Sunday, October 16, 2016

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

Unconnected to the life of love, uncolored by love, the world resumes its own, its natural and callous importance. This is first a blow, then an odd consolation. And already I felt my old self - my old, devious, ironic, isolated self - beginning to breathe again and stretch and settle, though all around it my body clung cracked and bewildered, in the stupid pain of loss.

A very short version of this review would be: I agree with Chris.  Here is a longer version: Munro gives us the coming of age story of Del Jordan--we watch her grow into her sexuality, but also her mind, her faith, and her understanding of the world around her. The cover of the book led me to believe that this book was going to be somewhere on the level of a cheap romance novel--usually books where Cosmo provides the review on the cover and uses the phrase "one girl's very special growing up" are not for me--but it had significantly more depth than expected and was a wonderful read.

Del's transition into adulthood takes many forms. Her first experiences with love and sex are presented with a casual honesty that make them feel that much more real and resonant; she feels the same odd combination of too far behind and too far ahead that most teenagers feel, and Munro captures the confusion and brutality of young love beautifully. Del wrestles with her own brilliance as well, watching the isolation her mother has created for herself by being intelligent, while hoping to use her own mind to escape Jubilee. Again, like many teenagers, her romantic and academic worlds speed up at the same time and complicate and build off of each other, and the tensions Munro creates were beautifully crafted and painfully real: "Well-groomed girls frightened me to death. I didn't like to go near them, for fear I would be smelly. I felt there was a radical difference between them and me, as if we were made of different substances." There are so many lines like this in the book; lines where Munro perfectly captures not only what it is like to be a teenager, but also what it is like to be a woman. I literally have this exact thought several times a day as a thirty year old in New York City, but the thought is just as believable in the mind of a teenager in a provincial Canadian town.

The women in this book are fabulous. In a slim volume, Munro has created an entire cast of fascinating, intricately thought out women: the kind of attention to character you rarely see given to more than one or two women in a novel three times this size. There are Del's aunts, the gatekeepers of Jubilee propriety; her best friend, Naomi, who veers off towards a version of the aforementioned "well groomed" womanhood much faster than Del; Fern Dogherty, their tenant and a former opera singer with a possibly seedy past. Each chapter brings a new addition, and even the women who appear for just a few pages are rich in detail and thought or giggle provoking. Of all of the women, Del's mother, Ada, an embattled, clearly brilliant woman is my favorite. Trapped in a cow town and constantly trying to bring some sense of sophistication to her own life and to her daughter's, she is permanently at odds with the small world of Jubilee. Knowledge (mostly in the form of encyclopedic trivia) is her only escape, and she earnestly tries to spread the love by selling encyclopedias, an past time which even then seems outdated and odd:
Knowledge was not chilly to her, no, it was warm and lovely. Pure comfort even at this stage of her life to know the location of the Celebes Sea, and the Pitti Palace, to get the wives of Henri VII in order, and be informed about the social system of ants, the methods of sacrificial butchery used by the Aztecs, the plumbing in Knosos. She could get carried away, telling about such things; she would tell anybody. "Your mother knows such a lot of things, my," said Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace lightly, unenviously, and I saw that to some people, maybe to most people, knowledge was just oddity; it suck out like warts. 

Munro's novel, so rich in women (and bright, thoughtful, interesting women at that), is the perfect antidote to a world in which Donald Trump is being given a daily platform to spew his misogyny. The title comes from a speech Ada (seemingly about how getting pregnant will ruin your life). She proclaims: "There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women, Yes. But it is up to us to make it come." While the changes Munro and Ada were hoping for are not yet fully here, books like this get us a little closer.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Progress of Love by Alice Munro

Fifty years too late to ask, Sam thinks.  And even at the time he was too amazed.  Edgar became a person he didn't know.  Callie drew back, into her sorry female state.  The moment of happiness he shared with them remained in his mind, but he never knew what to make of it.  Do such moments really mean, as they seem to, that we have a life of happiness with which we only occasionally, knowingly, intersect?  Do they shad such light before and after all that has happened to us in our lives--or that we've made happen--can be dismissed?

I was blown away by Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and WomenIt was one of those books that made me feel, this is what literature ought to be.  But it wasn't really representative of Munro's body of work, which is defined by the short story.  (Lives, though separated into titled stories, is really a novel about a single character, Del Jordan.)  So I've been excited to read a collection of Munro's stories--do they have the same kind of depth and power?

