Learn Vocabulary and Help Feed the World

December 5, 2007


A friend just sent me a link to this site, and I had to pass it on to everyone. FreeRice is a vocabulary building word game with a twist. In a simple window, a word is displayed with four possible definitions. Your challenge is to pick the correct answer and define the word. Now here’s the twist. If you get the word right, the site will donate 20 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Program. This nifty trick is done by turning around the ad revenue generated by a simple – and very unobtrusive – banner ad at the bottom of the window.

The program runs an algorithm to determine your word level and bases its choices from there. I found many words that I knew, several that were unfamiliar but decipherable, and some that I had no idea about. The owners of the site say that there are 50 levels in all, but that it is rare for someone to get over the 48th level.

In about 5 minutes, I was able to donate over 1400 grains of rice and got to level 46. And guess what … it was fun.

So, I know that I don’t have to go on and on about the benefits of improving your own vocabulary: the precision, the persuasion, the power it gives you (and not mention better grades and – dare I say it – better SAT scores). But here is a fun way to challenge yourself, better your vocabulary, and help someone else out there in the world at the same time.

Go ahead, click on the image above and play around for a while. Trust me. You’ll like it.

Note: According to the site’s own totals page, they’ve been able to donate a pretty large amount of rice:

Total Donations by Date

Date Grains of Rice
OCTOBER 2007 537,163,380
NOVEMBER 2007 4,768,969,790
December 1, 2007 235,092,740
December 2, 2007 231,789,260
December 3, 2007 252,053,160
December 4, 2007 280,971,480
Total All Dates 6,306,039,810

(according to my calculations, assuming the average grain of rice weighs ~25mg, that’s about 157,651 kgs of rice)


Cat’s Cradle

November 30, 2007

Cat’s CradleCat’s Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut

read by: Tony Roberts

pub. Harper Audio, 7hrs. 10 min.

So this is the first audiobook I’m going to review. For all intents and purposes, I will treat it, as I will all future audiobooks, as if it were a paper book, focusing on the content of the story rather than the quality of the reading. However, as this is an integral part of any audiobook, I feel like I have to at least mention it somewhere. To this end, at the end of the review, I will make brief mention of whether or not I thought the audio added to or subtracted from the story.

As to the book, this one is on my all time top five list without any doubt. I have read it more times than I can remember, and it just keeps getting better and better as I find new things each and every time I read it.

Written in 1963, this is Vonnegut’s tale of the absurdity of even debating the validity or value of science vs. religion, truth versus lies, and various other of man’s huge questions. Within its pages, Vonnegut invents an entirely new religion, conjures a scientific invention that could destroy the world, and looks deeply at the connections both real and imaginary between people in general.

Set on the fictional Carribean island of San Lorenzo, it tells the story of the narrator’s rise from freelance journalist to president-select of this tiny country like no other and yet precisely like all others. Often dismissed as a humorous bit of whimsy, this book is anything but. While it can be hilarious, it is also deeply profound. In fact, I think that it has been an essential cog in the development of the way I think, and ultimately who I am. And I don’t say that lightly. This book is awesome.

As an example I offer the following quote. On the day of remembrance for the “Hundred Martyrs to Democracy”, or lo Hoon-yera Mora-toorz tut Zamoo-cratz-ya in the local dialect, a national holiday memorializing the deaths of 100 young volunteers who died after volunteering to fight in WWII for the Americans, the American Ambassador, Horlick Milton, makes the following speach:

“‘We are gathered here friends,’ he said, ‘to honour lo Hoon-yera Mora-toorz tut Zamoo-cratz-ya, children dead, all dead, all murdered in war. It is customary on days like this to call such lost children men. I am unable to call them men for this simple reason: that in the same war in which lo Hoon-yera Mora-toorz tut Zamoo-cratz-ya died, my own son died.
My soul insists that I mourn not a man but a child.
I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honour and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays.
But they are murdered children all the same.
And I propose to you that if we are to pay our sincere respects to the hundred lost children of San Lorenzo, that we might best spend the day despising what killed them; which is to say, the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind.
Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.
I do not mean to be ungrateful for the fine, martial show we are about to see – and a thrilling show it really will be…..
And hooray say I for thrilling shows.
But if today is really in honour of a hundred children murdered in war is today a day for a thrilling show?
The answer is yes, on one condition: that we, the celebrants, are working consciously and tirelessly to reduce the stupidity and viciousness of ourselves and of all mankind.

