• Best book title in a long time

    Our friend and neighbor, Lucy Biederman, now teaching at Case Western in Cleveland came up with an inspired titled:

    The Walmart Book of the Dead (Amazon link)

    She wrote most of it in Louisiana, while getting her doctorate in poetry. She explains the origins of the book in an interview with the Case Western Daily:

    Living on a graduate student stipend in the Deep South, writer Lucy Biederman had few shopping options—so she found herself frequenting a place at once mysterious and magical to her: Walmart….

    “The last thing you’d expect is for someone to not have an opinion about Walmart,” said Biederman, a lecturer in English at Case Western Reserve University, “but a lot of these opinions can be too easy.

    “The closer you get, the more complicated it gets,” she said. “It’s similar to death in that way.” –Case Western Daily

    Her observation about Walmart’s place in American culture–and its gaping cultural divide–is insightful:

    To some people, Walmart is so essential it’s more than a store—it’s the pulse of their existence.

    And to others, Walmart represents so much of what’s wrong with profit-seeking. I wanted to bridge that gap. –Lucy Biederman


    Comments: Statisticians are unable to calculate the number of expected jokes the author will have to endure about “future books dealing with Costco or Target?” (In rural Louisiana, the questions will be about “Dollar General.”)

    As for me, I still can’t believe Lucy is the first person to see the obvious connections between Walmart and ancient Egyptian religious practices.


  • Why Do People Love Detective Stories?

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    I certainly enjoy them, in print, on TV, and in movies.

    Many stories that are not framed specifically as detective stories really are. Perry Mason (the old black-and-white shows) are always “whodunnits.”

    It’s not surprising, then, that I enjoyed Marco den Ouden’s article about why people enjoy detective stories so much (Foundation for Econ. Ed.)

    Most of the article is about den Ouden’s love of Harry Bosch novels, written by Michael Connell, but he advances a general argument, too. Here’s the nub of it:

    That is the appeal of the crime novel, of the police detectives on television and in the movies. We see them as avenging angels, as heroic figures who will stop at nothing. We see them as empathetic warriors who, like Bosch, will not let politics or other impediments stop them.

    Whether it is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport or Owen Laukkanen’s duo of Windermere and Stevens, we find in these characters the relentless searcher for truth and justice. –Marco den Ouden for FEE

    The search for truth and justice are obviously central, but there are other attractions, too, I think.

    • The pleasure of discerning clues and piecing them together, best exemplified in Sherlock Holmes and the classic “closed room” crimes
    • Trying to understand the suspects’ motives, particularly how different motives might lead to the same deadly outcome
    • Uncovering a dark layer beneath the benign surface of social convention and
    • The chance to immerse yourself in varied social, physical, and historical environments, all while following a strong plot line.

    The weakness, typically, lies in the psychological development of characters (except, at times, the detective).

    So, what do you think?


  • After scandal, Cambridge University Press changes policy; will NOT censor articles to please Chinese government

    ZipDialog recently reported that Cambridge University Press had caved in to the Chinese government’s pressure and removed articles from its online journals that offended the Beijing government.

    The demand to remove the articles came from China’s General Administration of Press and Publication, which warned that if they were not removed the entire website would be made unavailable in China. –Washington Post

    CUP abject compliance was a serious breach of academic integrity.

    Fortunately, there was strong blowback from free-speech and human-rights advocates (including this blog), highlighting CUP’s disturbing appeasement. Lots of academics were involved–on the right side.

    Now, under this pressure, Cambridge has caved again, flipping its policy.

    In reversal, Cambridge University Press restores articles after China censorship row(Washington Post)

    The British-based publisher announced Friday it had removed 300 articles and book reviews from a version of the China Quarterly website available in China at the request of the government. But on Monday, it rescinded that decision after outrage from the international academic community.

    It said the original move had only been a “temporary decision” pending discussion with academic leadership of the University of Cambridge and a scheduled meeting with the Chinese importer in Beijing.

    “Academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based,” it said in a statement. “Therefore, while this temporary decision was taken in order to protect short-term access in China to the vast majority of the Press’s journal articles, the University’s academic leadership and the Press have agreed to reinstate the blocked content, with immediate effect, so as to uphold the principle of academic freedom on which the University’s work is founded.” –Washington Post, quoting CUP


    Comment: This reversal is good news, despite the Press’s “cover your arse” language about this being temporary. It wasn’t. It was appeasement and it would have lasted if there had not been counter-pressure.

