Sunday, 9 December 2012

Creating Collaborative Spaces in the Library Using IdeaPaint

My library colleague @grahamwhisen put forward the suggestion that we turn some of the tables in our school library into whiteboards. Say what? How?

There is a product called IdeaPaint. The company website describes IdeaPaint as a material that "lets you create a usable, interactive space on practically any surface at work, school or home. IdeaPaint puts collaboration and interaction at your fingertips."


The Process



The IdeaPaint website provides an instructional video, as well as written "Help" to get you on your way. As you can see, everything is simply labelled. I do recommend that the first thing you do is make sure you have all the necessary materials ready because once you open This and That, you only have about an hour and a half to apply all the paint before it starts to solidify.


Easy Instructions
To start, recruit students to help with the sanding to get the job done quickly. Wax on, wax off.


Sanding
After sanding, thoroughly clean the grit off of the tables and let dry. Apply the base; use up the whole can by doing multiple layers. Having a thick base makes a big difference in the final product.


Applying the base
After the base dries, apply the top coat. Remember that IdeaPaint needs at least four days to cure. We kept our tables behind the circulation desk until they were ready to use.


Shiny top coat

First Observations

Because we had been preparing the tables in view of staff and students, there were many questions about what the heck we were doing. Also, seeing the work being done created a sense of anticipation. As soon as we put the tables out, students began to work on them.


Figuring out physics
On the first day, we left markers and erasers on the tables to allow students to explore using the whiteboard surface on their own. Some students worked out math and physics equations. Others doodled and played tic tac toe. There were yet others who merely liked to touch the surface of the tables.

Self-expression


Lessons Learned 


The first lesson is to not take any short cuts. For example, because the base was so sticky, we thought we didn't need to tape the sides of the tables for the top paint layer.


Oops!
It was interesting to note that these drips only seemed to bother our college and workplace students. They teased us a little bit, but they also had a ton of suggestions on how to remedy what we had done. Also, concerns about keeping the caps with the markers offered one student the opportunity to teach us a creative solution.


Student know-how
After our first day of free exploration, we found we had to start signing out the equipment; we had inappropriate pictures drawn on one table and erasers stolen. We have since bought packs of markers and erasers, put them in barcoded ziploc bags, and now sign them out to students. This solution has worked well.

I also find it helpful to work with the students and model appropriate uses for the whiteboard tables. A teacher-librarian can show them how the tables can be used for learning purposes, such as brainstorming, group work and visualization.

Student reaction? They'd like to see ALL tables in the school covered in IdeaPaint.



For more information, check out the IdeaPaint website and video:



Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Ru

RuRu by Kim Thúy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An arrangement of poetic vignettes. On the surface, Ru explores family, war, living as a refugee and integration into a new country. Underneath, Thuy ruminates on culture, conflict, language, love and memory. There’s a whole lot going on in this slender, beautiful novel.

What do you take with you when you flee your homeland? It is not what you think.


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Monday, 26 November 2012

419

419: A Novel419: A Novel by Will Ferguson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two and a half stars.

Winner of the 2012 Giller Prize, 419 impresses when it takes its readers into Nigeria and details the internet scams which have emerged from that country. “419” is the “section of the Nigerian Criminal Code “that deals with obtaining money or goods under false pretenses” (111).

However the author's non-fiction roots are showing. Ferguson favours giving a lot of background information about the 419 scam over story and character development. The book had the potential to be either a great crime thriller or a cultural exploration of Nigeria, but right now, it’s in no man’s land.

Even though the ending is suspenseful, it feels forced. Characters important to the final outcome aren’t fully introduced until halfway into the book. As I read the novel, I struggled to connect the seemingly random storylines. For example, the romantic interest Sergeant Brisebois has in Laura doesn’t seem to serve any literary purpose, except to reinforce the unexpected happy ending.

I also found some of the characters to be problematic. Laura and Warren represent stereotypical Westerners and I didn’t see enough growth in them to find them interesting. Amina wanders throughout Nigeria and the novel, but why? I suppose it is to flesh out Ferguson’s portrait of Nigeria, but I don’t understand how this character furthers the themes or the plot.

I did enjoy how the book described Nigeria and 419 does convey the complexity of the country. Exploring the moral murkiness of the scammers and the scammed had potential, but the novel does not go further than the politically correct response. The Nigerians justify robbing the rich because their wealth is “[b]lood money, all of it. Slaves and diamonds, gold and oil. Even chocolate. It is all stained...The crowns of British royalty glitter with blood, with rubies and emeralds wrenched out of Africa” (120-121). Even Laura, at the end, seems to do the “right thing” after harbouring a festering anger and inflicting her own retribution.

Since the book had won the Giller Prize, I had high expectations for 419. As I'm reading through the list of the other nominated books, I find that 419 doesn't match the depth of its competitors.

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Monday, 19 November 2012

War is Boring

War is Boring: Bored Stiff, Scared to Death in the World's Worst War ZonesWar is Boring: Bored Stiff, Scared to Death in the World's Worst War Zones by David Axe
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A quick overview of recent war zones. The narrator is suffering from PTSD and keeps returning to areas of conflict, but only superficially examines his reasons for going back: "As boring as war can be...peace is much worse."

His attitude is displayed in the afterward:

"Everything falls apart. Everyone dies in time. In the great, slow reduction of our lives and history, the things we can believe in shrink into a space smaller than our own bodies. To preserve them, for as long as you might, arm yourself, and be afraid."

