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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Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, is the first in a quintet series.  It was originally published in 1985 but has since seen a resurgence in popularity and has been reissued recently.  There is a movie version slated to be released November 2013.

This book was brought first brought to my attention recently when I was student teaching.  It was being taught to a 9th grade English class.  The feedback I heard back from several teachers was that it appealed to the majority of students and many were able to connect to the material.  A book that students wanted to read and willing read ahead?  I wanted to know more.  So I read the book.endersgame

Since I still had some Amazon/Kindle credits left, I downloaded the book to my Kindle.  This edition had a foreword written by Card that highlighted how the story came to be, his astonishment of its success, and a few anecdotes about people who have written to Card describing the book’s influence on their lives.  I have to say, it was one of the best forewords to a reissue I’ve ever read.  I was choked up to read that a person who serves in the military has re-read the book several times for comfort while in combat.  The foreword also explained that people seemed to either really like it or really hate it.  People either could relate to Ender or they could not.  People either loved the structure of the book or despised it.  I wondered why there was so much polarization, but I did not let it deter me.

As Card stated in his foreword, he has a master’s in literature.  He knows how to structure a story.  He knows the nuances that conventional stories typically follow.  He just chose to methodically break them.  After I finished the book, I read some reviews on Goodreads.com.  One thread began with a comment about the flat characters.  This lead to a difficulty in connecting to the characters or understanding their motivations behind their actions.  A response to this pointed out that Ender was repeatedly isolated, ostracized, and never stayed in one group too long to make many friends.  Card utilizes the dimension of his own writing to reflect Ender’s frustrated emotions of isolation and loneliness within the reader.  The reader connects with Ender, but since Ender wasn’t allowed to connect with anyone else, the reader is unable to connect with anyone else in the story.

If you read Ender’s Game and just look at the plot, the story does seem to drag, be disjointed, and be quite plain.  However, Ender’s Game cannot be just read for the surface story, like one can do with a romance novel; it must be read for the small nuances, symbols, and themes.  The novel is crafted to make the reader think about the characters and the decisions that are made as well as their opinions of right and wrong.  It is not meant to entertain with numerous explosions, witty one-liners for the movie trailer, and a nice-and-neat packaged ending with the guy and girl kissing despite one or both being all bloody, dirty, and sweaty.  It’s an ending that just kind of drops off.

There is one question you need to keep asking throughout the book:  “WHY?”  Card wrote each sentence, each scene, and each plot point with a purpose.  Figure out what the purpose is.  The book means something different to different people because the answer the to same question is different to different people.  Some people see a character who truly understands the mindset of a solider.  Some people see a character who is just a child but is being forced into a mold he doesn’t want to be in.  Some people see a character who has not only the weight of the world on their shoulders, but the weight of the human race.

Ender has no free will in the book.  Situations are manipulated to make him think he is making a decision on his own, but his life was already pre-written for him when the government allowed his parents to have a Third.  And honestly, who hasn’t felt at some point in their life that they’re just a puppet and someone else is pulling the strings to make them dance?

Ender’s Game is a great book to be teaching in high school.  There are so many insights into the human experience that I would love to discuss with a class.  There are just as many lesson of what is in the book as what is not in the book.  Sometimes, the lack of an element in a story provides more information that having an element.

I will admit, the book is not riveting.  I was not on the edge of my seat and staying up until 3am reading “just one more chapter” five times.  The ending did not leave my jaw on the floor.  However, we cannot use blockbuster-style stories and blindsided twist endings as markers of a good novel.  If we did, we’d soon grow weary of the same plot lines.  I liked Ender’s Game.  I’m debating if I want to read Speaker for the Dead.  You should read Ender’s Game.

Summer Reading

Summer reading was never a difficult task for me.  In fact, I looked forward to summer vacation because it meant I finally had time to read the books I liked at my own pace.  However, I know not everyone is like me and it may be a struggle to get students to read during “vacation”.  But summer reading really isn’t optional.

Research shows that summer vacation often has a significant negative effect on student learning. Providing opportunities for students to read regularly during the summer can prevent documented reading achievement losses. The bottom line is that students who read during the summer do better in the fall. (ReadWriteThink.org)

The best way to encourage students to read over the summer is to make them want to read by making reading fun. Summer vacation is the perfect time to explore interests without the confines of a curriculum.  During the school year, education is regimented and, essentially, forced upon students.  Many students rebel and say they “hate” school, learning, and/or reading because they just do not like to be told what to do.  By framing summer reading in a context that feels student-chosen rather than force-upon, many struggles will dissipate.

Firstly, we need to answer the question: what is reading?  Is it only a book?  Summer reading can encompass magazines, blogs, comic books, manuals/directions, or anything with words.

Second, we need to establish sources of reading.  Students can read paper copies or digital copies on computers or mobile devices.  Students can borrow materials or purchase them.

Third, we need to consider content.  Summer reading should have no content restrictions, unless it is not age-appropriate.  Students should be allowed to read about cars, princesses, singing, sports, medicine, dancing, grilling, or whatever activity students find fun.  It is also a good time to disregard reading-level and let students read books below (and above) their reading level if they want.  (Remember: the goal is to encourage the student to want to read and to read!)

