Posts filed under 'Non-fiction'

“A Nation of Wimps” by Hara Estroff Marano

I just finished reading “A Nation of Wimps” this weekend, and while high school students are not its target audience, it is about people like you—what helps you succeed and what makes you fail. The information, case studies, and statistics discussed can be useful for a psychology class research project. For a more ingenious use of the book, you can read it, and then blame your parents for anything that you don’t achieve in your life.

This book, written by an editor of “Psychology Today” magazine, blames American parents for being so invasive in their modern parenting styles that they are raising kids who can’t help but fail—a nation of wimps. I had heard the term ‘helicopter parenting’ before, and Marano uses it in describing the popular style of parenting in which mom and dads ‘hover’ over their kids, in an attempt to make sure nothing ever happens to them. Unfortunately for the kids, when nothing happens, they never learn to have coping skills. This infantilizes them—they’ll never be adults who deal with the stresses of everyday life. Marano also uses the term ‘snow plough’ parenting, one I hadn’t heard before, to describe this style. Her metaphor is that parents clear all blocks from their children’s roads in life, but they also leave high piles of ‘snow’ on the sides that prevent young adults (that’s you) from taking new paths.

This matters very much as kids become adults and move onto college. (Again, that’s you!) Once there, they often cannot handle being somewhat on their own. They are still tied to their parents, in a way that earlier generations never were, through cell phones. Parents on speed dial still tell their over-eighteen kids what to do and how to solve every problem. In the meanwhile, college counseling centers are seeing a huge rise in student need for psychological services as normal life issues with relationships and university life send them over the edge.

Marano tells parents that they should allow their kids to fail—and fail early—so that they can develop the life skills needed to simply get over it and move on. Children are not trophies and their achievements do not belong to their parents. Use this book as an argument for your parents to allow you that post-graduation road trip across the country with your friends. And if you get a flat tire, make sure you know how to change it yourself—or have had the forethought to join the auto club. Your parents won’t be there to smooth the way to happiness, but the happiness will come because you’ll be facing meaningful challenge.

January 27, 2009

“The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama

It’s actually been a few years since I’ve read this book, and while it may seem surprising now, I read it to find out who Barack Obama was. I knew he was running for the Democratic Party presidential nomination (I didn’t think he had much chance against the much better known Hillary Clinton), but otherwise knew nothing about him. So, I learned that he was a good writer before I learned that he was a good speaker.

Though some of the political positions Obama discusses are now quite well known—positions on the war in Iraq, free trade, education, and renewable energy—this is still a worthwhile read. It’s a great choice for those of you looking for a nonfiction book to read to fulfill an American Government class assignment.

Two things that you probably don’t know about Obama and politics will emerge. One is his interpretation of the Constitution, which he explains while giving examples of other interpretations by past Presidents and Supreme Court justices. Another is just how crazy the political game really is. If you think there’s anyway that a successful politician can keep his or her hands clean by refusing to compromise with lobbyists, fundraise for election campaigns, woo the media, and swap favors with other legislators, Obama is going to gently remove those rose-colored glasses. He criticizes both parties (more so the Republicans, as you might imagine) for the many failures that our political system generates. The ‘audacity’ is in hoping for better. And while I don’t believe that what he argues for is all that audacious, it is worth trying to achieve.

January 26, 2009

“The Post-American World” by Fareed Zakaria Perhaps I’m feeling too much like ‘Chicken Little” (“The sky is falling!”), but lately I’ve been drawn to books about the future of both the world and the United States. Thankfully, I’ve generally enjoyed reading them, as I find their assertions to be thought-provoking without being alarmist. I also think that they would be very useful for a debate or an ‘issue’ paper. So it is with “The Post-American World,” a book that provides rich detail about the future of the world and the United States’ place in that future—economic, political and cultural.

I know the author’s work from reading copies of “Newsweek” magazine where Zakaria is an editor and consistently contributes articles on international issues. The title of “The Post-American World” sounds alarming, but Zakaria’s take on the future is very positive—provided that we don’t panic and remember that America has adapted to change before and has learned to excel. Zakaria argues that the United States is not ‘racing to the bottom,’ but that other countries are coming up in the world to be on more equal footing with America—and that’s a good thing because it takes people out of poverty and desperation. Excellent topics of research and discussion in this book include the rise of both India and China. India is an ‘inefficient’ democracy—as all democracies are because people can’t be told what to do by a dictating government. China on the other hand, though embracing capitalism in the last twenty years as an economic system, is still a dictatorship, willing to use brutal tactics in the name of progress and efficiency. Zakaria shows the reader why ‘inefficient democracies’ can continue to grow and succeed in changing times.

