The daily musings of a substitute teacher in East Central Illinois.

Book Reviews

Summer Reading V: The Hunt for Red October

I am continuing on my quest to read the entirety of the Jack Ryan/John Clark canon as written by Tom Clancy, following the chronological order of the story. The most recently completed book is The Hunt for Red October, which is actually the first book Clancy wrote. I love the description of Clancy that appears at the end of the book:

He has had a private chat with the President of the United States who proclaimed himself to be an avid fan of The Hunt for Red October. He has lunched with the White House staff. His novel has been a top seller at the Pentagon. Yet the author in question is neither a former intelligence nor naval officer. Rather, Tom Clancy is an insurance broker from a small town in Maryland whose only previously published writing was a letter to the editor and a three-page article about the MX missile. Clancy always wanted to write a suspense  novel, and a newspaper article about a mutiny on a Soviet frigate gave him the initial idea for Red October. He did extensive research about Soviet-American naval strategies and submarine technology. Then, in the time he could spare from his insurance business, Clancy sat down at his typewriter and wrote. The rest is history…

Red October was the first Clancy novel I read, after I attempted to read Clear and Present Danger and found it a bit too complicated. (This was when I was in 7th or 8th grade, I believe). After reading this one, though, I was hooked, and quickly sought out the other books. Today I own 9 of the 13 novels in the series and after reading Without Remorse (given to me by a friend who didn’t want to keep it), I decided to read the rest of the series. I love this book. It is everything a first-time suspense novel should be. Clancy doesn’t give away the end early in the story, even though he has ample opportunities to do so. The plot moves quickly but jumps around to keep the reader engaged and trying to keep track of everything that is happening. It isn’t Clancy’s best novel, to be sure, but it is still a great story.

It takes place in the midst of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. A Soviet submarine commander, Marko Ramius, has decided to go rogue and is attempting to steal a brand-new submarine and deliver it and himself to the United States. The Soviets learn about it and send its entire fleet after him in a search-and-destroy mission. At the same time, the US has learned about the attempted defection, and are sending their fleet out to bring him (and the sub) safely in.

The thing I find most interesting in the story is the description of the American response to the Soviet Union in general. As I mentioned in the comments of my previous summer reading post, Tom Clancy is clearly an American Exceptionalist who grew up in the turmoil of American-Soviet tensions. Everything he writes is pro-America, pro-American intelligence services, and pro-American military. I’m okay with this; I think it is impossible for an author to not write with a bias, and those who attempt to do so tend to write boring stories. At least, that has been my experience with the many thousands of books I have read. The author has to have a purpose in writing, and that purpose is his or her bias. Clancy’s purpose is to write a suspense story that shows why America is superior. Of course, he also throws in shout-outs to our allies, but it is still the Americans who win the day.

It would be interesting to read pro-Soviet fiction as a counterbalance to Clancy’s stories, but I don’t know if any such books exist. My only exposure to Russian literature has been a few attempts at Tolstoy, but I’ve never actually completed any of his books. I’ve also read most of Ayn Rand’s works, but hers are certainly not Russian lit. Maybe I’ll explore this train of thought later; for now, I am going to continue through my Clancy reading and then find something else.


Summer Reading IV: Red Rabbit

Hopefully I won’t be boring anyone with my summer reading but, then, my main purpose in blogging is for personal reflection and recording, not for gaining an audience. (That being said, I certainly appreciate those who come and read my musings and those who comment, as well.)

As previously noted, I am working my way through Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan/John Clark universe” collection. I just finished reading Red Rabbit, which is a later book (in terms of when it was written), but takes place early on. Over all, I enjoyed the book. It gives some interesting insights into life in Soviet Socialist Russia in the early 1980s, albeit from a very Western perspective.

It is fun to see how Tom Clancy places his characters in key places in history, or, rather, in the alternate universe that parallels our own. The American president in clearly Ronald Reagan, but his name is never given. Likewise with the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher or the Polish Pope, John Paul II. This is an idiosyncratic thing that Clancy does in nearly all of his books. The players in the various government bureaus all have names, like Emil Jacobs, head of the FBI, Arthur Moore, Director of Central Intelligence, and his two deputies, James Greer and Bob Ritter. But the Heads of State are always referred to by title, not name. Even the Royal Family in England is never named.

The story focuses on Clancy’s fictionalised account of one of the many theories surrounding the assassination attempt on Pope John Pual II in the early 1980s. Not knowing much about the actual historical account beforehand, other than the fact that it had happened and that it was the primary reason for the Popemobile being more secure with bullet-proof glass. (Interesting side-note: apparently “Popemobile” is an acceptable informal term for the vehicle that has no formal moniker. Go figure.) The “Red Rabbit” is a Soviet defector (“rabbit” being used as an espionage terms to describe a defector) who has learned of the assassination plot on the Pope and wishes to alert the Americans so as to protect the life of an innocent man.

