The clothing is outrageous -- who the hell told 1974 it could wear that stuff? -- but the dialogue is snappy, the book clips along, and we get to meetThe clothing is outrageous -- who the hell told 1974 it could wear that stuff? -- but the dialogue is snappy, the book clips along, and we get to meet Susan Silverman for the first time. Great Boston-iana for the Hub-lovers out there, too....more
So much for the insidious stereotypes of philosophical writing as both interminable and impenetrably abstruse. Gotta love that this book is (a) very sSo much for the insidious stereotypes of philosophical writing as both interminable and impenetrably abstruse. Gotta love that this book is (a) very short and (b) very clear....more
My American Studies students focus a considerable amount of our time on the idea of the "myth of America" -- the stories the nation tells about itselfMy American Studies students focus a considerable amount of our time on the idea of the "myth of America" -- the stories the nation tells about itself, their rhetorical power, their literal validity, and where they fall short of literal validity. The Japanese-American internment chapter of 20th century history is a generative place to stop on a journey through mythification and de-mythification; Roosevelt's book has a lot to say about this idea. As he writes in his postscript, "The story of America is a story of trying to live up to our ideals, of falling short, and of trying again. Thinking about the past is one way we may hope to do better next time" (392).
I suspect that there would be dismay about this story, among certain members of the Texas Board of Education and in other retrogressive pockets of the country, say, who think that patriotism means telling the story of Good America instead of being truthful about the real America and the quest to "do better." Roosevelt clearly has a penchant for history and law, and seems sincere about his subject matter, its complexities, and the need to get things right. He writes clear, vibrant prose that moves the story briskly, but it is the research and his legal scholarship -- he is a professor of Constitutional Law at Penn Law School -- that really makes Allegiance work.
This is not a perfect book, but I would rejoice if it were to become widely read. Quibbles: the detective and romantic portions of the story clunk more often than not, although the writing is vibrant even there. The legal scenes sparkle, though. Insights into the Supreme Court, Justice, the War Department, the American aristocracy of Philadelphia and Washington, and especially the nation's unjust treatment of Japanese-Americans animate the story through many twists and revelations about mostly-complex characters. The War Department (what we would today call "State") comes off badly, in a way that research seems to bear out. The famous/infamous Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Endo rulings deserve to be much better known by Americans in the age of Trump-bombast against a putative fifth column of jihadists.
While protagonist Cash Harrison's turn as a detective doesn't ring true for me, the portrayals of most of the real people do. SCOTUS justices Hugo Black and Felix Frankfurter play major roles, as do Attorney General Francis Biddle, society luminaries like Cissy Patterson and Drew Pearson, more obscure figures like Masaaki Kuwabara and Edward Ennis and Karl Bendetsen and Judge Louis Goodman and J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson and many others. Sometimes I cringe to see authors mess with history, but Roosevelt meddles impressively (this is absolutely intended as a compliment), setting up even some of these very well-known names as shocking villains...before unraveling Cash's reasonable misapprehensions interestingly.
For those who want to believe that America is and was blameless in its domestic actions and strategies during what Studs Terkel called "The Good War", don't read this book, because you're going to end up with a bad case of cognitive dissonance. Better yet, do read it, please, because dogmatists and jingoists need to be jarred by history instead of merely nestling comfortably in mythology. True patriotism means that you can stand to know what America did and still believe in its values and potential....more
I am waist-deep in my own first kid applying to college. We have been on long drives and tours, we have worked on essays and talked about transcriptsI am waist-deep in my own first kid applying to college. We have been on long drives and tours, we have worked on essays and talked about transcripts and schedules and money, we have heard about uniqueness and passion and all the rest. I am happy that I did all that before starting Andrew Ferguson's book, because when I did start I already knew enough not to be paralyzed by fear of the dystopia he depicts.
But this is not a pan. It's a rave. Ferguson has his hyperbolic moments, but Crazy U is a thoughtful, informative, intelligent, funny book that is well worth reading. By this time next year I probably will have recommended it to a dozen of my friends.
His analysis of college advice is especially illuminating -- and cleverly funny. His cross-referencing reveals criminally cliched uses of words like "insider" and curiously inconsistent data (61); his sharp, ironic recounting of going to hear a high-end counselor treats her with respect while still pointing a big arrow at some of the most insane things said to and by college-applicants' parents. All of this gives us well-needed pause about the veracity and reliability of those who claim to be experts. Ferguson's Everyman is a real, excellent character.
Also excellent are his efficient history of the SAT and its politicized changes over the years (chapter 4), his look into U.S. News and World Report and its infamous/iconic rankings, a well-researched discussion of the black hole of college expense, and his chapter on writing the personal essay. (n.b., Ferguson's resume is full of journalistic positions at conservative news sources that are sometimes accused of bias against academia, but I did not think that his work here -- which is certainly very critical -- was unfair. Angry and frustrated, yes, but to be otherwise would seem Pollyanna-ish, given the state of the applying-and-going-to-and-paying-for-college super-industry, which I have long studied as a teacher and parent, and because it's just plain interesting.) I myself am a longtime college-essay tutor; Ferguson seems to have a pretty solid handle on the good advice and the insane stuff about that subset of the craziness. His venture into the black market of ghostwritten college essays is mesmerizing, and the product is, predictably, pathetic. His vitriol about the money issue is well-placed.