Another topic that would make a great argument for a history class project is what the United States should do to secure its future (and how it must be unlike Britain of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries)–not as a unipolar world power but as a legitimate broker of world power, the ally that is the hub in a wheel of nations, connected to the US through spokes of diplomacy.

January 21, 2009

“A Three Dog Life” by Abigail Thomas

Here’s a memoir that truly is poignant (a word very much overused). When a teacher assigns memoir reading, ask if you can read “A Three Dog Life.” It’s short at 182 pages—many teachers here require a minimum of 200—but has more to offer than many much longer works. Point out to your teacher that the writing is wonderful, exactly the type that English teachers want you to be exposed to. The figurative language is quite simply lovely.

The author, Abigail Thomas, marries her third husband when she is 46 and he is 57. She describes him as the nicest man in the world, and they live together for thirteen years. Their lives crack open one day when Abigail learns that her dog, Harry, is in the apartment building elevator by himself. Where is her husband, Rich?

The tragic answer is that Rich has been hit by a car while going after Harry, whose leash had broken. Rich suffers a traumatic brain injury and it’s permanent. This nicest man in the world then has short-term memory loss, hallucinations, and becomes paranoid and violent. I expected here to have a story about what a drag Abigail’s life became—or a rationale for why she had to divorce her husband, as he must be hospitalized due to his rages. But no. Thomas discusses how she moved from her Manhattan apartment in order to be closer to her husband. Rather than seeing herself as a martyr, she shows the reader what is still good in her life. She records the strange and beautiful way her husband speaks and finds that, though he never put any stock in such things, he now has a sixth sense that surfaces under the strangest circumstances.

The title is based on the idea of a ‘three dog night’—a night so cold that one has to cuddle with three dogs in order to survive. (I actually knew this because when I was very young, a popular band was named Three Dog Night!) And in the course of her years after Rich’s accident, Abigail does acquire two more dogs. Thomas wrote another memoir that discusses the death of her second husband entitled “Safekeeping.” At present, we don’t have it in our library, but it appears to contain the same wonderful writing and lucid understanding of life’s foibles, so I’ll try to get (afford) it.

January 8, 2009

“The World is Flat” by Thomas L. Friedman

Throughout my reading of “The World is Flat,” I wondered, would your average high school student want to read this? This is ironic, because where subject matter is concerned, this book should be required reading for every teen. It’s all about you and the world you will be living in, the world in which you will succeed (or fail) at making a living, at making peace and progress.

This isn’t a book about life before 1492. The author, a Pulitzer Prize winner, uses the word ‘flat’ to mean that the world is now a level playing field for opportunities—economic and educational. Whereas young Americans and western Europeans once had more opportunity than any other people in the world, modern technologies, especially communications technologies, have insured that bright young people from third world countries are now competitive. Friedman discusses ten ‘flatteners’ that caused this including outsourcing, the change in supply-chains and in the way we organize and receive information. The examples are both diverse and numerous. Manufacturing will be off-shored to China for years to come—the only thing altering this is when China becomes a technology leader and competes at another level. In the meantime, India is available for the outsourcing of jobs that had been ‘safe’ for many years—service jobs such as accounting, engineering, and computer programming. Even tutoring is outsourced quite effectively.

As I have children your age, reading this book made me want to run around like Chicken Little screaming, “The sky is falling!” Would all jobs—not just those for the uneducated—walk out the door? What would my kids do once I got them through college? Happily, the outlook is not all dim.

Friedman makes a good case for being educated—and even for a broad liberal arts education that includes high level math, science and language. The old “reading, writing, and ‘rithematic,” just to a higher power. To succeed, young American s will need to be both creative and adaptable. To keep their country safe they will, paradoxically, need to be open and embrace globalism. School Library Journal says that this is “an ideal title for tech-savvy teens.” I think it’s an ideal title for all teens—who will realize how tech-savvy they need to be.

December 10, 2008

“On Writing” by Stephen King and “Extraordinary Short Story Writing” by Steven Otfinoski

Happily, here at Colony High there are several of you who are interested in creative writing. Here are two books I’ve read recently that I think are very helpful for the emerging creative writer.

“On Writing” by Stephen King

Stephen King has had more success than nearly any fiction writer who has ever lived—and that’s saying a lot. I wondered if his advice would be any good—I mean, after all, didn’t he just arrive at stardom and hang out there ever since? So I was happy to find that he has a lot of sound recommendations. Although every one of his books has been a bestseller, it took him a while—and many rejections of shorter work—before his career took off.