What else can I say. The man gets it.

If you haven’t read this one, do. If you have, read it again. It’s that good.

5stars 5++++!

Now as to the audio version, unfortunately, the reader was not very good. Add to that the fact that I love this book, and I was truly disappointed with the audio version. His character voices were terrible, especially the women, and his reading was generally flat to me. However, the story is so strong, that it was able to shine even through these shortcomings. I would definitely recommend reading this one, though. Especially the first time.


Spook Country

November 30, 2007

spookcountrySpook Country

William Gibson

pub. Putney Adult, 384 pp.

I find myself enjoying William Gibson’s books more and more as he continues to write, and this book was no exception.

Gibson, one if not the father of cyber-punk fiction, has mellowed significantly as he has developed as a writer much to my enjoyment. Furthermore, while many people would stop reading this review at the words ‘cyper-punk,’ that moniker doesn’t really fit his stories anymore, at least the ‘punk’ part anyway. And while his stories are no longer the edgy, action fueled romps that they used to be, his ideas are no less stimulating or thought provoking. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed his earlier books such as Neuromancer and Idoru, a lot, I just think he keeps getting better and better.

This trend began with Pattern Recognition, a great story about ‘cool hunting’ and the power of the crowd vs. individuality. Now, with Spook Country, Gibson has truly settled into a form of science fiction dealing with the ‘what-might-be-right-now’, instead of the ‘what-might-be-of-the-distant-future.’

This book is set in the same world as Pattern Recognition and follows three main narrative leads all circling around a mysterious shipping container and its cargo. We have Hollis Henry, the recognizable ex-singer of a semi-famous indie-rock band, now writing a story for what appears to be a developmental tech magazine, ostensibly about locative art – a form of virtual art installation all run through GPS and wireless networks. To her story we also add Tito, a young Russian/Cuban member of a crime family with extensive links to the intelligence community. And finally, we have Milgrim, a strung out drug addict being held captive and forced to work for Agent Brown, who in turn may or may not work for a government. At the center of all three stories is the techno-geek recluse Bobby Chombo who may be the key to why everyone is interested in the seemingly untrackable container.

Set two years in the past rather than the future, this story looks at the world of technology through the lens of what might be out there that we just don’t know about. Just how well can governments, or other bad guys find out about people on the street? It takes your nightmares of the loss of freedom and governmental spying and make them even more spookier. In a world where the Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Donald Kerr, recently said, “Too often, privacy has been equated with anonymity; and it’s an idea that is deeply rooted in American culture… but in our interconnected and wireless world, anonymity – or the appearance of anonymity – is quickly becoming a thing of the past,”(source) the themes and ideas strike even closer to home.

I found the story, while not a rip-roaring page turner, a well paced read and the characters well developed and genuinely interesting. But again it is the underpinnings of technology and its use, acceptance, and ubiquity that ultimately kept me engrossed. The juxtaposition of very cool technology utilization in art and culture against the privacy-threatening, invasive intelligence gathering aspects of some of the very same technology is something that Gibson explores better than almost anyone else.

4half 4.5


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

November 28, 2007

DiaryAlexieThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sherman Alexie

pub. Little, Brown Young Readers, 240 pp.

WOW! Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. And if this weren’t a student oriented blog, I’d say something that began with “Holy…”

I got to hear Sherman Alexie speak at the ALAN conference last week and was quite taken with him. While he spoke about things that were awful, unfair, and almost inhuman, he had the uncanny ability to make us laugh at the same time. This in no way belittled the things he was talking about, but rather it brought them into a clearer focus.

