February Book Log

February 28, 2011

This was an odd reading month. I read a bunch of mid-length books, all of which were good, but nothing (except for the one short thing I read) really blew me away. Overall, a pretty decent month, I guess. I’ll need to tackle at least one pretty big book this month.

1. Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff (4.5/5) – Consistency is what keeps this from being a five. There was one story that just wasn’t quite great and another that was great, except for the last few pages, which were just a mess. Otherwise, this was an excellent collection of really interesting stories. Having read this and her other book (The Monsters of Templeton) I find myself looking forward to her next book. She an excellent writer.

2. The Chateau by William Maxwell (4/5) – I will start by saying that this is the weakest Maxwell I have read, but it was still really good. It tells the story of a kind of awkward American couple touring France in the aftermath of WWII. The fact that it is rather sprawling and occasionally seems to lack direction is appropriate and wouldn’t drag the book down at all if there weren’t a place somewhere in the middle where the sprawl gets to be just a bit too self-indulgent and bogs the book town. To be great, this needed to be about 40 or 50 pages shorter. It’s still Maxwell, though. I could read his prose all day long.

3. Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout (4/5) – This is the second of Strout’s books I’ve read, and I did like it better that Olive Kitterridge, which won her the Pulitzer. Much like the Maxwell, this book wants to be excellent, but is just a bit uneven. It really takes a while to get going, and there is some heavy foreshadowing that  makes it seem like a slog at the beginning because what you know is going to happen is so much more interesting that what is currently happening. Once it gets going, though, this book is very compelling. Excellent ending, too.

4. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (4.5/5) – After much prompting from my friend Josh, I finally picked up some DFW. This book is very good. His vocabulary is absurd and he writes some seriously long sentences. Amazingly, however, he is self-deprecating and self-aware enough that he pretty much never comes off as pretentious. It is this awareness of the audiences needs that, while he is squarely post-modern (I think), keeps him from the pitfalls that so often spoil books of the oeuvre. I will probably pick up one of his ridiculously long novels before too long, though, frankly, the thought frightens me.

5. Proof by David Auburn (5/5) – I’m trying to read more plays so I can get a better sense of the genre for teaching my writing classes. So far, so good. This play was a fantastic exploration of mental illness. What amazed me most was that Auburn manages to imply so much. It would take a conventional fiction writer several hundred pages to get across everything he does in 80 pages. He also conquers the challenge of writing about math without being a mathematician himself, a technical challenge I can certainly relate to.

Spring Book Queue Update:

Snow by Orhan Pamuk
The Chateau by William Maxwell
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
A Gesture Life by Chang Rae Lee
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Zoli by Colum McCann
Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
Tales from the Perilous Realm by J.R.R. Tolkien
Daugther of Fortune by Isabelle Allende
Libra by Don DeLillo

The Midwest is rife with labor protests right now as various Republican-dominated state legislatures try to take power away from unions. They are doing this, they say, for the Good of the People. Taking power from unions will balance budgets. Attract industry. We will live in a better place if we can just get rid of those awful unions.


I am a proud union member, and I don’t understand why so many people have come to view unions with such disdain. That isn’t to say I don’t understand what Republican politicians have against them (we’ll get to that), but I don’t understand why the average working person has a problem with them.

If you are reading this, you probably know that before unions, work was dismal for the average American. Your employer, in general, did not care about you. You were paid as little as they could pay you and still have enough people to do the work. Safety was a non-concern. You were a cog. You were meat. You were disposable.

“So what?” you say (at least, if your are a Republican, this is probably what you say). This is America. Anyone can rise to the top. You just have to be willing to work for it.

I say again: Horseshit.

Certainly, it is conceivable that anyone can rise to a place of power with enough effort and enough luck (let us not forget luck, too many people fall into the trap of believing they deserve their luck). But everyone can’t. You can’t have a nation of CEOs and professional athletes. The world doesn’t work that way. Someone has to sell shoes and build roads and teach children. Someone has to do the things that actually allow us to exist as a society. This is why unions are good for the country.

Unions acknowledge that we are not all wealthy and powerful. That no matter what we do, we will never all be powerful and wealthy. But we are still human. We still have needs and dignity. If we band together we become powerful. We gain agency over our lives. Unions allow us to do this.

I don’t know if you are part of a union or not, but if you’re not, think about it for a minute.

Right now, your boss can fire you because he or she doesn’t like your shoes or your politics or because you drink Pepsi instead of Coke or for no reason at all. You could be the best worker at your job, but if the boss decides to fire you, there’s nothing you can do. Does this seem fair?

Right now, your company can tell you in the same presentation that the company had record profits this year, but that there is no money for raises or bonuses (I lived that one once upon a time). Does this seem fair?

You are still meat.

