OUTLINE by Rachel Cusk

outlineReading Rachel Cusk’s luminous novel OUTLINE, I was reminded of how much I love stories that involve travelers. Probably because the notion of boarding a plane or train implies adventure and the prospect of meeting new people and learning something, I become engrossed and hopeful, even if the travelers are not, strictly speaking, happy themselves. I also love that this metaphor calls our attention to the idea that we are all on a journey of some sort. Which is true. Even if sometimes we feel stuck.

Although slim and seemingly uncomplicated, OUTLINE captures many truths and insights. The narrator, a woman who has been hired to teach a writing class in Athens, is going through something—a difficult divorce, we can infer—and although the particulars are not explicitly addressed, it becomes increasingly clear that her conversations with her fellow travelers and students are serving to outline her situation. Their autobiographical stories—with just a hint of dialogue on her part—create what artists would call a “negative space” portrait of her. They sketch the space around her life, if you will, instead of trying to draw it directly.

This is a writer’s book—not only because it’s about writing but also because it will make you think about how amazingly it’s written.

PS: Rachel Cusk has written a follow-up, TRANSIT, and the New York Times Book Review reports that she intends to make this a trilogy. Stay tuned!

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ALL THE SINGLE LADIES by Rebecca Traister

all-the-single-ladiesWhen I was a senior in college in 1986, Newsweek published a cover story proclaiming that college-educated women who failed to marry in their 20s faced abysmal odds of marrying at all. At the time, I had two reactions: 1) That’s unfair and ridiculous and 2) That won’t happen to me. The article also claimed that a 40-year-old single woman was “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than find a mate. I couldn’t believe it. However, as the years flew by, the phrase reverberated in my head.

I’m now 51 and still single. At this point, I would say I’m ambivalent about marriage. I’ve had some close calls. And when I see couples who get along well, I feel twinges of envy. I would love that companionship and intimacy. Yes. But I’ve also witnessed the misery that ensues when partners feel like hostages. And—probably most importantly—I really like my life the way it is. I love my work, I have a great network of friends, and I have the freedom to do whatever I choose with my free time.

So I picked up Rebecca Traister’s ALL THE SINGLE LADIES (subtitled Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation) with curiosity. And I found it highly affirming. Things that I’ve felt guilty about—mainly, not “getting with the program” and “settling” down with someone—are apparently things other women have struggled with, too. I mean, I suspected that, but I hadn’t given much thought to the history of women, how they have been treated in America, and how much organizing and protesting they’ve had to do to try to level the playing field. I am also embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know that birth control was illegal for married couples until 1965 and for unmarried people until 1972. Although I knew about the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, I did not know that it took another full year for Congress to pass the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which made it easier for women to secure credit cards, bank loans, and mortgages. What???

This book is eye-opening. And it makes me so grateful for all of the women who marched before me.

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BORN TO RUN by Bruce Springsteen

born-to-runTo some degree or another, we all inherit our parents’ pain. They inherited their parents’ pain, and their parents inherited their parents’ pain, and so on. It’s our emotional DNA. The question is what we do with it. We might do any number of things. If we are lucky enough to find something we’re passionate about, we might design buildings or create stunning artwork. We might spend long hours supporting a family or trying to help students write more coherently. In his memoir BORN TO RUN, Bruce Springsteen lays bare what he did. Music has been his passion and his salvation.

For anyone contemplating a career as a rock star, Springsteen’s life story makes clear that such a path is not something you pursue lightly. His difficult relationship with his father turned his fascination with music into an obsession, and once he realized that writing songs and performing gave him an outlet and a way to make sense of his life, nothing could stop him. He might be a multimillionaire now, but for many years he barely scraped by. At various points, he slept on other people’s floors or on the beach. He was never going to have an ordinary day job. From the beginning, he was all in.

Springsteen’s 500-plus page memoir reveals not only the back story of his musicianship—what it’s like trying to produce an album, what certain concerts felt like, where specific songs came from, how he and the E Street Band came together and broke up and came together—but also his long and still-ongoing journey toward personal growth. The son of a man who suffered from mental illness, drank, and took his anger out on his family, Springsteen writes openly of how he came to a point in his life when he fell apart and sought help from a therapist to figure out how to put himself back together. He spent decades in therapy, and while he still suffers from bouts of depression, the wisdom he derived from that work is apparent in the insights he shares about his relationships with his parents, his wife (and ex-wife), and his children.

This book is about Bruce Springsteen, of course. But it’s also more universal than that. It’s about what we all do with the hands we’re dealt. Bruce has played an amazing hand. And with this book, he invites us to reflect on our own.