    Second, ask yourself whether this decision ever could have been made if, as the press says, “Academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based.”

    Of course, it couldn’t.

    Clearly, that principle was not enough to convince CUP to do the right thing in the first place.

    Only the blowback convinced them.

    I assume that lots of academics were planning to resign from working with CUP or its journals, and I assume that some people higher up in the university got wind of this atrocious decision by the Press.

    People should be fired over this. They simply do not belong at an academic press.


    Thank you to Prof. Vincent Wang for this valuable update.

  • Good news story: A preschooler who loves reading–and has read 1,000 books

    Four-year-old Daliyah Marie Arana loves reading, especially about dinosaurs and adventure.  She loves it so much she has not only completed Georgia’s “1,000 books B4 Kindergarten” Program, she’s completed the reading before she starts pre-school.  And she’s eager to do much more. (Story here in the Gainesville Times.)

    The Librarian of Congress was so touched by the story, which Daliyah’s parents had mailed in, that the family was invited to Washington to tour our nation’s greatest library, which named the Daliyah “Librarian for a Day.” (AP story.)

    Here she is reading a speech on “The Pleasure of Books,” by William Lyon Phelps (one of historic Yale’s most beloved professors, after whom the entrance to campus is named, “Phelps Gate.”)

    Books are of the people, by the people, for the people. Literature is the immortal part of history; it is the best and most enduring part of personality. –Wm. Lyon Phelps 


  • A wonderful, steaming bio of actress Mary Astor, reviewed with zest by Woody Allen

    Woody’s review in the New York Times is here, and it’s a pleasure to read, much like his early writing.

    I loved Mary Astor as the femme fatale, played against Humphrey Bogart, in The Maltese Falcon.

    She is also remembered for Meet Me in St. Louis.

    Off-screen, it turns out, she loved rollin’ and tumblin’, as the blues songs put it.

    And, while blues men wrote songs, Mary wrote a diary. Alas for Mary, her husband discovered it.

    Woody loves the book and recounts the main themes with characteristic humor.

    The link to the book at Amazon, Mary Astor’s Purple Diary by Edward Sorel, is here, if you want to read the juicy details of Hollywood scandals in the golden years.

  • Continuing our Guest Author Forum on Teaching Reading in High School: What Should Students Read? Are the Readings Getting Easier? Does It Matter?

    Guest Author: Robyn G.

    ZipDialog is pleased to continue its forum on how reading is taught in high school, featuring Guest Authors with diverse experiences and perspectives. It gives us a window not only on reading but on the world of today’s high school students.

    Today’s forum features Robyn G., an experienced Middle School teacher. She often works individually with students in a prosperous Chicago suburb with strong public schools. She keeps in touch with her students as they continue through high school so she has a good sense of how their middle school experiences affect those in high school.

    After Robyn’s comments, I include links to the two previous posts and brief quotes from them. Again, many thanks for making this such an interesting back-and-forth.

    Challenging Middle School Students in a Prosperous Chicago Suburb . . by Robyn G.

    Since Robyn refers to her school and suburb several times, we’ll call them “Evergreen Middle School” in “Lakewood.”

    I could go on and on about the topic of reading lists, especially as I have grappled with these issues with my colleagues for 18 years at Evergreen Middle School. Here are just a few thoughts on the comparative reading lists 1922/today.

    house-on-mango-streetOur students read The House on Mango Street in 7th grade. It is quite easy, straightforward reading, with the added element for our students that it takes place in Chicago. Even factoring in that students in Lakewood are most likely at higher reading levels overall than the average San Antonian, I was surprised to see it on a high school list. To Kill a Mockingbird, on the other hand is (filching from The Wizard of Oz) a horse of a different color. Although I see that it is listed at a 5.6 reading level, it is far richer in syntax than The House…., and many times more sophisticated. In fact, my concern in teaching it to 8th graders is that they may never go back to it when they are at an age to truly appreciate Harper Lee’s wicked sense of humor. Thus, I think it is more appropriate on a high school reading list.

