Category Archives: Books I enjoy!

Saturday’s Book: “The Last Painting of Sara De Vos” by Smith

One could imagine such a scene as a landscape painting…
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It sounded like a book I would enjoy.

A tale of a little known female painter who was a member of the Dutch painter’s guild as a work of fiction, with the author filling in the gaps in plausible manner given the period and place.  Such books can often illuminate a period in history and distant societies, enriching my world.

The lighting in the painting may have been wonderful but the book did not hold my interest. I read a bit more than a third of it before giving up on it. The parts about the super rich man (with detailed description of the wonders of his apartment) who is, (naturally) unhappy (cursed by the painting?) and the poor lonely art student drawn into forgery bored me and ruined the rest.

The book got excellent reviews but doesn’t work for me.

Saturday’s Book: “Running with Scissors” by Augusten Burroughs

So, what’s up?
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So how do you define crazy? I have a feeling that no matter how you tend to use the word “crazy” , it will apply to this memoir of growing up in a completely crazy environment.

The book is very well written  but I do not agree with any of the reviews that say it is funny. I felt shocked, upset and sad.

How can it be that a child could grow up, in the city, and not trigger a single red flag in the system?! Nobody noticed that his parents were dysfunctional (and yes, mentally ill) and that he basically moved from barely attending school to not at all? Not a single person took note that a psychiatrist was having some of his patients live at his home (calling it a dysfunctional home is an understatement) and “treating” several of the women patients undergoing crises in a motel bedroom?!

I find that incredibly sad.

I could never use such a book in my own classroom setting,  but I did imagine discussing one point that came up several times in the book: The author had what many teenagers would envy – absolute freedom. As a teenager no one ever told him what to do or when to do it, he could do anything he wanted (including tearing down a ceiling) and nobody cared. And that made him miserable. It made him feel trapped, going nowhere. That’s something I would be glad to have a few of my students ponder.

I understand there is a movie version but I’m not going to see it. The book is well written and I think the style of writing counts a lot in this memoir. Without it I suspect one is left only with craziness.

Saturday’s Book: “The Golden Legend” by Nadeem Aslam

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What a remarkable book!

Riveting!

It’s the kind of book that makes me wish I were back in college, taking a literature class in which we were studying this book. I imagine “taking a magnifying glass” and taking a good look at how cleverly the author lets information drip in, not adding more information than you need at the moment, letting you sense things before they are affirmed and presenting horrific events with just enough detail to let you fill in the dots yourself, in the amount and manner that you can deal with.

In this legend, that takes place in Pakistan, there most certainly are extremely painful events. However the tale of current events is intertwined with a BOOK (which was once lost , once harmed, being stitched back together in different strokes) whose pages strive to alert the world to the many ways all known cultures in the world were influenced by each other and are connected. Education, books, learning about the other, accepting people’s differences (since no one is really that different) is the path to touching the legend. Extremism, ignorance, banning of books, thoughts and feelings hurts the people setting the bans too, not to mention those caught in the crossfire.

Think of “The Handmaids Tale” or “1984”.

Reading this book made me think of both of them, though in this one there is more hope, a bit easier to see what could be possible instead.

This is the kind of book that leaves an impression.

Saturday’s Book: “The House by the River” by Lena Manta

Not a river but it will do…
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I really wanted to like this book, I truly did.

I have a soft spot for Greece, I’m interested in its recent history (as well as ancient history) and I know some wonderful people there. I am familiar with some of the places mentioned in the first part of the book (though have visited very few of them so far), such as Larissa, where I have a special friend.

I knew from the first moment (this isn’t actually a spoiler, its crystal clear) that the book has a clear message – the simple country home in the village is better than anything else and true happiness will only be found at home. I was prepared to treat it as a Greek fable and ignore the “schmaltz”.

My strategy worked well as long as the book was about the older generation and life during (and between!) the two world wars.

However, by the time I had finished reading about the eldest daughter’s experiences after she left home, I thought I would drown in “schmaltz”.

I have no patience for this. I moved on to a new book, which is riveting!

You’ll be hearing about it!

Saturday’s Book: “The Silver Star” By Jeannette Walls

It’s a bit like a star, don’t you think?
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I read this book in three days. I couldn’t put it down.

Obviously, when you recognize the author’s name you compare it to “The Glass Castle”. No, it’s not as good as that book, which was really powerful and memorable. But there’s no need to compare – I really enjoyed reading this book.

