Saturday, July 14, 2018

Sowing the seeds of time

I don’t remember reading William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in high school, but I might if Dave Fogelstrom or Rusty Weaver had been in charge. I will remember reading their collaboration, McBeth and the Everlasting Gobstopper, for two reasons. One, it landed on my summer reading list after a chance encounter with Weaver in the shadow of one of the world’s most dangerous volcanos; a symbolic reminder, perhaps, that reading (and writing for Fogelstrom and Weaver) is a great way to let off a little steam. Second, the book’s super-heated, irreverent tone belies a sincere, soulful introspection that resonated with my own experience as a teacher. Gobstopper made me laugh but it also made me think and reflect and think some more; about the importance of teaching, about the worthy journey of learning, about the teachers I had in high school and what they might think of me today and about my own students and what I would think of them today.

I read Gobstopper shortly before having what Fogelstrom and Weaver call a Blue Heart diamond moment, one of the rare occurrences for teachers when the “fog of the unknown” lifts briefly, allowing a glimpse at the “mature result of our work.” It was a wedding; a moment in which the time between then and now dissolved, an occasion in which a former student’s thoughtful sentiment about the role of this teacher hit home. It was a moment to cherish, fleeting yet indelible. It was also a reminder that teachers breathe a song into the air, having faith that knowledge, wisdom, and the important stuff will go forth and be found again in the heart of a friend. Gobstopper reminded me of my own song, and my Blue Diamond moment revealed one of its resident hearts, which warmed my own. For that alone, it was reading time well spent.

Mount Rainier by Ed Suomenin | Flickr

Friday, June 22, 2018

A Shout in the Ruins leaves a lasting impression

The challenging part of historical study is listening, having the presence to hear the echoes of life long ago and appreciate the contemporary implications of an age from which all personal experience has passed. Literature can fill the gaps between names, places, and dates on the timeline, distill the subjective knowledge of life long ago, the affective derived only from context, from seeing, hearing, and feeling what once was. 

A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin Powers is an instrument for hearing the echoes, a model for historical reflection, a consideration of the experience and legacy of slavery, the physical and mental brutality of the time, and its reach far into the future. With language lyrical and laconic, Powers tells a story of love and loss… of one man’s life in the century after the Civil War and his attempt, near his term, to go back in time, to make meaning, to listen to the echoes of his own life. George Seldom’s search is for knowledge, not the kind found in history books, but the kind found in memory and experience. From the formative George, those things were hidden by the raw, remnant residue of slavery and war.
There is intensity in the rhythms of Powers’ writing that allow the reader to feel the moments in time the story traverses… the violence, the sadness, the despair but also the hope that the long arc of history does indeed bend toward justice.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Chernow reconstructs the life of U.S. Grant

The stories of people who lived before the age of sound recording often carry with them a mystic, spectral quality in the sense that a subject’s disposition must be inferred, even imagined. Ron Chernow, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of American revolutionaries George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, published his latest historical excavation last year, this time reconstructing the life of Ulysses S. Grant. Grant, a comprehensive, single-volume biography of the Hero of Appomattox and the 18th President of the United States, unearths details covering the entirety of Grant’s life, from the tensions of his personal relationships to the tumult of his professional endeavors.

Chernow’s work demystifies Grant, distinguishing his veracious, sentient nature from the complex, often adverse, and politically virulent environment in which he lived. What emerges from the narrative is an appreciable portrait of a man engaged in a life with purpose and perseverance. But it’s Chernow’s ability to extract and profile Grant’s emotional intelligence that leaves the reader with a sharper sense of Grant’s character and how he pursued his life, including the work of war, with the energy and intensity for which he is remembered.

The surprisingly sensitive nature of Grant’s character emerges slowly as the narrative unfolds, fully exposed by the time the story ends. Far from innate, Grant’s disposition during the Civil War was derived from life experiences that were often painful, marked by failure and frustration but balanced by family and friendship. Extensively researched, yet not constrained by trivia, Chernow’s work reveals how empathy and intuition, in addition to experience and strategy, guided Grant’s thinking and behavior in times of success and failure.

