January Reviews

Honestly, I'm not really sure how I managed to read as much as I did this month- work has been crazy and my weekends pretty busy. Nonetheless, I was able to plow through seven books this month- maybe because January felt like the longest month since September...

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
503  pages
I actually enjoyed this second book of The Millennium Trilogy a lot more than the first. I liked the focus on Lizbeth's back story and was thankful there was less of the geneology sort of component as there was in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There was a considerable amount of action and the shifting perspectives made the book fly by. It wasn't high-quality writing by any means, and I'm not in a rush to read the third, but it was entertaining and at least slightly better than your average mystery.

Verdict: If you're a mystery reader I'm sure you'll like it (but have already read it). For the rest of us, this is quintessential airplane/doctor's office/beach reading material.

The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got There by Amanda Ripley
320 pages
I actually wrote a post on this already, but in a nutshell it's about the global education scene and how the US differs from those that are thriving. 

Verdict: As a teacher I thought it was fascinating, although I think others with a vested interest in education will also find it eye-opening.

The Longest Date: Life as a Wife by Cindy Chupack
224 pages
I received this to review, grudgingly agreeing since Chupack wrote for my beloved Sex and the City, and also for Modern Family. I wrote a review post for this as well, but, honestly, I thought this memoir about a woman who marries late and then has fertility issues a little lackluster. There were times where it was witty and funny, but I struggled to think about who in my life would really want to read it.

Verdict: Pass

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
416 pages
I really loved this simple novel about a couple that movies to Alaska in the 1920s to farm in the valleys, hoping to leave their past infertility troubles behind. One night they build a snowgirl and not long after a young woman starts appearing on their property, who they work hard to develop a bond with. She floats in and out of their lives for years, meanwhile the couple must come to terms with their damaged relationship and the struggles of living on a new frontier.

Verdict: I found the pacing, imagery, and subtle magical realism of this book highly enjoyable.

Ina May's Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin 
368 pages
I'm very flexible in terms of what I want my childbirthing experience to be like- I'm open to an epidural but would be willing to attempt to deliver naturally, depending on the situation (I'd like to avoid a C-section if possible). I tried to go into this book with an open mind but found Gaskin's agenda way too overpowering- I ended the book feeling like the implication behind the text was that if you don't deliver naturally, preferably with a midwife, you were a pansy that wasn't keeping your baby's best interest in mind.

Verdict: More than anything, I think this just cemented the idea in my head that I'll do whatever is right when the time comes. It also fueled my fire that I think it's super lame that so many women make childbirth into a competition- I don't care that you labored for four hours, or thirty, with or without an epidural. Hell, maybe I won't even divulge the details of my experience. 

The Awakening by Kate Chopin
128 pages
Oh, Edna. I actually just spent the day listening to my seniors discuss this novella, debating whether or not Edna is a spoiled brat or on the forefront of feminism. For those that haven't read this classic, it's about a woman who decides that perhaps marriage and motherhood isn't for her (despite her comfy lifestyle) and decides to pursue independence through art and other men. It was pretty scandalous, for the time.

Verdict: I've always enjoyed this book, but have found it to actually be a bit of a slog to get through. Nonetheless, like I told my students, it's a book you have to read through it's entirety and have time to reflect on to really appreciate.

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
480 pages
Despite it's length, I actually pushed through this novel about five Shanghai residents battling business, love and identity fairly fast. I'm a huge fan of authors that are able to start their characters off in separate worlds and then slowly bring them together in various degrees as the novel progresses. Aw focuses on a failed pop star, a failed business man, a successful entrepreneur, an up-and-coming businesswoman, and a new implant trying to get her feet wet by any means possible. It was striking to see the differences in culture, but how the underlying desires for security, wealth, attention, and comfort transcend continenents. 

Verdict: Definitely give it a shot- the writing and storytelling are the results of an obviously talented author.

 1959 pages

Ready anything good this month?

Bookish (and not so Bookish) Thoughts

Link up below! It's great seeing some new blogs pop up! 

1. I'm keeping track of the books I read on a Pinterest board, for some reason. To show off? To motivate myself visually?  I don't know, but for now it's fun.

2. I really love elbow patches- on myself, little kids, old crusty professors, it doesn't matter.


3. We had to buy poor Chomsky a slow-feed bowl bowl because in the last few months he's been scarfing down his food faster and faster (probably tied to the diet dog food... sorry buddy). I read Marley and Me, so you don't need to tell me twice about the dangers of bloat and labs. He's getting better at navigating it, but the first few feedings he was very frustrated and very slow. I'm thinking that the problem solving skills might do his cognitive level some good too.


4. So almost two weeks ago I had an issue with a red light camera (ie I made one of those snap decisions to turn right too late and got my picture taken). For those that don't have to deal with them in your city or state these little fuckers are expensive- $490 plus traffic school, of you choose (I may or may not have gotten one several years ago... in the same spot... that I'm never going near again). Anyway, the ticket came and the bail was blank, so I called the police department and left a message. By the time I had finished looking up the ticket online someone called me back and we started reviewing my driving record, the law, etc... At the end of the call he said he'd reduce my ticket... to zero. Thankful doesn't even begin to describe how I felt, considering I'm frantically trying to pay my car off before day care costs start up.

