Tuesday, November 24, 2015

It's Tuesday! And I'm Hungry!

OK, I’m late with this “It’s Monday!” post. I’m late with everything these days. The good news is that I’m off from work for the rest of the week, and I have this crazy idea that I might actually get some leisure reading done. Am I a turkey for believing in this possibility?

My reading week wasn't actually that bad, despite my busy-ness. My half-baked attempt at doing Nonfiction November brought me to some interesting books about race and education. So even though I didn’t play along with other bloggers, it was still a win for me. You can read my review of Beyond Measure by Vicki Abeles and also my combined discussion/review of The Prize by Dale Russakoff and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I can always count on Nonfiction November to fill my head up with ideas.

On Thursday, I will be turning my attention to filling up my belly.  With that in mind, I hope to lighten up my reading a bit.  I’m planning to tackle The Lake House by Kate Morton and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. Hopefully I can keep my eyes open long enough to get through at least one of them. Here are the descriptions from Goodreads:

The Lake House by Kate Morton

Living on her family’s idyllic lakeside estate in Cornwall, England, Alice Edevane is a bright, inquisitive, innocent, and precociously talented sixteen-year-old who loves to write stories. But the mysteries she pens are no match for the one her family is about to endure…

One midsummer’s eve, after a beautiful party drawing hundreds of guests to the estate has ended, the Edevanes discover that their youngest child, eleven-month-old Theo, has vanished without a trace. What follows is a tragedy that tears the family apart in ways they never imagined.

Decades later, Alice is living in London, having enjoyed a long successful career as an author. Theo’s case has never been solved, though Alice still harbors a suspicion as to the culprit. Miles away, Sadie Sparrow, a young detective in the London police force, is staying at her grandfather’s house in Cornwall. While out walking one day, she stumbles upon the old estate—now crumbling and covered with vines, clearly abandoned long ago. Her curiosity is sparked, setting off a series of events that will bring her and Alice together and reveal shocking truths about a past long gone...yet more present than ever.

Elsa is seven years old and different. Her grandmother is seventy-seven years old and crazy, standing-on-the-balcony-firing-paintball-guns-at-men-who-want-to-talk-about-Jesus-crazy. She is also Elsa's best, and only, friend. At night Elsa takes refuge in her grandmother's stories, in the Land of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas where everybody is different and nobody needs to be normal.

When Elsa's grandmother dies and leaves behind a series of letters apologizing to people she has wronged, Elsa's greatest adventure begins. Her grandmother's letters lead her to an apartment building full of drunks, monsters, attack dogs, and totally ordinary old crones, but also to the truth about fairytales and kingdoms and a grandmother like no other.

One final note before I start cooking those carbs – this Saturday is Small Business Saturday.  What an awesome opportunity to support your favorite independent bookstore! For those of you in Seattle, many bookstores will have authors on hand as volunteer booksellers. Here’s a list of participating authors and bookstores. And check out this site to find events around the country.

Have a great holiday, Bloggitos. I’m thankful for all of you!

(It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date)

P.S. If you're coming from The Leaning Stack of Books Facebook Page, the answer is "Fangs-giving." I know you clicked the link just to find out.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Thoughts on The Prize and Between the World and Me, Together

I read two (deeply depressing) nonfiction books this week, and they ended up working together in an interesting way.  I was excited to read The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools by Dale Russakoff, because it looked, on the surface, like the kind of book I’d assign in my classes. This journalistic account of the reform effort in Newark, NJ focuses in on the players and politics that were involved in Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million dollar gift to the Newark Public Schools and the changes that the gift inspired (hint about the outcome: the Newark schools still struggle).

Now that I’ve read the book, I won’t be assigning it in my classes – not because it’s not excellent (it is!), but because it is so profoundly dispiriting. Russakoff’s research reveals the flaws of a strategy that imposes outsiders’ ideas onto an unfamiliar context. It also reveals the flaws of a strategy that fails to meaningfully engage community members in considering the value (if there is any) of those ideas. 

