** Restoring Opportunity by Greg Duncan and Richard Murmane


Written by two academics, Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education makes the case that poor and rich in America have access to completely different public schools — hence chances for success. The strength of the book lies in its rigor: facts are painstakingly marshaled to bolster the argument (except the central one, that education means better economic chances in life, but it seems safe to assume that is true).

The authors present a number of case studies of successful experiments, carefully avoiding what I would call the heroic educator syndrome: take an exceptional individual, have him or her work 100-hour weeks, and transform a school. Easy? no, but possible, and also not duplicatable.

Alas, it seems that the very system of K-12 schools in the US is set up to fail poor children, as seniority systems provide an incentive for the stronger teachers to flock to the schools in affluent neighborhoods. Still, the authors show how some reform efforts have succeeded in large school districts. interestingly it seems that they hinge on strong school principals, when principals surely suffer from similar seniority rules.

And there is hope. While the authors bemoan low college graduation rates for students from poor families compared to students from rich families, it seems that the gap has narrowed from half as high (5% vs 9%) in the seventies to 2/3 (36% to 54% ) in the early nineties. Sounds like some progress is being done.

Want to help? Volunteer to help poor students at a local school. I do, and it’s very rewarding.

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Filed under Non fiction

** Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler


Shotgun Lovesongs open with a stunning chapter that introduces a group of high school friends from a small town in Wisconsin, some of whom have gone on to fame or money (or both) and others who have stayed and farmed as their parents did, or left and returned broken. The rest of the book tells the full story of these men, from high school to ten or fifteen years on, and it is not as successful as the first chapter, with somewhat stereotypical characters, especially the women characters, it seems, and the story lines hackneyed.

The winner is the town itself, with its cliques and closed-mindedness along with its instant solidarity.

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Filed under New fiction

* Save the Date by Jen Doll


Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest is the cringe-inducing memoir of a twit who attends many weddings, gets seriously drunk at most, sleeps with ill-chosen guests (we should, perhaps, charitably assume that drunkenness makes for poor decision-making), and seems to want, above all, a wedding of her own, despite her swearing up and down to the contrary. It’s all very sad (and boring).

Behind all the silly stories, there emerges an obvious truth that many wedding traditions need a makeover: when no one wants to catch the bouquet, why throw it? Why a wedding registry if pots and pans and plates and glasses are already owned? But the author does not want to linger on anything substantial and seems to want most of all to recall her outfits in great details. Presumably because she chose them before falling into that drunken stupor…

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Filed under True story

** The Bees by Laline Paull


The heroine of The Bees is a lowly sanitation worker, Flora 717, who through pluck, intelligence, hard work, and luck will eventually overturn the set order of the hive. The story has a 1984-like plot overlaid with assiduous regurgitations of the latest studies in bee communications — so that the result oscillates between a delightful rendition of the exploits of the heroine (most of the time) and a highly predictable, even boring structure. If you can forget that you have read the story before, you will be cheering for 717!

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Filed under New fiction

* Suddenly, Love by Aharon Appelfeld


Suddenly, Love stars an aging, lonely man and a young(ish) woman he hires to take care of him and his house. He is smart and well read and she is devoted and uneducated.

I suppose it should have read as a lovely and unlikely May-December romance. I read it as run of the mill exploitation of younger women as personal servants. Call me a feminist.

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*** The Bones Beneath by Mark Billingham


The hero of The Bones Beneath, Detective Tom Thorne, travels to a small island off the coast of Wales to find the body of a serial killer’s victim, in an errand he knows to be doomed, and you, the reader, will readily agree when you learn that the serial killer himself will accompany him. The author nicely builds up the suspense until the horror finally unleashes, late in the story. Never mind that the deus ex machinae is highly unlikely: the anti-hero detective is wonderfully drawn, as is the psychopathic killer.

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Filed under Mystery

* Perfectly Miserable by Sarah Payne Stuart


The author of Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, fled hurriedly after high school, leaving behind its boredom and conventionality, and flocked back to it, kids in tow, to raise them in the boring, conventional town that seemed to her to be the perfect place to raise a family.

Minus the heroic early American history, this sounds like the town where I live, deserted by anyone between the ages of 18 and 35, taken over by mansions replacing humbler abodes, and ruled by a coterie of stay-home moms who have given up high-powered jobs to push their progeny into prestigious colleges. It’s half interesting to see the same pattern described in this book, but it really isn’t that interesting, nor are the author’s travails with her credit card balances as she overspends on her house(s), or the descriptions of the various writers who made Concord famous. What is interesting is the description of her 70s childhood and (somewhat) that of her children’s upbringing. Not enough to make the book worth reading, for me at least.

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Filed under True story