Mostly, yes.  The stories of The Progress of Love tread similar ground as Lives.  They center around small moments in domestic life which have immense consequences, like ripples in water.  Sometimes those consequences are literal ones, other times they are merely shades of feeling which resound throughout the lives of the characters.  Many of these stories stretch over several years, and some decades.  In Lives, Munro argued that the depth of experiences in ordinary lives is as profound as any other, calling these lives "deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum."  The Progress of Love reads, sometimes, like an elaboration on this essential thesis.

One of my favorites was "Miles City, Montana," about a couple on a road trip who endure a frightening moment when their young daughter almost drowns in a swimming pool.  Another, "The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink," is about a pair of brother who run away from a town where one of them has impregnated a young servant girl, only to find her having followed them, disguised as a girl, on to the train on which they were making their escape.  It turns out to be a happy moment, full of the promise of a new life (in Toronto!), and a moment of sheer joy which the rest of their lives have trouble matching or living up to.  In "Miles City, Montana" it's a moment of fear and shock, but like "The Moon," both moments seem to open briefly on another plane of life, one which is lived more intensely, and exists parallel to the ordinary one.  Another story, "Fits," is about a practical housewife who seems not be affected by the discovery of a murder-suicide in the house next door.  It, too, is about the way this other kind of life sometimes intrudes upon our own.

Other stories don't succeed as well.  I was baffled by the extended dream sequence in "Eskimo," which otherwise takes place on an airplane.  The longest story, "White Dump," is full of incredible moments--my favorite is a grandmother, swimming naked in a lake, who watches a group of hippies steal her cigarettes and destroy her bathrobe on the shore--but is such a chronological jumble that it's difficult to piece together in a meaningful way.

The one most similar to Lives--and therefore, I thought, one of the strongest--is "Jesse and Meribeth," which captures the nature of friendship between young girls, like Lives did.  (At least, it seems to me to capture it, though maybe Chloe can confirm when her review of Lives goes up.)  Jessie invents an affair with an older man to impress her friend Mary Beth, only to be rebuked by the man who has correctly intuited something of Jessie's family life:

Isn't it true that all the people I know in this world so far are hardly more than puppets for me, serving the glossy contrivings of by imagination?  It's true.  He has hit the nail on the head, as Aunt Ena is fond of saying.  But hitting the nail on the head in a matter like things, in a matter of intimate failure, isn't apt to make people abashed and grateful and eager to change their ways.  Pride hardens, instead, over the nakedly perceived fault.  Pride hardens, pride deals with all those craven licks of sweetness, douses the hope of pleasure, the deep-seated glow of invitation.  What do I want with anybody who can know so much about ne?  In fact, if I could wipe him off the face of the earth now, I would.

It's these finely modulated expressions of human thinking that I find most powerful about Munro's work.  There's nothing particularly earth-shattering about them--no formal boundary-pushing, no experimentalism--but she does it better than almost anybody.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

Julian English sat there watching him, through eyes that he permitted to appear sleepier than they felt.  Why, he wondered, did he hate Harry Reilly?  Why couldn't he stand him?  What was there about Reilly that caused him to say to himself: "If he starts one more of those moth-eaten stories I'll throw this drink in his face."  But he knew he would not throw this drink or any other drink in Harry Reilly's face.  Still, it was fun to think about... Yes, it would be fun to watch.  The whole drink, including the three round-cornered lumps of ice.  At least one lump would hit Reilly in the eye, and the liquid would splash all over his shirt, slowly wilting it as the Scotch and soda trickled down the bosom to the crevice at the waistcoat.  The other people would stand up in amazed confusion.  "Why, Ju!" they would say.  Caroline would say, "Julian!"

Appointment in Samarra begins with Julian English, a member of the social elite in the medium-sized town of Gibbsville, PA, drunkenly throws a drink in the face of a man he dislikes.  This relatively minor crime sets into motion a series of events that leads to Julian becoming a social and professional pariah, the dissolution of his marriage, and eventually--spoiler alert--his own suicide.