5. I've gotten into the habit of taking a half or so and dicking around on my computer as soon as I get home everyday, to relax. It occurred to me, miraculously, that I could instead use that time to read, so I've instituted a new "no technology" block when I get home and am so far finding it a much better way to transition from work to home.

6. I listen to this pregnancy podcast series on the way home from work (totally the same thing as going to classes, right?) and the other day I listened to an episode on hormones. The doctor mentioned that it takes men nearly a decade to experience the normal hormonal shift a non-pregnant woman experiences in a month. Insane!

7. I just got an Ulta coupon for 20% of my entire purchase that expires the day after payday. This is not good.

8. Speaking of blowing money, February is definitely the month to get back on track after recovering from the holidays in January. Prior to December I was paying my credit card off on a weekly basis and it worked wonderfully; I've still been paying it off every month, but it's so much more depressing to see that final total. I know I could just switch to cash, but I really like my points. February is also the month to get our taxes done, which always makes me incredibly nervous, despite the fact that I haven't owed anything to the IRS since I was about nineteen, we own a home, and both claim zero. But still.

9. I'm currently reading Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw, which was long-listed for the Booker, and am really enjoying it so far. I love when authors initially follow a short story sort of format and then slowly connect the characters together. 

10. An old high school friend posted this link on my Facebook the other day (if you're reading, Suzanne, you always send me the best stuff) to an article about a secret library at Grand Central Station. Very awesome. Please, someone in NYC go and report back. 

For Your Entertainment: Senior Quotes 2014

Every year we ask the seniors to provide a quote for the yearbook, as long as it's appropriate in terms of not being sexual, racist, offensive, or an inside joke (mostly for bullying reasons). While this year was not the most entertaining or appalling, there were some gems.

Advice from the (tentative) senior class of 2014:

Several of them want you to remember Tupac:


"Reality is not wrong, dreams are for reals."

They want us to feel motivated:

 "The righteous man falls down seven times and stands up eight."

They want us to put work off for as long as possible:


"Due tomorrow. Do tomorrow."

They want us to give in to our vanity:

"A selfie a day keeps the haters away."

They want us to realize senior quotes are maybe a little lame:

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit"- Oscar Wilde

They want to give us advice about love:

 "Never chase anyone. A person who appreciates you will walk with you."

They want to slip through loopholes on the "no sexual connotation" clause:

 "That's what"- She

They want us to stay away from the Devil:

"Burn rubber, not your soul."

They want us to consider the importance of morning wood (this did not go in):

 "Waking up is the second hardest thing in the morning." 

What was your senior quote? Do you even remember?

A Bookish Baby Wishlist

Lately I've been focused on essentials for the new baby- a place to sleep, ways to eat, clothes to wear. Books for the new little guy have temporarily slipped to the back burner, but, not worry, I've had my eye on a few.

Oldies But Goodies

We have Where the Wild Things Are, but I still had to include it. 

New Kids on the Block 

Any old or new favorites to add to my growing list?

Gone Girl- My Severly Tardy and Brief Critique

So, two years, or whatever, too late, I'm weighing in on Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I listened to it on Audible while walking the dogs last month, since I refused to buy a copy and read it- I had a hunch it may not be something I'd want to add to my collection. And I was right.

First, I will be kind and complimentary (this should take roughly ten seconds). 

It is entertaining on some level, when it's not annoying as hell. Oh, and I like the name Gillian.

I feel like everyone in this world liked this book more than I did, so now let's see how many followers I can lose. 

The Writing
My first complaint, as is the case with most mysteries, is that the writing is completely mediocre. In actuality this probably isn't a legitimate complaint, since it's not exactly billed as a literary read. The dialogue was frequently forced and unnatural, especially at the end- nearly comical at times.

The Characters
The characters were under-developed, considering the length of the novel (she could have done a lot more). I don't mind books with unlikable characters, but I have to still be interested and invested in their progress and motivations, which I was not (especially as the book progressed; I had an open mind in the beginning, before things started getting ridiculous). The only character that I found slightly intriguing was Tanner Bolt, Nick's lawyer.

The Absurdity 
This is tied into the characters, but I found the characters ridiculously stupid at times. The mental deficiency at times was baffling. The plot also becomes increasingly absurd as it unfolds. Books don't necessarily have to be realistic (hello! I like Harry Potter!), but there has to be some sort of plausibility in a novel that's obviously taking itself seriously. The premeditation on Amy's part is just way too far-fetched. I know she's a psychopath, but I just can't believe a real person would be that capable of half the things she did. I just kept thinking, verbatim, "Who the fuck does that?"

