When Mark Zuckerberg’s hundred million dollar gift to the Newark schools was announced, I was thrilled. I love philanthrocapitalism and social entreprWhen Mark Zuckerberg’s hundred million dollar gift to the Newark schools was announced, I was thrilled. I love philanthrocapitalism and social entrepreneurship. I was looking forward to follow up coverage of the schools’ progress. With a hundred million dollars, how could they fail? But apparently, money alone isn’t enough. Newark’s problems were too entrenched, the public was too distrustful of the people administering the money, and ideological and personality differences got in the way. To cut to the conclusion, the main problem was poor communication between the donors, the receivers, and the many people in between them. Had there been more direct communication with the community about what their most pressing needs were, perhaps the money would have been applied more effectively. The author gives everyone involved credit for the best of intentions, but the best of intentions don’t always lead to the best results.
For me, the book was a cautionary tale. My own school district, East Ramapo, has been in the news in recent years for problems of its own. Though we are much smaller than Newark, all the problems of poverty are the same, plus there’s the complication that a sizable portion of our population are religious Jews who opt out of the public school system. In Newark, the African American community had been burnt by reform efforts before Zuckerberg’s, so it was suspicious of outsiders coming in. One of the quotes the author cites two separate times is that in Newark, people get conspiracy theories with their mothers’ milk. The conspiracy theory here is that the Jews are in charge of everything and are stealing from the public schools and giving to the yeshivos. The Jews are in charge of the school board, so some of the charges may be true. With all that distrust, it will be hard and perhaps impossible for me, a wig-wearing Orthodox Jewish woman, to talk about peace here and be believed, much less accepted. Cami Anderson, the hand-picked superintendent of the Newark schools after the gift, ended up forced to resign. And she was strong, sympathetic, and immensely qualified. She still failed to win over the people’s trust.
Zuckerberg’s gift was applied both to the public schools’ teachers’ salaries and to fund several charter schools. The book makes a fair case of the pros and cons of both systems. At the charter schools, the teachers had more freedom to do things outside of class to support their students’ education, even going so far as to carpool the kids. Non-teaching activities are forbidden by public school teachers’ contracts. Now, I can understand why the teachers’ union negotiated for that, but in driving the kids to school, the charter school teachers improved their students’ attendance and therefore, their educational outcomes. I also can’t blame any parent or teacher for preferring the charter schools. They’re more innovative. But they are effectively starving the public school system. I don’t know which way is right.
Ultimately, the most compelling sections of the book were about the students and teachers themselves, stories of underserved kids who made great strides because of the teachers who worked with them. Such kids and teachers came from both types of schools – the public and the charters. Every one of them did remarkable, inspiring work. But there was so much else against them, the kids ultimately backslid in their teen years. The tragedy of Alif Beyah is far more profound than the failure of Cami Anderson. May G-d help him to bounce back.
The teachers who made the biggest difference were the ones who addressed the individual needs of each child. The book emphasizes the “bottom up” approach to change, as opposed to “top down.” Addressing the needs of the individual child really is getting to the bottom of the issue. Ideally, all education should be tailor-made to the individual, though of course, socialization in a group must also be part of it. But that kind of education would require many more teachers, and therefore, much more money. Does the political will exist for that? Somehow, I doubt it.
Even still, there’s reason to hope. I heard the author on an interview, and she said that gains were made in all this. Now Newark is correcting the mistakes it made. Progress is never a straight line upward. May G-d help all of us to solve the education problem. ...more
I do have some partiality to Australia anyway, even though I’ve never been there. When I was a kid, I had a pen pal from Sydney named Linda. She had dark brown hair and big blue eyes. “I have never seen snow,” she told me in her first letter. My fondest memory connected with her happened at my eighth birthday party. Right when I was opening my presents, the mailman rang the doorbell with a package for me. It was a gift from Linda: a furry stuffed koala bear. It couldn’t have arrived at a better moment; it was like Linda was at my birthday party. It wasn’t a cloth doll either. It felt like real fur. Sorry, vegan friends, but I cherished that thing for years.
The book was very much in the style of A Walk in the Woods in that it alternated between Bryson’s travels, history, and science. Unlike A Walk in the Woods, Bryson had no steady travel companion in this book to get into scrapes with, so the laughs weren’t as frequent, but what was lacking in quantity was made up for in quality. In other words, the book didn’t make me laugh as often, but when it did, I laughed harder.
Most of the jokes involved Bryson imagining a painful death in an encounter with one of Australia’s many deadly animals and plants. It’s not just cuddly koalas living down under! Most of the science was about that, but me being me, I preferred the history. He devoted a full chapter to the genocide of the Aborigines, which Australians themselves tend to cover up. He also discussed Australia’s open immigration policy after World War II. Most of the immigrants then and now are Asians, but I happen to know, even though Bryson didn’t mention it, that Australia accepted a greater percentage of Holocaust survivors, in proportion to its overall population size, than the United States. Just about every Australian Jew I have ever met is a grandchild of a Holocaust survivor. That’s not so for most American Jews I know, including myself. My family got to the States much earlier.
All in all, Bryson makes Australia seem like a fascinating place to visit, though he also makes it clear that large parts of it are completely deserted and nearly uninhabitable. And since it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get there myself, I’m grateful for Bryson for his thorough, entertaining and informative account. ...more
I first heard of this book when the author, the first female president of Harvard University, was interviewed on Freakonomics Radio. Originally from tI first heard of this book when the author, the first female president of Harvard University, was interviewed on Freakonomics Radio. Originally from the South, she was raised with the expectation to be “a lady.” She completely defied it by doing the unladylike thing of raising farm animals alongside her brothers. She sounded like another Nelle Harper Lee, except she chose academia instead of novel-writing. Her book examines the lives of an earlier set of Southern ladies: the generation of white women whose husbands and sons fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
The author claims that the book is meant for lay audiences and not academics, but as you’d expect from the president of Harvard, the book was somewhat academic in tone. Though it’s not especially long – about 250 pages without the footnotes – it was rather a heavy read. Each chapter addressed a different facet of life and how it was impacted by the war. Unsurprisingly, the biggest change was in relation to the slaves. Without men around to enforce the women’s commands with the threat of a whip, there was plenty of “insubordination” and plain old running away. One woman lost her slaves in one fell swoop. They just up and left, and there was nothing she could do about it.
