Goodreads Book Review: The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You are an astronaut on the third manned mission to Mars. You, and your five other fellow astronauts, will be there for a month of mars days (aka sols). It’s going to be the best month of your life. But then—six days into the mission—disaster strikes! You are dead. Or so your crew thought. They abandon the mission and head back to Earth. Unfortunately…you are not actually dead. What do you do? How will you survive? Will you survive the next 4 years until the next scheduled mission to Mars?


The Martian
, by Andy Weir, is a space castaway story. It is full of science, space, ingenuity, and luck. It follows the successes and failures astronaut Mark Watney faces while stranded on Mars. Weir chose to utilize a diary-like format to really put readers into Watney’s frame of mind. The story of what occurs on Earth uses standard prose format (third person, past tense).

Weir self-published The Martian in 2011. Eventually, requests came in to have the book put in an Amazon Kindle format. He did, setting the price for the minimum that Amazon would allow. The book just exploded from there. It was quickly made into a movie starring Matt Damon . I actually enjoyed the movie version as well. It kept pretty true to the book (of course, things were left out because that always happens in a book to movie conversion).

The Martian is great for book clubs, in fact, at the end of the book, there are some good questions for discussion. A word of caution, the book has a bit of a gallows sense of humor and some swearing. If that language is inappropriate for the audience reading the book, you may want to pre-screen the book. Swearing is not often and is used well in context.

While some situations were a little far-fetched, for example, the economics of the various situations/problems and Watney’s ingenious plans, they were within reason. Most readers accept a bit of suspension of disbelief when reading.

So, did Watney survive? Would you? The only way to know for sure is to read (or watch) The Martian.

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List Challenge: The Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge

I was a die-hard Gilmore Girls fan back when it was on TV. I’ve rewatched the series several times and am excitedly awaiting the release of the the new episodes on Netflix.

There were many reasons I liked Gilmore Girls, and one of those reasons was that Rory loved to read. She would throw out literary references faster than I could catch them. I never kept track of the references, but thankfully, someone else did.

I present to you: The Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge! (Also, see below for this embedded list.)

According to the list challenge, throughout the entire seven seasons,”Rory Gilmore was seen reading 339 books on screen.” Some of the comments on the list challenge beg to differ. Some commenters mentioned that some books were only mentioned, not read. Others mentioned that only other characters read the books mentioned and not Rory. Another commenter disagreed with The Divine Comedy  and Dante’s Inferno  being listed separately because one is a part of the other [I happen to agree!]

I delved a little further and found Buzzfeed wrote a list as well, titled, “All 339 Books Referenced in ‘Gilmore Girls'”. There are also a number of lists on GoodReads as well with different book totals. One cited 355, while others separate the books out by season. There is even a Richard Gilmore book list.

I found another post that lists 338 book references. This blog post even references a  Wiki article that lists all references in each episode and a link to the Rory Gilmore Book Club on GoodReads.

So many books, not enough time! Speaking of time, it’s time to get reading.

Oh, in case you were wondering, I’ve only read 40 of the 339 books. How many have you read?

National Banned Books Week 2015

National Banned Books Week is September 27-October 3. According to the American Library Association, there were 311 book challenges in 2014. Check out the infographic below to see the top 10.

Want to know more about National Banned Book week? Check out www.bannedbookweek.org, the ALA’s Banned Books, or Teaching and Technology’s previous post about National Banned Book Week.

Download this infographic as a PDF.

Goodreads Book Review: All By My Selves by Jeff Dunham

All By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed, and MeAll By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed, and Me by Jeff Dunham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve had Jeff Dunham’s autobiography, All By My Selves, sitting on my “to read” shelf for quite some time. I have no other reason for not getting to it sooner other than time and “not being in a biography mood”. Luckily, the stars aligned and I read the book.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that it only took me about 2 days to read it. The text was easy to digest, the content was entertaining, and, well, I enjoyed hearing the character’s voices in my head.

I’ve been a fan of Jeff Dunham since I nearly died laughing one night when I saw Arguing with Myself on Comedy Central. I could barely breathe…the dummies seemed so real and the jokes were great. The more I rewatched Arguing with Myself, the more mesmerized I became with the technology of Dunham’s dummies.

