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Book Review: Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate by Mark Oppenheimer

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Question:  What do you get when you cross a wunderkind with a wisenheimer?
Answer:  Mark Oppenheimer, the type of little kid who wonders about absolutely everything and does not hesitate to give voice to whatever is flowing through his mind.  Constantly.

Oppenheimer suffered as I did from the curse or blessings of a high IQ combined with high verbal skills.  Children like this baffle most adults when they aren't pissing them off.  They also baffle most of their peers, often causing lonely childhoods and plenty of opportunity to get into trouble — idle hands and all that.

Mark OppenheimerSuch an upbringing is related well in this excruciatingly detailed memoir of a mouthy know-it-all.  Fortunately for the author, his gifted family members coped fairly well with the prodigious talent, although frequent school changes must have also caused him distress. His situation also provoked moments of merriment though they might not have seemed so at the time.

Oppenheimer discovered the ideal niche for himself when he reached junior high school.  He learned of Debate, and this is where the book rises to its full magnificence (as did the author).  Readers are treated to an intimate view of the inner workings of a little-explored outré society.  It is amazing to experience the depth and breadth of the author's memories, especially who said what exactly where and when.

Anyone interested in learning about the fiercely competitive world of championship talking will rejoice in this singular resource.  Oppenheimer recounts his soaring joy at finding an acceptable outlet for his giftedness in the highly regulated, judgmental arena.  He also describes the personalities of his teammates and the competitors they face, their debate styles and coaches.

His journey began in junior high with the New England prep school circuit and continued through his high school and college years, culminating in successes in international showdowns. One might expect him to have become an attorney or politician after shaping his verbal skills into the power of persuasion, but he went on to earn a doctorate in religion.  He rechanneled his ways with words into writing, though he also teaches political science as well as English at Yale.

Mark Oppenheimer frequently writes for The New York Times Magazine, Slate, The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, and The Forward. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Harper’s, Details, and Travel + Leisure, and his essays in The Believer, The American Scholar, and Yale Review. He is the author of two books, a founding editor of The New Haven Review, and an occasional commentator on NPR's All Things Considered and Day to Day.

In the school year 2008-2009, Oppenheimer was a lecturer in the English and Political Science departments of Yale University and a visiting professor of creative writing at Wellesley College. He has also taught at Wesleyan and Stanford. He holds a doctorate in religious studies from Yale and is currently the coordinator of the Yale Journalism Initiative. With his wife, daughters, dog, and two cats, he lives in the Westville neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut.

Watch a video in which Mark Oppenheimer discusses Wisenheimer.

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About Georganna Hancock

Retired San Diego publisher, journalist, freelance editor and writer, blogged almost daily for eight years at A WRITERS EDGE. She helped writers on the path to writing success with critiques, edits and publishing advice. Find her author page on Amazon and her tweets on Twitter, where she's aka @GLHancock. Georganna's first writing appeared in print in the 1960s. She worked as a journalist for many years. She reviewed books for the FORT PIERCE NEWS TRIBUNE and THE LOUISVILLE COURIER-JOURNAL and wrote for THE MIAMI HERALD, regional publications, and many national magazines. She was a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the San Diego Professional Editors Network and the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, for which she served as Web Manager. Books reviewed may have been received as gifts. All her writings are protected by U.S. copyright law.