A PROMISED LAND by Barack Obama

As I finished reading Barack Obama’s 768-page memoir, I was reminded of how I’ve always told my students that what you get from a text depends on what you bring to it.  So here’s a funny, true story of what I brought to this text…

In the school year of 1990-91, if I am honest, although I worked really hard on my graduate studies (I was at Harvard, getting an M.Ed.), I spent many afternoons in the Malkin Athletic Center, playing pickup basketball with the guys.  I was the only woman on the court, and although I was short and not fast, I knew how to play.  I hustled, boxed out, played tough defense, and when I was wide open, my jump shot was deadly.  Most importantly, I simply loved to play, and I loved to play with these guys because like me, they were also addicted to the game.  We had other things we should have been doing, but we couldn’t help ourselves.  After a bruising battle, someone would say, “One more,” and we would shrug, wipe our brows, and go again.

One afternoon as we shot free throws to pick teams, this weird thing happened.  The first five to make a shot would be the first team.  I lined up, hit mine, and slapped hands with my friend Milton, and waited for three others to join us.  The next guy swished his and came over to introduce himself.  He was tall and skinny, with ears that stuck out, and a wide smile.  He shook my hand.

“I’m Barack Obama,” he said.

“I’ll vote for you,” I blurted.  This strange deja-vu sensation rang in my ears, and I thought, Why did I just say that?  Who is this guy?

I don’t know how he reacted because I was so befuddled by what I’d said.  Then the game began, and all was forgotten.  Our team played like we’d known one another for years, and we stayed on through several rounds.  It was a fabulous afternoon.

Fast-forward 26 years, and I saw this man on TV, running for president.  And, full disclosure: I did vote for him; in fact, I volunteered on his campaign.  Twice.

It was with this unusual lens that I opened his new book.  By this point I’d read his two previous books and countless newspaper articles about him.  I knew plenty about him.  I wondered if this long, long book would hold my attention.

Turns out, it did.  A Promised Land, like Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, is beautifully written.  Obama pulls back the curtain to reveal what it was like to be President of the United States, and gives historical context to explain the decisions he faced on a daily—or more like hourly—basis.  It is a fascinating, deeply reflective look into the complexity of the job, and it made me appreciate how much time and effort he and the people around him put into trying to solve a relentless barrage of global and domestic problems—from the Great Recession to the push for the Affordable Care Act, to the Deepwater Horizon explosion, to various crises in the Middle East, and on and on.  Like that guy I played hoops with so many years ago, they definitely gave a hundred percent.

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HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell

You don’t have to love Shakespeare to love this book.  Although it is a historical novel about young William mostly before he steps into the spotlight, it is so much more.  In fact, he is a bit player; his wife and children—including Hamnet, the son who died from the plague—are the stars.  And Maggie O’Farrell’s writing is exquisite: a delicious mixture of beautiful sentences and clever structural turns.  I don’t want to give anything away, but if you have ever wondered why Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, this novel provides a fascinating backstory and a page-turning, plausible explanation.

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OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon

Reading a long book is a commitment; reading a series of long books is a SERIOUS commitment, not to be undertaken lightly.  You don’t want to start something that you can’t finish.  And I have a constant pile of shorter books on my nightstand.  So it has taken me about four years to follow up on a friend’s recommendation to try the OUTLANDER books.  The premise is that a woman on her second honeymoon in 1945—a WWII nurse—goes into a circle of stones (like a mini Stone Henge) in the Scottish Highlands and finds herself transported back to 200 years earlier.

Imagine if this happened to you—and you bumped into one of your husband’s ancestors.  Imagine you knew something about the history of the period, so you would know who some of the famous leaders were and knew what might happen to them.  Imagine one person you met was a hunky, multilingual, super-smart, passionate single Scotsman who took a liking to you.

As my friend Gail predicted, it’s a complete page-turner. So now I am on the second one, Dragonfly in Amber, and it’s just as engrossing as the first. #PerfectEscapistNovels

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I first read this book—about the 1918 pandemic that killed somewhere between 21 and 100 million people on the planet—when it first came out, in 2004.  Sixteen years later, when the World Health Organization announced we were officially facing a COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to re-read it.

The book documents the surprising history of medical education in this country.  For example, as of 1906, two-thirds of medical schools did not require even a year of college education.  How we moved from that crazy situation (You wanna be a doctor?  Sure!  Go ahead!) to a highly selective, high-quality profession is a fascinating story.  John Barry explains that process as a ramp-up to how we dealt with the 1918 pandemic.

The 1918 pandemic came in three waves—in the spring (bad), fall (incredibly bad), and winter (still pretty bad).  President Woodrow Wilson had delayed U.S. involvement in the Great War (as WWI was first called, before there was a second), but once he decided we were in (in April 1917), he was determined that we would be “brutal and ruthless,” and we would have to be all in.  Every aspect of American life would be turned to the war effort: men were drafted, war bonds were sold, factories turned out military equipment and supplies, etc..  Also, to ensure complete cooperation on the part of citizens, there was a new Sedition Act, which promised 20 years in jail for anyone who spoke or wrote anything against the government.  When hundreds then thousands of soldiers in cramped quarters became ill and died of influenza and the epidemic spread to civilians, there was barely a peep.  In fact, instead of recommending social distancing, the government encouraged people to go to “Liberty bond” parades and to the movies, so they would see war-related propaganda.