The result of this was that these upper class white women were forced for the first time in their lives to perform their own domestic and even farm work. For the most part, they failed at it. But as the title suggests, necessity is the mother of invention, so even though these women didn’t always rise to the circumstances with great competence, they did develop more independence. In that way, the Civil War upended the traditional role of “ladies.” After the war, though, most women were only too happy to try and regain the pre-war race and class structure, except now they had to pay servants instead of owning slaves.
My very favorite chapter was on how central reading and writing was to these women’s lives during the war. That humanized them, and this was a group most of us wouldn’t feel much sympathy for. The chapter on the vocation of nursing was my second favorite. Most white Southern women did not follow in the path of Florence Nightingale, though she did make nursing a respectable vocation for women. Before her, it was considered inappropriate because it involved too much intimacy with male bodies. The nursing of wounded soldiers until then was carried out by permanently wounded soldiers or by men of lower class. Because of that, most of the nursing of wounded Confederate soldiers was carried out by African Americans, both male and female. And so goes another one of the Civil War’s many ironies.
As the author states in the beginning, most academics do not like to research the history of the oppressors, but as a woman of the South, the subject interested her. She neither demonizes nor idealizes the women; she just presents them as they are, usually in direct quotes from their letters and diaries. Sometimes there seemed to be too many examples to make a single point, but mostly it was remarkably thorough research presented in a fairly readable way. Besides, even if I was bored in spots, who am I to give the president of Harvard less than 5 stars? It wasn’t a fun book, but I learned a lot. Recommended....more
Just as there are impulse purchases, there are also impulse reads. Usually a book will spend months on my “to-read” shelf before I get to it, but someJust as there are impulse purchases, there are also impulse reads. Usually a book will spend months on my “to-read” shelf before I get to it, but sometimes, something prompts me to get hold of a book the very same day I first hear of it. In this case, it was the movie ad now prominently displayed here on Goodreads, but the deciding factor was the consistent appearance of one word on other people’s reviews: funny.
The book is about travel writer Bill Bryson, who, in his mid-forties, decides to hike the Appalachian Trail with his even more out-of-shape friend Stephen Katz. (In the movie, they will be portrayed by Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, who are several decades older than that.) The book was just as funny as everyone said, and I laughed out loud more than once. But it also makes clear some of the many things that can go wrong on a major hike, like hypothermia and bear attacks. Those parts weren’t funny at all. Since I have a son who dreams of a back-to-nature lifestyle, I now know that he’d better go out into those woods well-equipped, well-informed, and ideally, with an experienced friend or two. Either that or, like Bungalow Bill, in case of accidents, he’ll have to take his Mom.
Of all books I’ve previously read, I found this most similar to The Big Year by Mark Obmascik in that it alternates from the adventures of the two guys to more informational sections, explaining things like the history of the Trail and forest ecology. Mark Obmascik wrote another book about his own hiking adventure, but that didn’t grab me the way this one did. The humor made the difference. Bill Bryson’s self-deprecating jokes begin on the very first page.
Stephen Katz by far is the funniest personage in the book, but some of the other quirky hikers they meet on the way come close. The parts when Bryson hikes alone are boring by comparison. But all in all, it was the perfect light fare between heavy books, and with a little history and science thrown in, it’s just meaty enough that’s it’s not all fluff. So I’m looking forward to more from Bryson. He may just end up my go-to for light reading for a while. ...more
Fiction hasn’t attracted me as much as non-fiction in recent years, but a well-crafted novel can blow me away like no other art form. This one, a histFiction hasn’t attracted me as much as non-fiction in recent years, but a well-crafted novel can blow me away like no other art form. This one, a historical novel set in World War II, most certainly did.
The two main characters are a French girl and a German boy, and the book alternates between their stories with occasional glimpses into the lives of the minor characters. The various threads finally come together in the last hundred or so pages. Though not all reviewers agree, for me, the long journey was worth it.
The girl is named Marie-Laure, and she goes blind in childhood, so she is homeschooled by the staff at Paris’ Natural History museum where her father works. When the war forces them to flee Paris, they settle in the coastal town of Saint Malo. It is here where Marie-Laure comes of age, transforming herself from a helpless blind girl into a small-scale heroine of the French resistance.
The boy is much more of a moral quandary. His name is Werner, and he and his sister Jutta live in an orphanage in a poor, mining town. He’s a mechanical genius, so he rigs up a radio on which he and Jutta listen to French radio broadcasts on the sly. His talent gets him noticed, which in turn gains him a recommendation to attend an elite school for Hitler Youth. Jutta despises the Nazis and believes the French account of things, so she opposes Werner’s going away. To him, though, it’s a ticket out of town that will lead him toward a career in engineering. He can’t pass that up, even though he doesn’t like the Nazis either. He ends up quite disturbed by the cruelty of his training at the Nazi school, but he never does anything to protest it. In short, he is a sympathetic character “just following orders.” It helps that he never goes near a concentration camp throughout the war. In fact, he encounters only one Jewish character in the whole novel. It also helps that he is racked with guilt for the deaths he caused.
The one flaw in the book is that it is not always chronological. The first part, Part Zero, really jumps around and makes for quite a confusing beginning. It gets clearer in Part One, but there are more jumps in the middle. The narrative goes from 1940 to 1944 and back again. Because of that, it’s one of those books that need a second read. Luckily, it’s a pleasure to do that because the characters are compelling and the language lyrical.
As I said at the beginning of this review, I’m not a big fan of fiction anymore. Had this been a novel about Jews in World War II, I wouldn’t even have bothered with it, not with so many true accounts out there. But I don’t think I could have developed sympathy for a boy in Werner’s position in any other way. If a real member of Hitler Youth had written his memoir, I doubt I could forgive him so easily, much less admire him. But he is charming, and Marie-Laure is even more so. I highly recommend this book. It ties with Paul Scott’s A Division of the Spoils for the best novel I’ve read all year. ...more
Neil Postman makes an argument in this book that will resonate with most religious people and will probably be rejected by everybody else. It’s an argNeil Postman makes an argument in this book that will resonate with most religious people and will probably be rejected by everybody else. It’s an argument against Technopoly and its brother Scientism: the view that science and technology can answer all the problems in our lives. Clearly, science and technology have solved some major problems the human race has faced, so it’s no wonder that it knocked religion of its throne in the Industrial Age. But just as religious leaders can be corrupt, so can scientists. They don’t deserve blind trust, yet in this day and age, men in white coats are almost automatically believed when they say, “This study proves. . .”