That is one of the many highlights of Ferguson's humor. He reminds me a little bit of P.J. O'Rourke at the latter's best, although O'Rourke is never as vulnerable and approachable as the parent of a firstborn college applicant is. So many writers who attempt to be funny fail miserably at it, thanks to smarminess and/or disproportionateness and/or excessive sarcasm and/or plain ol' obviously-trying-too-damn-hard. He captures his son's voice in that well-tuned humor, and often leaves himself as the butt of the joke -- appropriately (and safely) enough. And the humor isn't just a burst in chapter 1 that tails off as the inspiration fades; the scene of him trying to urge his son into setting up an interview (187-88) and the extensive documenting of illogic among experts (190-192) are pitched and paced perfectly. His skill as a professional writer shows: diction, efficiency, transition all unify the funny scenes -- and the rest of them, too.
In the final accounting, it is both the heart and the head that power this book. Even when delivering his boy to school, he keeps clear of the maudlin while showing the humanity of all...well, of all the characters here who have humanity, at least.
Read this book, but not too early, and don't be too scared, although some of it is scary. And if you do get freaked out, I can try to talk you down....more
Easy-to-read, well-organized, and teeming with interesting examples, Jacquet's book was more than worth my time. It is too bad that it was overshadoweEasy-to-read, well-organized, and teeming with interesting examples, Jacquet's book was more than worth my time. It is too bad that it was overshadowed by more-famous Jon Ronson's similar book published at the same time...but maybe it got more attention for being part of a movement. Who knows -- but I recommend this book heartily.
Jacquet, an NYU professor, starts her examination of the use of moral conscience with important definitions/distinctions that would satisfy a philosopher: shame ("exposing a transgressor to public disapproval" ) vs. guilt (more about the conscience and the "internal voice nagging its owner", so less group-focused; described by Jacquet as more suitable "for cultures that champion the individual" ), another distinction from embarrassment (described mainly through its external markers, which may sound like a cop-out but which struck me as thoroughly respectful of the slimness of the distinction, on 37-39), East vs. West, norming, etc. Her emphasis on clarifying her terms was very satisfying.
The anecdotes are essential. She starts the book with the story of the shaming of the tuna industry for the slaughter of dolphins and wrings useful stories out of a tremendous range of research (some of the best details, which include her Dan Ariely-like explication of various social science experiments) and historical events (Bhopal, Haiti, various tribes, Occupy Wall Street, Martin Luther King Jr., California tax dodgers, Alan Sokal, Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus, inflatable rats, Ted Haggard, Bruce Ismay, the list goes on and on). There are philosophers like Martha Nussbaum, politicians, religious figures, activists like "Jude Finisterra", literary figures like Hawthorne's Hester Prynne. The examination of various aspects of shaming incorporates lucid, fascinating data and words, such as Theodore Roosevelt's 1913 comment about the importance of unimpeachability for the prestigious person whose moral weight can be leveraged to move people: "No man can lead a public career really worth leading, no man can act with rugged independence in serious crises, nor strike at great abuses, nor afford to make powerful and unscrupulous foes, if he is himself vulnerable in his private character" (112). Such erudition -- illuminating topics far beyond "Shame" -- serves this book very well: it is always aggressively, concisely sparking thought and connection.
The book is more than simply entertaining or informative. It wants us to know how to get shaming to work and avoid ways that it undermines its best prospects. Jacquet gives (and repeats) a set of 7 "Habits of Highly Effective Shaming":
the transgression should... 1. concern the audience 2. deviate widely from desired behavior 3. not be expected to be formally punished the transgressor should... 4. be sensitive to the group doing the shaming and the shaming should... 5. come from a respected source 6. be directed where possible benefits are highest 7. be implemented conscientiously (100, 173)
Jacquet introduces enough exceptions to undermine this apparently comprehensive list somewhat, but the point is still made. "The more social the transgression," she writes in summing up, "the sweeter the shame, because the audience is inherently interested in the bad behavior. Ultimately, shaming might not be enough to solve the problem, but the greater fallacy, particularly for collective-action problems like climate change and overfishing, is the idea that we can individualize them." This is a clear-eyed, respectful, and ultimately practical book.
The 2012 prequel to the 2010 novel Savages is much better than its predecessor/post-quel. There's something off-putting about the writing, and the chaThe 2012 prequel to the 2010 novel Savages is much better than its predecessor/post-quel. There's something off-putting about the writing, and the character list teems with unlikeable smartasses -- not uncommon in the genre, I admit -- but Kings had bursts of humor and a deftly-woven plot that kept me interested as it jumped back and forth through time.
The central trio -- Chon (John, nicknamed as a child, mainly because it would make the character seem cooler and separate him from his father in the narrative), Ben, and Ophelia (or "O", because Winslow thinks he's very clever with the sexual humor) -- is a psychiatrist's playground. Chon is an almost unstoppable physical force in all ways, oh, and etymology is his hobby, so he's an incomparably useful device to explain all the wordplay so the reader doesn't miss it. Crime novels are full of author fantasies, but this one takes the cake. Then there's Ben, who is a neat foil to Chon, non-violent and softer (but they're both a-may-zing beach volleyball studs) and such a botany master that he is the world's all-time best champion king of growing the most powerful marijuana ever found anywhere. So they're basically gods. Between them, then, is the gorgeous young O, who loves them both, equally, and loves sex and is really smart and clever, too. Did I mention how pretty and sexy she is? Fantasy Trio: complete.
The best parts of the book, then, are those that stay away from these three...or, rather, the ones that run through the history to introduce the menagerie of nearly-Hiaasen-level oddballs who lead us through the years up to the genesis of the Fantasy Trio. There are gangsters and dealers and law-enforcement (or not) and none of them are clean. There are beauties and beasts, and violent ends come often.