Probably the two most important sentences in this book appear near the end: “So the problems presented by a pandemic are, obviously, immense.  But the biggest problem lies in the relationship between governments and the truth.”  In Wilson’s case, his ruthless focus on winning the war meant that soldiers would be shipped to Europe even though they might end up dying on the way (and many did) or be too weak to fight once they arrived (and many were).  We couldn’t show any weakness to the Germans; we had to pretend everything was fine and we were unstoppable.

As I write this, the pandemic is clearly not a secret, but there are still many unknowns:  How long will this go on?  How many people will die?  How bad will the economic fallout be?  Will we see another wave?  When will I get to hug my friends and family again?  Let’s keep washing our hands, keep our distance, and keep sending positive vibes out into the world.

Sending air hugs and peace to all.

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BLOWOUT by Rachel Maddow

One sign of a good book is that you can open it to any page and become engaged. I was reminded of this after I excitedly picked up Rachel Maddow’s latest book, BLOWOUT, and accidentally clicked a link in the table of contents on my Kindle that sent me forward to Chapter 27, and it was so engrossing that I didn’t notice that I hadn’t read the previous twenty-six. Of course, it seemed odd that I finished the book in 30 minutes, so I went back and looked at the table of contents again. Then I “re-read” it. That took a little longer.

As she did in her excellent first book, DRIFT, Maddow provides extensively researched stories. In this case, her focus is on the “Resource Curse”—i.e., when a government (on any level) becomes corrupted by a surfeit of resources. She argues that the most corruptive industry has been the oil and gas industry, and she explains why and how. As her subtitle (Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth) indicates, Russia has played a dramatic role in this corruption. The tale of Putin’s rise to power and his use of the oil and gas industry to maintain power and corrupt other countries explains a lot about what is going on in the world today.

Whether you are a fan of Rachel Maddow or not, it is helpful to deepen your understanding of how a dominant industry has influenced and continues to influence our democracy.

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THE ART OF POSSIBILITY by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

Something about the approach of a New Year always makes me think about where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. This week I found myself in Moe’s Books, a gigantic bookstore in Berkeley, CA, and put my hand on THE ART OF POSSIBILITY (subtitled Transforming Professional and Personal Life), which seemed promising. I would like to feel more of a sense of possibility in my life: Who wouldn’t?

In this book, Rosamund Stone Zander, an executive coach and family systems therapist, and Benjamin Zander, her husband and the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, share 12 practices they developed to help readers open themselves to more expansive possibilities in their lives. They illustrate their ideas through stories and “games” from their work.

One of my favorite practices is “Giving an A,” in which you figuratively give an “A” to someone in your life—in a way, seeing them in the best possible light and moving from the “world of measurement into the universe of possibility.” Benjamin Zander started doing this literally with his graduate students at the New England Conservatory: He told them at the beginning of the semester that they were all getting As for the course. The only requirement was that within two weeks, they had to write him a letter dated the following May, which began with the words, “Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because…” and told him the story of what would have happened to them by next May that was in line with this excellent grade. Many students felt freed up from the stress of competition or worrying about making mistakes; they realized they could take risks and make mistakes and learn from them.

Rosamund Zander took a similar approach when thinking about her late father, who had remarried when she was a child and spent very little time with her as she grew up. She questioned whether he really knew her or loved her, so she decided to try this thought experiment of “giving him an A”: Let’s say he did love me and know me. Why then had he not wanted to be with me? She thought: He loved me. He knew me. He felt he had nothing to offer me. He was not happy with himself. Who would take himself so thoroughly away from the world, but a person who felt he had nothing of value to offer? This thought brought tears to her eyes, and she began to rethink her relationship to him—and to other important relationships in her life.

There’s a lot more here. So many possibilities!

Posted in For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Nonfiction, Psychology, Relationships, Self-help | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

SHE SAID by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

Now that #MeToo has taken hold in our society, it might seem to some as though women always came forward whenever the men they worked with sexually harassed or abused them. Lest we forget, that was not the case—for centuries. At best, if women complained, they were paid to stay silent. At worst, they were fired or blackballed in their industry.

In SHE SAID (subtitled Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement), Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times writers Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey recount the inside story of how they conducted their investigation of Harvey Weinstein, an influential Hollywood mogul who for decades exploited his powerful position in ways that were creepy and criminal. For anyone interested in journalism, this book is both informative and inspirational; and even if you know how it turned out, it is also a page-turner, and as much as anything, it speaks to the infrastructure of those (lawyers, staff, board members) who aid and abet such abusers. After Kantor and Twohey published their initial Weinstein story on Oct. 5, 2017, many women who’d experienced similar mistreatment to his victims began to speak up.

One could say that we live in a different world because of the work of these journalists. Although the harassment and abuse might never stop, victims now at least know they can have a voice.

And that is something.

