American Pastoral (Roth)

There is an American mythology that is long overdue for demolition. It says that if you act a certain way and make particular choices, your life will be fine, good even. Roth’s protagonist, the Swede, certainly believes in it. He’s a great athlete, a popular guy, he follows his father into the family business, marries the right woman, etc.. With a few hitches, all goes smoothly for him until. . . well, that would be a spoiler.

There is a hurricane momentum to Roth’s writing. When I read The Human Stain (an astonishingly good book), I don’t think I took a breath for the first 60 pages. His sentences race forward and his paragraphs are epic. Roth’s story branches out in time and space with seemingly reckless (but obviously careful) abandon. You have met his characters, you have heard them speak and know their strengths and weaknesses. This is a powerhouse of a book – an epic, deserving of section titles like, “Paradise Remembered,” “The Fall,” and “Paradise Lost.”

If I’m right that it’s an epic, I’m also right that it’s a self-aware one. There are no more angels in america, Roth seems to be saying, not because of anything that has happened – like Nixon being elected – but because there never were any. There are no rules; it’s all a mirage. And it is clear that things to fall apart, and that the centre (read: the Swede) cannot hold.


Waking up White (and Finding Myself in the Story of Race) – Irving

This book was a journey for me – mentally, emotionally, even physically. I could feel the turbulence of my emotions and my body as I read, particularly Irving’s earlier, more memoir-ish sections. I, too, grew up in the suburbs. Now that I think of it, I can’t recall a single person of color who lived on our block. I attended a great private school, in fact, an integrated private school thanks to a source of funds I only vaguely understood. Though we had some struggles, I was most assuredly the beneficiary of a system established and protected in the interest of supporting the likes of me.

I can’t recall a particular epiphany that led me to an understanding of my unease with the world. There was a flirtation with the anti-apartheid movement and protesting outside of the South African embassy. There were fears of a nuclear disaster, perhaps best symbolized by the TV movie, The Day After.

College – a private one in an isolated, remarkable, and, at times, tense neighborhood – was a kind of island. I had conversations to prove I was right. I relished the life of the mind.

Perhaps it was when I began teaching that I started to notice and started to be able to articulate the imbalances in the world. Whether it was a question of a school’s resources or the experiences of the students in front of me, I can recall a kind of, to borrow Irving’s language, an awakening. I moved to a new city and my second school in 1999, and was astonished to learn that my new school district was still under the mandates of Brown v Board of Education, a decision that had been rendered 45 years earlier. I taught at an integrated arts magnet school. The white students had long bus rides so they could have access to additional arts opportunities. But you could generally draw a line down the center of my classroom and find that the students had segregated themselves. And it was near impossible for these middle school students to get together after school for social reasons or to work on a project. Those same buses were waiting. I wish Irving, who spent some time as a teacher, could have gone into more depth about what it means to teacher (to borrow another phrase) “other people’s children.” I have taught a variety of students in a variety of places in a variety of circumstances. Why did I never get fully comfortable with the Hmong population in Minnesota? Why do I find myself drawn to the school where I currently teach – with 100% students of color? I don’t know how to guide my own self-reflection on this question.

Once I got past the initial section of the book, I found myself nodding at much of what Irving so bravely writes – both because I agreed with her and because her descriptions of her assumptions and missteps recalled some of my own. I underlined this passage quickly, as I think it’s powerful and that it reminds me of one of my school situations:

It’s hard work to engage in conflict, and even harder to have to change your mind. People in power have the privilege of avoiding both. The culture of niceness provides a tidy cover, creating a social norm that says conflict is bad, discomfort should be avoided, and those who create them mark themselves as people who lack the kind of emotional restraint necessary to hold positions of power.

Irving’s culture of niceness is suburban Connecticut. Mine?

I also admired this passage –

Change requires tolerating the kind of emotions that arise when the constraints of nice conversations are lifted. I’ve long felt the term “tolerance,” as related to racial and cultural difference, isn’t quite right. I’ve understood it to mean that I’m supposed to tolerate people who aren’t like me. Is tolerating someone really the best I can do?