The Ending (snob spoiler alert)
What the hell? First of all, are you telling me someone with the supposed self-control and discipline to hurt herself, keep false diaries for months, and totally let herself go is going to give into Desi that quickly? And Nick, not manning up and handling the situation? Oh, and the pregnancy? It's just completely ludicrous. 

The Movie
I have a theory that the better the book the worse the movie, and vice versa. That being said, I have some faith that David Fincher and Ben Affleck will salvage something here. 

Love it? Hate it? Refusing to read it?

Bookish (and not so Bookish) Thoughts

Link up below!
1. Sunday morning I was out walking with my dogs and I came across a wallet laying in the middle of the street. I picked it up and saw that it was packed full with cash, high school ID cards, movie tickets, and a provisional driver's license. Knowing how freaked out one of my students would be (or even myself), I hopped in my car and drove the fifteen minutes to the kid's house- his dad was floored that I'd return it, which I was a little sad. Coincidentally, I think I got a red light ticket on Friday, so I'm hoping karma balances things out.

2. I'm really bad at working with 99% of people- the three hour meeting I just attended once again confirmed this. I just really, really prefer to get things done my own way, on my own terms. I wish I could say I'm working on it, but I'm not. 

3. I went to an awesome discount fabric store in Orange County this weekend- I'm talking aisles and aisles of material (I was buying supplies for burp cloths and receiving blankets). Unfortunately, the trip was a little tainted because as I pulled up I saw a man walking his ferret outside. Long story short, eight or so years ago I had a horrible dream about being attacked by an Albino Sea Panda, which looked exactly like a ferret. I'm traumatized to this day.

4. Speaking of dreams, I had a dream over the weekend that my baby delivered full term as small as Thumbelina. I kept him in a sock and lost him in his baby carrier contraption.

5. The Awakening is a seriously short book but also such a long read. I definitely don't have a problem with it, and appreciate them themes, but damn are those pages long.

6. Edna from The Awakening and Sylvia Plath have some interesting similarities, depending on your interpretation of Edna's actions.

7. For the last two weekends I have sat in bars drinking non-alcoholic drinks, only to watch the team I wanted to win (the 49ers) get beat this week. While I don't necessarily understand the nitty-gritty rules, I do actually like the game.

8. Chase sent me a breakdown of all my 2013 charges. It was really, really interesting, and I have to say that I don't feel like I'm one of those people that had their eyes opened by looking at it. I did really enjoy looking at all the categories and seeing how my spending shifted month to month (like with gas- you'd think it go down in the summer when I'm not working, but it didn't at all).

9. Our work book club met for the third time last week and we had a total of five people there, counting myself. Our department is nearly 20 people. We've started asking outsiders to join, so hopefully we'll see a boost in participation. We're meeting again in March to discuss Five Days at Memorial, which I've actually been wanting to read anyway. We're hoping that nonfiction will draw some newbies in.

10. Work has been all-consuming lately, both in terms of my time and thoughts. I'm on a committee that met last night, I'm doing these 1:1 testing commentaries with my seniors this month, I'm dying over yearbook deadlines, trying to plan lessons, working on getting everything in for my AP and IB kids before they test, and grade million of papers (and the semester just started). In a few weeks I'm giving up my prep period every day for a month in order to help kids at risk for failing the high school exit exam (this is a result of extra pay, not altruism). If I had a day off to just work for ten hours or so I could make a dent, but that's not happening (unless I give up a whole Sunday). Part of my thrives under this sort of pressure, but part of me is just plain tired too.

Top Ten Tuesday- If Found....

I had a hard time at first with this week's TTT topic, a wishlist of book topics, since I just know that there really is a book centered around pretty much anything. There has to be! There's only sixty kajillion books in the world. So I suppose this is more of a list of topics I need to try harder to look for.

1. Novels Centered Around Public Schools: Obviously this is a bias for me, but I think teaching staffs are such microcosms- there are people from such diverse backgrounds. This is definitely an area I'd liked to explore more of in my own personal writing.

2. Stories Set in Restaurants: Again, such possibilities in terms of diverse employees! I worked in a few during college and always felt like I was living some weird sociological experiment. Also,  getting a business off the ground is tough work, and most fail- I worked at a place called Sharky's Crab Shack one summer that tried desperately but failed a few months after I went back to work.

3. Novels Featuring Unique Careers: Blimp pilots, anyone?

4. A Literary Choose-Your-Own Adventure Story: Who didn't love those growing up? What a challenge it would be for an author to create one of literary merit.

5. A Plot About Someone Who Really is Starting Over: Once in awhile a book will end at that moment where the main character is leaving to start over- they're abandoning their troubles, their homes, their people. Then what? How does one completely rebuild?

6. Books About Hippies: I love the sixties- I'd like to think that I would have been some bra-burning, acid-tripping, free-loving, flowers-in-my-hair kind of girl. Since I'm not doing any of those things, I'd love to read about people who are. 

7. A Non-Fiction Text that Survey Religion: Sometimes I confuse Buddhism and Hinduism. I'd love for someone to give me a solid, up-to-date, easy to understand, interesting, text on world religions (pictures would be nice).