The fact that corporate reform hasn’t been successful isn’t news, but Russakoff’s storytelling helps us understand why. Zuckerberg and his alliance of reformers truly believed that the linchpin of Newark’s problem was the teacher contract, and the bulk of his philanthropic project went to dismantling and rebuilding this element of the Newark school system. But Russakoff gets into the schools and walks alongside the “good teachers.”  She finds that the problems involved in teaching are much more complex than just evaluation and tenure. There are questions of how many teachers should be in a classroom. There are questions of social supports and psychological need and supplies and programs. The failure to direct money toward those issues crippled the reformers’ efforts to change the teaching landscape in the city.  

Russakoff also looks at the resistance of community members to reformers’ ideas. This resistance persisted even in the face of the schools’ repeated and ongoing failure to prepare kids for graduation. In some cases, the resistance existed for its own sake – ideas were rejected only because they came from an outsider.  Zuckerberg ultimately turned his attention to different projects – perhaps with greater wisdom, but away, decisively, from Newark.

With heavy heart, I picked up  Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, which just won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Coates begins this letter to his teenaged son by suggesting that there is no “hope” that can be pulled from his writing. His intent is not to give the reader hope; rather, it’s to expose the way that violence against African Americans is built into the very fabric of American values. He suggests that if your idea of justice involves working toward a more perfect set of democratic relationships between groups of people, you are ignoring the fact that the American foundational idea of democracy was built upon owning and exploiting African Americans’ bodies. It is impossible to work for justice through an ideal that incorporates that ownership and exploitation.

Truthfully, I need to read this book again. I think it will take me more than a single pass to fully absorb Coates’ ideas. But one thing that reading this book did for me was to give me a new way to look at The Prize. Russakoff is most interested in the political tangle in Newark. (Whose money? Whose turf? Whose ideas?) But what if we were to look at this school reform episode with Coates’ discussion of violence in mind? What if we were to insert the words “white and black” for “insiders and outsiders?”

The Newark school project aimed to “shake up” a failing system. The effects of that shake up – closing neighborhood schools, removing teachers, switching leaders – were all changes that were “done to” African American residents by external (and mostly white) hands. The reformers struggled to understand why community members would want to send their kids to schools that repeatedly failed them. Perhaps black community members experienced the “shake up” as just another act of violence against their children, another way to impose physical control. Would looking at school reform in Newark as an act of violence change what we can take away from the project?

It’s nearing the end of Nonfiction November, and one thing I’ve noticed about good nonfiction is that it opens me up to conversations I wouldn’t ordinarily have. Both of these books gave me the opportunity to think about my own assumptions about race and social change in new ways.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review of Beyond Measure by Vicki Abeles

I want to start off by saying that I love it when ordinary citizens take action around a topic they care deeply about. I felt that immediately when I saw Vicki Abeles’ film, Race to Nowhere, as part of a school screening/conversation in 2011. Abeles’ wants us to challenge – and change --  the “achievement culture” that pushes children to aggressively build resumes on their path to a narrowly defined version of success.

Abeles has followed up that initial film with a second one – Beyond Measure – which I haven’t yet seen. I did, however, read the companion book with the same name.  Abeles, who lives in the Bay area, describes the constant scheduling of young children, the endless hours of homework, and the pressure for kids build a deep and broad, multidimensional resume to get into the very best colleges. This pressure, she writes, takes away from family time, diminishes the capacity for exploration, and leads to a whole host of stress-related problems. And she points to a hysterical competitive culture as the culprit – a treadmill of fear-driven expectations that stems in equal measure from institutions and parents and peers.