The "cool" in the title may or may not be ironic. It has to be...but then again, the book wants the Fantasy Trio to be beloved, even heroic. Several elements left an unpleasant taste, but it was fun to power through: easy, smart writing, with just enough detail to follow the many twists. Winslow is a very talented plotter, for sure. The smugness is too much for me to be fully on-board, though, I'm afraid....more
What does it mean when the reader wants the protagonists to suffer and die? Don Winslow is an unconventional author, so maybe this is part of his desiWhat does it mean when the reader wants the protagonists to suffer and die? Don Winslow is an unconventional author, so maybe this is part of his design. But I'm not so sure. The short version: Chon, Ben, and O(phelia) wore out their welcome with me. Can't recommend this one.
On the advice of Paul, a Winslow veteran, I read the later-written prequel, Kings of Cool, first. By the time I got to this one, the patter and "baditude" and humor had played itself out pretty thoroughly. This I found odd: I usually don't have much difficulty suspending disbelief, as when I read a James Bond or a Jack Reacher. These characters grated, however, and the "cool" of the 2012 novel's title seemed full of author's pose here in the 2010.
Maybe it was the insistent playfulness in a plot that didn't fit it (something that neither a Bond nor a Reacher has, despite Ian Fleming's and Lee Child's smarts and senses of humor). Winslow tries soooo hard to be clever, and his characters are so Aaron Sorkin-esque, that the gravity of the plot -- the brutal attempt by Queen Elena's Baja Cartel to extirpate the challenge from pot-growing masters Ben and Chon, orchestrated through the kidnapping of their beloved friend and sex partner, O -- burbled in my stomach as uncomfortably as a ninety-cent burrito.
And then there's the David-vs.-Goliath element that is of course the life's-blood of a Jack Reacher novel. These geniuses are up against the cartel, keeping those bloodthirsty monsters spinning to keep O alive while not completely sacrificing their dignity. Turns out they are master thieves, too. I'll leave it at that here, but I was shaking my head at many convenient plot turns.
The novel was not without its joys. Chapter 62 (the chapters are very short and spiky, in a way that is mirrored in KoC to a better effect) runs an almost-poetic list of SoCal materialists' "saints", and many of the individual throwaway comments are clever enough to generate a grin. The early, oft-returned-to commentary about Savagery hit the target. Chapter 271 -- a departure from so much of the book -- goes solemn and profound in a way that could have been smarmy but was in fact smart enough almost to redeem the novel: that little sermon frames the would-be heroes as tragic heroes and, thus, as cautionary tales...but that framing comes off as false, as moral CYA for all the fun Winslow has been having. Despite Winslow's intelligence and writerly talents, Savages doesn't cohere.
I was thrilled when this book was over, and not in the good way....more
There's something impressionistic about this intentionally, masterfully disjointed graphic novel -- a deserving icon of the genre (published 1998). "IThere's something impressionistic about this intentionally, masterfully disjointed graphic novel -- a deserving icon of the genre (published 1998). "Impressionistic" isn't even quite the word, although Clowes does derive humor and force by suggesting and juxtaposing more than by articulating. Enid Coleslaw -- Cohen, before her father changed it -- and her friend Becky are lost in America: the overwhelmingly pathetic, black-white-and-blue, self-centered, cynical attitudes create a veneer for struggling humanity that is trying to look cool. Hipsters, beware.
I'm going to bail on "impressionistic" and return to "disjointed", because that style contributes directly to the sense of alienation that dominates. Weirdness abounds, is reveled in, is mocked...but there's something pulsating underneath. This unsettling story, matched perfectly with its artistic style, stuck with me....more
The most difficult genre to write, I have long believed, is humor. Perhaps it is inescapable that authors have a hard time maintaining just the rightThe most difficult genre to write, I have long believed, is humor. Perhaps it is inescapable that authors have a hard time maintaining just the right balance between coherent story and the jab of the surprising. Some books, like Catch-22, wield enough innovation and intelligence and energy to maintain their humor even through hundreds of literarily robust pages; others, like The Ask as a typical modern example, may rise in bursts to the level of funny but more frequently smacks of hip desperation or self-conscious glibness. Again: this is extremely difficult to do well, and admirable even when a book glistens momentarily, but frustrating when that book keeps drawing attention to its strained efforts.
Schreiber's Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick managed to be quite funny, as inspired first efforts sometimes can be, on the strength of its kinda-shocking situation that devolves into farce. Perry's family gets an odd, Eastern European foreign-exchange student, and she turns out to be a hired assassin. Yes, that worked, at times beautifully. We were Perry, surprised at each of the more and more inconceivable turns. The sequel (in what something tells me is going to be a series of sequels) to this YA dynamo is Perry's Killer Playlist, which very quickly gets into hip desperation and self-conscious glibness, sorely missing the novelty of the original and trying really, really hard to regain it.
Schreiber is a solid writer, and this book's action -- and violence -- drives the story along in a reasonably entertaining way. Deus ex machina plays a much bigger role here than it did in its more organically complete (albeit wacky) predecessor. This is YA that pushes the boundaries, with plenty of life-or-death, comic-book violence, a view of sex that is not juvenile (outside of the statements by juvenile characters whose juvenile view of sex is perfectly appropriate), and no pretense toward fairy tale. That all combines to an interesting and moderately entertaining book, if not a very good one. Or a funny one. Oh, well. I'll probably read the inevitable third book anyway....more
Kozol does and should discompose suburban liberals like me. This extraordinarily thorough and compelling book goes far beyond suggesting that there isKozol does and should discompose suburban liberals like me. This extraordinarily thorough and compelling book goes far beyond suggesting that there is a problem with America's schooling and priorities; it delves deeply into statistics, causes, and, most powerfully, reasons why we have allowed the problem to persist. Spoiler alert: Americans don't come off looking particularly ethical or sensitive in this analysis.
