Monday, July 29, 2013

The Devil in the White City

Review by Art Trombley

This is hands down one of my all time favorite books. In fact I have purchased it four times. I have given away three copies and kept one for myself. It is really two great stories in one book. The first is about the World's Fair in 1893. I learned a lot about the process of staging the event as well as all the new technology created just for the event. The Ferris Wheel was a modern engineering marvel in it's time. There many foods introduced to Americans, many new inventions and the world indeed came to see the White City. The story about the architects making the buildings was fascinating to me. There were details I never considered like landscaping well in advance to assure trees would be in place as well as special plants, ponds and more. But then the time came to open the Fair the people flocked to the spectacle and it gave America some credibility as a world presence.
The second story is one I never heard before. It is about H.H. Holmes. He was perhaps the first and most prolific serial killer in American history. I never heard his name before this book. I did not know this story. Jack the Ripper is historically one of the most famous because his crimes were so viscous for their times but Holmes not only murdered more people, but in perhaps more gruesome ways. He was a charming person who leveraged his charm to buy his way into people's lives and then take those lives from them. He ended up building an elaborate hotel around the same time the White City was being built. The influx of naive young woman coming the area meant and endless flow of victims. He was a brilliant charlatan who never really admitted to all the crimes he committed. A determined detective brought him down and when the hotel was searched there were many odd features, including a room whose sole purpose was to be airtight except the gas that was pumped in to kill the person trapped in the room.
The two stories bounce back and forth seamlessly and the book reads like a great thriller. Even the mundane stories about the architecture are thrilling in this author's hands.
I believe there is a movie in the works about this book so I suspect there will be more attention paid to this menace as well as the the heroes who brought the White City to life.
I have purchase nearly all of Erik Larson's other books and will add reviews from time to time. They are all historical thrillers like this but this remains one of my all time favorites.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

From Mr. Seymour

I just finished a new and definitive biography of Simon Bolivar by Marie Arana called "
Bolivar: American Liberator".  At first the size of the book looked a little daunting, but I soon realized that Bolivar's life was so interesting and had such an impact on the World that anything less would be a disservice to his name.  If you like biographies or are even remotely intrigued about how South America became the continent we know today, then this book is for you.  Bolivar's story is incredible; he was born into one of the wealthiest families in Venezuela, educated in Spain and France, and exposed to Napoleonic Europe before returning to Venezuela and Colombia.  He used his wealth and influence to try to start rebellions throughout Spain's colonies ( Spain controlled all of South America save Brazil prior to Bolivar's successful revolution of the 1820's).  He attempted to bring the people together against Spain but realized after two failed revolutions ( that nearly cost him his life and forced him to flee to the safety of the Caribbean islands) that the racial and economic differences in South America were so pervasive that a united front against Spain would be nearly impossible.  However, Bolivar used his dynamic personality to free Colombia, then Venezuela, and parts of today's Ecuador.  He marched his army over the Andes mountains on impossible journeys, traveled through the crocodile infested Amazon river, and rode thousands of miles throughout his career.  His ability to ride hundreds of miles at a time earned him the nickname "iron ass" from his men.  He was a lover of liberty but equally of women.  Bolivar's wife died young and he vowed to never marry again...but he played the field better than any other historical figure I have read about (except perhaps Alexander Hamilton or the Marquis de Sade).  Every city he liberated sent the prettiest women of the village to greet him and place laurels around his neck; the governors of such places served as the perfect wing man for Bolivar when he was on the prowl.  Not content with his incredible feats, Bolivar took his army into Peru, the gilded Capitol of New Spain and liberated all of Northern Peru and Southern Peru ( which today is the nation of Bolivia).  He recognized the opportunity for a canal at Panama earlier then most leaders of the time and repeatedly tried to create democracies in the areas he  liberated.  However, Bolivar felt that the people of South America were so uneducated that a stronger governing hand was needed and he set himself up as a dictator in nearly all of the places he liberated.  Ultimately, the man who liberated 6 countries and rode over ten thousand miles on horseback to glory died without a cent to his name and more than a few enemies.  It may seem like I have given the whole story away in this review, but believe me there is so much more to this book that I have left for anyone interested to discover for themselves.  I picked this book up at the Wead Library's new arrivals section in Malone- the price was right and the story was great.

