Monday, November 25, 2013

12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

12 Years a Slave: (Movie Tie-In)  In 12 Years a Slave Solomon Northup, a free Black man living in the north, recounts his experience of being kidnapped and sold into slavery.  For twelve years he witnessed and suffered the indignities and brutality of slavery, until one day one of his pleas for help made it to the right person.  He was then rescued and reunited with his family.  It is a compelling and disturbing read.  That it was from the victim’s point of view (as opposed to a third party observer) made it more so. 

In addition to being an account of slavery, it is an account of hope even in the most dire of circumstances.  During his twelve years of captivity, Solomon survived as best he could and somehow, did not lose hope.  He never forgets his family and keeps thinking of ways to get back to them.  Somehow Solomon’s experience doesn’t make him bitter or mean.  I’m not giving anything away by writing that the story ends happily for Solomon.  (If it hadn’t this book would not exist.)  I wish I knew what happened a year, five years, or ten years later.  I want to know how he dealt with the world after going through such a horrific experience.  I wonder how his experience changed how he felt about the country he lived in.  I bet that would be an equally compelling and interesting story.

I read this book in anticipation of seeing the movie of the same name.  After reading it, I’m not sure I can watch the movie.  It paints a vivid picture of slavery and I’m not sure I can sit through images of people being whipped and otherwise brutally treated.  Speaking of the movie, I recently listened to an interview with Steve McQueen (writer and director of the movie by the same name) stated that his goal in making this film was to get book on school curriculums.  I hope he succeeds.  I'd put this on the same level as The Diary of Anne Frank.  Both books put a face on and give a voice to history, reminding us that real people suffered.

One last thought – I read the Penguin Books edition of this book.  It includes an introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. titled, What Is an African- American Classic?  I usually skim, if not skip all together, introductions but this one is well worth the read.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

In The Man Who Loved Books Too Much author Allison Hoover Bartlett recounts the exploits of John Gilkey, an unrepentant book thief, and the people, like Ken Sanders, who try to stop him.  I picked up this book to fulfill the true crime requirement for the Literary Explorations Genre Challenge I'm doing this year.  I thought I hit the jackpot when I came across this book (Yea, a true crime story that didn't involve a dead body!), but I didn't connect with this book as I expected.  It was written well enough, that wasn't the problem.

One thing I realized in reading this is that while I collect books, I am not a Book Collector.  I own hundreds of book and love being around books.  When traveling to new places, my itinerary often includes visits to local bookstores or libraries.  I fully understand the the pleasure of holding a book in one's hand.  I appreciate books the craftsmanship and the artistry that went into creating the object,  But ultimately, I loved to read.  Alas, this is what separates me from Book Collectors.  I'm glad there are people out there who are working to preserve first editions and other books for posterity but for my own purposes, a copy bought at my local Barnes & Noble will do just fine.

In addition to finding it difficult to relate to Book Collectors, I also found it difficult to relate to (or care about) John Gilkey, which is problematic since the story is mostly about him.  Gilkey aspires to create a grand, personal library.  Bartlett posits that Gilkey aspires to not only present the image of a "cultured gentleman" but to become that gentleman.  Wanting to better one's self is understandable and even admirable.  In this light Gilkey could be the protagonist in a Horatio Alger story, except for one problem, he's a thief. 

According to Bartlett, Gilkey's justification for stealing books from rare book dealers, many of whom appear to be small businesses, and libraries is that the world is unfair to him and this is his way of evening the score.  Rare books are expensive and dealers act unfairly when they sell books at a price he cannot afford (though one gets the sense that even if he could afford them he would still steal).  If a salesperson wasn't as prompt or polite as he expected, that store deserves to be stolen from.  Gilkey reasoned that when he stole books, often by using credit card numbers he stole while employed at a department store, the stores he stole from had insurance that would cover the costs, so no harm no foul.  That insurance might not cover everything, assuming the book store even has insurance, that a person might prefer the book to the money, or that people just don't like it when people take their stuff without payment or permission, just didn't seem to occur or matter to him.  It was infuriating to read repeatedly about Gilkey justified his thieving.