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Harvey

HarveyHarvey by Herve Bouchard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Childhood memories and early loss.

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White Rapids

White RapidsWhite Rapids by Pascal Blanchet
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stylist history with discography included.

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Baloney

Baloney: A Tale in 3 Symphonic ActsBaloney: A Tale in 3 Symphonic Acts by Pascal Blanchet
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Moody and atmospheric, a dark fairy-tale for grown-ups. With a playlist.

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The Tale of One Bad Rat

The Tale Of One Bad Rat (2nd Edition)The Tale Of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever imagine reading a combination of Beatrix Potter and a tale dealing with homelessness and child abuse? The Tale of One Bad Rat tackles these topics in an inventive way. Some British dialects may confuse teenage Canadian readers. The story is more hopeful than gritty; it also shows the importance of imagination and art as a means of survival.

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Sunday, 18 November 2012

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Fun Home: A Family TragicomicFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fun Home is a coming-of-age, portrait of a young artist graphic novel. It examines how sexuality, gender, family and art combine to make us who we are. Each chapter could be a short story in its own right. Of course, each revolves around Alison's relationship with her dad, his death, his closeted sexuality and her emerging sexual self.

My debate is who is the intended audience? There are a few graphic images of lesbian sexuality. Since we bought this book for a school library, we've been discussing whether these images are pornography or art.

As well, a high school student may have a hard time following the themes and plot of Fun Home. This graphic novel is very literary: It has an extensive vocabulary, references to older--but famous--books, and it is intricately structured.


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Saturday, 17 November 2012

The Imposter Bride

The Imposter BrideThe Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Imposter Bride defied my expectations. From the book blurb, what appealed to me as a reader was the mystery emerging from World War II Poland: Who is Lily Azerov?I had thought this story would show a daughter involved in a long search for her mother over various countries, continents, and in exotic locales.

Instead, the novel is firmly rooted in Canada and is more the story of the daughter, Ruth, growing up in post-war Jewish Montreal than the concerns of Lily the mother. The question, “Who is Lily Azerov” pulls the reader through the story of Ruth’s life; the plot is carefully crafted not too reveal too much too soon. We know that Lily Azerov is a stolen identity, that the woman comes to Canada for an arranged marriage and that “Lily” disappears, abandoning her three-month old daughter. Despite finding the novel to be a quick and enjoyable read, I was afraid that I would read the entire book and the mystery would not be solved. The writer takes her time revealing all to us through alternating points of view, complicated family relationships, distinctive characters and the subtle layering of clues.

The Imposter Bride is the story of a family and its secrets, the search for who we are, and, yes, lust. “Lust always feels like fate...That’s why it’s so dangerous.” It’s also a beautiful portrait of loss, living with convention and doing the best with what we’ve got.


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Saturday, 10 November 2012

My Name is Parvana

My Name Is ParvanaMy Name Is Parvana by Deborah Ellis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed the original Breadwinner Trilogy: The Breadwinner, Parvana's Journey, and Mud City. I have highly recommended these books to students (especially those in ESL) and have found that they loved the books, too. The trilogy focuses on Parvana and her friend, Shauzia, two young girls surviving in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Their lives and dilemmas are intricately revealed.

My Name is Parvana picks up the action a few years later. It seems that the book may have been written to tell fans what happened to these beloved characters. Even though Parvana and Shauzia are made up, it doesn't mean that their troubles are fictional.

In reading My Name is Parvana, I did have several teary moments; however, the novel still felt as if it were written to satisfy an audience more than the author.

Still, I would recommend fans of the earlier books to read this novel, to find out how things have turned out for Parvana, Shauzia and for real Afghani women in the "post-Taliban" era of Afghanistan.

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Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Blood Red Road

Blood Red Road (Dust Lands, #1)Blood Red Road by Moira Young
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Blood Red Road. Once you get the post-apocalyptic dialect in your ear and fight your way through some of the silly romantic bickering, you’ll enjoy a book that’s a mixture of Mad Max, Indiana Jones, Hunger Games, Divergent and Cormac McCarthy.

What’s not to love? There’s a feisty female protagonist, a group of warrior girls who call themselves The Free Hawks and a handsome rogue that drives the heroine wild.

Female readers who are into YA dystopian novels will love it (and possibly be tolerant of the bickering). They may even debate if they are on Team Tobias or Team Jack.


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Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Value of Literature Now Supported by MRI Imaging

"In an innovative interdisciplinary study, neurobiological experts, radiologists and humanities scholars are working together to explore the relationship between reading, attention and distraction – by reading Jane Austen."

Read more at: http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-09-literature-mri-imaging.html#jCp

The Impossible Dead

The Impossible DeadThe Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a fast-moving thriller, but one that keeps you in suspense till the end. The characters are dead-on believable. I enjoyed that the mystery was rooted in Scottish history, lingo and police culture. As well, modern technology (in the form of "Ian Rankin's Edinburgh" iApp), enables this new crime fiction series to take on a new dimension.

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Friday, 31 August 2012

Are Librarians Still Important?


Lead and link to an article showing how effective school libraries boost student achievement:

In a word, yes. In fact, they may be an administrator's most underutilized resource. Learn how schools are freeing them up to help students, faculty, and principals find the information they need.  

http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3757441

Holding Still For As Long As Possible

Holding Still for as Long as PossibleHolding Still for as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Holding Still for as Long as Possible contains some zinger lines and insight into young people living in Toronto. It is set in a specific time, place and culture politics: post-9/11, SARS, and sexual ambiguity.