Unfortunately, one of the few books not included in the ALAN box, was Alexie’s. So, even though I have over 70 new books to read and share, I went directly to my local bookstore and bought both of his new books (this YA novel, and his most recent adult book as well).

It certainly didn’t take me long to tear through Diary, either. This is an amazing book. It tells the story of a 14 year old boy who has grown up on an Indian reservation. When he finds his mother’s maiden name written in his freshman geometry text book, he realizes that he needs to leave the ‘rez’, to do something else, if he ever wants to become more than what he sees around him . The rez is so poor, that he has been given a 30 year old text book. Things just don’t change on the rez.

What ensues when he changes schools and starts attending a far more privileged school for whites in a neighboring town, is the focus of the book. Not only is he the only Indian other than the mascot at his new school, but he is treated as a traitor by those on the rez, including his ex-best friend.

This book is outright funny in many places. Alexie’s timing and wry look at the world left me laughing out loud in many places. However, in many of these very same places I found myself thinking that I should be crying at the same time. Just because he uses humor, don’t think that Alexi pulls any, and I mean any, punches. For example, when talking about the poverty on the rez and the reality that his father would need to shoot a beloved pet because they couldn’t afford to take him to the vet, the narrator says, “I wanted to run faster than the speed of sound, but nobody, no matter how much pain they’re in, can run that fast. So I heard the boom of my father’s rifle when he shot my best friend. A bullet only costs about 2 cents, and anyone can afford that.”

All in all, this is an amazing story. The dual pressures that the narrator lives under – to be Junior,  the member of his family and his tribe on the reservation, and to be Arnold, the basketball playing, possibly college bound student at his new school – clash violently and often in unexpected places, and yet Arnold still finds beauty and happiness. The book’s subject matter is at times painful, depressing, and often pokes at open sores, and yet it is still a positive, hopeful, and ultimately triumphant book.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a fabulous pick for, and completely deserving of the National Book Award that it just won.

Again, WOW.

5stars 5!



November 26, 2007


Adrienne Maria Vrettos

pub. Margaret K. McElderry, 272 pp

Set in a semi-isolated mountain town that is being overrun by outsiders, this is the tail of 15 year old Dylan, a girl both blessed and cursed with psychic visions. What Dylan sees are visions of dead children who have been killed, either accidentally or by foul play, and have yet to be found. These visions started in the fifth grade when a classmate was murdered by the mysterious “Drifter.”

While Dylan has ‘extra’ knowledge of the events surrounding the murder, it is through the shared experience of a classmate’s disappearance, that Dylan and her friends have forged their bonds. Over time, though, and despite all they share, Dylan has had to keep this biggest of secrets from all those she holds dear.

When newcomer Cate moves into town and befriends Dylan, however, longstanding relationships begin to change. Also thrown into the mix is a new murder linked to the very same Drifter who has haunted the kid’s past.

This book was definitely a page turner. By using the shared stories and remembrances of the kid’s past set against a world beset with change – in the name of progress – Vrettos creates a very well defined sense of place. The Drifter’s return and Dylan’s need to both keep and tell her secret add sufficient tension to keep this story humming along.

While I did enjoy the ride, unfortunately I found quite a few places where the narrative jumped a bit too quickly and I lost the thread of what was going on. Because of this, I often found myself turning back a few pages in order to make sense of what I had just read.

Despite these shortcomings, and I could have just been too tired or reading too quickly to pick up on some things, the book was a lot of fun and good night’s entertainment.

3halfstar 3.5



November 26, 2007


Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson

pub. Roaring Brook Press, 176 pp

Sometimes when I hear the basic premise of a book, I am immediately hooked and can’t wait to read it. This was just the case with Gone. Now the subject of student/teacher relationships is not new, and is even quite current with a recent spate of national cases and a series of AP newspaper articles. However, this book promised to look at the issue from a slightly different point of view.

