Monday, June 27, 2016

Weird Words, Genius Clusters, and the Ghost Army of World War Two

My apologies.  It has been a couple of weeks since I have last posted.  I have been hiking five national parks out west with my family.  But that gave me a lot of time to get some reading done too -- so here we go.  Today I want to highlight three excellent non-fiction books that you might not normally think of for use with middle school and high school students.

Beyer, Rick; Sayles, Elizabeth (2015)  The Ghost Army of World War Two:  How One Top-Secret Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sound Effects, and Other Audacious Fakery.  New York:  Princeton Architectural Press.

During World War Two, the United States army gathered artists, sound engineers, architects, and others who could think outside the box to form a top secret unit whose job was to fool the enemy.  using rubber inflatable tanks, bogus uniforms, and recordings of tanks, trucks, and men, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops traveled throughout Europe on a moment's notice to plug holes in the allied line by impersonating units that were not there, to convince the Nazi army that the Allies were planning an offensive where in a different place than they actually were, and to generally cause confusion.  The 23rd had to be able to alter their uniforms quickly, give the impression there that they were a force hundreds of times bigger than they actually were, imitate the styles of each radio operator in the units they were imitating, and also fool allied troops enough to maintain secrecy.  The unit included several men who sent on to e notable artists, sculptors, and included Private Bill Blass, who went on to be a famous fashion designer.

This book's intended audience is adults, but the language is fully accessable to high school students.  There are a couple of elements in it, however, that could cause the book to be challenged.  Because there are some excerpts from diaries and letters home, the book does contain some vulgar language.  There is one reference, during the description of a particularly hard winter in 1944-45, when the troops attempted to decorate a Christmas tree with radar-jamming tin foil and balloons made from condoms.  There is also mention on two different occasions to  the men of the 23rd going to brothels, though in both occasions it was primarily to do life drawings (some of which are included in the book -- women in their underwear -- which also could be problematic for many schools).

This book covers history, strategy, and the difficulty or war for those who fought in it.  In spite of the potentially objectionable parts, I would encourage high school history teachers and reading teachers to check it out.  It is an excited narrative of an aspect of World War Two that most people don't know about.

Bierma, Nathan (2009) The Eclectic Encyclopedia of English.  Sherwood:  William, James and Company.

Opening Lines:  "I used to be picky -- really picky -- about English grammar and usage.  By the time I was in high school, at the dinner table I was correcting sentences that ended in a preposition.  I was shaking my head scornfully when someone confused "lay" and "lie".  I was trying to right the coruse of the English language one error at a time."

Nathan Bierma goes on to explain how, after a course taught by legendary English professor James VandenBosch, he came to realize that English has morphed in so many directions over its long history, and has incorporated words form so many other languages, that it is more important to celebrate its flexibility and diversity than it is to try to freeze it in time and get everyone to standardize how they use it.

And so what Bierma has written is a celebration of the quirkiness of our language.  Here you will find an explanation of the history of the pronunciation of the word Arkansas, a list of Australian idioms (like "He's got a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock"), he truth about how many words Eskimos have for snow, the history of the word meh, and a definition of the word snollygoster.  Students who love words and where they came from (and i acknowledge that such students might be in the minority) wll get a kick out of this book.  Middle school and high school English teachers should especially consider this one.

Weiner, Eric (2016)  The Geography of Genius.  New York:  Simon and Shuster.

Eric Weiner set out to answer what seems at first like it might be a simple quesiton.  What makes a place a haven for geniuses?  Athens, Greece during the time of Plato, Socrates, Aescalus, Aristotle, and Alexander; Florence, Italy during the Renaissance; Edinburgh, Scotland during the scientific revolution; and Silicon Valley in contemporary California -- are all examples of such pockets of genius.

The further Weiner digs into the question, though, the more complicated the answer becomes.  Ancient Greece had a strong community ethic, consumed large amounts of diluted wine, and was a place where there was a lot of walking and talking.  Were these important variables?  Florence was a place of civil unrest and political uncertainty, vast wealth, ready cheap labor, and a lot of artistic competition within its walls and from other cities.  In each place Weiner visits, he seems to expand the number of variables and the complexity of his questions.  But it isn't frustrating, because with each new city and time period considered, the reader gets a more complete picture of what genius is.  This is a book that won't necessarily be a crowd-pleaser, but at the same time could grab student-readers who have an interest in history, science, math, art, or solving mysteries.

It might also be interesting summer reading for teachers who want to read something a little different.