Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Today in History: The Great Debate on Evolution

The Oxford University Museum debate on Darwin’s theory of evolution took place on this date in 1860. Anglican Bishop Samuel Wilberforce denounced the concept. Biologist T.H. Huxley defended it.

Of course, the debate continues: What should we teach our children in public schools? Is evolution good science?
Is it compatible with faith? Have scientists really detected “intelligent design”—evidence of a creator—in nature?

MONKEY GIRL by Edward HumesIn Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes takes us behind the scenes of a more recent debate on evolution in Dover, Pennsylvania, the epic court case on teaching “intelligent design” it spawned, and the national struggle over what Americans believe about human origins.
Told from the perspectives of all sides of the battle, Monkey Girl is about what happens when science and religion collide.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The First Page with Thomas C. Foster: THE CRYING OF LOT 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The Crying of Lot 49 gives students a quick punch of Thomas Pynchon's brand of postmodernism. Thomas Pynchon can throw students for a loop—but that's the whole point of Pynchon, isn't it?

Still, students need a bit of preparation before they step into the ring with Pynchon—and Thomas C. Foster, professor at the University of Michigan and the author of How to Read Literature Like a Professor, provides it in the second video in his The First Page series. Professor Foster shows students how paying close attention to the first page—even the first sentence—of The Crying of Lot 49 will help them understand what is to come.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Don't Know Much About the Korean War

Kenneth C. Davis, author of A Nation Rising and Don't Know Much About History, just reminded me that the Koren War began 60 years ago today. He's written an enlightening article about it that's a good introduction to the subject for students whose exposure to the Korean War might be limited to reruns of M*A*S*H.

For an in-depth but not overwhelming look at the conflict, students can turn to Professor James L. Stokesbury's A Short History of the Korean War. Library Journal said, "Reducing an entire war to manageable length is a high literary art form, and Professor Stokesbury has mastered it...short does not mean banal condensation or a dismal list of statistics and facts."
And, for a more literary view, give MASH by Richard Hooker a try. This is the novel that gave life to Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John, Hot Lips Houlihan, Frank Burns, Radar O'Reilly, and the rest of the gang that made the 4077th MASH like no other place in Korea or on earth.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver: Pitch-Perfect for YA Readers

Young Adult fiction has become increasingly popular in classroom use. Elementary schools are incorporating reading workshops—in which students read and discuss books of their own choosing—as a way to engage otherwise reluctant readers. Even college courses have adopted YA books, usually for special courses on Children’s Literature, but, even, in some cases, for First Year Experience reading (The Graveyard Book at Western Michigan University).

In general, the young adult market has expanded a great deal in recent years. Thanks to the success of books like the Harry Potter and Twilight series, many adults are reading books that were once traditionally thought of as books for tweens and teens.

My personal recommendation for anyone interested in YA fiction is to read Lauren Oliver’s debut novel, Before I Fall. Before I Fall is the story of a high school senior who dies in a car accident and instead of passing on is given the chance to relive her last day 6 more times. What follows is a book about fate, choice, and the difficult decisions we face growing up. The main character, Samantha Kingston, is so likeable in her imperfections; the characters are well-drawn and multifaceted, and the plot rushes forward, even though entire story takes place in the same day repeated seven times.

Even though I’m about 6 years older than the older end of the traditional YA market, I totally relate to and love this book. The intense, layered emotions and the flawed—yet resilient—friendships in the book perfectly mirror the cornerstones of my own adolescence. Oliver’s characters feel completely authentic. If you’re looking for a story that elegantly explores the emotional complexities of adolescence, I can’t recommend a better book.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Managing Information in the Digital Age: A Practical Perspective

Hamlet's Blackberry by William Powers There is little argument over the fact that technology is changing the way people think and learn. Plenty of debate arises, however, as to whether or not this change is a good thing.

While healthy debate on both sides is important, it seems that there has been a preponderance of news stories about the negative effects of the digital age, which can include limited attention spans and a lack of critical thinking.

Steven Pinker’s op-ed “Mind Over Mass Media” in Friday’s New York Times was a refreshingly positive look at the effects of technology on critical thought. A Harvard psychology professor and the author of books on neuroscience and psychology (The Stuff of Thought, The Language Instinct), Pinker states that the panic over new technology’s negative effects on brainpower and moral fiber is overstated, and that there may, in fact, be many benefits to the increased use of new media.

I found this statement particularly resonant: “Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive… But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life.” Instead of despairing at the alleged “dumbing down” of a generation raised in the digital age, Pinker accepts the presence of technology and asserts that problems arise only if users fail to manage it.

A clear imperative emerges from these arguments: today’s students face a unique challenge as they learn to manage and critically analyze massive amounts of information in an evolving digital landscape. Hamlet’s BlackBerry, by William Powers, a leading commenter on information culture, is one of the first books to provide a practical philosophy for managing the devices and information outlets that now demand so much of our time and attention.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Live Vicariously. Read a Memoir.

Here's a summer's worth of memoirs....