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THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR by Helen Simonson

the-summer-before-the-warHelen Simonson, author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I also loved, has produced another comforting installment for those of us inclined to cuddle up under a blanket. Whether you are suffering from the flu or simply trying not to think about current events, THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR offers an idyllic, Downton Abbey-ish escape. With a twist, of course. Because, war.

When Beatrice Nash arrives at the train station (a classic hook: Where has she come from? Why? What is she meant to do in her new location?), we are immediately drawn into the action, and what could be better than an intelligent young woman—parentless, strong-willed, and fluent in Latin—moving to a small coastal town in England right before the Great War to launch us into all sorts of fascinating scrapes?

Though full of typical British tropes (Am I the only one who notices that most fictional British aunts are named Agatha?) and somewhat predictable, this book still manages to feel suspenseful. And it has quick-witted dialogue. The characters don’t hesitate to say what they think, especially about one another. And in such a small town, where everyone knows everyone and some folks are full of themselves, that can be pretty hilarious.

It’s a perfect example of how lovable characters can make a book lovable.

Posted in Fiction, Historical fiction, Novel, WWI | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

YOU’LL GROW OUT OF IT by Jessi Klein

YOU'LL GROW OUT OF ITMy friend Anne had trouble reading this book. Not intellectually, but logistically. She had to keep taking off her glasses and wiping her eyes because she couldn’t stop laughing so hard that it made her weep. Jessi Klein is a comedienne and head writer for the Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer, so it is no surprise that her personal essays induce this type of reaction.

I had read the first 31 pages of YOU’LL GROW OUT OF IT when I handed the book to Anne, who was visiting me at the beach. “You should read the first chapter,” I told her as I headed into the water. “You’ll like it.” The first chapter is about how while it’s socially acceptable to be a tomboy when you’re growing up, “nobody likes a tom man.” And it goes on from there.

When I emerged from the water, Anne barely looked up except to pause for breath. When I said, “What?” (in the way that people who didn’t hear, read, or see the joke often do) she’d shake her head and say, “I don’t want to spoil it.”

It was clear I wasn’t getting that book back until she was done with it.

When she finally handed it back—on the way out to her car, late on Sunday afternoon—I picked up where I’d left off. Soon I was immersed in Klein’s tale of taking a Bar Method butt-shaping class in which she notes, “It is a class for women, or rather for women’s problem areas. Women have problem areas in a way that men don’t. We have big hips and muffin tops. Men just have the thing where they create wars and wreak havoc all over the globe.”

It’s like that.

Posted in Essays, Humor, Memoir, Nonfiction, Relationships | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A DEADLY WANDERING by Matt Richtel

A DEADLY WANDERINGWe have all seen it: someone looking down while driving. Texting. Heck, I saw three people doing it yesterday, when I went out on my porch to check the mail. They were driving 25 miles per hour down a crowded street, where children live and play.

People know it’s wrong, but they do it anyway. Maybe, somehow, they don’t realize it’s actually more dangerous than driving while drunk.

In 2006, Reggie Shaw, a 19 year-old man from Utah, caused an accident that killed two rocket scientists.

In this gripping narrative, subtitled “A Mystery, a Landmark Investigation, and the Astonishing Science of Attention in the Digital Age,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel tells the story of what happened and why, and what happened afterwards. Prior to Reggie’s case, no one had ever been convicted for texting while driving before; it sent ripple effects across the country. Richtel explores both the human side and the scientific side of Reggie’s situation, as well as the lives of those who were affected by his actions.

This book is a study of guilt, compassion, addiction, and redemption. It should be mandatory reading for everyone with a driver’s license.

Posted in For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction, Science, Technology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

HELPING CHILDREN SUCCEED by Paul Tough

HELPING CHILDREN SUCCEEDIn 2013, the United States reached a sad milestone: 51 percent of public school students now live in poverty. That’s right, 51 percent. More than every other child. In public schools. In this country. Live in poverty.

Paul Tough’s previous book, HOW CHILDREN SUCCEED, provided extensive research about how noncognitive skills support students’ academic success. In his new one, HELPING CHILDREN SUCCEED: What Works and Why, he asserts, “Helping poor kids succeed is now, by definition, the central mission of American public schools and, by extension, a central responsibility of the American public.” And in this book, he answers the question: “OK, now that we know this, what do we do?”