Irving’s alternative, what she calls “a strength-in-difference paradigm,” appeals to me instead.

If there was one thing I could talk with Irving about, it would be the question of feedback. I’m fine being ‘checked’ by those with life experiences and training are different from mine. It can be hard at conferences, where the question of trust comes in, but perhaps it can be harder in familiar settings, where feelings can linger. But she makes it sound like the responsibility for feedback is unilateral. I understand if I’m not invited. And if you invite me to a lecture or a talk or a reading, I will listen, perhaps ask a question if time and circumstances allow. But to invite me to a conversation and tell me just to listen? That would be very hard for me. I know I need to work on talking less,  talking differently and listening well. But to keep silent?

Want the book?

First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School (Stewart)

Perhaps because I am a teacher, I focused on the word ‘school’ in the subtitle. For the first 180 pages or so, Stewart focuses on the word ‘legacy.’ And she’s right to do so. She lays out the legacy of a remarkable public school in an era that could be thought of as the one before the fall. Segregated by legal necessity, Dunbar flourished. It is interesting, at a distance, to learn some of the history of Washington D.C. along the way.

It might be the very definition of irony that it was the school desegregation movement that proved its undoing. Once a selective school, Dunbar becomes a neighborhood school and, both by all objective measures (student performance, facility maintenance, teacher quality) and the observations of those involved in the transition, it suffers. I wish Stewart had spent more time here as well as on the shift in the teaching corps.

There is a term for it, I’m sure, but one of the most interesting conflicts comes when those who knew Dunbar I are called on (or are called) to try to restore the school’s image. Madison Tignor, for example, works at the Library of Congress and is frustrated by a shelf labeled ‘colored authors.’ (This shelf remains in so many libraries and bookstores. I share his frustration.) His efforts are undone by a white teacher who sponsors a group called the Modern Strivers, a group that seems similar to many of the protest groups that found their way into institutions in the 1960s. The group has at least one objection that I see as quite reasonable (and, like the special shelves for African-American authors), it is an issue that persists to this day (and is just as objectionable) – tracking. “Black activists,” Stewart writes, “called the tracking de facto segregation.” And they were right. And the thing is, they are still right. Tracking has no place in education. Like standardized testing (initially and still a pseudo-scientific effort to prove the inferiority of people who weren’t/ aren’t white – see More than a Score edited by Hagopian), tracking is a legacy of racism. I’ll say it more simply; tracking is racist ( Tracking was and remains a faux-intellectual way of restoring segregation. That it still exists in so many schools, including one a short distance from where I am writing this, is disgraceful. Call it by whatever name you want, it’s racism. The ‘Basic’ classes in Dunbar’s time were for the ‘mentally retarded but educable.’ I’ve been at two schools that replace basic with College Prep. The students at both places quickly take the initials and make another descriptor for those classes – ‘Colored People.’

But what Stewart calls “decades of chronic underfunding” (–no-school-funding-fix.html) cannot be unraveled by the Modern Strivers. The school enters a phase that Stewart calls Dunbar II – a short-lived, architecturally disastrous effort to create a Dunbar for a new age. And just as the Modern Strivers are not the answer, nor is Michelle Rhee (who, I freely admit, had me fooled for a while). There are glimmers of hope – a public-private partnership with the likes of General Electric and IBM that could be the basis for future efforts. Stewart ends the book with some signs of hope – a new building, seeds of a marching band (whose existence recalls a disastrous story in the Prologue about the band’s performance at Obama’s inauguration).

Stewart is a better researcher than she is a writer. There are winks at her readers that are completely unnecessary and diminish the power of her work. But this is a useful history of a public school in the nation’s capital and the ways in which it has evolved. Dunbar’s story is a powerful reminder of how much has changed, how much needs to be changed, and the necessity of paying attention.


