Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Prisoner of Tehran

Prisoner of Tehran: A MemoirPrisoner of Tehran: A Memoir by Marina Nemat

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat was my second “Canada Reads 2012” book. When reviewing these books, I ask myself: Should this one win the Canada Reads contest?

Marina Nemat does not tell about her life in Canada; Prisoner of Tehran is a very personal account of her arrest at 16 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and subsequent escape a few years later.

The difference between this book and other political persecution stories is that Marina is saved by one of her captors. Ali falls in love with Marina after his first interrogation of her. How about that for love at first sight? Despite being kind to her, he threatens to harm her family and boyfriend if she does not accept his offer of marriage. Marriage will also allow her to leave prison.

Nemat’s narration is straightforward and easy to read, but it is also cool and makes me speculate about what is happening beneath that detached surface. The images of snow reflect the containment of grief and the reluctant appearance of angels.

There are some other striking images that show despair that cannot be controlled. For example, Marina’s friend, Sarah, while under arrest in Evin prison and just after hearing about the execution of her brother is compelled to write her memories all over her body and the walls of her cell. Only her back is left empty of words because she cannot reach back there.

As well, the book reveals the complexity of the Iranian Revolution. I love it when I learn something new. For example, I didn’t know about the lives of practising Christians in Iran. Also, the portrayal of Ali’s family is contradictory and human. They are so lovely. I wonder how Nemat feels about them, especially contrasted with her own emotionally removed family.

I think Prisoner of Tehran will help people who were born in Canada, understand and appreciate what others have gone through in order to get here. I often tweet quotes that resonate with me. The one from Prisoner of Tehran that was retweeted the most was: “I liked the name ‘Canada’—it sounded far away and very cold but peaceful.” The number of retweets shows that Canadians do want their country to be seen as a safe harbour. On the other hand, my experience with ESL students demonstrates that many people are intolerant and ignorant of what our new immigrants have gone and are going through.

Prisoner of Tehran is an important book because it tells just one of the stories that Canadian immigrants carry with them.

Perhaps, then, Prisoner of Tehran should be the winner of Canada Reads 2012.

View all my reviews

Monday, 19 December 2011

On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock

On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian RockOn a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock by Dave Bidini

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On a Cold Road is the first book on my list for Canada Reads 2012. The point of Canada Reads is to find the most quintessentially Canadian book for the year to recommend to all Canadians to read.

On a Cold Road delivers what the subtitle says: tales of adventure in Canadian rock by documenting the Rheostatics as they open for the Tragically Hip on a cross Canada tour. Interspersed with Bidini’s poetic expressions of band life, are interviews with the founders of Canadian rock. The book begins quietly dealing with the troubles of the music business, travelling on desolate country roads and playing in high school auditoriums, before building up to the debauchery of groupies and of Yonge Street, playing the hallowed ground of Maple Leaf Gardens, and detailing the end: band implosions. The book takes the reader on quite a tour.

As well, Bidini’s prose is exquisite. In a blizzard, wind “knuckles the roof” of their touring van, and Vancouver is described as a “kiss from a ponytailed girl”. The book is also a love letter to Canada. From experiencing “skin-peeling” prairie cold in playing small towns, to wild nights in Hamilton, the band “got to know Canada way more than [they] ever wanted to”. Through the music, Canada becomes a place “waiting to be explored”.

This book gave me a chance to relive my youth: These were the bands and songs that were playing on the radio when I was in high school and university.

I also felt a different sense of nostalgia while reading the book: The book describes a Canada that used to exist: a country where we citizens had much more in common. All the kids of a certain age listened to the same music. I don’t know if that’s true anymore.

Or at least it felt that way. This was the Canada I knew when I left in the mid 90s to live in Europe. Canada was not the same place when I returned. Canadians had suddenly become diverse without a common sense of self. I didn’t know what Canadians shared anymore.

Also, I initially found the transfer from Bidini’s narrative to the interviews jarring. I needed to YouTube videos of the singers and bands mentioned to remind me of who they were. Certainly they created great songs. Unfortunately, I haven’t remembered their names. Also, until now, I never knew some of these guys/gals were Canadian.