As much as I love Abeles’ activism, one thing about her work consistently bugs me: She collapses the experiences of low income kids and the experiences of middle/upper class kids into one “epidemic.” But the bulk of what Abeles is interested in concerns the choices that affluent families make – signing kids up for multiple elite sports teams and activities so that they can get into good colleges (regardless of how far into the future college lies); sending them to schools that foster that achievement culture and that assign multiple hours of homework nightly; hiring tutors to follow up after school activities with SAT preparation, and anxiously worrying so much about their kids’ performance that the family’s entire life revolves around it. And for that behavior, Abeles has some clear advice: STOP IT. And really, if you live in this type of community and in a family that has the means to live in this type of community, STOPPING IT is well within your power. Tell your kid she can only play one sport after school. Tell him to go to the park and hang out. Tell her to go to bed even if there’s more homework to do, because he’s ten years old, and who cares whether he gets a B in homework? Move to a different town that values different things. Find a different school. Change it if you want to, because you can. (Oh yeah, and those standardized tests? Opt out. ).

The school related pressures that face low income kids can be different, however, and Abeles isn’t interested in exploring this nuance.  In many schools in struggling neighborhoods, the pressure to demonstrate growth on state standardized tests is extreme. Remember that the ultimate “sanction” we level against schools that don’t demonstrate adequate yearly progress on standardized measures after five years is closure. As a result, many such schools relentlessly test prep all year long, which can lead to soulless, uncreative, thin educational experiences. There are fewer resources and time for art, music, drama, and recess as everyone is geared toward a standardized outcome.
On top of that, many parents in these communities don’t have the resources available to them to move, to take their kids out of school, and to navigate bureaucracy. And the stresses that many of these communities face are more profound than helping Johnny manage all of his activities so he can get into Harvard.  Kids and schools have to navigate violence, health care, housing, lack of food. These problems are the social issues we should all rally around. These are the ones that really need a film and a cry of urgency.

So, on the one hand, I’m on board with the idea of creating a larger conversation about achievement culture, health, and sanity. But we also have to get real about what constitutes an epidemic and what kinds of problems demand our outcry.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Review of Two Books With Pink Covers

A few weeks ago, I was at the bookstore with a friend. We were looking at the vast array of new books, and I said, “I really need something easy and straightforward. I need a book with a beginning, middle, and end. I don’t want a twist. I don’t want any ghosts or dragons or unreliable narrators.”

When I’m in that kind of mood, I drift toward family dramas. But I have to be careful. I don’t really like family dramas that involve serious illnesses (e.g. the kind where the clan gets together for Thanksgiving and grandma reveals that she’s going to die shortly). I’m also not crazy about family dramas where the problem at the center is too mundane (e.g. the reason that the siblings don’t get along is that Susie always got the last piece of chicken at family dinners), or where the only problem is a misunderstanding (e.g. Sally thought that Mary excluded her from some big event, but Mary was really out planning Sally’s surprise party). And then, there’s the problem with the pink covers.

I have written before about my issues with women’s fiction. On the one hand, I gravitate toward women’s fiction like it’s a bowl of leftover Halloween candy in November. On the other hand, I tend to get so deeply annoyed when I think that the author is pandering to a gender stereotype (A bowl full of kisses and kittens!). And wait – there’s a third hand! I also get annoyed when female characters are ridiculously mean and underhanded just to serve some gendered idea of a “cat fight.”

You’d think – with so many concerns and red flags and possible complaints – that I’d steer clear of any book with a pink cover.  But these past couple of weeks, I read two books with pink covers, back to back. And I got my wish: no ghosts, no dragons, no unreliable narrators. But neither book completely satisfied me, either.

Love and Biology At the Center of the Universe by Jennie Shortridge has been on my shelf for almost a decade. Shortridge is a local (to me) author, and this book features a glimpse into a vanishing version of Seattle – a time when a person could afford to rent an apartment in a fun neighborhood while working as a barista.  The main character, Mira, flees her life in small town Oregon when her husband of several decades tells her that he’s unhappy. She lands in Seattle, rents an apartment above an adorable coffee shop, and begins a new life as a middle-aged woman on her own. She makes new friends, finds a couple of cute men to romance, and untangles her true self from others’ expectations. (Note to the protagonist: Answer your flip phone! Listen to your messages! Some misunderstandings might be cleared up!)