“On Writing” starts by telling of memorable incidences in King’s life. This helps us understand how he comes up with some of his ideas, but some are just based on dreams or his creative imagination. After discussing some useful rules of writing, King again discusses his life and the accident that nearly ended it. (An aside: although it isn’t the most important rule, I loved King’s diatribe about adverbs and how you should never, ever use them. I wondered about fans of “Twilight.” I just read it and though I can see why it’s popular, the author’s use of adverbs drove me crazy! The main character does everything ‘incredulously’—which detracts rather than adds to the description.)

The claim on the book jacket that “On Writing” is “friendly and inspiring” is true—so try it as you work toward your creative writing goals.

“Extraordinary Short Story Writing” by Steven Otfinoski

Here’s a fun book written especially for high school students. As I mentioned of Stephen King, most writers have short works published before they can get anyone to seriously look at their novels. Agents will often want to see publication credits, even if those credits are from very small magazines.

“Extraordinary” covers the story process (ideas, outlining, first drafts, and revision) and includes how-to mini-guides (humor, suspense and mystery, science fiction and fantasy, and historical). Try out some of the exercises. Work those creative writing muscles!

December 1, 2008

“Escape” by Carolyn Jessop and “Stolen Innocence” by Elissa Wall

I have to admit that I’ve become somewhat fascinated with polygamists cults in the last few years. As I read headlines about kids being removed from polygamist parents—and given back—I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to live in such an alternative universe. The idea of living with a husband and several ‘sister wives’ really has an ick factor for me because of the sexual issues, but I also think I wouldn’t be able to live with ‘sister wives’ in my house even if they weren’t my husband’s concubines. Who wants some other woman telling her how to run her household?

In “Escape,” Carolyn Jessup affirms my suspicions about too many women in the home. When she’s only sixteen years old, Carolyn is forced to marry a man who is something of an enemy to her family—a man who already has three other wives and will go on to have at least two more (the six that are discussed in the book) and is more than thirty years Carolyn’s senior. Ok, so this had more than an ick factor for me—it was just plain gross.

Carolyn’s husband plays his wives off of one another. It’s interesting because all but one can’t stand him, and yet they vie for his affection and are jealous of one another. He alternates sleeping with (and impregnating) them. Carolyn has baby after baby—eight in all—and one of her children is severely disabled. Yet none of the other ‘sister wives’ will help her when she is ill—at one point pregnancy and childbirth almost kill her—because they are envious. They tell her that her child’s disability is God’s judgment on her for being willful and disobedient. The “alpha wife”—the one that Jessop cares for—rules the roost, making the others cook and clean. She beats the children that are not her own. (Kids of the lesser wives have to watch out because life is precarious for them.) When Carolyn’s insides finally fall out and she has a hysterectomy, I thought she’d be saved from sleeping with the dirty old man because, according to the religious tenets of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), the point in polygamy is to procreate. But no, Jessop stills demands sex, that is, when she isn’t sending Carolyn off to work in some hole-in-the-wall motel.

Elissa Wall of “Stolen Innocence” has a slightly different story. She is only fourteen when forced to marry. She tries everything she can to get out of it, but the church’s leader, Warren Jeffs, won’t listen. He arranges the marriages based on his visions from God. (He is the community’s prophet—he arranged Carolyn Jessop’s marriage as well.) Elissa’s husband is also young, and she is his first wife. However, the ick factor is there. He’s her first cousin, and one with whom she has never gotten along. He was always mean to her. At fourteen, having lived in a super-protective environment, Elissa knows nothing about sex. Her husband rapes her on a regular basis. She is so afraid of him that she takes to sleeping in a truck.

Elissa has several miscarriages and a still birth. I guessed that all her unborn and just-born babies had died from genetic deformities caused by being the products of first cousins. However, the book doesn’t discuss this. When Elissa does finally break away and marry the man she wants to marry, she has healthy children.

Both books have a lot of detail about the structure of the FLDS society and its leader, Warren Jeffs. I finally had my question about boys answered. (If each man is supposed to have so many wives, aren’t there extra boys, and then men, left over? Yes, there are—they call them lost boys and throw them out on the road to fend for themselves when they are young. This keeps the ratio of men to women low.) When Jeffs is arrested, Elissa is one of the primary witnesses against him in his trial. The situation of the women in the FLDS sect–-to submit to husbands in mind, body and soul—reminds me of the situation of women today in some third world countries. It also reminds me of the novel (so, yes, that means it’s fiction) “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. That book is about a not-too-distant future United States after some sort of nuclear event when a religious sect takes over the government and reduces all women to servants and concubines. “Escape” and “Stolen Innocence” remind us that sometimes such things actually happen—and right in our own backyard.