I knew that about the novel going in, and expected it to be something like the short-lived NBC series The Slap--about how the repercussions of a small misdeed snowball into something dramatic and chaotic.  But that's not really the way that it plays out in Appointment in Samarra.  O'Hara teases us with the possibility that the social world will collapse around Julian.  Julian worries, for instance, that his assault on Harry means that the Catholic bloc in Gibbsville has turned against him, customers he needs as a Cadillac dealer.  O'Hara introduces a minor mobster, and gives him immense "screen time" to suggest that somehow Julian will end up in trouble with the mob--and he does, but it blows over quickly.  No, it's not the actual collapse but the threat of collapse that causes Julian, a hard drinker and a weaker man than he would confess to, to get drunk, and climb into his own car, running in the driveway.

Fran Lebowitz called O'Hara "the real F. Scott Fitzgerald."  You can see what she's talking about: the corruption of the social scene, the burden of wealth, it's all there.  But The Great Gatsby, for all its essential sadness, takes place on a grand stage.  It's a tragedy in the Greek sense; the downfall of a great man.  The sadness of Appointment in Samarra is of a different kind.  Julian's suicide is affecting because it seems so pointless.  His marriage would have survived.  His social standing would have too, but if it hadn't, what then?  Gibbsville is hardly New York City--it's more like the small, snow-covered Midwestern towns that Nick Carraway dreams of returning to.  In his intoxication, Julian wants his suicide to be what a lot of suicides want--a grand gesture that will alter the landscape of those around him.  In the end, the smallness of the landscape makes the gesture small.  When it's all over, there's no catharsis to be had here; just a bitter taste in your mouth.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Losing Battles by Eudora Welty

As he plodded on through the racket, it rang behind him and was ahead of him too.  It was all-present enough to spill over into voices, as everything, he was ready to believe now, threatened to do, the closer he might come to where something might happen.  The night might turn into more and more voices, all telling it--bragging, lying, singing, pretending, protesting, swearing everything into being, swearing everything away--but telling it.  Even after people gave up each other's company, said goodbye and went homie, if there was only one left, Vaughn Renfro, the world around him was still one huge, soul-defying reunion.

Eudora Welty loves family reunions.  Sometimes they're farcical, like the Peacocks piling into the courtroom in The Ponder Heart, or Fay's inimical family showing up unasked for at the funeral in The Optimist's DaughterSometimes they're intricate and profound, like the wedding party in Delta WeddingThe family reunion in Losing Battles lies somewhere between those poles when they flock to the small town of Banner to celebrate Granny's 98th birthday.

For Welty, family is inescapable, so you might as well learn how to embrace it.  The defining hallmark of Southern culture, you might say, is its love of family--the Beechams and the Renfros who spend the whole of the novel swapping stories they already know certainly think that way.  Almost all of Losing Battles is dialogue, and it covers three main stories: 1.) the complex and convoluted story of how Jack Renfro ended up in jail, 2.) speculation about the parentage of Jack's wife, the orphan Gloria, and 3.) the story of Miss Julia Mortimer, the old Banner schoolteacher who terrorized everyone as a child, and who has recently passed away.

The family figures out, to their delight, that Gloria may be the daughter of a troubled cousin of theirs.  She insists it's not possible, but they force her to eat watermelon and claim her birthright:

She struggled wildly at first as she tried to push away the red hulk shoved down into her face, as big as a man's clayed shoe, swarming with seeds, warm with rain-thin juice.

They were all laughing.  "Say Beecham!" they ordered her, close to her ear.  They rolled her by the shoulders, pinned her flat, then buried her face under the flesh of the melon with its blood heat, its smell of evening flowers.  Ribbons of juice crawled on her neck and circled it, as hands robbed of sex spread her jaws open.

"Can't you say Beecham?  What's wrong with being Beecham?"

Gloria's insistence on being parentless, on being apart, is suspect.  To have no family is to be no one, and the trade-off that allows you to create your own identity is one of little worth to the Beechams.  It's only later that they realize that if Gloria and Jack are cousins, their marriage may be invalid, but in the end it doesn't matter--the family has been brought full circle, and into another kind of reunion.

Even for Welty, whose work is strange in lots of subtle ways, Losing Battles isn't like anything I've ever read.  Only late in the novel does Welty give into her love of obscure descriptions of inner life, when all the family is asleep except for the young boy, Vaughn.  The rest of the book is almost all storytelling, and hums with Mississippian vernacular.  The members of the family are never well individuated, except for Gloria and Jack, but that's all right; like Vaughn observes, the voices of a family combine to make something greater than the sum of their parts, which he associates with the nature of the world.

