Heat and Light (Haigh)

When I went to went to go hear Sharon Draper talk about the book she wrote after she wrote Out of My Mind, she said her new one had been hard to write because so many people had called Out of My Mind her “best book ever.” “How,” she asked, “do you write the next book after you’ve written the best book ever?”

I’m afraid Jennifer Haigh has the same problem. In 427 pages, she has created an epic for our times. Populated by the inextricably linked small town characters she has used in her other novels, Heat and Light takes as its central plot the impact of fracking on a small town in Pennsylvania. To Haigh’s enormous credit, she tells the story of many different points of view and uses many different time periods, and what she ends up with is not an anti-fracking diatribe, but a well-balanced examination of the choices people make that they never thought they’d have to confront.

How will the novel stand up in 20 years? I’m not sure. It depends on what’s happening in the fracking world. The point is that it stands up quite well now; it is important, more than say, Hillbilly Elegy. You want to understand the world today, read this. You want to understand people – the people of yesterday, today, and tomorrow – read this. I hated and loved every single one of these characters.

I don’t envy Haigh’s task of following this book. It is, I suspect, a nice problem to have.


The Art of Critical Pedagogy (Duncan-Andrade and Morrell)

This is an extremely compelling book. The authors articulate a vision for the use of critical pedagogy in K-12 classrooms in such a way that it is intertwined with the teaching of the skills necessary for students to navigate the world they are simultaneously trying to change. After they present their rationale for critical pedagogy, they provide several good examples of how they’ve executed it. The authors are aware they are standing on the shoulders of others, educators and other sources for inspiration, and they pay them – particularly Freire – the proper tribute. In that way, this is a ‘gateway’ book because reading it will lead you to others. (I’ve already ordered the two books mentioned in the preface.) I appreciated their constant attention that the development of this approach needs to begin in teacher training, and I was thunderstruck with the accuracy of their claim that public education is not failing. It is, they argue, doing exactly what it was designed to do – create a permanent underclass. An invigorating and challenging read – one I’ll keep close at hand.

Duncan-Andrade’s TEDx talk

Duncan-Andrade founded and is currently Board Chair of this school

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (Baldwin)

I said once that if I could just read one author, I’d choose Baldwin because he wrote plays, non-fiction and fiction. Boy, did I underestimate him. There are letters, reviews, forwords and afterwords, letters, etc. in here, and so I am grateful for and grateful that I found this collection.

I think in this era when so many people are being introduced to Baldwin because of his ideas, it can be easy to forget what an amazing writer he is. His sentences are so packed full and syntactically interesting that I read some more than once just to enjoy the sound of  them. At one point, he even mocks himself by calling one of his sentences “undisciplined.” I think it’s the only one.

So read this, both for the urgency of the ideas it contains and to read a master essayist at work.

Oh, and keep a notepad by your side. When Baldwin recommends that you read something, you’re going to want to read it.

Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire (Esquith)

It is hard to know the truth of what led to the end of Esquith’s career. A brief Google search indicates that there are almost as many theories as there are websites. I admit, though, that my bias is that “something is rotten” here, and that it’s not Esquith. The book is good. His arrogance shows through often, and he is unsubtle when he criticizes his own administration. Neither of these things probably earned him many friends.

Still, he clearly sacrificed a great deal of time, money and energy to do the best work he could. Some of his reasoning is circular – ‘I think we should study this and therefore we should because I am the arbiter of such things’ – well, then, he’s far from alone.

There is a great deal here to support – that he has very high expectations, is clear. He mocks the errors of his younger teacher self. He realizes the reality of standardized tests and how, in the end, they are so very unimportant.

If he did what he stands accused of doing, then he deserves to end his career in disgrace and to lose his freedom. But if he didn’t, oh, if he didn’t. . .

an account of Esquith’s firing from Diane Ravitch’s blog

Hobart Shakespeareans

Hobart Shakespeareans – Trailer

Invisible Cities (Calvino)

I was in a bookstore and was struck by a title – If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler – and I opened it. The first line is something like, “You are probably in a bookstore right now.” I laughed. Out loud. And I bought the book.

It was a revelation. It was my first experience with meta-fiction, long before I even had any idea what that term meant. I loved it.

I’ve since read a few other Calvino titles. He, like Saramago, takes a certain kind of concentration. Invisible Cities is another delight. Esoteric and layered, it is a series of reports from Marco Polo to Kublai Khan about cities Polo has encountered in his journeys through Khan’s empire. Maybe.