That's good. This journey through East St. Louis, Chicago, New York City, Camden, Washington DC, and San Antonio blasts a spotlight on schools and communities that complacent Americans wish were invisible...or that we use racist tropes to rationalize away. Kozol is mad -- it's hard not to be -- but his tone is almost entirely rational and calm. His book's strength flows from the statistics and details, even more than that the awareness of counterarguments, and most of all the interviews with children and educators.
The most difficult point for him to make -- the one that should unsettle us all the most -- is that the problem in underfunded, abandoned poor, minority districts is exacerbated by the lovingly proper funding in other districts (like the one where I live and teach). In other words, this is not simply a cheerleaderly "Let's raise up the disenfranchised!" but more of a "The disenfranchised are disenfranchised because the enfranchised are enfranchised." Everyone can get behind the cheerleader; Kozol is asking us all to accept responsibility. As you can imagine, this didn't go down easily then and doesn't now.
The Camden chapter notes, "the rigging of the game and the acceptance, which is nearly universal, of uneven playing fields reflect a dark unspoken sense that other people's children are of less inherent value than our own. Now and then, in private, affluent suburbanites concede that certain aspects of the game may be a trifle rigged to their advantage. 'Sure, it's a bit unjust,' they may concede, 'but that's reality and that's the way the game is played..." (177). The reader cringes, probably gets defensive; like some of the well-educated youngsters in Rye, NY, with whom Kozol engages in a vigorous discussion, the response is often something like What, do you want everyone to be mediocre?.
This is a story about racism and segregation. Those kids in Rye agree that equity a moral goal to be desired but believe -- as many suburbanites, liberal and conservative alike, would say -- equity probably wouldn't make much difference because poor children "would still lack the motivation" and "fail...because of other problems" (126). Kozol writes of the Rye teenagers:
The children are lucid and their language is well chosen and their arguments well made, but there is a sense that they are dealing with an issue that does not feel very vivid, and that nothing that we say about it to each other really matters since it's "just a theoretical discussion." To a certain degree, the skillfulness and cleverness that they display seem to derive precisely from this sense of unreality. Questions of unfairness feel more like a geometric problem than a matter of humanity or conscience. A few of the students do break through the note of unreality, but, when they do, they cease to be so agile in their use of words and speak more awkwardly. Ethical challenges seem to threaten their effectiveness. There is the sense that they were skating over ice and that the issues we addressed were safely frozen underneath. When they stop to look beneath the ice they start to stumble. The verbal competence they have acquired here may have been gained by building walls around some regions of the heart. (126-7)
And later on that page:
"I don't think that busing students from their ghetto to a different school would do much good," one student says. "You can take them out of the environment, but you can't take the environment out of them. If someone grows up in the South Bronx, he's not going to be prone to learn....Busing didn't work when it was tried," he says. I ask him how he knows this and he says he saw a television documentary movie about Boston." (127)
"Keep them where they are but make it equal," as another Rye student says (127), wraps up the scene. It's classic Kozol: analytical, probing, insightful, unsatisfied with cliches and platitudes, empathetic of all but unwilling to let any off the hook. If the reader is not at least somewhat unsettled here, the reader lacks a heart.
Indeed, Kozol's other great strength is the compassion with which he writes about those who suffer in these degraded environments: living in what is effectively a chemical dumping ground in East St. Louis, going to schools with holes in walls and ceilings and tattered books that have to be shared, dealing with teachers who have given up, attending class in tiny and unpleasant rooms. After descriptions of overcrowding throughout the Camden chapter, as they are in every chapter, he unwinds this passage that epitomize his more editorial moments:
The crowding of children into insufficient, often squalid spaces seems an inexplicable anomaly in the United States. Images of spaciousness and majesty, of endless plains and soaring mountains, fill our folklore and our music and the anthems that our children sing. "This land is your land," they are told; and, in one of the patriotic songs that children truly love because it summons up so well the goodness and the optimism of the nation at its best, they sing of "good" and "brotherhood" "from sea to shining sea." It is a betrayal of the best things that we value when poor children are obliged to sing these songs in storerooms and coat closets. (159-60)
Whew. The myth of America takes a beating in this book. It's hard to see how that is undeserved.
It may be due to the changes in standardized testing over the twenty-four years since this was published that Kozol's obloquy against that particular hazard seemed less convincing to me than any of his other points. He is, however, on point in suggesting that the teaching to which these inner-city kids are subjected is the least imaginative to be found, largely because of the desperate need to stay with nostrils above the crashing waves. Maslow's hierarchy would tell us that.
The core of this essential book is Kozol's thesis that education is a fundamental right, and that the nation has abrogated its responsibility toward the members of these communities with regard to that right. "How much does a person have the right to ask?" (195). More than they are getting.