Not everything lands--I couldn't tell what was going on, for the most part, with a long interlude where a car gets stuck on the side of the mountain.  I get the impression, as I did with Delta Wedding, that these characters are so alive and real to Welty that only flashes of that life really makes it to the page.  But it is frequently beautiful and thoughtful, and if you grew up in the South like I did, the dialogue is a welcome kind of music.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y'all Too by Christopher Emdin


The title of this book implied that it might be intended for me: a white lady who teaches in the (very gentrified) hood. The title was right! This book felt like it was written just for me at just the point in my career when I was ready to hear it. I fed myself a steady diet of Linda Darling Hammond and Lisa Delpit (who Emdin refers to as the "O.G.") when I first started teaching, but faced with the reality of standardized tests and a tyrannical principal, I didn't make room for them in my practice. Now, nine years later, I feel more prepared to take on the challenge of making my classroom a more culturally competent place, and this book was the just the right place to start my journey.

Emdin makes the case that many have made before him: our schools put white, middle class teachers (mostly women) at the helm of classrooms made up of black and brown children; they impose militaristic discipline and test and test and test students to the point where schools have become a place where students can't help but feel alienated, misunderstood, and unsuccessful. Those feelings translate into a myriad of behaviors and outcomes that trigger more militaristic discipline and the cycle deepens. Early on, Emdin quotes Adrienne Rich, who gets at the heart of the problem: "When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing." Emdin goes into depth about the many ways we are failing to acknowledge the reality and the humanity of our neoindigenous students (his word for poor black and brown students--a nod to the history of oppression that all people of color carry with them in our country), and offers some productive, specific strategies and solutions for the white folks he names in his book's title.

This book was hard for me to read. I've been teaching for a long time, and I like to think of myself as not only a good teacher, but also a good person. I consider myself open minded, progressive, and I try not be racist whenever possible. Emdin slowly and specifically pointed out many of the ways in which I still need to grow as a teacher and a person. Recognizing those areas of growth required me to acknowledge the ways in which I am not entirely the person I think I am, which is not the easiest thing to grapple with at the start of a new, tumultuous school year. I found myself pushing back a little--questioning the pedagogy behind his moves, accusing him of making excuses for students of color--but as I kept reading, those defenses fell away. His use of anecdote (I'll describe a real doozie in a moment) and clear, measured prose forced me to reconsider. Emdin makes it as easy as possible. He gives readers a road map--specific, well thought out strategies that feel productive and real and manageable (and more meaningful than just adding a black woman writer to my syllabus and calling it a day). His strategies build on each other, each one forging a stronger classroom community and laying the path for better communication and understanding.

Beyond the strategies, two pieces of the book stuck with me. In the first, Emdin describes the ways in which trauma manifests itself in our children, and, more importantly, the ways in which adults in positions of power interpret and manage those manifestations. He describes how in tenth grade, he and his sister walked into their building just as gunfire erupted outside. His sister, panicked, screams at him to hit the ground and he freezes. She ends up tackling him to the floor, but when they get upstairs his mother berates him until he understands: when you hear gunfire, you get down. Days later, someone drops a pile of textbooks in the hallway, and Emdin drops out of desk to the ground. He is, of course, chastised by his teacher and sent to the principal's office:
There was no way to describe that the trauma of my experience from the previous week was what caused me to jump under the desk in fear for my life. There was no way that the teacher or the principal could ever understand what I was feeling in that moment unless they had experienced it, and so I coolly grabbed my jacket and books, put on a smile for my friends, winked at the teacher , and walked out of the classroom. 
I think of how many moments like this I know about in my students' lives and how many I don't. How many times what I perceive as misbehavior is a reaction to something bigger, outside of both of our control. Emdin doesn't give much beyond building empathy to deal with situations like this, but just being more mindful and reflective has changed how I react to behaviors like these.