Or is it a kind of Arabian Nights tale, in which Polo is making up these reports to present to a ruler who fears the slow destruction of his empire, in a language of gestures and words so insufficient that the two men spend a great deal of time in silence. Maybe.

Or is it a criticism and / or a celebration of the dichotomous nature of cities, of which, like and despite words, we can only ever gain a temporary understanding?

I’m not sure; I’m glad it’s a book club choice. I’ll be eager to hear what others offer.

The Hate U Give (Thomas)

“Make no little plans,” Daniel Burnham once said. And Angie Thomas took his advice. Her sprawling, complex first novel is remarkably ambitious. Though its hot-button issue is the shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer, Thomas does not limit herself to that. There’s interracial dating, gangs, the ‘hood vs. the suburbs (where a pit bull – another issue – is not allowed), there’s “snitches get stitches,” a fried chicken ‘joke,’ a condom mistake, gunshots, arson, domestic abuse, hybrid families, Huey Newton, a discussion of names that black parents give their children, compromises and a debate about whether macaroni and cheese is a main dish or a side dish.

And aside from some occasional pedantic moments (often during conversations), Thomas pulls it off. This is an amazing novel – young adult? – I don’t care; it’s just an amazing book, one I’ll look forward to using in the classroom. Right now, I have a classroom that is 100% students of color. It would be a very interesting book to choose in a mixed-race classroom or even a largely white one. Much to consider here. I look forward to handing it off to students next week in order to get some reactions.

Angie Thomas’ website

Well, I just came from the movie. In a word, spectacular. The first praise has to go to the woman responsible for the screenplay, Audrey Wells. She took an outstanding and cherished novel and made excellent decisions about what to cut, adjust, streamline. She clarified several crucial moments, Khalil’s murder for one (the role of Khalil is played by a charming and knowing Algee Smith), in ways that, dare I say, served the story better than Thomas’ writing did. There is an unexpected twist at the end that made our whole family (and we’ve all read the book) gasp both in surprise and in recognition of its truth. The fried chicken moment was a bit underplayed. Maybe I wanted more there because it was such a rich moment for class discussion. Still, the resolution of the conflict between Starr and Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) is brilliant and harrowing.

I admit I was concerned about the role Wells gave to Maverick (Russell Hornsby) at first. It seemed like he was just going to make speeches, but as the movie developed, he became more human – a husband who could be both jealous and romantic, for example – I thought Hornsby showed the dynamic nature of the man. The scene where Starr finally allows Chris (K.J. Apa) to bring her home is a master class of comic timing. I’d pay just to watch that scene again.

Common makes the most of his role as Uncle Carlos. The character is less present here than in the book, but Wells’ decision here also seems spot on. The moment when he thinks he’s explaining the ways of the world to Starr, but she ends up explaining things to him is, like the comic scene I mentioned above, understated and perfect.

A great deal of credit has to go to the director, George Tillman Jr., who doesn’t waste a moment or a shot. His use of dashcam footage after the shooting, the framing shots of Garden Heights, his view of Williamson all show tremendous restraint. We see what he wants us to see. The woman who sells Starr her lunch in her private school’s cafeteria is the only other black person in the scene. It’s brief, but it’s no accident.

None of this works, though, without the remarkable performance of Amandla Stenberg as Starr. I’ll leave the discussion of the casting choice and colorism for another time. Stenberg inhabits the role. She uses her face, her body, her voice, everything to allow us to see her struggles to first “wear the mask” and then to cast it off. If there’s not a nomination for her (and Wells and Tillman), well, the Oscars will have shredded any remaining credibility they have in my eyes.

See it now. See it again. If you see it with children, make sure there’s time to talk about it. It’s not an easy story; it’s a necessary one, though, incredibly well-told by Thomas, by Wells, by Tillman – by everyone.


Known and Strange Things (Cole)

Teju Cole is, I think, as close to a Renaissance man as I know. The range of allusions in this large collection of short essays is staggering. Naturally, the range of topics is equally wide, focusing (pun intended) on photography. If you know his novel Open City, it will not surprise you to learn that the essays are lyrical, non-linear, observational and insightful. They are, in far too many cases, too short. I know that at least some were lifted from elsewhere. I wish that he’d chosen fewer to include and expanded those that made the cut. The pieces on photography were challenging for me since I don’t really speak that language, and he is only able to include a few of the images in the book itself. I enjoyed the sense of humor that sneaks into a few of these pieces, and I liked traveling with Cole to the places he visits. He is a master at using words to make pictures.