Review: The Seal Wife

The Seal Wife
The Seal Wife by Kathryn Harrison
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

At first, Bigelow’s story is mesmerizing, hypnotic. Then, it is impatient, then tedious, like a winter life without conversation. I’ll have to think about this one for a while before I know what to say about it.

I’ve sat on this one for 2 days, trying to decide what to think about The Seal Wife. Here’s what I love: What an interesting and unique topic! Weather prediction science in Alaska on the cusp of World War One! Growing boomtowns, the slow sprawl of the railroads. The descriptions, the feel. Harrison gives the reader a near-tangible sense of the cold, the isolation, the big-picture excitement utterly overshadowed by the daily tedium.

Here’s what was so disappointing: Bigelow. He’s a lump! What drove him to go so far from home? Does he never write to his family in the lower 48? Does he have any interesting thoughts beyond which mute woman is going to lay down for him? Sheesh. Plus, and this one made it impossible to like this book: Even given the time frame, how is it possible that such an educated person who grooves on science, invention, and discovery can desire to choose as his life’s partner a woman who has no wish to communicate with him? Bleh.

I was so wishing that She truly was a seal wife, a selkie, perhaps the one who bit him! That would, at least, have put some magic in the story.

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Review: The Mysterious Howling

The Mysterious Howling
The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Delightful, though the author appears to be channelling Lemony Snicket and Whales on Stilts author Anderson. Had I not read so much of those who came before, I would, no doubt, find Howling inventive and thrilling. Curse of the well-read parent and former children’s librarian, I find it derivative and over-the-top-of-the-dust-jacket winky at the parent reading out loud. Still, do I like it? Yes I do! I think it will appeal both to the precocious elementary reader and the read-to-poke-fun-at-Downton-Abbey adult.

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Review: Betwixt and Between

Betwixt and Between
Betwixt and Between by Jessica Stilling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Four stars for concept, two stars for execution.

I know I’m in the minority here — Most people seem to be wowed by it. My annoyance while reading this may be more the industry’s fault than the writer’s: This is another book that was misrepresented by those trying to sell copies. It was portrayed as a fantasy, a combining of the Neverland of Peter Pan and the after-life experiences of children. This is in there; however, the main thrust of this book is parental grief, longing, and moving on. It’s not a fantasy. It’s not a mystery. It’s not a romp. It’s bibliotherapy. (Again, I cannot blame the author for my misunderstanding of what the book was going to be about.)

The opening scenes are clunky, the children seem much younger than their stated 10 years, and Stilling spends a lot of pages simply re-telling the Peter Pan tale.

Neverland, as Stilling imagines it, reminded me a lot of Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey. Both had that great-idea-but-not-developed-enough feel, and both, (if I’m remembering right), include that concept that any romantic or sexual stirrings mean immediate banishment from childhood. They both also could be read to imply that girls are at fault here. I found that disappointing in stories written in the 21st century.

Still, I could really see this being appealing to readers who are in the mood for some heartstring tugging, or for help with closure following the death of a loved one.

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Review: How I Became a Ghost

How I Became a Ghost
How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Love the title, and I really wanted to love the book — Not many kids’ books about Indian relocation have passed my way. But I just couldn’t get into this. I started reading it out loud to myself; it sounds almost like oral stories written down. As stories told ‘live,’ in an intimate group, I think it would be better. On the page, it has a stilted, boring feeling. I am not sure kids will stick with this one. Too bad.

Th cover illustration by Uliana Gureeva is absolutely gorgeous.

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Review: Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction

Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction
Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction by Paul G. Bahn
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It’s frightfully smashing that Bertie Wooster has written this very short introduction to archaeology. What-ho!

This is a weird book. I do NOT recommend that anyone read it as a first introduction to archaeology.

The tone is flip and silly. The author spends the first chapter saying there’s too much being published in archaeology today, so much so that it is not even worth the space on library shelves. Then he says there aren’t enough archaeologists to do the analysis. He ends the chapter by pooh-poohing the very premises on which the discipline is based. (In the next chapter, he basically says no archaeologists are smart enough to understand the science behind any archaeological dating techniques.)