First off, the main character is a teenage boy, 17 years old and two weeks shy of his 18th birthday. He has just graduated from high school and finds himself getting involved over the summer with his 31 year old social studies teacher from last year. The relationship is mutual, and by that I mean that there is no manipulation or abuse of power by either as they come together, and is further removed from typical expectations because they are no longer teacher and student.

I know some people will say that any relationship between a 31 year old and a 17 year old will involve manipulation, and I’m not saying that their relationship is either a good thing, or a healthy thing, but I at least think that, in this case, it develops out of mutual desire, as misguided or incorrect as those desires may be.

I hoped that this set up would allow for an honest look at what attracts people to each other, the frailties and mistakes that we, both as teens and adults, are prone to make, and the consequences of those actions. Unfortunately, I feel like Ms. Johnson took the easy way out and ultimately takes all responsibility away from her characters and instead puts the blame on background and addiction.

To me, this would have been a much more interesting and meaningful book, if the characters weren’t fulfilling the stereotypical addict/child-of-addict enabler/enabled rolls. If they had been simply lost souls looking for, finding, and dealing with what passes between them, their stories would have been much more honest and real.

Added to this, I also found the characters one dimensional, and the writing somewhat flat, so I was not supremely impressed with this book. That said, it certainly was not a waste of time. In fact, it was a book that stayed with me for a little while, and it took me some time to figure out what, exactly, I thought about what had happened. I knew immediately that I really disliked the ending and thought it a complete cop out, but the rest of the book did hold my attention, somewhat, and for that I cannot completely pan it.

2star 2


Lessons From a Dead Girl

November 26, 2007

Lessons from a Dead GirlLessons From a Dead Girl

Jo Knowles

pub. Candlewick, 224 pp

One of my problems, as an adult, with young adult fiction is that, to me, it is often completely predictable. After I have read the first ten or fifteen pages, the story arc is all laid out, the ending is as clear as a bell, and I can just sit back and follow along. Now I also know that when kids read these books, they often do not have the experience, both literary and real life, to pick up on these clues. Because of this, the predictability factor is, again sometimes, not so important, and I have trained myself to look past it in most of my YA reading. However, I do make note of it for myself. So it is always a pleasure to find a story that either breaks this mold or winds up in a different place than I expected.

Having said that, when I sat down to read Lessons From a Dead Girl, Jo Knowles’ debut novel, within a few pages my prediction engine was in full swing. I thought I had this tale of two girls who are best friends and the abuse that one of the girls subjects the other to, completely figured out. Happily, although this is no way a ‘happy’ story, I found that Knowles did not follow the easy path, and her story is not at all formulaic or trite.

In fifth grade, Leah chooses Laine to be her new best friend. This is a big deal for Laine as Leah is one of the most popular girls in school. Laine, on the other hand, is not. As time passes, their friendship grows and we see some well developed scenes that confirm their commitment to each other. However, at the same time, Leah takes Laine deeper and deeper into a world of sexual and emotional abuse. That this abuse takes place in Laine’s childhood play space, only strengthens its impact on Laine. It is Laine’s confusion about and struggle with what Leah is doing that drives the story. How could someone who is her best friend be doing these things? And why doesn’t Laine do something to stop it?

A difficult story of trust, secrets, betrayal, and a search for self, Lessons From a Dead Girl, is an engaging book. It deals with some very serious topics, in an open and honest way, and as such brings its readers face to face with an often untold aspect of growing up.

For mature readers.

4star 4

On a related note, I got to spend a fair amount of time with Jo Knowles at the ALAN conference in New York, last week. Both talking to her as a person and listening to her presentation at ALAN, I got the feeling that she is a very thoughtful, caring person, and this is also evident in her writing. I enjoyed getting to know her, and will definitely be on the lookout for future books by her.

She also volunteered to come into my classroom to talk about writing, etc. – since she lives close by – and I will definitely be looking into this possibility.