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review 2018-04-19 20:51
Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu
Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve - Lenora Chu

This is a really interesting book that offers a firsthand view of the Chinese school system from a mostly-American perspective. Lenora Chu is a daughter of Chinese immigrants who was raised in the U.S., her husband a white American who volunteered in China with the Peace Corps. After moving to Shanghai for work, they enroll their son in a prestigious Chinese preschool. Concerning incidents at the school spark the author’s journey to learn more about the Chinese school system: she observes classrooms in China and the U.S., talks to experts, and gets to know Chinese high schoolers and parents.

So the book is part memoir, part nonfiction. From an American perspective it’s a fascinating comparison; so much of what I tend to view as going wrong in current American ideas of education and child-rearing seems to be heightened in China, from overscheduled kids (in China it’s usually tutoring or extracurricular classes rather than swimming, gymnastics etc.), to an unwillingness to let kids play freely and explore because they might hurt themselves (other parents judge Chu for letting her son run around the living room jumping off chairs, etc., and the school states that kids aren’t allowed to talk during lunch because they might choke), to a heavy emphasis on testing. Regarding that last one, pressure for the high school and college entrance exams in China is so intense that in one town a crackdown on cheating resulted in parents and students rioting.

Which actually leads to one of the positive features of the Chinese system: Chinese families tend to treat academics the way American families treat sports, to the point of huge crowds of people gathering outside exam sites to see their kids off and shout well-wishes. While Americans face a social penalty for being “nerds” and tend to view academic success as a matter of inborn talent (so if you don’t have it, why bother to try), the Chinese have valued brains – and judged people by their test scores – for centuries, and believe that success is largely a matter of effort. They aren’t afraid to demand work from kids or to ask them to memorize. This is especially noticeable in math: while American schools tend to wrap up simple math in verbally complicated “word problems” in an attempt to make the work “relevant” to kids who won’t have a professional job for a decade or more anyway, Chinese schools forge ahead and have young kids doing more advanced problems. This is helped by the fact that Chinese teachers specialize in their subject matter from the first grade, while American elementary school teachers are generalists (who by and large don’t like math and weren’t good at it themselves). Of course it’s also helped by Chinese schools’ making no attempt to integrate kids with special needs into regular classrooms, which American schools must do.

It’s evident from Chu’s writing that all of these issues are complicated: each school system has its advantages and disadvantages, but many of the advantages come with their own negatives or are bound up with the culture and therefore hard to replicate, while the disadvantages can also have silver linings. And of course no huge country has a uniform school system: just as the U.S. has both great and failing schools, China too has huge disparities, with many rural schools being shafted.

There's a lot in the book that I haven't even discussed here: politics in the classroom, the social position of teachers, the encouragement of creativity or lack thereof, and how all this affects students in the long run. But the book isn’t a treatise. Chu keeps it lively and interesting with accounts of her own family’s experiences, and with a clear, journalistic writing style. I imagine some readers might criticize her parenting decisions – at times it felt as if she were trying to claim a high-minded rationale for a choice of school that ultimately came down to cost, while she and her husband seemed willing to accept (if unhappily) a certain amount of what many Americans would consider abusive treatment of preschool kids (such as forcefeeding, or threatening to call the police on them when they misbehave) in the interests of having a disciplined and well-behaved child. But for the American reader it’s a fascinating window into a very different school system, and into Chinese culture as a whole. It is balanced and thoughtful, and the author comes across as open-minded, curious and willing to adapt rather than pushing an agenda. I do wish it had endnotes rather than a chapter-by-chapter bibliography, for readers to follow up and learn more. But I learned a lot from this book, enjoyed reading it, and would recommend it.

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review 2018-02-28 22:33
How Does it Feel to be a Problem? by Moustafa Bayoumi
How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America - Moustafa Bayoumi

This is an interesting book about the lives of young Muslims of Arab descent living in Brooklyn in the first few years after 9/11. If that sounds very specific, well, it is, but despite what may initially seem to be a narrow focus, the book seems to me to do a good job of addressing various aspects of Arab Muslim life in the U.S. Each of its seven chapters is devoted to a different young person, whose story unfolds over 30-odd pages.

Most of the chapters have a specific focus. Rasha’s story is about an entire family detained and held in prison for two months shortly after 9/11, although they were never charged with any crimes. I am sorry to say that I was unaware of the post-9/11 mass arrests of Muslims in the U.S., although they were hardly unknown, even drawing the attention of Amnesty International. Sami’s story is about a Muslim soldier going to war for the U.S. in the Middle East. Yasmin’s is a story of a high school student who fights back against religious discrimination at her school. Omar’s is about employment discrimination, and Rami’s, the final story, about a young person getting religion. The author includes factual information about the various topics alongside the stories for context. Of course, giving each story relatively few pages limits their depth to some extent; in some cases the author focuses in on a particular aspect of someone's life, while other chapters follow their subjects for a longer time but with less detail.

