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Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality-Charles Murray

In Book Reviews, education, social science on August 30, 2010 at 12:12 am

Straight Talk About The Failure of The American Educational System

Charles Murray’s Real Education is a book that’s been long overdue.  The author’s core argument is that the American educational system is no longer based in reality.  Children who obviously are unable to achieve top grades are told that they can be anything, do anything. What Murray calls “educational romanticism” has caused education in this country to be geared toward making everyone feel good.  Students feel good because they are told they can do anything; parents feel good because they are told their child is bright, even when he or she is not; and teachers feel good because they don’t have to be the heavies, telling students they aren’t truly able to handle certain subject areas and levels.  But this romanticism has as one of its worst consequences that education has become an activity geared toward happiness, not actual learning. But feeling good and hope do not make for a good education.  They make for advertising and political slogans.

Murray provides four areas of discussion:  ability varies, half of all children are below average, too many people are going to college, and America’s future depends on how we educate the gifted. The first topic, ability varies, is tremendously important and generally overlooked.  While its expected that all children will be able to excel in language arts and math, it is never expected that all children will excel in athletics and arts.  Why?  All four areas are of distinct areas of ability.  The problem is that some areas of ability tend to be more specialized, such as athletics and arts, while others are seen as integral to daily life.  Be this as it may, they are all simply areas of ability, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone who is willing to investigate education in this country that the idea that all children can do well in language arts and math is a fallacy.  Those who want to believe that dream claim that comparing abilities is like comparing apples and oranges.  But it simply isn’t the case.  Some people will never read above a grade school level because they can’t.  If they are lucky, they can play a sport or an instrument, but not everyone is lucky.  Genetics is a dicey gamble, and some people lose.   But this goes against every fiber in the educational romantic’s being.  All children can succeed, they say.  Unfortunately, this is not the case if succeeding means excelling, which is how the romantic defines succeeding.

The second area of discussion, half of all children are below average, is on its face a jarring claim.  It is in this second area that he really hammers away at educational romanticism.  The reality is that it has never been proven by any study that the amount of money spent per child on education, better teacher training, newer schools, or newer books have any real effect on those with low ability.  But despite being faced with overwhelming facts that show low ability students will be just that because that’s who they are, not because of outside forces, those who direct education in this country are addicted to the mantra of “Everyone can excel.”

His third area is too many people are going to college.  This stems from the fact that post secondary education is a business, and businesses need customers.  If college education wasn’t a business, then many of the students who go to college each year wouldn’t be allowed in because standards would be imposed.  As it is now, college is an expectation of far too many people, despite the fact that they barely made it through a watered down education in high school. The result has been that a 4 year bachelor’s degree means much less today than it did a generation or two ago.  By necessity, colleges have been forced to water down the post-secondary education to accommodate all those students who truly cannot handle the level of study after high school.  If you doubt this, go to any college in the country and ask about help for those with learning disabilities.  It is readily available and becoming more and more common at the purely voluntary level of college.

Murray’s fourth area of discussion is that America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.  If you’re looking for a forgotten group in American education today, look no further than gifted students.  Far too often, gifted students are met with the idea that they can succeed in any educational environment, so their needs go unseen.  But it is the academically gifted student who needs an education the most.  Those who are gifted will be in positions of power, and Murray argues that they need to be offered the best education possible to provide them with the foundations they will need to deal with the challenges of leadership.  This is seen as a uniquely elitist idea, however, and many argue that this will create a mindset in education that those who cannot do as well as the gifted students will be herded into technical education.  Murray argues in rebuttal to that idea–by Jove!  I think they got it!  Students who are gifted deserve the best education possible.  Students who aren’t also deserve the best education they can benefit the most from, and it is about time technical education was seen as the valuable resource it is.  Academically low level students don’t need or want advanced academics.  They need to learn a skill which will help them live productive lives.  What good is a college degree to a person who learned little while there, understood less, and now has no chance in a job market which wants the best for the least amount of money?