    By the same token, I am saddened that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has disappeared from so many reading lists around the country (for obvious….so disheartening….reasons).huck-finn-book-cover

    A curious omission on either of the required reading lists is Shakespeare. We alternate between Macbeth and A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream towards the end of 8th grade each year. The students initially are invariably intimidated by the seemingly convoluted language. So (with the help of Folger’s modern ‘translations’ in the margins), we approach it scene by scene. As we begin to read aloud and assign roles, the students become more and more engaged. They work on their assigned scenes for a couple of weeks and then perform them in class, by this time with glee and a much greater sense of comprehension. Of course, again this being Lakewood, the unit culminates with a field trip to Chicago Shakespeare and their performances with culled dialogue geared to students. Even without these field trips, I am a big believer in offering this kind of challenging reading early on. The kids end up feeling a sense of accomplishment. They are introduced to universal themes and the poetic magic of the bard. When they return to visit from Lakewood High School or whatever high school they are attending, they tell us how ‘easy’ it was reading Romeo & Juliet or Julius Caesar. In my one-dog study (me), I believe that challenging students early on improves both their verbal and writing abilities, launching them more successfully into the high school and college years ahead.midsummer_nights_dream

    One final thought. Comparing a reading list from 1922 to one almost 100 years later is a bit like mixing apples with oranges. The English language is fluid and constantly evolving (as Vernon Shelton pointed out); thus, the writing style of James Fenimore Cooper’s classic The Last of the Mohicans may have been a tad more accessible to early twentieth century readers than it is to millennials. That said, the issues of race are as relevant today as when Cooper wrote in the early 19th century, so the book remains a classic. One of our social studies teachers effectively has his 7th grade students read excerpts from the novel, along with clips from the 1992 Daniel Day-Lewis movie remake, to illustrate the time of the French & Indian War in the mid-eighteenth century. The key is to always provide context and relevancy, allowing the students to relate and engage.


    Previous Posts

    ⇒ Post #1 featured an article by Annie Holmqueist comparing reading lists in the 1920s and today    .texas-reading-levels

    Discussing that article, ZipDialog stressed four points:

    1. Today’s reading lists are more culturally- and ethnically-diverse.
    2. The 1922 readings were substantially more difficult.
    3. Reading and writing comprehension in later grades are lower today than previously
    4. It is unclear what causal relation, if any, connects these easier readings and poorer results in writing and comprehension.


    ⇒ Post #2 featured three guest authors, a high school English teacher (Vernon Shelton), a speechwriter (Bob Lehrman), and an education researcher who works closely with schools in poor neighborhoods (Dorene Ross). Here’s a flavor of their perspectives.

    Vernon Shelton, high school English teacher:

    Putting classic literature in terms that contemporary students understand may add to the burden that a teacher must carry, but I think that the benefits are worth the trouble.  –Vernon Shelton

    Bob Lehrman, speechwriter:

    Michele Obama’s Democratic convention speech. . . . clocks in at a 7.3 grade level. Do I think her speechwriter, Sarah Horowitz, deprives listeners by not writing denser prose? No. What she did was allow millions of Americans — who average a 7th grade reading level — to understand what the First Lady said.  –Bob Lehrman

    Dorene Ross, teaching educator and researcher:

    In 1922 the national high school graduation rate was around 17%; in 2014 the national graduation rate was 81%…. Of all the factors that correlate with achievement, poverty (not culture or race or language) is the strongest correlate…. We have a lot of knowledge about what would impact achievement in schools (e.g. Smaller classes, high quality teachers in every classroom, psychological services for children and families, quality summer programs for poverty youth, high quality early childhood education, treatment for vision and asthma problems) and very little national will to do it.  –Dorene Ross


    zd-hat-tip-facing-inward-150px-w-margin♥ Hat’s Off to Robyn G., Vernon Shelton, Bob Lehrman, and Dorene Ross for their contributions and to Annie Holmquist for the article that prompted this forum.

    Your comments are welcome here or on Facebook, where this Forum will also be posted.

  • Robert Lieber’s important new book on US foreign policy

    Georgetown professor Robert Lieber is one of the country’s leading experts on US foreign policy.

