Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

13 Nov 2007, 9:50 a.m.

Just Read And Recommended

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2007 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Books on the inadvertent themes of the US public school culture and acclimating ourselves to otherness.

  • John Scalzi's Agent to the Stars, available for free online. A pleasant, fast-paced, and funny if sometimes jarring read. Hollywood agent Tom Stein gets tapped to introduce aliens to Earth.

  • Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card. An imagination of how and why Columbus did what he did, and how our history might have been different. Card and Scalzi (at least in the book of his I've read) both love the "everyone lays their logic and advantages out on the table" conversations, which gets tiresome in a House, M.D. kind of way but does avoid the "everything's subtext" New Yorker-fiction problem. Also, in the New Yorker-style stories we often say that nothing happens, but really we're saying that there's internal character change that doesn't translate into change in their relationships or the external world. In Card and in Agent to the Stars, character change is muted compared to the changes they implement in the world, and it all happens quite fast -- partially because no one communicates nonverbally and communication signals never get interrupted by the beautiful noise of emotion or symbolism.

  • Schooled by Gordon Korman. Capricorn Anderson, at thirteen, lives on a commune with his grandmother. When she falls and breaks her hip, he has to go mainstream while she recovers, which means a tremendous culture clash at his new home and school. Less zany than the 1980s Korman -- instead of a troublemaker with a straight-man sidekick, Cap is just an earnest kid buffeted by amoral, well-meaning, or malicious strangers.

    As in Jake, Reinvented, Korman's retelling of The Great Gatsby, he's interested in how student mobs inside schools treat their leaders and outsiders, and what switches their attitude towards a particular newcomer between adulation and scorn. (This is not to mention the actual mob psychology he examines in Son of the Mob and its sequel.) Both Korman's No More Dead Dogs and Schooled also feature stubborn truthtellers and alternate among their points of view and those of their peers and authority figures. Were Korman to take a darker turn he'd write Avi's Nothing But The Truth, the scary realistic docu-style drama about a kid who becomes a political football because of a classroom misunderstanding.

  • Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder. Kidder does documentaries. This one studies a fifth-grade class in a Massachusetts industrial town over one school year. Moving, insightful, empathy-inducing, and sort of incomplete in the way good documentaries feel. You get to know the people and you know their lives are continuing, so you wish you could keep following them to know what happens. This is the Truman Show fallacy.


13 Nov 2007, 13:34 p.m.

I just read Schooled, too (because I like to read things I give as gifts to make sure I approve of them). I'd put it in the interesting and worth a read, but not stellar category. If you haven't read Holes by Louis Sachar, I'd strongly recommend it, and if you are interested in social politics in schools, I highly recommend watching Mean Girls, which is a fantastic movie. I'm waiting in the household line to read John Scalzi's The Ghost Brigades, but if I finish Japan, Inc. (an introduction to Japanese economics via manga) before Moss finishes the Scalzi book, I may check out Agent to the Stars next.