**Note to self - I really need to get back into the library and save some $$

Thursday, July 25, 2013

It's Not Us Against Them

Review by Art Trombley

I purchased three books at the Model Schools Conference in Washington D.C.. This is the second one I am reviewing. It was written by Ray McNulty who is one of the fellows in the ICLE (International Center for Educational Leadership in Education). He works with Bill Dagget, the man who spoke to us all in May this past year.
This book is about how we look at our own schools and decide if we are all heading in the same direction. To see if we are unified in our goals. To see if as a staff we have a vision. There are examples from many schools around the country and their focus was not the same but what made them special to the author was that some careful consideration was given to having a clear plan for their school.
He talks often about the 21st century learner and the skills our students need for a future we are not sure about. He describes the rapid change in our culture over the past few years and the fact that jobs that never existed before are now not being filled because schools are not training students for those jobs.
But mostly he focused on 5 Cs of school leadership - communication, clarity, consistency, conviction and cohesiveness. At times his examples seem simple yet complicated. Schools in trouble really had to reinvent themselves in creative ways and in some cases those changes lead to some teachers quitting the profession. He is very clear however that the school making the most significant changes are the ones willing to take risks when they know things are not working.
I am going to say that our school is not in the same boat as the ones described in the book. We tend to be among the better performing schools in the area. But we know we can be better and this book gives some outlines about how we can create a plan. We need a leadership team to decide a direction to take. We need a concrete plan that we ALL follow. We need a vision and perhaps a more direct mission statement if we want to move forward. The new tests and curriculum changes are going to make us move in a new direction anyway so it is a good time to revisit the goals we have for our future.
There are some answers in this book but more importantly there are questions to guide us to make decisions. This book is inspiring in that it reminds us that we are doing many things quite well already and that simple changes may be all we need to turn our school from one of the best in the area to one of the best period.
I do have this book to loan out. I did have it signed by the author so I will want it back. It is a quick and inspiring read.
McNulty was a speaker in D.C. and was as engaging on stage as he is in this book. If nothing else this company is really selling motivation and I have to admit I bought into it all. I am already redesigning my class, my lessons and my approach to teaching for when we get back to work in September. I have also committed to being part of the leadership team and hope that maybe you will as well.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Born Standing Up - Steve Martin

Book review by Art Trombley

Those of you of a certain ago know Steve Martin as one of the all time greatest stand up comedians. Some of a different age know him from his movies (The Jerk and for even younger readers "Cheaper by the Dozen). He is a prolific author, actor and recently has turned his attention to his phenomenal banjo playing. He has released several music CDs over the past few years. He is simply the definition of an artist. This book is all about his life as a stand up. If you say his stand up material you know he was a "wild and crazy guy". His act was goofy fun without traditional punchlines. He was not a story teller. He was not a prop comic. He was not a joke teller even. He was something more. His act looked like a man who took to the stage with manic energy and simply made up a performance on the spot. When you read this book you will realize nothing could be further from the truth.
Steve Martin worked at Disney Land in various jobs. He worked in a magic shop. He worked at Knox Berry Farms. He worked everywhere. His act was made from "stolen" and borrowed bit of silliness performed for years in front of people who never laughed  because they never understood what he was doing. He was not even sure. And when I say stole I mean to say he used some lines he picked up from performers he met throughout his career who though they were throw away lines. Martin knew there was something more to those simple jokes. He toiled for years and years before he became an overnight success. The book describes in detail the path he took to become famous and how that fame drove him away from stand up and into movies, books and music.
What I took away from this book is something we should always be doing as teachers. He took notes of all his performances. He meticulously studied his act. He tweaked it when it was not working and he recognized that a different audience might need different material. He reordered his act on a cheap cassette player to refine his timing to find the better punchline or awkward moment. In the end his act was not as random and silly as it seemed. It was carefully planned to work. Carefully planned to work. Something I know I do not always do as a teacher. I do make changes from time to time but I do not tape myself. I do not critique the lesson in any method other than in my head. Maybe I need to take meticulous notes. Find out where the gaps and correct beats are. Change my delivery for a different audience. In other words - be prepared. Be more prepared. The prepare again.
I think our upcoming challenges with the new curriculum and testing will require us to become a little wild and crazy. We may not need arrows through the head or bunny ears, but we will need a new set of tools. Or maybe we will just need to take a hard look at the ones we have and sharpen them a bit. Retool our "act" for today's student.
Regardless of the rant at the end, this is a GREAT book about an extremely funny man who worked very hard to ear his success. It is a quick read because he is also a great writer.
Sadly I cannot lend it because it is a Kindle book (but it was only $2.99).

