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Monday, March 26, 2007

Widening the Circle

Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms
Mara Sapon-Shevin
Publisher: Beacon Press; 1 edition (March 7, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0807032808
ISBN-13: 978-0807032800

I ended up with this book pseudo-accidentally. Which is to say, I got it because I helped do some work on it while I was interning at Beacon Press over the summer, and they were kind enough to send me a copy when I was done. I never would have gone out and bought it on my own.

Widening the Circle is a book dedicated to promoting the value of inclusive classroom instruction. Essentially, what the book proposes is that rather than segregating children by skill level, or removing certain students because of their learning or social disorders, that educators should strive to create a classroom where students of all different levels can work and learn together. Sapon-Shevin believes that this sort of instruction is not only more academically fruitful, but that in the long run, it will help teach students to be more open-minded, tolerant, and socially aware.

The book is broken down into three basic sections: Sapon-Shevin begins by defining inclusive instruction, what it is, and what it isn’t. She then follows by addressing some of the commonly brought up concerns about inclusion classroom, and then finishes by discussing how inclusion actually needs to be put into practice. All of this advice falls into the largely theoretical realm, which, sadly, is where most educational discussions tend to happen.

The book is well written, fairly engaging, and easily accessible. You don’t have to be an educator or a trained psychologist to understand what Sapon-Shevin is talking about. Her explanations are clear, and she peppers the book with stories, both real and imagined, that help illustrate her beliefs.

As for the content, it’s a mixed bag. I think Sapon-Shevin makes some good points, but she sometimes takes her arguments to extremes that I found a little hard to swallow. Like most educational texts, her “evidence” is almost entirely anecdotal; a nice story here, a tragic story there, but there is very little that indicates that these stories are part of a larger trend. I would have liked it if she had mentioned how many stories she had, or if she had collected stories from beyond her personal experience. One person's experience is valuable, but on it's own doesn't, to my mind, constitute strong evidence. [Edited for clarity on my part]

In any case, it’s an interesting book, and it certainly made me think a bit. While I’m not sure I agree with all of Sapon-Shevin’s conclusions, she’s pushing for a change in the American educational system, and I can’t fault her for that. I certainly prefer her vision to the vision of standardized tests for all, and if she takes her ideals to places I don’t want to go, then I can worry about that when her ideas are actually in place.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Allegiance

Allegiance
Timothy Zahn
Publisher: Del Rey (January 30, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0345477383
ISBN-13: 978-0345477385

Every time I think that Timothy Zahn is done with the Star Wars Universe, he surprises me by coming back. Zahn was conspicuously absent from the New Jedi Order series (an 18 book epic that pitted the cast of the original trilogy against a race of bio-tech wielding aliens), and his Hand of Thrawn duology seemed to wrap up most major lingering questions raised by Zahn’s original Heir to the Empire trilogy that re-launched the Star Wars novels. With the rise of the New Jedi Order, and the sudden explosion of prequel novels that followed in the wake of Episode One, it seemed like Zahn was done with the Star Wars universe for good.

But he came back; first with Survivor’s Quest, a novel that served to bridge the New Republic Era that Zahn had launched with the New Jedi Order era, and also expanded on the Outbound Flight that had been mentioned in Zahn’s previous works. The final remaining questions about that mission were answered in Outbound Flight, Zahn’s lone foray into prequel-era storytelling.

Outbound Flight also brought something interesting about Zahn’s writing to the fore; Zahn has a very well-crafted personal vision of the Star Wars universe that neither relies on, nor requires the presence of, the main characters from the movies. In Outbound Flight, the inclusion of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi seemed incredibly forced, and ultimately took away from the far more interesting main plot of the novel. While I ultimately still enjoyed the book, it wasn’t Zahn’s strongest offering to the Star Wars universe. In addition, Zahn’s gritty, military action focused writing style seemed much better to suited to the dirt and grime of the Original Trilogy than to the CGI and spit polish of the prequels.

In Allegiance, Zahn returns to the Rebellion Era with a story that takes place shortly after the battle of Yavin. Unlike Shadows of the Empire, which ostensibly served as a bridge story between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Allegiance is a self-contained story that seems more in the spirit of the old Marvel Star Wars comics. This is a story set in the Star Wars universe, with no particularly overarching consequences, unless there are references in here to parts of the Expanded Universe that I’m not aware of. Which is possible. At this point, I won’t read a Star Wars novel if it’s not written by Zahn.

Not surprisingly, Allegiance features Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewbacca, along with a few cameos by the Emperor, Darth Vader, and even Mon Mothma. They split the screen time with Zahn’s personal creation, Mara Jade, who is still serving as the Emperor’s Hand, and a new group of characters that form the core of his story.

The new arrivals are a team of five stormtroopers who, after one of them kills an Imperial Security Bureau officer, desert their post aboard the Imperial Star Destroyer Reprisal (commanded by Captain Ozzel, later famous for being choked to death by Vader). The stormtroopers steal an ISB freighter, and set out to find their place in the galaxy. Unwilling to put aside their oath to defend the Empire’s citizens, they end up defending the poor and downtrodden in an A-Team like fashion, and quickly become embroiled in a system-wide conspiracy involving pirates, swoop gangs, a system governor, and the Rebel Alliance.