8. Road Trippin'- I'd love more literary road trip stories in places that are unexpected- through Peru or Russia or somewhere other than the United States. 

9. Behind-the-Scenes Settings- I love reading about what happens behind the scenes. Maybe of a sports team? The trading floor of Wall Street? The White House? The Sydney Opera House? 

10. Experiments with the Physicality of Books- Visual Editions has done an awesome job with this- making the book more than just words, but an experience. I'd love to see more.

Have anything (good) to recommend that fits any of these categories? What would you like to see more of?

Document This- Wine and Elephants

Ever since watching Blackfish a few weeks ago, my interest in documentaries has flared once again. Here are two that I've watched since then: 
99 minutes
What made me want to watch a documentary about wine when I've been sober for over five months is beyond me (I think I heard it mentioned on Facebook). Anyway, this story follow four men as they buckle down to study for the master sommelier test, which is only offered once a year. In order to prepare they have to to study for the theory, tasting, and service portions, which basically means they have to know everything, about every wine, everywhere. They spend countless hours studying from flashcards, sampling, and worrying. The documentary interviews their wives/girlfriends to examine how it changes their personal lives (they stop having ones) and watch the dynamics of the friends change as the big day approaches. The documentary ends with the testing process, showing who joins a very elite groups of Americans and who does not.

Verdict: I think anyone, whether they're into wine of not (I actually much prefer other types of drinks, but do enjoy a glass every once in awhile... when I'm not pregnant), will enjoy this documentary. It's not about the wine- it's about struggle, determination, and passion.

One Lucky Elephant
82 minutes
This documentary centers around Flora, a circus elephant whose owner decides that he made a mistake purchasing her nearly twenties years prior. Flora starts
acting a bit more obstinate and is obviously bored of performing. Her owner, who sincerely does love her, starts searching for a new home for her, first hoping that a safari group in Africa would be a good match. That falls through, so he ends up putting her in a zoo, where she unfortunately attacks a worker. He then must keep pursuing other avenues to find her the right home.

Verdict: I appreciated the sentiment behind this documentary- a man trying to do his animal right. It was a little anti-climactic, though, and I think it could have worked a little harder to raise awareness to the issues with circuses and other situations where animals are held in captivity. 

Bookish (and not so Bookish) Thoughts

Link up below! [One again, the Linky isn't working on my end- last week it magically appeared. If it does not, please just leave a comment in the link and rest-assured that I will HOUND the Linky people until they get this worked out. I am so sorry- I really love reading your Thoughts so it bugs the hell out of me when this happens. Thanks and sorry!]

1. My husband and I decided to decorate our baby's nursery in a Where the Wild Things Are theme and I found these great Storybook blocks on Etsy- they have tons of other children's books as well (she'll also do custom orders, so I plan having the kid's name added).

[Storybook Blocks via Etsy]

2. I received my "2013 Year in Review" that I talked about a few weeks ago a week early. I loved the way it turned out and had a fun going through all the old memories. I had only two minor complaints. The first was that some of the pictures I used from Instagram didn't look quite right- I think it was just a particular filter, because 90% of them were totally fine. The only other tiny drawback was that I remembered the paper being a little thicker, but that might just be because of what I'm used to advising yearbook. All in all I think I'm a convert- no more ordering massive stacks of prints each year.

3. I've come to the conclusion that I do my best and worst thinking in the car. Typically my way to worst is the best- I run through what I need to get done when I get to work and come up with new ideas for how to deliver content. They way home is far less productive and often filled with more stressful thoughts. 

4. I ended up doing a baby registry after all, even though I'm not having a shower. I really debated because I don't want people to think we're just doing it to receive gifts- my real motivation is the completion discount and another current promotion that Babies R Us is running this month (10% of what is spent on your registry ends up in a gift card a month or two after your due date). I did most of it online and ventured into the store (shudders) to test-drive a stroller. I'm glad it's basically done!

[I didn't register for this $800+ stroller but am very impressed that it calculates speed, self charges, power folds, has lights, and cooks dinner for you]

5. This week is incredibly busy at work, as I've started doing something called IOCs with my IB seniors. Basically, for the next four weeks I'm out of my classroom 1-3 days a week doing extended one-on-one commentaries with the kids. They sit for twenty minutes and analyze one of the 20+ Sylvia Plath poems we've studied. Then, they come and sit in a room with me (and a tape recorder) and give an eight minute commentary on it. I then follow up with questions for two minutes, and then we have a ten minute conversation on either Macbeth or Running in the Family. It's intense. And it's already resulting in me getting even further behind. 

6. Speaking of ways to get behind at work, there's been another huge scholarship rush the last week, meaning letters of rec and essays that need to be looked at. One in particular is driving me crazy for multiple reasons- the Gates Millenium Scholarship. It's an incredible opportunity, but the application process requires 8 essays and a pretty extensive letter. I'm also a little bit perturbed it's not open to white kids (it's run in conjunction with the United Negro Scholarship, so basically any ethnic "minority" can apply, even if that "minority" is the majority on your campus). I definitely have a couple of Caucasian kids that are in need and deserving. I would never decline helping those that qualify, but it does rub me the wrong way a little bit.