I’m not sure why this book languished on my shelf, but I’m actually glad I didn’t read it earlier. Perhaps I should have waited even longer. This is NOT a book that should be read by younger women. Certainly, one of the benefits of having older, vibrant female characters is that younger people get to see that women don’t disappear at age 30. However, in an effort to be funny, Shortridge brings too many (very) awkward elements of aging to the table. I kept thinking that Mira’s…er…private moments should be more private. Ack! I would definitely put a warning sticker on this one: PG-50.

Shortly after I finished the Shortridge book, Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave showed up for me at the library. This book received press this summer as a “Great Summer Read,” but true to my luck, I couldn’t get my hands on it until November. This is one of those books that seems like a screenplay-in-the-making, kind of like a family-centered, literary version of the film, Sideways. And lo and behold, it is being turned into a movie! In it, a young woman, Georgia, discovers that her fiancé has a Big Secret. And rather than deal with the dishonesty, she retreats to her family home in Sonoma. When she gets there, she discovers that her parents also have secrets! And her brothers have secrets! And no one is dealing with those secrets. Plus, her father has sold the family vineyard to a large corporation. What a mess!

And now I’m going to say something that will seem odd given my previous discussion. I don’t think that Georgia’s relationship problems and coming-to-adulthood should be the focus of the book. Instead, I’d like to see MORE attention given to the relationship and romance between her aging (like a fine wine) parents. The vineyard and all of its symbolism of commitment and loss should be THEIR story. But my hunch is that this book needed a young narrator with a gorgeous fiancé to be considered a Great Summer Read, and it will certainly need those elements to translate into a blockbuster movie.

I’m guessing that I will be writing this post again and again throughout my blogging career. I find my way to these pink books with eyes wide open. Then I get mad, storm off, vow to never return. But I do return, like a daughter in a dysfunctional family full of secrets, hoping the family will be different this time.

Monday, November 9, 2015

It's Monday! And I'm Making Nonfiction Plans!

This post is another addition to my new series, Chronicles of a Delinquent Blogger. I spent so much time working on my disguise for my Amazon Bookstore field trip last week that I didn’t get around to posting the reviews of the two books I read: Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe by Jennie Shortridge and Beyond Measure: Rescuing An Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation by Vicki Abeles. The good news is that I have a day off work this week (Hip Hip Hooray!), so hopefully I’ll get those posted soon.

I’ve had a couple of requests for the Big Reveal of the Blogoversary Book (i.e. My favorite book from October 2014 to October 2015). It was The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing by Mira Jacob! I will be doing a “Best of 2015” list in December, so the question will be whether any book can unseat that champion in the next couple of months.

I had grand intentions to participate this year in Nonfiction November. I already know that I will not be able to manage doing the special weekly posts involved in this event. However, I do have a stack of nonfiction that is sitting here waiting for me. I hope to get to all of these this month – or at least soon!

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This is the book that everyone’s talking about this year, and Coates won a MacArthur Genius Award following its publication.

From Goodreads: In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

This book could be an interesting pairing with the Coates book. It could provide entry into a conversation about authorship and race, given that it’s written by a white author and focuses on a white detective  -- and tackles the issue of crime in an African American neighborhood.

From Goodreads: On a warm spring evening in South Los Angeles, a young man was shot and killed on a sidewalk minutes away from his home, one of hundreds of young men slain in LA every year. His assailant ran down the street, jumped into an SUV, and vanished, hoping to join the vast majority of killers in American cities who are never arrested for their crimes. But as soon as the case was assigned to Detective John Skaggs, the odds shifted. Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential American murder--one young black man slaying another--and a determined crew of detectives whose creed was to pursue justice at all costs for its forgotten victims. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of murder in America--why it happens and how the plague of killings might yet be stopped.

I have a (eat, pray) love/hate relationship with Gilbert’s writing. However, I went to her talk about this book when she was in town, and it was pretty inspirational. (As a side note, I never knew how many middle aged women carrying pretty journals and wearing knee-high leather boots from Nordstrom could fit in a single auditorium!) I will definitely need to tackle this one when I’m in the right mood.

From Goodreads: Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books for years. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity. With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives. Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us. Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work,  embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion, Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy.