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President

Today's book comes from Mr. Seymour. 

I just finished a great book by Candace Millard called Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President.  The book discusses the assassination of President James Garfield by a glorified lunatic named Charles Guiteau, an office seeker who badgered the President incessantly prior to committing the deed.  Guiteau's story alone is so bizarre that it bears recounting-  at first, Guiteau  joined a sort of utopian polygamist colony setup in Western New York but was promptly kicked out after repeatedly harassing the women and claiming that he himself was a prophet.  Then, he managed to read a few law books and pass the bar exam; setting up law offices he couldn't afford to maintain in Chicago and New York.  The highlight of his legal career was in one trial where he jumped on top of a table In the middle of his opening arguments (in a case where he was the primary defense attorney) and began throwing things and screaming at the judge and jury. After that, he moved to Washington, D.C. and put all of his  efforts towards receiving a presidential appointment from Garfield to be the American ambassador to France.  Eventually, Guiteau felt he wasn't getting what he deserved and shot the president at a train station after receiving a message from God to do so.  The president died only after weeks of suffering in the White House, and the nation followed his health reports from hour to hour.

Although, this book is an assassination story it also discusses the rise of Garfield to the Presidency, as well as the influence of two men on America during this time period: Alexander Graham Bell and Joseph Lister.  Bell, in addition to inventing the telephone, created an early version of a metal detector to find the bullet lodged in the President.  Lister was the English scientist who realized the need for sterilization during medical procedures...before his work was endorsed, Doctors used dirty medical utensils and diseases were rampant.  The book clearly shows that if the ideas of these men were followed, the President would most certainly have lived and American society would have benefited greatly by the President's example.

Millard is also the author of another book called The River of Doubt, which was also outstanding.  That book tells the story of how Theodore Roosevelt traveled deep into the Amazon river basin after serving as President.  Roosevelt nearly died on his quest to charter a new route through the Amazon...he fought off cannibals  crocodiles, Mosquitoes, hunger, and disease.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Issachar Bates a Shaker's Journey by Carol Medlicott

This is the last book review from Mr. Walrath about his experience learning about Shakers. Thanks Mr. Walrath!

The last book that was assigned was titled Issachar Bates a Shaker's Journey by Carol Medlicott.  Dr. Medlicott was also a guest lecturer at a few sessions I attended.  This was my favorite of the three books.  It is a biography of Issachar Bates, a Revolutionary War hero and future Shaker recruiter and preacher.  Issachar played the fife during the Revolution and was involved in many bloody engagements.  After the war he married and was one of the first settlers of Hartford, NY, Mr. B's hometown.  He had a huge family of nine children and became an alcoholic.  Maybe having that many children can drive a man to drink!  In any event, he became disgruntled with his lack of spirituality and happened to hear Mother Ann Lee preach.  That was all it took to convince him that salvation could be found with the Shakers.  He and his entire family joined the community at New Lebanon, NY when he was 41 years old.  I guess after having nine children his wife was happy to live the celibate life.  However, the adventure doesn't end there.  In 1805, after being a Shaker for about five years, the leader at the time, Mother Lucy Wright, decides that it's time to expand Shakerism in the West.  She sends Issachar and two other Shakers in the middle of winter on a several hundred mile journey to preach the Shaker way and try to win converts in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana.  The story becomes one of danger and survival as the men face hunger, the elements, confrontations with Indians, and eventually danger from the British when the War of 1812 breaks out.  I would recommend this book, but it is not a quick read.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Faith Shaker Women and Equality of the Sexes by Glendyne Wergland

 This is the second review from Mr. Walrath from books he needed to read for his summer program learning about Shakers.

The second book was titled Sisters in the Faith Shaker Women and Equality of the Sexes by Glendyne Wergland.  Dr. Wergland was a guest speaker at some of the lectures I attended.  Her book was about the almost unheard of status that women had in the Shaker community.  There was a definite equal partnership between men and women in the communities.  Men did not impose their will on women and had no rights that a woman did not have.  Maybe the fact that the Shaker founder was a woman was the cause of this.  This made Shakerism very attractive to women.  In the non-Shaker world women had very few rights, but in the Shaker community they had all rights except the right to vote.  This book also taught me much good information, but I probably wouldn't read it if I didn't have to.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Shaker Experience in America by Stephen Stein

Today's post comes from Mr. Walrath.

This spring and early summer I have had to read three books for a week long workshop for the National Endowment for the Arts program on the Shakers held at Siena College.  Some of the books were better than others.

    The first book was titled The Shaker Experience in America by Stephen Stein.  It tells the history of the Shaker religion, and it reads almost like a textbook.  The Shaker religion started in America in 1774 when Ann Lee and eight followers landed in New York City from England.  They quickly bought some land near what is today the Albany Airport and formed a community.  They preached the gospel around New England trying to form more communities and then in the early 1800s spread into the states of Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio.  At the height of Shakerism there were probably 5-6 thousand practicing Shakers within about 20 communities.  Today there are three practicing Shakers in one community in the state of Maine. 

    The term "Shaker" comes from the phenomenon of often shaking and sometimes rolling around on the floor while speaking or yelling in strange languages during times of intense religious worship.  Shakers have some interesting beliefs.  They are a communal society meaning they all live together in large dormitory style buildings.  They work together and put the community ahead of their own well-being.  Sounds good, but another aspect of Shakerism is that celibacy is a must.  You can only become Christlike by living like Christ, and he never married.  Sometimes families became Shakers, but the husband and wife had to become like brother and sister when they joined the community.  In the communities men ate at one end of the dining hall while women ate at the other.  Also, in the all important worship service, men and women faced each other from opposite ends of the meeting hall.  These customs help explain why Shakerism has almost died out.  Shakers cannot have any children after they join.  It also explains why the number of men became fewer and fewer as the 1800s progressed.

    I learned a lot from this book, but I cannot say that I enjoyed reading it.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Wild Bill Hickok & Calamity Jane: Deadwood Legends (South Dakota Biography Series)