7. Apparently there was an earthquake a half an hour or so north of where I live last night. It was a 4.4, which isn't huge enough to cause damage but definitely a shaker. I didn't feel it, but it does freak me out... slightly. I know all geographic locations have their dangers- some hurricanes, some twisters, some deep freezes, and some earthquakes. At least weather-related catastrophes can be predicted for the most part, though, allowing at least a little precaution. Earthquakes just happen. I don't like it.

8. I made myself a deal last weekend: if I have a healthy week (as in at least 10,000 steps a day or less steps but a yoga class or solid indoor bike ride, plus keeping my calories on target) I can make a Boston Cream Pie this weekend. So far, so good. Don't worry, I don't have massive eating issues- I'm just trying to keep my weight "in the window" and my body really loves to pack on the pounds if I let it.

9. Last week I used the Mac + Cheese cookbook to attempt "Macaroni and Cheese Pancakes" and pretty much failed (they totally fell apart in the skillet). I did use the Pizza Dough: 100 Delicious, Unexpected Recipes to make these little pizza spirals with more success, though.

10. Tomorrow is Cordie's birthday- she's going to be 9 years old. I'm going to make her a batch of banana muffins (her favorite) and take her to the park this weekend to play with her frisbee without Chomsky. 

Forgetting What I Read: A Justification


I've started this post several times and can never quite seem to finish it, perhaps because it's a bit of a sore subject and my thoughts are all over the place on the subject. I've decided that with a small dose of biology (which will be fairly basic and may possibly contain errors... so don't quote me), some common sense, and over-dramatics I might have a little more luck.

Here it goes.

I don't remember the specific details of what I read for very long. It's shameful and frustrating. I'd say within a few weeks of reading a book I start forgetting things like names and other minor details. Within a month or two smaller plot elements are gone. A few months later all that remains is the big ideas, plus a few other aspects I'll mention later. Sometimes aspects vanish faster, sometimes slower.

Luckily, this affliction is fairly common- Ian Crouch wrote about it last year in the New Yorker, as have many others. Nonetheless, as someone who prides themselves in being well-read it's a bit of an issue of intellectual vanity, especially when boasting to someone that you've read a book, loved it, and then having to admit that you can't even remember the main character's first name. 

But again, it's okay. It's natural. It happens to the best of us.

And here's why:

1. When I (or you) read, the memory is stored in our frontal lobe; in order for it to become more permanent it needs to move to other areas of the brain, depending on the type of memory (there are different parts that hold memories relating to the procedural act of reading, the linguistic component, and the emotional side).

2. In order for things to transfer from short-term to long-term storage you have to work with, or rehearse, the actual memory- you can't just read page after page, finish a book and move on to the next one.

3. This idea of rehearsal means you're just accessing, manipulating, or applying the content, multiple times, over an extended period of time. One of my favorite books, and one I truly do remember a great deal of, is Crime and Punishment, from high school. I thank the monster interactive notebook I created for this- activity after activity went into this thing, forcing me to analyze deeply over the course of probably six to eight weeks (I just found it and the teacher wrote "this is either a labor of love or a love of labor"). I'm also much more likely to remember books I teach, discuss at book club, blog more extensively about, take notes on, or watch as movies (which often leads to dialogue or writing). It's just common sense that the more we're exposed to something the longer we retain the information. 

[lather. rinse. repeat.]

4. I read a lot. I talk a lot. I think a lot. I do a lot. If things aren't put into the long-term bank they get pushed aside for new information. Think in terms of a computer- if you have a million windows open on your browser things start slowing down.The logical solution is to exit out of a few sites, prioritizing the important windows. Brains work the same way; when we have a lot going on it selects what to keep active and what to let slip a way. As much as I may love a book, after a week or two of reading it new things are going to take precedence (including whatever book I pick up next). For the record, the implications this has in terms of teaching students are enormous.

But there are things that I do remember.

I always, without a doubt, remember if I like a book or not, and what sort of emotional response I had to it. This is not surprising, as emotion and personal connections can actually help strengthen memory. 

For some reason I can generally comment on the writing style, probably because my brain starts automatically making connections between other authors I have read or books I've already read by the same author.

I can recall the bigger aspects, like what the book is about and where it's set. 

And now I feel better. And you can too.
 Are you a forgetter? Or just me?



Spring Syllabus

This semester's syllabus is a fairly dense one, in terms of what my IB seniors are reading. I'm a little apprehensive about what the students will think, since we've already had a lot of heavy reading this year. Oh well! Comes with the territory. And they're tested on all four novels on their in May, so they can't afford to slack off. Our mission:

IB HL 2 English
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
I actually think this will be the easiest of the four, which was strategic since I'll be out of the classroom 2-3 days a week for the next four weeks (I have to sit down with each testing kid and listen to them give a ten minute commentary on a poem and then have a ten minute discussion with them). Essentially they'll be teaching the bulk of this to themselves, which I think is doable in terms of complexity. At least I hope.

