Book Review: Lincoln’s Grave Robbers

My co-teacher wandered in and saw Lincoln’s Grave Robbers on my desk. He picked it up, “Is this fiction?” and when I replied, “It’s all true,” he looked closer at it. Such is the tale that writer Steve Sheinken digs up and tells in this book, and it is a crime story of stealing the bones of Abe Lincoln that is almost too strange to be true.

The story, from the late 1800s, is of counterfeit operations and jail time, and a noted crime boss who wants his best engraver freed from jail so that he can keep making fake money. The plan is to steal Lincoln’s bones and ransom them back to the government in return for the jailed companion to be set free. Needless to say, things go awry, and Sheinken gives a nice sense of place and history, including old photographs and drawings to bring the reader into the time and place.

I admit: I don’t always like Sheinken’s writing style, but I can’t put my finger on what it is. It doesn’t flow for me. But he certainly has an eye for historical stories (Bomb was fascinating, too, although the writing didn’t always work for me there, either) and storytelling presence. I really love how he uses primary documents to help tell his stories, and I suspect lots of teachers could turn to Sheinken’s books as examples of non-fiction writing that packs a literary punch while still remaining fairly true to the historical record.

The crook never did get Lincoln’s body but they certainly tried. In a time when news moved slow, a core group of supporters of Lincoln’s memory remained vigilant and ensured that the physical legacy of Lincoln would be free of a robbery attempt that still baffles the imagination.

Peace (in the bones of history),
Kevin

Book Review: Floors

I’ve read some of Patrick Carman’s older YA fiction and found it intriguing, particularly in ways that he (more than many others) is tapping into the transmedia aspects of publishing. Books like Skeleton Creek are creepy and visceral and oddly entertaining, particularly when part of the story unfolds as videos. So, I was anticipating a good story when my son and I picked up Floors, for slightly younger readers, but wow … I really loved the book, and its sequel (Three Below) and the third book is sitting on our book pile as the next one in the read-aloud queue. (I also met Carman at the Dublin Literacy Conference years ago and he seemed like a nice guy happy to be writing stories for a living and thinking even then of ways to push the boundaries of book publishing).

Floors is about a New York City hotel that is unlike any other hotel you have ever imagined, and about about a boy named Leo who comes to own the Whippet Hotel in the first book after being given it by the eccentric owner and Leo (and later with his friend/brother, Remi) explore the strange subterranean elements in the second book and … not yet sure what happens in the third book (The Field of Wacky Inventions) but I am sure it will be just as entertaining. If you are catching some resemblances to another boy and a chocolate factory, that is intentional as Carman riffs off the Dahl idea of a building with lots of secrets and magic and inventions.

You never know what will happen when a door opens in the Whippet Hotel. And just to know, ducks are more important than one would think. My wife thought too much was happening in these stories but my son and I disagreed (although some of the characters could use more depth), and as a read aloud, the Floors books are perfect — with lots of action, humor, villains and the unexpected. My son and I also agreed on this: Floors would make an excellent movie.

Peace (in the book)
Kevin

 

Book Review: Nick and Tesla’s High Voltage Danger Lab

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Check out the cover, right? It’s pretty cool. This book — Nick and Tesla’s High Voltage Danger Lab — is co-written by a science teacher (‘Science Bob’ Pflugfelder) who brings the ethos of Making, Learning and Exploring right into an unfolding mystery story with the two siblings — 11 year-olds Nick and Tesla — tinkering in their role of childhood detective. The story involves the two kids coming to live with a nutty uncle for the summer, only to discover something odd going on in a nearby house.

Curiosity, and a desire to recover a failed rocket, drive the story forward. And while the plot is fairly predictable for this kind of novel, there’s plenty of humor and action to keep the reader engaged. What makes this book particularly cool is not just the way that science and experimentation and engineering are brought into the story (the kids build things to help them solve the mystery) but that the step-by-step schematic plans and drawings for all of the experiments and devices are written right into the book itself. (Note to self: my son wants to build his own electromagnet now).