So a combination of the book being set in a Canada Past, and the fact that the musicians are no longer household names made this book feel dated.

Would On A Cold Road then be the ideal book for all Canadians to read this year?

View all my reviews

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or LessHow to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In cinematic fashion, Sarah Glidden tells of what she learned during her Birthright trip to Israel. Upon departure, she thought she understood the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, some people on the tour dubbed her the “self-hating Jew”.

Even though the character of Sarah learns that things may not be quite as they seem, I found that there wasn’t a whole lot of new information. We do learn, via examples such as Masada and Frank the Republican, that there may be more than one version of a story/history. Also, in the end, despite Glidden’s best intentions, we never get to witness the Palestinian side of the conflict. Both Glidden and the reader are scared off.

I do find it interesting that there exists such an entity as the Birthright tours: a free trip for the Jewish Diaspora to visit Israel. I like that.

As well, Israel in 60 Days does convey the wide range of Israeli experiences and points of view. Glidden’s own self-deprecating portrayal and Rabbi Hartman’s impassioned lecture counters the “brainwashing” effect that Glidden fears the tour will create.

Still, Glidden does succumb to the “Birthright Glow” and wonders if she has “Jerusalem Syndrome”. She does feel a connection to Israel, which she doesn’t fully understand, but wonderful for the reader to witness.

Israel in 60 Days does provide a novice reader about the basics of Israel and does so in an engaging fashion. One word of warning: If you have older eyes like mine, you may find the lettering hard to read.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media

The Influencing MachineThe Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media is not your typical graphic text. It’s a sweeping look at the history of the media, as well as a forecast on how technology will influence human evolution.

Equal parts philosophy, cultural criticism, and polemic, Gladstone’s Machine shows her reader how news has been reported and how public policy has been shaped from an American perspective.

Compared to a text-based book, Machine sometimes seems to dispense its information in bits and pieces. Also, some parts of the book get very academic and abstract, which might prove difficult for student readers. But that shouldn't stop them from using the book as a launching point for investigating issues surrounding the media.

Still, the book’s ideas provide the reader with many chewy parts to digest, and the visuals often add a humorous kick to Gladstone’s arguments. I particularly liked the part where Gladstone imagines how humans will interact with nanotechnology and vice versa.

View all my reviews

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Short Video about The Influencing Machine

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media

Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness

Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental IllnessPsychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness by Darryl Cunningham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! This collection is a series of eleven graphic stories about mental illness. Shocking and powerful, each story ends with a metaphorical kick in the stomach.

The book not only teaches compassion and understanding for those dealing with mental illness; it also provides insight to their caregivers and families.

Highly recommended.

View all my reviews

The Next Day

The Next DayThe Next Day by Paul Peterson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A graphic novella which depicts, believe it or not, suicide attempts.

The books has two sections: "The Day Of"; and "The Next Day".

It is powerful and moving: The lesson being that each of these people are grateful for having a second chance.

Each person's story is done is a different graphic style; still, at times, I had to flip back to find out who was who. Initially, it was difficult to follow a single character's storyline, since the book alternates amongst the four characters.

Graphic novels are continuing to impress me as a way to discuss difficult issues.

View all my reviews

Mendel's Daughter: A Memoir

Mendel's Daughter: A MemoirMendel's Daughter: A Memoir by Martin Lemelman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mendel’s Daughter: A Memoir is cinematic in its scope, visuals and voice. It is the story of ghosts who speak through dreams, and angles that intervene to save a life.

The author recreates in graphic novel form, an interview he had with his mother about her experiences during World War II. She was born in a Polish-Ukrainian Jewish shtetl and in the book she tells her son about their family’s history, its personage, and what happened to them when the Russians and Germans invaded. Mendel's Daughters also includes a context for the horrors to come: village markets, sharing a water well with neighbours, dressing up in friends' Polish costumes, school, suitors, and bike riding.

