Lost At School (Greene)

I chose this book because the very title itself captures how many of my students seem to feel and act. And we can talk about all sorts of academic issues and blending learning as much as we want, but until we can get the students to come to school and have some capacity and support for dealing with their behavioral challenges, I’m not sure how much any of us can do.

Greene’s suggestions are deceptively simple and, as he shows through somewhat stilted anecdotes, much harder in practice. Greene gives us the foil, the teacher who’s been there and seen it all, who thinks students need consequences and not conversation, and he gives this teacher a fairly reasonable voice.

I appreciate that Greene seems to be actually aware of how school really works (and can work). For example, the best laid plan goes completely awry when the student who is at the center of the narrative that runs throughout the book (I enjoyed this concept) has a substitute teacher.

While I didn’t agree with one of Greene’s most basic premises – that “[g]ood teaching means being responsive to the hand you’ve been dealt” – it seems to cynical to me – I do agree that it’s time, long past time, to stop doing things that we know don’t work. And as we’re doing it, it’s important to reconsider how ideas spread and what it means to say that something is ‘working.’




Weather (Lucas)

I chose this book not because of its title (yawn!), but because the back promised poems about Cleveland. It was only when I was about halfway through it that I discovered that I have a nodding acquaintance with the author, Dave Lucas, the understated, original, and often very funny host (if not more) of the great Brews & Prose series at Market Garden Brewery (http://www.brewsandprose.com).

Though often eloquent and witty as a host, Lucas’s words are pared down here and all the more powerful because of it. “River on Fire” takes what’s often considered to be a local joke (http://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/63#.VO6VulpZ9Hg) and turns it into a statement of mythical and industrial resilience. “Go down and tell them what you have seen: /,” Lucas concludes, “that the river burned and was not consumed.” “Midwestern Cities” is Whitmanesque in its celebration of places like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit. “Letter to a Friend” is heart-stoppingly perfect and belongs in the class of poems like Heaney’s “Digging” and Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” “Aubade” (a word I don’t want to look up for fear of ruining the moment) is an amazing small moment poem. Lucas’ precision is remarkable here. “The New Poetry” is a stunner and probably should have been the final poem of the collection. It would have been quite an exit.

Lucas’ masterful and minimalist language leads to some amazing lines. “Autumn and its thousand adjectives have come” (“All Souls Night”), “The day’s stories staling in the mouth” (“After Love”) [‘Stories staling’ – perfect!], and “[E]cstatic instinct” (“Red-Tailed Hawk”) are three of my favorite examples.

What’s next, Mr. Lucas?


Children of the Alley (Mahfouz)

I love Mahfouz’s neighborhoods. Every time I read his work, I can see them, smell them; he’s so good at putting me in them. And Children of the Alley is no exception. The story moves through generations. Certain characters stand out. So does the mansion. But it is the alley, and its various neighborhoods – complete with wedding processions, rooftop arguments, tea shops,and drug dens – that help bring this story to life.

And what a story it is. There are, with its decreasingly less visible patriarch, desert and ‘city,’ some obvious Biblical parallels. There are also tremendous insights into the politics of groups (not unrelated to Biblical issues, I know). All of this is told in a kind of detached, fable-like voice. Who is that narrator?

There is hope here. Though the alley has a habit (a curse?) of forgetting, hope returns from generation to generation. But it is a politically and religiously compromised hope. This, in my opinion, makes it all the more true.

A wonderful, if slightly long read. Perhaps not the best choice for your first Mahfouz, but an essential read for the Mahfouz fan.

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity (Kristof, WuDunn)

I admit it; I was in need of some good news. So much of my non-fiction reading can be difficult, depressing. I wanted to believe the quotation that gave this book its title: “Hope is like a path in the countryside. Originally, there is nothing – but as people walk this way again and again, a path appears” (Lu Xun). And Kristof and WuDunn deliver – not only with inspiring examples of success, but also honest assessments of failures. They argue in support of more thoughtful philanthropy and a larger role for businesses. They are in search of evidence to measure the impact of a donation, both on the recipient and on the giver.

I admit at times that I felt some provincialism. There are very few examples of philanthropies that benefit Americans. There is (and who can argue with this?) support for early childhood education programs and a remarkable group called Cure Violence. But is there nothing for those in between? Then there is the interesting and challenging example of a Ugandan school raising money for American students. Yes, our money can go further in other places and yes there are more support services in the US than other places, but there is plenty of need here, too. And giving, whatever the target, shouldn’t always be about the photo-op moment. New wells are great; new well that work five years later are even better.

