Book Update – September-October 2019

Fiction

The Need by Helen Phillips
There are subtle shades of Jordan Peele’s “Us” present throughout this novel as it tells the story of a housewife encountering an entity in her home that will up-end her life. Molly is an anthropologist by day and worn out mother by night, often tasked with caring for her two very young children by herself while Molly’s husband is away. It’s one of these lonely nights at home when Molly becomes aware that something else is in the house. The brief movement of a toy chest lid in the living room informs her that this thing is watching her, and when it reveals herself, she isn’t quite sure how to process what is going on. Then the deal is struck, and soon, Molly finds she’s an outsider in her own life, becoming an observer as someone else takes her place. The scary part is that Molly finds relief in handing the burden of parenthood off to another. The Need is a tightly written and deeply existential & weird text. I’m not a parent, but the anxieties experienced by parents are palpable in this book. I imagine this could be a cathartic release for parents who naturally have those moments of regret from time to time.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
In anticipation of the soon to be released film, I decided to read Stephen King’s sequel to his classic The Shining. In Doctor Sleep, we find Danny Torrance grown up and aging through his forties. Just like his father, alcohol has gotten its hold on Danny’s soul and keeps pulling him down deeper. He still has the gift of second sight, called The Shining by Dick Halloran, when he met him at the Overlook Hotel all those decades ago. The spirits of the Overlook have also hung around, trying to claw their way into Danny’s mind. After a long series of missteps, he ends up in New England and senses someone else like him, a child just coming into their own. Meanwhile, a band of creatures wanders the side roads of America, feasting on people who possess The Shining, finding themselves empowered by this strange essence. And they also know about the child.

Reading Doctor Sleep was a reminder of why I don’t read Stephen King much at all. I would never have categorized this as a horror novel, it falls more into contemporary fantasy. There are horrific moments, but the tone was much more in line with a serialized science-fiction drama you’d find on network tv. None of the main characters or supporting characters ever feel like they are in any real peril, and (spoiler) not a single “good guy” dies in this book. I don’t need the forces of evil to massacre the goodies, but even the final conflict just feels totally overpowered on the side of good. The bad guys just feel weak and pathetic; hence, no sense of looming horror, at least for me.


Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls: Stories by Alissa Nutting
I picked Alissa Nutting’s Tampa as the best book I read last year due to its strong voice and character development. I was interested to see what Nutting was like in short form, and I wasn’t disappointed. Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls is a series of fascinating character studies, often told in the first person that feel like wonderfully polished examples of how an author can be in the skin of a host of different people.

The lead characters in these stories are people driven to extremes. They never have a real explanation for themselves as to why they’ve chosen such bizarre paths in life. One woman becomes caught up in the orbit of cold & hypnotic supermodel and brings herself to ruin. Another woman gets her lover’s help in purchasing the cryogenic chamber her mother is imprisoned in only to find herself betrayed. Yet a third woman takes part in a scientific experiment to house endangered animals inside her body as the planet collapses, becoming a human ant farm. Because Nutting chooses to speak through the voices of her characters, even the most extreme and fantastic of premises feels grounded in real human emotion.


Non-Fiction
Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Learners by Cathy Vatterott

As a teacher, I struggle with homework conundrum. I’m of the mind that just handing out brainless drills just because “kids should learn to work hard” is a waste of time for every stakeholder involved in education. I’m never going to grade that type of homework because I simply don’t have the time, students could just ask their parents for answers, and it doesn’t give me any real insight into their understanding. Author Cathy Vatterott spends the first part of her book detailing the ideological war over homework that has been happening since public education first became a presence in American life.

In the second half of the book, she presents an alternative way of thinking about homework and examples of what would be worthwhile to send home with students. One of my biggest takeaways from the book is using homework as a Check for Understanding. This means you don’t need a worksheet with twenty problems on it. Instead, you can present a single question with advancing questions and get a much better insight into how your students are thinking about their learning.