I think this book would fit in nicely with a shift towards Maker Spaces in our schools, connecting stories to engineering, and back again. There’s even a good site for teachers and parents, with some downloads and videos (and I see another book is being  published, too.)

 

Peace (in the tinkering plotline),
Kevin

Book Review: Best American Infographics 2013

Wow. I was completely absorbed and blown away by this new collection of infographics from the “Best American” series. With an insightful foreword by editor Gareth Cook (whose name I recognize from the Boston Globe) and an introduction by David Byrne (he, of Talking Heads fame and beyond), the collection of visual stories told with data as infographic is a deep dive into new ways to think not just about reading, but also about writing and expressing ideas.

“We now find ourselves in a golden age for information graphics,” Cook writes, but then he also explains the long history of using graphics to relay information, pulling out a census map from the Civil War that documenting populations of slavery in each state of the United States — a map that Lincoln kept handy and referred to often.

The Best American Infographics 2013 is chock full of amazing information (including the glimpse at that map), and yet both Cook and Byrne remind us that data gets tilted when brought to view in the visual. What the artist leaves out, and how they portray the data, and which lens is deemed most important, all work in the mix of telling the stories. I’m connecting those ideas in my head to work we do in our classrooms around argument and persuasion, and the need to pull more visual information into our stories and essays and writing.

Here, with infographics ranging from “Feelings that Cannot be Expressed in English” to “A Better Food Label” to “Who Reads Erotica” to “Where Twisters Touch Down” to “American Education Gets a Grade,” this collection touches on a wide range of topics, grouped around the concept of You, Us, the Material World and Interactive Infographics. I encourage you to check out the online links to the interactive infographics. You’ll be blown away by the real-time carbon animation, Bear 71 (you can even put yourself in that one), and the wind chart …. it’s all just stunning.

I also enjoyed, as I always do, the vignettes of the artists and number crunchers explaining where the data came from, what the intentions were, and the artistic choices they made when creating each infographic. Those kinds of reflections are valuable not just in understanding what someone else has made (and it is), but also to begin the shift towards the idea of: How do I best build my own infographics of value?

This is a book I am going to return to, and hope that the series continues next year.

Peace (in the data),
Kevin

 

The Abandoned Book: When Gimmick Overtakes Storytelling

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It’s painful to write this post of why I abandoned a book, and the fact that I got this particular book as a gift from my family (after openly expressing interest in it) made me stay with it longer than I would have otherwise done.  I’ve got some guilt today. So, believe me when I say, I really, really wanted to keep with this novel that pushes the envelope in so many directions in ways that I find intriguing. Co-written by JJ Abrams (yes, that JJ Abrams, of moviemaking/television fame) and Doug Dorst, S. (that’s the title) is a story within story within story (and maybe more).

But I won’t be staying with it.

Ostensibly, the centerpiece is an old manuscript called Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka, but the real story unfolds in the margins as two graduate students make notes on the text itself and then letters to each other. Colored ink with the notations shows the layered passage of time, as some notes have been written early and some notes late, and other notes, even later. Plus, the “book” (Ship of Theseus) has footnotes from the editor, adding yet another layer to the stories. And there are postcards, letters, code wheels and other objects stuffed into the page of the book. (See New Yorker piece about the book for more information from the authors on their intentions to tell the story this way).

So, as you read the main story, you also read the notes in the margin, and the footnotes, and all three are working towards some larger story. (although one person on Goodreads said they were going to read the main story first, and then go back and read the margin notes. I’m not sure what that experience would be like). It’s like juggling for the mind. And I like that feeling of being stretched by writers. I’m a sucker for pushing the expectations of what a book is, and what a book can be.

Except … except …. I am almost halfway through the book and …. nothing is happening. I have completely lost track of the multitudes of confusing characters (there are many in the main story — Ship of Theseus — that have  connections to the ‘real” world of the writer V.M Straka, as postulated by the two graduate students …. oh …. I’m confused just trying to explain it all here). Oh sure, there are hints of some grand conspiracy, and of break-ins, and of academic theft, and other elements. And the story between the two students is nicely done, which I suspect is not easy to play for (setting forth a relationship entirely in margin notes). Colored writing as story device is fascinating, as I found my mind switching time modes depending on the ink.