    Lieber’s latest book–a short, powerful one–is Retreat and Its Consequences: American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order. (Cambridge University Press, 2016)

    Speaking at a book-launch, Lieber noted

    The last seven and a half years have seen increasing threats to America and the international order which we did so much to construct. As a result, the president that takes office on January 20 will face a daunting task in restoring the capabilities and credibility on which America’s security, its values and the safety of our friends and allies depend.

    Robert Lieber, discussing his new book
    Retreat and Its Consequences


    additional-reading-labeled-purple-150pxFor a valuable complement (and counterpoint) to Lieber’s assessment, see Michael Mandelbaum’s Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era mandelbaum-mission-failure-200px

  • Zip Daily: News Beyond the Headlines . . Tuesday, September 6

    Always being updated

    ♦ Powerful article in New York Times over rising ethnic-religious tensions in Europe prompted by the refugee crisis. The article is about Denmark but it applies far more broadly. Its subtitle captures the central point: “The thousands of Muslim asylum seekers pouring into Denmark have spawned a backlash, and questions over whether the country has a latent racial hostility at its core.”  Kudos to Abigail Esman, who wrote me about the article and has published on these issues herself:

    This has been coming for a long time, and the Netherlands led the way. For Europeans (or Americans, for that matter) to expect their citizens to embrace immigrants who refuse to embrace them is both blind and unreasonable.  So what now?

    Abigail Esman, private communication
    Esman is author of Radical State:
    How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger)


    ♦ Dumb, Dumber, Duterte. “Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte expresses regret that his “son of a bitch” remark came across as personal attack on Obama.” (AP) Other news organizations report he called Obama the “son of a whore.” Oh, come on, Rodrigo, I’m sure no one dreamed it was meant as a personal insult.

    ♦ Richard Fernandez offers a withering, insightful look into Putin and his governing elite (PJ Media)

    The paradox that Putin exemplifies is that while factions breed formidable conspirators, they also create poisonous leaders. They succeed in themselves but cause the society around them to fail.  That is because they dispense a favoritism which is ultimately ruinous for the nation. The result is a self-vetoing enterprise.

    ♦ Rising national demand for rental housing, analyzed by Gail MarksJarvisUntil recently, America led nearly all countries in home ownership. Now, after housing bubble burst and the Great Recession hit, American home ownership is about average among advanced economies. Rental costs are pinching, too.

    During the decade that began in 2005, renter households grew 9 million to 43 million households. The combination of 8 million homeowners losing homes to foreclosure and the resulting damage to credit scores kept millions from buying again and forced people into rentals. [According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, the] surge in demand has sparked large price increases, and high rents have been especially brutal for people with low incomes.

    About 1/3 of families devote half their income to rental costs. (Chicago Tribune)

    ♦ Duke University sets aside a room as a permanent “safe space,” complete with its own soothing professional. (Reason) Why not provide them with normal professional services at Student Mental Health? This is all theater–and it is theater of the absurd. Just wait til these delicate flowers get a job and are summoned into the boss’s office to hear the dreaded words, “We’ve decided to go in another direction.” Oh, the humanity. (Reason)

    When your honorific job earns you $18 million, then you must be married to the Secretary of State. The Washington Post investigates Bill Clinton’s lucrative job with a for-profit university. The money graf:

    There is no evidence that Laureate [International Universities] received special favors from the State Department in direct exchange for hiring Bill Clinton, but the Baltimore-based company had much to gain from an association with a globally connected ex-president and, indirectly, the United States’ chief diplomat. Being included at the 2009 dinner, shoulder to shoulder with leaders from internationally renowned universities for a discussion about the role of higher education in global diplomacy, provided an added level of credibility for the business as it pursued an aggressive expansion strategy overseas, occasionally tangling with foreign regulators. . . .  A close examination of the Laureate deal reveals how Bill Clinton leveraged the couple’s connections during that time to enhance their personal wealth — potentially providing another avenue for supporters to gain access to the family.

    Proving, once again, why Hillary’s campaign slogan is the inspiring “Hey, nobody can prove a quid pro quo!!”

    ♦ And now for the best entry I’ve ever seen in a book index. Retire the prize; none will ever top it.Funny index entry2 350px