In his book, Dunham talks about how he got started in ventriloquism and the long, arduous road he traveled on to become the international comedian he is today. He explained all the lessons he learned, his successes, and failures. He wasn’t an overnight YouTube sensation–he worked his way up, gig by gig, making sacrifices, and putting in long hours.

Dunham also explains the technology that goes into ventriloquism. He explained (roughly) how he can produce sounds that involve the lips without moving the lips. There were also sections that explained the differences in the type of dummies (the proper term is actually figures) he has and how the figures actually function.

The book was unique in that there were sections in which the figures jumped in and gave their 2 cents on the current conversation. They were represented by a graphic and their name. In fact, even Dunham jumped in on the fun here and there.

All By My Selves is a must for any Dunham or ventriloquism fan. I truly enjoyed the book.

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Book Review: The Strange Museum Quartet

The Strange Museum: Book set only

I picked up this quartet of “Hooked on Phonics” MasterReader books at a second-hand bookstore to use with some of my young, yet proficient ESL students. The story sounded interesting and engaging and who was I to argue with the “Hooked on Phonics” brand? It taught me to read and spell oh-so-many years ago.

I’ve since found out this set has a some curriculum materials that weren’t available at the bookstore. I am slightly disappointed, nevertheless, my students enjoyed the books as an independent series. One student in particular was incredibly disappointed to find out there were only four books in the series. She wanted more to read. In fact, I bet if I offered to write additional fan fiction stories based on these books, I bet she would read them.

The quartet is an excellent series, each book escalating in length and complexity, while still retaining the same essential plot. It is great for readers who like short books yet should be moving on to longer ones. Reviews on Amazon claim that students who don’t like reading “devoured” these. I agree, my students couldn’t put them down and were excited to see where the next book would take them.

The Strange Museum
The essential plot of the four books we discover in the first book. The two siblings, Jake and Mandy Strange, work and live at the Strange Museum. It’s a museum their parents own on the first two floors of an old, large house. The third floor is the Strange Family Home and the basement is the office and workshop. The museum is a strange one…they display historically relevant lost and found items. But one day, Jake and Mandy discover a museum secret…if you touch anything after five o’clock (when the museum closes)…you can be transported back in time!

The Midnight Ride (Book 1)
Jake and Mandy accidentally touch a piece of an old map and are transported back in time…to 1775! Now they must help Paul Revere with his midnight ride or risk not being able to get back home because they changed history!

Pirates Revenge (Book 2)
Jake and Mandy tried hard not to touch objects after 5pm, but an accident with a lantern while searching for a history book in their dad’s office transported them to a North Carolinian sandy beach in 1718. But, just when they were about to return the lap to its rightful owner, their ticket back to the present, the pirate Blackbeard shows up and complicates things.

Men in Green (Book 3)
Mandy has learned her lesson. Don’t touch things after 5pm…or else. So what else is a little brother to do? Threaten to touch things. Jake doesn’t plan on actually touching anything; he’s learned his lesson too. But what’s the harm in teasing his sister? Accidents happen. A lute falls. Jake and Mandy catch it, transporting them back over 800 years to Sherwood Forest. Does the lute belong to Robin Hood or someone else? Jake and Mandy better hurry and figure it out…before English history has a chance to change!

The Royal Switch (Book 4)
Mandy wanted a cat. Jake thought a cat in a museum was a bad idea. Mandy snuck a cat into the ancient Egyptian exhibit anyway. Who would have thought the cat would break a display case? And how did that necklace get on the cat? There is only one way to remove it…by touching it. Even stranger…who would have though Mandy and Cleopatra would be doppelgängers? Now Mandy has to go undercover as Cleopatra if she wants to get back to the present!

 

Book Review: Rip Tide

Note: Rip Tide, by Kat Falls, is the sequel to Dark Life (read review).

Summary
Rip Tide
picks up a couple of months after the end of Dark Life. The main characters, Ty & Gemma travel into the trash gyre (a vortex of Atlantic Ocean trash) to hide some of Ty’s family’s crops. Deep in the trash gyre, Ty & Gemma make a grisly discovery; someone has sealed a township…with people inside! Ty & Gemma try to claim salvage rights to the township, but there is no time to waste because surfs have kidnapped Ty’s parents. Could the kidnapping be related to township? Or is there something more sinister going on with the government? Rip Tide is a race against time to find Ty’s parents while trying to avoid Seaguard officers and outlaws. Will Ty’s parents be found alive?

