Category Archives: Non-Fiction

The Other Side of Tina Fey

If you haven’t read Bossypants, what are you waiting for? Stop reading this blog post and go straight to the bookstore, the library or your ereader and pick up this book.  It’s hilarious, insightful and one of the most interesting biographies I’ve read in a long time (although I can’t honestly say I read a lot of biographies).  It’s a quick read, and it reads like a good stand up comedy routine. keeping you laughing until the very end.

And you get to see another side of Tina Fey – the, rougher side of Tina Fey.  The Tina Fey with an edge which to be honest I never really saw in the movies and TV shows, although I suppose I should have known – she was a writer for SNL after all.

The book is really funny, very tongue in cheek, slightly self-deprecating and just a complete pleasure to read.  I think Tina Fey also does a great job being a feminist views, without pushing her feminist views on you.  Let’s face it – it’s hard being a high powered woman, whether it’s in the entertainment industry or any other industry. And for a woman in the entertainment industry, there’s also the age ceiling – the you’re 40 and no longer hot so your career is over, thing.  Tina Fey does a great job of empowering, in general. women, comedians, etc.  I felt, happy reading the book.  In fact I laughed out loud on several occasions.

So what have we learned? Get this book. Her anecdotes, her stories, her vignettes are hilarious.  It’s well worth a read.

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Sexing it Up on the Moon

I recently had the pleasure of sitting in the park on a warm (but thankfully not sweltering) day, listening to Ben Mezrich, the author of “The Accidental Billionaires” and “Bringing Down the House”, talk about his new book “Sex on the Moon”.  Mr. Mezrich, first of all, is an incredibly engaging speaker and a pleasure to listen to – a man with 101 stories. He recounted the people he’s met, his writing process, and the crazy people who contact him, wanting him to tell their story.  What an interesting life he must lead.

So back to the task at hand. “Sex on the Moon”.  This book, sadly for some, is not really about going to the moon or about having sex on the moon – at least in the literal sense.  The book is, however, about a smart young man named Thad who steals  a 600 pound safe, filled with moon rocks, out of a secure NASA facility.  Why, you may ask? Why for love, of course.

So let me start by saying that the book was definitely well-written.  Unfortunately, however, I didn’t find the premise all that engaging.  It’s not that the story wasn’t interesting.  It was more that the story didn’t need a whole book.  It felt like an amusing anecdote you’d tell a friend.  “Hey, did you hear about that punk kid who stole those moon rocks and thought he wasn’t going to get caught? Seriously, what was he thinking?”  Or maybe a corny rom com.  “Thad worked for NASA.  He thought space was his one and only love, but then he  met… Rebecca.” Okay. So it wasn’t really like that, but you know what I mean.

But amazingly, Thad does come across as a somewhat likable character.  Sure he’s a bit arrogant, a bit swaggering.  But somehow you find a soft spot in your heart for him, for an idealistic kid who did something stupid for love and paid the price, giving up a big chunk of his life to do so.  And I have to say I also somewhat admire the kid – he was able to take a bad situation and approach it with grace, taking a bad situation and making it, well, a positive one.

Looking at the Achievement Gap

These days there’s a lot of talk about the Achievement Gap in the US, which is obviously a huge problem.   But what is often not addressed is the Global Achievement Gap, which Tony Wagner looks at in this book.

In this book, he takes a look not at our worse schools but at our best – and from there compares the skills kids are learning in school with the skills that are necessary in the workforce.  His results in a nutshell? Not so great.

After polling a bunch of company executives, Mr. Wagner distilled the 7 main skills students need today to survive in the workforce:

  • critical thinking and problem-solving
  • Collaboration and lead by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • The ability to assess and analyze information
  • Curiosity and imagination

And scarily enough, these are not really skills that we’re cultivating in schools today.  If you can, think back to your AP tests, the tests that are supposed to pass you out of college level courses.  How many of those tests asked you to solve problems? How many of them really even asked you to analyze information and create a thoughtful written response?  Sadly enough, rarely any. There’s a serious deficit in American education, even for the top students, and we’re not doing anything to fix it.  In comparison, other countries are.  Take China for instance.  Long criticized for lack of creativity and imagination,  they’re actively trying to change their education system, trying to keep the best of their current education system while concurrently trying to instill their students with the qualities they’re lacking.

This, needless to say, does not bode well for America’s future.  I think this book is a great read.  It helps you look at our education system in a slightly different way, from a macro level versus the world rather than a micro level and all the problems we have within.  And both problems do need to be fixed.

Work Hard, Be Nice, and Then Work Harder

Work Hard. Be Nice. After reading Jay Mathews’s book “Work Hard, Be Nice” I feel truly inspired.  And also amazed.  Mr. Mathews takes a stunning look at the founding of KIPP and its charismatic leaders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg.  It really makes me appreciate all the hard work and dedication it takes to not only be a good teacher, but also to reform the education system.

