Book Love Book Review

Author: Penny Kittle
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It’s very rare today for a book to come along where I find myself slowing down to devour every single word on the page – especially in the realm of non-fiction.

My usual pace with these books is to read the first few chapters in depth to see where it’s going, then pick up the pace while glossing over swaths of text that seem redundant. It doesn’t help that many non-fiction books feel like those chunks of text were added to meet a word count.

This book blew me away.

Kittle is a passionate teacher who has a deep love of reading and writing, which is obvious from the start. It’s a passion she passes along to her students, teaching them to enjoy reading for the love of reading and nothing else. All I could think is her students are fortunate to have her.

This book is her thoughts and methodology at building a classroom library and finding ways to engage students with the right book. I loved not only her honesty, but the honesty of her students who give the real details teachers often don’t want to hear.

We are given many stories throughout of her successes and challenges in building a culture where reading is prized and students go home and devour books that interest them. As a teacher, I’ve always struggled with literary analysis because it was a turnoff for me as a student.

Does it have its place?

Of course. It’s the reason I discovered Mordecai Richler and combed through the nuances of Hamlet. I also took courses in genre fiction in University just to break up the monotony of thick, Theology textbooks for my major. However, I understand that I’m an odd duck who devours books like it’s a necessary part of living (an INFJ trait, I’m told).

Kittle shows us how many students don’t have the interest, skill, or stamina (sometimes all three), to be active readers. Literary analysis falls on deaf ears because students simply don’t read the assigned books. They either use SparkNotes, online essays, or wait for a class discussion to start and comment on the themes mentioned to make it look like they’ve read.

We can’t blame them for doing this.

What we can do, is find books to match their interest and let them be swept away for nothing but the love of reading. Then challenge them to take it up a notch until they’re reading the classics we so desperately want them to enjoy.

Kittle makes you believe it’s possible because she’s done it for years.

Even if I were to take no suggestions for my own classroom… which is not the case because I’ve already started building my library for the new year… you will walk away from this book with an appreciation for books themselves.

It will probably take me a few years to get it going, but at the very least, I will now slow down and enjoy each word I come across on a page.

#AskGaryVee Book Review

Author: Gary Vaynerchuk
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If there’s one thing you can never fault Vaynerchuk for in life, it’s authenticity.

This guy knows exactly who he is, what he stands for and how he sees the world. There are no gray areas with him and when it comes to delivering what’s on his mind, you get everything.

While Gary’s main focus (today) is his marketing firm, he goes into every possible avenue with this book. If you’ve listened to his podcast, or watched his latest youtube show, consider this book a very long episode.

The book itself is divided up into different sections and even though parts of it weren’t areas of my own interest, I found myself reading them anyway just to hear what Gary has to say. Did I always agree with him?

Absolutely not.

However, he had me thinking in different ways and nodding my head over some points I had never considered. It is appreciated that he is so open so the reader knows you are getting real answers based on real experience. If there’s anything that has me running for my garbage bin or jamming on that delete (or even unsubscribe) button in my email, it’s the over-saturated direct marketing that preys on your insecurities under the guise of a person being an “expert.”

Also, anybody who tells me they have the “secret” that “experts don’t want you to know.” *eye roll*

The key points from this book are to be authentic, engage with your audience and hustle.

In the grand scheme of life-changing advice, it seems simplistic (and most profound realizations are), but the passion Vaynerchuk brings to explaining those ideas are miles ahead of anyone else.

If you want some raw honesty from one perspective, with a shot of entertainment, this book is worth a read.

The Ripple Effect Book Review

Author: Dr. Greg Wells
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While I would like to say this book contained groundbreaking, earth shattering information that completely transformed my life… it ended up being an excellent compilation of information I’ve already read about or knew.

Wells provides a great framework for becoming a healthier person by showing how the different facets flow together and depend on each other. The book is divided into four major sections: sleep, exercise, nutrition and mental health.

Admittedly, I skimmed the nutrition section of the book because I’m married to a nutritionist… who constantly consults her friend who is a dietitian… and berates me endlessly about proper eating and food safety. Yes, I get it – five day old pizza in the fridge is not healthy and I should probably throw it out. Also, a plate of bacon with a side of lettuce isn’t a balanced meal.

Aside from that chapter, each of the other three had something to offer in terms of a new way of explaining an idea, or additional information I hadn’t come across. As a parent of a toddler and another on the way, I paid particular attention the section on sleep. I think I did that to torture myself more than anything, but it’s information to keep in mind for when the next infant starts sleeping through the night.

Throughout the book are Wells’ “1% Tips,” which are small, micro actions you can take right now that compound over time for drastic results. If you were to go through and take one from each section and apply it, there’s no doubt you will be leagues ahead from where you are now.

For those of you who already sleep well, exercise, eat healthy and spend time in mindfulness activity, there might not be new offerings in this book. Keep doing what you’re doing.

As for the rest of us, we would do well to pay attention to what Dr. Wells is saying because each of those areas he speaks about ripple into the other.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. Book Review

Authors: Neal Stephenson, Nicole Galland
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Reading a Neal Stephenson novel will test your intelligence.

