Latest Reading: Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown


This is the third book I’ve read by Salman Rushdie, the British-Indian novelist. He is most well known for his 1988 book, Satanic Verses, which depicts some irreverent aspects of the historical life of  Islam prophet Muhammad. The leader of Iran at the time, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa, or execution order. He became a free speech advocate and is still alive today.

Shalimar the Clown, published in 2005, is the story of a murder in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. He goes back through the lives of the people involved leading up to the event. Most of the book takes place in the disputed northern Indian region of Kashmir where the murderer is from, but also sections of the book are set in World War II France, Delhi and Los Angeles.

As an older, well-traveled person, I now understand most of Rushdie’s references to places and events. That was not the case when I read his books twenty years ago. I really enjoy the details and the breadth of cultures covered in this book. I do not like his tendency to include elements of magical realism in the story, similar to Latin American writers. I prefer my fiction to be plausible.

Reading novels is becoming less common with the advent of the internet. However, I like to unwind from screens and it calms my brain to reflect on the details of the story. It helps me fall back to sleep when my mind is racing with the many tasks I have to worry about as a head of school and a father of three children. Because of the complex plot and interweaving events and characters, it was the perfect book to make me sleepy.

Some parts of the book were a little tedious, specifically the mythology of Kashmir, the there was plenty of action and plot twists to keep me reading. I wonder why none of Rushdie’s books have been made into movies. This would make a good one, especially since it deals with some themes that resonate today, including terrorism, ethnic conflict and migration.




Book Review: Falling Leaves – The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter


falling leaves book cover
courtesy of


(contains spoiler alerts)

I am reading a lot about China lately, in preparation for my trip to Beijing in March. Adeline Yen Mah’s memoir tells the story of her growing up in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Her mother died in giving birth to her, the fifth child. Adeline’s father remarried to a stereotypical wicked, petty and domineering stepmother. Her stepmother had two more children that were favored. Adeline was neglected and barely tolerated, spending years in a Catholic boarding school, before being sent to England. She made a successful life for herself and finished medical school there and eventually having a successful practice in California. The stories of the relationships with her four siblings, parents, aunts, nephews, etc. over the years was engrossing. Now that I have reached an age that I can look back on the choices I have made, I see consequences of choices. The members of her family are very cruel and cold-hearted to each other often. She suffered a lot of abuse and you can see the effects on her as she goes through her life. Having a safe and happy start in life is so important for children.

The setting of the book is pre-World War II in China. The slow takeover of the country by the communists was devastating for millions of people. Many escaped to Hong Kong, like her family, but other stayed, thinking that things would be OK. How wrong they were! The book ends in the 1990s, so it is truly an epic tale of a family. Adeline overcame a lot in her life. Besides a tough childhood, she went experienced racism, sexism and a tough divorce. Through it all, she remained dignified and true to herself. I also was touched by her relationship with her aunt and the strong nostalgia of childhood. I get that feeling when I return my home village of Caspian, Michigan. She felt the same in the streets of Shanghai. A childhood that seems so far away from where I am today. Mine was so much happier than hers of course, but she had good moments too.

If you want to get a better sense of China and a good family generational story, I highly recommend this book.

Book Review: American War – A Novel


Omar El Akkad is a Canadian/Egyptian journalist who has worked in Afghanistan, Egypt, Guantanamo Bay among other places. He has taken his experiences and imagined if much of what he saw occurred in the USA and not the Middle East. He sets the second American Civil War in the years 2075-2095. Climate change and rising seas has wiped out the population centers on the east and west coast, Florida is gone and people have moved inland, causing much strife. The states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina have been cut off from the rest of the country. Violent storms, drought, and biological warfare have wiped out modern advancements in our society. That is one of his messages, that war and conflict push back societies back in time. He applies things he has seen in the Middle East during his reporting and moved them to the USA. There are refugee camps, suicide bombers being radicalized by elders, drones, etc. The Middle Eastern countries have united into the Bouazizi Empire, and they act to keep the American Civil War going, meanwhile, living in a comfortable, well-functioning economy.