Real Education is an important book about the most important challenge this country faces: what do we give our children to prepare them for the future?  Do we continue with the watered down, politically correct pablum that passes for a public school education, or do we begin to deal with the reality that resources must be allocated to provide the best education for all levels, but without the pie-in-the-sky and patently false goal of making everyone an A student?  We can’t continue on the road we’ve been on in education.  The feel good ideas of the 60s and 70s have proven to be incorrect, and in fact, more children than we’d like to admit have been left behind by a system that’s broken.  Fixing it will mean hard choices, and Murray’s book begins to show readers the map we need to take.
-Alexandria

Marked-Elisabeth Naughton

In Book Reviews, romance novels on August 22, 2010 at 12:19 am

How Could A Romance That Includes The Greek Gods Go So Wrong?

Marked is the story of a young woman named Casey, a waitress at a strip club in Oregon (they have strip clubs in Oregon?), who meets Theron, the leader of a group called the Argonauts who are descended from the gods. No, I don’t mean Jason and the Argonauts.  Well, technically, yes, those are the same Argonauts, but it turns out that Jason wasn’t really much in the original story at all and just hogged the spotlight undeservingly. Theron is a decedent of Hercules, so he’s got some fine pedigree. Just like his relative from eons ago, Theron is big, brave, and beautiful. Casey is just an ordinary Oregon girl who lives in the house her grandmother left to her and owns a book store where she works during the daytime hours.

Casey saves Theron from a demon attack (initiated under the orders of Atalanta, who resides in Hades and coordinates attacks on the Argonauts and the people they protect, the Argoleans) and takes him home to nurse him back to health. Because this is a romance novel, they inevitably move toward sex, but Theron sees a mark on Casey’s body that tells him that she is the one, the person who will have to sacrifice her life because his intended bride, Isadora, daughter of the King Leonidas, the leader of the Argoleans, is dying. See, Casey is the long lost non-Argolean daughter of the King.  Her mother had had an affair with him when he had come to the human world.  Oh yes, Argoleans live in a different world.

Again, because this is a romance, Theron falls for Casey, who half way through the book begins to refer to herself as Acacia, her given name.  They fight demon attacks together and she teaches him about how life is for half breeds like herself when they meet a colony of them who are struggling under constant attack from demons.

The author of Marked has forgotten the basic idea of all storytelling:  stories don’t have to be simple, but they do have to be clear.  This story isn’t. The number of characters is relatively small, but the story is confusing.  In addition, Naughton’s use of names and references that already have meaning is confusing.  Argonauts means something to people already, as does King Leonidas.  Recycling references like this creates confusion.

The change of Theron from sexy but focused Argonaut to thoughtful, caring Argonaut who refuses to do as his King demands and risks everything he has sworn to protect to be with the woman he loves is implausible because there is no sense that before he meets her that he’s considered anything but deference to his King and his wishes.  It’s also a bit preachy because while he’s learning about his true love, he’s lectured to by her and the half breed leader about the terrible situation King Leonidas has created for these people because he doesn’t care about them, despite their Argolean blood. It’s all very moral and boring.

Using the Greek myths as the basis for a modern day romance is dicey but doable. The problem is that for it to be done, the original myths have to remain unchanged.  Building upon them to fit modern day life is possible, but using figures from the myths in roles people don’t associate with them doesn’t work in Marked.  Greek mythology, its heroes, and its gods have been a treasure trove for literature throughout the ages since the Greeks precisely because they are symbolic.  To remove the symbolism and retrofit the heroes and gods into a modern story that doesn’t retain the core of the myths that makes them important is a recipe for failure.  That’s what happened in Marked.
-Alexandria

August Top 5: The Top 5 Things We Love To Hate About Romance Books

In Top 5 on August 21, 2010 at 12:10 am

This month we tackle the top 5 things that romance writers include in their stories that we wish they didn’t.  We love these books, but some things we read in them we just don’t like. These are things like topics, story lines, and even settings that just make us want to scream and close the book or make us look around and say “What??”  Below the list is our discussion of our choices.