While enjoyable, it was not the most suspenseful of Clancy’s novels, and it certainly didn’t have the usual plots, sub-plots, and sub-sub-plots that are typical of his works. I get the feeling that this story was more of an attempt to flesh out the Ryan biography (and earn some more money) than to really present a gripping tale of suspense and intrigue. Next up is The Hunt for Red October, which was actually the first Clancy novel I ever read.

Summer Reading III: Patriot Games

I recently finished the second book (chronologically) of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan/John Clark Universe, Patriot Games.

I quite enjoyed this story, even though some of the characters were a little stiff. I could tell that this was an earlier writing endeavour by Mr. Clancy, which probably explains a lot. However, it was a very well-written story, despite its flaws. It was fun and quick to read and, as with most of his stories, it makes the reader ask important questions about right and wrong and how we respond to fuzzy boundaries, as my one-time social and cultural geography instructor liked to call them.

Far too often, we try to paint the world in terms of black and white. But the reality of our world is that we don’t even live in shades of grey; our world is full of vibrant colours that blend and contrast and clash and mix. Sometimes things are very pretty. Other times they are quite ugly. And then there are the things that are either mostly ugly with a secret treasure of beauty in the middle or the exact opposite. This is what I think of when I read Tom Clancy’s books. He is showing that, for all of our desire to determine right and wrong, there is an awful lot of confusing mish-mash that we have to deal with, too.

I think my favourite line from the book is when Jack Ryan’s friend Robby Jackson tells him, “I am the voice of reason in a chaotic world.” That, to me, kind of sums up the whole of what Tom Clancy is trying to help us find.

And yeah, I am probably reading far too much into the author’s purpose. For what it’s worth, I would never expect anyone else to identify the same reason, nor do I think that you even need to know the purpose when you read. One of these days I am going to finish reading this book on balanced literacy that I’ve been working through for several months. In the meantime, I will share this: the book discusses the idea that we tend to read for one of two purposes: for pleasure (aesthetically) or for information (efferently). Maybe it is just me, but I tend to read for both reasons simultaneously. Scratch that. I know it isn’t just me because I am 99% certain I got this habit from my mother. So there are at least two of us.

Anyway, I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Red Rabbit. This is one of those that I don’t own, though, so I am waiting for the library to get it. While I wait, I am finally going to read the Jared Diamond book that has been sitting on my nightstand for more months that I care to count.

Summer Reading II: Without Remorse

It probably seems like quite a jump in genres, but that’s because it is. That’s just how I read. After finishing Tuck Everlasting, I decided to make good on my decision to read Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse.

This book is kind of a prequel of sorts, when it comes to the not-quite-a-series-but-so-close-it-may-as-well-be-one stories that Tom Clancy has written in what I guess it called the Jack Ryan/John Clark Universe. I haven’t read the entire series, although I have read most of it. I suppose I should get around to reading all of them. In terms of chronology, this story comes first, giving us the story of where John Clark came from.

I really enjoyed this book! The last Tom Clancy book I read was, in my opinion, his worst: The Teeth of the Tiger. That one is just not what I would have wanted it to be. So I glad that this one restored my pleasure in Clancy’s books. It had everything I have generally loved about  Clancy’s other books: it is full of plot twists, intrigue, military technicalities, espionage, and challenges of how we determine what is and is not moral behaviour. We also got introduced to various figures in the other stories, which was fun.

I was shocked that it took me so long to connect some of the characters in this book to those in others. Like I said, I need to read the whole series. Maybe now that I’ve just read the first (in chronology if not publication) I will continue through. After all, I do own nine of the thirteen books and I can easily acquire the others. Other than that, I am not going to give any spoilers about it, though. I just thought I’d make a short post to keep up with the books I am reading this summer. Let’s see how many of them I can read before I need to take a break!

And, dang it, one of these days I will finish reading this book about balanced literacy so I can write about that, too!

Summer Reading I: Tuck Everlasting

A few months ago, I was subbing for a teacher who was reading Tuck Everlasting to her class. This is one of those books that every intermediate-level student reads or has read to them, even though it has not, to my knowledge, received any awards for being outstanding in anything. Then, just a few weeks ago, my baby sister (who just turned 17, but is still my baby sister) made a comment online that she has never hated a book as much as Catcher in the Rye since she read Tuck Everlasting, to which the youngest of my older brothers responded that he, too, hates it.

So I decided to give it another read. I’ve read it a few times, but I’ve never had strong feelings about it one way or the other. My wife and I own the 2002 Disney adaptation of the movie which, if I recall correctly, doesn’t really follow the book all that closely.

[NOTE: If you haven’t read the book before and you don’t like spoilers, just stop reading now. Seriously. Because I am going to spoil the ending.] (more…)

Book Review IV: The First Days of School

Today is Good Friday, so there is no school in Champaign, Mahomet, or Urbana. The official name for the day off is “Spring Holiday” but I don’t think there is anyone who believes that it is merely coincidence that this day off occurs each year on Good Friday. And thus it is that I have spent my day taking care of things around the home, like washing and bagging fresh fruit and vegetables for my wife and I to grab for snacks while at work and cleaning up around the house.