Perla (De Robertis)

I remember that a review sent me looking for this book, but then the cover put me off – a woman’s face partially concealed by red flowers I could probably name if I knew about such things. It put me off so long that I forgot what the book was about. My knowledge of Argentina comes from the football team and the movie – from, in other words, Maradona and Madonna. I learned so much more here.

The first thing that got my attention here was the sensuousness of De Robertis’ sentences. The only reason I didn’t mark more of them is that doing so would have slowed me down. Of one crucial conversation, she writes

And this is more than just a night; it is a home carved into wasteland, a candle in black sky, salt on the tongue of the dying, defying the demands of oblivion.

I’ve always enjoyed this quotation by Marquez about magical realism –

“It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”

There’s an essential element in this novel that some likely call magical realism. (Would they if the book were set somewhere other than Latin America?) But it never struck me that way. It struck me as absolutely true, which I recognize can be part of the definition – an extraordinary thing presented in an ordinary way. Still, De Robertis’ choice never struck me that way (though I confess to not being a huge reader of magical realism). I think the choice (I am desperately trying to avoid a spoiler here) was the only one she could make.

I had to force myself to ration this book – to chew on a few pages at a time much the way one character seems to chew on water. At one point, the gorgeous simplicity of the book overwhelmed me. It is maybe the third or fourth book that has sent me scurrying to the computer to find out if it’s already been adapted. It would make a wonderful play.

I get such joy out of discovering someone who is, for me, a new voice. This is the second of her three books. I already checked the library today for the other two (no luck). Soon, though. Very soon.



The Foreign Correspondent (Furst)

I enjoy Furst’s mysteries, this one more than the others, I think. He features his usual everyman hero – this time a journalist – and paints pre-World War II Europe with such evocative detail that I easily slip into his worlds. People here really do meet on train platforms and believe that words, in the form of a resistance newspaper, can change the world. I like how Furst is not aiming to have a murderer caught, a problem solved, or a crisis averted. It is June of 1939 in Paris. Everyone, including his characters, knows what is coming (though perhaps not the severity of it). Generally, though, we see it in such grand pictures – big numbers, maps, famous names. Furst gives us the ordinary folks – the truck drivers, the salespeople at a department store. It is their story, too.

Great atmosphere. Compelling love story. Good book.

More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing (Hagopian ed.)

Throughout the country, pockets of resistance have emerged who are saying to standardized tests, those administer them, those who produce them, and those who profit from them – ENOUGH!

And I agree. And Jesse Hagopian (who edited this book) and everyone who wrote and was interviewed agrees, so the book becomes dull after a while. I like that Hagopian tried to organize the book around different kinds of advocates – teachers, students, parents, adminstrators. But I don’t think it helps. I think it would have been more useful and more interesting to divide it by steps – history, organizing, alternative assessments, results – or some such construct.

I also think it would have been interesting to interview or have some kind of contribution from people in favor of testing – Arne Duncan, someone from Pearson, someone from IB. If the goal of the book is to persuade us, then we need to hear both sides. If the goal is to be didactic, then it works. If the goal is to inspire, then the organization of the book doesn’t support it.

I don’t disagree with Hagopian. I am just not sure that this is the most important fight, or at least it’s not my most important fight. I did learn from this book. It just reads like the product of a club. Everyone knows each other. Everyone supports each other. Fine. I just didn’t need so many pages.




Our Men Do Not Belong to Us (Shire)

I went to a free poetry reading at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago ( The first 4 poets were good, but 4 poets are a lot for one evening. But the organizers knew what they were doing by having Shire read last. Her words jolted the room. I left the event re-energized and bought this collection.

And then I forgot about it.

But Benedict Cumberbatch sent me back to it (

The poem he quotes, titled “Conversations about Home (at the Deportation Center),” is everything you need to know about the news today. It is a remarkable bit of poetic testimony.

The rest of the collection centers around the role of women in war-ravaged places. As with “Conversations,” these documentary poems are remarkably powerful.