Like the title suggests, the plot doesn't move much. Instead, the inner thoughts of the three main characters are explored. I think I would have enjoyed Holding Still more if I had read this book in my twenties since it really concerns that generation trying to figure out how to grow up.

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Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Cognitive Surplus

Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into CollaboratorsCognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators by Clay Shirky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the ideas explaining why people work for free and how money fundamentally changes personal relationships, but this book did not set my mind on fire.

In terms of educational application, Deci's Soma experiment showed why we should never pay students to do their homework. I would recommend Cognitive Surplus to get people thinking more consciously about how technology can be used towards the greater good.

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Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The Salt Road

The Salt RoadThe Salt Road by Jane Johnson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had tears in my eyes while reading this book: First, out of frustration; then, ultimately, from being swept up by the story and its emotional resolution.

The Salt Road is very much a romantic book. Set in exotic Morocco and following the fate of a disappearing nomadic tribe, the novel intertwines a mystery and a story of enduring love. I settled myself for a perfect summer read, anticipating to be transported to the desert and be immersed in the nomadic culture.

Unfortunately, I was jarred by the very Western point-of-view of the book. The protagonist, Izzy, goes to Morocco after her estranged father’s death. He left her a riddle in the form of an amulet. I found her to be petty and petulant. I often thought to myself: Why does the author want her to be so unlikeable? The ending of the story does offer an explanation, but the justification and the transformation happen so quickly that we don’t really have enough time to “forgive” Izzy or Jane Johnson for Izzy’s character.

I also found that the plotting was clunky. Events happen in quick arrangement: Johnson apparently wants to get her characters into position, but I questioned her choices. For example, Izzy arrives in Morocco with her friend Eve. They are ostensibly there to do rock-climbing, their hobby, but really they are there to answer the riddle of the amulet. The two girls meet up with Miles and Jez and decide to go climbing together. On their first day out, Izzy wrenches her ankle, and through a convoluted series of ropes and levers, is left literally hanging near the bottom of the climb. Luckily, Taib, is passing by to catch her.

From that point Eve, Miles and Jez disappear from the novel. In my opinion, I would have cut them out of the story all together, have Izzy travel to Morocco on her own. Izzy, on her own in Morocco, would have provided ample material for her to be in some sort of danger and be rescued to Taib, thereby propelling the rest of the story. Despite Izzy’s persnickety behaviour, there were times when I thought: She’s my kind of woman. The only book she’d brought with her was a biography of Gertrude Bell (yes!). She has no time for her friend’s “girlie novel” as it “utterly failed to hold [her] attention after two pages of inconsequential chatter about shoes and boyfriends”(147).

To reduce the amount of characters and transitions perhaps would allow Johnson to show more and tell less. There is a list of sources at the back of the book, so she has done her research. I would just like the research to show more in the details and nuances of the book.

Lastly, until the final fifth of the book, some of the writing drove made me feel like I was “juddering over...rutted ground”. Lines like, “every tooth in my head was rattling and I was blessing the fact that I was small-breasted and supported by a good underwired bra” (203) made me wince.

On the other hand the line and the sentiment, “Love is the strongest force in the world” (373) is never trite and always a story I want to read.

The Salt Road had the potential to enrapture me with its search for a past denied. I did learn something about the Touareg people and history, but I wanted to see Izzy enter the culture more fully and develop relationships instead of hearing a lecture from one of the characters. Still, the ending left me moved: The novel does evoke the power of love.


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Globe & Mail article: There's No Online Substitute for a Real University Classroom

I've been thinking and blogging a lot about MOOCs lately. Here's the reluctant POV:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/theres-no-online-substitute-for-a-real-university-classroom/article4487214/

Ever read the short story "The Fun They Had" by Isaac Asimov? This article made me think about some of the issues in the story and the subsequent discussions I've had with students on whether or not they'd prefer online or face-to-face learning. 

I wonder where teaching will take place in 20 years time. I think it will depend if schools are seen as areas for learning or for socialization.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Do you value the role of the teacher-librarian?

I've been pondering this summer what is my role in the school. Are teacher-librarians evolving into virtual support, facilitating just-in-time learning and acting as a partner to classroom teachers to support literacy and numeracy?

Or are we disappearing because we are still seen as bookkeepers and supervisors of a space?

Doug Johnson has some interesting things to say about the growing number of school librarians who have gone MIA:

http://doug-johnson.squarespace.com/blue-skunk-blog/2012/8/16/school-librarians-gone-missing-why.html

Uh-oh: MOOCs & High-tech Cheating

Anticipating the cheaters:

http://chronicle.com/article/Cheating-Goes-High-Tech/132093/

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Content Curation for Education and Learning: Robin Good @Emerge2012 - Mind Map

This mindmap has a lot in it, but its ideas and information are worth spending an afternoon exploring it. Great resources if you're interesting in starting to do some curation in your teaching/learning/research. One section also explains why Google has lost its mojo.

Content Curation for Education and Learning: Robin Good @Emerge2012 - Mind Map:

'via Blog this'

Why Curation Will Transform Education and Learning: 10 Key Reasons

Chock full of information regarding how research and learning is changing in the age of the internet. We've asked students to critically examine the resources they use for their assignments. I think curation could be used in assessing student learning.