The contest between liberty and equity in education has, in the past 30 years, translated into the competing claims of local control, on the one hand, and state (or federal) intervention on the other. Liberty, school conservatives have argued, is diminished when the local powers of school districts have been sacrificed to centralized control. The opposition to desegregation in the South, for instance, was portrayed as local (states') rights as a sacred principle infringed upon by federal court decisions. The opposition to the drive for equal funding in a given state is now portrayed as local (district) rights in opposition to the powers of the state. While local control may be defended and supported on a number of important grounds, it is unmistakable that it has been historically advanced to counter equity demands; this is no less the case today. (210)
Today as well. Woe to us if we don't heed Jonathan Kozol. ...more
In calm, levelheaded prose, Coyne refutes the "accommodationist" position that science and faith belong to "two non-overlapping magisteria" -- a theor
In calm, levelheaded prose, Coyne refutes the "accommodationist" position that science and faith belong to "two non-overlapping magisteria" -- a theory coined by his late colleague Stephen Jay Gould that espouses that science concerns itself with establishing facts about the physical universe, while religion is interested in spiritual matters, and the two therefore cannot be in conflict. Reconciling the two is impossible, he writes, because religion’s "combination of certainty, morality, and universal punishment is toxic," while science, in contrast, acknowledges the fact that it might err, arriving at truths that are "provisional and evidence-based," but at least testable. Unlike religion, science self-corrects, points out its errors, and tries again.
Jeffrey Tayler's review of biologist Jerry Coyne's new book Faith Versus Fact includes the preceding paragraph, which is one of dozens of things I have read recently which refer to humans' need for certainty. Jesse Goolsby's new novel about soldiers and veterans -- and the people around them -- has nothing to do with science but it does tackle uncertainty in a way that challenges our desperation to know things. Coyne's description of religion's "combination" of factors, applied to Goolsby's pulsing book, tells me this: the novel not only doesn't "have religion" but also that it makes a profound, even desperate effort to eradicate from us the typical reader's (and typical human's) quest for certainty.
Of course, the quest for certainty plays a huge role in the relationship between society and war. Like other impressive recent war novels I have read recently, I'd Walk burrows down not into the heroism but the humanity of soldiers. There is neither love for nor illusion about nor, in this novel, even attention to the role of the nation. Shit just is, and if one tries to find purpose, arc, morals, or facts, one will be sorely disappointed. The true believers -- like Torres's brutal father -- come off as even worse than the losers do. I recall the old line about there being no atheists in foxholes; this novel strikes me as painting over that with something like surviving a foxhole will make you an atheist or at least reading about foxholes will make you disbelieve just about anything about purpose in the universe.
In one resonant passage, Big Dax, Armando Torres, Wintric Ellis, and an unnamed lieutenant are suffering in Afghanistan, when the LT complains that he and the other soldiers are going to pay with their health for breathing smoke from the pits that are supposedly being used to burn soldiers' waste. When asked what other than waste is being smoked up at them from the pit, the LT says,
"Everything and nothing. Listen, guys are already complaining, but we're in a war. Put it this way, no one's bitching back home if it's a bomb or our burning shit that takes someone out. Don't take that the wrong way. But just wait, when we're all sixty the government will admit that we poisoned ourselves, give the living ones a couple grand, maybe some VA bennies. That's it. Thanks for volunteering."
"So you're saying we're burning more than our shit?" Wintric says.
"Will do more damage than these Taliban jerk-offs."
"No offense, LT," Wintric says. "I hear you, but it could be a flu."
"Damn, Ellis. You're making sense to me. You're an optimist. They need you at West Point. Stay with it, man. Stay with it." (103)
Conspiracy theory, of course, not to mention a violation of Occam's Razor. But in the wake of Agent Orange, not to mention the toxic haze from the smoking pile of the World Trade Center after 9/11, this madness has a bit of method to it. As for Goolsby's design, we find out nothing further about this, nor about much else that the novel opens questions about.
Even Torres's crazy father, who epitomizes the paranoid who may once in a while be right about being followed, makes sense about the corruption of the myth of the military hero (120-121). "People are capable of appreciation," Armando insists, but this novel clubs us with doubt.
Goolsby himself wrote in Salon (July 4, 2015), in a commentary about how war surprised him by being so much less clear than he had once thought, "And what do you expect from me now after years of reflection? That I’ve learned something other than to question everything? ... Somewhere inside me lives a person that can be convinced, easily, to strike first. How do I talk him down? What would that sound like?"
Justice is elusive. The most intense of these recent works of fiction that deconstruct the war myths -- Matterhorn, The Yellow Birds, Redeployment, drinking from the same spring as the two-decades-old classic The Things They Carried -- are fictions by veterans. These are not simply hippie peaceniks but bearers of deep credibility, not to mention likely scars of their own. The presence of PTSD, in particular, looms large in Things characters like Norman Bowker, several stories from Redeployment, The Yellow Birds, and especially here. Certain things were supposed to happen, and not only do we not see them happen, we don't even know that they won't...or didn't.
Therein lies my problem with this novel, which I found touching, well-written, and vibrant, not to mention smart. My postmodernism-loving self is quite comfortable with uncertainty, but even that can be overdone. Too many things were not merely unclear here; I was unable to see whether they were supposed to be unclear or whether they were simply left hanging. This reminds me of a critique of the most modern of modern art: am I seeing anything at all? I am thinking in particular not of the central driving mystery -- who shot the suicide bomber who jogged at their position in a stunningly dramatic and well-written scene? -- but of several other scenes. One: what happened in a later death scene that seemed too obliquely rendered? Loose ends I can handle. There seemed to be a superfluity of them, where the looseness was the point.