As is my policy now, if I have the day off and have recently finished reading a vocational book, I write up a review. I don’t know how many people actually read the reviews or find them useful, but I do know that, by far, the most popular post of mine (based on specific page views and search terms), has been my review of The Dreamkeepers. The two other books I have read and reviewed so far have been Setting Limits in the Classroom and The Internet and the Law.

The next book in this series is How To Be an Effective Teacher: The First Days of School by Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong. This is billed as the best-selling book in the education field. While it is ostensibly about the importance of the first days of school, it is much more than that. It is a book that emphasises the need for teachers to stop being workers and start being professionals. While I find that parts of it are outdated (I have a copy of the 2nd edition, though, so it is possible that the 4th edition is up-to-date), it is an excellent source for information on not just how to start the school year off right, but why the thing suggested are suggested. (more…)

Book Review III: The Internet and the Law

Today was the first school day in over a month that I did not work. As much as I have enjoyed working every single possible day, I guess it was inevitable that I’d eventually catch a day without an assignment. It probably didn’t help that my phone died last night while I was out celebrating three of my in-laws’ graduation in taekwondo (mother-in-law and sister-in-law are now green belts, brother-in-law is a 1st degree recommended black belt). So I am spending my day catching up on things, cleaning the house, and applying for jobs. And, though it has been a while, a day off during the work week means it is time to review another one of the education-themed books I’ve had lying around for years and never actually read completely.

Today’s book is the 2002 printing of Kathleen Conn’s The Internet and the Law: What Educators Need to Know. This is a relatively short book (only 111 pages in my printing), but it covers a wide area of topics relevant to, yep, you guessed it, laws about Internet use in schools. However, one of the strengths of the book is that it takes us back to the foundational laws that set the bounds for those currently in place. I was quite pleased to learn more about the limits on Constitutional rights in the classroom (for example, freedom of speech does not grant a student the freedom to say whatever he wants if, by so doing, he disrupts the classroom and/or prevents another student from experiencing a safe learning environment; in other words, the purpose of schools is to teach, and if teaching is being inhibited because of something someone says, the school can ban the student from saying that).

Dr. Conn, an educator and an attorney, does an excellent job balancing “legalese” and layman’s terms in such a way as to neither overburden with unusual vocabulary nor talk down to her audience. It is clear that she has had a lot of experience with this topic and she handles it quite well. I came away from the reading with a better understanding of what all must be considered when crafting Acceptable Use Policies, limiting student Internet access at school, and even why websites require users to be at least 13-years-old in order to sign up (even if scores of young people simply lie about their ages in order to gain access, anyway).

There are a couple of weaknesses in the book, though. One big issue is actually not Dr. Conn’s fault. It is the issue of cyber-bullying. I am keenly interested in this topic for a wide variety of reasons, and would love to know what modern case law has to say on the subject. I have thought about contacting her to see if there are plans to print an updated version of the book to address this issue. As it is, the law as of 2002 said that there was not much schools could do about bullying outside of school grounds and even little that could be done within unless there was an actual legitimate threat of violence. Laws are slowly being amended to acknowledge that harassment among young people is serious and needs to be punishable under the law.

The only other major weakness comes from her concluding chapter, entitled Where Do We Go from Here?, more specifically, the sub-section called What the Future Hold. I actually posted several quotes on my Twitter account that, to me, were absolutely ludicrous. Perhaps it just goes to show how far we have come in our integration of the Internet into our lives, though. Here are a few of the nuggets that I pulled out:

Web domination by megacorporations threatens the very fabric of unfettered communication symbolized by the Internet. Technology giants like Microsoft threaten to put small-scale HTML programmers out of business.

Cyberschools are becoming the wave of the future in some states. Pressured by rising enrollments and inadequate physical facilities, school districts in population hotspots like central Florida are turning to online instruction, with teachers reaching out to students sitting at home in their sneakers and sweatpants… But will two-dimensional social interaction via computer screen encourage children’s social and emotional development and growth? What will American society be like when children no longer remember how to play outside in the sun, or when they fear to leave home because the computer screen is their reality?

One of the most potentially frightening technology tools is the hand-held device, such as the PalmPilot or similar devices. Will well-meaning administrators require that each teacher carry one throughout the teaching day, using delicate styluses to input minute-by-minute letter grades for student behavior? Will administrators sit in classrooms evaluating teachers by pecking numbers on a little screen? Will teachers and administrators sit at faculty meetings pecking out grocery lists? Will everyone be so attuned to accountability and organization that all spontaneity and fun are lost from education?

Administrators and teachers alike need to work hard to ensure that technology helps rather than hinders our educational efforts. If they are to succeed, school leaders must also become technology leaders… Technology in K-12 schools must become teachnology.

So other than the Ludditish fears of scary new technologies and silly portmanteaus at the end, The Internet and the Law: What Educators Need to Know is an excellent resource for understanding the basics of a very complex topic.