Why Curation Will Transform Education and Learning: 10 Key Reasons:

'via Blog this'

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek

The Black Grizzly of Whiskey CreekThe Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek by Sid Marty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Last year, my husband almost bumped into a black bear, so we both picked "bear books" to read when we went back to the area this summer.

The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek was my choice. I have compared this book to John Valliant's book The Tiger. I preferred The Tiger because of personal bias: I really enjoyed how Valliant incorporates Russian history into his exposition and delivers suspense to the max.

On the other hand, some readers hated Valliant's diversion from the main story. The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek sticks to the facts--as much as it is able. The book outlines the hunt for an elusive bear who mauled tourists in Banff. The author spends a good portion of the book telling the story from the bear's point of view. Based on his expertise, I'm willing to trust what Sid Marty has to say about how and why this bear began to attack humans. Still, at the end of the book, no one has any clear answers. Perhaps this ambiguity is an important lesson to take away when dealing with wildlife.

I found that The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek was not as suspenseful as The Tiger, due to its straightforward narrative structure. As well, some of the book felt dated: The events and procedures happened in 1980, and are an indication of how far (or little) we have come.

I did learn that bears suffer from both hunting and anti-hunting lobbies, as well as human hubris when we encroach on the bear's habitat by putting in "parks...for people". These parks include restaurants, hotels, and hiking and biking trails. We expect the wilderness to be tame for us.

After reading The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek I have much more respect for the power of a bear and would not take a subsequent encounter so lightly.

One last, but important thing to add: Sid Marty also writes poetry, and it splendidly shows in this book.

p.s. Here's a second opinion: http://www.abdou.ca/litpicks/litpicks_grizzly.html

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Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Life According to Keif

LifeLife by Keith Richards
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I listened to this book in audio format while travelling this summer. Found that Keith's early life was the most compelling. Once he starts to delve into drugs and decadence, the book was--surprisingly--not as interesting. I would have rather heard more about his musical discoveries and the interpersonal relationships in the band than about how to cut heroin and the ability to jaunt over to Italy for breakfast.

The writing voice captures how I imagine Keith would speak and I was able to easily follow the audio narration.

Other than that, I found that the rich and famous are not that different than you and me. I have friends who could tell similar tales. I would like to know what elevated these boys into being the mythical Rolling Stones. But, ah, perhaps that's another story.

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Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Bury Your Dead

Bury Your DeadBury Your Dead by Louise Penny
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How would you like to take a trip to Québec City? Read the mystery novel, Bury Your Dead, for your foray into the history and culture of Québec. Take a tour through the old town, the fortified walls; see a cannonball embedded at the base of a tree which had merely continued to grow around it.

Set in the grip of winter during Carnival, Bury Your Dead involves four cleverly interwoven mysteries involving history, politics and memory. The body of a man is found in a shallow grave in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society, the last bastion of English culture in Québec City. The deceased is an infamous amateur archaeologist who was determined to locate where Samuel de Champlain was buried. Discovering the remains of the father of New France is a preoccupation of Québec nationalists. Finding the body in the “Lit & His” makes it appear that the English have used deadly force to stop the Champlain hunter when he came to dig on their territory. The ever-present friction between the French and the English is aroused.


In addition, a past case is re-opened and the main investigators are recovering from a recent traumatic event. In each situation, there are people with secrets.

The unifying theme of all four strands is summed up in the title, Bury Your Dead, the “need to both respect the past and let it go” (x). The novel is very well researched and offers the reader an education on early Canadian history, as well as touching on issues present in modern Québec. For example, Penny addresses some of the quirks and tensions of everyday life in the province: “They found themselves in the not unusual situation in Québec where, to be polite, the French person was speaking English and, to be polite, the English spoke French.” (45) How true!

Bury Your Dead is a fantastic guide to the real Québec City. I enjoyed literally inhabiting the lives of the characters by visiting the places mentioned in the book, particularly the Lit & His, as well as the cafés where Gamache has his great bowls of cafe au lait. The book, in fact, is an homage, a love letter to Québec City.



I was never bored by the storytelling, but I did prefer to inhabit the main storyline set in Québec City. Bury Your Dead is my first Inspector Gamache novel, and funny enough, I didn't warm to the characters from Three Pines (the setting for most of the series) as much as the rest. Maybe I need to read the previous books in the series to get to know the Three Pines characters better. On the other hand, the author has skillfully written this book so it isn’t mandatory to first read the previous novels in the series in order to enjoy and understand this one.

The author, Louise Penny, states in her opening acknowledgments that “Bury Your Dead is not about death, but about life” (x). It is no wonder that the novel is set during Carnival, in the dead of winter, in a cold, cold city where there is so much going on, so much light and life. It is the particular brand of Québécois joie de vivre that Penny illustrates, and I am glad that I had Bury Your Dead as my travel companion on my recent trip to Québec.


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Monday, 9 July 2012

Malarky

MalarkyMalarky by Anakana Schofield
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Despair and Dignity: Anakana Schofield’s inaugural novel, Malarky

Darkly humourous, Malarky is about the struggle to understand this thing called life. Set in rural County Mayo, Ireland, the story concerns Our Woman, Philomena as she reels from a blender of shocks: her son’s homosexuality, being told that her husband’s having an affair by his God-fearing mistress, and the death of the two most important men in her life.