The accompanying visuals convey the emotional impact of the story just as much as the old woman’s voice does. There has been some criticism about the mother’s accent being recreated in the text, but being true to the documentary feel of the graphic novel, the voice must be true and unedited.

The visuals are a combination of drawings, photographs and real documents. The son has created a scrapbook from his mother’s memories. As she tells him: Sometimes your memories are not your own.

Now the reader of Mendel’s Daughter also has a part of those memories. This book is important because it lives longer than the witness of horrifying times. Already the impact and implications of the Holocaust are already being forgotten.

Man’s origin is dust and his end is dust. He spends his life earning bread. He is like a clay vessel, easily broken, like withering grass, a fading flower, a fugitive cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattering dust, a vanishing dream.

Man plans, and God laughs. –Yiddish saying

Mendel’s Daughter is a loving tribute a son has created for his mother.

View all my reviews

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of those great non-fiction books that reads like a novel because it tells a gripping human story. Rebecca Skloot leads the reader back and forth in time to reveal the horrible, wonderful life of Henrietta Lacks.

At first, the book seems to be a tale about the power, importance and blurred ethics of medical research. What makes the book heartbreaking is that it also contains a family saga about race, poverty and the loss of a mother.

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed and treated at Johns Hopkins University. During her illness and at the time of her death, cell samples were taken. For some reason, these malign cells became the first cells to keep on dividing and growing in culture. These immortal cells were dubbed “HeLa” after the first syllable in each of her names.

The cells’ immortality was special because it allowed doctors and scientists to do continual, advanced research on the treatment of hepatitis, AIDS, polio, cancer, and many more diseases. They also provided a tool to study cloning and gene mapping.

We are in Henrietta’s debt.

The problem is that Henrietta did not give her consent for these cells to be taken, and a multi-million dollar medical industry has arisen around them. As well, Henrietta’s family did not find out about her cells until twenty years later. The family has not financially benefited from the research, and questions about their mother’s cells, more often than not, went unanswered. Even more distressing to her children is the idea that part of their mother is still alive and being subjected to research. Seeing how Henrietta’s children grew up without their mother adds to the poignancy of the book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was on many top books of 2010 lists, and for good reason. It contains all the best ingredients: the wonder of science, the miracles of life, and the love of family in a well-written personal narrative. And, oh yes, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks made me believe in angels.

p.s. If you are wondering what happened once the book ended, here’s a link to an update:

View all my reviews

The Best Books of 2011

It's always the right time to read a great book, but the Christmas season is a great excuse to give one, or two, or...

Here are some Best of 2011 lists:

Happy shopping!

p.s. Just found the mother lode of lists: Largehearted Boy Blog

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

White Pine 2012 Nominees

Quick links to this year's list of nominees:

List of White Pine 2012 Fiction

White Pine 2012: Something Wicked

Something WickedSomething Wicked by Lesley Anne Cowan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Something Wicked by Lesley Anne Cowan is the story of 16-year-old Melissa, who seems to be looking for a whole whack of trouble. Nominated for the 2012 White Pine competition, Something Wicked has been noted for its controversial subject matter: There’s plenty of sex, drugs and at-risk behaviour being done by this teen.

Written by a secondary school teacher of at-risk students, the book is intended as much for 16-year-old, at-risk female readers, as it is for teachers, parents and classmates of such teen girls. I benefited from reading the book for its insights into the reasons behind the behaviours.

The amount of sexual activity and drug use is shocking, but believable. Melissa is a girl who is drowning in her world and seeking every means of escape. The choices she makes in the book, even until the end, provide plenty of fodder for discussions.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Elephant in the Room: Why Researchers Need to Find Multiple Resources

Here's a great link to answer the questions students sometimes ask:

Why Do I Need to Find Multiple Resources?

Sourced from K-M the Librarian - links to her blog are in my blog list below.

Giller 2011 Reviews: The Cat's Table

The Cat's TableThe Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

November 1, 2011:

I'm reading The Cat's Table. My husband is listening to it on audio book. It's a race.

