Saturday, April 24, 2010

Week 17: Weapons of Mass Instruction & And Another Thing...

Weapons of Mass Instruction: a Schoolteacher's Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto

Gatto is well-known as a former teacher who now speaks on anti-school themes. He taught in New York City schools for 30 years and won awards like Teacher of the Year; then he quit and started speaking and writing about his perceptions of the public school system, which he believes is nearly completely evil, deliberately designed to stifle human beings into conformity and subservience, and far too profitable for anyone in power to truly change.

He's got some really good points. He'll make you think, and he's inspired many parents to homeschool their kids (Gatto is a major advocate of unschooling). He's just full of frightening statements from various influential people. Try this quotation, from Woodrow Wilson in 1909:

"We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."

At the same time, Gatto is a bit crazy. His assertions will drive you nuts at times. He's quite paranoid. I was particularly annoyed by his statement that the gulf between rich and poor in American is "the deepest such gulf on Planet Earth." (p.164) That's just ridiculous--what about India? Mexico? Certain African countries run by despots? And more?

On the whole, though, I recommend Gatto's writing to everyone; at the very least it will make you think a bit and question a bit. One piece of advice though--I happened to start reading this and listen to Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" on the same morning. That wasn't a really great idea.

And Another Thing... by Eoin Colfer

I approached this one with great trepidation. I'm not entirely clear on how or why Colfer (author of the Artemis Fowl series) wound up writing a sequel to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide series, but I wasn't thrilled at the news. However, morbid curiosity won the day, and I picked it up at the library. I thought I'd try a few pages, anyway.

It's not terrible.

Mind you, it is not a work of genius, and it's not Douglas Adams. Somehow the book manages to have a little too much plot and a little too much Guide elaboration at the same time, and it could be 50 pages shorter. But it's a decent homage and it won't destroy your dreams.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Week 16: Demon Ex Machina and the Tartan Pimpernel

Demon Ex Machina, by Julie Kenner

I found this series on the WTM discussion board; someone said she wrote books, and I wondered what they were, and it was this fun series, which answers the question of: what happens to Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she grows up, retires from hunting evil, and becomes a soccer mom? OK, Kate Connor is a retired Demon Hunter, but it's the principle of the thing. Kate is dragged out of her suburban retirement when demons show up in town, and this is the 5th book of her adventures, as she juggles carpooling, playdates, and ultimate evil. Fellow moms will relate.

I don't want to discuss the storyline, since it would reveal way too much about how the series goes, so suffice to say that it's both funny and hard to put down. Read the series, and start with Carpe Demon: Adventures of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom.

The Tartan Pimpernel, by Dr. Donald Caskie

You gotta love the title! This was a really nice memoir by Dr. Caskie, a minister of the Scottish Kirk who was running the Paris branch of his church when World War II started. He had to escape Paris and ended up in Marseilles, smuggling British soldiers and agents out of the country. When that operation was shut down by a traitor, he went to Grenoble and continued his underground work for a couple of years until he was arrested and spent several months in horrible prisons. He was sentenced to death but reprieved, and spent the rest of the war in an ordinary POW prison near Paris.

His story is exciting, humorous, and full of faith. I enjoyed this one a lot and raced through it. If you like WWII memoirs, this is one to read.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Week 15: Warriors of God

Warriors of God, by James Reston, Jr.

Warriors of God is a double biography of Saladin and Richard I during the Third Crusade. I first saw it when it was published about 10 years ago but didn't get to read it, so I was happy when I ran across it a few weeks ago at the library.

I must say I learned quite a bit about the Crusades. The book gives about equal time to Saladin and Richard and shows the conflict from both sides. It's no wonder Saladin is still considered such a hero in Arabic cultures; he was a good general and generally a decent man as well. He comes off a bit better than Richard, who was a great warrior and very dashing, but also greedy, bloodthirsty, and oddly vacillating at times.

I like Reston's writing--he also wrote The Last Apocalypse, a neat little book about what Europe looked like in the year 1000 AD (last time everyone was expecting the apocalypse, since the book came out in 1999). This book on the Crusades is pretty lengthy and you have to be quite interested in the topic, but it's very well written and I enjoyed it.

This is my 4th book for the Tournament of Reading; so far I have 2 history books, 1 historical fiction, and 1 medieval literature, which gets me to Peasant level. I plan to indulge in some actual literature next, but it would be good to get the fiction over with soon so I can enjoy the rest of the time. Suggestions welcome. For my literature selection, I'll go with either the Book of Margery Kempe or the Alexiad.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Week 14: The Bad Book Affair

The Bad Book Affair, by Ian Sansom (A Mobile Library mystery)

I don't think the Mobile Library mysteries are all that well known, but they're fun to read, especially if you're a librarian. They center on Israel Armstrong, "Tumdrum's and possibly Ireland's only English Jewish vegetarian mobile librarian." Tumdrum is a tiny village in the middle of nowhere in Northern Ireland, and Israel, who is sort of a schlub, wants big cities and sophisticated conversation. Instead he runs the bookmobile.

These are mysteries in the same sense as the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books are--there's a minor mystery, but really it's all about the characters and the life. But instead of being uplifting and generous, they're daft and funny. Israel is very like Arthur Dent, always out of place and 10 minutes behind the conversation.

The mystery part has to do with the "bad books"--the books Israel has to keep under the counter so innocent children won't be corrupted by them. A teenage girl borrows one, and the next thing we know she's disappeared and Israel is under suspicion of either corrupting her or kidnapping her. So off he trundles to investigate.

I always enjoy reading about Israel, and if you'd like to try the series you should start with The Case of the Missing Books.