Book Review – Marc Leepson’s Ballad of the Green Beret

  • Ballad of the Green Beret – The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler from the Vietnam War and Pop Stardom to Murder and an Unsolved, Violent Death
  • by Marc Leepson
  • Publisher – Stackpole Books
  • Copyright 2017
  • 235 pages

Rating – 6/10

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Front cover –  Sadler during the fun years.

Review – As a high school senior, I happened on an article in the April 1990 issue of GQ magazine by John Ed Bradley. It was titled “Barry Sadler with a Bullet” and it detailed Sadler’s strange life and death. In his 49-year life, Sadler was a dead-end kid, a Green Beret, a pop star, an actor, a men’s adventure author, an accused murderer, and an expatriate before he was shot in Guatemala City in 1988. Sadler died in November 1989.

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The magazine that piqued my interest in Sadler

As I read Bradley’s piece, I though that Sadler’s life would make a terrific book. Well, the good news is that Marc Leepson has written that book. The bad news is that the book is just “pretty good,” not the book that Sadler’s life deserves.

27 Years Later, A Biography

When I saw Ballad of the Green Beret, I ordered it right away. The book is short and can be read in just a few hours. I did so Thursday and Friday and would read it again. Still, I’m disappointed.

Author Leepson covers the bases. He gets the broad strokes of Sadler’s life, but there’s just not enough depth. When he recounts the success of Sadler’s life-defining hit record, Leepson does a good job of explaining how fate and a few key connections helped push Sadler toward his 15 minutes of fame. However, the account of Sadler’s time at the top is plodding. Leepson spends too much time recounting a “laundry list” of the personal appearances that Sadler made to promote his song – and the Vietnam War.

My guess is that Leepson used a newspaper archives database to find this material; whatever the source, this prose is dull. However, I did like that Leepson included an extensive list of all of his sources in the back matter; I guess that’s the professor in me.

Hey Baby, Wanna See My Winnebago?

The second part of the story covers Sadler’s descent in 1970s Nashville. This part of the story works well and held my interest. In Nashville, Sadler made aborted attempts at reviving his singing career, which didn’t go very well. Eventually, he found his niche as a writer of pulp, men’s adventure novels.

The details are pretty sordid. He ignored his wife and three children. Instead, he became a barfly who hung with friends, told stories, and picked up women. The book tells of one extended drinking session in which Sadler took three women outside (@ different times) and enjoyed their company in the Winnebago that he’d left in the bar’s parking lot. (I feel particularly sorry for the third woman, whoever she was).

Eventually, Sadler shot and killed a down-on-his-luck country singer who was stalking his girlfriend. Surprisingly, Sadler escaped with almost no consequences. More surprisingly, Sadler (a high school dropout) established himself as an author of over 20 men’s adventure novels, which supported him to the end of his life.

The Guatemala saga was the last major part of Sadler’s life. He abandoned his family in Nashville and moved down. Life was still an extended adolescence – he drank, chased younger women, played with guns, and told tall tales. By the time Leepson tells of the gunshot wound that would eventually take Sadler’s life, the reader feels as though the ending was almost preordained by the choices that Sadler had made.

The Bitter End

Ballad closes on a down note, with Leepson providing a page-plus commentary Sadler’s life. The material is surprisingly harsh. Among other put downs, Leepson describes Sadler as a man who “had his hour strutting on the national stage” (p. 232) and “who spouted ultra-right-wing political tropes” (p. 231).

While Leepson’s points aren’t inaccurate, they are overly harsh. Moreover, if Leepson’s points are all there is to say about Sadler, they raise the question of whether Leepson’s book is a waste of the reader’s time.

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Back cover

Taps for Ballad

To me, Ballad was not a waste of time. Friday night, I drank a couple of Blue Moons and found that the story “held” me all of the way to the end.

But it could have been so much better. Sadler’s pop stardom was over 50 years ago, and he has been dead for close to 30 years; Leepson’s book is probably the best biography we’ll ever get.