I love Lawson’s blog, The Bloggess, but I have to admit that I have rarely loved books that come from blogs.  I wasn’t that crazy about her first one, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. But still, I’m going to give this one a whirl, since her 2011 post, “And That’s Why You Should Learn To Pick Your Battles,” was one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

From Goodreads: In Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson baffled readers with stories about growing up the daughter of a taxidermist. In her new book, Furiously Happy, Jenny explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea. And terrible ideas are what Jenny does best.

Happy reading week, everyone! Please let me know if you're reading any good nonfiction these days.

(It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is sponsored by Book Date)

Thursday, November 5, 2015

My Field Trip To The New Amazon Bookstore

I will start this off with three important details:

1)   I am deep believer in the importance of a healthy independent bookstore community. I try very hard to put my money behind my beliefs.

2)   Many, many, many years ago, I worked for a big box bookstore. I was quickly promoted from peon to assistant manager. With my jump in status, I earned a whole extra dollar per hour than my minimum-wage earning peers.  I tended to spend this huge salary at the independent bookstore around the corner from my apartment.

3)   Every once in a while, I order a book from Amazon. I feel guilty about that. But Amazon does indeed make things quick and easy and cheap, and I always whisper sorry sorry sorry to the universe before enjoying my book.

So today, I – independent bookstore supporting, occasional Amazon customer, former big-box-bookseller – ventured to the new Amazon bookstore at my local mall. I did wear a disguise, just in case anyone planned to jump out from behind a shelf and holler, “Traitor!”

Many of you remember the drama when Amazon.com hit it big. Independent bookstores couldn’t compete with the discounted prices and dropped from the literary scene like flies. Many remaining physical bookstores were big box chains. But more recent news has pointed to a resurgence of independent bookstores and the decline of the corporate chains.  At my local mall, for example, a longstanding Barnes and Noble closed, making mall customers have to venture one mile in either direction to independent bookstores if they wanted to browse for books.

In this context, the purpose of the new Amazon store is a bit fuzzy. Is it to take the place of the big box chains that the company helped to diminish? Is it to compete, once again, with independents? Neither of these reasons seems to justify this new venture, especially in light of the fact that books seem to be a side component of the Amazon enterprise these days.

In any case, here are my impressions:

The Amazon store is a miniature version of a Barnes and Noble-type store, without the comfy chairs and coffee. The store reminds me of an airport bookstore – crisp, clean, efficient – as if it were a quick stop between meetings.

The selection is random and limited. Every title is placed face-out. There are bestsellers and an assortment of isolated titles, presumably chosen because they are top picks at the online site. Oh yeah, and the reviews you put on Amazon? Those sit underneath each book on the shelves. It turns out you really are handing over your words when you contribute to their online site. There’s a Goodreads shelf, too, just to remind you that Amazon owns that platform as well.

If you do need to sit, there is a row of benches by the window. Each bench has a charging station – presumably for your kindle or other Amazon device. While you’re resting, you could reach over and grab something to read from the Gardening section, which is just inches away. Who knew there was a book called The 20-30 Something Garden Guide? Does this age group garden differently? Maybe there’s a chapter on the convenient management of your hipster beard while digging in the dirt…? Just kidding. If you are a young reader/gardener/beard owner, I get the sense that this bookstore was created specifically for your busy life.

And if you don’t own a Kindle, well, guess what? You can buy one there. The center section of the store provides sample devices for you to try. I’m assuming that this is at least part of the real reason for the bookstore’s existence – to sell the technology that’s at the root of Amazon’s book business.

I did walk away empty handed today, but not because there weren’t interesting books there and not just because I like to spend money at independent stores. I walked away because I didn’t see anything unusual. Nothing grabbed me. Nothing stood out.  But, then again, I also got the sense that I’m not the customer they are trying to attract. And by the size of the crowd in the store, there are plenty of life-in-the-fast-lane readers who will continue to fill the (narrow) aisles with their hipster beards (and your beard is lovely, really).

An example of what you find when you Google "hipster reading"