The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I must confess that this really isn't my favorite book (although I did love Easy A...), or at least it wasn't when I read it in high school. I'm anticipating that my students will find the language challenging, the morality old-fashioned, and the pacing a little slow. 

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
While I didn't love this book either when I read it in high school (and college? I don't remember) I did appreciate it on a literary level. I'm looking forward to looking at it historically and racially as well. If I remember correctly, this book is digested best in smaller chunks, so hopefully our timing will permit that.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Confession: I've never read this. I've always meant to, but it's just one that fell through the cracks. Last year, after reading Americanah and Ghana Must Go I started developing a bit of an interest in African works, so I have high hopes (at least personally) for this one.

AP Language
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
This is generally a fairly easy read and will be taught as a way to do a quick unit on humor before the AP test (AP language is primarily nonfiction/rhetoric) and as a bit of a bridge into the following year's IB curriculum, which is more literature based. It will also be a perfect book to leave assignments for when I'm out on maternity leave. 

Read any of these? Thoughts? What was you favorite/least favorite book read in high school?

Bookish (and not so Bookish) Thoughts

Link up below! (ETA: I apologize if the linky isn't working; I have a ticket in with the places that runs it, so hopefully they can fix it. For now, though, pleaseeeee just leave a comment with a link to your blog! So sorry!)

Disclaimer- This week baby and pregnancy related- I did one a little over two months ago, so I decided it was time for an update. And by "it was time" I mean I'm just being self-indulgent. Humor me. 

1. So far things are moving right along. I'm 23 weeks (or a little over five months), but am measuring 10 days ahead (I know my dates are right, so doctor says he's just a big baby, at this point at least), so I'm hoping that he slows down a tad since his due date right now is pretty much perfect work-wise. I try to get in 30-60 minutes of walking, bike riding, or yoga at least five times a day and am just now starting to obviously show. In fact, yesterday was the first time someone flat out asked me if I was pregnant, judging on my protruding belly.

2. Speaking of the growing midsection, it's fascinating how people assume that once you're pregnant, and they know, it's absolutely fine to start commenting, to your face, on your size (so many commas...).

3. Confession: I'm not really enjoying being pregnant. I'm excited about the outcome and have gotten used to the movement (in fact it's quite reassuring now), but I'm not one of those women that gushes about how magical it is. To me, it's a means to an end. I really, really hate putting on weight and buying stupid maternity clothes, I'm having a hard time scaling back the workouts I do, I miss having a few drinks on the weekend, and the need to pee between almost every single class period during the day has gotten old. Granted these are all mild, typical complaints- I don't have any health problems or anything crazy. I guess I should just be thankful that I'm not an elephant. 


4. Apparently others think that it suits me, because a few students have told me that I've gotten nicer since I'm pregnant. What the fuck? Unacceptable. I told them to watch out, that this was the calm before the storm and about 10 pounds from now I was going to turn into a beast. In reality, the niceness is coming from the fact that I'm sympathetic to being an IB senior- they're stressed about the IB requirements, applying to college, financial aid, etc... I'm already plotting how I'll change this around next week.

5. I've decided to not take any birthing or baby classes. So many of my friends have told me that all the practice and info goes out the window, so I'm going to save myself the time, money, and irritation. And honestly, my husband and I are way to condescending and roll our eyes way to often to sit through the Bradley Method or Lamaze or Hypnobirthing. 

6. I'm so thankful I'm not having twins. I just can't imagine.

7. I don't plan on having a shower, so I've been debating about a registry. I think I've decided to go for it, but more for the completion discount they give you after your shower date. Unfortunately, this means that I'm going to have to go to Babies R Us... for the first time in my life. I have a feeling that it's going to end up fitting into the horrible category that Michael's, Costco, and Home Depot fall into.

8. I really haven't warmed up to the idea of buying much yet. I pick up a few things here or there on clearance when I take my weekly trip to Target, but we haven't purchased anything major. I know what I want, or at least am pretty sure, I'm just stalling/being cheap. We do know the theme of the nursery and I am accepting that we're very picky about the decor. It's easier to just wait and not make any decisions right now.

9. I'm very thankful that I haven't received a lot of unsolicited advice yet. My close friends know me well and only seem to go there when I bring it up or outright ask. People do like to give me the "just you wait" comments in regards to me free time, sleep, and wallet. I understand that they're basically just hazing me for the fun club of parenthood, but I'm pretty realistic. I know that things will change and that I won't have as much time to myself, shut eye time, or spare change. I also know that my husband and I respect each others' hobbies and interests and will work together to make sure that neither of us feel like a complete slave to the kid. Plus the dogs can help out (ala Peter Pan).