My father is a Vietnam Vet and he enjoys “action books.” So, before reading Leepson’s book, I told Dad about it and promised that I would pass it on after I read it. I still plan to offer the book to him, but I’m going to give it only a lukewarm recommendation. Dad can decide whether he wants the book or if it should go straight to Goodwill.

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2-4 July 2017 – Pages 96-232 of Mark Ellwood’s Bargain Fever

  • Bargain Fever – How to Shop in a Discounted World
  • by Mark Ellwood
  • Publisher – Portfolio / Penguin
  • Copyright 2013
  • 235 pages

Rating (for entire book) – 8 out of 10

I finished up Bargain Fever over the extended weekend. It’s a good book, but too often it devolves into anecdotes. These anecdotes are good, but that doesn’t mean that they provide the reader with useful information. Still, it’s pretty good.

Chapter 4 – How the Other Half Saves (finished pages 95-116; chapter ends on p. 85-116)

This section – which I’d already started – delves into the lengths to which fashionistas will to get deals on apparel from their favorite designers. Readers get to learn about a world that they probably know little about. One person describes Manolo Blahnik’s  exclusive sale as follows “It’s tables in all sizes, lots of Russians and a big bunch of black drag queens” (p. 97). My mind boggles trying to conjure the visual. Unfortunately, I thought that the material dragged on a bit too long.

Chapter 5 – “Let’s Make a Deal” (pp. 117-144)

For my money, this was the weakest chapter in the book. This is especially regrettable because it contains Ellwood’s main point; he claims that the business world is transforming to “…the new all-haggle model that every retailers will soon have to adopt” (p. 133). He doesn’t provide sufficient support for such a sweeping contention. Yes, people haggle for things for which they didn’t use to haggle. But you can’t go farther than that.

Ellwood examines Groupon’s successes and failures and what they reveal about contemporary business. He also examines a industry that he claims has successfully made the transition to the new business norms (hotels) and an industry that has not (airlines). In regard to airlines, Ellwood quotes branding expert Al Ries who says that airlines tell their passengers that they are either cheapskates (if they’re in coach) or stupid (if they’re willing to pay for upgrades). The passenger gets to choose between bad and worse.

Chapter 6 – Discountphobia (pp. 145-176)

Here Ellwood discusses businesses that have managed to avoid marking down their merchandise. He cites for examples – American Girl dolls (which my daughters love), Apple. Louis Vuitton, and Nespresso. He claims that four principles underlie their ability to hold the line on discounts –

  1. Small, tightly-controlled product lines (to avoid excess inventory that must be marked down).
  2. Tight control of distribution (to prevent comparison shopping)
  3. Great retail atmosphere
  4. connection with the brand because of it what the consumer thinks that it says about him or her

Ellwood also has a nice section on JCPenney’s unsuccessful attempt to wean it’s customers from their addiction to sales, which shows why the discount habit can be hard to break.

Chapter 7 – The World On Sale (pp. 177-202)

There’s one great point in Chapter Seven, but the rest of the material seems “padded out.” Ellwood discusses the research of Sarah Maxwell of Fordham University. Maxwell wanted to know why some societies haggle and others do not. She found that societies could be 1) highly individualistic (e.g., the U.S.) or highly collectivist (e.g., Brazil or India).

She found that in individualistic societies, people tend to think that everyone should have the same “choices and chances.” Therefore, people should pay the same price for the same item, not haggle. But in collectivist cultures, people “consider themselves first part of a given peer group, which is then a subset of society…” (p. 181). Therefore, “An Indian shopper didn’t consider everyone browsing next to her a peer. Hiking to cost for an upper-class neighbor, Maxwell found, was seen as fair” (p. 181).

The rest of the chapter isn’t nearly as good. Ellwood takes the reader on tours of various countries around the world (China, Japan, Turkey, the United Kingdom) and discusses the attitude toward haggling in each.