His books are not known for being short romps with endless suspenseful sequences to keep you hooked. Instead, you are treated to the excruciating details of every minutia he can pack into his worlds.

Case in point: Anathem has an entire Wiki page dedicated to the math of the book.

However, if you’re willing to take the plunge and do a careful reading, you are rewarded with an internal locus of accomplishment. Not only has your brain sweat to the point of pure exhaustion, it feels satisfaction at crossing the threshold of those final pages where all is explained.

This particular book, which was co-authored with Nicole Galland, is much different.

It’s a much easier entry-point into Stephenson’s work, even though its sheer size may intimidate you at the onset. If you were to press me to provide a brief summary, I would have to concede it’s a fun romp that mixes magic and history, all while poking fun at government bureaucracy.

The book starts with a really interesting premise that gets you hooked, then wanders quite a bit until near the end. In essence: magic is possible, it disappeared from the world, an agency (D.O.D.O.) found a way to bring it back, the government wants to use it to send people back in time to influence events… it all goes wrong.

At times, the book gets silly, but if you made it to that point, you’ve committed anyway. There was a point when the silliness was so much I found myself laughing out loud. To that note, all I can tell you is a bunch of naked vikings raid a modern day Wal-Mart. If that sounds completely asinine, I should remind you the Big Lebowski was about a guy whose carpet gets urinated on and yet many people loved that movie to death.

Since this is a joint effort, you still see bursts of Stephenson’s methodical attention to detail where he’ll spend pages info-dumping on the reader. However, it gets lost to the multiple viewpoints this story is told through mixed with the barrage of characters you try to juggle in your head. None of that should detract from the incredible imagination this story has behind it.

It is refreshing to read something non-formulaic and predictable.

Overall, it’s still a fun book to read, but it didn’t hook me enough to immerse myself in. I was constantly picking at it, always finding something to enjoy, but not enough to keep me glued.

It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it still delivered.

A Dragon of a Different Color Book Review

Author: Rachel Aaron
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This is the fourth book in Rachel Aaron’s Heartstriker series and true to her form, it delivers.

My first interest in Aaron came about after reading her non-fiction 2k to 10k book, which led me to her Legend of El Monpress series. I enjoy Aaron because:

a) She’s a great writer
b) She creates imaginative worlds with characters you can get lost in
c) There are no loose ends in her series

To get a writer that exhibits all three of those qualities is something to hold on to.

This book starts right where the last one left off and ends by answering all the questions that have led up to this point. Then, it leaves you hungering for how it will all conclude by opening a few more mysteries that make you go, “What!?”

While there was a bit of info dumping in this book, it didn’t detract from wanting to know what happened next.

What impressed me the most is how the series has matured.

The first book was fun and campy – reminding me of the anime shows and video games I used to play (coincidentally, Aaron is a fan of both). Heck, the great all-powerful seer of the Heartstriker clan is named Bob.

Side note: Bob is awesome and you love him more as the series continues.

Each book gets progressively darker, more desperate and more mature, reminding me of the progression Rowling took in her Harry Potter series. Even the character of Julius, the “nice dragon,” is shedding his persona.

Not a single character is immune from transformation… except maybe Bob… but we already established Bob is awesome.

If you made it this far in the series, you’ll love reading this one and will grab the fifth when it gets released.

If you haven’t started it, you won’t be disappointed with where it goes.

Solitude Book Review

Author: Michael Harris
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It’s not  often I can pick up a non-fiction book and be completely immersed in the author’s head.

It’s also rare that I pay attention to every single word.

Harris completely hooked me into his world and I  felt myself slowing down to absorb everything he was saying in this book.

Reading through it felt like a journey through my own thoughts, but articulated through the author. It didn’t feel like an over-bloated blog post with a lot of filler text, but rather like someone who had a lot to say while trying to find their answer.

It helps that as a person steeped in mysticism and contemplation, the subject matter is near to my heart.

Solitude, in this book, is presented as something that is not only healthy… but necessary.

As we move towards a completely interconnected world, finding time for solitude is becoming increasingly rare. It is also becoming fearful as people try to drown out their own thoughts rather than allow themselves to walk down their inner road.

Harris looks at how our strength and creativity comes from these moments when we completely detached. Yet, they are being replaced with constant connection and outsourcing to others.

What are the consequences and what are we giving up in the process?

We don’t get a solid answer in the end, which is a good thing. This is a deep question requiring serious thought.

To give it a black and white answer denies the reader any opportunity to wrestle with it.

This is the first work of Harris’ I read and if he continues writing this way, I’m on board for the rest.

Ban This Book Book Review

Author: Alan Gratz
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I was fortunate enough to pick this up in the Express shelves of my local library and sat down for an afternoon to read it.

The heart of this book is about a fourth grader, Amy, who spends a lot of time in her head, but doesn’t actually speak up. Although the divide in age between myself and this protagonist is quite the span, I found I could relate to her right away.

It chronicles the events of her school when her favourite book gets banned from the library. Soon thereafter, a list of books are removed at the bequest of an influential parent council member who deems them inappropriate for a young audience.

As a response, Amy and her friends create a forbidden book library that is run out of her locker.