10. I know people still don't think I'm appropriately excited- crap, after reading numbers 1-9 I'm sure that's probably the consensus here too. The truth is is that I'm very excited, I'm just very practical and know that a lot has to be done in the next four months both at work (especially at work) and home before we're good to go. Plus, I don't gush and coo and squeal- it's not my style.

Except at puppies. But let's face it, they're cuter than 99% of newborns anyway.

Nonfiction Nagging- The Smartest Kids in the World

Let me make this review short and straight to the point: American kids are mediocre, the American government spends too much on our classrooms, American teachers aren't educated enough, and America puts too much emphasis on diversity. The end.

No? Fine. Let's back up. 

I really, really, really don't make it a habit to read "work" book at home for fun- separation of church and state and whatnot. I happened to see The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley on a couple of year end lists and was intrigued after reading the synopsis. Basically, after seeing global test results in reading and math from the PISA test, she decided to investigate why the US consistently ranks average while we throw the most amount of money at the problem (sort of like the rich parents that are constantly hiring tutors, scheduling lessons, and buying fancy gadget for their basic kid). As part of her investigation she worked with three high school students that went abroad to South Korea, Poland, and Finland, all countries with much higher scores and vast improvements. 

While this books is relatively short at 200 pages, plus notes, it covered a great deal. Here's some of the parts that stood out to me:

Teacher Recruitment
The US: This is a big deal to me, since I know that I went through a lackluster teaching program- the sad thing is that there are far, far worse out there. The US has very lax standards for teaching- many campuses require low test scores and grades to be accepted (I think where I went you had to have a 2.5- give me a break!). Teaching is not seen as a respected profession, both in terms of the salary (in comparison to how much work is put in and the years of education required) and the public's perception (although, which came first? Poor school performances or poor opinions?). Also an issue is that the US trains thousands of teachers more than they need- teachers are not a hot commodity.

High-Scoring Countries: In places like Finland and Poland it is difficult to become a teacher- the government controls what schools are allowed to have preparation programs and the bar is set much higher. Depending on the country, teachers are paid somewhat more than the US, both in terms of money and respect.

This is also, in both cases, the same for administration. 

Money and Technology
The US: The US spends more than any other country per pupil and has worked feverishly during the last decade to bring technology into the classroom. My classroom alone has a SMARTBoard, ELMO, projector, teacher desktop, teacher laptop, teacher iPad (because I'm on the leadership team), a wireless router, and several yearbook laptops. We are a low income school, though, which often means more funding.   

High-Scoring Countries: These countries spend less than the US and haven't gotten crazy with technology- most have just the basics.

Teacher Autonomy
The US: This really varies by district, and sometimes site, but for the most part teachers are not "turned loose" to do what is needed for their students. There are pacing guides, required curriculum, standards, local testing, state testing, and various other opportunities to "guide" teachers. Interestingly, if we recruited more efficiently, teachers may not need their hands held quite as much.

High-Scoring Countries: Many countries have gone through dramatic educational revolutions in the last few decades that have resulted in more trust placed on teachers. It's been a gradual process and has been met with a lot of controversy, but at some of the best schools the teachers are truly the experts.

Parental Involvement
The US: Here we see a variety of parental involvement- parents are expected to go to conferences, be on booster committees, chaperone field trips, sit on committees, etc... Parents have also become their students' cheerleaders, a step beyond advocates. They're fearful of hurting their kid's feelings and damaging their self-esteem, so instead they support everything they do and are quick to turn on teachers. Or they're completely oblivious Granted, this isn't every parent out there, but it is a substantial amount. 

High-Scoring Countries: Parents are more authoritative (the combination of permissive and authoritarian), especially in European countries (the South Korean setting she looked at portrayed parents that were a bit more overbearing). Parents are also not as involved in schools, which sounds negative, but therefore requires that the students conduct themselves more responsibly (it's more like college). 

The US: Schools don't necessarily focus on rigor, but instead moving kids through the system. Content isn't challenging, memorization is encouraged, and real-world applications aren't widespread. High school exit exams are simple, tests are multiple-choice based, review is aplenty, and reading materials are given at a lower level. Basically, expectations are low. Hopefully things will start changing with a wider implementation of Common Core, but that's yet to be determined. 

High-Scoring Countries: Other places around the world introduce concepts a few years ahead of the US and are not taught as long. Students clearly see that what they learn in high school will directly impact them as collegiate and professional adults. Unlike the US, school really is a challenge, even at the "basic" level.

Other things mentioned:
- Diversity/race/immigration: The US is so willing to label and box up these kids into compartments
- Tracking: It might be more beneficial to do this later (self-fulfilling prophecy and all that)
- Extracurricular Activities: They're great, but do they detract from the purpose of school?
- Amount of time spent in school: High-scoring countries have seen success with both excessive amounts of time studying and the same as the US.
- Student independence: Our kids coddled too much here? 

Final Thoughts
This book isn't perfect and I didn't agree with all of it, nor all of her collection methods, but it did shed a great deal of light on global education for me. I think this would be a great read for those involved in the field and would lead to some really fantastic discussions. The real question now is, though, how do we fix it?

