(Comic) Book Review: Shapes and Colors (A Cul de Sac Collection)

I don’t care if you teach preschool or college or anywhere in-between. I would advise you to become a regular reader of Cul de Sac, a comic strip of such gentle humor by Richard Thompson that it will have you remembering the crazy innocence of growing up or maybe reminding you of how your students see the world, even if it is slightly skewed.

In either case, your foray into the worldview of a preschool girl — Alice Otterloop – and her older brother — Peter — will remind you (as it reminds me) that kids see the world very differently than we do as adults. As a teacher, I need that reminder. Often.

Thompson plays with perspective on all sorts of levels — in his drawings (check out dad’s undersized car), overheard conversations (where misheard words at the dinner table lead to interesting conversations), to the mysterious worlds of the kids’ teachers. And here, something as simple as a raised drain-hole cover can become the neighborhood stage for dance recitals, speeches and all sorts of drama (take that, you imagination-sucking mobile device!). It’s a world prone to dispute, but never malice. Kids here argue with the odd logic of kids, but then find a way (often with no adults involved) to resolve their differences.

Unfortunately, I only get to read Cul de Sac in my Sunday newspaper because the local daily paper doesn’t carry it (why not? why the heck not!!). I do read it online now and then, but I can’t see to fit reading of comics into my digital reading habits. I guess I have other things to read. What is wrong with me?

So, when a book collection comes out from Thompson, I snap it up. The latest is Shapes and Colors and it is a fine immersion into the warped world of childhood imagination. It’s well worth the price of admission.

Peace (in the frames),


Book Review: Interface

I recently finished up Interface by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George just in time for the political season that is beginning to dominate the headlines. Although somewhat dated (particularly in reference to the technology — references to digital clocks are kind of funny since they have to be fully described for the audience), this fictional thriller centers on the use of an interface computer chip that gets implanted into the brain of a presidential candidate — Gov. William Cozzano. He’s a firebrand governor with an independent streak until a stroke hits him, hard, and he decides to do an experimental surgery that can help him recover … with a twist.

The data chip allows the candidate’s handlers to get a “read” on the mood of voters and shape the message of the candidate accordingly. Banks of computers and programmers are behind every campaign move, every sentence uttered by the candidate. Nothing is left to chance. Of course, not everyone buys this idea of a controlled candidate and there is a slow-building battle between the Network (the nefarious schemers who want a president who will do their bidding along economic lines) and folks like the candidate’s daughter and fiery running mate who uncover the secret. And there is a single voter out in middle America who senses what is going on and decides to take actions into his own violent hands.

Sure, the story in Interface is pretty far-fetched, but Stephenson (of Snow Crash fame) and George put together a nice summer read here, and they use lots of humor and satire to make jabs at our political system. The novel is now about 15 years old, and although the references to some technology seem dated, the eye-opener is that the politics and the hard-core fighting over issues is still alive and kicking (hello, Michelle Bachmann), and maybe even more divisive than depicted in this book. Some of this sameground was covered in The Manchurian Candidate, but Interface is a nice twist on that old story, particularly in the form of the vice-presidential candidate who is not afraid to speak her mind, and then goes even further when unexpected events push her into the role of our first black female president.

Peace (in the politics),


More on Mortenson, Three Cups and the World

My posts yesterday about Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceipt, and Greg Mortenson’s efforts to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, yielded plenty of interesting conversations in various places (Google+, Twitter and here). A few articles and posts also came my way as a result of my review and it worth sharing them out, too.

The first is a piece at Outside Magazine entitled Truth and Consequences, by Christopher Keyes. Keyes nicely balances the two narratives here — that of Mortenson the dreamer and that of Mortenson the scammer. He writes, “…our (the magazine) instinct has been that the truth about Mortenson may lie in the middle ground between the two narratives. There is no doubt that he embellished and, at times, entirely fabricated parts of his creation myth … What I’m not ready to buy is that Mortenson is a con artist who intentionally hoodwinked us all for profit.”

And I agree. Even with my anger over Mortenson’s fictionalized accounts and shoddy management, I don’t think he is a con artist out to get my students’ pennies. But that doesn’t let him off the hook.

The second piece is an interview with Scott Darsney, who was a hiker with Mortenson on the event that spurred the whole story forward, and he is someone that Krakauer interviewed for his investigative piece. Darsney now says that he was misquoted and/or his comments were taken out of context by Krakauer. Darsney concluded that, “Jon Krakauer is a respected and acclaimed author. He is a stickler for details and getting the facts straight, but from what I have read so far, the research needs to continue (as I’m sure it will). This is what Krakauer does, and why he can be a compelling author and journalist, and why I enjoy reading his books. But this one gives me pause. Greg Mortenson is a humanitarian first, an author second—also with a compelling story to tell—and Three Cups of Tea was a first-time process for Greg.”

I can’t quite tell is Darsney is covering his tail, or if he so inspired by the humanitarian potential, or if he truly believes that some things we can just let go because of the power of the larger story. But since Darsney’s voice is central to the debate, I was glad that he got his foot in the door here. It gives us yet another perspective.

