At least I had heard of Cesar Chavez. I can’t say with any confidence that I’d heard of Assata Shakur until some former students posted lists of their favorite books and the #handsoffassata (I don’t even know what the noun is here) starting popping up when things between Cuba and the United States finally began to make their way towards sanity.

The thing is I’ve read a lot of autobiographies. I’ve always been convinced that there is something uniquely American about them, this desire we have to tell our own story. Familiar elements are here – a name change, a desire for self-improvement, extremely low points, etc.. And this is an American story. Or maybe it’s better to say it’s a story of America.

Mostly, though, what struck me is that much of what seems to be boiling over today, Shakur experienced and wrote about 30+ years ago. She makes some great points about education; I have one question about mine. Where was she? I learned so much from this book, from following her both backwards and forwards from her 1973 arrest in New Jersey.

Her remarks about revolution and the problems of expansion resonate a great deal from my recent study of Chavez. Her point that it is international capitalism and not exclusively racism that is at the heart of the struggle was just one of those clouds open up kind of epiphanies for me, a sort of cog in that system. Her acute attention to gender pierced me with its truth.

She also tipped the balance for me. With the words of Ta-Nehesi Coates’ article still pinballing around in my head, I now find myself in support of the US Government paying reparations. I know the logistics are mind-boggling; that said, the money is overdue.

Beautiful writing; sharp poetry.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time living near one of the Great Lakes, but I am only now beginning to understand their role in the world and the problems we’ve caused them. It took a while to get going on this one, but once I did, I found it rewarding. Perhaps the pace is part of the point – that there’s something about the frenzied pace of everyday life that we’re forced to abandon if we’re sailing.

More likely, though, it seems like Dennis never really settles on a structure for the book. At times, he alternates between research and anecdote, and this is where the extended sections of research can get tiresome. When the research is integrated into the narrative of his time spent on board the Malabar, the narrative flows much more successfully.

The book did not inspire me to want to go sailing. It did inspire me to want to learn more about how to protect our lakes.

Much has been written about how it can be difficult to straddle two cultures while living in one – the proverbial problem of having a foot in two worlds. The protagonist of this book is born with his foot in two worlds. He is an Arab-Israeli. What’s new here is that he fails as he tries to manage (dance?) this inherently difficult identity. He wants to ‘pass’ for Jewish, but cannot. He wants to move out of his village, but ultimately has to return. Kashua’s writing is non-linear and, at times, whimsical and funny. Still, much of it felt like an in-joke that I vaguely understood or like I’d walked into the middle of a story, a story familiar enough that I could probably nod the appropriate places, but disorienting nonetheless.

I admit it; I judged a book by its cover. The title – “The New Testament” – put me off at first. Too much religion can make me itchy. But I found the cover photo haunting, and the cover also featured an Anisfield-Wolf Books Awards sticker, and their selection committee has never let me down. I started reading the collection after I had the honor and good fortune of hearing Brown present a few of his poems at the awards ceremony, and I was simply blown away – by his presence, by his delivery, and most of all, by his words. These poems are lean. “Langston’s Blues,” “Heart Condition,” and “The Interrogation” are three of my favorites. Everything is in here – masculinity, sexuality, family, music, race, and yes, religion. Brown does not take a poem off. He does not even take a word off. This is a necessary collection, not just one to keep, but one to keep close at hand – a spiritual guide.

Cover art –

“Another Elegy” –

And that’s it, isn’t it? We are not ourselves. We always want to be someone, something, somewhere else. In Eileen’s case, it’s about real estate, a kind of Dreiser-lite version of trying to move up and out (of the city) in a way that forms the quietest echo of the Revolutionary Road era.

But Eileen forgets the old notion that if you want to make G-d laugh, then make a plan. Something happens on her way to that place (sorry, Mr. Joel), and she and her son (perhaps Thomas himself) have to deal with it. Along the way, we see the difference between perception and reality over and over again in the form of real estate – a house, for example, that is only renovated in areas guests are likely to see.

I’m being glib; I know that. So much of this book felt so very obvious – at least until that plot twist happened that I don’t want to spoil. The notion of real estate took on some subtler shades – the body as real estate, the mind as a kind of property. So, the book is pretty slow going until then. Then it becomes interesting though rarely compelling. And it certainly could have been shorter.

I’ll be curious to see what Thomas does next. But it might take some time and persuasion before I read it.

In a few ways, this book is dated. I’m not buying the phrase “achievement gap” any longer. I like “opportunity gap.” The word ‘achievement’ assigns responsibility for the gap to the students (where some want it put). The word ‘opportunity’ puts it on the rest of us, which is where I think it belongs. Some of the resources Tatum recommends are no longer working. But most importantly, Tatum starts from the premise that the students are reading and that the work is to find out what obstacles are in their way (decoding, comprehension, text selection, etc.). My students are not reading – not for fun, not because it’s assigned, not much at all. When a 9th or 10th grader says that the last book s/he finished is The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, that’s cause for concern. But he’s right – I should do some teacher inquiry. One student at a time. What’s your reading biography? He and other authors I’ve read speak of their reading epiphany. It was an escape, someone put a book in their hand, whatever. For my students, the light is not going on and not for lack of trying (though somewhat for lack of a budget).

Tatum is great at asking questions. There are several catalogues of them that I’m sure I’ll return to regularly. (I do not what he means by the question – what does it mean to be figuratively feminized and castrated? Any ideas?)

Tatum’s theoretical chapters are worth reading; the rest are worth skimming.

Every once in a while, a book comes along that fills in a gap – in time, in place, in style. Boys in the Boat did that for me. I knew little about Washington State and the time between the wars has always been that for me – the time between the wars.

I loved the way that Brown gets out of the way of the narrative. He knows he’s got a great story, and he just lays it out for us.

My one complaint is the connection between structure and pacing. In The Devil and the White City, for example, Erik Larson is able to create momentum that propels the two narratives together. Brown has different challenges. He has to bring the characters (including people, time and place) together before he can start moving the story forward. And he does this well – balancing a wide array of characters and making them quite vivid. But he seems at a loss about how to bring the rise of Hitler into the plot. A few times, updates come at the end of the chapter and have a sort of, “Meanwhile, on the other side of the world” quality. It has the effect of saying that things are happening, looming, but they are in another place. But that seems right. From what I understand, so many Americans were unaware (just as so many Americans thought of rowing as a strictly Eastern sport). As the book continued, though, it was hard to discern a method behind Brown’s decisions about how to update the rise of the Nazis. His main point seems to be about image vs. reality, which is essential to understanding the world’s glacial response (shame on you, Mr. Brundage).

In the wake of Hillenbrand’s books Seabiscuit and Unbroken and their movie versions, I think it’s fair to say that not only is this a better book than Unbroken, it’s unlikely that there will ever be a movie version. American movies like solo heroes. And the point of this story, though it centers on one member of the crew, is about a team.


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