I sent home a piece of homework this year, inspired by the book, that simply asked students to spend about five minutes showing me ways to decompose the number ‘24’. Five minutes of my students’ time gave me a great deal of information as to where each student was. I could see which students need to work on developing number sense when they could only provide me with one or two equations. I could also see which students have finely tuned number sense when they began incorporating multiplication (a skill they have just been practicing this year). The most advanced students had figured out how to blend operations and presented me with equations like ‘(2×10) + 4’.

I am crafting a piece of homework built around error analysis for Math to send home soon that will check for understanding on identifying operations a single step word problem. Additionally, I have an ELA homework activity I’ll be sending home soon about using keywords to identify the Main Idea of an Informational passage, but students will need to explain why a keyword helps in understanding the Main Idea.


Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move by Reece Jones
I’m a big believer in equal blame, and while the Trump administration’s policy on detaining refugees at the southern border is atrocious and will be a blight on our nation for generations, Obama deported massive waves of immigrants. Author Reece Jones posits some interesting and genuinely progressive thinking about borders by examining both the historical origins of these imagined boundaries and their contemporary enforcement.

Jones focuses first on European borders, and these countries’ often violent interactions with refugees, mainly Syrian & Muslim. He also spends time examining how nations use borders to contain their own people or corral undesirable populations. For example, the Indian government’s treatment of Kashmir and Israel’s ghettoization of Palestinians. Even then, particularly with the situation in India, Jones shows how one population having borders used violently against it will then turn around and exhibit the same practices on a community further in the minority. “Borders as a means to harm” is almost viral in the way it spreads in practice.

Jones’s ultimate thesis, one I agree wholeheartedly with, is that borders are an unjust form of authoritarianism. He also puts forward that as climate change worsens, particularly for developing nations in Africa and Asia, that borders will be used to keep people in environmental turmoil and ultimately kill them. The continued presence of borders, especially heavily militarized and policed ones, is a threat to the continued existence of the human race and merely keeps the specter of fascistic nationalism alive.


Teaching When the World Is On Fire edited by Lisa Delpit

This anthology of essays written by educators was created around the premise of how teachers can work through standards and district expectations while continuing to be relevant in a time of profound global crisis. The part about the collection that irked me was the pretense from many of the writers that this mental anguish started the day after Trump got elected. While I am someone who despises that man, I am also honest and informed enough to know that the material suffering of broad swaths of populations in America has been ongoing for centuries. The question then should not be “How do I teach in the age of Trump” instead, “How do I teach in a way that puts an end to white euro-centric & corporatist ideology?”.

When the essays are less about neoliberal anguish over Trump and focused more on actions that can be taken within communities, they are much more informative and enlightening. I really enjoyed an article about how Seattle Public Schools embraced Black Lives Matter in a way that speaks to my own views on how reparations could be rolled out in America. There’s this weird hang-up by lots of people that somehow reparations would be a form of revenge or that white people would be made to feel guilty and inadequate. I’ve never felt personal guilt about the actions of wealthy white slave owners or Jim Crow crackers lynching black people. Instead, I see reparations not as some sort of solemn shame ritual but as a way to make positive amends for the wrongs of the past. I recognize the privileges I’ve had from the way I am passively perceived by society based on my race and gender and want to make sure the scales are balanced in favor of all people. It was very heartening to read how Seattle made small steps in reaching this goal within their schools.

Restorative justice has been a big thing rolled out in schools and is a big topic in this book, I suspect the American South is the last place where it is showing up. My biggest hang-up has been on poor implementation that I’ve seen in multiple districts. It’s often presented as “this is our new discipline policy,” and we will spend one whole faculty meeting describing it to you. I suspect for restorative justice to be a meaningful process, school districts need to dedicate a considerable amount of professional development time to its roll-out. I mean, you are asking people to up-end a paradigm of discipline that is so deeply entrenched in the nonsensical bootstraps ideology of America. Without proper buy-in, through strategic implementation, you will have educators practicing restorative justice without fidelity, no fault of their own, and then inferring it must not work. So many new & progressive ideas pushed out in education aren’t instructed well to teachers, mainly due to the constant loss of time and a lack of resources, and these great new things end up maligned because they aren’t fully understood.

Overall, I wasn’t terribly won over by this book. I do think there are some great pieces here, but as a whole, it is a bit of a letdown.

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