In English class, students have mostly read “literature”—books that are not popular fiction and rarely connect with students.  Students read for an academic purpose during the school year.  For summer reading, students should read for an enjoyment purpose.  Parents should not give their students quizzes or ask the student to write a paper after reading.  Instead, informal, old-fashioned conversation will yield the same outcome and increase confidence.  A good example of discussion is this: Ask why the student thought the main character was “stupid” instead of telling the student not to use that word.  Most likely, the student has a great explanation, but is just not using academic language.

So how can teachers and parents find the best summer reading for students?

Popular Recommendations—There are hundreds of summer reading lists available through Google searches.  The local librarian, an employee at the local bookstore, or the Top Books in for iBooks/Kindle/Nook will yield an even larger selection.  A popular TV show or movie “based on” or “inspired by” a book?  Pick up one of the books!  I found I loved reading Kathy Reichs’ books because my favorite TV show is Bones, which is inspired by her books.

Student/Friend Recommendations—Prior to the end school, students can write down what their favorite reading selections are.  The teacher can then compile the information into a list.  Students may be more apt to read a book a classmate thought was really good.

Form a Book Club—Perhaps reading a book as a group is best  because some students need the encouragement of others for the initial push into summer reading.  Friends from school, neighborhood kids, or a group at the library will work out well.  Groups can be of varying ages and give perspectives that students may not see otherwise.

Model Reading—Don’t just tell students to read this summer, show them!  Teachers should show students the reading that they have done for enjoyment.  Parents should read as well during the summer.  It might be worthwhile for a parent and student to read the same thing so they can discuss it together.  (Side Note—My mom did this with my brother and I when the first Harry Potter book was published.  It was so much more fun to be able to talk about the book with my mom and my brother.)

Reading Goals/Rewards—Some students need a little…motivation.  While the Six Flags® Read to Succeed Program® is closed for this summer, the idea remains the same.  Parents or teachers can create a set list of criteria that the reader must accomplish in order to obtain the goal.  Each level should be even more desirous than the previous.  The student can either “cash in” at a specific goal level and start over, or keep building until the ultimate prize.  For the Six Flags® program, it’s free tickets to ride the coasters for a day.  You could use gift cards, concert tickets, or whatever that “it” thing is that the reader wants at the moment.  For the Scholastic Summer Challenge 2013, it’s contributing the “World Record” of minutes read to try to reach the Moon.

Do Something—Don’t just read the book, do something with it.  Create something from the book, see a play, watch the movie (afterwards!), visit a museum with artifacts mentioned in the book, encourage someone else to read the book, etc.  The list is endless.

No matter how you approach summer reading, remember to keep track of the reading progress.  You can find printable summer reading logs through a Google search or by using a site like goodreads.com.

For more information and ideas for summer reading programs, books, and project ideas, see 5 Ways to Promote Summer Reading by TeachHub, Celebrate the first day of summer with summer reading by ReadWriteThink, and Summer Reading and Learning by National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Shelfari: The Digital Bookshelf

Shelfari is a website that can create a digital bookshelf. It has the usual book sharing features of sharing with friends, discussion boards, groups, and posting to social media sites.

I admit, there are numerous apps and websites that catalog and display books as well as share opinions.  So what makes Shelfari so special?  Shelfari’s claim to fame is its digital bookshelf.  You can customize the look of the bookshelf, sort the books by different criteria, and embed the bookshelf into your blog.

shelfariI’ve actually had a Shelfari bookshelf embedded into a page on Teaching & Technology since the blog began.  The link to the bookshelf is on the right, titled Bookshelf.  I have purposely kept the focus of the bookshelf to books I have read and reviewed on Teaching & Technology or books I have read that are quite popular in the secondary schools where I have been teaching.

Most often my book choices come from my own interests, poking around a bookstore, hearing about the newest popular fiction titles, or reading the book for a class.  I still have more than enough books on my “to read” shelves (yes, the plural is intentional) and frequently am busy so I am not heavily involved in book communities.  I have poked around the communities for Shelfari and GoodReads (a post for another day) to help me decide which book to read first.

I really like the fact that I can embed the Shelfari bookshelf on my blog.  It syncs automatically with my account, so when I add a book to my “read” shelf on shelfari.com, it will automatically appear on the bookshelf on my blog.  Of course, when I created the widget for my blog I chose these settings, to make it easier on myself.  However, when creating the widget, you can restrict it to a specific tag, thus the bookshelf on your blog will only add books with the tag “blog”.  This allows you to be able to add all books for different purposes, yet control where they appear.

To add a book to the bookshelf, first you need to search for it on Shelfari’s website.  If the cover does not match the one you have, there is a menu near the bottom of the entry that says “Show other editions”.  This allows you to choose the exact edition/cover you have.  This may be important if you want to display the exact edition of Macbeth that you read.  I have the Folger Library Editions displayed because those are the ones I read, rather than the Kindle versions or the Penguin Classics.  This is also a nice feature if you want to display an original cover when the newest edition has the movie characters on it.

Once you click “Add”, you will have a pop-up menu that walks you through any and all notations you might want to do with the book.  You can rate it, write a (public) review, choose if have read it or not, some unique details about your own edition, and tag it.

Unfortunately, there is no app related to Shelfari.  It’s not necessary though as there are plenty available already.