Extensive yet fluent and forthright, Grant is a tremendous volume of scholarship and an indispensable contribution to the story of the American character.

In his own words: Annotated Grant memoir compliments Chernow biography

A great companion piece to Ron Chernow’s, Grant, is the 2017 republication of The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a complete annotated edition of the highly acclaimed memoir edited by John F. Marszalek. Written in the final months of his life, the story is dry, dense in specifics, yet brief… into the weeds and out again, moving on to the next battle or movement of troops, much like Grant’s approach to leading his armies.

There are moments in the book where Grant shares some personal insight or perspective, usually incidental as would occur in conversation, like the time President Lincoln made a private, yet laugh-out-loud joke to him about a Confederate officer’s oversized overcoat or his haunting reflection 20 years after that the historically horrific nature of the Civil War “should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future.” It’s those moments that keep the pages turning and make Grant’s memoir well worth the time.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Divert your attention with an engaging read

The American Psychological Association's 2017 Stress in America survey revealed that stress levels are on the rise. The usual suspects, money and work, made the list of reasons, as did politics. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the future of the nation is a very or somewhat significant source of stress. Also, this year's survey added to our understanding of the impact of technology, specifically smartphones, on stress levels. Stress is higher, by as much as 20 percent, for those who engage with their devices constantly. 

So with all this stress, what is one to do? Read, of course!

Research reveals all sorts of benefits from reading, including help with stress. Reading can help you relax by engaging the mind and refocusing attention. Even a few minutes can be enough to reduce stress levels by more than two-thirds. And it doesn't matter what you read so long as you enjoy it. So take some time to read a book... or two... or fifty!

Below are the most engaging books I read in 2017:

Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game
by JOHN THORN | 2011 | 365 pages
Baseball in the Garden of Eden is the work of official Major League Baseball historian John Thorn. Thorn explores the origins of America's pastime, both real and imagined. From the minutes of a town meeting in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1791 to the creation of the Mills Commission in 1905 and its mandate to document the provenance of the grande 'ole game, Thorn analyzes the views of those who believed, or had a vested interest in promoting, baseball to be uniquely American with those who asserted its evolution from other bat-and-ball games around the world. Thorn's assiduous synthesis of baseball scholarship contributes to a grander historical narrative than those on both sides of the argument might have imagined.

Washington: A Life 
by RON CHERNOW | 2010 | 927 pages
If the purpose of biography is to deepen understanding of one's character and disposition in historical context, Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life is most worthy of its Pulitzer status. Chernow's exploration of America's most renowned citizen takes the reader to Washington's personal and political world. Perhaps the only American president who can truly claim non-partisanship, Washington's life remains illustrative of the issues facing the early republic as it grew from an idea into an actuality. For readers of Chernow's earlier biography of Alexander Hamilton who thought that book was slow at times, Chernow strikes a balance between detail and delivery in Washington that keeps the pages turning.

Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World
by ERIC METAXAS | 2017 | 416 pages 
The best biographies stand readers next to their subjects as they navigate the trials and tribulations that inspire studying and writing about them. Popular in tone and highly referenced, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World explores the period of The Reformation and Luther's role in it with style and substance. Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Phrophet, Spy, deftly takes readers through the tumultuous times of 16th century Europe with sanguine, 21st century expression.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
by REBECCA SOLNIT | 2009 | 353 pages
In A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit synthesizes the scholarship in disaster studies, revealing antithetical beliefs about human nature when calamity strikes; one empathetic, supportive, and heroic, and the other selfish, opportunistic, and savage... each competing to fill the void left when normal life disappears in an instant. Solnit’s work is a vivid disquisition on disaster response, elucidating the memories, stories, conversations, and experiences of those who were there… in San Francisco in 1906… in Nova Scotia in 1950… in New York City in 2001… in New Orleans in 2005. At once history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology, Solnit weaves together a narrative of human behavior that is part revealing, part reassuring, and wholly thought provoking.