First of all, Walls’ writing style had me totally mesmerised from the first page. There’s something about the way she writes that makes me feel that those two sisters, their unstable mother and even the two emus are so real.  Yup, emu, the animal. Two of them. The fact that the author combines the backdrop of racial tension following the integration of schools in Virginia, along with prevalent norms and different perspectives playing out in a small town vs. “city folk” add many thought-provoking dimensions to the story.

I must also admit that the “teacher side” of me also kicks in. It could be a great book to discuss with high school students. Many  issues that are relevant to all teenagers come up, with the wonderful message that running away from your problems isn’t going to make them go away.

In short, I’m glad I read the book!

(Belated) Saturday’s Book: “The Riddle of the Compass” by Aczel

Directions
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Full title – “The Riddle of the Compass – The Invention that Changed the World”

What a little gem of a book!

This is a great example of what a good librarian can do for you. I’m so embarrassed to admit that I have forgotten the English-speaking-librarian’s  name, perhaps  because she rarely works during the times when I visit the library. But I do remember what I have learned by reading some of the stranger looking books she has placed on the recommended bookshelf – give the book a chance! It’s a library – you can always return it if you don’t like it.

You don’t have to be a skipper (I hate boats, get seasick) or a fan of how-devices -work programs  (I just want them to work, thank you very much) to find this book fascinating. In a simple and very engaging style, Aczel takes you on a trip around the world and through the ages. Not only does he present how people navigated at sea before compasses came on the scene,  he shows you how things are related to each other – commerce, war, prosperity, health, education, cultures and technology. In this case the technology is the compass.

Telling you anymore would ruin the experience and Aczel does it so much better! It’s like reading a multi dimensional travel book – globe-trotting and time travel.

It says on the cover that the author wrote more books – I’ll keep an eye out for them.

Enjoy!

Saturday’s Book: “Educated” by Tara Westover

The ties that bind us…
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This was my third book of my audio-book treat.

Thanks to the combination of the excellent (as always!) reader and the author’s beautiful prose, the backdrop, characters and events were extremely vivid.

Too vivid at times. Honestly.

It’s an amazing story of how a girl who never went to school until she began college at the age of 17 graduated from Cambridge and the Harvard with a PhD.  And no, it’s not that she participated in a wonderful home schooling program…

I am, naturally, fascinated by what makes a person study on her own despite hostile conditions and to see the effect education has on a person’s life.  This story is certainly fascinating.

However, this woman had some extremely difficult experiences while growing up. Some passages in the book were very hard for me to listen to. From what I’ve seen in the media,  people are comparing the book to The Glass Palace. I would also compare the book to The Color of Water.  While there are certainly many similar elements (the desire for education is one of them!) I felt there was one major difference, though I could be mistaken.

In this book I felt it was a wonder that the author, Tara, was even physically alive to make it to college. Her extreme survivalist family literally placed her in physical danger on more than one occasion. Not to mention physical abuse.

If I had read a print version I may have skipped a few lines here and there, in the really rough spots.

I recommend it, but perhaps its best not take the audio version for this one.

ONE TWEAK AT A TIME: REFLECTING ON FANSELOW’S TEXTBOOK FOR EFL TEACHERS – 2. Read and Look Up!

This is part two of my second blogging challenge, in which I experiment  with and reflect on some of the small changes recommended in John Fanselow’s “Small Changes in Teaching, Big Results in Learning” .  These challenges are a way for me to keep honing my teaching skills.

New constructions
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I had heard of “Read and Look Up” before encountering this book, but never tried it in class. The rationale for having the students not recite a text mechanically while reading it from the page is clear and simple, that wasn’t what stopped me from trying it. It’s intuitive too, I can feel it on myself – a person can’t really focus on  comprehension and process the vocabulary, syntax and content presented in a text while focusing on reading aloud, particularly in a foreign language. It’s perfectly possible to read aloud from a page nicely without understanding what you have read.

What I hadn’t understood at all before reading Fanselow’s explanations and suggested activities is that reading a sentence (or two) silently, pausing and then looking at someone  before saying the words is not simply an exercise in memory and parroting! Now that I had something concrete to “hold on to”, I started trying some of the variations presented in the book , inventing additional variations along the way to suit my own students.

Having a ladder helps!
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The “Advanced” Student – An Individual Lesson

10th grade student, top-level, hard of hearing, but in a quiet, one-on-one setting, can hear fairly well with her hearing aids. She speaks clearly too.