The second piece that has stuck with me is the parallel Emdin draws between our urban schools and The Carlisle School, a boarding school in the late 19th century that took Native American children away from their communities in an attempt to "help" them assimilate into white culture. The parallels between what is now widely acknowledged to be a giant, racist mistake and the system that I go to work for are terrifying, but most worrisome of all is this:
This tension between educators who saw themselves as kindhearted people who were doing right by the less fortunate, and students who struggled to maintain their culture and identity while being forced to be the type of student their teachers envisioned, played a part in the eventual recognition that the Carlisle School was a failed experiment. 
My school is a loving, caring community, and in many ways it's a great place to work and to go to school. But we still have a vision of what our students are "supposed" to be that needs to challenged and re-thought in the context of their home cultures. We have mental models about what is appropriate and what is successful that are very white and very affluent and not always applicable to the lives of our students. Charter schools and more militaristic public schools have even more troubling parallels to the Carlisle School's methods.

One of the tensions that played out in my head as this book progressed was that while these standards we've set for behavior and the benchmarks we've set for success may be racist and classist, they still are very real societal standards that my students will have to deal with once they leave school. Emdin touches somewhat on how to tackle this with students--you frame it as a game that they need to know the rules to--but I still had trouble figuring out how to both celebrate and uplift my students for who they are at their core while getting them ready to be successful in a world that isn't going to celebrate or uplift them.

Overall, this was a fantastic read. It was difficult for all the right reasons and has meaningfully changed the way I approach teaching and interacting with my students. If you too are a white person who teaches in the hood, this book is for you. And stick with it even when you bristle! You're probably wrong...

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Tracks, by Louise Erdrich

First things first: this review isn't meant to stand alone. For a summary of the book and Chris's thoughts, please check out his fantastic review. It's been too long since I read Tracks for me to write anything really in-depth about it, but I wanted to mention a few thoughts here since I recommended it to Chris and it's a great book.

As Chris mentions, Native American authors just aren't a well-known segment, so reading Tracks, and Erdrich's other work, can be a bracing experience. It's one thing to hear about something like the Trail of Tears or the various ways the American government has gone about stealing native land; it's another entirely to read a cycle of novels that looks at the U.S. as entirely unsympathetic, and sees not just the commercial aspect, but also the religious aspect, of what happened to the Native Americans as tragic.

I'll get to the point: I've never read a book that wasn't flat out hostile to all religion that is as hostile toward Christianity, and especially Catholicism, as Tracks is. Or actually, I take that back--the closest analogue for me is Things Fall Apart, which was similarly bracing and hostile toward Christianity destroying an indigenous culture. However, Things Fall Apart is a little different in that the Christians that ultimately destroy the village are villainous. In Tracks, there's no such buffer--the nuns that appear in the story aren't evil. They even try to help. But their religion can really be nothing but hostile or impotent to the natives who've watched as Christians overrun everything they've ever known.

There's also just the general humanization of the various Native American characters that occurs as the story progresses. Nanapush initially reads as a cipher, maybe even a caricature; Fleur seems like The (Wo)man with No Name; Pauline, like your standard sheltered teenager. But as the story progresses, they all reveal vulnerabilities as they are acted on by forces outside their control, and are gradually revealed to be as human and fallible as anyone else.

I'm looking forward to reading The Bingo Palace, which is the next book in the cycle, and continues the story of Pauline and the various families introduced in Tracks. Hopefully that review will be a little better.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tracks by Louise Erdrich

The Captain and then the lumber president, the Agent and at last many of our own, spoke long and hard about a cash agreement.  But nothing changed my mind.  I've seen too much go by--unturned grass below my feet, and overhead, the great white cranes flung south forever.  I know this.  Land is the only thing that lasts life to life.  Money burns like tinder, flows off like water.  And as for government promises, the wind is steadier.

The people of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Dakota have been in the news lately for protesting the construction of a pipeline which they say endangers the source of their water in the Missouri River, as well as sacred burial grounds.  They have been attacked by private security workers, and set on by dogs.

Reading these stories made me think of Louise Erdrich's terrific novel Tracks, which is about the ways in which, in the early twentieth  century, white business and government interests managed to consolidate their hold on already-scarce Native lands.  The Ojibwe characters of the novel are constantly threatened with the loss of their homes, pressured in lean times to sell to government agents forever.  Old, protective spirits seem to have become powerless:

It was clear that Indians were not protected by the thing in the lake or by the other Manitous who lived in trees, the bush, or spirits of animals that were hunted so scarce they became discouraged and did not mate.  There would have to come a turning, a gathering, another door.

