Look, I’m no scientist, and I’m not a researcher, but these two make a credible case that we all have blindspots, often aren’t aware of them, act on them (even as babies), and even have them (also called “mindbugs” here) about ourselves. Thus far, there seem to be things we can do to combat them short-term, but nothing has, as of yet, proven durable.

The book is readable for a non-scientist, but not entirely engaging. I think I accepted the argument before it even began. I have blindspots, some of which I don’t recognize, many of which I act on (including in the classroom which is what I’d like to address), and I have them about myself. I am, I am sure, an “uncomfortable egalitarian.” That makes me who the intended audience is for this book. Do people disagree with their conclusions?

The authors suggest that there may soon come a device that will alert us of our blindspots before we make a decision just as cars now come with similar features to help us avoid accidents. That prospect makes me nervous.

Project Implicit – Take a test! Find your blindspots!

Ambitious, lyrical and teachable, this debut novel from Gyasi is little short of astonishing. It starts with Ghana in the 18th century and ends in the heyday of Harlem. It focuses on two half-sisters and the path that they (and their families) take. It is a story about how choices — the ones we make for ourselves and the ones made for us — have implications for us and our suceeding generations. Yes, all this in a neat 300 pages. Along the way, she shows a flair for the small description and the profound (if sometimes heavy-handed) insight.

The discussions of the nature of “home” and the issue of “coming” vs. “going” are worth the price of admission. The characters – though I needed regular glances at the family tree – are rich, and I generally regretted when Gyasi moved on to another generation.  The plots for each generation stand on their own and are so tightly woven with the past and future that I can’t imagine the planning that went into this novel. And, to her credit, Gyasi is equally adept at depicting male and female characters.

There is much to discuss, debate, research and write about here. In other words, I hope to use it in the classroom one day. And I look forward to whatever she does next.

Gyasi’s Facebook page

“What,” I was asked once, ” is white culture?” (Roediger’s comment seems to be apt: Is there a white culture without domination?)

Those who know me know that I am rarely at a loss for words. This time, though. . .

After a pause longer than the conference leader wanted, I said, “I don’t know. I hope it’s not the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederate flag.”

Dyson has a better answer. Nothing. I mean, I know race is a social construct, but I admit I had never thought of it this way. There was a Rabbi’s sermon going around a while back that Jews should withdraw from being white and become Jewish again. That seemed too self-serving at the time. To renounce one’s membership in a group that had been so beneficial for so long just when that group was finally being scrutinized and criticized. So how do we abolish the white race without relieving it, us, of responsibility?

There is much to chew on in this book. For a while, I was kind of annoyed by Dyson’s tone. He kept saying that he was sure certain things were bothering we white readers. And largely, they didn’t. They were just eloquent though familiar arguments. Even a few I didn’t find convincing. His argument about the “n-word” (sorry if that’s wimpy; I’m just not going to write it or say it) seems too neat. A few things did emerge that ruffled me. This was the first extended moment:

When you stop believing that we are radical when we can be more conservative than you, that we are one color when we are a plethora of shades, and that we are related to each other and not you when you are related to us in more ways than you can count or may care to know.

The first point, if I understand it, confuses me, especially in the context of this book. It may a question of defining terms. What is “radical”? What is “conservative”? The “plethora of shades” piece is not one I recognize. At the very least, it seems reciprocal. And I think the lack of reciprocity in the third point, well, I get how whites need blacks and are related to (dependent?) on them, but that blacks are somehow independent (outside) of that relationship? I need more sentences here in order to be convinced.

And I am willing to listen. This is, after all, a sermon. Dyson wants to tell us, not to discuss with us. But I don’t think questioning or disagreeing is the same as not understanding. Certainly, there are any number of things I don’t have any kind of intellectual, historical or emotional access to (encounters with the police, for example), but Dyson, surprisingly defensive (and I think a bit off-target) about academia, is not preaching to the completely uninformed. With a few exceptions, he’s relying on ethos here. We are to trust him because he’s him. Well, that’s not always enough.