I gave the student, whom we’ll call R., an unfamiliar text written as an opinion essay on whether high school should be required to volunteer in the tenth grade or not. I had no idea if the activity I was going to try was suitable for such a strong student as R. ,but this was a text I had wanted to use in any case. I gave R. no explanations, just asked her to read to herself a sentence or two, turn over the page and say what she read.

R. did as I asked.

She replaced some words with others as she spoke.

I was delighted!

I praised her, explaining that replacing words was wonderful and told her that I wanted us to examine together what exactly she was doing.  I pulled out scrap paper and a pen and asked R. to begin again and wrote down every word she said. The situation amused R. –  she was speaking and I was the one writing furiously.

We paused after every two sentences (more or less) to compare what R. had said with the original text. We noted which words she had replaced with others and whether they meant the same as the original or not. If not, I suggested other words she could have used. For example, she said “In the beginning” instead of “At first”, which is great. When she said “the experience has donated  far more to me” instead of “contributed” we discussed the difference between the two words.

Then R.  read (with page turned over, remember?) two long sentences verbatim. She hadn’t replaced a single word or omitted a single one. R. then looked at the text and asked:

” I used the words in the text. I don’t know other words to use here.  Can you tell me?”

Needless to say, I was happy to oblige.

Look up!
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“The Struggling Learners” – Individual Lessons

12th grade students, hard of hearing / Deaf students who use sign language in addition to speech, their speech is not always clear, all have additional learning disabilities, poor language skills in their mother tongue.  These students are practicing for the writing section on their upcoming “Module C” final exam, which for them is a very simple, informal letter, 35-40 words long. It is a difficult task for them.

I gave each student a sample letter we had used in class before.  The students are already familiar with the format – their final exam is in three weeks! Once again I first had the student look at the text, flip over the page and then read aloud. The texts are short! I wrote what each student said and then we compared it to the original. But then (following Fanselow’s suggestion) I added stages.

Each student received the text again with a blank space instead of one word in each sentence. They had to look at that text before flipping over the page and reading aloud complete sentences. Once again I wrote what they said and we compared what I wrote with the page with the blank spaces.

Then I gave the students the same text again with more blank spaces.  They looked at it and repeated the process. When we compared the results to the page not one student asked for the original complete text, they didn’t need it.

There are two blank spaces missing after the word “almost”, which got cut off in the photo.

Finally I gave the students a blank page and had them write a complete letter on their own.

It’s interesting to note that I hadn’t expected any of the students to replace any words, as their vocabulary is poor.

But they did. A little bit.

I’ve told these students repeatedly to choose adjectives they remember so as not to use the dictionary much on this section of the exam – they really don’t have time. But some students are “stubborn” – one student always wants to write that her boss is mean but can never remember the word “mean” and has to look it up. Today she simply replaced the word “mean” with “nice”!

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Notes so far:

*The students and I are really enjoying this.

* In the next post I’ll share my “Read and look up” experiences so far with pair work.

* In Fanselow’s book the teacher isn’t the one doing the writing but for now, at least, that tricky with my students who don’t hear each other well.

* There are more elements to the method in the book.

 

 

 

Saturday’s Book: “Imperium” by Robert Harris

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This book tries to be a combination of a historical account and a modern courtroom thriller.

I enjoyed it up to a point.

I’m interested in history, the Roman Empire is certainly a fascinating subject and Cicero’s unlikely rise to power is truly  a worthy subject. However there’s a great deal of detail designed to make the book sound like an episode of Boston Legal (or some other modern show about a law firm)  and by the last third of the book I found it tiresome. That probably says more about me than about the writer’s skill, I’m less interested in the back room wheeling and dealing   for votes. Shorter would have been better.

Nonetheless, I can see myself reading more of the author’s historical novels. He certainly makes a world long gone seem real.

Saturday’s Book: “Alias Grace” by Atwood

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Do you know how sometimes you feel sorry when you reach the end of a book you are reading and ” miss” the characters for a while?

By the time I finished reading Alias Grace I was glad to say goodbye to the characters and to have them out of my life.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe it’s a very good book. Atwood’s writing is, as always, riveting. I though it was incredibly skillful how she took the information available from printed sources about this true murder case / trial and filled in the gaps so convincingly. The characters she depicts seem very much alive, as is the period in which they lived. Sad times, unfair times, in which there was  scant attention given (if at all) to a great number of people’s well-being.  That’s putting it extremely mildly.

I’m glad I read the book but also glad I have finished it and can move on.