The book is about grief, longing, the closeting of sexuality—any sexuality—and how imagination can overcome the limits that life puts on it. Surprisingly, the book is quite funny. It’s all about the very Irish voice: “The eejit was out cold.” I can absolutely hear my mother-in-law say that. Even though the narration moves from first person to third person, behaving much like close-ups and wide shots in film, the shifts are seamless and almost unnoticeable.

I love the complex structure of the book. Time rolls back and forth and revelations are reserved until more appropriate moments. Schofield has commented that in narration, “chronology is just such a falsehood... We don’t remember things in sequence and we don’t live chronologically.” http://arts.nationalpost.com/2012/06/...

To immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the book, read and listen to this playlist by Anakana Schofield:
http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/a...

I recommend Malarky to people who aren’t afraid to read a book that takes risks.


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Monday, 25 June 2012

Racing Through the Dark: The fall and rise of David Millar

Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David MillarRacing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar by David Millar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A well-written inside view of doping culture in professional cycling. Also, the book provides a look into the life and mindset of a professional athlete. Millar admits:

[B]eing a professional athlete's partner or relative is not easy because we live very selfish, goal-oriented lives.

Although we're often at home, we are rarely actually there,
our heads being wrapped up in whatever our next sporting objective may be. At times the self-absorption is taken to the point of obsession. Life boils down to the cycle of racing, training, eating, resting, dieting.

And if one of those functions isn't going well, the subsequent
neurosis leads to misery. The smallest issues can become the most important things in life and reality slips away.


As revealing as the book is, I can help but feel that it's being told with some restraint. But this book isn't a sensationalist finger-pointing tell-all. David Millar wants to change the culture of sport by sharing his personal descent and survival.

I would highly recommend this book for sports fans, even those who "don't like to read". Even at nearly 350 pages, the narrative flows quickly, the structure is clear, and the story is compelling.

With renewed doping accusations swirling around Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France starting this week, Racing Through the Dark is compulsory pre-race reading.

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Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters BrothersThe Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Sisters Brothers: A Defense

I was reluctant to read The Sisters Brothers for a long time. It was getting mixed reviews and being nominated for so many damn awards. Not a good sign. However, I bought (and read) the book because I was attending the Stephen Leacock Medal presentation, which The Sisters Brothers had won.

The book has been criticized as not having a story, for having too much senseless violence, and for its weird, anachronistic language and characters. Because of all these reasons, I loved the book.

Please read my complete review here: http://bookgagabooks.ca/2012/06/19/the-sisters-brothers-by-patrick-dewitt/

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Thursday, 14 June 2012

Black Tights: Women, Sport and Sexuality

Black Tights: Women Sport and SexualityBlack Tights: Women Sport and Sexuality by Laura Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Via second-wave feminist analysis, Laura Robinson examines the struggles women face in sport. Black Tights is a well-researched, well-written book.

Robinson looks at the following issues:
1. Denying the Whole Woman: patriarchy/sexism, funding, sex testing, homophobia
2. Exploiting the Whole Woman: representation in the media, , sexual abuse, eating disorders, sponsorships
3. Restoring the Whole Woman: the struggle for talented girls playing on boys’ teams; the Scandinavian example

For examples from the book, see quotes in my progress updates.


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Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Pan Am Velodrome: Boon or Bust for Milton?

This morning's Toronto Star had an article casting doubt on the wisdom of building a velodrome in Milton.

http://www.thestar.com/sports/panamgames/article/1178338--pan-am-velodrome-boon-or-bust-for-milton

The hills of Halton are crawling with cyclists. The last time I went to the Forest City Velodrome, there was a healthy audience.

What else do we need to do to make sure the Milton velodrome is successful?

(With tongue in cheek, here's one way to grow future cycling fans:)




Lions and Tigers and....Oh my!

http://www.insidehalton.com/news/article/1354522--several-sightings-of-black-bear-in-milton

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Virtual Self

The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around UsThe Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us by Nora Young
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you are reading this review via Twitter or Goodreads, you may understand what it feels like to be at least a little bit addicted to the virtual world. Existing without a physical place means ideas can be exchanged at the speed of light and participation is democratic.

We are compelled to compulsively record ourselves online. Nora Young comments that the “pattern of our data seems to carry an explanatory power, a sense that life isn’t random...that, over time, the trivial acts of our mundane daily life shape a picture of who we are” (48).

The Virtual Self treats the creation of data as pleasure, art and philosophy (48). I had been expecting from this book a doomsday scenario akin to the one described in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Instead, The Virtual Self gives practical information on our digital culture. The book describes how we generate personal data on-line and how this data can be used for positive means, such as self-improvement, and creating better societies and cities. The book also flags areas where this data can be misused: disengagement from the body, lack of privacy, skewed stats, bias, and profit.

By reading this book, I gained a better understanding of how the digital world works and have found the book to be prescient: When I listen to the news, I often hear the issues identified in this book being raised as concerns in the media. The book is peppered with modern-day interviews and the ideas of McLuhan, Foucault and Clay Shirky, among others.

The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World around Us contains topics that we all should be interested in, but I’m not sure how much people are concerned with the “digital doppelgänger” they are creating. In fact, I expect circumstances and technology to change so quickly that the ideas in this book may soon become dated. As well, Young seemed to repeat herself at times. I felt that I didn’t learn anything radically new, but perhaps that’s the point: We so enjoy using digital tools that we tend to not pay attention to what is being done with the data we produce. In this book, there is no apocalyptic prophesy—which would probably attract more readers—but realistic, rational fact that’s mostly positive in nature.

