Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Death and Life of the Great American School System

by Diane Ravitch
 Basic Books     2010
335 pages     Nonfiction

I had the opportunity to read Diane Ravitch's provocative book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, while I was helping a student write a paper for an education curriculum class. As an Undersecretary in the Department of Education, Ravitch was early advocate for charter schools, vouchers, firing incompetent teachers and operating schools as businesses, but she has made a radical shift in her understanding of what needs to be done in America's schools. This book, the first since her major shift in thinking, outlines how and why her thinking has changed. She places the blame squarely on poverty, testing, the agendas of legislatures and what she calls "the billionaires' boys clubs." 

I really have to admire her work. In a world where politicians and policy-makers won't compromise--no matter what--she has publicly come out saying that what we have been doing isn't working and that now she sees that the reforms she formerly advocated are the major part of the problem. She has turned against standardized testing and schools of choice. She has become an advocate of neighborhood schools because they promote democracy and community. She reminds us that the three major events that shaped our current educational dilemmas happened in the 1960s and 1970s. Those are desegregation, the mainstreaming of disabled students, and massive amounts of immigration.She is particularly outspoken about the private foundations that are pouring money into public education advocating charter schools, among other things. This would include the Gates, Walton and Broad Foundations.

She says: "School reformers sometimes resemble the characters in Dr. Seuss's Solla Sollew, who are always searching for that mythical land 'where they never have troubles, at least very few.' Or like Dumbo, they are convinced they could fly if only they had a magic feather. . .In this case I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures; I too had drunk deeply of the elixir that promised a quick fix to intractable problems."

Two things that I especially appreciate about her conclusions
are that she believes that students need well-rounded curriculum, including history, the arts and science. She suggests that children who receive well-rounded educations do well on standardized tests--perhaps better than those children who are taught to the test. I also appreciate her comments about the value of teachers and that the mass firings of teachers do nothing to enhance education.

Ravitch has a new book called Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. It came out in September, and in it she continues her onslaught against the further education reforms since The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Believe me, she is no fan of Arnie Duncan, Secretary of Education!

A review of The Death and Life of the Great American School System in the New York Times:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Gone Girl

 by Gillian Flynn
Crown Publishers, 2012
419 pages     Fiction

What to say about Gone Girl? That I hated the characters! That I couldn't stop reading it! That I didn't peek ahead to the ending--not once! (Probably a new record for me.) I guess that I have to say that I had a love-hate relationship with this book, which I believe is just what Gillian Flynn had in mind.

Amy and Nick Dunne are a couple in their mid thirties and have been married for five years. As the book begins, they have moved from New York to Nick's hometown in Missouri, a place extremely alien to Amy's New York sensibilities. She is the beloved daughter of a pair of psychologist authors who documented their only child's life in a long series of children's books called Amazing Amy. Nick and Amy are a "golden" couple, both extremely good looking, both used to having life on their own terms. Both have just lost their jobs, and the trust fund that Amy has always drawn from is in jeopardy. The novel is the accounting of their lives after they moved to Missouri to take care of Nick's dying mother and rapidly failing father.

The story is told in alternating chapters and in three sections. Nick writes of finding Amy gone from their home on their fifth anniversary and each time he writes, we become more confused about how involved he was with her disappearance. Amy's chapters, in the first section of the book, are diary entries from the time that she met Nick until the fateful anniversary day. As we read her diary entries, we become more confused about who this woman is; the diary entries do not portray the same woman that Nick is describing.

Amy and Nick are very adept at playing mind games with each other, and the game has been pushed way beyond their own best interests and their own ability to rationally understand what they have done. At first, Nick seems to be the sane person because it is very difficult to believe Amy's diary entries. While it appears that Nick may have had something to do with Amy's disappearance, nothing seems to match up. By the time we begin the second section of the book, we are in total confusion and anxious for things to start sorting themselves out. But nothing in Gone Girl is as it seems, and as you turn more and more pages and hate the characters more with every page turn, your mind gets as crazy as Nick and Amy. 

As I was reading, I kept thinking "Who are these people?" There is no touch of reality in their characters. But then you watch a "Real Housewives" episode and suddenly there they are--they could be characters on a reality show. Flynn has done a great job of creating characters out of caricatures, much like the characters on Real Housewives are caricatures. Nick and Amy have invented themselves and each other. We recognize little bits of them in people we know or people we have seen in movies or on television. Nick muses, "It's a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless automat of characters." How awful it must be to always be plotting, always be trying to remember the last lie, always recreating oneself. The Chicago Tribune reviewer speaks to this point: "Within this single novel, there are many warring stories: The stories Nick and Amy tell about themselves, the stories they tell each other. The stories others tell about them, and the stories they tell about each other. What's at stake is not simply factual truth but something more profound: Who holds the final power to write the story of the life this toxic couple shares.