But these problems lurk mostly in the background, as a kind of constant threatening hum.  The main story centers around Fleur Pillager, a headstrong Ojibwe girl in the town of Argus, North Dakota.  Fleur is beautiful and mysterious, and menacingly independent.  She lives way out in the woods, and people speculate about her close relationship with the monster-spirit living at the bottom of the lake.

The novel has two narrators: Nanapush, an old and sly man who rescued Fleur from dying in the snow as a child, and Pauline, an outcast Ojibwe woman who gravitates toward blood-and-doom Catholicism.  Nanapush is witty, crass, and full of practical jokes; Pauline is joyless and too severe in her faith, even for the mother of her convent.  In them, Erdrich contrasts two ways of responding to the weakening of Native communities: Nanapush refuses to deal with the Agents, consoling himself with black humor; Pauline embraces the grim mythos of the white man's religion.

How can a people respond in the face of near-extinction?  I thought Nanapush's response to powerlessness was very profound:

Power dies, power goes under and gutters out, ungraspable. It is momentary, quick of flight and liable to deceive. As soon as you rely on the possession it is gone. Forget that it ever existed, and it returns. I never made the mistake of thinking that I owned my own strength, that was my secret. And so I never was alone in my failures. I was never to blame entirely when all was lost, when my desperate cures had no effect on the suffering of those I loved. For who can blame a man waiting, the doors open, the windows open, food offered, arms stretched wide? Who can blame him if the visitor does not arrive?

What would the Standing Rock Sioux say about that, I wonder?  Perhaps they have more power than the Native Americans of the early 20th century did: the federal government just recently declared that they would halt production on the pipeline, at least temporarily.  But in many ways Native Americans remain impoverished and marginalized, and will probably remain so for a very long time.  That's true in literature, too: how many Native American authors can you name?  (Along with Erdrich, I can only think of one: Sherman Alexie.)  It's not quite fair to ask Erdrich to shoulder the burden of being the literary representation of Native American life in the United States, but you could do far worse than Tracks, which is funny, accomplished, and frequently beautiful.

Brent read this, too.  Maybe he'll write a review about it?

A Kiss Before Dying, by Ira Levin

I was looking for something fast and fun to read when I stumbled across Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying. I knew him primarily from Rosemary's Baby (which, full disclosure I've never seen or read, but c'mon--Rosemary's Baby) and Stepford Wives, and was somehow unaware he'd done any crime writing.

A Kiss Before Dying has a really interesting structure that makes it work. There are several viewpoint characters, and a sequence of deaths that are about as unexpected as anything I've read. There's a lot of fun 70s atmosphere and some nice hard-boiled dialog, and the writing is very clean--it doesn't knock you out of your seat, but read some bad crime fiction and you see what a neat trick it is.

The plot, well, I don't really want to talk about it much, because even naming all the characters is probably a spoiler of sorts. It's murder mystery that takes place on a college campus, and involves three sisters and their rich dad, and a murderous schemer who wants to get his hands on the money. There's a mid-book twist that brings to mind Psycho, in a positive way, and the killer, whose identity isn't revealed until near the end of the book--a neat trick, since he pops up throughout--isn't exactly charming, but he's so pragmatic that it's hard to really hate him.

It also has a rather nasty little ending, and keeps moving clear through. So if this super-vague review makes it sound interesting, check it out. It's a quick read and a lot of fun, even if it does have a lot less Satan than his best known work.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Headmaster's Wife, by Thomas Christopher Greene

Here we are again. I haven't written a review since sometime in 2015. I didn't even make a top 10 list last year, although I did read 50 books, and now I'm writing about a book I didn't even like that much--but it's good to be writing something.

So, this book, The Headmaster's Wife. I'd never heard of it, and I bought it for my Kindle based on a jacket blurb that compared it to Lolita, but with some sort of twist. Now, you might say that buying a book you've never heard of because it's compared to one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century is some pretty hopeful thinking. You'd be right. But I can't say that it wasn't accurate to some extent.

The book opens with the protagonist, Arthur Winthrop, disrobing in the park, and the book is framed by his interrogation by the police. No time is wasted getting to the meat of the story though--Arthur flashes back to his time as headmaster of a prestigious school and his torrid affair with his student, Betsy.