Chapter 8 – The Future of Bargain Fever (pp. 203-232)

Ellwood lists four trends that he says will dominate bargaining in the future –

  1. showrooming – where consumers use technology (such as smartphones) to comparison shop for items that they see in stores. Ellwood says that showrooming will force businesses to develop more store brands. He notes that Macy’s and Kohl’s store brands make up about 40 percent of their sales.
  2. cheap or choosy – consumers will have to decide whether it is more important to save money or to get what they want
  3. negotiation – negotiation is here to stay. Consumers are becoming better negotiators
  4. dynamic pricing – businesses increasingly will find ways to shift prices with changes in demand and based on customers’ individual characteristics. (This one scared me a bit.

My Final Offer

I feel like a bit of an ingrate, complaining so much about a book that I’m giving an 8 out of 10. Have no doubt, Bargain Fever is a good read – even if Ellwood couldn’t quite sustain the momentum that he built in the first 100 pages.

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Sunday, 2 July 2017 – Sunday Papers & Sports Illustrated

Sunday I spent some time an old friend – the papers. I didn’t read any more of Bargain Fever as the day sort of slipped away. My youngest daughter and I went out and got some groceries @ Publix where I grabbed a copy of the Pensacola News-Journal and I couldn’t resist the “Where Are They Now?” Issue of Sports Illustrated . On the way back, we stopped in a Tom Thumb and bought the Mobile Press-Register. We also have a digital subscription to the New York Times. So, we had plenty to read.

Here are some highlights from my Sunday reading –

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34-year-old Vince Young recently tried a comeback with the Saskatchewan Roughriders

Sports Illustrated has former Texas Longhorn and Tennessee Titan Vince Young on the cover. He attempted a comeback with the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders. Young is unhappy with the way his football career ended and wants to fashion a new conclusion. The story is here –

https://www.si.com/nfl/2017/06/27/vince-young-cfl-saskatchewan-finances-bankruptcy-titans

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Find out about life on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier

The Pensacola News Journal had the best story of the day. A reported traveled with the 5,000 sailors on the U.S. Navy’s U.S.S. Eisenhower. This is a look at a world few of us will ever see. Don’t miss it. The link is below –

http://www.pnj.com/story/virtual-reality/eisenhower-vr/2017/06/27/see-aircraft-carrier-during-major-combat-training-uss-eisenhower-vr/343007001/

 

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30 June & 1 July 2017 – Pages 1-95 of Mark Ellwood’s Bargain Fever

  • Bargain Fever – How to Shop in a Discounted World
  • by Mark Ellwood
  • Publisher – Portfolio / Penguin
  • Copyright 2013
  • 235 pages

Rating (for pages 1 – 95) – 9 out of 10

After reading the case-study book, I thought that the fates owed me a good read. Fortunately, I got one with Mark Ellwood’s Bargain Fever. I started the book with low expectations; I picked up Bargain Fever during a fit of “book greed” that overtook me while I was in Dollar Tree last summer. I’m glad that I was greedy, as the first 95 pages were terrific.

Introduction (pp. 1-8)

Ellwood uses the Intro to justify his book. Noting that everyone is trying to bargain, he states that “…retailers sold 40 to 45 percent of their inventory at some kind of promotional price in 2011. Ten years earlier, they had sold just 15 to 20 percent of stock that way” (p. 4).

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Front cover – gotta love those $1 remainders from Dollar Tree

Chapter 1 – Your Brain on Sales (pp. 9-34)

Bargain Fever begin with a surprisingly-deep chapter on how our brains function when buying. Ellwood starts with dopamine, the brain chemical that scientists long thought came from pleasurable activities. Recently, scientists have found that our bodies maximize dopamine when we get unexpected pleasures. This is key to way that our bodies process stimuli & has a lot to do with the way merchants plan their sales.

Also, Ellwood introduces three key insights that “neuroeconomists” use to sell us more stuff –

  1. people get more pain from losing than they do joy from winning
  2. we have internal reference points that determine whether we think something is a good deal or not. (For instance, people agonized over whether it would be better to earn a) $35,000 in an office where everyone else earned $38,000 or b) $33,000 in an office where everyone else earned $30,000. Obviously, you’re better off with the $35,000, but your reference point is the other people in your office).
  3. transaction utility – Ellwood says that someone at line at Macy’s probably would switch lines if – by switching – the price of a shirt would go from $25 to $15. But the same person might not switch lines @ Home Depot if – by switching – the price of a lawnmower would go from $525 to $515. In both cases, the person saves $10, but “…$10 can be worth more or less, depending on the circumstance” (p. 20).

Ellwood closes this strong chapter by discussing pricing strategies and why consumers may prefer fewer choices to more choices. If I had to complain, I’d say that some of the dopamine material was a little difficult for my brain to process. (In other words, I didn’t get one of those dopamine rushes while reading it).

Chapter 2 – Couponmania (pp. 35-59)

I’m not much of a coupon clipper, but I might start after reading Chapter 2. That’s how much I “got into” this material. Ellwood delves into coupons, focusing on how the Internet has shifted the power of couponing from businesses to consumers. He starts with the TLC show Extreme Couponing, then moves to discussing a business called The Coupon Clippers in Dade City, Florida. Coupon Clippers allows people to buy coupons (for 10% of their face value).

The best part of the chapter is the material on coupon fraud (pp. 51-59). Ellwood starts by discussing a low-tech theft ring that drove around Broward County, Florida, stealing the inserts out of Sunday newspapers. Then, he moves on to a classic sting of coupon fraudsters from the greater New York City area.

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1977 Breen Coupon – Shame on you if you tried to redeem one of these

 

In the sting, Procter & Gamble agreed to issue 25-cent coupons for a non-existent product called Breen (which was similar to P&G’s Tide Detergent). Coupons appeared in three New York City-area newspapers. According to Ellwood –

“The results were astonishing: 2.5 percent of the fake coupons were redeemed by retailers, across 2100 stores, in 40 states. This translated to seventy thousand supposed first-time trials of this magic liquid. Investigations moved quickly and twenty-six retailers were indicted by the Brooklyn DA…” (p. 59).

 

Chapter 3 – Purchase History (pp. 61-83)

Of the four chapters, Chapter 3 was my least favorite. Here, Ellwood details the history of “the deal.” He discusses Coca-Cola as a pioneer in couponing. The back half of the chapter is better, with discussions of K-Mart’s famous “Blue Light Special” and the creation of the outlet mall. My favorite part of the chapter was its last five pages, which discuss UK grocer Tesco’s use of customer-loyalty data to customize its promotions and improve its bottom line.

Chapter 4 – How the Other Half Saves (finished pages 85-94; chapter ends on p. 116)

Ellwood regains some of the lost momentum at the beginning of Chapter 4, which focuses on the desire for deals among wealthy fashionistas. He opens the chapter with a great blurb on how shoemaker Roger Vivier (inventor of the stiletto heel) gets rid of excess inventory in its Manhattan store. Loyal customers are invited to an otherwise-unprompted markdown sale in which the only way to tell which shoes are discounted is to look on their soles; a tiny blue sticker means 30% off and a tiny red sticker means 40%.

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Back cover – do you think all of these people actually read it?

The next ten pages detail how high-end fashion shops get rid of “deadstock” (items that they could not sell last season). It all amounts to variations on the Roger Vivier strategy mentioned above. These merchants have come out with a way to make a negative (unsold inventory) into a positive (special deals for their best customers). Reaching out to these top customers is known as “clienteling.”

Ellwood mentions that Martha Stewart loves to attend these invitation-only sales. Also, he states that sometimes the discounted items still don’t sell, which can lead to creative solutions for how to dispose of the inventory (such as destroying it or sending it to countries that are so poor that there is no chance that anyone there could buy it, if it weren’t free).

I Like It! (So far)

So far, this is a great book – Ellwood knows his stuff and he knows how to present it in an entertaining, lively manner. (He grew up in England, and has a nice, snarky wit). I can’t wait to see what comes next.