Naturally, Jade, Vader, Luke, Han, and Leia all get dragged into these events as well, and Zahn does an admirable job of balancing the various characters. Luke and Han end up seeming like their a little bit along for the ride, but Leia ends up in fairly central role as both character and plot point. I have the impression that Zahn could have written this novel without involving any of the movie characters at all, but I think he uses them much more skillfully than he used Anakin and Obi-Wan in Outbound Flight. Zahn also does a fantastic job of keeping various characters apart, thereby avoiding awkward questions like “why doesn’t Vader ever recognize C3-PO?”.

The plot is self is good Zahn plot; military conspiracy mixed with fast-paced action. There is very little wasted movement, lots of twists and turns that keep the reader guessing, and rarely a dull moment. Zahn captures the cinematic feel of the Star Wars universe perfectly, and there are a number of scenes that feel like they were taken right off of a movie screen.

The renegade stormtroopers are interesting, but I wish Zahn had spent a little more time fleshing them out. While they each have some distinguishing characteristics, they aren’t as strongly separated as they could be; I never lost track of who was who, but I would have liked a bit more granularity in the characters and their motivations.

In the end, Allegiance is a good, fun, romp back through the Star Wars universe. Fans of Zahn will likely enjoy it, as will most Star Wars fans in general. It has the added bonus of being a stand-alone novel, so a reader can pick it up without worrying about being sucked into a trilogy or an eighteen book epic. If you want a fun, exciting trip back to a galaxy far, far, away, this a great place to get it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Silmarillion

Silmarillion
J.R.R. Tolkien
Publisher: Del Rey; Reissue edition (January 12, 1985)
ISBN: 0345325818

Note: The publishing info above refers specifically to the version of the Silmarillion that I read. Other versions are available.

The Silmarillion is one of those books that I’ve meant to read for years, literally. It is, according to some, the book that separates casual Lord of the Rings fans from truly hard-core Tolkien lovers. My first girlfriend confessed to preferring the Silmarillion over the Lord of the Rings, which she was unable to finish.

Todd likewise holds that the Silmarillion is the preferable work, being more true to Tolkien’s desire to create an epic that the Lord of the Rings is. Or something like that. He can come in here and explain himself better, if he wishes.

I’m not sure I can go that far, but the Silmarillion is a damn fine piece of work. In essence, it is the Bible of Middle-Earth, telling the history of the creation of the world, and it’s long history up to the rise of Sauron, and the events of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Technically, it even covers those, though it does so in about a paragraph, so it hardly counts. Mostly, it occurs as series of shorter works that detail particular events and moments in the life of Middle-Earth as a whole. There is something of a coherent narrative to the story, but it’s a historical narrative, not one that follows any one particular character or group of characters throughout the entire work.

The Silmarillion, arguably, plays to many of Tolkien’s strengths, while covering many of his weaknesses. Tolkien is an excellent world builder and myth-maker, and the Silmarillion is nothing but world building and myth-making in narrative form. These are not small stories; they are stories of great men and women doing epic deeds. As with all good epics, the characters do not always succeed, nor are they always good people. The theme of corruption and fall from grace runs pretty heavily through the book, and there are a number of characters that come to unfortunate ends. Which is as it should be; after all, epic does not mean heroic, or even successful.

Because many of the stories are shorter, the Silmarillion also avoids two of the things that most Tolkien detractors (and even some Tolkien fans) tend to dislike about his writing. The first is Tolkien’s tendency (mostly in the Lord of the Rings) to describe the environment in great, sometimes excessive detail. Because Tolkien is mostly painting with broad strokes, there is not the same kind of loving detail given to each vale or field; instead, we get brief glimpses, followed by details of the things that are truly important to the story. Some of those descriptions are glorious (the woods where the Dark Elf lives…yes, Tolkien has a Dark Elf, but he does not wield scimitars, nor does he have a pet panther), but readers who disliked the detailed wanderings of Frodo and Co. in Lord of the Rings may find this more palatable.

Second, there are those who believe that Tolkien doesn’t do characters well, or at least, not with depth. I happen to disagree with this assessment, but for those who do, the Silmarillion…well, it doesn’t necessarily have more depth, but there’s less of a sense that the characters are meant to. They are, for the most part, epic archetypes as much as characters, filling in their roles in the story that is the world, and so a reader may feel less cheated by the lack of in-depth characterizations.

As a fan of the epic in general, I loved the Silmarillion. It’s rich, it’s fun, and it is epic. It also paints a very clear picture of Tolkien’s world, and anyone who wants a much clearer picture of the events of the Lord of the Rings would do well to read it.

The $20,000 question of course is, which one of Tolkien’s works to I like better? Honestly, that’s hard to answer. The Lord of the Rings is a childhood favorite—I remember sitting with father when I was maybe eight years old, listening as the Ringwraiths chased Frodo towards the ferry, and wondering if Frodo would make it. It’s a book (and let’s face it…it is one book) that’s shaped my consciousness throughout my entire life. It is at the top of my desert island list. I’m not sure anything can topple it.

And yet, the Silmarillion is a damn fine piece of work, and in many ways, it’s got a lot of the best of Tolkien’s writing (despite some slightly shoddy editing by his son), without a lot of Tolkien’s flaws. At the end of the day, I think I prefer the Lord of the Rings, because it contains some more human elements that the Silmarillion lacks, but I’d happily read either one.