This slim, lucid volume is packed with practical ideas, tools, and examples that have been proven to work. Some of the solutions require a shift in mindset—such as focusing on the environment we create for students—and some are more modest, such as using Post-it notes in a particular way. In the former instance, we must to think about how three key human needs drive intrinsic motivation—our needs for autonomy, for competence, and for relatedness/personal connection—and we must ensure that those needs are being met in the classroom environment. In the second case, a simple Post-it that says, “I’m giving you these comments [on this essay] because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them” can have the dramatic effect of disarming students who are predisposed to feel incompetent, motivating them instead to make the effort to revise their work.

While many of the examples that Tough cites have been tried on a small scale, my hope is that a vast number of people will read this book and try out these ideas. We can, individually and collectively, make a significant difference in the lives of young people.

And I love his conclusion: “The first step is simply to embrace the idea, as those researchers did, that we can do better.”

Yes, we can.

Posted in Change, Education Reform, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Inspirational, Literacy Instruction, Nonfiction, Poverty, School leadership | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE BRILLIANT DISASTER by Jim Rasenberger

THE BRILLIANT DISASTERIn preparation for my first trip to Cuba, I kept my eyes peeled for good books to boost my background knowledge. THE BRILLIANT DISASTER caught my attention, not just for its title but also for its subtitle: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. It seemed like the kind of book that would help me understand the complexities of American-Cuban relations in more detail.

Although I had of course heard of the Bay of Pigs, my high school history classes had never seemed to make it much past World War II, so I dug in with genuine curiosity.

The first thing I want to say is this: If we had read this book in school instead of sitting in rows and copying down random, disconnected facts day after day, I would have absorbed and appreciated history so much more. The story of how President Kennedy inherited this covert action program from his predecessor and allowed the CIA and his advisers to convince him that the US could overthrow Fidel Castro without appearing to be involved—even if you know the ending—is thrilling and agonizing. As a result of some poor decisions, JFK found himself trapped in a dilemma with many lives on the line. What makes this narrative even more compelling is the knowledge that it truly happened and that the consequences could have been worse.

The attempted invasion was a debacle for so many reasons, and Jim Rasenberger’s comprehensive book benefits both from the release of previously classified documents and from his relative lack of bias. Unlike the decision-makers who later wrote their own versions of events, his only connection is that his father was somewhat involved among a group of lawyers brought in to help save the captured brigade by soliciting donations from American pharmaceutical companies in a deal cut with Castro.

This book sheds light on an important sequence of events in American (and Cuban) history, but more importantly, it illuminates the challenges that political leaders face in trying to pursue their goals and protect the peace.

Posted in 1960s, For EDUCATORS, History, Investigative journalism, JFK and Castro, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

WHISTLING VIVALDI by Claude M. Steele

WHISTLING VIVALDIThis amazing book, subtitled How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, takes its title from a story that Brent Staples (now a NY Times columnist but then a University of Chicago psychology graduate student), told about an experience he had as a young African American man walking around in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. White people were looking at him anxiously, some even crossing the street to avoid him, and out of nervousness, he began to whistle. And when people heard him whistling classical music—Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—they relaxed and actually smiled at him. They no longer saw him as a threat.

In WHISTLING VIVALDI, social psychologist Claude Steele sheds light on how “stereotype threat” affects us all—from women taking math tests to black students anxious to do well in college to white men faced with the prospect of having a conversation on a racially-charged topic. Steele explains ground-breaking research (much of it his own) that explores how stereotypes shape our identity and often limit us in ways we might not even realize. But he doesn’t stop there. He also provides helpful strategies for combatting these challenges and closing achievement gaps. This book is both stunning and hopeful.

If you are an educator, no matter where you work, you will want to read this ASAP.

Posted in Change, Coaching, Education Reform, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Nonfiction, Race relations | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson

MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STANDMaybe you have a cold, or maybe it’s rainy out, or maybe you are procrastinating from doing something “important.” You could probably come up with a better excuse, but the truth is, when it comes to reading you shouldn’t need one. We should all be able to curl up with a good book whenever we choose to without having to explain ourselves. And today, if you need a good companion for this purpose, I highly recommend MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND, Helen Simonson’s witty, charming novel about a widower (the aforementioned Major) and a widow (Mrs. Ali) who navigate the social slights and rigidity of a small English village in ways that—as my high school Latin teacher used to say—will warm the cockles of your heart.

This book came out in 2010 and was a New York Times bestseller, so I recognize I am late to the party, but it doesn’t matter. And in fact it might be a good thing, because I hear Ms. Simonson has a new book out. Which is very convenient.

Posted in Fiction, Novel, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment