The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck) & On Reading The Grapes of Wrath (Shillinglaw)

Whenever I re-read a book, because I want to or because I am teaching it again, I always try to read something new connected with it to give me fresh energy for a familiar text. There could be no better companion, other than perhaps the journal Steinbeck himself kept as he was writing (published as Working Days), than Shillinglaw’s book. She even gives wise advice about how to use it. She suggests early on that readers dip into her book for a few minutes before diving into Steinbeck’s. Her insights, organized around the five layers Steinbeck used as the architecture for his book, are pointed and useful. They provided just the kind of re-reading energy I needed.

I know that some can tire of Steinbeck. I binged on his work some years back after a visit to the National Steinbeck Center, and I had to take a break after that. But I will always come. In fact, this reading made me realize that there are still a few I haven’t gotten to, like In Dubious Battle, apparently one of the more recent victims of James Franco’s effort to show how much he knows about literature.

The Grapes of Wrath does reward attention to its layers. Thanks to the movie, one of the most common talking points is the ending, but Rose of Sharon’s decision is not the only piece of the ending that the film omits, an ending, Shillinglaw writes, that Steinbeck had to work hard to protect.

A great book and a great companion book. I’ll see what I can find for my next visit with the Joads.


In Their Path (Southgate and Stewart)

I admit that I didn’t know what to expect from this book. I’d heard about Ms. Southgate’s walk long before I finally found the book, and the distance involved just staggered me. The book is subtitled “A Grandmother’s 519-mile Underground Railroad Walk.” I am not sure who wrote the comment – Southgate or Stewart – but I think they were right when they said the book is part-memoir, part-history, and part-travel book. And I loved all three parts. I had no idea of the extent of Ohio’s connection to the Underground Railroad and, well, Ms. Southgate made me want to follow her path (though I will probably spend more time in the car than she did). I learned so much about specific individuals involved in the Underground Railroad, mostly black and some white, and this is what I think many of us need – a reminder that this was not just a concept and not just Harriet Tubman. These were human beings taking remarkable risks to get something so many of us take for granted – freedom.

I also appreciated the tone of Ms. Southgate’s presentation of her walk. She is not afraid to portray herself as grumpy, cranky or even in pain. Her humor and her resolve make the book so very real. She was, it seemed to me, just doing something she thought was right and essential. She seemed so driven by her sense of purpose. I have admired her since I first heard of the walk, and now I have even more reasons to do so.

I wholeheartedly support the preservation of all of the nooks and crannies and corners and houses and barns involved in the Underground Railroad. The stories must be told. Still, I wonder if we might be able to be more creative about what to do with them. People tended, in this book, to want all of them to become museums and that makes me concerned about their longevity.

Read the book, study the history, follow Southgate’s path and spread the word.

I am going to create a new genre in honor of this book. I am going to call it a Gateway Book, one that makes you want to read more, do more, learn more, and see more. This book does all of that.

I’d love to teach this one along with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

Restore Cleveland Hope

The Man with the Golden Arm (Algren)

I enjoyed Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make, so I thought I’d try his fiction. I’m not sure I can think of anyone who writes like he does or depicts Chicago better than he does. This one, though, I think could have been tighter. I understand that part of the point was to show the details, if not minutiae of the life, such as it is, of Frankie Machine, but parts felt like I was walking through ankle high mud. There were many electric parts, though, often the pieces that were in those blurry boundaries between reality and fantasy, between midnight and the morning, and between sobriety and addiction. Now that I think about it, this is an interesting one to consider alongside Leaving Las Vegas. I happened to pick up the 50th Anniversary Critical Edition and while the additional resources look interesting, I am not ready to dive in yet.

Sweat (Nottage)

One of my favorite times of the year comes when theatres announce their shows for the following seasons. It always seems possible to see everything. One I won’t miss is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat. I saw one of her earlier plays, Ruined, and was blown away not only but the play, but the research and interviews that went into creating it.

This play, set in a very different time and place, does overlap with Ruined in one essential way. What, she asks in both plays, will people do when they seem to have very few choices?

The characters who populate the bar that is the setting for this play have to contend with each other, with current events, and with family history. No one gets out unscathed, and I think a Director must have quite a challenge centering the play. Whose story is it? There’s certainly no one without flaws and ulterior motives. It’s one of those plays where you’d like to get inside the heads of any number of characters to find out what they are really thinking.

How did we get here? This play tells us.

Nottage’s site


Sweat at the Cleveland Playhouse

A Novel Approach (Roberts)

A good piece of professional development reading has a pedagogical basis for the ideas presented, and the ideas are presented by someone who has a realistic sense of what’s going on in a classroom. The author should not be afraid of logistical details, nor should the author shy away from aiming for the kind of greatness from students that could never be captured by standardized tests.

Kate Roberts’ book does all that. And there are videos. While her students are definitely quieter than mine, more than a few wear that glazed look of boredom / indifference that I recognize.