Expansion of World Building
Falls surpasses expectations on world-building with her Rip Tide. She expands upon the universe she built in Dark Life and brings more aspects of life in the Benthic Territory to life. In Dark Life, Falls focused on Ty and the comparison to life his Topsider friend Gemma knew. While townships were mentioned in Dark LifeRipe Tide brings them to life. These townships are remnants of the first wave of pioneers to tried to live in the ocean. We also find that for some people, like Ty, living in the ocean is a utopia, but we also find that for others, the world is a dystopia.

Expansion of Subplot
In her first novel, Falls uses the theme the government vs its people; however it moves out of the subplot status and into the plot for this second novel. We find that not everyone in the government has its constituents best interests at heart.

Connection Between Novels
Rip Tide is a sequel. For some authors, they have an amazing idea first novel and the subsequent one falls flat because the publisher wanted more but the novel wasn’t meant to be a series. This is not the case with Rip Tide. Both novels feel like they are part of the same universe and the characters are consistent between the two novels.

School Materials
Dark Life and Rip Tide are excellent novels in a cross-curricular unit between science and language arts. If you’re interested in pursuing that, please leave a comment! I’d love to blog about it. Find resources from Kat Falls herself in the links section of her website.

For Further Reading
As of now, Dark Life and Rip Tide are the only books in the series. Kat Falls has another book trilogy, Inhuman, about a post-apocalyptic world where people are losing their humanity.

Do you attend Khan Academy?

As you may recall from his TedTalk, “Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education” Salman Khan started Khan Academy after he got the idea from frequently Skyping with his cousins and subsequently creating videos on YouTube to help them with their math homework. The video lessons caught on and now Khan Academy has its own website and app.

What is Khan Academy?
According to their website, “Khan Academy offers practice exercises, instructional videos, and a personalized learning dashboard that empower learners to study at their own pace in and outside of the classroom.”

What subjects does Khan Academy offer?

  • Math
  • Science
  • Economics & finance
  • Arts & humanities
  • Computing
  • Test Prep (SAT, MCAT, GMAT, IIT JEE, NCLEX-RN, CAHSEE, AP* Art History

As you can see, the subjects are focused on STEM. The “arts & humanities” sections are mostly art and some history; there is no English or writing at all. This is disappointing to an English teacher like myself, but I hope those modules are in development (or will be soon).

Who is Khan Academy for?
Everyone! Students, teachers, parents, and anyone else who wants to learn. Need to refresh a concept for a meeting? Khan Academy! Need to relearn elementary math to help your kid with homework? Khan Academy! Want to brush up on your history so you can sound knowledgeable on a date? Khan Academy! Want to study coding? Khan Academy! (Are you getting the pattern here? Good!)

Do I have to pay for Khan Academy?
No, it’s free! Forever. It’s a promise on their homepage. “For free. For everyone. Forever.”

Do I need a username/password to use Khan Academy?
Nope! You can log in to track progress, save content, etc., but it is not essential to log in to watch a video.

Are the videos hard to follow?
Some of the more advanced math may be difficult if you’re skipping around; however, in a general sense, no the videos are easy to understand and follow. There are two ways to learn in the video: visual and audio. The speaker walks the person through the topic with a drawing and audio information. Additionally, there is a transcript to follow if you want to skim through and find something specific.

Can you embed videos into your own website?
Yes! Click on a video and beneath it you’ll see a “Share” button. There is an option for embed. Paste the code into your site/blog and the result will have a heading and look like this…….

Adding fractions with like denominators: With like denominators, you’re basically just adding numerators. That’s not too bad, right? Can the resulting fraction be simplified?


Wave Interference:

Grammar Girl Podcast and the Top Ten Grammar Myths

Last year I started listening to the Grammar Girl podcast. It was a daunting task…to start at the beginning and listen to all the podcasts since it began in late 2006 and it was 2014! Nevertheless, I was up for hours upon hours of grammar.

First, I started listening to the podcast on the Podcasts app on iTunes. However, I grew weary of the advertisements. I completely understand the purpose of them, but considering I planned to go through ALL of the podcasts, I wondered…was there a better way?