But, I am at the end of my patience waiting for something, anything, to happen. I mean, this is J.J. Abrams, for goodness sake. No offense to Dorst (who seems like the one who did most of the actual writing, if I read the interviews correctly) but Abrams is the master of suspense and action these days. Lost, Star Trek, Star Wars. There’s plenty of suspense in this book but no resolution of the suspense. And not much action. Actually, no action to speak of. I’m not even sure how I have read the 200 pages I have read.

The book has become stalled in the act of the gimmick of storytelling. And, as the reader, I’ve had enough. I’ve been mulling over whether to abandon the book for days now, eyeballing my stack of other books and sighing as I hefted up  S. each night, coming to get that “Do I have to?” feeling of picking the book up. Finally, this morning, I realized, “I don’t have to.” I am setting it aside, maybe to someday return to it. Maybe not.

I feel disappointed and letdown by the promise and premise of the book, though, and I am more than a bit sad that the story element seems have been buried under the whiz-bang of producing something new and eccentric. Writers, I don’t have time for gimmicks that don’t work. Give me a story and characters to believe in any day, and you’ll have me hooked and faithful every time.

Peace (on the pages),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Super Graphic

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This is a book that my older boys were fighting over to read when I took it out of the box, and then I had trouble getting it back from them to read myself. Visual artist Tim Leong, from Wired, has put together a fascinating look at the Comic Book Universes (in all their brands and trajectories and offshoots) in a series of infographics that will blow you away with the detail, humor and design. As an example of how to represent information in a graphical format, Super Graphic is an exemplar text.

It really is one of those books you have to read to get full enjoyment out of.  (Even the credits are done in infographic mode as are the reviews of the reviews of the book. You get the sense that Leong lives in an infographic world.

Not everything in here is child-friendly, just as in comics, but there are enough cool infographics that you could pull out (well, photocopy, in color) to share as how to hone your interest in a topic and share out your knowledge in interesting ways. Super Graphic is a wonderful ode to comics and visual design.

No wonder my kids were fighting over it. Super Dad always wins, though!

Peace (in the panels)
Kevin

 

 

Book Review: Attack of the Killer Video Book

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How’s that for a title, eh? Attack of the Killer Video Book. Along with a new video camera under our Christmas tree, my younget son received this fantastic book resource on how to make movies on the cheap. Written by Mark Shulman and Hazlitt Krog, with great illustrations from Martha Newbigging, this book is a perfect fit for any 9-year-old filmmaker. (I have the revised edition — Take 2 — but I am not sure what has been revised from the first edition.)

Told with a sense of humor and various illustrations and diagrams and cartoons, this book really gets at the heart of shooting a movie, from the initial storytelling, planning, technical aspects of setting up the camera and microphones, right through to editing software on the computer and publishing, and kicking back to enjoy the fruits of the labor. Plus, the book reminds you to bring along snacks for any friends who join you in making the movie. Snacks are important.

The writers even provide a sample script at the end of the book, as both a model and inspiration. I was very happy to see how much time is spent on the “good story” aspect of the moviemaking, which can be the most difficult element. For many young people, the whiz and bang of the shooting of video (bloopers anyone?) overtakes the desire to spend time on a good story to tell, but here, the writers push home the idea that a good story is at the heart of every good movie.

This book would be a good addition to any classroom, as I suspect there are budding filmmakers in our rooms, probably even students we would never suspect of it.

Peace (in the flick),
Kevin

 

Book Review: This Machine Kills Secrets

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“Cypherpunks write code.”

Andy Greenberg’s This Machine Kills Secrets: Julian Assange, The Cypherpunks and Their Fight to Empower Whistleblowers is a fascinating look behind the headlines of Wikileaks and even the impact of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning to show the movement to provide safe, secure and anonymous means for leaking secrets to the world. The quote above is from one of the manifestos from a group of hackers who want to change the world through the release of information. Known as cypherpunks, they believe that creating systems for whistleblowers will make politicians more honest, and make the world a better place.