It's hard to criticize postmodern art for being oblique, which is frustrating...and kinda the point. Things can be said -- Tim O'Brien did it in TTTC -- even in a postmodern venue, though. When it comes down to it, this novel satisfied resoundingly in its undermining and it's impressionism and its scarification, even if it fell somewhat short in its overall execution....more
This is a sort of Best-Of, in which Kozol takes a victory lap on an extraordinary career of shining a light on those darkened places in American schooThis is a sort of Best-Of, in which Kozol takes a victory lap on an extraordinary career of shining a light on those darkened places in American schools and communities which the majority of the nation would prefer not to see. In it, Kozol communicates by letter with "Francesca", a first-year teacher in inner-city Boston -- as he once was himself, back in the 1960s -- to reflect on hot topics in education as reflections on conversations they have had. Francesca sounds like a stellar teacher; one hopes that she stuck it out in the classroom, because her students really need people like her.
As always, Kozol -- whom I had the distinct pleasure to meet recently, when he gave the keynote speech for the 2015 Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization biannual conference in Seattle (a speech that drew heavily from this book) -- has great and touching sympathy for the children. His ventures into the classroom, which are the focus of many of his ruminations, never cease to reveal intelligence and sensitivity among the kids that our society's cruelly simplistic stereotypes overlook. Before you criticize or praise today's education or today's youth, it is worth reading and musing over what he has seen. He is a great Reminder.
One thing that occurred to me, though, is that his commentary on standardized testing, which was much less A Thing when Kozol was in the middle of his career (he is now 78...although he mentioned that both of his parents lived to 102, so maybe he has 20+ years to go! I'd be happy if that were so!), told me less than the rest of his writing and thinking did. Maybe it's just because I have heard it so often, from his friends like Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling-Hammond, or that I have seen so much of it myself. I don't read Kozol to hear him weigh in on the standardized testing/"school reform" movement; I don't need to. I read him to see underserved schools that don't get full depictions in popular culture, to tell stories of resilience or even the occasional school visit with Fred Rogers, to hear him speaking truth to power and making comparisons between the worst of the '60s and the residual problems of now.
Having read only Amazing Grace in full, I am using Letters as a jumping-off point to dig back through Kozol's sharp and sharp-toothed oeuvre. Tomorrow I pick up Savage Inequalities, which pre-dates Letters by 16 years and which I had read only half of when I was in grad school. I am sure I will not be disappointed....more
Lehane's easy gait, which I found cramped somewhat in Live By Night (Coughlin #2) after a superlative The Given Day (Coughlin #1), is back in the thirLehane's easy gait, which I found cramped somewhat in Live By Night (Coughlin #2) after a superlative The Given Day (Coughlin #1), is back in the third of the Coughlin trilogy. I did find it odd and disappointing that the broader family -- so expertly handled in #1 and interesting if peripheral in #2 -- has disappeared entirely in this book. Something in this series makes me think of the mediocre and pedantic but still eminently watchable TV series Blue Bloods; in both, the interplay of a variety of characters within a family was most compelling.
But here, Coughlin has been reduced to Joe, along with his son Tomas, after the death of his wife Graciela, the previous death of his father (in #2), and his estrangement from the rest of the family. Alienation is part of the story: he's an Irish-American frozen out of the Italian-American mob hierarchy in WW2-era Tampa but still central to the functioning of the multi-ethnic baddie consortium known as The Commission. The danger of the business of Tomas's remaining parent, which leaves the boy hovering on the edge of orphanhood, drives character and plot. World War 2 hovers over the text, making some brief appearances, but not in as robust a way as #1's history did, which is unfortunate. It almost seems that Lehane is intoxicated with Joe and can't see past him.
None of this -- as I noted when I read #2 -- makes the book less of a page-turner, only less of an literary achievement. Whatever: we read it for what it is, not what I wish it were. Gangsters like Dion and Rico resurface, along with Rico's sketchier brother Freddy and, in oversized cameos, the savage from-somewhere-in-Europe mobster King Lucius and the African-American boss of "Brown Town" Montooth Dix. Lehane does a very smooth job keeping the criminals' schemes and sub-schemes flowing. There's a somewhat antagonistic relationship with a very alluring woman, the mysterious murderess Theresa Del Fresco, and lots of soul-searching. And, of course, a lot of blood and guts. This is crime fiction, not philosophy, after all....more
I admit, I'm not quite sure why I didn't like this book more. I picked it up with the highest of hopes, having loved Eleanor and Park, the author's eaI admit, I'm not quite sure why I didn't like this book more. I picked it up with the highest of hopes, having loved Eleanor and Park, the author's earlier effort that generally falls under the rubric of YA. This one isn't YA...and maybe Rowell should have stayed there.
The pages turn easily in this book, which is something but not everything for me. As so often happens when intelligent, talky authors try to clever their way into Aaron Sorkin-ville (a place where not even Sorkin hits every note), the book ended up much less funny than it was earnestly, diligently trying to be. This is a bit of a problem when two of the central characters write TV comedies and a third was a cartoonist. It occurs to me, flittingly, that this may be a critique of the dim state of TV comedy...but no, that is not what's happening. It's just not funny.
Pleasant enough, predictable enough, with characters who are reasonably drawn if not especially distinctive, this was a moderately successful work from an author from whom I expected more. Not worth a recommendation, to be honest, but not a waste of time....more
The title vibrates in the air like a plucked string. Where do men win glory? At different points in this compelling, essential book, we see it on theThe title vibrates in the air like a plucked string. Where do men win glory? At different points in this compelling, essential book, we see it on the athletic fields, in defending oneself or one's friends, in Ranger training, and on the battlefield -- even, because Krakauer is serious and not a jingoist, fighting for the Afghan military or the Haqqani network or al-Qaeda, according to the codes of the Afghan and other Middle Eastern cultures. The answer, it seems, is most crucially that "It's complicated." Propagandists, terrorists, and other reductionists on both sides of the so-called Global War on Terror want to make glory a simple thing, but the reality is far from simple.