November 20, 2008

The Little Book of Plagiarism by Richard A. Posner

This book is literally little—the pages are 4 by 6 inches, and it’s only about 100 pages long. However, its comments on plagiarism—how it is defined (with difficulty) and what it means historically and in our world today—make a great quick read. Students will better understand why plagiarism is such an intellectual sin. Teachers can mull over the changing nature of plagiarism and might even want to use a few of Posner’s examples. And no—you wouldn’t be plagiarizing to do so if you credit Posner. Just don’t use too much of Posner as examples for your classes—then you’d be violating fair use—a copyright rather than a plagiarism issue.

Some of the more fun passages in the book include a look at Shakespeare’s source for Antony and Cleopatra (Shakespeare? A plagiarist?); the origin of the word plagiarism (from a Latin word that describes someone who stole someone else’s slave); a discussion of fairly recent accusations of plagiarism (Dan Brown of “The DaVinci Code” fame, J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, and the historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose). A perfect example of the kind of plagiarism that high school students are often guilty of is discussed throughout the book—Kaavya Viswanathan’s use of slightly altered passages from the ‘chick lit’ works of Megan McCafferty. You probably couldn’t find a better example for a class discussion.

Other than a few political jabs at the ‘lefties,’ including academics (who are all lefties, I guess) soft on plagiarism, the book is entertaining as well as enlightening.

October 29, 2008

“Night” and “Dawn” by Elie Wiesel

Knowing that all freshmen here at COHS read “Night” by Elie Wiesel, and that sophomores have “Dawn” as a possible outside reading choice for history projects, I decided I’d have a go at it. I had read “Night” in the past and found it deeply depressing—no surprise, I’m sure, as a personal account of a Holocaust experience has to make the reader wonder about man’s inhumanity to man. The most difficult part of reading “Night” was, for me, the sense that the evils perpetrated by the Nazis could indeed break the human spirit and make good people behave in a way that they would have previously regarded as something less than human. I still remember the story of a son wrestling his father for a loaf of bread.

Judging by the title, I thought that “Dawn” would be a story of some sort of redemption in the aftermath of the Holocaust. I had no idea what the subject of the book was, and it surprised me—as well as made me think.

The narrator, Elisha, is a survivor of Nazi death camps. He is recruited to go to Palestine as an Israeli freedom fighter—what people would refer to as a terrorist if the freedom fighter were waging war against them. Elisha is chosen because he has no family—they have all died in death camps—and nothing particular to live for. Working to create Israel gives him something to live for—a homeland. But what happens to him as a freedom fighter brings up all the moral questions of his activities. The British control Palestine. Another Jewish freedom fighter is captured by the British and sentenced to die. As retribution for the death, the freedom fighters/terrorists will execute a British soldier at the same time. The soldier is arbitrarily picked off the street and hidden in a basement. Elisha is chosen to be the executioner. This is ironic considering Elisha’s name.

The entire book reflects on the choice Elisha has to make as he communes with his dead family members, his past self and other freedom fighters (one of whom is, again ironically, nicknamed ‘God.’) As short as the novel is, I think some students will pick it as an outside book thinking it will be an easy read. Considering the questions it addresses, nothing could be further from the truth.

September 17, 2008

“Out of War: True Stories from the Front Lines of the Children’s Movement for Peace in Columbia” by Sara Cameron

Nine chapters of “Out of War’ each discuss one of the child leaders of the Children’s Movement for Peace in Columbia. For many years, Columbia has been torn apart by political factions, drug lords that wrestle for control over regions, gangs and extreme poverty, both rural and urban. In the mid-1990s, UNICEF (a United Nations children’s organization), the Catholic Church and others helped to create the Children’s Peace Movement. The children who tell their stories not only give us a picture of the peace movement, but of the terrible lives they have survived.

Juan Elias’ father and cousin are assassinated one day in the father’s dental office. Juan had hoped to go to work with his father that day, but was late getting ready. Maritza comes from a violent home and although she tries to make peace, she lives a dual life and is caught up in street gangs. Johemir lived alone for eight months when he was only ten years old because his mother had to take a job in another area just to survive. He and others volunteer in the “Return to Happiness” program help small children who are victims of violence—one seven-year-old boy reported having seen his father murdered, cut up, put in a bag and thrown in a river. Unfortunately, stories like this are quite common.

For me, one of the most interesting things about what the teens said about their experiences was how they had learned that revenge didn’t work. Ultimately, many talk about forgiveness and the need to be the ones to end the violence. This idea can relate to violence in other ways—what students might be experiencing here in Southern California—in cities, schools, and in their homes. I hope COHS student will comment on this. What did you think of the ‘children’s referendum’ in which millions of children ages 7-18 voted for the rights to life and peace as their most important rights? How does this help—or does it?

If you enjoyed the book, the author also wrote ‘Natural Enemies,” which is an eco-novel. If you are interested in more information about the Children’s Movement, check the list of websites and resources at the back of the book.

September 17, 2008


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