Archives for category: Non-fiction

The first book I am teaching next year is I Am Malala, so I want to learn more about Pakistan. This book seemed like an interesting way into the history of the country. It combines the author’s personal family story, focusing on her Aunt, the wife of the title, with the story of the country.

It helped as an atmospheric piece, but the structure did not help me. I wonder what it would have been like if she’d just focused on her aunt’s story as a lens through which to view the changing society. Alternatively, I wish the individual sections could have been longer so I could have had a better chance to grasp the cultural, political, and historical details involved in growing up in Pakistan.

I ordered this in time (I thought) for a trip to New York, but it didn’t arrive in time. Still, I like Lopate. And books about walking. And New York. So I read it anyway. And it’s good. In pieces. It’s just exhausting as a whole. I mean there’s a lot of waterfront. And Lopate knows a great deal and knows how to find other people who know even more. I liked the asides about history (including a tentative defense of Robert Moses) and public policy, but overall, the book was just too much. I think that if / when I return to the city, I will just re-read the relevant sections or even bring them with me.

This is a mammoth book of ideas. At times, it got too jargon-heavy, and I had trouble following it. Mostly, though, I found it inspiring. It’s nothing short of a call for a revolution, not just in schools but in society. McLaren, persuasively I think, argues that we cannot separate schools from society and that focusing only on schools is to address a symptom, not a cause. The main cause, McLaren asserts, is capitalism. McLaren seeks a transformation to socialism, one that may very well begin in the classroom.

McLaren bravely includes a journal he published as a young teacher, Cries from the Corridor, to demonstrate how he was once quite prone to the instincts of generally well-meaning teachers. Still, I wondered about the format here. It might have been nice to have his annotations on his younger self in the margins of this section.

I think it’s a book teachers should have on their shelves. As for the jargon-heavy parts, just treat them like Russian names in a novel, and, well, you won’t be far wrong.

a YouTube clip of McLaren

I read about this during a recent trip to Maine, and I wanted to learn more. I thought, perhaps, there might even be a story in it, but Anita Shreve beat me to it. Still, it was an interesting piece of local history. Two firefighters got together to defend their vocational (and, in one case, perhaps familial) ancestors from accusations that they’d mishandled the fire and allowed it to become something larger than it needed to be.

Initially, I thought their profession tainted their efforts, but Daicy and Whitney make for fine historians as well. By using primary sources and pointing out the consistency of the contemporary accounts, they point to the numerous factors, both natural and man-made that caused this conflagration.

I was inspired by not just the pride of the firemen (both then and now), but also of the city during its efforts to rebuild, as well as the support of neighboring cities, as far away as Boston, who helped the city battle the fire and then recover.

Do I give Raoul Peck – the director of the film and the one who put the script together – authorial credit? What about the editor?

I’ve seen the film and thought it was very powerful. I am going to see it again soon, so I thought I’d read this in order to be able to examine it with new eyes.

And I use the word ‘eyes’ deliberately. It was only when I was reading the script that I realized the extent of the motif of seeing and being seen, witnessing, reality vs. fantasy, etc.. Now this may be because Peck was making a movie, but I do think the motif is central to much of what I know about Baldwin. He saw things in ways that were new to many (and still are) and was therefore threatening. He saw it as his job to look, to see, to witness. This made it hard for him to stay in one place. There was, of course, France, but he is constantly talking about being “on the road,” but not being able to stay.

In the spirit of this motif and the fact that it’s a movie, Peck has selected several excerpts that deal with movies, with a particular focus on the roles of John Wayne and Sidney Poitier. Wayne, he says, never really had to grow up. Poitier, he seems to be suggesting, was guilty of a kind of appeasement (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, etc.).

Though there are a few introductory remarks (Peck, the film editor – Alexandra Strauss), but I was hoping for more. Peck refers to a much longer script. I would have liked to have seen more – to read his reasoning behind what he chose to keep and what he chose to cut. I’d also like to read a few pages of Remember This House (Baldwin’s notes for a novel on Evers, Malcolm X & King) for myself.

Ever since I tried (probably ineffectively) to teach about the post-WWI rise of dictators, I have wondered why I didn’t know more about Franco. My mild interest became moderate when I learned more about Frederico Garcia Lorca. So when I discovered that Adam Hochschild (King Leopold’s Ghost) had taken it on, I thought this would be my opportunity.

It really struck me how the non-Spanish volunteers and even Hitler and Stalin realized that this was a kind of a dress rehearsal for World War II, but that FDR didn’t or chose not to. Thuogh he apparently later called his arms embargo “a grave mistake,” that doesn’t really change the outcome of the war, nor how Americans who fought in it were treated upon their return. Would Franco’s defeat have had a ripple effect on what Germany and Russia were doing? Japan? Speculative history always troubles, and Hochschild doesn’t spend much time on it (thankfully), but when he does, he seems dubious that anything would have changed.

Hochschild also asks a good question about a woefully unreported part of the war. Spain was trying to re-make itself at the same time as it was trying to fight off Franco. But that effort, smacking of communism (sometimes, rightly so) was not covered by the (celebrity) press. Did one effort hurt the other? Hochschild makes it clear that none of the anti-Franco groups – Republicans, communists, anarchists, etc. – were innocent of dubious tactics.

Lurking throughout this book is the presence of Hemingway – author, macho man, journalist. He can never be reduced to a bit part. And herein lies my one main objection to the writing. I don’t think Hochschild ever found the center. There are so many narratives here – all worthy – that there’s not really much momentum in any of them. But it’s not a major complaint. I will get to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia one of these days. (He’s in the book, too!)

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!