Thus, we get to the over-arching theme of this book, which is censorship.

We’re asked questions about who gets to decide what is right for children to read and how much autonomy we should give in decision making. I was very satisfied with the author’s answer at the end (thank you Mr. Gratz for giving one!), but it opens the discussion wide open for all readers.

What I found most dumbfounding was the author’s note at the end where he tells the reader every book on Amy’s list was banned, or under review for removal, from school libraries.

It made me appreciate this book all the more.

The writing is wonderful and the characters feel alive. This is a book that belongs in the hands of every young reader and every library.

Shift This! Book Review

Author: Joy Kirr
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This was another recommendation from a colleague about a way to completely transform the classroom. As someone who’s still getting his feet back in the waters, any advice passed along my way is always appreciated.

If I were to summarize this book in one sentence: put the students’ best interest first.

Kirr spends time talking about the major shifts she has made in her classroom, all starting from very small changes. Each change shifted her classroom culture, which caused her to implement another… and another.

I appreciate she’s actually speaking from experience and not merely from something theoretical.

There’s no doubt education is going through a transformation. Between the disruption of technology, unlimited access to information and the automation of our cognitive jobs (“white collar” work), our bell-style “sage on a stage” education has to change.

Kirr understands this and the shifts she makes in her classroom are a reflection of it.

There are a few chapters I highlighted and noted to death (especially the chapter on grading – my goodness that chapter is solid gold) and there were a few sections I personally wouldn’t use. Twitter, for instance, is something she strongly advocates educators use to chat with others.

I closed my Twitter account months ago for many reasons (even after having a solid following), but the biggest one is its ability to take away my focus. I would rather be creating content and reading deeply, rather than curating small bytes of information that would require me to do the deep work anyway. This is just a personal stance.

What I loved, and don’t see very often in books about educational practices, is Kirr does not back away from the struggles to make this type of classroom work. She does not present her class as some kind of utopia for implementing her changes.

She speaks about the struggles with getting the students on board, her colleagues and the parents.

I have already begun shifting my classroom before reading this book, but now I’m ready to make some bigger leaps.

The Collapsing Empire Book Review

Author: John Scalzi
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Here we go with another Scalzi book review. I don’t know what to say except I can’t get enough of this author.

The best way to describe this book is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine mixed with the characters of Kevin Smith movies… in a really good way.

Disclaimer: If you hate politics, science fiction and a few characters that swear obsessively, I would strongly discourage you from picking this up. Then again, if you’ve read anything by this author before, you know full well what you’re getting into.

Unlike the last book I read from Scalzi where I jumped in the middle of a series, this one is the beginning of a completely new story arc and universe. For that reason, it does take a bit to get into because you have to put together the pieces as you go along. For me, that took about fifty pages.

Once it gets going though, it ramps up in a magnificent display of awesomeness.

Quick summary: Humans have discovered something called The Flow, which allows them to colonize distant stars and galaxies… the catch being no one really knows how it works. They create a new empire called The Interdependency as a hedge against interstellar war whereupon all the systems are dependent on each other — then The Flow starts shifting.

The story moves quickly and the disparate characters it follows slowly begin to merge together into one interconnected plot. For this reason, it never got confusing and it built towards an ending that was satisfying enough to pick up the next one in the series.

So thank you Mr. Scalzi for chewing up another weekend of mine with your raw edge of literary prowess in a genre I can’t get enough of.

Deep Thinking Book Review

Author: Garry Kasparov
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Garry Kasparov — one of the highest rated Grandmasters in Chess history and the first to defeat an AI supercomputer. However, he’s best known as the guy who lost to a different iteration of that supercomputer in 1997.

This book is a telling of his thoughts on the future of humans and artificial intelligence and for once… it’s refreshing. He’s put away the doom and gloom that some analysts speak from and looked at it from a positive and critical angle. It’s a neat approach because… you know… he would be on the front lines to know what it would be like to have AI take your job.

In his words:
“Romanticizing the loss of jobs to technology is little better than
complaining that antibiotics put too many grave diggers out of work. The transfer of labor from humans to our inventions is nothing less than the history of civilization.

There is no back, only forward.

Most of this book looks at his personal history with chess and its marriage with computers. Specifically, he gets into details of how weak it was when it started and how long it took before they actually became a threat on the chess board.

Yes, he gives an an in-depth analysis, from his own perspective this time, of that fated match with IBMs “Deep Blue.”

Interwoven within this narrative are his thoughts on the progression and consequences of artificial intelligence in this world.

It was an addicting read and I found myself slowing down just to soak up every word Kasparov was saying. Having an interest in chess helped, but his voice is so clear and full of wisdom that it doesn’t matter how much you really know about the game. You just want to hear what he has to say.

In the end, he challenges us to use this new cusp of technology as an opportunity to make leaps towards other cognitive horizons that we’re not even imagining yet.

“We haven’t lost free will; we have gained time that we just don’t know what to do with. We have gained incredible powers, virtual omniscience, but still lack the sense of purpose to apply them in ways that satisfy us.”

Maybe this next smartphone addicted generation we keep complaining about will be the ones to make that leap.