I found these stories interesting and the author’s style accessible, and there is a lot in here I didn’t know. For instance, apparently the U.S. government drew up plans in the 1980s to put Muslims in a concentration camp. I am not sure how representative these young people and their families are of Arab-American Muslims, or if that was the author’s goal. Two of the families are Palestinian and two more have one Palestinian parent, which is not representative of the Middle Eastern population in the U.S. generally. The author is also strongly attached to writing about Brooklyn, which seems to me more unique than representative of American life, but enough of these folks have also lived in other places that that turned out to be less of a limiting factor than I initially expected. Regardless, these are important stories, many of which I hadn’t heard before. No book could represent all of Arab Muslim life in America, but this one does an excellent job of opening a window.

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text 2018-02-28 18:43
Reading progress update: I've read 68%.
Memo from the Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character - David McKenna,Christopher Vogler

Previous updates and comments:

 

http://lindahilton.booklikes.com/post/1645692/reading-progress-update-i-ve-read-59

 

http://lindahilton.booklikes.com/post/1645696/a-quote-for-readers-as-much-as-for-writers

 

I began this re-read to refresh my memory of how Chris Vogler and -- though to a lesser extent -- David McKenna had analyzed Story. 

,

Both of them are primarily analysts of the already-written Story.  When applying their template to a familiar film, such as Casablanca or The Princess Bride, the student is readily able to see the various archetypes and details at work. 

 

For that reason, Memo from the Story Dept is an invaluable tool for the critic or even the teacher.  It's less useful, however, for the writer.

 

Until Chapter Fifteen, that is, when McKenna takes over with his Environmental Facts analytical technique.

 

For me, writing has always involved several distinct but integrated lenses through which a story is viewed.  It's like zooming in with a camera and having to change the lens or tighten the focus as the writing narrows in from overview to final draft.

 

First is the plot structure that moves the action from opening scene through various conflicts and obstacles to final resolution, in a kind of "this happens, then this happens, then this, then this, then this, and they all lived happily ever after" sequence.  This can be done in an outline or synopsis of anywhere from two to two hundred pages, but usually the shorter is better, even if it's no longer than the back cover blurb.  The skeleton, so to speak.  The long distance overview.

 

Second is the characters and their respective backstories that bring them to the point of what happens on page one.  This starts to flesh out the framework and is usually longer than the synopsis.  We're starting to focus in now on what's happening and to whom it's happening and why it's happening.

 

Fourth is the actual book, with all the nuances of style and dialogue and action and language and research and so on.  This is the final product, the intimate close-up lens that puts the reader in direct contact with what the writer envisioned.

 

McKenna's "Environmental Facts" chapters fill in the third lens.

 

At first, I barely remembered reading this section previously, but then various details resurfaced, and in the process reminded me why I had found this book so valuable.

 

If you're a reviewer just reading and writing reviews, you probably don't need to get quite as analytical as this information suggests.  It's enough to just like or not like a book.

 

On the other hand, if you want to better understand what makes a book click for you or not, McKenna's chapters could provide the needed insight.

 

And if you're a writer, at least give these chapters a careful read.  They gave me a better understanding of certain techniques I tend to take for granted.

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text 2018-02-28 17:19
A quote for readers as much as for writers
Memo from the Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character - David McKenna,Christopher Vogler

The terms are these: They agree to give you something of value, their money, but also a much more valuable consideration, their time. As a screenwriter you are asking them to pay attention to you and you only for ninety minutes, and as a novelist for much longer. Think about that! Focused attention has always been one of the rarest and most valuable commodities in the universe, and it's even truer today, when people have so many things fighting for their attention. So for them to give you even a few minutes of their focus is huge stakes to put on the table, worth much more than the ten bucks or so they shell out for a book or a movie ticket. Therefore, you'd better come up with something really good to fulfill your part of the bargain.

McKenna, David and Vogler, Christopher.  Memo from the Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character (Kindle Locations 454-459). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.

 

Emphasis is mine.

 

Dear Readers:  If the author doesn't keep his or her "part of the bargain," you don't owe them anything further.  Not kindness, not praise, not consideration for the time they put in.  They are like any other purveyor of goods or services: If the product is bad, you have no obligation to lie to protect their feelings.

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text 2018-02-28 17:02
Reading progress update: I've read 59%.
Memo from the Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character - David McKenna,Christopher Vogler

This is a re-read for me. 

 

Disclosure:  I purchased the Kindle edition of this book at full retail price.  I have met one of the authors, Christopher Vogler, once, in 1995 when he was a speaker at a conference I chaired in Los Angeles.  I do not know David McKenna.  I am an author of historical romances, contemporary gothic romances, and miscellaneous non-fiction.

 

I wasn't going to post a status on this reread, but then decided last night that it might be a good idea.

 

Memo from the Story Department is a follow-up to Vogler's The Writer's Journey. Although Memo reprises a lot of the information in TWJ, I strongly recommend reading TWJ first.

 

There is a great deal more information in Memo regarding story and mythic structure, but in fact there's so much more that it becomes almost confusing for someone who's not familiar with Vogler's take on the (somewhat) original Joseph Campbell theories.

 

The back-and-forth style of Memo - parts are written by McKenna and then Vogler adds commentary, other parts are vice versa - can also be a bit confusing. 

 

Reading this, however, has prompted me to wish I had both Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment.  Maybe I need a trip to the library.

 

 

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