Another of the points I think El Akkad is trying to get across, is that with the same conditions as countries like Afghanistan, Palestine, etc., Americans would act as they do there today. Human nature is the same everywhere. He was trying to show how people become radicalized and the damage that detention camps like Guantanamo have on people.

It is a good story and I wanted to read it to the end. I won’t give away plot details, but for me, it was a page-turner. I thought some of the premises were a bit unbelievable, however, the story made me consider what impact climate change will have on us and the strong political divisions currently in our nation.


Tribe: On Homecoming & Belonging – A book review


I read Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, on the trip from the east coast to Chicago. He is famous for his book The Perfect Storm which was made into a movie in the late 90s. I saw his excellent Afghanistan war documentary, Restrepo. The book is almost a long essay at 158 pages, perfect for a day of travel. The book resonated with me and gave me plenty to think about. Although a bit simplistic, he does make a strong argument for his point of view and the writing is clear and concise.

My big takeaway is the importance of community for our happiness. It is fundamental to our happiness to have a greater interest than ourselves and have intimate, close relationships with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, clients, customers, etc. Junger asserts that our modern, Western lifestyle disrupts community and relationships. He takes the point of view of returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq. He spent a year embedded with troops and experienced the intense camaraderie that comes from living together in a stressful situation.  The affluent and urbanized society the troops come home to is nothing like they experienced in the military.

Junger goes on to give many examples and statistics, things like the high incidences of mental illness (depression, loneliness, poor health) that are symptoms of us putting extrinsic values over intrinsic ones. Our long evolution of communal, tribal living, sharing our life with extended family in dangerous environments, has shaped what makes us human.

The book details American colonists preferring to live with the Native Americans over staying in their rigid societies, or despite seeing their community being destroyed, the residents of Sarajevo missing the intensity and close connections the siege created during the breakup of Yugoslavia. (Junger was a war journalist for many years.) He sees the current Republican versus Democrat divide as the tribe wanting all members to contribute to the common good of all balanced with the need to help those who cannot take care of themselves.

The book inspired me to promote closer relationships in my work as the head of an international school. Teachers sharing ideas, frustrations, accomplishments with each other in what can be an isolating profession. Teachers going beyond the normal classroom instruction and truly getting to know their students and their parents. Reaching out to parents to help them raise their children in this age of personal technology and access to so much information, good and bad. And most importantly, all school stakeholders keeping the interest of others and the school community first. If we are all looking out for one another, all of us individually will be happier.


“The Quiet American” – Graham Greene book review


I read my second consecutive British expatriate novel set in south east Asia. Burmese Days by George Orwell, is set in 1930s Myanmar while the Quiet American is set in 1950s Vietnam. Graham Greene is one of my favorite authors and his writing style flows beautifully. Like Burmese Days, The Quiet American was a controversial book when it was released.

The main character is Thomas Fowler, a middle-aged reporter for a British newspaper. He is covering the conflict between the French and the communist Vietnamese in the first Indochina War after World War II. The novel predicts the entry of the Americans in Vietnam and its failure. Alden Pile is works as an economic attache at the US Embassy. Both men are in love with a young Vietnamese girl, who is living with Fowler. It is a really good story and gives some good background into the time period and war as all good historical fiction does. Greene has many astute observations about aging, retirement, age differences in relationships and the expatriate lifestyle. Fowler is dreading going back to England to take over as the foreign editor of the paper. The characters represent the different viewpoints of the war, with Americans, British, French, Vietnamese and Chinese perspectives explored.

I will not spoil ending, but my only criticism of the book is the depiction of the detective work in a murder investigation. I don’t believe the murderer would get away with the crime. This does not however, take away from my enjoyment of the book and I highly recommend it. It was made into a movie twice and I would like to see the 2002 film.

Pico Iyer from NPR writes more eloquently about the book. Below is an excerpt from his 2008 review:

What touches me in the book, though, is something even deeper and more personal. The novel asks every one of us what we want from a foreign place, and what we are planning to do with it. It points out that innocence and idealism can claim as many lives as the opposite, fearful cynicism. And it reminds me that the world is much larger than our ideas of it, and how the Vietnamese woman at the book’s center, Phuong, will always remain outside a foreigner’s grasp. It even brings all the pieces of my own background — Asian, English, American — into the same puzzle.