A corollary to this is the argument that not everything can be quantified. Surely something as ineffable as the intelligence of a human being cannot be summed up by a single number calculated by answers to a test. Yet we live in a world in which major decisions about our lives get made because of such numbers.
Now, sometimes Postman takes his argument a bit too far. For example, he described how the invention of the stethoscope gave doctors an excuse to listen less to patient input and more to the tool. After the stethoscope came other medical measuring tools, and they, in turn, invalidated doctors’ personal judgment. Who needs a doctor’s opinion? The machine measured X. It’s “objective.” The less we value human input, Postman argues, the more we have been taken over by Technopoly. I see his point, but stethoscopes have improved medicine, and I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them.
Unsurprisingly, the book includes a long section on computers, but it was published in 1992, before the popularization of the World Wide Web. Some of Postman’s predictions were prescient, and some are almost laughable. One thing is clear, though: he would have been appalled at the level we’ve allowed computers into our lives. Still, like with the stethoscope, their positive contribution is too big to ignore. Neil Postman makes a great case for humanity over machinery, but sometimes his strident tone can be a real turn-off. ...more
Neil Postman came across as a real doomsayer in Amusing Ourselves to Death, but since what he had to say rang so true, I wanted to read more of it. ThNeil Postman came across as a real doomsayer in Amusing Ourselves to Death, but since what he had to say rang so true, I wanted to read more of it. The title of this book seemed just as pessimistic, but it was deceptively so. By “End of Education,” Postman isn’t really talking about the death of education so much as the aims of education. What is it for? Economic utility, i.e. preparing kids for the labor market, isn’t enough of a reason – at least not to a kid. Postman doesn’t think much of helping kids develop technical and computer literacy either. To him, the ideal is for kids to be trained to be culturally literate human beings who take responsibility for the community and world they live in and who can tolerate other people’s differences. He’s a big proponent of the public schools creating a common culture that respects diversity. He blames the “multi-cultural” agenda for delivering the precise opposite.
Though I didn’t agree with every one of Postman’s points, the section that he calls “A Fable,” in which he tells the fictional story of how New York City solved its school crisis, made me want to get up and cheer. It’s for that section that I’m giving the book 5 stars. Besides that, Postman deserves it. I believe he is one of the most important educational philosophers of recent times, a John Dewey of the late 20th century. Since education, whether you get it from school, synagogue, church, or television, is really what defines our lives, everyone should read him. ...more
Medical marijuana is now legal in many states, and recreational marijuana will probably follow sooner or later. Because it is on its way to becoming aMedical marijuana is now legal in many states, and recreational marijuana will probably follow sooner or later. Because it is on its way to becoming a major industry, hospice doctor David Casarett spent a year meeting patients, prescribers, and researchers to find out just how medicinal marijuana really is.
The book contains quite a bit of hard science, though there’s narrative in between, so the pacing is tough but not impossible for readers like me who aren’t that scientifically inclined. There’s even a Harry Potter joke! Much more important than that, though, is Dr. Casarett’s well-balanced approach. Medical marijuana certainly has its enthusiasts, and it’s easy to dismiss them as a bunch of potheads and quacks, but Dr. Casarett keeps an open mind, tempered by skepticism. He cites the success stories, yet he doesn’t mince words about marijuana’s dangerous side effects. Stoners may deny it, but it is addictive in the clinical sense. But scarier than that, at least to me personally, were the sections about driving under the influence.
To get minimally scientific on you, the chemical that’s responsible for “the high” is THC. The chemical that seems to be responsible for more of the medicinal uses is CBD, so ideally, as medicines develop, they’ll make more use of the CBD. The trouble, of course, is that people like the high. And Dr. Casarett is not completely against it. After all, he’s a hospice doctor. Why shouldn’t patients in a bad situation be given a little euphoria? Terminal patients are sometimes given morphine, and that’s even more addictive than marijuana. My own conclusion is that THC is the sugar to help the CBD medicine go down.
All in all, Dr. Casarett makes a convincing case that as long as legalization proceeds cautiously and scientifically, some good medical discoveries will likely come out of it. But the clearest warning came from Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the grandfather of marijuana research. (He’s an Israeli!) Aside from all possible medical hazards we have to beware of, we have to watch out for business interests hijacking the research. People’s demand for “the high” promises to turn legal marijuana sales into a major profit-maker. ...more
I was never a particular fan of David Brinkley, but the title of this book was such a winner, I figured, why not? It's a collection of his sign-offs aI was never a particular fan of David Brinkley, but the title of this book was such a winner, I figured, why not? It's a collection of his sign-offs at the end of his weekly show between the years 1982 and 1995, and it turned out to be a fun romp through recent history (recent meaning, in my lifetime). It made me laugh quite a few times. You know that saying that the more things change, the more they say the same? It came through clearly in this book. The issues that divide us are pretty much the same as ever, but the technology! "Imagine talking cars," he says. "People are buying more computers than televisions, but they don't know what to do with them." Hah! Fun stuff. ...more
This little pamphlet was written by a television writer turned baalas teshuva, based on the teachings she learned from the popular Monsey rebbetzin, EThis little pamphlet was written by a television writer turned baalas teshuva, based on the teachings she learned from the popular Monsey rebbetzin, Esther Baila Schwartz. It's written for beginners, but the already-frum will appreciate it for its encouraging tone and back to basics approach. She opens the book with, "You are doing a mitzvah," and then goes on to show how the ordinary activities of daily living can all be transformed into mitzvos. It's a nice reminder for the already-frum because we tend to get so caught up in worrying about how well we're performing our mitzvos that we lose sight of their core value to our lives. That made it a nice, light Shabbos read. Recommended....more
I first heard of this book from a friend, who explained it in terms of dating. In the span of time between her first date with her husband and the dayI first heard of this book from a friend, who explained it in terms of dating. In the span of time between her first date with her husband and the day they finally got married, she had married and divorced someone else. Why? Because when he first met her, he couldn’t decide. There were so many other women available he was afraid of missing out on “the right one” and wanted to try out more options. That is the paradox of choice. The more options that are available, the harder it is to decide.
