Book bits

Three books about Cuba, review of 'A Class Apart' by Alec Klein, and readers' picks.

A Class Apart

Author: Alec Klein

It's the archetypal nightmare: You show up at high school … naked. Fortunately, though, you wake with relief, realizing your high school days are long gone. Not so for Washington Post reporter Alec Klein, who, last year, voluntarily returned to New York City's Stuyvesant High School, his alma mater. Although he didn't arrive in the nude, he wore a get-up that, for him, was almost as odd: a backpack and trendy distressed jeans.

Nearly two decades after graduating from what is considered one of the top high schools in the US, Klein returned for a semester to research A Class Apart: Prodigies, Pressure and Passion Inside One of America's Best High Schools. Klein's book not only tracks the students who study, sing, and fall in love there, but also attempts to explain what sets Stuyvesant, a mere public school, apart from the scores of elitist, high-achieving schools across the country.

Of course, Stuyvesant – affectionately known as Stuy – is elitist too, just not in the same way as private schools. Stuyesant's elite status is a result of the mind-bogglingly bright kids who must ace a citywide test to get in.

The vast majority of "A Class Apart" is a bit like a version of Ripley's Believe it or Not. You read with jaw at half-mast, encountering one awe-inspiring student after another: the football captain whose hobby is algebraic equations, the heroin addict with a penchant for poetry, and the 10-year-old who likes pizza and has one of the highest GPAs in a school he is too young to enroll in.

Klein doesn't just focus on the kids, though, who are only part of the mystery of Stuyvesant. We also meet quirky teachers and overworked parents who lovingly push their children to achieve the American dream.

It is these characters who keep the pages turning at breakneck speed – that and Klein's snappy, journalistic prose. He makes you genuinely care what happens to these kids – even though there are moments when they are so smart, so stoic, and so insightful that they just don't ring true. (And is it my imagination or does Klein describe every female as "beautiful"?)

Klein raises some important questions in the epilogue, such as whether smart kids should be nurtured in special institutions or sent to "normal" schools to help less academically inclined peers. He doesn't really provide any answers, focusing instead on the magic that happens when a few good students meet high standards, motivated teachers, and lofty goals. But after getting to know these teen prodigies, it's hard to imagine them anywhere other than Stuy.

– Caitlin Carpenter

3 books about Cuba

Fascinating, glamorous, complex – these are just some of the adjectives that apply to the glimpse of Cuban history caught in I Was Cuba: Treasures from the Ramiro Fernandez Collection. Culled from the collection – perhaps the world's leading archive of images of Cuba – the photos here explore the island nation from the 19th century through the 1959 revolution. Text by Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas is included.

Playwright and professor Eduardo Machado was only 8 when he and his little brother fled their homeland of Cuba in 1961. In Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile's Hunger for Home, Machado tells the story of his family's separation from Cuba and their induction into life in the US, liberally sprinkling his tale with beloved family recipes (like Garbanzos with Spam Chorizo and Fernando's Arroz con Pollo) and stories of what they meant to the Machado family.

An estimated 16,500 Jews lived in Cuba in the late 1950s. Among them was the family of Ruth Behar. Behar, who left the island in the 1960s at the age of 5, returned as an adult to explore her Cuban-Jewish roots. Through photos by Humberto Mayol and interviews by Behar, An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba tells an intriguing tale of this little-known community.

– Staff

Readers' picks

Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson is very entertaining. Hudson, who was born in Argentina in 1841, tells about the first 15 years of his life and his observations of the exotic birds, animals, plants, and his neighbors – a fascinating account of growing up as a young naturalist in Argentina. – Kate Perry, Nashville, Tenn.

Currently I am rereading The Haj by Leon Uris. Living in a post 9/11 world, I find the historical context and geographic depictions to be mesmerizing. – Rene Lachance, TuCSon, Ariz.

The Snoring Bird: My Family's Journey Through a Century of Biology takes us from air battles in World War I to a frantic flight during World War II to resettlement in rural Maine as Bernd Heinrich shares the true story of his Papa Gerd's relentless and systematic pursuit of wasps in the family Ichneumonidae. With uncanny honesty, Heinrich shares the influences and results of growing up within a family where science is king. I found this so good, I wanted to stretch it out, so I limited my nightly read to one (OK, maybe two) chapters a night. – Mark LeBlanc, Norton, Mass.

I just read and will reread Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner, an extraordinary, frostbitten novel about Arctic and familial survival during northernmost wild America's increasing encounters with "civilization." Well seasoned with Inupiaq words and expressions, (glossary provided), this book contrasts being with having. – Anita Alvarez Williams, Boulevard, Calif.

I just finished Teach Like Your Hair Is On Fire by Rafe Esquith and I highly recommend it to all parents, especially with younger children, and all teachers. It is very readable, and he has such insight into children. – Mary McVay, Minnetonka, Minn.

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