Monthly Archives: May 2015

*** Our Kids by Robert Putnam

For the past five years, I have helped seniors at the local high school get into college and find funding for it. The 12 students I’ve worked with so far attend a school that sits in an affluent neighborhood but draws from both rich and poor families, almost accurately divided by the proverbial train tracks. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how these students differ from the rich kids attending the same school, and why they need to expand so much more effort to get the chance to attend the same universities. (And it’s not only that they need to spend hours and hours filling out scholarship applications!)

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis exactly captures the problem. Written by Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame, it tackles the difficult issue of the lack of opportunities for low-income children in a society that has become bifurcated. It was not the case for the author’s high school cohort (he graduated in 1959), which he shows achieved high levels of success regardless of the parents’ social class.

The book alternates between personal stories of upper midle class and working class students of late high school and early-college age and chilling statistics, illustrated by graphs that illustrate the growing gap between rich and poor, along all kinds of dimensions from economic achievement to social integration (of course, considering the author’s interest), to unemployment, and family structure. It makes a great case of a society that is not only highly unequal, but where economic mobility has slowed to an alarming low.
Hope can be found in the last chapter, where the author outlines practical solutions to the problem, including less housing segregation, better childcare and schools and, no suprise for me: formal and informal mentors. If you are concerned with opportunities for low-income children, this book will provide both context and suggestions for direct involvement in a solution.
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Filed under New fiction

* The Turner House by Angela Flournoy


I love a good family saga, but The Turner House isn’t it. While its thirteen-children family in a decaying Detroit house could generate plenty of drama, the author chooses to focus mostly on two of the children, now grown, one of which is a rather boring, mostly responsible man. The other is a deliciously complicated gambling addict, who comes back to the house after having been evicted, and whose lucid plotting for shelter and funds keeps the book going, The history of Detroit is soberly and discreetly told through the family, but the plot does not offer much to the reader besides well-signaled incidents.

(As I was reading this book, I remembered The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, starring a paltry 12 children in a Philadelphia family, which I liked so little I did not even review on the blog. Be warned.)

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*** Building a Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green


Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) is a (recent) history of theories and practice of good teaching, focused on primary and secondary education. It’s not a very encouraging tale, as very little effort seems to have been placed on training new teachers, sharing the techniques of effective teachers, or even using robust evaluation techniques to test the effectiveness of different approaches. And some of the reform that have been implemented seem to have drilled teachers into a few non-essential changes rather than address the fundamental methods for engaging the students into the learning, or focused only on behavior issues and ignoring the longer-term effect of imposing overly docile deportment.

The book showcases a number of superb educators and their effort (not always successful!) to share their methods with others. There are close to 4 million teachers in the US: wouldn’t it be nice if they could all adopt the you-you’ll-we technique or any of the others described in the book — or at least have been exposed to them at some point during their training years?

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* I Refuse by Per Petterson


In the gloomy vein of Out Stealing HorsesI Refuse is the story of two best friends who had a sudden fallout. Decades later, they meet each other again by chance and remember, in alternating chapters, their childhoods, one quite awful and violent, but with an unexpected successful ending, the other apparently peaceful and loving but with a sad outcome.

The story is told in a perfectly architected manner and with wonderful shadowy language (and some puzzling run-on sentences that I assume were in the general text rather than introduced by the translator). Still, I did not feel that the story rose above a fairly standard personal story, or great sadness about losing family and friends.

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*** Michelle Obama by Peter Slevin


Michelle Obama: A Life is a biography of the First Lady, from her humble beginnings in Chicago to the White House. The author tells of her upbringing by loving parents with high ambitions for her and her brother, her move to Princeton University (following her brother) and to Harvard Law School, then her work at a prestigious Chicago law firm where she met her husband, and the extinction of her professional identity as she moved to the White House.

It’s a remarkable story and the author, who obviously admires his subject, does a great job of describing the efforts she and many others around her, especially her parents, poured into her education and climb into the upper middle class. He does not shy away from her relationship with her husband, from her initial impression (big ears! haha) to her struggle to raise their daughters while he was away, mostly, living his political life. What a waste that, in her current role, she can now be known only for her outfits and the few innocuous policy topics to which she must limit herself.

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Filed under True story

*** No One Understand You by Heidi Grant Halvorson


No One Understands You and What to Do About It could be a very depressing book indeed: it seems that we are just about hopeless at divining what others are thinking and feeling! Sure, we can grasp (sometimes) strong emotions like anger but for more everyday feelings we get it wrong more often than not.

But the author doesn’t stop here. She patiently  explains why we get it wrong and gives many practical suggestions for communicating more effectively, and for navigating around the biases and preconceptions others are likely to have about us. A practical guide anchored in strong theoretical concepts.

 

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Filed under Non fiction

** Cowardice: A Brief History by Chris Walsh

 

Cowardice, what an interesting topic! Alas, Cowardice: A Brief History seems mostly interested in cowardice on the battlefield, or at least in war settings, which seems to limit the adventure way too tightly for my taste. That being said, the author does a great job exploring how the criteria for courage and cowardice have changed over time, especially as the tactics of war have changed.

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Filed under Non fiction