The Whiskey Rebels: A Novel
by DAVID LISS | 2008 | 519 pages
The Whiskey Rebels was one of those shot-in-the-dark, pleasant-surprise reads that happens every so often. The novel begins as two stories, riding stridently parallel while ever so slightly merging as the story progresses. Written in first-person, or first-persons, The Whiskey Rebels has a memoir-ish feel, leaving the reader looking out from inside the characters' minds... seeing what they see, hearing what they hear, and feeling what they feel. One also gets the sense of the arduous, heavy nature of life in early America including the hardships of the frontier and the bitter political conflicts that arose in a young nation trying to forge its identity.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Weir serves up another helping of sci-fi filet

As a launching conceit, a heist on the Moon is a meat hook. And for lovers of The Martian, Andy Weir’s second novel, Artemis, serves up another helping of sci-fi filet that pushes readers beyond the horizon but not so far that they can’t find their way home.

People have not yet been to Mars, let alone survived under the circumstances in which Mark Watney found himself, but it sure seems a likely story after reading The Martian. Likewise, there are no cities on the Moon, but Weir provides a percipient account of how Moon life might emerge as a matter of routine... along with a few exceptional haps.

The emerging consensus about Artemis seems to be “it’s good, but not The Martian.” I don’t disagree. Weir will undoubtedly have to deal with comparisons, and rightfully so, since Artemis was created in the same near-future, kind-of-plausible-not-yet-possible vein. But while Artemis comes across as sort of a Martian Lite, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Weir knows how to put characters into acutely stressful situations and let us watch them try to work free, all-the-while integrating complex science with comedic, high-drama. Weir proves again that writers can direct-teach while spinning a good yarn; the learning doesn’t necessarily have to be inferred. But it’s the story, not the education, that makes Artemis worth the time. It’s conflict, tension, suspense, and consequence that keep the pages turning. Weir’s newest protagonist, Jazz Bashara, is eminently relatable. Mark Watney was an extraordinary figure in extraordinary circumstances. I wouldn’t be able to get near him in his time or mine. But Jazz Bashara is an ordinary person with ordinary problems (relationships, debt, petty crime... you know). And it’s those problems that help Weir extract a sophisticated yet accessible story from an environment as inhospitable as the Moon. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Little Soldiers widens the discourse on public education

It seems at times that Americans don’t quite know what to make of China. And it occurred to me after reading Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve by Lenora Chu that this is perhaps because China doesn’t quite know what to make of itself as it changes and continues to open up to the world. In Little Soldiers, a cultural inquiry that feels like a memoir, Chu, with wry, self-deprecation, recounts her experiences as the mother of a young American child beginning his formal education in the Chinese public school system and as a journalist trying to understand the context in which this system operates. Chu’s cultural dissonance and the Chinese education system’s traditional resolve emerge early in this heart-felt, reflective story in which Chu never quite seems to reconcile her own educational experiences growing up in Texas with those she wants for her children. She does, however, come to respect the discipline that characterizes the Chinese system and even embraces it as an important component of her son’s early education. This realization seems to unsettle her as much as anything, and drives her to learn more.

Chu’s past and present circumstances position her uniquely to tell the story of the Chinese and American educational systems. Chu takes a humanities based approach, compiling observations, perspectives, experiences, and research to produce a thick, context-based synthesis that reveals both the irreconcilable differences and common features of these two systems.

Chu senses a slight Western shift in the Chinese educational system as the country embraces the tenets of capitalism. And she offers the thought that American schools, particularly early on, could benefit from a slight Eastern shift. Chu ultimately advocates for widening the lens through which we view educational practice. While schools are a reflection of the societies in which they operate, Chu finds these systems are capable of change. Indeed, change may be the desired permanent state for both systems… all systems, even.

Near the end of Little Solders, Chu recounts an education conference she attended in Beijing in which one participant noted that “the speed of change in the way we educate is staggering. We will reach 2030 and none of the things we are talking about will be relevant at all.” I am not sure I recognize this speed of change from within the American system but perhaps if not solving the riddle of public education, Little Soldiers’ contribution is to expand the view of the education landscape for readers, allowing them to calibrate their assessment of what defines success in education and think more precisely about how to achieve it.