The history of the cypherpunk movement is a fascinating story, as Greenberg toggles his tales between characters and events, including the parallels between The Pentagon Papers (which kickstarted the whole “information should be free” ideals, really) of the Vietnam War and Bradley Manning’s securing and releasing government documents via Wikileaks. For Manning, it was not much more difficult than downloading files to a flashdrive. Amazing, really.

Cypherpunks write code” means that political action is in the doing and the deeds, not just in the lobbying for more openness and protesting for change. Much of the book ends up focusing on Wikileaks (and very little about Snowden, as his case catapulted into the headlines after the book was written, and Greenberg mentions him only briefly in an update at the end of the paperback book) and the technical prowess and push going on behind the scenes to create online, technical spaces for secrets to be submitted, vetted and revealed.

I’m not sure yet about how I feel about all this.

On one hand, I see the value of shining light into the darkness of politics (I am a former journalist, after all). On the other, the line between openness and putting people’s lives in danger is a difficult one to discern (as Greenberg expertly points out throughout the book), and the anarchy element of some of the cypherpunk movement makes it difficult to know motives. My basic belief is that our elected officials need to be held accountable for their actions and books like this one show the efforts of many to do that.

Whether you believe Assange (of Wikileads) to be a hero or a villain (and that may go beyond the politics of Wikileaks and into the realm of legal charges against him right now for actions against women), Greenberg’s point — and others, too — is that the idea of leaking information is now part of our modern culture, and the cork can’t be put back into the bottle.  Too many people have access to too many files in digital formats. More leaks are bound to happen. The only question is: what kind of information will come out next and who will release it and why? Time will only tell.

Peace (beyond the veil),
Kevin

A Goodreads Tally: What I Read in 2013


Like a lot of people on Goodreads, I set a reading goal for myself in 2013. I wanted to read 110 books. I made it, but just barely. Thankfully, we were on school vacation and I had time to read, by myself and with my son (my read aloud companion). We cranked through some books. For 2014, I am lowering my count back to 100 books, which seems more manageable now that we read fewer picture books as my youngest is a bit older. I still like the challenge, and the way it forces me to keep track of the books I am reading.

You can view some of the books I have underway right now:

Kevin’s currently-reading book montage

A Reader's Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year
The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013
This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World's Information
Unearthed Comics: Un-Earthing the Universe, One Comic at a Time
The Island of Thieves



Kevin Hodgson’s favorite books »

Peace (in the books),
Kevin

Book Review: The Forbidden Stone (The Copernicus Legacy)

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Eh.

I wanted to like this book (The Forbbiden Stone), which I did as a read-aloud with my son after getting a free copy at NCTE. I should say that he thoroughly enjoyed the book and was caught up in the adventure unfolding. He was hooked early. Me? Not so much. I appreciated the story part of the book, noting that this is the clear start to a series of books about four kids and a dad uncovering a time-related mystery that began with Copernicus and stretches to the modern day with secret societies, puzzling dilemmas, and globe-trotting action.

What I could not get past was the writing.

We’ve had the same problem with Tony Abbott before, when we read his Secrets of Droon series. My wife and I found the dialogue wooden and rather lifeless (sorry, Tony) and the action and plot was incredibly predicable. But my son (actually, sons) enjoyed the series and I guess that is the real audience for Abbott, not us picky adults. Here, with The Forbidden Stone, though, I felt that same feeling I had with Droon, even though I know Abbott is setting up the series, introducing characters and action for future books. But I never got a good sense of any of the characters. Instead, it felt like we were breezing through the heads and internal voice periodically. I had the sense of the writer struggling to make sure we cared about the protagonists. Abbott was working too hard.  I didn’t find myself caring about the kids. That’s a problem for me.

I know adventure books have improbably scenarios that resourceful protagonists can solve. There were just one too many of those here in this book, in my opinion. (Can I venture a guess that a movie contract is in the mix here?) I know we will be reading more of this series as it comes out, and I am glad my son is intrigued and interested in any books. I will remain hopeful that the writing gets stronger as the focus gets narrower on the finding of the 12 “relics” that are at the heart of the story. And I hope I come to care for the characters.

Peace (in the pages),
Kevin