As I was reading, I often asked myself, how can the ideas from this book be applied to my life, especially in terms of education? After reading the line, “[w]hen information is no longer scarce, institutions change and social norms change with them” (135), I instantly thought of how quickly we’ve accepted people speaking in public on their cell phones. We used to ban electronic devices from school, for goodness sake. Now my school board has launched a BYOD (Bring Your Own Devices) policy to be able to keep up with rapidly changing technology.

After finishing the book, I started to wonder, what subtle changes will the future bring that will radically change the way we live?


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Thursday, 3 May 2012

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen KellerAnnie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a young girl, I loved to read about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, so maybe there's a bit of nostalgia in this graphic novel for me. Still, I learned new things about Annie and Helen, and the story is plotted in a new and original way.

The book nicely highlights the key points in both Annie's and Helen's lives, as well as gives some historical context to this era. It's a great introduction to these two people and can operate as a launching pad for further investigation and discussion.

The cover illustration makes the book appear as if it were for younger readers, but Helen's queries about the birds and the bees, and Annie's life in the poor house make it clear that the book is not for young children. As well, it is sometimes difficult to read the accompanying text: it's small and occasionally cursive.

That said, using the medium of a graphic novel allows the author to tell the story from both Annie's and Helen's points of view. Most of the book is shown as if the audience were watching Annie's life, but what makes the book so emotive is that is has some cells which show how Helen felt and perceived things. In addition, the book shows its readers the loneliness, intelligence and sheer will of both protagonists. They were two of a kind and by some miracle, they found each other.

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller is a moving and enjoyable book to read and I recommend it highly.

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Hooker & Brown

Hooker & BrownHooker & Brown by Jerry Auld
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 and 1/2 stars

Rumi, the protagonist of Hooker & Brown, states early in the book that his “favourite professor at university made classes interesting by telling the material in the form of stories” (35). Jerry Auld also succeeds at using the joy of storytelling to transform a novel that may, at first, seem to be just about people who like to climb mountains.

This book is that and more. Combine an adventure story, a mystery, a hint of romance with philosophy, Canadian history, and geology, and you’ll have Hooker & Brown.

Rumi is a recent university graduate who is spending his summer working on the Kananaskis Park trail crew, trying to decide whether or not to continue his geology studies, or to get a job downtown. A third option appears to him while climbing with Lion, another former student who “has climbed and improved while [Rumi’s] hands have softened on the edges of library racks” (3). At one point, Rumi is alone on the trail and about to be overtaken by a storm. He knows that he needs to get off the crest as soon as possible. But just as he is about to turn around, “something appears across the valley in the clouds and rivets [him]: a smudge that remains immobile when all else is swirling. It expands into a ridge, shredding the clouds. It’s straight and steep, impossibly close, rising hundred of metres above [him]. It seems like a battleship prow surging above an icy swell” (17). As quickly as the mountain peak reveals itself, it disappears into the rolling mists.

Rumi consults maps, but no mountain should be where he thinks he saw it. Initially, he believes that he simply saw Mt. Assiniboine, but after discussing history with the other members of the park crew, Rumi is set on the path of finding the legendary mountains, Hooker & Brown. An early explorer had noted and named the two massive peaks, but when other men subsequently tried to find them, it was without success. Rumi becomes obsessed.

The novel begins with strong descriptions of climbing, particularly Rumi and Lion making a nail-biting ascent of a rock face. The feeling of immediacy, danger and only existing in the present are conveyed with such intensity that I was willing to ignore my dislike of heights and give climbing a go. What a thrill. There’s poetry in Auld’s sentences. I read many of them out loud to my husband as I made my way through the novel. Auld had me at the lines: “His hips shimmy with a hula of climbing gear” (2) and “I‘ve always had an affinity for carbon” (16).

However, the action, while strong in parts one and four, and lags in part two.

As well, the characters are given stock names: Lion, the Interpreter, the Ranger, the Fire Lookout. I’m not sure if I like this. These names have a distancing effect and, for me, the characters are faceless.

The novel ends with drama, insight, and a surprise. As well, the reader gains an understanding of how the mountains affect the people who encounter them.

I loved reading this novel for its language, mystery, and elucidation of early Canadian exploration. As well, in the tradition of sports literature, the protagonist struggles in a variety of ways: physically during his climbs, mentally when trying to make the right life decision, and emotionally in dealing with his colleagues and relationships. Long after the reading is done, I continue to think about the book and wonder, what are my two peaks, my “most meaningful aspects of life” (113)?

For more about this book check out Jerry Auld’s cool website: http://www.jerryauld.com/

As well, read Angie Abdou’s take on the ideal reader for this book: http://www.abdou.ca/litpicks/litpicks...

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Sunday, 15 April 2012

Never Let Me Go

***Spoiler alert***

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


How far would we go to cure humanity of cancer, heart disease and the need for organ donation?

One of the reasons for reading Never Let Me Go is that it allows the reader to imagine a world where cloning is possible and examine the ethics of such an achievement.

Another reason for reading Never Let Me Go is that it is a beautifully written story and creation of character. The voice of the narrator, Kathy H, is pitch perfect; the plot skillfully weaves her thoughts, past and present. The novel proves what The Gallery (in the story) tried to do: The clones have souls.

Ishiguro seems to write novels of regret and there is a sober sense to this story since there is an inability or reluctance to change one’s fate.