The ever-literate Jon Krakauer has pulled the title quotation from Book 6 of The Iliad, at the opening of a one-on-one combat between enemies who don't know each other. Diomedes says the epigrammatic lines, but qualifies his own bravado (Robert Fagles's translation for the "great heart" that Krakauer's source uses) by saying that he doesn't want to get involved in a doomed fight against the immortals. Glaucus's tale makes Diomedes realize that their families are linked, and the two shake hands and walk away, to fight another day. If only Pat Tillman's Ranger squad and the other half of his squad had been able to tell their stories instead of blasting away in the fog of war, they would have realized that they were on the same team, and the U.S. Army's most infamous fratricide would have been avoided.
Although Into the Wild may be the more artfully constructed book, Krakauer's skill is again prominently displayed here in his urgent, infuriated telling of the Pat Tillman story -- one that may be the most important story of the 21st century so far. This book mixes the personal with the world-historical, the profound with the profane, the journalistic with the op-ed, the inspiringly patriotic with the sickeningly self-serving. America's ideals are raised and examined by the story of Pat Tillman; in Krakauer's hands, all Americans reassess their nation and its principles and mechanisms, and (I would hope) become better citizens for it.
That is not to say that any reader can walk away from this without a strong distaste rising into cynicism, at least to some extent, unless that reader is unwilling to acknowledge the limits of and distortions of the myth of America. Tillman himself was a man whose deep-rooted, admirable principles insulated him from doubt, which Krakauer reports through his journals. Sometimes "the doubt is a small voice and I can control it" and sometimes it spills over in understandable bouts of "despising" (171). I was inspired to see how Tillman evolved into someone who not only considered and reconsidered uniformity vs. nonconformity but also read and quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" in doing so (196-7). Tillman's idealism resonates even as he understands that the military is no place for it; Krakauer does an excellent job showing how the nonconformist former NFL star is able to fulfill his commitment to the armed forces, wherein uniformity is the code that ends up multiplying the Tillman family's woes, in the egregious coverup.
Krakauer himself is clearly incensed by the way governmental and military leaders abuse the American myth to serve their own purposes. By the end of the book, I was angrier at the injustice than I have been by anything else I have read recently, which tells me that Krakauer did a good job of transmitting the information we readers need to judge. I am curious enough that I'm going to research further. I am sure that there are defenders of Krakauer's villains (McChrystal, Rumsfeld, Wilkinson, the military culture, and especially the bureaucracy that drove an officer -- desperate to hit an arbitrary benchmark that fed into what we now recognize as a tragically stupid benchmark -- to split Tillman's squad and make his death massively more likely) whose perception of the events before and after Tillman's death are also worth reading. But perhaps the author's greatest success involves his description of the Charlie Foxtrot in An Nasiriyah and the Jessica Lynch story, which sets up the Afghanistan climax and is no less tragic.
A relatively small but tellingly unpleasant aspect of Tillman's story that I had never heard reported anywhere is about his atheism. This detail doesn't fit the American narrative for many, which is sad enough. Worse by far, as Krakauer's reporting reveals, the Army, and specifically an officer named Kauzlarich, contravened Tillman's directive and insisted that a chaplain be involved in the repatriation ceremony for the Tillman's remains. Tillman, according to his journal,
aspired to "a general goodness free of religious pretensions.... I've never feared death per se, or really given a shit what happens 'after.' I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. My concerns have to do with the 'now' and becoming the man I envision.... I think I understand that religious faith which makes the holy brave and strong; my strength is just somewhere else--it's in myself.... I do not fear what may await me, though I'm equally confident that nothing awaits." (368)
Kauzlarich blamed the Tillman family's dissatisfaction not on having been deluded but on their "hard time letting...go" due to their atheism. "So when you die," he said during a TV interview,
I mean there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die what is there to go to? Nothing. You're worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more--that is pretty hard to get your head around that. You know? So I don't know, I don't know how an atheist thinks." (369)
Kauzlarich's "reasoning" bespeaks mind-bogglingly narrow-minded self-righteousness. It would please me if the term "true believer", which has so many junctures with this story, had less of a negative connotation. Just one of the infuriating elements Krakauer recounds, and one of the ones that makes the Army look worst in their self-congratulatory use of this man without regard for him as an individual.
Although this book did not destroy my faith in American ideals, it reinforced a skepticism about our institutions that propaganda works hard to undermine. The Tillman story, as Krakauer tells it, is a must-read for us citizens. The American experiment that gave rise to a Pat Tillman -- more than one of him, of course, over time -- deserves the transparency and reevaluation that excellent investigative reporting provides.
I was reading this book during a week when I was also reading Hilary Mantel's excellent Wolf Hall, which tells of the tortured politics during the realm of Henry VIII, including the rise of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell and the fall of Thomas More. The monarch was unable to see the downside of l'etat, c'est moi, and many suffered for his hubris, including, most famously, More. The theme of how a state can devour its people to serve what its leaders see as justified ends resonated across the two texts. The 21st century Bush Administration and military have more than a little in common with the 16th century Tudors and court. That Pat Tillman turned into cannon fodder should but probably won't make us wary of the machinations of our so-called leaders....more
Atul Gawande, one of the imcomparable duo of New Yorker writers who focus on medicine (the other being Jerome Groopman), continues to impress. His reaAtul Gawande, one of the imcomparable duo of New Yorker writers who focus on medicine (the other being Jerome Groopman), continues to impress. His readable style, excellent access (surgeon at Brigham & Women's, faculty at Harvard Med and Harvard School of Public Health, etc.), journalistic persistence, and overall clarity combine into a compelling package on yet another important book addressing the modern American condition.