I found the Grammar Girl app for iTunes this year. I can’t believe it only cost $1.99! The hours it saves me from not having to hear the same ads over and over…definitely worth the price. Plus, there is bonus content only available on the app. There are extras embedded into the track, like pictures and PDFs and bonus tracks. MORE GRAMMAR? YES PLEASE!

I love the Grammar Girl podcast and the app. I can easily favorite an episode while I’m driving to look back at the transcript later or just note the content in general.

Which leads me to this…

I’ve listened to several episodes that I’ve wanted to share. However, I cannot simply embed the track into WordPress. My only solution is to embed the transcript that contains the audio as well.

Feel free to read, listen, or do both! I highly recommend subscribing to this podcast, but you don’t have listen to all the podcasts. I’ll periodically embed the transcript from the Grammar Girl archive of podcasts that you definitely shouldn’t miss.

So here is the podcast from March 4, 2010, titled “Top Ten Grammar Myths”. Scroll down and read them all, and be sure to click to the second page to see myths 1-5.

Book Review: Origin

Let’s just start with the back of the book…

Pia has always known her destiny. She is meant to start a new race, a line of descendants who will bring an end to death. She has been bred for no other purpose, genetically engineered to be immortal and raised by a team of scientists in a secret compound hidden deep in the Amazon rainforest. Now those scientists have begun to challenge her, with the goal of training her to carry on their dangerous work.

For as long as she can remember, Pia’s greatest desire has been to fulfill their expectations. But on the night she turns seventeen, she finds a hole in the seemingly impenetrable fence that surround her sterile home. Free in the jungle for the first time in her life, Pia meets Eio, a boy from a nearby village. Unable to resist, she keeps sneaking out to see him. As they fall in love, they begin to piece together the truth about Pia’s origin—a truth with deadly consequences that will change their lives forever.

Origin is a beautifully told, electric new way to look at an age-old desire: to live forever. But is eternal life worth living if you can’t spend it with the one you love?

Origin, by Jessica Khoury, is a thought-provoking book that made me question science experiments. I thought about both perspectives, the experimenter and the experimentee. It made me think about life, love, and ethics. I loved that the book felt so real that it made me question my own beliefs. For me, the more times I question myself, the more refined my views become. I love it.

Some reviewers on Amazon complained the book moved too slow. Perhaps…but I couldn’t put it down. Others complained about the animal torture and instalove. As I mentioned, the book made me question love and ethics. I don’t believe the story is promoting animal cruelty. In fact, the story is highlighting exposure therapy for behavior modification. I’m not going to elaborate more because I don’t want to spoil the story. Also the problem with instalove? C’mon, the story is for young readers and published by Scholastic…what are you expecting? Nevertheless, the love story is believable…she’s never met a person her age before. Of course she’d fall in love!

I picked up this book at a Scholastic Book Fair a few years ago and just got around to reading it. I wish I had read it sooner. It was a real joy to read Khoury’s exact language. Her word choice and the use of present tense made the words on the page play like a movie in my head. Here’s an example:

But as I follow Uncle Paolo to the laboratory, my bootlaces trailing in the mud and my hands clutching a struggling sparrow, the last thing I feel is perfect. (p.1)

I’m pleased to find out that this book is the first in a series. Each book follows a different set of characters. As one can imagine, it takes a lot of money to fund a super secret compound in the Amazon. And surprise! The people with the money were funding a variety of super secret projects.  Poof: instant series. Keep an eye out for reviews of Vitro and Kalahari.

In summary: I really enjoyed Origin. Young readers need plenty of science-y books that they will devour and will make them think and converse about the topics presented in the book.

Grammarly Spell Checker: A Review

Let’s be honest. We’ve all written something in error—either accidentally or negligently. Spell checkers and autocorrecters have become integrated into our digital lives, and not always for the better.

grammarlyRecently, Nik Baron at Grammarly, a spell checker company, reached out to me and gave me a two-week paid subscription to Grammarly to test and review it.

My first order of business was to read other reviews. I wanted to see what others had to say and find some interesting features to look for. Unfortunately, I was not met with positive reviews by grammar sites: “Grammarly doesn’t do all it claims to do” (Grammarist) and “$140 will buy a lot of well-written and edited books. Caveat scriptor.” (The Economist).