If you have any doubt about how much top level executives value you, go look at the labor they use overseas. Go look at how children are enslaved so products can be a few cents cheaper in America. The only difference between you and those children is luck. You were born in a country where, thanks largely to unions, there are laws that prevent companies from abusing there employees in quite such an egregious way.

Something you’ll notice if you look around the world is that countries where the workers receive the best treatment are the countries where the workers have the most power. Call me a socialist, but it’s true. You will also notice, if you look closely, that where labor is legitimately powerful, the standard of living tends to be very high (go take a look at co-determination and where it’s practiced).

What I am saying, in so many words is this: Unions are not the problem. Labor is not the problem. Greed is the problem. Corporate and political corruption are the problem. No one can work hard enough to “deserve” the kind of wealth the people in charge accumulate. You want to talk about hard work? Fine. Let’s talk about my father.

My father was dirt poor when he was growing up. For a long time, they did not have plumbing. At dinner, sometimes, they started with the youngest (he was the fourth child of nine) and if there was food left when the pot got you, you got to eat. My dad has dyslexia, but it wasn’t diagnosed until it was too late to do much good. But he worked hard. He worked in a factory (with a union). The company made forgings. It was hot, dirty, awful work. There were times when he worked 12 hour days six or seven days a week for months. He worked first shift. He worked second shift. He worked third shift. He did whatever was asked of him. Eventually, he did get a promotion. He left the union and became part of management. He retired after 30+ years working for the same company. The point of this story is not whether or not the union did my dad any good (though, undoubtedly it did). The point is that my dad is not a millionaire. He and my mom are very comfortable. They don’t want for anything, but they are not obscenely wealthy. However, if it is really true that all it takes is hard work, as so many Republicans want to claim, they should own a tropical island. So where is it?

The way unions and labor are being portrayed by conservatives is simply wrong. I’m not saying unions are perfect. Corruption happens everywhere, but the solution is not to take power from the workers and give it to the often extremely corrupt and greedy CEOs and politicians. Labor needs more power than it has. If employees were given more say in how a company is run and how workers are treated, then we would be a better nation. A stronger nation.

If the current trend continues and workers continue to lose power and wealth continues to concentrate at the top, it will become harder and harder to get anywhere, no matter how hard you work. Stories like that of my parents will become a thing of the past (without a union, it’s doubtful my dad could have afforded to stay at what would have been a painfully low paying job long enough to get a promotion). People will work until they drop dead – never having had the chance to save a dime – while a select few who were lucky enough to be born into the right circumstances live absurd and opulent lifestyles. This is not the America I grew up in, and it’s not an America I want to live in.

More than just about anything else I’ve written on this blog, I should preface this post by saying that I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. I’m presenting ideas that are based almost exclusively on personal observation.

Last week, Borders announced it was filing for bankruptcy. Correspondingly, on Saturday our nearest Borders announced its going out of business sale. No one who spends any kind of time shopping for books and music is surprised by this. All I can say for them is that they send out some pretty decent coupons, but otherwise Cate and I avoid shopping there. Borders is a terrible store. Nearly every one I’ve ever been in has been horribly organized and their customer service has never been great. That’s not what did them in though.

Borders is the book equivalent of a big box store. They rely on the consumer believing that they have everything. Of course, they don’t have everything. Cate and I have often failed at using the awesome coupons they send out because, well, they just didn’t have anything we really wanted. Add to that that Border’s is often significantly more expensive than Amazon, and you’re forced to wonder if it’s even worth going to the store in the first place.

This is the same problem that a local music store (Ear X-tacy) ran into recently. They were something of an institution, but now they’re struggling to survive because everyone just downloads music or orders from the internet or whatever.

Ear X-tacy and Borders both want to be all things to all customers, but they can’t be. You can’t stock every book. You can’t stock every album. There are too many. What you have to be willing to do, if you want a presence in the physical marketplace, is to become boutique.

What does this mean? It means you acknowledge that you can’t stock everything. Instead, you appeal to the educated consumer. A local bookstore (Carmichael’s) has mastered this. Their fiction section, for instance, is excellent. Does Borders have more fiction titles? Of course, but Carmichael’s survives because they stock the right titles. They don’t, for example, stick Ralph Ellison next to some unfortunate African-American erotica just because both authors happen to be black. They don’t even bother with the erotica. This means that people like me will go there because they’ve already separated a lot of the wheat from the chaff. Discovering new writers is hard, especially when there is so much trash out there. If I want to do all that work myself, well, I can just go to Amazon.

The second part of knowing what to stock is realizing that while, yes you have to stock Justin Beiber if you’re a music store and Dan Brown if you’re a bookstore, you better find plenty of space for the Jenny Lewises and William Maxwells of the world.