On the other hand, it also makes me a bit…wistful and sad.  If those are the right words.  Especially when it comes to salaries.  Don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe monetary compensation is everything.  In fact, far from it.  But the salaries being offered to teachers are abominable.  These are the people who spend 7-8 hours a day (more in the case of KIPP teachers) with your kids.  They provide your kids with the tools they need to succeed in the future, to be productive members of society and to make a difference in the world, and, on a more personal level, to provide a better life for their kids.  And what do we pay them? Barely enough money to survive.  It’s no surprise that many of the best and the brightest don’t go into teaching, despite the challenging work environment and ability to truly make a difference – two characteristics that I think many people value in a job.  Why should they work long hours and be paid pennies, when they can work long hours and get paid like an investment banker?

But I stray from the point.  I highly recommend this book.  I feel like you really get a chance to see what it takes to reform education – the hard work and the passion.  These two men did everything – from negotiating classroom space, to learning from experienced teachers, to knocking on doors to recruit for their school.  And their commitment didn’t stop there.  They extended the school day and even provided their students with a direct line to their teachers, fielding calls from students late into the night when they needed homework help.  That’s dedication.  I think one of my favorite anecdotes, was a class trip to Washington D.C.  Filled with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a ridiculously large number of kids per room, they were able to provide their students with a truly memorable and life changing experience – to teach them not from a classroom but from real life.

Although the book focuses on the KIPP schools, I think that it also exemplifies the risks, setbacks and journey anyone needs to take to truly succeed in life.   With any project, there will be times when you just don’t want to go on, when it just doesn’t seem worth it anymore.  It’s how you deal with these setbacks that truly defines who you are.

A Look at Race with Beverly Daniel Tatum

” ‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’ “ was originally on one of my friend’s GoodReads lists, and I decided to add it to mine, given my recent interest in education and all things related to education.

This book really opened my eyes to racism and prejudice.  One would assume that being an Asian female, I would be more attune to racism and prejudice being a minority on two levels,  but to be honest, I’ve never really thought about it.  Even though I’ve spent much of my time growing up in predominately white communities, I’ve never felt like I was ostracized or called out for being Asian.

But this book made me realize that racism can be much more subtle than the KKK and that I have experienced racism, just not racism by its traditional definition.

The first thing to establish is Ms. Tatum’s definition of racism.  She uses David Wellman’s definition, which is a “system of advantage based on race.”  This is an important distinction from prejudice which is defined as “a preconceived judgement or opinion, usually based on limited information.”  So, for example, you don’t have to be a member of the KKK to be considered racist.  That’s considered overt racism.  Racism is living in a society where one group systematically gets benefits over another group.  One example she uses is when it comes to jobs.  If a White hiring manager sees two resumes that include race, if they are both roughly the same the “White” resume usually wins out over the “Black” resume.  The assumption isn’t that the Black job seeker is bad – the assumption is the White job seeker is better.

Ms. Tatum also focuses a lot on building positive and healthy racial identities.  To do this, she believes, you have to have a circle of friends who are the same race as you are, who can understand and relate to the experiences you experience.  You can only build a strong racial identity if you have this strong base, and through really understanding yourself, you will be able to better interact with other ethnic groups.  Although I can see where she’s coming from, I am a bit worried about what this means.  If everyone feels closest to those who are like them, how will we ever truly get rid of racism – how will we ever truly be color blind?

Overall I think this book was incredibly insightful and definitely worth a read if you’re interested in racism, and tangentially how that manifests itself in education.  I think the one issue that this book doesn’t address that I wish it did is poverty.  I think that poverty and racism are closely related, and I would definitely like to read her views on how the two are connected.  m are very closely intertwined, and I would have liked to read her opinion

The Trials and Tribulations of a Reluctant Chef

After reading the book “Blood, Bones & Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton I’ll be honest – I had mixed feelings.  On one hand, I really admire her.  It takes a lot of guts, hard work, and determination to build your own restaurant from the ground up.  It is no small feat and I really respect her for it.  On the other hand, I have a really hard time relating to her story.  I think a lot of it relates to her youth- all the drugs, stealing, and vagrancy.  It’s hard for me to reconcile the fact that she basically wandered around aimlessly and grew up to be a success.  I’m not saying that she doesn’t deserve her success – she really, really does. But her case is one in a million.   A lot of people who have her childhood don’t grow up to be successes  – a lot of them end up on the street.  A lot of these people are the same people that end up on social programs that are paid for by people who took a more traditional route, studying hard and working hard.