The third piece is a post over at the Cooperative Catalyst, entitled Three Cups of Fiction, and while it is less a strike at Mortenson, it is a strike against the efforts that are at the center of Mortenson’s idea: that of building schools. Writer Carol Black notes that amid all of the backlash of Krakauer’s report, ” … the larger fiction which goes unquestioned is Mortenson’s romanticized portrayal of education as a panacea for all the world’s ills, a silver bullet that in one clean shot can end poverty, terrorism, and the oppression of girls and women around the world.”

Black really hits home with the high-mindedness that we Americans have about how to save the rest of the world, and she talks poignantly about trafficking of girls, backlash of anger against education, and the forced shift into schools that can upset the cultural balances in some communities. I need to think more about Black’s piece before I can make a solid reflection on what she is saying, but her piece is an interesting counterpoint to the overall discussion.

Peace (in the narratives),



Book Review: Three Cups of Deceit

Mental note: If Jon Krakauer is investigating you, you better get the heck out of Dodge.

Three Cups of Deceit, which Krakauer turned into a thin book of powerful investigative reporting after first publishing his article as an ebook, is a stunning, unflinching and devastating examination of activist Greg Mortenson and the experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan that led to his best-selling books  — Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools — and his efforts to build schools in that region of the world.

I had heard about Krakauer’s report, and the 60 Minutes interview, and I was interested in the unfolding saga because, like many other schools, we used the young reader’s version of Three Cups of Tea to teach our students about different cultures, about making a difference in the world, and about the use of non-fiction to examine a story of significance. Two years ago, all fifth and sixth graders in our school read the book, did projects about the book and Mortenson, and raised money for Pennies for Peace at a benefit concert at our school. A group of students even personally met with Mortenson during one of his talks and handed him a check for his project.

Now, what do I think? I’m pissed off, actually.

Krakauer rips apart Mortenson’s story from the very start, showing how much “fiction” went into this non-fiction narrative that he created with Three Cups of Tea. I never held Mortenson up as a hero or anything, but still … the number of inaccuracies in his account of his experience in the region (from how he was saved by a small village to how he chose Korphe for the first school to his account of being kidnapped, and more and more and more and more …) gives me a long pause on my role as a teacher introducing the story to my students. I can’t shake the feeling that Mortenson deceived me, and that I in turn deceived my students. Most disappointing is the trail of money through Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute and the lack of schools built that are actually now schools in operation, which was the whole point of Pennies for Peace and student activism.

It comes down to character, and Krakauer (who once donated tens of thousands of dollars to Mortenson’s efforts before smelling something fishy and launching his investigation) is someone I trust as a journalist. Mortenson, through his actions and silence on where the millions are going, is now very suspect (he better watch out for the IRS  because he has lot of cash to account for). Krakauer does make clear that Mortenson had good intentions all along — helping educate children, particularly girls, in a part of the world where Americans are often seen as the enemy — but his actions on translating the collective good will and charity from the American public, including young children, into actual change is now in question.

I feel let down by Mortenson and angry at him. And I wish I had that class of students from two years back again for a final talk about the newest developments. I would make it a lesson in fiction and fraud.

Peace (in the tea leaves),


Book Review: The Lemonade War

A big and crucial push for our school around literacy is more home-school connections around reading and writing. Families have to be involved in the literacy lives of their children. With that in mind, our school decided to give every students a book to read over this summer, with helpful hints to parents on the importance of reading aloud and suggestions for how to use the book at home. The committee chose one book for the entire school. We are reading The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies, a book I had heard about before but had never opened. (My son had read it and gave it a shrug when I asked if he liked it. A shrug means he read it but would not read it again, nor recommend it much to friends).

The story of The Lemonade War unfolds around two siblings — Evan and Jessie — as they compete against each other for earning the most money. These two are locked into a sibling rivalry that neither of them really likes. The problem is that Evan, going into fourth grade, is not a strong student while Jessie, a second grader, is highly intelligent, but has some asperger’s qualities about her. And she is jumping over third grade to enter fourth grade, in the same class as her older brother.

I liked the book fine enough, I guess, but the one thing that kept gnawing at me as I reading the book — and it was something that I could not shake loose — was the believability of the ages of Evan and Jessie. There is no way these two kids are that young. The dialogue, the inner thoughts, the actions — it all pointed to kids who are older by at least a year or two. I could not buy it and that annoyed me to no end as I was reading. I know plenty of second and fourth graders (even gifted ones, like Jessie) and I am sorry — Davies did not capture the kids I know here.

But, the theme of siblings fighting and then resolving a difficult problem — coupled with a broken marriage and friendship issues — is a worthy point of talk for a school-wide book. I sort of wish we had gone with something with more adventure and exciting plot, though, so that the summer reading didn’t feel like so much of a … eh … school assignment. I wonder how my boys did with this book? I guess I will find out in a few weeks when the new year begins.

Peace (in the war),