All of that seemed perfectly logical to me, but until I read this book, I didn’t think it applied to me. I’m not indecisive. But what I discovered after reflecting on what I learned from this book is that I’m a decision avoider. Unlike my friend’s husband, I’m not apt to try out many options. I don’t shop around. As a matter of fact, I barely shop at all. And while this does simplify things, it’s not a balanced approach either.
The book makes the distinction between maximizers, people who shop around to find the best possible option, and satisficers, people who settle for “good enough.” It’s better to be a satisficer than a maximizer, and I did test closer to satisficer on the quiz (what good self-help book doesn’t have at least one?), but because regret over past decisions is a maximizer trait that looms large in my life, I’ve been forced to conclude that I’m a satisficer in food, clothing, and entertainment, but a maximizer over the big deal decisions of my life: education, career, relationships, and child-rearing. As I’ve said in other reviews, one of the main reasons I want to go to graduate school is that I want a second chance at the college dream I bungled so badly the first time. I don’t enroll because I can’t afford to, but my job seems all the more boring as a result because I keep thinking that graduate school would be a better use of my time and talents. Goodreads is my continuing education, of course, but it doesn’t entirely satisfice while I’m at my job. I’d rather be reading or writing for Goodreads.
The book does give advice on how to become more of a satisficer, and though it’s solid advice, it wasn’t anything I didn’t already know. Basically, the advice is two-fold. First, practice an “attitude of gratitude” so that you’ll see the good in what you have. And second, since the idea that you’re missing out on some better option is a product of the imagination, imagine options that could be worse than the one you’re in. After all, those happen, too.
But you know what? I just can’t give up hope that there’s something better out there. Imagining worse is what keeps me from seeking change, but that’s fear. I’m as paralyzed as my friend’s husband was. This, the book says, is regret aversion. I have it big time.
So all in all, this was not a “feel good” self-help book. It’s made me see my faults more clearly, and at the moment anyway, it hasn’t given me any new skills. Still, the points rang true, so if awareness is the first step, hopefully, I’m on the right path. May Hashem send solutions to us all. ...more
Sarah Vowell is one of my favorite writers. She describes herself as a “historian-adjacent nonfiction narrative wise guy,” but I consider her a genuinSarah Vowell is one of my favorite writers. She describes herself as a “historian-adjacent nonfiction narrative wise guy,” but I consider her a genuine historian and genuinely wise. Her signature style is to mix a meticulously researched account of history with snarky comments, but within her analysis come some absolute gems of political insight. This book stays true to her style.
The book begins in 1824 with the return visit of the Marquis de Lafayette to America, but it is mostly it is about the American Revolutionary War. Sarah describes Lafayette as the best friend America ever had. He was a glory-seeking nineteen-year-old when he volunteered to join the colonial army. By the end of the war, he had matured and seen enough to know to be cautious with the lives of the soldiers in his command.
If there’s one thing that this book makes especially vivid, it’s the hardships of war. Every American has learned about the cold, hard winter at Valley Forge, but Sarah brings it to life like no other author I’ve ever read. She quotes eye-witness accounts, usually Lafayette’s letters home and sometimes the writings of other soldiers. The clearest and most brutal image I now have of Valley Forge is the bloody footprints of the colonial soldiers who had to march barefoot over ice and snow. Even worse is the reason they were so ill-equipped: tax squabbles. Of course, the whole war was being fought over tax squabbles, but there’s a difference between a punitive tax policy and taxes for basic needs, like feeding and clothing the people risking their lives for liberty.
Under these conditions, it’s not surprising that there was plenty of desertion amongst the rank and file, but there was plenty of dissension in the uppermost ranks, too. Most of us think of George Washington as a celebrated hero, but in his own time, there were several attempts to sack him. Lafayette remained his loyal defender through it all.
I will admit that the sections describing military strategy made for dull reading. In general, I find military strategy difficult to follow, so there were some sections I had to re-read. At other times, my mind just wandered. I considered taking away a star for that, but I decided it was my failing, not the book’s. If anything, it proves that this is a “genuine” history book, and not “history adjacent.” As much as I love learning history, if a history book doesn’t have some dull parts, it comes across as too light-weight to me. Sarah’s books offset the dull parts with jokes, personal narrative, and forays into pop culture. Some may call that light-weight, too, but I say this is her most scholarly work yet. She really packed in the historical detail.
After painting the dreary picture of the travails of the colonial army, Sarah explains how we won: foreign aid. Other Frenchmen followed Lafayette’s lead and volunteered, as did a disgraced German officer named von Steuben, who drilled the rank and file until they could hold their own in battle. Ultimately, France provided the naval help that won the decisive battle of the war. So the book is not just a tribute to Lafayette, but to France itself.
Sarah began writing it after French fries were renamed “freedom fries” because France refused to participate in the Iraq War. Anti-France feeling was rampant then. But I happened to read this book in a week when sympathy for France was running high, the week of a deadly terrorist attack. This particular history lesson – that the United States owes its liberty to France – could not have come at a more meaningful time. So given the current climate, I recommend reading the book right away. It will make you a more grateful American.
I became interested in Catholic social activist Dorothy Day because of David Brooks’ The Road to Character, so when one of my Goodreads friends told mI became interested in Catholic social activist Dorothy Day because of David Brooks’ The Road to Character, so when one of my Goodreads friends told me that Sister Simone is the Dorothy Day of our times, I had to find out more about her. I like that she ranks solving poverty as the Number 1 moral issue of our times, but unlike Dorothy Day, who founded shelters and communal farms where poor people could live, Sister Simone is much more engaged with the political process. She’s an attorney who publicizes her message to politicians and journalists. Her bus tour –interacting with families across America between media interviews - sounds very much like a political campaign. Perhaps that’s the most effective method of change in this day and age, but I prefer Dorothy Day’s hands-on approach to social service.
Though I am not a Christian, my main interest in both these women is their melding of liberal economic politics with their religious lifestyles. I’m a religious woman, too, and I’ve been looking for a way to apply my political liberalism as a religious duty. I don’t know that this book helped with that, but it’s nice to know someone is out there doing it, even if she’s not of my religion.