And to be honest, I am a bit jealous.  Jealous of her figuring out what she wants to do and pursuing it so wholeheartedly.  I think most people spend their lives working in jobs that they like but aren’t their passion, their true calling.  I know I do.  I like my work, but I like other things at least equally well if not more.  I could not spend 18 hours a day pouring my life and soul into my job and still be happy, the way Ms. Hamilton does with her restaurant.  I am also jealous of her guts and her fighter instinct.  Being abandoned at such a young age to essentially fend for yourself can’t be easy for anyone.   And she does what it takes to survive.  This same drive and fighter instinct is what drives her to be the success she is today.  And she realizes her “bad-assness”, although I’m not sure I agree with how she portrays it.

“At thirteen, when I was stealing cars and smoking cigarettes I wanted to be badass.  I was cultivating badass.  At sixteen, coked out of my head and  slinging chili at the Lone Star Cafe , I was the understudy to badass, and I knew all her lines and cues.  At twenty-five, blow-torching my way through warehouse catering kitchens, cranking out back-to-back doubles, and napping in between on the office floor with my head on a pile of aprons and checked pants, I was authentically badass.” (P. 200).  I don’t know that I would paint her childhood and young adult exploits as badass.  Or cultivating badass.  In fact I think it was all a bit stupid and I feel weird about her glorifying that type of behavior.  I think what made her badass all those years was her ability to survive.  To figure out how to feed herself, take care of herself, lay the foundations to be something in her future life.  Not the stealing. Not the smoking. Not the drugs.

I think one of my favorite parts of the book is her experience as a panelist for a conference called “Where Are the Women?”  I think it brings to light an issue that you don’t only see in the kitchen, but also in society as a whole.  Women are rarely at the top.  Sure, women are in the workforce.  We hold jobs, do well, and are productive members of society.  But when you look at the numbers – where are the women CEOs? The women chefs? The women in positions of power? “Women have self-selected out of the chef life, which can grind you to a powder…”(206).  It’s much the same way in industry, where women are often not the CEOs, partially because we give birth and are often the ones to raise the kids – the ones expected to raise the kids. And because it’s a boy’s club up there at the top.  Being at the top doesn’t really cater to people who can’t eat, breathe, and sleep their job.  And this makes me sad because I do believe that women can fulfill these roles just as well as men.  There are many women who are driven to be in these positions of power but keep bumping up against the glass ceiling, apparently prevalent in all industries.  And the advice is still the same, work hard – as hard if not harder than men – and you’ll succeed.  Would I recommend this book? Yes.  Her life is definitely an interesting one.

Taking a Look at Education

I would highly recommend reading “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” if you’re looking for an overview of what’s happened in education over the past few decades.  It not only discusses the policy decisions and educational movements, but also explains many of the basics – for example, the differences between charter, voucher, private, and public schools.

It also brings to light the dire straits of today’s American education system.  33% of all 4th grade students can’t read at grade level and 68% of 8th graders can’t read at grade level.  More than 1.2 million students drop out every year.  And our graduation rate as a nation? 70%.  That number is even lower for African-American and Hispanic students – hovering around 50% (according to the Broad Residency webpage).  These stats are nothing to be proud about, especially since we rank 25 in math and 21 in science out of 30 industrialize countries.

After reading this book, it seems to me that one of the biggest problems surrounding education is politics, something that we unfortunately can’t seem to escape in any arena of life.  It troubles me, however, when politics and re-election take a front seat to the education of our children.  For example, Ms. Ravitch looks at the movement to establish voluntary national standards.  When the history standards came out in 1994, they were lambasted as being “the epitome of left-wing political correctness” and for not mentioning enough about America’s great men.  All there seemed to be was critique.  A media firestorm ensued and quickly spiraled out of control.  And what happened to the national history standards? They petered out.  My question is, why didn’t opposing parties work together, to fix the standards?   Most things can be revised, with new learning and new information.  Shouldn’t we be working together to solve a common problem? To make education better?

The book also had  a strong focus on testing (as is indicated by its subtitle: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education).  Diane argues that the focus on testing is driving teachers to prepare students for tests, versus on educating children.  And who can help but agree?  If your job depends on your students scoring well on a test, who wouldn’t make that a main focus of instruction?  However, I do believe there needs to be some accountability, some kind of testing.  People in corporate jobs are held accountable every day for everything they do.  There needs to be something equivalent for teachers.  Maybe the real problem lies with the tests themselves.  I am the first to admit that test design is incredibly difficult, and I am by no means qualified to come up with a test that would truly test how educated our students are.  But there are smart people out there, who are deeply experienced in teaching and education, who should be able to come up with something that works.  Maybe we need to think about redesigning tests to gather meaningful data about what students need to know to succeed.

Then there is the question of the charter movement, something that I really don’t feel qualified to form an opinion about given my limited knowledge (not that I know enough to form an opinion about most things when it comes to education).  The only thing I will say, is that for the charter schools that are doing well, even if they are taking the best of the students in poorer communities and helping them succeed, isn’t that a good thing?