I found some well-articulated and interesting insights. Why is it we think that in some professions that the nobility of the job should be enough? Why do well-paid and successful marketing executives for charities incur such resentment? In addition, I learned that there are other things you can donate aside from your time and / or money. Your expertise, for example, and that more people are doing that, and more companies are (for both self-serving and admirable reasons) are allowing their employees to do that. The notion that we are too attracted to being a founder of a charity resonated with me as well. There are those who raise money and funnel it to other groups who are already doing the work well.

Overall, this is a thoughtful and comprehensive look at the world of giving – from why we give to what impact our gift has. And though they are still not very adept at the long form, the writing here is better than it was in the equally essential¬†Half the Sky. There’s more of a plan here – more structure, more coherence.¬†Half the Sky read like a series of sometimes arbitrarily ordered articles; this is more of a book. And it is a very good one, to be sure.

The Magicians (Grossman)

I’m pretty sure I just didn’t get it. I caught some of the references to the Harry Potter and Narnia books. Perhaps if I was more well-versed in the fantasy genre, I would have liked this book more, or at least appreciated it a bit. Since I am not too experienced with the fantasy genre (I’ve only read 4/7 Harry Potters and I’m sure I read all of the Narnia books. . . a long time ago), I found the book just tiresome and, at times, just sloppy.

Perhaps one of Grossman’s character’s says it best: “This isn’t a story. It’s just one fucking thing after another” (299). Grossman’s probably just being ironic there, but at almost 300 pages into the novel, I just didn’t care. The quotation does speak to Grossman’s plotting, though. I’d call it random and incoherent (for the most part). As for the expletive, sorry if it offended you, but it raises another issue — Grossman’s apparent desperation to shock us. This is not, he seems to want to make clear, Narnia or Hogwarts. So we get swearing a-plenty and sex, much of it gratuitous. We get the point. Or maybe I don’t; I don’t know.

The ending is, in my view, cynical. How about earning a sequel rather than just setting up for one? Again, if Grossman is parodying the genre, by that point, I’d lost interest.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Stevenson)

Stevenson is coming to Cleveland in March, so I ordered the book (which deserves a wider release and a much better cover). If you’re in the area, I hope you can make it (https://www.cityclub.org/events/let-s-talk-about-injustice-a-community-conversation). The book starts off as a kind of memoir, a coming-of-age or awareness story as Stevenson finds himself and his true calling in the prisons and especially in the death rows of the south. He writes with remarkable clarity and precision about moments that transformed him and his thinking – getting accosted by the SWAT team outside of his apartment in Atlanta because he remained in his car to listen to a Sly and the Family Stone marathon, for example.

He focuses on the case of Walter McMillan, one of his first cases. He recounts, in an impressively straightforward manner, the case against McMillan and how it was, and there’s no better word for it, concocted. He takes us through the steps he and his still new organization took to try to right this very large wrong. To his credit, Stevenson does not end the account of McMillan’s case after it is resolved (trying to avoid spoilers here). Instead, he follows the story of the human being.

From the title to the ending, this is a stunning and important book about issues that demand not only our attention, but our action. We can’t let Stevenson or even his organization (http://www.eji.org/) stand alone.

Everything I Never Told You (Ng)

As a reader, this was a great experience. I simply inhaled this book. I’d pause and notice how many pages had gone by. I don’t want to make it sounds like this was an easy read – just fluid. Ng is a master of pacing, of knowing when to step back to provide a larger view, when to shift time, and even when to shift into the second person.

As a parent, this was a difficult read. What we do to / for / because of her children has ripple effects that we can’t always contain, even if we can recognize them – and even that’s guaranteed.

On the surface (those of you who have read it will know why I can’t seem to avoid water-related diction), it seems like this will be a mystery story. Consider the two opening sentences: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” Indeed, the plot is driven by the desire (of the reader, of the characters) to know what happened. The reason this book resonates with me, though, are the larger questions Ng explores – what does it mean to belong? to try (very hard) to fit in? Why is it we don’t say the things we need to say to the people who need to hear them?

Start it for the plot, for those opening two sentences, and you’ll remember it for how much it seems familiar.