The first part of the novel really does feel like an extended riff on Lolita, as Arthur moves from distant longing, to bribery, to eventual blackmail and sexual extortion. Arthur narrates this section, and it's genuinely uncomfortable to see his manipulation and naked need for this seventeen year old girl, and the way he goes about getting what he wants. His pursuit culminates in blackmailing Betsy to go with him for a weekend in Chicago, telling her that he'll stop her boyfriend's explusion--one caused by liquor Arthur himself planted--and then, after their torrid getaway, reneging and expelling Arthur anyway. In the background of all this skullduggary is Arthur's wife, Elizabeth, who puts the pieces together as their marriage dissolves.

I can't really discuss the second half of the book without substantial spoilers, so be warned: MAJOR SPOILERS.

The first half ends with Arthur confronting Betsy, suffocating her to death, and throwing her body in the river. So it would seem there's nowhere else for the story to go--but clever readers might have noticed the linguistic connection between the names Betsy and Elizabeth, and the fact that the titular wife has hardly appeared, and so we start the second half with a major, potentially novel-ruining twist: that the entire first half of the novel has been Arthur's way of dealing with his wife leaving him. Betsy is Elizabeth is Betsy.

The second half of the novel follows Elizabeth from the time she meets Arthur until she finally decides to end their slowly rotting relationship. The parallels in the second half are interestingly ambiguous and it's not entirely clear why Arthur cast his wife as a seducer-cum-victim. Characters recur in different roles and contexts, and there's a somewhat interesting story to be put together, dealing with themes of love and, especially, loss.

Unfortunately, the second half has to deal with two significant issues, which it navigates with mixed success. The first is that I couldn't help but feel a little cheated after the effectively disturbing first half of the book. Finding out it was all, basically, a dream, was disappointing and started the second half out on a bad foot. But more importantly, Elizabeth is never as compelling a character as Arthur or even the enigmatic Betsy. Her story is naturally less propulsive, since wer can be fairly certain we know how it ends--most men don't cope with a marriage that's getting better by fantasizing about killing their wife.

Still, I'm hesitant to ding The Headmaster's Wife too badly. The writing is often very beautiful and the first half of the book flies by. It reads like an airport novel in the best way, and Thomas' unique methods of writing about such well-trodden themes is admirable. It never quite comes together, but I think I could still recommend it with those caveats.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades. 
I had to read Swtich over the summer for grad school and was not inclined to enjoy myself. Books written by business school professors about how to Business School your way through life are not my favorite genre, and this one wasn't really an exception to that rule.

The Heath brothers have come up with a metaphor which they stretch so that it applies to basically every change related success story ever. The basic gist is that every person has an Elephant, a Rider, and a Path. The Elephant is your emotional, gut reaction, deeply held beliefs side, the Rider your intellectual, analytical side, and the Path is the change you want to make (or that your supervisor wants you to make). In order to make any kind of significant change, you must motivate the Elephant (appeal to emotion), appeal to the Rider (convince using facts and data), and shape the Path (make the change process as seamless and uncomplicated as possible). Since that is basically all the aspects of how to convince people to do things, the book is fairly convincing, but I found it frustratingly simplistic.

One thing the Heath brothers do well is give examples. They tell lots and lots of one off anecdotes (some incredibly impressive, others fairly shrug worthy) about people making big changes in their businesses, communities, and personal lives, using some aspect of their Elephant/Rider/Path metaphor. None of these people were aware they were using the Switch ideology; most of them were just good leaders who understood how people work, but they did illustrate each aspect of the metaphor nicely.

My primary frustration with the book came when it touched on educational examples. I'm in grad school for educational leadership, so those examples were the only ones directly related to my field, and also the only ones I knew enough about to raise an eyebrow. In one, a struggling student is constantly getting suspended and kicked out of class until a kindly guidance counselor is able to figure out what it is he likes about the only class he's doing well in and gets all his teachers on board and the kid's life and behavior are changed forever. This was an illustration of the "bright spot" strategy which the book describes as tackling problems by looking at where things are working instead of where they aren't. A good idea in theory, but the example was so overly simplified (and such a stereotype of the guidance counselor/teacher dynamic) that it put my teeth on edge.

Overall, Switch articulates some interesting truths about human behavior and offers a few helpful, concrete strategies. That being said, the basis for the whole book is something that I would hope most basically competent people have figured out about humanity by their late 20's, and it didn't seem to make any groundbreaking claims that haven't been articulated before.