Roberts’ voice is straightforward and her examples are specific and inspiring. In a somewhat meta-move, I used her advice about sticky notes on her book. And I did not so much change my lesson plan for tomorrow, as I made it more focused.

Roberts is attentive and practical  when it comes to questions of differentiation, and she is ambitious when it comes to envisioning the bigger picture.

I am lucky to be able to attend her session when she’s in town next week. I can’t wait!


Kate Roberts in Cleveland

Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment (Dunbar-Ortiz)

In my 25 years in the classroom, I’ve experienced many tragic events with my students and, as an English teacher, it has often fallen on me to help students begin to find a way to process them, generally by having them write. I was teaching in London during the September 2001 terrorist attacks and in Baltimore during the sniper attacks in the area in 2002. I’m sure I don’t want to know how many school shootings have happened in those 25 years. Luckily, though guns have been brought to schools where I’ve worked and an expelled student was profiled as a potential school shooter, I’ve never experienced one first-hand. The first I remember is the school shooting in Colombine in 1999. I was teaching in Nashville then, and I remember that day less for the events in Colorado and more for a comment a sophomore made when he walked into his 3rd period English. “Can we just have a normal class?” He was clearly already exhausted by discussing the shooting. And so I obliged him. I don’t remember what we did, but I know we didn’t discuss or write about the shooting.


I’m not sure I ever made a conscious decision that such shootings were an inescapable fact of American school life or I just didn’t care to dig in to consider and research the problem, but I don’t remember that shooting or any subsequent ones having much of an impact on me. Until now. The February 14th school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida has me rattled. I am trying to find comfort and hope in the responses from students in Florida and elsewhere and trying to control the anxiety I feel at the lack of a reaction from my own students. I’m rattled, and it is this feeling that led me to Loaded by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.


Based on my limited background knowledge of Ms. Dunbar-Ortiz, I knew I was likely about to read something that would just confirm my own belief – that the second amendment was written in response to concerns about federal power encroaching on states’ rights. In other words, the fear of a king. I was wrong. She didn’t agree or disagree with me as much as she argued that I was taking up the wrong argument, the wrong dichotomy. What should concern us, according to Ms. Dunbar-Ortiz, is not whether the Founders sought to protect the rights of individuals (a right already protected and a responsibility already mandated by the laws of the states) or of state militias formed to protect the state from federal overreach. Instead, she argues that the Second Amendment was written to protect the militias formed to perpetuate our country’s two original sins – the theft of land from and the murder of the indigenous population as well as slavery. In short, we needed groups of armed men to kill Native people and keep our slaves. The problem is not the so-called “gun culture” or even the popular enemy, the N.R.A.. The problem, she asserts, is the “red thread of blood [which] connects the first white settlement in North America with today and the future” (143). In 208 pages which require 20 pages of footnotes, she makes a very convincing case.


If you read the book expecting proposed solutions, you will be disappointed. She spends some time on Australia’s successes, but this is more a history book than a policy one. The subtitle is A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. But policy, I would argue (and I think I’d have the author’s support here) cannot be made without a proper understanding of an issue’s history, and Ms. Dunbar-Ortiz’s book gives us one clear and concise view of that. I’d like to read more, but as I noted above, I am not very familiar with the literature on this issue. I’ve tried to accept to accept the challenge to read more from the perspective of those with whom I disagree. I learned a lot from Hillbilly Elegy. This didn’t stop me, though, from being concerned about his return to Ohio to lead Our Ohio Renewal. Strangers in Their Own Land is my next book in this project.


What about you? What are you choosing to read because you expect to disagree with it?

The End of the Affair (Greene)

Once, presumably when he was moving from one place to another, my brother handed me off around 8-10 well-read Graham Greene novels. I asked him why he had so many, and he said something about how they had appealed to him at a certain time. I am not sure I read many – perhaps just The Quiet American because the new movie version was coming out and, later, The Heart of the Matter, because a friend was teaching it.

Now that I’ve read The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair so close together, I, too, am feeling the instinct to go on a Graham Greene binge. (It’s been a while since I’ve gone on any kind of author binge. There was that John Irving stretch that I still haven’t recovered from. . .)

I think what I admire both here and in The Power and the Glory is less any kind of plot, for that’s not where Greene’s emphasis is, but the kind of searching for meaning in life, in religion in a time and place of both personal and political strife. Though these novels are set on a broad canvas (and, if memory serves, The Quiet American fits this pattern as well), the focus is on a small group and on a kind of claustrophobia of wide open spaces. Dialogue that might sound clunky in the hands of another – or even to me at a different time in my life – sounds quite honest in Greene’s work.

I haven’t seen the movie version of this one, and I’m not sure I want to. Although I’ve gotten to the point where I can watch film versions with the understanding that they are different from the books, I just don’t want this one to miss the point. This is not a story that is just about love – the ‘Affair’ of the title means so much more than that.