This novel was selected by the Brampton Library’s Teen Council as its choice for The Battle of the Books.




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Infrared

InfraredInfrared by Nancy Huston

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


When I initially finished Infrared I thought it was simply OK. But then I spent some time thinking about the book. Infrared is a novel that needs to sit with you and stir in your gut.

The story involves a 45-year-old woman, Rena Greenblatt, as she takes her father and stepmother on a trip to Florence, Italy. Rena, a photographer specializing in infrared photography of damaged subjects, takes along her camera not so much to take pictures, but to stave off her anxiety about the trip.

Soon the reader realizes that Rena also carries a lot of emotional baggage, and has brought her alter ego/imaginary friend, Subra along for the trip. The invention of Subra allows Rena to have internal conversations about concerns, memories and events. It is a bit of an unsettling technique: It does underline Rena’s mental stability, or lack thereof. “Subra” is an anagram for “Arbus”, Diana Arbus, a Jewish-American photographer of the unusual. By the end of the novel, Rena comments: “What had she endured as a little girl, growing up in New York in that wealthy Jewish family whose privileges she detested? What evil had she been forced to construe as good, as irrevocably that she would spend the rest of her life blurring the nuances between the two?” (257). Change “New York” to “Montreal” and the same comment could be said about Rena.

Also mentioned is Lee Miller, who, at seven, was raped by a family friend and contracted gonorrhoea. Her vagina and uterus were subjected to acid baths for treatment. Miller went on to be a model for Man Ray and later a noted photographer of the Holocaust.

The stories of two female photographers are complemented by the fact that Rena’s paternal side of the family were almost entirely annihilated by the Holocaust. Her Grandmother Rena “sank into a permanent stupor” (45) after she saw the photographs of the camps. The damage becomes inherited.

Of course, Rena is a photographer of difficult subjects. It seems the inspiration for the novel comes from a wondering about what drives seemingly privileged female photographers to choose horrors and freaks as their subjects.

And there’s the sex. Oh yes, the sex. What happened to Lee Miller is a hint of what happened to Rena. There’s enough titillation in the book to get you started and keep you going.

One of the difficulties I had with the book is liking Rena. Her proud promiscuity is a turn off, and it’s also distancing to have a narrator who admits to making things up. Ultimately, I felt sorry for Rena; it’s painful to watch her self-destruct. The graphic aspects of this book will be difficult for some readers. For myself, I think I had wanted and expected a sunny story because it was set in Tuscany. This book is not that. It is gritty, disturbing, and unstable.

What I liked about the book wasn’t so much the characters and the story (why is Rena on this trip, anyway?) but where the novelist directed me to look: at artists and their art. It’s helpful to look at the art work or research the artists that Huston mentions in Infrared. However, that said, the references could take the reader away from the novel and to look at what perhaps inspired it.

Infrared is about layers, illusions, and emotional resonance, both for the characters and the reader. It needs to be re-read with an infrared “lens”. Rena uses this technique when photographing her subjects to strip away the surface and see the pain underneath. Rena wants to see other’s pain because it’s what she feels so much. Rena is stripped of everything by the end of the book: job, boyfriend, and father. She is left as vulnerable as she was as a child.

I encourage you after reading this book to let it settle. Then take the time to peel back the layers, examine the novel’s references on the internet, and cross-fertilize the information that has been presented to you.

Huston, Nancy, Infrared. Toronto: McArthur & Company, 2011. Print.




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Skim

SkimSkim by Mariko Tamaki

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I was wowed by this book. It subtly and sensitively deals with a girl’s coming of age and the struggle of closeted teens. We share the insights of growing up via the main character, nicknamed “Skim”. She wryly comments on her friend’s behaviour: “You can tell when Lisa’s nervous because she acts like I’m an idiot.” The book shows Skim negotiating her own sexuality and confusion, as well as dealing with fitting in. Her relationship with her English teacher, Ms. Archer, remains wonderfully ambiguous and provides lots of fodder for discussion.

After I finished reading Skim, I started to compare it to Bigfoot, a boy’s coming of age graphic novel. Both books take place in an insular and claustrophobic atmosphere: Skim in an all-girl’s Catholic school; Bigfoot in a small Quebec town. Both settings are a great metaphor for the dilemma of teenage-hood: Feeling chocked by the rules and expectations of the adult world, but still not quite prepared for the responsibilities of full adulthood. Skim is more subtle, dark and complex; Bigfoot is humourous and straightforward. I thought these two books would make interesting examples when examining books, reading and gender.

Both books contain mature content and coarse language. But both contain realistic dialogue and are compelling reads. I have less an issue with having Skim in my school library because of its subtleness.




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Bigfoot

BigfootBigfoot by Pascal Girard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Bigfoot contains a teenager’s world of sexual urges, falling in love, YouTube embarrassment, having a best friend who could be your worst enemy, and a crazy uncle who is obsessed with proving the existence of Bigfoot.

Jimmy is the likeable, sensitive hero of this graphic novella who never seems to be quite in control of his fate. Jimmy’s attempts at forming complex relationships is what grabbed me and the realistic dialogue kept me reading.

There is a marvellous sense of setting: Everyone knows Jimmy in the small town isolated by a ring of woods. No matter where he goes--to the local depanneur, the cinema, or a video store--all recognize hiim as the boy in the YouTube video.

I guess I would have liked to see Jimmy “win” by the end of the book, but perhaps there’ll be room for that in a sequel.

