Book Review: The Everything Store

I’ve been reading a selection of books about the wave of technology companies dominating our landscape, mostly as a way to better understand how they came to be and who are the people behind the ideas. So, Brad Stone’s The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon fit that theme nicely.

Amazon (or should I say Amazon.com, as the company always insists?) is an amazing story of one man, with a grand idea, who is slowly but methodically enacting his vision of a one-stop online store for anything. Jeff Bezos and his organization is also characterized as being pretty ruthless in its practices, using its power to wield more power against smaller and bigger companies, at least according to Stone. It sees a market. It takes the market.

I won’t go through a full review of Stone’s book here, except to notice on interesting thing, as a writer and a teacher of writing.  (And to note, Stone has come under fire by Amazon folks for way he describes the company, but I found it pretty balanced in both praise and criticism.)

There is an intriguing section in the book where Bezos orders an edict to his managers: no more Powerpoints in meetings. Instead, Bezos requires all of his managers to write narratives of their plans for their divisions, and each meeting starts out with a shared reading of those narratives. Stone says that Bezos believes that writing is a way of thinking, while Powerpoint is a glossed-over version of explanation. The reaction from his staff is mixed and miffed, now that they had to recall all of the writing skills they learned back in school for real life.

You think Bezos ever attended a National Writing Project Summer Institute?

Even if you don’t admire Amazon for its size and scope, or maybe even Bezos for way he runs his company, you have to admire him for understanding the potential of an idea, and to put it down into writing as a way to better understand it.

Peace (in the store),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Saying Sensei

(This is for Slice of Life, a writing adventure with Two Writing Teachers. Each day, we are looking at the small moments of life and writing. You write, too.)

saying sensei

(Check out the Word Map for Sensei)

I am doing a read-aloud of a novel entitled Samurai Shortstop by Alan Gratz with my son. We’re both liking it (although the story starts with a ritual suicide by the protagonist’s uncle as part of a Samurai code ceremony and this unnerved me more than a little bit.) But there is a word in the story that I keep mispronouncing. Maybe you have your own arsenal of words that whenever you see it, you say it wrong.

My current word trouble is “sensei.” I don’t know why this one causes me so much difficulty. When I read it in my head, I hear it just fine. Sens-ay. When I read it out loud, it comes out Sens-eye. I suspect it has do with the spelling of the word. My son called me on the carpet last night. Again.

Him: Dad! (sigh). You said it wrong. Why do you do that?

Me: I did?

Him: Yes. It’s sens-aye. You said sense-eye again. Why are you doing that? It’s so frustrating!

Me: Sorry.

I pause to look at the word. I’ve paused to look at that same dang word many times now. I’ve seen Karate Kid (both versions) enough times to know how it sounds. I put my finger on the word. I keep reading, and when I run into the word, I slow my voice down, carefully pronouncing each syllable. Se-ns-ei.

Him: Dad!

Me: What? I said it right. Right?

Him: Now you’re reading too slow!

Me: (sigh).

 

This reminds me of a time when I was about seven years old, and I found I was saying the word “very” wrong. Somehow, without my even knowing it, I began saying vurrry (maybe I watched some British show?). A friend finally pointed it out to me (in blunt terms: why are you saying that word like that?) and it was like a punch in the stomach. What? What am I doing? I could not believe it. Then I said “very” out loud and sure enough, it was all wrong.

I practiced that word by myself, mostly because I did not want to be embarrassed in front of peers. I said “very” many times. Very Very Very Very. Now I find myself doing it with “sensei.” Sensei Sensei Sensei.

Me: I’ve got it now. Sensei.

Him: That sound right. Now, can you keep reading?

Me: Hai!

Him: Dad!

Peace (in the pronunciation),
Kevin

Slice of Life: It’s Allegorical

(This is a post for the Slice of Life, facilitated by Two Writing Teachers throughout March and every Tuesday during the year. You come write, too.)

Yesterday was the birthday of Dr. Seuss. Theodore Geisel has local connections to our area (Springfield, Massachusetts, is right down the road) and so we often do play up celebrations around the author. Yesterday, with all of my sixth grade classes, I read aloud The Butter Battle Book. Only a handful had ever heard of it before, and a few had read it.

