“Yet we now know that a brief distraction can help when we’re stuck on a math problem or tied up in a creative knot and need to shake free.”

careyAfter having read my share of books about learning, I was initially reluctant to read this one because a reviewer said it is a “gift to guilt-ridden slackers everywhere.” Fortunately, it’s the review, not the book, that is misleading about the effort learning requires.  How We Learn, written by New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey, doesn’t advocate spending less time studying.  Instead, he, like many others, recommends shorter, more frequent, quiz-based sessions that occur over several days.  He also describes the benefits of studying in a variety of locations, alternating topics of study, and taking brief breaks.

Benedict Carey, How We Learn (New York: Random House Paperback Edition, 2015), XV.

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“All was artifice.”

singerCan a 20-year-old character study still be relevant?  In the case of this essay by New Yorker writer Mark Singer, which one British newspaper said offered “clearer insight into the mind” of Donald Trump than the longer biographies, my answer is yes.  After spending several months with Trump, Singer noted how a favorite Trump phrase – “truthful hyperbole” – is more than just an oxymoron, it’s also a way to describe his assets, his statements, and even his home.  In Trump’s 53-room apartment with its carved ivory frieze and onyx columns, there is a Renoir, or rather, a prominently placed reproduction.

Mark Singer, Trump & Me (UK: Penguin Random House UK, 2016), 97.

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“And yet they, who passed away long ago, still exist in us, as predisposition, as burden upon our fate, as murmuring blood, and as gesture that rise up from the depths of time.”

rilke2-2Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, perhaps the most dog-eared book on my shelves, doesn’t give advice on writing poetry.  Instead, it’s what Einstein –his contemporary — might have written if he had been a poet.  Compare the Theory of Relativity to this statement: “People have already had to rethink so many concepts of motion; and they will also gradually come to realize that what we call fate does not come into us from the outside, but emerges from us. . . . The future stands still, dear Mr. Kappus, but we move in infinite space (86)”.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, translated by Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage Books: 1984), 85-6.

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“The struggle is really all I have for you because it is the only portion of this world under your control.”

CoatesJPGThis 2015 winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction – “a work of rare beauty and revelatory honesty” that is “highly provocative, thoughtfully presented” — is a meditation on race as a construct. Written as a set of letters to his young son, it raises many important questions but does not offer solutions.  It reminds me of another set of letters – Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet – which  recommends having “patience with everything unresolved in your heart” so that “someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegal & Grau, 2015), 107.

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“Felicity rubbed a bit between her fingers. It was gray, just grit.”

Smiley3This is how the great-granddaughter of Iowa farmers Walter and Rosanna Langdon describes what’s left of the topsoil on the original family farm when she visits it in the closing pages of The Last Hundred Years Trilogy by Jane Smiley.  We can see the how this family’s decisions played out – as evidenced by the quality of their fields, their relationships, their contributions to society and to their professions. “There is a powerful sense of tragic legacies of character and obligation,” notes a British reviewer. I found the depth and scope of this trilogy fascinating, moving, surprising and rewarding.

Jane Smiley, Golden Age (New York: Anchor Books, first edition, 2016), 442.

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“We should expect no one will understand this.”

Lee2Ed Bok Lee, who won the 2012 American Book Award for this moving collection of poems, is the son of Korean emigrants. The family’s transition from Seoul to North Dakota was difficult. He writes about getting stoned before and after school from the age of 13. John Freeman, editor of Granta, observed that Lee’s poems ask the same question Wallace Stevens’s poems asked many years ago: “How do you bridge the gap between America and its dream?”  There are no easy answers here – instead, images of “…a long line of hungry souls” each of whom is a “spiritual refugee” (114).

Ed Bok Lee, Whorled (Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 2011), 30.

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“With grammar, it’s always something. “

OConnerThis is the first sentence in the chapter titled “Plurals before Swine: Blunders with Numbers” in Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner.  The tone is light-hearted, which, as the Publisher’s Weekly reviewer noted, makes it readable “even for those with a deep-seated hatred for grammatical do-goodery.”  The author describes her readers as “…intelligent people who probably never have diagrammed a sentence and never will” and who “don’t know a gerund from a gerbil and don’t care.” The first words that came to me when I read this were “At last!”

Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, 3rd ed. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), 17.

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“I used to think that if faculty teaching improved, student learning had to follow suit.”

McGuireNow, however, Saundra Yancy McGuire believes that even the best teachers will not see the kinds of learning gains that are possible “as long as students do not come to our classrooms prepared to learn efficiently and independently.” This book shows faculty members how to teach students how to learn by focusing on metacognition, mindset and motivation strategies. Because this book is packed with suggestions and excellent summaries of research, I agree with the reviewer who predicted that this book is one that  “will become dogeared with use.”  I’ve already started making changes in the courses I teach this fall.