I first caught wind of the author's project in a New Yorker article about nursing homes, which seems to have been converted into Chapter 5 of this book. That remains the most wonderful chapter -- nothing about aging-and-dying is going to be particularly wonderful, but the vividness of the story of Dr. Bill Thomas and his innovations in the nursing home excels everything else in here. If you don't find the book compelling, and plan to put it down, at least read Chapter 5 before you do so.
But I suspect that you'll stick around. The stories animate the aging and/or ailing of many respectfully and thoroughly depicted real people: Alice Hobson, Felix and Bella Silverstone, Lou Sanders, Sara Monopoli, Jewel Douglass, and many more, notably Gawande's own grandfather and father. The plainness of Gawande's approach defeats any artfulness that may disguise his earnestness and especially the focus on the momentous medical and social issues involved here.
Humility, honesty, professionalism, sympathy, literateness, interdisciplinariness, and raw knowledge resonate throughout this book. It does slow down at a few junctures, but that is mainly attributable to the fact that end-of-life arcs don't trace entirely predictable paths. Our lack of certainty about what will happen next is part of the problem. In this light, Gawande's analysis of the different doctor approaches described by medical ethicists Ezekiel and Linda Emanuel -- paternalistic, informative, and interpretive -- was especially insightful. The author appreciates nuance, and tries hard to fight through complexity while not sacrificing integrity in the search for some simple definition where nothing is quite that simple.
There's no such thing as a spoiler for a book like this, so I don't fear that quoting from the epilogue will damage anyone else's experience: "We've been wrong about what our job is in medicine," writes Gawande. "We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding" (259). That gets right to it. His path there fills in the gaps admirably, humanely, informatively, affectingly.
My mom bore the overwhelming brunt of caring for my dad in the years of decline that led up to his death, but my part in it made end-of-life issues starkly prominent for me. I doubt from here on in that I'll ever lose interest in this topic, which interested me so little as a 22-year-old or a 30-year-old or even a 38-year-old. I expect I'll be coming back to Atul Gawande; it's one of the things I'm looking forward to....more
After several years of teaching this book, it wound its way out of my affections as few books before or since have done. At its best -- as in many earAfter several years of teaching this book, it wound its way out of my affections as few books before or since have done. At its best -- as in many early chapters, especially the one about her grade-school graduation and the Joe Louis fight -- this is as marvelous as anything I have read. The prose for which she is renowned grew cloying, though, and many of the later chapters failed to retain my attention. It's hard to say this about a life so fraught with deprivation and victimization, but there's a self-indulgence in Angelou's writing that makes it fail to bear up after repeated readings, the way a great book should.
All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, which I re-read recently, remains my favorite of her books, although several of her poems still speak as sharply as they ever did ("On the Pulse of Morning", despite its evocative title, is not one of them). I remember Angelou fondly for her descriptions of the store in Stamps, AR and for Bertha Flowers and the impact of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" on a childhood tainted by discrimination, much more than for her flood of confessions....more
Groopman, half of The New Yorker's dynamic duo of medical writers (with Atul Gawande), has written a thoughtful book that strives to be more cohesiveGroopman, half of The New Yorker's dynamic duo of medical writers (with Atul Gawande), has written a thoughtful book that strives to be more cohesive than it ends up being. The ideas of the various chapters blur together somewhat more than they should...but the subject matter remains so interesting and the stories themselves so clearly rendered that it ends up just fine and duly worth my time, which is only a disappointment because I expected something superlative.
There is plenty of meaty stuff here: the performance/arousal graph that illustrates "productive anxiety" (36-37), the availability heuristic (64), "anchoring" and the confirmation bias (65), Pat Croskerry's concept of "zebra retreat" (127), "disregard of uncertainty" (152) -- this is always one of my favorites, the "pervasive and fateful human need to remain in control of one's internal and external worlds by seemingly understanding them, even at the expense of falsifying the data" (153), which of course extends way beyond the world of medical diagnosis and treatment. Back to the list: "vertical-line thinking" (170), "the proliferation of boilerplate schemes" (238), the willingness of the patient/family to ask "what else could it be?" to defray the overapplication of Ockham's razor (263). He tries to reveal these gradually and ruminate on each. Like Gawande often does, Groopman proposes (or carries forward others') possible solutions, instead of simply posing problems.
The uncertainty (ch. 6), "Eye of the Beholder" (ch. 8), and marketing (ch. 9) chapters struck me as the most tightly organized. I appreciated the unity -- which is often defied by the very messiness of Groopman's chosen field and subject -- for which he reaches, and wish that more of the investigative ventures seemed to follow through all the way. Points made that doctors are human, may have a hubris problem, may be incentivized by unfortunate pressures, react to personal relationship, etc. It is unfair to compare him with Gawande, but the latter's last book included a chapter excerpted in their shared magazine that was a dramatic and sharp piece that sold Being Mortal for me; there was nothing quite like that here.
Again, my bar is high. I enjoyed this book, and will keep reading Dr. Groopman, a physician who is admirably healing himself and thousands of his comrades in arms....more