The Butter Battle Book is not his best book — I still vote for The Lorax just about any day of the week — but it does give me a chance to do a mini-lesson around “allegory” — a pretty complex literary term for sixth graders. But after discussions around the Cold War, and global geopolitics both of the past and present, we dove into the story of the Yooks and Zooks who hate each other because of how they butter their bread.

Reading the picture book, playing up the voices, asking questions, sparking discussions — it reminds me that we don’t do enough to use picture books for mentor texts in the upper grades. I use them, but I could probably do it even more.

We were hoping to do an All-School Read-Aloud for Read Across America Day yesterday (and Wednesday is World Read Aloud Day), but snow moved in (surprise) and we had a two-hour delay, so that community reading will happen this morning. I am trying to find my copy of The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. Anyone borrow it?

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

Book Review: Fantasy Baseball

You know it’s almost baseball season here when my son starts asking for us to read-aloud books about the sport. We picked up Fantasy Baseball, which is not about the game lots of people play in picking and trading players online. Instead, it is a very interesting novel by Alan Gratz in which a young boy, Alex, finds himself inside a fantasy world — Ever After — where the winners of a baseball tournament can ask the Wizard of Oz for a wish.

Yes, the Wizard of Oz. Gratz mixes up all sorts of literary characters (Toad, from Wind in the Willows, for example, is a mighty talented short stop) and book references (from Holes to Alice in Wonderland) in this witty book. At first, it just seems like a whimsical story. Alex thinks he is dreaming and goes with the flow — he loves to play baseball, so why not? He is bound to wake up eventually, right? Then, the Big Bad Wolf tries to eat him and the onion skin of the story starts to reveal itself.

It turns out that Alex is actually the Dreamself (or, as they are called, a Lark) of someone else — Alex, the boy in real life — and that boy is dying of cancer, and as Alex the boy fades, so too does Alex the Dreamboy. It’s up to Alex the Dreamboy/Lark to save Alex the Human, and that means winning the baseball tournament to get the wish. Gratz does a nice job of balancing the fantasy of the story and characters (even slyly referencing one of his own characters from another baseball novel that we are reading right now: Samurai Shortstop) and the tragic decline of a young child battling cancer.

Peace (in the big play),
Kevin

Book Review: The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction

Add Alan Jacobs to the list of people who are both concerned and excited about how the act of reading is undergoing significant changes in the digital age. In The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction, Jabobs explores “reading” along many different tangents but remains centered on the theme of Whim at the heart of how we read (or should choose our reading).

Yes, we need to learn how to read. Yes, it helps to be guided to books by others. But the kind of reading that stick with us for life is with the books that we choose to read because there is something about the story or the writer or even the cover art, that pulls us in. Even in this age of digital text and hyperskimming/hyperlinking/hyperreading, our Whim in what we read can take us far, if we let it.

I appreciated how Jacobs pushes back against the scholars who say “this is the list of book you must read” as well as those who say “reading has changed and deep reading of books is no longer how people read in their lives” and instead, shows us how literature has the potential to transform our lives. Interestingly, Jacobs found a balance after realizing that his focus on deeper reading was waning and only found it when he bought himself a Kindle. The e-reader allowed him back into deep reading, he says. (I’m not sure that has helped me and when I use an e-reader, I find myself more distracted than Jacobs claims to be.)

In The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction, Jacobs explores the art of annotation (and pushed back a bit on the crowd-sourced annotations now available via Kindle and others as noisy interference to one’s own mind in the act of reading); of re-reading books at another age from when you first encountered them, so that life experience gives you another lens; about the beauty of discovering that book that changes your perspective forever; of getting lost in the story so completely that the world in front of you is the story itself, for a brief duration of time, anyway; the need for quiet spaces to get lost in a tome; and how educators can both be a shining beacon for emerging readers or a stoplight in the love of a good book.

Jacobs urges readers of all ages to come back to books. Not to abandon their skimming for knowledge in the data bases of our lives — all that online dancing from site to site, media to media — but to find the time to read deeply, too. Find the books you want to read and then read them.