Alexandria/Moira

1. Virgin romantic heroes/No diversity in heroes
2. Sick female characters/Rape in romance
3. Scottish settings and accents/Heroes who change into animals
4. Impossible sex/Heroines who cave in to the hero’s seductive charms but fight the romance
5. Dialogue that would never happen/Heroines’ jobs

So why do you hate your number ones?

Alexandria: This trend in romance novels to have virgin heroes is counter-intuitive to the whole idea of why women read romance novels. How can a virgin be a sex machine that the role of romantic hero requires?  Readers want a romantic hero who can please a woman completely, not a man who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. Worse yet is that romance writers want us to believe virgins can take a woman to heaven and back. J.R. Ward’s Zsadist and Phury characters are examples of this. Neither vampire has had sex, and in fact, she has them both wondering how to please their respective women. Yet somehow readers are to believe that when they have sex, they’re expert lovers right out of the gate. Hint to writers: leave virginity to the females.  We do it better.
Moira: Virginal male heroes don’t irritate me necessarily, but the idea that they are expert lovers from the “get-go” is not realistic.  Where we differ in opinion is that I think a patient lover….a giving lover….an eager lover ….a tender lover… could all also be virgin lovers.

Moira: #1 Thing I love to Hate…….  Where are all the sexy Persian, Eastern European/Gypsy, and Native American heroes? Although I love a strapping Scot, variety is the spice of life.  I would like to enjoy heroes from the groups above.  I mean, seriously…this broad, if doomed to a life as the bride of a green-toothed frontiersman named Jed, who dared to approach my bedroom in his smelly, red, woolen long johns…Please!  The next Indian attack on our wagon train would have me yelling, “No!  You all run back and save yourselves. Don’t worry about me…I’ll lead those golden brown, mostly naked heathens the other way…I’ll sacrifice myself and force myself…somehow…. to ride bareback on a pony behind one of those lean warriors covered in war paint with that silken black hair blowing in the breeze…”.
Alexandria: I think I got a little sick thinking about Jed, Moira.  But I’m all for some more Eastern Europeans.  The big strapping kind.

Ok, so what is the deal with your second hated things?

Alexandria: I don’t know when sickness became associated with romance (Is this because of that sappy 1970 movie Love Story? Damn you Ali MacGraw!), but it needs to stop.  Think about the last time you had the flu.  Can you imagine doing anything sexual, even if the most beautiful male who ever existed came to you to seduce you and please you like no other man ever could?  Of course not!  You’re sick!  Even your hair hurts.  Sickness, however, doesn’t seem to stop romance heroines from fucking like porn stars and behaving like you and me on our best days.  Once again, J.R. Ward is on our list.  Rhage’s woman, Mary, in Lover Eternal has leukemia.  Yet that character can sex that 6’8″ superhot vamp and fight with him like any feisty woman.  Amanda Ashley’s female character Shannah in Dead Perfect is dying from some unknown disease and is close to death even at the beginning of the story, yet she can follow the hero for months and camp out across the street from his house stalking him.  Writers, please stop giving incredibly hot romantic heroes sick girls to fall in love with.  Sickness is not sexy, and a person close to death has a pallor that is anything but a turn on.
Moira: Being sick is the absolute worst in my world.  Fevers leave me delirious, aching with what my grandmother referred to as the “old fashioned grip”, and whining for Advil.  I look and feel like Medusa on hard-core drugs, and couldn’t have a romantic thought if I tried. (Picture yourself the last time you slathered yourself up with Vick’s Vapo Rub, swallowed  a double dose of NyQuil, and slept with a Kleenex stuffed up your nose……uhhh yeah, see what I mean….?)  None of this is sexy.  I’m so glad you addressed this irksome trend by romance writers.