Since we are entering a teenager’s world, there is some explicit language and images.




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Goliath (graphic novel)

GoliathGoliath by Tom Gauld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Goliath is the gentle giant, an administrator in the Philistine army, and a very reluctant soldier. He’d rather push papers than lift a sword. Tricked to take on the Israelites, rumours begin to circulate about his prowess just because of his size.

Minimal text, deep thoughts, a flipped version of history. Lots to talk about after the story is over. Visual poetry.



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Plain Kate

Plain KatePlain Kate by Erin Bow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sweet new fairy tale complete with witches, Eastern-European flavour and a talking cat. Recommended for tween girls.

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Monday, 19 March 2012

The Night Circus

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Night Circus is a fully imagined, fantastic tale. Erin Morgenstern has invented a brand new world involving a circus driven by a magic competition. Celia and Marco are bound by their masters to outdo one another through magical feats in a contest where the rules are kept hidden from the contestants. Their venue is a circus, in which the performers never get sick, never get old. The circus is only open from dusk till dawn. It appears and disappears suddenly and it travels by mysterious means all over the globe.

The circus is carefully planned by engineers and designers, but what mere mortals are unable to achieve are augmented by the talents of Celia and Marco. Eventually, the circus develops a cult following of people who call themselves rêveurs. Each tent of the circus plays on the dreams, memories and hopes of its audience. The world of The Night Circus is wholly believable.

For me, I was completely won over by Celia’s audition scene especially when her raven crashes into her and is transformed into a black jacket over her equally altered black and white gown. It left me breathless.

However, Morgenstern pays more attention to the creation of this world and its characters, than to the development of the action and the love story. If you like things to move along in a novel, the detail in The Night Circus might frustrate you. Morgenstern takes a lot of time and energy to construct the world of the circus: All that work deserves a little more action. Perhaps the author is like Celia: Celia is soon burdened by the task of keeping the circus running.

I liked how the story of previous rivals shows that in each contest the competitors find their identities in each other and fall in love. As well, I believed Marco’s feelings of love at first sight for Celia, but needed more to understand Celia’s attraction to Marco and her subsequent wavering.

Nevertheless, I was enchanted by The Night Circus. I wish such a place really existed. Perhaps it does: imagination. Like the rêveurs we each “add our own stories, each visitor, each visit, each night spent at the circus. I suppose there will never be a lack of things to say, of stories to be told and shared”. The writings of the rêveurs allows their readers to be “[transported]...at will. When put that way, it sounds rather like magic, doesn’t it?”

The Night Circus has made a rêveur out of me.

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Monday, 20 February 2012

21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn

21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn by James Bellanca

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this anthology of essays more for professional reasons than personal, ergo the three-star review. The ideas are interesting and thoughtful, but not earth-shattering or provocative.

I'm presently looking at how teachers can create plagiarism-proof assignments and engage students more deeply in learning. Howard Gardner's "Five Minds for the Future" and John Barell's "Problem-based Learning: The Foundation for 21st Century Skills" addressed my concerns most closely, although I found that "Designing New Learning Environments" by Bob Pearlman will be useful to consult with when I am able to redesign my library. For example, he quotes, "Classrooms are out! No more classrooms!" Perhaps the whole school will turn into a learning commons. As well, there will be other essays I will be returning to: "Technology Rich, Information Poor", "Navigating Social Networks as Learning Tools" and "Leadership, Change, and Beyond the 21st Century Skills Agenda". It is a huge collection, and I'm sure there are other issues and ideas to feed the questions of other readers.

The essays are American-centric, but the concepts can be modified and applied to Canadian schools.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

What We Talk About When We Talk About LoveWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prompted by a recent review of Nathan Englander's book of a nearly similar title, I re-read this slim collection I had from grad school.

Why do some short stories leave you saying "huh?" while others hit you in the solar plexus?

This collection reveals love in its darker forms, often fueled by alcohol and accompanied by violence.

Lust, loss, abandonment, desperation, resentment, revenge.

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Sunday, 12 February 2012

Goliath

Goliath (Leviathan, #3)Goliath by Scott Westerfeld

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A satisfactory ending to the Leviathan trilogy. I missed the creativity of the first two books: It seems that the imagined steampunk version of World War I no longer needed to be developed.

The book continues the trilogy's tradition of inventively mixing historical fact and fiction. Deryn injures her knee and gets fixed up by the doctor of Pancho Villa. Her rehabilitation includes a "beastie" compress that cleans out her wound and repairs ligaments using tendrils.

Still, I was not compelled by the action of the story to keep on reading as I had been in the first two books.

Maybe I just didn't want the adventures of Deryn and Alex to end.

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Running to Extremes

Running To ExtremesRunning To Extremes by Steve Pitt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Running to Extremes describes Ray Zahab's transformation from Old Ray, a smoking and drinking party-er to New Ray, an ultra-marathoner.

The book is simply written and intended for a young adult audience, especially reluctant or ELL readers. In fact, Zahab has used his experiences to start the "impossible2Possible" foundation to encourage teens to discover freedom from their own limitations by participating in extreme environment adventures.

The book shows that ultra-marathons reveal many valuable life lessons. They include:

-limitations are only in your mind

-never be a sore loser

-we all screw up; successful people learn from their mistakes

-we are all "capable of the extraordinary in our lives" (114)

-"anyone can change his or her life through hard work and determination" (114)


A quick, but informative read.

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