 

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30 June 2017 – Pages 39-81 of Hancock and Algozzine’s Doing Case Study Research

  • Doing Case Study Research – A Practical Guide for Beginning Researchers
  • by Dawson R Hancock and Bob Algozzine
  • Teachers College Press (Columbia University)
  • Copyright 2006
  • 81 pages

Rating (for the entire book) – 3.5 out of 10

Our friends in economics introduced me to the idea of a sunk cost. A sunk cost arises when you base your decisions now on unrecoverable costs that you incurred in the past. A professor once said that a good example would be an elderly married couple who hate each other but won’t divorce because “we’ve been married for 40 years.” Economists tell us that making decisions based on sunk costs is irrational.

IMG_0264When I’m reading a book that isn’t working for me, I often debate whether – by continuing – I’m making a sunk-cost decision. While reading The Art and Craft of Doing Case Study Research, I kept asking myself that question. I finished the book, but I should have quit. I just wasn’t the right audience.

Endless Kvetching

The book’s top three problems are 1) presentation, 2) presentation, and 3) presentation. You might be able to use Doing Case Study Research as a reference, but it’s hard to try to read it from start to finish. Hancock and Algozzine cover the basics, but they needed a wordsmith to help them make the book flow. Better organization, more subheadings, and less repetition would all improve the book.

Here are some things things that particularly irked me –

  1. As I noted in my first blog on this book, the authors continue to cite case studies from the literature, but they seldom tell the reader what he or she should look for when reading them. The reader wants to know what makes the cited case studies worth examining.
  2. I was reading along on page 58 when I found that nothing made sense. I went  back and reread, eventually I realized that the authors had switched to discussing content analysis and case research. I know a bit about content analysis, or I would have been 100% lost. Where the topic comes from, the reader never knows.
  3. Chapter 13 (pp 78-81) brings things to a dull, but appropriate close. Essentially this chapter is “How to Write a Journal Article.” It isn’t bad information, but it has little to do specifically with writing cases.

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To Be Fair…

The book isn’t all bad and I did learn a few things. I got some useful information when the authors discussed how to –

  • summarize literature in tables (p. 51),
  • format a case (p. 62) and
  • write a research proposal for a case

Also, Hancock and Algozzine provide extensive references and a useful Annoted Bibliography (pp. 93-99) that includes a summary paragraph about each source.

Parting Shot

I don’t want to be overly harsh. It’s very difficult to write well about research methods. Also, authors Hancock and Algozzine have since published two additional versions of Doing Case Study Research, so perhaps they ironed out some of the book’s problems.

But – after three tries – I’m still trying to find the right book about how to approach cases.

 

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29 June 2017 – Conning Harvard by Julie Zauzmer

  • Conning Harvard – Adam Wheeler, The Con Artist Who Faked His Way Into the Ivy League 
  • by Julie Zauzmer
  • Lyons Press
  • Copyright 2012
  • 194 pages

Rating – 8 out of 10

Thursday I had trouble generating any enthusiasm for Hancock and Algozzine’s Doing Case Study Research. So, I decided to be promiscuous in my reading and enjoy Conning Harvard by Julie Zauzmer. I’ll get back to Hancock and Algozzine (he told himself).

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Front cover

Adam Wheeler

Back in 2005, Adam Wheeler was a high school senior in Delaware. His grades and standardized test scores were good, but not extraordinary. By submitting a series of plagiarized essays, Wheeler gained admittance to Maine’s Bowdoin College. At Bowdoin, Wheeler did reasonably well – until he got caught plagiarizing a paper in his second year. Bowdoin showed Wheeler a degree of mercy, suspending him for a semester, but with the understanding that he could then return to school.

On to Harvard

Now we arrive at the crux of the story. Wheeler created a fake transcript (from MIT) and fake test scores and managed to con his way into Harvard as a transfer student. Clearly, this was the turning point in his life. From that point forward, Wheeler’s life became a charade as he plagiarized his way through his classes, lied to get summer scholarships, and attempted to become a Rhodes Scholar. He almost made it – having gotten a place on Harvard’s short list of Rhodes candidates when he got caught.

Wheeler amazes the reader with his ability to cheat his way through Harvard. He conned a lot of people who should have known better. Wheeler is so brazen, so thoroughly dishonest, that the reader cheers when he finally gets caught. Wheeler’s reactions to getting caught and then charged with several felonies are also revealing. It’s a fascinating story.