The second of the Deadwood books featured Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. The two have been joined in history despite never really having much to do with each other. In the the TV show the characters are played as legendary (Hickok) and vagrant (Jane). The real story is (as is often the case) much different. I will start with Jane. She was a woman who really was wild, tough and perhaps more than a little loose morally speaking. But she wanted to be more. She earned money as a tracker, did get involved with more traditional forms of employment but mostly earned her money the way many women had to back those time. She worked in local brothels. She was a hard drinker, a decent shot and for some reason a local writer cleaned up has story and she became a bit of a local legend in her own time. She used that status to make a better life for herself but she could never seem to get out of her own way. She is buried near Hickcok, again despite the fact they we never really a couple.
Hickok's legend is harder to pin down. It appears that he became a legendary figure mostly because people thought he was a legendary figure. His exploits were featured in dime store books at the time and each time his story was told he became faster with his pistols, better at gambling and more of a draw for the ladies. He used his fame to secure special favors in small towns where salons would give his preferential treatment just to play cards in their bars. Some of the stories have bits of truth in them, like all good stories.
When I read this book I decided that most of our legendary figures are just like these two people. They did some good thing, some bad things, maybe even some remarkable things. The fact that someone wrote about them and make them famous had more to do with luck than anything. We live in an era where that is very much happening. We have far too many celebrities who are famous only for being famous. At least as written in these books Hickok and Jane seem much more interesting and worth a little fame than most of today's reality "stars" who will most likely not rate their own historical society books.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


Already I have received 4 book reviews from other staff members. I will be putting them all up on a schedule. I want to do a better job spreading out the material so there is always something new every few days. Please send your reviews to me. Thanks to Mr. Seymour and Mr. Walrath for getting the ball rolling.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Seth Bullock, Black Hills Lawman

A few years ago HBO Has a hit show on their hands. It was called "Deadwood" and it was about life in that town. The story had many historical facts in it but also took some dramatic license. The show is definitely not for children. It is filled with rough language, sex, and violence but I liked it for a few reasons. The main reason was Timothy Olyphant as Seth Bullock.
The character as played in the show was intense, tough and very complicated. I wanted to learn more so I ordered many books about the characters I liked the most and about the town in general. Turns out Bullock was not quite the same in real like (no surprise) but he was an interesting man. Like many of his era he went west to make his fortune during the gold rush and he did make some money along the way. He lost some as well. He established a few businesses that ultimately failed. He was a lawman and he was perhaps the most successful as that. He was also tied into regional and then national politics. It seemed however that he always reached for things a little his ability. He was a dreamer and he tried to make his way in a tough world.
This is a by the number biography. Nothing flashy but very interesting if you want to learn more about the gold rush and towns like the ones depicted in Deadwood. There is a South Dakota Biography Series that feature more of the characters from the show. I will admit I did like the show and I did enjoy reading a little about the era. Seth was the least famous of the characters (I will post more about the other books at other times) but the way Olyphant portrayed him made him the most magnetic for me while I watched the show.
If you are a fan of westerns and can handle some pretty raw dialog and scenes, you should check out Deadwood some time. I may even watch it again sometime.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Promoting Writing

I know as much as anything that writing is tough. I have tried to keep a blog going once or twice about books and writing in general with full knowledge that I am not even a writer. But I put these thoughts out there anyway.
There is a former student doing the same thing with her poetry and short essays. She is a graduate of CCS from a few years back. I will not give her identity away but I will invite you to check out her work.
Her blog can be found at
Give her some feedback as she continues her journey to becoming a writer. All artists need feedback and support.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Transforming Brockton High School

