Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School

by John Medina

The author, a lecturer, researcher, and molecular biologist, lists twelve major principles that help explain how the brain works: though processes are improved by physical exercise, we pay attention to evolutionarily important things like sex and danger, we need sleep to cogitate properly, repetition is crucial to long-term memory, we learn more through a variety of sensory inputs, gender influences how our brain process certain interactions, and so on. In most of the chapters, he goes on to advocate for the integration of these findings into education, thus revolutionizing the traditional classroom.

This book is widely praised for its clear, lucid prose, but I didn’t come away all that impressed. I felt that Medina took up too much space describing various sections of the brain to no real purpose. Does it really help our understanding of how the brain works to visualize axons and brain sections and cells and neurons as, variously, stomped eggs, a scorpion with an egg on its back, or uprooted trees jammed together horizontally? There’s no relation between its physical structure and how it works, so what’s the point? (In the same vein, I was bemused by his habit of describing nearly every scientist he refers to. I simply don’t care whether a man looks youthful or his head is shaped like an egg; indeed, such dwelling on looks turns me off an author.) I also thought that Medina (using tricks based on principles of attention) relied too much on cutesy and misleading attention-grabbers like “we’ll learn that we each have a Jennifer Aniston neuron” (no, we don’t) or “we’ll learn the difference between bicycles and Social Security numbers” (overly playful and not at all accurate). I find deliberately misleading teasers like that to be insulting rather than enticing. Finally and most importantly, most of these principles are extremely basic. (Is it really cutting-edge news that repetition is important when learning, or that we need sleep, or that some people crumple under stress while others rise to the challenge, or that people need to feel safe in order to learn?) Despite that, Medina several times in the book proposes sweeping, pie-in-the-sky “solutions” to education problems based on this research, such as restructuring the school day into short lessons, the same content repeated three times, and thus stretching the school year into the summer to make room for all the information; or offering an early work- or schoolday as well as a later one to accommodate different sleep cycles; or mandating child care and parent classes to everyone. Some of these aren’t bad ideas; it’s just that they aren’t going to happen any time soon. Some reasonable, easily-implemented changes that could provide some benefit would have been better. It is an interesting, if basic, primer on the brain, and it is told lucidly; I just didn’t feel there was much point to it, let alone help for “surviving and thriving,” as the subtitle boasts.

three stars

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Gooney Bird Greene

by Lois Lowry

An eccentrically-dressed and apparently over-imaginative second grade girl, Gooney Bird, comes to a new school and entrances the other students (and teacher) with her surprising, “absolutely true” stories.  With her deliberate, exact way of speaking and unusual phrasing, she describes her stories before telling them in ways that make it seem as though they’ll be tall tales – but there is always a humorous, prosaic explanation.  For example, “I was in jail when this happened” actually refers to Gooney Bird playing Monopoly and having landed on that square on the board; and getting a reward from “the prince” at “the palace” turns out to mean something quite different, though similar-sounding.  The same goes for “driving from China” and “arriving on a flying carpet.”

It’s a humorous, very brief book that also serves as instruction to children on how to formulate interesting stories, as well as to encourage them to believe that everyone has a story to tell.  I enjoyed the clever twists of language that revealed what Gooney Bird’s stories were really about, as well as the demonstration of how well “write what you know” can go when served by expressive language.  I did not at all like Gooney Bird’s personality, which is smug and self-satisfied, her too-adult speech patterns, or how she is portrayed as more clever and authoritative than the teacher of the class.  I think that’s a terrible example for kids who already often think they know more than they do.

three stars

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Matchlock Gun

by Walter D. Edmonds

Set during the French and Indian War, this 1942 Newbery winner tells of an episode in a Dutch-American frontier family. When the father is gone to track Indians, a scouting group of braves comes to the house, with only the young mother, Gertrude, and her eldest child Edward, to fight them off. Really no more than a short story, this slim book’s charm is in its tossed-off details – the young couple getting married despite his mother’s objections, the way another man rides his horse, the chores that need to be done on the frontier, the loft which the children sleep in heated by the day's fire – which give it some depth and make its characters more relatable. The “plot,” which just boils down to one brief and somewhat dubious action, is not particularly interesting. It’s a nice story, but was it really the best children’s book of its year? I can’t imagine it.

three stars

Friday, July 12, 2013

Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time

by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz

The author, a marketing and sales CEO, lays out advice for getting ahead in this new, flatter, faster economy: foster and maintain connections with people. A cynic might, of course, take this as telling prospective salesmen or corporate ladder climbers to flatter their superiors and feign interest in activities that will get them closer to their goals, while hoarding the contacts they gather until such time as these might become useful to them personally. However, Ferrazzi, who worked his way up into the corporate world very quickly from a working-class origin, seems more or less genuinely zealous about promoting genuine human contact, and not just for the utile benefits it might bring. He counsels readers to join associations they have real interest in, to listen for others’ problems for which they might offer solutions, to mentor beginners and up-and-comers, to throw friendly dinner parties or otherwise organize social activities, and so on.

It is true that some of Ferrazzi’s ideas – such as researching others’ interests before you meet them and then “accidentally” bringing up shared connections, or his notion of the “deep bump,” mastering the art of meaningful small talk – are redolent of disingenuousness. And there’s more than a hint of the self-serving in his message of constant self-promotion. However, on the whole, he offers genial well-intentioned advice, useful not just for the young salesman but, I think, for anyone who works with others. Bring like-minded people together. Listen to others. Try to be helpful to those whom you can help. Be vulnerable and open when you talk. Don’t be afraid to ask for things. Favors and contacts aren’t equity to be hoarded, but an infinite resource that expands with every use. It’s hardly the typical sales advice, and Ferrazzi tells it with a warm, at times self-deprecating style. 

three stars

Saturday, July 6, 2013


by Neil Gaiman

The young girl of the title moves into a big new house with her kindly but preoccupied parents. She meets some humorously daft neighbors, like the two elderly ex-actresses steeped in nostalgia, and the old man upstairs who says he is training mice to play oompah oompah songs. There’s also a spooky door which seems to open onto a brick wall but actually leads to another world, similar to our own, constructed just for Coraline. There she meets her "other" family, with black buttons for eyes, who want only to keep her forever in this world that has better food, the colors she likes, and attentive parents, if only they can make her just like them. With the help of a mysterious cat, Coraline determines to rescue her real parents, and some additional captives, from the evil force behind this other world.

This is a deliciously dark novel, sure to delight children with the chills it sends down their backs. Gaiman’s descriptive prose and Dave McKean’s illustrations work together to enforce the menacing tone and creepy air: “Her other mother's hand scuttled off Coraline's shoulder like a frightened spider;” the voice “made Coraline think of some kind of enormous dead insect.” And just like a good horror movie, there’s a false ending of eerie calm before the truly final showdown. Gaiman offers a lesson in maturity here, as well, underneath the supernatural thrills. Coraline realizes that getting whatever she wants, all the time, which the other mother tempts her with, wouldn’t be fun or “mean anything.” This ominous, funny, offbeat, scary, sweet modern fairy tale is superb. I can’t imagine why it wasn’t at least nominated for the Newbery.

five stars