November 9, 2011:

My husband won the race. I ended up borrowing his audio book and alternatively listening to and reading the novel. We both enjoyed listening to the texture and cadence of Ondaatje's voice. My husband finds it a pleasure to hear a book read by its author.

The Cat's Table takes place in a mere 21 days, but in those few weeks, a lifetime occurs. This novel captures what I loved best about Ondaatje's earlier work, The English Patient: A group of people "so oddly aligned, [who]...would never see [each other] again", yet continue to feel a love and longing for those with whom they had experienced a brief, but intense, period of time.

The journey by boat adds to the sense of romance and Ondaatje's language contributes to the glamour. The book has a few contradictory moments and mysterious characters that are left to the reader's imagination to resolve.

View all my reviews

Giller 2011 Reviews: Half-Blood Blues

Half Blood BluesHalf Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story of Half-Blood Blues revolves around two African-American jazz musicians, Sid and Chip, as well as Hiero, a wunderkind half-German, half-Senegalese trumpet player. The action begins in 1939 Berlin and then moves between 1992 Berlin and Poland, and 1939 Paris.

Here’s what I loved about Half-Blood Blues: the crackling dialogue, the history, and the brilliant beginning of the novel. The cover is absolutely gorgeous, and once you develop an ear for the dialect, the book is quick to read.

Unfortunately, many things in Half-Blood Blues bothered me. As soon as the characters go into hiding from the Nazis, the pace crawls. Perhaps this tempo is a result of Sid the narrator becoming a passive observer of events. He just watches all the other characters take action. This passivity meant I couldn’t get a good sense of who Sid really was, and that affected how I perceived the relationships in the book. I did not get the feeling that he was particularly ambitious (one of the possible motivations in the story, but he gets over slights quickly) and I kept wondering what the story would be like if another character had told it.

I would have loved to have seen more of an exploration of identity, half-bloodedness (as the title suggests), and the irony that African-Americans went to interwar Europe to escape the racism back home. These elements are touched upon by Sid mentioning that some of his family pass for white, his girlfriend Delilah’s “mixed-race face”, and rival Hiero’s stories about who his father was. One of the telling details I really liked was the shocking visit to Hamburg’s Hagenbecks Zoo.

But there are many contradictory details: For example, Hiero carries his trumpet with him everywhere, then suddenly does not have it with him when they flee Berlin; Sid and Chip are able to give a history lecture to Louis Armstrong about German culture, but they don’t know that France has declared war on Germany. Also, the idea that a black man was able to live peacefully in a remote Polish village during communism, doesn’t jive with my experiences of visible minorities in Eastern Europe.

As well, Sid is aware that he speaks with a dialect and claims Hiero has transposed the dialect into German. But Hiero doesn’t understand English, so how does he create a Baltimore-German accent? It’s also linguistically questionable because German has a different syntax.

There are flashes of genius when the characters start to talk about friendship, love, art and sacrifice, but the heart of the discussion comes too late in the book and ends too soon.

Half-Blood Blues did give me with a chance to witness Nazi-occupied Europe through a new lens, but I find myself looking to Edugyan’s reading list at the end of the book, to help provide the grit and details of how a person like Hiero would have survived.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Imagine Your Library Video

Imagine Your Library is a great presentation by Anita Brooks Kirkland, using ideas from the Together for Learning document to think about how to use a school library in the 21st century.

I liked that she showed how traditional thinking limits creativity and the possibilities that the library brings.

My favourite quotes from the presentation:

  • "A safe place to explore dangerous ideas."
  • "Knowledge is free at the library. Just bring your own container."
  • "The library program is learning to learn."
 For more insight on the use of school libraries, follow her on Twitter: @AnitaBK

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Occupy Librarianship: 5 Variations on a Theme | In the Library with the Lead Pipe

"Should we as librarians be protesting in our own culture?"

Good advice for those leading the revolution. I especially like the section, "Own Your Power". Think this'll be my new mantra.

Occupy Librarianship: 5 Variations on a Theme | In the Library with the Lead Pipe:

'via Blog this'

The Heart of Innovation: 100 Awesome Quotes on What It Really Takes To Innovate

Here's what I'm talking about. Great Inspriation.