The other main character in this story is Ken Sanders, who once served as the security chair for the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America.  It was Ken who connected the dots behind a series of book thefts in Northern California.  His diligence and perseverance in protecting himself and others like him from the likes of Gilkey is admirable.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One 

It is the year 2044.  James Halliday, creator of OASIS, a virtual utopia where a person can be almost anything they want to be, has died.  With no friends or family he leaves his vast fortune and control of his company to whomever can find the Easter egg Halliday has hidden deep inside the game.  Five years have passed and no one has made any progress.  Then Parzival (aka Wade Watts) finds the first of the three keys needed to complete the game.  From there, it’s on!  There is a lot at stake, most importantly control of OASIS, and everyone wants to win.  Some are even willing to do anything to win, even kill for it.

Ready Player One is so, so good!  It is a love letter to eighties pop culture - movies, television, music and especially video games.  It is a celebration of the wonders and a warning about the potential dangers of technology.  It is a celebration of the super fan, of the joy of totally loving something to the point of obsession, the kind of obsession that causes you to watch/read/listen to a movie/book/song over and over again and then spend hours researching about the creators who made the thing you love so much.  And it's all wrapped up in an adventure story involving a world wide treasure hunt, danger in the real and virtual worlds, and a dash of romance. 

Ready Player One is one of the most enjoyable books I've read all year.  It's hard to believe that this is Ernest Cline's first novel.  He really hit out of park on his first try.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way In The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley looks at education through the lens of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) which is a test administered around the world to test the math, science, and reading skills of 15-year-olds.  In general, student scores indicate that teenagers in Finland, South Korea, and Poland are learning and mastering the skills needed to solve problems and make complex arguments, skills that are increasingly important in the modern economy.  In contrast, the scores of American students seem to indicate that teenagers in the United States are not learning or mastering these skills, at least not as well. In an attempt to figure out why or at least how education differed among these four countries, Ripley followed three American students who spent a year abroad in Finland, South Korea, and Poland.  She also talked to educators, parents, and a host of other people.

I found this subject fascinating.  Ripley does not attempt to provide any easy solutions, or really any solutions at all, to the problems in American education.  She simply reports what she discovered through her investigation.  This is certainly not an exhaustive study on education in the U.S. or the world, but it does present an interesting picture and hopefully will invite discussion.

There were three lessons I took from this book.  The first was the importance of creating a culture of rigor around education.  In the countries Ripley focuses on school is expected to be hard, standards are high, and it is assumed that students will meet those standards.  Of course, not every student does.  Still there is something to be said for assuming that kids can succeed rather than assuming at the outset that are too many obstacles in their way for that to happen.  She points out that sometimes policies aimed at helping kids ends up doing more harm than good by providing the kids with reasons to explain why they're not performing better in school.

The second had to with the teaching profession.  I have to admit I have never put much thought into how teachers are trained beyond getting a college degree.  Ripley suggests that an education major is considered to be an easy major in the U.S.  I don't know if this is true or not, but then I majored in political science and journalism (before going to law school and librarian school).  In contrast, in countries like Finland becoming a teacher is comparatively much harder.  Only the best and brightest are trusted with teaching the nation's youngsters.  Ripley's description of the process of becoming a teacher in Finland and the respect with which they are treated reminded me of law school or medical school in the U.S.

The third lesson I learned, or rather was reminded of, was the importance of reading to kids when they're young and engaging them in conversation when they're older.  According to Ripley, engaging your child in these ways benefits the child far more than baking brownies for school bake sales or coaching sports.  Not that those activities don't have value; they do.  It is just that reading to kids, encouraging them to read on their own, and discussing issues with them encourages them to develop and explain their own opinions which requires critical thinking.  Ultimately, critical thinking skills are what kids need to develop as it is those skills that will enable them to tackle complex problems as adults.

When I was high school my stepdad and I use to argue about politics.  I hated this (well maybe I liked it a little).  In hindsight I'm grateful.  It forced me to think about why I believed what I did and to explain why.  In other words, it forced me to think critically, a skill that has been invaluable throughout my career, and really throughout life.  I have also been in the habit of reading for as long as I can remember.  This habit came in handy when I had to get through the massive amounts of reading one is expected to get through in law school.  I would like to think that most parents are imparting these same skills and habits to their kids too.

Ripley's book left me feeling hopeful.  Prior to reading it education seemed like too big of a problem to tackle.  It still seems big but I would like to think I have better grasp of the problems and possible solutions, at least a little bit.