Sponsored Post: The Longest Date- Life as a Wife

Disclaimer #1: The nice folks at Penguin sent me a review copy for an honest opinion.

Disclaimer #2: I don't typically read books like this, but the author, Cindy Chupack wrote for (I think) five years on Sex and the City and now works on Modern Family, both shows I adore. Plus the lady at Penguin assured me it would be a short read, which it was. 

The Longest Date- Life as a Wife by Cindy Chupack chronicles her first five years married, after forty years of being a single woman. The book is set up into quick little chapters that describe an event, period, or issue that has been some sort of marker, milestone, or metaphor for her time thus far in marriage (elaborate dinner parties help her relax more and work with her husband, getting a dog symbolizes her need to realize her home is no longer just hers, the straight-up heartache of miscarriage, and so on and so forth). 

The writing itself was witty and often humorous, Chupack sharing honest flaws in herself and marriage. Let's face it- I could hear a little Carrie Bradshaw in there, and I liked it. The end was a bit too sentimental for my liking, though, and I thought the tone strayed a bit from the one that she had maintained previously.

A large portion related to her and her husband's quest to have a baby- she was older and they tried pretty much everything from acupuncture to IVF to HGC shots (I'm very glad that I'm reading this book now and not twelve or eighteen months ago...). Eventually the couple to pursue alternate methods, chronicled by both Chupack and her husband. 

On one hand, I finished the book appreciating the message that marriage is hard and requires work, compromise, honesty, and love. But on the other, I wasn't sure if her story really warranted a book. Her story isn't that unique- thousands of women marry late in life and struggle to get pregnant. I wasn't particularly moved, inspired, or enlightened either. Somewhat entertained, yes, but never moved to laughter or tears.

I've been wracking my head trying to find the right audience for this book. Bridal showers or weddings? So they can start worrying about their fertility? Women who are in their mid-thirties tired of dating? So they can worry about never getting married and having kids? Women who are married and have kids? So they're forced to be thankful they were able to. Perhaps fans of the shows she's worked on? SJP was a fan, after all...

My 2013 Photo Book

Growing up one of my favorite things to do was look at our family photo albums that may mom did a decent job of keeping up-to-date. Starting when I was fifteen or sixteen I started to keep my own, back in the day where you actually had to take film in and get it developed. I continued this habit up until the end of last year- religiously having my photos printed from my digital camera and filling them in albums along with written blurbs. I loved having a record of what I did, but it had gotten to the point where it was a bit of a pain in the ass. 

[While I do love white space, there are some busier pages]

This year I decided to go an alternate route and use Mixbook, my preferred photo book company of choice. I've used Kodak, Shutterfly, and Snapfish before, but I really prefer the freedom that Mixbook provides in terms of changing fonts, colors, backgrounds, layouts (or not even using one of theirs), and sizes (it's incredibly similar to the yearbook company's program at school). They're product is high quality and their prices competitive (and they always have coupon codes). Their customer service is great, they deliver on time, and the program is user-friendly. Unfortunately, they do not pay me to say this.

[a bit more simple]

I started the project several months ago, with the hope that I would catch up and then stay on track every month. It didn't happen. Instead, I got through April and then stopped. So this month while on Christmas break I've spent hours downloading pictures off my phone and computer onto the site and creating pages for months May-December. I'm happy to say that today I finished December and the many necessary edits. 

[I try to let the pictures do the talking, but sometimes you need words!]

While everyone has their own style and technique, here are a few things that worked for me:

- I didn't create rules in terms of how many pages each month could or could not be; some months were slow and only needed three pages, while some were jam-packed with fun and needed eight or ten.

- I tried to include smaller, more ordinary moments in addition to the more obvious events and milestones.

- I utilized my yearbook adviser training and aimed for consistency and plenty of white space. The consistency came in terms of things like font type and size, a loose font color scheme for each month, and the style of the picture formatting. White space is personal preference- I like pages to be clean and crisp, rather than heavy with digital stickers and colored backgrounds (this is one of my issues with scrapbooking, besides the time and money- so many spreads are so busy). 

- I put cost aside, which is very difficult for me. I knew that this was not going to be cheap; I wanted a 12x12 book, which start at $49 for 20 pages. After all was said and done, my book ended up being 73 pages, with each additional page after 20 costing $1.25. Luckily they were running a 40% off coupon when I submitted, so my $116 dollar book was reduced to $69 (plus shipping and tax). On the bright side, I didn't have to spend any money printing photos or buying albums this year, so things come close to evening out in the end.

- I used their templates (and changed them as needed) and created my own as well. 

- I wrote some copy, but tried not to go overboard (I do love me some words, though).

- I accept the fact that when it arrives there are going to be a few errors. I probably could have asked my editor/writer husband to go over it, but was too impatient to order it. 

So now, since I of course chose the cheapest shipping, have to wait a few weeks to see the finished outcome. I'm so excited and hope that this ends up being great enough to take the place of my old method of photo-keeping.