From June 30 to July 3rd six teachers and administrators attended a Model Schools Conference in Washington D.C.. Attending the conference were Mrs. Boyea, Mrs. Cartier, Mrs. Fowler, Mrs. Tourville, Mrs, Breault and Mr. Trombley (that would be me). We were initially inspired by a speech from Bill Daggett who came to Malone in May to speak to the public and staff about the changes coming with the new curriculum and the new tests. We decided the school needed to act and we committed to this conference. While just about every speaker and presentation was amazing I cam away with the utmost respect and awe of Susan Szachowicz. She was the principal of Brockton High School. Her school was once heralded as the worst high school in Massachusetts. It has since been transformed into one the best high schools in the country. Listening to he speak you have to wonder if she created this all on her own. Reading the book she wrote about her experience tells a different story.
Her book describes the tedious and difficult process it took to turn the school around. She talks about tough staff meetings, resistance from great teachers unwilling to try something different and the outright defiance from those who wanted nothing to do with change. The process was long but on one year their score improved so dramatically that it did not take long for the most of the staff to buy into the process.
That process is as "simple" as a return to literacy and rigor. It required dedication, determination and documentation and the involvement of EVERYONE. Teachers and students were all going to take the same trip. The book explains in great detail some of the scripts and training the school district used.  She has clearly given away the secrets to any school that wants them. And I think CCS wants them. We do quite well against regional schools and quite well when stacked up against state results, but we can and must do better. I think this book will help up lead he way.
I purchased my own copy and had it signed by her. The district also purchased a copy for people to share but I am willing to share as well. (But I will want it back please.)
This really is a must read for the staff. I know that Mrs. Tourville and Mrs. Fowler have already determined that this is a path we will be taking There will be discussions about how to implement these methods as well as training and input from all people. But if a school of 4,000 students can make a dramatic turnaround, imagine what we can do. We already work fairly well together but we can and will do better.
Take a few moments to read this book when you get time. You will be inspired. I just wish we could bottle her up and bring her spirit with us. Maybe we would could secure her for a training in the future.
Great book - great person - highly recommended.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Ghost Rider - Neil Peart

Over the past year I "discovered" the band Rush. I know they have been a force in rock for decades but I never really knew anything about them. I watched a documentary about the band and decided that I needed to learn more. As is my custom when I get into to something new I bought all of their CDs and their concert DVDs. Then I decided to get even more information. The drummer for the band is Neil Peart. He also writes the lyrics for the band. If you have listened to a Rush song you know the lyrics can be very intense and difficult. This made me decide to pick up this book. (He has written many books). The reason I chose this book was that it focused on his recovery from two sudden and stunning losses. In less than a year his only child died in a car accident and then his wife died of cancer (but he makes it seem like it was also from a broken heart and soul). To recover he left everything he knew behind. The music, the family home, his friends...everything. He loaded up his motorcycle and began driving with no plan in mind. He stopped when he felt like stopping and drove where he wanted to drive. He covered thousands of miles and this book is about that trip. There so many great nuggets buried in the descriptions of small towns and meals eaten that you can almost see him heal as he rides and writes. This is an older book so I am not spoiling anything here. All of this story is public knowledge but the specifics of the book is where the enjoyment lies. He is back with the band. He is remarried. But in his speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame he made mention about those who were lost. The crowd knew what he meant. Those losses still live in him much like all of our losses live within each of us. There is some adult language in the book but it is used the way it should be. It is not written to be shocking. The language is plain speak about feelings experienced in a real way. It is a healing book for Peart and could be a healing book for you. Do yourself a favor. Get some Rush music, read the book and find out something you. Not a bad way to spend a few hours.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

It is Back

In early July Mrs. Fower, Mrs. Tourville, Mrs. Cartier, Mrs. Boyea, Mrs. Breault and I (Mr. Trombley) attended a Model Schools conference. We learned many ways to make our great school even better. One of those ways is to increase literacy. To increase the desire in all students to read and write more.
While on a metro we discusses the possibility of bringing back the book blog. That is what this is. A place to share our books with everyone else. Big books, small books, important books, books of any style. If you like it, write about it.
I will make every effort to post at least once or twice per week. I will also ask YOU to post your own reviews or stories about books. Send me an email about the book you read and want to recommend.
I hope to hear from ANYONE at CCS who loves books. We will tag the books by age appropriateness and level as much as we can.
We also plan on many other book activities when we get back to school in September.
So please, consider sharing the books you have read with the rest of the world. Do not be afraid to write a review. One of the lessons we learned is that the best way to learn to write is to keep writing. And the best way to read is to keep reading.
Thanks to the Mr. Breault for giving us a chance to attend this amazing conference and to help ignite the spirit within us that made us want to teach in the first place.