But, in another sense, Conning Harvard frustrates the reader. Wheeler never gave an interview explaining himself, so much is unknown. As a result, he never emerges as a flesh-and-blood person in Conning Harvard. You want to know more.

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Back cover

Though Conning Harvard is a success, there are other areas for improvement. In places, Zauzmer bogs the story with extraneous details, particularly about Harvard’s admission process. Likewise, the book’s flow – its momentum – comes and goes (though it’s a nice, quick read at 194 pages).

“Why are we so persuaded that some institutions carry such cachet that we’ll do anything to put their names after ours?” (P. 167)

Why, indeed? In the future, I’m convinced that people will be puzzled by our current obsession with admissions to prestigious universities. After all, as many people have pointed out, our society doesn’t particularly value education. The best students are geeks and nerds. A “professional student” is one who hangs around campus too long, who doesn’t want to grow up and get to work. People who say that they prize “education,” generally mean “credentials.”

Adam Wheeler’s story is a symptom of our strange fascination with the right credentials. Conning Harvard has some shortcomings; chief among them is a lack of insight into Wheeler. Still, it’s a terrific book that offers the reader great food for thought.

 

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29 June 2017 – Pages 1-38 of Hancock and Algozzine’s Doing Case Study Research

  • Doing Case Study Research – A Practical Guide for Beginning Researchers
  • by Dawson R Hancock and Bob Algozzine
  • Teachers College Press (Columbia University)
  • Copyright 2006
  • 81 pages

Rating (for pages 1-38) – 4.5 out of 10

About ten years ago, I published a case study in an academic journal. But I still don’t know how to write one. For the publication, I worked with a couple of colleagues and the three of us pooled our knowledge to finish the project.

IMG_0264Since then, I’ve been looking to better understand how to “write up” cases. In spring 2016, I read William and Margaret Naumes’ The Art and Craft of Case Writing; I finished reading it, but it was hard going. Later in 2016, I attempted a second case book, but didn’t finish it. (I’ve forgotten the author and title).

So, I’m still looking for a readable book on how to write and publish cases. Last week, I checked out Dawson Hancock and Bob Algozzine’s Doing Case Study Research from the university library. It’s a short introduction and I thought that I wouldn’t be out much time and effort if it, too, “went bad.”

Third Time’s the Charm, Right? 

The best grade for Doing Case Study Research would be an incomplete. It’s a bit early in the game to pass judgment (not that that’s ever stopped me). Hancock and Algozzine got me with their Preface in which they said that they aimed to show readers how to “…plan, conduct, and write up a case study research project” (p. ix). This was exactly what I’d hoped the book would be, so my expectations increased.

Maybe they were too high. Aside from the Preface, the first 38 pages mostly disappointed me. Hancock and Algozinne aren’t joking about the book being for beginners; they belabor some very basic points about research, such as the difference in quantitative and qualitative approaches. Too often, the authors don’t even relate the material that they are presenting to case-study research. (Based on my reaction, I’m obviously the wrong audience for at least part of the book).

Another problem is that the book is “padded out” with example after example of published case-study research. The examples go on for pages, but the authors summarize each of the studies in about a paragraph. I’m not sure what the reader is supposed to gain from this laundry list.IMG_0262

A Ray of Sunshine – Chapter 5 (pp. 31-38)

By the time I hit Chapter 5, I was pretty negative. But Chapter 5 gave me reason to hope. The authors present three different ways that one can classify cases studies (based on the work of other authors). The classifications are –

  1. ethnographic / historical / psychological / sociological
  2. Intrinsic / instrumental / collective
  3. exploratory / explanatory / descriptive

Obviously, I’m not doing this material justice in this short summary. But I got a lot out of it; specifically, Hancock and Algozzine taught me about the wide scope of case research, broadening my ideas of what I might do as a case researcher. It was a nice way to close my reading.

Here’s Hoping

The close gives me hope that the latter part of the book will be better.

 

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