Moira: #2 Thing I love to Hate…….Rape In Romance…..  I understand we need drama in our romance novels, but I’m not a fan of rape in any circumstance, especially a novel that’s supposed to be about romantic love.  Authors!  There is nothing sexy about rape.  Stop writing it, please.  I have nothing funny to say in this second complaint, as there is nothing funny about this topic.
Alexandria: I blame General Hospital/Luke and Laura from the late 70s for this.  He rapes her one night in the disco he owns and they’re the greatest couple since Romeo and Juliet by the next year. Yeah, rape usually leads to marriage, right?

And your number three things you love to hate about romance books?

Alexandria: Holy fucking bagpipes, Robin!  What is with all the stories set in Scotland?  I can’t troll the romance aisles at the local Borders without finding dozens upon dozens of romance novels about Scottish Highlanders.  Why?  It’s not that the setting of Scotland is that bad, but it certainly isn’t the sexiest place to set a story.  I would think Italy, Spain, anywhere that would allow characters to wear something other than woolens nine months out of the year would be sexier.  No, it’s not the setting so much as the dialogue that comes along with a story set in Scotland.  The Scottish dialect isn’t sexy the way it’s done in romance novels.  Sentences like, “Ay, lassie, mayhaps I be in love with you” are simply pure torture.  Mayhaps?  Even Sean Connery circa late 1960s wouldn’t have been sexy with words like mayhaps leaving his lips.  If I didn’t have such an incredible aversion to the lie that virgins are good in bed, this Scottish story issue would be at number 1.
Moira: Nay, Alexandria, I canna agree with ye on this matter.  Dinna I tell ye of my love for a handsome hunk of a highlander?  I want my highlander to whisper an, “Aye Lass, dinna I tell ye I would have ye for my woman?”  Oh, and I’m sure he would also refer to “getting his bairn on me”, too… Ha!

Moira: #3 Thing I love to Hate……Heroes who are/change into animals/beasts/etc…..  It would seem you can’t swing a dead cat (no pun intended…well, okay, it was intended) without hitting a romance novel in which the hero changes into a cat, dog, werewolf, or a logosh.  Werewolves are usually not a problem, as long as they stay in human form when involved with their romantic partner, but many of these wretched stories come quite close to bestiality, and I have only one word to say about that…deee-sgusting.
Alexandria: I could definitely do without men who are also some kind of animal.  The only kind of changing I like is some sharp teeth in the mouth.

Why are your number fours on the list?

Alexandria: It’s understood by anyone who reads romance novels that the sex is going to be more incredible in these stories than actually occurs in real life.  In fact, that’s probably one of the main reasons why readers love them.  Who wants to read about how some woman’s boring husband got his 5.5 inch penis semi-hard and proceeded to pound away at her, never thinking of how she might want it, and eventually after sweating all over her, came about an ounce?  No one.  So I’m not asking for pure reality, but when a character is said to have been neglected by her husband for 12 years after she only had sex twice (once each time to become pregnant with her children), then I find it a bit difficult to believe that she can have super sex with the romantic hero who possesses a cock sent straight from God with dimensions that include the number 10 and a head that resembles a plum.  A plum?  I stood in the grocery store after reading that story and held a plum and all I could think was “Damn…”  After 12 years of no sex, she’s basically been revirginated, for God’s sake.  There’s no way she’s accommodating a 10 inch member and its plum sized head.   I understand well hung men need loving too, but not with a woman who is tighter than a frog’s ass.  It just doesn’t work.  Also in this category are the male virgins who somehow can rock a woman’s world with no experience behind them and sick females who can do things when they’re close to death that would require any other woman to visit Helga’s House of Pain for a session with Inga to ensure she didn’t dislocate a hip during the kind of sex found in romance novels (thanks Moira).
Moira: ….. you said “revirginated”…..(mimics my best Beavis and Butthead laugh..huhh huh…huhhhh huh..hu huh…)  I can only add that I gave a hearty “oof” when I contemplated that meritorious member you refer to from our infamous sheik.