COOP by Michael PerrySince the publication of Population: 485, I've been living a small-town life through Michael Perry's books. In Coop, Michael is in over his head on a farm in Wisconsin—complete with two pigs, a dozen chickens, and a baby due any minute. “Beneath the flannel surface of this deer-hunting, truck-loving Badger is the soul of a poet.”—Chicago Tribune

TIDE, FEATHER, SNOW by Miranda WeissThere are small towns—and there's wilderness. Miranda Weiss's Tide, Feather, Snow—a memoir of moving to Alaska—is “deeply honest . . . Weiss reflects on her first seasons living in coastal Alaska, serenely recording the stunning unpredictability of the place and people.” (Publishers Weekly)

IN THE SANCTUARY OF OUTCASTS by Neil WhiteNeil White's In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is another kind of journey. A short prison sentence sent the author to Carville, Louisiana—also home to the the last leper colony in the continental United States. “A remarkable story of a young man's loss of everything he deemed important, and his ultimate discovery that redemption can be taught by society's most dreaded outcasts.”—John Grisham

BOY ALONE by Karl Taro GreenfieldIn Boy Alone, Karl Taro Greenfield tells the story of his life growing up with his brother, chronicling the hopes, dreams, and realities of life with an autistic sibling. “Extraordinary… Greenfeld details what it is like to grow up next to a ‘beautiful’ boy with whom he can never play and never connect and who never returns his love, but who, nonetheless, is the most important fact of his life.” — Michael Thompson, Ph.D., co-author of Raising Cain

Friday, June 11, 2010

Don't Know Much About Flag Day with Ken Davis

Don't Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis Did you know that it is legal to burn the United States flag? And that the original American flag was not sewn by Betsy Ross, as is popularly believed? (Although it's true that the seamstress did make George Washington's French cuffs.) There are many myths and misconceptions about Flag Day, which will be celebrated on Monday, June 14. For more little known facts, watch the video with historian Ken Davis (author of Don't Know Much About History and America's Hidden History) below or on his website.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Debut Novels in Paperback

This June, Harper Perennial is overflowing with first novels that are already getting a lot of attention and wonderful reviews.

LAKE OVERTURN by Vestal McIntyreLake Overturn is a lovingly rendered portrait of small-town America. Vestal McIntyre knows his people intimately—how they speak, their manners and customs; but, most importantly, he knows their troubled hearts, and he plumbs the depths of those hearts with remarkable empathy and wisdom.”—Ron Rash, author of Serena

Read the first chapter.

THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA by Minrose Gwin“The most powerful and also the most lyrical novel about race, racism, and denial in the American South since To Kill a Mockingbird.”—Lee Smith, author of On Agate Hill

Read the first chapter.

COMMUTERS by Emily Gray Tedrowe“Tedrowe explores the reconfigurations of a family and the strange alliances that can occur between young and old, love and work. And she writes brilliantly about money…. A deeply satisfying debut.”—Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street

If you've met a character in any of these books that you feel strongly about—why not write him or her a letter? Ben Greenman, an editor at The New Yorker and the author of the upcoming books What He's Poised to Do: Stories and Celebrity Chekhov, has just launched a very clever and fun blog named Letters with Character: Letters Written to Fictional Characters by Actual People. It is an interactive literary environment in which Greenman encourages people to submit letters to their favorite literary characters.

The Adventures of an Unconventional Archaeologist

BENEATH THE SANDS OF EGYPT by Donald P. Ryan, Ph.D.Beneath the Sands of Egypt interweaves Donald Ryan's captivating tales from the field with reflections into the arcane world of Egyptology, from the writings of Herodotus to the tools of the trade, the intricacies of obtaining a digging permit to the thrall of popular myths.

Along the way, Donald Ryan introduces a diverse cast of eccentric colleagues, helpful locals, wily entrepreneurs, and enlightened benefactors who have touched his life, including the legendary Thor Heyerdahl, Ryan's childhood hero who eventually became his friend, mentor, and boss.

Throughout, Ryan adds his unique touch, reminding us how an artifact as seemingly insignificant as a piece of rope can unlock invaluable insights and offer its own wonderful tale. Infused with the irrepressible curiosity that has fueled Ryan's journey, Beneath the Sands of Egypt is the extraordinary story of a man who has spent a lifetime embracing adventure whenever—and wherever—he finds it.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Jonathan Weiner: Science Writer

HIS BROTHER'S KEEPER by Jonathan WeinerI wasn't a science major in college. I passed physics in high school by sheer force of will and my youthful memory. Still, I enjoy reading about science today with the happy thought that I don't have to worry about the final exam.

I'm a fan of science writer
Jonathan Weiner. And, I'm not the only one: Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, recommends Jonathan Weiner's His Brother's Keeper: A Story from the Edge of Medicine in the New York magazine article "If You Liked My Book, You’ll Love These." It's a very human story: Stephen Heywood was twenty-nine years old when he learned that he was dying of ALS—Lou Gehrig's disease. Almost overnight his older brother, Jamie, turned himself into a genetic engineer in a race to cure his sibling's incurable disease. Along the way, you'll learn about gene therapy, stem cells, brain vaccines, and other cutting-edge treatments for such diseases as ALS, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's—but Jonathan Weiner never lets you forget the Heywood family's heartache and the researchers who are working to find treatments for these diseases.

Jonathan Weiner's new book, Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality will publish this month—and it's already gotten high praise: "I love this book. It is a mesmerizing blend of vivid (sometimes hilarious) reporting, wide-ranging scholarship, and the throughtful probing of a great mystery. Like everything Jonathan Weiner does, it is far more than the sum of its parts."—James Gleick

If you haven't read
Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time, you should set aside a rainy afternoon for it. Evolution seems so remote—but Weiner will show you how natural selection is taking place by the hour. Plus, it won a Pulitzer Prize.

And, here's Jonathan Weiner talking about Long for This World.