Dyson in Parma June 5th – free, but you have to register

The incomparable Dave Lucas introduced me to Linda Gregerson, and my general rule (and you should adopt it to) is if Dave recommends someone, you should follow through.  I generally don’t like ‘Greatest Hits’ collections, but this was the first one I found. And, as usual, Dave didn’t disappoint.

Gregerson’s language is pointed. It can seem gentle at first, but beware the razor beneath, particularly when it comes to writing about those who would do or have done harm to children.

I had to laugh when, in “Lately, I’ve taken to,” she seems to ask permission – “if // I may compare great things to / small” – because this is what she does so well.

I had a lot of favorites in here. “Indications That One’s Love Has Returned” probably tops the list.

If I could ask her one question, I’d ask her about her spacing. That’s one poet’s choice I rarely understand.

This is a collection of great and serious beauty and insight.

During the Holocaust, some Jews were enlisted? compelled? by the Nazis to serve as camp leaders or other kinds of functionaries. It was a masterful kind of psychological slavery, making these Jews or kapos, select the people who would get on those trains. I can understand why some people took the job as a feeble attempt to control what they could of a situation that was escalating at a pace and to a scale rapidly beyond their comprehension. At least, I think that was their intention. But we know about the road to Hell. . .

I’m not sure this comparison is apt, but it lingered in my mind as I read Forman’s book. As the title possessive pronoun indicates, this book focuses on how some blacks participated – actively, even eagerly – in constructing the intricate mechanism that we know now as mass incarceration. Forman makes two points about this. First, he argues that no one sees or is responsible for the whole big picture. Hence, no one was paying attention to its accumulated impact. I am less convinced about the second part of his argument – that since this system was built up piece by piece over time it will have to be dismantled piece by piece over time. There are so many interested in protecting / preserving / profiting from the status quo, that piece-by-piece would take too long. There is the “fierce urgency of now,” an urgency that includes my own students.

More convincing, though, is the evidence Forman presents about how some members of the black community who had the best of intentions (there’s that word again), became co-architects of what has become the destruction of their own communities. I was particulary interested in the elements of class and colorism that Forman introduced, topics I haven’t really considered in depth. To be fair, though, some of these people sought an “all-of-the-above” approach, but with the escalating intensity of the drug trade and its correlation with the influx of guns, the notion of a Marshall Plan for cities was abandoned, leaving only warrior policing behind.

As an English teacher, I appreciated Forman’s attention to language. The way we talk about these things matters. What if we called it “a war on guns” and “drug control”?

Forman at the City Club in Cleveland

Book Club discussion at the City Club May 22

I’m not sure where I got it or why I pulled it off the shelf. Perhaps, having just taken a short trip to New York, I was in the mood for something set there. In any event, after a while (and too much clumsy exposition in the form of, ‘look at me, I did research!’ on Carr’s part), I got into the story. I appreciated the way that form followed function. In other words, the lead investigator in this mystery has a new theory about how to work, and Carr mirrored that in the structure of his work. Aside from a few unlikely action sequences, this was a generally pleasant and easy read. And it was nice to read a story, any story (but especially a mystery) that did not use cell phones to move the plot along. People actually had to wait for things, and I liked how Carr made that waiting part of his characterizations and the overall plot.

This is my first Patchett book, and I’m not sure why I waited this long. She’s certainly come to my attention recently because I used to live in Nashville, and she opened a bookstore there. Plus, I heard a podcast that featured her, and I was enchanted both by her and the excerpts of the novel that she read to the audience.

It is not often that I wish that a book were longer, but this novel has an inspiring sense of an epic, and I wanted more – not only in between chapters (some of the transitions can be a bit abrupt) – but at the end. Let the generations continue.

The book, which opens with the christening party that changes everything (a section I heard her read out loud), is the story of things, both planned and unplanned, both small and large, that can shift the courses of our lives in ways that we don’t anticipate or even notice, until we’re so far off course that we can’t find our way back. It is about the sins not just of the father, but of the mother and the children as well. And Fix, the father in that opening scene, realizes this at his 83rd birthday: “There’s no protecting anyone. . . Keeping people safe is a story we tell ourselves.”

This story resonated with me in all sorts of ways. Tolstoy was right:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”