You must read The Quiet American, I tell my friends, because it explains our past, in Southeast Asia, trains light on our present in many places, and perhaps foreshadows our future if we don’t take heed. It spins a heartrending romance and tale of friendship against a backdrop of murder, all the while unfolding a scary political parable. And most of all, it refuses the easy answer: The unquiet Englishman isn’t as tough as he seems, and the blundering American not quite so terrible — or so innocent. Both of them are just the people we might be at different stages of our lives. The Quiet American, in fact, becomes most haunting and profound if you think of it just as a dialogue between one side of Greene — or yourself — and the other. The old in their wisdom, as he writes elsewhere, sometimes envy the folly of the young.

The more I read about Vietnam and meet people from there, the more I want to visit.


Book Review: “Everybody’s Fool” by Richard Russo


I finished Richard Russo’s novel Everybody’s Fool on the flight back to Japan. The book follows the lives of people in the small fictional town of North Bath in upstate New York. Having grown up in a similar small town in northern Michigan, I could relate to the characters, although I realized it has been a while since I’ve been home and my friends today are different to the people I grew up with. Although not as pronounced as Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, my life has taken a similar trajectory.

Everybody’s Fool takes place in a 48 hour period and is a sequel to Russo’s 1993 “Nobody’s Fool”, which was made into a movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Newman. The story gains momentum throughout and I eagerly read the last third to find out what happens. I couldn’t help but have the picture of the actors in my head while reading the book. A great casting job! It also reminded me of the plight of small towns in America in a time of economic globalization. The book is not life-changing, but it is an entertaining read.

I spent the last part of our summer holidays in the small Poconos mountain town of Freeland, Pennsylvania, which is probably quite similar to Russo’s North Bath. I saw plenty of signs of Trump support in Freeland. I agree with Vance that he appeals to whites in small towns because of his blunt way of talking, which differs from the polished and privileged speech of Hillary Clinton. One of the reasons Bernie Sanders appealed to me was that he was not a multimillionaire and I think could relate to average Americans. He has a lot of support in middle class urban areas similar to Trump in more rural areas.




Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture and our Minds


Between Greg Milner’s Pinpoint and my Lehigh summer class, Teaching & Learning with Geospatial Tools, I realize the huge effect GPS (Global Position System) has on our life. Milner’s book is excellent, although the chapters covering the development of the GPS industry are a bit dry, and the book exposed me to ways GPS is used that I never even thought up. It was also good to learn how the whole system works. We take for granted the blue dot on Google Maps or WAZE , and how much went into getting this system up and going.

The US military developed GPS to more accurately drop bombs on its enemies. The 31 GPS satellites orbiting 20,000 kilometers above the earth are controlled and monitored by an air force base in Colorado. I didn’t even know about the NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) the CIA of GPS, which controls the majority of the earth-based monitoring systems that keep GPS accurate and running. The military was slow in realizing the importance of GPS and its civilian applications.

GPS is being used more and more for such things as predicting earthquakes and tsunamis, airplane navigation and landing, tracking criminals, etc. Milner describes the phenomena of “death by GPS” where people follow the commands of a GPS unit to their deaths, whether off a bridge under construction or little-used roads in remote mountains where they become stuck and die. Relying on GPS has changed humans’ sense of place and the mental maps in our brains. For me, growing up without GPS, I rely on paper-based maps, landmarks and always knowing which direction is east/west/north/south. Recent generations may be losing this sense according to some experts and brains do not generate the connections for place sense like they used to. There is a lot of science in the book and some sections are full of acronyms and abstract topics. The latest advancement in GPS is accurately mapping the shape of the planet (it is more like a squashed grapefruit) and the minor changes caused by earthquakes, tides, etc.

I am interested in how GPS can be used in my field of education and learning analytics. I would like to do a study of tracking the movements of school leaders and maybe even teachers and students to see where we spend our time. Am I in my office for too long? Are there sections of the classroom or building that I am not getting to? Where should I be spending most of my time? Universities are tracking students’ time in the library and seeing if there is any correlation to failures. The book and class inspired me to apply for an EARCOS action research grant.