Tell, me, why did Bahn choose to write this book? Apparently, he’s written a lot of books on archaeology but, he doesn’t seem to respect it as a field of study. He focuses on archaeology’s failings and, of all things, on the inbred politics of 1960s academe. Why would anyone need to know that stuff in an introductory volume? If I were new to archaeology, I would want to know the principles on which it’s based, field and lab practices, a few major contributions that archaeology has made to our understanding of humanity’s past, and what archaeologists are working towards now. I would not want cheesy political cartoons and his bizarrely outdated whining about feminism.

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Review: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way
The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m approaching this one more as a mom than as an educator. As such, my comments reflect that perspective rather than a critical reading. I’m interested in how kids get an education that they think of as good. I’m interested in their experiences as students abroad.

p. 32. — When Kim got into the Duke summer program for gifted and talented kids and she said to her mom “This is my chance to be normal!” I just cried. In so many schools, kids who are interested in learning are ridiculed or just subtly made to feel weird and out of the norm. (The really sad part is that many of these ostracizing attitudes carry over into adult life, especially in small towns.)

p. 84 – 85 — I am astounded by what Ripley has written about America’s teacher training colleges and the value of a master’s degree in education. If true, it’s deeply saddening that the coursework isn’t rigorous and there seem to be no baseline standards for who gets in. (Can that really be true? Don’t teachers-to-be have to take the GRE and submit a transcript? Don’t they have to pass an intensive practicum?) Either way, teaching here is not held in the high regard Ripley reports it is in Finland. Nor is it limited to it the top minds.

I wanted to know more about the PISA test. I started here. I was looking to find out how many students in each country take the test each year. It’s on the FAQ page. In 2012, 6,111 15 year olds took the test. So, it can’t really be said to offer an accurate picture of our whole country’s educational system. That’s a really small percentage of the kids in the U.S. I think if all kids took this instead of the MCAS or FCAT or California achievement tests or SATs or whatever, then we could use it to generate data that tell us something real about our nation. So, that’s a bit disappointing.

As other reviewers have said, the fact that so few kids actually take the PISA calls into question Ripley’s using PISA results to conclude that Finland, South Korea, and Poland have better schools over all than the U.S.

I can’t throw out everything else she’s written; on p. 100, Ripley relates a story told by a Finnish girl who had come to Michigan for an exchange year: “It was like elementary school in Finland,” she said . . . “We did so many posters. I remember telling my friends, ‘Are you kidding me? Another poster?’ It was like arts and crafts, only more boring.” This is not hyperbole. As a parent and as a teacher in more than one district, I have witnessed first hand these demoralizing cut and paste projects that only require that a student produce some object that will be thrown away once graded. It is the rare and beloved teacher who assigns projects that grab students’ imaginations and get them to think and really learn something they’ll internalize, be proud of, and use again.

Over and over, Ripley returns to the theme of expectations. When we have low expectations of students, they work to meet those low expectations and that’s it. There’s also the theme of rigor. It’s not necessarily about tracking, about separating kids out into ‘college-bound’ and ‘not’ at a young age. It’s not about piling on the volume of work so much that kids have no time to do anything else. It’s about creating excitement about learning, developing coursework and homework that develop kids’ thinking and reasoning skills. All kids can do this, straight As or not.

And, of course, as a librarian and as a lifelong reader, I am both overjoyed and horrified that the international survey and study of family life that was done along with the PISA identified the three most important kinds of parental involvement leading to student success: 1) reading to your children from a very young age; 2) regularly making sure your children see you reading for enjoyment and information; 3) conversing with your kids about what you’re all reading and about world events. Yeesh! Do we need another study to tell us this? And, in light of this, why do library directors everywhere have to prove their worth to finance committees every year?

I might be ranting and raving now. Can you tell I’ve recently started attending curriculum committee meetings at my youngest’s school?

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