I must admit that I skipped the Catholic teachings interspersed throughout the book, but I was 100% there for some of her points. The political right has hijacked religion as though they own it, and it’s high time some deeply religious people took it back. Poverty affects many more people than abortion and gay marriage. If we want to live in a truly moral society, let’s feed the hungry and house the homeless before we start looking into people’s bedrooms. ...more
Like my Mom, I now count The Raj Quartet as one of my all-time favorite series, and this, the concluding book of the series, was the most complex andLike my Mom, I now count The Raj Quartet as one of my all-time favorite series, and this, the concluding book of the series, was the most complex and possibly the best. I read it ahead of the History Book Club, and I'm looking forward to re-reading it more slowly with them because I know there are many subtleties I missed. Some may think it a silly comparison, but to me, The Quartet shares its best qualities with my other all-time favorite series, Harry Potter. Both feature immensely complex universes where details hidden early on turn out to be the linchpin of completely unpredictable plot twists. J.K. Rowling has the advantage of magic to dazzle and surprise us, but Paul Scott does it with plain old mundane reality, which makes him the even greater master. I would not be at all surprised if J.K. Rowling considers him an influence.
This book is probably the most political of the series, and it's those parts that I most need to re-read. I'm ashamed to say that I followed the threads of the British characters' stories much better than I did the Indians'. And there was one more very pleasant surprise in this book: a minor character whose raunchy humor made me laugh out loud. So hats off to Paul Scott. Not only is he a brilliant wordsmith and worldsmith, he's got a sense of humor, too.
No matter how old I get, school politics, i.e. the tensions between the cliques and the cafeteria fringe, never cease to fascinate me. Since the titleNo matter how old I get, school politics, i.e. the tensions between the cliques and the cafeteria fringe, never cease to fascinate me. Since the title and thesis of this book declare victory for the fringe, it was pretty much irresistible. Though it wasn’t as life-changing as I’d hoped, it was definitely a compelling read and particularly uplifting at the end.
The book tracks six young people over a year of high school. Most of them are oddballs who fit into the stereotypical labels: the loner girl, the band geek, the gay gamer. In reality, of course, their personalities extend far beyond the labels. Two of them are much more in “the norm.” One is different because she’s a Jamaican immigrant, neither white nor “ghetto,” and the other is a popular girl ready to break away from her clique. The book alternates between the six stories and adds analysis in between, covering such subjects as social media, parents, drug and alcohol use, and includes one chapter on successful people who were teenage freaks, such as Steven Spielberg, Stephen Colbert, and Taylor Swift.
If you grew up on the cafeteria fringe, most of this book won’t be news to you. Living with social rejection may be painful, but once you learn that there’s really nothing wrong with you, you’re freer to be who you really are. However, I disagree with the author that finding your niche gets easier in college. For me, college was even crueler than high school. It was the cool competition gone wild because it was without parental constraints.
This ties in with the biggest new insight I got out of this book: that teachers are as cliquish as students, and there’s something about the school setting itself that brings it out in people. Cue in Excellent Sheep and The Road to Character. School has become increasingly about achieving a competitive standard, which is inherently conformist, than about educating people to maximize their own unique potential. The whole system needs restructuring.
Though I enjoyed the book and agreed with most of it, parts of it were a bit redundant and could have been edited out. But if I were a teacher of high schoolers or college freshmen, I would definitely teach this book. Most teens don’t read much non-fiction or connect sociology to their real lives, but this is a non-fiction analysis of the air they breathe. If teenagers would grapple with the philosophical issues of coolness, nerdiness, bullying, ostracism, and kindness – in other words, the small-scale politics of their lives – perhaps it would bring about the large-scale solutions our schools and society desperately need.
David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times and author of this and several other books, has become a baal teshuva (Orthodox Jew). I knew that goingDavid Brooks, columnist for The New York Times and author of this and several other books, has become a baal teshuva (Orthodox Jew). I knew that going into the book, but because it draws from such varied sources, I’m not sure I would have figured it out on my own, but the values here are definitely Jewish. The bulk of the book is made of short biographies of exemplary people, but before I go into those, I must explain the viewpoint of the book overall.
The very first chapter draws from The Lonely Man of Faith by Joseph B. Soloveitchik. That book contrasts the two Biblical accounts of the creation of Adam. Brooks calls them Adam I and Adam II, but an even better phrasing of his overall theme is “resume values” versus “eulogy values.” Since World War II, our society has been placing increasing emphasis on success and the development of career skills over the development of moral character. Brooks then launches into the biographies of the people he admires and points out the values each of their lives demonstrates. But these are not hagiographic accounts; he also includes the mistakes and character flaws each one struggled with. Altogether, it really is an inspiring book.
What made this book a “must read” for me was finding out that George Eliot has her own chapter. Secondarily, I was interested in Frances Perkins. These two are some of the great philo-Semites of history, so it’s not surprising a new baal teshuva would include them, although the George Eliot chapter disappointed me with not even a mention of Daniel Deronda. The biggest surprise was that the chapter I ended up liking best was about Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker. She was a contemporary of Frances Perkins, but while Perkins chose to advocate for the poor by entering government, Dorothy Day immersed her life in full-time charity. Perkins spent part of her early training in Jane Addams’ Hull House, a place where poor women and the social workers serving them, lived together to eliminate class barriers. Dorothy Day built communal farms and soup kitchens that were similar, a sort of melding of socialist economics and Catholic religion. In a later chapter, Brooks describes civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph as having “combined political radicalism with personal traditionalism.” The description fits Dorothy Day, too. This kind of melding of left and right hits me exactly where I live. My personal political philosophy is “live a conservative life personally; have a liberal attitude toward others.” It’s not surprising it comes from David Brooks, who is considered the conservative that the liberal media likes, or, in his own words, a conservative in the tradition of Edmund Burke and not the Tea Party.
I imagine that this is one of those books that people will either love or hate. As you see, I’m in the love camp. I’d be very interested in the opinions of those of my Goodreads friends whose politics are more right wing than mine. One thing is for certain: even if you don’t agree with David Brooks’ interpretation on the state of our moral culture, you’re bound to learn plenty from this book. ...more
This is another one of those classics I was never assigned in high school, but I knew some of the story because I once heard part of the radio play. WThis is another one of those classics I was never assigned in high school, but I knew some of the story because I once heard part of the radio play. What prompted me to finally read it was reading 1984 earlier this year. A radio discussion about it mentioned Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, whose thesis is that our world is much more similar to Brave New World than 1984 because the powers that be are controlling us through pleasure and not fear. That rang so true to me, I added the book to my to-read list right away, but of course, I had to get the background of Brave New World first.