Posted in Crime, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction, Trauma, Women's rights, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment


One thing I’m thankful for this year is that many smart, hard-working people continue to write good books. The latest object of my gratitude is Samantha Power.

As far as I can tell, memoirs seem to fall into two categories: stories of not-yet-famous people who have gone through something, and stories of famous people. Admittedly, sometimes the famous people have “gone through something,” too, and their books are good–e.g., Andre Agassi’s OPEN and Bruce Springsteen’s BORN TO RUN–but sometimes their writing is meh and we are merely rewarding our curiosity by reading their self-congratulatory stories.

Although perhaps not as famous as Mr. Agassi or Mr. Springsteen, Samantha Power has been a public figure: she served as the US Ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017, and she wrote a Pulitzer-prize-winning book about genocide (A Problem from Hell, 2003). She might not be a celebrity, but if you’ve paid any attention to current events in the past decade, you’ve probably heard of her—or heard about her speeches. So maybe she qualifies as “semi-famous.” In any case, she writes beautifully, and her memoir is an engrossing blend of candid storytelling and provocative insights about important events in the world. She is someone who has gone through some things and also done work that matters: a perfect combination.

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Maybe you’ve never heard of the Success Academy Charter Schools network or its controversial leader, Eva Moskowitz. Or maybe you have. Maybe you think Eva is the devil incarnate, or maybe you are a fan. As someone who’s been involved in the charter school movement since 1996 and who has in fact written a book about it, I fully recognize that I am predisposed to like this book—about the year that Robert Pondiscio spent observing inside a Success Academy school. But I also believe that anyone who is even remotely interested in education will find HOW THE OTHER HALF LEARNS compelling and thought-provoking.

Pondiscio (full disclosure: a friend) writes beautifully. For example, when describing a principal visiting classrooms with her assistant principals, he notes: “She turns to leave, her team of junior leaders attached to her like remoras as they head off.” And he understands that to engage readers in policy questions (this book is subtitled Equality, Excelling, and the Battle Over School Choice), one must raise issues through stories. There are many in this book. Possibly my favorite is about a day in the life of kindergarten teacher Carolyn Syskowski. First we see her stoically denying a boy access to blocks as a consequence for writing a book review that doesn’t make sense, and—unusually in this particular class—he bursts into tears. Later, we see Syskowski running a meeting for the parents of 90 children, explaining the urgency of the situation with their children and how they not only can help but must help them to learn how to read. By the end, she herself is crying because she cares so much about these children.

Pondiscio describes this parent-teacher meeting as a “Rorschach test.” He recognizes that some people may view it as reinforcing their preconceived notions “about Success Academy, charter schools, and even the entire testing-and-data-driven education reform movement,” while others may see “an unusually gifted and competent teacher, with emotional gears you cannot fathom, who can issue a consequence to a five-year-old like a bank examiner rejecting a loan, then an hour later bring herself to tears in front of a hundred strangers when for a single moment she catches herself weighing the cost of not doing so.” The funny thing about Rorschach tests is that you can train yourself to see both perspectives if you are open to them, and I think Pondiscio signals that by calling attention to both: he seems to want you to consider both.

Indeed, to some degree this whole book is like a Rorschach test. If you are a critic of what the folks at Success Academy are trying to do, the fact that their efforts are well-described will not necessarily change your mind; in fact, the demands they make on parents might solidify your thinking that they “weed out” weaker students. And if you are impressed by their accomplishments, then learning the details of how much hard work goes into their results will probably leave you even more in awe.

I think there is also another angle to consider, a finding which was perhaps inevitable given the anthropological nature of this book: Building school culture is important. Robert Pondiscio has captured very clearly and comprehensively how attentive one must be in order to create and maintain a purposeful culture, as they’ve done at Success over and over. And no matter what kind of organization you work in, this book might cause you to reflect on the nature of the culture of your organization and how intentional people have been—and continue to be—in building it.

That is something for all of us to think about.

Posted in Education Reform, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction, Poverty, School leadership, Social entrepreneurs, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BLACK EDGE by Sheelah Kolhatkar

As a humanities person who underperformed in Econ 101, I am the last person anyone should ask for advice or even the most basic information about the stock market. Indeed, my brother who works in the financial sector recently pointed out that even though I am diligent about saving, I might not be investing in the most effective way. He said something else about bonds and how I should contact my money manager and evaluate my portfolio, and at that point he lost me because I don’t think I have a money manager: I have a company I send money to, and I hope that eventually they will give it back to me.

So it was with great interest and some trepidation that I picked up Sheelah Kolhatkar’s BLACK EDGE (subtitled Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street), widely described as a page-turning legal thriller about Steven A. Cohen, the founder of SAC Capital, a hedge fund that was investigated by the government for seven years. As I opened the book, I figured I would probably encounter lots of unfamiliar terminology. But I do like a challenge. And I would like to understand more about what happens to my money when I mail those checks in every year.

Although the jargon was new, the story—in many ways—was not. It’s a story of greed and cheating, something we all know something about. And while it is ostensibly focused on Cohen and his cronies, it strongly suggests that corruption on Wall Street is more pervasive than you might have imagined. So: not good news. But if you read it, at least you will understand why.

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