I’ll end this with a story that illustrates my point: Cate and I tried hard to support Ear X-tacy. If we could buy something there we did, but then Robert Cray put out an album. And they didn’t have it. Derek Trucks put out a new album. And they didn’t have it. Finally, Jenny Lewis put out a new album. And they didn’t have that either. None of these are huge mainstream artists, but they are artists that you have to carry if you’re catering to music fans and not people who listen to top 40 radio on the way to work. We looked around and realized their selection wasn’t really any different from your local FYE. After the last incident, we stopped shopping there. It wasn’t worth the trip anymore. If they cared about my business, they’d stock music you can’t hear on the radio. Amazon has it cheaper anyway.

Holding Parents Accountable

February 12, 2011

I have complained a number of times about how it is unfair to hold schools accountable for all student performance because it ignores extenuating circumstances that typically come down to parents not really doing the job. A while ago, Cate sent me a link to this news story about a Florida law that, if enacted would have teachers give parents a grade. A nice idea, but very obviously flawed. It will never be enacted, of course, but if it were, it would just create problems. Most bad parents don’t really care. That’s why they’re bad.

All this did get me to thinking, though. The primary problem in assessing schools is that the more students you have who are “at risk” (as in, their basic needs aren’t being met), the worse your school tends to do on standardized testing. It’s the great and obvious inequality in the school assessment system. (An aside: not all at risk kids are really at risk. There are many parents who do a great job, but for reasons beyond their control don’t have much money. Their kids are technically labeled “at risk,” but I’m not talking about them in this post. I’m talking about the parents who fall asleep on the job.) So, I wondered what could be done to level the playing field, and this is what I came up with:

I mentioned in an earlier post that, generally speaking, it should be unacceptable for a student to ever make anything below a C. This is because there are numerous levels in high school. If a child really has a hard time with math or English, then that child can take a lower level class that will typically teach at the student’s level. Basically, it is not required that each student fill his or her schedule with AP classes. Along these lines, I have a proposal to fix the school assessment system. It goes like this:

No school shall be held accountable for the test scores of any student with more than one below C grade in the past academic year unless incompetent instruction is shown.

Pretty simple, right? Now let me break it down. The first thing you probably think is that schools would just start giving bad grades to all but the brightest kids. I don’t think this is true. Most parents are involved enough that they are going to complain if their child is receiving unfair grades. Additionally, very few teachers are corrupt in this manner. I’m not saying abuse can’t occur in this system, but I don’t think it’s nearly as likely as you would at first believe.

Plus, there is that provision about incompetent instruction. I think it is fair, in this instance, to shift the burden of proof to the parents because if their children are doing so poorly in school, chances are it has something to do with what is going on at home. This is not something a teacher can control. However, I should be clear about what constitutes incompetent instruction. it’s not just what goes on in the classroom. Part of the job of every teacher is to get in contact with the parents of struggling students and see what needs to be done. We should be held accountable for this and it’s fairly easy to prove whether we’re doing it or not. That said, I can’t count the number to times I’ve heard something along the lines of, “I don’t know what to do with him either,” when speaking to a parent. That is not good enough, thus the rule.

Will this ever be implemented? No, of course not. People don’t want to be responsible and the great thing about scapegoating teachers is that it reduces the number of people who are responsible for their actions. Everyone gets to say of their poorly performing children: “Damn schools, they are not getting the job done.” I think it’s fair for the schools to start asking if the parents are either.

Girls and Boys and Writing

February 2, 2011

Today, VIDA published this very interesting study of women and men in literary magazines. Each magazine gets two pie charts, one for bylines and one for book reviews. You can probably guess how it turns out. Upon seeing this, I thought, “okay, time to write that post about my students and gender and writing…

Several weeks ago, I noticed something. My creative writing students had just turned in their short stories (okay, they had turned in their stories a while ago) and I was finally getting around to grading them and I saw a pretty startling inconsistency. As you would expect, all of the boys wrote stories from male perspectives, however, only about half the girls wrote from the female perspective. I thought this was an interesting comment about how the male voice is still overwhelmingly dominant in our culture. Then I gave some assignments to my English class…

Over the course of a week, my classes read several persuasive and informational articles. Some written by men, some by women. When they were asked to answer questions about the author’s goals for the piece, many of the students (both male and female) didn’t bother to check the byline and assumed that the writer was male. Unsurprisingly, no one accidentally called a male writer by the feminine pronouns.

One of the articles they read was a point-counterpoint kind of thing about whether or not women should be allowed in combat. You can probably see where this is going. The overwhelming majority of boys (I would guess about 90%) said no. The overwhelming majority of girls (a slightly lower 75% or so) said yes. What was most disturbing was how the boys had no sense of the female perspective in their answers. It was all about wanting the girls to be “safe at home” or “out of harms way.” Patriarchy much?

And now, of course, there’s the study I linked above. It should not come as any surprise, I suppose, but it’s still disappointing. My students aren’t newborns, but they are still young, and already an unfortunate majority have been taught that it is the male voice that has power and the male voice that you use if you want to be listened to.

It makes me sad.