As a work of literature, I did prefer 1984, but I think Huxley was correct: it’s more effective to subdue people into servitude by drugging them and conditioning them to be happy about it than it is to control them with fear. People can overcome their fears and revolt, but if they’re happy, there’s no reason to revolt.
The thing I disliked most about Brave New World was the Savage’s self-flagellation. It just seemed so over the top. Where’s the middle of the road in this picture?
So: great points; pretty good book. And now, I’m looking forward to Amusing Ourselves to Death even more. I generally do prefer non-fictional cultural criticisms to fictional ones, but a good fictional cultural criticism is harder to pull off. ...more
This is the commencement speech that Jo Rowling gave at Harvard University in 2008. I'd already seen it on Youtube, so the jokes only made me smile thThis is the commencement speech that Jo Rowling gave at Harvard University in 2008. I'd already seen it on Youtube, so the jokes only made me smile this time, but all in all, it's an inspiring message from an absolutely awesome woman! ...more
This is a book about the first Gulf War and the thirty-nine Scud missiles that hit Israel. Miraculously, only twelve people died during that six-weekThis is a book about the first Gulf War and the thirty-nine Scud missiles that hit Israel. Miraculously, only twelve people died during that six-week onslaught of missiles, and this book collects interviews from all kinds of Israelis about the experience - some soldiers, but mostly civilians. It's a religious book, so mostly it is about the incredible hashgacha pratis (Providence) that people saw. It's somewhat dated because it was written before 9/11, the more recent Iraq war, and the rise of Isis, but it still renewed my faith. Not every story was a grabber, but those that were deserve 5 stars. Best of all was the Torah commentary on Jeremiah. Recommended, especially to frum Jews, who will probably appreciate it most of all....more
Anyone remember the pre-Internet days of the 1980’s when television was still king? That’s when this book was written, so for every rant author Neil PAnyone remember the pre-Internet days of the 1980’s when television was still king? That’s when this book was written, so for every rant author Neil Postman made against television, I was wondering, “What would he say now?” He lived till 2003, and a Google search will show you that he railed against the Internet, too, but he never lived to see the rise of social media and texting. What would he have said about summing up your personal news into 140 characters right alongside the world’s celebrities? Television squared, I suspect.
The thesis of the book is that television dumbed down our culture and democracy to such an extent, it is comparable to the fictional drug soma in Brave New World. Dictators don’t need Orwellian fear tactics to quell the masses; just keep them happily entertained and distracted and they’ll never rebel. That is why, he argues, Huxley’s dystopian vision turned out to be much more prophetic, at least in the U.S., than Orwell’s.
One of Dr. Postman’s biggest problems with television is its detrimental effect on literacy. Following Marshall McLuhan’s adage that “the medium is the message,” he argues that as our culture became more reliant on images to convey information and less on print, it changed our very thought processes. The effect is much more pervasive than people reading less. People think less. They no longer patience for protracted logical discussions that don’t follow a storyline consisting of conflict, climax, and resolution. The news aims to present itself in the same dramatic, visually pleasing format as the TV drama. And that is why, Dr. Postman argues, the more serious and educational television tries to be, the more deceptive and dangerous it is.
Dr. Postman makes some excellent arguments, but he does come across as a bit of a curmudgeon, particularly in his attack on “Sesame Street.” He argues that in trying to make reading fun for little kids, the show implanted in them the unreasonable expectation that learning must always be fun. That, in turn, forced our school curricula to become entertaining or it would lose kids' already TV-shortened attention span. The effect, he argues, is as degrading to education as TV news is to our national discourse.
Once again, while I can see Dr. Postman's point, my understanding is that "Sesame Street" was created to salvage learning after television had its negative effects. It may have been a concession to the problem, but it was not the cause of it.
Also, I'm not entirely sure if our circumstances are quite as bleak as Dr. Postman made out. After all, thirty years after this book was published, someone is still reading it, and that’s in the Internet age. I’m sharing my thoughts about the book on the Internet right now. So if television dumbed us down, is the Internet, which requires some reading, smartening us back up? I don’t know about the Internet overall, but I know I read more because of Goodreads. If Dr. Postman had lived, I think he would have been an author member.
So go ahead. Turn of your electronics and live in the moment. Our whole culture needs to unplug more often. But 100%? Even Dr. Postman recognized that TV and computers weren't going away. We can't beat them, and we have joined them, but the least we can do is become more conscious, critical, and discerning about how much digital/visual media we allow into our own mental space....more
In these days, when police brutality, inequality, and reactions to them are tearing our country apart, this book is especially relevant. The focus isIn these days, when police brutality, inequality, and reactions to them are tearing our country apart, this book is especially relevant. The focus is the courts, not the police, but in telling the story of the miscarriage of justice perpetrated against Edward Elmore, a retarded African American man convicted of the murder of his employer, it exposes some of the corruption and prejudice in law enforcement as a whole. “Anatomy” is an apt word for the title because the author dissects the evidence used against Elmore bit by bit, showing how it could have been tampered with and how police, lawyers, and judges conspired to cover that up. The person who made all these discoveries was attorney Diana Holt, who fought for Elmore for decades. She is the Erin Brockovich of criminal defense.
In the acknowledgements, the author writes of someone that “she has a lawyer’s mind and a journalist’s pen.” The same can be said for him. The book is such a page-turner, it even makes case law readable.
As I said at the beginning, with all that is going on in the country now (days past the Baltimore riots as of this writing), this book is highly relevant to all Americans. If the courts would examine the suppression of evidence and possible tampering that went on in this case and bring the responsible people to justice, perhaps it would bring us all one step closer to healing. ...more
I’m not a big science fiction fan, but any book with the name “Eyre” in its title is pretty much irresistible. Unfortunately, the first journey into I’m not a big science fiction fan, but any book with the name “Eyre” in its title is pretty much irresistible. Unfortunately, the first journey into Jane Eyre doesn’t happen until Chapter 6, and then it almost all but disappears from the plot until Chapter 30. In between are the adventures of protagonist Thursday Next, a spunky female detective in a world where time travel is common. It was interesting for a while, but it went on for way too long. If my husband hadn’t assured me that Jane Eyre figures in heavily at the end, I probably would have given up. He was right, though. I loved the ending.
Jane Eyre fans who also like science fiction will probably like this book very much. But if you’re like me, and you love Jane Eyre but aren’t so wild about science fiction, be forewarned: there’s much more of the latter than the former in this book. In other words, 3 star beginning, 2 star middle, and 4 star end. You may just want to re-read the original instead. ...more
Ancient history never holds my attention quite as well as modern history does, so it is a testament to Stacy Schiff that I got so much out of this booAncient history never holds my attention quite as well as modern history does, so it is a testament to Stacy Schiff that I got so much out of this book. Not that she needs my endorsement - her book won the Pulitzer Prize! But having said that, I gave it only a 4. Perhaps that reflects badly on me, but even though some parts were riveting, particularly the conclusion, other parts were a struggle to get through.
The main point of the book is to present the shrewd leadership Cleopatra showed at every step of her reign and contrast it with the way she is usually portrayed: as a seductress. It seems she had genuine feelings for both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, but she surpassed each of them in diplomacy (though not in military command). They were her lovers, but they were also her partners, on an equal footing, in empire-building. History and art have not recorded her that way, but that’s because history is written by the victors, and because, as the author concludes, it’s easier for people to accept a woman wielding power through use of her beauty rather than her brains.
Cleopatra lived in a cutthroat, violent world where assassination plots among the power elite were expected. She was no humanitarian; she had a few family members killed to get to her position. She was also willing to broker with the enemy when she had to. But after reading this book, I can’t help but be impressed by her brains and courage. Everyone, especially women, should learn the real facts of her extraordinary life. ...more
The author of this book would probably be flattered to know that he shook my faith in G-d a little bit and because of that, I consider his book somewhThe author of this book would probably be flattered to know that he shook my faith in G-d a little bit and because of that, I consider his book somewhat dangerous. I have no doubt that it is being banned in many Orthodox Jewish circles, and I can understand why. But I think it’s worthwhile to hear the criticisms of people who left the path, and since this book is quickly gaining a reputation as the most eloquent ex-Orthodox memoir around, I figured it was a good one to start with. Aside from that, I was curious because I know the author’s mother.
The author’s parents were like me – baalei teshuva. They were raised in assimilated, secular Jewish families and chose to follow the Orthodox path. As a matter of fact, the author’s mother is sort of like my ten-year mirror. She became Orthodox through Reb Shlomo Carlebach, and about ten years later, so did I. She was not a regular at Carlebach in the years that I was there, but her name came up, and always in the most favorable light. Then, years after I’d left Carlebach and had gotten married and moved to Boro Park, I found out that Mrs. Din had previously lived in the very same apartment building I was living in. This illustrates a rather common trajectory amongst baalei teshuva. We start off in the liberal wing of the Orthodox world, and then, in our idealism, gradually became as Ultra-Orthodox as we possibly can. But our idealism blinds us to the negative side of the Ultra-Orthodox world, and often, it’s our kids who pay the price. The Dins chose an even stricter Chassidus than the one I married into, and her son attended a much stricter yeshiva. Corporal punishment was allowed, and secular education frowned upon. My kids’ yeshivos were never that extreme.
And thus begins Shulem Deen’s story. He ended up in Skverer yeshiva, arguably the most restrictive of all Chassidusen, and married a woman named Gitty who grew up in Skver. As he begins looking into the outside world – first at the public library, then on the Internet, all the way to Shabbos drives into Greenwich Village – his marriage becomes more and more strained. I felt bad for Gitty through most of the book. Naturally the changes in her husband would come as a great shock to such a sheltered young woman. But I lost my sympathy for her when I found out that she doesn’t even allow Mrs. Din to see her grandchildren. That’s plain unfair.
The book really does show Chassidim at their worst. Unfortunately, I don’t doubt any of it. But what I find hard to believe is how sheltered Shulem himself was. Usually children of baalei teshuva are somewhat more worldly than their peers. All Shulem says about himself is that he knew English better than his classmates. Did he never once meet his secular grandparents? It seems very strange to me.
As I said, the book did make me question my faith somewhat. Shulem points out some of the weaknesses in the rational arguments for the existence of G-d and the divinity of the Torah, and he makes a good case. But ultimately, it doesn’t bother me that G-d cannot be proved with human logic. G-d is beyond human logic. That’s the whole point.
It’s sad that klal Yisroel is losing so many Jews. I’m especially sad that my own son seems to be one of them. Shulem Deen is active in a group that helps ex-Orthodox acclimate to secular culture, which I can see as an act of kindness. That's not where I'd wish my own son to end up, but there are worse ways to go off. So once again, I may just follow Mrs. Din's path. No matter what they do or where they stray, our sons will always be our sons. ...more
Most Westerners have an idea of how shame was used as a punishment in centuries past. Tarring and feathering. Put in the stockade in the public squareMost Westerners have an idea of how shame was used as a punishment in centuries past. Tarring and feathering. Put in the stockade in the public square. Thank G-d, it’s all illegal today. But the impulse to humiliate others has not died in human nature, so shaming continues in different forms, particularly on social media.
The first chapter of this book chronicled the downfall of Jonah Lehrer, author of the discredited Imagine: How Creativity Works, which was shown to be full of plagiarism and outright lies. As a journalist himself, Jon Ronson gave Lehrer a fairly sympathetic treatment. Having read Imagine myself, I was interested to learn the rest of the story, and at the end, it took a 21st century turn. Jonah Lehrer gave his public apology speech in front of a live Twitter feed. The tweeters were so unforgiving and their comments so unkind that it was an even worse shaming than he had experienced before.
Next, Ronson told a few Twitter shaming stories about people who were largely unknown until their shaming. They all followed more or less the same pattern. Someone tweeted an insensitive joke. It got retweeted to the point of going viral, with people adding insult upon insult about the original tweeter. In all the cases described, the original tweeters lost their jobs, sometimes because the crowd demanded it and sometimes just because the employers felt the need to distance themselves from all this negativity quickly. In one case, when the shamed tweeter then tweeted that he’d lost his job and had three kids to support, there was a shaming backlash against the woman who’d first started the shaming. Not only did she get fired, too, she ended up staying unemployed for a longer period than he. Object lesson: if you shame someone, you open yourself up to a shaming yourself.