Moira: #4 Thing I love to Hate…..Women who succumb to the romantic endeavors of the hero, only to run away/leave him/lie about how they feel……  Stop the madness!  If one of these tall drinks of water invaded my personal space so ably, you wouldn’t catch this broad running anywhere….and neither would you run……  Just admit it, I did.
Alexandria: I wouldn’t stay around for any virgins or men who are also animals. I don’t care how fine they are.  I don’t teach men in bed and I don’t comb them out.  Two very solid rules of mine.

Finally, what are the problems with your number fives?

Alexandria: Dialogue is a very difficult part of the writing of a story.  Even some of the greatest authors struggled with this skill, and some, such as Hemingway, never succeeded at writing dialogue that works.  This seems to be a problem for romance writers.  Dialogue should reflect the character’s individual style and experiences.  For example, if you are writing about a vampire who is hundreds of years old, why the hell would you have him end sentences with the word true?  When did he pick this up and why has he kept it despite the fact that no others around him who he’s lived with for years say anything like it?  And why write male characters’ dialogue that has them speaking like they are analyzing Tiger Woods’ latest lame attempt on the green?  Statements like “She’s one fine female” are simply not something that would come out of any man’s mouth after watching some heroine do something he thought was cool.  This area also includes strange uses of body part names as sexy turn ons during conversations.  Referring to anything with the word glands is just not sexy, true?  See, it doesn’t sound right.
Moira: It takes a special writer to conjure good dialogue in romance.  I can think of a good many things I’d like a man to say to me, and it has been rare that I read anything that comes close.

Moira: #5 Thing I love to Hate……The Same Professions for Heroines…..  Are there no sales clerks in romance land?  How about insurance sales people?  I enjoy romance books, but could be perfectly happy if I never encountered a female doctor, archeologist, reporter, or FBI agent/investigator again in romance land.  There is nothing wrong with these professions; however, they are overused.  Remember, teachers, farmers, and deli workers need love too.
Alexandria: I think a great occupation for a romantic heroine is college history teacher.


Bound By Honor, by Colette Gale

In Book Reviews, fiction, romance novels, romantic heroes on August 20, 2010 at 12:10 am

Great Story Hijacked Somewhere in Sherwood Forest…..

Bound By Honor, is the time old tale of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Prince John, and the Sheriff of Nottingham with a fresh twist.  Told primarily from Marian’s perspective, Gale begins the odd and seductive dance between Robin, Marian, and  Will (our Sheriff of Nottingham), triangulating the characters ably.  (I would throw Prince John into the mix…but I’m not sure “quadrangulating” could pass for a real word….lol)

Sent to the court of Prince John by Queen Eleanor as a spy, Marian is thrust into a world of court intrigue more dangerous and costly than she imagined.  Immediately, she is caught between the playful persual of Robin Hood, the outlaw, and the provocative protection of the Sheriff of Nottingham, who seeks to keep Lady Marian from the clutches of the vile Prince John.  As Marian maneuvers in the court, she begins to see something more behind the cold, uncaring facade the Sheriff projects, while realizing how tenuous her situation is in Prince John’s domain.  Gale adds in a few supporting characters mostly as fodder for Robin’s philandering, or additional bodies for Prince John’s “Court of Pleasure”, with none worthy of an honorable mention.

Will’s character is intriguing and I absolutely adored the idea of the Sheriff of Nottingham as a rival love interest.  Gale nicely created a character I hated to love, but did, and loved to hate.  Purposefully, I suppose, Gale wrote Robin Hood as a playboy adventurer, which highlighted the greater masculinity of the Sheriff.  Terrific!  Not so terrific is Gale’s Prince John, a cruel, sexual deviant and possible psychopath whose blackness stains every other page of the novel.  The idea of Prince John being the above named things isn’t what irritates – we need a truly bad man to be the antithesis to our hero, however, Gale gave Prince John and his wretched behavior far too much attention.  Unfortunately, this decision took quite possibly the best idea I’ve heard of for a romance novel and reduced it to a mere backdrop for Prince John’s carnal carnival.