Saundra Yancy McGuire with Stephanic McGuire, Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation (Sterling, Virginia: Stylus, 2015), 10.

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“Rosa was a perfect example of an only child, thought Claire – she behaved herself, but it was because she was always on the stage and the lights were always up. “

smiley2If you were a novelist, what compliment would you most like to see in a review of your work?  A comparison to Tolstoy, perhaps? That compliment was in fact given in the British newspaper, the Guardian, in a review of Jane Smiley’s novel Early Warnings, the second in a trilogy set in Iowa.  The reviewer, English novelist Christobel Kent, wrote that Smiley’s “faultless skill” in bringing a large set of characters to life, her “feeling for territory and landscape,” and her “combination of impatient intellect, emotional perspicacity and unfailing humanity” were reminiscent of the Russian master.  I agree!

Jane Smiley, Early Warnings (New York: Anchor Books, 2016). p. 45.

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“Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they were parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them.”

bakerThis memoir by Russell Baker encourages readers to write their stories for the generation that hasn’t yet asked for them.  He shows us why he believes this: he will always regret not knowing better the person who told him how to see the world and his role in it. After his mother’s mind began to wander “free through time” he realizes what he had missed. He writes, “A world had lived and died, and though it was part of my blood and bone I knew little more about it than I knew of the world of the pharaohs” (13).

Russell Baker, Growing Up (New York: Signet, a division of Penguin Group, 1984), 13.

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“I raise my chin and say nothing.”

ChmielarzThis is the final line in the poem “When Are You Coming Back? I’m Getting Tired of Waiting” from a collection of poems about grieving titled The Widow’s House by Sharon Chmielarz.  It is one example of how the poet has achieved a “mastery of tone.” Tone is a slippery thing to describe, much less master.  Chmielarz does it by giving a clear description (in this case, of the lift of the right eyebrow), adding dialogue (with a strident grief counselor) and humor (“As if you have things to do now…”), and then stopping at precisely the right moment.

Sharon Chmielarz, The Widow’s House (Omaha, Brighthorse Books, 2015), 23.

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“A writer’s goal is to light up the sky.”

Kooser 3As a fan of Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Ted Kooser, I couldn’t wait to see what he would say about using metaphors in this little-known book for people who want to start writing.  He writes, “. . .  an apt metaphor opens a door out of a box, gives you a way to express something difficult, a tool to convert something physical and visible into language that is abstract and portable . . . ”  The most effective writing, he says, “seems to reach through the opaque surface of the world and offer a glimpse of that universal order beyond.”

Ted Kooser  & Steve Cox, Writing Brave & Free: Encouraging Words for People Who Want to Start Writing (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 104.

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“The difference between landscape and landscape is small, but there is great difference in the beholders.”

emersonRecently, I visited Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house in Concord, MA, which has the chair that Emerson sat in while he wrote his famous essay “Nature.”  As a fan of what Anne Fadiman calls “You-Are-There Reading” I had to reacquaint myself with this wonderful piece. When it was published in 1836, it startled and confused the public (xxii), which found it rather mystical.  Emerson relies on revelation rather than logic.  He writes, “. . . if our own life flowed with the right energy, we should shame the brook” (387) and “Nature is loved by what is best in us” (387).

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1981), 386.

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“Asking someone to make a prediction represents a very simple route to raising curiosity and hence represents a very simple route to stimulating the brains of our students and preparing them for their learning.”

LangCan small changes in strategy result in significant improvements?  This new book for college instructors by James M. Lang argues convincingly that they can. While some of the techniques are not new – my mother asked her students to make predictions 40 years ago – all the strategies are supported by the most recent research by cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, and biologists.  For example, he notes that curiosity is an emotion that has been recently demonstrated to boost memory when it is heightened prior to exposure to new material. I’m convinced that this book will spark many changes in my approach next fall.

James M. Lang, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand, 2016), 62.

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“I have often pictured her stage-managing a fashion show of monsters.”

schumacherAs unlikely as it sounds, this quote comes from a letter of recommendation for an associate dean of student affairs applicant, who also happens to be the former lover of the creative writing professor who sends all of the letters in this hilarious expostulatory novel. His comments become “more elaborately unhinged,” but I couldn’t help cheering for this flawed protagonist who is on as quest for a fairer, more respected, better-funded program, who writes with “candor, regret, and a whiff of vengeance” (125). Julie Schumacher received the 2015 Thurber Prize for American Humor. This irresistible book will make you laugh.

Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members (New York: Doubleday, 2014), p.122.

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