“Don’t waste time and mental energy comparing yourself to others (readers), whether to your shame or gratification, since we are all wayfarers. Come to what you read with a charitable disposition; don’t expect to fight with the text, but instead seek to treat it well; be willing to meet it more than halfway, as though it were a guest in your home, which in a way it is.” — Alan Jacobs (p. 97)

I agree. You?

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

Book Review: Hatching Twitter

I still remember the first time that someone tried to explain Twitter to me. It was Bud Hunt (aka Bud the Teacher), and he was visiting Western Massachusetts for the National Writing Project. We were all at dinner in Amherst and he started to talk up Twitter, which had only just launched from the ashes of the Odeo podcasting site. Bud talked about it as best as he could, and admitted he was struggling to explain why Twitter mattered. But he predicted tweeting would take hold and it would be important to teachers as a way to network and share resources.

So it is. Just the other night, I stumbled into the #Engchat conversation on Twitter (where Brian Kelly was hosting a conversation about using audio in the classroom and “writing for the ear”) and for the next 30 minutes, I was hooked into sharing and exploration of voice and audio with a boatload of other teachers around the world, expanding my knowledge and never leaving my home. It was more valuable than many elements of formal PD I have sat through over the years.

I thought back to Bud’s dinner table talk as I read Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal by reporter Nick Bilton. The story of Twitter has many twists and yes, many betrayals of friendship, as the platform moved into the mainstream from start-up mode. Bilton did extensive research and hours of interviews to get into the moment of Twitter’s emergence as a media powerhouse. Twitter began as an offshoot of Odeo, which I remember using as an early podcasting site, and grew up into something still emerging, right?

What struck me is how important the “creation myth” of Twitter became to the four founders of Twitter (Evan Williams, Noah Glass, Jack Dorsey, and Biz Stone). Each in their own way tried to shape the story of who “invented” Twitter, if Bilton’s book is to believed. Some of the four (Dorsey) were doing it intentionally, so as to gain a foothold back into leading the company forward. Others (Glass) got lost in the faded history of Twitter.

The other story that drove Twitter is the essential question of Twitter: is the status question told in 140 characters one about you/me (what’s your status?) or is it about the world (what’s happening?). What story are we all telling? That debate over a few words led to divisions within the company itself.

Hatching Twitter is one of those books that made me think of my daily media life a little different. We take technology for granted. But behind the tech that succeeds (as opposed to the multitudes that don’t), there is always a story of creation and there are always people shaping those creation stories. Bilton’s book about Twitter shows how messy that endeavor can become once the money starts flowing.

Peace (in the tweet),
Kevin

Book Review: The Fourteenth Goldfish

Coming on the heels of finishing Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting with my sixth graders, I picked up Jennifer Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish merely on a whim as part our independent reading. I see it is on the New York Times bestseller list, and as a teacher, I love to discover new books I can recommend to my students. I was pleasantly surprised to see more than a few thematic overlaps between the two novels. Holm’s book explores the scientific element of tinkering with the aging process while Bobbitt uses unknown magic to explore the concept of living for forever.

Tuck Everlasting, of course, is a classic, and now in its 40th year, the book continues to resonate with young readers on many levels. The discussions we have in the classroom about the moral ambiguity of character’s choices and the desire for youth is always rich and deep. It’s beautifully written and I love teaching it.

The Fourteenth Goldfish is not in the same category, although it is a rather fun read. The story revolves around 11 year old Ellie, whose scientist grandfather discovers a way (via a certain jellyfish) to turn back the hands of time and become young again. The grandfather is now a teenager, living with Ellie and her mother, and the results are often funny. The plot revolves around Ellie helping her teenager grandfather recover his scientific notes from the company he has been booted out of.

It’s only at the end of the book, as Ellie considers the power and responsibility of science, that the deep questioning comes into play, and I was itching for Holmes to dig deeper than she did. The book is aimed at an upper elementary audience, and yet I think Holmes could have gone farther and still had the funny, entertaining story that she develops in The Fourteen Goldfish.