Recommendation:  ** _ _ _ (two out of five stars)

~Moira

I’ll Never Be Able To See That King John in Disney’s Robin Hood The Same Way Again

The idea for the story of Bound By Honor is fantastic; I wish I had thought of it.  The original story of Robin Hood isn’t one of romance, primarily.  Maid Marian is certainly part of the story, but love and sex aren’t the focus.  To decide to transform the story into erotica is pure genius.  Unfortunately, that seems to have been the last stroke of genius Gale had concerning Bound By Honor.

She makes some extraordinarily poor choices in her characterization of all the main characters.  None of them work on any level.  Maid Marian is a recent widow, having lost her exceedingly old and unsexy husband, and she seems quite unsexy herself. That’s just not erotic.  Robin Hood is something akin to a teenage boy of 18 or 19: he flits from female to female and has absolutely no substance at all, sexually or otherwise.  Will, the Sheriff of Nottingham, is Gale’s best attempt at an erotic character, but he is overshadowed at almost every turn by her characterization of King John.  He is a superfreak.  He likes to inflict pain on others, particularly women, and his deviance seems to know no bounds (no pun intended). And Gale spends far too much of the book inflicting him on the reader.

There can be something quite erotic about deviance in erotica, if it’s handled correctly.  (Moira and I might part ways on this particular idea, but I think if  S&M is written well, it can be incredibly erotic.) However, the sexual deviant must be appealing outside of his or her deviance.  This is key.  Whether the character is incredibly handsome/beautiful, rakish, or intelligent,  something other than simply being a freak must be present.  This is not the case in Bound By Honor.  King John is not appealing on any level.  He is physically and psychologically one of the most repellent characters I’ve read.  His deviance isn’t sexy; it’s simply aberrant.  This is why it doesn’t work.

Bound By Honor could have been an incredible erotic story.  Anne Rice understood that fairy tales have the potential for smoking hot sex.  Her Erotic Sleeping Beauty Trilogy is steamy times ten! If you want to read those old children’s tales with a sexy, wild twist, give her stories a try.  Avoid Bound By Honor.  It simply leaves you wishing for more and wishing for so much less at the same time.
-Alexandria

Zipporah, Wife of Moses, by Marek Halter

In author information, Book Reviews, fiction, historical fiction on August 19, 2010 at 8:45 pm

Behind Every Great Man…….

Marek Halter takes the little information found in Deuteronomy about Zipporah and creates a wonderful novel which is not difficult to read, but is, in fact, well written.  Halter tells the story from Zipporah’s perspective, showing the Biblical events that lead to the Exodus in a new light.  Wholly fictional, none should balk at the “liberties” taken by the author, in his re-creation of those time honored events.  Having Zipporah be different from those around her worked well in the story, as it gave Moses a common experience with her.  This broad certainly appreciated the strength and dignity Halter wrote into Zipporah.  She was wise, faithful, humble, modest, and full of love, which are qualities to love in a heroine.  That Zipporah was a real woman caught up in the other-worldly events unfolding around her family only furthered my appreciation of Halter’s willingness to develop her character and story.  Also, quite interesting was Halter’s interpretation of the supporting characters.  Jethro truly was a wise old sage, yet Halter added a mischievious hint, which made him more lovable.  Sefoba and Orma, Zipporah’s sisters, were opposite ends on the spectrum, with Sefoba loving and kind, and Orma selfish and cruel.  Most suprising (although it shouldn’t be from reading Deuteronomy…) were Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister.  While holding Moses up as Yahweh’s chosen, they simultaneously use, then disobey and devour the man.  While claiming Yahweh as their righteous and just God, they perpetuate hate, prejudice, and injustice.  Together, these characters set the backdrop for Zipporah as she strives to help her husband, Moses, sort through his separate pasts as an Egyptian prince, a Hebrew slave, and a foreign shepherd in Midian to embrace his destiny as the Deliverer of Yaweh.

Recommendation:  ****_  (which is 4 out of 5 stars)

Zipporah, Wife of Moses, is the second book in the Canaan Trilogy by Halter.  The first is called, Sarah, and the third, Lilah.  I will definately check them out and offer reviews in the future.

~Moira