Test One: Pre-written Paper
My first test was uploading a pre-written paper. It was one I wrote and submitted to a college class about 10 years ago. This paper was reviewed by me several times prior to submission for mechanics (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.); but since it was just a reflection piece on a project, it was not necessary to have pristine mechanics like one would have on a term paper. Nevertheless, prior to running it by Grammarly’s checker, I thought it was pretty good.

After running it through the checker, I’m embarrassed to say I turned it in! My paper had a score of 78/100, with 16 “critical issues”. Right off the bat, 9 of them were now (10 years and two degrees later) obvious mistakes. These were mostly comma or hyphenated word errors. Whoops.  But there were still 7 of them that I didn’t really agree on.

Some of these critical issues were instances in which I purposefully broke style convention to make a point or word choice. In the instances of word choice, the checker wanted to exchange “aforementioned items” to “items above” or “items mentioned earlier” or “items as mentioned above”. Personally, I think “aforementioned items” is less wordy. Perhaps it thought I used too many syllables? It also did not like the phrase “their own strange group” and wanted me to delete “own”. Perhaps in the phrase it sounds okay, “their strange group”, but it sounds odd to me in the full sentence, “I thought they were their strange group that did not fit anywhere.”

Despite having a few issues with the uploaded document, I still wanted to like Grammarly. It found many punctuation mistakes that Microsoft Word did not. Unfortunately, when I downloaded my edited version, it opened in Microsoft Word with a bunch of comment bubbles, some indicating what I deleted, others just indicating deletions that I didn’t make. It seems like a waste of time to edit a document and then have to go through again and accept all the comment bubbles.

Test Two: Plagiarism
One of the comments in the reviews I mentioned above was that the plagiarism checker did not catch plagiarized statements. Or, if they did, it was from a published book. So, for my second test, I tested the plagiarism checker by thinking like a tech-savvy student. I copy and pasted the first paragraph from the To Kill a Mockingbird Wikipedia page.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel by Harper Lee published in 1960. It was immediately successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a classic of modern American literature. The plot and characters are loosely based on the author’s observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old.

The software detected that the work was “unoriginal” and gave me a link…to Wikispaces. I guess the Wikipedia page has some un-cited plagiarism. Grammarly also gave me the MLA, APA, and Chicago style citations that I could use instead of rewording the unoriginal work. Neat.

But you know, tech-savvy students aren’t dumb enough to just copy and paste word for word…they use synonyms! Unfortunately, this is still plagiarism. I ran the same sentence with a few word order changes and synonyms that either Microsoft Word recommended or the first synonym that came to mind. I did not change any punctuation or check for grammar. This was the new paragraph:

To Kill a Mockingbird is a book published by Harper Lee in 1960. It was instantaneously popular, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a standard in modern American literature. The story line and characters are roughly based on the author’s own observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an incident that transpired near her hometown in 1936, when she was ten years old.

Grammarly found the second half of the paragraph to be plagiarized from “The story line…” to “ten years old”. It did not, however, recognize the first half as being plagiarized, even though the YouTube source contained it.

Grammarly’s website claims that its plagiarism checker “finds unoriginal text by checking against a database of over 8 billion webpages.” Huh…only webpages? A few teachers do require book sources now and then.

I grabbed the nearest book, Origin by Jessica Khoury, and randomly opened to a page. I typed a few sentences into the checker from page 83.

I watch his every move with fascination. Questions surge to my lips, batter at my teeth. I want to know everything about him. Where does he sleep? What does he eat? Has he been to a city? Does he have friends? But I feel unusually shy and don’t know what to say.

What do you know…Grammarly didn’t catch it. It just recommends changing “his” to “him”. Umm, no. A possessive pronoun is correct here, not an object pronoun.

Summary
Test one: FAIL. Test two: FAIL. I see no reason to continue testing, based upon my results corroborating The Economist and Grammarist reviews. If you’ve installed the browser add-on or the Microsoft Word plugin for Grammarly and would like to leave a review in the comments, please do so.

Unfortunately, Grammarly’s checker isn’t fool-proof. You still need to know what you’re doing and be ready to defy yet another spelling/grammar checker. It may be helpful for students and teachers, but I do not see the value of paying for Grammarly’s spell checker when Google and Microsoft are free and are already decent spell checkers.