What Holm’s book does well is to show the power of scientific discovery and of asking questions, of being curious, of being open to the “possibilities” — as Ellie’s grandfather teaches her, even as Ellie herself begins to understand that some scientific discoveries come with a cost (the Atomic Bomb). Holm also name-drops plenty of scientists in the novel, sparking interest in the history of discovery.

Peace (in the life lived),
Kevin

Book Review: Cool Careers in Video Games

I saw this book — Cool Careers in Video Games —  in our latest Scholastic Book order catalogue and used some of my “classroom points” to pick it up. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but given my students’ high interest in gaming, it makes sense to have it as a resource. I’m glad I grabbed it. The book is full of short non-fiction profiles of people in the video gaming industry, from writers to programmers to animators and more, with a nice balance of men and women.

The questions often have a focus on advice for students who are interested in gaming, and while most riffed on the theme of “follow your passion and dream,” there were a few who noted how math skills and writing/communication skills are critical.

What I most liked about the book (its former title apparently was Hot Jobs in Video Games) was the introduction overview of the world of the gaming industry, as it provides a handy progression of how a game goes from an idea to being published, and all the work that goes on in-between. And I like the glossary at the end, where there is a multi-page list of all of the different kinds of jobs and skills one would need to become part of that emerging job market.

As far as I can tell, you can only get Cool Careers in Video Games through Scholastic books.

Peace (in the game),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: The Sculptor

I know it early in 2015, but is it too early to call The Sculptor by Scott McCloud my “book of the year”? I was sent an early review copy of McCloud’s novel by First Second Publishing, and it has not just blown me away. It’s story and imagery has stayed with me, lingering for the last few weeks in my mind. I’m almost ready to dive right back in and read it again, and if you know me, you know I rarely re-read books.

While the story has familar echoes — you sell your soul to the ferryman for some artistic element or edge in your life that you have long desired and never attained (think Robert Johnson’s Crossroads, or even Charlie Daniels Band’s Devil Went Down to Georgia) — the way that McCloud uses the graphic novel format and visual storytelling brings The Sculptor to a new level.

McCloud is very famous for his groundbreaking work about deconstructing comics and graphic novels as unique and innovative storytelling platforms, and sharing his knowledge with the world. His Understand Comics is a must-read for anyone interested in the storytelling possibilities of graphic arts.

For The Sculptor, it seems like he aimed to pull out all the stops, with whole sequences of art that will floor you, even as he weaves the story of his protagonist, David Smith, who literally gives up his life for his art, and gains the power to sculpt any material with his own hands.

And then, David finds love in the days before his time runs out (by the way, here, the Devil is not the nasty dude you might imagine him to be), and he races to create the great Art Project of his life before it is too late. I won’t give the story away, but the narrative power of writing and illustration packs a real emotional punch. The way McCloud uses the comic medium to bring the reader into the story is inspiring.

 

Note: this book is not for younger readers, and with some scenes of nudity and adult themes, it may not be suitable for even high school students. You should read it first before bringing it into your classroom. I hope some university class eventually uses it as a literature text, however. It’s that good, in my opinion.

Peace (in the story),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Girl on the Train

I know I’m a sucker when book publishers spend a lot of money to promote the message that “this is a book in the tradition of …” and then fill in the blanks. It doesn’t always live up to the hype (I’ve gone through a few “just like Game of Thrones” novels to much disappointment). Still,  I saw the hype over The Girl on the Train (in the tradition of Gone Girl) and used a gift card that I received over holiday break to get it. I figured, this isn’t costing me much.

It was worth every penny I didn’t spend.

The book is good, although the echoes of Gone Girl are a little too strong at times (someone missing, multiple voices, unreliable narrators). The narrative frame of views of something odd taking place (it’s a thriller) as seen from the commuter train, and then allowing characters to only chime in during the morning and evening commute times, gives the story a definite rhythm (like a train), building to the dramatic points at the end of the story. I won’t give it away. Promise.

Does The Girl on the Train hold its own? It does, and newcomer writer Paula Hawkins constructs a tightly-wound plot, bringing us into the heads of female characters with variable troubles and views on the world, even as things start to fall apart on them all (some, more than others).

Peace (on the tracks),
Kevin