Gillian Flynn is as good at mind games as Amy and Nick are. For her, as for Amy and Nick it is all pretend--a mind-blowing exercise, so well plotted that you can't put it down.  The New York Times review says,   "It is wily, mercurial, subtly layered and populated by characters so well imagined that they’re hard to part with — even if, as in Amy’s case, they are already departed." Flynn says in an interview that she often had the story line of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf in mind, and that makes sense. I had the same angry feelings toward Amy and Nick Dunne as I did toward Martha and George.

My sister said that she kept looking at the picture of the author
 to see if the author looked as crazy as the book, but the author's picture shows this lovely looking woman, the wife of a lawyer and the mother of a little boy. Flynn mentioned in an interview that her office is in the basement of her Chicago home, and that as she was writing the book, she would hear her husband moving around upstairs and have to take a deep breath before she went upstairs and be a sane woman in a sane relationship.

Most reviews speak of the power of the novel, but I particularly loved the dissident review on Book Forum. The reviewer calls Gone Girl a "masterpiece of cuckoo clockwork" and while she admired the writing, she hates the characters. Why? "Primarily the characters’ apparently everyday behavior—their motivations and how they view one another. Amy and Nick do not resemble actual people so much as grotesquely smiling masks driven by forces of extreme artifice, and it’s exactly that extreme artificial quality that’s frightening to the point of sickening." She calls it "Jezebel in book form."

As much as it is reminiscent of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, you haven't read this novel before. That is why it will be one of my favorite books of the year.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Have you seen this book list?

 Most Famous Books Set In Every State_02

I have been on vacation this week and have been deeply engrossed in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I will have a review of it before the weekend is over. 

I saw a very cool article about the most famous book from each state on the Business Insider website. Have you seen this list? How many have you read? Does the book for your state strike you as the best from your state? Is it indeed the most famous? I have read 28 of them. Half way across the country. How about you?

AL  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
AK   Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
AZ   The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
AR   A Painted House by John Grisham
CA  East of Eden by John Steinbeck
CO  The Shining by Stephen King
CT  Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
DE  The Saint of Lost Things by Christopher Castellani
FL  To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway
GA  Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
HI  Hawaii by James Michener
ID  Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
IL  The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
IN  The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
IA  A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
KS  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
KY  Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
LA  Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
ME  Carrie by Stephen King
MD  Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
MA  Walden by Henry David Thoreau
MI  The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
MN  Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
MO  Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
MT  A River Runs Through It by Norman McLean
MS  The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
NE  My Antonia by Willa Cather
NV  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
NH  The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving
NJ  Drown by Junot Diaz
NM  Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford
NY  The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
NC A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks
ND  The Round House by Louise Erdrich
OH  The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
OK  Paradise by Toni Morrison
OR  One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
PA  The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
RI  My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
SC  The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
SD  A Long Way from Home by Tom Brokaw
TN  The Firm and The Client by John Grisham
TX  No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
UT  The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
VT  Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter
VA  Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
WA  Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
DC  The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
WV  Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
WI  Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
WY The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Embrace the Chaos: How India taught me to stop overthinking and start living

by Bob Miglani
 Barrett-Kuehner   2013
130 pages     Spiritual
The Shortlist

Bob Miglani was born in India but raised in the United States. In Embrace the Chaos, he describes the contrast between life in the United States and life in India--life in a place where all is controlled chaos and life in a place where there is no attempt to control the chaos. The introduction tells it all: "You have less control than you think. Get over it." Miglani is a businessman, and the book is his philosophical look at India and is his attempt to relate what he has learned from Indian life to over-programmed Americans.

The book is divided into two parts: Accept and Don't Overthink.  Each section is filled with short vignettes that tell the truths of life from an Indian perspective. Miglani intersperses each story with pithy sayings and observations. The stories are charming. There is a delightful story about a disrupted plane ride, another about a simple, but joyful birthday party, and another about a crazy Indian wedding. In each story, Miglani relates the truth that he found from that experience, a truth that will work to calm and enlighten driven Americans. He says, for example: "Worrying about what's coming next will make you miss the best times of your life." The message of another story is: "I realized that although parts of India's landscape may appear changed on the surface, its citizens' deep reservoir of acceptance for the imperfections of life hadn't changed."

This is a charming little book that I would not have known about if the publicist hadn't sent it to me. We have all heard the messages of Embrace the Chaos at other times and in other formats. It was a pleasure to read the messages once again connected to such delightful stories. It made me want to go to India and try out some of that chaos. 

I'm about to read another  bit of Indian philosophy in the new book The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri . It is one of this year's most anticipated books. 

Bob Miglani's blog and website: