Sobol's bots continue to roam the Internet, inciting mayhem and siphoning money from worldwide, interconnected megacorporations out to seize control of national governments and enslave the populace.
I don't want to say any more than that about the plot right now because there's such intrigue and tension in the stories, that I don't want to give anything away. But I do have some thoughts.
Suarez creates some very compelling characters. Some you love to hate, some you hate to love, and some you really cheer. Suarez provides some unlikely heroes in nerds, geeks, and misfits, which is refreshing. At the same time, very unsavory characters are used to further the cause of the Daemon. He exploits the weaknesses of flawed characters, manipulating their dark tendencies to join forces with the Daemon and help launch the cyber war. And in the tradition of Machiavelli, the reader must come to their own conclusion on whether the ends justify the means.
Additionally, Suarez makes great use of setting and description. He's not afraid of violence, and the picture he paints of destruction can be, at times, a bit much. I downloaded this book from This is one that can be enjoyed just as much with a listen as a read. The narrator was great, employing accents and variations to identify the characters. It really painted a visual picture, and the emotion in the voice serves well here. I could read the book in less time than it takes to listen and in one scene of torture, I did wish I could listen faster to what was going on, but my commute did go by much faster listening to this.
This book made me think a lot about our corporate culture. In light of the financial debacle we've just experienced, Suarez's tale of destructive and deceptive practices of global corporations seems especially timely. Are we, as world citizens, giving too much power over our government, and even our daily lives to greedy corporations? I think we tend to. This is a world of the rich, where money buys power, and we will one day pay a price if we don't take some ownership for forcing these entities to take responsibility for their decisions.
It also made me think about the capabilities of technology. It is mind-boggling what might be possible. We are already seeing moral dilemmas based on what might be possible with technology. I think these instances will only grow in the future.
Finally, the book made me think about loyalty and community. Loyalty, because one of the biggest challenges in these books is misplaced loyalty to entities that should be watching out for their constituents but are not. And community, because so much can be accomplished when like-minded people come together to affect change.
There are no easy answers in Daemon and Freedom TM. But they are intense, exciting reads that challenge our technological imaginations and the boundaries in which we live. Highly recommend for anyone interested in a good thriller, and anyone with an interest in gaming.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Book 14: Firefly Lane

I saw a reference to author Kristin Hannah somewhere on Facebook. Maybe Emily Giffin's page? I can't really remember. But then I was browsing at Barnes and Noble and came across Firefly Lane, noticed the author's name, and decided to pick it up. I read the back cover. It sounded interesting if not a bit predictable, but I bought it anyway.
I like it when a book surprises me. With Firefly Lane, I thought I knew what conflict would tear apart best friends of thirty years, and I was wrong. I was also surprised with what became the catalyst for reconciliation. I definitely didn't expect to be tearing up at the end. But there I was, reading this well-written novel about two best friends, Kate and Tully, from the time they were high school students in the 1970's through present day. Kristin Hannah draws her characters well. As the reader, you understand both Kate and Tully's insecurities. You feel for Kate, always hiding a bit in Tully's shadow. I cheered Kate on as she found the courage to go after the most important thing in her life. I respected Tully for believing she deserved success, and for working to get there. I felt for Tully realizing that her career can't give her everything... and I'd say more about that, but then I'd be giving away too much of the story.
For the last third of the book, I thought mostly about my own best friend. We've been friends now for more than twenty years. I don't feel old enough to make that statement, but here we are. From the first time we carpooled to some Key Club event in high school, through college, to her mother dying, and then my father; to her wedding, to the birth of her children; to the girls trips we still manage to take; to all the emails and phone calls, Facebook posts, text messages, cards, all the stuff that goes into making a lasting friendship, I've been lucky enough to have Vanessa as my best friend. We've lived in different states for most of our friendship now, but all that does is make things more interesting logistically. She's still the person I want most to share gossip with, or talk to about the really important things. She's the first person, outside of family, who I know will be there for me. And I say that not to discount my many other wonderful, close friends, but there's a longevity and so many shared experiences with Vanessa that make our friendship what it is.
I think that is the point- and beauty- of Firefly Lane. It's the celebration of that unique, unbreakable bond of real, true friendship. It stands the test of time, maybe even the test of betrayal.
I really enjoyed this one, and will be checking out more of Kristin Hannah's work. Recommended for anyone who likes good chick lit, or a good story in general.