Though Ronson did not set out to write this book with a self-help message to survive shaming, he does address the question. His choice example of a shame survivor was Max Mosely, the son of Nazi sympathizers who was caught in a sex scandal in his mid-sixties and successfully sued the newspaper that broke the story about him. Mosley said that the best way to survive a shaming is to refuse to be ashamed, which seemed perfectly logical to me, but after a while, Ronson came to his own conclusion: people don’t care that much about men in heterosexual sex scandals anymore. Women in sex scandals fare much worse, though. When a group of Maine churchgoers was exposed as the clientele of a local prostitute, the one female client bore the brunt of all the jokes. The men just went quietly on with their lives.
And this brings me to another homosexual sex scandal: the outing of former New Jersey governor, Jim McGreevey. His was the most interesting story in the book, not because of his shaming, but because of what he did afterward. He is currently running a therapeutic prison unit where the prisoners are built up and not shamed. From there, Ronson showed how shaming hasn’t really disappeared in our justice system, not in the prisons and not in the courts. Trial lawyers routinely unnerve witnesses with shame tactics. The case in point was rape victim Lindsay Armstrong. While on the stand, the defense attorney had her hold up her underwear in front of the jury. Her rapist was found guilty, but after the trial, she killed herself.
In every case, Ronson showed that when people engage in a shaming, they usually believe they are serving some just cause by outing some guilty or offensive person, but really, they’re tapping into a dark force that lurks in all of our psyches. Shame may well be an effective way to moderate behavior, but it comes with many negative consequences, not just for the object of the shaming but for the people carrying it out. “Schadenfreude” is a word associated with Nazis. It means the enjoyment someone else’s pain. Is that an emotion we need to give into? So the next time you feel like having a little laugh at someone else’s expense on social media, stop yourself. It will make the world a nicer place. Besides, what goes around, comes around. ...more
Crown Heights is a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York populated mainly by African Americans and immigrants from West Indian countries like Jamaica andCrown Heights is a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York populated mainly by African Americans and immigrants from West Indian countries like Jamaica and Trinidad, but it is also the central headquarters of the Hasidic Jewish sect of Lubavitch, so there’s a sizable Hasidic population there, too. In August 1991, these two populations clashed when one of the cars in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade crashed into an African American child. When Hatzolah, the Orthodox Jewish EMT service, arrived on the scene, the police directed them to leave the child alone and to care only for the injured Jews. This set off four days of rioting and violence, and eventually, a young Jewish rabbinical student was killed. Dr. David Lazerson a/k/a “Dr. Laz” was appointed the Jewish liaison for unity in the aftermath of all this volatility. This book is the story of how he and his group, Dr. Laz and the Cure, increased the peace.
Because of its message, I’ve given the book 5 stars, but I debated about taking off one star for poor editing, e.g. typos and misspellings. In the end, though, the book was so uplifting and page-turning, I couldn’t give it anything less. And it isn’t all hippie-dippy stuff either; Dr. Laz describes the flak that he and his African American counterpart, Richard Green, got from their respective communities. They persisted and succeeded in spite of it. They began with dialogue groups between African American and Lubavitcher teens in which each questioned the other on the hard issues, including their stereotypes about each other. It evolved into the formation of a basketball team on which both sets of kids played, and since Dr. Laz is a musician, a rap group formed as well. They eventually got quite a bit of media attention. They were on Donahue and other news shows. Showtime turned their story into a TV movie. The team even got to play in Madison Square Garden! How Dr. Laz kept his head from swelling through all this is a testament to how down to earth he is. The publicity was always for the mission, not the man himself.
Though I’ve known Dr. Laz for years, what finally brought me to his book is that my own town is going through a similar conflict. Nobody has died, thank G-d, but there is an ongoing, highly contentious dispute between public and private school interests. Basically, there have been accusations of misallocation of funds, which, of course, fits in with the classic anti-Semitic stereotype of thieving Jews. The first step toward peace, at least as far as I’ve seen, was last week at a non-religious private school (Waldorf). I’m hoping it’s just the beginning, and I’m hoping Dr. Laz will bring his cure to Ramapo. May Hashem help – we surely need it! ...more
Before reading this book, if anyone had asked me how I thought the term “loser” became the catch-all insult that it is now, I would have guessed it waBefore reading this book, if anyone had asked me how I thought the term “loser” became the catch-all insult that it is now, I would have guessed it was the influence of sports. What other human endeavor divides people up into “winners” and “losers” so clearly? As it turns out, though, the source of the term is from business. In the early 19th century, when business was unregulated and market failures could result in panics, bank runs, and the uprooting of thousands of people’s lives, “loser” simply meant someone who lost money due to circumstances beyond his control. But by mid-century, as capitalism grew and the myth of the self-made man began to take hold, financial failure was seen as a fault “in the man.” As the author puts it, that is how the language of business came to be applied to the human soul.
Because the author stays mostly in the 19th century, the book is rather a heavy read. Failure is a tough subject to tackle in any style, but the old-fashioned language of the newspapers of the period made the first few chapters especially hard to get through. The book picked up in the middle with the story of Lewis Tappan, founder of the first credit rating service. Now, there’s a lot to admire about Tappan. He was the abolitionist who paid for the attorneys who represented the escapees in the Amistad case. He even paid for the escapees’ passage back to Africa when they won. But his business (credit rating) was ugly. In this digital age, we’re all worried about how our computer use is being tracked, but what went on before computers was at least as bad. It may even have been worse because it was all based on the subjective judgment of human informers. Eventually, someone brought suit against Tappan and won. Beardsley vs. Tappan may have been the first Supreme Court case to test the legal concept of the right to privacy.
Later chapters include the post-Civil War fight for bankruptcy laws and a sampling of “begging letters” sent to John D. Rockefeller, but the very best part was the epilogue because that is where the author went into the world we live in, mentioning such diverse sources for the term “loser” as Willy Loman, Bob Dylan, and Columbine High. Brilliant as the first sentence of this book is, ("The American Dream died young and was laid to rest on a splendid afternoon in May 1862.") I think the author should have put more from our modern world into the beginning. People like to read what they’re familiar with, and since much of this book covers the lives of “losers” we’ve never heard of, mixing more from the world we know would have made the first part of the book less of a chore to get through. Having said that, the book is definitely worth the effort. I learned plenty and I completely agree with the author. Failure is the flip side of the American dream, and as long as we continue to demonize it, we are damaging ourselves and others. ...more