The Heart of Innovation: 100 Awesome Quotes on What It Really Takes To Innovate:

'via Blog this'

Digital Kids in Schools: Cartoons | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

Great cartoons for an early Saturday morning reflection on where we are going in schools.

Digital Kids in Schools: Cartoons | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice:

'via Blog this'

Why Is Project-Based Learning Important? | Edutopia

This article shows how Project-Based Learning (or PBLs) support the development of 21st century skills. PBL is a good place for teachers and teacher-librarians to start when talking about motivating students, embedding research skills in school work, and creating plagiarism-proof assignments.

I like how the author discusses combining fundamental skills (reading, writing, math) and 21st century skills.

Lots of stupendous links are also provided, especially covering the topic of collaboration and better teaching.

Why Is Project-Based Learning Important? | Edutopia:

'via Blog this'

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Do We Still Need School Librarians?

Last April, the Windsor-Essex Catholic School Board was ready to close the libraries, disperse the book collections and computers to classrooms, and dispense with their teacher librarians and technicians.  The reason was that with the Internet and Google, there was no need to have a physical library.

But as Seth Godin proclaims in his blog, the kids need libraries not at all, but need librarians more than ever. The school librarian is needed to be "the interface between the reams of data and the untrained but motivated user." Seth's Blog.

This year I've taken on full-time responsibilities in our school library. I've been asking myself: Do people care whether or not the teacher-librarian stays around?

In the recent past, teachers have wanted students to use the library to select books or to use its computers. Students used the computers to:
·         do research using Google
·         do word processing
·         print their work

None of these services required the use of the teacher-librarian.

Here is what I see:
·         students who don’t know how to find a book in the library
·         students who don’t even know that databases exist
·         students whose note-taking skills consist of cut and paste
·         students who don’t have the skills to be successful in an increasingly digital culture
·         students who are doing assignments which only ask that they copy information to fill in the blanks

We've been trying to restructure our library program to encourage collaboration, using the Together for Learning document as our template. Where we have found success is in communicating what we can do for teachers and students and offer a variety of collaborative models, from whole units to mini-lessons which address some of the issues listed above:

·         How to use the library catalogue and Novelist to find a book
·         Introduction to databases
·         Academic Integrity
·         How to use Google effectively
·         Creating plagiarism-proof assignments

Dealing with the Pain of Change

Unfortunately, for some, the reaction has been: We can't just book the computers, anymore? Others still would like to bring their classes down to use the space, but not to use the teacher-librarian. They find that the mini-lesson is something that they have to do, like a hurdle in a running race, to have access to the library space.

There is always a resistance to change because it means temporarily having to do more work. Why do we need to promote change? We have to change before change is forced upon us. (I think of Peter the Great stating that he was going to drag his backward Muscovy kicking and screaming into the 20th century.) The reality is that the Internet has changed everything, and that we need to recognize the need to teach 21st century skills.

On the other hand, it has been encouraging that most teachers, in working with the teacher-librarians, have seen what we can do. We are very pleased that the majority of the teachers at our school have been willing to give it a try.

And I think here is where the light comes in.

Each time we work together, we plan, we teach and then we reflect on how the lesson went. I hope, each time, we'll be able to learn from each other and improve our ability to help students. What also happens is the message that the teacher-librarian is a valuable partner in learning gets passed along.

I have to keep in mind that it's important to take this in small steps. Change comes slowly. But there have also been some surprising converts to the collaboration cause, so that gives me reason to hope.

Godin, Seth. "Seth's Blog: The future of the library." Seth's Blog. N.p., 16 May 2011. Web. 22 Oct. 2011.

New calligraphy classes for China's internet generation

Here's what caught my attention on the news this evening: A story about how calligraphy is a dying art in China because the youngsters find it easier to write in Chinese by using a computer.

The calligraphy story makes me think about a segment I heard this morning on CBC's Fresh Air regarding the lost art of cursive writing in North America. Check out the Sunday, October 16th interview with Rhonda McEwen: 

Or go to her website for more information about her research: